This year: Migrate from “Why Me?” to “What now?”

Simcha Bunim was a Jewish rabbi who lived in Poland in the 1700s. He is best known for what might be called the parable of the two pockets.

The parable begins with two slips of paper. On one slip is written, “I am dust and ashes.” On the other slip is written, “For my sake the world was created.” These two slips of paper are meant to be carried around in two pockets.

Rabbi Bunim said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am dust and ashes.’”

The rabbi’s point was that we are at once both things. We are both sinners and saints, dust and treasure, limited but with tremendous potential, fallen but loved. And we ought to approach our goals and lives with that mind set. Christians would say we are fallen people for whom Christ died.

Dust, yes … but dust so loved by God that he gave his Son.

What if you entered into Rabbi Bunim’s exercise? Write these two statements on slips of paper, then spend time with each of them. Begin with the one with which you are less comfortable. Which of these two statements resonates with you?

Are you more of the mindset that the world was created with you at the center? Many of us live there a bit too comfortably, whether we admit it or not. We are the center of our universe. We will make sure our own interests are served and we will let pride keep us from learning the hard lessons. We are the ones who need a little more time with our dust-and-ashes reality — to understand that our value isn’t self-generated. It comes from God. And because our value comes from God, we have a certain responsibility to steward our days well, because even if we hit the ball out of the park today, we’re still going to die. Our time here is a gift, and our assurance of a life beyond this one rests not on our merits but on Christ’s.

Not all of us need more dust and ashes. Some of us have lost sight of the fact that we bear the image of God. We live in too much self-condemnation, self-hatred … self. We live self-protectively because we have not yet owned our value and strength. We short-change ourselves by low-balling our value. We who live too much in dust and ashes need to remember that we are not here simply to exist but to make a difference. For our sake the world was created. God thinks highly of us! In light of that, our challenge is to stop making excuses for why we can’t do more and decide that even if we can’t do everything, we can do something.

Let me say that again: Even if we can’t do everything, we can do something. 

This is the mindset of abundance, which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. His victory over sin and death are my assurance that I don’t do any of this on my own effort, skills or abilities. I do all of life in partnership with God, the creator of the universe, and if God is in it then anything is possible.

Which is your mindset? Dust and ashes … or abundance? Dust and ashes … or image of God? Limit, or possibility?

This is the shift I want for you this year. I want you to move from “why me” thinking to “what now” thinking. Maybe you can’t do everything you’d like but you can do something. What will it be?

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Four Questions to Gauge Your Relationship With God

“The desperate need today is not for a great number of intelligent people or gifted people, but for deep people.” – Richard Foster

The desperate need in the American Church today is for people who are fed up with the superficial, who are hungry to see the Kingdom of God come in all its glory and fullness. Are you among them?

1. Are you among the deep people?

Sherwood Eliot Wirt, author of The Inner Life of the Believer, writes, “Deep within every soul stands a meeting place, a castle, where the believer and God can commune. For some believers, the castle is filled with warmth, joy and laughter. For others, it is empty, lonely and virtually non-existent. The choice is yours: Cultivate a rich, fruitful inner life with the Lord or let it remain stagnant and barren.”

Wirt’s challenge is to go where God is, to get in line with a God who has all the power in the universe at his command. God deserves that attention precisely because he is God — bigger than everything we can see and everything we know is out there that we can’t see and everything that is there that we aren’t even sure about. He wants us — men and women — to be this close, this trusting, this much under the care and love and grace of that Presence. This is what it means to go deep.

2. Do you thirst for time alone with God?

There is a place in the book of Luke where Jesus says building a relationship with God is like building a foundation for a house. He says a good builder will dig deep and set the foundation into rock, so it can withstand storms and floods. And then he follows that little object lesson with a question, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)

It is almost a spiritual sucker punch. Jesus makes a rational point, then brings it down to our reality. Why don’t we build our relationship with him on something more solid than thin air, promises, good intentions or flat ignorance? We talk about God without talking to him (“If only God would show me what to do.” Or, “I don’t see what God is doing in my life right now and I’m so confused.” Or, “I feel like my prayers are not going any higher than the ceiling.” Or, “God just feels so distant and I feel like I don’t know who he is or who I am or how to do this Christian thing.”); meanwhile, God is right here.

