Let your longings work for you.

(Today’s post comes with deep gratitude to the Holy Spirit for the spiritual spadework that has placed me in a much better frame of mind and spirit than when I wrote this fourteen months ago. Thank God for progress.)

I’ve been in a season.

The worst of it is that this season seems typical of people like me — middle-aged, empty-nested, hard-working. It looks like I’m just unfulfilled and cranky.

Nothing could be further from the truth (well, maybe cranky … but certainly not unfulfilled). I love my family, my work, this stage of life. I love Jesus and am motivated to plumb the depths of following him. I love my people, and have no desire to escape them. Mine is not a mid-life crisis, though it does look like a yearning for something more. Or different. Something.

The yearning has frustrated me. I’ve flailed about looking for the cause, blaming it on my own lack of progress in my main area of ministry. That is usually my dafault setting. If things don’t “feel” right, ministry must be to blame. I seem to live in a chronic state of discontent with what can be but isn’t. Sometimes the discontent motivates me to try harder; most of the time, I allow those frustrations to push me right down into a pit of discouragement.

A friend who lovingly listened to my angst said she suspects I’ve been misdiagnosing my longings. She has heard me sing this song before. Hearing the same tune again, my friend asked a profound question: “What if you let the longing work for you, and not against you?”

She went on to poke around in my spirit and we discovered that yes … my deepest desires are vertical, not horizontal. I do want to know the heart of God. Far more than temporary successes, I hunger for deeper encounters with the Holy Spirit. I long for eternal things. My spirit resonates deeply with Paul’s: “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). I am grateful to know the Holy Spirit groans with me when I don’t have words to express my own deep yearnings (Romans 8:26).

Yet, the frustrations and unidentified aggravations that mark life have been trained by time and repetition to roll down into some undefined rut of unfulfillment — manifesting as empty complaints, causing me to search for cures in the wrong places. Work harder, my frustrations urge. Or look for an escape hatch. Netflix. Mindless surfing. Words with Friends. Anything to divert me from transcendence.

But what if our longings are not for things we can consume, but for something else entirely — something deeper, more legitimate, like Heaven, or the Kingdom to come or for deeper, more intimate communion with God? What if they are for worship or for the souls of lost people waiting to be found? Surely this would be a better target for my longings. Is it possible it is also the right target? Is it possible that what feels like frustration over the horizontal is actually our whole spirit groaning for the eternal? For transcendence, because that is how we’re made?

Misdiagnosing causes us to lean out, to allow our lack of spiritual imagination to steal all the good and eternal out of what ought to be holy longings. Misdiagnosis saps us of spiritual productivity. On the wrong trajectory, our groans work against us. No wonder so many middle-aged people buy Harleys. We’ve lost our ability to interpret the wordless yearnings of the Spirit.

How would a fresh diagnosis of your own deep longings change your next choice? How would it alter your prayer life, your work life, your church life, your next conversation with God, with someone in the waiting room with you? Are you leaning out, when you should be leaning in?

Go to the limits of your longing, the poet advises. Flare up like a flame. Don’t let your last emotion get the last word. Rise above. Get in touch again with the Holy Spirit. Let your longings take you toward the Kingdom, which is home for you.

 

*I’m grateful to Ruth Burgner who deserves so much credit for asking life-giving questions.

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Grow Up, People.

” … speaking the truth in love,
we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …” – Ephesians 4:15

This line in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus should come with sound effects, like a siren or an alarm. Something to warn you it’s coming so you can duck. This line is a revolution in twenty-one words. A trumpet blast announcing the charge on my immaturity and yours.

Speak truth in love, Paul says, like anyone even knows what that means any more. We’ve become so used to spin, which is incredibly detrimental to real community. We’ve learned to couch everything for personal gain, so that the norm for public discourse is much more argument than advocacy. More about my own provision and protection than the common good.

So much public discourse in this season is flatly immature and appeals to the most childish side of us. It appeals to our fears and encourages emotional reaction. It goads us into personal attacks and stifles the prophetic voice. Meanwhile, real truth wrapped in real love requires real trust and real maturity. Does Paul not get that?

Do I?

