“What doesn’t kill you…”

You’ve heard it said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That may be true but I’m not sure that’s all it’s built up to be. It sounds sort of macho and courageous and maybe believing that has helped many get through some tough times.

I’ve been through some tough times: both my parents have passed away, I’ve divorced – twice, and, professionally and in ministry, I’ve experienced trials and tribulations. But as I look back, the things I’ve gone through are nothing compared to what some of my friends have gone through or are enduring right now. And they are in my prayers.

However, after reminiscing with some of my old friends the other night, I began thinking. I miss them terribly and it was so good to see them, but it was bittersweet. We’ve been through a lot together, through ups and downs and through blood, sweat, and tears – literally. But those days are tragically over. I wish we could rewind and go back, but we can’t. But I think that’s okay.

I was talking to my wife about it and I finally said, “I’m glad it happened. I wouldn’t be where I am right now without it happening. I’m in a much better place because of it.” What I’m starting to realize is: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker… and more humble and more dependent on Jesus for everything. And that’s exactly where God wants me… and you.

Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else

Last night, my wife Sharon and I had the opportunity to have dinner with old friends… folks we hadn’t really sat down with and talked to for over a year. It was so good to just catch up. It was great to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly in their lives, and talk with them like we’ve never been apart. It was so good to laugh so hard until you cried and your side hurt. It was great to smile so much that your face hurt. Laughter really is good medicine!

Many were facing tough decisions or heading towards a crossroads in their life. Possibly the most profound thing said last night was from Donna, who’s been successfully battling cancer. She said that she learned this little prayer from a friend of hers: “Dear Lord, I want your will; nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.” She continued by saying that it was a difficult prayer to pray. “It’s just hard,” she said.

You’re right, Donna. But it may be the best prayer I’ve heard (or said) all year.

Stories of Grace…

I’ve heard it before: “You are a trophy of God’s grace.” I probably heard that first from Max Lucado, who has written more prolifically about grace than any author in the late-20th/early 21st centuries. But despite reading virtually all of his books, and reveling in their message, I still — somehow — missed it. I missed the real message of grace.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve experienced the amazing grace of God in the forgiveness of my sins. I’ve experienced astounding, restorative grace, after committing adultery in an earlier marriage. I’ve known what it is to fail and to be restored. I know what it is to be a sinner and be forgiven. But somehow I missed the freedom in Christ that comes along with that kind of grace.

It was not until I left my church of fifteen years that I discovered the freedom and liberty that Jesus (and centuries before, the prophet Isaiah) proclaims:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom
for the prisoners and
recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4:18-19, NIV)

It is the Good News that says that once and for all, “it is finished.”

Because of The Cross and all Jesus accomplished and fulfilled there…

I can be weak, because He was strong.
I can fail, because He was (and is) victorious.
I can quit striving, because all the work is done.

It is finished. Done. Fulfilled. Complete.

We are trophies of God’s grace, but somehow, we don’t live like it. We don’t act like it. There is something missing. The freedom isn’t there. The joy isn’t there. We continue to strive. The oppressed still carry burdens we weren’t meant to carry. The prisoners haven’t been set free.

But there is more. Listen to a story of freedom in Christ from “Nathan & Kandace”…

http://subspla.sh/LgHCPZ

Have you heard the Good News? I mean, REALLY heard it?

In-Between…

I haven’t written in a couple of days. I think the reason is that, simply, I don’t have anything to say. I’m sort of “dry”. I’m struggling, not spiritually, but… spiritually. I’m not steeped in sin and estranged from God. Hardly. I love God with all my heart. And He loves me with all of His.

I’m struggling to see the direction He is leading me. I am struggling to see the direction He is leading US – my wife and I. We been going to the same church for 10 months (after being at another church for 15 years), and we haven’t made one new friend. Not one (Except the pastor, who is a wonderful man who has helped me personally a great deal). It seems as though everyone is busy living their own lives. I understand.

I owe this pastor a great deal. He has helped me immensely after leaving my previous church and dealing with all the baggage that went along with it. I will forever be in his debt. He has helped me journey into the welcoming, ever-open arms of God’s love. He has helped me see that the Kingdom of God is unshakeable. I owe him… big-time.

However, neither Sharon nor I feel connected to the church. We come in, sit down, worship, shake hands with those around us, listen to a great sermon (always), and leave. We even come back during the week and are a part of a small group. Yet, there’s no connection.

