The bad news about exile (or, why vision matters)

Imagine you are born wearing a pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses (this analogy on how we encounter new cultures comes from Michael Mercil). In addition to having arms and legs, eyes and hair, you are also born with these glasses that have a yellow tint to them and because of that everything you do, everything you process, everything you experience comes with a yellow tint.

Somewhere far off there are other people born with blue-tinted sunglasses. Everything they do, process, experience comes with a blue tint. For instance, let’s imagine that the glasses I wear are yellow-tinted and the glasses people living in Thailand wear are blue-tinted. Suppose I travel to Thailand to learn about their culture, wearing my yellow-tinted glasses. That will affect how I see their world. Of course, I could decide to put on a pair of blue-tinted glasses for visiting Thailand (so as to have a more authentic experience) but if I put those glasses on over my yellow ones, am I really getting an authentic view of that culture? Or just my view tinted by their view?

This same principle for experiencing cultures applies to how we experience things in general, and particularly how we experience the spiritual life. Because we are fallen people, we are born wearing a pair of internal glasses that tint how we see the world. That tint only intensifies as we age. Childhood wounds, rejection, loss … all those things further distort our perception of God’s design. We have taken on the sight of people wearing the “glasses” of spiritual exile.

This is the bad news about exile: it messes with your vision. When you’re in exile, you see everything through the lens of separation or rejection or loss, or whatever it is that exile has cheated you out of. Exile filters reality and to the extent that any of us lives outside the boundaries of the Kingdom of God, we are cursed with that distorted vision.

The redemption experience offered by Jesus Christ gives us a chance at a difference set of lenses. With these, we can actually begin to see the world as God’s sees it. Redemption glasses offer an entirely different worldview. But if we put those glasses on over our fallen ones, have we really changed anything?

Too often, this is the option we choose when we take on Christ and his worldview. Rather than completely changing our vision, we decide to superimpose his glasses over our exile glasses. We do that by refusing his healing, by not going after real transformation, by not taking on the mind of Christ. Which means that in the most important ways, we still don’t get the culture of the Kingdom.

When our wounds are the result of generational brokenness — passed down to us from parent to child over generations — we may not even realize that the lenses through which we filter the world are “exile” lenses. We may not consciously realize that our choices, relationships, failures and successes are all sifted through lenses that distort God’s design for us. And even if we have chosen to follow Jesus, we may still be wearing our old glasses beneath our new ones. We may even long for a more familiar life, even an enslaved one.

How do we shed our exile glasses in favor of a more thoroughly transformed Kingdom vision? Three thoughts:

Acknowledge your exile. The first step in any recovery process is to acknowledge what is. You can’t remove glasses you don’t believe are there. Acknowledge your exile, your distance from God and his design. Start with what is.

Get the map. To get out of exile, you need a plan and a path. Who will hold you accountable? Who will walk you toward healing? How will you engage the community of Christ so you aren’t overcome by the temptation to turn back toward slavery? Get a plan. Get a group around you. Get healing. It is your freedom you’re after; take responsibility for it.

Immerse yourself in a Kingdom community. I’m confident that community is essential for sustaining progress. Healing happens in relationship, not in a vacuum. Lean into your community and trust the voices of fellow travelers. Isolation will only return you to exile.

It won’t do to pretend we can wear a cultural tint over our redemption. If we’re going to get a vision for the in-breaking Kingdom, we must take off the glasses of exile and commit ourselves to a view of the promised land.

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Eat this scroll (or, how to become earthly good).

You’ve heard it said that a person can be so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. Sounds catchy enough to be true, doesn’t it? It ends up being terrible theology, not to mention indefensible. I would argue that if you want to be any earthly good at all, you are better served by a mind that fixes on higher things. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that the world is better served by those who spend their lives looking for signs of the in-breaking Kingdom than by those who don’t have eyes to see beyond this world.