Grow up in every way, he presses. Every way. Not just the convenient ways — the places where it is more fun to be of age than not — but in every way. In speech and silence, in public and private, in submission and responsibility. In love, power and self-discipline. Maybe especially self-discipline.

In other words, Paul counsels, act like adults. Which flies in the face of so much that comes at us from every other direction. We’re encouraged to pander to our inner child, to coddle his or her pain beyond good sense, to keep putting Spiderman band-aids on gaping childhood wounds so we never actually have to heal. We are encouraged to a state of arrested development, spending far more time accommodating the child we used to be than encouraging the adult we can become.

It is time to grow up, Paul says. Heal. Move on. We will never get to the richness that is the good life if we never challenge ourselves to maturity.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, he talks about how common it is to find immaturity in leadership, so that we’ve learned to accept that:

  • You can be a dynamic gifted speaker for God in public and be an unloving spouse and parent at home.
  • You can function as a church council member or pastor and be unreachable, insecure, and defensive.
  • You can memorize entire books of the New Testament and still be unaware of your depression and anger, even displacing it on other people.
  • You can fast and pray a half-day each week, for years as a spiritual discipline and constantly be critical of others, justifying it as a discernment.
  • You can lead hundreds of people in a Christian ministry while driven by a deep personal need to compensate for a nagging sense of failure.
  • You can be outwardly cooperative at church but unconsciously try to undercut or defeat your supervisor by coming habitually late, constantly forgetting meetings, withdrawing and becoming apathetic, or ignoring the real issue behind why you are hurt and angry.

Scazzero says we’ve come to expect these things in the community of Jesus. We’ve normalized the unhealthy. In fact, in his rants about spiritual leadership in the first century, Jesus himself called these very behaviors roadblocks to God’s Kingdom (see Matthew 23:13).

That’s quite a charge. A roadblock that stops my growth is bad enough, but roadblocks are not discerning. What I’ve done to block my own growth may end up blocking the spiritual maturing of others. My refusal to grow up in every way into Him, who is my Head, can actually stunt or stop the growth of the people around me. Which is no small matter. How selfish would I have to be in order to allow that?

Don’t glide too quickly past this truth: When I refuse growth in myself, I deny growth in others. This may well be a key not only to unlocking your own way forward, but also to finding more wholesome, productive place within the community of faith.

Who knew that growing up could be such a revolutionary act?

What evidence do the people closest to you have that there is actually an adult living in your adult-sized body? What evidence do your Facebook friends have that you’re a mature follower of Jesus? What would you have to relinquish in order to grow up in every way into Him, who is your Head?

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Act like who you are (a charge to graduates).

This week in worship, we let the last words of David to his son, Solomon in 1 Kings 2:1-12, inspire a charge to our graduates. Following is the heart of that charge to those stepping into new seasons after reaching milestones:

Graduates, this is our charge to you. It is a charge to step up to the front line and to act like who you are. You have been designed with a high calling, to glorify God with your life. This is who you are: You are a child of the Most High God. You are not an orphan, nor are you an island unto yourself. You are a child of the King; you are not your own. You were bought with a price, designed to glorify God.

You are a child of the Most High God, and you will impact future generations. The question isn’t whether or not you will influence others, but how. Too many of our decisions come from our near-sightedness. “I want to make things right for my home, my marriage, my family” … but at what cost? You may win the moment but lose the next generation. Too many people in the world  compromise the future tense for the sake of a more comfortable present tense. That brings us back to this: you will be an influence. Your decisions determine what kind of influence you will be.

Your influence is determined by who influences you so follow Jesus. If you are a follower of Jesus, you live under the shadow of the cross, and the cross changes us. Hear this and internalize it. If you are a follower of Jesus, you live under the shadow of the cross and the cross changes us. It will make us counter-cultural. It will set us apart, but too much evidence teaches me that excellence trumps culture every time. You don’t have to live like everyone else in order to make a difference. You just have to live excellently for Jesus.

Learn to make the hard calls. This was David’s lesson to his son, Solomon, at his death. It was a charge to bend toward justice, to slay the giants and not just offend them. The good news in this hard call is that God will never leave us to fight our battles alone. When my heart is right and I’m on the front line, God is right there with me, fighting the battle, beating back the enemies. He never leaves us to fight our battles alone. God is with us.

