Limitless

boy-and-dad-pointing-49654347_m

Opening weekend of The Resurrection of Gavin Stone (Gavin Stone FB page) was last weekend. Our former church (Harvest Bible Chapel; see also Vertical Church Films) made the film to depict the Church as a place of 2nd chances, which is at the heart of the Gospel. I even participated in the making of the film (microscopic part, huge fun, big honor!).

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

I went to see the movie with a group of friends on its 2nd night, and really enjoyed the movie. Definitely check it out! It dreams big dreams for the Church of Jesus Christ in a broader culture of individualism, isolationism, and consumerism. And it tells its tale masterfully. Cast is great. Story is great. Very funny. And edifying. I love that it would challenge pastors and churches to take the gospel more seriously. Maybe some critics, even Christians, will call it “cheesy” or doesn’t focus enough on God’s law, but I fear that might be more a (sad) commentary on our limited view of the gospel and the church in our day than it is of the movie or the people who made it. Go see it for yourself! I’d love to know what you think.

At any rate, very few things disappointed me about the movie, but one of them was that the Colton Dixon song Limitless ultimately did not make it into the final cut of the movie. It was featured in the official trailer, which is when I first heard it, but not in the movie itself. Sad panda!

But that didn’t keep me from buying the song the day I saw the trailer, and it doesn’t stop me now from writing a little bit about this song and its theology.

First, here are the lyrics…

Too young, too old, too shy, too bold
Too average, to make a difference
The world’s too big and you’re too small
If you try to fly, you’re gonna fall
They’re shouting, but we won’t listen

No more “impossible;” so much for “too difficult,” we know
That our God is greater
Oh, wake up you dreamers, become make-believers
This is who we are

We are limitless, limitless, limitless, limitless
The power of love, alive in us
Is limitless, limitless, unstoppable, and nothing less
No, nothing can hold us down
We’re limitless

Take away the limitations, when we fix our eyes on You
Flood our hearts with expectations
Lord, there’s nothing You can’t do

Doubt sees a mountain, no way around it
Faith sees a victory, no doubt about it
Fear sees a ceiling, hope sees the stars
Love be the light inside of our hearts

We are limitless, limitless, limitless, limitless
The power of love, alive in us
Is limitless, limitless, unstoppable, and nothing less
No, nothing can hold us down
We’re limitless
‘Cause You’re limitless

This is one of those songs that you need a solid theological foundation to rightly interpret. If you hear it, and it ratchets up your self-esteem a few notches — Look at me, aren’t I wonderful! Look at all this power my amazing humanness gives me to bring the rest of the world under my direct control! — then I’m pretty sure both Colton (wrote the song) and Dallas (made the movie) would strongly disagree. I certainly would.

This song, like so many others (whether they know it or not), is about Jesus — the primary, no-close-second lead role of history. Specifically, when I crank this song up way too loud for my teenage son’s taste, I’m not thinking about how amazing I am, but how amazing He is … and that I get to be in His story at all.

Gavin Stone PrayingFor the God of the universe to step into time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, live a sinless life, and suffer death and separation from the Father that we might be brought into fellowship with Him and adopted into His family and sit beside Him in His throne room … Well, cheesy or not, what’s “limitless” here is my astonishment. God is clearly entirely irrational. Guess that’s what love does.

But given that He has been moved to action by His amazing grace, rescued me from the Kingdom of darkness, and transferred me into the Kingdom of His beloved Son (Col 1:13), I have to grapple with the fact that God has done so for a reason. He created me for a reason. He sends me out for a reason. He gives me His Spirit for a reason.

And the limitless God of limitless purposes and power has indwelled those who are united with Christ by His limitless Spirit … making the scope of our lives, yes that’s right, limitless. “The power of love, alive in us, is limitless — unstoppable and nothing less.” If you belong to Christ, then the same power that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in you! (one of several messages of Rom 8:11).

As you might have guessed from the highlighting, my favorite lines in the song comprise the bridge, which brilliantly contrasts doubt, faith, fear and love.

Doubt sees a mountain, no way around it
Faith sees a victory, no doubt about it
Fear sees a ceiling, hope sees the stars
Love be the light inside of our hearts

The power of the Spirit should be increasingly moving the fixation of our minds and hearts and hands from doubt (What if I can’t?) to faith (We am more than conquerers! Romans 8:1), from fear (What if I fail?) to love (Father, all that matters is that I’m with you; you do the rest! John 15:16-17). And I assure you, by the authority of God’s Word, that the love of God which gives you live and indwells you by faith, is sufficient to accomplish the purposes for which God created you, me, this song, this movie, and the lives of every person involved in all of them. (Isaiah 55:6-11)

Gavin Stone LimitlessI know the movie isn’t grossing as much as Dallas and the team would like (go see it!), but my encouragement would be that God controls the market that returns on the investment of our talents. Our failure is only in choosing not to invest (Matthew 25:14-30). Be patient, pray, trust, and wait to see what the Lord does. God fights for us battles we can’t even understand, let alone fight for ourselves!

I also know many Christians who have essentially divested their lives of Christian music, as well as those who dismiss movies like Gavin Stone out of hand (along with many other excellent Christian films made in the last few years) on the assumption that they must inevitably be cheesy or trite or poorly acted or whatever. But I disagree, and so does God. I don’t really have an opinion so much on how “cheesy” (or whatever) it is — for my part, I actually quite enjoyed it — but isn’t that entirely personal preference anyway … driven almost exclusive by the culture we’re imbibing? Do those opinions say more about the movie and the music, or about us? Honestly, I wasn’t grading it, I was praising God for it and asking God to make me more like Him, as the movie depicts that transformation. Same for Colton’s song.

Bottom line, what I know is this… In this movie and in this song, the Word of God goes out, and it will not return to the eternal God having failed to accomplish everything that He intended for it to accomplish. And He is drawing His people into that adventure.

This is what Dallas demonstrates in the life of the character Gavin Stone. This is what Colton Dixon sings about. And this is what God dreams over your life.

The possibilities are limitless! I hope we don’t miss them.


Photo credit: main image, 123rf.com sideInikov; others, Vertical Church Films
Posted in Psalms, Music and Worship, Real Life, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

I’m Going to Uganda!

Ugandan Cityscape

As you probably know, I have been in seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) pursuing my Masters in Divinity for the last couple of years. Although we are not exactly sure where or to what God is calling us when I finish school – whether pastoral ministry or teaching in the academy, in the US or elsewhere – it has been the blessing and opportunity of a lifetime to pursue seminary education. As part of my program, I have committed to participating in two short-term mission trips. They are specifically designed as “vision trips,” to expose me to other cultures (particularly in the majority world) and to provide vital experiences which will help our family better discern whether God could be calling us to teach or minister in another part of the world.

What’s the plan?

Uganda MapThe first of these trips will be this May 15-30, 2017 to Mbale, Uganda (right on the equator in East Africa). I’m going with several students and faculty from TEDS. We will be connecting with Uganda Christian University, which connected with one of the country’s leading hospitals. We will also be working with JENGA Community Development Outreach, who cares for some of the most vulnerable and needy people in the area. We will be learning about local customs and culture, meeting with professors, engaging local Muslims, preaching in local churches, sharing meals, and generally spending a great deal of time experiencing the people there. I’m so looking forward to this opportunity!

How can I participate?

I’ll be journaling through this experience as well here on my blog, sharing updates, photos, prayer requests, and stories of God at work. I’ve created a special page to collect all that material into one place (similar to my trip to Israel a few years back), so please join me there to share this journey with me.

