April 17, 2016

People Problems

“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”  Philippians 2:3

This was the first scripture I ever attempted to commit to memory, verse and reference.  My strategy included writing it on a partial piece of poster board, illustrating each word of the verse with an image for emphasis.  “Strife” was an angry face, “vainglory” a mirror, “lowliness” a stick figure doing the limbo.  Think of it as an emoticon for each word, in a world where emoticons didn’t exist.   In college, I had this poster mounted on the wall opposite the light switch in the narrow passage of my dorm room’s entrance.  I can see it now. 

Despite the fact that this verse rolls off my tongue better than any other scripture besides John 3:16, it has perpetually been the message of conviction whispered to me most often by the Holy Spirit for the past 23 years. Twenty-three years and counting, I have been trying to assimilate it into my character with substantial success and frequent failure.

The complexity of this verse is that it has segments.  You can cut it into three parts and until all three parts come naturally to you, it hasn’t succeeded in changing you to the fullest extent it applies.  I guess that’s why it is taking me so long to absorb.  Take one step forward, you still have two steps to go.  Or in my case, take two steps forward and still have one giant leap miles long to go.  Will I ever get there?

First it declares, let NOTHING be done through STRIFE.

You can put a period on that and make it a complete statement.  God tells us when you are angry or resentful to put the brakes on your actions.  You DO NOT have permission to act on it.  “So how am I supposed to respond?” you ask.   Well, you don’t respond.  You sit on it.  You sleep on it.  You vent to God about your hurt.  You cry out for help.  You tolerate it and you envision Jesus, His tolerance, His reaction to strife.  It puts your offense into perspective.  You let God work on your heart. You aren’t going to get permission from Him to do anything motivated by strife so don’t give yourself permission either.  Let Him tell you what to do with that strife. 

Second, let NOTHING be done through VAINGLORY.

Well, there goes the selfie culture.  What good has vanity ever accomplished?   It is an embarrassment to the vain and distasteful to witnesses.  If God forbids actions motivated by vanity, or attention-seeking, then check yourself.  You DO NOT have permission to do it.  The verse explicitly states, “Nothing”.

Then finally, we reach the crux of the message. 

The verse continues, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other BETTER than themselves. The scripture effectively gives us “Don’t do”, “Don’t do”, and “Do do” directives.

The purpose of not acting out of strife and not acting out in vain glory is to perfect a lowly state of mind.  To be rid of pride.  But how?  By constantly esteeming others better than yourself.  The technique works in reverse as well.  If you are struggling with how to change your esteem for another person, start by exercising the don’t do’s.  God will aid your change of perspective as you work on restraining your actions. 

Sometimes the “Do” step is so challenging that you must first figure out why other people seem to be at the center of all your difficulties.  In his book, “The Sense of the Presence of God”, John Baille expresses, “I may do my best to ignore the claim my neighbor makes on me, as I fear I often do. I may act toward him as if he were merely a part of the world in which I dispose and not another disposer of it; merely within the circle of my own dominion and not another centre of it.  I may treat him not as a person but as a thing, or, as Kant would way, not an end in himself but as a means to my own ends.”

This quote caught my attention from both the perspective of the speaker and the perspective of the neighbor.  From the perspective of the speaker:  When am I treating others as the means to my own ends?  Since my neighbor is equal in the eyes of God, equally bought with the blood of Jesus, is he of equal merit as myself in my own eyes?  If he is not, then I must confess this sin and rethink my perspective of him.  I must allow God to change my heart and mind. I must welcome opportunities to exercise actions contrary to my previously erred behavior.

From the perspective of the neighbor:  Is my neighbor (or co-worker, or classmate) treating me as the means to her own ends?  Does he trample me as if I am disposable in his universe?  If he isn’t a believer in Christ, then he doesn’t have the Holy Spirit working in him to show him any other way.  He is merely serving his defensive instincts.  At least I can understand why strife keeps flaring up between us.  I also acknowledge my obligation to treat him as better than myself, according to the guidance of Philippians 2:3, which proceeds toward the greater responsibility of advocacy in verse four.

Philippians 2:4 says, Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 

I am not only obliged to be a good steward of the resources God has entrusted to me, but I am also obliged to be invested in my neighbor’s best interests as well, regardless of his or her treatment of me. 

John Baille’s insight helps make this responsibility a little more palatable.  He states, “My concern must not be merely for his [my neighbor’s] desires, but for what is right in his desires; not merely for his desires but for his good; not merely for what is desired by him but for what, because it is good in itself, is good for him . . . they [others] embody for me, in my encounter with them, something greater than themselves, an intrinsic right and a universal good.”

