Are you a zoo or a jungle?

I’ve heard lions roar twice in my life. One time was at the St. Louis Zoo and the other was in Ngoro Ngoro crater in Tanzania. While the event was the same (a lion roaring), the experience was quite different!

I happened to be at the lion exhibit in St. Louis when the lion let loose. I remember watching through the glass/bars as he paced and stretched. Then he let out a tremendous roar that drew people from all the nearby exhibits. It was amazing to see the people flock to take pictures and admire this magnificent beast. I imagine it was the best part of the day for the kids at the zoo.

That event stands in stark contrast to my other experience. I was on safari in Tanzania at the end of a two week long trip. My group was going through Ngoro Ngoro crater and we had just stopped for lunch. We were outside the caravan of Jeeps taking pictures when someone spotted some lions off in the distance. They were a significant distance away, but people got a little nervous. Then, for some unknown reason, the male with the group roared. He sent the majority of the group scrambling for cover. I remember seeing one woman fumbling to open the door, slamming it behind her and locking it for good measure. It was quite the opposite of the zoo. No parents took their children by the hand to bring them closer to the King of the Jungle this time!

I share these stories because I feel like God is asking me, is asking us, “Are you a zoo or a jungle?”

As a Christian, I believe I have the Spirit of the One and Only God living inside of me. The Spirit of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is pulsing through my veins, animating me with the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. So the question is, how am I treating him?

Am I a zoo, where people can observe God in me at a safe distance, never fearing that the two of them will meet? Or am I a jungle, where the Lion reigns supreme and anyone in close proximity to me had better take note that they are about to be encountered by the Risen Christ on his home turf? Am I a cage confining the Spirit to a lifetime of entertaining religious tourists, or does the atmosphere change when I walk into the room because I carry God inside me and He has the freedom to cut loose?

We all have to choose what kind of environment we will be. Humanity’s default is to put God on display for profit and we must consciously fight against that tendency. We are after changed hearts and lives and that can only happen when we bring the Kingdom of Heaven near.

“Stages” of Discipleship

As I continue to prepare for this Fall’s sermon series, The Normal Christian Life, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about discipleship. Jesus commands us to make disciples – not to have people make “decisions for Christ.” I believe Jesus envisioned a similar approach to what he did with the 12: grab some friends/relatives, walk through life together and, while doing so, teach and demonstrate what it means to be a son or daughter of God. Equip them, counsel them and develop Christ’s life within them. Then, when they are fully trained, they will be like their Master and can be sent out to repeat the process with others.

Like many people I’ve met, I was never discipled in an intentional way. Most of what I am and have has been gleaned from others, but my progress into maturity would have been much faster, much healthier and much more enjoyable had someone walked with me through the process.

As someone who is now discipling two young men, my challenge is to meet them where they are, figure out what stage of maturity they are in and help them to advance to the next stage of Christlikeness. It isn’t easy, I’ve never done it before, but it is invigorating and life giving. My goal is to get them to maturity faster than I got there and to see them surpass me when they get to the same stage of life I’m in. If I can do that, I know I’ve succeeded as a discipler.

Now, as to the “stages” I’ve mentioned. These are simply my own creation. I didn’t get them from anyone and they aren’t endorsed by any big-name preacher. They are simply how I think of people when I meet them. Feel free to take them and use them or change them into something that works better for you. The point is that you take ownership of the fact that you are called to disciple others and encourage them into Christlikeness.

I use the analogy of human life for my stages. It makes sense to me to think about discipleship in this way. The stages, as I see them, are: birth/baby, child, teenager, young adult, adult and elder.

(1) Birth/Baby
David Pawson has an excellent book and sermon series entitled, “The Normal Christian Birth.” The distilled version is this: in order for someone to have a good birth into the Kingdom, they need to (a) Repent of their sins and cut ties with their former life, (b) Believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, (c) be Baptized and (d) Receive the Holy Ghost. To miss any of these 4 components is to have a bad birth into the Kingdom that will hamper your walk with Christ until it is corrected.

Once someone is born again, they are a baby, a spiritual infant. They need a loving father and/or mother to look after them, love them and care for them. Babies are a lot of work. They require a lot of input and their only output tends to stink. Babies make messes, get into things they shouldn’t and need to be taught how to be part of a family. The Vineyard has a saying, “Faith is better caught than taught.” While solid Biblical instruction is essential to discipleship, people in the “Baby” stage rely more on models. The discipler has the divine responsibility to model for the Baby what it looks like to be part of the People of God. Doing life together is paramount in this stage.

(2) Child
As a Baby grows up into a Child, they start a more formal educational process. In addition to what the disciple has already learned about repentance from sin, believing in Jesus, baptism and being filled with the Spirit they also need to learn about living a holy life and have their entire world view shaped by a meditation on eternity – the New Heaven and New Earth that God will bring us into. Some think that teaching about Judgement, Heaven and Hell is for advanced disciples, but the Bible makes it clear that this is an “elementary teaching” (Hebrews 6). The sooner Christians start meditating on eternal life with God and storing up heavenly rewards the better.

A disciple in the “Child” stage tends to be really good at regurgitating information and really bad at critical thinking and application. They can correctly cite a bible verse, but don’t really know what it means or how the context of the verse nuances its application. Children tend to be very concrete thinkers and are, therefore, rather rule (Law) bound. They need skilled teachers who are able to affirm where they are and who also expose them to a wider range of truths, texts and applications. It is important to note that the Bible frequently holds two opposite and opposing views in tension and talks favorably about each.

