How to start a revolution

In Jesus’ day, according to N.T. Wright, a man talking about building kingdoms was a man stirring up a revolution. Having endured political upheaval and oppressive rulers more than once, Israel would experience Jesus’ call for a new kingdom as quite the revolutionary act.

In fact, it was, though not political.  Jesus’ revolution began within the heart. His call was for people to overthrow the oppressive and self-seeking kings who ruled over their minds and hearts, usurping the place of God at the center. He called on people to rise up with the subversive act of repentance.

“Repent and believe,” he proclaimed, “for the Kingdom of God is near.”

Knowing that all repression and oppression have sin at their core, Jesus promoted societal transformation through personal transformation. Repentance was a call to turn from self-centered, power-hungry behavior toward the life oriented around the values of a loving, good God.

Real repentance is a revolutionary act. It calls for death to self, It is what Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” To build God’s Kingdom, we must be willing to die to self.

Of course, we’d rather receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut. Even Jesus asked on the night before he died if it could be done any other way. The answer was no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something had to die. There is no shortcut to fruitfulness. The path always runs through repentance, and repentance always calls for the death of anything that stands between us and God’s best.

Repentance is freedom-producing. There is such freedom when I finally, fully speak aloud my own truth and discover God’s response is not condemnation but grace. To speak your worst out loud and find that God has not wiped you off the face of the earth, but instead picks you up and carries you into the presence of Grace is the greatest freedom.

Repentance is the opposite of shame. Have you learned how to repent without humiliating yourself? Does your habit of repentance reveal a healthy understanding of the character of a loving God? After all, there is no shame in Christ. He is not afraid of our sin or our suffering. He wants to deliver us from it because he loves us. The more transparent we are with ourselves and Christ, the more likely we are to find healing in his wings.

Repentance is an act of honesty. Real repentance is the most truthful act we can enter into. It is not self-flagellation or self-hatred but the simple proclamation that my only way forward runs through a God who is both grace and truth.

Repentance does not generate self-hatred. To the contrary, it is recognizing that until I am honest about my own weaknesses, I can’t be honest about my strengths. Some of us have lived in denial for so long we’ve forgotten what is true. Or if we are addicted, we swim in outright lies (this is a fundamental truth: active addicts lie). Our dishonesty creates a barrier to change.

Repentance creates change. It is not at all simply saying we’re sorry. It is a personal decision to do things differently from this point forward. Repentance doesn’t require me to have a complete roadmap out of this pit I’ve dug, but it does require me to want to get out of it.

Repentance is not the same as confession. It is the completion of it. Plenty of people have confessed to things they aren’t sorry for. How many parents have forced unrepentant children to say “I’m sorry”? We’re conditioned for this. But repentance is not God forcing me to say I’m sorry. It is my honest, transparent, humble recognition of sin as sin, followed by my desire to turn from it and move in a different direction.

I have discovered in my own prayers that there are plenty of things in my life that I can name, that I know ought to be different than they are … but I can’t seem to change my direction. I lack the will or the “want to.” In those cases, I have learned a new prayer: “Lord, repent me, for I cannot repent myself.  I cannot turn myself around. Only you can do that, Lord, when your Spirit chooses. Repent me, and make me new.”  

Revolutions begin, not with being able to name all the sins, but with being able to name my sin.

This is where personal revolutions begin, according to Jesus: Repent and believe. A new Kingdom is near.

 

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Approving polity: Questions for United Methodists in a Pensive Season

(Following is an excerpt from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The book addresses each of the nineteen questions asked of United Methodist ordinands since the days of John Wesley. This reflection is based on question #12: “Do you approve our Church government and polity?”)

Hannah Whitehall Smith says it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. And it is true, isn’t it? We always like our own ideas better than other people’s ideas. God knows this about us, so his way of working in us is to get possession of us so he can make his ideas our ideas. This is why Paul could say with confidence, “Christ in you is the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27, italics mine). Without the indwelling Christ, we are just another human being who knows the rules.

That difference between head-level rules and heart-level rules is the difference between life and death in ministry. Just as knowing the law but not owning it was death for the Israelites, so too it is death for us. We are designed for a “religion of the heart” (Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism). There is something to be said for signing on at the heart level, for embracing first our theology, then our polity, and allowing them to shape us from the inside out. We may not approve of every “jot and tittle,” but we can affirm the spirit of our tribe. In fact we should affirm this spirit, if we are going to be part of this connection.