(Side note: Third-person language about God is just one step removed from no-person language, which is actually called worry. First-person language is called prayer.)

Wally Armstrong, author of Practicing the Presence of Jesus, says, “The amazing truth is that Jesus is standing right beside each one of us, offering us the life-changing gift of his friendship and the promise of transformation from the inside out.” Hunger for time alone with God acknowledges his presence in a deeper, more real way, and trusts him to show up.

3. Do you use knowledge to keep you at a distance from the heart of God?

Dallas Willard defines discipleship as being with Jesus learning to be like him. It is both things. It is being with him and learning from him. Not just about him but from him. Having great theology and knowing the Bible and knowing the character of God are admirable goals (most of my work is around these very things)Å but at the end of the day, what most affects us and what is most valuable is knowing God himself. Not just knowing about him, but knowing him. Isn’t this what destroyed the Pharisees spiritually? They were unable — for their obsession with proving Jesus guilty of rule-breaking — to absorb the miracles and awaken to the supernatural presence in their midst. Can you imagine the hardness of heart that can have Jesus right there … and still miss him?

We too easily forget the intimacy to which the Father calls us, and the daily guidance he promises to give through deserts and enemy territory. Our Father longs to be present with us, longs to be Lord over us, longs to be what we need him to be.

4. Are you avoiding God’s influence in some areas of your life?

This piece of art hangs in our foyer at Mosaic. It tells our story and proclaims our theology. The circles are about community. Notice there are vines running through the circles with thorns on the vines. The thorns represent wounds, and remind us that the place for wounds is inside the church. By the time those vines reach beyond the circles, they are sprouting leaves. This is a beautiful vision of what repentance, renewal and recovery can be.

The place for wounds is inside the community. If we as a Church are going to build a new society, I believe it begins where Jesus says it begins. Repent and believe. Or in other words, bring your wounds into the community of faith.

The truth is: there is no shame in Christ. When we find the courage and conviction to speak aloud the names of our demons, we change the spiritual climate. The enemy no longer holds power over us. Avoidance is a lack of trust in the power of the cross; repentance is claiming it.

Are you swimming in the shallow end of faith, or heading into the deep? How would it change your life today if you committed to practicing the intimate, constant presence of the Father?

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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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Fetching Grace

Mephibosheth.  Sound that one out, then imagine yourself with the burden of that name hanging around the neck of your life.

Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. David found him when he went looking for a way to make good on a promise he’d made to Jonathan years before. It was a vow to honor Jonathan’s family — any time, any place. One day long into his reign as king, he goes to the palace staff and asks (2 Samuel 9:1), “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” At the question, someone remembers Mephibosheth.

His name, by the way, means “shameful thing.”

Mephibosheth had bad feet. When he was five years old, a nursemaid dropped him or let him fall and somehow his feet were damaged. So now, here is a boy named Shameful with feet that don’t allow him to play with the other kids or follow in his warrior-father’s footsteps. After his father’s death, they did with him what they often did with kids like him. They sent him off to someone willing to keep him as a servant for the cost of room and board.

So a guy named Shameful who is labeled as Lame gets shipped off to a place called Lo Debar, which means “place of no pasture,” or sometimes, “place of no word.” No word.  No blessing.  No intelligence.  No honor.  This is where Mephibosheth lived.

Then, completely out of the blue, David sent for him. The Hebrew word used here literally means something like “fetch.” Someone has called this act of David fetching grace. Don’t you love that? It reminds me of Jesus’ word to his followers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you …”

When Mephibosheth was presented to David, the king said to him, “Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father. And I will restore the land that belongs to your family.” The story ends with Mephibosheth living in Jerusalem, eating at the King’s table.

And this is the place where Jesus shows up. As I consider Mephibosheth coming to live with David, I realize there is no miraculous healing. David doesn’t hire great doctors to fix him up. Mephibosheth comes as he is, and as he is he is welcome at the table of the King.