(3) Teenager
Teenagers look all grown up, but are still immature. As disciplers, we can be too quick to think that someone has matured. Just because someone knows a lot of Bible verses, prays regularly, and has budding gifts does not mean they are mature or ready for leadership. They still need to go through a period of testing to see what is really inside of them.

Like their natural counterparts, spiritual teenagers tend to go through a rebellious questioning phase. They start examining the things they believe and try to push the boundaries, just to see if they can. A good example of this is the “hyper grace” movement currently circulating in the American Church. The “hypers” are exploring grace, trying to understand what it really means. Because they have that trendy, edgy feel so common in teenage cliques, they are getting quite a following. And they say outrageous things, “because Jesus paid it all, I don’t have to confess or repent. I live in sinless perfection.” OK, that sounds awesome – I’ll see you in five years, then you can let me know how living in a community of people who never confess or repent of their sins works for you.

Disciples in the teenage stage are at a critical juncture. They are in a place where they have a lot of knowledge (and think they know it all), they have spiritual gifts that are starting to manifest and an appearance of maturity. What they (oftentimes) do not have are mature characters. They are not in possession of the Fruit of the Spirit. This crisis point is essential to draw out what is really in the person’s heart. Will they rebel and go their own separate way, rejecting what they have learned and proving that they were stony or thorny soil? Or will they resubmit themselves to The Lord Jesus and enter into young adulthood?

(4) Young Adult
For those that successfully make the transition to the Young Adult stage, a whole new world opens up. They enter a world of endless possibilities and freedom. Because they have submitted themselves to authority (first Jesus, then their discipler and lastly their congregation) they now have authority. They can be trusted with some leadership responsibilities and their voice carries weight in the community.

Disciples in the Young Adult stage always have a busy life. Oftentimes people in this stage are working full time; married, engaged or seriously dating; living on their own and making their own way. They are learning to be responsible and productive. After receiving for so long, they are now making the transition to giving.

This is also a crisis point – will the disciple learn to choose relationship with Jesus as their highest goal and highest good. In the busy-ness of life, will they still take time to nurture their relationship with God?

Most people I know tend to get stuck in the teenage or young adult phase for a long time. They are either on the verge of total surrender and obedience or on just the other side and have gotten side tracked with life.

At this stage, the disciple is learning the cost of discipleship. They are beginning to realize that money doesn’t grow on trees and churches aren’t miraculously endowed with money each year. Just as it takes money to run a household, it takes money to run a church. They realize that all the food they ate in home group had to come from somewhere. They realize that everyone has a busy life and the time their spiritual family spent pouring into them was more precious than they could really comprehend at the time.

As these realizations begin to accumulate, the young adult starts to make the transition into Adulthood, maturity. They begin to give of themselves. They volunteer, they tithe, they evangelize and disciple others. Eventually, they decide that they will take responsibility for their own growth and seek to bless, love and encourage others.

(5) Adulthood
These are the people every pastor wants in their congregation. These are the committed, dedicated, passionate people that make ministry happen. These are the regular volunteers, the tithers, the people hosting home groups and teaching Bible studies. These are the people welcoming new believers into their homes and living lives of true discipleship.

These are the glory years of the Christian life. They are years where you are growing in communion with God, stepping into your true identity and calling, doing meaningful/fulfilling work, and seeing the Kingdom expand one man or woman at a time. The dividing walls between secular and sacred have come crumbling down and you can find God anywhere you look. You know God and are known by Him. You have peace.

(6) Elder
Very few people, in my opinion, make it to the Elder stage. For the record, I’m not using the term to mean the position of oversight talked about in the Bible. I’m using the term to talk about those venerable saints that make you shake your head in wonder.

In order to become an Elder, I think one needs to have been walking with Jesus for 40-50 years. Given that most of us really commit to the discipleship process between 20 and 30, that puts Elders in their 60’s to 80’s, provided they have done their homework and grown up before they grew old. Elders have an unmistakable air of grace around them. The only word to describe them is “holy.” These are the people Proverbs talks about when it says, “Grey hair is a crown to the aged.” These people have walked the walk, stood the test of time and been found faithful. These people know Jesus.

I’ve met a handful of Elders and they make me uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time. On one hand, they seem to be able to look through my bravado and see the insecure young man underneath. And at the same time, they make me feel so loved and encouraged I think I can do anything.

Elders leave a lasting legacy. Their lives have such a dramatic impact on the world around them that they are not easily forgotten, at least by the people that knew them. There is an almost critical shortage of Elders in the Body. Too many grey haired wonders have hung up their spurs and retired. Too many have gotten weary. Too many have been ignored by those obsessed with the new and the young. We need a resurgence of respect for the Elders of the Church – they would save us from a lot of needless struggle.

————————————————————————————————————–
So there is my list. I know it was a lot of reading, but I hope you found it helpful. As always, I love to hear your comments.

Thanks for reading!

Saltwater Fish and Freshwater Fish

This Fall, I will be leading my congregation through a sermon series entitled The Normal Christian Life. I’m seeking to answer the basic questions of Christianity for myself and then share them with the congregation. One of the questions I’ve been wrestling with is, “what is sin?”

A quick survey of the available literature reveals that the Church is really good at condemning certain sins, absolutely excellent at recounting various lists of sins from Scripture – Old and New Testament – and pretty abysmal at answering my question. The exceptions to this that I have found so far are John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

Piper and Grudem both answer the question, “what is sin,” by explaining the Reformed doctrine of “Total Depravity” – which in plain English reads like Psalm 51, “Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Piper and Grudem both do a great job of explaining that (pre-Rebirth) we aren’t sinful because we’ve committed sins, we commit sins because we are sinners. Grudem goes on to explain in Chapter 24 of his book, Systematic Theology, that the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity does not preclude people from being moral or performing acts of justice. It is just that, in a sinful state, we are not able to do anything that pleases God. “Our righteous acts are as unclean as a menstrual garments,” is Isaiah’s poetic phrasing in chapter 64.

