Closer

It’s Holy Week. The Christian world knows this. It’s the week that brings victory out of defeat. To me, it’s the most meaningful week of the year. It is the week that brings hope. Hope of new beginnings. Hope of a fresh start. Hope of a clean slate. And most of all, hope of eternal life.

But there are many that have no idea of the significance. To many it’s a week just like any other week. It was probably was the same way in Jesus’ day. Some were oblivious.

For me, this week makes me take notice. I want to read Scripture more. I want to see everything there is to see about what happened this week just over 2000 years ago. I want to attend dramas. I want to visit the Stations of the Cross. And I won’t miss Good Friday service. I want to draw as close as possible to God this week.

I wonder if Jesus’ disciples wanted to do the same. I wonder if those closest to the Christ wanted to cherish every moment during his final week in flesh. As many know, they really didn’t realize it was his final week, even after repeated references by Jesus that His end was near. But if they did understand that something was looming, I wonder if they wanted to be human sponges, soaking in every word of wisdom and watching every move he made.

That’s what I want to do. I want to watch every move He makes and listen to every word He speaks. I want to pray more. I want to just sit in His presence. I want Him to rub off on me. I want to become more like him and less like me.

All the while, millions go through this week not seeing the Savior. It’s not that they don’t realize it’s Easter. They know. Muslims know. Jews know. Even Atheists know. But they don’t see the Savior. They don’t recognize His love. They don’t experience His grace. They don’t know His mercy is new every morning.

Maybe for the folks around me each day, they don’t see Him because I’m still more like me and less like Him.

That’s why I need to spend more time with Him.

-–—————

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

Just come home

Every night this week, Sharon and I will be watching a 6-part video series entitled “The Easter Experience” by Kyle Idleman and City on a Hill Productions. So far, it’s shed some unique light on a familiar story.

For instance, did you ever equate Judas and Peter? Both were disciples. Both walked with Jesus for roughly three years. Both saw the miracles, the healings, and the crowds. They heard the parables and the teachings that turned the Jewish world on its ear. They both shared countless meals with Jesus, including the last supper.

And they both denied Jesus. Their sins were basically equivalent. They knew Jesus intimately. Jesus said they both were his friends. Yet, both betrayed their Lord. They both turned their back on Jesus. One ratted Him out. The other denied ever knowing Him. Which one was worse? What’s the difference between them?

Kyle Idleman teaches that the only real difference between Judas and Peter is how they handled their denial. One felt remorse. The other repentance. Judas, with remorse, ran from his God, turned inward, and landed in utter despair… so desperate that he hung himself.

Peter, on the other hand, initially must have felt the same way. He must’ve thought to himself, “What have I done?”, the same thought Judas certainly had. All four gospels recount his three denials, and Luke’s gospel says that the Lord actually looked at Peter after his third denial. What a crushing moment for Peter! The gospels say that Peter wept “bitterly.” That seems like an understatement to me.

But the moment that seemed to change everything for Peter was when he was back at his old job… fishing. After the Crucifixion, after all seemed lost for the rest of the disciples, after Jesus was seemingly dead and gone, Peter was in his boat casting his net and not having much luck catching anything. And some backseat fisherman yells out to him to cast the nets on the other side of the boat, and when he does, the nets can’t hold all the fish!

And the boat can’t hold Peter! Immediately, he realizes that it’s his resurrected Lord on the beach and he jumps out of the boat and swims — I imagine frantically — toward shore. There was no hesitation. There was no delay. There was only a desire to see his Lord.

There’s no punishment waiting. There’s no demotion or dressing-down or throwing Peter under the bus in front of the others. After coming back to Jesus, with regret and repentance in his heart, Peter is restored gently by Jesus.

Remorse versus Repentance. Turning inward versus turning to Jesus.

And as Kyle Idleman points out, Judas and Peter each had the same opportunity to do what God wants us all to do: to just… come home. Just. Come. Home.

Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets. (2 Corinthians 7:10, The Message)

“In all things…”

My friend, Cindy, is a prolific poster on Facebook. 99% of all her posts are about our Savior, Jesus Christ, and her love for God. She is a tremendous example of God’s grace and mercy. She exudes a strong and bold faith lived out for all to see.

She posted something yesterday that we should be reminded of everyday. Here’s what she wrote:

“Happy Sunday morning everyone!

“I know several of my friends are going through hard times, so I just want to remind you that whatever it is you are going through, it is not the end. It is only a small part of your story. The difficulty will pass and better days will soon come. God is working everything out for your good and His glory.”