This quote casts interpersonal relations into a larger field of view.  It presents why treating others better than yourself is worth your personal investment.  We should feel empowered to celebrate anyone’s happiness, achievements, prosperity, stability, merits, strengths, and talents because all these are good and right in themselves!  I don’t have to be a person’s biggest fan to support the things they are doing right in their lives.
My neighbor has an intrinsic right to be here.  God has a purpose for his life and desires an ultimate good for him; therefore, so should I.   Because God loves and values him, I am presented the opportunity to manifest God’s love and prove this value to him.  The result of Philippians 2:3-4 is really all about my neighbor’s experience with me.  My aspiration is to become lowly of mind.  If my day can be spent valuing the interests of others while performing all my responsibilities to the glory of God, then I have succeeded. 
Many years ago I struggled with hard feelings toward a co-worker.  I privately relished the opportunity for her reliance on my work to become known to management.  I spoke to God about this nasty attitude brewing within me.  He whispered, “She doesn’t have to fall for you to rise.”  The climate felt as if it was either her or me, but it wasn’t.  So, I began to pray for her best and the good she could acquire from the situation we shared. God answered my prayer; she was spared a public reveal and I was compensated for my contributions.

Malcom S. Forbes said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”

While I agree with Mr. Forbes, personally I find taking second place among my family and close friends harder because of our history, my expectations, wants, and needs.  I don’t expect, want, or need anything from a stranger, so it is easy for me to be generous with my gestures and kindnesses. But those I interact with on a daily basis have access to stock or deplete my emotional reservoirs; therefore, the stakes are higher.  Voluntarily relinquishing the refill on my emotional reservoir is a tall order for me.  I have a lot of room to grow here.

Once while playing the mediator in someone else’s conflict, the following words burst out of my mouth, “Humble people don’t get offended.  YOU are the problem!”  This statement applied to every person involved.  The message rang true in the ears of all hearers and brought the argument to an end. 

“Humble people don’t get offended” has returned to my mind on several occasions since then when I have been offended.  I have to admit, I wasn’t being humble in those instances.  When we truly embody a humble spirit, offenses cease to be offenses, but are instead opportunities to treat others better than ourselves.   

Universal good is being accomplished every day and all of our classmates, co-workers, customers, even the strangers we come in contact with are involved in it.  We have the opportunity to aid this world in looking and acting more like God intended it to be.  This begins with me doing nothing motivated by strife, doing nothing motivated by vainglory, esteeming others better than myself, and advocating for the best interests of others.  Philippians 2:3-4 covers all circumstances and all relationships.  I guess that’s why it takes a lifetime to be made permanent.

February 21, 2016

Sin is Not the Same for Everyone

Most of the American culture is at odds with each other; those who consider themselves to be Christians versus those who do not.  Nonbelievers resent the Christian consensus that ‘sin’ is a definable thing.  Some disagree with setting boundaries around what is right or wrong while others disagree with forfeiting any of their personal authority to an outside being.   Either way, the concept of ‘sin’ resides at the center of these war of wills, defenses go up, and the conversation ends.

The Christian picketer proclaims, “Forsake your sin or go to Hell.” And the nonbeliever shouts back, “Who are YOU to tell me what I should do with my life choices.”  The Christian activist wins no one and the nonbeliever runs away faster. It is truly unfortunate.

I wish I could appeal to the nonbeliever’s resistance by telling him that Christianity does not require sin to be defined the same for everyone.  Would that make Christianity more attractive?  Yet most have been inundated for so long with the opposing message that it is hard for them to listen long enough to hear it.  The Bible does not define sin the same for everyone.  This is what I wish more Christians knew about our faith.  It would make us more humble, approachable, and gracious. 

See, our God is a God of three persons.  As with any three persons, there are distinct differences.  Herein lies the custom design capability of the Christian religion.  

First, there is God the Father who defines when sin is the same for everyone.  God the Father penned the Ten Commandments.  He is the voice that resonates, “Thou Shalt Not Steal, Murder, Commit Adultery, etc.”  God the Father is the Creator who designed the law of gravity, time, and aging, and bound every living thing to it.  You may just as well defy His authority as you may defy needing to breathe to live.  He is the author of order, of causes and their effects.  He is uncompromising and permanent.  But because of the trinity, neither the Christian faith nor God Himself ends in God the Father stand alone. 

