The Worst

Do you remember Jim Bakker? Of course you do. To be honest, I had to look up how he had “fallen from grace.” It was a sex scandal and accounting fraud that led to his imprisonment and divorce, according to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge – ha!). He is now out of prison, remarried, and pursuing ministry. He is being used by God again.

I recently heard of a pastor preaching a sermon entitled, “I am Jim Bakker.” In his sermon, he detailed, to the horror of his wife, kids, and congregation, how sinful he truly was. He was not guilty of the infamous sins that Jim Bakker was imprisoned and “defrocked” for, but, in no uncertain terms, let it be known how sinful he was — in word, thought, and deed.

The apostle Paul did the same thing in an even more open forum, the Bible. He is, from the grave, constantly reminding us of who he was and what he had done. He persecuted Christians, leading to their imprisonment and death. He was a not-so-innocent bystander at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58). He was a murderer or at least an accomplice.

He reminds us of this in his first letter to his mentee, Timothy:

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

The writer of almost half of the New Testament tells us how bad he is. “The worst,” he says.

Somehow, I think we ALL can say that. I know I can. When faced with the holiness of God, I know I can call myself a sinful man. If you only knew. Like Paul and like that pastor who preached the sermon, I can declare that I am a sinner. Everyday. Plain and simple. Cut and dried.

But Paul continues and thankfully offers hope and shows us our purpose at the same time. He continues:

“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (v.16)

God wants to use me and you to show His love, patience, and glory. He uses our brokenness to minister to others. What the enemy means to destroy us, God can and does redeem for His glory! I’ve seen this in my own life and in lives around me more times than I can count.

In a recent interview, Jim Bakker said:

“I’m glad it all happened. Now I can go anywhere and be with anybody in the whole world, and there are no raised eyebrows. I can go into any bar — any social circle of outcasts — and nobody tells me that I ought to be careful because ’people will talk’ and that I will ’hurt my reputation.’ People have already talked, and I don’t have any reputation to hurt. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m free!”

That’s what walking in the light does. When we bring our secrets out in the open for God to see, we can walk in freedom. When we admit that we’re no better than the next person, we don’t need to point out what the next person did. There are no more masks. No more pretending to be good. We can praise God and His Good News. We can thank Him that He was the only Good One. We can praise Him for what He’s done for us.

And we can join the apostle Paul when he continues in the next verse, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (v.17)

Yes. Amen!

Resting in His Presence

A friend of mine and I are working our way through The Good and Beautiful God, a wonderful book by James Bryan Smith. It is framed around the premise that we have many false narratives about God, His character, and His nature that need to be replaced by the way Jesus saw and knew His Father. In essence, we need to renew our minds. Its subtitle is: “Falling In Love With the God Jesus Knew.” I highly recommend it.

We are on Chapter 4: God is Generous. At the end of each chapter is some homework: a “Soul Training Exercise.” The exercise for this chapter is to memorize the already familiar Psalm 23 and recite it as many times as possible throughout the week (two weeks in this case, since my friend and I meet every two weeks).

So here it is from memory:

The Lord is my shepherd.
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil,
For you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil.
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I’ve meditated on those verses, on each phrase, and in most cases, on each word. I have mental pictures of each verse or phrase, such as “green pastures” and “still waters.” Those word-pictures are easy to envision. However, as I meditate on “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies,” I have trouble with that imagery.

As I conjure up an image in my mind, it is one of confident defiance of any enemy, or of the Enemy of my soul. It is a confidence of knowing that I am a child of God, with Christ dwelling within me, and I live in the unshakeable Kingdom of God. There is nothing that the Enemy can do to ULTIMATELY defeat me. God is mine, and most importantly, I am His. No matter what lies ahead, even in the darkest valley, God is with me.

How is it that the Lamb of God, who died for me and you and who takes away the sins of the world, now is the Good Shepherd!?! My mind almost cannot comprehend that kind of love!

I can truly rest in that generous love. He DOES make me lie down in green pastures. I CAN rest beside still waters.

God Will Never Give Up On You

I recently saw this photo posted on Facebook and as I read the words and thought about it, the more and more I disagreed with those words. Although I am so thankful for my Savior and the work done on the imageCross, and know that I did nothing to deserve it, my disagreement with those words stem from how I now think of God.

