Doing Good While Doing Well

Hello everyone! Happy New Year!

I’m kicking things off with a bang this year and announcing my first book, Doing Good While Doing Well: Where Faith and Finance Meet. It is FREE in the Kindle Bookstore until Thursday, January 5 at 6:00pm CST. I’ve been working on this for the last month and a half and it has been a whirlwind. Today, I’m going to focus on explaining the book a little bit, and the next couple days I will focus on my process. My goal is to inspire anyone out there who has a goal of writing a book to do it, this year.

What the book is about

This book started as a compilation of notes for my congregation’s financial sermon series, which we do every January. It then morphed into an ebook after a friend of mine turned me on to the Self Publishing School (more on them later). I was so inspired by their material I decided to give it a go.

DGWDW is comprised of two parts: Theology and Praxis. In the Theology section I explore some of Jesus’ teachings about money. It was really important to me to cover both the positive and negative teachings on money because it seems that, all too often, we gravitate towards one side or the other. I chose to follow in the Vineyard tradition of pursuing “the radical middle,” so both viewpoints in tension throughout the book.

The Theology section can be summed up in the following sentences. Money is a form of power. How we use and think about money reveals our character. The best use of money is to help those that are in need. Large amounts of money threaten to distort our view of ourselves, other people, and other people’s motives. Therefore, we must always strive to find our security, significance, and self-worth in God rather than money. Handling money well grows in us certain skill sets and mind sets that are valuable and necessary in God’s Kingdom.

The Praxis section is where we get into the gritty details of money management. We begin with an overview of cash flow adapted from Robert Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad, Poor Dad and then build upon that framework. I offer some financial goals to pursue as well as a plan for getting there. The section called “Clarity” helps you explore your reasons for pursuing wealth and clarify your actual goals and desires. I end with a step-by-step guide to putting the whole book into practice.

What I hope will happen

As a pastor, the number one thing I see holding people back from extravagant devotion to God is money. People can’t go into missions because of student loans. People can’t start a business because they don’t have the resources. People don’t give to the causes they care about because they don’t have any money leftover.

My hope is that, by putting the ideas expressed in my book into practice, those limiting factors will go away. My hope is that people will get a firm hold on their finances and be able to quickly divorce their income from their labor so that they can do the things God has called them to do. But, ultimately, my hope is that people will embrace the call to discipleship I articulate in the book.

I almost named this book The Crucible of Wealth because I am so enamored with how God uses money to refine and reveal our character. Becoming wealthy is a challenge and it often reveals our prejudices and insecurities. When we are able to address those facets of sin head on, in partnership with Holy Spirit, wonderful things take place. In the grand scheme of things, money is insignificant. However, the things we do with money are eternally significant. Every time a dollar comes into our possession we have an opportunity to grow and mature. I find that endlessly exciting.

I hope you benefit from reading my book. If you do, would you please let me know? I’d love to compile your thoughts and comments so that I can continue to refine my message and help people in the future.

As always, thanks for reading.

Ben

P.S. In case you missed the bolded words above, my book is FREE until Thursday, January 5 @ 6:oopm CST. Grab your free copy here.

Good Soil

Last week, Bill taught on the parable of the Good Soil out of Luke 8. I thought it was good enough to revisit this week. Here are my notes from yesterday, including 7 disciplines for keeping your heart soft and receptive towards Jesus.

Preparing My Heart to be Good Soil

Being receptive to God’s Word and bearing fruit are our top priorities as followers of Jesus. We want to be good soil. We do not want to be hard or calloused to God’s word, nor do we want to let the things of this world (anxiety, the love of money) choke out the life of Christ in us.
“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples,” John 15:8

Fruit is:

  • A transformed life that manifests the character attributes of Jesus described in Galatians 5:22 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
  • Making disciples by proclaiming and demonstrating the Good News of Jesus’s death, resurrection and soon coming Kingdom.
  • Loving God as our top priority and loving others with the same sort of sacrificial love with which Jesus loved us.
  • Cleaning up your messes and Keeping Your Love On

Unless we deliberately choose to cultivate our hearts as good soil, we will default to oneof the other three types Jesus described in the parable:

(1) We will ignore God’s Word because we are hard hearted towards God and/or have no hunger for him.

(2) We will initially respond to the Gospel with joy, but only because we think it is a quick road to health and/or wealth. When persecution and hardship arise, our motivation to follow God quickly diminishes.

