Is it possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said the old man.

“No one at all?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

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

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

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

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

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

Let that sink in.

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

When we have been transformed, our lives speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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The rise of Methodism and fruit that lasts

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

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

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

Right … but

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

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

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

Let that sink in.

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

This was transparency before transparency was cool. 

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

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

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

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

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I am hungry for more.

I am hungry to see the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

Hungry.

I’m not talking about so much that passes these days for Spirit-filled experiences. We have defaulted to bragging; we tell too many “big fish stories.” We talk of “huge moves of God” that are not quantified by fruit. We call our good feelings “moves of the Spirit.” My concern is that we sometimes misrepresent the Spirit by assigning to him feats easily accomplished in the natural; and we sometimes misrepresent Him by making more of what happens in our corporate gatherings than is actually there.

We have overplayed our hand and have become too accustomed to calling any emotional response a great move of God. Meanwhile, we are completely short-changing what must surely be a much more awesome and beautiful power than fleeting experiences that result in no lasting transformation.

What is most disturbing is that we cling to stories of Holy Spirit power in other places at other times, as if having heard the stories only we can somehow claim participation. While I certainly celebrate with followers of Jesus in other countries who report awesome healings and even resurrections (and believe these to be true), I am not content to let what is happening in other places suffice for my own experience of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

I am hungry for the power of the Holy Spirit to fall on ushere. We, too, are responsible for learning not just the lingo and culture of Spirit-filled living but the actual work of the Spirit in our churches, our families, our own lives.

Aren’t you hungry for more?

I am starving for it and have decided to lean in and get more intentional about watching for what the Holy Spirit is actually doing right here, right now. I am praying for the kind of personal and corporate renewal that can only be attributed to the power of God. I’m no longer content to be encouraged by “a good word” nor titillated by emotionally charged moments. I want to be changed by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and I want that for my people. I want that for you.

Luke 9 and 10 tell me that followers of Jesus have power and authority to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. That is a far cry from what we are experiencing in most churches today. Until we get honest about that, I’m not sure we’ll be able to move past the weak substitutes for which we’ve settled. How many of us are willing to stop calling it the power of God when we leave church feeling good about ourselves? How many of us are willing to lean in and start crying out for the real thing?

Don’t American Christians also deserve* to see the power of God, to become conversant in the real and powerful work of the Holy Spirit? Aren’t we as their leaders responsible for properly defining that power and calling our people to that hunger?

The one thing of which I’ve become most convinced is that for us to have any hope of breaking through to something deeper, we must get honest. Until we stop calling every warm experience a genuine move of God, we won’t find the deeper well. It is as if we’ve found a stagnant pond in the desert and have camped there when an oasis of sweet, pure water is just ahead.

I am hungry for more, and tired by less. If you are actually experiencing it, I want to hear your stories — your first-person, real-life, recent, authentic stories of the power of God at work in your own life or in your community. I want to hear healing stories that have resulted in works that glorify God. I want to hear stories that have resulted in spiritual fruit, that have advanced the Kingdom of God on earth.

I want to hear proof of the authentic, awesome power of God working in our churches, in our lives.

Paul’s words resonate deeply with me: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:10-11).

I am pressing in and I invite you to join me. I want to know the power that resurrects people from the dead. I want more than just “good church.”

Don’t you?

 

*I use the word “deserve” here not in the sense that we have earned our right to anything, but in the sense that I doubt the Holy Spirit is giving Americans a pass on deeper things. We have a plethora of excuses for the absence of depth in our culture, but surely he means for us to experience the fullness of the Spirit, too?

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When the Church Hurts (part one)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Extroversion in the Kingdom of God

Have you noticed? Introverts are finally having their day. Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, has made introversion cool. Quiet gives the gift of definition to introverts, and helps extroverts to appreciate the internal thinkers among them. Facebook memes have jumped on the bandwagon, making fun of introverts and extroverts alike, using clever artwork to describe what it is like to live as one kind in a world full of the other kind.

Introversion and extroversion are both good gifts of a loving creator God. He uses both in his Kingdom and the world needs all of us. In this post, I’ll share the gifts and challenges of extroversion and in a future post I’ll share the gifts and challenges of introversion.

