Fruit of the Branches

(Another dream, slightly longer.)

I was placed in the middle of the Lord’s Table, equidistant from Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Though I was myself, I was also a clay bottle, filled with a dark viscous substance I could only guess at. The only other notable feature on the table was a large stand that had three protrusions, each one going to a goblet in the hand of the Three-In-One.

Before I could ask any questions, I was picked up and tipped on end. I saw/felt the dark, sticky fluid pour out of me and into the stand. From this vantage point I could see that the stand had a shallow bowl in the center and three channels that ran the length of the protrusions. The fluid filled the bowl, then began to flow into the goblets. After I had been emptied, I was placed on the table again and watched as each of the three lifted the goblet to their lips. They drank and the expression on their face was that of pure joy. I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment (it was similar to pride but much more pure) that whatever was in me had given them such pleasure.

As I sat on the table, enjoying their presence I became aware that I was filling up again. Somehow I was able to peer inside myself and noticed the dark fluid rising from the bottom and welling up within my clay form. After a time, I was picked up and emptied again. This scenario was repeated several times until, in one horrifying moment, hardly anything came out. The look of disappointment that flickered across each of those three faces is enough to grieve the soul for eternity. I didn’t understand what was different this time, I could only look imploringly at my God and wait for Him to answer.

When He began to speak, I was instantly transported to His side, even though I could still see the bottle that looked like me sitting on the table.

“What do you think that was that we were drinking,” the Father asked. (‘I don’t know,’ didn’t seem like an appropriate answer, so I thought a little harder.) “My works and service,” I asked a bit sheepishly. His shake of the head confirmed my suspicion that I was incorrect. “I truly don’t know, Lord. Please tell me.”

“It was you dying to yourself,” interjected the Spirit. “Every time that you offered yourself up and crucified your flesh your bottle would fill. The crushing of your worldly desires for the sake of relationship with us was what We were enjoying so very much. It is, by far, the most cherished gift that you can off to Us. Just as grapes must be crushed to make wine, you must die to yourself to release this most precious present.” 

Jesus spoke, “I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine again until I drink it new with you in the Kingdom of God… but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the fruit of My branches,” He said with a wink. He continued, “The wine you bless when you share the Eucharist, what is it?”

“Your blood, shed for me and for all people for the forgiveness of sin,” I answered in rote liturgical form. Jesus nodded absently, seemingly impatient for me to spit it all out. I wondered then how taxing it must be for an Omniscient God to honor a free-willed person who gave wrong answers and have any sort of conversation at all. Though, it may have been the mechanical answer that was more upsetting…

“Yes, that is true. But my blood, symbolized by the wine, was my very self poured out. It was the death that I died before the cross in the garden, when I killed my own will to pray ‘Not my will, but Yours be done.’ Unless you drink of that cup and eat of my body, freely offered in obedience, you will have no part of Me. Obedience to the will of God and sacrifice for the love of God, that is why I named it ‘The Great Thanksgiving,’ not because I blessed a cup and a loaf. I was thankful to offer myself to do the Father’s will, regardless of the cost to Myself, for I knew it gave Him great joy. The wine made from that sacrifice is what we shall drink for all Eternity. That wine, made from the Vine, is what makes glad the city of God and it can only be properly enjoyed when the Kingdom has come, My Father’s will is done, and we have become One.”

I paused to let that all sink in, feverishly praying for the Holy Spirit to bring this to mind when I woke up. Then, I remembered the time when Jesus had wanted a drink, but nothing came out. “Lord! What happened when you couldn’t pour me out?”

The sadness returned around Jesus’ eyes as He said, “You resisted me. You would not submit to my discipline, so there was no juice to fill your bottle. Only what is voluntarily given goes there. The rest is wasted outside the City.”

The tone of His voice caused me to weep in intercession. The anguish in His voice was more terrible than any anger I had experienced in the physical world. I resolved then and there to never disappoint my King by resisting His will. I want to please Him with this voluntary treasure that He so deeply desires. He did not need to raise His voice or speak harsh words to bring about this lament in my soul. Simply seeing the look in His eyes and the scars on His hands was enough.

Cloaks a Foot Thick

(Another part of the dream I had this morning.)

I looked up and saw before the Throne the vast multitudes of Heaven. Even though I knew that those nearest the front wore cloaks of humility, I still wondered that the glory seemed greatest at the far end and dimmed as it neared the Throne.

My look of confusion was all the opening the Lord needed to begin explaining to me,

“You know that the highest rank in heaven is to wear the cloak of humility?” I nodded my assent. “You know that to be wounded in battle and then to have me heal you brings great glory and authority?” Again I nodded, though I didn’t really understand this Truth being spoken to me.

The Lord continued, “Those standing here, these captains of the heavenly host, were those who learned to serve with utmost humility.” As the Lord finished speaking, John the Baptist stepped forward, “He must become greater and I, I must become less.” John stepped back into formation.

“During his time on Earth, John preformed no recorded miracles,” the Lord said as we started walking again. “His life was completely ordinary except in this regard – he loved me with the fiercest of loves. He was willing to walk by faith into darkness he could not know the end of. That was enough to earn him a dear place in my heart (I knew then that the Throne Room of Heaven is nothing else but the Heart of God; the highest positions were reserved for those who knew Him best), but he did something much greater and much more beautiful – he was willing to shine though the darkness did not understand him.”

Recalling that passage from the Gospel of John I was incredibly confused, because that passage had clearly (I thought) been written about Jesus.

“A servant is not greater than his master. Indeed, the one who has been fully trained will be like his master in every way. John was fully trained in the school of my heart in the wilderness, therefore he was able to be a messenger that preceded my Son. His faithfulness to point people towards Jesus and away from himself is what secured his place here in the front ranks closest to me.”

I nodded as we walked along, trying desperately to keep this all in mind long enough to write down. It was almost by accident, then, that as we turned around I bumped into another of the captains. It was only at this close proximity that I realized the cloak of humility that each of these captains wore was a foot thick. “Their greatest desire,” the Lord said quietly, “is to see my Glory, not to compete with it with their own.”

Food Bullets

(A dream I had this morning… 4 o’clock a.m. is power hour it seems.)

I was standing before the Throne of God wrapping nuts in saran wrap. These little packages were the size of my hand. When I had finished bundling it together, I tucked it in a pouch at my waist. As I did so, it looked less and less like a package of food and more and more like a bullet. I didn’t understand, so I asked of the Lord, “What does this mean?”

 “You must wound my people with the food of Heaven,” the Lord replied. “When you do, it will produce in them an insatiable hunger that will lead them to me.”

Knowing that this was a great revelation, I continued wrapping and meditating on this Truth. Then, seeming to come to my senses I cried out, “Lord, release angels to help me wrap as many bullets as I can while I am here!”

I could feel the Lord’s mirth and pleasure, but His voice was sobering and almost stern, “You can only fire the bullets that you yourself have made.”

This saddened my heart for I knew that I wrapped so slowly. But I also knew that the Lord had given me an invaluable treasure – the knowledge that intimacy leads to understanding and that I can only truly give what is rightfully mine.

Again, meditation upon this thought made me wonder how these bullets would be used. My male inclination towards weaponry made me incredibly curious to know how these packages of heavenly food would be delivered. They were larger than any bullet I had ever seen, so I imagined that it would take a huge gun to fire them. Bringing to mind as many Scripture verses as I could, I scanned them for any reference to “love guns.”

“These will be fired by your mouth.”

Instantly I saw a picture of one of these bullets, fed from the bag at my waist into the chamber of my heart. I knew then that I was “loaded.” As I spoke forth the Word of God, this package of Divine Life was hurled from my mouth with unspeakable force. The packages of nuts exploded, sending shrapnels of Heaven soaring into the air.

As this was happening, my imagination took me to my congregation. I saw myself making eye contact with them each in turn and these little bits of heaven would strike them. It made me wonder that I wasn’t more effective. I wanted these bullets to lodge deeply in the hearts of my people, but so many of them were just getting grazed on the arm or leg.

“It only takes a taste,” the Lord assured me. “No matter where they are struck or how superficial the wound seems it will work its way into their heart of hearts. Then they will know that I am the Lord and there is no other. Then they will know me, then they will love me, then they will fear me – then, and only then, will they be able to take their stand in this great hour.”

Carrying the Kingdom well

This was supposed to have been a much faster followup to my previous post “About a Burning Heart,” but Christmas holiday has started and my wife has monopolized the laptop getting her blog in order. It is really great looking and would be a wonderful resource for you. I recommend checking it out here. Amy is also responsible for the change in appearance to this blog. Thank you love!

I want to center this post around the idea of carrying the Kingdom of God with us wherever we go in an attractive manner. The longer we follow Jesus and the more we begin to know about Him, the easier it is for us to fall into pride. We can easily become judgmental, using the knowledge we have received as a weapon to hurt rather than a gift to heal. Humility is what keeps things in perspective.

Humility, far from being an esoteric virtue of the super-saint, is the most practical character trait a Christian can develop. Indeed, it is a necessity if one sincerely desires to draw near to God. Humility is grounded in the reality of who we are before God. It both dignifies our person and bestows dignity upon others, elevating us to the lowest position in the family of God.

Honest humility is incredibly attractive and frequently overlooked. False humility is what often shows up in churches and is the thing that makes us cringe. False humility is a sneaky form of pride that debases the self unduly so that others feel compelled to speak positive and encouraging things. This manipulative form of communication has been the enemy’s most effective attack against true humility. It smacks of a religious spirit and has caused many Christians to discount humility as a virtue.

However, humility is the only virtue which will enable us to carry the fullness of the Kingdom for any length of time for it is an emptying of the soul from all that distracts us from God. Humility is the observable behavior of an inward identity, grounded in Reality. Humility is the realization that we are children, that we have nothing to give that has not first been given to us. Humility means that any revelation we receive, we freely give to anyone who has need. We don’t despise those who don’t have the same understanding we do because we remember that we once didn’t have it either.

Humility is the highest honor in the Kingdom because it is identification with Jesus, the Suffering Servant Son whose birth we will celebrate in a few days. On Christmas,  the Infinite and Eternal God Most High took on human flesh and came in the form of a baby. God was now bound to time and space. The mystery of the Incarnation is so rich and deep that I don’t think we will ever fully understand it. How an Eternal God could now be bound by age and how an all powerful, omnipotent, God now needed his diaper changed. That is humility. That is a true emptying of oneself for the sake of love. And Jesus didn’t complain. He didn’t pout or grumble about how hard life was – He simply went about doing the Father’s business with a happy heart. It is my wish this Christmas that I will learn to do the same.

About a Burning Heart

I woke up at 4:30 this morning. No, this is not my usual wake up time and I was not particularly happy about it. But God had something to say and his Word takes greater precedence in my life than sleep.

You see, our hearts must always be awake to God’s Word. The bride from Song of Songs understood this when she said, “I slept, but my heart was awake within me.” When the Lover of our souls comes knocking we must always wake up to let him in, no matter the inconvenience to ourselves.

Friends, I am after God. I am after a radiant and burning heart that is able to authentically articulate the heart of God to the world around me. I want to walk with God deeply, be filled with His love fully and live His life so radically that death, darkness and despair can find no place in me. I want to be the blazing torch that heralds the dawn.

Perhaps this sounds melodramatic, a little too over the top. I don’t think so. God once asked a man to kill his only son, He is just asking me to wake up so that I can be with Him. When put in that light, losing a couple hours of sleep is a petty thing. Will today suck? From a physical standpoint, yes. But I trust that two hours spent with God is better than two hours of sleep. I trust that God will see me through and that I will be better for having obeyed.

The road to a burning heart is open to all, you just have to go through a little door called “hunger.” Hunger is God’s greatest gift to His children. Hunger is a holy dissatisfaction with the things of this world, it is an ache for eternity. God will bless you with it if you ask, but once that fire is lit, it is up to you to keep it burning. Hunger changes nothing, it simply creates and environment for change. It is a long obedience that produces what God is looking for – someone who worships in spirit and in truth, with zeal and affection for Him.

My encouragement to you this morning is to go for it. Let God set you ablaze with holy love, don’t just enjoy the warmth of other people’s fire. If you do that for too long you risk mistaking their zeal for your own. God’s grace be with you.

Washing through the Word

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me,” John 13:8.

The last several chapters of the Gospel according to John are some of the most rich, intricate and mysterious in the whole bible. The above portion is taken from the “Upper Room” account, where Jesus shares the passover meal with his disciples. John, the writer of this Gospel, was the the Beloved Disciple and had unique insight into Jesus’ emotions at this particular time. His Gospel records this phrase,

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;  so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Jesus knew exactly who he was in relationship to the Father. He knew that he was a beloved son, he knew that he was the Anointed One and he knew that the time had come to fulfill his purpose, redeem his people and establish his Kingdom. And what did Jesus do to celebrate this momentous occasion? He chose to strip down, take on the form of a servant and do the most humiliating task of his day – washing people’s feet.

It is at this point that we come to our opening verse. Jesus is making the rounds, washing his disciples’ feet, and Peter wants none of it. Then Jesus makes this wonderful statement, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

What fascinates me about this is that Jesus is King – and he knows it! What self-abasing rituals do kings of the earth make their subjects go through to declare their allegiance? Kissing rings, kissing feet, groveling in the dust – these are all things that kings have made their subjects do. But Jesus is the only King I know of who flips that completely around, who declares his right to rule by serving himself. It is allowing Jesus to do this most unusual and intimate work to us that brings us into his Kingdom, not the other way around.

So many people want to work so hard for God. They want to declare their allegiance to Christ by working longer and harder hours, working through religious checklists and filling their lives with business. And yet… Jesus tells us is to let him wash us. We have to be still, we have to be humble. We have to declare our inability to clean ourselves. We have to declare our poverty and our dependance and let him be our strength.

The worthiness of King Jesus

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Revelation 5:9

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” Matthew 28:18

In total honesty, we don’t exactly know what that scroll was that Jesus took from the Father’s hand in Revelation chapter 5. However, I rather like the notion that this is the “Title Deed” of earth, the royal proclamation that Jesus is Lord, the divine decree that establishes Jesus rule upon the earth. But even if it is something else, “Jesus is Lord” continues to be the confession of the Bible and of God’s people.

These two passages, taken together, proclaim the majesty and glory of the God-man Jesus. Jesus has been entrusted with total power, total control over heaven and earth. But makes us think that we can trust him? In this day and age we are so aware of how dictators use their power to keep their people impoverished, why would we think that Jesus is anything other than another deluded tyrant.

Because he was slain, because he was obedient to the will of his Father even to death, because by his blood he atoned for our sin and purchased men for God from every nation under heaven.

Jesus isn’t declared worthy because he is the baddest boy on the block. He isn’t entrusted with power because he eliminated all of his rivals. Jesus is entrusted with complete authority because of his humility and obedience. It is a Law of the Kingdom that, if you want to be great, you must serve humbly and go low. Jesus embodied this to its fullest extent.

Jesus is humble, gentle and meek. He is caring and compassionate. He is patient and understanding, quick to listen and slow to speak. He is also holy, just and righteous. He is obedient to the will of God and uncompromising in his war against our enemy.

I wonder how many leaders in our world fit that description? It certainly doesn’t seem like a group of character traits that our world would put together does it? Jesus is utterly unique. He calls us to give up our own lives and to become like him. This isn’t a recipe for success in the world, it is an invitation to true and authentic living – where the Kingdom Coming is more real than the world around us. Amen.

Not of this world

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” (John 18:36).

I am only beginning to find out how true that really is. The Kingdom of God is totally contrary to the kingdom of self, but, being human, we think our way is the best way. But we are called as Christians to enter into a new life, a new Kingdom. We are called to live life differently than those around us because we stand for different ideals.

Some Christians feel the need to be different just to be different. But I am more concerned with difference that manifests, not due to intentional effort, but because there has been a profound and foundational shift in who we are. This has captivated my imagination as of late, so we are going to explore this together over the next several days (weeks? years?).

The foundation of the Kingdom of God rests upon the assertion “Jesus is Lord.” If I were to modernize the word, I would say “Jesus is King.” The Kingship of Jesus is the beginning and end of the discussion in my mind. Whatever ground we cover in the course of this discussion, King Jesus is the beginning and the end of it.

If Jesus is my King, then noone else can be, for “a man cannot serve two masters.” This, then, means that I am not lord of my life. “I am not my own, I was bought with a price.” But a king is a man who rules, king is a function as much as a title. Someone who claims the title, but is not obeyed, or who has no ability to enforce their rule isn’t really a king.

This brings us rather quickly to obedience, the bane of our American ideals. How hard it is to submit! How hard it is to give up control of our lives to someone else. We have been hurt in so many ways by those who have power over us. And yet Jesus asks for complete and total obedience – not based on authority, but on love… “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

God’s Kingdom is ruled by love and we are not so much kings as king-makers. By our obedience we enthrone Jesus in our lives, or we rebel against His rule and set up rival kingdoms of our own. Regardless of our choice, God’s Kingdom is forcefully advancing into the kingdom of this world. But we have the opportunity to partner with God, to see His Kingdom come and His will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. The call of Christ is the same today as it was over 2,000 years ago, “follow me.”

Build the wall wherever you are

Nehemiah 3:28 reads “the priests made repairs, each in front of his own house.”

Many of us desire to do great things for God. We have received prophetic words concerning our destinies and we are anxious to “arrive.” We know we have the potential within us, but we are stuck in the hum-drum of everyday living. We wish we could just skip ahead a couple of years so that we could have our big moment and show the world what we are made of.

I have dreams of making it to the Olympics. I would love to be a world class Olympic Lifter, one of those guys who can clean and press 600+ pounds and take home a gold medal. Lets say that God allowed that to happen and tomorrow I found myself on stage, ready for my big break…

Friends, I can’t even lift 600 pounds off the floor, let alone push it over my head. I would get crushed and/or severely injured just trying to attempt such a thing. Why? Because I missed out on a critical piece of the puzzle – training.

