Is there anything left to be done (or are we sunk)?

I am not a victim.

There are plenty of things in this world I can control. Whether I want to admit it or not, I can make all kinds of things happen that will improve my life. I can will myself to exercise, diet, save money, do Bible study. Heck, I can even make myself cook every day if I want it badly enough (clearly, I don’t).

There are things I can will into existence and things I can’t. There are character flaws, sinful inclinations, health issues and broken relationships I cannot control no matter how hard I try.

In fact, sometimes trying seems to make it worse.

Followers of Jesus discovered this principle in a marketplace one day when they were asked to heal a woman’s child. They tried all the techniques shown them by Jesus himself. They put their faith on the line and called on God to act.

Nothing happened.

Try as they might, they got only frustration. Then Jesus showed up and with a gesture, accomplished the healing. Later in a private conversation, they asked him why they couldn’t make this thing happen. Jesus said, “Some things only come out by prayer and fasting.”

But they had prayed. Clearly, calling on God to heal someone is prayer, right? What did fasting add that prayer didn’t?

Fasting is the deep water of the spiritual life. There is a mystery to it that defies definition. There is a discipline to it, also. Nothing will cut through our impure motives and unhealthy agendas quicker than this spiritual discipline.

What makes fasting so effective?

Bill Bright, the man who founded Campus Crusade for Christ, says fasting is “a biblical way to truly humble yourself in the sight of God (Psalm 35:13; Ezra 8:21).” King David said, “I humble myself through fasting.” Not a prophet or king, Nehemiah was an average guy who loved the Lord and loved his people. When he heard that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed, he was crushed. He sat down and wept and for days he mourned, fasted, and prayed to God. He repented on behalf of a nation. It was a wake-up call for him. His people had allowed their inheritance to slip through their fingers.

In that season of fasting and prayer, Nehemiah gained a vision for rebuilding the walls, a vision that rode in on the wind of humility.

Fasting humbles us. It is an act of obedience. It is proof that discipline matters to God.

Bright says fasting “enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.” And as we begin to cut through the agendas and see truth more clearly and as we honestly begin to repent of unconfessed sin, we experience more blessings from God.

Fasting will transform your prayer life. But let me state the obvious: fasting is tough.

No healthy person likes missing a meal (in fact, if you’re someone who misses a lot of meals due to unhealthy body image issues, you probably shouldn’t fast). Combine that with the fact that fasting will put you in touch with your truest motives and it is no wonder we avoid it so religiously (pun intended).

The fact is, nine out of ten of my motives stink and painful as it can be, fasting and prayer together help me face up to that fact in a way that opens me to a higher knowing. When my motives are more pure, my worship of God is more real and my prayers are more effective. No wonder the enemy of our souls would rather we find a reason not to fast. It keeps us from wholeheartedness, which is the whole point of sanctification.

What if now is the time for all United Methodists around the globe to fast and pray? Not waiting until 2019, when the big meetings happen … but now? What if, as Maxie Dunnam says, there are some things God cannot do or will not do until or unless we pray? Spiritual fathers through the ages assure us that God honors this kind of sacrifice. What if prayer is the best offense we have as we move into these intense days of discernment about our best next step?

What if fasting is how our tribe moves from spiritual sloth to a great awakening? Fasting and prayer are not about forcing God’s hand but finding where he is at work so we can join him. God said, “When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:13, 14). When a person sets aside something important to concentrate on the work of praying, they are demonstrating that they mean business, that they are seeking God with all their heart.

This is not a call to a specific day and time, but to a posture and purpose. I’m calling on those who follow Jesus to start taking him at his word. Are we hungry enough yet to see God do a new thing that we’ll miss a meal, humble ourselves and pray? Folks, this is an anxious season but we are not sunk. We will not “melt in fear” as the Israelites did over and over. We are not victims. We are people ready for revival, with access to the power that raised Lazarus from the dead. Some are tired of hearing Christians say, “All I know to do is pray.” What if that is exactly what God is waiting for? What if a torrent of prayer is not our last hope, but our best hope?

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

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The horror of giving up control (or, how I learned the gift of surrender, part two)

My last post ended with this question: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control?