Uganda KidsAlso, one of God’s explicit instructions to me in all this is to share the opportunity to fund this trip with the people in our lives. So, I’m asking you to partner with us, both financially and in prayer, to make the trip possible. Each team member is responsible to raise their own support in gifts for Trinity. The cost for participation is $2,800 to cover airfare, in-country transportation, housing, food, and ministry expenses. Gifts to Trinity, with an expression of a preference for my trip expenses, are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law. If you are willing and able to make a gift to Trinity to assist with my expenses, kindly do so at http://tiu.edu/givetomissions.

Thank you so much for your consideration on this. Whether or not you can help us fund the trip, we would ask you to please pray:

  1. Pray for me (for stamina, wisdom, humility, and to learn and grow from this experience).
  2. Pray for the team and the people we encounter (that the gospel would go forth in power and that all of our lives would be changed by God’s work among us).
  3. Pray for my family whom I’m leaving behind for two weeks for the sake of this trip.

For the sake of Christ’s Kingdom,

-Jeff (Faith and John) Block


Photo credit: eLearning Africa News (cityscape); Lower Park School (map); Willow Creek Compassion & Justice (kids)
Posted in Travel | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Death, Faith and the Christian Life

A sermon manuscript on Galatians 2:20, prepared for Life Bridge Community Church
(recorded audio | sermon notes)

Death Faith and the Christian Life

Introduction

Who here loves to camp? My wife and son like to camp and I have many friends who like to camp, but I have to admit, I’m not a big fan. I’m more of a Marriott camper. I don’t mind getting dirty or wet, per se, as long as I can then get clean and dry. But camping always seems to be an exercise in getting dirty and wet and staying that way for a really long time. In fact, I’m nursing a theory that time slows down when you’re dirty and wet, but that’s a topic for another day.

At any rate, a couple years ago when my son was in Cub Scouts, we went on a camping trip with his Pack in mid-October. Now, because I’m not the #1 camping dad, we weren’t entirely prepared for how cold it got that weekend. The first night we were there, I wore pretty much every article of clothing I had to bed with me and snuggled with John for warmth, but we were still freezing all night long! At the crack of dawn, we got up and rushed to the camp fire, which was my new best friend. We heated coffee and cocoa, and dangling arms and legs over the flames in a fine balancing act between “thawing out” and “burning off.”

And as an aside, this was the moment when I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a Cub Scout dad. Because you know what all the other dads were talking about around the campfire? “If it had been just 2 degrees colder last night, we’d have gotten the Polar Bear badge! Everyone needs to pray it’s just a little colder tonight.” Seriously?!

But I digress.

Anyway, the point is that the most valuable thing in my whole world that morning was that campfire. And I’d have done just about anything to get to its warmth. And I want you to have that mental picture in your head, because we’ll come back to it this morning.

bonfire

Invitation to turn to the passage

In the meantime, please take out your bibles and turn with me to Galatians 2:20. This is a short but incredibly weighty passage that encapsulates the gospel and describes the Christian life. In fact, if we were to set out to identify the single best verse in Scripture to do so, I think this verse would have to at least be in the running. So much so that you may even have it memorized. But even if you do, please turn with me to Galatians and follow along as I read from the ESV. Then we’ll pray, and dive in.

Read the Passage

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Prayer for Illumination

Lord, we marvel at your love for us, that you would give us your very Word, written down to study and ingest and feast upon, that it might become to us the very words of life. Thank you for this small but powerful verse. As we turn our full attention to your Word, would you quicken us by your Spirit to understand it, to trust it, and to live it out in our daily lives. Make us doers of the Word, not hearers only. Would you speak through me, Lord, that all of us would hear not from me, but from you. We come before you today with great expectation, knowing that the only true life is your life. Reveal that life to each person here, and draw each of us into it, we pray … in your name and for your sake, Jesus. Amen.

Primary Claim

In this passage, Paul states that the Christian life is a great exchange: our lives for Christ’s life. It’s about Jesus Himself, by His Spirit, living in us. This exchange is made possible by God’s grace and by Christ’s sacrificial death, but Scripture is also clear that it depends, in part, on two specific and profound human decisions: the choice to repent (to be crucified with Christ) and believe (to live by faith).

Organizational Sentence

In other words, we see in this passage a three-fold progression in the establishment of the Christian life. Specifically…

  1. Our deaths with Christ (I have been crucified with Christ…)
  2. Christ’s life in us (It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…)
  3. Our faith in Christ (And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith…)

So, let’s break those down one at a time…

Main Points

I. We must die with Christ

I am crucified with Christ. (2:20a)

One of the central and most important truths of the Christian faith is that “Christ died for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18; paraphrased).

But if we are thinking of Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross as something that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, or as an event which only affects me in the sense that I get to go to heaven when I die, then we’ve missed what Jesus was doing on the cross.

Jesus became a man to join with us in our humanity. In an incredible mystery that we can’t possibly fully understand, the eternal and omnipotent God left His throne in heaven and entered fully into humanity and the human world. He became entirely man without failing to retain his nature and position as entirely God. And He lived the life that all of us live, except without sin. He truly experienced human life, but instead of being dragged down by a broken and corrupt nature into sin and rebellion, he rose above sin and succeeded where we have all failed – in living a perfect life. And because His life was perfect, He did not deserve the punishment for sin as we do, namely death. So, when Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross, He died a death that He didn’t have to die. And not just as a man, who through a perfect life could save only himself, but as the unique God-man, whose infinite righteousness and position made His sacrifice of infinite value, allowing God the Father to apply His sacrifice to all who believe, in all places, throughout all of history. Because of this great sacrifice, anyone who wants to find life in Jesus can do so.

Now that is amazing news! But it’s not the whole of the gospel. I think that if we stop here, having marveled only at the fact that Jesus died for us, then we run the risk of allowing His death to drift into the background of life, and become something far away or distant, something which provides only a residual, vague reassurance that something good has happened to our destinies. Instead, Christ’s death plays an active, significant role in every day of our lives.

Look at what Paul is actually saying here. He does NOT say, “Christ was crucified for me, therefore I live.” He says, “I have been crucified with Christ, therefore Christ lives in me.” Of course, the Christian life is first and primarily contingent on Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf, but it is also contingent on our deaths alongside of Christ. Paul uses the same word here which the gospel writers use to describe the thieves who were crucified with Jesus, on either side of Him. In our passage, Paul is explicitly saying that before Christ lives in me, I must be crucified with Christ.

Jesus said the exact same thing Himself when He said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” There’s only one reason a person “takes up a cross” … when they’re in the midst of a Roman death sentence.

But how does this happen?

A. Death is the only way out of fallen sinful life

There is an important theological reality we need to understand here, namely that the only way out from under the effect of sin and curse of the law is to die. We don’t have time to turn to it, but Paul covers this in significant detail in Romans 6, and I would encourage you to check it out in your own time this week.

Because humankind has rebelled against God, we have become slaves to sin. And the wages of sin is death. So we are all trapped. We cannot experience the life for which God designed us apart from Christ. We can’t get better because we try harder. We can’t experience new life through self-help plans or really great new year’s resolutions. We can’t make our self-help plans better by adding a little of Jesus’ help to the mix. There is no overcoming sin while remaining in a life corrupted by sin. Our sin and guilt will haunt us as long as we live. But that’s the point… only as long as we live. The only way out is death.

two-exitsThink of this life as a room with two exit doors. One door was created by Christ, by His death and resurrection. He is the first to have exited this life through that door, and He bids us to follow Him. He waits for us in the next room — not just someday when our physical lives are over, but right now. Eternal life does not sequentially follow physical life; rather, we enter eternal life through the spiritual transaction of dying with and being raised with Christ.