Being heavenly minded is precisely what makes us earthly good.

Some of the greatest influences on humanity have been heavenly minded. In his classic Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis famously wrote:

A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in;” aim at earth and you will get neither.

Being heavenly minded is the point. It is what Paul meant when he instructed new believers to set their minds on things above. It is what Ezekiel was called to when he was told to eat the scroll, on which were written the lamentations of God. Those words were the very heart of God for his people. When God instructed Ezekiel to eat the scroll, he was saying, in effect, “Unless you have internalized my heart for my people, you won’t be any good for them. If you have any hope of following through on any of the weird stuff that is in your future, you’re going to need to operate not out of an external word but out of something rooted inside.”

In leadership, the quickest way to kill a great idea is to ask someone to do it before they own it. Hannah Whitall Smith (Quaker theologian) wrote that it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. She was right. How often have you resisted someone else’s idea until you decided it was your own? God’s way of working in us is to get possession of us, so he can make his ideas our ideas.

This is how we become heavenly minded. Eat this scroll, God said. Gain the heart of God for people. Internalize it. Own it. Let it do its work in you. This could well be the most powerful word in the Bible about the Bible. Only as we steep in the Word are we able to internalize and own the very heart of God, allowing it to change the way we think.

If being heavenly minded is the only way we can do any earthly good (and I am convinced it is), then the path to that posture runs through the Word of God. Not counter to it.

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Four Questions to Gauge Your Relationship With God

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

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

1. Are you among the deep people?

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

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

2. Do you thirst for time alone with God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Tyranny of Tweaking

Funny, the things we can learn from friends who do drugs.

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

I want to throw stones at addicts who do pointless things like this until I’m forced to admit I do it, too. I can spend a whole afternoon making the chairs into perfect rows at church while I ignore the message I am called to preach to the people who will sit in those chairs. Or I’ll spend hours working on a graphic or an agenda for a meeting (or writing a blog …), while things like hospital visits or time with a teen get set aside. Whatever it is that really needs to be done is often ignored in favor of whatever it is I’m obsessed about.

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

Or what about those religious leaders who came to Jesus upset because his friends didn’t properly wash their hands according to custom before eating? To them, Jesus responded, “Good point, actually. And here’s an even better one: why don’t you take care of your own parents, rather than obsessively letting the rules steal all your compassion and sense of responsibility?”

I can hear Jesus asking me that question when I get all tangled up in some detail or another, in some rule or another, in some judgment or another. “Until you deal with the fact that you use details to avoid the big dreams being dreamed over your life, what’s the rest of it matter?”

Much to my discomfort, my recovering meth addict friends are teaching me that small mindedness can have big consequences. I may not be addicted to a substance; to the contrary, I may very well be addicted to the absence of it.

What if God has a big honkin’ plan for your life? Something much bigger than you’re thinking, and something you won’t discover as long as you’re tweaking?

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The Mission of a Methodist: Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World

“The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This is the mission of United Methodists — to make disciples, as Dr. Robert Mulholland would say, “for the sake of others.” To make disciples is more than getting people saved, though that is obviously a critical beginning. The heart of Methodism is not social justice or creation care, though those things matter. It is much more than hosting attractive worship experiences. Our mission is to care for the spiritual formation of people at the deepest levels, so that their personal transformation results in the transformation of the world.

Spiritual formation is intentional transformation. It is God’s intent that we grow. Spiritual formation is growth that happens on purpose. Do Methodists today understand that our theological bent calls us to go someplace spiritually, to be formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ? Do we understand that we are making disciples of Jesus? Are we fostering spiritual hunger for Christ alone?

Spiritual formation is a matter of the heart. The place where the shaping or forming happens is the heart. In the Bible, we hear these almost bizarre (for our contemporary ears) statements about God wanting to circumcise our hearts. The point is that God wants to change the shape of us. He wants to conform us into the image of Jesus — to make us more loving, more gentle, more joyful, more peaceful, more gracious, more faithful, more trusting … more disciplined. At its core, Methodism is about using spiritual discipline to be shaped into the character of Christ. Do we preach as if that’s so? Are we people of one Book, a book designed to shape us into Kingdom-minded people?