To answer that question, we first have to ask ourselves what it is we want to control. In general, my suspicion is that we want to control it all (or at least everything we can get away with). Our natural inclination (the state of human fallenness) is to “medicate” fear with control, so we exercise control:

  • with our children, our spouses, our employees, employers, the guy in the line in front of us at Kroger. We want to control people.
  • in our circumstances. We’re conditioned by our anxieties to want to be on top of everything. That way, bad stuff can’t sneak up on us.
  • with God. What we do with people and circumstances, we think we can do with God. We may not say it this way, but secretly we want to control God. That’s what bargaining is. “God, if you’ll pay this bill/ fix this relationship/ get me a better job … I’ll do better by you. I will never do this thing this way again.” That’s a control tactic.

Basically, we want to control everything, and we try with both our emotions and with our behavior. We’ve learned by conditioning how to let people know what we want with nonverbal cues — the silent treatment, lack of eye contact, the hug you lean away from. And sometimes we skip the emotional on-ramp and impose control with less passive and more aggressive in the mix. We yell. We praise. We reward and punish. We manipulate to control the ways others respond.

Unhealthy control is me trying to control your behavior. And just so we are clear, this is not our redeemed nature but our fallen nature at work. Why do we habitually act like this? I can think of a few reasons why we work so hard to take control of people, circumstances and the universe in general:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Things we are afraid of
  • Things that make us nervous
  • Worry
  • We believe lies the enemy tells us
  • And did I mention fear?

Did you catch a pattern there? I’ll give you a hint: fear. Fear is a devil that convinces us we can control stuff, when the reality is that we can control much less than we’d like to think. The spirit of fear opposes the things of God, because fear and anxiety are rooted in distrust and ultimately lead us to distrust God himself. The antidote to anxiety is surrender rooted in trust (and not just any trust, but trust in God). 

The basic lesson of recovery is that the only thing we actually can control is ourselves and interestingly, every biblical prescription for control is about self-control. In other words, the only things the Bible tells us we can control (and even should control) are focused on our own behavior. Things like:

  • Our thoughts. Paul teaches us to take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5), recognizing that it isn’t what goes into our minds that is the problem, but what we do with those thoughts once they get there.
  • Our bodies. Romans 12:1 tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. This means surrendering our bodies to the care and control of a holy God.
  • The pace of our decisions. Jesus teaches us to count the cost before we build the house (Luke 14:28). In other words, make fewer knee-jerk, fear-based decisions and more prayerful ones.
  • Our finances. Jesus tells us store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Mt. 6:20). In other words, spend with eternity in mind.
  • Our passions. James talks about the fights and battles within us that come from our unbridled passions (James 4:1).
  • Our emotions. Paul tells us to be angry but do not sin. (Ephesians 4;26).

While unhealthy control is manipulation of others, healthy control is about surrendering myself to the discipline of Christ. Healthy control is called self-discipline. It is about the self-limiting behaviors that send us toward our created design. Healthy control leads to freedom. When we choose surrender over control we discover what is most important. We will deal with our trust issues. We will be messier and be okay with it. We will experience spiritual freedom because real freedom is in surrender.

So let me ask again: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control? Pick something. One thing. You don’t have to pick everything you’re wound up about. Just pick something you’re trying too hard at and lay it out there for Jesus. Think of something that makes you anxious, something you’re living with right now that is a cause for anxiety. What thing has a “but first” in front it? I’ll do this thing for Jesus … but first … Pick that, and take it to God in prayer. Say to him, “All I can see right now is this anxious thing but what I want to see is your glory, Lord, so in this situation, please get me past my fear and expose your glory.”

There is such freedom in surrender to God’s more perfect will. Give yourself to it, and it will transform you.

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Sanctification: Exegeting My Self

It is not what the pastor is out there doing that counts, but what Christ is doing through the pastor.Steve Seamands

The most challenging part of ministry for me — as I assume it is for many other pastors — is that tension that exists between a demanding ministry and the need for personal spiritual health. As an extrovert who is driven by new ideas and fresh challenges, I struggle to “be still and know that he is God” (Psalm 46:10). I struggle to sift through multiple good ideas to set priorities. In the natural, I prefer a crowded life to a focused life. As a spiritual entrepreneur with a natural desire to start new things, I prefer to generate new ministries rather than develop existing ones.