You see, I spent years and years thinking that the more I did for God, the more pleased He would be with me. I think I projected what I thought about my earthly father upon my Heavenly Father. Achievement was highly valued in my family. I discovered this growing up, especially when I fell short of expectations or failed. I felt the displeasure when I failed and I felt the comparisons to the achievements of my older brothers. Even as a young boy, I grew to fear the anger and wrath of my father. Don’t get me wrong: He was an excellent provider for my family and taught a work ethic that seems to be lost on later generations. My point is: I projected these feelings upon my Heavenly Father; I felt the same way toward God. The more I prayed, studied my Bible, served others, and worked for God, the more pleasing I thought I was to God. I would suspect that I’m not alone in feeling that way.

If you or I feel that God could give up on us, based on what we’ve done (or not done), then we must not have faith that what God – through Christ – accomplished on the Cross was sufficient or that His grace is enough. If you or I feel that God could give up on us, then it says volumes about how we view God.

I (recently) discovered that God’s love IN NO WAY depends on me. His love was a “one-way” transaction, resulting in my salvation, deliverance, healing, and wholeness. That heart-knowledge has brought me tremendous freedom. That is what the Gospel does.

Now I am deeply rooted in God’s love, knowing that nothing can separate me from that love (Romans 8:38-39) and knowing that no one or nothing can snatch me from His hand (John 10:1-18; 27-30). There is nothing I can do to make God love me any less than He does right now or did when Jesus hung on the Cross. God delights in me, not because of what I do or don’t do, but simply because of who He is and the fact that now, by faith, I am His. I didn’t do anything to earn His love or delight, nor can I do anything to make him shun me. He loves me, not as I love, but as He is, because He is love.

He won’t give up on me (or you, Christian) because that is not His nature or character. His love is eternal. His love is unfailing. His love is enduring. His love never fails. (1 Cor 13:8)

If you are His, God will never give up on you.

God Isn’t Mad at You

God is not mad at you.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied,” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ ” (Matthew 22:36-37)

There it is: The greatest commandment is to love God with all that we are. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t come naturally for me. I suspect that it doesn’t come naturally for most. Since it doesn’t come naturally, I guess I’ll just be obedient and muster up some love for God because that’s what I’m supposed to do.

No. That’s not it at all. We can’t just muster up love… for God, for our spouse, or for our enemies (as Jesus tells us to do as well). No, we love because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19) We can respond with love for God when we realize how much He loves us and delights in us.

James Bryan Smith states in his book, The Good and Beautiful God:

“What if God… responds to us with absolute delight regardless of how we look or feel, or what we have or have not done? The only possible response would be to feel ‘absolute delight’ in return. If God is delighted in me — regardless of my performance -— then my immediate response is to feel love in return. And in so doing, I fulfill the greatest commandment.”

So many Christians are taught that God responds to us by how we respond to God. That is, many of us are taught that God will be more pleased with us if we would pray more, read our Bibles more, and serve more. Throw in a little fasting on the side, and you’ll have the favor of God.

But that is not the generous, giving, gracious God that Jesus tells us about. Remember the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard? (Matthew 20:1-15) No matter when they were hired, they received the standard wage. It didn’t depend on how long or hard they worked; they all received the same wage from their generous employer. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God operates the same way.

Smith goes on to say:

“Two of the most important verses in the Bible, in my opinion, are 1 John 4:10-11. They are the verses that began my own transformation by the renewing of my mind: ‘This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.’ These verses became the bedrock of my dominant narrative about God. Our love for God does not determine God’s attitude toward us. God loves us first, and we see that clearly in God’s Son offering his life in order to reconcile us to God. And that love propels me to love God and others in return.”

God is not mad at you.

Good News… Finally!

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3 NIV)

I can remember teaching on this verse (and on holiness) in men’s group a few years ago. In essence, I taught: “God has equipped you with everything you need to live godly lives — it says it right there! Now go out and do it! If you fail, keep trying! In fact, try harder! If you don’t think you can do it, then you’re saying that God’s Word is not true. We all know that’s not the case, so you ought to be able to live holy lives.”

Mishandling God’s truth is a scary thing, and I did it over and over again. But here’s the Good News…

Yes, he has given me everything I need for life and godliness IN CHRIST JESUS. In Christ alone, I have life! New life. Eternal life. Abundant life! I am a child of God with Christ dwelling in me and I live in the unshakeable Kingdom of God! My hope is secure because His promise is sure. His love endures forever. Hallelujah! I have life… REAL life!