“We were made to wait, to long for things unseen. This is the place from which dreams and desires come.” — Jeff Goins, The In-Between

I think that’s where we are: in-between. But in this place of waiting… of being “in-between”, a place of trust, Mr. Goins says, I find it difficult to dream or to desire. Instead, I am tempted to despair. He says it’s a place of change and the change happens in you and me as we wait. That is true. I am not the man I was 10 months ago. My outlook is fundamentally different. I am a child of God, in whom Christ dwells, and I reside in the unshakeable Kingdom of God. 10 months ago, I couldn’t say that. My theology has changed, too.

I no longer am striving, trying to be “good” enough so that God will look at me, hear me, or show his love to me. I no longer believe that I have to do something to be accepted by God. After all, I didn’t do anything for God to accept me to begin with. I have changed.

So, here I am. I am longing. Dreaming. Desiring. Waiting… in-between.

Humbling…

I’m reading another eye-opening and heart-rending book. This time, it’s Embracing the Love of God by James Bryan Smith. Here’s a paragraph that hits home:

“I see now how foolish it was to think that my feeble attempts at righteousness had anything to do with how God feels about me. For too long, I was impressed with ‘my commitment’ to Christ; now I am only impressed with His commitment to me. My previous focus has been on ‘my decision’ for Jesus; now I am concentrating on His decision for me.”

Let that simmer and stew for awhile. It’ll rock your world. It does mine.

His commitment.
His decision.

Consider…

I just have to share what I just read:

“Out of love Jesus was conceived and out of love he chose to die. There is something in us that God finds lovable. It is certainly not our sanctity, nor is it our fidelity. When I look at my own baseness, my incredible ability to sin at a moment’s notice, I wonder what God sees in me.

“Just recently I experienced a wonderful hour of prayer. I felt all warm inside, centered on God’s love, and ready to share that love with everyone I met. While driving to work, someone cut me off on the freeway, and immediately I began screaming at him. Where did this anger come from? It was in me all along. It is a good thing that God does not wait for us to be perfect in order to accept us.

“‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). God’s love for us is amazing in that he loves us without much of a reason. If we doubt it, all we have to do is consider the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. For centuries that has been the clearest sign of God’s radical acceptance. Too often we reduce the cross to a mere decoration when in fact it is the most glorious demonstration of love that has ever been.”

Embracing the Love of God, James Bryan Smith

Laws of Nature

Did you see that sunset last night? It was so beautiful that when I was driving from Waynesboro heading west, I was distracted by it, and nearly ran off the road in my neighborhood. This morning’s sunrise was the same way. I found myself wanting to watch it rather than do any reading (or imagewriting, for that matter).

G. K. Chesterton writes that creation is God’s gift to us. We all delight in different things. I love geese and enjoy the sound of them calling out to each other as they fly overhead in formation. I enjoy the smell of fresh-cut grass and the smell of the woods in autumn. I love to feel sand between my toes and hear the sound of crashing waves at the beach. I even like the silence after a fresh snowfall. I’d bet that you love some of those things, too. They are gifts from God to us.

Chesterton writes that although the sun probably will rise tomorrow, it doesn’t have to. Perhaps God says, “Arise! Go forth!” each day. He goes on to say that grass didn’t have to be green. God could have made it purple if he wished. There are no real “laws” of nature, without God putting everything in motion and holding it all together as Colossians 1:16-17 says. God can do whatever he wants. He makes frogs jump and birds fly and water runs downhill not because of laws, Chesterton writes, but because God wishes them to do so. He says, “It is not a necessity, though we can count on it practically, we have no right to says that it always must happen.”

As you walk outside today, wherever you are, take notice of the fabulous gift God has given you today. Smile and give thanks.

Excellence, Bliss, and Success…

“Be all that you can be.” That is (or was) the advertising slogan for one of the branches our armed services. You’ve seen the commercials. But have you heard that advertising slogan repeated on Sunday mornings in pulpits? I’ll bet you have.

The Christian life is sometimes portrayed in a similar vein, where you can be all that God wants you to be and accomplish all you are designed and destined to accomplish. The Christian life is sometimes represented as some kind of self-improvement program or the pathway to moral excellence, marital bliss, successful child-rearing, or professional and financial windfall. Maybe it’s done subtly and by accident, but in many cases, that is the impression given to not only the watching world, but those within the church.