Why did God make extroverts? I believe God made us because the gospel of Jesus Christ deserves words. It deserves to be proclaimed, joyously celebrated, and extroverts are wired for this. God uses extroverts to proclaim the good news, to celebrate the good news joyfully with others and to develop strong communities. Paul is my favorite biblical extrovert (read Acts 20; it is a priceless extroversion story). Paul was fearless, courageous, driven, faithful. His conversion intersected with his extroversion to make him the most famous evangelist of all time. He was passionate about Jesus and driven to talk about him. Paul didn’t just love the gospel; he loved people and he was hungry to share the truth with them. Paul understood that the gospel deserves words and he spared none in his proclamation of the good news.

Was Jesus an extrovert? Absolutely! The fact is that Jesus was probably the perfect balance of introvert and extrovert (and in another post, I’ll defend his introversion), but he never allowed his own desires to get in the way of serving others. Jesus understood the power of community, the power of teams, the power of collaboration. He gathered twelve men around him and kept them there all the time … on purpose. He told them that where two or three are gathered, he’d be with them. Even after he’d sent his disciples away to rest, he was drawn by his own compassion back into a crowd of people who were “like sheep without a shepherd.” He embodied self-giving love, and taught by example that one can’t be a follower of Jesus and not have extraordinary love for people. After all, people are not the problem; people are the prize.

How do extroverts sometimes trip up? We struggle with taking every thought captive. Rather than measuring our words, we tend to fill the world with them. Our challenge is learning how to wear out the people around us at a rate they can stand. We tend to think “more is more” when for an introvert, more is death.

Being quiet is hard for us. If “more is more” is death for an introvert, then “being still and knowing” is death for an extrovert. Never mind what the scriptures counsel; learning to be still is a real challenge for people who tend to think externally. And yet, learning to be still is critical for spiritual growth. There is no short-cut here.

Perhaps our greatest challenge, though — and our greatest danger — is that sometimes our talking glorifies us more than it glorifies God. When we use our words to draw attention to ourselves (to defend ourselves, to prove ourselves important), our words become an infirmity. Inherently, we know this (there isn’t an extrovert in the world who hasn’t prayed for God to keep them quiet), but without significant healing we will continue to fall into this trap. On our good days, we expose our wounds; taken to the extreme, our words can actually divert attention from the One who deserves attention.

I suspect most extroverts have no idea just how spiritually dangerous it is to steal glory from God. Defeating that tendency is a battle worth fighting.

What do extroverts wish introverts to knew about them? We’d like our introverted friends to know that being “out there” doesn’t necessarily mean we are healthy (see the above paragraph). Being “out there” doesn’t mean we are all healed and whole and unaffected by your judgments. We’re out there, but we feel it and sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

We enjoy good conversations. We like to talk, but we also really like to listen. We like real conversations, so you don’t have to wonder if we care. We do. In fact, most of us appreciate the viewpoint of the introvert in the room. We know that while we’ve been thinking verbally you’ve been thinking internally and will likely have something valuable to add when you speak.

Extroversion comes in a lot of forms, just like introversion does. The beauty of the Body of Christ is that it is so creatively constructed with so many different kinds of people. Maybe we need to celebrate who we are instead of trying so hard to be things we aren’t, so that the uniquenesses and pains of one another become our instructors in servanthood. This is the good work of sanctification. It is learning to see the marvelous uniquenesses of our created design in one another as an invitation into the servant heart of Jesus.

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The War is won in the General’s tent.

Some time ago, I was in the place of prayer and heard this word: “The war is won in the tent.”

As I heard this word I saw an army tent, far back from the lines, buzzing with the activity of strategic thinkers studying maps, positioning troops, sending out orders. The General was there, taking in the big picture, gauging the trajectory of the enemy’s movement, weighing strengths and weaknesses of the warring sides.

The tent was where the war was being won … or lost.

Before that word and that vision, I’d never given that guy or that tent a thought, but the principle I heard is authentic. In warfare, the saying goes, “The war is won in the General’s tent.” The point is that wars are won on strategy, not brute force. Planning makes all the difference in the outcome of a battle. The General may never see the front lines but his strategic mind determines the win.

