The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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Before you serve communion today …

I was one of six kids, so I ate dinner every night at a table that sat eight people very tightly. To make matters more uncomfortable for me, I was the only left-handed person in our family. There was no seat at the table that didn’t earn scorn and derision. Most of the time I ate with my elbows drawn in, so as not to be picked on by the brood. It was an awkward way to eat. Add to that the fact that I have almost no eye-hand coordination (I can’t catch a baseball with a satellite dish). Between being left-handed at a crowded table and clumsy on my best days, I had probably a fifty-fifty chance on any given night of knocking over either my tea or someone else’s.

Bless my dad’s heart. He hated dinner being interrupted by spilled drinks. He’d get frustrated by it. He’d say, “Can’t we eat a single meal without someone spilling something?

Well, no. Evidently not, Daddy, because you had five right-handed children and one left-handed one and because of that equation, spilling was mostly inevitable. That’s how our family was made. The only way to avoid the spill would have been to seat me at a separate table. But wouldn’t that be strange and even a bit cruel? After all, I was still part of the family and we all instinctively knew, even if I spilled more often than not, that there was a place at the table for me. 

My family dinner experience inspires two thoughts about the Family Table of the Lord:

First, the Lord’s table is not meant for a party of one. Communion has a deep and fundamental meaning for Christians. The best image for it is the Table, where we come together to share in the body and blood of Jesus. When we take the elements set at this table, we commune, and not just with God. When we take these elements, we admit our participation in the Body of Christ. We are that body. Since the ascension, we who commune around the table of the Lord are the Body of Christ.

So while the act of taking communion can be deeply personal, it was never designed to be an independent act. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence supporting the idea that the Lord’s table should ever be reserved for a party of one. Communion is a sharing — a sharing in the suffering of Jesus and a sharing in the body of Christ on earth. The table connects us.

Second, people who sit at the table of the Lord are prone to spill (and as it happens, our Father is okay with that). It is how his children are made. At the table of the Lord, spilling is a good thing! This table not only connects us, but sends us out to spill over onto others as we share our stories, invite others into this communion, offer them a place at this table.

This meal is worth sharing and the DNA of this family makes us prone to want to share. People who sit at this table have a predisposition toward spilling over onto other people because we believe that we all belong to each other.

Pastors, before you serve communion today, make sure you’re on board with what the sacrament is meant to do in the life of your community. It is not primarily a ritual. It is not primarily a way for people prone toward introspection to curl in toward themselves and away from the community around them. It is a gathering of the family. And when you serve, make sure your people understand that when they share in this meal, they are committing to the expectations of this family table: people who eat at this table have to learn how to spill.

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I am hungry for more.

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

Hungry.

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

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

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

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

Aren’t you hungry for more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t you?

 

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

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The resurrection is reason enough (or, why ministry is still worth it).

A friend of mine who edits a website wrote this post some time ago and it still resonates. On this Monday after Easter, I appreciate being reminded that we all need to learn how to sit with one another in our graves — not because death is good, but because resurrection is possible.

I also appreciate being reminded of the grace I’ve received on this journey. I am not among those good and faithful pastors who somewhere along the way had the honesty to acknowledge that vocational ministry wasn’t for them (since my teenage years I’ve believed this is where I belong), but I definitely respect their journey. I get it. I’ve been in far too many dark, dark places in these nineteen years of full-time church life to pretend that I might not have ended up in their company.

Maybe I just don’t know how to quit. Maybe it is the mercy of being married to a man who won’t let me quit.

In any case, I can say after nineteen Easters as a pastor that as I look at the big picture of it, the staying has been a mercy. I am grateful I’m still serving the Church of Jesus Christ — still broken for his people, still passionate about preaching the Word. While a lot of vocational ministry isn’t what you’d call “fun,” I have found the grand sweep of it to be so very rewarding.

Not always easy, but always rewarding … always worth it.

There is a depth and beauty to honest, authentic ministry. It isn’t “gungho cheerleading,” as Jennifer says in her post. As she rightly notes, that kind of thing will stifle a spirit pretty quickly. What seems to work best is clinging to the cross … finding a personal resolve to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. It is rooting one’s faith in truth, not emotion, because emotions will kill a calling faster than just about anything.

But clinging to the cross? That is worth spending a lifetime on. Knowing Christ and him crucified is worth every drop of us, even as he expressed on the cross that we are worth every drop of him.

