Faith

Love Wins!

Late last fall, my church had a mini retreat on love. I left with a profound feeling that I needed to work more on my heart. I had, for example, spent the previous three years reading through the bible — first chronologically, then in order, then by genre. Each year I also had some devotional content to accompany my reading. But after the retreat, I realized my devotions had become dry. I was gaining knowledge about God, but I was not really loving Him or others more. God was living in my head.

One recommendation from the retreat was to read Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence. The essential point of the book was to cultivate 5, then maybe 10 and maybe even 30 minutes a day in which I would simply sit and listen for God. No distractions. No reading. Being quiet, in solitude and waiting for God. Nothing else.

So now I have a brief devotion to prepare my heart, and I sit for 26 minutes in quiet, waiting for God. Emptying myself of my raging mind and being quiet is nearly impossible. But truthfully, I have realized that I am not capable of this approach, and I have come to understand that it is only by God’s grace that I can sit for even a minute and wait for Him.

And He has begun to cultivate my heart. In big ways. In small ways. I am almost ashamed, really, to say how much I have felt God’s love for me and in comparison, how little I love Him.

I never read Love Wins by Rob Bell. But a week ago I was reminded how quickly the church turned against Bell, and so I felt a need to read his book. Honestly, I don’t know why people vilified him so much. He never denies Christ’s divinity, or His work on the cross, or that God is the creator of everything. I thought his views on Universalism were interesting, and in fact I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce (and no one I have met vilifies Lewis). Who and how God saves is still a mystery to me.

But this is not a blog on whether or not Bell is right or wrong in regards to eternity. Instead, this is about something else he said in his book. He said that one of the reasons evangelism has fallen off so much is that Christians have a really hard time expressing what it means to love God. Put another way, to express our love for God really requires us to understand just exactly who it is we are loving.

Sadly, I think a lot of Christians portray God as a rule maker, one who will chastise you if you fall away from the proscriptive direction of a church, and a God who has no tolerance for alternative theological viewpoints. Witness the liberal versus conservative debates that rage online and in churches. Or even look at the fallout from Bell’s book.

Unbelievably, God placed this issue on my heart months ago. And as He has worked on me, the words “I love you Jesus” and “I love you Father” and “I love you Lord” have become more natural to me. In many situations, I am seeing that the language of God’s love is becoming more and more a part of my everyday conversations. And I see more and more, as Bell put it, that being an effective witness for God is directly tied to my ability to express who it is that I love.

So who exactly is the God that you love? Ask yourself this seriously. And then really, really ask yourself honestly, can you without a doubt say that you love God? Does this God shame you or forgive you? Do you see this God as joyful or harsh? Is there room in your relationship for ambiguity, or do all the rules have to be defined? Sit quietly, alone, and say the words, “I love you Lord.” How do you really, honestly react to that?

When you genuinely love God, you can’t help but talk about Him. And that’s what evangelism is all about. Love.

Love does win.

Sadly, I think this is where a lot of Christians are missing out.

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Faith

Forgiveness

I have three brothers.  Two older and one younger.  We are all well into mid life, and we are all estranged.  There are a lot of reasons, I suppose, for this estrangement.  Some tragic and some just plain old dumb.  Our mother is in a nursing home, and our father passed away long ago. So the bind of a whole family is well behind us.  During the holidays, it often makes me sad to think so much time has gone by, and I’ll probably never know my earthly brothers any more than I do now.

For one brother, Steve, our relationship is especially painful.  He has lived a life addicted to drugs, alcohol, lying, and self promotion.  At one point he owned a pawn shop through which he became wealthy,  and his drugs and alcohol and greed eventually landed him in jail, divorced and homeless.

Steve is a clever salesman.  Ready, willing and able to say the right things to make you believe you either need what he has or have misinterpreted some event such that he is guiltless.

Recently, he entered a Christian rehabilitation facility. He’s been going to bible study, he’s been sober for 60 days, and he calls me several times a week asking why I won’t talk to him. “Afterall,” he has been saying, “I haven’t done anything wrong, have I?”

I talked to the pastor at the facility, and I told him my side of the story.  I think he already knew the darker sides of Steve, and was aware of the challenges ahead.  He said two things that have been nagging me.

First, he told me that he has been helping Steve understand his old life is gone, and never coming back.  No fancy cars.  No exotic vacations. No wife.  No big income derived from pawning people’s possessions (in fact, more likely a job with an hourly wage).

Second, he said Steve is really charming.  The life of the party.  “And I can see how God might be able to use him.”