The second person of God is Jesus Christ who is completely human yet completely divine.  As an illustration, I invite you to visualize three people in a row holding hands; God the Father on the left, Jesus in the center, and a man on the right.  Jesus is the adapter, the mediator between a Holy God and a sinful man. Without Him in between there would be nothing but distance between God the Father and the man.  Jesus permits there to be unity.  Jesus translates God the Father’s black and white commands into a functional message that man can understand and realistically live by.   Jesus’ version says,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:37-40)  

In Jesus’ interpretation, where is the central focus on sin which resounds from God the Father’s proclamations?   The focus on sin is gone.  It has been nailed to a cross and buried in a tomb.   I wonder if the Christian picketer remembers this or if he ever fully understood it.  We no longer have a sin enemy to wage war against.   We have the Lover of Souls to introduce to people!   It’s like Jesus has loaded down our pockets with Valentine’s Day cards and has told us to give one to every child in the classroom.  Everyone gets a Valentine!  Everyone!   The commands of thou shalt and thou shalt not have been engulfed by grace, but the reason why they originally existed has not gone away.  If you are stealing, murdering, and committing adultery then you cannot be loving God ultimately and people secondarily.   The what-not-to-dos are merely the how-to guide.  

Loving God first and others second is a lot harder than it sounds.  Why?  Because that puts me in third place.  It’s not always apparent how to rise above the inclination toward selfishness.  Jesus personified, “I know it is hard to live life in a godly manner as if you were not human.  Let me show you.  Watch and listen.”  He teaches us in the New Testament how to be a Good Samaritan, how to forgive seventy times seven, how to be about our Father’s business at all times.   He taught us how to respect the sanctity of the church, how to seek out the needy, and how to cling to our Heavenly Father when this world is too much for us. 

Jesus didn’t spend the majority of His time on Earth warning man about the consequences of sin.   To Him, sin is a moot point; it won’t be an issue for those who know Him as Savior.  Why do Christians spend so much energy splitting hairs about what is judged a sin rather than celebrating the victory over sin which Jesus accomplished? 

God is three persons; not just God the Father who informs us what bad is, or only Jesus who shows us what good is, but also the Holy Spirit who reveals when good is bad in disguise and therefore a sin for some but not for all.  Would you mind returning to the visual of God holding hands with Jesus who then holds hands with you?  If God were to transfuse his blood wrist to wrist with Jesus and then Jesus wrist to wrist with you, then you would share enough of the Father’s likeness that you two could join hands and the circle could be completed.  The Holy Spirit is the unifying life-force within who binds you unanimously to God, to His goodness, and His purpose for this world.  He enables your mind to comprehend wisdom and your body to prevail over a sin nature which would otherwise be impure.  He transforms your emotions and will, motivating you to replicate the actions of Jesus.  Because you are alive through Christ, this rejuvenation is perpetual.  God the Father never runs out of initiative, Jesus never runs out of love, and the Holy Spirit never runs out of conviction.  They live and operate in unison accomplishing God’s will through you.

God personalizes His works.  There has only been one Jonah, one Billy Graham, and one Corrie ten Boom.  God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah headed to Tarshish instead.  And that was a sin because He disobeyed God.  But God never told me to go to Nineveh and I have not sinned because I haven’t been there.

On the other hand, I once prayed for God to show me a clear financial need which I could meet with my annual bonus money.  But God didn’t make anything clear before my patience ran out, so I dropped the money off with a Christian not-for-profit organization.  Guess what happened next?  An obvious $2,500 need became apparent to me that no one was prepared to meet.  My good deed was a sin in disguise because it was a gesture of impatience and faithlessness. God had specific intentions for that money but I stepped outside of His will and disposed of it.

Romans Chapter 14 explains how God handles these gray topics – Is this a sin?  Or is it not a sin?  The answers are yes, and yes, depending on how the Holy Spirit directs you to best love God first, people second, and yourself third in every situation.  

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them." (v. 1-3)

  • Accept others.  You will have different opinions about what are acceptable behaviors. The Holy Spirit convicts people differently for a reason, or for a season, in order to cover broad territory. 

"Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.  If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died." (v. 13-15)

  • Sin has been defeated; therefore nothing possesses the same condemnation that it did before Christ was crucified.
  • We have a new priority.  Anything is sinful which brings hurt, harm, or offense to another person.
  • Therefore, always make your decisions in the best interest of the weakest person among you.  For example, you don’t watch a horror movie in front of a four-year-old.
  • Conviction is key.  The Holy Spirit is deliberate with the intuition He places on your heart.
  • If peace (the Holy Spirit’s impression on you) permits you to participate, then you are free to follow.  If peace forbids you, then it would be a sin to disobey Him.     

"Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.  But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.  (v. 19-23)

  • Everything that is not done in full confidence that your conscience will permit it, is a sin.
  • The Holy Spirit calls out different requirements under different circumstances depending on who is vulnerable.  Sometimes the person being most influenced is you.  Sometimes there is a future pitfall which God is protecting you from by convicting you now.
  • Do not belabor whether or not you have God’s permission.  If there is doubt, then you don’t. 
  • With maturity and wisdom, your convictions may change over time.  God knows when it is safe for you to experience more freedom.   Walking on coals would destroy the feet of a child, but an adult with tough skin may be safe from that harm. 

James 4:17 says, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (James 4:17)

See how personal the definition of sin is?  It is fully contingent on the Holy Spirit’s conviction on your heart.  When you know to do good, it is the Holy Spirit who has made that opportunity apparent to you. Because the leading of the Holy Spirit is a personal exchange, the sin committed by disobeying Him is a personal violation as well.  You may be called to a higher requirement than your peers.  Sin is not the same definition for everyone.  God has made known His intentions to lead us individually.

January 10, 2016

Does Hell Know You?

“Does Hell know you?” a stranger asked me this week.  What an interesting question. 
Leo’s path and mine crossed as he was assigned to draw nine vials of blood from me. Yes, nine.  It was a tall order for him.  But he didn’t know who he was interacting with when his assignment came down.  He knew me better than most before we parted ways.
Leo received his orders from the computer screen and moved slowly through the material prep.  I thought he was delaying the inevitable in fear that I wasn’t up to the task, preparing himself for my screaming or fainting.  Perhaps he was taking a long time in hopes that another technician would relieve him before he had to be the bad guy.  I knew that he had nothing to fear, but he didn’t. 
Eventually he confronted his assignment and began the blood draw.  I leisurely and pleasantly proceeded with small talk to convey I wasn’t going to create any problems for him.  It was probably his easiest assignment of the day.  When he finished I thanked him for doing such a good job and let him know that I was an avid blood donor so blood draws were no big deal to me. 

“You’re a good Samaritan, aren’t you - in ways outside of donating blood, aren’t you?” He asked slowly and suspiciously.
“Sort of,” I smiled.
“Do you know the Good Shepherd?” He asked.
“Oh yes, very well. I strive to live for Him every day,” I said.
With a concentrated, narrowing of the eyes he continued, “But does Hell know you?”
Ah, I know where you are coming from,” I said and recounted the following scripture for him.
Acts 19:13-16 tells us,
“Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you? Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.

“I think Hell knows me.” I said to Leo. “Would you like me to tell you how I know? It is because of a conversation I had with the devil last summer.”
His ears perked up.
“Last summer when I was outside mowing the grass - I usually talk to God while I am outside doing my yard - I guess I was probably praying or thinking about something existential when I heard,
                 ‘What are you still saving yourself for? You are practically too old to have children, so meriting a godly father for your children is no longer an issue.  And anyone who would marry you now would forgive a 40-year old for waiting that long and then committing an indiscretion.’
                His question stabbed at my heart.  I paused to consider it.  He had a point.  I had never thought about it that way.  I could not dispute him but I knew I had a reason.  So I dug deep within myself to find the truth where it was buried.
                ‘Well, I suppose you are right.’ I responded, ‘But now I am saving myself for God’s will.  My motive is to live every day to glorify Him and being disobedient to Him now is not going to help me accomplish that,’.”

I explained my experience to Leo as follows.  When you are young and walking in obedience, by default you build up a sense of entitlement.  Plus there are so many scriptures you can read what you want to into them, like Psalm 37:4 and Jeremiah 29:11.  Although the Lord keeps His word in ways we cannot comprehend, He is not obligated to fulfill our expectations.  He doesn’t owe us anything.  He has already blessed us way more than we deserve. When you walk according to His commands in pursuit of blessings, you cannot know the limit of your loyalty. 

It is only when your hope of blessing is off the table that you can see that God IS the blessing. 
Walking with Him and knowing Him is the ultimate reward no matter what it costs.

