Marriage and the Means of Grace

I’ve been married for thirty years to a man I absolutely adore. When my husband and I met, we were not practicing Christians. We shared an interest in the faith and a history of it, but spiritually we were far from home. It wasn’t until we’d dated three years and were married for four that spiritual fires were kindled in our marriage.

Since then, we’ve made every possible mistake, some of which should have been the death of us. But God, in his mercy, has not only preserved our covenant but has given us beauty for ashes, the oil of joy and the garment of praise.

For all the mistakes, there are three things we’ve done intentionally that I believe have made all the difference in the health and duration of our marriage: tithing, prayer and Sabbath-keeping.

Tithing taught us to approach life as givers. It helped us make the mental shift from consumption to generosity and that has taken the fire out of any money-based arguments we might have had. We approach our finances, our investments and our possessions as givers.

That sounds like something a pastor would say, right? But I’m convinced that this shift in our approach to family finances has made all the difference in the world in how we talk about money (which, statistically, is the most divisive topic in a marriage). Rather than talking about what we make and what we want, our most animated discussions are about what we give and to whom. It has made us more appreciative of the work of others and sort of stunned by the fact that the funds never seem to run out. There is a lot to be said for approaching life as a giver.

The second thing we’ve done has to do with prayer. They say that about 50% of all marriages in the U.S. fail, and that statistic holds whether a couple is “Christian” or not. Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t improve the odds. But in marriages where two people who call themselves Christian pray daily together, they say that the odds of success are dramatically improved (a study I read years ago said that only one in a thousand ends in divorce, when couples pray daily together). If those stats are even close to right, then it really is true that the family that prays together, stays together.

The ability and comfort we have in praying together daily is such a gift in our marriage. Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence.

So we tithe and we pray together daily. And the third thing we’ve done intentionally to build our marriage is to observe a Sabbath.
In other words, we pay, we pray, and we play!

Sabbath. Every major figure in the Bible talked about this habit. Jesus himself was faithful to practice it. The Bible in both testaments claims it as the key to healthy living — spiritually, mentally and physically. And yet, we rarely discuss it and seldom take it seriously. It runs consistently through the Bible, but it’s the one thing I’ve consistently and dangerously neglected in my own life.

When we first came to Augusta to plant a church, I was really wrapped up in the work. I got so wrapped up in it, in fact, that I began to neglect not only my family but my own spiritual life. And I was a pastor! Somewhere along the way, we decided that the only way for us to restore some kind of rhythm to our lives was to begin practicing a day of rest every week — one day when we could cease work and worry and just be with each other. It is a day we rest, play and sleep. In other words, we try to just enjoy life.

Sabbath gives a holy rhythm to the practice of our faith, and it has been the one thing in our home that has the power to calm the storms.

Because I’m a pastor and work on Sunday, my Sabbath is 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday. My husband usually takes the whole day on Saturday as his Sabbath. We’re not legalistic about it. There are plenty of Saturdays taken up by mission projects at the church and by paperwork that needs to be caught up on. And laundry. But there are also naps and slow lunches, second cups of coffee and plenty of time to talk. We don’t do the Sabbath perfectly every week but we do make it our goal because this is one way we get our lives back in line with God’s design.

Here’s what we’ve learned after thirty years of giving this our best shot: You will never make enough money to make yourself happy, and you will never have enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Tithing, prayer and Sabbath are ways of trusting God and for us, they have been the means of grace that have made this union a treasure.

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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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Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

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One story of how a missional church got its start

Most posts on this site are dedicated to practical theology, and this one is no different — though it is certainly more personal. For the last thirteen years I’ve been involved with an experiment in “missional church.” Together with some of the most beautifully faithful people on the planet (I won’t hide my bias), we have been figuring out what church might look like when its people are focused on building community partnerships and missional ventures that result in more intentional spiritual connections. We don’t major on the “weekend experience;” our focus is the spiritual formation of souls.