The second door was created by me and my sin. Originally God created us to live forever in the garden, but we destroyed that option with our rebellion. And in so doing created a door through which all of us must exit by default. But if we exit through this door, we will live forever alone, apart from God and cut off from everything we were made to be. So, there are two doors, and we choose which one is our exit from this life. But one more thing about this room…

star-wars-trash-compactorWho here has seen the original Episode 4: A New Hope? Remember when Luke and Han save Princess Leia but have to dive down the garbage shoot to escape the storm troopers? They end up in a room-sized trash compactor, which inconveniently turns on as soon as they land in it. The walls are pushing in and there’s nothing they can do to stop them. Well, because of sin, that’s exactly what’s happening in our “room of life.” Nobody stays in the room, because the far wall is slowly, ominously, inexorably pushing you toward a wall with two exits. There is no choice to stay here; the choice is, which exit will you take?

Or think back to the campfire at the cub scout retreat. Consider that real life is warmth, which has only one source: the fire. If my son John and I had stayed in the tent that morning, there would have been no way to get warm. None. Can’t heat the coffee or thaw out frozen fingers and toes. Even if you brought back a torch or hot rock or steaming bowl of soup, it would be cold again in minutes. If you want to become warm and stay that way … if you want the fire to “live in you” … then you have to get up, leave the tent behind, go the fire, and stay there!

B. Christian life must be exchanged for, not added to, earthly life.

Many in our culture assume that the Christian life is something we can add to the lives we were living before we met Christ. If we subscribe to this theory, we might sing new songs, spend Sunday morning differently, or give up some unacceptable sins. But this isn’t being crucified. It’s more of what I call the “thin candy shell” approach to the Christian life because it boils down to trying to add a thin candy shell of Jesus to what is essentially the same old life. And it is by far the most common approach to Christianity in our culture today.

thin-candy-shellThose who approach Christ this way tend to assume there is only one exit door in the room of life, and that we will all exit through it … someday. Therefore, they focus on tidying up and living a good life while inside the room, making sure in their own minds that they are spiritually “covered” for when they eventually are forced to exit.

But that isn’t the Christian life. In this model, no matter what you add to your life or how thoroughly you clean, you’re still inside the room, and sin still reigns inexorably. Even if you do manage to overcome some sin … Even if you say a prayer or go to church every week or serve the poor or are really nice to people … Even if God works some miracles in your life … Unless you take Jesus up on His offer to come and die – to abandon the room altogether, with Jesus – we cannot access what Scripture calls “eternal life.”

This is because God, on the other hand, very clearly subscribes to the “come and die” model of Christianity.

exit-signTo be free of sin … to walk upright and blameless before God … to share fellowship with Him … you must exit the room. Death isn’t something Christians do someday; it’s what we do to become Christians. It’s the unique, distinctive mark of the Christian that we die in order to find life.

C. How do I die to myself?

But that still doesn’t get at the practicality of how this happens, does it? Give me details, right?! What exactly does this mean I’m supposed to do?

no-work-harderWell, first, let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean. To be crucified with Christ does NOT mean “to work harder at being good.” What it does mean is to surrender, to repent, to turn around. To die is to come to the end of yourself and turn away from all that you are or could be on your own, and give that all to Jesus … to abandon any hope that heat can be found in the tent or in the woods, and live out the reality that the only way to be warm is to stay by the fire.

And this isn’t a one-moment-in-time thing, it’s an every-moment-all-the-time thing. When I feel like this is working best for me is when I’m throughout the day bringing elements of my life to Jesus open in the palm of my hand, and asking what He wants to do with them.

Here’s a very recent example from my life: Though this past Monday was a company holiday, I received an email from a person at work that really rubbed me the wrong way. In that moment and in many moments afterwards as I grappled with the implications of the email and my reaction to it, I was repeatedly faced with a choice: respond the way I want to respond, or give it to Jesus and ask Him for a response.

Maybe for you it’s a question of how you interact with your family or whether or not you take that promotion or what kind of time you’re going to invest in a hobby this year. Maybe God’s been calling you to do something for a while, and you’re afraid or otherwise resisting. Maybe it’s about a sin nobody but God knows about, but the truth is that you really love that sin, and you don’t want to give it up. Maybe it’s not a sin, but it’s something you know God is asking you to let go. Or maybe it’s a life change you’re in the process of making, and it’s really good … but you’ve never discussed it with Jesus. There’s simply no way to say that we’ve died to ourselves, when Jesus isn’t present in the 2017 planning meeting for your life. Maybe it’s something you’re just assuming is a non-negotiable in your life – like where you work, where you live, whether or not your family has cable TV or your kids have smart phones. Maybe your flirting with an inappropriate relationship. Maybe is the jokes you laugh at or the movies you watch or the music you listen to. It could be anything.

Dying to ourselves means that we don’t make the decisions about mortgages and music, acquaintances and acquisitions any more. Jesus makes them.

In all these things, I believe the question God has for us is this:

  • Will you exert yourself (which equates to making yourself a little bit more at home in the freezing cold room of life)?
  • Or will you consider what you want to be nothing, take it to Jesus, and consider what He wants to be everything (which equates to dying to self, exiting the room, and warming yourself by the fire)?

{pause}

Okay, let’s continue on through the verse. We have quite a bit of ground left to cover.

II. Christ must live in us

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (2:20b)

Again, pay careful attention to Paul’s words. He does NOT say, “I have been crucified with Christ, but now I live.” He says, “I have been crucified with Christ; I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

Paul is saying – unbelievably – that as I stand here and talk to you, Jesus actually lives in me and through me to present this message to you. It’s not about our making Jesus look good, but about Jesus living in and through us as we go to work tomorrow or watch the game or go to the store or be a mom or a friend or a sibling. We are His agents, His ambassadors. We’re living brushes with which He paints or living stones with which He builds His house, as Peter puts it.

To help us understand this, Jesus used the analogy of the vine and the branches in John 15. I absolutely love His word picture. It’s so rich and deep. So, let’s take a second to explore it, because it depicts so well what Paul is getting at in Galatians.

Picture yourself as a branch. God planted you in good soil, but because of your choices, you have poisoned that soil. Now, the soil is bad, and anything planted in it is dying. That’s you, and every other branch like you, attached to a corrupted vine growing from corrupted soil, destined for death. You’re already starting to look brown and withered. It’s only a matter of time.

dying-vineJesus, the Great Gardener, desires to save you. But, in order to do so, He must establish a new vine in good soil and transfer you to it. So, in a miracle that defies the imagination, Jesus Himself, God of very God, becomes a vine and plants Himself in good soil. Because of the overpowering magnitude of His perfect life, this new vine is not and cannot be poisoned – the only vine that can nourish and sustain life. And that leaves you, Mr. or Mrs. Branch, with only two choices: stay on your vine, wither, die, fall to the ground, and be gathered for the fire. Or ask the Gardener to cut you off the dying vine right now – that’s death; you’ve exited through Jesus’ door–, and graft you onto the new life-giving vine. And incredibly, that’s what He does! You can now experience life! Your leaves firm up and straighten and turn green again. Your skin no longer looks withered. You become a vibrant, living branch, because the vine lives in you. You even start to bear fruit!

living-vineImagine the branch says to the Gardener that it wants remain connected to the old vine but receive all the benefits (life!) of the new vine. Or imagine it says that it wants to be transplanted, but carry with it the “life” of the old vine. It doesn’t want to miss out on any of the old withered grapes, after all! Or what if it stays where it is (on the old vine) but tries really, really hard to have green leaves and bear fruit? All three are epic failures! None of these options are possible or even make sense. Vines and branches just don’t work that way. The branch must be fully detached from the old vine and reattached to the new one where the life of the new vine can flow through it.

And notice that once the branch is attached to the new vine, it’s still not about trying really hard or coaxing life out of the vine. The vine pulses with life and energy and vitality. The branch experiences it and is renewed by virtue of remaining attached. So, from start to end, it is the Gardener who brings life –1) in the sacrificial incarnation of His life as the new vine, 2) in His expert skill in performing branch transplants, and 3) in the life itself which now sustains the branch from within the new vine.

