Weeding

Since becoming a home owner, I find myself caring much more about my lawn. As a renter, I didn’t care what it looked like as long as it wasn’t too long. Now, I want it full of thick, green grass and devoid of weeds. Especially dandelions.

This spring has produced a bumper crop of the yellow headed beasts, not just in my yard, but in all the neighbor’s too.  At first I didn’t mind, but then something shifted and I decided I needed to pull them all. Every. last. one.
So I went out one afternoon and began pulling. I ended up with a handful of leaves and stems. I tried again, tugging painfully slow and heard a satisfying “pop”. I had managed to sever the crown from the root, but no root came with it. I realized this was going to be a frustrating afternoon, so I decided to quit. Then it rained.

I came out one day after the rain to find that the ground was soft and spongy. I tried my “slow tug” technique and up popped the dandelion attached to 6 inches of root. I exulted and began pulling some more. I also went to WalMart to get a danedlion digger, a tool used to sever the root below the surface which makes it easier to pull. So, as I’m in my back yard digging up dandelions and other weeds, I can’t help but think about how easy it was to pull up this weed after the rain. Before, I got leaves and stems and the full knowledge that the weed would return. Now, I’m pulling out roots and all, with a good chance that they wont grow back. The main difference was the rain softening the ground.

It made me think about sin and my sometimes-hard-sometimes-soft heart. It also made me think of Romans 2:4 and the kindness of God leading us to repentance. Much of the time, it seems like our approach to sin was like me grabbing leaves and stems, removing the superficial evidence of something much more deeply rooted. But then God does something to reveal his Goodness, his kindness – he sends the rain. Then these things that seemed anchored so tightly in my hard little heart seem to loosen their grip and he pulls them up, root and all.

God is good, but I have to receive his Goodness, like the ground drinking in the rain, or else it doesn’t have an impact on my heart. This is harder than it sounds because it means I have to receive and enjoy his Goodness while I’m still a sinner – while that deep rooted bastard is still in my heart. I don’t want to do that. I want to rip those buggers out of my heart and then receive his blessing. But I can’t. The most I could do would be a superficial form of sin management, removing the evidence (leaves and stems) before anyone could see. I have to let him love me in my ugliness, really let him love me and receive/experience his love, before my heart will release its hold on sin. 

A God who loves us, pursues us and blesses us while we’re still sinners, how extraordinary is that? We don’t clean ourselves up to earn his favor. Instead, we are called to let his Love, Grace and Goodness saturate our hearts and loosen our hold on the things of this world. Then, in one amazing moment we find those sins taken away only to be replaced with something much more beautiful. 

The more I think about discipleship, the more I am becoming convinced that our primary job is to receive. To receive his love and to let it penetrate us to our core: mentally AND emotionally, theologically AND experientially. The transformation we long for is found in worship, in savoring Christ. That is Good News.

A Theological Framwork for Pursuing a Spirit Empowered Lifestyle

[The following series of entries is an expanded version of my notes from a conference on Revival held in Springville, IA from April 26 to April 29, 2015.]

What is a “Spirit Empowered Lifestyle?”

I take the term “Spirit Empowered Lifestyle” from Luke 4:14, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” Jesus begins ministering at this point and it quickly becomes apparent that he was far superior to the other teachers of his day, for his words carried authority and he had power to back them up (4:36). For the rest of his time on the earth, Jesus’s ministry was marked by manifestations of God’s power which provoked a change of heart and mind within multitudes of people. Jesus didn’t live this kind of life simply to display his own virtue, he offered himself as the model of what humanity was supposed to have been, and what humanity would once again be after he finished his work on the cross.

It is important to realize that every miracle Jesus performed he performed as a man dependant on God. Jesus performed no miracles out of his divine nature. While Jesus was never less than God, he never lived as more than a man. This is essential to understand, for if Jesus performed miracles as God, then that is a model unattainable for us. BUT, if Jesus performed miracles as a regular human being dependant on the Holy Spirit… then that changes everything; and we are responsible to pursue his lifestyle.

Two Examples of Revival

I define revival as: “A Holy Spirit inspired event where people are convicted of the Goodness of God or their own sinfulness, which results in mass conversion to the cause of Christ and conformity to his character.” Central to the idea of revival is the Spirit Empowered Lifestyle, God manifesting himself through a willing and obedient servant. The four Gospels contain dozens of stories of Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, expelling demons, taking authority over storms and natural order, multiplying food and other such things which resulted in revival or revival like situations. I’d like to focus on two: Jesus expelling the Legion (Mark 5) and Jesus ministering to the woman at the well (John 4) because they stake out two extremes of God’s manifestation.

Mark 5

Jesus has just crossed over the Lake of Galilee to the region of the Ten Towns. Upon his arrival, Jesus is greeted by a demoniac, a man infested with a mob of demons who is notorious in the area for his violent outbursts, madness and strange behavior. This man runs to Jesus for healing and is delivered from his torment after a brief struggle. The people of the area are so freaked out by Jesus’s obvious power and authority that they ask him to leave the area. As Jesus packs up to go, the now delivered man begs to follow Jesus. Instead, Jesus sends him away with these words, “Go to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (v 19). Obviously the man did so because when Jesus returns to the region in Mark 6:53 the people recognize him and bring to him everyone in need of healing. 

John 4

In this instance, Jesus is waiting beside a well while his disciples went into town to get lunch. While Jesus is sitting there, a woman comes to draw water. This woman had a reputation for sexual immorality and was obviously trying to avoid conversation by coming out to draw water at the hottest part of the day. Jesus strikes up a conversation with her and gets a Holy Spirit inspired glimpse into this her life. Jesus gently confronts her with her sin and she is astonished. She quickly goes back into town to round up the people saying, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did” (v 29). The people come and are equally astonished by God’s work through Jesus. They beg him to stay a little longer to teach them and heal them. At the end of Jesus’s ministry tour, the people say to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (v 42).