In this season, we’re planning an expansion of our building to include a community center in an area of our town that is lacking in social services. Our intent is not to become another non-profit but to advocate for the kind of healing that happens within a Christian community.

This is our story of getting started, and our vision for what comes next. If you are connected to Mosaic even through this blog, say a prayer for us. May the witness of God’s people welcome and advance His Kingdom on earth.

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

Yet another acquaintance lost his life to depression over the holidays. Such loss leaves everyone devastated on multiple levels. When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw.

Some years ago, another friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

This is how I answered that question. Maybe it will help someone who is plagued with the same or similar questions:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways, much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did, and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s profound. A great insight and spot-on. I’m glad to hear that you’re dealing with the inevitable guilt in such healthy ways.

And the guilt is inevitable. It is such a sick, sad after-effect of suicide (every suicide, I’m guessing). I sure wish those who end their lives could know just what a burden they leave the living to carry. What a sadness, for all involved. God, your sister, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I don’t have a great answer to your question but I’ve been thinking about it for the last 24 hours and praying about what is truth, since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

The first thing I know about the enemy is this: He is not creative. That is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls, who tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. There is no genius about him. Just evil, hatred and lies.

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

I also notice that the enemy of our soul works within systems (things like racism, socialism, atheism, etc.; even some forms of religion), but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. I don’t think of him as purposefully systematic (although he may stumble into systems and exploit their weak spots) or as having great forethought and strategy. For that reason, I see him as acting more individually and randomly. In the absence of a system, he uses whatever presents itself as most convenient.

What we know is this: Because he is lazy, he was clearly capitalizing on your sister’s depression by speaking lies into her spirit that magnified her sense of hopelessness or despair. He wore her down and eventually wore her out. In her pain, the enemy managed to separate your sister from the support systems that might otherwise have buffered her against his worst. He may have used co-dependence (hers or others’) to keep her from claiming her identity in Christ. Maybe he was able to keep her mired in memories that kept her broken and unhealthy.

Or maybe he just made her think (or used the depression to make her think) there was no hope.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it?

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we can’t begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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Wanna get rich?

Paul Piff is a psychologist who explores the affect of money on human nature. His team conducted an experiment using a rigged Monopoly game and two college students to whom Piff has given the names “T-shirt” and “Glasses.” When the game begins, T-shirt has $2000 in Monopoly money and collects $200 every time he passes “go,” while Glasses gets $1000 from the Monopoly bank and $100 for passing “go.” T-shirt can roll two dice but Glasses can only roll one. They are given fifteen minutes to play this rigged game while a team of psychologists watches on camera to analyze every facial tick and hand gesture.

T-Shirt has no choice but to win and at first, he acknowledges it. Soon, though, he is whizzing around the board, banging his Rolls Royce game piece as he counts out his turn (the game piece for Glasses is an elf). By the time the game is over, T-shirt is totally self-absorbed — counting moves, counting money, taking his opponent’s money without no sign of sympathy.

The experiment is designed to expose something about how money affects behavior. Piff discovered that “putting someone in a role where they’re more privileged and have more power in a game makes them behave like people who actually do have more power, more money, and more status.”

Money can create the sense of superiority. It has the power to make us influential and also selfish, courageous and also defensive. It has the potential for both blessing and curse, whether you have too much of it or too little.

Jesus tells a story very similar to Piff’s experiment. In his story, a wealthy man gives the equivalent of a hundred years’ wages to one man, forty years’ wages to another, and twenty years’ wages to a third. By any standard, any of those three men are holding great wealth but the comparison causes the third guy to shut down. While the first two invest their funds and produce a 100% return, the third guy buries his investment and has nothing to show for it.

Their story inspires me to think about the psychology, challenges and opportunities surrounding the “haves” and “have-nots.”

Five-talent People: Rejecting self-absorbed power

“I used to spend a lot of time thinking about my money,” a wealthy friend once told me. “I thought about it when I had none of it. I worried about it inordinately then. And when we finally made some money, I worried about losing it.”

