The Art of Saying ‘No’

It is hard to say no. Wether it is because we don’t want to disappoint our friends or family, or whether it is because we don’t want to miss out on fun or advancement – saying no is a routinely difficult thing for many of us. But as I was thinking more about yesterday’s post about using our time as a way of loving God and His people, I started thinking about this statement:

The mark of Christian maturity is not found in our ability to say ‘yes’, it is in our ability to say ‘no.’

There are many good and Godly things that are going to compete for your time. These may be bible studies, missions trips, small groups, etc. We can easily fill our schedules with religious activity, but is that what God wants for and from us? I don’t think so. I think what God wants is for us to be faithful in doing the things that we were made and called to do for the season of life we are in.

As a personal example, God has called me to the place of prayer – 20 hours a week spent in prayer, intercession and study for His people. Twenty hours a week is a long time to do something that very few people value very much. But it is the standard God has set for me. It may be more glamorous to teach a bible study, or counsel or do some other, more noticable kind of work, but I would be disobedient if that work took me from those 20 hours of prayer. So, I find myself saying no to somethings and rearranging my schedule to make everything fit. It is a little irritating (I have had to say no to come really cool opportunities!), but I find myself more and more at peace. It is good, and I believe pleases God, to be faithful to do the things we are called to do and to not let our devotion dissipate in the goings-on of the world around us.

So, church, I give you freedom to say no, especially to me. ūüėČ There is time enough that you don’t need to come to every bible study, there are people enough that you don’t need to do every job. If you have small children at home, be at home, make the most of those years and don’t feel guilty that you aren’t “doing your share.” The season of life you are in will change as your kids grow older and then¬†you will have the opportunity to come to bible studies or¬†volunteer and “cover” for other families with young children. We are all in this together. So be at peace in your place and be faithful to love whomever God has given you at this time (spouse, children, coworkers). As you are faithful, more opportunities will come – some of which God wants you to walk into and some that might distract you from your purpose. Cultivate discernment and sensativity to the Spirit… He wont lead you wrong.

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Devotion or Defection?

I find myself frequently writing about, and reflecting upon, time. There are only 24 hours in a day and I am sleeping for a third of them, so why is it so difficult to use the remaining 16 well?

Whether I like it or not, my life is lived in time and space; they are the materials given to me by God, they are my constraints as well as my freedoms.

As we have been meditating on the First and Second Commandments (New Testament versions) as a community, I have had to come face-to-face with how I use my time as a way of loving God and people. In fact, my love for God is frequently tested in how well I love God’s people. As I am fond of remembering, ‘every day is a test for eternity.’

I want to be intentional in the way I use my time. I don’t want it to be frittered away in meaningless activity, but neither do I want to neglect the magnificently mundane things of the here and now. I want to be firmly rooted in the Word of God which is living and active only as it finds a home in the lives of people who live in time and space. I want to be intentional, I want to be fully present, I want to be aware of God’s creative action already at work in the lives of the people around me. I want to join in to God’s work, I want to co-labor with Christ in the lives of His people.

For me to be able to do this, I can’t be busy.

Busy-ness is an internal reality far more than an exterior one. I can be hard at work for long hours and not be busy. Conversely, I can have absolutely nothing filling my date book and be the busiest person in the world. Busy-ness is how I carry my heart, how distracted my mind is with all of the goings-on of my life. Too frequently I find myself mentally living in the future, missing God given opportunities to act in the present.

This is not a good thing. Busy-ness is not a sign of devotion to God, but, as Eugene Peterson calls it, “a defection.” Busy-ness is not how I show affection for God, it is my way of showing how firmly entrenched I am in the Enemy’s camp. God is not against work, God is against idolatry. When I get busy on the inside I am worshipping the idol of self, presuming that I can shape others and the world around me into my image and to my liking, rather than humbly inquiring of the Lord and asking what He is up to and what He would like me to do.

I, we, need to get “unbusy.” We need to slow down and quiet our inner turmoil. We need not retreat from the world to achieve quietness and contentment, rather we need to submit every thought to Christ. Unbusy people have the time to talk. Unbusy people don’t assert their own importance by telling others how busy they are. Unbusy people are willing to have their schedules rearranged by the Holy Spirit.