The story is true: Jesus is worthy. The cross is glorious. The good news is worth believing. The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance. The resurrection is proof.

Blessings on you, my pastor friends, as you live into the resurrection on this glorious Monday, having spent yourself all weekend for the cause of Christ.

(Jennifer Woodruff’s beautifully expressed post on the vocation of serving Christ is here.)

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Rolling stops and resurrections

You know what a rolling stop is, right? It is what less responsible (or more distracted or in-a-hurry) drivers do when we get to an intersection. We sort of stop, but not really. We pull up to a stop sign, glance around, then start to pull off before the car fully stops. But then, just about the time the hood of the car is in the center of the intersection, we see the cop sitting there just behind a tree, looking for people like us who roll through intersections without actually stopping. We see him and there we are, sitting in the middle of the intersection. We put the brakes on to stop completely. Then we pray for mercy. Then we start again.

And as we drive on through, we hope.

As with driving, so with life. That complete stop is the step many of us miss. There we are, speeding along with our bad habits and dysfunctions, hoping we don’t get caught. Then something happens to get our attention. We realize we probably ought to stop but instead of bringing everything to a complete halt, we tend to roll through the intersection.

We don’t really want to stop the old behavior. We don’t really want to submit to holiness, the life Jesus calls us to. We just want to slow down and make sure we’re not about to kill or be killed.  Then we roll on through.

That may be our pattern, but that is not the pattern of the resurrected life. For resurrection to happen, the body has to stop. In a real resurrection, there is a period of darkness, of battle, of facing the enemy of our souls, of facing the lies head-on and speaking truth over them so they lose their sting.

Resurrection isn’t about rolling through the intersection. It is about killing the old life so something completely new can exist.

Bud McCord says, “The language of the New Testament is not change language. It is begin-again language. It is leaving the Kingdom of darkness and going into the Kingdom of Light. It is leaving death and entering life. It is being crucified with Christ to begin living in Christ.”

Think of resurrection as re-creation, and of faith in the power of resurrection as creative faith — the kind of faith that calls us out of the old and into the new.

That decision to roll through the intersection seems harmless most of the time. Maybe even more efficient. No one is around, we think.  What’s the harm in it? Where’s the harm in me holding onto this one habit, this one grudge, this one offense? Can’t I just roll on through and hope for the best?

Here’s the hard fact: that choice to roll on through doesn’t lead to the power of the resurrection. Maybe that’s why Paul said about himself, “by any means possible.” He said, “So that by any means possible, I may attain the resurrection.”

That means everything is on the table, nothing held back. I will do whatever it takes, by any means possible, to experience life in all its richness.

Because “whatever it takes” is the difference between a rolling stop and a resurrection.

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Carriers of the Gospel or Keepers of the Myth?

Lazarus has just died.

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

Do you believe, Martha, when it is inconvenient?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We believe in Jesus …

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

We believe in the resurrection of Jesus …

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

We believe in the Holy Spirit …

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

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

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

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

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

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How to live like Jesus is alive

I suspect sometimes that I live more out of a sense of obligation than awe — more aware that I’ve signed onto a system than that I am a servant of a holy God who has actually sapped the power out of death and sin. I need to be reminded that systems are not living, breathing things, but Jesus is. If I’m going to recommit to that truth today, how can I live like Jesus is alive?

1. Let the dead things die. Toss the old habits that are not working for you any more. Toss the old, dead rituals. Let’s be honest: some of us are still waiting for 1953 to roll around again so we can get back to a more comfortable kind of religion. Folks, Jesus is doing a new thing! Toss the things you keep wanting to come back that are never going to come back, both in your spiritual life and in the rest of your life. Let the things that have no life for you die.

2. Learn to feast. Psalm 23 is a song of death and resurrection. It paints this picture of walking through a valley of shadows, on the verge of death, with a focus on the feast at the far side. On the next rise, just past the valley, there is a table set by God himself.  “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

This psalm is about how to walk through trouble with a feast mentality, rather than a spirit of scarcity.

I remember reading this line one evening years ago while I was sitting in the chapel of the church I was serving at the time. We offered Wednesday night communion and I was the pastor for that service. I’d sit in the chapel and as folks came I served them. In between people, I usually read the scriptures.

My husband Steve usually came to that service on Wednesdays, and I remember one week in particular when he showed up. It had been a hard week for him. He was teaching, and it seemed like he was struggling more than usual with classroom discipline. Like that semester he had every demon in Morgan County taking history from him. It was a rough season.