In that scene, Jesus says to me, “You don’t have to be different than you are to sit at the table and be part of the things I have for you. We are not all sitting around waiting for you to be better, different, healed. You have been chosen as you are.”

And right here, right now, I want to thank Jesus for that word. For showing up with Mephibosheth to give me courage.

What a sweet life this life with Jesus is.

 

(This story is also part of the Encounter Jesus study, available at seedbed.com)

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

Yet another acquaintance lost his life to depression over the holidays. Such loss leaves everyone devastated on multiple levels. When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw.

Some years ago, another friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

This is how I answered that question. Maybe it will help someone who is plagued with the same or similar questions:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways, much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did, and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s profound. A great insight and spot-on. I’m glad to hear that you’re dealing with the inevitable guilt in such healthy ways.

And the guilt is inevitable. It is such a sick, sad after-effect of suicide (every suicide, I’m guessing). I sure wish those who end their lives could know just what a burden they leave the living to carry. What a sadness, for all involved. God, your sister, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I don’t have a great answer to your question but I’ve been thinking about it for the last 24 hours and praying about what is truth, since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

The first thing I know about the enemy is this: He is not creative. That is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls, who tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. There is no genius about him. Just evil, hatred and lies.

The second thing I know about the enemy is that he is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again, predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; and he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, to wreak havoc.

I also notice that the enemy of our soul works within systems (things like racism, socialism, atheism, etc.; even some forms of religion), but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. I don’t think of him as purposefully systematic (although he may stumble into systems and exploit their weak spots) or as having great forethought and strategy. For that reason, I see him as acting more individually and randomly. In the absence of a system, he uses whatever presents itself as most convenient.

What we know is this: Because he is lazy, he was clearly capitalizing on your sister’s depression by speaking lies into her spirit that magnified her sense of hopelessness or despair. He wore her down and eventually wore her out. In her pain, the enemy managed to separate your sister from the support systems that might otherwise have buffered her against his worst. He may have used co-dependence (hers or others’) to keep her from claiming her identity in Christ. Maybe he was able to keep her mired in memories that kept her broken and unhealthy.

Or maybe he just made her think (or used the depression to make her think) there was no hope.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it?

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we can’t begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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Words in Your Toaster

Some years ago, we had a toaster tragedy in our home. Our toaster sits on our kitchen counter by the refrigerator. As in lots of homes, the top of our refrigerator is like a mini attic, a place to put little things we’ll probably never use again but can’t bring ourselves to toss. For the longest time, one of the things on top of our fridge was a little boxful of magnetic words, the kind you stick on your fridge to string together fun sentences and thinly veiled comments about family members.

I guess it was an accident waiting to happen. Steve went to get something from the cabinet above the fridge one morning and down came the whole box of little magnetic words, right into the toaster below.

The metal toaster.

Do you know how hard it is to get little magnets out of metal toasters? We shook and shook. A few words fell out, but others lodged more deeply inside. I shook out words like drive and guilt and grace and manipulate and gorgeous. I noticed as I kept shaking words out that some of them would wedge up in corners where I could no longer see or get to them.

At the end of all my shaking, I could still see one word in plain view that simply wouldn’t shake loose. The word was “dust.” Until that word comes out, the whole thing is useless. Fire it up and that one little word could start a fire.

I’m talking about the toaster, of course, but maybe I’m talking about life, too.

I wonder how many people in the world have had words dropped into their lives — words like “worthless” or “lazy” or “useless” — that drastically change who they are or how they function? I suspect a lot of us live under the curse of a word wrongly dropped into our spirits. I suspect this because I meet folks like this all the time. They are forty or fifty or sixty and wonder how it is they got so off track with their lives. After enough of a conversation, I hear it. Someone somewhere dropped a word in their toaster, spoke a lie into their spirit. And now, for the presence of an angry word lodged too deeply in their soul, they’ve lost sight of who they are. Or for the lack of a blessing, for the lack of an identity or destiny spoken over their lives, they’ve been derailed.

Sometimes, those words even start fires.

I will say what is stunningly obvious:  words have power. They connect or disconnect us to our created purpose. A blessing unleashes destiny. The alternative derails us.