Unbusy people realize that God is already at work and the purpose of their life is not so much to “do” as to “be.” Unbusy people realize that the primary purpose of their lives is relationship and partnership with God. They are successful to the extent that they interact with Him and love His people, not how much they produce or accomplish to the accolades of the world. Busy people tend to value “things” – jobs and projects. Unbusy people tend to value people – relationships and compassion. Of the two, things and people, only that latter are eternal – what are you spending the majority of your time on?

The Character of God: Judge

Today I want to look at the last sentence from the Exodus text we have been studying, “He does not leave the guilty unpunished…”¬†Believe it or not, coming to know God as Righteous Judge will cause you to love Him just as much as knowing God as Loving Father will. It will also cause you to fear Him properly, which is not a bad thing as one might suppose, but is “the beginning of wisdom,”¬†Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10.

Many people rightly fear coming to know God as Judge because they are painfully aware of their own sinfulness. It is true, coming before a Righteous Judge should strike abject terror into the heart of an unrepentant sinner, but that isn’t you – not if you have accepted Jesus as Lord and are following Him.

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known… This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe… For all have sinned… and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Jesus. God presented him as the one who would turn aside His wrath, taking away sin, through faith in his blood.” Romans 3:21-25a alternate translation.

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Romans 5:1. (Romans 5:1-11 is an especially helpful passage if you need reassurance that you are justified, “made right,” with God.)

So, what does this mean? How is this supposed to help us grow in love for God?

First, it means that you are justified. All of the sins you have committed are atoned for. (If you aren’t familiar with the term “atone” think of your sins as racking up debt with God. “Atonement” means that Jesus paid your credit card bill.) It means that you can come before a holy and righteous God without fear of punishment. 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”¬†God loves us with a perfect love and this is realized in our lives through faith in Jesus. Therefore, we do not have to be afraid of God as the Righteous Judge, because our sins have already been atoned for and there is nothing left to judge!

(Now, it must be said that we can and will sin repeatedly throughout our lives, but as long as we are faithful to confess our sins and walk out repentance, we are restored to right relationship and are blameless in God’s sight once more.)

Second, it means that God, as Judge, is on your side.¬†This is the Truth that really helps us to grow in love for God. Our view of God as Righteous Judge should not invoke the image of an angry deity looking to smite you. Instead, it should invoke the image of an indignant father standing protectively over you and bringing justice down upon those who have hurt you. You see, you are God’s precious child, pure and blameless in His sight. Therefore, whoever sins against you has to answer to Big Papa God, and He ain’t happy.

Do you see how that revelation causes us to grow in affection for our Father? Do you see how you don’t have to fear His righteous judgment on you, but that you should fear for, and therefore intercede fervently for, your enemies and all who wrong you?

If the image of a Father protecting and vindicating His children doesn’t move your heart, perhaps another image will. Elsewhere in the Bible, the Church is called the Bride of Christ. Though we do not have a sensual/sexual relationship with Jesus, imagine how a husband would feel, and what he would do, if he walked into his home to find someone attempting to rape his wife. That is the fury that is in the heart of the Righteous Judge against all who sin against His bride.

God loves us deeply and will vigorously work to make things right on our behalf, if not in this age then certainly in the Age to come. But we must not get carried away with this revelation and lose sight of the mercy that was first shown to us. At one point we were also enemies of God who harmed His people and that wrath could have been poured out on us if it weren’t for the sacrificial love of Jesus. It is possible to become to “familiar” with the Judge and take our salvation for granted. We are in grave danger if we ever come to a place where we feel entitled to God’s mercy. In order to drive that point home, Jesus tells “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant,” in Matthew 18:23-35.

‚ÄúTherefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.¬†As he began the settlement, a man who owed him millions of dollars¬†was brought to him.¬†Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.¬†The servant fell on his knees before him. ‚ÄėBe patient with me,‚Äô he begged, ‚Äėand I will pay back everything.‚Äô¬†¬†The servant‚Äôs master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.¬†But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a few dollars.¬†He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‚ÄėPay back what you owe me!‚Äô he demanded.¬†His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‚ÄėBe patient with me, and I will pay you back.‚Äô¬†But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.¬†When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.¬†Then the master called the servant in. ‚ÄėYou wicked servant,‚Äô he said, ‚ÄėI canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.¬†¬†Shouldn‚Äôt you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?‚Äô¬†In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.¬†

(And then the kicker…)

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.‚ÄĚ

In His mercy, God canceled our million dollar debt through the sacrifice of Jesus. We have been forgiven much, therefore we must love much and be quick to forgive. In fact, our forgiveness depends (yes, depends!) on our forgiving others. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we¬†forgive our debtors.” Meaning, ‘God, to the extent that I forgive others, forgive me in the same way.’ Jesus reinforces this point when he says, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you your sins.