Spiritual formation happens for the sake of others. Methodism is designed to be both evangelistic and global. We do not apologize for our belief in the radical notion that our brand of faith has power to change the world. Further, God’s intent is not just to form each of us spiritually, but to make us partners in the work of transforming the world. Nothing less, nothing else. Do our people have a global vision, or are we stuck on our own cultural values, unable to see how God is moving in other parts of the world? Do we truly believe ourselves to be globally connected to each other by the power of the Holy Spirit?

Spiritual formation is fueled by spiritual discipline. As I’ve said already, Methodists major on the disciplines. It is our contribution to the Body of Christ — this idea that through very practical habits, we can form an intimate relationship with Christ even as he forms us into his likeness. The means of grace are not the basis of our salvation (don’t mistake them for works righteousness), but they are a gift of God that allows us to participate in the process of our ongoing spiritual growth. In our chaotic and distracted world, spiritual disciplines like fasting and prayer may seem arcane; we want to discount them because we are already too busy doing things for Jesus. But are we busy enough doing things that place us in the presence of Jesus? Are we learning to hear his voice? Are we practicing that art daily, so that hearing from God becomes more and more part of our cultural distinctive?

As it turns out, disciplines are not for people who have too much time on their hands, but for people exactly like us. Busy, distracted people. Do Methodists understand that it is in our DNA to be deeply, intimately, passionately connected to Christ, and that our spiritual practices are designed to help us hear the voice of God?

I suspect that the political discussions within the UMC have distracted the corporate body and kept us from being on mission. I suspect they have distracted us personally (note: hand-wringing is not a spiritual discipline). For the proliferation of politics within our tribe, we have lost sight of what is most central to our existence: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I want to call Methodists to return to the fundamentals. I want to see Methodists passionate again about centering on Jesus and on the disciplines that keep us grounded, particularly steeping ourselves in prayer and the scriptures. I want to see a move of the Holy Spirit in our day that transcends cultural conversations and revives our corporate/global spirit. I envision a move of personal prayer, fasting, scripture study and corporate accountability that restores our hunger for our mission. Yes, I want to see us loving our neighbors well, but I want to see those acts of love and kindness rooted in our passion for what breaks God’s heart, not as an escape from it.

I pray for a great move of the Holy Spirit to sweep among us as we get serious again about working out our salvation with fear and trembling. I pray that by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the mission of Methodists would be advanced toward its completion on the power of its people’s faith, so that one day we can all stand together in his unhindered presence with nothing left to do but worship.

If we are going to fulfill our mission as Methodists — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — our greatest work is that of taking our spiritual formation seriously, not just for the sake of our own souls but for the sake of others … that the world might know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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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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Blessed Assurance (or, What Wesleyans believe about “once saved always saved”)

“We who have believed enter that rest.” — Hebrews 4:3

You never know when you might need to defend your position on the theology around the phrase, “once saved, always saved.” It happened to me a week or so ago while I was purchasing a couple of things from a small-town boutique. The woman behind the counter shared that her mother was a preacher, that for years she preached in a holiness church until becoming a Baptist. She changed theological streams because she couldn’t make herself believe in the Wesleyan doctrine of free will to the extent that it allows us to actually lose touch with our salvation.

Since I live in the birthplace of the Southern Baptist Convention, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation. I’ve come to suspect there is a gross misunderstanding of how Wesleyans approach free will and salvation. Often, it is made to sound as if it is God’s choice to drop us whenever he feels like it. “Mess up on Facebook? You’re fired.” “Yell at your dog? You’re not saved any more.”