As she continued, this is the part that stood out to me:

“And remember this: had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are in, divine love would have put you there.

“Keep your thought on things above and your eyes on Jesus. He is our very great reward, and He is always enough.”

I have to repeat that one sentence:

Had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are in, divine love would have put you there.

Wow. That is having an eternal perspective. That is living in the unshakeable Kingdom of God. That is living the words:

And we know that IN ALL THINGS God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, my emphasis)

IN ALL THINGS, including (of course):

… that pink slip
… that bad test result
… that unplanned pregnancy
… that miscarriage
… that dead-end job
… that lonely house
… that “Dear John” letter.

No, these things aren’t good and God didn’t cause them to happen. But God wants to work, as Cindy said, “for your good and His glory.” He loves you so much that He wants to make your character like the character of Christ.

Of course, ALL THINGS doesn’t end with just the major, life-altering events. They include small things, because small thing are included in ALL things. Things like:

… the traffic jam on I-81 that is making you late for work
… the flat tire that is making you late for work
… the talkative old lady at the grocery story line with too many items that is making you late for (you fill in the blank)
… the co-worker that won’t stop telling you about American Idol while you are trying to get your work done
… you get the point. IN ALL THINGS.

Remember who this came from yesterday. About 16 months ago, Cindy lost her beloved mom to cancer. It was crushing to Cindy and her family. To Cindy, her mom was everything. She still is. Her mom was (and is) a tremendous example of a follower of Jesus (and that is an understatement). And I understate how much Cindy misses her mom.

But as Cindy will tell you, in ALL THINGS, including her mom’s death, God was (and is) working to draw Cindy closer to Himself. And now I see a trophy of God’s grace. I see someone who is an awesome example of Jesus, like her mom. I see someone who lives in the unshakeable Kingdom of God.

If I could just live with that perspective everyday. If I could just remember that God wants to use what I’m going through right now to make me more like Jesus.

Kingdom perspective. Like Cindy. Like her mom. Like Jesus.

It changes everything.

Separated? Never!

I recently betrayed the confidence of a friend. I may be doing it again by posting this. My friend told me something… and then I repeated it. I screwed up. I apologized but now I feel that what I did has separated us. I can just feel it. I’m sure you know what I mean.

Although we say God’s love is unconditional, we don’t really live like we believe it.

If I screw up and sin against God, I feel separated from Him. I feel like I need to run and hide. I don’t want to approach Him. In a more practical sense, I don’t feel like going to church. I don’t feel like listening to Christian music. I don’t feel like hanging out with folks that seem to have their Christian life all-together.

Does sin really separate us from God? Most would say “Yes, absolutely.” And they’d point to a Bible passage like this in the Old Testament:

But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken falsely, and your tongue mutters wicked things. (Isaiah 59:2-3)

But I’m not so sure that sin separates us from God AT ALL. Let me try to explain.

First, a few caveats: God is holy. He cannot and does not tolerate sinfulness in His Presence. And those who haven’t been cleansed of their sins are not, cannot, and will not be able to stand, kneel, or sit in His Presence. (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9) Secondly, God is just. He has demanded justice for sinfulness. (See the same verses) I get that. I understand that. I’m not diminishing His holiness or His requirement of justice.

But in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, those requirements have been fulfilled. By the blood of Jesus, our sins have been cleansed once and for all. All our past sins, all our present sins, and all our future sins have been cleansed and paid for by the crucifixion which we remember this Friday.

Yet when we sin… when we rebel… when we “do our own thing”… we think God turns His back on us… we think He frowns on us… we feel as if our actions and behavior has affected the way God feels about us. And instead of running toward God, we run away from Him. We run and hide (like Adam and Eve in the garden – see Genesis 3:8). We think God will punish us if we come clean. So we continue to stay away. We act as if God’s love is conditional instead of unconditional. We behave as if He loves us differently based on what we do or don’t do.

That is simply not true. That is not the God who loved us so much that sent His one and only Son to die for us… to fulfill His requirements of holiness and justice. Out of the love He has for us, He has fulfilled the passage in Isaiah above. He has fulfilled the requirements of the Old Testament. We can draw near to God and be assurred that He will draw near to us. This is the Father who looks longingly, waiting for the prodigal son to come home — not to punish him but to have a party and celebrate!