Think farther than you can see. Think beyond your own retirement. I challenge you to move from a financial mindset to an eternity mindset. Let your finances line up beneath eternity, rather than asking eternity to take a back seat to your finances. Think beyond your immediate needs. Think even beyond your own household. Isaiah’s prophetic word to the Israelites in Isaiah 49 is for us, too. “It is too light a thing that you should care only about the tribes of Judah and the people of Israel. You have been called to be a light to the nations, that my salvation might reach the ends of the earth.” This is a caution for us about small living. It is not enough to think only about us and ours. Our charge is to take on the mind of Christ — to think globally and generationally.

If you are heading into a new season, this is my charge to you: Act like who you are: 

You are a child of the most high God, a follower of Jesus Christ, a treasure hidden in a field. You are an overcomer, a sinner saved by grace, a member of the household of God. You are the Church, a tabernacle for the Spirit of God … salt and light. You are designed to shine like stars in a dark and perverse generation, to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation might reach the ends of the earth. You are the answer to Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

That is who you are. Nothing else. Nothing less, so go out there and act like who you are.

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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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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.

 

*I recently heard it put this way: The cure for exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness (Brother Rast). I think we’re saying the same thing. When your whole heart is for God, when you are undivided in your devotion, you will be able to rest completely in his care and cover.

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Sanctification: Exegeting My Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lord, bend us.

In 1903, Evan Roberts was 25 years old. He was a Christian, coal miner, and student who began to pray for God to fill him with the Holy Spirit. In the midst of this season of prayer, Roberts found himself at an evangelistic event where a man named Seth Joshua was preaching. Roberts heard Joshua pray, “Lord, bend us,” and at the sound of those words the Holy Spirit grabbed him.

That’s what you need, the Spirit said.

Roberts wrote: “I felt a living power pervading my bosom. It took my breath away and my legs trembled exceedingly. This living power became stronger and stronger as each one prayed, until I felt it would tear me apart. My whole bosom was a turmoil and if I had not prayed it would have burst … I fell on my knees with my arms over the seat in front of me. My face was bathed in perspiration, and the tears flowed in streams. I cried out, ‘Bend me, bend me!!’ It was God’s commending love which bent me … what a wave of peace flooded my bosom … I was filled with compassion for those who must bend at the judgement, and I wept. Following that, the salvation of the human soul was solemnly impressed on me. I felt ablaze with the desire to go through the length and breadth of Wales to tell of the savior.”

After that experience, Evan would wake up at one in the morning and pray for hours, invaded by an intense love of God and a deep desire to see others come to Christ. He began to pray together with a few others: “Bend us, Lord.”

A few weeks later, after seeing a vision of God touching Wales, he predicted a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He began preach across Wales and within about nine months, over 100,000 people had come to Christ. Five years later, reports say 80,000 of those people were still in church. The effect on the culture of the country was profound. Bars emptied out. People used the money to buy clothes and food for their families, pay back debts and give to the church. People became kinder; there was a wave of forgiveness.

Sadly, Evan, didn’t last. Like firewood that wasn’t ready for burning, his own personal fires fizzled quickly. Losing his mental health, he became arrogant and short-tempered; his sermons filled with condemnation. He moved in with a woman who distorted his message. He spent a year confined to bed, pretty close to insane. He lived to be 72 years old but preached his last sermon when he was in his twenties.

Lord, bend us.

David Thomas has studied great awakenings and revivals and has written: “There is this built-in self-correcting, reanimating capacity in the Christian movement due to the Spirit’s residence in the Church. Christian history is in many ways the story of successive seasons of awakening. We love it. We yearn for it. We need it, desperately, more every day — in our culture, in our churches, in our families, in ourselves. We want to be in on awakening, to be in on a work of God in our day. Again, we have a soft spot for this, a longing for this: we want to be about sowing for a great awakening. But what about that sowing piece? … Where does it come from? Where does awakening start? How do we sow for a great awakening? … I’ve come to believe that the true seedbed of awakening is the plowed-up hearts of men and women willing to receive the gift of travail. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy (as it says in Psalm 126). Prayer is the precursor to the work of God … always the anticipating act of awakening.”

