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.

Read More

When the Church Hurts (part two)

This post is part two in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our last post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict.  In this post, we address some practical ways we, too, can respond redemptively to conflict.

Back in my college days, I had a professor who was convinced that the concept of community was at the root of all other philosophical discussions around building healthy societies. When I was in seminary, I visited The Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. and heard Gordon Cosby talk eloquently about the the central role of community in all Kingdom-advancing work. Those two voices in my life have deeply shaped what I believe about the nature and role of the Church. I believe the Church plays a key role in the reclamation of the world. By promoting healthy, committed communities that follow Jesus faithfully, we model his life and become an answer to his prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth …”

Modeling healthy communities depends on mastering healthy conflict. Until a community of faith learns to deal constructively (redemptively, graciously, maturely) with its differences, it will not be able to move forward with spiritual and emotional maturity. The first option ought always to be for those with issues to lean in and work it out. In this post, we will think practically about how Jesus’ people ought to act when working it out doesn’t work.

What happens when it is time to leave?

1. If you can’t say something nice …  The first step toward reconciliation is learning how to speak graciously. We serve no positive purpose by talking negatively about another church – even those of which we’ve been part. Our negative comments about the Body of Christ can hurt others. 

If the conflict in a previous church is significant, then many folks who are still there are still hurting. Some of them are also innocent by-standers – people who did nothing to cause conflict. When we make negative comments about their church we can cause great harm.

Likewise, we must be sensitive to those in our present Christian circles. We must be sensitive especially to the members of our new church family by not involving them in the conflict of another church. Strongly resist sharing negative stories or comparing churches. To do so only plants seeds of bitterness in a fresh field. What our mothers said really is true: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. 

Better yet, find something nice to say. Kindness is a wonderful antidote to bitterness.  As Paul said to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, whatever is pure and pleasing, if there is anything of excellence or anything worthy of praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

2. Keep praying. Pray, and pray some more. Nothing else will do more to create a healing environment in your soul. Keep the prayer lines open but understand that reconciliation is a process, not an event. Healing doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, you may need to talk not just to God but to a human being in order to heal. If that is the case, then seek out the listening ear and prayer support of a trusted friend who can help to process the thoughts. Be honest with them and ask them to walk with you spiritually through this time. Ask them to pray for you and hold you accountable until you reach a place of peace and reconciliation with all parties involved.

3. If you can’t say something nice (part two) … “Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

While it is always better to stay quiet if we can’t say something nice, God will usually challenge us to go a step further. After all, even if we manage to keep quiet about our pain and anger, our inability to think positively about the church we’ve left likely indicates a deeper brokenness that needs to be acknowledged and explored. If we can’t seem to think kind thoughts or say nice things about the people of another church or group, then why is that? What is the real source of that anger, that pain? 

To answer that question for yourself, set aside time to be with the Lord. Ask for his insight.  Rarely if ever will God allow us to simply bury our pain and move on. When we seek him in prayer and ask for the mind of Christ, he will show us where we have failed as well as where we have been wounded by others. When we ask, he will show us a path to forgiveness that likely includes praying God’s best over those with whom we are in conflict. Journaling may help in that process. Again, the help of a trusted friend and a strong prayer partner is invaluable. The pastor or perhaps even an outside counselor may be a good step at this point.

Churches are made of people, and wounded people can do painful things to one another. Our responses to others’ brokenness says a lot more about us than them. Learning to respond to pain with grace is a gift to the Church and a strike against the darkness.

Find part three in this series of posts here

Read More

Come, Lord Jesus (or, How to pray for everything)

A few days ago I visited a mercy ministry in another town as part of our preparation and planning for building a capacity-building ministry in our community. Talking with the director of the ministry I visited, I was reminded again of just how many beautiful souls there are in the world. I keep running into people who care deeply about dignifying life, and who sacrifice for that cause.

Toward the end of my visit, my host invited me to step into the foyer where folks had begun to gather, both volunteers and clients, just after the doors of the ministry opened for the day. Their tradition is to gather that first crowd into a circle to pray over everything ahead.

The guy leading the prayer time asked if anyone had any prayer needs. There was silence for a moment, then a woman piped up. “The world,” she said. “Pray for the world.” A few knowing nods acknowledged what was on her heart. Yes, this is a hard world to live in and those in that circle felt the sharp edges of this world more acutely. We ought to pray for a kinder, gentler option.

More silence, then someone motioned toward a young man near the door. “Dylan just lost his home in a fire. Pray for him.” We all sighed toward Dylan. What a heavy thing to handle. We ought to pray for this man, who looked pretty lost.

A bit more silence, and the guy in charge said, “Okay then … we’ll pray for Dylan and the world.”

Dylan … and the world.

“Dylan and the world” make me mindful that changing the world begins with the person standing in front of me. “Dylan and the world” are the mustard seed and the mountain. They are Jesus telling us to be faithful with a little before we can be faithful with more. They are one woman telling Jesus that even the dogs get the crumbs, and Jesus using crumbs to feed thousands of people.