(3) We really want to follow God, but we keep getting distracted. Our family, our career, the love of money or other anxieties keep us from being as fully devoted to Jesus as we need to be in order to mature. 

Fighting our natural tendency towards apathy and lethargy requires discipline – which is where the word disciple comes from. The following disciplines have an amazingly disproportionate return for the time they require:

Seven Disciplines for Cultivating Good Soil

(1) Personal Private Worship – Worship God in your home (or office) on your own time, by yourself, being as expressive/creative as necessary. Worshipping together as a community is great, but it won’t have the same transformative effect. Do whatever works for you, but do it with the intent of worshipping God and connecting with him.

(2) Prayer – Pray the Lord’s Prayer or any of the Psalms in your own words. Using that as a template, expand or contract your prayers accordingly. Remember, Jesus taught us to pray in the plural – so prayer isn’t just about you; it is also about your family, congregation, city, state and nation. Pray through a list of the people you love. Journal your prayers. Prayer is primarily about finding out what God thinks about something and then agreeing with it. Prayer is secondarily about expressing your feelings and needs and finding God in the midst of them. 

(3) Bible Study – How healthy do you think you would be if you only ate one meal every week? That is how your soul feels if your only time spent in God’s Word is on Sunday morning. The Bible’s primary intent is to reveal the nature of God. Read it with the hope of finding out more of who he is, not as a “To Do” list. 

(4) Fast – Our culture has an unhealthy obsession with food – health food and junk food alike. Your life is about more than food, what you eat or what you don’t. A regular practice of fasting helps free you from the stranglehold food has on many of us. Not eating for a day won’t kill you. Seek medical advice if you are on significant medications or are diabetic. Fasting once a week is a good place to start.

(5) Tithe – The love of money is deceitful and it can quickly become your master. We exert our authority over money by refusing to define our self-worth by our net-worth. We put that intention into action by giving money away and making it serve other people. There really is something special about tithing, giving 10% of your income back to God. Lesser amounts don’t do it. The tithe is supremely effective at freeing us from the love of money. You don’t tithe for God or the Church, you tithe for you. 

(6) Small Group – Most of us are way too busy – our most important commodity is our time. But do the things we are “so busy” with really matter? Often, our schedules are filled up with voluntary commitments and obligations, not vital projects necessary for our survival. Getting together with other believers, people who will likely become dear friends, reminds us that we are a community – a family – and that other things can wait. If your goal is to be good soil, you will need the strength, encouragement and refreshment that being with other Christians brings. 

(7) Rest – Take one day off each week and only do the things you love to do. Sleep in, relax, recreate. This has a way of uncluttering your life and helping you to determine what is really important in life. 

One Way to Put it All Together

Because tithing has been, and continues to be, such a huge part of my life (and because I like round numbers), here are the goals I shoot for:

  • A tenth of my day (2 hours 24 minutes) in worship, prayer and Bible study (I get up at 4am most days of the week to make this happen)
  • A tenth of my week (16.8 hours or roughly one day of being awake) resting, relaxing, recreating or otherwise spending time with my family.
  • A tenth of my month spent with other Christians doing life together (1-2 nights each week)
  • A tenth of my year in fasting (the first 3 days of each month, Lent or some other combination)
  • A tenth of my income to the congregation and another tenth to missions (the missions portion is because Dani and I want to. It isn’t required, it is just fun. :D)

Again, these are my goals. I think they are achievable by almost everyone, but you ultimately need to work out your own goals for yourself.

This plan is intended to war against the common idols of our culture: self-indulgance, the love of money, pride, busyness and self-sufficiency. 

The Heart Behind it All

All of this will just be legalistic nonsense if it isn’t done from the proper heart posture. We don’t embrace these postures hoping to be good soil so that we can earn Father’s approval – we already have it. We embrace this rigorous approach to discipleship because we want to be a home for Holy Spirit and we want to give the life of Jesus inside of us the best possible chance of growing and maturing and, thereby, transforming us and making us new. It all boils down to love – we love God and want to be more like him. We want to bear fruit and share the Good News. Please be careful about picking and choosing from this list, it is about as distilled as it can get. If we are serious about being open and receptive to God’s Word in our lives, we will need a comprehensive plan to war against our default tendency towards apathy, lethargy and distraction. 