As convincing and correct as I find both Piper’s and Grudem’s arguments, I felt something lacking. I couldn’t envision a clear and concise way of explaining this concept to an unbeliever – it was too heady and lacked conviction. So I set to work praying, asking God for a way to preach this message in a way that would be easily understood and carry the proper punch. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’ll share what I have so far.

As far as I am aware, there are two main categories of fish – saltwater fish and freshwater fish. Each type of fish has evolved to be comfortable in that certain environment and to transplant a saltwater fish into freshwater (and vice versa) is to kill the fish.* So, if I wanted to save a bunch of fish in the ocean, I couldn’t just dump them off at a neighbor’s farm pond – the change of environment would kill them. If I wanted to transplant those fish, I’d have to find a way of changing the internal environment and chemistry of the fish so that they could survive the different level of salt in the water.

That is exactly what Jesus does for us.

We were all born as “saltwater fish.” If I were to corrupt David’s Psalm to fit my anaology, it would read “Surely I was a saltwater fish from birth. I was a saltwater fish from the moment my mother conceived me.” Through no conscious effort on our part, we were born saltwater fish. And the salt in the water is symbolic of sin. Fish in the ocean can see the salt in the water, even though it is all around them and directly impacts how they live and function. So it is with us. Until the Holy Spirit gives us the ability, we are blind to our own sinful nature, our own corrupted thoughts and desires. It isn’t until Jesus draws us to himself that we are able to see things clearly for the first time.

To continue with the analogy… the Kingdom is freshwater territory – saltwater fish don’t feel comfortable there, they are as hostile to that environment as the environment is dangerous to them. You can be the biggest, baddest fish in the ocean and it doesn’t matter – the Kingdom is Freshwater. Conversely, you can be the kindest, gentlest, most virtuous saltwater fish there ever was – and it still doesn’t matter because the Kingdom is Freshwater. Neither of them can live in the Kingdom for any length of time unless they become a different kind of fish.

Whichever of the two fish mentioned above you relate to the most, you still have to come to Jesus. He alone has the ability to change you on the inside so that you are comfortable in the Kingdom and that it will be a life-giving environment for you. Obtaining Eternal Life in the Kingdom isn’t about being moral and following a bunch of rules – it is about submitting your life to Jesus as your Lord and Savior. That is why we say we are “saved by grace through faith and not by works.” Will we go on to do good works after we’ve been transformed? Of course! That is what the children of God do – but we can never confuse our external acts with our internal state before The Lord.

That is what I have so far friends. Was this a helpful analogy for you? Why or why not? Could I clarify anything? Would you feel comfortable using this analogy when you are evangelizing?

I want to refine this concept because I think it articulates the heart of the Gospel, but I need feedback. If you would take a moment to comment below or send me an email, I would greatly appreciate it. As always, thanks for reading.

* [Full disclosure: in researching this allegory I did discover that there are certain subtypes of fish, mainly bull sharks, that can seemly survive for extended periods of time in either environment. For the purpose of this example, those fish are excluded. =) ]

What I Meant to Say: Metanoia (Repentance)

Matthew 4:17 is the nucleus of Jesus’s life and ministry. “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” is the essence of Jesus’s work on the earth. Everything we see in the Gospels flows from it. Therefore, it is essential that we understand what Jesus means in those first few words recorded in Matthew.

I’ll preface this by admitting that the word “repentance” has a lot of baggage associated with it. The word has been damaged in our culture and is in great need of explanation so that we can understand it correctly. Repentance is the absolute first step to salvation – it is imperative that we understand it well and can explain it to others.

Let us first examine what repentance is not.

When we proclaim the Good News, we want people to repent. However, getting people to repent is not us trying to convict other people of their sins so that they will turn to Jesus for forgiveness. Convicting people of their sins is Holy Spirit’s job (see John 16). A great many saints have taken this approach through the years and God, in His mercy, has allowed it to be fruitful. Even still, I do not think this is the most effective means of advancing the Gospel.

I’d like to go on to explain what repentance is by comparing and contrasting two Greek words, metanoia and paranoia.

Paranoia is a word we are familiar with in English. It describes a disease wherein someone is absolutely consumed with thoughts of other people, specifically, that other people are out to “get them” or do them harm. This is exactly what the word paranoia means in Greek – para means “alongside” or “beside” and noia is the word for “thinking” or “mind.” So, paranoia has a double meaning – it can mean “outside your mind” (meaning madness), or it can mean “thinking about the people beside you.” Paranoia is literally the fear of man, being consumed with thinking about the people around you and what they are thinking about you. Paranoia is a disease of the enemy that steals, kills and destroys a sound mind.

Metanoia is commonly translated as repent, which is really unfortunate because that isn’t anything like what the word means in Greek. If you think about it, re means “to do again” and pent is from the word penitent which means “feeling or expressing sorrow for sin.” So repent literally means “to feel sorry and do penance over (and over) again.” Yuck. But it helps explain why we evangelize the way we do. We’re trying to get people to feel sorry for their sins.