This is how it is in the Kingdom of God. There is a tension in God’s economy between the one and the many — a tension God himself seems able to hold together. God cares about Dylan, and He also cares about the millions of “Dylans” who have lost their homes this year to the evils of war, communist dictatorships, natural disasters and angry mobs. Eleven million Syrians have left their homes since 2011; Syrian refugee camps stretch on as far as the eye can see. Venezuelans have taken to the streets by the scores to protest their chronic economic crisis (inflation is expected to drive toward 2000% in 2018; try to wrap your mind around that).

The world can be a harsh place. Jesus says (Matthew 24:6-8), “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” This sounds too familiar. The world is a hard place.

At the end of Fiddler on the Roof, a poor tailor asks the rabbi as they are being forced out of their town, “Wouldn’t now be a good time for the Messiah to return?” In the Kingdom of God, this is how the tension is resolved … in Jesus. Jesus is the common denominator between the person in front of us and a worldful of need. And if that is so, then maybe the best prayer we can pray for “Dylan and the world” is the prayer of the early Church: Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. It was the prayer of the first followers of Jesus as they strained toward the Kingdom against tides of conflict and persecution. First-century Christians earnestly watched and prayed for his return, even as they spread the word about the Messiah. They believed passionately that in him is the one, enduring answer to burned-down houses, down-and-out men, failing economies, homelessness, and a world chock-full of hard edges.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Much of what Paul wrote was to stir up a hunger for an answer to that prayer. “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen… ”  “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

I don’t think we ought to use a cry for Jesus’ return as an escape from being part of the solution. After all, Dylan deserves the whole gospel; the world deserves the best of Kingdom work. Our hearts must be broken for what is happening all around us. But I do believe that developing a hunger for the final answer to a fallen world will help us have faith enough to stand in that tension between the troubles in front of us and a world spiraling out of control.

Come, Lord Jesus. We are hungry to see you in all your glory, and to be delivered from the darkness.

Read More

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?

Read More

I’m not bad (I’m just drawn that way).

One of the best movie lines ever is the line from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The movie is animated, but with some real people sprinkled in. Eddie Valiant is the real-life detective and Jessica Rabbit is the animated character, telling Valiant how hard it is to be her and how misunderstood she is. As she exits the room, she says, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” It is a brilliant line (because she is animated, after all), but it is also interesting theologically.

Are we bad? Or are we just drawn that way?

The answer is yes. We are born broken. We are born with the mark of Adam – the stain of fallen humanity. Except for God’s continual pursuit of us, we would be lost in that sin. Permanently scarred. We find the same idea in one of the best hymn lines of all time: Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. We are prone to wander. It is in our DNA to rebel.

The movie writer and the hymn writer are saying the same thing: we are drawn that way. We are caught up in this spiritual battle for control of our souls. It is like a spiritual under-tow. We are trying to get to the shore but there is this constant force pulling us away from the direction we know we should be moving in. We are drawn toward sin … prone to wander. This is what Paul means when he tells us (Ephesians 6:12) our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, authorities and powers of the dark world and against the forces of evil in the spiritual realm.

In his lesson about prayer, Jesus teaches us to fight this battle not with behavior management but with Jesus himself. Begin in the presence of God and seek the power of God to overcome the temptations and evils that bend our will.

Temptation  in the Greek can mean an enticement to sin but it can also mean a “trial or testing.” Not all temptation is created equal.

1. There are bad temptations. A temptation is a nudge toward the darkness. It is the snake in the garden pointing Eve toward the apple. Her sin was in eating the apple. The nudge and conversation were not the problem but with each step in that direction, she increased the danger.

Hear that: It isn’t the thought that comes into our head that is the problem. The problem is what we do with it once it gets there.

2. There are “good” temptations (with bad timing). There are those temptations that come from outside of us, but there are also temptations designed to throw us off track that may seem like good ideas. Brothers and sisters in Christ, the most dangerous belief you can hold as a follower of Jesus is the belief that you are past the point of temptation. You can destroy a marriage by believing that. Or a ministry. Victory happens not when we get cocky, but when we cling to Jesus like desperate people hanging from the side of a cliff. Because sometimes the enemy will strike while we’re in the middle of doing good things. Even on our good days, we are “prone to wander.”

3. And then there are legitimate tests. Bill Johnson says, “God never sets us up to fail.” God tests. The enemy tempts. What is the difference? The enemy tempts us in order to destroy us. The enemy only has one plan. It is the plan of a desperate, defensive, defeated person: Steal, kill and destroy everything in his path — everything he can get his hands on — before Jesus comes back. When God tests, however, it is so he can refine us. The tests of God are designed not to push us over the edge but to both shape our character and prove it.

The trick, then, is learning which trails to follow and which to avoid. Paul says it this way when he writes to the Galatians (Galatians 5:13): “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love.: In other words, “Take my thoughts captive, God, so I’m not constantly having to battle every choice. Give me some holy boundaries out of which I can operate so I’m not always having to choose between what I want and what I can give … so I’m not always having to wrestle between my shallowness and Your depth …”

This is a prayer for holiness to invade us. This is a prayer for Christ himself to invade us, in all his redemptive power. 