For five-talent people, this is an interesting psychological shift. The danger is idolatry in one of two directions: 1) thinking “somehow I did this myself,” my friend says; or 2) thinking “money is what I can lean on and believe in, because money is easier to understand.”

So how do we reject self-absorbed power? The real trick is learning to hold money with an open hand. The answer seems to simplistic: Learn to give.  Those who do discover there is a freedom and joy in the stewardship of money that we simply can’t find in the “ownership” of it.

Two-talent People: Embracing creativity

Kevin Myers talks about the difference between the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant. He says five-talent leaders seem to live above the law of gravity. Things seem to come to them effortlessly. Most of us live under the law of gravity. In other words, Myers says, some people lead in leaps, but most people lead in layers.

Living in layers requires a kind of patience that breeds frustration. The day-in, day-out of making a living can sap the creativity out of life. The challenge for two-talent people is to embrace creative opportunities when they come our way. Maybe we don’t have a ton of resources, but what we thought was impossible might just be possible. This may mean letting go of things we can afford, like impulsive on-line buying and eating out and Starbucks, all of which may actually stifle the bigger dreams God has for us. It also means being more intentional about looking for creative opportunities to serve and give, to make the most of our investments.

One-talent People: Rejecting a spirit of poverty

The challenge of the one-talent person is to reject the spirit of poverty and fear-based habits. Living at the level of survival can keep us from trusting God to provide.

A friend says this: “The clenched fist around that $20 also prevents additional blessings from coming to you. There is a faithfulness that is scary, giving money especially when you don’t have it. Maybe it even brings bigger blessings. Like so much of the gospel that is a paradox, it is when it is hardest to step out that we exercise our faith most …”

The times in my life when I’ve clamped down on everything,” my friend continues, “I’ve suffered for it. When I think, maybe this isn’t a good time, maybe I shouldn’t now … that is exactly the time when I know I need to lean in. I don’t want to say there is such a thing as a prosperity gospel, but I can say that when I give, I am the one who benefits.”

Interesting isn’t it? — that the amount of money doesn’t really change the solution to our management of it. Whatever the level, giving is how we keep a healthy perspective. Giving is how we remember whose money it is and how we keep our imaginations nimble.

The point of giving isn’t that God wants you to send him a check so he can get things done. The point is that the Creator of your life knows how you’re wired and what it will take for you to make the most of this existence.

In a word: give. As with most things of the Kingdom, it isn’t logical but it is true: giving is how we get rich.

 

* Find Paul Piff’s TED talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_piff_does_money_make_you_mean?language=en

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Pray To Be Dangerous.

Most of us have a desire to make a difference.

George Barna, a Christian sociologist, conducted a study asking folks about their commitment to making a difference in the world. He found two interesting strands in the data he collected. First, the older a person is, the more likely they are to want their life to matter (two out of three people over sixty). Second, the more religious a person is, the more likely they are to want their lives to matter. Two out of three evangelical Christians say they want to make a difference in the world, while less than one in four atheists have an interest in improving the world.

Our hearts seem to be in the right place. We want our lives to matter. But how does that desire stack up against our prayers?

Erwin McManus has a great story in his book, Seizing Your Divine Moment, about sending his son Aaron off to summer camp. He says,

“Aaron was just a little guy, and I was kind of glad because it was a church camp. I figured he wasn’t going to hear all those ghost stories, because ghost stories can really cause a kid to have nightmares. But unfortunately, since it was a Christian camp and they didn’t tell ghost stories because we don’t believe in ghosts, they told demon and Satan stories instead. And so when Aaron got home, he was terrified.” That first night home, Aaron asked his dad to stay in the room with him. “Daddy, I’m afraid,” Aaron said. “They told all these stories about demons.” And McManus said he wanted to tell his son, “They’re not real,” but he couldn’t say that. Aaron pleaded, “Daddy, Daddy, would you pray for me that I would be safe?” In that plea, McManus said, he heard a desire for that kind of warm-blanket Christianity that too many people assume is all there is to it. So he said to his son, “Aaron, I will not pray for you to be safe. I will pray that God will make you dangerous, so dangerous that demons will flee when you enter the room.” And Aaron said, “Alright. But pray I would be really, really dangerous, Daddy.”

