Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Scenes From the Spiritual Gym (A Farce That's All Too True)

Scenes from the Spiritual Gym
(Part 1 of a Series)

Before and after weight loss surgery
(Photo credit: jackiebese)

At one of thousands of branches of the American Church Gym:

"Good morning, sir (or ma'am).  What are your spiritual goals, and how can I help you achieve them?"

"Well, I haven't been having my quiet times regularly enough.  I looked in the mirror the other day, and my 'quiet times' abs aren't looking much like a six-pack anymore."

"Oh, well, we can't have that, now, can we?  So, to help us get to know you a little better, please tell us which coaching model you prefer:

  • The legalistic accountability partner who motivates you by fear and guilt
  • the warm-fuzzy, 'you're not so bad,' coach
  • the highly-inspiring 'cheerleader' coach

"Um...well, I guess whichever one will help me reach my goals the fastest.  I really hate these flabby 'service' muscles in my arms, and this fat 'self-control' abdomen!"

"Oh boy, I sure do understand that!  Well here, let's try one kind of coaching approach, and if you find that that's not helping you reach your goals, we'll try a different one, okay?"

"Sounds good!"

"Now, to get us started, let's step in front of that spiritual mirror.  Let's chart what you see compared to what you hope to see, and then we'll know what goals you'll want to pursue."

"Makes sense.  But I'm a little uncomfortable with all the mirrors in here.  Doesn't that seem...I don't know...egotistical or something?  Aren't Christians supposed to be humble?"

Mirror (Photo credit: Chapendra)

The coach laughs and waves a dismissive hand.  "Oh, don't be silly. The Bible says we're to examine ourselves, right?  And how can you do that without a mirror, or goals, or other Christians to compare yourself to?"

"Well, I guess the Bible does say that.  But ugh, I HATE mirrors!"

"Oh, don't worry, we'll whip you into shape in no time, and pretty soon you'll be so spiritually buff that you'll LOVE mirrors!"

"But...but...what about humility?"

"Oh, don't worry about that, either.  We'll keep reminding you.  Humility is one of those spiritual goals, after all, right?  So you just remember to repeat to yourself every day as you look in the mirror, 'Yes, I've still got a ways to go, but by the grace of God I'll be more spiritually buff tomorrow, and then I'll have more to praise Him for!'  That's the key to humility, you know.  The more spiritually buff you become, the more humble it is to scoff and say, 'Oh, no, God did this for me.'  Your 'humility pecs' will pop for sure!"

"So it's a win-win, I guess.  I get to like what I see in the spiritual mirror, and I get to say things that give Jesus the glory!"

"Exactly!  Now you understand the Christian life!"  The coach gives you a wink and an elbow-nudge.  "Don't those 'Praise Jesus' T-shirts look better and more convincing on a hot bod?"

You laugh, and you have to admit that it's a convincing argument.  But there are still some things that you don't understand, so you keep asking questions.

"Okay, well, pardon my dumb question, but what exactly is 'sin?'"

"Oh, well, sin is forgetting your spiritual goals, and not working on them.  You know, not doing quiet times, not putting money in the Salvation Army bucket, that sort of thing."

"And repentance?"

"That's easy!  Repentance means recommitting yourself to your goals!"

"And what is faith?"

"Why, faith is believing that Jesus will help you reach your goals, of course!"

"What is worship, then?"

"Worship is praising God for helping you reach your goals.  And besides, he likes praise, right?  Who doesn't?  So worship helps motivate him to help you reach your goals!"

"Then who is Jesus in this whole process?"

"Well, think of him as your Invisible Fitness Coach.  When you're looking in the mirror, he's looking, too!  If you're getting more and more buff, he smiles more and more.  If you're being naughty, he starts to frown.  But don't worry."  Another dismissive wave of the hand.  "He's very forgiving.  Just say 'I'm sorry,' and promise to do better next time.  It's all good."

"Okay, I think I see it all now.  Let's get to work!"

"Whoo, I love that spirit!  Let's make you look like you want to look, and be what you want to be.  Let's make you LOVE that spiritual mirror!"

So, you begin what you hope will be a lifetime of buffing up under the eye of Jesus, the Invisible Fitness Coach.  But you dread his gaze, and you hope you can buff up quickly.

You look around yourself at the guys and gals who have bulging muscles everywhere.  It's obvious they've been doing targeted toning, so that they've reached a point of fashionably grotesque physiques. The kind of bodies that actual, productive physical labor never forms.  Their bodies are consciously-sculpted gym bodies.

You have to admit, they impress you, and you know that a "Praise Jesus" T-shirt looks a lot better on them than it does on you.

Come to think of it, they inspire you much more than your Invisible Jesus guy.  He's a mystery, but they're clear.  And you like them least some of them...the ones who think you're worth their time, and who will notice you and encourage you.

After a while, the Invisible Coach makes you even more uncomfortable to think about than he used to. Why? Because not only is he judging your buff-ness, but you also have a sneaking suspicion that, if you could see Him, He wouldn't look anything like the pec-poppers around you.

And that means (HORRORS!) that you suspect He wouldn't look anything like what you're trying to become.  And that makes you vaguely angry.  What does he want from you anyway?  You're not sure, but you know what YOU want from yourself.  You know what YOUR spiritual goals are.  You know which part of you you want to sculpt next.  And you know that it has something to do with reading your Bible every day and doing good works (especially the specific types of good works that are most heavily promoted by your branch of the gym).  So you just keep going, following the coaches you can actually see.

