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.

Spiritual Complacency Reversed

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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.

“Taking Initiative in Tough Times”

Last Sunday, I had the joy of sharing the Word at Village Green Baptist Church, Glen Ellyn, IL.  This was the church I last pastored.  And they graciously invited me back.  It was a good Sunday of worship.

If you’re going through any difficult times, I thought my sermon might be an encouragement to you.  If there’s nothing wrong in your life, then bookmark this page because it will! 🙂

Blessings!

Jim’s Life Adventure #10642

Usually these begin with one of my great, fun ideas!  I’ve been looking at used cars since I sold my old pickup to my son.  And I thought, “hey, why don’t I get something fun!”  So, I started looking and settled on a Mazda Miata.  One of those little two-seaters that my wife and I could enjoy tootling around town in.  Since I travel almost every week, I searched all over my territory.  I found one two weeks ago in Hudson, Wisconsin, right across the river from Minneapolis/St. Paul.IMG_3974

The transaction was a little hectic.  I squeezed in looking at the car between appointments.  And we settled on a deal.  I put down a deposit and promised I would be back the next week to pick it up.  I used my Southwest miles and got a plane flight to Minneapolis, landing yesterday at 8:15am.  Now, at this point you may be thinking… “you’re going to drive an old car, you don’t know 400 miles on your first trip?”  “Sounds risky.”  But then again, this is the stuff adventures are made of.

I handed over the cash, started the car and off I went.  All seemed well.  About an hour into the trip, I thought… you know, I don’t really know if the gas gauge is accurate.  I better stop and fill it up, so I can make sure it works.  And if it doesn’t work, I can keep track of the mileage to make sure I don’t run out.  I stopped in Eau Claire, WI.

I filled up the car and was ready to get on the road, when I noticed that the battery light went on.  I knew this was an indication that there was something wrong with the electrical system.  Huh.  What to do?  I whispered a prayer… actually the whole day, my mental conversations were prayers.  Across the street I noticed a auto repair garage.  A little blessing from heaven, I thought.  I drove it across the street and was told they’d be happy to take a look at it.  I sat and waited, then the bad news came.

The battery looked good, but the alternator (that thing which charges the battery as you drive), was registering no output.  The car was running on battery power only.  He said no one in town had one to fit the little Mazda.  But helpfully he said he could order one for the next day.  And I could be on my way by tomorrow evening.  Well that wouldn’t work.  I had another trip to take tomorrow.  So, I thought, prayed short-rapid-fire prayers and asked, how far can I go on battery power?  He wouldn’t venture a real guess, but was sure I wouldn’t make it more than an hour, or two of a 5 hour drive.  He didn’t have any options, other than a $400 tow.

I didn’t want to be stuck on the road, but I did certainly wanted to get closer to home.  So, I asked, what if I bought a second battery?  He was sure that wouldn’t get me home and who knew where it would strand me? Again, I prayed and considered.  It seemed like the best shot.  So I went to a Wal-Mart about 5 miles away.  When I searched and my car wasn’t on their battery list.  Okay, Google-time.  I bought a battery and wrenches so I could make the switch.

I drove in constant prayer for God’s favor.  I put the top down, but the battery didn’t have the power to roll the windows down.  I left the radio off, the cruise off, the a/c off.  And off I went.  About 2 hours and 15 minutes in, as I was approaching the Wisconsin Dells, I began to feel a little confident, but overly so.  I texted Kris that I was still going on battery 1 and just as I hit send, a dash light began to flicker.  The radio clock went blank.  And the car started losing power.  I put the car in neutral, coasted onto exit 85, I’m blessed it was a downhill ramp, so I could roll well off the road.  I texted Kris that it was time for battery 2.  I switched the batteries in about 3 minutes and I was on my way again, still 3 hours from home.

In my mind I kept devising plans for what I would do when this one died.  But I asked, that if God would give my his favor, I would certainly appreciate it.  Any way and however it would work out, I was glad He was there and I could count on Him helping me through.  One other little discomfort to my trip was that it was 95 degrees out and I dared not stop for water, or the bathroom.  I didn’t know how many starts was left in that battery.  Rockford, DeKalb and then exit 109, Sugar Grove!  Kris had opened the garage door, so I could drive straight in.  I made it!  Over 3 hours on that battery!  It was a precious gift that God gave to me.

I was tired.  I was sweaty.  I was thirsty.  But I was home.  When Kris asked if we could move it out the driveway to take a few pictures, I tried, but it wouldn’t start.  The battery was dead.  Wow, thank you Lord.  A long day, enhanced by the evidence of God’s goodness and grace.  This makes me think of something that has some spiritual significance… in other words, you’ve read all of this, for this…

Why didn’t I get freaked out?  Why didn’t I get mad at people who sold me a car that they probably knew had problems?  Why didn’t this shake me?  Because I went into it with a different mindset.  I knew there could be issues.  But I was also confident that I would not be alone.  And in the end, God and I would work it out.  And He reminded me of that throughout the day.  My open heart made me stop for gas, so I would see that light, so then I could find the shop, who would point me to the Wal-Mart.  He gave me the phone that I could search the Google and get a battery.  He then kept me praying and singing and fellowshipping with him in a state of constant dependence.  At the end, He led me to try and start that car one more time, so I could laugh and rejoice in His immense goodness!

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So, why is this so different from everyday life, when things frustrate me and anger me? The difference was I woke up ready for an adventure with God.  And He let me have one.  I wonder if I could wake up like that tomorrow?  I wonder how much I would revel in each day if I just thought of everyday as an adventure with God. If I did, I think I’d be less overwhelmed by each days worries and I would be open to see all the good He surrounds us with and rejoice.  I can’t wait for adventure #10643.  I just don’t want to do it without Him.