So, does that mean that we have no responsibilities here whatsoever? Hardly! Let’s look at the rest of the passage…

III. We must live by faith

And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (2:20c)

The first thing I notice here is that the life we live is “in the flesh.” By this, I think Paul simply means our mortal, physical bodies. He is saying that even though we have died to ourselves, which is a spiritual transaction, our mortal bodies are still physically alive here on earth. So, we are not to anticipate a transformation at some time off in the distant future when we physically die or some kind of out-of-body, mystical experience. Instead, we remain earthly creatures, even though we have died and Christ now lives in us.

And now we come to our responsibility in this transaction: we live by faith. We could easily spend a lot more time than we have remaining to study biblical faith. But I suggest that our research would lead us to understand that biblical faith has three dimensions. Faith is a three-legged stool, consisting of equal and irreducible and interdependent parts…

A. Biblical faith involves knowing with our heads

First, biblical faith involves knowing. To believe, or to have faith, means that we must engage our minds. At least part of faith is in our heads. We must know what is true and what is false, and be able to discern the difference. This is why the study of Scripture and theology is so critical to the Christian life. Not everyone needs a degree in Systematic Theology, of course. But you cannot truly believe something you know little or nothing about any more than you can love someone you’ve never met. Faith isn’t having a vague sense that the Bible says something about something, it’s about knowing the truth well enough to perceive it even amongst subtle and compelling lies.

In our day, the word “theology” has a bad rap. It’s thought to be boring or irrelevant or reserved for scholars off in some ivory tower somewhere. But theology is simply thinking rightly about God, and I agree with A.W. Tozer when he said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

When we think about God, we must be sure that we’re thinking what’s true, not some vague nicety that comes from pop culture rather than Scripture. Even in this passage, Paul explicitly states that our faith has a specific object. We don’t just believe whatever makes us feel good; we live by a specific faith … “in the Son of God” … about whom specific things are true … “who loved us and gave Himself for us.” At the very least, biblical faith concerns itself with learning about and getting to know the real, biblical Jesus.

B. Biblical faith involves trusting with our hearts

Second, biblical faith involves trusting. There is no belief without engaging our hearts. When we truly believe something, we don’t just know it’s true in our heads, we know it in our guts and it changes everything about the way we perceive the world around us and respond. This includes our desires and who or what we run to and lean on to fulfill those desires. It changes our hopes and dreams. It changes our motivations. It even changes our emotional responses (whether we worry or are at peace, what makes us happy or sad, etc.). We put our weight on what we believe in. We count on what we believe in to come through for us.

It’s one thing to know something the bible says. It’s another for that knowledge to change what you expect from God and how we live our lives. Do we merely know what God is promising us, or do we actually live as if we trust Him to fulfill His promises?

For example, because we know that God has bid His children to come to Him and ask for what they need, do we start with prayer? Or do we maybe sometimes pray, but certainly only after everything else has failed to yield the results we desire?

For knowledge to become faith it has to seep into our hearts and wills, defining who and what we trust, and influencing every aspect of our lives. As you might guess, this leads us to the third leg of the stool…

C. Biblical faith involves doing with our hands

Biblical faith involves doing. It becomes action. The third dimension of biblical faith is located in our hands. The Christian life is not passive, it’s a life of action. “Faith without works is dead,” the Apostle James said. If we believe something to be true, then it affects what we do. We make different decisions because of what we believe. Regardless of what we say, it’s what we do that most reveals our values and beliefs.

Let me share with you one of my favorite illustrations of faith at work…

niagara-falls1

Who here has been to Niagara Falls? Our family has not, but it’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Niagara Falls is the collective name for three gigantic waterfalls, located on the Niagara River along the American-Canadian border, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The largest of these three waterfalls is the called “Horseshoe Falls.” It’s brink is about 2600 feet long and 170 feet high, and 600,000 gallons of water pour over the falls every second. So, that gives you a sense of their sheer immensity.

niagara-falls3-charles-blondinIn 1858, a 34-year-old French acrobat named Jean François Gravelet, better known as Charles Blondin, was the first to walk across Niagara Falls on a tight-rope. He suspended a 2” rope across 1,300 feet from one side of the horseshoe falls to the other, and walked across with no practice, claiming that practice was just another opportunity to make a mistake. Once he’d done it the first time, it became a regular occurrence, getting more involved each time he did it and drawing larger and larger crowds. A few examples… Evidently he walked across looking through the lens of a camera, walked across backwards, did cartwheels across, walked across upside down on his hands, pushed a wheel barrel across, and even stopped for lunch in the middle sitting on the line, hauling up wine and other supplies by rope from a boat below him. This is crazy stuff!

Every time, the crowd cheered. Every time, they passionately expressed their belief that he could do whatever new ridiculous thing he claimed he would do next. And think about all the demonstrated competence the audience had on which to base their beliefs. But let’s say one day, he showed up with his wheel barrel and asked for volunteers to ride across the Falls in it. That would be the real test of who believed in him and who didn’t, wouldn’t it? Attending his shows doesn’t really constitute belief. Neither does cheering him on, or agreeing that he can do what he says he can do. But volunteering to ride across in his wheel barrel … actually getting in and riding across … that is how we know who really believes in the great Charles Blondin. That person knows in his head that Blondin can make it, trusts in his heart, and then acts accordingly.

And the same is true with us and Jesus. The faith that follows Jesus is a faith by which we know in our heads, trust in our hearts and acts accordingly. And Paul says in Galatians 2 that this is how we die to self and open our lives to Christ’s living in us.

Putting the Pieces Together

puzzle-piecesLet’s put these pieces all together and look back at Galatians 2 in light of them…

God calls us to be crucified with Christ. This means we bring all of life to God – what’s in our heads, hearts, and hands – and submit it to Him. Whatever He says to do with it, we do it, no questions asked. Even if it’s scary. Even when we realize how much it will cost. There is no price too high to pay for the life Jesus offers. We die to receive it. Then God Himself will live through us, claiming total and complete authority to dictate to us how life should work – again, what’s in our heads, hearts, and hands.

Throughout his letters, Paul refers to this as the putting off of one life and the putting on of another.

But, it’s at this point that we need to address a very critical issue: Who is doing the putting off and the putting on? Is it God? Is it me?

The bottom line is that it’s both! God saves us, but we think, trust, and act in submission and response to His work of salvation. Somehow, there is a mysterious and awesome partnership between the sovereign work of God and our active faith. It’s seemingly contradictory, and it creates tension. But to try to resolve the tension easily leads to error and heresy and disaster. Those who deemphasize God’s sovereign work and choices end up living lives of spiritual lethargy and acceptable sins, drifting through life bearing very little fruit for the kingdom of God. Those who deemphasize our responsibility end up working feverishly for something they can never earn, unable to trust God and rest in His grace. And both run the risk of rewriting the gospel to suit their own proclivities, which is to walk away from the true gospel at their own peril. To be biblical, we must accept the existence of this tension and embrace it.

And I don’t view this uncertainty as a bad thing, either. This tension should cause us to run to God, that we might walk with Him and depend on Him in the context of mysteries in the way God made us that we just cannot fully understand.

So, to help us do that, I want to offer five quick but important principles for doing so and then we’ll close…

1. The only “enough” is Jesus.

If you’re burning a bunch of calories trying to decide if you are good enough or pious enough or doing enough for God, let it go. The only “enough” in the Christian life is Jesus. And He is “enough” for all people in all things. Ask God to help you rest in Him!

2. God’s laws are gifts, not obligations.

If you’re going to start a new training regimen in 2017, train yourself to love God’s law. As a parent creates rules out of love for her children, so God disciplines and sets boundaries for those He loves. Ask God to change your mind!