That take on the gift of free will misses the mark by a wide margin. Free will is not God’s prerogative to exercise; it is ours. We are the ones who place ourselves in jeopardy of moving beyond his presence, though even that isn’t as easy to do as we make it sound.

Think of it like a parent holding a child’s hand as they walk across a busy street. The parent’s whole desire in that moment is to get her child safely across that street. That parent isn’t making decisions while they walk about whether or not she really likes that child, or whether this parenting thing is worth it. No! All that parent is thinking is, “Let me keep my child safe.”

Now, suppose this parent has a particularly strong-willed and active kid who is easily distracted. Is she going to hold on more loosely or more tightly to that little one? More tightly, of course! But suppose that active and strong-willed child sees a quarter laying in the street just up the way, something shiny enough to get his attention and valuable enough to make him want it. The child begs his mother to let him go after that shiny thing, but she says no. She realizes the danger of loitering too long in traffic. She knows the destination is the other side — not shiny, distracting things. Her sole intent is to get them both safely across; she is not about to let him go.

The child, however, is relentless. The more he watches the shiny thing, the more sure he is that it is worth the escape so when he sees a split-second of opportunity, he wrenches his hand out of his mother’s and darts into traffic. Now he is out from under the cover of his parent’s care, not by her choice but his.

Did the mama let him go? Did she want him to do that? Did she cause him to do that? Absolutely not. The intention of the parent at every point was to get her child through the traffic safely. The intention of the child when they stepped off the curb together and headed into traffic was to go where his mother led him. But that desire only took him so far. Having held onto a predisposition toward shiny things for too long into the journey has kept him from being completely surrendered to his parent’s plan.

And that is how Wesleyans view salvation. God gives it, but we have to accept it. By the same token, God walks us through the journey of salvation, inviting us to work it out daily with fear and trembling, but at every point on the way we must make the choice to keep our hand in his. This is the responsibility we bear for the gift of free will.

So what about that “blessed assurance” we always sing about? Is it so blessed after all? Is there really any assurance? Absolutely! Assurance is not the promise that once you say yes to God, you’ve got it easy. That promise is given to no one, believer or not. Assurance is the promise that with your submission and surrender, God will get you safely through the traffic to the other side. Our decision to simply rest our hand in his — to submit to his will. That is all that’s required, and that is only a struggle if we choose it to be.

And that, brothers and sisters, ought to create a deep well of rest within your soul and mine. Because if I believe God is good, God is for me, and God will see me through to the other side, then the rest is details.

Listen: The biblical meaning of rest is not a cure for exhaustion but a pathway to assurance. When we are in sync with God, assured of his character and presence, willing to let him carry us safely across the chasm, we rest.

Blessed assurance, indeed.

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When the brook dries up

I’ve not a fan of that old adage, “Everything happens for a reason.” Usually when people say that, they are blaming God for some bad thing they can’t explain any other way. They may not even realize they are doing it, but that’s the upshot. “I don’t get this and I don’t like it, but God let it happen so God must be behind it and so clearly, God wants to make me miserable for a reason.”

Really?

While it is true, technically, that everything does happen for some reason or another, some reasons stink. Some reasons are my own fault, the product of my own short-sightedness, ignorance, brokenness, neediness. Some reasons are the fault of other broken, needy people who are not thinking about my needs when they do the things they do.

True, some things happen for a reason. But some reasons stink. To believe otherwise — to say that everything that happens is the design (or fault) of God — is to deny human fallenness and the spiritual battle.

That said, I do realize God will sometimes make us miserable to move us on.  There is a story in the Old Testament of a time when Elijah experienced a change in circumstance that required interpretation. He was sitting in the middle of a famine, not a comfortable place to be. For a time, God provided miraculously for Elijah, even while others suffered all around.

Then one day, the brook dried up — literally. The brook that was keeping him alive. Elijah was forced by his own survival instincts leave the brook and to go in search of the river.