Contrast that with the actual Greek word metanoia. Meta can mean “to change” or “above” and noia once again means “mind” or “thinking.” So metanoia also has two meanings – “to change your mind/thinking” or “to think about the things above,” meaning God. If paranoia is being concerned with what other people think of you, metanoia is being concerned with what God thinks of you.

So, what does Jesus mean when he says, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”? I think what he means is this: “The Kingdom of Heaven, God’s reign and rule, has come near to you. I’ve proved it by healing the sick, casting out demons and even raising the dead. God is real, and He is coming as a King to overthrow His enemies and establish His Kingdom on the earth. How are you going to live in response to what you have seen and heard? Are you on God’s side or not? I am the Way, the Truth and the Life – I am God’s terms of peace. If you will submit to me as your Lord and Savior I will spare you from the wrath that is soon to come on the earth. If you don’t, them you stand condemned already as those that have rebelled against God and rejected His terms of peace.”

The sentence I highlighted above, “How are you going to live in response to what you have seen and heard”, is what I understand Jesus to mean with the word metanoia. Repentance can only happen when we have been confronted with the Superior Reality of God’s Kingdom. When we see God’s Kingdom triumph over the kingdom of this world through signs, wonders, miracles, love, mercy and forgiveness then we have a choice to make – will we align with Immanuel (the God in our midst) or will we continue our allegiance to the Prince of this world through unbelief, skepticism, cynicism, fear, revenge and unforgiveness? While metanoia is oftentimes accompanied by remorse over sin (Acts 2:37), it isn’t always (see Acts 10).

To clarify, I don’t want to do away with the English understanding of repentance, that is, “to feel sorry for our sins.” As Disciples of King Jesus growing in holiness, we will experience sorrow for our sins. We will grieve how we have hurt God’s heart through willful disobedience and we will ache over how we have caused pain to those we love when we act contrary to our true nature. What I am trying to make clear is that, as it pertains to Evangelism, we are required to confront people with the Reality of God’s Kingdom in such a way that it gets them to think about God. And if we can get them to ask questions like “What does God think about me? Are we on good terms? Were Jesus to come back right now and establish the Kingdom, would I be on the winning side or losing side?” so much the better.

I long for the Church to reclaim metanoia. I long for us to look for ways to change people’s hearts and minds by demonstrating the true Gospel of Grace. I long to see Disciples of Jesus carry His Presence in such a powerful way that whenever we walk into a room, we can truthfully say, “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to you.”

I believe that day is coming. I believe it is promised to us in the Scriptures. My prayer is that I will live to see it, even pastor a group of people who will be the living embodiment of the “greater things.” Amen, let it indeed be so!

Rude Awakening

11:00pm. 12:00am. 12:30am. 3:00am. 4:40am. Those were all the times my son got up last night. And he was wide awake at 4:40. Uuf da.

There are so many wake up calls when you become a parent. And not just the ones in the middle of the night. I’m talking about the wake up calls of character. It turns out I’m not as patient, kind or gentle as I originally thought. I just never encountered anything that riled me up too badly.

As 5:00, then 5:30 then 6:00 rolled around with no signs of Emory slowing down, I decided to make a pot of coffee. I grabbed my old favorite mug – wide rimmed, rustic country style with a picture of corn on the side. It reminded me of all my early morning quiet times pre-children. Fond memories for sure, but they came with a bitter edge this morning.

You see, I used to think I was so spiritual. Up at 6 of my own accord to read the Bible and journal while I sipped coffee with a splash of cream – that was my picture of the ideal Christian life. But here is what I realized – it is easy to be spiritual and not holy.

“Spiritual” is a word thrown around with nauseating frequency these days. Worse, it is a non-word, empty of any significant meaning. People use the word to describe situations or experiences that give them the tingles, but don’t transform their lives. They are “spiritual” and carnal at the same time.

Spirituality is an individual pursuit. It is you worshipping in the context of yourself. It really isn’t anything short of idolatry.

Holiness, however, can only be worked out in community.

Holiness is being like God. It is reflecting His image as purely and consistently as we can and we only know if we are being successful if there is someone else to see it. The presence of another human being reveals our hearts far better than hours spent alone in private meditations.

I am not holy unless I am holy at my absolute worst. When everything is against me, when everything is rubbed raw, when I am squeezed to a pulp – what comes out? Trials don’t build character, they reveal it. I don’t get to explain away my feelings, words or actions by saying “I’m tired,” “I’m hungry,” “I’ve been around too many people,” “I have stress at work or at home.” I don’t get to do that because God doesn’t do it.

It humbles me to think of how God interacts with me. I throw tantrums and pity parties enough for six people, I can’t imagine how He deals with me so gently knowing that He deals with the same stuff in each of the 7 billion people currently on planet Earth. What humility. What grace. What patience.

And I am made in His image and likeness. I’m designed to reflect and incarnate His character. I have His Spirit and His Mind. I have a new heart that longs to please Him.

I also have a long way to go in this journey of holiness. I have recently become aware of a whole host of things that were previously hidden from me. It is more than a little discouraging, but I’d rather know what is there so I can deal with it than continue in dysfunction and unholiness and hurt the people around me.

So here is to being decidedly unspiritual and embracing the work of carrying my cross of obedience and holiness. Here is to working out holiness in the context of community and seeing people as a blessing. Here is to giving up my unBiblical ideas of the pseudo-Christian life and embracing what it means to be the Body. I know this won’t happen perfectly, but that is precisely the point. I don’t get better at being Jesus in the worst of times unless I get to practice.