In Christ alone, I have godliness. I am clothed with Christ, in the robe of His righteousness. My sins – past, present, and future – are covered by His blood. Through the Cross my punishment has been cancelled. I have been bought back from slavery by Christ. I am redeemed! I am free from guilt, shame, and condemnation! Yea! Shout for joy! I have godliness… His godliness!

I have those wonderful things in Christ alone, not because of my merit or not because I am living a good life. It is only by His divine power, given as a wonderful, amazing gift of love and grace in Christ Jesus.

As I’ve heard one author say, “Holiness is not what God wants from you; He wants His holiness in you.”

His Sweet Presence

Have you ever felt the closeness of Jesus? I mean, TRULY felt He was right there with you? Have you ever felt the sweetness of His Presence… as if He were touching you or touching the person you were talking with? Yesterday, I felt the closeness of Jesus unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

Yesterday, at Love In the Name of Christ (where I work), we gathered items to help a woman get back on her feet after spending time in a shelter. We gathered furniture, pots and pans, dishes, glasses, curtains, blankets, sheets… all coming to Love INC through generous folks like you. She was so appreciative. She had a friend with her who was providing the transportation, and as she was helping load the items for her friend into her vehicle, she mentioned she was trying to do the same thing: come out of the shelter, get an apartment, and get back on her feet as well.

Before they left, we all prayed together, hugged, and they went happily on their way, saying they would come back for the couch they couldn’t fit into the vehicle. Later that afternoon, sure enough, the friend came back, and together, we loaded the couch into her vehicle. She was alone this time, without the woman for whom she was transporting the couch. After loading it, we stopped to catch our breath, and with one simple statement, the floodgates opened.

All I said was, “So tell me about the shelter.” I was wanting to know how it was helping her and trying to discern how I could pray for her before she left. She explained the reason she was at the shelter, and all that had transpired while she resided there. She was a mother of two young children. Now without her kids, she was heartbroken without them. She had a head trauma which had rendered her incapable of defending her rights as a mom and she had lost her kids in court. Now, nearly fully recovered from the injury, caused by abuse, she was completely broken.

As I listened to her story, my heart broke, too. I was able to briefly tell her that Jesus didn’t come to help the folks who have it all together; He came to minister to the broken and battered… the forgotten and forsaken… BECAUSE THAT’S ALL THERE IS! We are all broken. We have all been battered. We have all seemingly been forgotten and forsaken by everyone we trusted, we befriended, and we believed in… except Jesus. He came for the brokenhearted, because that’s all there is.

We prayed together in the parking lot, hugged, and… she wouldn’t let go.

In that simple conversation, I have never felt closer to Jesus.

Seated at the Table

It was Thursday. The disciples of Jesus hurried back to Jerusalem from Bethany. They were instructed by their teacher what to do to prepare their Passover meal tonight. They obediently went to the house Jesus had described, gave instructions to the home’s owner, who somehow knew their plans, and prepared the upstairs room for what was to be their final meal together.

As Matthew sat at the table that evening, his thoughts returned to an earlier time when he and Jesus had shared a meal together. Jesus had been leading his entourage through town when they came upon Matthew manning his customary station — his tax collector’s booth. Those passing through grudgingly pay their tax. They curse, they scowl, and some even spit in the direction of this man who was doing his job and trying to make a living. Granted, he had skimmed some off the top to give himself and his family a little extra, but who hasn’t done that?!? It’s all relative, isn’t it?

But as Jesus came by his booth that day, there was something in Jesus’ face… something in his countenance… something in his eyes… that was different. He was used to seeing hatred and disdain. What was he seeing?

As Matthew sat at the table in the upper room, laughing with his closest friends that night, he flashed back to his first meal shared with Jesus. He was laughing with his closest friends that evening, too, but they were friends more out of necessity than anything else. His closest friends then were his tax-collecting associates and other riff-raff; no one else would dare be seen with him. He was a cheating thief, stealing the working man’s well-earned wages.

Now, as he looked around the room, he reflected on those seated with him tonight. Surveying the room, the men here were not much different from those seated at that first meal with Jesus. These were everyday men with checkered pasts, just like his. There was nothing special about any of them except that they were called by the Man who they now knew to be what his people, the Jews, had been looking toward for hundreds of years: The Messiah, the One who would deliver His people. Just how that would unfold, he was not yet sure, although Jesus was speaking with less riddles that ever before.