What motivates me is both blessing and curse. I can accomplish a lot, but at what spiritual cost?

As a pastor, ministry leader or faithful Christian, what motivates you? Before anything is accomplished through you, what has been accomplished within you?

Transformational ministry begins with a right heart but for too many of us, the motives that move us are less than mature. Consider these symptoms as you perform a little honest self-exegesis. Are you personally challenged by:

  • over-compensating for incompetency
  • fear of failure
  • pressure from others
  • unexplained/ unexplored compulsions
  • competitiveness (preaching to myself here)
  • arrogance
  • an inability to self-limit
  • feelings of powerlessness
  • an immature knowledge of what Kingdom advancement requires
  • productivity sheerly for productivity’s sake

Peter Scazzero writes about the havoc wreaked “when we become so preoccupied with achieving objectives that we are unwilling or unable to listen to others and create an unsustainable pace for those serving with us. The shadow motivation might be a desperate need to receive praise from others for our work …”

I’m exposed by Scazzero’s insight. Laid bare. Lord, have mercy.

If immature and unhealthy motives are the sickness, then what is the cure? Sanctification is the work of confronting our impure motives and finding ways to heal them. Scazzero calls it “self-exegesis.” It is the hidden, quiet, spiritual work of examining ourselves, piece by piece (not to become self-absorbed, but to become whole), drawing out every impurity and laying it before the Holy Spirit for scrutiny and healing. It is about being still and knowing not just God but what God knows about me. It isn’t just confession, but repentance — a willingness to change toward Christ’s values and life.

How can we stimulate this spiritual work within ourselves? Seamands offers several options:

  • Seek out a liminal experience. A liminal experience begins with where we are, then breaks with our routines and comforts in order to return us to a higher level than we began. It is to cease being what was for the sake of becoming a new thing. Spending time in another culture can create a liminal experience. Retreats can have this effect. Time in a monastery works. Even a day by the water or in a forest can contribute to this result. Can you make room in this year’s calendar for at least one extended (a weekend or more) liminal experience for the sake of your own sanctification?
  • Experience contrasting views. Intentionally shifting perspective can help to develop empathy as well as create new solutions to current roadblocks. Do you expose yourself to viewpoints or lifestyles other than your own? Are you rubbing shoulders with people who live in poverty, people with disabilities, people from other walks of life? An African teaching says we are who we are because of other people. This is never more true than when we take time to learn from those least like us. Who is teaching you what God thinks, not just about people like you but about the rest of the world?
  • Fall in love. How does one called to advance the Kingdom of God bear God’s missional heart without bearing an undo burden or losing touch with the love of God? It is far too easy to bear the weight of others’ suffering and the brunt of their immaturity to the point that it hardens the heart of the giver and dulls all spiritual senses. How does one avoid that fate? Surely this is why God continually called the Israelites to circumcise their hearts (see Deuteronomy 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, for example). He’d seen them grow hard toward others, so he called for a softening toward the things that break his heart. Fall in love again, God might say to the jaded spiritual leader, in the healthiest, most spiritual sense of that phrase. Give your whole heart to someone or some people or back to God. In fact, this business of “falling in love” may be at the heart of self-exegesis for the sake of others. When is the last time you gave your whole heart to someone … to your people … to God?

I’m convinced that pursuing wholeheartedness is the work of sanctification, and also the work of the Word alive in us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart … “

The work we do as followers of Jesus — the work of seeing addicts delivered and lost people redeemed, of seeing broken people healed and lonely people embraced — is glorious but hard work. How do we do it without letting it wear us out? Without letting it harden our hearts?

Steve Seamands has asked: “Who carries the burden of ministry in your life? You, or the Holy Spirit?”

This question resonates deeply with me. Am I working off my own steam, or am I making room for encountering the Spirit, for letting Him lead? When I begin with my natural inclinations and immature motives, I develop a “thin” ministry that will not withstand real-world pressures. If I’m to avoid burn-out or a crusty heart, I must learn to self-exegete — to make room for liminal experiences, for other viewpoints, for wholehearted love. I must intentionally exegete my own soul and pursue my own sanctification. Only then will I have the stamina and wisdom to engage the world as it is, even as I work to advance the Kingdom of God.