Sometimes, it is God at work.  Sometimes … but not always.

Sometimes the brook dries up because someone (not God) built a dam upstream. In those times, it takes great faith to cling to Jesus while others wreak havoc in our lives. Holiness happens in times like these, when I’m forced to practice patience and forbearance while God works all things together for good.  Times like these are what make Psalm 23 so precious to me.  It promises that after every valley, there is a feast.

And then sometimes, God dries up the brook so we’ll be motivated to move on. Because sometimes (not always) our misery is God at work.  Sometimes the brook dries up because God is trying to get me to move on to the river.  To move on. Let go.

Jesus once said that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it won’t bear fruit. I wonder how often I’ve hung on to things long past good sense for fear of change, when God has been trying desperately to move me on from the brook to the river.

Sometimes, but not always, it is God allowing our misery.  When it is, then we can trust that it is always for our good. Holiness will always challenge us to interpret our circumstances with the character of a loving, life-giving God in view.

Is it possible that your spiritual dryness is connected to an unwillingness to let God do a new thing?

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

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

Amen to that.

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

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

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

Holiness is not for wimps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallelujah.

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Why I stopped doing church (or, how repentance got me off the pew)

This one is about when my family changed churches when I was five years old. We were a family of eight, but my mother and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we left St. Mark and went to the big church on the hill.

Funny, what memories stick with you. I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You cannot talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.

We must have liked it there because we stayed but you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone.

Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there. Now, remember – I was five years old. Five year olds eat dirt at home so church germs were certainly not a threat.

You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You can not play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she drug me off by my arm.

Usually when I tell this story, I end by saying that I find it ironic all these years later that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups.

But this week, I’m thinking of that story because I’m realizing I’ve never known how to act in church. Since I was five years old, I’ve had a church problem. I’m either talking or playing. I’ve always had a bad habit of saying things you aren’t supposed to say in church. I belong to a denomination that follows the liturgical year but frankly, I am not a fan. I realize some of this is a matter of taste. There are people who like to sit on wooden benches and sing the old songs. It is a comfort to them. It feels like home.

Not me.

Can I be honest and speak from my heart? I can’t believe I ever went to church. I don’t think I could ever go back. My experience at Mosaic has ruined me. The transparency, the concern for the one who doesn’t quite fit, the willingness to move with the Spirit, the desire for real community … that speaks to something deep inside of me. It feels like “home.”

And it has ruined me for anything else.

I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for the church but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups.

But that’s what I knew when I started all this and I’m beginning to realize something sort of profound. I have what is in my heart and then I have what I grew up with. And even all these years later, those two things can still be in conflict. There are bizarre times I find myself irrationally choosing the old in favor of the new; it creates an inner conflict. A traditional heart covered in bluejeans can be a very uncomfortable thing.

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. Traditional forms of church are not the point of this blog. The point is the state of my heart. Am I willing to change, to go with God, in whatever direction he calls?

I’m telling you all this because sometimes I find myself dealing with God’s call to do a new thing. Am I really willing to go when God says go? Am I really okay with how he makes all things new? Am I truly open to new moves of the Spirit? Am I willing to try new things, or is that only for when I’m miserable enough to change?

Repentance is a willingness and intention to change in the direction of the Kingdom of God. But I’m not always ready to repent, even when I see my fault. Sometimes I have to ask God to “repent me” because I can’t honestly repent myself. I want to want to change, but I’m not always fully there when I recognize the need for it.

But this morning, I see both my need for change and that change in a Kingdom direction is good for me. So repent me, Father, for all the little ways I rebel against your creative call forward. Repent me for the habits I consciously hang onto, hoping you won’t notice. Repent me for the things I stuff and deny and ignore when change and growth are the better alternative.

Repent me for my religious spirit, for my anxious spirit, for my fears. Repent me for every moment I’ve done “church” in the comfortable ways rather than pressing in and forward toward the Kingdom.

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