Lastly, this does not give us a license to sin. Those who truly get a revelation of the love God has for them are filled with such gratitude and have such amazing liberty that the old way of life is not given a second thought. It is a wonderful life of freedom — not a freedom to live as they please, but to live as God pleases. It is a (super)natural outflow of an inward transformation.

Unlike our fragile human relationships, the relationship we have with God is unchanging, steadfast, and unconditional. Just read these beautiful words:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Separated? Never!

Hoping…

My friend, Bruce Catlett passed away last Sunday, and in his last few months, he had grown especially close to a few friends. One of them texted me last night, and I asked him how he was handling the death of his close friend. He answered that he was doing fine… he was just longing to be where Bruce now is, in heaven with Jesus.

Ultimately, that is what gives him hope. That is what gave Bruce hope. That’s all Bruce could talk about, especially in his last days.

That is what gives me hope and is what gives you hope as well, I’m sure.

Hope is what sets us apart, as Jesus-followers. Hope is what gets us through terrible days. Hope is what gets someone like Bruce and Donna through the sickness which results from chemo treatments. Hope is what makes us victorious, both in the “here and now” and for eternity. And according to the apostle Paul, faith and love are birthed from hope. Hear the words of Paul:

We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of God’s people, which come from your confident hope of what God has reserved for you in heaven. You have had this expectation ever since you first heard the truth of the Good News. (Colossians1:3-5, NLT)

Faith and love come from hope. There it is. In this case, it was music to Paul’s ears. He had heard that the church he had planted in Colosse was making an impact. They were spreading the love of Jesus Christ, most certainly by just living their lives in front of the folks around them. They were different from the culture. They had hope. And news travels fast… especially good news. It made it all the way to Paul’s prison cell in Rome.

We have that very same hope. And our good news – the hope that we have in Christ Jesus and the work He has done for us – shows itself in faith and love. It shows itself in very much the same way as it’s done for centuries: by just living it authentically (not perfectly) in front of a watching world. It’s not easy and I am embarassed by my behavior in so many ways on so many occasions. But because of Jesus’ love for me (and you), I know that I live in the unshakeable Kingdom of God. I am a Kingdom-dweller. I am a follower of Jesus. My hope is borne out of my identity (which is permanent) and not my behavior (with is temporary). That is where my hope comes from.

And although I, too, would love to be with Bruce and Jesus, I know that as long as I’m still here, there’s still the Good News of hope to be spread.

A place where truth resides

Last night I attended my regular men’s group meeting. I really didn’t want to go. I had a hard day filled with difficult people, deadlines, and non-stop running. I was tired and wanted to just flop on the couch and relax.

I’m so glad I went.

I used to lead a men’s group. When Sharon and I left our long-time church last August, leaving those men behind was frankly, for me, the hardest part of leaving. I miss those guys terribly. I never thought I’d be able to develop a bond with others that I had with those guys. I desperately miss those Monday nights. We could share anything with each other and it was a place where God spoke to each of us. Countless times, God would gently (or not so gently) speak truth into my life as I facilitated the group.

Last night, in my new men’s group at our new church, God spoke truth into my life through the material and through each man as he shared his thoughts, struggles, and his victory. I sat there as one of the guys, sharing and receiving truth.

Do you have a place like that to go? Do you have a place to go and receive truth, other than your normal seat on a Sunday morning? It’s an important question to ask, if you hope to grow… if you hope to receive encouragement and hope… if you hope to receive truth that you otherwise would never receive by reading your Bible at home or by praying in your quiet place or even by sitting in your regular seat on Sunday morning.

Don’t get me wrong. Reading your Bible at home is important — extremely important, and is the main way God speaks to His people today. Going to your prayer closet or quiet place is extremely important. You need to humbly come into God’s presence each and every day. Attending weekly corporate worship with a group of like-minded believers is tremendously important. It is uplifting, encouraging and brings good news into your life and into the lives of those around you (or at least it should).

But we were created for community and it’s in community where God’s grace also flows. A community is a safe place where you are free to be yourself, warts and all. It’s a place where you find love, acceptance, encouragement, and accountability. It’s a place where truth resides.

I miss those Monday night guys so much. But I’ve found a place where truth resides, and believe me when I say it: the truth does set you free! (John 8:32)

Formation for Mission

I’ve mentioned the three books our church is working its way through many times. I only do so because God used these books to change me: the way I look at myself, the way I look at the things happening around me and my role, and the purpose you I have in the Kingdom.