What plan have you put in place to intentionally work out your on-going sanctification, for the sake of others? 

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The best you can do is good enough.

The Israelites did not complain. I don’t know how I missed it before but in the lengthy and detailed story of the building of the tabernacle, there is no record of complaint ever by the Israelites.

I’m not talking here about their day-to-day existence; I’m talking about when they were constructing the tent that would stand as a sign of the presence of God in their midst. The Israelites — who complained about everything; who wanted to return to Egypt and slavery so badly that they might as well have walked through the desert backward; who required a system just to hear the arguments they had with each other — do not seem to have complained at all through the entire construction of the tabernacle. The story says that when they were asked to build it, they gave out of their hearts freely, more than was needed, for the materials. And they seem to have organized amiably under the leadership of two lay persons who would direct the work. Through that whole process, they never complained, or at least no one complained enough to deserve mention.

Let me just say that again: There is no record of a complaint during the world’s first church construction project.

Talk about a miracle.

And just as noteworthy is how God and Moses received their work when it was done. Keep in mind that this was intricate, high-level craftsmanship directed by meticulous instruction and under the guidance of regular guys who had probably never built a tabernacle before. Yet, when they were done Moses’ response rates one verse (Exodus 39:43): “Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord and commanded. So Moses blessed them.” No tick list of change orders, no tweaking, no discouraged gee-I-wish-we’d-done-that-part-differently comments. Moses simply inspected it, saw they’d done their job faithfully and then blessed it.

This one verse is bigger than we may realize because here’s the thing: It isn’t possible — we’ve all been in enough construction projects to know — that they did everything perfectly. The work was too meticulous (God gave instructions right down to the design of the curtain holders) and the people were just not that bright. But at the end of the day, according to how the story is told, the best they could do was good enough. In other words, obedience trumps perfectionism. Every time.

After Moses blessed the work, God filled the tabernacle and completed it with his Presence (Exodus 40:34). This is also a profound point. Without God’s Presence, a perfect building would have been useless weight in a desert setting but with his Presence, an imperfect building became holy.

The tabernacle, then, becomes the Old Testament visual aid for being made perfect in love. God didn’t demand perfection in the details but seemed to grade on faithfulness. They did everything as the Lord commanded, the Word says, and my suspicion is that they were graded not on accuracy of detail but on the spirit of the thing. And on the spirit of it, they passed.

Which means that our call is not to perfectionism, but to perfect love. A good spirit. No judgment … just a commitment to being in community under the Lordship of a holy God.

So this month, our church begins in earnest a construction project that will take several months to complete. If God is consistent, and if he tends to act currently as he has in the past, then we will be graded in this project not on accuracy but on the spirit of the work. By that standard, I hope we pass and when we are done, I sure hope we will take the example of Moses,  accept the finished product as it is and move on to the work of leading people through deserts and into the promises of God.

In his book, The Beatitudes, Simon Tugwell writes,

God loves who we really are – whether we like it or not. God calls us, as he did Adam, to come out of hiding. No amount of spiritual make-up can render us more presentable to Him … His love which called us into existence, calls us to come out of self-hatred and to step into his truth. “Come to me now,” Jesus says. “Acknowledge and accept who I want to be for you: a Savior of boundless compassion, infinite patience, unbearable forgiveness, and love that keeps no score of wrongs. Quit projecting onto me your own feelings about yourself. At this moment, your life is a bruised reed and I will not crush it, a smoldering wick and I will not quench it. You are in a safe place.

This is a good word about a creative God who does not poke around in our souls for deficiencies. He does not look for the flaw, nor does he grade us as we do one another (or worse, ourselves). We know this because when God himself entered into the original construction project (creation), he called all of it good. There is no record of tweaking, just enjoyment of the process. And then when he was finished, he rested and that rest is proof that our Father is at peace with us, his creation. He can look at us and be at peace not because everything is perfect, but because He is perfect.

