This year, stop being who you were.

Think about it: If Mary had been engaged to a guy with a drinking problem and a couple of failed marriages, we probably wouldn’t be reading about her or her husband today. Joseph was chosen for the role of custodial parent just as surely as Mary was chosen for the role of Christ-bearer because he was a righteous man. He, too, was a virgin (not just Mary), a guy with integrity who chose a holy woman to be his wife and who treated her with respect even when she presented him with more questions than answers.

Overnight, Joseph went from being a small-town businessman with a fiancee and what I assume was a solid family home to being a refugee and a scandal who spent years outrunning a corrupt ruler who wanted his son dead. Joseph teaches me that if I want to be part of a story bigger than myself, I have to stop being who I was (even if who I was, was perfectly respectable) so I can go with God.

I have been asking the Lord to raise up men of God in our community with the heart of Joseph — men willing step into a bigger story. I guess what I’m really praying for is men willing to stop being who they were, so they can become who God intends. How does one do that, exactly … whether you are a man or a woman?

Here are a few of my first thoughts on how to stop being who you were:

Stop listening to the wrong voices (and start listening to the right ones).

If you are not already clear on how God speaks into your life, stop everything and figure that out. Remember that Joseph was able to walk out the early days of Jesus’ life and keep that child alive because of his ability to hear from God. And my suspicion is that those prophetic dreams — to marry the pregnant girl, to escape to Egypt — were not his first. Knowing what I know about how God works, I suspect Joseph already had a habit of hearing through dreams and God already knew he had Joseph’s ear when he spoke in that way. Deeply faithful people tend to know the voice of God, and have practiced listening over years. If you don’t already know how God gets your attention, that is worth figuring out; otherwise, you will be sidetracked too often by the wrong voices.

Stop wasting time (and start reading your Bible).

Where are you spending your time? It doesn’t make sense to spend hours and hours online, reading or listening to political commentary, while you go for days, weeks or months without opening your Bible. At least, it doesn’t make sense to do that and then wonder why you don’t sense God’s presence in your life. I read this someplace and it really resonated: You can’t create and consume at the same time. If what you’re wanting to create is a deeper relationship with Jesus and a more disciplined prayer and scripture life, you won’t get there with a habit of wasting time surfing everything except the Bible. We all need a little downtime, but we could all also stand to be a little more honest about where the bulk of our time goes. I can tell you this from personal experience: my prayer life improved dramatically the day I took all social media apps off my phone. In 2018, stop wasting time on everyone else’s daily life and start being intentional about yours.

Stop fighting the wrong battles (and start fighting the right ones).

Paul reminds us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil. To the extent that I focus on the wrong enemies, I will waste time and energy and can even play into the real enemy’s hands. To put it another way, our real enemies almost never have skin on.

Think about Joseph’s choices. He moved his family to Egypt to protect his son while untold numbers of children were killed. It took serious faith to stay the course, knowing others would be hurt by Herod’s evil actions. Joseph didn’t get sidetracked by a broken man’s foolishness. He kept his focus on spiritual realities and God’s plan. His job was to bring Jesus safely into adulthood. Knowing his call kept him from being distracted by other battles.

(Side note: Our job, also, is to bring Jesus into adulthood … our adulthood.)

Stop imitating others (and start imitating Jesus).

It really never occurred to me until this Christmas season that Joseph and Mary were the first followers of Jesus. They were the first to let him change their lives. They believed he was God’s redeemer for a lost and hurting world, and they went to great lengths to make sure the world knew that. In a very real sense, it wasn’t Jesus who became like his custodial dad, but Joseph who became like his son. He is a great example to us of what can happen when a person stops being who they were so God can write them into a bigger story.

If that is your heart for 2018, may you have courage to stop being who you were so you can become all God intends you to be.

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Want a spiritual breakthrough? Try this.

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 there are 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 explained, “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. And that vision 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!

As a corporate discipline, fasting can have a mighty effect on a community. Some years ago, our church entered into 21 days of fasting to prepare for the purchase of our building. I am convinced that our spiritual preparation paved the way for the success of that campaign. Since then, we’ve made a habit of an annual season of corporate fasting and 2017 will be no different. Beginning January 2nd, our congregation will be invited to cry out for the heart of God through 21 days of prayer and fasting. We will form prayers around the priorities of God’s vision for our next season, God’s heart for those in the margins and God’s call to deeper spiritual formation.