The church has been on a nine-month journey through…

The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows
The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ
The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Showing Love

The books are designed to help each person focus on spiritual formation, growing in grace, and living out their faith to make an impact on the world around them, even if that world is just their family and the families in their cul-de-sac.

They are not just Bible-studies. They are spiritual formation with a mission.

This should really be the point of growing in Christ. We don’t do it for ourselves. We don’t even do it for God. We do it for the world around us… to be Jesus to the folks around us and bring more into this Unshakeable Kingdom.

Take the next 3:30 to watch this video. It sums it up nicely.

A good question to ask…

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

The perfect balance.

Saved by grace.
Through faith, and faith alone.
Why? To do good works.
(Which God has already prepared!)

Hmmm… What does He have prepared for me to do today?

A good question to ask before starting the day.

Time is shorter than we think…

Our friend, Bruce

Our friend, Bruce

As I posted yesterday, my friend, Bruce died early yesterday morning. He was buried yesterday, too, in a natural cemetery in Penn Laird. It was a beautiful graveside service on a beautiful day at a beautiful place. He was honored by his family and a large throng of friends.

I didn’t know Bruce as long as virtually everyone else there. I’ve only known him since his illness. He was invited to our men’s group by his friend, Wayne, and he was quickly welcomed with open arms. He shared in that first meeting his diagnosis of stomach cancer and was ready to begin with the treatments. This was nearly two years ago.

In the journey he and his family have been on the past two-plus years, his steadfast faith and resolve were an inspiration to us all. His perspective was always eternal.

A group of us went to see him two weeks ago. He thought his time was short. He looked good when we saw him: good energy, good color to his skin and face, and he was alert and engaging as ever. That was the last time I saw him.

In the past two years, since his diagnosis, relationships became more and more important to Bruce. It seemed as if his marriage relationship drew even closer than before. His relationships with his children were even more important than before and he placed a special emphasis on getting to know his numerous grandchildren. He loved his friends, both the men in his churches (as Pastor Kerry Willis said, one church couldn’t hold Bruce) and those outside the church. Relationships were of the utmost importance to Bruce.

I regret not going to see him at some point in the past two weeks. He knew his time was short. I knew his time was short. Hospice had been called in to help. I just thought he had more time.

I say all this not to make you feel sorry for me, but to remind us all how important relationships are. They were of growing importance to Bruce as his time here grew shorter. They should be of growing importance to us as our days here grow shorter.

You’re still teaching me lessons, Bruce.

It Should Happen. It Really Ought To.

The apostle John has a unique writing style. You can see it in his Gospel, but really feel its beautiful rhythm in his epistles. It has a repetitive, circular pattern to it that helps drive his point home. Look at this passage in 1 John:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. (1 John 4:7-12 NLT)

The point is simple: We ought to be like God.

No, we shouldn’t be little gods, but our characteristics ought to be the same characteristics that God possesses. For instance, we ought to love the seemingly unloveable. We ought to forgive the seemingly unforgivable. We ought to be willing to reach out and touch the seemingly untouchable, and more.

I write “seemingly” because we were seemingly that way once, too. As Christ-followers, we ought to exhibit the same traits and characteristics as our God and His Son, Jesus. After all, Ephesians 5:1 says, “Be imitators of God…”.

But look at the passage from 1 John again. He says a five-letter word that I also repeat five times after John’s passage. It’s the word, “ought.”

If you look up the word “ought” in the dictionary, here’s what you find as the first definition:

1 – used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when viewing one’s actions or behavior.

It would be easy to use “ought” in this manner in John’s passage. After all, God loved us before we even knew Him. Jesus died for us while we were sinners. It is now our duty to repay Him with our love and devotion, right? Well… hang on. Let’s look at the next definition:

2 – indicating what is probable, desirable, or to be expected.

This, I believe, is what John is getting at. If we have been truly impacted by God’s love… by His sacrifice at The Cross for us… by Him loving us before we had any clue… then our lives OUGHT to exhibit His love to a world which so desperately needs it. If my heart has been changed by His love, then love coming from me is “probable, desirable, or to be expected.”

It is not out of duty or obligation that you or I express love – for God Himself or for others. It is a natural out-flowing of our inward condition and transformation.

It was John who said in his Gospel:

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you SHOULD love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”(John 13:34-35, NLT, my emphasis)

(If you look up the word “should”, it has the same definition as “ought.”)

It SHOULD just happen. It really ought to.