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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A Layperson’s Primer (part three): A Gracious Exit

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Part two is an overview of the four plans being considered at the called General Conference that begins this weekend. This post is about the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made, so that people who have invested heavily in their local ministries can continue their work whatever the outcome of GC2019. Portions of this post were published by the Religion News Service on February 22, 2019. 

For forty years, the United Methodist Church has developed its waiting muscles. We’ve been waiting for decades for a decision around issues of human sexuality to stick — a decision that will release us to move on from this conversation. The last three years have been an especially intense time of waiting. With General Conference now upon us, I sense that none of us has any certainty about how this will shake out. There seems to be a split opinion around three outcomes — either one of the two more likely plans up for consideration will succeed (One Church or Traditional), or no decision will be reached at all due to a bureaucratic logjam (please, Lord, deliver us from this fate!).

My deep hope — more than which plan wins the day — is that an exit ramp will become part of any plan approved. Right now, only one of the three plans proposed provides for an “exit ramp” — a way out for pastors and churches that does not punish them for their choice to leave the “connection” with property and position intact. A “gracious exit” was recommended for all plans by the commission that proposed the three options up for debate; but with one exception, the exit ramp option has been removed (and even that one is so narrow as to be unhelpful). That is discouraging. I so want our tribe to do this differently than others who have gone before us. There is no winning if we are all biting and devouring each other on the other side of this. No one, regardless of their theological position, should be held hostage by a system they cannot live in wholeheartedly.

A gracious exit would allow local churches who find themselves unable to support United Methodist teaching and polity to leave the denomination with all their property and assets in tact. Rather than removing our theological center for the sake of preserving the institution, I want the delegation to remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer in good conscience support.

Why should laypersons insist on a gracious exit provision?

This seems just. How is it possible to change the rules then penalize those who disagree with that change by asking them to surrender assets they’ve poured so much into?

This seems like the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its theological task, not control assets. Freedom suggests we can disagree in love, and hold one another with an open hand. Freedom suggests we can hear one another and hold one another as treasures, not hostages.

This seems like the best way to witness positively to a watching world. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and prove ourselves gracious by refusing to bite and devour one another in the wake of whatever choice is made. This offers a solid public witness while maintaining a clear theological center.

This seems like grace. And grace is what Wesleyans do best. Let’s trust God with how a divestiture might affect the resulting institution(s) while we keep the main thing the main thing.

There are a lot of questions we cannot yet answer because General Conference contains the very unpredictable variable of human emotion (not to mention the winds of the Holy Spirit). It is impossible to know (and probably unhealthy to prognosticate) where we’ll end up. I know we are all more than ready for the process to play itself out and are praying for those we’ve voted in as delegates to get the job done.

Delegates, hear us: we want you to decide something. Many of us would consider it both demoralizing and spiritually disastrous to find we could not lead ourselves out of this crisis.

While we wait, these are my personal prayers:

  • that God will “pluck the brand from the fire.” In other words, that God will do such a miraculous thing in the UMC that we become a revived and renewed evangelical movement as a result of our holy conferencing.
  • that God will turn hearts and enlighten minds.
  • that God will move powerfully at GC2019, speaking healing grace and peace over our leaders.

I hope you will join me in these prayers. I also encourage you — before the closing prayer on Tuesday — to answer this question for yourself: What connects me to the United Methodist Church — institutional loyalty, or a passionate commitment to our theological task? Your answer to that question will go a long way toward helping you know how to personally respond once a decision has been handed down.

Between now and the closing prayer of GC2019, be encouraged not to allow the pressure of the moment to craft your convictions for you. Spend time on your knees, in prayer. Search the scriptures. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where the lines have been pleasantly drawn so you don’t default to what is most convenient, and so you don’t find yourself blown about by every wind of doctrine.

Finally, I encourage you not to allow the spirit of fear to whisper threats or doom into your spirit. My friends, we have been given a spirit of power, love and sound judgment, and now is exactly the time we ought to call on that higher nature. On the other side of this denominational crisis, Christ will still be King. The Kingdom of God will still be forcefully coming. All over the globe, people will still be drawn to the good news about Jesus. We may not know how General Conference ends but we most certainly know how The Story ends.

Jesus wins.

