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.

 

 

Polycarp and Pastors Gone Awry

Sometime between AD 120 and 140, Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippian church.  Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John and was appointed the bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey).  He died in AD 159, being burned a the stake for his bold proclamation of the gospel.  Polycarp, like John and Paul had a deep love for the church.  He also had a keen sense of the importance of godly leadership in the church.

In his letter to the Philippian church, Polycarp addressed an issue of pastoral misconduct.  That pastor’s name was Valens.  We don’t know exactly what the problem was, but we get a hint that it may have had to do with money and power, lying and integrity.  Let’s look at what he wrote.

“I am greatly grieved for Valens, who was once a presbyter among you, because he so little understands the place that was given him [in the church]. I exhort you, therefore, that you abstain from covetousness, and that you be chaste and truthful.”

He goes on to write… “I am deeply grieved, therefore, brethren, for him (Valens) and his wife; to whom may the Lord grant true repentance! And be then moderate in regard to this matter, and do not count such as enemies, [2 Thessalonians 3:15] but call them back as suffering and straying members, that you may save your whole body.  For by acting you shall edify yourselves. [1 Corinthians 12:26].”

There’s a lot of wisdom in this old brother.  Here’s what I notice.

1 – A pastor who falls has forgotten what God has given.  A pastor has a unique, hard, challenging, stressful and blessed position.  And when it is not handled well, it can do great damage to the Bride of Jesus. In the midst of the daily grind it is easy to forget.

2 – If a pastor fails, the church should take care to watch their own lives.  It is so easy to become embittered, angry, seeking revenge – hurt for hurt – and that just destroys us.  Mourning and grief are the appropriate responses.

3 – The failing pastor is not an enemy.  We must pray for repentance (healing requires honesty).  We must call them back as suffering and straying members (though not necessarily back into leadership).

4 – The goal is to redeem the whole body!  That includes the offending pastor. The miracle comes when hearts are broken and the reconciling love of God is displayed to the world.

This doesn’t discount the pain.  It doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It doesn’t mean that there may be times when legal issues have to be addressed. It doesn’t mean we ignore the victims, they need special care in healing. It does bring everyone back to the cross, so we can see our own need for redemption.  We must pray, hope and work together until that happens.

Whether it’s James MacDonald, Bill Hybels, or the local pastor at the corner church, we should mourn, watch, pray, hope and long for God to save us all – together.

Pray with me for the churches who are suffering from pastoral failure.  Pray for those who are walking away from church and Jesus because of the failures they’ve seen.  Pray for wisdom and honest repentance.  Pray for healing and wholeness in all the church.

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!

3 Ways to Possess What Jesus Came to Bring

Christ-incarnation
He came to endure the cup of suffering, so to us it could be the cup of life.

This morning I awoke 2 hours before the alarm sounded.  I began thinking about Jesus and the season of advent.  I started paging through my Bible and found a couple of verses that made me appreciate Jesus even more.  And it made me meditate on whether I am enjoying all He has done.

Check these out:

Philippians 2:7 ‘[Jesus]…emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

and

Galatians 4:5 “[God sent Jesus]… to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Note: Let me try to remove a stumbling block before I go forward.  “Adoption as sons” in that day meant that men and women were given the place and privilege of the son that would inherit all of Dad’s stuff.  So, instead of relegating women to an inferior status, the promise lifts all of us to equal footing in our relationship with Christ.

In reading these two verses together, we see the means and the meaning of Jesus’ coming.

THE SON BECAME A SERVANT, SO THE SERVANTS COULD BECOME SONS.

I love that line!  Sit on it for a bit.  What is the difference between a servant and a son (or child with full status)?  Servants are humiliated, their lives are sacrifices, their lot is suffering. Children belong, their hope is inheritance, and in the household they are free.

What a wonderful gift, that the Son of God would become the servant, so we could become real children in the household of God.

I don’t know about you, but this makes me wonder why I’m not aware of this gift more often?  How is it I feel more like a slave?  I feel like I don’t belong.  I often feel like I’m just trying to get it right so God will like me.  How do we move from the slave-life, to the life as His child?

