Is your faith lifeless? You might be looking through the wrong lens.

In this Restoring Vitality series, we are trying to address those times in life when God seems distant, our hearts have grown leathery and dry.  We need a new infusion of life.  We need a new direction.  We need a new hope to fill us.  We need to grow.  We know we’ve been stuck in old ways of thinking.

Finding that life depends on asking some important questions.  It means we have to start being honest about what we’ve been doing instead of pursuing a relationship with God in Christ.  We also need to enlarge and invigorate our vision of what it means to be invited into life with the triune God.

Once we have come to grips with where we are and what God has invited us to, we can begin to put some new pieces in place, or some old pieces in new places in order to reorient our lives into the image of God. Today I want to help you discover a new orientation for life and faith.  That is, simply Jesus.

Have you ever played with a pair of binoculars?  We had a pair that our family took with us on vacations and major league baseball games.  We had to share.  But when it came to be my turn, I remember they always felt heavy.  And they smelled like plastic, but with hints of leather from the case they were stored in most of the time.  When you wanted to see something up close, you put the small lenses up to your eyes.  You adjusted the width, so both eyes were looking out at the same time and then the focus control would be turned left and right in order to bring that player, deer, or cute girl into focus.  But then as kids do, we also would flip them around and look at the brother next to us.  Looking through the big end, made everything seem so far away!

As we live our lives of faith, it is easy to get the binoculars flipped around.  And before you know it, God seems so far away.  At times, we can barely make him out.  We can’t really see what he’s doing.  We can begin to feel alone and tired.  Faith feels more like living in the dark than living in the light.  It’s because even if God is sitting right next to us, that’s not what we see.  We see a God we can’t touch and probably can’t touch us.

We have to flip the binoculars around.  We have to look through the correct lens.  And that lens is Jesus.  Let me run through a few examples.

  • Some of us orient our faith around certain theology, or church tradition.  When we do that, we shape a Jesus who fits our style.  Jesus becomes a Calvinist.  Or, Jesus becomes a Baptist.  And the real Jesus who confronts our beliefs stays at an arms distance.
  • Some of us orient our faith through our vision of abundant life.  We have an idea of what a blessed life looks like.  And if that is our primary lens, God becomes a bit more distant, especially when he disappoints us.  We quickly question his goodness, his wisdom, his strength, or all three.
  • Some of us orient our faith by our political philosophy. It doesn’t take long on social media to see people on all sides of an argument appeal to God, the Bible, or Jesus himself.  How does this happen?  We come with our own notions and paint Jesus with that brush.  And then miracle upon miracle, Jesus becomes a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, or Socialist.

We have all kinds of lenses that we choose.  Certain Bible teachers, our personal preferences, religious practices, moral convictions, life priorities, ministries and careers, even relationships easily become our primary lens.  And when we look through these, Jesus becomes a bit player in the story of our lives.  And then we miss the way to life because none of these things is life.  Only Jesus is.  He said it himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (Jn 14:6).  We will never find life if we don’t find Christ.  And not Christ as a principle, or an historical fact, but Christ as a person.

When we filter Jesus through our lenses, we keep him at a distance. We find he has no power of transformation.  He looks like we want him to look and our faith is lifeless.  How do we turn this around?

I recommend you start with Scripture itself.  Look at the Scripture through a Jesus-lens. When we do this, things get closer and clearer.  Here’s an example.  In Genesis 12:3 God said to Abraham, “and in you all the families shall be blessed.”  If we read that in the context of Israel, the Law, the promised land, we would think that God is talking about Israel being a nation of prominence and power.  And that as God blessed them, they would share their bounty with the people of the world.  That’s a grand vision for a nation but it is lifeless.

In Christ we see something else at work.  We see that the blessing is bigger than anyone could have imagined.  The blessing is the ultimate restoration of all things.  It is complete worldwide reconciliation.  It is the dethroning of sin and death.  It is life forever.  It is in Christ, we see Abraham’s promise more clearly.  In Christ we understand the role of the Law.  In Christ we see David, Israel, the church, the coming Kingdom.  By starting with Christ, we put him back in the center of our faith where he belongs.  We shouldn’t try to understand, or do anything without him!