Coupled with that impression is the implication that by trying harder, re-doubling your efforts, focusing more, re-prioritizing, “stepping up to the plate”, or “going to battle” will result in the excellence, bliss, and success you’re aiming for.

Those are the impressions I have after 18 years of “trying” to be a Christian. But recently, I’ve had to ask the question, “Where is the Good News in that? In the pursuit of holiness, which will presumably result in excellence, success, and bliss, where do I find good news?”

I had to start at the beginning. Not Genesis 1:1, the beginning of the Bible, but John 3:16, the essence of the Gospel. “For God so loved _______…” Fill in your name here. For God so loved you and me that He sent his only Son so that we wouldn’t perish, but instead experience eternal life. That’s not just life after death, but REAL life BEFORE death! And that’s no ordinary love, but an extraordinary kind of love that accepts you and me right where we are. We don’t have to strive. We don’t have to try to improve. We don’t have to achieve.

Living with this freedom doesn’t make me lazy spiritually, or give me a license to live any way I please. On the contrary, it frees me to live for God utterly and completely. I don’t have to; I want to! It just happens.

The excellence, bliss, and success will come, but it may not look like we picture it. Instead, it will be real excellence, real bliss, and real success, and it will come as a (super)natural outpouring of the freedom found in Christ. It also may come because of, in spite of, or in the form of failure, turmoil and tragedy, and defeat and suffering.

“For God so loved…” It’s the kind of love that can be trusted… trusted with every fabric of my being. I can trust Him to work for my good, no matter what. It’s a kind of love that brings real freedom to let go. I can trust and let go because He’s got this covered and He’s got my back.

I am a child of God, with Christ living in me, and I live in the unshakeable Kingdom of God.

That’s Good News!

“While we were…”

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

I am constantly amazed at that verse. “While I was a sinner…” And I think back to my days B.C…. before Christ. I think of all the things I did in living to please myself. I was so selfish. I was despicable. I hurt many people in many ways. I did terrible things.

And yet Christ died for me… while I was a sinner. Yes, I know it was thousands of years before I was born, but since time is eternal to God and He can see the eternal past and the eternal future, he could see me getting drunk, forgetting where I parked my car, passing out with my clothes on, and yet He died for me! Amazing!

And because of time-eternal, He can see me now, still a sinner (although now not a slave to sin) desperate for His grace to even take another step. He sees me struggling and failing, time after time, in word, in thought, or in deed. “While I was a sinner…”, God demonstrated his love, Scripture says. He loved me first. And He still loves me first.

James Bryan Smith says in his book, Embracing the Love of God:

“God does not love. God IS love. (1 John 4:16) I am capable of loving but I am also capable of not loving. That cannot be said about God. God cannot stop loving, because love is God’s nature.”

If I blow it again… if I fail for the 23rd time (or the 93rd time) at the same thing… God does not stop loving me. In fact, God loved me first and continues to love me first (1 John 4:19). He loves me. He accepts me. He smiles when he looks at me (Numbers 6:26) and thinks about me. I am the apple of his eye. (Psalm 17:8) And as I’ve said so many times before, he takes great delight in me and even sings over me (Zephaniah 3:17).

But (obviously) it’s not just me. “While WE were still sinners…” the verse says, “God demonstrated his own love for us.”

It’s a promise for all of us.

The Power of Love

Ephesians 3:18 NLT says:
“And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.”

This is a prayer of Paul’s… that his readers would know and understand about God’s love. He knew that if we really – and I mean REALLY – understood the love and acceptance of God, we would be changed… we would be transformed… we would be made whole and complete.

For he goes on to say:

“May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.” (v.19)

“Fullness of life.” “Power.”

The fullness of life Paul speaks of and the abundant life John talks about (John 10:10) are one in the same. Being loved by God makes us lovable. That understanding in itself is liberating for some who feel unloved. It is what the human heart was made for: to be loved and to love. Once we really understand that we are loved and embraced by God despite our flaws, shortcomings, sins, and failings, it enables us to love and serve others with the same kind of love. That is abundant life.

The power we then experience, knowing that we are loved, accepted, embraced, and even rejoiced over, is the power to live with abandon for God and God alone. We are able to then completely trust Him without needing to know the reason why certain things happen. We just trust. And it is the power to live above sin and temptation. In short, it is power to live victoriously.

May we all have the power to understand and experience God’s love today.

It is Good News. Go to church today. Chances are, you’ll hear more about it.