  1. Don’t live at a distance from God.  Come to him.  Trust in what Christ did for me, for the world – everyday!  Turn, repent, confess, call, trust, pray, listen, follow.  In other words, reorient your thoughts and ways around Him.
  2. Be lifted by the hope he gives.  The kingdom is yours in Christ.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:5).  It IS! Not, it will be.  It belongs to you, if you belong to Christ.
  3. Don’t ensnare yourself again to the things that want to keep you enslaved.  Steer away, let go, run from the demands, and the expectations, and the empty promises of the kingdoms of this world.

Jesus came, humiliating himself.  He served our needs.  He opened the door.  He called us to follow.  Embrace Him and the life He gives.  The Son became a servant, so the servants (like you and me) can become sons.

As always, thanks for reading, liking, commenting and sharing!  And please take a moment and become a subscriber at the upper left.

5 Things That Make It Possible to Give Hard Thanks

DSC_0088Around the thanksgiving table, many people have the tradition of telling something we are thankful for.  It doesn’t take long to think of a few quick answers.  Family, the food on the table, sunshine, good health, are replies that usually show up around the table with a lot of frequency. But there are always things in our lives that we just don’t want to give thanks for.  These are the disrupters.  They are the things that have created chaos, questions, and discomfort.  This is the hard thanks to give, but give it, we can and should.

I received an email from a fellow follower of Jesus.  She had read my book, “Transformed Pain” and was struggling to accept how God was currently working in her life. As a young Mom, she is burdened with a severe, life-changing health condition.  She’s been praying and she hoped that God would have given her healing and this thing would be gone by now.  The doctors have given her little hope that this would happen.  She asked me what Scripture might help her find a renewed joy in the Lord.

My heart aches for her. I can’t imagine the pain of what she’s going through. After some reflection, this was my reply: “The Scriptural example that I thought of was God’s people Israel, in the wilderness.  And day after day, for 40 years, they gathered and ate manna.  It was a tasteless food.  Every meal was a reminder of what they had known (leeks and onions by the Nile).  I imagine, with every meal the idea of family dinners lost their attraction as their tastebuds were dying a slow death from lack of use.

They complained.  They longed.  They asked for relief.  They demanded relief. Except for one instance of judgment, God gave them no relief.  Until they reached their spiritual and physical destination.

They felt like the manna was killing them.  It wasn’t.  It was the thing God gave them to keep them alive.  It was sustaining them through the roughest journey anyone could have.  Manna wasn’t a curse, it was a blessing.  It just wasn’t the blessing they wanted.  The manna was a reminder that this wasn’t the promised land.  Our pain reminds us that this is a time of redemption, not a time of restoration.  Restoration is to come.  But until then, God is working His plan of redemption through us – even through our suffering.”

We all have things God has brought into our lives that we would rather not have. Instead of giving thanks, we would rather just ignore it, put up with it, or even fight against it. How can we experience gratitude for the hard things?  Here are a few things that might help us give hard thanks.

  1. Keep the big story in mind.  Like everyday fits into a season of the year, your life fits into the movements of history. We should expect hot days in summer and cold days in winter. We should also expect hard times in this part of God’s story. This is a wilderness world. We are traveling toward a promised land. In the wilderness, we learn, struggle, hope, and follow. We find joy in the God who is leading us toward His future.
  2. Embrace Christ as the Author of your story. Every good story has twists, turns, tensions, movement and meaning. The wilderness was filled with this and it’s a great story for the annuls of history. This is what Jesus, as the author and finisher of your faith, is writing in you.  Yours is a story that people will read for eternity.  It won’t be boring because of what God has done in and through you.
  3. See grace everywhere. Think of grace and gift as synonyms. I hate taking pills, I take 9 per day.  I hate kale, I eat it with my breakfast each morning. With my health challenges, these things are my manna. They are gifts of God’s grace. Even our challenges are gifts of God’s grace because they are the avenues by which we experience God and his transforming love.
  4. Long for Presence over circumstance. We were created to live in the presence of God.  Christ makes it possible. In the wilderness God came in a cloud and pillar of fire.  It was his presence with the people. If the choice is manna and God’s presence, or culinary delicacies and distance from God, choose manna! Prefer God’s presence over easier times.
  5. Say it aloud. Tell God, tell others your thanks.  It is true that our hearts shape our actions. But it is also true that our actions shape and reinforce our beliefs and thoughts. Think of a hard thing in your life. Reflect and recount how you’ve seen God working in that. How has it taught you about life, forgiveness, redemption, endurance, faith, people, yourself, God’s ways? Say “thank you.” Use the comment section of this blog!