So how do we bring this to a close? How do we grow in love for our Father as the Righteous Judge, yet not become to familiar so that we despise His grace? We look to Jesus on the cross. It was at the crucifixion that our great need and God’s great love came together. Jesus paid our debt so that we could live rightly with God. In sincere thanks and gratitude we then extend the kingdom of God by freely offering love and forgiveness to one another. Amen.

The Character of God: Father

For the next couple of days, I want to dig a little deeper into the character of God. This little series of posts was motivated by the comments many of you made in regards to Sunday’s message on the First Commandment. One of the difficulties we have in loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength is a thing called “transference” or, imposing the characteristics of one relationship onto our view of God.

One common way that this happens is when we think of God as Father. Using the term “Father” for God can bring up a number of difficulties, especially if one had a poor relationship with one’s father. We tend to transfer the criticism, rejection, or abandonment of our earthly fathers onto God and think that He will treat us in the same way. This is simply not the case!¬†God gives definition to the word “father,” meaning He is the standard to which all fathers are held. The failings of our earthly fathers (even the best of them!) reflect their inadequacies as human beings rather than God’s displeasure in us.

It would be impossible to examine every dynamic of how God is different than our dads, so I wont even try. Instead, I will let the Bible and the Holy Spirit speak about what God is like so that we can better align our perceptions with the Truth.

I think the best place to start when talking about the Father Heart of God is with God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7.

“And [the Lord] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished…'”

This is among the first of God’s self-revelations in the Bible. It is the “groundwork” so to speak, the base upon which the rest of the Bible sits. And how does God choose to reveal Himself to Moses (remember that in God’s initial meeting with Moses He made it very clear that “I will be who I will be,”)? He chooses to reveal Himself as compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love.

That is who God is.

God is compassionate. He loves you, He really does. In fact, He has an overwhelming amount of affection for you. So much so that He set into motion a plan of redemption that would cost Him everything because the thought of living without you was so unbearable to Him. He is a passionate God and Jealous for your affection. He is a giver and a lover, He always offers that to you. God’s affection is not based on your performance either. You don’t have to work hard to win His approval. He is already¬†for You. You can’t do anything to make Him love you more and you certainly¬†cannot do anything that will make Him love you less. He loved us, and set about redeeming us, while we were still sinners! How much more can we rest in His love now that we have been washed clean by the work of Jesus on the cross?

God is gracious. Not only is God quick to love, He is quick to forgive and to give the benefit of the doubt. God really does not delight in punishment – He delights in mercy. God is not a Father who will hold your failings over your head for the rest of your life. He will not beat you down because of your sins. He will correct them, lovingly, but as soon as you confess your sins and start walking out repentance you are restored to right relationship with Him. He will never bring that stuff up again. If you ever find yourself in a place where your sins are constantly running through your mind, even though you have confessed and are repenting of them, it isn’t God doing that, it is the enemy. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” 1 John 1:9. Also, “If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One,” 1 John 2:1.¬†You see, when we sin, Jesus actually comes to our defense and pleads our case with the Father – if you are a Christian, you have the best defense attorney there is. Not only does Jesus sympathize with our weakness, He takes steps to ensure that the Father’s conduct towards you is gracious and full of mercy. This is the very thing that God is eager to do and to be.

God is slow to anger. God’s temper doesn’t flare up at the slightest insult or immaturity. Some people have grown up in constant fear of their father’s temper and the specter of abuse – that is not pleasing to God and it is not how He does things. God is slow to anger which means that when something goes wrong and you aren’t in right relationship with one another, He will seek you out and try to reconcile with you. He will share with you His feelings, trusting that you don’t really want to hurt Him, but that you did so not knowing what you were doing. Jesus is the exact representation of the Father’s heart when He cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” Luke 23:34. Jesus says this in the midst of being crucified – His very intentional murder by the chief priests and Roman authorities. What Jesus meant was, “Father, they don’t have any idea who I really am. If they did they wouldn’t be doing this!” Even in His dying moments, Jesus was willing to extend grace and mercy. And that is how God wants to relate with you. He wants to do everything possible so that you can have a mutually loving and affectionate relationship with one another…

I am going to bring this commentary to a close for today, but I look forward to exploring this more with you all tomorrow. Please feel free to comment in the section below and let me know what you are thinking.