Thanks for reading friends. 

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.

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!

Recovering your sight

Mark 6:39-44

Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. Emphasis mine.

The passage above, from Mark 6, is the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 men plus women and children with five loaves of bread and 2 fish. It is a tremendous miracle, one I find myself returning to often. I’d like to discuss one more dimension of this miracle in this post – the idea of “looking up to heaven.” The Greek word translated “to look up” is also the word that means “to recover sight,” as when Jesus healed someone of blindness. That particular piece of information caused me to approach this passage in a different light. 

Jesus was surrounded by a huge crowd of people. They had been with him for some time and now they were hungry. Rather than send them away to fend for themselves, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wanted to feed them. Jesus shared his intentions with the Disciples and they responded just like you or I would have – “Jesus, there are thousands of people here. We don’t have enough money to cater a lunch for this many people. You have to send them away.” Jesus was insistent, “No, you feed them.”

The disciples did a quick search and found five loaves of bread and two fish. They brought them to Jesus. “Jesus, here is what we have… enough to feed one, maybe to people. What about everyone else?” 

Jesus responded by taking the loaves and fish and then directed the people to sit down and ready themselves for a meal. What great faith – both in Jesus and in the crowd. The people had no clue what was going on except that the Teacher said they were going to have dinner. I can imagine more than a few people mumering under their breath, “I wonder how that is going to happen.”

In the midst of the murmering and noise of the crowd, Jesus took the loaves and looked up to heaven. Jesus refused to be blinded by what was in front of him. Instead, he recovered his sight, he cured his own spiritual blindness by looking to heaven and seeing Father for who he truly is. In the midst of tremendous human need and an even greater lack of resources, Jesus began speaking to our Father. ‘Daddy, there are so many hungry people here and I want to feed them. I want to reveal to them that you are the God who Provides. I want them to understand that I am the bread from Heaven by giving them bread from heaven. But there is so little bread and so little of me…’ Faith has no problem acknowledging the facts. Faith is grounded in reality, not fantasy. Faith also refuses to leave God out of the equation. ‘…but you are Good. You are generous and kind. You sustained your people for 40 years in the wildnerness and you have brought us to this point. It was your idea to do this, you want to reveal yourself to these people. You want to show that you are trustworthy and you want to take away any excuses they have for not believing you care about them.’ 

Looking up to heaven and seeing God for who he truly is allowed Jesus to act in faith. He began blessing the bread, multiplying it before his very eyes as he broke it and gave it to his disciples to distribute. The miracle continued as the disciples broke the bread and gave it away and it continued further as the crowd broke the bread and gave it to one another. By the end of the meal there was more left over than what they had started with! Everyone ate and was satisfied. What a wonderful picture of God’s love, mercy and grace – the more we give it away the more we have, in fact, we end up with more than what we started with. In God’s Kingdom, things grow as they are given away and shrink as they are hoarded.

What Jesus models for us is a profound understanding of faith. As Bill Johnson says, “If you ever look at a problem and feel hopeless you need to redo the math and factor in God’s faithfulness and ability.” Faith is so much more than belieiving God can do something – it is believing he wants to and will because we asked. Faith isn’t presumptuous, we aren’t entitled to a miracle and God doesn’t owe us anything, rather, it rests on the promise of God’s word. God really is a good Father, he really does love us, he really does delight in us and longs to partner with us to release His Kingdom on the earth. 

Many of us will never need to feed 5,000 people fish sandwiches for dinner, but we will need to look to heaven for answers to our marriages, our difficulties with our kids, our problems at work and countless other things. The temptation in each of those situations is to be blinded by the facts and to operate from a place of lack. The challenge for us is to “recover our sight” by looking to heaven and factoring in the goodness of our Heavenly Father. Then we will probably have to give up or give away the things we’ve been holding onto, even hoarding, for this miracle manifests in brokenness. It won’t be easy, it may or may not be fun, and it will certainly be worth it.

I try to never ask people to do what I have been unwilling to do myself, so I’ll close with this story:

Several years ago, my wife and I were both working full time trying to pay off our student loans. I felt God calling me to give up my full time job with benefits and to go into ministry in the House of Prayer, which meant fundraising my entire salary. Quitting my job and asking other people to pay my debts absolutely rankeled my soul, yet God was insistent. So I quit my job and spent one month simply sharing with my family and friends what I believed God was calling me into. Now, to be totally honest, I have AMAZING and generous family and friends, but their response totally blew me away. Without even asking, my family and friends honored the call of God on my life and ended up supporting me with more money than what I was making working a full time job.