  • Colossians 1:19 “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
  • John 14:9-10 “Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?'”

Once we put him at the center, we see that Christ, his ministry, and his presence give meaning to everything.  We see him at work in us and in the world around us.  We realize his ministry is just as real and life-changing as it was 2,000 years ago.

In the last article, we talked about the relationship with the Trinity that we’ve been invited to.  What we need to know is that this relationship is only entered into through Jesus.  In Him, we know the Father.  In Him, we experience the Spirit.  Here’s a few things you can do to turn those binoculars around.

  1. Read one of the Gospels.
  2. Spend time in Matthew 5-7 (one of Jesus’ most complete sermons).
  3. Reflect on how Jesus’ ministry and teaching starts to confront any old notions you have.
  4. Ask him to give it his clarity on what that means for you.

I’d love to read your comments.  And as always, I appreciate your likes and shares.

Series: Restoring Vitality – How we hide from God

TOY STORY 3This is the third in a series of exploring our own spiritual growth and health.  I’m calling it “Restoring Vitality” because there are many of us who feel like life is missing from our own spiritual journey.  We may feel stuck or oppressed. Overall, it just doesn’t seem like I should be where I am.  The question is, how do we experience the life God designed for us?

The first blog described the problem of being stuck in spiritual infancy.  There is a problem of not moving forward in our faith toward greater intimacy with Christ. The second blog identified some of the important questions we can ask which will help us honestly assess where we are.  In this blog, I’d like to explore our own strategies for producing a sense of movement when in fact they may be doing the opposite.

If you remember, the first question I thought we should ask was the same question God asked Adam in the garden.  “Where are you?”  It’s a question I don’t particularly like.  It is easier for me to move on with my plans, march through the days and years of my life, hoping and wishing and hiding.  Let’s consider some ways we hide from the intimacy God desires for us.  These are in no particular order.

We trade Jesus for moral rules.  Moral rules make us feel good.  When we obey them, we compare ourselves with those who don’t and then we can feel a little better about hiding in the bushes.  Rules soothe our consciences.  I once knew of two fundamentalist churches who wanted to have a combined church picnic.  But they got stuck on whether the women would be allowed to wear pants! One church felt good about their stricter rules because more rules equals more holiness. The other church felt good about their freedom!  Needless to say, no picnic happened.  I imagine Jesus sitting at the park with unbelievers wishing his kids were there with him.

We trade Jesus for conquests.  Maybe you’re not a rule person.  But what drives you is getting things done for God. Just like rules, we can hide from God in mission statements and in the efforts to accomplish great things for God. Planting a new church, growing a ministry, mission trips, fighting for justice can all make us feel better about being distant from God.  Even if God doesn’t seem especially close, I speculate he will surely like what I do for him.  That is a wrong thought.  Do you remember the condemnation of Matthew 7:22-23? Jesus said, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and do many might works in your name?  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”  God needs nothing we can do for him. Doing something for God without God must be abhorrent to the One who wants to be known.

We trade Jesus for our theology.  I love theology and theological discussions.  From the earliest days of the church, leaders and learners have been trying to summarize, contextualize and categorize what the Scriptures say about God.  It has a real benefit to the church.  But it can become like researching and writing a historical biography.  It’s great to know about Abraham Lincoln.  But I have no way of knowing him.  We rehearse traits, movements and mission of God, while missing the living God.  We easily speak of him out there, or back there, but we hide from him right here. Instead of humbly seeking him, we find significance in our own knowledge and understanding of the truth.  We become more sure while God remains distant.

We trade Jesus for religious practices.  All our religious activities can easily become a Jesus substitute.  I have been in church services where Christ was never mentioned.  And I’ve been to some that didn’t even include a real prayerful conversation with him – as if He wasn’t there.  Church becomes about church.  We judge our activity by how we felt about it, rather than if we actually interacted with the God who was in the room.  We fast at Lent, give our tithes and offerings, hold prayer meetings, teach the Word, all without Jesus being involved.  These things can lull us into a false sense of spiritual vitality all while missing the One who gives life.