The Two Extremes

Both of these stories of revival and heart transformation were provoked by God’s decision to move powerfully through Jesus (demonic expulsion and words of knowledge respectively). Both of these stories resulted in massive amounts of people putting their faith in Jesus as the Savior of the world. Where the stories differ is the means by which this heart transformation occured. The “Ten Towns Revival” was based on a revelation of God’s goodness – there is no conviction of sin presented in the story.  Conversely, the “Samariitan Revival” happened because the people were convicted of their own sinfulness and need of a Savior. These represent two extremes in revival history, most revivals are a blending of the two.

Jesus Lived an Intentionally Average Life

I believe Jesus lived an intentionally average life, that he established “par for the course” in the Kingdom of God. And maybe that is being generous, because in John 14:12 Jesus clearly expects his disciples to surpass him in the scope, magnitude, frequency and efficacy of their miracle ministry. “Great things” implies greater in ever way. Again, everything Jesus did he did as a human being dependant on God and empowered by the Spirit… just like us.

Jesus’s Strategy for Kingdom Advancement

Luke does the Church an invaluable favor by tracing for us the systematic expansion of Jesus’s ministry through the empowerment of his disciples in his Gospel and the book of Acts. Luke begins his Gospel by depicting Jesus as a single messenger of God, almost overwhelmed by the pressing needs of humanity. Jesus is seen ministering late into the night and then waking up early to try to have some alone time and escape the clinging demands of the people who want to make his their prophet on tap. 

After a year or so of modeling the proclamation and demonstration of the Kingdom to his disciples, Jesus commissions them to “Proclaim this message: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with leprosy and drive out demons [to demonstrate the truth of this message]” (Matt. 10:7-8). When Jesus commissions the twelve disciples, he delegates to the authority over every demon (Luke 9:1) and power over every sickness and disease (Matt. 10:1).

The Twelve returned after several months of ministry to report complete and total success. Seeing this phase of his plan accomplished, Jesus (in conjunction with the Twelve, I’m sure) trains another 72 disciples to do the same (Luke 10). He commissions them with the same power and authority and they have equally dramatic success. Seeing the effectiveness of this model-equip-empower-deploy method, Jesus prophesies that Satan’s kingdom will fall faster than lightening from heaven if they will keep it up (v 18). Jesus’s plans don’t stop here with 84 trained evangelists. We see Jesus continuing to equip, empower and commission the 120 believers at Pentecost (Acts 2) and the whole Church in Matthew 28:18-20, what we call “The Great Commission.”

Commission

When a nation is at war, it is often necessary to expand the army, promoting those already in service by issuing them a commission. When an officer in the army receives a commission it comes with additional powers and responsibilities. The promotion comes with an increased measure of authority as well as greater access to necessary resources. The commission also comes with an objective, a goal, which is the reason for the increased power and authority.

When Jesus says in Matt. 28:18, “All power and authority has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples… Jesus is commanding us by his authority and commissioning us to advance the Kingdom of God by freeing people from their bondage to Satan’s kingdom, specifically the areas of sin, sickness, demons and death. As we’ve already seen, the power and authority Jesus gave his disciples to fulfill this mission was absolute. There is only one instance recorded for us in the Gospels where the disciples were unable to cast out a demon (Mark 9:14-29) and hounded by this failure they question Jesus as to the cause. He told them that this particular kind of demon only comes out when fasting and prayer are a regular part of your lifestyle. Presumably the disciples started fasting and praying at this point because they never have issues with demons again, though Paul does record some failures to heal in his letters.

The point is, the disciples knew the power and authority that had been entrusted to them and were troubled when their experience failed to measure up to God’s promise. Rather than excuse their impotence they sought out Jesus for the reason – and they got an answer! I find it fascinating that Jesus NEVER taught his disciples a theology that accounted for unanswered prayer. Delayed prayer? Yes. Spiritual warfare? Yes. Prayer needing great persistance and faith? Yes. But never unanswered prayer.

Our Takeaways

1) By studying the life and ministry of Jesus we see that it is God’s desire to regularly work through his servants to provoke a radical change in the way people think about God and themselves.

2) Every time Jesus did a miracle, it was as a man dependant on the Holy Spirit. Jesus modeled for us what it looks like to be a disciple. Because Jesus has empowered us with his Spirit, we are responsible to persue his lifestyle.

3) We have been commissioned to serve in God’s army, liberating people from the power of sin, sickness, demons and death and proclaming to them the Good News of God’s Kingdom and eternal life in Jesus Christ. We have been given power and authority over every sickness and disease and authority over every demon we will encounter.

4) If our experience fails to live up to the Reality promised to us in Scripture, then it is our responsibility to find out why and to make the necessary adjustments to our beliefs, expectations and lifestyle.
Thanks for reading this first installment. There will be several more to follow in the next couple days. Stay tuned.

Eternal Rewards

Yesterday, Erik taught out of Luke 6:20-26, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. One of the ideas that Erik touched on was “living for a reward.” I wanted to expand on that idea a little more here.

Several places in the New Testament, we encounter this theme of heavenly, or eternal, rewards and we’ll get to those passages in just a minute. First, I’d like to discuss the idea of a “reward.” What does it mean and is it right to persue them?

