Baptism and the Holy Spirit

One summer, the women of our church hosted an in-town mission trip. Every day, we visited a different mission location and served in whatever way we could. The last day, we worked in the home of an elderly woman who lives in some of the worst oppression I’ve experienced. She lives alone. It was evident that she was dealing with some mental illness, but she had a beautiful, sweet spirit and a great strength that allowed her to keep pressing on. She didn’t walk, so spent most of her time in a wheelchair. That understandably limited what she could do around the house.

The house was condemnable. It needed more work than we could possibly have offered in a day. Piles and piles of clothes and junk. Piles and piles of trash. Roaches everywhere  … even inside the refrigerator. We went there, we thought, to wash her dishes and clean her stove and do what we could to fix up her kitchen. But by the end of the day, it was clear to all of us that we weren’t really there to clean a kitchen.

We were there to encounter the Spirit.

One of our team members, a nurse, decided to clean the bathtub and offer this woman a bath. The woman said it had been a long time since she’d had one, so she was thrilled by the offer. We lowered her gently down into the tub and gave her time for a long soak.

Clearly, it was medicine for her soul. I’ve never heard such beautiful singing as I did from that bathroom while she was in there. It had to be one of the most stunning images of the Kingdom of God: Here was a group of women in the kitchen, wiping dead bugs out of the stove while this woman in a bath sang, “Near the cross, near the cross, be my glory ever …”

And while we dragged trash out of the home of this forgotten woman we heard, “Jesus loves me, this I know …”

When the team helped her out of the tub and back into her chair, I have never heard such great laughter. It came from deep within her; it was glorious. It had been so long since she’d had a bath that she forgot how good it could be. She reveled in this experience. At the end of the day, we prayed together and when she prayed, I felt the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit. We were bathed in it.

This is what Jesus does. He takes ordinary things and he makes them holy.

And this thing that Jesus does in the course of a day, he does with the waters of baptism. He makes it more than just water and words. Baptism is a clothing, an identity. We who are baptized — whether as infants or adults — are to live it, walk in it, claim it, wear it.

Here that again: We who are baptized are to live out our baptism, to walk in it, to wear it.

Kris Vallotton says, “Baptism isn’t done as a symbolic act of obedience to scripture. It’s a prophetic declaration of your death and resurrection in Christ Jesus.”

And baptism in the Holy Spirit is about everything that baptism with water is about. It is about cleansing and restoring and getting our lives in line with our created purpose. It is about walking in the blessing of God who says to us when he redeems us, “You are my son, my daughter, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

To be baptized in the Holy Spirit is to swim in the blessing of God, the Father. It is to claim our place in God’s Kingdom and to let the Holy Spirit make our ordinary lives holy.

Being baptized – immersed, washed, clothed – in the Holy Spirit is a glorious gift. Jesus himself said, “Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it is not possible to enter God’s kingdom” (John 3:5-6, The Message)

I wonder: how long has it been, spiritually speaking, since you’ve had the kind of bath that declares your death and resurrection? How long has it been since you’ve been bathed in God’s blessing?

Maybe you’ve never let yourself go there. Maybe, like Adam and Eve, you’ve spent all your energy trying to cover for yourself instead of letting the Father cover for you. Maybe you’ve been sitting alone in your own shame for so long that you’ve forgotten there are options. Have you forgotten that the same Holy Spirit who poured out rivers of blessing over Jesus as he bathed in the Jordan stands ready to pour out rivers of blessing over you?

Be baptized in the Holy Spirit — bathed, clothed, marked, resurrected — and then walk in the Spirit so you can live your salvation story with power and authority … which is the only way it ought ever to be lived.

 

(the story of the in-town mission trip is excerpted from Encounter the Spirit, a video-based Bible study and workbook found at Seedbed.com)

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How to make better decisions

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked. Whatever one sows, that will he also reap.  — Galatians 6:7

This little gem of a verse isn’t brain surgery. Paul isn’t explaining some great mystery or even proclaiming a new law to live by. He is simply reminding us how reality works. We reap what we sow. We won’t get figs from an apple tree or chicken sandwiches from a cow. Put tomato seeds in the ground and expect tomatoes, not corn.