Let me stop here and reassure you, there is nothing wrong with these things in principle.  Just like there was nothing wrong with the bushes in the garden.  Adam and Eve misused them to keep God at a comfortable distance.  And that’s what we can do. Morality, mission, theology and even religion can add depth, guidance, comfort and strength to our relationship with God in Christ.  Our temptation is that we forget they are means to an end.  Even our own spiritual maturity is a means to an end.  And that end is intimacy with the God who created us for oneness with him. He created us and redeemed us to live face to face with him.  Any replacement of that hope keeps us hiding from the One who faithfully pursues us.

I hope the Spirit of Christ is nudging you to think that there might be more for you.  There is. It is LIFE in and with HIM.  Hiding from him robs us of the life he gives.  Consider what stepping out from behind your bush might look like.

In the next blog, we’ll take a look at the kind of relationship God actually wants for us and with us.

As always, comments, likes and shares are welcome and appreciated.  Also, if you will subscribe to the blog, you’ll be sure to get the next installments.

Series: Restoring Vitality – Why Am I Still Here?

iu-9This is the second blog in a series I’ve titled, “Restoring Vitality?”  The first is here.

I’ve been graciously invited into the lives of congregations in order to help them assess health and discern what the Lord may be wanting to do in the future.  So like a doctor, we ask questions that get us to the symptoms a church may be experiencing and hopefully the process helps us find a path of renewed health.

I’ve been to a lot of doctors in my life, especially in the last 8 years.  The good ones ask a lot of questions and then they listen for the answers.  If they do that well and they have experience in the area of trouble, then they can guide me toward solutions that will lead to greater health.

Spiritually speaking, when we are stuck in a developmental stage, we need to notice something is amiss.  Is there a pain? How, when, why, does this present itself? What are the results?  Once we’ve done a little honest appraisal of our condition, we can begin to walk through a process by which we can engage the Spirit of God and experience his leading and his fruitfulness in our lives.  Let’s look at a few of the questions that might help us see what’s really happening in us.

WHERE AM I?

Where am I? is the first question.  This is the insightful question that God asked Adam in the Garden of Eden. If you remember, Adam and Even had sinned.  They immediately saw their need to cover up.  So they constructed loincloths out of fig leaves.  Then it says, “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”  And they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God.” (Gen. 2:8).  Then God called out to the man this important question, “Where are you?”

I believe God knew exactly where Adam and Eve were.  And I tend to think he knew why they were there. So, why did he ask?  He wanted Adam and Eve to hear the question. They needed to notice where they were and how they got there.  They had a relationship of oneness with God.  The garden was a place of peace.  The relationships were rich and full.  But their world was now fractured.  It was broken.  They were alone, hiding from God and one another.

There are times it seems that God asks us that question.  “Where are you?”  Am I hiding?  If I am, why?  Do I find myself in the midst of broken relationships?  Am I motivated by fear?  Where am I stuck? Is life harder than it seems it should be?  If God were to walk into the room at this moment, would I expect his embrace, or his rebuke?

The first step of growth is always noticing where I am.  I need to look around within and without.  I need to notice the condition of my own heart.  I need to identify the thoughts and actions that rule my life.

WHAT ARE MY DESIRES?

Another question to ask in this process of honest appraisal is, “What are my desires?”  I think we need to dig deep into the desires of our hearts.  Our desires come from a life of being formed by our families, our own personalities, and our life experiences.  And our desires shape our decisions, our expectations and our reactions to the world around us.

Our desires also shape the way we experience Jesus.  Jesus was walking our of Jericho and there were two blind men calling out to him.  They called, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”  And Jesus stopped and asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  They replied “Lord, let our eyes be opened!”  And Jesus healed them.  Their need and their desire to be made whole shaped their experience of Jesus.  They needed a healer.  And they found a healer.

I wonder how my own desires have limited my experience of Jesus.  I have often just wanted Jesus to fix something, or provide something, or relieve me of something, rather than wanting him to transform it – or transform me in it.  I want my “daily bread.”  But I don’t really desire that “His kingdom to come.”