3. Ask God what He wants and do it, no matter how scary it is.

Get a little risky. God will be there to catch you. I doubt there’s a person in this room, including myself, who couldn’t open themselves up to a little more earthly risk for the sake of the gospel. Remember, God lives in you. It’s His dreams we should focus on. And He will not seek to do in you what He does not make possible / equip us to achieve. Ask God to dream big dreams in you!

4. You will fail, but you can fall on God’s grace.

Part of being fallible is failing. That’s okay. Remember, God is doing something greater than you understand. And even if you get it “wrong,” God always gets it right. He can be unequivocally relied upon to catch you when you fall. Ask God to make you bold in the shelter of His grace!

5. Above all, actually walk and talk with God.

Until we’ve prayed, nothing else matters. Remember, prayer isn’t your way of punching orders into a vending machine, it’s walking and talking with God in the Garden in the cool of the day. It’s being with God. And being with God is how He rubs off on us. Ask God to transform you – to make you more like Jesus.

Conclusion

Hopefully these principles will be helpful in practically applying this message, especially the last one, as we view the Christian life as an ongoing surrender of self and an increasing openness to the power of God to live in us. Ask Him what that means for you every day, and do it, no matter what it costs! You won’t regret it.

When Jesus launched His earthly ministry, He did so with these words, which essentially restate our passage from today. He said, “The time has come. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

If you’ve never died to yourself and put your faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the renewal and regeneration of your life, you can do that right now!

Maybe you prayed a prayer a long time ago, but as you’re listening today you known in the pit of your soul that you have been trying to add a thin candy shell of Jesus to life the way you want to live it. And if you’re honest with yourself, you’d have to admit that you’ve never climbed up onto the cross next to Jesus and said, “Absolutely everything that I am and everything I have is yours. Take it, and give me your life in return.” Or maybe this is the first time you’ve ever stepped foot in a church or heard anything like what I’ve been saying. In either case, the God who made heaven and earth, who made you and loves you and gave Himself for you … He wants to live inside you so that you might know real life forever.

If that’s what you want, tell Him that right now; He’s always listening. Be honest with Him about where you are, and ask Him to meet you there. And then come find me or one of the elders or leaders after the service. We would love to pray with you and talk with you further.

But whatever you do, if God is tugging at your heart, don’t ignore it. Everything your life was meant to be waits for you in Jesus.

Behold, the time has come. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!

Closing Prayer

Please stand with me, and let’s pray…

Father, you have called us to come and die that we might find life. And we do not come in faith to a God who stands far away or who cares little for tiny creatures like us, but we live by faith in the Son of God who loves us and gave Himself up for us. Jesus, you left the glory of heaven to come to a dirty barn in an ancient time in an obscure place, to be mistreated by people like us, and give your life as a ransom for many. And you call us to leave the brokenness and uncertainty of this world, that we might find glorious life in you. It seems like it should be an easy bargain, but it’s not … because we’re weak and selfish and afraid. Give us the courage to answer your call. I ask you, Father, to quicken the hearts of every person here, that we would rush to take up our crosses and find there life in you. For your sake, Jesus, I pray. Amen.

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God’s Goodness vs Seeking Safety

defensive-life-armored-bunker

Should we actively avoid suffering?

(Question 4 of 8 in the Goodness of God series)

No matter how much we might understand, intellectually, that suffering in our lives is necessary and good, it’s our instinct to avoid it. We have discussed the ways in which God actively uses suffering to give us good things — refining us, so that we will come forth as gold (Job 23:10). Instinctively, we know that a diet of all donuts and candy is a bad thing. It makes you grow, but in all the wrong ways. Vegetables and lean protein don’t taste as good as burgers, fries and chocolate shakes, but one dietary pattern leads (statistically) to a long, healthy life and the other leads to far greater pain and misery down the road than saying “no” to your favorite comfort foods will ever cause you today. It’s at least in part about delayed gratification. Will you endure some pain now for much glory later? Or will you avoid pain now at all cost today, even at the tremendous risk of unbearable pain in the future?

So if pain and suffering are so valuable and necessary, why do we run from them?

Some might think the answer to the question of pain-avoidance is a little silly … or at least that it’s patently obvious. Nobody likes pain, so of course everybody should want as little of it as possible! Right? Most of us, when life is good and we aren’t experiencing suffering, fear it and work hard to insulate our lives from even the possibility of it. And when we’re in the middle of painful circumstances, we beg God to get us out of it as fast as He can and/or we resent Him for putting us through those circumstances in the first place. So let’s start there…

Isn’t it obvious we should avoid some kinds of pain?

In an earlier post, I talked about the pain of getting too close to a fire. Doesn’t this demonstrate that exactly the right reaction to pain is a) to avoid it (by not getting too close to fire) and b) to make it go away as fast as possible when we feel it (by putting the fire out or retreating away when we get too close)? I mean, no sane person intentionally sticks their hand in the fire because “pain is good” … right?

Around a CampfireTrue, but I think this reasoning confuses two important concepts: the pain caused by fire and the damage caused by fire. The fire inflicts pain if you get too close to it specifically to warn you that you are too close … to turn you away, so that the damage that would inevitably follow can be avoided. Pain is an insulator against damage — a sentry standing guard outside its door. In knowing that pain will result, we keep our hands far enough away. Or, in feeling pain, we retract our hands from the fire so it doesn’t in fact harm us. In either case, we’re not really avoiding pain, we’re avoiding getting burned. Or, at least that’s what should be happening. Either way, pain is avoided or subsides, but that’s only because the risk of burning is being avoided or has subsided as well. The pain is what was at work to help you avoid being burned, damaged, hurt by the fire. Avoiding the pain could be good, in that you pull your hand away from the fire, but avoiding the pain could also mean the opposite … becoming calloused and unaffected by the pain so that you end up plunging headlong into the damage the fire can do to you, because the pain wasn’t there to stop you. In fact, the pain is your friend; it’s goal is to help you avoid the damage the fire itself can inflict upon you.

Another way to look at it is that there are degrees of pain. The pain of the heat as you get too close to the fire helps you avoid the far, far, far worse pain of 2nd and 3rd degree burns that would result if that pain wasn’t there to warn us away from the flames before they had a chance to really severely burn us.

Does that mean that we should seek pain out?

guardrailsNo. When driving on a road on the edge of a cliff, you don’t swerve intentionally into the guardrails to see what will happen. You stay on the road, avoiding the “pain” of the guardrails. But if you get distracted or happen to get off course … if something goes wrong … and you come in contact with the guardrails, they keep you from going off the cliff. When you swerve back away from the guardrails to get yourself reoriented to the middle of the lane where you belong, your goal isn’t to avoid the guardrails per se, but to be on the road where you’re supposed to be in the first place. You’re not avoiding pain, you’re driving safely and responsibly. No sane person plows into the guardrails intentionally, or rides for miles scraping against them. But at the same time, nobody in their right mind wishes the guardrails weren’t there or curses the minor damage done to their car when encountering them … given that they have just prevented her from plummeting to her death.

What about other (bad!) kinds of suffering?

Maybe you think those aren’t particularly helpful examples, or that they don’t cover the kind of pain you’re experiencing. You might ask… What about the pain of a couple who desperately wants but can’t have children? What about the pain of someone who lost a child or parent or close friend, especially if it’s considered a premature loss? What about someone suffering from cancer at a young age? What about being displaced from your home by a war or a natural disaster, or the person who has experienced some kind of trauma and now lives with chronic, daily pain (physical or emotional)? We could go on and on and on.