In a very busy time, this came as a prophetic word. It was a warning not to neglect the place of strategic prayer. It was a call not to work harder but to pray smarter, to spend more time in the tent.

In spiritual terms, what is the “tent”?

The place of prayer: Someone somewhere has discovered that when electrons are observed they behave differently. Just the fact of their being watched changes how they act. This tells me that even down to the smallest particle, the world is designed to act according to the light-and-dark principle of John 3, where Jesus teaches that things in the dark remain under the influence of the enemy of our souls while things brought into the light come under the influence of Christ. In other words …

Behavior changes when brought under the gaze of God.

This isn’t a guilt thing. This is a law of the universe, proven at the scientific level. We are changed simply by being in the presence of God, aware of ourselves under his gaze. This makes “tent-praying” all the more strategic. When we submit to sitting in the presence of God, it changes our perspective. We think differently about our circumstances and consequently, go away from that place acting differently toward them.

The place of intimacy: I’m thinking about the tent Moses used to take outside the camp, when he was traveling with the Israelites through the desert. He’d go out there and get deeply personal with God, sharing intimately about how he felt and what he needed. In one conversation, Moses asked God (Exodus 33:12-14) to teach him His ways. Moses wanted to know how to lead these people like God would lead these people. He wanted to hear God say, “Okay, Moses. Here’s how you do it. Step one … ” But that’s not how God responded.

Moses asked for direction and God responded with presence.

Wow.

“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” God promised. This is the promise of intimacy. When we let God lead, whether it is into a desert or into battle, we will experience a kind of restfulness that only the Holy Spirit can produce. In that tent, a kind of confidence breeds that changes how we return to the front lines. We may not comprehend the whole plan, but we can rest in the One who executes it.

The place of spiritual warfare: I remember years ago, praying for my husband when he was going through yet another season of depression. His worst days of depression were absolutely a kind of spiritual war for us. We’d tried everything and nothing was working, so finally — out of desperation, I assure you, and not out of some heightened sense of spiritual maturity — I decided I would pray for him for twenty minutes every day. Every day, Jesus and I would spend time on the subject of Steve. For a while, I used the time to tell God everything I thought about our situation. After a week or so, I ran out of words. After that, God and I would sit there together and — in the Spirit — stare at Steve. I now know this was “tent time.” This was Jesus and me staring at a map, waiting on a strategy to emerge. Eventually, one did. Through the Holy Spirit, I saw a way forward that brought hope into our situation. It wasn’t a cure, but it was a strategy. I’m so grateful for that time in the tent and for the relief it gave in that season.

The war is won in the General’s tent.

Do you need to rethink your strategy? Maybe you’ve been on the front lines, battling an enemy for so long you’ve lost all perspective. You’re lobbing one grenade after another with no plan or purpose … just frustration. What if the better next step is not to lob another grenade but to find your way back to the General’s tent, where you can regain a sense of the big picture and get God’s perspective?

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Carriers of the Gospel or Keepers of the Myth?

Lazarus has just died.

This is a blow to everyone in Jesus’ circle. This is someone they all loved. A friend of Jesus. As his sisters, Mary and Martha are stricken, not just by the loss but by Jesus’ response. Jesus loves these people, but when they send word that Lazarus is sick Jesus doesn’t go running. In fact, he waits two days before heading over to Judea to check in. By the time he gets there, Lazarus is as dead as a doorknob (as they say) and Martha is mad as a hornet (as they also say). “If you had come sooner, my brother wouldn’t be dead today,” she says … and the clear tone of her comment is that they deserve something more than this treatment. Jesus understands, but what he really wants to know is this: Does she believe in his divinity, whether or not he acts as she’d prefer?

Do you believe, Martha, when it is inconvenient?

In Martha’s bold proclamation of the truth, we hear the very power of the gospel:  “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

And then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. It is stunning, an affirmation that this indeed is the very power of God in their midst. But not everyone is moved. A group of religious leaders who get wind of this news are completely put off by a resurrection miracle. This has profound implications for their temple. If this man continues to display such signs and wonders, the crowds may shift their allegiance. What then? The priests could lose their temple, not to mention their jobs, their way of life and the culture of honor to which they’ve grown accustomed.