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Women of Worth: Calling out the Best in People

Do you remember how, in the movie called The Help, Abilene would speak to the little girl she took care of? She would say, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Abilene was brilliant. She understood that women are better to themselves and the world around them when they know their worth.

I learned this through a decade of struggling to understand my place as a pastor and leader. After years of struggling against my own wounds I found healing, and find myself now energetically interested in helping other women find their worth. To that end, Mosaic Church has created a project called Women of Worth. We are pairing women who are ready to pay it forward together with those who are ready to move forward with their lives, so we can encourage women with the confidence that they are smart, they are worth it, and their future is more important than their past.

Take Heather, for instance. Heather was an addict for decades who finally ended up doing 18 months in prison. She emerged from that experience as a transformed person, ready to take responsibility for her life. But no one was giving a job to a felon, so eventually we hired her part-time and watched her succeed. Because Heather is smart, and kind. She is a great worker. She quickly moved from part-time to full time, and then from full-time to a director’s position. She got an associate’s degree, then with a lot of coaching and encouragement from women who believe in her, she applied for a Master’s degree at a first-rate institution that would exempt her from completing a Bachelors. They give just a few spots to qualified applicants every year, and Heather was awarded one of those spots. This week she began her Master’s program! She is succeeding because a few women in her life helped her believe her future is more important than her past.

Toni is our poster girl for Women of Worth. She has a couple of felonies, a GED, and a three-year old boy. She is determined to make life happen without public assistance so she landed a job in the kitchen of an upscale chain restaurant. Toni is sharp, with a ton of potential, and her managers saw that in her. They placed her on their leadership development track, but that’s when her felony record made it to the corporate office. The prevailing policy would have required her to leave her job. Because Toni’s life up to that point had taught her things don’t turn out well for her, she was ready to walk away. What Toni needed was not someone to advocate for her, but someone who could encourage her to advocate for herself. She went back in there and asked managers who believed in her to go to bat for her. It worked. She not only kept her job but is still on track for a management position. Toni just needed someone to believe with her that her future is more important than her past.

When life circumstances steal that message, what an opportunity we have to help women hear again that they are smart, they are worth it, that their future is more important than their past. That’s what Women of Worth is about. We invite women in our community to partner with us to empower others by pairing those who have experience and can pay it forward together with those who are ready to make the most of their future. Women of Worth offers training, coaching and mentoring … by women for women.

If you know someone, or are someone, who could use some encouragement and coaching to take it to the next level, we’re here. Let’s get started.

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Do I believe every life matters and that life has worth as it was designed?

Clearly, there is a war on life in our world and it is most certainly a spiritual war. We devalue health in favor of immediate gratification. We devalue lives based on appearance, IQ, gender, power, or even difference of opinion. I think our penchant toward death — which is a manifestation of our bent toward the negative — pervades every thought. Do I think someone who doesn’t vote like me or believe like me is as valuable as I am? Do I see the person in line in front of me at Kroger as a person of value, whose life deserves my respect? Do I get it, that when someone in Venezuela or India is devalued by their government, then all of humanity is depleted? That I have a vested interest in preserving the value of life … all life?

Our bent toward death has been with us almost from the beginning. Christians trace it to a story rooted in Genesis 3, when humans chose to listen to a voice other than the God of life. By the time the people of God were consigned to slavery in Egypt, the culture of death had permeated the earth. Dennis Prager has written on the Egyptian preoccupation with death. Their bible was called the Book of the Dead. Their greatest monuments were pyramids, which were basically over-sized caskets. Even the pagan priests were preoccupied with death. As pagans, the Egyptians were everything the Kingdom of God was not. A preoccupation with death made their decisions for them. When God brought the Israelite people up out of slavery from Egypt, he had to totally reorient their thinking. “Everything you learned there, everything that enslaved you, was wrong. It is not all about death. Creation is about life.”

Hundreds of years of wrong theology had to be reoriented. The people of Israel had to understand God as life-giving before they could stop living to die and start living for God. The work in the desert — the story of which is told in the book of Exodus — was the work of learning to live. That meant constantly rejecting Egypt and pressing toward God’s promises. God’s training on this mindshift is detailed (and by detailed, I mean detailed) in the book of Leviticus. All those odd rules we read there are a rejection of a culture of death. Moses shows his people that while there may seem to be countless options, there are really only these two choices: life or death. And then, almost like a battery of visual aids, Moses shows us that everything else — what we eat, what we wear and watch and get entertained by, who we choose for intimacy — all those options eventually boil down to life or death.