His example is our directive: Do your best, then rest in Jesus. Rest is how we demonstrate trust in the goodness of God. Rest is a willingness to trust God with the questions and to believe that the best we can do is good enough for him.

When is the last time you rested in Jesus an act of trust in God?

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How to live like Jesus is alive

I am a servant of a holy God who has actually sapped the power out of death and sin. Easter helps me remember this supreme truth, and it calls me to give myself wholly to it. 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 on 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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What you believe matters.

I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need.

I was reminded of this a while back while working out at the gym. I was on a machine watching television but without the sound on … just reading closed captioning. The story being typed onto the screen word by word was some news piece about Pope Francis. And somewhere in the story, this phrase crossed the screen: “a message from Bob.”

From the context, I could tell they meant to type, “a message from God” but God never got the credit for whatever that message was. That strikes me as significant. How many people in the world are getting their messages from “Bob” (any popular speaker/ writer/ influencer) while God goes unnoticed?

When the movie, The Passion, first came out, a big group from our church went to see it together. Afterward, we adjourned to my living room to discuss what we’d seen. In the midst of the dialogue, someone asked some kind of technical question about the way God works and a guy who happens to have been in professional ministry had this response: “Frankly, I don’t have much use for theology. I just want to know who God is and what his heart is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the point of theology?

“I don’t have much use for theology.” Really? I bet that guy would have cared about my theology if we had been worshiping cows in my living room. I bet he would have cared if we were all there to discuss the message of Bob rather than the message of God. It must be fun to sound like a renegade in a group of people talking about religion, but it can also be theologically dangerous.

What you believe matters. And this is why I hold that biblical literacy and theological grounding are the critical need today. Otherwise we won’t have the compass to discern the direction of those who seek our endorsement. Those of us who trust in Christ have a poor record of talking theologically in public, with integrity (we do it, but not well). But to have a Kingdom-shaped influence in the marketplace, as Dr. Gregg Okesson says, we must learn to talk theologically in public about issues of public interest.

Theology matters. True, it has no life without the stirring of the Holy Spirit but nothing can be said about the nature of life, God or ultimate meaning without talking theologically. Indeed, nothing of any importance can be said of sports, politics, family systems, sexuality, or buying habits unless we learn to think and talk theologically. It would be like learning to play the piano without learning music theory. Without theory, it is just notes.

Nor can we discuss with respect the differences between religions or properly respect contrasting belief systems. Without theological grounding, how do we discuss the fact that the Mormon Jesus leaves significant questions about the nature of the Trinity, or that the Muslim Jesus is respected and revered but not crucified? How do we talk about Wesley’s systemic teaching on grace or Calvin’s take on God’s sovereignty?

Without deep theological reflection, how do missionaries learn to share the whole gospel without adding a layer of cultural bondage to the top? How do pastors influence culture and change systems?

When we’ve not grounded ourselves theologically, it is remarkably easy to get drunk on tweetable lines. It becomes far too tempting to redefine Christianity based on the trajectory of culture. We ask questions like, “Who are you to decide what orthodoxy/ Wesleyanism/ holiness/ Christianity means?” As if any of those are decided by vote.

On the other hand, it is tempting to blame thinking Christians for the suppression of the Holy Spirit. Experience has made us book-shy. Far too many wanna-be pastors have marched off to seminary while their friends at home warn, “Don’t let school ruin you!”

Spiritual thinking ought not rob us of our energy for the full gospel. To the contrary, to think theologically — to reason out a very distinctive set of beliefs — is to honor the depth and glory of God. Theology trumps experience every time and leads us toward the Holy Spirit, not away from Him.

As I listen to the fodder of news shows and sort through the various discussions that surface among well-meaning people within the church and online, I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding are our critical need in this season of the Church’s life. We’re allowing pop icons and an unanchored culture to do for us what thoughtful, Spirit-inspired study should be doing. The Kingdom won’t be ushered in on tweetable lines or emotional appeals. It will come when the good news of Jesus Christ is unapologetically learned, preached and practiced in all its power.

To hell with the message of Bob. The world is starving for something more.