“Wait a minute, use Steve for what?  Don’t you see that the lure and hook are set? he’s done this exact thing his whole life.  Let me give you a few examples…”

“Maybe you’re right, Paul” Pastor Keith said. “But what if God has other plans and this is the point where Steve does change and this is the point when God begins to use Steve for His purposes?”

My reaction? Not possible.  More than not possible.  Impossible.  No change ever possible and change for Steve will never, never happen.  He has caused so much pain in people’s lives, he cannot be forgiven and he cannot be a part of God’s plan.  That is solely reserved for people who are forgivable, and by no means does that include Steve.

In the last few weeks since the conversation with Pastor Keith, I have been thinking and praying about my brother and the way I have felt.  I have wondered just how much my own self is getting in the way of what God is doing in the world. And what I have been really wondering about is whether or not I believe God really can do anything and really can use anyone and really, really offers salvation to everyone.   I don’t want God forgiving him until I have had a chance to to confront him a bit.  Fair enough, right?

For those of us who have been hurt deeply by others, this is no easy situation.  But it really sits at the core of our belief.  Are we as Christians really called to forgive those who have really hurt us? In my mind, this seems plausible.  But my heart is far behind.

Each day, as I pray, the words are actually formulating in my head, and touching my heart, “I forgive you Steve, and I love you.”  I am being changed slowly.  But I admit I do not like it.  This whole thing makes me uncomfortable. There is still a lot of work to be done.

So what I am learning now is that Steve has his own struggles.  And he has a lot to overcome.  But for me, if I can’t really forgive Steve, it says more about my capacity to forgive than Steve’s capacity to seek forgiveness.  I am sure God understands this, but my sense is He wants to conform me more to His likeness — and his capacity for forgiveness — because that is what it means to be Christian.

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Faith

Duck Dynasty

I am tired of the whole controversy surrounding the comments of Phil Robertson.  Honestly, I do not follow the show.  But, I did read Phil’s comments, and I found them to be crass and insensitive.  I have too much going on in my life to spend time watching or reading material that is not inherently uplifting, regardless of it’s correctness.

I know a man who professes Christ as Lord and savior, he lives a life of service, regularly helping the poor and needy, is honest and cheerful, and he lives in a long standing same sex relationship.  I know another man who professes Christ as Lord and savior, he lives a life of service regularly helping the poor and needy, has been married for 15 years, and he goes to stripper clubs and commits adultery.

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.  And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” Matthew 7:1-5 NLTse

Hmm.  Seems to me Jesus has not left judgment up to us.  But let’s just say for one minute that He has.  I fear that the church today will condemn the former sinner and forgive the latter.  This is just pure hypocrisy.

Either condemn none or condemn both.  And if we do condemn both, then let’s make sure we include all sin in that battering list to prove our own righteousness.  How about envy?  Gluttony?  Hatred?  How about arrogance?  How about the words spoken against another person with different political beliefs?  Or economic beliefs?  Remember, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:23 NLTse.

Here’s the 2014 challenge.  In all that we say and do, help others to see God’s Grace and Love:

“All who believe in him are made right with God.” Romans 10:4.

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Faith

Gun Control!

No too long ago, I was “reading” a debate on gun control on Facebook.  You have heard all the arguments pro and con, I am sure.  For the gun owner advocates, a common one goes like this:

  • Suppose you’re in your home, and someone breaks in, and is intent on doing harm to your family.  He wants to do horrible things that are unspeakable.  And if you own a gun, you would protect your family right there and then by shooting the intruder dead. 

All of this assumes that you have access to your gun, you’re not completely surprised by the sudden intrusion, that you fire the first shot, and no family member stands between you and the villain. And a host of other things.

What strikes me about this is that many of my Christian Evangelical friends take this even further and claim that it is practically a divine right under the US Constitution to own a weapon.  And this is where I am really grieved.  Just who is it who is the socio-economic-political-religious leader in our lives, and under what governing document do I submit?

But this is not an exegesis on gun control in the scriptures.  This is a comment on something else.

What really, really strikes me about this argument is the powerful use of the imagination.  When I personally envision this scenario, I get very, very scared.  If I let my imagination go, I can get into a frenzy of horrible what-ifs.

But what if we used our imagination differently?

Jesus Christ, the Word, through whom the entire universe was created. The same one, who through His Word, was crucified and raised from the dead, bearing the punishment of my sin.  The same Word who convicted me of my need for a savior, and promised that when I repented and believed, I would have the Holy Spirit living inside of me.  The Word who rebuilt my life, welcomed me into God’s family, prepared an eternal place for me in Heaven, gave me new hope, brought me unfathomable love, showed me greater wisdom, cultivated my relationships, set my priorities straight, kindled in me gratitude, peace, compassion, patience, forbearance, gentleness and joy.  All that – and so much more – by His Grace.