If this is true, that everything — every single thing in your life — leads to either life or death, then that means, fallen creature, that there are likely things in your life that lead to death. They carry the veneer of death. And I’m not even thinking about the obvious stuff. A thousand times a day, Leviticus teaches us, we are confronted by pockets of death. It becomes remarkably tempting to choose death simply because it is easier. And yet, the story of God teaches us that God’s preference is always for life. His value is life, and his desire is to see us live … really live.

This is God’s great design. All life is sacred, and a person who engages in life-creating behavior enters into a sacred process. We are not given license to pick and choose how life happens or which children come into the world. That was never our charge. The alternative, then, is to receive life as a gift in whatever way it happens.

For me, that means throwing baby showers for single women more often than I’d like and toeing the line on what holiness means in unmarried relationships. It means honoring the questions, too, and the suffering caused by shattered dreams. It also means that when I look at you — in all your messiness — I am challenged to see you as your Maker does. I am expected to develop eyes that see what God sees when he looks on his children.

This is what it means to choose life. And to choose grace. And to choose love.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live … (Deuteronomy 30:19)

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Stop listening to the demon of regret (part two).

In a previous post, we explored the damage caused by the demon of regret. We noted that the mindset of regret can steal our peace by casting illusions, then making us believe we missed them. This fear of missing out is not of God, and the demon of regret is just that … a demon. Its sole purpose is discontent. It makes its living by speaking empty possibilities into our minds that don’t actually exist in reality, to paralyze us or at least keep us in a discontented space. This demon uses the tactic of comparison to distort what is real by comparing reality with something that doesn’t exist. Worse still, it creates a victim mentality by convincing us that circumstances beyond our control have stolen our ideal. It keeps us from owning our choices and embracing them, not as our plan B but as the reality we live in — a reality that a good and creative God can still make the most of.

Listen: When we fail to own our choices and live them out positively in partnership with the Holy Spirit, we not only miss out on the illusions we conjure up, but also on seeing God make the most of our reality. Regret keeps me from giving my whole heart, by tempting me to hold out hope for something that doesn’t actually exist as a possibility. What damage we can do to ourselves and our relationships when we refuse to live a wholehearted life!

Want to tackle the demon of regret? Think honestly about how you view your life choices now, and where you’re giving in to regret rather than owning your reality in partnership with God:

Don’t let the numbers fool you. One of the ways the enemy tempts us toward regret is by using numbers to taunt us. We look at our age and wonder, “How did I get here?” We feel time slipping by and wonder if we missed it on marriage, on children, on career, on health, on … name your time-bound regret. It makes sense that this would be the voice of the enemy and not the voice of God because while God is eternal, the enemy feels the rush of time. He knows that for him and all who follow him the end is coming. Eventually, he will be obliterated and Jesus wins (this is good news, folks!).

The enemy has a vested interest in convincing humans to feel that rush of time — to experience life not as heading toward the Kingdom but of slipping away and being lost. In the practical outworking of your life and thinking, the enemy of your soul wants you to deny the power and promise of eternal life. Toward that end, he will feed your anxiety over all you’ve “lost” by inviting you to give full expression to your doubts in a hopeful and endless future.

Listen: The antidote to regret is to remember it has not all passed us by. To the contrary, we just got started. We who follow Jesus have endless opportunities before us. If you want to stifle the voice of regret in your life, start practicing hope in an endless and joyful future, most of which will be lived out in the unhindered presence of Pure Love.

Don’t give in to shoulds and oughts. Naming possibilities is not always a bad thing. When we’re making big decisions, it is wise to pray through the possibilities to discern which options are most viable. What will lead us to God’s best? That question takes us down a very different path than regret. It feeds possibilities, not “shoulds” and “oughts.” Allowing the tyranny of “shoulds” and “oughts” to breed guilt for all we didn’t choose, or ought to choose (but don’t) will only breed regret, insecurity, fear and frustration.

Consider this: You are doing exactly what you’re capable of doing right now. If you could do more, you would. I’m not speaking to the sins in your life (because you can do better than drinking yourself to death, my friend). I’m talking about your honest efforts at parenting/working/living. You may not be happy about your pace/progress/proficiency — there may be room for growth in any of those areas — but given your reality, you’re doing what you can and God is aware of that fact. You can stop feeling guilty for not being perfect. Isn’t that a glorious freedom?