English: Zulfiya Chinshanlo World Champion 200...
Zulfiya Chinshanlo World Champion 2009  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end, you'll love yourself, and either forget the Invisible Coach, or find that the highest praise you can give Him is, "Look at how awesome he made me!"

Or, you'll hate yourself and the coach, because it was all just too hard, and everybody in the gym is a hypocrite anyway.

Welcome to the Christian life.

Or not.

Stay tuned...

Next:  Scenes from the Sheepfold

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My New Bible Reading Plan

(My plan doesn't rely on the high tech stuff, but this is my setup.)

Have you ever struggled to find a Bible reading plan that works well for you?  That has been my struggle recently, and I wanted to share with you what I have developed, and have found to be a great enhancement to my morning devotions.

Why did I need a new plan?
(Feel free to scroll down to the details of the plan if you want to skip the “why.”)

I've used several plans over the years. Usually, I default to a plan that includes some Old Testament, some New Testament, some Psalms, and some Proverbs each day.  But for a while I also used and enjoyed Professor Horner's system (link to PDF), which gave an incredibly broad overview of the Scriptures, with large amounts of reading from all over the Bible every day.

Each system has its advantages. But I found I couldn't stick with Professor Horner's system for more than about a year and a half before the frenetic pace left me a bit frazzled. There are great advantages in swallowing large amounts of Scripture every day for a while, but it does keep one back from a more careful, in-depth look at the Word.

Lately, I had begun to find myself dissatisfied with every Bible reading plan I tried. All involved multiple chapters a day, and I really felt I needed something that allowed me to give greater concentration to small amounts of Scripture.  But I couldn’t bring myself to embark on a one-chapter-a-day, Genesis-to-Revelation type of study. Perhaps it’s shameful to have to admit it, but there are certain books I just didn’t want to get bogged down in for a month or more. After a great deal of time spent in Deuteronomy, for example, I’m nearly gasping for the refreshment of the epistles. And while some of the Bible’s most beautiful words of hope can be found in Isaiah, it also has many, many chapters of judgments against the enemies of God’s people. All of that is useful, but one can only read so much of it at a time before one begins to thirst for words of grace.

I began to toy with the idea of creating my own Bible reading plan, one that would give me small amounts of Scripture each day, while giving me a great deal of variety in my reading. At the same time, I didn’t want to be reading things out of context, since context is such an incredibly important part of Scripture interpretation and understanding. So I certainly wasn’t going to choose some sort of random, “shut-your-eyes-and-open-the-Bible-and-read-whatever-page-it-opens-to” approach.

The more I puzzled about it, the more I thought that Professor Horner’s plan might have some answers for me.  It did offer lots of variety, it was not calendar-based, and it divided the Bible into sections from which one would read each day.

What if, instead of Professor Horner’s ten-chapter-a-day approach, I adapted it into a one-chapter-a-day plan, and read from a different section of the Bible each day? That way, I could get the variety that I thirsted for, could get the in-depth study that I knew I needed, and could keep my daily selections within their natural contexts.

And so, from these musings, my new plan was born. And I’m finding it to be everything I hoped it would be.

The Details of the Plan

It is generally recognized that the Bible can be divided into five or six different categories. Of course there is some blurring of the lines between categories, but for a weekly reading plan, you can do very nicely with the following divisions:

·        Law – Genesis through Deuteronomy
·        History – Joshua through Esther
·        Poetry and Wisdom – Job through Song of Solomon
·        Prophets – Isaiah through Malachi
·        Gospels and Acts
·        Epistles and Revelation

That gives me one different type of Scripture to read each day of the week. So Mondays I read one chapter from the “Law” section, working my way through the chapters in order, so that everything remains in its correct context. On Tuesdays I read a chapter in the “History” section, also working through that section in its natural order. And so on throughout the week. This way, I get a very nice survey of the Bible every week (except Sunday), while at the same time going through at a slow enough pace that I can spend time studying and taking notes.

Since this plan is not calendar bound, in the sense that you don’t have to finish at a certain pace, I am also free to divide a long chapter in half if I find that I want to spend more time on it. There’s no guilt for having fallen behind what someone’s predetermined plan says I should be reading today.

I find that this plan really helps me to get through the sections of the Bible that I find harder to read than others, such as the thundering judgments of Isaiah, or the grieving of Jeremiah in much of his two books. Since I know that I will only be reading one chapter from these difficult sections each week, I approach them with a better attitude. And that makes me more open-minded, and enables me to gain more from these valuable passages. And believe me, these are vital and valuable passages. It is my own sinfulness that makes it hard for me to appreciate these sections. With this new approach, I’m learning to appreciate them more.

While not everyone will agree with me on this, I also skim over the genealogical stuff. I know and believe that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable. I believe that the profit in the genealogies comes from the fact that they show that God knows every individual, and, more importantly, they confirm the necessary genealogical line of the Messiah. (That’s why the Bible stops keeping track of genealogies after the birth of Christ.) So, when I encounter a chapter full of names, I thank the Lord for His intimate knowledge of all people, and for His wisdom in bringing the Messiah into the world. And then I skim over it and move on to the next chapter. (But be careful if you do this. Sometimes there are real gems stuck in the middle of the lists of names. So don’t just skip them. Skim them, looking for those little nuggets. It would be a shame to miss them.)

So how do I keep track of where I am? I decided to borrow Professor Horner’s strategy here, too. I created a bookmark for each section, and I clearly labeled it to show what section it belongs in. I just move it forward with me as I go along. You can see a sample below.