We reap what we sow.

The ability to look at conditions and ride them out to conclusions is a mark of maturity. That’s why we train children by giving them consequences when they misbehave. They are not naturally wired yet to think down the road so they must be trained in that discipline. A child’s thought life is very much present-tense. A friend’s child proved this recently when he snuck out of bed late one night and ate a tube of toothpaste. Clearly, his “if-then” function was not operating at a high level. Let’s just say it didn’t work out well for him.

We reap what we sow.

This principle becomes incredibly relevant in a year when many reading this blog are making personal choices about the future of our denomination. In the coming season, each of us will be faced with a choice about how we will lead or where we will continue to worship based on what we value. Keep in mind as you listen, pray, lead and love that we reap what we sow. A decision to passively go with the flow may find you surprised and disappointed when things don’t turn out as you’d hoped.

Our decisions have consequences. Our theological choices, our moral choices, our parenting choices, our spiritual choices, even our eating choices all have consequences and most of those choices have the potential to shape not just our lives but our world.

Decisions determine destiny. My decisions determine the direction my life takes and my decisions make an impact on other lives and destinies, too. So learning to make a better brand of decision becomes an important thing.

John Maxwell puts it this way: “Sow a thought reap an action, sow an action reap a habit, sow a habit reap a destiny.”

A friend said, “My many and most colossal mistakes were those using the best information available but missing the element of God’s wisdom and blessing (italics mine). I guess I always assumed he would see my brilliance and validate the choice.” I don’t think he is alone in that experience. I suspect lots of us tend to make decisions as if they are an assignment to be graded. We make them, we turn them in, and then hope for the best. But this isn’t God’s best for us and isn’t how we’re taught to make choices. We’re not taught to sow then hope for the best but to learn to sow well so we can be confident about the harvest. We are certainly not taught to put our heads in the sand and hope the storm blows past us.

Here’s what I want for you, my friend. I want your decisions to incubate in something deeper than self-preservation. I don’t want them to start with self-interest or childish bias. I want your decisions to reflect the mind of Christ. Whether you are choosing a theological position, leading a congregation through a crisis, or making a personal choice around spiritual disciplines, I want your choices to rise above the level of emotion to the place where deep calls to Deep.

1. Start with the harvest. What does yours look like?

Have you taken time to dream God’s dreams for your life? Do you have a vision and a goal that is bigger than what’s for supper? What do you want to contribute to the world? What are your gifts? What breaks your heart? Look down the road toward the end game and get a vision for that first. Then back up from that point and ask yourself if what you’re doing now is heading you in that direction.

2. Will what you’re sowing now get you to the harvest you’re hoping for?

Picture what your harvest looks like, then back up from there and ask yourself: Are the things I’m doing now setting up for the harvest I’m hoping for? If I’ve always wanted to read the Bible all the way through but I’ve never actually opened one, I’m probably not going to get there. If I’ve always sensed a call to teach children, then what am I doing right now to point me in that direction? If I want to lead a movement that makes healthy, committed disciples, have I chosen a path that will lead to that end?

3. Are you sowing from the past or for the future?

We’ve all felt the desperation of “If only” thinking. If only I’d gone to college … If only I’d married later in life … If only I’d taken better care of my body …  We can drown in ‘if-onlys,” but there comes a time when we have to decide how much we believe in the grace that doesn’t live in the past but challenges us to stand up and start from here. That goes for our personal lives as well as big institutions. We can waste a lot of time discussing what ought to have happened, or we can stand up from here and become part of what happens next.

I want your decisions to incubate in and be born out of two things: a vision for the harvest and the voice of the Holy Spirit. This is where wise choices are born. Wise decisions are incubated in and born out of a vision for the harvest and the voice of the Holy Spirit. Learning to start from this place will change the way you see and affect the world around you.

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How to lose your joy while giving

If you want to lose your joy while giving, follow these seven way-too-easy steps:

1. Respond to every need as if it is your personal responsibility to meet it.
Here is a spiritual principle: The need is not the call. The call is the call. If you want to lose your joy while giving, then respond as if the need is the call. And of course, there are more needs than any one person can ever possibly fill so pretty quickly, you’ll be overwhelmed and you’ll get bitter. This is a great way to lose your joy.