Lord, bend us.

Thomas says that a call to travailing prayer isn’t a call to feel guilty about how little we actually pray. It is a call to become more open to awakening, and to let that desire make us less casual in our prayers. “I wonder what it would take for us to move in the direction of travailing prayer,” Thomas writes. “How bad it will have to get … if we’re not there already?”

I wonder, too. Who among us is ready to take God at his word? Who is ready to spend time in repentance, time in surrender, time in confession of faith? Who is willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be moved to their knees?  Who is ready to cry out, not just for ourselves, but for the effectiveness of the Church, for the effectiveness of the gospel flowing through us, for the gospel’s power to renew the world?

Lord, bend us!

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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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The best you can do is good enough.

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

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

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

Talk about a miracle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his book, The Beatitudes, Simon Tugwell writes,

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

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

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

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

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Real Prayers for Real People

I didn’t immediately fall in love with the psalms. I found them to be hard to understand and a little dusty. Then some hard things happened in my life and I landed on a few psalms that became prayers when I didn’t know what to pray. When my mother died, Psalm 42 became my lifeline. Psalm 116 was my testimony in a season when things got bad then got better. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to find the profound assurances embedded in Psalm 23.

The psalms challenge us to pray as if God is real. These ancient prayers give us a fresh vocabulary for prayer. In the library we call the Bible, The Book of Psalms is the prayer book and as examples of how faithful people have prayed through the ages, they can help us all find a better prayer life. Here, we find the all-too-human wrestlings of David (who wrote many, but not all, the psalms), a man after God’s heart. We hear honest cries for help and deep, worshipful devotion. We get the full spectrum of emotions, not the least of which is anger. I’ve never had the guts to ask God to kill someone else’s child, but it is in there — an assurance that God can handle it even when we are broken, raging or irrational.

What we don’t hear in David’s conversations with God is anything remotely rote. No recitations. No empty wish lists. No shallow musings. No generalized litanies of what we vaguely hope for the world. David Thomas, in his teaching on travailing prayer, writes, “The Bible seems utterly unfamiliar with casual prayer, prayer of the mouth and not of the heart.” In this, the psalms resonate.

The psalms are real prayers for real people. They challenge us to think deeply and honestly and give us permission to cry out, to feel, to get close, to give our whole heart, to be rough around the edges, and even to be wrong-headed and stubborn.

But real. Always real.

In Lynn Anderson’s book, They Smell Like Sheep, the author offers several practical tips for those who want to learn how pray the Psalms.

  • Choose a psalm to focus on. If you don’t know where to start, try googling your feelings — i,e, “psalm for anger” or “psalm for discouragement.” The psalms are so well researched and commented on that you’ll likely find several articles or references that send you to a starting point. Don’t get sidetracked with the article; go to the psalm.
  • Read it through aloud — slowly and thoughtfully — to get its sense. Make it interactive. Reading scripture aloud can make a huge difference in how you hear it.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the first person (as your own prayer for yourself). Don’t hurry. Wallow in it. Savor it. Mean it. Feel free to stop here and journal what is revealed, or make notes in the margins.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the second person, as an intercessory prayer on behalf of some other person.
  • Stay there until God shows up. I realize this isn’t great theology. Of course, it isn’t God who doesn’t show up, but us. But from an experiential place, we can admit that when we don’t have patience for the waiting it can feel as if God is nowhere to be found. It isn’t that he doesn’t show up, but that we refuse him entry by rushing too quickly past the moment.
  • Don’t end your prayer when the psalm ends. Let this psalm springboard you into the rest of your day’s prayers for current issues and persons that the psalm has brought to your heart. Let the psalm shape the day’s prayer list.

Even if it isn’t theologically accurate to say it this way, I stand by this good advice: Stay there until God shows up. If he doesn’t show up immediately, he will show up eventually. How do I know? He promised!

Stay in the place of prayer. Jesus himself said the fruit of an abundant life is in the abiding. May you find your stride, your purpose, your anchoring and your fruitfulness in that place of abiding, travailing, real prayer.

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