(I chose to make magnetic bookmarks that fold over top of the page so they won’t fall out. I labeled both sides of the bookmark for easy identification from any angle, and then placed a distinctive mark on the side of the bookmark that shows which side of the page I actually left off on.)

Since in-depth study was an important consideration in designing this plan, I also needed to set up a note taking system that would work well for me. Being the computer geek that I am, I chose to set up my system in Evernote. You can of course use a much more traditional system, such as pen and paper. But whatever system you use, you may find it helpful to use an organizational strategy similar to the one I am about to describe.

I created six individual notebooks, one for each day of the week and its corresponding section of Scripture. Each notebook then has its own page devoted to a book of the Bible within that section. So, within the “Law” notebook, I have a page for Genesis, a page for Exodus, etc. (If you’re using pen and paper, you will of course need much more than a single page for each of these books.)

I then take chapter and verse notes wherever and whenever thoughts strike me. But I make sure that I date the notes, so that the next time I come to this section of Scripture, I can review the notes that I made last time. This is a great way to refresh my memory on important points I might have forgotten, as well as giving me a glimpse of my progressive understanding and appreciation of the passage over time.  (If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may recognize the fact that the notes on chapter 4 verse 5 turned into a recent blog entry!)

Please let me know if you decide to try this Bible reading plan, and how it works for you!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My "Good Fight" For Today...Against Shame

Photo by jfg

The shame comes in waves.

It hasn't been this bad in years.

I'm endlessly re-living, constantly cringing at the memory of yesterday's Stupid Moment.

I literally feel my stomach knot up, every few seconds, as the memory assaults me again.  Often a little grunt or whispered word of distress escapes me.

And, underneath it all, there's the rage.

I can NOT be that stupid!

Well, yes...yes I can.  And, in fact, I was.

But I'm not willing to be.  I can't bear to be.  And on days like today, that means I can't bear to be me.

I used to get haunted by shame all the time, but by the grace of God, it's not nearly so frequent now.  But yesterday's Dumb Moment (which also turned out to be an Expensive Moment) was made worse because it was a semi-public event. (As in, I believe I was probably the laughingstock of the police department's locker room at the end of the day.)

Don't ask.  Just don't.

Coming home last night to face the usual nighttime routine (and the usual nighttime chaos!) of family was hard.  As you know if you've been reading this blog for a while, I'm an escapist by nature.  And all I wanted to do last evening was curl up in a ball in bed.

But God has been working, and I could feel something new inside of me.  A new strength that did not originate with me, but came as a gift of faith.  And again today, when the shame waves started crashing over me, I felt the Holy Spirit coming alongside me, bringing the truths of Scripture to mind from a whole new angle (for me, anyway).

I'm actually kind-of excited about this.

It's funny...yesterday morning, when I wrote the blog entry that I posted this morning, my Big Embarrassing Event hadn't happened yet.  And, when I wrote that post, I really didn't think it had any bearing on my life at the moment.  It was just a thought that had popped out at me from my scheduled reading in Joshua.  But after my Stupid Moment, when I became terrified by the memory of How Dumb I Can Be, I began to hear my own words coming back to remind me that I don't need to be afraid to relive what happened.  And I may even come out of this painful time with some brand new memorial stones to set up.

Isn't God good?

So, what does my "good fight of faith" look like today, when I'm fighting shame?

First of all, let me tell you what it's not.  It's not a fight to improve my self-esteem.

Instead, it's a fight to align myself with the greatest truths of the Christian faith, so I can live in the freedom of the truth (see John 8:32).  That's why it's called "the good fight of faith" (1 Tim 6:11-12).  We're to fight to increase our faith in God, not in ourselves.  It's the fight to walk in the light when the enemy (and our own egos) tell us to run or to arm for war against some human foe.

So, what truths am I loading into my arsenal?

How about this one?  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."  That means that I mustn't arrogantly insist that I BE something awesome (instead of being someone capable of really bone-headed moves).  I am to be at peace with my own humanity, NOT because sin and failure are no big deal, but because those things have been bought and paid for by my Savior in whom I have placed my faith.  And so I pray, "Thank You, Lord, that You are teaching me to live humbly with the reality of my shortcomings.  Thank you that the Kingdom is promised to those who are poor in spirit.  Help me to value poverty of spirit, to value humble acceptance of my shortcomings, to value Your kingdom more than my own imagined greatness."

And how about this?  "For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col 3:3-4).  This speaks to the fact that, as a believer, I was crucified with Christ and raised with Him to a new life.  My life is hidden in God...and that means I can't see it yet.  But I must fight the temptation to find my life in other people's esteem.  My life is not hidden in their approval.  It's hidden with Christ in God.  "Thank You, Lord, that my life is hidden in You, and that I need no longer torture myself with what man thinks of me.  Help me to find my life in You more and more."

Or how about "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!" (Php 4:4).  I am not cruelly called to rejoice in my stupidity, but I am reminded that the Lord is in Heaven, reigning gloriously for the good of all His people (including me).  He knew in advance what I was going to do, and planned to make it work for my good (Rom 8:28).  So I pray, "Lord, help me to rejoice in all that You are for me, rather than raging over what I am not."

The "good fight" also looks like simply staying present when I want to run and hide, not just so I can "be strong" (there's that desire to be awesome again), but because God has promised to make me stand, and because He has work for me to do.

It means remembering (and praying) to be increasingly patient with other flawed people, when their flaws impact me. For we who have been forgiven much are to love much (Luke 7:47), and are to forgive others in return (Matt 18:21-34).