What word needs to be shaken out of you so you can become who you were created to be? What word can you pass along as a new year begins so someone else in your circle is set free?

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Transparency is the new black (or, why every church ought to make room for testimonies in worship)

It could be the imagination of a pastor who thinks her people are just the best but I would have to say that if there’s one thing we’ve done right at Mosaic, it is that we’ve encouraged this faith community to be brutally honest with each other. We’ve made the testimony a cornerstone of our worship experience and we’ve heard just about every possible story. Guys who pulled guns on their wives. Moms who endured the incarceration of children. Children who endured the addictions of parents.  Every conceivable addiction, including porn.

Somehow, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where you can say just about anything and even get applause for it. We don’t do this for shock value; it has been God’s call on us to model vulnerability. We see our stories as good and God-honoring gifts.

We are like children who have just discovered the outside hose on a hot day. It is a great freedom to be able to share without shame what we’re dealing with and where we’ve come from. We are learning accountability, too, because real and healthy transparency requires not just courage to say our own truth, but also to speak the truth in love to each other.

Transparency comes with a cost. For starters, it is a great way to downsize a church. People don’t naturally know how to hold grace and truth together in the same hand. When folks get honest about their lives, some head for the door. It isn’t the kind of “church” they signed up for. Often, we hear comments like, “We love what you’re doing at your church. We don’t need it, but we love what you’re doing.”

As if only some people need truth and grace.

We’ve also learned that by speaking openly about our addictions and habits, we’ve opened doors for people to come to us and become accountable for getting healed. We’ve discovered that you can’t just tell your story and sit down. Every admission is really an investment in the life of someone who will come forward when they discover they are not alone. Because this is the case, our folks are learning how to care for each other spiritually, and they are learning what “call” feels like.

I believe every worship experience should include an element of testimony, and not just the “facebook” kind where everything turns out picture-perfect at the end. It is also worshipful to stand and say, “I realize I’m not there yet but because of Jesus at least I’m not where I was.” At Mosaic, we’ve experimented with all kinds of testimonies — interviews, scripted stories, unscripted “glory sightings,” videos … whatever it takes to help our people live publicly this faith they’ve embraced.

Sometimes I invite our folks in worship to ask me, “How is it with your soul?” They do so, collectively, right then and there. And then I share with them how it is — really — with my soul. Not like the stage is a counselor’s couch, but as if my people want to hear how Jesus and I are faring together these days, and what I’m learning through scripture and prayer. After I tell them in a minute or so how my spiritual life is progressing (or not), I invite them to share with one person near them. Right then, right there … in worship. And they do it. It is beautiful to watch. We are learning how to be with each other spiritually, not just socially or emotionally. Our people also practice this kind of sharing in small groups, of course, but the story of Christ’s work in a life is something we ought also to celebrate within the context of worship, because spiritual formation is a confession of faith.

The testimony is an act of worship. To say that Jesus is relevant and has power to change me (even me!) is to confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

And though real transparency is not cheap, I don’t think I could go back to “church as usual” now that I’ve experienced this way of doing life together. The love our folks have for each other is rich and the healing we’ve witnessed is real. There is a lot of love and grace in an atmosphere committed to being non-judgmental. We haven’t thrown our theology out the window, but we have learned to embrace the stories as gifts and to use them as instruments of grace.

It is what Jesus said in John, chapter 3. Anything that comes into the light belongs to him. Knowing that, why would we want to leave anything in the dark?

Maybe this thing we’ve found that costs but counts is what that guy found in that field. I’m thinking about the one Jesus told about the guy who found a treasure, then went and sold everything he had so he could go back and buy not just the treasure but the whole field. Maybe he discovered exactly what we’ve discovered: that a community possessing the treasure of transparency is worth everything we’ve got.

When is the last time you shared your story in a public setting? Or when have you made space for people to talk personally about what God is doing right here, right now?

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Please don’t feed your fears

“I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to all who believe …”

The story of the Bible from beginning to end is the story of God’s power over our weakness. God has power to kill shame. God has power to flatten sin. God has power to resurrect people and to resurrect what for all the world looks like death in my life. The cross is for those who are dying, for those who have been defeated, who feel powerless.