Consider the possibility that the best you can do is good enough. What we have is what we actually have, and what we choose is what we are capable of choosing. To the extent that we live under the illusion that we have access to some other reality or to an ideal we are being denied, we will live with regret and never embrace what we actually have or better yet, what God can make of it.

Let me say again that this doesn’t mean that our bad choices and sins are the best we can do. We’re all about sanctification — going on to perfection. What I’m saying is that the best way to make progress is not by passively regretting all the opportunities we missed or fretting about worst-case scenarios.

This life is not all one big test. Jesus told us he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. That promise was not predicated on getting every choice perfectly right. That promise was and is predicated on grace. Jesus came to cover the gap between the best we can do and God’s best for us. His purpose for us is love, joy, peace and all the other signs of the Spirit. His desire for us is freedom from guilt, shame, and sin.

Which is all to say that God is not some cosmic hall monitor in the sky, taking names and handing them over to the demons that make us unhappy. God is not there to punish but to save and set free (he said so himself). God loves you. God desires greatness for you. And God is capable of taking the best you can do and making it beautiful.

My friends, please don’t feed the demon of regret. Conquer it, and then give yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord of Life and the Prince of Peace.

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Stop listening to the demon of regret (part one).

FoMO is a social media-induced acronym that popped up a few years ago. A Time article defines FoMO (fear of missing out) as ‘‘the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.’’ Social media has amped up this anxiety disorder by giving us constant exposure to everyone else’s “best life now.” We become anxious by reading everyone else’s awesomeness. We give in to the fear that somehow we’ve missed it (or will) if we don’t get on the stick.

FoMO is a more recent label for an ancient soul-sickness: regret. Regret cultivates a perspective that views our current reality or history from a disappointed place. Or worse, it distorts our view of the future, so that as we gaze down the road we are already disappointed or fearful of being disappointed before we even step out. That way of thinking depends on believing other options or better options exist, when in fact they don’t. Do you see how damaging that is? I’m not talking about a fatalistic worldview that prescribes a life out of our control. I’m talking about a mindset that frustrates us by constantly churning up options we never had access to in the first place. I’m talking about a mindset that makes the best we could do not good enough. And that makes us feel like victims.

In a Psychology Today article, the author writes,

The truth is, there’s no reality existing somewhere else that says, “Darn, you’re not going to get to join us over here in the happy life, where you could have ended up if you had made the right choice and picked the other path.” That other, imagined happy life is and has always been just a thought. The particular reality that would have come, had we made the other choice, never was and never will be our reality. 

Can you hear how the mindset of regret can steal our peace by casting illusions, then making us believe we missed them? The fear of missing out is not of God, and the demon of regret is just that … a demon. Its sole purpose is discontent. It makes its living by speaking empty possibilities into our minds that don’t actually exist in reality, to paralyze us or at least keep us in a discontented space. This demon uses the tactic of comparison to distort what is real by comparing reality with something that doesn’t exist. Worse still, it creates a victim mentality by convincing us that circumstances beyond our control have stolen our ideal. It keeps us from owning our choices and embracing them, not as our plan B but as the reality we live in — a reality that a good and creative God can still make the most of.

Listen: When we fail to own our choices and live them out positively in partnership with the Holy Spirit, we not only miss out on the illusions we conjure up, but also on seeing God make the most of our reality.

And as I think of all the ways regret can steal my joy, here’s what really breaks me: Regret keeps me from giving my whole heart. To the extent that I live with regret or the fear of it, I will hold my heart and my hopes out for an imaginary “better.” I will  externalize my discontent (“I never got what I deserve.”), feed my self-pity, and cause folks around me to also feel the frustration of never quite measuring up (after all, they live inside my world of regret).

The demon of regret has one goal: to get me to hold back from wholehearted love, surrender, devotion, commitment. And that’s why I’m convinced that a pattern of regret is not of God. It is a mindset that needs healing. If you find yourself wasting mental energy on the things that could have been, or on the better choices you could have made but didn’t (keep in mind that I’m not talking about willful sin here, but about your honest, best, if imperfect efforts), or on all the reasons this path you’re on is unsatisfying, I want to encourage you to consider that maybe you’re feeding into a demon intent on your discouragement. Journal your thoughts. Seek God’s healing. Ask him to open your mind to possibilities over regrets. Confess regret as a brokenness you’re living out of and ask God to transform your mind. Ask him to help you own your reality, so you can stop living in regret over your past or your future.

