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.

Cultivating Pastoral Humility and Brokenness

Thanks to one of our pastors, Joe Romeo for writing a powerful reminder of where our influence begins and ends.

Pride, self-promotion, self-admiration, and narcissism. These are traits that we enter into rather swimmingly. While it would be nice to say that these characteristics do not find expression in my own ministerial ranks, such is not the case. And while I’d love to say I don’t see them in my own heart and life, only pride would keep me from being honest.

Pride is endemic to the human race. I don’t need to belabor that point. We know it is within all of us. But social media has brought it out even more. Just yesterday Pastor J. R. Vassar tweeted out, “If not for social media, more pastors would be content with their small but significant influence over a local congregation & community.” Again, we probably know this intuitively. Nevertheless I felt compelled to write this blog because I keep wondering: As pastors, does our social media presence foster humility…

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I Need Saving Today

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I was having a fitful night and often when I do, I have some pretty powerful dreams.  Sometimes they make no sense at all.  Many make me wonder what must be rattling around inside my head?  Occasionally one makes me think.

In this particular dream I was in trouble.  I couldn’t really tell what was going on, or why.  My body felt numb – it seemed I had my motorcycle helmet on.  I couldn’t really see, but it there were a couple of people standing over me and I realized that they were beating me.  It all happened in an instant.

The clearest part of the dream was a final imaginary blow.  It sent what felt like a shock-wave through my body.  And in that moment, I said clearly in my head, “Jesus, save me.”  Instantly I was awake.  I didn’t open my eyes, but I was aware I had a dream.  And those final words, “Jesus, save me,” were still echoing in my head.

I wondered if I was dreaming about my ultimate demise.  And I actually found comfort that in my last moment, if that’s what it was, I cried out those words, “Jesus, save me!”  It told me that He is where my faith is.

As I laid there thinking about those words, I came to the realization that this isn’t just an appropriate request for the end of life.  Nor does it only point to that time when I first confessed Jesus as Lord.  But “Jesus, save me” should be the cry of our hearts daily.

In that famous prayer Jesus taught us to pray, he said we should pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:13).”  This prayer for deliverance could also be prayed, “Jesus, save us” from evil.  Save me today.  Save me from the anger and bitterness around me.  Save me from the attacks of the evil one.  Save me from the sin that resides in me.  Save me from the thoughts, patterns, habits, and priorities that seek to derail my faith and my experience of real life.

You see, “Jesus, save me” isn’t a prayer for the end of life, but it is a prayer for every morning!  How do you need Jesus to save you today?

 

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

A Rose By Any Other Name…

Look at these two News Headlines and ask, “What’s the difference?”

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Both stories show governments reaching beyond their God-given responsibility to control the church and limit the work of the gospel of Christ.  The first is a government trying to control the gospel outside the walls of a state-approved building.  The second is a government trying to control the life and message of the church inside the building.  Which is better?  Neither.  It’s the same spirit at work.

Just a note of encouragement… the gospel won’t be stopped!  It is life!  And life, grace, forgiveness, hope, righteousness wins.

Joy In the Morning

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Note:  This devotional was written for the “Wherever” Devotional book, published for Village Creek Bible Camp in Lansing, IA.  Available Here.  I am posting it today in honor of #AMCawarenessday, and as a reminder to all of us that God has a joy-filled purpose for everything He writes into our story.

Psalm 30:5 (ESV)
5 For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

“Dad, it’s not good.” I was trying to hear through the fuzzy bluetooth connection, register what was happening and hurtling down the highway at 75 miles per hour. My oldest son called to give an update on the birth of our first granddaughter, Clara Grace. We asked what was wrong and through tears, he said, ”a lot.” Clara was born with arthrogryposis; a name we wouldn’t learn until much later. What it meant was that her arms and legs were bent, her joints were tight and constricted.  At that moment, breathing was the big concern.

     For the next 90 minutes, my wife and I cried, prayed, and hoped. We couldn’t imagine the pain our kids were feeling. My anxiety and pain increased as I anguished and rehearsed what life might hold in the days ahead. At the hospital, we heard the updates, and as a family went into the NICU. I sat in a chair and Andrew handed me his little girl. She seemed half her size. Her legs were bent. Her chin was small.  Her arms gripped her torso, unable to stretch. She was a bundle, all balled-up.