The good news about Jesus Christ is the power of God. Let that sink in: the gospel is its own power. It doesn’t tell us how to get power. It is power.

Faith, then, is about accepting that power into our lives. It isn’t about accepting a tick list of facts, nor is it a way for me to get what I want.

Faith is the life of Jesus living itself out in me.*

But here’s the sad thing about contemporary American faith. The very things Jesus sent his followers out to do are the very things we’ve lost faith in. In fact, our culture has come to accept an hour in church and a blessing before meals as the center of the Christian experience. Demon-possession is a foreign concept to most of us in the western world. When we pray for the healing of others, we tend to hedge our bets in the wording because we don’t really believe anything will happen.

But folks, when I read in my Bible what Jesus did and then read what he teaches followers to do, this is what I hear: that followers have power and authority to drive out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the coming Kingdom and heal things that destroy people’s lives (Luke 9:1-2). This is the center of the gospel, and the power of it.

So do we have power over our fears? Yes! Greater is the one who is in us than the one who is in the world. John 3 teaches us everything that we leave in the dark is under the power and authority of the enemy of our souls, but everything we bring into the light belongs to Jesus and comes under his power and authority. Maybe that is why Jesus places such an emphasis on confession.

Jesus came into his ministry on this one word: Repent. Not to stir up our shame, but to stir up our healing.

I will never tire of writing this truth: There is no shame in Christ. Feelings to the contrary are not of God. Can we be guilty of things? Absolutely. Should we ever feel guilt. Of course. Guilt is an appropriate response to real sin, real mistakes, real failures.

But guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt says we’ve done something wrong, but shame says we are wrong. Shame isn’t usually associated with some specific thing we’ve done. That sick feeling of dis-grace that can’t quite land on a reason is very likely the voice of the enemy trying to derail us with shame-based feelings. Remember: he is the father of lies. He is incapable of telling the truth. If you feel shame, it is surely based on a lie. How do I know this? Because there is no shame in Christ.

I’ve learned this about shame-based living. People who react out of shame tend to get angry in ways that are disproportionate to the situation. They get defensive disproportionately. They get disproportionately fearful. In contrast, Jesus responds with grace (see the story of the woman caught in adultery) and teaches us through the Holy Spirit’s tutelage to grow past our sin and then live graciously toward others.

We’re talking about breaking through barriers, about waking up to all God has for us, about being renewed in the spirit of our minds so our circumstances don’t automatically cause the reaction of fear and shame but send us instead to faith and formation.

Maybe faith and shame are like two spiritual tapeworms inside of us, vying for survival.  The one we feed is the one that grows. Eventually, that’s the one that will take over.

Which one are you feeding?

 

*I have a feeling I heard this line someplace … maybe seedbed.com?  Whoever said it first, its a good one.

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The Opie Principle

When we were in Kentucky, we lived in a little townhouse that had boxwoods on either side of the front door. In our first spring there, we discovered that snakes love boxwoods. There was a mama snake who visited us every spring so she could have her babies in our shrubbery. Sometimes we’d come home in the afternoon and find as many as fifteen little snakes sunning on the tops of our boxwoods. Which were (have I mentioned this?) right next to our front door. Eventually, we got used to them and in fact, by the time our last spring in Kentucky rolled around, Steve would just pick them up barehanded and take them across the street to a big field.

One day, I was in the front yard when our daughter, Claire Marie (she was about five or six at the time) came tearing around the house in serious distress. She was screaming that she’d seen a snake in our back yard. Because one thinks sensibly about such things when one is in the front yard and the snake is in the back yard, I thought this might be a great opportunity to help my daughter get used to snakes. I took her by the hand and said, “Sweetie, let’s just go look at it. Snakes won’t hurt you if you don’t bother them. In fact, they are usually more scared of us than we are of them.”

These are the sorts of things parents say that they don’t really believe.