 

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Stay in it (part two)

I’ve been thinking about how Luke used Elizabeth to change Mary’s perspective, so take five minutes and think about it with me.

When the angel visited Mary and told her she was going to have a baby, that had to be a lonely and confusing moment. She didn’t exactly have a decision to make but how she would receive this, and how she would live into it must’ve been baffling. She’d have to choose how she would live with what she was given, and this was a girl in her teen years without much experience to draw on.

So here’s what Luke does with this story. Before he ever gets to the story of Mary and the angel, he tells the story of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary’s with a little more life experience who also gets pregnant. Her pregnancy is also somewhat miraculous, coming years after she should be able to conceive. Elizabeth is surprised by her news, too, but excited. Relieved, even.

Luke tells Elizabeth’s story of getting pregnant, then drops in Mary’s conversation with the angel and in that part of the story Mary is obviously confused — “troubled” is how Luke describes her. She’s asking questions, trying to figure out how this works. And somewhere in the conversation, the angel brings up Elizabeth, that Elizabeth is pregnant, too, and that she’s going to have a child she didn’t expect to have, either. The next sentence has Mary relieved and the sentence after that has her going to visit Elizabeth. When she gets there, this thing happens between them. It is like deep calling to deep. Elizabeth’s baby — six months old inside the womb — leaps at the presence of Mary’s baby. And in the moment, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41).

Now they are all standing there together steeping this profound knowing. If you count the Holy Spirit, there are five of them in this circle: the two little guys in the womb, the two women, and the Holy Spirit. And this is when Elizabeth draws on a prophetic knowing. She doesn’t soothe Mary’s emotional state or offer up a few hopeful platitudes. Instead, she speaks spiritually, deeply, prophetically over Mary, helping her reinterpret her experience. “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her” (Luke 1:45). Elizabeth speaks that word over a very confused young woman and the very next sentence has Mary singing praise, like it all makes sense to her now. Her song and this scene end with this: “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home” (Luke 1:56).

Elizabeth’s prophetic voice, the profound knowing of John and Jesus, and the presence of the Holy Spirit all combine to create an atmosphere ripe for transformation. So here’s my question: What if Luke wrapped Elizabeth’ story around Mary’s story to show us how spiritual conversation and close community brought Mary’s heart into the call of God? Think about it: The angel is the one who gave her the news, but it was another human with whom she could identify who made it good news. And it was the Holy Spirit who ignited that conversation and gave power and binding to all those relationships.

This is the bond that held together a woman’s call and gave Mary courage to birth into the world its Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, with disciples who followed him in messy, faithful, passionate style. When Mary found the combination of circumstances that allowed her to step into God’s purposes with passion, she chose to stay in it, to steep in it. And what Mary did at the beginning of Luke is exactly what Jesus prescribed for his followers at the end of Luke. In Luke 24:49, his followers are told by the resurrected Christ to “stay in the city” until they’ve been clothed with power from on high. The word stay draws a straight line from chapter 1 to chapter 24.

Here’s the secret: It is the staying power of the Holy Spirit.

“Stay here,” the disciples are told, “until you receive power,” because without that power you will fall headlong into disappointment. And so they stayed. They stayed while Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit descended, and then they were shot out into the world to prepare it for the second coming of Christ, not to help people escape from the world but to give them a transformed worldview rooted in the phenomenon of Jesus. Without the wind of the Spirit at their backs, those first followers of Jesus would not have had the momentum to share the good news with a waiting world.

The Holy Spirit makes the rest of the story of God make sense. He makes my story make sense. He reveals truth and makes it accessible to those who pursue it. He ignites the spiritual fires. He gives the process of spiritual formation its power. And I’m convinced that without the power of the Holy Spirit, any attempt at ministry is frustrating at best and possibly even detrimental to the cause of the Kingdom.

So be filled. Now. Here. Ask, Luke tells us, and believe when you stand up from this place that God has filled you with his Holy Spirit because God wants this for you. And then walk in that authority and do the work to which you’re called so we can all go home.

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This is a game-changer.

Let the trail of these ideas lead you to a challenge worth taking seriously.