Personal Epiphany

I had a revelation this morning after reading and thinking about a blog post I read this morning from fellow Vineyard Pastor Marty Boller. You can read his entry here. Eugene Peterson’s quote of George Arthur Buttrick really spoke to me. His quote was,¬†‚ÄėPastors think people come to church to hear sermons. They don‚Äôt; they come to pray and to learn to pray.’

<DING!>

People don’t come to church to hear me preach! They come to worship God. That sounds so simple and obvious, but somewhere along in my spiritual formation I picked up the idea that the Sunday Morning Sermon was the be-all, end-all of spiritual life. I somehow came to the conclusion that the pastor’s sermon was the deciding factor in spiritual growth for the week rather than obedience to the Holy Spirit. And just this morning I realized that I carried that misconception into my own work as a pastor. This placed an undue amount of stress on me to the point where I really came to dread preparing a sermon. However, with the realization that it really is¬†about God and it really isn’t¬†about me, I can relax and do what I love to do – tell people about Jesus!

My goal as a pastor isn’t to fill people’s head with trivia, it is to help them engage with God in daily life throughout the week. I can and will do that through teaching the Bible, but mostly it will be through prayer, counsel and living by example.

I really can’t explain how much this revelation has given me relief. I didn’t even know I was carrying such an idolatrous attitude (thinking it was all about me) until the Holy Spirit spoke through Mr. Peterson today. God really is our Good Shepherd and the Holy Spirit really will lead us into all Truth. We just need to remember to follow and to listen.

“Humility” by Andrew Murray

“Humility” by Andrew Murray is one of the best best books I have read in recent memory. In fact, I am still reading through it, and I anticipate that I will read it many times over the course of my life. It is my opinion that this is a “must have” book for every believer, not because it is an easy read or that humility is an easy virtue to acquire, but because it is so vitally important to our relationship with God and one another.

“Humility, the place of entire dependance upon God, is from the very nature of things the first duty and the highest virtue of His creatures… Humility is not so much a virtue along with the others, but is the root of all, because it alone takes the right attitude before God and allows Him, as God, to do all.” Taken from pages 16 and 17.

Humility, the root of all virtue, or, as we would call it, the fruit of the Spirit. The only virtue by which we can be in right relationship  with God and humanity. Them is some strong words, but Murray is well researched and versed in Scripture and does a marvelous job of making His case. I am sure that I will be posting more from this book in the future. Until then!

Snow is coming. So is the Lord.

It is winter. You might not think so from the way it looks outside, but it is true. Snow will be upon us at some point, I don’t know exactly when, but winter and snow go hand in hand in Iowa. It is the same with the return of the Lord.

I don’t know exactly when Jesus is going to return, but “soon” seems a better answer than not. I do¬†know that the Day of our salvation is closer now than when we first believed. I also know that the Day is closer now than it was 2,000 years ago! I feel like God is giving us a living parable, calling attention to the peculiarities of nature.

It is winter, yet there is no snow. We are living in the last days, but the Lord hasn’t returned yet. I know that snow is coming because I know the season. I know the Lord is coming because of the season we are living in.

I realize that this might be taken as apocalyptic nonsense by some. Still others will cast disparaging remarks, quoting the ever famous ¬†verse from Matthew 24, “No one about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”¬†It is symptomatic of our biblical illiteracy that we don’t also know the four verses that proceed this verse. They are:

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation [the generation that sees “all these things” happening] will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

“Learn the lesson from the fig tree…” we may not know the day or the hour, but we are commanded by Jesus to know the season! Jesus echos this sentiment in Luke 12, Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”

But Jesus gives us some insight when He says, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” When Noah began preaching to the people of the earth to repent or else God was going to flood the earth, no one believed him. Why? Because it had never rained before. The people had no grid for what rain would be like. Up to this point the earth was watered by streams. So the people ignored Noah. They continued to eat and drink and marry until it began to rain.

That is what Jesus meant when He said, “As it was in the days of Noah.” People will ignore our message that Jesus is coming back. They have no grid for it. They are judging by appearances and not by the season. So our business now is two-fold. First we pray, asking that the Lord will soften hearts and bring people to repentance. Second we preach, we must be faithful to declare the Gospel and the reality of our times in word and in work. This is the great calling of the Church and the special assignment for this generation.