Regret is a lie. Meanwhile, the most creative Being in the universe stands ready to offer you an abundant life that doesn’t depend on your circumstances, but on His presence in the midst of them.

In the next post, we will look at three common areas where we tend to let regret have a voice in our lives.

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Is this a test or a temptation?

In seasons like this (political, social, racial, denominational … you name it), it is easy to get confused about who is responsible for our personal and corporate pain. Our tendency is to externalize. “This is their problem. If they would straighten up, we would be fine. ”

Of course, not everything that happens to us is everyone else’s fault, even if we’d like to say so. And not everything is the fault of the enemy of our soul. I’ve ranted before about that awful line: “Everything happens for a reason.” Sure. Everything does happen for a reason, but some reasons stink. Racism stinks. Cancer stinks. Financial crises stink. Some things just are — because of human fallenness or my own bad choices or a myriad of factors that may or may not have anything to do with God’s best.

And then there are things that are actually initiated in the spiritual realm. Some hard things come to us from God and other things from the enemy of our soul. Depending on their source, they are designed to either build us up or tear us down.

How can we tell the difference? When we’re in the midst of a difficult season, it can be unnerving. We’re prone to “think” with our emotions (which don’t actually think), rather than our spirit or mind. It is too easy to react rather than respond.

Wouldn’t it be worth it to learn a little about the difference between a test and a temptation so that next time a bump surfaces in the road, you’re better able to diagnose and negotiate it?  Here are a few differences I can think of:

Satan tempts. God tests. That may be oversimplifying it a bit. God can do what God wants to do, so I don’t want to limit him. But my experience is that because God deals in truth, he’s not in the habit of setting us up to fail.

Tests refine faith. Temptations destroy faith. God will never place anything in your life or mine meant to tear our faith down (after all, he is the one who gave it to us; he wants us to have and enjoy strong faith). The enemy, on the other hand, will never do anything to build our faith up. At least, not our faith in God. The enemy of our soul doesn’t care what we believe in, so long as it isn’t God.

Tests reveal graces. Temptations reveal sinfulness. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul teaches, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” In other words, God will always provide the grace to walk through a test. He wants to see us succeed. Satan only provides dead-ends and wants to see us fail.

Tests set us up to succeed. Temptations set us up to fail. If you’ve ever dealt with an addiction and tried to recover, you get this. Every temptation is an opportunity to relapse. A test, by contrast, is an opportunity to move forward. Tests release creativity. They inspire us to something more than we thought we could be. Temptations release frustration and when we give in, they make us feel like failures.

Tests prove strength. Temptations prove weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul is describing his conversation with God in the midst of a test, and God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say that it is when he is weak that he is actually strongest. When we rely on God to pull us through, we’re strengthened by his strength.

A test will often prove whether or not we can withstand the weight of God’s call. This was the reason for the test of Abraham and Isaac (see Genesis 22). It was to see if they were able to stand up to the weight of God’s call. It was the last hurdle before God unleashed an incredible vision into Abraham’s life. God doesn’t test us just for fun. He isn’t playing with us. He isn’t against us; he is for us. He tests us to see if we’re ready to move on to greater spiritual effectiveness.

So how do we master both tests and temptations? The answer is faith. Which seems way too simplistic, but that is the key. What Abraham instilled into the people of God is a quality of faith that is God-focused, not people-focused. Mature faith is our inheritance and birthright as children in the spiritual line of Abraham.

Mature faith leads us to better responses. Whether I caused it, God caused it, or satan caused it, a holy response will lead me closer to God and closer to my created design. Whether test or temptation, we lay it up on the altar of God and let him tell us whether it is to be destroyed or redeemed.

Here’s the thing: This thing (whether its racial, political, denominational … whatever) isn’t only valuable because of where it came from. Ultimately, it is about your response. Its usefulness to the Kingdom of God is determined by your response.

What if God wants to use this very thing to channel his glory through you? And all he is asking from you is faith enough to stay with him while he works?

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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 am always 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 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 2019, 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).

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 2019, may you have courage to stop being who you were so you can become all God intends you to be.