God is faithful. 

I hope my story inspires you to step out in faith. You will never build a satisfying and compelling history with God by playing it safe. Don’t be foolish, but don’t be afraid to take risks. You never know when you might end up walking on water.

Ben

Captives, Prisoners and the Year of Jubliee

God is better than we think. He proves this time and time again. Every time we put a limit on His mercy and grace, He reveals another facet of His character that is at first offensive, then consoling, then transformative.

I had this experience made clear to me last week when I was prepping for yesterday’s sermon. I was reading through Isaiah 61, taking it slow and trying to process what it was that God was speaking to us. Then I came upon this part of verse 1,

“He sent me… to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…”

I’m indebted to Bill Johnson of Redding, CA for giving me the germ of this insight – that captives and prisoners are two different kinds of people.

Captives are people suffering because of someone else’s sin. Captives are people who were sinned against – attacked, overpowered, enslaved. They are people who were taken captive.

Captives wear many different faces in our culture. They are the molested and abused, the raped, forgotten and mistreated. The aborted, the neglected, the abandoned, the alien and the orphan. It only makes sense that a God of mercy, grace, goodness and justice would act to make these wrong things right, to heal their hurts and set them free.

Prisoners are a different ball game. Prisoners are those paying the price for their own sins. Humanity loves to punish, God does not. Humanity loves to see sinners beaten down, God loves to see prisoners set free.

Anyone who embraces current suffering for past mistakes is a prisoner. A woman wracked with health-destroying guilt over a past abortion is a prisoner. A man who accepts his chronic pain as a just reward for his lifetime obesity is a prisoner. Anyone, for any reason, who never asks God to heal them because they believe their suffering is deserved is a prisoner. And Jesus came to set them free.

We often want prisoners to earn their release. We want the fat man to lose weight before his hip stops hurting. We want the abuser to have his self-worth totally destroyed before we even think of releasing him. We want our prisoners to suffer… and then some.

I understand that response – it is a natural human response. But, as Christians, we are no longer allowed to think about things naturally, for we have the mind of Christ. We have to think about things from God’s perspective.

In the Law, God said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This was to limit carnal man’s desire for vengeance above and beyond the hurt that was caused.

More compelling, in Isaiah 55 God says,

Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon. ‘ For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the Heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.’

I love that the famous passage “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts” is in the context of forgiveness and mercy. An evil man can turn and be completely forgiven – that is totally Divine, not a human response at all. And it is possible because of the sacrifice of Jesus.

Isaiah 61 goes on to say that this is the year of the Lord’s favor, another way of saying “Jubilee.” The year of Jubilee was the year of canceling debts, restoring inheritance and livelihood. It was a year that offered hope for the next generation, a Divine course correction for the entire nation.

It didn’t matter why you were in debt when Jubilee came around, all was forgiven. It didn’t matter if calamity had overtaken you or if you had been a terrible manager and spent yourself into debt you could not pay. When the shofar sounded you got a new lease on life, a chance to do things better.

Jesus is our Jubliee – our forgiveness of debt, our reclaimed inheritance, our new lease on life. Whatever you were before you came to Jesus – captive or prisoner – you have the assurance that it has all been paid for. You no longer need to punish yourself nor look to punish others. God will restore your fortunes, heal your hurts and offer you a life far more glorious than punishment or revenge.

It is time to let the Lamb receive the reward of his suffering. It is time to turn over our ashes and receive his beauty bestowed on us. It is time to let go of our mourning and enter into his joy. It is time to reject depression and despair and embrace the hope he offers to us.

Continued punishment only cheapens Jesus’s sacrifice. Please trust me, what he suffered was more than enough. It is time to trust and believe in what God has accomplished for us. It is time to forgive and receive forgiveness. It is time to submit ourselves in humble reverence to a God who is so much bigger and so much better than we could ever possibly imagine.

Meditation on Jesus Feeding the Five Thousand

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

I’ve recently come to see this passage in a new light. It is easy to get caught up in the grandiose miracle of multiplying bread and to look over the more subtle, but equally important aspects of this passage. It is those less obvious miracles I’d like to focus on today.