These pains don’t seem like the heat of a fire warning us away or the scraping damage of the guardrail as it saves you from falling to your death. These seem more like the torture inflicted by some sick sadist or like being a ball of string for God’s cat. What about this kind of pain? Shouldn’t at least this kind of pain be avoided?

Two thoughts…

First, how do you know that these pains aren’t appropriately to be cataloged as heat-of-the-fire pains or guard rail pains? How do you know what God might be protecting you from, or how He does so in His infinite (as in, way better than yours!) wisdom?

Second, I would actually make the argument that this kind of pain is in fact the most valuable and the last thing we should seek to avoid. But this is where many of us place our energies — attempting to build defensive bunkers to protect ourselves against this kind of pain. We plan extensively, invest our resources endlessly, pray for safety continually, and worry obsessively … in the hopes that we can shield ourselves from suffering.

Why is that?

I would suggest a few reasons…

1) We have cultivated unhealthy perspectives

clear-vision-better-perspectiveIt’s difficult to rightly value suffering as a means of God’s sanctifying work in us, if we do not first see clearly the seriousness of our sin and the gloriousness of heaven. Before we find ourselves in painful circumstances, we must prepare our hearts to stand up under them, if we’re going to rightly trust God’s goodness as He works in us.

Read more about gaining clarity of perspective.

2) We are enamored with quick fixes

microwave-cookingYou are God’s masterpiece. And it takes a long time and a lot of work to create a masterpiece. If we view our lives like a hyper-quick, questionably nutritious meal, then we will never be what God made us to be. His work in us is far more like Thanksgiving dinner than leftover pot roast, and we would be wise to embrace (not avoid!) the long time and sometimes painful difficulty God is investing to make us like Jesus.

Read more about not expecting quick fixes.

3) We live in a dream world (and don’t want to wake up)

the-matrix-red-pill-blue-pillMuch of what we call “treasure” and “happiness” in this world are little more than trinkets we collect in a dream. Pain and suffering are God’s megaphone to wake us up from that dream into a world of abundant blessing (real treasure; heavenly treasure). But we have to choose to be roused from slumber into real life.

Read more about God’s attempts to wake us up.

4) We are focused on earthly goals

Cloudwatching Look UpImagine you’re the average Israelite slave building Pharaoh a pyramid a couple thousand years ago. Moses shows up, hacks off the king, and gets you and your family in trouble. Now you resent him, God, and the Egyptian government even more than you already did! Who knew that was possible?! But maybe it’s because you have your heart fixed on the wrong thing.

Read more about dreaming for yourself the way God dreams for you.

5) We don’t really trust God

Trusting GodGod is wise, and we aren’t. When life it’s hard, it’s easy to consider God to be callous or even incompetent, but just because we don’t understand what God is doing doesn’t mean that He isn’t working all things together for our good. The more we shift our focus from our circumstances to trusting the God who orchestrates them, the better we’ll navigate the storms of life.

Read more about trusting God in the midst of painful circumstances.

6) We misunderstand what it means to follow Jesus

Seed GerminationJesus did not call his followers to a life of pain-free comfort, but to picking up our cross every day, dying to self, and living only in Christ. That’s hard. It’s explicitly not pain free, any more than Jesus’ life was pain free. But our purpose on this earth is to be germinated into new eternal life, which unequivocally requires death.

Read more about dying to live.

Temporary suffering for permanent good

By the very nature of our extremely brief lives on this earth, whatever refining work God is doing in us … whatever pain is involved with dying with Christ that we might be raised to life … It is, by definition, temporary. It is, however, carefully designed to prepare us for the permanent reality of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our tendency to desire a world without suffering is grounded in the common intuition that there really should be (and in fact is) such a place. But because most of us have a relatively weak and distant view of heaven, we fail to view that future life as far more important than this one, and we fail to trust that God is always and perfectly doing in us what needs to be done to prepare us for it. As a result, we tend to desperately desire the best possible life today or next Tuesday, with dangerously little regard for the best possible life in eternity.

God’s actions are always, only and entirely good, but they are eternal in scope. What God is doing is always bigger and better and more important than the things we want Him to do. We think God isn’t thinking big enough for us, but in fact it is we who are thinking small. CS Lewis was right, we are far too easily pleased.

open-heart-surgeryWhat if you were an alien visiting from Jupiter and walked in on Sally in the middle of a root canal or Fred as he is undergoing open heart surgery? If these brief experiences were your only barometer for measuring their lives and you made the assumption that these events represented the totality of human life, then you would walk away from those encounters with a totally skewed view of reality. You would probably say that Fred’s and Sally’s lives were utterly, breathtakingly horrible. Next thing we know, you’ve recommended that your fellow Jupiterians wage war on the brutal earthlings! And it would be downhill from there.

Without patience and perspective, our theoretical alien would have no way to realize that the pain and difficulty Fred and Sally are both experiencing could very well turn out for their ultimate good. You have to step back and zoom out — maybe a lot. But even accounting for the weeks before and after surgery, life could still looks pretty miserable. They’re awake now and nobody’s actively cutting or drilling into them, but they’re miserable and in pain and somewhat emotionally traumatized, even when in recovery. But zoom out far enough, and you realize that the doctors have done a life-changing service for both Sally and Fred. The suffering they experienced under the knife represents the goodness of the doctor, not some kind of brutality … exactly the opposite of what our alien friend originally assumed.

Yeah, but what about “real” pain?

But what if the pain or injustice we’re describing is far worse than a root canal? What about Elisabeth, who was kidnapped as a child and forced into sexual slavery? (Read that very real news story recently.) What about the woman whose husband died a few years back, leaving her alone to raise their 5 young children, only to be diagnosed with stage 4 cancer herself? (This was a real prayer request in our small group recently!) What about the really really bad, horrible, unspeakable-tragedy stuff?

zoom-outWell, I would ask this question: How bad does the circumstance have to be before it outstrips and nullifies our hypothesis that God is good, totally knows what He’s doing, and is always at work for your good? Maybe the surgery required in your life is worse than what’s required in someone else’s. There’s no question that Fred’s open heart surgery is “worse” than Sally’s root canal, but does that make either of them less valuable or important? Does that make one of their doctors cruel and capricious while the other is kind and helpful? Maybe your condition, and therefore the work needed to repair the damage it causes, is far worse than either of these. Maybe you’ll have to stand back and zoom out all the way to heaven to fully recover or see it’s purpose. But that doesn’t make the surgery less of a life-saving operation in the hands of the Great Physician. It’s a question of trusting that God is redeeming you, not understanding how He’s doing it. It’s about what you will find in God’s Kingdom, not what you will leave behind to get there.


For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
In quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
But you were unwilling, and you said,
“No! We will flee upon horses”;
Therefore you shall flee away;
And, “We will ride upon swift steeds”;
Therefore your pursuers shall be swift.
A thousand shall flee at the threat of one;
At the threat of five you shall flee,
Till you are left
Like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain,
Like a signal on a hill.
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
And therefore He exalts Himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
Blessed are all those who wait for him.
(Isaiah 30:15-18)

child-resting


The Goodness of God Series

  1. How do we know that God is good?
  2. If God is good, why didn’t I get what I want?
  3. Why do bad things happen to good people?
  4. Where does evil come from?
  5. How can a good God directly cause suffering?
  6. Should we actively avoid suffering?
  7. How can a good God send people to hell?
  8. Does God change His mind?
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God Had Other Plans

Three Roads Diverging

A Scripture Vignette on Romans 1:13

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you, but have been thus far prevented, in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.

Romans 1:13 (author’s translation)

What strikes me about this passage is that Paul and God weren’t on the same page. Paul had what seems to be a very godly and right-headed intention: to travel to Rome and minister to and among the church there. He wants to see a harvest reaped among them, to see fruit born in their individual lives and in the lives of their church. Surely God wants that too, right?