Daily Bread

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray in Matthew 6, he taught them to pray “Give us today our daily bread.” What has interested me these last few days is that just before Jesus launches into the Lord’s Prayer, he prefaces it by saying, “When you pray, don’t keep on babbling… your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” If God knows what we need for our daily sustenance and survival, what is the point of asking Him for it, especially if we are to avoid unnecessary words? Also, just a little while later, Jesus instructs us not to worry about what we are going to eat and drink because we are precious to our Father and just as he feeds the birds of the air, so too, will He feed us.

So it got me thinking — is Jesus instructing us to pray for something other than daily food and water? Is “daily bread” a cryptic form of instructing us to pray for another type of sustenance and, if so, what are we to be praying for?

In John 4, Jesus has sent his disciples into the city to buy food. While they are gone, Jesus has a nice chat with the woman at the well and reveals to her that he is, indeed, the Messiah. Upon the disciples return, they urge Jesus to eat the food they have just brought back, but Jesus replies, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about,” John 4:32. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work,” John 4:34.

Jesus obviously needed to eat real food, but there was another type of food that sustained him – spiritual food – daily bread.

I believe that our Daily Bread is to do the good works we were created to do. Our Daily bread is to overcome the enemy, prevail in prayer and set up the Kingdom on the earth. I’ve often wondered if Jesus drew from the story of Caleb and Joshua when he taught his disciples to ask for daily bread.

To recap: Joshua, Caleb and 10 other spies are sent into the Promised Land after their Exodus from Egypt. They were to bring back a report of the land itself and also its inhabitents. Upon their return, the spies related that the Land was exceedingly good, but that it was inhabited by giants. 10 other spies urged the people to not go in, but Joshua and Caleb protested. They said, “Do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.”

Joshua and Caleb saw the giants as bread. Conquering them would sustain the conquest of the Promised Land and inspire the Israelites to greater glory. Sadly, the Israelites gave in to fear and spent the next 40 years wandering until every last one of them died.

I wonder if Jesus was trying to get us to pray big prayers. I wonder if he was inviting us to ask our Heavenly Father for giants to overcome. I wonder if he was hoping that we would lay hold of our identity as “more than conquerors” and seek out those things that seem so large in the eyes of men and overcome them through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The more I wonder, the more I ponder, the more certain I become – Daily Bread is the establishment of the Kingdom of God through the hands of His Saints. Daily Bread is healing the sick, raising the dead, and making demons homeless. Daily Bread is bringing people to salvation through Christ. Daily Bread feasting on the fruit of answered prayer.

This revelation has changed how I pray. I used to think that asking for daily bread was asking for the grace to scrape by. I now think that asking for Daily Bread is asking for supernatural empowering to overthrow demonic strongholds and to eat giants for breakfast.

One last thing. Jesus taught us to pray in the plural. We ask for OUR daily bread. I can’t win the Promised Land by myself – I need an army behind me. Once again, the story of the Israelites becomes pertinent.

In the course of their wandering, some of the Israelites became content with life outside the Promised Land. The Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh all found life outside the Promised Land quite satisfactory and they wanted to stay outside, they didn’t want to fight. But Joshua made them. Joshua made the men fight until their brothers had inherited their portion from The Lord, only then could they all rest secure.

It isn’t enough for me to fight for and secure my own portion, I have to fight for and secure yours along with you. Until the whole people of God have stepped into their inheritence, none of us can rest. We have a responsibility to our brothers to fight for them, to see them secure in their identity and destiny. Any less than that is to work against what Jesus taught us.

I hope that this revelation sparks a fire in you. I hope that you begin to pray big prayers. I hope that you really come to understand that you are more than a conqueror through Christ Jesus who loves you. I hope that you dream big dreams and fight for the dreams of your friends. We need you.

Personal Prayer and Corporate Prayer Revisited

My last post was mostly about the need for corporate prayer and intercession, so before I circle back around to talk about personal prayer, let’s recap what we learned about intercession.

*Intercession, entychano literally means, “obtaining the promises of God,” “laying hold of the Kingdom and pulling it into our circumstances,” or “causing things to unfold in a certain way.”

*Intercession is absolutely essential to the unfolding of God’s plans and purposes. “You do not have because you do not ask,” says James. Without prayer we won’t receive many of the things God would willingly give.

*We always pray corporately, even when we pray privately. Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the plural – “Our Father… give us today our daily bread.” There is an understanding in Christian theology that I can’t be full unless you are. I can receive my inheritance unless you receive yours because part of my destiny won’t be unlocked until you succeed. Intercession is fighting for the dreams of our friends.

Personal prayer, proseuchomai, has the all encompassing definition, “to pray.” This type of personal prayer includes a wide range of heart postures including petition, thanksgiving, praise, worship, confession, intercession, lament and so on. Every type of emotion or experience can become a seed bed for prayer, as attested to in the Psalter. What is less understood is that personal prayer also encompasses a wide range of activities. You can journal, paint, soak in a bathtub or in music, stand, kneel, dance, lie prostrate, raise your hands or sit by a creek. Any type of activity can be partnered with prayer so long as prayer is your primary goal.

So that is a little bit about what prayer is, but now comes the deeper question – why? Why does God want us to pray? I’ll attempt to answer that question by telling you a story.

On the morning of June 30, 1859, Charles Blondin became the first man to ever cross Niagara Falls in a tightrope. Monsieur Blondin would go on to cross the Falls over 300 times, each time upping the ante. He was famous for crossing the Falls blindfolded, stopping to cook and eat an omelet halfway through and pushing a wheelbarrow filled with 350# of concrete safely across.

Legend says that Blondin once asked the crowd if they thought he could push a person across in the wheelbarrow. Seeing one man cheering wildly, Blondin asked the man if he would like to get in. The man declined.