The Word created the Universe, and the Word saved us.  Imagine the Word working through us by the conviction of the Holy Spirit to preach God’s Word to the ends of the earth – which includes our homes.

  • Suppose you’re in your home, and someone breaks in, and is intent on doing harm to your family.  He wants to do horrible things that are unspeakable.  But through the power of the Word, the one who convicts, you share the Gospel.  You imagine the pain of the intruder, you show compassion and love and you offer the salvation of Jesus.  You plead Grace.  Forgiveness.  And he repents.

Imagine what this would do for the church.  Imagine the people who could be reached by this story of God’s saving power.  Imagine how God really does use His church to speak powerfully to anyone needing to be saved.  Imagine that this intruder is loved by God far more than you ever could. And imagine – in fact know – that God’s Son died for everyone.

Imagination can be a powerful motivator for decisions we make.  We imagine crazy outcomes to life situations – gun control, marriages, work, elections, investments, health – and this drives much of what we think and how we act.  We let our imagination be the justification for our life style.  We let our hypothetical imagination be the way we define our identity.  But in Christ, we are emboldened to live a life of Grace under his Lordship.

What if we commit to the Word as the outcome of scenarios in our imagination? What if, when our imagination runs wild, we commit instead to an outcome of gratitude, peace, compassion, patience, forbearance, gentleness and joy?

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Faith

Condemnation

For the last few months, my company has been undergoing a massive restructuring.  Our new CEO, who started back in April, has been working hard to make us a better company.  He recently announced to the “street” increased revenue targets, and the “street” has loved us.

From inside, we have more weary than energized staff. New lingo like “You can’t argue with the numbers” or “it all goes to the bottom line” are applied to streamlined (aka, smaller) teams. For the good of the whole, individuals are the cost of doing business.  It is with sadness that I see capitalism at its finest.

For me, all of this has put me into the dark funk of self-accusation.  It’s the voice that says in my head, “You’re not needed.  You’re not worth what they pay you.  So-and-so would be better at that new job.  You don’t want to stay anyway.  If I get laid off, I’ll lose my house… car… health insurance. I’ll never find another job at my age.” The list goes on.

The relentless onslaught of personal condemnation is overbearing and pervasive.  The ABCDEs of learned optimism are powerless to stop the mental game. I pick up on the slightest hint of a decision, and extend it to the worst of implications. This is the overpowering weight the Accuser heaps on me – and so many others – in times like this.

Hence, why being in God’s Word is so important.  I won’t speculate on the timing of this, but in my Daily Walk Bible, my readings for today came from Romans 6 – 8. Check this out:

“Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. 34 Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.” (Romans 8:33-34 NLTse)

Who dares accuse me?  A co-worker?  One of the (many) consultants?  My boss?  Myself?  I mean, me?  Dare I accuse myself of not being worthy for something when only God can condemn and I have been freed of condemnation?  Do I dare tell myself that I am not worthy of some earthy thing when my eternal place has been determined?  For God himself has given me right standing with himself.

This morning I stopped listening to myself.  This morning God’s Word spoke directly to me.  I told the Accuser to shut up.  I told the Accuser that there is no condemnation.

“Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?” (Romans 8:35 NLTse)

No! No!

“No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.” (Romans 8:37 NLTse)

Victory is mine.  Victory, Christian, is ours.  We are free from condemnation.  All of condemnation.  Including the condemnation I speak to myself.  All condemnation.  No accusation from anywhere has power over me.  Not a single spoken word.  No a single whispered thought.

I am infinitely free of condemnation because of the death and resurrection of one.

Now those are numbers that speak for themselves.

 

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Faith

Optimism Part 2

As I started to see that Christ was sustaining me all my days, the outcomes of good and bad became less important to me. But that was just the beginning.

One day I read a blog (I don’t remember who wrote it). I thought to myself, “That’s me.”  Essentially, the blog said this.  When things go bad, a lot of people form some beliefs.  And those beliefs have consequences.  And often those consequences consumed us.

The simple example is this.  While driving to work one day, I got cut off by another driver.  I couldn’t help but take it personally, as if I were the target of this person’s aggressive driving.  And so I got mad.  I even yelled some unkind words at him.  And when I got to work, I was in a bad mood.  Sound familiar?