     I held her, afraid and filled with love. I was also filled with a palpable joy. My tears flowed as I told her again and again that she was loved. God loved her and so did we. Where did the joy come from? It didn’t come from empty promises of an easy life. Nor did it come from any knowledge that this would be fixed. It came from getting a glimpse that Clara’s story was part of God’s story of grace and redemption. The joy came from understanding the Author of all things was writing a story that only she could live. And because He’s good, her story would be good.

     The psalmist wrote, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Weeping may hang out in darkness, but something happens in the light of day. It doesn’t fix things. The light of day brings clarity. It helps us see that God’s at work. There is One who is carefully and skillfully crafting a story for us to live with Him. Clara Grace’s name means “clear grace.” That is what the morning brings, a view of God’s clear grace. When we see it we know great joy, even with tears.

     Father, thank you for the joy the morning brings. Thank you for the the windows through which the light of understanding comes. Thank you for the joy the floods my heart.  In every moment of sorrow, or frustration today, help me wait with you for the clarity only You can give.  And in this glimpse fill me with unending joy!  In Christ’s name and for your glory!  Amen.

The Radical Pursuit of Rest, book Review

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The Radical Pursuit of Rest, by John Koessler is more than a how-to.  Though there are practical implications of application for each of us.  John has written a lively, engaging, convicting theology of rest that makes us face the unique dangers of our culture inside and outside the church.  These very dangers keep us from experiencing the greatest blessing of our salvation – true Sabbath rest.

John begins by helping understand how our culture has shaped our view of productivity.  We belong to a busyness culture.  It drives us in our workday and in our worship of Christ.  Because of our bent of valuing productivity above all else, it becomes the measure of our faith.  “Since our devotion to Christ should know no bounds, neither should our activity.  No matter what we are doing now, we should do more.  No matter what we have done in the past, it has not been enough.” p.19
 
The answer is not a self-imposed withdrawal from activity.  As John writes, we don’t need a vacation or new leisure activities, we need a new yoke.  The yoke of Christ is a yoke of rest.  It is given as a gift to the weary (Matthew 11:28-30).
While rest should be pursued by us, John reminds us, it never earned.  It is given and received.  Rest shows up a lot like sleep.  “Sleep comes to me as a surprise, greeting me like a lover who embraces me from behind.  So it is with the rest of Christ (p.32).”
Rest is a gift given to us as we pursue Christ.  John doesn’t say that we shouldn’t reorder our lives, so we can receive this rest.  But neither does he chide us into creating new “restful” activities out of guilt and shame.  Rest isn’t just a better thing to do.  Rest is a gift to live in.
Two chapters really encouraged and challenged me.  One was chapter 4, “False Rest.”  He writes about the difference between true rest and slothfulness.  “Sloth is rest’s dysfunctional relative, he says.”  He quotes Dorothy Sayers, “It [sloth] is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive only because there is nothing it would die for (p.65).”
Sloth destroys our prayer life.  That is understandable because prayer is truly a labor of the soul.  But, sloth will also hide itself in vision, John warns.  We can get so wrapped up in creating vision for the grand and glorious that we stop doing the ordinary work of serving.  We ignore mundane by constantly painting a picture of how we think life and church ought to be.  As one who likes to talk about vision and hopes and dreams and faith, I am convicted that at times, I have ignored the work in front of me in order to rework the vision.  Or more accurately I have spent hours reworking vision, painting a new picture, in order to ignore the work in front me.
A second chapter that confronts me as pastor and church leader, is chapter 6, “Worship as Rest.”  John challenges us to see worship as an act of resting.  We tend to speak of and plan for a worship experience filled with activity, a holy busyness.  Meaningful activity for sure, but certainly not rest.  In my first church, there was a man from the community who only attended Sunday evening service (remember when we had those?).  As a 24 year old pastor, I assumed he had to be at least 100 years old.  Now, as a 54 year old pastor, he probably was closer to 75.  Each Sunday night, after the hymns were sung and I got up to preach, we would settle himself in.  He always sat on the far end of the pew.  He turned at an angle toward the pulpit, wedging his back against the side and back of the pew.  He slid he rear forward to the edge of the bench.  At that point, he folded his arms, lay his chin against his chest so his neck would disappear.  And before I was done with the introduction, he was fast asleep.  Several people in my church apologized to me for him.  And my reply was, “it doesn’t bother me.  He’s sleeping in the arms of Jesus.”  Truth is, it bothered me a bit.
John doesn’t imply that we should all sleep in church.  But we should find worship together as a time that is filled with the rest of Christ.  John quotes theologian Donald Bloesch in saying, “Worship is not simply an attitude that permeates all things Christians do, but an engagement with the sacred in acts of praise and thanksgiving.  Service to our neighbor proceeds from worship, but worship is something much more than service.  It involves an encounter with the Holy that brings us interior peace and salvation (p.102).”  That sounds like real rest to me.
Rather than continue giving away the details of the book, let me encourage you to read it.  Use it personally.  Use it for your church staff.  Use it in your small groups.  Knowing the rest of Christ, by experience, will take a change of thinking.  It will take the courage to reevaluate what we are doing and why.  But after reading the book, I believe you will become aware of your weariness from much of what we do.  You may also discover a new longing to receive what Christ has been trying to give us all along.
On a personal note, I am privileged to count Dr. John Koessler as a friend and colleague.  He is a fellow disciple who is walking the journey we all walk.  He has been there to encourage me as well as give advice in my role as pastor, father and follower.  He is in the right place, preparing future pastors in how to love and serve Christ and His church.  I appreciate how God has gifted in the area of writing and look forward to more from him in the future.