Their solution? Kill the man. Kill Lazarus, too. Don’t just destroy the miracle-maker; destroy the miracle.

At this point, the story begins to sound familiar. It is not hard to draw a line from the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to the religious spirit of ours. In an upcoming book by James Heidinger (soon to be published by Seedbed), I’ve been learning about the roots of the slow, steady decline of the United Methodist Church. The current crisis, Heidinger says, has been in the making for decades and isn’t the sole property of the UMC. The downfall of mainline American protestantism began early in the 20th century when its theologians began to question the supernatural nature of Jesus. Do we really have to believe in the virgin birth in order to accept the divinity of Jesus? Once we crossed that line, it was a brief slide down to questioning the resurrection and from there, it seemed only natural to doubt the validity of the miracles themselves.

When we began to question the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection and the miracle-making power of Jesus, we lost — literally — the power of the gospel. Sap all the supernatural out of Jesus, and what have we got? A good man and a few moral platitudes, but nothing worth our worship.

I once heard someone say that too many ministers are less “carriers of the gospel” and more “keepers of the myth.” How painful to think there are men and women who accept a paycheck as carriers of the gospel but who do not themselves believe deep-down in the whole gospel of Jesus Christ — the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the miracles, the deliverance from evil. How many who call themselves Christian today would struggle to honor and celebrate the raising of a Lazarus in their midst? How many pastors preach the stories for their morals only, having long since lost any sense of the power of the gospel?

Brothers and sisters, I suspect that history is repeating itself. We have become so concerned for the temple that we’ve lost our wonder in the supernatural power of Jesus Christ. What if the crowds shift their allegiance? We could lose our pensions and property, not to mention the culture to which we’ve grown accustomed. For fear of losing relevance, we’ve traded the gospel for a powerless message.

How did we get here, to this place where we disdain the power of God? And how do we get out of this hole?

Perhaps Martha’s lesson is a word for our day. Even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable, our only hope is in the proclamation of the whole gospel. “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” For United Methodists, such a proclamation would not be a new thing but a much-needed refocus on our doctrinal foundation.

We believe in Jesus …

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

We believe in the resurrection of Jesus …

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sits until he return to judge all men at the last day.

We believe in the Holy Spirit …

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

We believe in the power of God to create fresh and real miracles in our day …

… to bring good news to the poor;
… to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God … (Isaiah 61:1-3)

Let it begin with us, Lord Jesus. Let it begin here. Preachers, I challenge you to be a carrier of the Gospel today. Unashamedly preach the power of Jesus Christ. People, I challenge you to believe in and embrace the supernatural power of God in your worship and work, and I challenge you to refuse as your pastor anyone who is merely a keeper of the myth. The gospel of Jesus Christ deserves much more.

Yes, Lord … I believe you are the Christ, the one and only Son of God, who is coming into the world in all your power and glory!

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Sanctification: Exegeting My Self

It is not what the pastor is out there doing that counts, but what Christ is doing through the pastor.Steve Seamands

The most challenging part of ministry for me — as I assume it is for many other pastors — is that tension that exists between a demanding ministry and the need for personal spiritual health. As an extrovert who is driven by new ideas and fresh challenges, I struggle to “be still and know that he is God” (Psalm 46:10). I struggle to sift through multiple good ideas to set priorities. In the natural, I prefer a crowded life to a focused life. As a spiritual entrepreneur with a natural desire to start new things, I prefer to generate new ministries rather than develop existing ones. What motivates me is both blessing and curse. I can accomplish a lot, but at what spiritual cost?

As a pastor, ministry leader or faithful Christian, what motivates you? Before anything is accomplished through you, what has been accomplished within you?

Transformational ministry begins with a right heart but for too many of us, the motives that move us are less than mature. Consider these symptoms as you perform a little honest self-exegesis:

  • over-compensating for incompetency
  • fear of failure
  • pressure from others
  • unexplained/ unexplored compulsions
  • competitiveness (preaching to myself here)
  • arrogance
  • an inability to self-limit
  • feelings of powerlessness
  • an immature knowledge of what Kingdom advancement requires
  • productivity sheerly for productivity’s sake

Peter Scazzero writes about the havoc wreaked “when we become so preoccupied with achieving objectives that we are unwilling or unable to listen to others and create an unsustainable pace for those serving with us. The shadow motivation might be a desperate need to receive praise from others for our work …”

I’m exposed by Scazzero’s insight. Laid bare. Lord, have mercy.