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Wesley’s Christmas Question: Have you faith in Christ?

(Today’s post is excerpted from The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit.)

Have you faith in Christ?

Well, do you?

What a bold question! This was the first question John Wesley asked of all ordinands in the early Methodist movement. It is an especially bold introductory question when you consider that his nineteen questions for those planning to give themselves to vocational ministry were designed as gatekeepers for potential preachers. Even with leaders in the movement, Wesley began with the most fundamental question of salvation: Have you faith in Christ?

I suspect Wesley knew human nature. He knew that even the best among us can fake it in ministry and do a lot of damage in the process. As much as we’d like to trust that every person who expresses a call to ministry is full of faith and passion for Jesus, experience tells us there are far too many stories of burned out pastors drowning in crises of their own making years into their ministry. Faith in Christ is not a “gimme” for men and women who preach it; and without it, ministry is nothing more than clanging cymbals or a noisy gong.

Read the question again: Have you faith in Christ?

There are two operative words here: faith and Christ. Let’s look closely at both of these.

Faith

Faith is not the absence of doubt; it is the presence of trust. Faith says that whether or not I understand all the details, whether or not I can comprehend all the theology, I will begin to follow and let assurance come as it will. In that way, faith is self-giving. It is an expression of love toward the object of my faith that takes me beyond myself.

Faith binds us. The story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac is known in Judaism as the Akedah, a Hebrew word that means “binding.” The word comes from Abraham’s act of binding Isaac before placing him on the altar. There is an immense display of trust and obedience in this scene. A man goes beyond reason and lays down on an altar what he loves most, while a son trusts his father beyond what he can see. This is the essence of faith. It is a different kind of knowing. Some things only make sense if the path from A to B comes off the page and makes contact with the character of God. If this is true, it means there is another dimension of seeing that makes our world make sense. I want to call that dimension the dimension of faith, and I believe it is a higher form of knowing.

In Christ

But of course, Wesley is not asking us to have a generic faith with no concern for its target. “Have you faith in Christ?” he asks. This is the mark of a Methodist: Faith is the life of Christ living itself out in me. To trust in Christ is to believe who he himself claimed to be: the way, the truth and the life. He claimed to be the singular path to the heart of the Father and did not give us another option. To be Methodist is to believe in Jesus as redeemer of the world. Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, gave up His place as God to become a man and lived a sinless human life. He was and is all God, all human, fulfilling hundreds of prophecies written hundreds of years before he came. Isaiah 53 says it was the will of the Lord to crush him. Isaiah 61 tells us the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and to open the prisons of those who are bound. As Isaiah prophesied, Jesus healed sick people, gave sight to blind people, raised a few dead people, and fed a lot of hungry people.

Jesus ate with sinners. United Methodists were the first ones to add that line to the liturgy of our Eucharist. It matters to us that Jesus was that kind of Messiah. He lived a thoroughly compassionate life and the whole time, he talked about the Kingdom of God and about how in the Kingdom we are forgiven our sins and made holy. Then Jesus became the sinless sacrifice that makes us holy. Because he’d lived this sinless life, he became what they called in the Old Testament system of sacrifices a spotless lamb. Jesus gave himself to this. He allowed a group of men who were against everything he stood for to arrest him. They accused him of blasphemy because he claimed to be God.

Have you faith in that Christ?

Tweaking or transformation

In the world of meth users, tweaking is a thing. That’s the term users use for the frantic and compulsive behaviors that tend to surface when you’re strung out on meth. Tweaking is obsession with an activity — any activity — like cleaning or searching through drawers or picking the skin off your face or cleaning tools in a toolbox. A user will become obsessed with making some thing perfect, which is insane since even if he gets it perfect he is still a meth addict.

We all tweak, often as a way of avoiding big projects. My house never gets so clean as when I have a writing project to finish. Maybe you can relate.

It makes me think of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well, the one who tried to press him into a discussion about where real worship happens. “On this mountain or that one?” she asked, to which he replied (in effect), “I’m not sure it matters for you. Until you deal with the fact that you’ve been married five times and are living with a guy now, what’s it matter where worship happens?”

That was one of those days Jesus answered a question with a question.