A.W. Tozer wrote in his book, “How to Be Filled With the Holy Spirit,” “For instance, are you sure that you want to be possessed by a spirit other than your own? Even though that spirit be the pure Spirit of God? Even though he be the very gentle essence of the gentle Jesus?”  In this little book, he is telling us that our desires matter.  As long as we want a God to patch up the lives we’ve designed, we will hobble along going from crisis to crisis looking for those little slivers of relief.  As long as we look to Jesus as the guy who will save us from the flames, we will miss the joy of seeing eternity at work now.  Our desires either expand, or limit our experience of God in Christ.

WHAT ARE MY QUESTIONS?

A last appraisal question to ask is, “What are my questions?” This may seem odd to ask a question about questions.  But I think our questions reveal something about where we are in our spiritual journeys.  First, let me say there is nothing wrong with questions.  Questioning is an important part of development.  Job would never have been ready for God to reveal himself, if he hadn’t spent a lot of time asking his questions.  But what we wouldn’t expect is that the next time something went wrong, he would start asking the same questions again.

In Hebrews 6, just before a warning about not leaving the faith, the writer wrote “Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of a faith toward God…” (Hebrews 6:1).  He seems to be saying, “Guys, these are the basics.  We should not have to keep going back to the same questions again and again.  We should be past this by now.”

As we grow in Christ our questions should change.  There will always be mysteries to the faith.  But there should be areas we are becoming more sure of.  There should be questions that are getting settled as we live with Jesus.  And that should lead us to new questions which propel us toward a deeper understanding of our God.

ENCOURAGEMENT, A First Step

I encourage you to take a piece of paper, get alone with God and let him guide you in assessing your spiritual journey.  Even better would be passing this along to a fellow believer in Jesus and talking through it.  Often someone we know well will have some insight that we don’t have about ourselves.

Be assured of this, whether you are hanging out in the bushes, or are experiencing mixed desires, or if you’ve been stuck on the same questions for years, there is a God who is pursuing you with all his love, goodness and strength.  And he wants to lead you to new heights of knowing him.  That’s why Jesus joined us and that’s why His Spirit is still here.

Comments, shares, questions and likes are welcomed and appreciated.  I hope you’re looking forward to the next step in Restoring Vitality, I am.

 

 

The Question We Need to Hear When Saying “I Love You.”

1417514_10151936903281251_319192846_oIt would have been in the late Fall of 1983, years ago and just yesterday. These college juniors had started dating again.  The first time was a year before and it didn’t go so well.  That’s a story for another time. But after a year of growing up and becoming friends they thought they just might try it again.  It was different.

After a couple of months of hanging out, dating a bit, getting chummy and feeling like this was more than just a fun little romance, the young man wanted to express the depth of his feelings.  So he arranged an evening, pulling out all the stops.  He had it figured out and she was willing to go along for the ride.  It was dinner at the Magic Pan, a crepe restaurant in downtown Chicago.  Without Uber, they bundled up and walked the mile to the restaurant hand in hand. They had a nice dinner and then walked toward Water Tower Place.  There he planned to take her on a ride they had admired and talked about before – a horse-drawn carriage.  Somewhere along the way, he bought her some flowers – roses, I believe.  As they walked toward the carriages, it was cold, so they chose one with the top up. After all, it was alone-time he was looking for.  This was going to be a big night.

She seemed happy and a bit impressed with every gesture.  And he was proud, but nervous.  They rode a while in quiet, with his arm around her, keeping her protected from the cold nip of the Fall night.  As the horses clippity-clopped on the city street, he started to stammer.  This was it, the reason for the evening.  His words were something like, “Kris, the reason for tonight i-i-is, I wanted to t-t-tell you something.  She asked, “What is it?”  He said, “Well, I wanted you to know, I love you.”  Ta-da!  (play music to crescendo!)  It all led to this!  The dinner, the flowers, the 2 mile stroll, the carriage ride!  He could breathe again.