Start with these three ideas from Wayne Cordeiro (New Hope Church, Hawaii):

1. 80% of what you do every day could be done by anyone.
2. 15% of what you do every day could be done by someone else with a little coaching.
3. 5% of what you do is stuff only you can do. How you spend that 5% matters.

Then consider these four stats from a LifeWay study:

4. 1 in 5 Americans – 20% – has read through the Bible once.
5. 39% – a little more than a third – of church-going Christians read the Bible regularly.
6. The number one indicator of spiritual growth is a habit of daily Bible reading.
7. People who attend a small group are twice as likely to read their Bible daily.

Put those three ideas together with those four stats and consider your next move:

8. Bible reading is not in the 80% or even in the 15%. No one else can read the Bible for you and create spiritual growth in your life.
9. A choice to read your Bible daily will do more than just about anything else to create the conditions for spiritual growth in your life.
10. If enough Christians made that choice, and enough Americans made that choice, think about the impact that could have on the Church and our country. If you are concerned about the direction of our country, the spiritual atmosphere of your home or your personal spiritual health, then start with your own habit of Bible reading.

That’s the 5% you control, that no one else can. And this habit is a game-changer. If you want to get started with a Bible reading plan, download YouVersion (it may show up as a Life.Church app with a “Holy Bible” icon). Search for the Life Journal reading plan or the First Steps reading plan. I recommend either one. If you get stuck, send a comment and I’ll help.

Let the trail of these ideas lead you to a habit that could change the spiritual atmosphere.

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Six ways to breed sanity into your life

That strain we feel — like we’re walking against the tide — has an explanation. We are all trying to get back to the other side of Genesis 3. We are all straining toward our created design.

On the other side of the fall line, relationships are transparent, we serve one another well, and dysfunction is not even in the vocabulary. So we will recognize that glorious world when we get to it, what if we were to practice a little Genesis 2 living now?

Here are a few ideas:

Stop being polite.

If you want to release some sanity into your life (and into the lives of those around you), stop being polite and start speaking from a deeper place of love and prophetic imagination. As southern as I am, I’m pretty convinced that southern politeness is not a feature of holy living. I’m not talking about common courtesy, or even the kind of patience that endures rude people in a store. I’m talking about the difference between the kind of politeness that works against deep love. Deep love will always lead us toward truth; southern politeness will often lead us away from it.

When we learn to be both gracious and honest with one another, we stifle the enemy’s options for control. When we learn to speak prophetically into each other’s lives (honestly, hopefully, spiritually), we release the Holy Spirit to move and create both transformation and trust. Surely this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whatever you release on earth will be released in heaven …”

Don’t tolerate crazy.

Think about how it would impact your relationships if you refused to keep tolerating other people’s crazy. You’d stop letting people cancel on you at the last minute. You’d have no tolerance at all for passive aggression (which I believe is straight from the enemy of our soul). You’d expect people to honor your time as you honor theirs. You wouldn’t let folks chronically complain about situations without challenging them to move forward. And when others are letting “crazy” make their decisions, you wouldn’t let southern politeness rob them of your deep concern for them. Doesn’t that sound like a much more sane way to live?

Hear me on this: Care what happens to other people. Care deeply. Let your heart be broken for other people. But don’t tolerate crazy. Genuine, mature compassion will always cause us to care enough about a person’s sin that we’re motivated not to let them stay there. Love without accountability is a socially accepted form of abuse that malforms people spiritually.

Stop making excuses.

Paul the Apostle announced more than once that he was focused on the future. He’d say, “Forgetting what is behind (I strain) toward what is ahead …” That is a great mental posture to take toward life. “Forgetting what lies behind” is refusing regret a voice in our life. “Straining toward what is ahead” is putting processes in place that allow room for new habits. Straining toward what is ahead is deciding that what we thought was inconceivable is actually doable so we set goals, then we get accountability so we can stay with those goals.

Accountability is committing to transformation. After all, Jesus didn’t come into his ministry saying, “Talk about your junk and believe, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” He said, “Repent and believe.” In other words, own your junk and move on.

Decide not to be lazy. 