I don’t know if that particular story is true, but I know this one is.

Several weeks after Blondin’s initial crossing, he showed up to cross with his manager, Harry Colcord, clinging to his back. Before they started their crossing, Blondin was overheard telling his manager, “Look up, Harry.… you are no longer Colcord, you are Blondin. Until I clear this place be a part of me – mind, body, and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do we will both go to our death.” The two went on to make a very successful crossing to the amazement and thrill of the 50,000 onlookers.

I love the words Blondin spoke to his manager. They are equally appropriate words for Jesus to speak to us – “Look up. You are no longer you, you are Me. Be a part of Me – mind, body and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do this by yourself. If you do, you won’t make it.”

The goal of prayer is conformity with Christ. It is to make us one in mind, body and soul. It is to help us think how he thinks, feel what he feels and act as he acts. Prayer is anything but a disembodied experience that begins and ends when we enter our prayer closet. Prayer is a continuous, ongoing experience where day by day, even hour by hour, we have an ongoing dialogue with God and are led by His Spirit.

The chief goal of prayer is to pray until God’s will becomes ours and our will becomes His.It is the only goal we need. I get uncomfortable when people offer up a dozen reasons to do something because it feels like they are trying to convince me to do something I wouldn’t want to do. All we need is one really good reason — and letting the Word come alive in our flesh in the place of prayer is the best reason of all.
The only other reason to pray worth mentioning, in my opinion, is that prayer gets us involved in eternal things. When we give ourselves to the place of prayer we become co-laborers with God, bringing about the Kingdom of God. I say this because prayer is not prayer in the biblical sense unless it is accompanied with action. We can’t pray for God to feed the hungry and not do it ourselves. We can’t pray for God to care for the orphans and not take them into our homes. We can’t ask for God to bless marriages and not give everything we have to building up our own. Unless prayer is followed up with action it is nothing more than good intentions – it is powerless and hypocritical.

Prayer is the place of transformation, of conformation. Prayer is where the power is because it is the place where we touch God’s heart and get His perspective. Prayer is where we deal with our own brokenness and sin, it is where we fight our lions and bears so that, when we are faced with Goliath’s in public, we have the power and authority to deal with them. This is why I say that prayer is the proving ground.

I once heard Bill Johnson say, “I can pray for you to do what I can do, but I can’t impart my history with God to you. You have to make that for yourself.” We all need to make history with God and that happens in the place of prayer. It won’t benefit us or the world to work miracles if we don’t have the character and integrity to stay faithful to God and in love with His Son Jesus.

We live in an age that loves individualization. We want our own personal plan for discipleship. We want Jesus to cater to our needs and make us holy without much effort or inconvenience on our part.

That just isn’t going to happen.

The method of transformation and discipleship is unchanged in 2,000 years of church history and has been making high caliber saints the entire time. The plan is to pray. Pray and read the word. Pray and fast. Pray and worship. Pray and give. Pray and serve. Pray for your enemies and everyone who hates you. Pray by yourself and pray with the community. Pray, pray, pray – pray without ceasing and devote yourself to prayer.

Only prayer will transform you. Only prayer will result in a life of communion with God. I don’t want to undermine the importance of Scripture, but many of the greatest saints of history were illiterate. They couldn’t read or study, so they prayed and the course of our world was radically adjusted because of their intercession. Of course, if you’re reading this, then you can read and you should study the Scripture dilligently, letting them form your imagination and give you language and passion for your pursuit of God. My point is simply to say that prayer, more than any other discipline, is essential to the work of sanctification.

Daniel, Peter, John, Paul, Jesus – all these men had set times for prayer. If you want to do what they did, you must do what they did. Before we can go around “doin’ the stuff” we first have to get “the stuff.” And “the stuff,” the anointing of the Holy Spirit, only comes in prayer (see Luke 3:21, Acts 2:1).

There is no single enterprise that is more important, more inspiring and more impactful than the work of biblical prayer and intercession – that is, making a petition with the full intention of being the answer to your own prayer. Did you pray for The Lord to heal Aunt Sally? Then you’d better call Aunt Sally and release healing over her. If at all possible, The Lord wants to use you to answer your prayers; prayer is a full contact sport, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

One last thought. When David wanted to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, he first tried to bring it on a cart. The cart hit a bump and Uzzah payed the price. After further investigation, David found that the Ark, the very Presence of God Himself, could only be carried on the shoulders of the priests. The take-away is this: God doesn’t anoint methods, he anoints men (and women!). No program is going to usher in the Presence of God into your congregation, only prayer. When the people of God step into the Priestly model that Jesus lays out for us in Hebrews 7:23-25 we will once again see the Presence of God being carried by the People of God. Amen, let it indeed be so!

Personal Prayer vs. Corporate Prayer

I just had a mind-blowing revelation about prayer that I wanted to share with you. I seriously think this message can change the prayer culture in our congregations if we can get ahold of this.

The greek word for personal prayer in the New Testament is proseuchomai. It means, “to pray, to wish for.”

The greek word for corporate intercession in the New Testament is entychano. It is a conjunction of en “in, or into” and tychano, which means “to take part in, to obtain or provide, to (cause to) happen in a certain way.” Corporate intercession in the New Testament has the connotation of obtaining the promises of God, manifesting the Kingdom by taking it out of the theoretical and into the tangible through unity in prayer – that is pretty exciting!