Defining Reward

Merriam-Wester defines reward as “giving money or some other form of payment to someone for something good that has been done.” This is pretty much how the New Testament uses the word, but it also uses it in a negative sense (i.e. punishment). Reward simply means “wages” or “the fruit of one’s actions”, good or bad.

What rewards mean for you

The whole idea of eternal rewards implies that God sees and takes into account the things you do in this life and repays you for them in eternity. 

Now, the ultimate eternal reward is salvation – life with God in his Kingdom forever. The action that secures this reward is submitting your life to Jesus, acknowledging him as your Lord and Savior. Of course, the truth of that decision is played out over time as you “bear fruit in keeping with reptentance” to use John the Baptizer’s phrase. Choosing solidarity with Jesus in his life mission, love for God, love for people and identifying with him in suffering and persecution results in his confession on Judgement Day “This one belongs to me.” What Jesus says about you in that Day is the most crucial thing you can imagine – eternal salvation or damnation is in his hands.

In light of such immense consequences, one might be tempted to think of any other rewards as petty, even inconsequential. In many ways, that is correct. And yet, over and over again, God holds out this promise of reward.

For many of us, the decision to follow Jesus comes well before our death. What do we do with that time? Do we sit idly by, secure in the knowledge of our salvation? Do we continue on as before – doing some good things and some bad things and not really concerning ourselves too much one way or the other? Or, do we embrace the idea of loving and sacrificial service, realizing that we were made to do good works and that those good works have both temporal AND eternal rewards. One this side of the Judgement Seat, eternal rewards seem petty. However, on the other side they will mean a whole lot more.

Let’s look at one passage and then move on.

1 Corinthians 3

In this passage, Paul is talking about the life we live after choosing to love and follow Jesus. He uses the analogy of a building a house with Christ as the foundation. Then judgement comes, a house fire. Here is the passage:

12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

The time we have between our confession of Jesus as Lord and our death is all the time we have to “build our house.” Obviously, the younger you are when you begin to follow Jesus, the more time you have… theoretically. Many times, people who grow up in Christian homes don’t live with the passion and zeal one would expect – it is almost as though they have been innoculated against the Gospel. Conversely, people who come to faith later in life realize their time is short and their singleminded determination to live differently oftentimes allows them to make a far greater impact in the world than someone who has been following Jesus for much longer. The point is, it doesn’t matter when you choose to follow God, there is ample time to make your life meaningful now and in eternity.

Paul likens Judgement Day to a house fire – will what you’ve built remain? The things you did in life, did you do them for yourself, for others, for God? With all the time God gave you, how much of it was used doing things that really matter and how much of it was spent frivolously? I am NOT saying that following Jesus is joyless drudgery – quite the opposite! Interacting with the Living Gd on a daily basis is invigorating and fun. Knowing that he is taking all this into account and is going to reward me for it later is simply over the top.

Verse 15 is a verse that haunts me (in the best way possible), “If anyone’s work is burned up [meaning it can be, not everything I do garners reward], he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

I don’t want to enter eternity smelling like smoke. I don’t want to look back on my life at Judgement Day and see it all burn away to ash. I don’t want to live my entire life on the earth and have nothing to show for it in eternity. That is tragedy, THAT is loss. Yet it will be the case for some people – they themselves will be saved for they were in fact followers of Jesus, but they will feel the pain of loss keenly as they look back on their life and wish they could have lived it differently.

The idea of receiving a reward for your efforts is not unspiritual, rather, it is what makes long term effectiveness and faithfulness possible. Living with an eye on our eternal reward is what keeps us from becoming apathetic, lethargic and sleepy. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Your heart is designed to follow after treasure, to follow after reward. If you are not purposefully trying to store up treasure in heaven, if you are only trying to fully fund your retirement and investment acconts, what hope do you have of actually loving God? “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God…” “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your [only] consolation.” It isn’t bad to want to retire or have wealth. It IS bad to pursue that as your main goal to the neglect of your eternal destiny. 

Living for a reward is crucial to a life of faith

Unless you have a clear understanding and desire for eternal rewards, you will not live life without regret. What is  even more sobering is that we can’t please God unless we live for eternal rewards. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” 

Faith stands on two legs – (1) that God exists and (2) that God is Good. We can’t draw near to God if we don’t think he is there – that much is easy. But how do we draw near? Tentatively? Fearfully? No! Confidently we come before the throne because of Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf. We trust that God is Good, that he lavishes rewards on those who seek to know him, love him and obey him. We believe that God is kind and generous. We believe that every command is for our benefit. 

Let’s face it, very few of us actually do the things God asks us to do because we’re just such good people. Case in point – evangelism. The Great Commission is pretty much the only task Jesus gave to his Church. To paraphrase, “Make disciples – it is the most important thing for this time. It is the main thing I want you to do once you start following me.” … and how many of us do it? It is really our only job, yet we’ve developed tremendous theologies to excuse ourselves from the need of it. I put very little stock in my willingness to do what Jesus commands unless I see a significant benefit to myself for doing so. I don’t have any youthful illusions of my own magnanimous nature, passion or zeal.

Simply put, I won’t do what Jesus tells me to do unless I get a reward for it. 

I know that sounds harsh. I know it sounds childish, foolish and ungrateful. I know that in saying it, I wish it were different… but it isn’t. That is the truth of my heart. AND GOD KNOWS IT. He doesn’t know it and react with disgust. He knows it and appeals to it – how wild is that?  ‘You don’t want to pray, I get that, but if you do I’ll reward you.’ ‘You don’t want to fast, but if you do and don’t make a big deal out of it, I will heap blessings into your lap.’ ‘I know money is tight, but if you will trust me and tithe and give some away to those who have even greater needs than you do, I will increase your buying power far beyond anything you can imagine. You will be better off finacially with 90% blessed by me than if you kept the whole lot.’ Those are the kinds of offers God gives us. In case you think I made them up, read through Matthew 6 very carefully.