I don’t know at what point in time I switched from being faithful to Him for the rewards He could give me to being faithful to Him because He is faithful to me.  I do know that it only came at the tail end of a lot of suffering, self-loathing, disappointment, and depression.  I cannot tell you if it could have been accomplished any other way.
When I was younger I read about the “mortification of the flesh” in scripture and I attempted every way I could conceive to surrender things I thought God might desire from me including career possibilities, relationships, certain behaviors and habits, and large sums of money.  I voluntarily relinquished them all.  But that was me striving to mortify my own flesh.  I knew that death to Self was a quality of a true disciple and I wanted to be one.  However, nothing in me died through these attempts. My will was very much alive.  As I made these voluntary sacrifices in my own effort according to my best logic, my sense of entitlement for God to reward me grew larger and larger.  Not until God distanced Himself from me and withheld what I wanted most in life, did He accomplish the work of mortifying my flesh.  The Self put up a long, hard fight. 
I would advise Believers to be aware of the types of things God requires of His people.  Study how Abraham was ordered to leave his homeland and venture into unknown territory never to return and how Moses’ was charged to confront Pharaoh and spend 40 years supervising a godless people in the wilderness.  Don’t forget how God allowed Job to be made destitute as an example for us.  Take heed that God would not remove Paul’s thorn from his flesh or let the cup of suffering pass from Jesus.  Realize that some like John the Baptist and Jim Elliot will be required to forfeit their lives in faithfulness to Christ.  Gird yourselves with an awareness of these possibilities and grasp the greater goodness of God overshadowing man’s suffering. 
Seek to understand the depths of God’s love, His inconceivable will, and the boundless options at His disposal.  Pray for aid to remain faithful to the terms He ordains for your life.  And then, cling to Him.  Always and only Him.  Considering no other alternatives.  Last but not least, despise sin.   Sin is where the devil makes his will for you personal.
For all true disciples, God will require of you that which is hardest for you to relinquish.  The pattern is evident throughout scripture and the history which follows it.  He will accomplish the mortification of your flesh in you, for you, through hard terms.  As a result, this world will grow pale, Heaven will emerge crisp and clear, and Hell will know you.

June 14, 2015

Being True to Yourself

I have the luxury of frequent, honest conversations with God about my struggles, motives, and agendas.   I know that God has a greater understanding of my psyche than I do and I need to tap into what He knows about me.  So I climb up on His examining table often and request, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:  And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting"  (Psalm 139:23-24). Upon request, He hasn’t stopped uncovering the muck buried deeper beneath the previously unearthed terrain.

I have discovered one philosophy which I feel causes many Christians to stumble.  It is the misconception that being true to yourself is a virtue.  The motive behind it is in praise of honesty but it does believers more harm than good because our natures gravitate toward sin. We are not naturally inclined toward goodness, peace, or selflessness.  Our sinful sides delight in falling prey to temptation because temptation ushers in excitement, thrills, and the rush of living life on a high.  Anything which draws your attention away from that which you would prefer to attend to is working against you, be it as innocent as a daily Starbucks fix or as dark as the secret beckoning of a pornography addiction.  I am not saying that every single craving we have is a sin but I am trying to convey how easily the urges which are sinful and damaging camouflage themselves as natural and therefore declare immunity from reprimand.  Without inviting God to scrutinize all our inclinations for latent harms, we will never develop a sense of discernment and foster self-discipline where it really matters.     

I feel strongly that living authentically, honestly, and consistently is the only way to keep your feet surely planted on the path of God’s will.  I would never compromise the importance of those prominent character traits.  But it takes so much more than being true to yourself to be your best self.  Limiting our personal initiatives to “being true to yourself” cuts us off miles short of where God wants to take us.

Jesus didn’t die so that I could live out my life being true to myself.  He died for me so that His death would serve as my death, not only figuratively but tangibly as I in turn become His hands and feet on Earth.  So where does that leave my true self? 
It leaves my true self, dead.
"So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want." ~ Galatians 5:16-17.
Where does it say that the desires of the flesh die when you become a Christian?  On the contrary, it introduces a rift between your true self (your flesh) and that which is contrary to your true self, the Spirit.  Do you see that the Spirit is written in capital letters here?  That is because the person of God enters the premises of your heart to confront your true self.  He objects to what your true self asks you to perform and He aids you in carrying out actions contrary to those which come naturally.  

This conflict of conscience is essential evidence of spiritual health.  It reveals that the Holy Spirit is alive within you working to prevail over your true self which has previously operated undeterred.  This legitimate conflict doesn’t go away as long as our souls reside inside bodies of flesh.  Jesus’ body could be battered, but His spirit, His love, and goodwill would not break.  Walking after the Spirit will feel like punishment to your flesh too. The more you cooperate with the Holy Spirit battling against your true self, the more victories you will experience, spiritual fruits will bloom, and your legacy will grow.