There is something about agreement and unity in prayer that God finds irrisistable. Breakthrough, answered prayer, happens more frequently when a community prays in a concentrated manner rather than with scattered individuals offering up their own private wish lists. Corporate agreement in prayer is part of the Church’s mandate to make things “on earth as they are in Heaven.” It is the Church living out its mission of ekklesia, “the ones called out by Jesus to gather in his name for the purpose of exercising his governmental powers for the well-being of the city” (Alexander Venter, “Doing Church,” p.36).

Thomas Rainer has noted that the most effective congregations in evangelism and discipleship are the congregations that have a high value for corporate prayer. He also notes that, as the value for corporate prayer and intercession decline, so does the health of the congregation.

Corporate prayer and intercession is an essential ingredient in the Christian life. Corporate prayer and intercession isn’t for the super spiritual, the super anointed, or those who have a “passion” for prayer. It is for everyone. When Luke summarized the key components of the Early Church, he described them as being “devoted to prayer.” The word “devoted” is used 10 times in the New Testament, 6 of those times it is used to describe how Christians should be in prayer. To be devoted is to be set apart. To be devoted is to be in a particular habit or pattern of prayer that frequently draws you away from regular life and into the secret place. Only you and God know if “devoted” is a word that described your prayer life, but if it doesn’t then I encourage you to make the necessary changes to come into alignment with this biblical standard.

Corporate prayer is sorely lacking in my congregation right now. It isn’t part of the DNA of my tribe and that is a major hole. I believe that sustained corporate intercession is the key to transformation. Intercession, entychano, is what is needed to obtain God’s promises, to pull the potential into the concrete, to enable us to declare “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Nothing less than anointed men and women coming together in corporate agreement with the Kingdom of God will result in changed hearts and lives. Prayer is the proving ground, the place where our hearts are overshadowed by His heart. It is the place of transformation and innovation. Prayer enables us to work more effectively because God is working with us, preparing the road ahead of us.

We don’t need more or better methods of churchmanship. We don’t need to decide if we are “missional,” “seeker sensative,” “attractional,” or “emergent.” We need to be people of prayer. We need to be people available for the Holy Ghost to use whenever and wherever He so chooses. Amen.

The Spirit of Holiness

I’ve been reading the Gospel of Luke in a new translation called The Passion Translation. I really like it. Whenever I find a translation that makes me feel like I’m hearing the Good News for the first time (again), I take it as a good thing.

In chapter two, when talking about Simeon, the translator says “the Spirit of Holiness rested upon him!” The words “Holy Spirit” have become so common to my ears that I forget God’s Spirit is, indeed, Holy. “The Spirit of Holiness” is the literal rendering of the Greek, we just change it around to “Holy Spirit” to make it sound more like regular English. But there is something about the phrase “the Spirit of Holiness” that grabbed me.

Speaking for myself, I am frequently guilty of forgetting that God is Holy. That He is the Almighty, the Beginning and the End. I’m so used to thinking of Him as “Father” or “Dad” that I lose that perspective of Him. So when I read about Simeon, I find myself asking the questions – “is the Spirit of Holiness in/on me?” “Would people choose the word ‘holy’ to describe me?” “What does holiness even look like?”

There are a lot of words I could use to describe Christians, but holy isn’t one I would think of. I think that is an error. I don’t think of Christians and holy, set apart, or sacred. Perhaps its because I grew up in church, but Christians seem pretty normal and, dare I say, worldly to me.

I have unfortunate connotations with the word holy. I think of stuffy, overly religious Pharisees or etheral, disconnected mystics. Neither stereotype is particularly attractive or the type of holiness that Jesus modeled.

Jesus was so holy that when dirty people touched him, he didn’t get dirty – they got clean. Jesus was so holy that he could dwell in the midst of sinners, love them, teach them, comfort them, and yet the sinner’s understood that he wasn’t becoming like them, he was calling them to be like him. Jesus’s very Presence caused people to want to change their behavior, to be more holy, more like God.

Jesus’s holiness resulted in rage against religion (clearing the Temple), compassion for the downtrodden (the sheep without a Shepherd) and indignation at Satan’s abuse of mankind (healing the man with the shriveled hand). Jesus was both intimately involved and connected to the world and completely of Heaven. His holiness was held in suspension with his humanity – a bizarre and irresistible combination.

So often we talk about holiness in terms of what not to do. This is completely understandable for it is the Old Testament model. In the OT, holy people weren’t allowed around the sick, dying or dead. They couldn’t drink wine or beer, couldn’t eat certain things. Holiness was defined by abstention – removing oneself from the world.

But then there is Jesus turning everything upside down again! Jesus drank, he didn’t honor the Sabbath via conventional means, he was intimately familiar with sin, sickness and disease in the lives of others. What is the New Covenant definition of holiness? I’m not sure I know. Every holiness movement I’m aware of resorts to the Old Covenant standards, in clear contradiction of Scripture. They try so hard to be biblical they stop being Christian and shackle themselves once again to the Law.

The possible exception to this might be Bethel in Redding, CA but I don’t know enough about their community to comment on it.

My current working definition of holiness is “living in this Age like we will in the next.” Since Heaven is a temporary place, I’ve chosen the Age to Come as my reference point for morality/behavior.

Will we drink alcohol in eternity? Absolutely! Ever heard of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb where Jesus will drink the fruit of the vine together with his Bride? But no one will get drunk, hence a standard for this Age.

The more and more I search the Scriptures for what life will be the more and more I find myself understanding what life in this Age should be. there is no sickness or disease in the Age to Come, why should there be any here? We’ve been given power and authority to proclaim and demonstrate the the Kingdom is “at hand” haven’t we?