Matthew’s life with Jesus began at a table filled with sinners, and now three years later, as he looked around this table, not much had changed… except Matthew’s understanding of who fit under that label.

And looking around the room, he fixed his eyes on Jesus, later to be called “the Author and Perfecter” of his faith. He knew why Jesus would be called that. And now he knew what was different in Jesus eyes that day. Now he knew what he saw.

Love.

And now we all have a place at the table.

Wednesday: A Lull

After the confrontations earlier in the week with the chief priests and religious leaders, it would seem that Wednesday brought a lull. Jesus and his disciples retreated to Bethany, while the religious leaders devised their scheme to seize Jesus quietly, behind the scenes, so to avoid a public uproar. They gather a group of loyal traditionalists and one of Jesus’ followers. It would require a bribe and might require force, so they would plan to take clubs and swords, just in case. But now the plan was in place.

Meanwhile, in Bethany, Jesus relaxed for dinner at the home of Simon, who was a leper. The disciples had seen this before: Jesus socializing with those on the margin of society, the outcast, the “unclean” (like a leper), the afflicted, the sick, the forgotten. Simon was no different. He was known as “Simon the leper.” That was who he was. That was his identity. Simon the leper. He had heard that said over and over.That was who he was, at least BEFORE his time spent with Jesus.

Before Jesus cleansed me, I could’ve had labels like Simon. “Druggie”, “Misfit”, “Loser”, “Alcoholic”… that would’ve been me. Those would’ve been my labels. That was said about me. “What a shame. What a waste. He had so much potential.” That’s what was whispered. That was my identity. That’s who I was. I heard the whispers, whether they were audible or not. Looking for answers , like so many, I turned to more self-medication.

The medication took many forms. Looking for something or someone to fill the seemingly unquenchable void, I looked everywhere and tried everything. Drugs and drink. Sex and toys. Nothing changed my identity; they only changed my consciousness.

Then Jesus came to my home, so to speak, as he came to Simon’s. We don’t know how Simon’s life was changed by Jesus sharing a table with him. In fact, we lose sight of Simon. Jesus’ visit to his home, astounding in itself, is overshadowed by what takes place inside. While inside, Mary, the sister of the resurrected Lazarus, anoints Jesus body, from head to toe, with expensive nard, worth a year’s wages.

Scripture never says, but Simon undoubtedly sees this act of worship and begins to understand how this woman can give up what, most likely, was her only financial security. Jesus did for her (and her family) what no one else could do. Simon, most likely, understood that; or he soon would. He would no longer be known by his old label. The old was gone. The new had come. He, most likely, was now “Simon the follower.” Jesus did for Simon what no one else could do.

I suspect his new labels are: “Loved.” “Accepted.” “Healed” “Whole.”

New labels and a new life.

For Simon… and me.

Turning the Tables

“Turn the tables.” It is certainly an idiom in our culture. It means to manipulate circumstances to gain an advantage over an adversary. Like so many of our other idioms (e.g. “Once and for all”), it may find its origin in the Bible.

It’s Passion Week on our calendars. For Jesus, it’s the week His entire life has pointed to. Sunday was marked by the throngs heralding His entrance into the City of Kings, the City of David: Jerusalem. They laid down their cloaks and palm branches in reverence to this king, who they hoped would free them from Roman rule. This man, Jesus, had also freed many from other things: demons, disease, oppression, illness, and even death. He was holding His own against the religious leaders of the day, making them so uneasy, they were plotting to do away with him. In short, he was turning their world on its ear.

He was also turning over tables. Literally. On Monday, He boldly entered the temple to teach only to discover that things hadn’t changed from an earlier visit and that profiteering was the main focus at the temple, not the worship of God. Jesus drove the moneychangers out in a whirlwind of activity, declaring again the purpose of the temple: “My house shall be a house of prayer.”

On Tuesday, he was again in the temple courts, this time being questioned by the religious leaders asking Him, “Who authorized you to do that?!?” Jesus turned around the questioning, asking them if John the Baptist’s teaching was from God. John was extremely popular among the people, a faithful martyr and prophet. If John’s was godly, then Jesus was legitimate, because John proclaimed Jesus as the coming Messiah. If John’s teaching were not from God, then the religious leaders would certainly lose the support of the throngs. They were stuck. They finally answered a weak, “We don’t know“, and in the process, lost their credibility as interpreters of God’s Word and of how God works. They looked bad and they knew it.