Watchman Nee wrote in his book, The Spiritual Man, “The flesh is most defiled (2 Peter 2:10:22); God accordingly does not attempt to change it.  There is no method of deliverance other than to put it to death.  Even the precious blood of Jesus cannot cleanse the flesh.  We find in the Bible how His blood washes our sin but never washes our flesh.  It must be crucified (Gal 5:24).  The Holy Spirit cannot reform the flesh . . . His abiding in the believer is not for the purpose of improving, but for warring against the flesh (Gal 5:17) . . . Indeed, we should never attempt to repair the flesh in order to make it cooperate with the Spirit of God.  The flesh is ordained to death.  Only by consigning the flesh to the cross may we be liberated from being enslaved permanently by it.”

When you asked Jesus to come into your heart, did you experience being crucified with Him?  Take a moment to think on it now.  You can see Jesus strung up on the cross in pain, but can you see yourself up there with Him?  Have you ever died to your true self?  

Further explanation may aid your consideration:

"The acts of the flesh are obvious:  sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."  ~ Galatians 5:19-21

“To ascertain whether one is of the flesh, he need but inquire of himself if he is doing any of these works of the flesh.  It is of course unnecessary for him to commit all in the list in order to be carnal.  Were he to do merely one of them he would establish himself beyond doubt as being fleshly. . . All nonetheless are fruits from the same tree . . .  for how could he do any one of them if the flesh had relinquished its rule already?” Watchman Nee, The Spiritual Man.

Honesty is a virtue without question, but does being true to yourself ever manifest in any of the above listed behaviors?   If so, then being true to yourself is not honorable or God-glorifying.  Have you considered that such a self does not deserve your loyalty?  Perhaps greater blessing would spring forth from defying your true self! 

There is one truth that our fallen, human experience understands well and defends as truth.  Alternatively, there is the person of Jesus who is The Truth (John 14:6) who patiently allows us to construct realities of our own choosing.  He knows that our personal truths will disappear in a breath.  We would be wise to conform our personal realities to what reality will look like then. 

September 4, 2014

Greatness Walks Among Us

I stepped up to the counter at Starbucks and placed my standard order, a medium mocha made with nonfat milk, no whipped cream. After handing over my credit card, I noticed the barista’s eyes shift away from mine high above my head to the customer behind me. I followed her eyes to see who had captured her attention. Immediately I recognized the 6’5”, perfectly built, dark-skinned man with a gleaming white smile. His dress was understated, a plain black tank top, shiny black gym shorts, a backwards baseball cap, and flip flops. I couldn’t help disclosing that I recognized him,

“You are ______,” I said aloud to him, momentarily star struck but maintaining my composure. 

“Yes”, he replied, broadening his super white smile just for me.

“It’s nice to see you,” I said, returning the smile. 

“It’s nice to see you too,” he followed politely.  

I turned back toward the counter to retrieve my credit card then slid down the bar to wait for my coffee. 

After he placed his order he propped himself on a barstool to wait. He directed his focus to the cell phone in his hands. I noticed two teenage girls at a nearby table eyeballing him, whispering, and jostling their cell phones. He had apparently attracted their attention as well. His order was completed before mine. The girls motioned for him to come by their table, he complied, they exchanged words, he flashed his pearly whites and followed with a nod. Then the girls jumped from their chairs and eagerly followed him out the door. This struck me as unusual so I asked a nearby customer who had overheard their conversation what the girls had asked him.

“They asked him if he had gotten out of that macked out BMW in the parking lot,” the customer said.  

I shook my head. The girls following him outside made sense. With phones in hand and an exceptional interest in his car, I assumed that they wanted close-up, possibly even interior photos of the car to post to their social media newsfeeds.

"What foolish kids,” I thought. “How could their admiration be so misdirected? If they only knew who they were talking to, they would forget all about that car.”

I grabbed my coffee and exited the coffee shop as the two giddy girls returned from the far corner of the parking lot celebrating the photos they could now publicize.

“Don’t you know who that was?” I asked them, eager to expose their oversight.

“No?” they questioned. Their faces went blank and eyes grew large.

“That was Cullen Jones, an Olympic gold-medal swimmer.”

The girls let out a squeal and turned toward each other with both hands on the sides of their faces and mouths agape. They spun around abruptly to run back and capture the significance of the moment but the opportunity had passed. The striking black BMW pulled out of the parking lot.