If I were to dedicate myself to lifting, I am sure that in 5 years or so I could be capable of at least lifting 600 pounds off the floor, but that would require consistency, total dedication to the cause. What seperates Olympic athletes from everyone else? Perserrverence, consistency, complete dedication and a focused goal.  

If you aren’t at your goal, if you haven’t “arrived” allow me to be the bearer of true news, you aren’t ready and it is God’s mercy keeping you from doing what you want to do.

It isn’t that God doesn’t want you to succeed – He does. Its just that, like the example above, your dreams would crush you if you attempted them right now. You don’t yet have the character, the history and the relationship you need to handle that abundance appropriately. So, how does one go about getting all of that?

Every season of life is a training ground for your relationship with God – you are always “in the gym.” Grief, joy, boredom, servitude, happiness – all of these things can build up or tear down your relationship with God, just as mishandling a heavy weight can really mess up your body. Learn to build your relationship with God wherever you are. Being faithful in small things, giving yourself completely to the task at hand even if it serves another person’s goals and not your own, that is the surefire way to growth in the Kingdom.

A word to the Type A individuals out there… you aren’t behind. Your life is not a timetable that you have to rush through so that you can arrive at your goals sooner and be there longer. You don’t need to campare yourself to anyone else. Who cares if Billy Graham had his first presidential meeting at 32? God has a unique story in mind that only YOU can live out.

Devote yourself to the task at hand. Seek God in this current season. Dedicate yourself to cultivating relationship with Him through prayer, fasting and meditating on His Word. You will be surprised how fast you go by slowing down.

“Pastor” Part Three: The Ugly

I love my job. Pastoring is such a fascinating vocation and I work with absolutely wonderful people. However, there are moments in ministry life that are very difficult to walk through. These are messy and ugly interpersonal conflicts that are very rare, but also very real. I am sure there are many causes of these problems, but I am going to focus on two: idolatry and pride.

Idolatry – Pastors generally deal with two main expressions of idolatry: people idolizing the pastor and pastors idolizing the church.

Idolizing the Pastor – There is a tendancy in the Church today to place our senior leaders on pedastals and to look to them for everything. While it is good and right to honor our leaders, the American Idol syndrome needs to be addressed quickly. Jesus instructed us to not call one another “teacher,” “father” or “leader” (Matt. 23) because our true Teacher, Father and Leader is in heaven. I think the same holds true for Shepherd.

My goal as a pastor is not to have all the answers or to be a top-down CEO that values people by what they do. My goal as a pastor is to facilitate an environment where the Spirit of God is comfortable and works in a powerful way. My goal as a pastor is to lead from the front and be an example. My goal is to create a culture of honor where everyone is valued for who they are, so that they can be free to share their gifts in a healthy way.

Do I cast vision? Yes, but Jesus is the one that came up with it. The First and Second Commandments and the Great Comission weren’t my ideas. There is only one ministry- Jesus’, I am just trying to partner with him.

Idolizing the church – Pastors love the church, and that is a very good thing. It is not a good thing when pastors love the church more than Jesus. And no, the two are not the same. Pastors frequently lose sight of relationship with God. How easy is it for pastors to not pray and just work? How easy is it to not read the Bible except for when we are preparing messages? The answer is “Too easy!” In our efforts to love and serve the Lord, we start working “for” Him and not “with” Him. Sadly, I don’t think many of us know the difference. But the Lord, in His mercy, won’t let this go on forever. Either we will return to our first love or He will remove our lampstands – it is our choice.

Pride – Pride is a nasty beast, quite possibly the root of all sin. Pride in pastors in deadly because we are so stinking good at covering it up. Pride in pastors usually manifests as a religious spirit or false humility. We try so hard to be good little boys and girls that the work of the Spirit in our lives gets snuffed out.

Therefore, humility and vulnerablility in pastoral leadership is an absolute necessity. We need to constantly go low, not make use of our rights and let Jesus be our Shepherd. We can’t pretend to be overcomers, we actually need to overcome by God’s grace. We must live authentic lives of discipleship if people are going to take us seriously and if we are going to get a crown at the end of this race.

Pastors deal with great amounts of stress and do many wonderful things, but we can’t cut ourselves any slack when it comes to idolatry and pride. We can’t let people set us up as idols, we can’t set up idols ourselves and we certainly cannot let pride go unaddressed in our hearts. These are the ugly realities of pastoring, the serious temptations that plague an otherwise terrific career.