At the end of that story, McManus asks, “Have you come to that place in your own life where you stop asking God to give you a safe existence and start asking him to make you a dangerous follower of Jesus Christ?”

Not a bad place to start for those of us planning to jumpstart a prayer life at the beginning of a new year. Because my suspicion is that many of us treat God as if he were some kind of cosmic drive-thru employee. We yell out what we want and God fills the order and asks if we’d like fries with that.

Wouldn’t it be great if it were that … easy?

The problem is, that’s simply not reality. More, it isn’t the nature of the Creator of our Universe. His desire is not to fill your wants; his desire is to make you holy. He aims to shape you into the person you were created to be.

What kind of prayer is God more likely to answer? I believe he is more likely to answer the prayers we pray for courage as we walk into danger than the prayers we pray as we’re running to escape it. I’m not talking about foolish danger but the kind of holy boldness that is not afraid of taking hold of everything God has for us.

Are you praying for God to keep you safe, or are you praying for God to make you dangerous?

Here’s a tip from a boy who learned it from a faithful father: Don’t pray for safety. That’s not a prayer God is likely to answer. Pray instead to be more dangerous than your enemy. In the answer to that prayer you will find the answer to your great longing for a life that matters.

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Why Christmas Is Worth It

At our downtown ministry this week, I watched a precious soul rock an invisible baby while “Away in a Manger” was being sung and I was overwhelmed by the values of God and his preference for the poor.

It is completely antithetical to our human nature to seek after and invest in the hidden places where the poorest of the poor live and yet this is the very heart of God. He refuses to forget the ones forgotten by the world: the almost-hermit with decades-old depression, the woman who rocks an imaginary baby, the mentally ill one who changed names two or three times in the course of an evening, the one who celebrated her approval for section-eight housing as if it were good news to be poor enough to need rental assistance.

Jesus doesn’t forget them.

In fact, he looks for the ones who look like him and the prophet tells me, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Which means we are left to learn how to love the unattractive, to desire the company of the undesirable. We are also left to wrestle with an uncomfortable truth: To enter into the heart of Jesus is to submit to hidden, unglamorous work.

When Isaiah was deep into the work of penning a weighty bit of prophecy about the coming Messiah, he took time to describe how this Redeemer would deal with people. He said He would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick.

Glenn Penton writes about this. In the days of Isaiah, shepherds would pass the time out in the fields by making a simple flute out of a reed. It was something to do, but also a kind of protection. They’d play it at night to let predators know that the sheep were not alone out there. But a reed flute being played by a boy-shepherd is not going to last long. It gets bent, stepped on, bruised.
Rather than trying to save a broken flute, the shepherd would toss it and make a new one. Same with their candles. They’d make cheap candles by floating a piece of flax in oil. Flax makes a great flame but when the oil gets low, the flax falls over into the oil and then you just get smoke. It is easier to make a new candle than to fish out a smoldering flax and repair it.

God told Isaiah we would know the Messiah by the way he treats the broken reeds and damaged wicks — the ones with personality disorders and bi-polar conditions and divorce and addiction and poverty. From the world’s perspective, reeds and wicks are disposable. “Toss these, and get new ones.” That is the world’s take on those who are banged up, stepped on, bruised, face down and smoldering.

Not so in the Kingdom of God. The true Messiah sees hope in even the most hopeless souls and by His power makes all things new. He specializes in the reclamation of bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. He makes things and people work again.

And this is what makes Christmas worth doing. Because at its core, it is so much more than warm feelings, family dinners and big gifts. Christmas is God stepping in when all hope seems lost to rescue the ones the world would just as soon give up on.