Those that think they can live a fruitful, effective and pleasing life to God without living for an eternal reward are kidding themselves. It may be a well intentioned delusion, but it is fantasy none the less. Living for a reward is not unspiritual, it is the key to mature spirituality. Even Jesus didn’t embrace the cross selflessly. Even he was looking for a result, a reward. He was looking to ransom people from death. He was looking forward to the joy of being the firstborn of many brothers. Isaiah, prophesying about Jesus says, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied… I will give him a portion among the great.” Because Jesus was willing to set aside his Godhood and embrace the role of a servant, he has received a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. If eternal rewards helped to steady Jesus in his life and mission, how much more do we need them? 

Sabbath

I’ve written elsewhere about how Jesus interacted with different aspects of the Law. I’d like to revisit that topic and dig a little deeper into the issue of Sabbath, the day of rest, and how Jesus reinterpreted and revealed it.

A little history

We first encounter the idea of a day of rest in Genesis 2:2. After spending 6 days creating the world, God took a day off. He wasn’t tired, but he decided that a day spent leisurely enjoying his creation would be a good thing. God thought this was such a great idea that he blessed the seventh day, making it holy.

While it was God’s model to rest on the seventh day, we don’t have any indication that anyone observed it from Adam to Moses. The Patriarchs seemed to treat each weekday alike, though they did have a few festivals and holy days they observed. The Sabbath, as we know it, was codified by Moses in Exodus 20:8-11

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

After 400 years in slavery, working hard all day every day, God liberated his people. Sabbath was a deliverence of their souls as much as the exodus was a deliverence of their bodies. God commanded his people to celebrate freedom and to trust in his ability to provide. The Israelites were freed from having their identities wrapped up in how hard they worked or how much they could produce. They were forced to reckon with a God who provided for them abundantly – no longer were they living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. Sabbath was a celebration of freedom and prosperity.

Sabbath is about rest and freedom

Sabbath was a gift God gave to his children and to everyone who was a part of the nation. No one could work on the Sabbath day – wives couldn’t cook or clean, slaves couldn’t serve, even animals had to stay in their stalls. Even foreigners in Israel were required to rest, they couldn’t buy or sell or conduct any business in the nation. 

Sabbath was intended to lead the nation of Israel into increasing freedom. It was supposed to help them enjoy God, his creation and one another. It was supposed to remind them of their captivity and how they had been set free. It was supposed to remind them that there are far more important things than earning a paycheck. Most importantly, Sabbath was supposed to get the people thinking about God — God didn’t need to rest after creating the world, he is Almighty after all, so why did he? Jesus gives us a hint – “sabbath was made for man,” Mark 2:27. Sabbath was God’s gift to humanity, to set us free, to keep our spirits alive and vibrant. But it quickly got turned into a tool to manipulate and control. The true meaning of Sabbath was lost and it became a dead ritual.

Sabbath is about setting other people free

In Luke 6, we see Jesus beautifully reinterpret Sabbath law in two instances.

First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a wheat field and the disciples, presumably hungry, pick some of the grains of wheat and eat them. This greatly offended the religious elite, for harvesting grain was forbidden on the sabbath. In turn, Jesus tells a story from 1 Samuel, when David was on the run and took the Bread of the Presence off of the altar and ate it. His point in sharing this story was to say that, if ever human need and religious observance collide, human need comes out on top. It doesn’t rightly represent God to let someone go hungry so that you can “follow the rules.” Jewish rabbis have often asked the question: If someone is drowning at the time of prayer, what do you do? You go and help that person – they need your help, God does not. Jesus stands in this tradition.

The second instance is when Jesus comes to synagogue and sees a man with a withered hand sitting there. Since it is illegal to do work on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders were watching Jesus to see what he would do. If he healed the man, he would be breaking the law and, therefore, could not possibly be from God.

Knowing their hearts, Jesus calls the man to the front of the room and asks the congregation a question, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good, or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Jesus looks each person straight in the eye and proceeds to heal the man. The religious leaders are furious and begin to plot Jesus’s death.

Jesus says that doing good is lawful on the Sabbath. He also implies that not helping someone, when it is well within your power to do so, is evil. The reason for this is simple: Sabbath is about setting other people free – free from hurt, hunger, homelessness, oppression and injustice. Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah 58, reinterpretting Sabbath to mean freedom just as Isaiah reinterpreted fasting to mean justice. 

“Us” and “Our”

Jesus taught his disciples a radical understanding of community in the Disciple’s Prayer, he taught them to pray in the plural. “Our Father… give us today our daily bread…” In community, I can’t truly be full if someone else is hungry, I can’t really be warm if someone else is without clothing or shelter and I certainly can’t rest when  someone else is oppressed or enslaved. There is no “me/my” in Jesus’s model prayer, there is only “us/our” and the yearning to see God’s Kingdom manifest on the earth. 

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live with this wonderfully reinterpreted understanding of Sabbath. Should we each take a day off each week for leisure and enjoyment? Absolutely! We should also understand that Sabbath, setting people free from the tyranny of sin, sickness, demons, death and worldly systems of oppression, is a lifestyle to be engaged in every day, not just talked about once a week.

Jesus, our Lord, is Lord over the Sabbath. He is our Jubilee, the cancelation of our debts, the restoration of our inheritance and the power we need to overcome every work of the enemy. May God bless you with good success in your efforts to set people free this week.

Thanks for reading friends.