Do you know what began happening last night as I lay in bed and fought the shame with truth?  I began to feel a wonderful feeling of freedom from the fear of man, a fear which Scripture warns us against. It came back with a vengeance this morning, but that just means it's time to fight again.

"For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."  I want that.  I do.  It will be worth the fight!

When God Says, "Go Back There"

Imagine the scene, if you will.

Your name is Avram, perhaps, or something similar.  You're a middle-aged Hebrew wanderer, finally getting ready to enter the Promised Land.

All of your life you've heard about this land.  You've stared longingly across the forbidding Jordan at its verdant far out of reach of your desert abode.

You've heard of your parents' rebellion against the Lord, which stopped your national progress and doomed you to decades of wandering.  You've heard about the miracles they saw, but you were so young when they happened that you don't remember them yourself.

You have experienced daily miracles yourself:  A pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, each of which guides your nation in its wanderings.  You've seen bread fall from Heaven every day, without fail, except of course for the Sabbath...but the bread always fell in double portions on the day before the Sabbath, so you could gather extra then.

But these miracles have always been there, as far as you're concerned.  They're kind-of humdrum to you.

Now Moses, the great Man of God, has died, and Joshua is in charge.  And the 40-year exile has reached its end.  It's time to enter the Land of Promise.  That means, for starters, that it's time to do battle with the mighty city of Jericho.

But the even mightier Jordan River lies between, and to make matters worse, its currently in its flood stage.

Were the old stories of the Parting of the Red Sea really true?

Could it happen again, even without Moses?

You're almost ashamed to admit how amazed you are when it does happen again.  Your jaw drops at the sight of the turgid wall of water piling itself up.  That wall is trembling with unimaginable power, held back only by forces you cannot see or comprehend.

And you have to walk in front of and a few million others.  Including your wife and your children.  You look at them now, so weak and vulnerable next to the forces that threaten them.

And you have to lead your whole tribe, because you've inherited (and risen to) a position of power in that tribe.  So, you square your shoulders, hide your fear from your wife and kids, and step onto the now dry river bed.

The water-wall beside you seems like a raging stallion, eager to break out of its restraints.  And yet you walk.  Your mouth is dry, and you hope the Almighty can forgive your fear.

He promised, and He's done this sort of thing before.  We will get safely through.  We will.

And, finally, you do.  You turn to look back at the hordes which are still coming, and at the priests who stand along the way as God's representatives, almost seeming to hold back the walls themselves (but you know they're not the ones who can do that).  There they stand, though, and you don't envy them.  You couldn't get through that trial fast enough.  It was a creepy place to be, and you're glad you came through it in one piece.

Finally, the last of the nation has crossed, except for the priests, who still stand their ground.  And then Joshua calls all of the tribal leaders together.  You go to him, expecting your orders to advance toward Jericho.

But no.

He says, "Go back."


"Go back."

Go back into the danger zone, back into the place that so recently filled you with awe and fear, back into the trial you thought you were done with.

You can't believe your ears.  Why would we do that?

"This is what the Lord has commanded.  Go back into the heart of the Jordan and gather stones, one stone for each tribe, and bring them back to set them up as a memorial for future generations, so no one will forget what happened here."

You don't argue.  This is, after all, the man whose word had just parted the waters.  You don't play at dueling words with such a man.

So, you and eleven other men walk back into the place you just escaped from.  You feel even more vulnerable now, in such a small company of men. Just the other tribal leaders and, of course, the priests at their posts.

You don't rush.  You can't.  You know your job.  You've seen stone memorials before, and you've appreciated the skill that it takes to build one that will stand for generations to come.  You recognize that you have to get a rock that is not only very large and heavy, but also one that is suitably shaped for its purpose.

You have to spend a fair amount of time finding a good candidate, conferring with the other rock-gatherers until you all agree that the twelve stones you've found will work well together.

And all the while, the Jordan quivers against its restraints.

You hadn't wanted to be here once, and you still can't believe you're here again.

Why aren't we invading Jericho?  That's what we came across to do, right?  Why are we wasting time back here?

But finally, bending under your heavy load, you trudge back to where your family and tribe and nation await. You make eye contact with each priest as you pass him, and you nod.  His burden is greater than yours, and you know it.

At last you're back with your tribe, and you can drop your heavy burden on the ground.  You straighten up with some difficulty, and for some reason you can't stop yourself from looking back at the Jordan yet again.

I made it through.  Not once, but twice.  

And God held the water back each time.

You look back down at the stone you've carried. It's good that we have these stones.  It's good that our people will always remember.

And now, amazingly, you're glad that you were one of the few who had the privilege of walking that road again.


Has God ever made you revisit a scary place that you thought you were through with?

Maybe it was a real, physical journey.  Or maybe it was a journey of remembrance, a journey of telling others, of setting up your own memorial.

What was that like for you?

Could it be that you're still standing on the banks, afraid to step in again?

If you've been called to revisit the painful place, please look again.  What...or rather whom do you see?

There is not a row of priests there, like there was in the Jordan.

No, there's something better. Someone better.  The Great High Priest.  Jesus.  The One who held back the waters the first time, saying "This far, and no further."  He is still holding the ground you gained.  He's also on the shore beside you, and also at the Jericho that awaits.

And He knows, dear brother or sister, that you can better face your Jericho if you remember your Jordan.  If you revisit His faithful deliverance through it.  If you look Him in the eye and nod as you bring back your memorial stones.

Do it.

Trust Him.