Lest I sound more holy than I am, I have to admit that this fact grates against all my unholy ambitions. It is also the very source of my sanctification. God has told me the path to righteousness. It is to love justice, do mercy, walk humbly … to fall in love with the people who break his heart. He wants my work to bear his image. This is tough spiritual work for ambitious people but it turns out to be the only option if his heart is my hope.

This is the only path that makes the anxiety and busy-ness of Christmas worth the trouble. So I pray for you and me both that in this season, we will learn what it really means to embody the very heart of Christ, to do the hidden work of incarnational ministry, to allow ourselves nothing less than that which builds the Kingdom on earth.

 

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Brokering Hope in a Barren World

“Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! 20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born.” – Luke 1:18-20

I just love Gabriel’s grittiness. I love his righteous indignation, and even the hint of impatience with Zechariah’s inability to see beyond the room in which he stands. Gabriel does not appreciate being questioned. You hear echoes in his response of God’s conversation with Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” Evidently, citizens of the Kingdom do not suffer ignorance or short memories well.

Do you realize who you are talking to? I am Gabriel! I have announced some of the greatest cosmic moves in the history of the world. And now you are going to doubt me? Just who do you think you are?

A good question, because Zechariah is a priest. He should know better. He surely knows the scriptures well enough to have detected a theme of barrenness and late-life births as one of the more prominent themes. God has used barrenness over and over to hint at great reversals designed to move his cosmic plan forward.

Consider these:

  • Sarah was nearly 100 before she had a child.
  • Rebekah was barren until Isaac prayed.
  • Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was was described as barren until she finally had Joseph, who delivered Israel from the barrenness of a famine.
  • Manoah’s wife was barren until she had Samson, who delivered Israel.
  • Ruth, Boaz’s wife, was barren (widowed) until she had Obed, who begat Jesse, who begat David who was the king out of whose lineage Jesus would come.
  • Then there was Moses, who was barren of speech. And the Shunnamite woman who had no oil or food.

And then there was Hannah. Her husband was Elkanah and he had two wives. Hannah was his favorite but she had no children, and it was killing her. She cried out to God in her despair. She wrestled with God over this. She hated her situation. But she hung in there with God. She refused to let go of him. Eventually God gave her the desire of her heart. She had a child named Samuel who would grow up to become the prophet-priest who would anoint Saul to be king. Saul would raise up David in his household and David would eventually become king. Out of his lineage the Messiah would be born.

Hannah’s hope became Israel’s salvation.

In God’s economy, barrenness always points toward hope. Barren people who bear children are breeders of hope. Barren people who wait prove the power of hope. Barren people who never conceive prove that God is faithful even in the deserts. By their willingness to hang in there with God, never mind the circumstances, they prove there is life in the desert … purpose in the desert.

Even more, barrenness has the potential to reframe our hunger so that it leads toward something other-worldly.

I am part of a group walking through the book of Revelation and this week, we spent time white-boarding everything the final chapters of Revelation teach us about the character of Heaven. We listed the kinds of things we love most, along with the awe and wonder of John’s vision. It stoked our yearnings and led us back to barrenness. What if one of the purposes of barrenness is to show us how to hunger for something we can never realize in this life?

What if barrenness can be redeemed by being reframed?

Those who have suffered the deep, aching loss of life without children, or the deep, aching loss of a child taken too soon from this life, may know better than most how to hunger deeply for something we won’t see this side of Heaven. Others of us may have children but still suffer from unfulfilled dreams, lost loves, thorns in the flesh we can’t fix. What if the redeemed purpose of those deep longings and unfulfilled dreams is to stretch us more earnestly toward the Kingdom of God, where all pain and tears have ceased, where all longings are finally, fully realized?

What if barrenness is redeemed when the hunger it produces is refocused on Heaven?

Isaiah seems to hint at this idea when he writes, “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy …” Paul picks up on this line from the prophet when he talks about the “Jerusalem Above” and our place in God’s family as children of the promise. There is certainly the sense in the biblical narrative that hungers can become holy when they turn toward the Kingdom.