Palm Sunday

As a Pastor, I have a love/hate relationship with Palm Sunday. 

I love my memories of being a child, marching in triumphant procession through the sanctuary waving a palm branch and singing. It was festive and fun and one of the only roles of significance the children had in “big church”. It was a time of proclaiming Jesus as Lord, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

Yet, as a pastor now looking back on those times, it seems to be a studied case of missing the point. Yes, men and women and children shouted and celebrated as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey’s colt. Yes, the city resounded with praise for this miracle worker from Galilee. Yet just a few days later, these same people who shouted Jesus’s name in praise were shouting for him to be crucified. Palm Sunday, in many ways, represents our hypocrisy – it betrays the superficial devotion of our hearts. 

Palm Sunday is, for me, one of the saddest days of the year. The crowds were so excited because they thought they could enthrone a puppet-king, a god who was just like them. Yet not even a week under his “rule,” after seeing the threat he was to their self-satisfied religious elitism and his refusal to be defined by their expectations, these same crowds bowed to the status quo, condemning the Righteous One to death. Palm Sunday is the exultation of an idol. Easter is the exultation of the One True God. Amazing how different the crowds were on those two days.  

Palm Sunday is a rude awakening for my soul because it brings to mind all the times I call Jesus “Lord,” but don’t actually do what he says. It is a convicting reminder that I really like God when it seems that he is just like me, but that I often rebel when it becomes clear that he is not. “I AM WHO I AM. I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE!” declares God to Moses in the burning bush. “I AM NO ONE’S PUPPET KING.”  

I’d love to be exuberant this Palm Sunday, but it just isn’t in me. I find myself consumned with questions of my own devotion – how to serve this man who comes in fulfillment of all prophecy, who is God Incarnate and so completely other, yet who wants to be known and who calls me friend? How do I go beyond a superficial faith into one of substance, intimacy and obedience? How do I submit myself and posture my heart to receive God on his own terms, for who he is, and not who I want him to be?

Wether you share my struggles with Palm Sunday or not, I wish you a good start to Holy Week and I pray you encounter and experience God in a fresh way this year. Thanks for reading friends. 

Persistance Trumps Intensity

How badly do you want it? No matter what “it” is, there are only two ways to answer that question. 

The first is to answer with momentary intensity – I want it bad! I want it now! Your desire is intense and all consuming, yet ultimately fleeting. You want something else just as badly a few days or weeks down the road.

The second way to answer the question, ‘How badly do you want it,’ is with consistent, persistant pursuit. The internal fire of this answer may not be quite so spectacular as the first, but it is far more constant. And far more useful. This kind of answer perseveres in hard times and doesn’t ever quit. This answer is the thousands of minute decisions that serve the purpose of fulfilling a larger goal. This is the only answer that has ever brought meaningful and beneficial change to the world.

To paraphrase a popular Russian proverb, “The quality of a man’s character is not in the intensity of his emotion, but in its duration.” It doesn’t matter how much you want “it” right now – how much do you want “it” next month? Next year? Next decade? Only a sustained focus will take you to those extraordinary places you want to go.

I’ve purposefully left “it” up to your imagination, for this concept applies to many different situations – following Jesus, pursuing revival, starting your own business, traveling the world, learning to play the guitar, loosing weight. In our instant everything society we have developed collective ADD. Trends, fads and fashions come and going with alarming speed and regularity – who the heck is One Direction and does anyone remember Hanson? 

I wonder if the recent surge in popularity of the more liturgical mainline denominations (Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian)  has more to do with their cultural steadfastness than their superior theology? 

In any event, persistance over time, a long obedience in the same direction as Eugene Peterson might say, is the only way to a truly transformed life. Emotional intensity is a beautiful thing, but if it isn’t paired with pragmatic, dogged determination to continue forward no matter what comes, then it is a beauty that dies before its time. I’d rather chart my course on the map I know to be true than to simply sniff the wind and sail in whatever direction seems most pleasant at the time. And the fascinating thing is, as I continue to choose to go in the same direction over and over again, my emotions come into alignment – they begin to burn with sustained intensity over the things that really matter. 

We can’t substitute praying for obeying

I am putting together some teaching notes on revival for a conference I am speaking at towards the end of April and stumbled across this gut-punch from A.W. Tozer:

“Have you noticed how much praying for revival has been going on of late — and how little revival has resulted? I believe the problem is that we have been trying to substitute praying for obeying, and it simply will not work.”

As someone who spent several years regularly praying for revival each week, that statement carries a lot of “Ouch!” However, it is absolutely true and one of the draw backs I see with an overly spiritualized understanding of revival. We can’t substitute praying for obeying – no matter how fervently we pray, if we don’t actually do the stuff we’re praying about, nothing will ever change. 

Wether it is getting into better shape, making more money or starting a revival – prayer only takes us so far before tangible actions must take palce in order to realize those desires. Human beings are made to work, work is spiritual. More precise: work is the means whereby spiritual desires become physical realities. Human beings unite the spiritual and the physical – our very nature is to pull the unseen/intangible spirit world into the world perceived by our senses. That may sound rather esoteric, but take your house as an example. That house first began as a dream inside a builder’s mind. The architect put it onto paper, but it was still intangible as of yet – no one could live in it. Then a series of people took that blueprint and made it a reality – something of substance that has measurable impact on the world. No matter what we are called to do, this is the essence of who we are.