2. Let yourself believe you’re the only one who cares.
I call this the Elijah Principle. Maybe you remember that story in 1 Kings of the time when Elijah ends up on top of a mountain talking to God and he gets a little whiny. He says, “Everyone else has abandoned you, God, and I’m the only one left.” We’ve all felt that way.  When you’re the only one taking out the trash, or doing everyone else’s job, it can feel lonely. Discouragement can give you tunnel vision. But God told Elijah, “Son, there are 7,000 people down in the valley waiting for you. You’re not alone. You’re just not tuned in.”

The truth is, God chooses to work through us but it won’t all fall apart if we somehow can’t keep up. There are others working, too, and God’s plan will unfold. That’s a given. But if you want to lose your joy, get yourself some tunnel vision and decide no one else cares quite as much as you do. That’ll do it.

3. Make guilt your driving motivation for giving.
This is a great way to suck the joy out of the room! When you make guilt your driving motivation, the enemy gets a two-fer. He corrupts an act of worship while reinforcing an unhealthy thought pattern.

But here’s a fact: You cannot be in two places at the same time. That’s both a physical reality and a spiritual principle. The same frustration we have when we try to do squeeze too many things into our calendars is the frustration we feel when we are in one place internally and another place externally. John Townsend and Henry Cloud talk about this in their book, Boundaries. They talk about the internal yes and the external yes. It is the battle between our commitments and our feelings. When the internals don’t match the externals, the Holy Spirit has no room to move.  If you’re spiritually frustrated in your giving, maybe this is a question for you: Do your internals match your externals? Because folks, you can not be in two places at the same time.

4. Close your heart toward every need except your own.
The other end of that spectrum, of course, is being so self-protective that we ignore every other need except our own. In that case, our giving becomes self-focused and while that seems like it would make us happy, it actually has the opposite effect. Being self-focused only draws more attention to our deficits. So then, we start trying to fix and control, and that leads to #5 …

5. Have an agenda behind your giving.
If you want to suck the joy out of giving, give with strings attached. Decide you’ll only give if it makes you feel good, or fills a personal need, or if your name can be on it, or if it gets used in a very specific way. That’s a surefire way to generate frustration and choke out joy.

6. Have no personal strategy or vision for giving.
When we give as a reaction instead of a reasoned and prayerful response, we find ourselves full of regret or even bitterness after the fact. Remember: Kingdom giving is always about “call,” and not just about “can.”

7. Don’t ever pray about it.
Wanna lose not just your joy but the whole point of giving as an act of worship? Then give for the emotional rush, or give because of an emotional appeal or because someone makes you feel guilty or because someone has manipulated you. But for goodness’ sake, don’t give because you’ve prayed about it and sought the counsel of the One Person in the universe you can confidently say is smarter than you.

That’s how to lose your joy while you’re giving. If, however, you’d like to cultivate joy rather than kill it when you give, then Paul has some good advice for us: Holy Spirit living leads to Holy Spirit spending. Let the Spirit invest in your life, then invest your life into the Kingdom. Find things that make you grateful (like your salvation, for instance) and give from that place.

If you want to experience joy, get yourself a good theology of giving. At the end of the day, it isn’t about funding ministry, paying the bills or getting credit. It isn’t even about helping you sleep at night. It is about following Jesus and according to the our scriptures, healthy, committed disciples will be compelled to give … joyfully.

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Is there anything left to be done (or are we sunk)?

I am not a victim.

There are plenty of things in this world I can control. Whether I want to admit it or not, I can make all kinds of things happen that will improve my life. I can will myself to exercise, diet, save money, do Bible study. Heck, I can even make myself cook every day if I want it badly enough (clearly, I don’t).

There are things I can will into existence and things I can’t. There are character flaws, sinful inclinations, health issues and broken relationships I cannot control no matter how hard I try.

In fact, sometimes trying seems to make it worse.

Followers of Jesus discovered this principle in a marketplace one day when they were asked to heal a woman’s child. They tried all the techniques shown them by Jesus himself. They put their faith on the line and called on God to act.