And I can hear him now, in a season frantic with to-do lists that leaves us  exhausted on this side of it. “What does it matter if the food was perfectly prepared or the gifts were perfectly wrapped, if your heart is not abandoned fully and exclusively to Christ?” What does it matter how we presented ourselves if our hearts weren’t generous toward others?

In other words, until you have faith in Christ, everything else is tweaking.

Have you faith in Christ? Because your answer to that question matters long before you answer any others.

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Ten 21st-century sins (and one remedy)

The funny thing about sin is how it can lure us into thinking ours isn’t so bad. Most of us who sit in church have mastered the big ones. Not all of us, obviously, but most of us don’t smoke, chew or dance with the girls who do (as we say in the South). We grew out of getting drunk. We don’t kill or steal.

What, then, are the sins of our generation?  The quiet, insidious ones that sneak up on us and steal our joy? Here are ten thoughts to challenge your ideas about sin and your place in this fallen world:

1. Entitlement. Another generation might have called it greed. One of my friends wisely noted that a sense of entitlement actually disables our ability to connect with others, perhaps because it fosters a spirit of competition (which kills community). We condition ourselves to weigh everything and everyone against some unattainable ideal or against what we think we deserve. I deserve what you have or I deserve more or you deserve less.

2. Fear. Related to this one is shame and unforgiveness, both of which are generated out of a spirit of fear. Shame is “in” these days (google it), so we’re finally calling out this base emotion that keeps us trapped in immaturity. It refuses to acknowledge that the One who lives in me is greater than the one who lives in the world. It also causes me to practice a self-protective posture. A self-protective (read “fearful”) crouch is fundamentally opposed to the personality of Jesus.

3. Jealousy. One of my Facebook friends also mentioned “professional jealousy,” which is an insightful twist on a very biblical sin (“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” – James 4:1). We wouldn’t think as adults of voicing our jealousy over a friend’s car, raise, or more functional spouse. But we won’t think twice about subtly sabotaging successful co-workers. Subtlety in this context is another term for passive aggression, which I personally consider to be among the most evil of community-destroying behaviors.

4. Anonymous anger. Yet another version of passive aggression, this one often manifests itself online (an addiction to being online gets an honorable mention here as a valid 21st-century sin). The heart beneath anonymous anger — the kind that shows up in traffic, in the comment sections of news sites, in gossip, in tweets about people we don’t personally know — reveals a lack of compassion. This is a heart sickness that comes back to bite us. Paul says as much. “If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).

5. Passivity/ sloth. The other end of active anger is emotional disconnection. This one will sneak up on us from behind. Over-stimulated by so much aggressiveness and so many words, we find ourselves disappearing into binge-sessions of NCIS (preaching to myself here) or worse yet, reality TV (where we can feel better about ourselves because at least we’re not them).

6. Instant gratification. Trolling website after website, gathering pictures of stuff on our Pinterest pages, which we then become impatient to own or make. No boundaries. No patience.

7. Self-deception. One friend says this is us “trying to convince ourselves that we as individuals are more valuable than those around us.” Related to entitlement, self-deception takes us a step further down the road, adding fantasy to frustrated destiny. When we are not honest with ourselves, that gap between who we are and who we want to be is a breeding ground for frustration.

8. Objectification. Clumping people into piles then slapping broad labels on them, we learn to treat people who aren’t like us as if they have nothing to teach us. That includes those who live in other political camps and even those who live in other sin camps. But what if the people who are least like us are actually doorways into the Kingdom?

9. Narcissism. The friend who voted this one onto the list specifically mentioned selfies, which seem innocent (and probably are) until the accumulation of them begins to make us believe that we are the center of our universe around which everyone else is circling, hitting the “like” button as they pass by.

10. Pride. The deep root out of which all our contemporary sins sprout turns out to be the oldest sin in the Book. As a sin, pride never seems to go out of style. Oddly, its bedfellow is self-hatred. Pride and self-hatred are two sides of the same coin. It is us, like the proverbial “man behind the curtain,” doing our best to make ourselves appear more powerful than we are so we won’t be labeled worthless, which is what we actually believe.

Which of these is your personal battle?

Choose your sin, and the remedy is the same: humility. Or Jesus, whose primary personality trait is humility. It is the willingness to get outside ourselves, to get over ourselves, to believe in something bigger than ourselves. To place our time and emphasis on loving God and loving others rather than protecting self.

Humility. An old remedy for what ends up being the oldest (only?) sin … pride.

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