He's still there.

And finally, a word to those of you still in the middle of your first scary trek.  Those of you who can't even imagine getting through the first time, much less coming back for a stone.  My word for you is this:  Don't worry that you don't have a heavy stone on your shoulder right now.  The command to fetch it hasn't come yet.  It won't come until you're safely through.

Please don't hear this harshly.  Please hear it as gently as I mean to speak it.  You're not qualified to set up a memorial yet.  It's not that you have to prove your qualifications...oh no!  Your trials are never about you proving yourself to God, or even to yourself.  Your trials are about seeing God holding the waters back. Your trials are about seeing God's power and His deliverance.  So if you haven't yet seen the salvation of the Lord, how can you talk about it?

If you have no memorial stone with you yet, just keep walking and trusting Him.  The day will come when you'll be able to come back and get one.

And you'll be glad you did.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

For Those Who Can't Walk on Water Either

Sarah Trimmer
Sarah Trimmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

"Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

Was Jesus rebuking Peter for lacking the faith to keep walking on the water?

That's the way I've always heard it, but now I wonder.

You see, I've had a life full of sinkings.  So many sinkings that I rarely get out of the boat.  And I'm less likely to get out of it if I think that my next drubbing will be rebuked by Jesus because... terrible failure that I am... I can't do the impossible.

Is the Christian life a process of learning to walk on the water?

I wonder.

Years ago I wrote something that I knew I needed to read again this morning.  (I hope you'll read it too, and I'll link to it so you can.)  I said,  "What if 'arrival' has nothing to do with reaching a certain level of perfection, and everything to do with maintaining the kind of humble, childlike faith that expects nothing from itself and relies totally on God?"

I really believe that that's true.  Please do read the article I linked to above, for more reasons WHY I believe it.

Whole sermons have been written about Peter's lack of faith causing him to sink.  Because of that mindset, people strive to grow stronger faith, and when they're faced with stormy seas or risky situations, they can only see two options.
  • Proudly step out, believing their faith to be mighty enough
  • Stay in the boat, believing that they haven't yet achieved a strong enough faith.
What if neither of those options are right?  What if the "proudly stepping out" is just that...religious pride rather than true faith in Christ? And what if the "staying in the boat" is a sign of spiritual failure?  What if both are wrong, and neither is right?

UGH!  Before long you can start running in circles like a terrified rabbit, and you give up on this "faith thing" because it just drives you nuts.  You can't do it.  You can't figure out which is right!  You can't figure out your own motives!  You can't see any way to step out in faith or to stay in faith, because you can see sin in yourself either way.  So you get paralyzed.  

To that I say (both to you and to myself):


Right now, just STOP IT!

Jesus didn't say to any of the disciples, "Why did you stay in the boat?"  And I don't believe he said to Peter, "Why did you sink?"

For what doubt did Jesus rebuke Peter?

Will He rebuke you, too, if you step out of your safe place, and you start to sink?

No, that's not my Jesus.  More importantly, that's not the Biblical Jesus...the Jesus who is tender towards the weakest, the lowliest, the most helpless.  He does not break the bruised reed (Matt 12:20).

There are several accounts in the Bible of Jesus saving the disciples from stormy seas.  In the one we've been looking at, Jesus walked on the water to the boat, and Peter walked out to meet him.  In another case, Jesus was asleep in the boat, and they came and woke him up.  In both cases, they were terrified.

And in both cases, the rebuke was the same.  "Why did you doubt?  Where is your faith?"

Maybe we've been asking the wrong question.  Maybe the question isn't, "Why did Peter sink?"

What if the right question is, "Why did Peter fear that Jesus wouldn't save him when he sank?"

Remember, in both stormy situations, for the disciples both in and out of the boat, the question was the same. The gentle, loving rebuke was the same.  "Why did you doubt?"

Why do you and I doubt that He will save us when we are sinking?  Why are we making "in vs. out of the boat" the issue?  Why are we making "on top of the water vs. going under the water" the issue?

Are we to fear, in either location?

Was half-dunked Peter filled with less faith than the ones in the boat?  I don't think so.  All of them were afraid of going under, regardless of where they were when it happened.

Joyful, free faith doesn't have to examine its own perfection to see whether it should get out of the boat or stay there.  It doesn't say, "I'm disqualified from getting out of the boat, because I can spot sin remaining in myself and in my motives." It doesn't say, "Oh no, my sinking must mean that my faith wasn't strong enough!"

Joyful, free faith trusts Jesus no matter where we feel the water threatening to overwhelm us, even though we're not yet perfected, because HE is our Savior.

Why must we keep relearning that HE saves us?  Why do we keep thinking that we save ourselves by making our faith perfect enough, instead of believing that He saves people of little faith?

He is the Savior...not of the perfected, but of sinners (Luke 5:31-32)!  Why do we doubt?  He who saves those in the boat, will he not save those who walk out on the water and then start to sink?

Where are you in your walk?  Does Jesus want you to believe that you could be anywhere, anywhere where He cannot save you?

The life of faith is not a life of staying always on top of the waves.  It's a life of believing that you are free to walk with Him in humble-but-imperfect ways, without doubting that His love will pull you out of the water no matter where you are when you start to sink.

Because you WILL sink sometimes.  I guarantee it.  Life's billows WILL overwhelm you.

Cancer.  Loss of a loved one.  Betrayal.  Failure.  Injury.  Job loss.  Moving to an unfamiliar place.

You WILL sink sometimes.

The question from Jesus, I believe, is not, "Why did you sink?"