Nothing happened.

Try as they might, they got only frustration. Then Jesus showed up and with a gesture, accomplished the healing. Later in a private conversation, they asked him why they couldn’t make this thing happen. Jesus said, “Some things only come out by prayer and fasting.”

But they had prayed. Clearly, calling on God to heal someone is prayer, right? What did fasting add that prayer didn’t?

Fasting is the deep water of the spiritual life. There is a mystery to it that defies definition. There is a discipline to it, also. Nothing will cut through our impure motives and unhealthy agendas quicker than this spiritual discipline.

What makes fasting so effective?

Bill Bright, the man who founded Campus Crusade for Christ, says fasting is “a biblical way to truly humble yourself in the sight of God (Psalm 35:13; Ezra 8:21).” King David said, “I humble myself through fasting.” Not a prophet or king, Nehemiah was an average guy who loved the Lord and loved his people. When he heard that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed, he was crushed. He sat down and wept and for days he mourned, fasted, and prayed to God. He repented on behalf of a nation. It was a wake-up call for him. His people had allowed their inheritance to slip through their fingers.

In that season of fasting and prayer, Nehemiah gained a vision for rebuilding the walls, a vision that rode in on the wind of humility.

Fasting humbles us. It is an act of obedience. It is proof that discipline matters to God.

Bright says fasting “enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.” And as we begin to cut through the agendas and see truth more clearly and as we honestly begin to repent of unconfessed sin, we experience more blessings from God.

Fasting will transform your prayer life. But let me state the obvious: fasting is tough.

No healthy person likes missing a meal (in fact, if you’re someone who misses a lot of meals due to unhealthy body image issues, you probably shouldn’t fast). Combine that with the fact that fasting will put you in touch with your truest motives and it is no wonder we avoid it so religiously (pun intended).

The fact is, nine out of ten of my motives stink and painful as it can be, fasting and prayer together help me face up to that fact in a way that opens me to a higher knowing. When my motives are more pure, my worship of God is more real and my prayers are more effective. No wonder the enemy of our souls would rather we find a reason not to fast. It keeps us from wholeheartedness, which is the whole point of sanctification.

What if now is the time for all United Methodists around the globe to fast and pray? Not waiting until 2019, when the big meetings happen … but now? What if, as Maxie Dunnam says, there are some things God cannot do or will not do until or unless we pray? Spiritual fathers through the ages assure us that God honors this kind of sacrifice. What if prayer is the best offense we have as we move into these intense days of discernment about our best next step?

What if fasting is how our tribe moves from spiritual sloth to a great awakening? Fasting and prayer are not about forcing God’s hand but finding where he is at work so we can join him. God said, “When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:13, 14). When a person sets aside something important to concentrate on the work of praying, they are demonstrating that they mean business, that they are seeking God with all their heart.

This is not a call to a specific day and time, but to a posture and purpose. I’m calling on those who follow Jesus to start taking him at his word. Are we hungry enough yet to see God do a new thing that we’ll miss a meal, humble ourselves and pray? Folks, this is an anxious season but we are not sunk. We will not “melt in fear” as the Israelites did over and over. We are not victims. We are people ready for revival, with access to the power that raised Lazarus from the dead. Some are tired of hearing Christians say, “All I know to do is pray.” What if that is exactly what God is waiting for? What if a torrent of prayer is not our last hope, but our best hope?

Fast and pray. Seek God’s face. And may God richly bless all of us who seek to serve Him in the world.

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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. Are you personally challenged by:

  • 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 (not to become self-absorbed, but to become whole), 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 repentance — a willingness to change toward Christ’s values and life.

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 to 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, in the healthiest, most spiritual sense of that phrase. 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?

I’m convinced that pursuing wholeheartedness is the work of sanctification, and also the work of the Word alive in us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart … “

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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Lord, bend us.

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

That’s what you need, the Spirit said.

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

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

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

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

Lord, bend us.

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

Lord, bend us.

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

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

Lord, bend us!

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Stay in it (part two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Real Prayers for Real People

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

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

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

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

But real. Always real.

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

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

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

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

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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?

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