As he walked up to the altar, I was reading this very line from Psalm 23 about God preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies. I looked up from that line to see my husband kneeling at the altar, his hands out to receive the elements, all his enemies weighing heavily on him — the students, the work, the tests to be graded. And I thought to myself, “Here it is! Being lived out right in front of me … God is inviting Steve to a feast!”

In the face of so many enemies, Steve was invited by the Lord of the Universe to come to the table, to get his cup refilled, to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and to remember that even with so many demons hanging on, God was with him. God was on his side. God is on his side  and yours … and mine.

If the message of Christmas is that God is with us, then the message of Easter is that God is for us.

This is what it means to get a feast mentality. It is to set your face toward that table, believing in the goodness of the One who set it for you, while you’re still in the valley. It is to believe the story is true even when life is hard.

3. Get a resurrection mindset. That is a mindset that is fearless in the face of change. It is a mindset that believes that God has a big, honkin’ plan for your life, something much bigger than you’re thinking, and something you won’t discover as long as you’re tweaking the small stuff.

Jesus is worthy. The cross is glorious. The good news is worth believing. The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance and the resurrection is proof.

Learn to live as if this is so.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere

I’d just finished a memorial service when a man I’d not met before walked right up and said, “I know just what you were talking about up there. I couldn’t hear a word you said, even though I have my hearing aids in (at which point his wife said, “But no batteries”), but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have been there. I have seen him.”

I said, “Seen who?”

“Jesus.”

“Really? You saw Jesus? For real?”

“Yes. Eight years ago, I died in a car accident. The medic cut a hole between my ribs and stuck an oxygen tube into my collapsed lungs and I died. Jesus met me. I didn’t see his face but I know it was him because I saw the holes in his hands. I have seen things we can’t even imagine on earth.”

“Like what?” I said, because I’ve just preached a funeral and times like that, these conversations seem less crazy, more relevant. I’m not about to let him go without finding out what he has seen.

“I saw a light,” he beamed, “that was about ten times brighter than the sun, but it didn’t hurt your eyes to look at it. You know how you can’t look directly into the sun? Well, you can look directly at this light but it doesn’t hurt. And it was golden. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

“Did you see any other people?”

“There was one person at the end of the tunnel.”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know. I never got there.” And then he waved his hand in the air as if directing someone to turn around, and he said, “Jesus sent me back here before I got to the end of the tunnel.”

“Why do you suppose you got sent back?”

“He didn’t say, but I think it was because my mother was sick and needed me to care for her. I can tell you this: I can’t wait to go back. I have absolutely no fear of death now. It is so beautiful.”

I stood there in the doorway of that little chapel and let that conversation sink in. I looked at that man who seemed to glow with faith and I let the truth of Heaven wash over me. I wondered to myself: how many normal, every-day, average people have died from heart attacks and snake bites and allergic reactions, only to see Jesus and taste that golden light before being sent back here to live another life? How many have seen those hands with holes in them? Have been handed the gift of assurance in the form of a car crash they didn’t survive, then did?

I suspect it’s more than we think. As Thomas Merton has said, “The gate of heaven is everywhere.”

How would I react if I died and went to Heaven then lived to talk about it? Perhaps more relevant is this question: would I recognize it if Heaven came to me?

In Luke, chapter nine, there is a line that grabs my imagination and stirs me to look for heaven. Jesus has just been talking with his followers about the connection between his glory and our faith, and now he is heading up a mountain to pray with Peter, James and John. As he is praying, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appear in glorious splendor to talk with Jesus. They talk about his departure from this earth, among other things. Peter, James and John are sleepy but the story says, “When they became fully awake, they saw his glory” (Luke 9:32).

“When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.”

Meditate on that line for a moment. When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.

I am both educated and exposed by that line. I recognize myself in the state of Jesus’ disciples. What must I be missing, because I’m not fully awake? If I am not seeing God’s glory is it because God’s glory is absent, or is it because (spiritually speaking) I am slogging through life half asleep?

Would I recognize the gates if they were opened to me? Would you?

When they became fully awake, they saw his glory. I dare you to walk through this day looking for the gate of heaven as if it might actually be real, might actually show up. I challenge you to develop that kind of eyesight — the kind that can see corners of the Kingdom exposed for our benefit, our pleasure, to build our faith and prove again that what we talk about is true.

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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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