And then there were these two words, that felt like the stereo needle being dragged across your favorite vinyl album (kids, ask your parents). It was two words when he expected 3, or maybe 4.  Two words that made me think about his future… forever.  Two words that would make him examine the depths of his own heart, his emotions and the strength of his will.  These two words peeled back any romantic veneer that may have been put on the evening.  These two words formed as a question that made him, for an instant and for a life-time, question the nature of his love.  “Do you?,” she asked.

“I love you” should bring a response of, “I love you too!”  But not, “Do you?”  Who asks, “Do you?”  She did.  I knew instantly what she was asking.  She was asking if I was ready to change my life?  She wanted to know if this was an attempt to impress, or if this was a commitment.  Was this an evening, an event, a season, or a life I wanted?

Realizing exactly what she was asking, I was quiet for a moment and then I said, “Yes, I do love you.”  That is what I wanted. She was the one I wanted to give myself to.  She was the one I would change my life for.  When she was sure I knew what I was saying to her, she squeezed my arm and said, “I love you too.”

That was a big night that helped set the direction of a relationship that has lasted for 35+ years. How grateful I am that she asked me that question.  I don’t know that it really changed how I felt, or that it changed the commitment I was ready to make.  But it clarified the decision we were making. It cut through the fluff and laid a foundation that has anchored our lives together ever since.

So often, there are correlations in our human relationships and our relationship with Christ.  When I come to Jesus needy and longing.  And he gives me his joy.  He gives me his love.  He forgives me my sin. It is easy to say, “Oh, Jesus I love you!”  We sing the songs, we read the warm passages of Scripture, we hug the people around us.  We feel it, “Jesus, I love you.”  I hear those two words in my spirit, “Do you?”  How could he ask?  He asks for us.  We need to hear his question.  Are you ready to change your life?  Is this love a commitment or just a feeling? Is this an experience, a moment, a season, or is it a life that you want?  Only you can answer the question for yourself.  If you answer his question by saying, “Yes Lord, I love you.” It will set the foundation for a journey you couldn’t create on your own.

By all means, tell Jesus you love him because he does love you and he always has.  Just remember what you’re saying.

Thank you Kris, for asking me that question! I love you… yes I do!

Spiritual Complacency Reversed

jesusstatue

A few years back I wrote what has become my most viewed blog post.  It is about spiritual complacency.  It pops up more often than others with the web searches people use.  This tells me that there are many who are concerned about their own spiritual complacency. And someone finally asked me, “How do we combat it?”

How do we move from spiritual complacency to a renewed spiritual fervency? Spiritual passion is more than emotion.  It is a fire that keeps drawing us back to the presence of God.  It’s the state of wanting to hear our Savior’s voice, not just so we can do something for him but because if we hear his voice he is near. Spiritual passion is like having a hunger and a sense of fulness all at once, but without that bloated feeling [smile]. But how do we get there from here?

It would be easy to say, we can’t.  We can conjure up feelings, but not true spiritual passion.  It can’t be manufactured, at least not in a way that will last.  It is a work of the Spirit of God.  The Holy Spirit always points us to Jesus.  So, what can we do when we find ourselves far from the oneness we were promised and hope for again? A most simple thought comes to my mind and has been haunting me the past month – “Make more of Jesus.”

Don’t make more of morality, make more of Jesus.  Any faith built on morality leads us to two ends.  One is shame.  When we fail, like Adam, we are tempted to run and hide from God. The second end comes when we begin to think we’re succeeding.  That end is self-righteousness.  Faith in Jesus isn’t based on a correct understanding of morals. It is based on a God who pours out his forgiveness freely on those who need it.  This forgiving Jesus is the one who came in person, to break into our own personal hells and invite us to new life in him.  Read John 8: and John . He is a generous forgiver.

Don’t make more of improving your life, make more of Jesus. Have you noticed that a lot of preaching today is filled with principles that we are challenged to live out under our own power to make us better Christians?  Jesus is not a principle. I don’t need more principles.  I need more of Jesus.  I find every effort at self-improvement is only covering over the old.  What I need is transformation.  Jesus is the transformer.  For sure, the words of Scripture can show me areas where God wants to work.  But that doesn’t change me. My growing love for Him and my growing understanding of His love for me does change me.