Well, probably He does. But evidently He doesn’t want it in the way that Paul does, or by the same means or on the same timetable. Paul has been trying to get to Rome, and “has thus far been prevented.” By whom? By circumstances? By other people (like Roman jailers)? By Satan? By God Himself? Maybe … by all of the above? Who knows! But no matter who or what it is preventing Paul, the responsibility ultimately “rolls up” to the sovereign God who controls all things. No matter how you slice it, it’s arguably “God’s fault.”

So, Paul wants something it seems like everyone should want. But God doesn’t give it to him. God has other plans, and Paul clearly doesn’t understand them. If we read on in Romans, what do you think we’ll find? If Paul were the average American Christian today (and far too often I can relate), we might find a ton of whining about how unfair the world is — which means God, whether we admit it or not — or a bunch of demands that God explain Himself. But that’s not what we hear from Paul. Instead, he clearly states that He is under obligation to go when he can (1:14), eager to preach (1:15), and unashamed of the gospel (1:16). The obvious implication: “I don’t know what God’s doing or why, but I’m ready to go when He is!” And then he goes on to write arguably the most powerful and significant theological treatise ever put to paper.

And who knows but that God prevented Paul from being in Rome in person explicitly so that he would write down his message to them and send it ahead in letter form — which means that it went not only to them but to us as well!?

Life is chalk full of stuff we don’t understand, can’t explain, and would never do if we ran the universe. Good thing too, because every day of the week and twice on Sunday, I’d much rather have God’s infinite intellect and purity and love and power running things than I would my brokenness and limitations. Or yours!

I suspect Paul was keenly aware that it is absolutely God’s proper place and right to do things he didn’t understand. I suspect Paul graded his circumstances by what He knew to be true of God, not the other way around. And I suspect he would commend to you and me the same approach.

So do I.


Photo credit: Bob Marshall, Think Different

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Seen Another Way

Man Scattering Seed

A Scripture Vignette on Acts 8:1-4

Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. But those who were scattered went about preaching the word.

Acts 8:1-4 (ESV)

Things looked pretty bleak … and confusing.

Jesus had been murdered. But He’d rose again. But He’d gone away. But now, the Holy Spirit had come (in obvious power), and people like Stephen were becoming great preachers of the Word of God. And through their ministries, many were coming to know God and partake in His Kingdom. But then it all began to fall apart … again.

Stephen stepped on the wrong toes, so they stoned him to death. I suspect they hadn’t necessarily singled him out, but rather that he was the first of many. Though he was a godly man and an excellent example of a life lived for Christ, to be sure, I think it’s likely that Scripture focuses on him (tells his story in detail, but not others’) more as representative than as unique. (See Acts 7.)

At any rate, we know that this is where the train started downhill for the Church. At this point, a man named Saul enters the story. Saul was a zealous, powerful, well-educated leader in Israel. He was well-connected, had exceptional knowledge of the Scriptures, spoke many languages, and was even a Roman citizen. He was a Jew’s Jew, to be sure. And now, He began arresting and even killing people who followed Jesus, confident that he was acting on God’s behalf. In his mind (and the minds of the other Jewish leaders), He would wipe out the people who were God’s enemies. He knew who they were and what to do about them, and He knew that God would be pleased.

But he was wrong.

What looked to the rest of the world like the beginning of the end for Christians became instead the end of the beginning. On his way to initiate his reign of terror, Saul literally encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road and was radically converted (Acts 9:1-22). As a result, he became not only the most powerful voice that’s ever spoken for Jesus (writing 2/3 of the New Testament), but he also became “the Apostle to the Gentiles” (Gal 2:8; Rom 11:13). In other words, God’s mission for Paul (Saul was renamed to Paul when he was reborn for Christ) was not to wipe out the church, but to do what was unthinkable in the minds of Saul’s Jewish-leader advocates… to extend God’s invitation into His Kingdom to the entire world.

But not only that, the persecutions which were meant to stamp out Christianity instead scattered it out of Jerusalem. Within a few short years (maybe months) of Stephen’s death, the message of the gospel spread out over three continents. History traces the expansion of the gospel into India, E. Asia, Africa, and throughout the Roman empire back to this one moment in the life of the Church — a moment which, at the time, seemed about as dark and confusing as it could get. On that day, it might have been tempting to think that God had abandoned them, but the truth is that God was doing something far greater than they could have asked, imagined or thought (see Gal 3:20-21).

So is it with us today. Looking at the trouble in this world or even specifically in your life, you might be tempted to think that God doesn’t care or is asleep at the wheel or has lost control. Not so! But the truth is that God is doing something amazing that you just don’t yet understand .. and maybe never will, on this side of heaven. But that’s okay. You might find it disturbing, but I find it incredibly comforting to know that the God of the universe is about work too great, too spectacular for me to understand. That breads a trust and a worship in my heart that simply wouldn’t be possible if God spent His days trying to explain Himself to someone as finite and fragile and incapable as you and me.

My plan for 2017 is to lean into that, not rail against it. Hope you will join me.


Photo credit: Mark, One More Thing

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Consecrating Christmas

Reading the Christmas Story

It’s December 26th … the day after Christmas. And I’m a bit sad. Christmas is my favorite time of year, my favorite holiday, but I have to confess that I didn’t “keep Christmas well” this year (as a converted Ebenezer Scrooge would say). In fact, I’ve had more than one moment of struggle and sadness over the last few days, as a result. So I’ve been asking myself, and God, what went wrong and why I don’t feel satisfied with Christmas this year.

What I feel like God has been telling me, as I’ve brought my frowning lonely disconcerted moments, is that I did a bad job of “consecrating Christmas” in my heart this year. To consecrate something means to set it apart for special (or uncommon) use, particularly by God. In other words, I feel like I’ve treated the last month of my life just like the month before that or the month before that, but with a few extra Christmas-y check boxes on the todo list … instead of setting it apart as holy, kicking off my sandals, and treading carefully and contemplatively on holy ground.

I thought about naming this post “What alien invasion, Clark Griswold, Christmas cookies and gift cards taught me about creating a sacred space for Christmas,” but ultimately thought the better of it. Instead, let me unpack a little of what God and I have been talking about in the last 48 hours, in the hopes that it benefits all of us in the years to come. Here are a few principles I’m proposing to my family for how to change the way we can do a better job setting apart Christmas as holy … in our lives and unto the Lord.

(Bonus points if you can find the four lesson-teachers from my original title.)

Christmas Principle #1: Life is broken; worship God anyway

Christmas CarolersYes, I had really tough finals that took a lot of preparation this year. Yes, Faith and I both have colds, have less energy, and are therefore drained of some of our holiday cheer. Yes, Faith is a nurse, works nights, and specifically had to work Christmas Eve, so John and I were home alone. Yes, because of Faith’s work schedule, we didn’t get to spend the kind of time with family that we would have liked to this weekend. And yes, because we’re new to our church, we didn’t really have the connections that would have allowed John and I to surrogate our way into the Christmas celebrations of some of our spiritual cousins.

BUT… None of that (or even circumstances far worse than those, had they pertained) is an excuse not to worship God fully and joyfully and passionately, with our lives … not just at Christmas, but every day. These realities are simply no excuse to fail to set apart Christ as Lord or to set apart Christmas as sacred. To be blunt, God’s response to my whining to Him about my circumstances this week has been, “Um … suck it up.” And even if I hadn’t just downed my latest Advil Cold and Sinus an hour or so ago, I would have to agree.

What do I do?

No matter what process is in place or changes we make to schedules or whatever, nothing’s going anywhere unless we change our minds. It all starts with the commitment to take the time and expend the energy to do it right, even if circumstances seem to be in the way. And in practice, this kind of commitment starts with a changed heart … and that happens by asking God to change it. It’s about making a decision to be, and asking God to cause us to become.