It is, "Why did you fear I would not be here to lift you up when you sank?"

So step out if you feel that's what God is calling you to do.  Don't question if you have enough faith to stay on the water.  Just believe that He will save you when you get wet.

And here's a final word of love to those who are currently under the waves, and have been there, perhaps, for a long time.  I am NOT preaching a despicable "prosperity gospel" (which I hate) here.  I am not saying that Jesus will always take the waves away.  His salvation is sometimes through the trials, not from the trials. Your pain does not mean He loves you less, or that you are a failure.  Trust Him, trust Him, that He will pull you out of the water when the time is right, when that part of your life's story has been written to perfection (even if that relief doesn't come in this lifetime).  Trust that He is your Savior, no matter where you are in relation to the boat, the water, or the other disciples. He will bring you to the right place because of your continued, trusting obedience.  Remember, as long as we're on this earth, it's a Christian walk, not a Christian arrival.

Trust Him, trust Him, trust Him, wherever you are, no matter how far you've gone under life's overwhelming forces.

That's a stronger faith than one which skips lightly across the waves.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Sometimes God Speaks While You're Still In Your PJ's

English: Oswald Chambers (1874-1917)
English: Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is not on what we spend
the greatest amount of time
that molds us the most,
but whatever exerts
the most power over us.

Chambers, Oswald (2010-10-22). My Utmost for His Highest, Updated Edition (p. 159).
Discovery House Publishers. Kindle Edition.

This morning, before I had even gotten out of bed, I read the above words and felt my brain explode.  Here’s the comment that I wrote in a Kindle note attached to the above quote:

True, but if we are more strongly controlled by temporal things than by the Spirit and the Truth, then we will force a greater connection between power and time. In other words, if I am controlled by temporal things, I will insist on dedicating more and more of my time to those temporal things. I won't be able to stand it any other way.

But there's an inverse reality here as well! If I am controlled by temporal things, then I will refuse to give time to anything that I fear will control me. So, for example, as a person inadequately sanctified (and therefore temporally controlled by default), I am terrified to spend too much of my time on drudgery, because I dread becoming a drudge. Time spent = control given. Escapism is a loud acknowledgement that I am a slave of Time instead of a freed citizen of Eternity.

But if, as a Gospel-sanctified person, I submit to the power of God alone, then power and time are severed from each other. Time spent doing drudgery does NOT give drudgery power over me, to define me. And I will not feel the need to slavishly devote all possible time to temporal pleasures, because they no longer have the power to define our create me.

So then, sanctified freedom from the power of time actually frees me to do God's Will (loving and serving) within the confines of time.

And what is death, but stepping outside of time and into eternity? So then, Christ's call to "die daily" includes a call to sever the connection between time and power in my life, freeing me to obey Him by living (loving and serving) within the confines of Time as a free citizen of Eternity.

Now, I could spend a loooong time clarifying and expanding on that, but I just want to leave it be, at least for the time being.  If you feel like gnawing some marrow out of that dry bone, go for it!  If not, well, just remember that I wrote it in my pink-with-black-scotty dog pajamas, and feel free to walk away.
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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tough and Tender

"We are not merely imperfect creatures
who must be improved: 
we are rebels who must lay down our arms."
C. S. Lewis

I'm not really "up" on TV shows.  I don't watch much. So it's not too surprising that I've only now discovered "Flashpoint," after it has already finished its 5-season run.

To say I'm "hooked" would be an understatement.

I'm such a sucker for this kind of thing.  I like my cops good.  I like 'em stocked with a boatload of that utterly irresistible combination of toughness and tenderness.

Not wimpy-good.  Not spineless do-gooders.  A word of command from Sergeant Parker (fans know that the word is "Scorpio"), and Ed Lane or the others will kill.  Parker would too, but his main job is negotiating.  He tries to bring about a peaceful solution if possible.  He hates the word "Scorpio," but he won't hesitate to say it when it needs to be said. And Ed won't hesitate to fire, but he'll feel the hurt of it.

And both men will gently comfort the traumatized whenever they can.  They'll speak words of encouragement and hope.  And they'll mean them, too.  They're not just trying to manipulate.

Tough and tender.  Sigh...gotta love it.

Why do I love that combo so much?  (And it's clearly not just me.  Shows don't last for 5 seasons without a serious fanbase.)  Why is it so compelling to see a man...someone who commands the firepower of a half-dozen teammates with guns trained on the subject... walk gently toward the subject and speak with quiet wisdom that sometimes...but only sometimes...wins the hardened heart over?  Why do we LOVE to see him take that risk, to see him care, to see him tempering all of that power with genuine meekness?

Are we just wired that way?

Who wired us?  Who wanted us to love the warring man of peace, the killer/savior?

Could it be that we're the rebels who want to be won over?

Could it be that we know in our hearts that there's Someone out there to whom we're accountable, and we know He has both the power and the right to kill us for our treason?  Could it be that we love to see a powerfully meek (not wimpy) Savior who can win our hearts, talk us down from our suicidal rebellion, and give us a reason to hope again...all without sacrificing justice?

To hear the world talk, you'd think the answer was "no."  The world doesn't want to be told it's sinful.  Or accountable.  Or worthy of death.

But when we see our guilt...oh, when we see it...when we see the smoking gun in our hands, the telltale blood on our souls, the crushing wrongness of it all...either we will despair and rebel to the bitter end, or we will love the Tough and Tender Savior. We'll lay down our arms and rush into His.

And we'll never get tired of His story.