If John’s charge was “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” then perhaps this is the substance of readiness: to become so hungry, so thirsty, so moved by the thought of the Kingdom to come that nothing short of that can possibly satisfy us.

Nothing.

As Advent begins, we are in the position again of making ready a people prepared for the next coming of our Lord. Remember that. Our work is to side with those waiting to catch a break, with those frustrated by unfulfilled dreams, with those grieving losses, and to cast among them an imagination that reframes their hungers so that the Kingdom is exposed, so that the second coming becomes their passion.

This is the work of the Church at Advent. It is to become what Carl Medearis calls a “hope broker.”

In your writing, preaching, living, testifying, may you so expose the hope found in Christ Jesus that those on this side of Heaven can’t help but yearn past the temporal toward the eternal.

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Please don’t feed your fears

“I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to all who believe …”

The story of the Bible from beginning to end is the story of God’s power over our weakness. God has power to kill shame. God has power to flatten sin. God has power to resurrect people and to resurrect what for all the world looks like death in my life. The cross is for those who are dying, for those who have been defeated, who feel powerless.

The good news about Jesus Christ is the power of God. Let that sink in: the gospel is its own power. It doesn’t tell us how to get power. It is power.

Faith, then, is about accepting that power into our lives. It isn’t about accepting a tick list of facts, nor is it a way for me to get what I want.

Faith is the life of Jesus living itself out in me.*

But here’s the sad thing about contemporary American faith. The very things Jesus sent his followers out to do are the very things we’ve lost faith in. In fact, our culture has come to accept an hour in church and a blessing before meals as the center of the Christian experience. Demon-possession is a foreign concept to most of us in the western world. When we pray for the healing of others, we tend to hedge our bets in the wording because we don’t really believe anything will happen.

But folks, when I read in my Bible what Jesus did and then read what he teaches followers to do, this is what I hear: that followers have power and authority to drive out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the coming Kingdom and heal things that destroy people’s lives (Luke 9:1-2). This is the center of the gospel, and the power of it.

So do we have power over our fears? Yes! Greater is the one who is in us than the one who is in the world. John 3 teaches us everything that we leave in the dark is under the power and authority of the enemy of our souls, but everything we bring into the light belongs to Jesus and comes under his power and authority. Maybe that is why Jesus places such an emphasis on confession.

Jesus came into his ministry on this one word: Repent. Not to stir up our shame, but to stir up our healing.

I will never tire of writing this truth: There is no shame in Christ. Feelings to the contrary are not of God. Can we be guilty of things? Absolutely. Should we ever feel guilt. Of course. Guilt is an appropriate response to real sin, real mistakes, real failures.

But guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt says we’ve done something wrong, but shame says we are wrong. Shame isn’t usually associated with some specific thing we’ve done. That sick feeling of dis-grace that can’t quite land on a reason is very likely the voice of the enemy trying to derail us with shame-based feelings. Remember: he is the father of lies. He is incapable of telling the truth. If you feel shame, it is surely based on a lie. How do I know this? Because there is no shame in Christ.

I’ve learned this about shame-based living. People who react out of shame tend to get angry in ways that are disproportionate to the situation. They get defensive disproportionately. They get disproportionately fearful. In contrast, Jesus responds with grace (see the story of the woman caught in adultery) and teaches us through the Holy Spirit’s tutelage to grow past our sin and then live graciously toward others.

We’re talking about breaking through barriers, about waking up to all God has for us, about being renewed in the spirit of our minds so our circumstances don’t automatically cause the reaction of fear and shame but send us instead to faith and formation.

Maybe faith and shame are like two spiritual tapeworms inside of us, vying for survival.  The one we feed is the one that grows. Eventually, that’s the one that will take over.

Which one are you feeding?

 

*I have a feeling I heard this line someplace … maybe seedbed.com?  Whoever said it first, its a good one.

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