We walked to the side of the house and sure enough, there was the snake. He was curled up directly beneath our dog, Opie, who was standing there staring at us, clueless about any snake in his world (Opie was never known for his intuition).  Since he was standing directly over the snake, I began calling for him to move. Seeing my concern, Claire Marie began yelling at him, too. And then Opie started barking — not at the snake, of course, but at us.

There we were, trying to get the dog off the snake while the dog barked at us and a snake sat idly beneath him.

Finally — it must have been the commotion — the snake shot out from under the dog and zipped across the yard.  It slithered right across my baby girl’s feet, at which time I was no longer a snake advocate. I grabbed my daughter. Claire Marie screeched. The snake slithered off.  And Opie remained clueless.

He never saw the snake.

And I think to myself: how many of us are sitting on top of our own snakes (think: sin, hang-ups, issues) while we bark at the people all around us and wreak havoc in our relationships as if it were everyone’s fault but ours?

The problem with this strategy is that most of the time (Jesus actually says this) the issues we have with other people are simply a reflection of our own.

So this is where holiness begins: It is not in being able to name all the sins, but in being able to name my sin.

In other words, don’t bark at others when the snake is beneath your feet.

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Sanctification is hell (or, a lesson on the vocabulary of freedom).

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by Kroger on my way back from Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon. I’d been sharing with another church so someone else from our preaching team had the message at Mosaic that morning. One of the first people I saw at Kroger was a Mosaic person. She hugged me and said, “Mark’s message today was great but it was hard. I’m telling you, sanctification is hell.”

Amen to that.

This person is a new Christian (or at least, a renewed one). She’s come home to Jesus after years away. Watching her find her place in the body of Christ and watching Jesus do some significant healing in her life has been a joy for me. I happen to know, because I’ve prayed with her and listened and shared tears, that it has not been all fun and games.

She’s right, of course: sanctification is hell. It is hard work. By the time someone gets serious about the process of changing spiritually, they’ve usually tried all the other options and have discovered there is no short cut. If change is going to happen something has to die, and deaths are not easy. Ask anyone who has had to quit smoking or drinking or drugging or who has had to quit any unhealthy habit. The quitting itself is hard work. Somewhere in the death of that thing, we get a glimpse if not of where we are then of where we’ve been. We see in the rearview the depths to which we’d let ourselves sink.

Sanctification happens while we are doing it — like that boom that happens when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier, or like when a spaceship re-enters earth’s atmosphere. We may not be able to see the line we’ve crossed, but there is an unmistakable shift. We feel it when we walk from death to life, from darkness to light. We know from the contrast that hell has been in the equation; it is only for the promise of what is on the other side that we bother. Or because our hell got bad enough to move us on.

Holiness is not for wimps.

The writer of Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Not even Jesus got a pass on that walk through pain to get to the other side where the joy is. This is the part of solid, orthodox Christianity we don’t often dwell on. Sanctification isn’t designed to keep us safe; it is designed make us sanctified. Holy. Strong. Wise. Mature.

Paul closes his letter to the Colossians with these three words: “Remember my chains.” Those are the words of a man who is working out his salvation, who is practicing the art of holiness prolifically.

Remember my chains. People don’t say that kind of thing as they reach for a glass of iced tea while they sit by the pool. These are the words of a man who has learned to let every beating, every jailing, every debate become part of his sanctification. He has embraced the hard road because he knows that is the only road that leads to Jesus.

We do no one any favors when we preach a gospel that neglects the cross nor the process of sanctification. We help no one when we refuse to speak truth in love when it comes to things that shackle people and keep them from going someplace spiritually. We don’t help the cause when we avoid words like sanctification. My friend the new Christian proves that anyone can learn that word and grasp its meaning and find power in it as she practices it. We don’t have to shield people from the vocabulary of freedom.

“Remember my chains,” Paul says. Because he needs the people of Colossae to remember that this following costs, that things won’t always be easy. Sanctification can be hell when you’re in the middle of it, but the real problem in any morality equation is not sanctification. The real problem is the thing that got us stuck in a hell of our own making in the first place.

And that ends up being quite the point and quite the freedom of this beautiful theology we who follow Jesus are living. Sanctification is that part of the Christian life that points out our hell … and then delivers us from it.

Hallelujah.

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