As I drove away I replayed the sequence of events in my mind. I was dismayed, stunned, and insulted. How had the girls missed seeing what was so clear to me? How did Cullen feel knowing he had gone unrecognized while his car had received the attention he deserved?

A sermon illustration presented itself to me. How often am I caught in a spiritual stalemate because some “thing” stands between me and God? When I pray, I rattle off a laundry list of requests all the while disregarding the fact that I have God’s undivided attention. I allow unresolved hurts and unanswered questions to weigh me down as God lingers nearby desiring for me to fix my eyes on Him instead of my problems.

As God showed me that I treat Him like the teens had treated Cullen, He consoled me that I am not the only person guilty of this. He reminded me of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. 

John 4:10 tells us, “Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water.” 

“If you knew.” That is the biggest IF I have ever heard.

Jesus knew of the woman’s deep need for salvation. He traveled from Judea to reach her in Samaria yet her priorities were so singularly focused that she could only attend to the water she could drink, see, and feel. If she only knew that the Messiah had come to meet her, then she would have forgotten all about that water.

If she only knew that the gift of God is eternal life, then she would have forsaken the pattern of sin she had been perpetuating.

If those teenage girls only knew that they were speaking to an Olympian, then they would have asked to be photographed with the man instead of his car. 

There is a reality occurring among us more real and more profound than our faculties comprehend.

Ezekiel 12:1-2 says, “The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people."

The Spirit of God is ever present. Are we seeing Him or are we mesmerized by things? Are we hearing Him or are empty messages pumping through our headphones? God intends to overhaul our natures, consume our thoughts, and empower our actions. He is available. Are we engaging Him?

I don’t want to go through the motions ignoring the most important part of my day, my relationship with the V.I.P.    I want to acknowledge Him, experience Him, and be led by Him. In order for this to happen I must turn my life off of auto-pilot and grant the Lord my undivided attention. He deserves it and will not let me overlook the significance of any moment.

February 16, 2013

What Tool Divides, Breaks, and Burns?

Would you like a few minutes to consider the riddle: What tool divides, breaks, and burns?

When I think about it, one tool accomplishing all three jobs seems somewhat implausible. What I need to divide, I usually don’t intend to burn after I divide it, and what I need to break I typically won’t burn. So, what tool would divide, break, AND burn?

Those are three serious jobs and when you need any one of them done, nothing else will suffice. Some things are soft and can be divided with a simple tool like a knife. You can cut the fat away from your steak. Some things are harder and you need to break them off like a dentist chips tartar from your teeth. And some things, well there’s just no good left in some things and they are better off being burned up completely, like clearing the land of a dilapidated house so you can rebuild on fresh soil. In those cases, you must light a fire and burn away the refuse.

Our conversion from sinners into saints is a process which requires different strategies, sometimes dividing, sometimes breaking, sometimes burning. God has provided the one tool which accomplishes all three.

Are there things in your life that need a little reshaping, like a potter taking a scalpel to a mound of clay?

Are there other things in your life where there is a sharp line between the harmful and the helpful which should be completely broken off?

Or is your life a pile of rubble, where a clean slate is the only solution, a total renovation?

Turn to the tool which divides, breaks, and burns.

“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” – Hebrews 4:12

God’s Word, the Bible, is living and powerful. It has an agenda of its own. Just pick it up, read, and follow. You will find its instruction serves to help you divide out the thoughts and motives which are harmful to you. Which ones should stay and which ones should go? Could a new concept you have never considered be the breath of fresh air you are missing? How else will you discover where personal progress is needed unless wisdom shines its spotlight into your heart and mind? The Word of God divides like a sword.

"Is not my word like a fire?” says the Lord, “And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” – Jeremiah 23:29

As you practice what you learn in the Bible, it will help you break free from strongholds which have had a hold on you. You may have never recognized these strongholds before, but the Word of God will bring them to light. If dividing thoughts and emotions doesn’t satisfy what is needed, God’s Word is equipped to empower a clean break.

Breaking can be painful but it is only a transition phase, so persevere. Freedom like you have never experienced is just beyond the breaking. God must free you from the old self and the old life. Your new skin will feel sensitive at first, but it will grow strong. Cling to the Truth of the Word of God. It breaks like a hammer.

And should you find your back against a wall, where the breaking phase has not accomplished a full revolutionary work in you, then deepen your commitment. Lift higher the Word of God, honor it with your whole heart, and God’s holiness will burn away any unrighteousness remaining in you. The Refiner’s fire has laser focus on purification. Hold fast to the Word. It burns like a fire.