In no way do I minimize the pain of hard times. But without thanksgiving, we can easily slide into resentment, bitterness and anger. We drift from the One who is with us. We let go of the One who loves us in the wilderness. There is nothing wrong with giving God easy thanks. But let’s not neglect the hard thanks.

In the comments, I’d be encouraged to read your “hard thanks.”

As always, thank you for being a reader of my Onward and Upward blog.  Feel free to comment, share and subscribe by email above.

Do you believe God is good? But, what about when… ?

Its an interesting point to note that when Jesus was addressed as “Good Teacher,” he said, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone (Lk. 18:19).”  Jesus was reminding his hearers that “goodness” is an essential characteristic of God.

When things are tough, one of the great questions we have is, “how can a good God allow all this?”  It’s a fair question.  But it presupposes that what we think is good, is actually good.  We have a perspective that is admittedly limited.  Many of us think cheeseburgers are good.  But they are not, if you want to actually nourish your body with your food.  Our definition of good has a lot to do with our value system and our over-arching purpose.

If our value system is wrapped up in the here and now, then suffering and struggling is a horrible violation of how we want to experience life now.  But if we value the eternal, growth, maturity, transformation, etc., our ideas of what is good, will be drastically changed.  Because it is in the hard times that we are formed into something new, especially when we grow through it under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.

Author and theologian, Peter Kreeft, wrote in his book, “Making Sense Out of Suffering”, these words, “If we love God, we will understand that everything is grace, that Job’s sores were grace, that Job’s abandonment was grace, that even Jesus’ abandonment (‘My god, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’) was grace.  Even the delay of grace is grace.  Suffering is grace.  The cross is grace.  The grave is grace.  Even hell is made of God’s love and grace, experienced as pain by those who hate it.  There is nothing but God’s love. ‘Everything is grace.’”

When you read the word grace in the paragraph above, replace it with the words “a good gift.”  This can be a tough exercise because it confronts our idea of what is good.  But doing this teaches us that all things God gives to us are good gifts, given to accomplish His good purposes.  He can only give what is good because He is good.

Rather than judging the goodness of God by our circumstances, let’s define our circumstances by the goodness of God.  No matter what we are going through, God is good and He is bringing about His good work in our lives.  To believe this is the beginning of experiencing the goodness of God in every area and every experience of our lives.

 

Thank you for reading, for your comments, your shares and your likes.

They (Those people of great faith) are all around you.

congregation

This morning, I’m reflecting on a memorial service I had the joy of participating in yesterday.  It was for a dear sister in Christ who was just 56 years old.  She fought a valiant battle with cancer.  And the Lord saw fit to bring her home.  What I was encouraged by was all the stories of her life and her commitment to Christ.  At church, she was quiet.  She was often in the background.  Yet she served faithfully in her area of giftedness.  She didn’t get, nor would she have liked fanfare.  In fact, she saw herself as someone underserving of any credit.

What made me think this morning was a comment that was said yesterday by someone who didn’t now our friend well.  This person said, “I sat behind her all these years in church and I didn’t know any of this.”  I thought, “how sad.”  But it just reminds me that as we go to church this morning, we should all be aware that there are heroes of the faith all around us!  There are people who have sacrificed, shared, served and suffered in and through their faith.  These are brothers and sisters who are battle-tested and on some Sundays, just battle-worn.  They have been “fighting the good fight.”  They aren’t perfect and they know it.  They don’t feel like they have the faith-thing nailed, but they do trust in the power and love of their Savior.  What amazes me is they may even be the most uncomfortable ones at church.  Nevertheless these are the ones we need to know!  They will only make us stronger.

Hebrews 11 is known as the “Hall of Faith.”  It is a listing of our great heroes of faith.  People like Abel, Abraham, Rahab, Gideon, and David are recorded as inspirations. These are men and women who responded faithfully, but not perfectly, to the invitation of God to follow. God is not done with Hebrews 11.  He is still writing that story today.

You may be headed to church today.  Would you remember that God is adding to the story of faith in the lives of those unknown saints around you?  Be courageous today, meet them. Find opportunities to hear their stories. You don’t want to discover at their memorial service you missed a chance to know what real, imperfect, yet powerful faith is all about.

You, the church and these quiet heroes will only be encouraged by it.