Friday, May 17, 2013

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Photo by Loleia

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
                                                                     (Rom 5:1-5 ESV)

I hate to admit it, but to me the Scripture passage above always seemed to start at soaring heights, only to plop down with an ungraceful thud.

I would start out reading words that promised to make all of my life's sufferings worthwhile, promised to make sense of the pain.  Promised to make me dare to hope again...even though for many years I had hated hope with my whole being.

Yes, yes, that's what I want.  I need to know that this agony called life will be worth it all in the end!  So tell me...why won't hope put me to shame?  It always has, you know.  Hope strings you along and then drops you in the dust and grinds your face in the shards of your shattered dreams.  Hope is a cruel trickster, a sadistic torturer who preys on weaklings who are stupid enough to believe its lies.

So tell me...why doesn't hope put me to shame?  

"Because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."


With apologies to Tina Turner, what's love got to do with it?  

Want to confuse an Olympic hopeful?  Tell him to keep sweating and agonizing because...what?  He'll get gold and glory?  No, he'll get God's love poured out in his heart.  He'll look at you like you're nuts.  Love is nice, but that's not what he's suffering for.

Romans 5:5 may be a nice sentiment, Lord, but love isn't what I'm suffering for.  You'll need to do better than that if you want to convince me to hope again.

Let those words simmer in your ears.  "Love isn't what I'm suffering for."

Are you sure?  Maybe it's not your goal for your suffering, but could it be His goal for your suffering?

Love is what Jesus suffered for.  True, He suffered for sin...ours, not His.  But He didn't have to do that.  He could have just annihilated us, or tossed us all into damnation without a backward glance.  It was His love for us that brought Him to Bethlehem, to the dusty streets of Israel, to Calvary, to the grave.

And that journey took Him back into glory, as the firstborn from the dead, followed by all those that He purchased for Himself with His own blood.

Either He was a fool, or love is worth suffering for.

Maybe...just is the only thing worth suffering for.

As my prayer life has become increasingly focused on aligning my priorities with His, I'm finding this whole messy "love" business is becoming more central.  And because I'm such a self-centered person, love is something I mostly grieve because of its weakness or even absence in my life.  Only occasionally do I get to rejoice because of how strongly love has poured out of me.

Every sin you and I commit is, at the very least, a failure to love.  Unquestionably, sin is always a failure to love the Lord with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, which is the most important commandment.  And most sins also spring from our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves, which Jesus says is the second most important thing we should do.  And each of these failures harms us and harms those around us.  Sometimes the wounds are deep and lasting.

The more I kneel to pray God's priorities, and the more I see the wounds I cause when I choose my own priorities over God's, the more I find myself pleading for God to fill me with love for Himself and for others.

And suddenly Romans 5:1-5 begins to make sense.

"Hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." 

The words of encouragement won't make any sense until your priorities line up with His.  But when they do, you'll find the encouragement runs deep.  (See Ps 37:4 for another example of this truth...that promises depend on priorities.)

"Lord, I am choosing to hope in Your love for me, and in the outpouring of Your Spirit that will change my heart into a loving one, so that I will love both You and my neighbor as I should.  And I am trusting you that this growth in love will make all of life's sufferings worthwhile."

Prompts for Thinking of Others As Better Than Yourself

Photo by Brokenarts

Prompts For Thinking of Others As 

Better Than Yourself

This command from God, to think of others as “better” or “more significant” than ourselves (Php 2:3) is a tough one for me.  Is it for you, too?

“Why should I?” is often my attitude.  And even when I feel like I ought to obey “just because He said so,” I often catch myself feeling like, “Okay, I need to go live in Pretend World so I can think of so-and-so more highly than myself.”  

My attitude is hideous, I know, which is why I rarely even dare to put it into words in my own mind...but that doesn't mean I don't FEEL it.  Is anyone out there willing to assure me that I’m not the only one?

I'm beginning to truly hate the particular brand of Fundamentalism that permeated the South when I was in my formative years.  The Fundamentalism which forgot the fundamentals of Christlike love and humility, in favor of an attitude of arrogant, hateful superiority.  One which taught me that I already KNEW my neighbor and/or my enemy, because I’d seen and heard his caricature lampooned often enough.  One that saw no reason to even try to get to know those on the Outside better.

Him?  Her?  Just one of those.  You know how those are.

Hateful, infamous travesty.  Nothing Christlike about it.  It was a pleasure to cast it aside at last.

But still...I’m to consider all others more important than myself?  Why not just as important?

Well, frankly, I don’t know for sure.  But I DO know that obedience to this command doesn’t involve a trip to Pretend World.  (The One who issued the command doesn’t live there.)  In fact, it involves two of the most real things in the world (unfortunately often counterfeited):  humility and love.

Those are two things that I need to get from the Spirit, because my flesh has precious little of them to go around.

But even though I don’t know why He gave this command, I’m still to obey it.  So I’m trying to think of ways to help myself do that, and (naturally), I’m writing it down here.  Hey, it’s what bloggers do.  