By Tuesday, Jesus was certainly “turning the tables” on the religious order of the day. He was turning the tables on how people thought, how people worshipped, and how people saw God. Author Russ Ramsey writes:

“This was a day of turning the tables on common thought. God’s people had become pragmatists. They saw everything in terms of an economy— they made deposits and took withdrawals and measured their standing in the world according to how well they balanced the good with the bad in their lives. This had become their religion, and God had become another creditor come to settle debts.” (From Behold The King of Glory)

We still do this today. We still think that if we do good things… if we live a “good life” (as defined by our culture, not our God), then we will build up some sort of spiritual bank account of “good” with God and He will certainly pour out His favor and blessing upon us. He becomes essentially a banker or a spiritual account manager which we’ll have to answer to, or settle our account with, at the end of our days.

Jesus turns the tables on this thought, supplying the only “good” there will ever be: Himself. He supplies, by His sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection, the only blessing and favor we will ever need: salvation and His presence in our lives forever… both as we live out our days on earth by the indwelling power of His Spirit, but also after our earthly days are over in everlasting life filled with His love, wholeness, and joy.

This is a week in which Jesus REALLY turns the tables, giving us life from death.

This week “It is finished.”

False Teachers. Beware! I Could Be One.

I’ve been a Christian since 1996. I longed for something (Someone) to fill the undefinable void I felt in my life. I had tried to fill that void with everything imaginable. Whatever you’re thinking of right now… yes, I tried it. It wasn’t until I heard the testimony of an elderly gentleman, Joe Mammo, that I knew I wanted what He had.

I grew quickly in my faith, but not without many ups and downs, some of which were quite dramatic and traumatic. That’s life, isn’t it? We all go through seasons of change, of trauma, of growth. They make us into who we are today, and hopefully, with the working of the Holy Spirit, we are made into something that is more and more Christ-like.

Through the years, I’ve taught and I’ve preached. I’ve led outreach efforts and mission trips. I say that not to boast, but to tell you that I cringe when I think of my teaching, preaching, and leadership over the years. For 15 years, I led a men’s group at my former church. We worked our way through tons of material and opened just about every book of the Bible. However, as I think back, I wish I knew then what I know now. That doesn’t mean that I’ve reached some sort of pinnacle of learning, I just never REALLY understood the Gospel. I know; that sounds strange, but it’s true.

I can think of many times teaching or preaching: In order to be a better Christian, you must read the Bible more, pray more, surrender more, serve more, and, in essence, just try harder. Reading God’s Word is important, to be sure. Allowing the Word of Christ to dwell in you richly (Col 3:16) is transformative. Bringing your requests and petitions before God and resting in His presence will bring peace in the midst of any situation in life. (Phil 4:6, Heb 4:16) Surrendering to the lordship of Christ and serving others are keys to abundant living. (John 10:10) I truly believe those things. However, those things don’t make you more acceptable to God. They don’t make you more pleasing to Him.

As followers of Jesus, trusting in the sacrifice of God’s Son on the Cross for our sins, we are now fully acceptable in God’s eyes. In fact, we are the “apple of His eye” (Psalm 17:8) and He sings over us (Zeph 3:17). There is nothing I can do to make myself more pleasing. There is nothing I can do to make myself less acceptable. Does my continued sin grieve Him? Yes! To be sure. He is more grieved than I, because He sees the consequences. But there is nothing I can do to make God love me any less. (Romans 8:37-39) Conversely, there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, which brings me back to my preaching and teaching.

Consciously or subconsciously, I taught, in essence, a gospel of self-salvation and self-sanctification: Read more, pray more, surrender more, serve more and God will be more pleased with you. The key word in that last sentence is “SELF.” This “try harder” gospel is no gospel at all, because 1) it is impossible (believe me, I’ve tried); and 2) all the emphasis is on self, instead of what has been accomplished for you and me. The focus is on our supposed spiritual growth instead of who we are in Christ. Discovering our identity in Christ as dearly loved, and fully and completely acceptable will bring amazing freedom and lightness, which, if I’m not mistaken, is what the Good News is supposed to do.

Understanding that… REALLY understanding that and getting it deep, deep down within us will fill us with such overwhelming gratitude that we will want to pray more, read more, serve more, and as a result and without hesitation, be fully and completely surrendered.

So, it’s not about what we do for God. It’s ALL about what He has done for us.

So my sincere apologies to so many. May you discover — or rediscover — the Gospel, and may you fall in love with Jesus all over again!