Let’s be honest. No job is everything we love and nothing we don’t. Every job has its plusses and minuses. I didn’t come into United Methodist ministry because I fell in love with its discipline and polity. I came into the ministry because I love Jesus, and I sense that within the UMC’s system of connection and covenant I can serve him well. I complain with the best of them about Charge Conference and end-of-year reporting, but I manage to accomplish those tasks because they are part of a bigger ministry life I love dearly. I love healing prayer and preaching and the stunning miracle of seeing someone embrace Christ. I love seeing people get filled with the Holy Spirit. I love the countless hours spent listening and praying, and I love thinking strategically about how to extend this work as far as possible. At its best, United Methodist polity and discipline serves these other causes well. I am well aware that polity is not a matter of salvation, but I know that supporting and maintaining it is the only way our connection and covenant will function. If we all pick and choose which parts we like and which we don’t, it won’t work. Anarchy ensues.

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these [19] questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often with ministers who were weak in the spiritual discipline of letting their yes be yes and their no be no. How much confusion is caused by well-meaning people who have not counted the cost before building the house, who have signed on without letting the spirit of our tribe sink into their bones? Can I say this with complete respect and love? You don’t get to decide what it means to be United Methodist. That has already been determined. Any decision to change that must go through proper channels, covered with massive amounts of prayer. Do you approve that? Can you approve the spirit of our discipline and polity while maintaining a generous heart?

Obviously, I made it out of seminary with a degree because here I am as a pastor. To my absolute surprise, I found myself back in school a few years ago completing a doctorate. In our first session together, my doctoral cohort tackled a ropes course. One of our challenges was a two-wire exercise. The wires, about three feet above ground, were stretched between two trees. As they traveled from one tree to the other, they gradually spread apart from each other. One person balanced on one wire and a partner balanced on the other wire. Our task was to lean into one another while we slowly scooted down the wires, even as they spread further and further apart. The trick was to lean equally on each other (remember that) as counter-weights to hold each other up. It won’t work if one leans and the other doesn’t, so we both had to lean in and surrender all our weight.

We discovered through trial and error that the best way for two people to scoot down the wire was to listen to each other. We would ask, “What do you need? What does this look like from your perspective? How can I help?” Without verbalizing it, it was hard to know the other person’s challenge in that moment. Our teammates on the ground were also there to tell us what we couldn’t see. They would say things like, “Straighten up! Push in!” And I’d think, “I AM pushing in!” when evidently I wasn’t. It was almost impossible when I was wobbling on that wire to know my own position. It took all of us working together to get two of us from one tree to the other.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we need each other. This is the point of our connectional system. It is designed for people who trust each other enough to lean in. But it only works if everyone leans in. It won’t work if one leans and another doesn’t. The key to the whole system is vulnerability. It is in keeping my heart soft toward the people God places in my path so that they become the priority rather than the institution. The clearest way I’ve seen to maintain vulnerability is to speak honestly out of my own experience — even my own brokenness. The guy who said, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” got a mention in the most-read book of all time (John 9:25). The guy who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” is my favorite unnamed person in the Bible (Mark 9:24). Both displayed the heart of flesh necessary for spiritual connection to happen.

As you make your own personal inventory of what you believe about our polity and discipline, ask yourself if you are sufficiently healed and whole to lean in — to give yourself wholeheartedly to a connection of Christ-followers who are bent on spreading “scriptural holiness over the land” (Wesley, Large Minutes). This is the great need. It is for people ready to partner in both covenant and connection for the sake of a lost and hurting world.

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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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Jesus is a dangerous idea (or, why reciting the Apostles’ Creed is a subversive act)

Jesus is a dangerous idea.

That was the answer Peter Hitchens gave at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia in 2014. They’d gotten their theme, I’m sure, from The Edge, an online think tank for academics and scientists. Every year The Edge offers a question and invites responses that are then anthologized into a book. The question for 2006 was, “What is your most dangerous idea?”

Hitchens, participating in a panel discussion at the Australian conference, was a well-known journalist in the UK whose brother was an even more well-known atheist (Christopher Hitchens died in 2011). Asked to respond to the question of the day, Peter’s fellow panelists offered ideas that spanned from disappointing to shocking. A famous feminist said her dangerous idea was freedom. From a famous atheist the answer was to make abortion mandatory for thirty years to control the population.

And then there was Peter Hitchens. When they asked for his most dangerous idea, he said, “The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.”