The passage starts out, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” What had happened? Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist had just been executed by Herod the Tetrarch.

We’re not really sure what sort of relationship Jesus and John had, but we do know that Jesus said that John “was the greatest man ever born of a woman” and that John was really the only person to understand who Jesus really was. Both had miraculous births and John was the one who prepared the people of Israel to receive the ministry of Jesus. I think it is safe to assume that Jesus and John were fond of one another.

So Jesus, hearing of John’s death, withdraws to a solitary place to grieve. Like anyone who has ever lost a loved one, sometimes you just need time to be by yourself to pray, cry and process. He goes privately to a place no one ever comes to for a time of quiet and reflection.

But the crowds find out about it and as soon as Jesus lands a mob of human need envelops him. These people don’t care that Jesus is grieving – they are too caught up with their own needs. They don’t honor Jesus’s wish for privacy, instead thousands of people travel out of their way to swarm him and seek his blessing.

What must that have been like for Jesus to look over the bow of the ship and see through the mist a vast multitude with their emotional and spiritual vacuums pointed straight at him? What must it have been like to feel the crushing weight of human need and self-centeredness? Jesus would have been justified if he had lashed out at the crowd, telling them to go away so he could process the loss of his friend. But he doesn’t. Instead, his heart was moved with compassion because (as Mark’s version puts it) “they were like sheep without a shepherd” – pathetic, lost, hurting, confused, and scared.

I’m amazed at the miracle of compassion Jesus displays here. He has compassion on the crowd and heals their sick. He teaches them and after a long day of ministry he feeds them, rather than sending them away. When Jesus’s “tank” was on empty he still found grace to minister, to heal and to love.

It sort of reminds me of the story of the widow’s jars of oil and flour in the Old Testament – the ones that felt empty but always had enough to make bread for that day. I wonder if Jesus was thinking of that story when he taught his disciples to pray “and give us today our daily bread”? Was he teaching us to pray and position our hearts in such a way that even when we feel totally depleted we would still be moved with love to serve? It seems reasonable. With God, empty is always enough for a miracle.

Jesus does eventually dismiss the crowds and do business with his grief, so it isn’t that Jesus taught us to never deal with our junk. I just think the main thrust of this parable for us as followers of Jesus is to understand there is always enough in us to minister one more time – no matter how tired, how sad, or how spent because we don’t minister to others out of our own strength anyway. It is just that we are more aware of that fact when we are on rock bottom.

I needed that reminder this week. I needed to see in Jesus that, even on empty, you can still treat needy people kindly and compassionately. Something about seeing Jesus deal with people so tenderly helps me to do the same. Perhaps it is because I am reminded of how needy I am and am humbled by how he interacts with me

Addendum
I feel a little silly adding this, but something in my brain kept nagging me to.

I’d like to clarify that ministering on empty should not be one’s regular mode of operation. I believe the Christian life should have lengthy periods of joy, fulfillment, overabundance of energy and overflowing life because that is what I believe Jesus meant when he said that he came “that we might have life and have it to the full.”

I’d also like to clarify that I think people need to take time for self-care. Some try to bury their feelings and dysfunctions by ministering to others and always being focused on other people – that is unhealthy and doesn’t help anyone because it leaves your junk undealt with and turns the other person into and idol. Some people do indeed need to stop “pouring out” and get their own stuff taken care of.

So this meditation is for those who do take time for reflection and processing, keep a short list with God and still find themselves in a dry season. It is for those of us who can go on, but would just rather not.

Hopefully those disclaimers are more helpful than not.

Thanks for reading friends.

Living God’s Way

The Bible is an amazing creation. It is 2,100 years of recorded history where God reveals Himself to humanity. The Bible records God’s thoughts, words, actions and emotions as He works out His Story of Redepmtion. In the Bible, the Wisdom of God is entrusted to humanity, filtered through some 4,000 years of human experience and then handed off to us – time tested, Father approved.

When you think of it, is there anything God doesn’t have an opinion on? He is THE Creator. He has strong opinions on how we should care for and steward His creation. He knows everything there is to know about the workings of the human heart. He knows how to best set up a society/government and how to build the most rich, fulfilling and meaningful relationships of all time. From eating to sex, from economics to politics, God knows how things work best and it is all recorded for us in the Bible.