I’m sharing this now because some of you will want to join us. Whether you’re part of Mosaic or not, you may sense God’s call to begin the new year more spiritually prepared. Whether it is 21 days, three days, 24 hours or just one meal, I’d like to ask you to try fasting as a spiritual discipline in January. Skip eating and use that time in conversation with God, asking him to prepare your heart to hear his voice. Spiritual fathers through the ages assure us that God honors that kind of sacrifice. They call it a means of grace — a way of connecting more intimately with God.

Through fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform our lives. Use this time to renew your personal commitment to Christ. Share your prayer needs with others at Mosaic so we can bear one another’s burdens. Post your progress, not to brag but to encourage one another toward more intimacy with God. Pray for your family, your church, its leaders, the pastor, our community, neighbors, friends.

Pray to become a difference-maker.

If you sense God’s call to an extended fast (more than three days), please be sure to let your pastor and doctor know and ask for more information on how to conduct such a fast safely.* If you have any physical condition that would make fasting from food unhealthy for you, there are other options. Choose something from your daily routine – a specific food, television, social media, sweets, caffeine – something that really matters.

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. And God himself said, “When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:13, 14).

 

* For more on fasting, look up Jentsen Franklin’s books on the subject. Bill Bright has also written on this. Here’s a good article to get you started: http://goodnewsmag.org/2012/01/the-spiritual-discipline-of-fasting/

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What a farm fence taught me about life and resolutions

I am remembering a walk one day along the fence line of a family farm. The farm has since passed to other hands, but the lessons of that fence have stayed with me. I offer these principles here for those looking for direction for a new year and a fresh start:

First, walk your fence line and look for gaps. Fences are important to the work of a farm. A weak fence is an open invitation to a predator. It’s also an invitation for a horse or cow to go where they shouldn’t. Checking the fence line for gaps is an important part of farming. Likewise, checking spiritual fence lines is an important part of personal growth. Checking the fence line is about getting our motives right. When our motives are prideful (we want to win) or selfish (we want what we want), then God will step back and let us do our own thing. But when our motives are right (we’re after things God values) then we can be confident He’s in there with us.

This is straight out of the Bible. We are encouraged to test ourselves — to be fearless in looking for spiritual gaps and places where the enemy can get to us. Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

If you’re hoping to be more effective, more productive, more in tune with God’s will in 2016, then start with David’s prayer. “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” Walk the fence lines; look for gaps. Be ruthless in shaking the posts to ensure the weak places get reinforced. We don’t have anything to fear when we walk the fence lines. We may have have gaps, but gaps we know about can be fixed. We can begin again.

Some gaps have a purpose (but even planned gaps need tending). At my father-in-law’s farm, there was one place in the fence where the gap was wide and obviously there on purpose. Joe had an agreement with the guy who owned the pasture next to his, so the neighbor’s cows were able to come and go freely between the two pastures. But even planned gaps have limits. Joe pointed out a couple of issues with the gap we were looking at and said he was going to have to tell the guy that if he didn’t take care of those issues, he would have to close the gap and the cows wouldn’t have access to his pasture any more. Weakened gaps in your fence — even planned gaps — and the whole point of the fence is lost.

Where have you allowed unhealthy gaps — too many commitments, too much on your plate for you to do any of it well?

Firebreaks serve not just us but those around us. A firebreak is a shallow trench dug into the ground about five feet inside the fence line. When a property owner has a planned burn to clear out the underbrush in an area, they build a firebreak to keep the fire from jumping over onto the neighbor’s property. Don’t dig a firebreak on the property line; dig inside the property line.farm-fence2

What a great word for those of us who tend to live at our limits. If we’re going to be respectful of the people around us, we’ve got know our limits and live not at them but inside them. Build a fire break not just for your own sanity but for everyone else’s, too. Maybe James had this at least partly in mind when he said, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark” (James 3:5). When we get past our limits emotionally, we too easily end up blowing sparks in the direction of people who don’t deserve to be burned.

Practice controlled burns. After digging a firebreak a few feet in from the fence line, a property owner will set their own woods on fire. On purpose. The point is to clear out the underbrush, get rid of dead trees and limbs and stimulate seed germination. As a metaphor, this is such a rich idea. This is about getting rid of the stuff that seems harmless but is actually sapping the life out of us. It’s also about getting rid of the stuff we know is hurting us. Jesus said (Matthew 5:29-30), “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Jesus is talking here about a controlled burn — about getting rid of anything that might start a fire in your life or sap nutrients from the more important stuff. What needs to go (even good stuff), so more productive things can flourish?

I want to challenge you early in this new year to take some time apart to walk your fence line and look for the gaps that need repair. Dig a firebreak well inside your property line not just for yourself, but for the people around you. Do a controlled burn; get rid of the underbrush and the dead wood. Prime your soil for new growth.

A new year is a great time for a new start. Are you with me?

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