The guy hosting the discussion followed up: How could the resurrection be dangerous? Hitchens said, “Because it alters the whole of human behavior and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”

Hitchens’ response was a reflection of his own remarkable story. He was raised in the Anglican church, left Jesus behind when he was about fifteen, and then came back to Christ after marrying a Marxist atheist who eventually found Jesus on her own road of discovery. When Hitchens became a Christian, he was already a respected journalist. Acknowledging faith in Jesus was a bit of a risk for him; colleagues wondered what he was doing. For years, he lived his faith under the radar.

Because Jesus is a dangerous idea.

Jesus himself said so. He said he would set people against each other, even those who love each other. If this idea of Jesus as life-giving, sin-defeating redeemer of the universe is a lie, then think of the billions — literally billions of people — who have been deluded. But if it is true, that changes everything. And if it is true, then when we confess that publicly, vocally (think of Christians around the world who weekly stand to declare one of the three historic creeds) we are participating a divine conspiracy to alter the course of the world.

And that is how a creed ought to be handled. The words we use to describe Jesus in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are a statement of subversion. Carved out by people who died for those words, they have altered the course of humanity. They have blasted through atheistic regimes and changed the character of countries. Those words (and more specifically, the truths they represent) have won wars and cast out demons and angered infidels and confounded scientists. For more people than not, they make no sense but for billions they make everything else make sense.

This thing we believe? It is a dangerous idea. So how dare we stand up casually on a Sunday morning and lazily roll through the creed as if we’re scrolling through the credits at the end of the movie. How dare we treat them with such routine indifference that they no longer mean anything even to the ones reciting them week after week. How dare we allow anyone to speak the creeds without some sense that they are participating in the welcome and advance of the Kingdom of God, and indeed have that responsibility if they utter those words as if they are real.

And this is how I believe the historic words professing faith in Jesus Christ ought to be voiced when they are voiced: as if you are standing for truth and justice and everything good and the whole human design and God’s plan. And as if you intend to walk out of that moment and change the world.

Pastors, when you stand to lead your people in the recitation of the Creed on Sunday morning, for God’s sake, please shake your people awake and help them understand just what bold conspiracy they are committing.

Otherwise, why bother?

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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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Work-life balance is a lie (and that’s okay).

Work-life balance is the new black. Everyone wants it, everyone believes it is attainable, and just about everyone uses it to make others feel guilty for not having it.

But no one has it. Why? Because it is a lie. Balance is a lie, no less in the world of ministry than in any other vocation. And lies tend to be guilt-producing. As I’ve said so often we all have twenty-four hours and we all tend to spend every minute of them. This is life. Life is work, and work is life. We likely do ourselves a disservice when we attempt to divide things up. When we compartmentalize — church goes in this slot, work goes in this slot, family over here, God over there — we train our minds to separate rather than integrate. Which is not to say that we won’t get over-extended or that our priorities won’t get out of whack. I’m just saying that a lot of the rhetoric out there creates the illusion that somehow we can divide our lives into equal pie pieces and somehow make it all fit.

If that can happen, I sure haven’t figured it out yet.

What I have discovered, however, is that there is a holy rhythm I can strike that brings rest into my life. I’ve discovered that I am uniquely calibrated; I have a pace that works for me (you have one, too) and when I go faster than my pace, I feel it. I’ve also discovered that I can pick up my pace for a season if I know I can slow down when that season has passed. Learning my holy rhythm has been a way for me to negotiate seasons of travel and busy-ness without losing my sanity.

These days, I’m not seeking balance so much as seeking rhythm.

In my pursuit of a holy rhythm, I’ve discovered a truth: Discipline is rest. Far from being constrictive, discipline actually provides the kind of physical and mental rest I crave. When I submit to a daily schedule of exercise, devotion, work and downtime, it creates mental space in which I can rest. Discipline creates less guilt than the alternative; as I enter into it, I find a pace that naturally selects what can be accomplished in the course of my day.

Discipline creates rhythm, and rhythm is restful.

Discipline creates space! No wonder John Wesley advocated for the means of grace. These spiritual disciplines help create holy rhythm, which creates space, which creates rest, which leads to joy.

Every season has its own rhythm, of course. When I had a daughter at home, my life was very different. In this season, however,  I’m working toward making the following disciplines into a regular weekly rhythm as a way of creating more space in my life. I offer them here as food for thought as you consider what rhythm might work in your life:

Five days of devotional time. I spend about an hour each weekday in prayer, listening, reading and journaling. One of these hours is spent with an accountability partner. Saturdays are my Sabbath. Sundays are for community worship.

Four days of exercise. I make mine happen early in the day.

Three days of blogging. I am committed to sharing what God is teaching me. Writing is my thing, but it may not be yours. What brings you joy? Whatever it is … music, dancing, woodworking, whatever … give yourself the intentional gift of making time for it each week so it doesn’t end up being the thing you “used to do.”

Two evenings at home. Church meetings can soak up a lot of weekday evenings and in this season of our lives (no kids at home), we can be more flexible. Making sure we get at least a couple of nights during the week to be home together without agenda creates space for my husband and me to stay connected.

One Sabbath. I take one day a week to slow down, sleep late and just hang out. I don’t usually do anything I don’t want to do on this day, and I don’t let myself feel guilty if I do things (like a home improvement project) that others might consider work. This is my day, a gift from the Lord.

And once a year, I take a few days with friends to simply “be.” I have a group that gets together to “take our tents outside the camp.”  In Exodus 33, we learn that Moses had a habit of picking up his tent and taking it outside the camp to meet with God. Out there, away from people and problems, the story says he would talk with God as a man with a friend. There is nothing more restorative than time away from the office, from distractions, to listen for the voice of God and re-center on his priorities for your life. I appreciate the time my friends and I take together to rest in the Lord, think deeply and talk honestly about what we see happening in each other’s lives.

I’m not doing any of this perfectly but I’m discovering the rest that discipline brings, whether I’m traveling or at home. This goal creates a rhythm inside my schedule that more naturally selects what else I have time for. What about you? What rhythms will help you develop a more sane and sanctifying pace for your life, so you have margin to live a holy life?

 

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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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How to kill the thing that is killing you

Here’s a truth: Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners. So in the Apostles’ Creed, when we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are effectively placing ourselves in that category of people whose lives need forgiveness and whose status when Jesus found us was “sinner.”

We believe in the forgiveness of sins because we needed it but much more, we believe in it because it works.

It is bizarre, what we do with sin. Most of us work so hard to protect our sins while they work so hard to kill us. We deny our sin and defer blame and — as E. Stanley Jones once said — “attempt to live against the nature of reality and get away with it.” We make it all about other people, and we deny our part and make excuses. We lie in both directions by lying to one another while we lie to ourselves.

To win at the sin game, the enemy needs us to learn the language of lying. He needs us to become fluent in deceit and denial. He needs us to hide things, hide truth, hide fear, hide our sin because as long as we’re hiding things, he’s in control. Always remember that the enemy of your soul would rather you lie. He’d rather you hide things, because everything in the dark belongs to the enemy while everything in the light belongs to Jesus.

The last weapon the enemy has once a person makes a move toward light and truth is to speak shame into your spirit. He will be like that desperate child who has just gotten in trouble at WalMart, pitifully bargaining on the way out the door to his punishment. He will tell you everything you want to hear and when that doesn’t work, he’ll throw shame at you, making you feel bad not just for what you’ve done but for who you are.

This is why the truth that there is no shame in Christ is so critical. Until we really believe there is no shame in Christ, we will work like crazy to protect our sin. But when we really believe it — that truth sets us free, that there is no shame in Jesus, that living in the light is better than banging around in the darkness — then things begin to make peace. We take confession for what it is: a freedom and a gift. As we bring our junk into the light, the two warring sides that live inside of us pull together. When it comes to admitting our crap, it is critical to remember that truth is not shame-producing but freedom-producing.

Confession — adding truth into the sin equation — is an amazing thing. Confession is how I begin to walk out this fundamental belief that Jesus at his core is for me. Confession is how I join the ranks of those who don’t just say they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but actually participate in it.

Maybe the most powerful step in the 12 steps is step four, where we’re asked to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. A moral inventory is a list of all those memories we have of hurting others and of being hurt. To take a moral inventory, we take time to engage our past and our guilt and our hurts. We sit down with pen and paper and honestly write out everything we can remember about our life that hurts. This step isn’t a one-cup-of-coffee process. It may take weeks. Or even years. Doesn’t matter. The point is to get started.

“Fearless” is a key word in the process. Fearless means I believe in the forgiveness of sins. It means I trust that if I show God my sin, he won’t toss shame in my face. Fearless means I want to learn the language of heaven. Fearless means I’m tired of defending the very sins that have been trying to destroy me.

What have I felt guilty about? What have I regretted? Who has hurt me, and who have I hurt? What are the broken relationships in my life that need to be acknowledged? Who do I need to forgive? These are the kinds of questions we work through when we engage in a fearless, moral inventory. And we do it in writing because it helps us untangle the memories and think realistically about the people and events in our past. When we take a moral inventory, we go beyond waving a hand over our whole life with a general statement like, “God, I’ve been bad. Forgive me” (or worse yet, “God, if I’ve done anything wrong, I’m sorry …”). Taking written stock causes us to name the demons, to acknowledge the pain, to pinpoint the issues that need to be dealt with. And to do it in the language of Jesus (confession), not the language of the enemy of our soul (denial and deception). It isn’t easy or pretty, but it is good.

Listen: Either dark wins, or light wins. Confession is the weapon that fights the darkness. Confession is freedom. Confession proves we believe in the forgiveness of sins.

My friends, don’t work so hard to protect your sin. Kill it, before it kills you.

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Marriage and the Means of Grace

I’ve been married for thirty years to a man I absolutely adore. When my husband and I met, we were not practicing Christians. We shared an interest in the faith and a history of it, but spiritually we were far from home. It wasn’t until we’d dated three years and were married for four that spiritual fires were kindled in our marriage.

Since then, we’ve made every possible mistake, some of which should have been the death of us. But God, in his mercy, has not only preserved our covenant but has given us beauty for ashes, the oil of joy and the garment of praise.

For all the mistakes, there are three things we’ve done intentionally that I believe have made all the difference in the health and duration of our marriage: tithing, prayer and Sabbath-keeping.

Tithing taught us to approach life as givers. It helped us make the mental shift from consumption to generosity and that has taken the fire out of any money-based arguments we might have had. We approach our finances, our investments and our possessions as givers.

That sounds like something a pastor would say, right? But I’m convinced that this shift in our approach to family finances has made all the difference in the world in how we talk about money (which, statistically, is the most divisive topic in a marriage). Rather than talking about what we make and what we want, our most animated discussions are about what we give and to whom. It has made us more appreciative of the work of others and sort of stunned by the fact that the funds never seem to run out. There is a lot to be said for approaching life as a giver.

The second thing we’ve done has to do with prayer. They say that about 50% of all marriages in the U.S. fail, and that statistic holds whether a couple is “Christian” or not. Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t improve the odds. But in marriages where two people who call themselves Christian pray daily together, they say that the odds of success are dramatically improved (a study I read years ago said that only one in a thousand ends in divorce, when couples pray daily together). If those stats are even close to right, then it really is true that the family that prays together, stays together.

The ability and comfort we have in praying together daily is such a gift in our marriage. Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence.

So we tithe and we pray together daily. And the third thing we’ve done intentionally to build our marriage is to observe a Sabbath.
In other words, we pay, we pray, and we play!

Sabbath. Every major figure in the Bible talked about this habit. Jesus himself was faithful to practice it. The Bible in both testaments claims it as the key to healthy living — spiritually, mentally and physically. And yet, we rarely discuss it and seldom take it seriously. It runs consistently through the Bible, but it’s the one thing I’ve consistently and dangerously neglected in my own life.

When we first came to Augusta to plant a church, I was really wrapped up in the work. I got so wrapped up in it, in fact, that I began to neglect not only my family but my own spiritual life. And I was a pastor! Somewhere along the way, we decided that the only way for us to restore some kind of rhythm to our lives was to begin practicing a day of rest every week — one day when we could cease work and worry and just be with each other. It is a day we rest, play and sleep. In other words, we try to just enjoy life.

Sabbath gives a holy rhythm to the practice of our faith, and it has been the one thing in our home that has the power to calm the storms.

Because I’m a pastor and work on Sunday, my Sabbath is 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday. My husband usually takes the whole day on Saturday as his Sabbath. We’re not legalistic about it. There are plenty of Saturdays taken up by mission projects at the church and by paperwork that needs to be caught up on. And laundry. But there are also naps and slow lunches, second cups of coffee and plenty of time to talk. We don’t do the Sabbath perfectly every week but we do make it our goal because this is one way we get our lives back in line with God’s design.

Here’s what we’ve learned after thirty years of giving this our best shot: You will never make enough money to make yourself happy, and you will never have enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Tithing, prayer and Sabbath are ways of trusting God and for us, they have been the means of grace that have made this union a treasure.

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Five Marks of Great Accountability (or, Who is your Nathan?)

David was what we might call a high-functioning sinner. Tons of talent. A mighty warrior. Obviously charismatic (he attracted thousands of people). God’s choice to lead Israel.

And also (by the way) an adulterer and a murderer.

Nathan, David’s priest, got word of his sin. In an act of sheer brilliance and strength, he decided to let David walk gently into guilt by telling him a story. He said, “Once there were two men. One was rich and one was poor. One had flocks and herds of animals. The other one had one little lamb. Just one. Because it was all he had, this man loved his little lamb. He let it live in the house and eat from his table. He held that little lamb in his arms and rocked it like a child. He counted it as a child, one of his own.

“Meanwhile, the rich man sat in his wealth. When a traveler came to visit, the rich man decided that — rather than kill one of his own animals (of which there seemed no end) — he’d have a servant go after the poor man’s precious lamb. To feed his guests and enjoy a meal, he killed another man’s lamb.

“And then devoured it. Without the slightest remorse.”

As Nathan told his story, David began to seethe. How dare this monster? Furious at the injustice, David stormed, “The man who did this deserves to die! And he owes that poor man four lambs for the one he took, because he showed no pity!”

David walked right up to his own sin and somehow missed seeing himself there. Nathan said, “You’re that man, King David. Rich beyond words. King of Israel. Lands, people, power. The Lord has given you everything, and yet you take from a soldier a wife he loved rather than enjoying your own.

“And then, to make matters, worse, you kill him to cover for yourself.”

To be exposed is both horrible and holy. None of us likes to come face to face with our own depravity, to see it for what it is after soaking in our own delusions. The mark of one after God’s heart is the humility — when faced with our sin — to call it what it is. “I have sinned against the Lord,” David admitted. To which Nathan replied, in the very next breath, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You won’t die.”

We could make a message out of any one of those words in that brief exchange. There is David’s humility and the mark of healthy repentance. There is Nathan’s courageous, prophetic voice. There is the demonstration of God’s grace, poured out instantaneously in response to repentance. David’s admission and Nathan’s response bring to mind the scene in the parable of the prodigal son, when the son returns in contrition and the father runs to meet him. Something of God’s character is revealed. God is for us, not against us. God’s heart is always ready to run in our direction.

Nathan is a sign of God’s grace. Without someone with guts enough to show David his sin, he might have remained in it until his dying day. A life steeped in unrepentant sin turns sour over time. Without Nathan, David may well have ruined his place as the ancestor of God’s Messiah. Nathan’s truth-telling had a history-altering ripple effect.

Nathan is the real hero in this story, which prompts me to want a Nathan for all of us who lead. Who is your Nathan? Who in your life is wise enough, gentle enough, courageous enough to speak truth to you? Who is holding you accountable for spiritual growth? “Nathans” don’t usually just show up, uninvited, to invest in your life. Nathans are prayed for, sought after, developed.

If you’re looking for a Nathan to hold you accountable, look for:

  1. Someone who will be consistent: They can’t help if they aren’t there. Look for someone who tends to follow through, whose yes is yes.
  2. Someone whose only agenda is spiritual growth: The worst kind of accountability is someone who feels the need to “fix” you. Look for someone who genuinely respects you as a leader, and who is invested in your life and ministry. Someone who is leaning in, not leaning out.
  3. Someone who wants a relationship: The best kind of accountability is a two-way street. Look for someone who is both teachable and a teacher, who is open to both give and take in the discipline of accountability.
  4. Someone whose life and walk you respect: In order for someone to speak into my life, I need to know they are living out a disciplined faith in theirs. Look for someone who walks the walk, whose life is bearing fruit.
  5. Someone who considers this a sacred trust: What is said in any accountability conversation ought to stay with the two of you, and that ought to be an automatic assumption that never needs to be repeated. In my own community, there is nothing I wouldn’t share with my whole church, but my whole church doesn’t need to hear it all. And when it is told, it ought to be me telling it. Anyone who shares prayer and accountability with a leader needs to respect both the leader and those s/he leads.

As a leader, here’s what I need most. I need people in my life who love me enough to tell me the truth. I need straight-shooters who can cut to the point and trust me to handle it. I need adults in my life who are more devoted to Jesus and his Kingdom than to the kinds of southern politeness that leave me stuck in a bad place.

The Kingdom starves for prophetic voices like that.

And so do I.

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