When we live God’s way it only blesses us. One of the strangest and most amazing commands God gives His people is in Deuteronomy 14:21, ‘Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” This command has a multitude of meanings for the Jews, but the take-away principle for us is this: something that is meant to bless and strengthen you should never cause you harm.

God’s word never causes us harm when it is applied correctly. In fact, God’s word is a safeguard around our lives, it protects us in unimaginable ways from suffering and pain. However, because God’s word specializes in prevention, we never see what we were saved from, so we tend not to value it. This is a tragic mistake repeated generation after generation. But for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the Bible is the key that unlocks abundant life and the Kingdom of God.

God’s word never causes us harm… when it is applied correctly. By no means do I have the authoritative word on how to apply the Bible perfectly in every circumstance. What I do have are a few lessons that the Bible and Church history have taught us.

Principles for Applying the Bible to Your Life

(1) We are not Jews
For some strange reason, when I talk about living God’s way and applying His Wisdom to our lives, people start thinking we need to submit ourselves to the Law once again. They start thinking the Sabbath needs to be observed on a certain day or that they need to start eating Kosher. No! Put everything I say (and what every other preacher/teacher says) in the greater context of Scripture. We know that the Law doesn’t save (Romans 3:20) and that no one, save Jesus, was able to live under it without sin (Romans 3:23, Act 15:10,11); so why would we think we need to go back to following the letter of the Law?

There are a great number of pseudo-Christian cults that try to convince Christians to submit themselves to the Law. They sound convincing, even compelling, because their arguments are “biblical.” But unless they take into account the whole counsel of God, especially the freedom we have in Christ, then they aren’t worth listening to. For if we revert to trying to be saved through the works of the Law, then Christ profits us nothing and we reject everything he offers us, including our salvation.

We are not saved by the works of the Law or following the letter of the Law. Does that mean that the Old Testament is worthless? Of course not.

(2) Look for the Underlying Principles
This is exactly what I did when I quoted Deuteronomy 14:21 above. Don’t take everything at face value, dig deeper to find the Principle each law or story is trying to reveal. Very often there will be multiple ways to interpret each passage, so again, put each passage into the whole story of God’s Salvation and Redemption. If one way of interpreting the passage leads to legalism, religion or being saved through your own effort, disregard it. If an interpretation doesn’t contradict the main Truths of Scripture, try it on for size – start living it out and see how it goes.

(3) Look for the Underlying Person
The whole Bible reveals Jesus. It doesn’t matter if it is the Old Testament or New, the Psalms, Prophets or Law – every part of the Bible points to Jesus. Look for how the passage points you to a greater understanding of Jesus. Fall in love with him in a new or deeper way. This is the most important and most powerful way of applying Scripture to your life. If you can find that passage lived out in the life of Jesus then you can bet it will benefit you too.

(4) Just Do It, Even If You Don’t Understand It.
Most people don’t understand why God wants His people to rest one full day out of every seven until they do it. Most don’t understand for the first 6 months. But eventually, through our faith-filled obedience, God begins to reveal His character and His ways. You will begin to understand why He wants you to devote an entire day to rest, relaxation and enjoyment. Your heart will come alive in a new way. Many Truths in the Bible cannot be communicated, they can only be experienced. You will live an impoverished existence if you choose to delay obedience until you “fully understand” something. I don’t fully understand how a combustion engine works, but that doesn’t stop me from driving a car. It is the same way with the Bible. We don’t have to fully understand why God commanded something in order to benefit from it. However, it is glorious to search out the heart of each command and to try and understand why God gave it.

Undoubtedly, there are many more points and sub-points to applying the Bible to your life. However, I think these points summarize the vast majority of what needs to be said about living life God’s way. Take time to meditate on God’s word, not just read it. Dig deep and find those wellsprings of life. Happy hunting friends!

Reclaiming Outrage and Indignation

I’ll admit that outraged and indignant aren’t usually the first words that come to mind when I think of Jesus – not even the second, third or fourth. Though I know it isn’t accurate, I still tend to think of Jesus as the long-haired hippy of my youth, sitting with children in a field of flowers and teaching everyone to be nice. And then I read the Bible and see that Jesus is a multifaceted and complex person, not so easily written off by sentimental Hallmark cards.

Indignation is defined as “anger or annoyance provoked by what is perceived as unfair treatment.” Outrage is indignation on Red Bull. It is a little easier to see Jesus’s indignation with that definition in mind.