I’m hungry for holiness. I want my life now to be an example of what life will be like in the Kingdom of God. I want to be renewed, transformed and conformed to the image of Jesus we see in the Scriptures. I want to hold holiness and humanity in suspension together. I want to live in the tension of God being Holy and my friend.

Well, those are my thoughts on holiness, what about you? How do you define and live out holiness? Do you have a more positive view of holiness movements than I do? If so, why and where are they?

As always, thanks for reading.

Tithing and Beyond

One of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever heard was listening to Mike Bickle share about “Financial Power Encounters” at a Onething conference a few years back. I should really see if I can find it online, because it is worth listening to a couple of times. In the message, Mike shared stories from his own life of how he would sow money into missions only to have it returned to the dime or increased dramatically. His desire to live simply in order to give generously so struck my wife and I that we made a commitment we have been privileged to keep for 5 years or more now. We committed to “double tithing” giving away two-tenths or 20 percent of our income to the church and missions. We committed to reduce our lifestyle before we reduced our giving. It is a commitment we have joyfully kept – we love giving money away to people we love and causes we support. 

Money can be a touchy subject with people. Within my own congregation, we have prided ourselves on not asking for money very often. We’ve been happy to steer clear of the money subject in order to rehabilitate the skeptics that think churches only exist to leach money from struggling families. However, I think in doing so I have deprived our people of experiencing the joy and freedom that are found in giving generously.

Tithing, giving ten percent of your gross income to God, is an ancient practice – older, in fact, than the Law itself. Tithing was first practiced by Abraham when he encountered Melchizedek. When Abraham encountered “the King of Righteousness” (which is what Melchizedek means), he was so overwhelmed with reverence that he gave a tenth of all his possessions. Melchizedek was a priest of Almighty God, without beginning and without end the book of Hebrews tells us. In any event, well before the Law was established through Moses, the principle of the tithe was in effect.

I think Abraham’s generosity, reverence and worship so impacted the heart of God that when the Law was established, God chose to officially institute the tithe as a way of honoring Abraham. Does God need our money? Certainly not. But God loved Abraham’s faith – the faith God credited to him as righteousness. I think God instituted the tithe because he wanted to call the Israelites up to a higher standard. In effect, I believe He was saying, “You are Abraham’s offspring – I want his ceiling to become your floor. Even the least of you will be as generous as he was – and the greatest of you even more!” This was where offerings came in.

Technically speaking, you can only tithe from your income, that is, give a tenth. Anything greater than 10% is an offering. As an example, in my case I tithe and give 10% of my income as an offering. I love having money designated for offering. I love being able to support my friends who work in service to the Kingdom. I love supporting our World Vision children. I love giving to the poor – for a while I used to keep $20 bills in my glove compartment so that I’d always have something to give someone on the street if they had a sign or asked for money. It is so much fun to be generous.

Have we had some lean months? Absolutely, but those are the times when the God stories really start flowing. In our nearly 7 years of marriage, my wife and I have had our insurance company call us to say we overpaid and they needed to send us a refund, same with our utility company. We’ve had money in envelopes placed in our mailbox or people give money to us at church. One time, a very generous fellow gave us $500 because we needed it to re-carpet our son’s nursery. We’ve always paid our bills and had enough to eat. In fact, with both of us working just over minimum wage jobs, we were able to pay off over $30,000 of student loan debt in 4 years – I still don’t really know how that happened, it was miraculous to say the least.

Now, am I saying that everyone needs to do what we do and give away 20% of their income? Of course not, but it is something to pray about. I would say, start with tithing. Once again, I’d like to state that the principle of tithing is pre-Law, or rather, it is part of the law of Faith – starting with Abraham and continued by all his descendants. Tithing isn’t legalistic or punitive. For a dime out of every dollar God becomes your business partner, working with you to protect, bless and prosper your finances. Does He do that anyway? I think He does, but there does seem to be something special that happens in the hearts and lives of those who tithe. Tithing is as close to an obligation as Christians have, but it is also so much more – it is the opportunity to see God work miraculously in all areas of your life, including finances.

A few points on tithing:

  • Tithing is giving 10% of your gross income to the church (it’s called the “first fruits” for that reason).
  • *Ben’s opinion* Along with the first fruits idea, if you are paid more than once a month I believe your full tithe should come out of your first paycheck. 
  • Tithing is not tipping, you don’t give more or less depending on how good the Pastor’s sermon was.
  • The tithe belongs to the local congregation of which you are a part (if you are not part of a local body then you need to be. Arms don’t live long cut off from the body).
  • The tithe should be considered “ground zero” for giving, it is just what people of faith do. Think of it this way, all your money is God’s anyway, but He will let you keep 90% of it if you will give just 10% to your local congregation.

A few tips on going beyond tithing (into offerings)

  • God loves a cheerful giver, don’t give if it doesn’t make you happy.
  • Offerings are primarily designed for fellowship with God.
  • Offerings are you taking God up on an offer for adventure. You’re money may or may not be returned to you, but you are declaring that you trust in God’s ability to provide and you care more about serving Him than serving Mammon.
  • Choose a percentage you are going to give and don’t back down! Even if you have to sacrifice your lifestyle and fun money for awhile, don’t make light of your commitment to God.
  • Keep a journal of your financial power encounters – they are so much fun to read and the share.

Generosity is an amazing gift that keeps on giving. To own things and not be owned by them is a blessing. To give money and see the Kingdom advance on the Earth is outstanding. But to have a personal history with God full of amazing answers to prayer is the best gift of all.