What is Jesus Full Of?

This is the last in a series on John 1:1-18.  To start from the beginning, click HERE.

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And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:14–18, ESV)

A word that grabs my attention appears twice in these verses: “full,” and “fullness.”  These words, are from the same Greek word, “pleireis.”  It speaks of the contents and the completeness of what fills a container.  So a pitcher of milk, filled to the brim. Or, a reservoir that has raised to the tops of its banks.  Why is this so important in these verses?  Because the John uses the word to point us to what can be expected from Christ, and who might expect it.

First, let’s think about the contents of the container.  The Word came and dwelt among us… In simpler terms, Jesus, the Son of God and agent of creation, came to live as a human being.  But he did so, being filled with something.  What is the content of his fullness?  It is “grace and truth.”  Jesus was filled with grace and truth.  These two inseparable elements draw us into the very nature of God himself.  Grace and truth.  Like mercy and justice, compassion and holiness, forgiveness and righteousness, they seem like opposites, but when taken together they form a life-affirming tapestry of beauty and strength.

Now let’s look at the capacity of the container.  If a lake is our source of water and it is filled to the brim with clean, clear water, that is good.  But if it is a lake that is 20 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep, it won’t provide water to many.  So, what is Jesus’ capacity to give this grace and truth?  His capacity is determined by who he is.  His “glory is as of the Son from the Father.”  He comes after John, but “ranks before me, because he was before me.”  “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side…”  Jesus is the Eternal One.  He was with the Father in eternity past.  His capacity for grace and truth is immeasurable.  The stars in the sky, the sand of the sea, and the myriad intentions of the human heart are all held in the palm of his hand.

What does this mean?  In the words of John, from the contents and the capacity of Christ, we all have received “grace upon grace.”  His coming has heaped on us gift upon gift.  He comes, he loves, he serves, he sacrifices, he lives again, he invites, he leads.  He offers truth, grace, mercy, kindness, hope, joy, immortality… the very fullness of life.  And because of his capacity, he gives this to all who receive.  He has enough for everyone to get a full measure!

These opening words of the gospel of John reveal to us that the world begins, continues and ends with the Word.  The Word is He who brings us life.  By coming, living, dying and living again, he offers the grace of God to each and every one.  This is his message.  This is our hope!  Rejoice!  He has come.  He still comes to us today.  He will come again.

My prayer in this series of posts is that Christ is magnified!  My hope is that we get a clear picture that life and light have forever been in Him.  And our only hope for all the goodness God offers us is in the One who came and joined our lives with His life.

Thanks again for the likes, shares and comments!

Who’s Carrying Whom?

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Sometimes we Christians talk about God like he is a burden to be carried.  We list the things we “have to do for God.”  We have to go to church on Sunday, or we should tithe, or we need to pray.  We can’t just go do what we want to do.  Life as a believer sounds hard and very unattractive.

As I read Isaiah 46 this morning something important hit me.

1 Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock;

these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts.

2 They stoop; they bow down together;

they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity.

Idols have to be carried, but God…

3 Listen tome, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel,

who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried you from the womb;

4 even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you.

I have made , and I will bear;

I will carry and will save.

… but God carries!

God is the one who carries us.  My God is not a burden.  The things I do for God and with God, I am freed to do because He is carrying me.  He has carried me from my mother’s womb.  He will carry me as my  hairs turn gray.  He will carry and save me.

Find joy in being carried by the God who needs no one to carry Him.  If you recognize that He’s carried you, take time to enjoy the ride and give him thanks.

Only This Will Satisfy

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My wife and I are in the midst of a home remodel in order to get it ready for sale.  I’m a little torn.  We are spending thousands of dollars in order to market our home.  Who are we marketing it to?  Since it’s a big house, it will work well for someone with a growing family.  I wonder what they’re searching for?  They are probably searching for space, comfort, and a place to call home.  We could offer that without all the new paint and the new front door.  But we know most who search are looking for something more.  They are probably looking for new, for pizzazz, for a wow factor that will promise happiness, fulfillment, contentment.
They won’t find those things in my house or any other.  Our drive to be satisfied comes from a longing in every heart to connect with the eternal.  We want to live forever.  We want to live with order.  We want to live in peace.  We want to live with God.  You see, our hearts can only begin the journey to fulfillment by recognizing where the yearning comes from.  The Preacher wrote, “he has put eternity into man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11).”
Nothing in this world will satisfy us.  In his book, “And He Dwelt Among Us, A.W. Tozer wrote, Your poor heart, in which God put appreciation for everlastingness, will not take electronic gadgets in lieu of eternal life. Something inside of you is too big for that, too terrible, too wonderful. God has set everlastingness in your heart. All the things of this world are here for but a moment and then are gone. None can satisfy the longing for that eternal raging in the soul of every man (pg. 24).”
Our longing is too big for anything else than the eternal, to satisfy.  And there is only one Eternal One.  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).”  And, “his name shall be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6).
I will continue to make my home a little nicer.  If nothing else, the new owners won’t have a long list of “to do’s” before the move in.  But it won’t satisfy them (I hope my realtor isn’t reading this).  Their satisfaction, like ours, will only come when they connect their eternal longing with the Eternal One.  When we live in oneness with God, we will be at peace, today and every day hereafter.  That’s why Jesus came.  He opened the door to eternity for each of us.  Through repentance and faith, eternity becomes ours.  And by faith, we can walk with Him each day, living our eternal lives now.