Don’t Fall for Being a Genius!

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You’ve seen these all over Facebook haven’t you?  It’s a puzzle.  But it’s also a lesson.  As a puzzle, the answers of each equation lead you to find a pattern which will give you the answer for the last equation.  It really doesn’t take a genius.  The reason I know that is because I figured it out in about 15 seconds.  You just take the sum of each equation and add it to the numbers of the next equation.  5+2+5=12; 12+3+6=21; therefore the last equation adds up this way: 21+8+11=40.

[Here’s an additional approach, taken by the more genius of my readers (Dave Wick): “there is one other pattern. Each complete equation could also be the result of adding the first number of the equation to the multiple of the first and second number, making the last answer 96.”]

But as I said, this is not just a puzzle.  It is also a lesson.  You see, the way it’s written, the first equation is right.  The second is wrong.  The third is wrong.  And the answer the fourth is 19.  Just because other people get it wrong, it doesn’t change the rules of math, or let’s say, the “truth” of math.  The context of 8+11 doesn’t change the truth of how math works.  You can put these equations in any order and the real answer is the same… 19!

“But I want to be a genius,” you say!  And that’s just too easy.  It’s too simple-minded.  Maybe.  But it’s true.

Christians are being told that our context is changing.  And it is.  We may need to change our approaches.  But that doesn’t change truth.  People in our culture are looking for new patterns, new ways of defining, new ways of understanding the most basic, enduring truths the world has known.  And many believers are tempted to follow suit.  We find more and more Christians who are afraid of letting the truth stand.

This applies to both conservative and liberal Christians.  We all are tempted to shape the gospel to be what fits us and those around us.  We are tribal and we all want God to look like our tribe.  Truth, if it exists, should look like us.  But the believer who takes truth seriously will constantly look for signs that we have made truth fit us, rather than truth bending us toward God’s reality.

Like psalmist, with God’s Word open, we should pray…

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! 

Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Psalm 139:23-24

Now, I don’t think we need to be rude about truth when we find it.  But neither do we need to stop believing and living out what is true.  Here is some truth to chew on… Christ is Lord.  The Bible is His Word.  Faith and repentance are the responses God requires of us.  Love is defined by God and His Word.    Sacrificial love (as defined by God) is to be given to God, to my neighbor, to my brother and sister in the faith, and also to my enemy.  These are all truths no matter our context and no matter our circumstances.

Let’s not fall for being a genius in our culture and context.  Let’s be faithful to truth as God has revealed it.