Don’t make more of heaven when you die, make more of Jesus now.  Faith secures our future, but it doesn’t diminish the present.  The present is so important that Jesus promised to be with us now!  His abundant life is now.  His eternal life is now.  We are forgiven.  We are reconciled.  We are made into a new creation – now!

Don’t make more of amassing Bible knowledge, make more of Jesus in the pages of Scripture.  The Bible’s big job is to point us to Jesus, who is God joining with His creation in the deepest and darkest places, death, and destroying the hold it has had on humanity since the beginning.  The word of God (Bible) points us to The Word (John 1:1), who then shows us in his life, death and resurrection, exactly who God is.

When I feel most at a distance from God, I find out that I have replaced Jesus as the center of my faith.  Complacency creeps in when I have stopped being amazed at him, or when I have forgotten that he is alive and present and active in my world. Make more of Jesus.  Stay with him and stare at him until you can say on your knees, with Thomas, “My Lord and My God.” Make more of Jesus by letting go of everything faith has become.
I’d love to hear your comments about whether this has spurred you Onward and Upward toward Jesus.

Come To The Table

rublev-trinity

Yesterday we were encouraged to spend some time reflecting on this painting of the Trinity.   It is by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev and is dated to the 15th century.  It is based on the story of Genesis 18 when Abraham is visited by 3 angelic strangers.  This was interpreted by Rublev to be a visitation of the Trinity.  It envisions the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be one of peace, unity, mutual love and humility.  Yesterday, as we reflected on the nature of God’s relationship within the Trinity, we were nudged to remember that in Christ, we are invited into that relationship with God.

This is a little poem I wrote during that reflection. Think of it as God’s invitation to a life with Him around the table of relationship.

Beautiful, Good
Together as one
Joy, love, power
Dances between You

Considering, deciding
Your gaze outward
Creating, redeeming
Sacrifice without reserve

Calling, inviting
A familiar name whispered
Forgiven, loved
Welcomed to the Table

Broken, healed
Together as one
Joy, Love, Power
Dances between us.

I’m Tired… Tired of Christianity

broken church

Like you, I read several online papers, I keep track of social media.  I even subscribe to 3 email alerts each day for news items with the words, “church,” “pastor,” and “faith.”  I understand the brokenness of the world.  And I understand the limitations of the church.  But it seems like something else has happened.  We have built a system of faith that is making me tired.

So, on this December 20th morning, at 4 a.m. I confess: I’m getting a little tired of the Christianity we have constructed.

  1. I’m tired of a Christianity that believes in the kingdoms of this world to solve the world’s issues.
  2. I’m tired of a Christianity that relegates Jesus to the corner of our existence, instead of being Lord of all.
  3. I’m tired of a Christianity that offers tricks, tips and strategies for improving our lot, rather than leading others to the Jesus who comes to bring life.
  4. I’m tired of a Christianity that snipes at itself instead of learning to submit to one another for the sake of reconciliation.
  5. I’m tired of a Christianity that allows anger to motivate a call to justice, instead of love.
  6. I’m tired of a Christianity that is not distinct from the world in its words and ways.
  7. I’m tired of a Christianity that is not engaged enough with the world and doesn’t hear its questions.
  8. I’m tired of a Christianity that explains away the hard things Jesus said, instead of wrestling with them with open hearts.
  9. I’m tired of a Christianity that doesn’t look for the miraculous, but trusts in the mechanical.
  10. I’m tired of a Christianity that Jesus isn’t invited into and depended upon to lead.

I confess, I’m a co-conspirator.  I’ve helped build this Christianity.  I’ve chased human dreams sanctified by holy words.  It makes me sad and tired.  We’ve traded away our birthright for a pot of stew.

I’m not tired of Jesus.  I don’t think we make a big enough deal over him.

I’m not tired of the community Jesus started, the church. I love her and have big hopes for her.

I’m not tired of serving. I want to serve those Jesus loves and died to give life to.

Maybe Christmas is a good time to admit we’re tired and from there we can seek a quiet, humble, and prayerful way back to His path.  I think there we will find rest.

What are you tired of?  Is there a way back?

As always, thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing.