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, is 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 is 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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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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The rise of Methodism and fruit that lasts

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how the Holy Spirit actually shows up. As I said in this post, I suspect much of what we attribute to the Holy Spirit is simply not within his character. Or we allow ourselves to be content with reports of the Spirit’s movement in other places, without doing the spiritual work to participate in what he is doing right here … right now. I cannot believe that all God’s mighty works are for other places and people. Can you?

In the midst of thinking and praying about this — asking the Lord to teach me more about how he actually moves — I discovered something about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that strikes me as profound. In an article on the rise of Methodism Andrew Thompson writes,

“Ask your average Methodist what the turning point was in the history of the Methodist movement, and you’ll likely get the response that it was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. It was there that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and received the assurance of his salvation. Methodism couldn’t have grown and expanded in the years following had it not been for Wesley’s own encounter with Christ that fateful evening, right?”

Right … but

When Wesley himself reflected on what made his work so remarkably fruitful, Aldersgate is not what he referenced. Wesley remembered instead what he called “three rises” of Methodism. In writing about this, Thompson quotes Wesley’s own journal:

“On Monday, May 1, [1738,] our little society began in London. But it may be observed, the first rise of Methodism (so-called) was in November 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford: the second was at Savannah, in April 1736, when twenty or thirty persons met at my house: the last, was at London, on this day, when forty or fifty of us agreed to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer. In all our steps we were greatly assisted by the advice and exhortations of Peter Boehler, an excellent young man, belonging to the society commonly called Moravians.”

The great revival that swept England then America was not rooted in a moment like Aldersgate, nor in the thousands who gathered in fields to hear him preach. No, Wesley credits the rise of Methodism with three meetings that gathered in homes over the course fifty years to press into the spiritual disciplines and pursue the heart of God.

Let that sink in.

A movement that shaped the face of contemporary Christianity began when a few men quietly began to meet together to hold one another accountable for the living out of their faith. The heart of those meetings was a series of questions that required participants to be honest about the state of their souls.

This was transparency before transparency was cool. 

The experiment in spiritual accountability was repeated over time in Wesley’s own life; then was replicated in living rooms, church houses and assembly halls across two continents. The upshot? By 1850 one in three American Christians was Methodist, and hundreds of thousands of people had come to Christ. Today, 900 million Pentecostals can trace their theological roots to Wesley’s Holy Club, along with another 70 million in various strains of Methodism.

THAT’S the fruit I’m looking for. I am looking for the kind of fruit that can’t be explained any other way than the power of God. In our churches and in The Church, I’m looking for fruit that will last. I am ready for those of us who follow Jesus faithfully to begin refusing anything less. If we are going to become hungry for genuine moves of the Spirit, we must stop feeding on snack food. We must stop calling warm moments and well-attended services what they are not, until we become so hungry that nothing short of the authentic will suffice.

And I suspect the greatest moves of the Holy Spirit are just as Jesus said they were — like mustard seeds or a little yeast. They begin in unassuming places, are fertilized by faith and discipline, and grow (perhaps quietly, perhaps not) into mighty movements that change people, change cultures, change the world. They are known by fruit that lasts and by fruit that far outstrips the effort. Maybe they are only known by the fruit they bear over time, even over generations. But they ARE known by their fruit.

That’s the point. Spirit-filled movements bear fruit that lasts. The Church of Jesus Christ must refuse anything less.

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The Danger of Distraction

In my Monday post, I talked about the distractions that seem to be keeping the United Methodist Church from fulfilling its mission. I want to talk more about distractions and their effect on souls and systems.

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought … yes! That’s it! By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits (like spiritual disciplines), by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that spiritual disciplines are for people who have too much time on their hands. Disciplines are not just for people who have all the time in the world to sip another cup of coffee while doing an entire Beth Moore study in one sitting. Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits (Bible reading, prayer, meditation, worship, community life) that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy yes to things that feed into our formation.

God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son and there are some ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love, and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it. We know it is happening when we have some ability to say no to some things so we can say a holy yes to things that will take us someplace spiritually.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. And that’s where the real spiritual work is done. It is done in the secret place, when deep calls to deep. It isn’t easy. But the joy at the other end of it is a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

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Living A New Year Under the Leadership of the Holy Spirit

A version of this article appeared on Seedbed’s Church Planter Collective (to which I occasionally contribute) under the title “Planting Under the Leadership of the Holy Spirit.”  Find  it here.

To be a Methodist is to be disciplined. This is our great contribution to the Body of Christ. We believe spiritual disciplines work when we work them. As you plan for this new year, I want to encourage you to choose one or two spiritual disciplines and use them to move your spiritual life forward in 2017.

Spiritual inventory: In recovery, the real work begins when the inventory starts. This is a time to be honest with yourself about where you’ve been and where you are now in your spiritual journey. This tilling work can be an effective tool for anyone who is serious about going deeper. How often to you sit in quiet with the Lord? How often to you read the Bible? Who is challenging you spiritually? Confess to God and yourself where you are, so you can more productively pray into where you should be heading.

Examination of conscience: Honest self-examination will help to uncover unhealed wounds and character issues that can be dealt with in the presence of Jesus but it only works when we are willing to be brutally honest about how we are living. No excuses. No denial. Make a list of realities. What are your character flaws? What are your sins? This is like the spiritual inventory but it goes deeper, challenging us to honestly consider what we’re doing with our time, where we’re living in denial, where we’re wrapped up in unholy ambitions. An examination helps us to clarify God’s call on our lives so we’re living proactively instead of passively. It also helps us cleanse our days of mind-numbing escapes. What are you spending time on that you need to curb, for the sake of living your life with more integrity?

Devotional reading: Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest became a second Bible for me in my first year as a church planter. Chambers had the heart of a missionary, and his words seemed to resonate deeply day in and day out with the work of planting a new church. I recommend My Utmost for anyone who is on a journey with Jesus. If not that book, then find another wise devotional voice to speak into your life, who will remind you to stay in the deep end spiritually.

Bible study: I suggest you get a reading plan and a hunger for sticking with it daily. I will be working through the Life Journal Reading Plan found in the YouVersion app. Created by Wayne Cordeiro, this plan will take me through the whole Bible in 2017. But reading through the Bible isn’t the only option. It is also okay to focus. If you’re in leadership read Exodus and Nehemiah early on. If you’re new to Christ, read James and John. If you need to be recharged in your relationship with Jesus, get a red-letter Bible and read only the words of Jesus in all four gospels. It will change how you know him.

Sabbath: Keep one. This is your personal expression of faith in God’s ability to complete the work. If you want to read more on Sabbath-keeping, read here. Dr. Steve Seamands asks a challenging question that gets at the heart of Sabbath-keeping: “Who carries the burden of ministry in your life? You, or the Holy Spirit?” In other words, what is your starting point? Sabbath is about restoring the factory settings on my life, so that my default starting point is the Holy Spirit.

Fasting: Fasting has provided for me some of the most dramatic spiritual break-throughs over the years. I practice it especially when I have unanswered questions, as a sacramental way of expressing my hunger to God. I teach it to my leaders, and encourage them to fast regularly, with deeper seasons of fasting annually. Fasting humbles us. It is an act of obedience. It is proof that discipline matters to God. Bill 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. For more on fasting, read this.

Journaling: This has been a great source of healing for me, and a great way to hear from the Lord. I used to journal in a notebook. Now, I journal on my computer. I make it a conversation with the Lord, and have often received answers to prayer through this practice. I prefer to journal in two colors, writing my own thoughts and questions in black or blue ink, and what I sense may be Spirit-inspired thoughts in red. I don’t try to analyze it; I just listen for the voice of the Spirit and write what I hear. A week or so down the road, I may come back to that entry to see how it sounds with the benefit of a little time and perspective. When I come across a thought that seems profound (“smarter than I could have thought of myself,” as Asbury professor Dr. Bob Tuttle would say), I note that thought in red, too, just like the words of Jesus in my Bible.  Often, I am amazed at how helpful those entries can be to my journey with Jesus. I do believe He still speaks into our lives; I have encountered him in the practice of journaling.

The most important thing you can do to create a healthy congregation, family, or workplace is to live the gospel in front of people. A regular diet of spiritual disciplines will help you to do that. Make it your passion this year to live a disciplined life.

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How to start a fire

Do you know how a log catches fire? There is more to it than meets the eye. To get the log to “catch,” it has to be heated to a temperature sufficient to evaporate the water within the wood. The bigger it is, the more heat the process takes. The wetter the wood, the longer it takes.

The wood won’t “catch” until the water within it burns off.

And what happens with wood happens with people. I notice that people tend to want spiritual fire to happen instantaneously. We pray for revival like it can sneak up and catch us without us noticing. Or we pray for personal renewal like God is going to zap us with it without warning. But that thing that happens with wood — that process of heating the log to burn away the water before the log will ignite — is probably a more accurate picture of how big revivals and personal renewals actually happen. Not overnight, but over time. Not by surprise but by design. There is a season of heating up. There is spiritual preparation.

The stuff that dampens our spirits has to burn off before there is enough heat to “catch.”

Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated. Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it and you will end up frustrated. You can also do a lot of damage.

I don’t agree with the whole message but I like the title of a sermon written by Gilbert Tennent, an evangelist who traveled with George Whitefield. Tennent talks about “the danger of unconverted ministry” — of leading a ministry when he or she is not spiritually prepared. Gilbert says, “an unconverted minister is like a man who would teach others to swim before he has learned himself, and so is drowned in the act, and dies like a fool.”

In my years as a pastor, I’ve witnessed it more than once. It is that pastor who fails to take his own soul seriously. The same year Mosaic started, our Annual Conference birthed ten new churches. Thirteen years later, only three remain. Not all were the pastor’s fault. Some churches never “ignited.” But some pastors also left the ministry and two of them had affairs.

Friends, there is nothing more dangerous than going after a spiritual fire when there is too much “water in the wood.” Perhaps this is why Jesus told his followers (Luke 24:49): “Stay here … until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven.” We want to focus on the part where Jesus promises a filling of the Holy Spirit. But I would not be surprised to learn that Jesus himself emphasized the word, “Stay,” when he was talking to his followers. Because he knew better than anyone just how dangerous it is to get out beyond the covering of the Spirit.

This is what separates the crazy from the courageous in spiritual work. It is not the Holy Spirit (because let’s be real here: some of the most spirit-filled people also look the most crazy). What separates the crazy from the courageous is that ability to “stay here,” to wait for Jesus to prepare the wood before trying to start a fire.

This is why we preach spiritual disciplines over and over and over. These are the things that dry out the wood. Spiritual disciplines prepare our souls for fire. Scripture, prayer, group life, worship, confession, accountability — this is how we prepare the wood for the fire. Not preparing ourselves is how we build dysfunctional lives and dysfunctional communities.

And this is why repentance is so important. This is why Jesus began his own ministry on that word: “Repent.” Because he knew that you can’t start a fire with wet wood. Repentance is the heat that burns off the water and makes the conditions right for awakening.

The fire triangle is what they call the three conditions that must be in play for a fire to burn: heat, oxygen and fuel (some kind of combustible material). If our spirits are the fuel and the Holy Spirit is the oxygen, then repentance is the heat that creates the conditions necessary for the life of Jesus to live itself out in me.

Listen: Repentance is not about behavior management; it is about changing my spiritual condition so I can catch fire.

Repentance clears the way for the Holy Spirit to do his work so if you’re ready to start a fire … start there.

 

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Faithfulness breeds blessings.

If you are someone’s child (any age) but not yet a parent, you should know that your life has messed with your parents’ heads. Assuming your parents are at least in some way functional people, you have incredible power over them — power you may not realize you have. Yes, your parent will come after you like a spider monkey when you do something wrong but have the school counselor say you have behavioral issues, and your mom will come after her like ten spider monkeys.

Your parents will take a bullet for you without thinking twice. And will do it again the next time. They will walk into the thick of a Hell’s Angel gathering to snatch you up and take you home without breaking a sweat. They’ll leave you in jail, even if it rips their heart out over and over to do so, because they want so much more for you than you want for yourself.

They will go without food if it means you will get a better education. Any ER nurse will tell you there is no wrath like the wrath of a mama whose baby is sick. You can make the worst possible mistake — forget to call on Mother’s Day, lie about the person you went on a date with, tell us you hate us — but the next time you cuddle up next to us on the sofa and tell us we’re the best mom/dad ever, parental amnesia sets in.

The slate wipes clean.

In a way, parental love is like being possessed. It is a fierce love. And while parental love isn’t always biologically bound, it is definitely not the same as the love we have for all children everywhere or even for the other people we love. A parent’s love is different. Fierce. Strong.

So when Abraham chooses to obey God and take his son up a mountain to make a sacrifice out of him, there is no other story in the whole story of God that shows more profoundly what faith requires of us when God asks us to have no other gods before him. Because Abraham is possessed. He has parental insanity. He is a one-hundred year-old man who finally has a boy of his own. There is no other story that more accurately and starkly paints what God means when he tells us to love him with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, all our strength.

Abraham’s love for that boy is surely a fierce love yet, knowing what he is asking of this man, God comes to Abraham and says, “I am going to make you into a great nation and you will be the father of many people. What you have in this boy, you will have in more children than you can count. But to get there, you and I have to walk through a valley together, the darkest kind of valley. That valley will lead you to the point of laying down your deepest earthly loves so there is nothing left between us, so I can pour all my hopes for the world through your family line.

“Abraham,” God seems to say, “This is what faith means. It is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it.”

Can you imagine what that offer must have felt like for a man who would take a bullet for his son, who would walk into the thick of a violent mob to pull him out, who would have gladly taken his son’s place in that moment?

Can you imagine?

Isaac was probably not a child at this point. Some say he could have been as old as thirty, certainly old enough to know that wood for a sacrifice needs a lamb to go with it. Isaac says to his daddy, “I see the wood, but where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham, with the full weight of mature faith on his shoulders, stands between Isaac and God and replies, “The Lord himself will provide the sacrifice.”

At the top of the mountain Abraham and Isaac build the altar together and Isaac allows Abraham to lay him up on it. Isaac didn’t have to do this. Surely he could have muscled his way out if he’d wanted to but Isaac is his father’s boy. He has his father’s spiritual DNA coursing through his veins. He is the second generation of a breed of people whose faith is centered on the person of God, not on personal tastes.

We wonder how a man can lay his child up on a pile of firewood but as it turns out, this is how it is in the Kingdom of God. Nothing is what it seems. To get life, we have to lay it down. To be first, we have to be willing to be last. To save our children’s lives, we have to be willing to put God above them at any cost. To save our families, our marriages, our reputations, our country, our you-name-it, we have to be willing to lay it up on the altar.

This is what Abraham’s story shows us about the Kingdom of God: Faithfulness breeds blessings, the kind that pour out over your children and your children’s children. The kind that raise dead things, that redeem relationships, that restore purpose and health. The kind that change the world.

The blessings of God will always run through a fire fueled by faith. Make no mistake about this: anything else that looks like blessing is merely a cheap imitation.

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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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