Remember the man with leprosy who said to Jesus, “If you’re willing, you can make me clean”? Jesus was indignant and said, “I am willing! Be clean!” Some translations says that Jesus was moved with compassion. I’d like to suggest that the two ought to be the same thing of a Christian. Perceiving injustice and unfair treatment ought to provoke something within us, fill us with compassion and cause us to take action.

I could go on. There was a man with a shriveled hand, a women whose back was bent in half, the money changers perpetuating a system of religious slavery… Jesus very impolitely upset the apple cart in each instance. He was not overly concerned with public opinion or what would be good for business. He was zealous and passionate, outraged by man’s injustice to man.

How many Christian men do you know that could walk into, say, a football stadium and drive out all the vendors and instill such fear into the security guards that they do nothing but stand on the sideline? That is what Jesus did in the Temple. I used to think that was a shabby illustration, until I learned how many children are sold or traded in the sex slave industry at sporting events, and Iowa is at the crossroads of the nation, smack dab in the middle of it.

My intent isn’t to stir up a lot of machismo within the Church. My hope is to elevate us to a greater level of awareness and action. I’m tired of being in the camp of limp and powerless Christianity. I want to burn for something… and that something is the Kingdom of God.

I’ve been reading a lot about vaccinations lately. As many of you know, the idea behind vaccines is to administer a sub-clinical dose of something so that the body will build a resistance and immunity, a process known as hormesis. I fear that the Western Church has been vaccinated against agape, love in action. We’ve built up such immunity to the Gospel message of a God of Justice that we’ve settled for a definition of agape as loving inaction. James would be pissed.

We suffer from chronic, low grade outrage in the West. Taxes, bills, road rage, email, and hectic schedules all contribute to our sense of entitelment. We’re “outraged” when there isn’t a parking spot close to the door, “so mad” that our neighbor’s dog pooped in our yard – come on folks, can we care about something important?

What about the fact that 1.2 million children are aborted in the U.S. alone every year? That is the equivilent of 333 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings happening every day of the school year. What about the fact that there are now more slaves in the world today than ever before in history? What about the fact that the most prosperous nation in history is also the most indebted, has the most incarcerated citizens and has hungry and homeless people dying in its streets every day?

And we’re concerned there might not be enough Tickle Me Elmos to go around?

I realize that some people might misconstrue my ideas of outrage and indignation for self-righteousness, a ‘savior of the world’ mentality. I assure you, I have no such delusions of grandeur. This world is a sinking ship, no matter what I do, or we do, we aren’t going to create the Kingdom of Heaven on the earth through our own efforts – only Jesus can do that.

I love the idea of transforming cities and discipling nations – that energizes me and gets my blood pumping. But it is naive and unbiblical to think that we are going to make the world a progressively better place until Jesus says “I guess they did it without me, might as well go back.” Not very “saviorish”. But that doesn’t mean we give up, huddle up and let the enemy continue to ravage the world around us. We fight, we make a difference one by one.

I think the Starfish Story illustrates this perfectly:

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?,” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”

“It made a difference to that one.” In the case of evangelism and salvation, it makes an eternal difference. Do we give up and call it vanity knowing we can’t save everyone and that this world is going to turn to ash? Not at all. The Kingdom we inherit is eternal, unshakable and only going to be revealed in its fullness at the end of the Age. Then we will see the impact of all the hours we spent throwing starfish back into the sea.

We can’t lose – the cross, death and resurrection of Christ assures us victory. Our task now is to prove our faithfulness and the quality of our character, not to God, but to ourselves. Will we hold on to our integrity when no one else is watching? Will we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the work of the Kingdom since we’ve accepted the promise of so great a reward?

I hope so. I want us to be the miraculous burning bush for all the world to see. It isn’t surprising to see trees spontaneously combust in the dry and brittle climate of the desert. But it is surprising to see one burn and burn and burn, longer than is right or that naturally makes sense. Anyone can burn with love for Jesus, passion for Justice or righteous indignation for a couple weeks or months, but I want to burn for decades. I want to more vigorously follow Christ at the end of my life than I do right now. I am hungry for my inheritance.

John Wesley is attributed with saying, “Set yourself on fire and people will come for miles to watch you burn.” That may be true, but I’d rather spark something in them. I don’t want spectators, I want a community of torches.

Will you burn with me?