Do you see the pattern?  Adversity.  Belief. Consequences.  A-B-C. If you live in this pattern, the consequences of your beliefs can be a very compelling emotional downer.    But the blog went on to say this.  Most of the time, this pattern is wrong.  In fact, it is mostly a learned behavior, and you can unlearn it.

Adversity-Belief-Consequences happen.  But if you add a simple step, you can change your beliefs and the consequences.  The adversity is the same, but the outcomes are different. This extra step results in a subtle yet very powerful mindset change.  The fourth step is this: Dispute your beliefs.

Remember that guy who cut me off?  What if I had disputed by belief?  He was late.  His wife was in the hospital.  He was a jerk.  He didn’t see me.  I was in the wrong place, and it was just simple coincidence. If I had done that, I would have put some perspective on the adversity, and the consequences would have been a lot different.  Really, I would not have gotten mad at all, because the reality was that his driving had nothing to do with me.

As I started this process of disputing my beliefs, I began to see that my beliefs were more often than not fabrications of reality. And my beliefs drove some serious consequences.  Anger, sadness, frustration, a lack of self esteem.  As I began to rationalize myself out of these negative beliefs, to dispute my beliefs, I began to feel energized.  I saw things differently.   And getting energized was the last step in my new thinking pattern. A-B-C-D-E.

It took patience and effort to change my mindset. And prayer.  And effort.  But I knew deep down this was what God wanted of me.  He wanted me to see things differently.  As His creation, he wanted me to radiate His love, His joy and His hope.

I have been very careful to dispute and check my “facts” before the consequences have had a chance to settle in. Admittedly, I am sometimes well into the negative consequences before I catch myself and do some serious disputation.  For example, last year I didn’t get a promotion I really thought I deserved, and my employer hired an external candidate.  The spin out of control beliefs began quickly– I was not that good, I was going to be fired soon, I would never be a valuable senior staff member, etc. But within a day or two of learning of this adverse event, I really started to question my beliefs.  And when I was really honest with myself, I saw the truth:  I was not ready for the next role.   I was a little sad, but I saw that I had other talents the organization needed.  In fact, the person hired has genuinely turned out to be a great boss, and I have learned a lot and grown even more.

As I started to learn optimism (and it is called Learned Optimism, by the way; a quick ‘Net search and you’ll find it) I genuinely saw my attitudes, my energy, and my focus change. In fact, my sister-in-law gave me a shirt for my birthday earlier this month.  It had a picture of a glass with water in it… the caption said, “Half Full.”

Half full.  And ready to be filled. In fact, ready to be overflowing.  Overflowing with Him.

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Faith

Pessimism, part one

About a year ago, I was feeling a little dry and stuck and bored with my spiritual growth. So, I talked with a few people, and several of them suggested I strengthen my prayer life.  There were a lot of suggestions, but one stuck in my mind.  I hear it preached and taught often enough that I thought I would give it a try. It was simple.  When you find you mind wandering or you find you have time, make this prayer: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.”   Say it over and over again, letting each word speak to you.

This one little prayer turned out to be a very annoying and frustrating little mantra.  As I adopted it, it quickly seemed to me to be a contradiction.  “Lord Jesus,” yes! Absolutely!  Jesus is king.  Lord.  No question about that.  “Have mercy on me,” became a stumbling block.  When Jesus was on the cross, he says, “It is finished.”  The work on the cross was 100% done.  So, having mercy on me, after I had already confessed him as Lord, seemed odd.  How can he have more mercy on me when he has already given me  all the mercy there is?  “A sinner,” also frustrated me. Yes, I do still sin, but God sees that all of my sins – past, present and future  – are covered by Jesus’ work on the cross.  Ephesians 2:6 says, “And God raised us up with Christ, and seated us with him in the heavenly realms…” That’s right, seated with Christ.  You’re not a sinner if your seated with Jesus.  You can’t be in God’s Holy presence if you have a stain of sin on you.

It actually felt right to say that prayer, by the way, but each time I did, I felt like I wasn’t allowing God’s love of me to show through.  I was beating myself up.  I was believing that I was still a sinner, and that Jesus needed to show me some more mercy.   What more could I be asking him for?  Another cross?

In reality, I admit I have lived a lot of my life as a pessimist .  That glass over there? Even though it is half empty/full, well, it might as well be empty because by the time I get to it, it will be  gone.

As I started to mull over and chew on this prayer in the last year, something happened that changed me deeply.  I really did dwell on those words, and as I did, I prayed them, and I asked God to show me if they were true.  And God answered me.  He transformed my mind.  He showed me a way to think differently about His world and about His grace.

He made me an optimist.

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