What a privilege to live in such a time as this! Within the decade we expect the Great Commission to be fulfilled for the first time in history. Every nation will soon have a written translation and a spoken witness. This is one of the main signs that the end is near. So this is not a time to live in fear, but to live in faith. Jesus is really real, and the things He said are really going to happen. The extent to which we believe what He said is the extent to which we believe in Him. We all need to come to a place where we are willing to rearrange our lives according to the Truth of the Word of God Lord, help us to live by faith and not by sight!

Follow Up

I wanted to offer a follow up post to the vision I shared yesterday. I have been praying a little more about it and there are some things the Lord has revealed that I think will benefit our community.

“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh,” Exekiel 11:19

“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” Romans 12:2

I share those two texts for the following reasons: in the first text, God performs “open heart” surgery – taking out something bad and replacing it with something good, namely our hearts. God indicates that He will give us a new spirit, but doesn’t address the removal of the old one. Lastly, in Romans, God exhorts us through Paul to be transformed by the renewing¬†of our minds. Why is this important?

Because Christians are not gussied up “Mr. Potato Heads.”¬† We can’t just go about pretending to pop off all of the things we don’t like and look for a new pair. While I can imagine popping off my eyes or ears and receiving new ones from Jesus it wont happen in Reality – why? Because God doesn’t want it to. Our God is¬†the God of redemption.

So often, we as Christians want to bail out early from the process of sanctification. Could God miraculously transform our hearts, minds, emotions and bodies into the exact image of Christ? Absolutely. But He would rather work through the process of redemption. He would rather stand with us as we try, fail, look to Him and try again. I don’t think that God is looking for people who can stand up in their own strength. I think God is looking for people who can stand because they are leaning on their Beloved (Song of Songs 8:5).

When we work through the process of redemption/sanctification we learn the humility, wisdom, compassion and grace that we need to utilize the gifts God has given to us without bringing harm to ourselves or others. If Jesus had to learn obedience through what He suffered (Hebrews 5:8), how much more do we?

God has given us enough, we are well equipped for the journey. We have a new heart – to honestly love Him and earnestly¬†desire to seek Him. We have a new spirit, the Holy Spirit, to be our Teacher and Counselor and Guide. As we are obedient to love, listen and obey we will find our minds renewed and our lives transformed. The glory of humanity is to overcome and there would be no victory if there were no struggle. Press on my friends and don’t give up.

Carrying Jesus’ Heart

During the Christmas holiday, my wife and I attended the Onething Conference ¬†hosted by the International House of Prayer in Kansas City.¬†It was an excellent conference and while I was there, I received another picture from the Lord. By the way, this sort of encounter is not my typical experience. In fact, I have rarely received dreams/visions from the Lord, so this is new for all of us. ūüôā

In any case, I forgot the lead in for this particular vision, but I remember standing before God knowing that I needed His heart if I was to walk into my new role as Senior Pastor and do it well. So I took out my heart and handed it to Him (it is amazing how natural it is to do such things in dreams). Then I held out my hands to receive His. He took out His heart and put it in my outstretched hand. Have you ever had someone dump into your hands something that was unexpectedly heavy? That is what this was like, His head felt like it was a couple hundred pounds and I knew I was going to drop it – so in slow motion I dove, trying to get both hands under His heart so that I wouldn’t drop it.

I ended up facedown on the floor, His heart cupped in both hands, but because of the weight of His heart and the impact I had on the ground, I knew that my hands were broken. I couldn’t stand up and I was painfully aware that I needed to have His heart inside of me. So, with my hands anchored in place by His heart, I pulled myself up and over it, so that His heart went into my chest. And I lay there for a few mintues overwhelmed. I eventually began to wonder, “How am I going to get up? I don’t think I can stand with this heavy weight.” It was then that I felt Jesus’ arms slide under my body and He picked me up. He craddeled¬† me against His chest and began walking. As I looked up at Him I saw Him looking down at me. Then He said,

“The only thing you need to concern yourself with is carrying My heart well. I will take you wherever you need to go. The only way you can carry My heart is by letting Me carry you.”

That was the end of this particular vision, but it has stayed with me the longest. I frequently think of my broken hands, symbolizing, I think, the sacrificial life that Amy and I are called to. I also think of Jesus’ hands, broken and pierced on the Cross, knowing that it wasn’t nails that kept ¬†Him there, but love. 2012 is promising to be an eventful year, I am excited to see what else the Lord has in store.