Christmas Principle #2: Work hard, but worship first

Man Studying the BibleAs I said, my finals were really tough this year. I studied a total of 71 hours for 3 finals during the two weeks leading up to them (yes, I track my time; we all know I’m a grade A nerd). When I was more executive and less student, I remember working hard to close out the fiscal year or get something ready for the coming year that had to be able to hit the ground running on January 2nd. That too can take a huge commitment of time and energy. I get it. But again, I don’t think that’s an excuse. The question is, “Who is your God?” Is it the final? The grade in the class? The deal? The promotion? The customer? The boss’s approval? The cash that comes from all of the above? The prestige? Some kind of obsessive compulsive bent you can’t seem to shake (which is one of my own personal demons)?

Whatever it is that tempts you to work first and worship when the work is done is from the pit of hell and smells like smoke. News flash, Jeff: It’ll never be done. The only thing that kept me from studying for 72 hours for my finals (vs 71) is that I ran out of waking hours. And honestly, if it’d been 57 hours vs 71 (leaving one additional hour per day during those two weeks to invest in the active attempt to set apart Christmas as a sacred time), would it really have changed the outcome? I submit not. And even if it had, the cost would have been worth paying.

The work is never done. It’s not a question of getting it finished, it’s a question of how you do it along the way … of where you start and end. If you wait until the work is done to worship, then it’s not worship, it’s perfunctory box checking. Period. Worship comes first, or it’s not worship at all. God will not be “fit in” to anyone’s busy schedule. So, it’s no small wonder that waiting until 12/16 (the day after finals ended) to even start thinking about Christmas sucked the life and joy and sacredness out of the holidays for me.

What do I do?

First, realize that everything valuable takes time. So plan ahead and be realistic. Having totally unrealistic expectations (a la Clark Griswold) won’t help you. Neither will waiting ’til the last minute to start what’s important.

Second, redirect existing activities. If you’re going to watch a movie, make it a Christmas movie. There’s no excuse for watching Independence Day Resurgence over It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, as I did this year just because my son wanted to. If you’re driving somewhere and listening to something, make it meaningful Christmas music (O Holy Night, not Jingle Bells), not your latest sci-fi novel (did that this year too). You get the idea.

Christmas Principle #3: Get tasks done early, so Advent is sacred

The Christmas StoryNo matter how you slice it, it takes time to do Christmas right. Even the logistics related to visiting family, decorating, or exchanging gifts are very time-consuming. Unfortunately, because our time is severely limited, many of us (and I stepped squarely into this bear trap this year) focus more on the functional and logistic tasks of Christmas than on the spiritual, regenerative, communal aspects of Christmas. That’s not okay.

There’s absolutely no way to slide into home at 7pm on Christmas Eve, and suddenly expect to switch from frantic task accomplishment mode to quiet, worshipful, soak-deeply-in-the-meaning-of-all-this-with-God-and-my-family mode. If you want depth, you have to plan for and make space for depth, and that starts with level 1 planning months in advance, level 2 execution starting at Halloween (yes, I think the goal of starting at Thanksgiving isn’t early enough … although obviously better than starting on Dec 23rd), and level 3 intentional space-making during the advent season itself.

What if we front-loaded the logistics and planning and tasks with the goal of having them done by Thanksgiving, and then spent Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas) in the sacred space of anticipating the coming of the Messiah? That would change our lives.

What do I do?

Literally make a check list / plan for the execution of Christmas tasks starting … like now. What will you do between 1/1 and 11/1 to identify the people to shop for, think through what to get them (so their gifts are meaningful, not perfunctory), buy their presents, and put them in a bin somewhere so they’re ready to go next year? Not only does that protect the time in the run-up to Christmas from becoming one giant shopping day, it allows you to buy real, actual, thoughtful gifts for people, not just restaurant gift cards (yep, that was me this year too; ugh!). The only reason we don’t have shopping done by Thanksgiving is that it’s not a priority until the last minute. That has to change now, not on Black Friday, if we want Christmas to be sacred.

Next, get the decoration done early. Be ready to go on Thanksgiving, or even the weekend before. Move other things out of the way. Start planning for that now. Make it a family affair. Talk about why you’re decorating and how. Intentionality is your friend.

personal-dayThird, take time off from work before Christmas, not just the company holidays one day on either side of the 25th, or in the week between Christmas and New Years. Take time off before the holiday with the specifically goal of keeping the holiday well. Use that time to create sacred spaces, not just to take a family vacation to warmer climates.

And with those three changes in place, use Advent to actually celebrate Advent … slowly, meaningfully, with intentionality. The music you listen to, the devotions at dinner with the family, the movies watched, the stories read, the time spent… focusing on Jesus, who is our very life!

This year, I literally realized on the way to Christmas Eve service at church that we had no Christmas cookies to eat together around the tree or to put out for Santa. And because we were running late getting to church, we had to put off picking them up until after the service. And when we finally got to Jewel, we discovered that they had closed 10 min before. Epic fail! And then, I woke up at 2am Christmas morning (while Faith was at work) realizing that I had nothing for stocking stuffers either. In fact we’d never even put up the stockings. Double face palm! Now, John is 12, so this wasn’t the catastrophe it could have been, but it all still demonstrates — quite embarrassingly, frankly — just how poorly my engagement of Christmas really was this year. We simply didn’t make the time or invest the focus to make the holiday what it is supposed to be.

By God’s grace, never again!

Christmas Principle #4: Sacred time starts by being with Jesus

Christmas Tree by the FireplaceNo matter what else you do for Christmas, if you’re not sitting alone in prayer to frame the rest of the time you spend, then it’s not sacred. Period. And because I wasn’t (for many reasons), it wasn’t.

It has been my habit in years past to stay up late after everyone goes to bed at least on Christmas Eve, if not for a few nights leading up to Christmas, stare at the lights on the tree, and pray … thanking God for Jesus and for the other countless blessings in our lives. But this year, it was all tasks and trappings and distraction, and somewhere in all of it, the sacredness of the presence of the Messiah in our living room got lost. Again, that’s just not okay.

What do I do?

Read the Christmas story alone, listening to God and responding in prayer and song and thanksgiving, before you read it Christmas morning. Get a cup of coffee or egg nog or whatever, and just sit alone after everyone else goes to bed. Or if you have a different practice, great. But the point is to actually remember the Lord … slowly, with a purpose. If the frantic pace of work or school or holiday logistics or inviting friends over or whatever else is such that no time is left over for this kind of devotional, contemplative, soaking with the Lord, then the whole thing is fundamentally broken … no matter how good the individual parts may be. Cancel everything else until this is in place, and then build on that.

Of all the things I regret this Christmas, it’s that I just didn’t spend much time with Jesus. And it can’t be Christmas without being with Jesus. Christmas isn’t about a Savior coming abstractly for the whole world, it’s about Jesus coming to you and to me, to be our Brother and King, Savior and Friend. A Lover who has no interest in our perfunctory observations or leftover time. He expects to be invited in, to join us for Christmas dinner, to sit with us staring at the tree … to just be together. There is no Christmas without that.

Don’t get me wrong…

In closing, I just want to make sure you know that this post is not some kind of indictment of anyone else. It’s my sharing my personal convictions, having felt like I failed pretty spectacularly at keeping Christmas this year. I’m not telling you what to do; I’m sharing what I feel convicted to do … and, yes, hoping it helps you too.

If you read my blog regularly or know me personally, please hold me accountable to these principles. Expect to see concrete steps from me to protect a sacred space for Christmas… not just starting after finals next year, but starting now.

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, every one!'”

― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

scrooge-god-bless-us


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2) Austin Hodgens
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) JHDT Productions
4) Kyle Huber
5) Indiana University
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