The Word of God was not provided to point out aspirations which cannot be achieved. God made His Word living and powerful, able to wage and win wars within you. Let the Word do its job of dividing, breaking, and burning. You will immerge as pure as gold. The Word of God has a power and purpose of its own. It never comes back void.

“So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:11

February 1, 2013

God Defines Life by the Day

17 “I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

Sometimes Death works extra hard to make its presence known. Four fathers, three brothers, one husband, and one child of people I know have left this world in the last eight weeks, most without warning. So many precious people are left behind to rebuild their worlds in the absence of a loved one they never imagined having to exist without. I have been where they are, forced to redefine my universe after tragedy. Oh, the unstable footing! The confusion. The oppressive fog of despair! It is a most bitter sentence. My heart is heavy.

19 “I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.”

I am 37 years old, five months, and four days. Why do my days keep climbing when some are called home at six years old, some 16, some 30? How long will my days keep counting or the days of my parents, my siblings and friends, the support I cannot imagine living without?

When will the roster cycle through again and I return to bat to swing blindly at redefining my universe after loss?   How can I prepare?   How can I reach out to steady the arm of my neighbor currently under fire of the merciless pitcher, Death?

21 “Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for His compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.” ~ Lamentations 3:17-23

When you are deprived of peace (v.17), when all remembrance of prosperity has fled, (v.17), when splendor has vanished (v.18) and hope has shriveled and died (v. 18) – this one shining sliver can be called to mind (v.21), “because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed.” (v. 22)

You are not consumed! You are not! You may feel utterly crushed. It may look as if your life is in shambles. The voice in your head may tell you that all is lost. But you are not consumed. You are still breathing.

Maybe you are not doing much more than breathing, but that is okay. You have permission to do nothing but breathe. Sleep. Wake. Continue breathing. Do it again tomorrow. When rational thought returns to you, take your first swing at living armed with this encouragement,

“ . . . His compassions never fail.
They are new  every  morning. . .”
Lamentations 3:22-23

Motivated by compassion, God redefines your life daily as if He were starting creation from scratch just for you. God does not define life by what is not, but by what is.

“He is not the God of the dead,
but of the living,
for to Him all are alive.”
Luke 20:38 

Those who no longer live among us on earth, live alongside the Lord in Heaven (or stand apart from Him in Hell). Death has been overpowered by life. Our present benefit is limited only by our belief in that triumph. God’s compassion will swallow the stench of death which hovers over the earth if we allow it into our lives through faith.  

Redefining a personal universe after loss is a shapeless pursuit because we can’t create structure around an absence no matter how hard we try. We want to preserve a hole in our new world shaped like the departed loved one but God says,

         “No. I am not the God of the dead. Your loved one lives, I have simply relocated him. My compassions do not accommodate death. Today’s definition of life for you is new. Then when you lay your head down tonight, let that definition go. I will wake you to new compassions and introduce you to a different life tomorrow.”

God selectively redefines your life each day. The changes are often subtle, but not so subtle that you cannot discover them. Desire to see. What is today’s new compassion? How has God defined your life differently today from yesterday? These are not difficult questions.

Here is my attempt.

This morning, life is defined as sunny but cold outside. There are no clouds in the sky. I am the grateful owner of two dogs and one fish. God created them and entrusted their little lives to my care. In a few more weeks, the now naked trees in my yard will start sprouting leaves and flowering buds. Life at my house will look much different then.

I am employed and navigate the same sea of faces most days. Yet, one with a 40-year tenure at the company retired yesterday. Another is leaving at the end of next month. The definition of life even in the workplace recycles if you pause to notice.

Outside of work I interface with a small circle of people I frequently have the opportunity to bless and be blessed by. Today I will serve two of them and schedule a visit with a third. I have no children, nieces, or nephews, but God’s compassions are new every morning. Check with me next week, I may have one dog less (hope not!) or one bird more (hope so!). Check with me next month, I may have a nephew. Check with me next year, I may have a husband.

God does not distribute His compassions in universes for us to clutch, but in days for us to spend. He doesn’t allow us to construct our own universes either; no wonder that effort is so futile and fleeting. Life is not defined by what is not, but by what is the substance of today’s mercies. Tomorrow with the sunrise, His compassions will be new, and therefore, the definition of your life will also be new.

Dwell on your fresh dose of life as God has prescribed you for today. Then wake up to a new life tomorrow. It is a challenging mindset to embrace, but the secret to coping, surviving and thriving as an eager recipient of God’s compassion.