I don’t know who said it first, but I like this: “Discipline is choosing between what I want now and what I want most.” The answer to that inner wrestling between what we want now and what we want most is best answered with discipline. As Kevin Watson says, “Some things need to be predictable.” If what I want most requires a change in my life and a commitment to daily discipline, then I have some choices to make and the first choice may be to stop being lazy.

Stop having good ideas.

Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions, so here’s my wisdom for myself and anyone else who fits this category: stop chasing good ideas and start pursuing disciplines. Disciplines keep us from distractions that aren’t meant for us, while chasing every good idea will only keep us in mental chaos and rob us of rest.

Get yourself an external hard drive.

If you want to breed more sanity into your life, find someone who will speak prophetically (which means, “honestly, hopefully, and spiritually”) into your life. To grow spiritually, you need someone external to yourself who will not be polite, who will not tolerate your crazy, who will not ignore your lazy, who will challenge your bottomless capacity for good ideas, and who will tell you what is sane and moral and biblical.

So here’s the real point to this whole post: To breed sanity is to be disciplined, and to be disciplined is to be in community. My friends, this is how we get back to the other side of Genesis 3. We learn to lean into each other in community and we get serious about serving one other from a loving, honest, holy place.

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Jesus is a friend.

December was a hard month and its effect continues to creep into my days and the days of many I love. We lost a friend, so we are all learning together — again — that grief is exhausting. Complicated. Soul-stretching.

I have learned that in the midst of loss, Jesus is often the one friend wise enough to simply be present without comment. Although, I have to say I wish he’d speak up a bit more. Some days, it frustrates me, his quietness. I interpret it as rejection because I am a broken person desperate for someone to fix my pain, to clear the fog, to say something in 280 characters or less that will make all the rest of it make sense. But no matter how much I beg, manipulate or argue, Jesus keeps his posture — quiet, but solidly present. A faithful friend. Which, of course, is what I need most even when I don’t know it.

Years ago, another friend of mine lost her husband. They met in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and became followers of Jesus. I never got the sense Christian life was easy for them; it was so different from what they’d lived for so long. When you’ve lived a lifetime trying to fill an emptiness with alcohol, all your relationships incubated in the petri dish of addiction, it is reasonable to wonder if Jesus is just another way to be disappointed.

But hard as it was, my friend and her husband discovered Jesus was the one thing that worked. He saved them from self-destruction and fed them a kind of healing nothing else had been able to offer. He was the only one patient enough, kind enough, to hang in through the valleys to the feasts on the other side. And Jesus was the one who taught them to be friends with each other. When my friend’s husband became ill, they leaned on Jesus together and discovered he was enough. Just days before he died, my friend’s husband, laying on his deathbed, turned to her and said, “You know, it really is true: what a friend we have in Jesus.”

Yes, and amen. Surely it is no coincidence that it was precisely in his death that Jesus taught us some of the more profound lessons in friendship. Among his final words to his followers were these: “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends” (John 15:15). And then he picked up the cross and pointed it at all humanity — like a kid on a playground choosing his team — inviting all who would choose him in return to become his friends.

Not servants, but friends.

Christ’s friendship is an act of grace. Brian Edgar, in his book God is Friendship, writes, “It is a profound, unexpected, gracious and powerful promise” (p. 28). It is richer than servanthood, beyond what we can earn. The friendship of Jesus offers the joy of intimate presence, one to another, deep calling to deep. It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief without words — unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me.

But I’m a pastor. Subtlely and not so subtlely, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ (this may be especially true of itinerating pastors). Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Maybe both things are true. Maybe there is a place in healthy leadership for giving our hearts to those in our communities.

Perhaps it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry.  

Indeed, that also has been part of my grief — that I haven’t learned sooner how to be a better friend to those who have chosen to live in community with me and to do so as an act of ministry in the best sense of that term. As Edgar says, “Christian friendship is to be transformative. It is a loving ministry that transforms us into the image of our friend Jesus, and enables us to be friends and reflectors of Christ’s character to others” (p. 172).

As he so faithfully does, God is redeeming this season by teaching me things I could learn no other way.  He is revealing the power and beauty of friendship as he offers me his whole heart and proves himself a faithful friend. And he is modeling the kind of friend I can also become, so that in the valley of shadows there is beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning.

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