Prayer tills the soil and work plants the seed, but it is still God who makes it grow. Sowing seed into untilled soil might produce a small crop, but much will go to waste. However, having perfectly tilled soil with nothing planted is foolish and unproductive because nothing will grow. Because God sovereignly refuses to violate our free will, we have to give him something to work with – in this case, our willing and obedient hearts. Prayer, the type of intercession that births revival, is certainly strenuous, but it is not the kind of work I’m talking about here. The kind of work I am talking about is taking the risks of the Kingdom: praying for the sick, proclaiming the Good News, feeding the hungry with food and Truth. 

I know that I have been guilty all too often of wanting to substitute praying for obeying – for actually doing the stuff that Jesus commands me to do. Praying is safe, it is fun, it feels productive. And it is productive, but it will never produce a harvest on its own. Jesus said, “Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” Prayer mobilizes workers, it does not replace them. Conversely, obeying is work – hard work. It is inconvenient, it requires me to risk, to fail. Obedience requires me to be on point, to be in constant communion with God for the sake of others and not consumed with my own little life. Obedience is sacrifice. 

I am so thankful that Holy Spirit led me to Tozer’s quote – I needed a Reality check. I’m not in this thing called “following Jesus” to lead a safe, comfortable life. I’m in this because God revealed himself to me and called me to serve him and this is what service looks like. If God calls me, us, to do hard things, then so be it – we are more than conquerors through Christ. 

Blessing to you my friends!

Holiness

Holiness = separate, set apart, cut off from the world

Luke 5:17 introduces us to a group of people who end up being one of Jesus’s main antagonists in the Gospels, they are known as “the Pharisees.” “Pharisee” means “to be separate” or “set apart.” Interestingly, we use that same definition for the word “holy.” I don’t think this is by accident.

The Pharisees were the holy ones of Israel. They were fastidious about obeying the minutest command of the Law and extremely zealous for their own personal holiness. They were the strictest sect one could belong to in Judaism. The Pharisees’s zeal stemmed from a noble belief, the belief that if everyone in Israel would obey the Law for just a single day, that would be enough to usher in the reign of God on the earth. Therefore, they were outspoken advocates for obeying the Law and outrightly shunned those who were lax in their devotion.

The Pharisees correctly understood the Old Covenant concept of holiness. In the Old Covenant, holiness was a commodity, a resource one could gain or lose depending on certain actions. This is where many of the Ceremonial (clean/unclean) Laws came from. Interestingly, the only way to gain holiness in the Old Covenant was by abstention. Every vow available to the Israelites to increase holiness required them to abstain from certain things: like drinking alcohol, cutting their hair, being in the presence of a dead body, etc. This led to the idea that holiness was all about seperating oneself from the world, abstaining, staying pure.

Holiness was a fragile reality on the Old Covenant. Eating something on accident, someone having a heart attack in your presence or countless other things would negate any holiness you had aquired, for you had become ceremonially unclean. Thus, you would have to do whatever was necessary to become ceremonially clean again and start all over. So you can understand why the Pharisees were so freaked out by Jesus and so offended at the things he did. Jesus broke all of their rules. He lived by a different understanding of holiness.

Holiness = attached to God

When Jesus came and inaugurated the Kingdom of Heaven on the Earth, he brought with him a different understanding of holiness. By default, everything in Heaven is holy. Why? Because everyone there lives in ever present awareness and worship of God. The one time someone (satan) consciously chose to cut themselves off from that awareness they were booted out of Heaven.

Jesus brought the holiness of Heaven to earth. He lived with an ever present awareness of Immanuel, the God who is with us, and made his home in our Father’s love. Jesus taught us that the holiness of the New Covenant is radically different than the holiness of the Old Covenant. Holiness in the New Covenant starts with being attached to God in loving relationship and results in loving attachment (relationship) to others. Furthermore, the holiness of the New Covenant is never lost because it never gets dirty. Holiness in the New Covenant is simply undefilable. In the New Covenant, when the holy and unholy meet, the dirty get clean and the sick get healed, not the other way around.

The Jesus brand of holiness breaks all the rules. No longer is holiness defined by what you don’t do – instead, holiness is all about manifesting the love of God by loving others. Holiness is where the awareness of a loving God touches human need.

Every time Jesus broke the rules it was to show love to someone in need. Hungry disciples and hurting people trumped Sabbath restriction. The desire to restore someone to wholeness overrode the social taboos concerning sickness, disease or the proper interactions between a man and a woman. Love for sinners led Jesus into situations that pricked the religious sensitivities of those in power. In all of these situations, Jesus demonstrated that holiness doesn’t get dirty, doesn’t seperate us from those in need and doesn’t bow to social pressure.

Holiness is fun

At one point in time, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). Evidently, Jesus partied so much with the wrong crowd that he gained a reputation for corrupt character. Of course, Jesus was neither of those things (drunkeness is condemned all throughout Scripture), but it is interesting that he had gained that reputation in religious circles.

Imagine if you read in the paper that a pastor in your city routinely hung out with prostitutes and drug addicts and was also seen carrying a keg into a frat house known for its wild parties. What do you think the tone of that article would be? What do you think the response of the Christian community in that city would be? What would YOU personally think? Talk about scandal, right? Yet this is who Jesus was.

I think we have an outdated view of holiness in the America. We’ve held on to the Old Covenant style of holiness and failed to embrace the New. As Paul says, “Such things have an appearance of godliness, but deny its power.” Abstaining from certain things (like drinking alcohol) sure seems holy, but it really does nothing to change your interior life. Only a vibrant relationship with God can do that.

Holiness based on seperation from the world will never bring about the righteousness God desires because we are called to love the world. It is only by bringing the limitless resources of God’s affection into the depths of human need that we begin to see what holiness is all about. Holiness sets people free through love, kindness and compassion. Holiness eradicates sin through Spirit empowered self-sacrifice. Holiness touches the untouchable and breaks all the rules. Holiness elevates human need above religious observance.