Here’s what I’m hoping to remember when I find myself in a situation that makes it hard for me to think of others more highly than myself (surely there’s one that will fit whatever circumstance it may be):

  • This person has a need, and the Lord has given me the ability to share His love in meeting that need.  Kind-of like triage...people with needs are very significant!
  • I have a need, and this person could help/is helping.  This is humbling for me, and I honor them for their resources and their help. 
  • This person is made in the image of God, but does not yet know her Creator.  Jesus seeks the lost.  He died for the lost!  This person is very significant.
  • This person is made in the image of God, and he knows and glorifies his Creator.  What could be more significant?
  • This person’s life is a story being written by God.  Right now, my story intersects with his/hers, and I don’t know how much or for how long.  I’d better consider him/her very significant!
  • This person wants to share something of herself with me!  What a precious, significant gift!
  • God created this person with his unique characteristics, and placed him in this time and place. He must be significant!
  • God is generous to the generous.  I am free to meet this person’s needs without fear of being drained dry.  (This has been a BIG fear for me all my life).  And since it’s His plan that we should serve one another so He can bless both recipient and giver, then I’d better do my job and prioritize this person!

Hey, I’m beginning to see a trend!  Writing things down really helps to clarify thoughts, doesn’t it?

Do you see it?

To think of someone as more significant than myself does NOT mean figuring out how much each of us is worth, and then sticking those things on a scale, and somehow making sure that my side of the balance always flies toward the ceiling.

It DOES mean deciding whose significance should have my attention right now.  Whose significance should inform my actions and priorities right now.  

God help me to learn to live this way!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Are We Ready to Suffer As REAL Christians? (Part 1)

Are We Ready to Suffer As REAL Christians?

(Part 1)

I suspect, based on what I've seen of American Christendom lately, that there are many people who are going to suffer because they are called "Christians..."
...and it will be undeserved.

Why do I say that?  Is it because Christians shouldn't suffer?

Of course not.  The Bible says that we will.  See, for example, Rom 8:17, Php 1:29, Rev 2:10.

The reason I say that it will be undeserved is because many people who will be suffering as "Christians" will not be suffering as Christians.  They will be suffering for being something they aren't.

The quotation marks matter.

To suffer as a "Christian" means that people don't like you because of your religion.  It's the same exact suffering that could happen to you if you were a Muslim during the Crusades, dying for your faith with bloodied sword (or at least with a hate-filled placard).  There's nothing Christian about this kind of suffering.  It's only religious.  And, according to 1 Co 13:3, it gains the sufferer nothing.

To suffer as a real Christian means that people don't like you because they see Christ in you.  Because you love Christ and follow Him in Spirit and in truth, the hatred they feel for Him rubs off on you.

AND ...get this... it means you suffer LIKE Christ...the WAY He suffered, with the same Spirit.

"As a Christian" means "As people filled by the Spirit of Christ in the world."

Are you and I ready to suffer as REAL Christians? Here's a quick-and-easy little test.  It's not perfect, but it's a good start.

Look closely at the photo above.  It's old and of poor quality, so feel free to click on it to enlarge it.

Look closely.  Feel the reality of this.  It's not from Hollywood.  It's from Nazi Germany.

I know it's taxing on your eyesight, but here is my question.  After taking a close and careful look at this photo, how many tragedies do you see?

If you say "It's hard to see, but there are two, the parent and child," then you have good eyesight.

If you say, "Three," then you have good heart-sight.  Soul-sight.  Christ-sight.

The man with the gun is a tragedy, too.

As is every hellbound soul.

Now, I'm not saying that "No real Christian would have said 'two.'"  Not at all!  For most of my Christian life (which has been much shorter than my "Christian" life), I would have said, "two" also.

But here's the real test.  Does it matter to you and to me that Christ commanded us to love our enemies? To bless those who curse us?  To pray for those who abuse us?  (Luke 6:28, Rom 12:14)  Or are we offended?  Honestly, ask yourself:  "Am I offended by His command (to the point of rejecting it) when I think of that particular enemy?  That particular politician?"

"Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  (Matt 11:6)

Do we see that enemy, that politician, as a tragedy if they don't know Christ and are bound for Hell?  Or do we only see our own discomfort as a "tragedy?"

Are we...are YOU committed to obeying Him in this matter, by His grace?  Are we submitting to His Spirit's promptings to love our enemies NOW?

Even on our Facebook pages?

Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15).  He didn't expect perfection...that's why He came and died for sinners like me and like you.  But still, the true Christian will keep Christ's commands, will believe that they are best, will seek to submit to Christ in the keeping of them, will repent every time he fails (which will be often), and will love the beauty of His commands.

Since Christ's commands are perfectly consistent with His character, it is impossible to reject His commands without rejecting His character.  (And by the way, "Yes, but..." is rejection.  So is the constant search for loopholes and exceptions.)

And Jesus didn't say that "Love your neighbor" was just a nice suggestion.  He said it was the second greatest commandment, second only to the command that makes such love possible...the command to love the Lord with all your heart.

Are you convicted?  Do you repent of your lack of love for your neighbor and enemy, and renew your commitment to Christ?  Are you committed to seeking, by His Spirit, to love your enemy the next time you get a chance?  Do you commit to repenting every time you fail to love your enemy (which will be often)?  Do you know that you CAN'T do this alone, and are you committed to depending on His love flowing through you as you submit in weakness to Him?  (I ask myself these questions as well!)  Then rejoice!  You are forgiven and cleansed, and you are getting ready to suffer as a REAL Christian.

If you and I are not committed to obeying Christ, especially in the commands that He called "greatest," then He says we do not love Him.

If that's you, if that's me, then we shouldn't bother suffering as a "Christian."  It will gain us nothing.


Will you pray for me about this?  I need prayer on a number of levels:

  • That I will love anyone who might respond to this post with enmity and hatred (!!!)
  • That I will be humble if it gets good responses
  • That I will not be satisfied with merely having written the point of not bothering to keep trying to practice what I preach!
Thank you!
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