Jesus came to fight our battles for us. Which means that even if we are “drawn that way,” that doesn’t have to be the last word over our lives. We can legitimately, effectively fight the urges that come our way. We can claim victory over darkness. Jesus invites us to bring our battles into his presence where his power can draw us out of darkness and into his glorious light.

(Portions of this post are reprinted from Encounter Jesus, a seven-week study about the nature and work of Jesus that you can find at seedbed.com.)

Read More

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.

 

Read More

The difference between faith and foolishness

If all eternity hangs in the balance, why faith? Let’s be real here. Faith doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to get a human race on board. Why doesn’t God show up in more tangible ways? 

Answering that question properly hinges on gaining a better definition than we usually give to the principle of faith.

In Hebrews 11:1, the writer tells us that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Another version calls faith “substantive.” The Message version of the scripture gives this definition: “(faith) is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.

Anyone who comes to God must believe he exists. There is no other option open to us. Of course, there is more to salvation than acknowledging his existence but belief is where it begins. We cannot reason his existence nor can we  feel it. Knowing God requires faith.

Faith, then, is spiritual intelligence. As a way of understanding, it is as relevant as mental or emotional intelligence. Faith is a way of expressing something we recognize as true but cannot describe in reasonable or natural ways. In answer to the question, “why faith?” the response is that faith is a higher form of knowing. It isn’t the “honorable mention” when nothing else works; it is the gold standard.

Faith is a higher form of knowing.

Jesus says as much in John 3 when he explains the kind of spiritual knowing that comes with a relationship to a spiritual being. He teaches that people born physically are born in water, from the womb. People born spiritually are born into the Spirit. Spirit-existence is not equivalent to physical existence. We get in trouble when we try to equate the two.

Jesus goes on to compare this Spirit-knowing to the wind. It is something we know to be real, even if we don’t see or control it. In the same way, we don’t have to see or control the Spirit to know it to be real. Claiming it as truth, Jesus goes on, births us into a different kind of reality. Faith, then, is about being brought into a spiritual life. Decisions begin from that place; wisdom begins there. We begin to know everything else only as it relates to what we know by faith. Faith, used well, orients us outward from a God-center, rather than inward (or upward) from the world. This is why it is a higher form of knowing.

If only we would use our faith as it is designed! Not as a default when nothing else works (“I’m miserable, but I guess I will hang on by faith.”), but as an orienting point that makes everything else make sense. The problem with too much contemporary Christianity is our perversion of good faith. We tend toward empty faith — using it almost like a shoulder shrug for things beyond our control. Or we manipulate the word as permission for all manner of treacherous and self-serving decisions. It doesn’t work, of course. God is not partial to manipulation. But that doesn’t prevent us from trying and from manipulating others in the process.

But that? That isn’t faith; that’s foolishness. Foolishness says, “I know I don’t need this thing I’m after, but I want it. And because I want what I want when I want it, I’m going to call this leap I’m about to make a leap of faith, even though Jesus probably isn’t within ten square miles of it. I’m going to call this faith, because it makes people think I heard from Jesus when I do that, so if Jesus doesn’t come running to save me from myself, maybe people will.”

That’s not faith. That is spiritual malpractice.

Faith is something else entirely, something with the flavor of wisdom, maturity and persistence. I’m thinking of a friend of my mother’s, who wanted a swimming pool in her back yard. She kept after her husband about it. He didn’t want an in-ground pool so try as she might to convince him otherwise, he didn’t budge. Eventually, she got tired of begging, bought a shovel, and started digging. One shovelful at a time, she dug most of a hole for an in-ground swimming pool. When she got in above her head, he got on board. I suspect faith looks more like this than like that of someone who claims to know the preferences of God for self-serving purposes.

Faith says, “If you want a swimming pool, you may have to invest in a shovel.” In other words, faithfulness embraces preparation and persistence, honors investment and counts the cost. Faith trusts the promises of God, but never manipulates them toward selfish ends.

It seems to me that the great moves of God tend to happen in the hands of those who practice a healthy faith, when people who love God invest themselves in partnership with his purposes and are oriented toward life from the Kingdom down. It happens not so much by lofty platitudes and grand-standing but by people who are willing to hold prayer in one hand and a shovel in the other.

Read More

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.

Read More

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!

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 an annual habit of corporate fasting. We’ll fast again as a church in January.

I wonder, though, if now might be the time to call all Christians in our country to fast and pray for a renewal of spirit and for Kingdom vision. 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 the final days of this election season? What if fasting is how our country moves from spiritual sloth to a great awakening?

Through fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform our lives, our families, our churches, our leaders, our communities, our country, our world. It isn’t 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.

Wondering if there is anything left to be done with this anxious season? Or are we sunk? Nope. We are not victims. We are people 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.” But 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?

Another thing Maxie has said: “Our country is a mess. Our (UMC) denomination is a mess. We are ripe for revival!” Yes. The question is, are we hungry enough yet to see God do a new thing that we’ll miss a meal, humble ourselves and pray?

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

Read More