Holiness is the polar opposite of Pharisee. Where Pharisees push away, Jesus embraces. Where Pharisees shun, Jesus loves. Where Pharisees are concerned about what God thinks about them, Jesus is concerned with what God thinks about others. Jesus lived with an intense awareness of God’s Presence and character. This allowed him to interact with others in a way that revealed God as Love, this is the essense of holiness. No matter how strict our outward observance, if we don’t represent God as Love then we have missed the boat.

Holiness is not conformity to the world

Some take the message of holiness, love and grace too far and advocate for outright immorality – such was the case with the Corinthians. They were so amazed at the message of grace and tolerance that they celebrated the fact that someone in their congregation was having sex with his father’s wife. They wrote to Paul thinking that he would be overjoyed with how loving, accepting, and tolerant they were. Here is Paul’s response:

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: a man is sleeping with his father’s wife! And you are proud? Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, that you may be a new unleavened batch — as you really are.”

1 Corinthians 5:1-2,6 emphasis mine

There is such a thing as sin and it can ruin your life and the lives of others if left unchecked. Holiness does not celebrate or condone sin in ourselves or others, but neither does it fear sin. Holiness enters into a dark situation and sheds light. Holiness tenderly touches disease and dysfunction in order to bring healing. In order to bring light, there must be darkness. In order to bring healing, there must be disease. It isn’t wrong to admit that.

Jesus never embraced the sinful lifestyles of the people he befriended, yet they never felt judged, condemned or looked down upon. In fact, it seems like they had so much respect for this miracle working Rabbi that they ended up changing their own behaviors as they followed him. Jesus didn’t condemn sinners, but he did encourage them to leave their livestyles of sin.

Our chief concern as Christians is to represent God well. In order to do that, we must know who He is! We must know his character, his likes and dislikes and what he says is or is not appropriate in the lives of people, ourselves included. Many of the things we think God is concerned about, he really isn’t. And other things we think are insignificant are actually huge issues in his sight. I can’t tell you what those things are in your life, but he can.

I believe holiness needs to be radically redefined in most people’s minds. Holiness is primarily about representing and manifesting the character of God. Holiness is fun, God conscious and enjoys meeting human need in extravagant displays of love. New Covenant holiness goes far beyond seperation and detachment from the world – it goes on to attachment with God for the sake of the world.

Thanks for reading friends.

“But I want you to know…”

Luke 5:17-26, the story of Jesus forgiving and healing a paralyzed man, is a really difficult story for me. Here is the story from the ESV:

17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal.[d] 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

When Jesus sees the paraplegic man dangling in front of him, the first thing he does is forgive him his sins. This troubles the religious leaders because it goes against God’s word – only God could forgive sins and that happened only after a specific sacrifice was offered. When Jesus speaks forgiveness he effectively asserts that he is greater than the Law, even greater than the Temple – he makes himself equal to God. Of course, to us as Christians, this makes total sense. But to the Jews of Jesus’s day it was blasphemy.

Jesus addresses the religious leaders and their unbelief and then offers the most troubling part of the passage, “‘I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” so he said to the man who was paralyzed, “rise up, pick up your mat and go home.'” Why do I find this troubling? Because Jesus never required people to believe in his ability to forgive sins on faith alone – he always offered them proof through signs, wonders and miracles. In this passage Jesus directly links his authority to forgive with his ability to heal.

My Struggle

This troubles me as a Christian, and especially as a pastor, because Jesus is my model for life and ministry. If Jesus didn’t require people to receive forgiveness of their sins by faith, then neither should I. But that is about the only thing I can ask people to do because I live a largely powerless life as a Christian. I can’t say to people with any confidence, “I want you to know that Jesus has the ability to forgive your sins, therefore, be healed! Know that what Jesus just did for your body he can do for your whole life – he is the only one who can make you right with God.” I WANT to say that, but I’m really afraid to. Putting someone’s faith and salvation on the line in that way terrifies me and seems amazingly irresponsible.

Yet Jesus did it. (John 10:37)

In John 14:11 Jesus appeals to the miracles he performed as proof of his unique relationship with God. He said that even if someone didn’t believe his words, they could at least look at his miracles to see proof of his claim to be God’s son, to be the perfect representation of the Father.  In John 15:24 Jesus acknowledges that the miracles he performed revealed the character of God (healer, redeemer, restorer) and says, “If I hadn’t done among them what no one else did, they wouldn’t be guilty of sin…” Jesus argues that it was his demonstration of the Gospel that brought condemnation and guilt on those who persisted in unbelief. Words are cheap, and it is hard to prove actual spiritual change has occured using them – so Jesus appealed to miracles as proof that what he had said actually happened. That floors me.

My Desire

I want to be able to proclaim and demonstrate the Good News of the Kingdom just like Jesus did. I want people to have absolute confidence in Jesus’s invisible work in their hearts/spirits because they have witnessed Jesus’s visible work in their body, soul or mind. If someone comes to salvation and faith in Jesus by words alone, then they have tremendous faith and will be greatly blessed (John 20:29), but if I can’t also demonstrate the Realities I speak of, then something is really, really wrong.

The burden of proof

How is anyone to trust in Jesus without proof? The claims of Christianity are off the charts. We believe that a man died on a cross 2,000 years ago, was raised from the dead and levitated into Heaven to sit on the Throne of an invisible, yet all-powerful God. We believe this man is still alive 2,000 years later and is some day soon going to descend out of Heaven to establish a literal Kingdom on the earth. We believe that this man’s sacrifice, death and resurrection secured for us eternal life and an extravagant inheritance if only we will submit ourselves to him and take up his life as our own. We believe that we will reign with him on the earth forever

Friends, believing in something that outlandish without proof takes great faith – and some people have it! But we shouldn’t be surprised if others (atheists) require some sort of proof from us. The burden of proof isn’t on them – it is on us who bear the name of Christ. I don’t look for proof of unicorns because I don’t believe they exist. If someone in my life insists that unicorns are real, they are going to have to show me some proof in real life – photoshopped images or stories of other people who have seen unicorns won’t cut it. Why should it be any different with atheists and God?

The burden of proof is only problematic if we don’t believe God will come through. Do we? Are we willing to take that risk? Reading through the book of Acts, it is striking how many times you will read “and the Lord confirmed his word through the signs that accompanied it.” How do we know it is his word if he isn’t confirming it?

I know I’m over-emphasizing miracles

I know I’m over-emphasizing miracles and I’m doing so for a reason. My intent is not to cast anyone into doubt or despair, but I do want to draw attention to a hole in our presentation of the Gospel. We are called to proclaim AND demonstrate the Gospel, just like Jesus did. Every time Jesus comissions his disciples/the Church it is for that purpose (Luke 9, Luke 11, Mark 16, Acts 2). We are in error if we know the word of God, but not his power (Matt. 22:29). 

My intent in this post is to share with you my journey in trying to live out the fullness of the Christian life and to convince you to join me in trying to do the same. I’ve tried to be transparent with my doubts and struggles, and I hope that hasn’t put you off. I am absolutely convinced that it was (and is) Jesus’s intention to pass on his miracle ministry to the Church so that we can do what he did – save sinners, represent the true nature of our Father and do what no one else can do so that those who persist in unbelief are rightfully condemned. 

Only in Jesus is there forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is the most basic confession of the Christian faith. How people respond to that Truth will affect them for all of eternity, therefore, it is essential for us to present them with the most compelling presentation of the Gospel we can – clear arguments and a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.  I hope you will join me in trying to fill in this hole in our Gospel presentation because Jesus wants people to know that he has power and authority to forgive sins and change lives… and he wants to give  them that certainty by healing their bodies or the people they love.

Thanks for reading friends.

Kindness Leading to Repentance

Luke 5

I love the story in Luke 5 of Jesus, Peter and the miraculous catch of fish. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, please allow me to recap:

Jesus has become quite a popular teacher, so much so that crowds of people press around him, making it difficult for him to teach and for others to hear. One day, Jesus is walking by the lake and sees two fishing boats. He walks up to Simon Peter and asks him to row out a little from shore so that Jesus can teach the people without being crowded. Peter agrees, and after he is done teaching, Jesus says to Peter, “Row out a little further and put down your fishing net, you’re going to catch a great number of fish.” Now, Peter and his companions have been fishing all night and they were just cleaning up for the day when Jesus came up to them. A tired, cranky, mildly irritated Peter responds, “Look, your obviously not a fisherman. If you were, you’d know that the fish only come up to where we can catch them during the night. During the day they are too far down for our nets to reach. But I see that you are a teacher, a holy man, so because you say so, I will… again.” Sure enough, Peter catches enough fish that the net starts to break and the boat starts to sink. Peter’s response is absolutely priceless – “Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Peter’s Response

Jesus doesn’t say anything about Peter’s character or behavior, Jesus doesn’t do anything but bless Peter with extravagent abundance. Jesus turned a fruitless evening into a bounteous affair. It is estimated that the number of fish they caught that day would have been the equivilent of two weeks worth of hard work. And here it is, almost jumping into their boat.

Peter could have expressed any number of emotions: elation, gratitude, joy. Instead, Peter is suddenly aware that he is in God’s crosshairs. He is moved to confess his sin, how he has fallen short.  God Almighty has turned his full attention onto Peter in order to bless him and he does so in the midst of Peter’s grumpiness. I think this is a timeless principle for evangelism and a beautiful representation of Father’s heart for his kids. 

God Delights in Showing Kindness and Compassion

Jesus chose to reveal to Peter our Father’s nature. He chose to show Peter how kind, gracious and good God was towards him. He chose to not call Peter out for his grumpiness and unbelief – instead, he chose to bless Peter in an extravagent and tangible way. And Peter, confronted with the goodness, kindness, and compassion of God, comes to a place of repentance. He realizes how far away he is from God and feels unworthy of this kind of Love. He understands that his life has not been lived in a way that honors God or responds to the Goodness he has been shown. Like Adam in the Garden, he wants to hide in guilt and shame from the Lover of his soul.

Kindness is part of who God is. It is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It is something that we as Christians should exhibit in growing measure as we go from glory to glory, being conformed and transformed into the character of Christ. Showing kindness to people, genuine and extravagent kindness, is a powerful way of re-presenting our Father to this orphaned planet. The kindness I’m speaking of goes far beyond generic good deeds – they are inspired acts of love. They are extravagent and they are specific. They might looks like roses or prophetic words. They might pop into your head or they might take awhile to plan. Whatever they are, intentional and extravagent acts of love carry with them the power of God to open up hearts to receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

I don’t want the kindness of God to be a secret we keep from the world. I want everyone, especially the people of my city, to understand that God is kind, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. I want them to know what is feels like to have God’s full attention fixed on them and to know that God isn’t angry with  them or disappointed in them. Instead, I want them to understand that He knows them AND loves them. I want them to know that they can’t escape from God’s goodness and mercy. I want them to be confronted with the outrageous extravagence of a God who loves them so much He was willing to die for them. That is the truth of who God is. It is Good News. They really should hear about it.