If immature and unhealthy motives are the sickness, then what is the cure? Sanctification is the work of confronting our impure motives and finding ways to heal them. Scazzero calls it “self-exegesis.” It is the hidden, quiet, spiritual work of examining ourselves, piece by piece, drawing out every impurity and laying it before the Holy Spirit for scrutiny and healing. It is about being still and knowing not just God but what God knows about me. It isn’t just confession, but a willingness to change.

How can we stimulate this spiritual work within ourselves? Seamands offers several options:

  • Seek out a liminal experience. A liminal experience begins with where we are, then breaks with our routines and comforts in order to return us at a higher level than we began. It is to cease being what was for the sake of becoming a new thing. Spending time in another culture can create a liminal experience. Retreats can have this effect. Time in a monastery works. Even a day by the water or in a forest can contribute to this result. Can you make room in this year’s calendar for at least one extended (a weekend or more) liminal experience for the sake of your own sanctification?
  • Experience contrasting views. Intentionally shifting perspective can help to develop empathy as well as create new solutions to current roadblocks. Do you expose yourself to viewpoints or lifestyles other than your own? Are you rubbing shoulders with people who live in poverty, people with disabilities, people from other walks of life? An African teaching says we are who we are because of other people. This is never more true than when we take time to learn from those least like us. Who is teaching you what God thinks, not just about people like you but about the rest of the world?
  • Fall in love. How does one called to advance the Kingdom of God bear God’s missional heart without bearing an undo burden or losing touch with the love of God? It is far too easy to bear the weight of others’ suffering and the brunt of their immaturity to the point that it hardens the heart of the giver and dulls all spiritual senses. How does one avoid that fate? Surely this is why God continually called the Israelites to circumcise their hearts (see Deuteronomy 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, for example). He’d seen them grow hard toward others, so he called for a softening toward the things that break his heart. Fall in love again, God might say to the jaded spiritual leader. Give your whole heart to someone or some people or back to God. In fact, this business of “falling in love” may be at the heart of self-exegesis for the sake of others. When is the last time you gave your whole heart to someone … to your people … to God?

The work we do as followers of Jesus — the work of seeing addicts delivered and lost people redeemed, of seeing broken people healed and lonely people embraced — is glorious but hard work. How do we do it without letting it wear us out? Without letting it harden our hearts?

Steve Seamands has asked: “Who carries the burden of ministry in your life? You, or the Holy Spirit?”

This question resonates deeply with me. Am I working off my own steam, or am I making room for encountering the Spirit, for letting Him lead? When I begin with my natural inclinations and immature motives, I develop a “thin” ministry that will not withstand real-world pressures. If I’m to avoid burn-out or a crusty heart, I must learn to self-exegete — to make room for liminal experiences, for other viewpoints, for wholehearted love. I must intentionally exegete my own soul and pursue my own sanctification. Only then will I have the stamina and wisdom to engage the world as it is, even as I work to advance the Kingdom of God.

What plan have you put in place to intentionally work out your on-going sanctification, for the sake of others? 

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The Danger of Distraction

In my Monday post, I talked about the distractions that seem to be keeping the United Methodist Church from fulfilling its mission. I want to talk more about distractions and their effect on souls and systems.

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought … yes! That’s it! By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits (like spiritual disciplines), by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that spiritual disciplines are for people who have too much time on their hands. Disciplines are not just for people who have all the time in the world to sip another cup of coffee while doing an entire Beth Moore study in one sitting. Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits (Bible reading, prayer, meditation, worship, community life) that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy yes to things that feed into our formation.

God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son and there are some ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love, and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it. We know it is happening when we have some ability to say no to some things so we can say a holy yes to things that will take us someplace spiritually.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. And that’s where the real spiritual work is done. It is done in the secret place, when deep calls to deep. It isn’t easy. But the joy at the other end of it is a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

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