Desperate… Still Desperate

Do you miss them? Have you even noticed that they’re not there? If you attend a church in Augusta County, then I know you’ve noticed that they are not at the first corner you come to as you exit church.

Yes, I miss the panhandlers.

And, yes, I know that they made more money on their corner than many of us make in a year. Yes, I know that they may have financed their drug trade by panhandling. I realize that. Yet I still miss them, but not in the way you think.

Panhandlers, for me, helped keep my social conscience in check. They were a constant wake-up call to the desperate plight of society. More than anything, they reminded me of my own desperation. Without them – to some extent – I grow numb to my desperate need for God’s grace. I believe that I’m doing just fine, thank you very much. I’m reading my Bible, memorizing my Scripture, being obedient, doing my good deeds, and filling my mornings with “quiet time.”

Yet, I’m reminded that all this self-sufficient, self-righteousness is like filthy rags… like menstrual cloths, as the Hebrew actually translates it. (Isaiah 64:6) When I remember that my supposed “righteous” acts don’t get me any closer to God, I echo the cry of the disciples, “Who, then, can be saved?!?” (Matthew 19:26)

No one. That’s the answer. No one. No one can be saved outside of God’s amazing grace. No matter how well you’re doing on this journey called faith, your goodness doesn’t get you in. Your obedience doesn’t get you in. (Read Matthew 19: “All these I have done since I was a child”) Your presence in your pew on Sunday or your prayer closet on Monday doesn’t get you in.

Likewise, no matter how poorly you’re doing on this journey of faith, your failures, doubts, and questions don’t keep you out of the Kingdom. That’s right. Because in the eyes of our holy God, we ALL are doing poorly at being perfectly holy… which is what He requires. We ALL have sinned and fallen short. (Romans 3:23) We keep falling short!

Praise be to God, He has given us this wonderful, astounding, radical gift of grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the only One who can save us, if we’re desperate enough to realize it.

His grace is sufficient for a panhandler like me.

Now, that’s Good News!

Spiritual Growth…

In his book The Easy Yoke, Doug Webster tells a story about an idealistic college student who ended up on a mission trip to one of the more dangerous housing projects in Philadelphia.

A brand-new Christian, this wide-eyed urban missionary didn’t have a clue how to evangelize the inner city. Frightened and anxious to share his new faith, the young man approached a very large tenement house. Cautiously making his way through the dark, cluttered hallways, he gingerly climbed up one flight of stairs to an apartment. He knocked on the door, and a woman holding a naked, howling baby opened it. She was smoking and not in any mood to hear some white, idealistic college boy tell her about Jesus. She started cursing him and slammed the door in his face. The young man was devastated. He walked out to the street, sat on the curb, and wept.

“Look at me. How in the world could someone like me think I could tell anyone about Jesus?” Then he remembered that the baby was naked and the woman was smoking. The plan forming in his head didn’t seem terribly spiritual, but…

He ran down the street to the local market and bought a box of diapers and a pack of cigarettes. When he knocked on the door again, he showed the woman his purchases. She hesitated and then invited him in. For the rest of the day, he played with the baby and changed its diapers (even though he had never changed diapers before). When the woman offered him a cigarette, even though he didn’t smoke, he smoked. He spent the entire day smoking and changing diapers. Never said a word about Jesus.

Late in the afternoon, the woman asked him why he was doing all this, and finally he got to tell her everything he knew about Jesus. Took about five minutes. When he stopped talking, the woman looked at him and said softly, “Pray for me and my baby that we can make it out of here alive,” so he did.*

*Doug Webster, The Easy Yoke (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995), 136–37.

This is an excerpt from Michael Yaconelli’s book, Messy Spirituality. It is from a chapter on spiritual growth.

Food for thought.

Christians Need Good News, Too

Brennan Manning says in The Ragamuffin Gospel…

“The saved sinner is prostrate in adoration, lost in wonder and praise. He knows repentance is not what we do in order to earn forgiveness; it is what we do because we have been forgiven. It serves as an expression of gratitude rather than an effort to earn forgiveness. Thus the sequence of forgiveness and then repentance, rather than repentance and then forgiveness, is crucial for understanding the gospel of grace.”

This really resonates within me. Maybe that’s because I don’t think we – as Christ-followers – truly understand that. I don’t think we’re taught that. I don’t think we’re shown that.

Instead, we are taught or shown the steps to Christian growth. We are given the different stages of Christ-likeness. We are told that we aren’t sinners any longer. We are encouraged to do… to try… to strive… toward acting like Jesus. We even have worn bracelets, reminding us What Would Jesus Do as we go about our day… all in an effort for us to produce something or someone that looks like Jesus.

In the process, we inevitably fail. We don’t live up to the standard that is set before us. We, exhausted with broken hearts and crushed spirits, find we can’t live up to that standard.

Thankfully, that is where a sinner like me finds God with open arms.

Understanding the Gospel of grace helps me to grow in grace. When I truly grasp what has been done for me and understand the Good News that God loves and accepts me, it sets me free from the unspoken requirement by the those around me to get better. As Manning says above, repentance is a natural byproduct of a sinner who truly grasps God’s love for him or her. As Romans 2:4 says, it is His kindness that leads to repentance.

We say that we know that God is love. We’ve read that in the Bible. (1 John 4:8) What I don’t think we truly grasp is that God loves and accepts each of us in such an unconditional, unchanging, and unrelenting way. As Pastor Shane Lilly says, “God loves you and there’s nothin’ you can do about it!”

Truly understanding that love and acceptance has the power to set the captive free, even if the captive is a Christian like me caught up in a world – even a Christian world – of performancism.

Out of a grateful heart pours the Spirit of Jesus into a world straining to find meaning, purpose, and peace.

And that Spirit is love and grace.

Every. Single. Day.

Guilt trips. That’s what we all are on. Guilt trips.

There are thousands – no millions – of Christ-followers who are walking with their heads down, ashamed of what they did last night, last week, or last year. They live their lives defeated, with guilt and shame hanging around their necks like a millstone, or worse yet, a grave stone.

What millions haven’t discovered is the freedom found in Christ. It’s freedom from our guilt and shame because of God’s forgiveness through Christ Jesus. It’s forgiveness from what you and I did last night, last week, and last year. As Christians, we know that. However, we don’t live like we do. Why? And why haven’t we grabbed hold of the freedom found in Christ?

Part of the reason is that we hear, week after week, what we must DO to live the Christian life. We are taught to DO this or DO that. Live like this; avoid that. 12 easy steps. 6 keys to Christian living. Try harder. Do more. Is there any wonder why we haven’t found freedom?

Plain and simple, it is not about what we do or don’t do; it’s about what Christ has done.

We are not only forgiven, but we are accepted. Exactly as we are. Exactly where we are. We sing, “Come As You Are” and revel in the thought that God accepted us exactly as we were when we initially accepted the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. But I don’t think we grasp that He CONTINUALLY accepts us, no matter the pig pen we find ourselves in. We realize we can’t live the perfect life (which God requires, by the way) and we never will. And we end up defeated.

Because God gave the perfect sacrifice, His Son, His requirement for perfection was fulfilled once and for all. Not only for all of us, but for ALL our sin as well: past, present and future.

What about obedience? What about repentance? Won’t this unbridled, radical grace lead to spiritual laziness? Isn’t it a license to sin?

Hardly. Once this thoroughly curative grace is fully known and internalized, it leads to an ever-changing life. Once this unbelievable, unconditional love is realized… really comprehended… the inner life is changed and it is truly reborn. Once this come-as-you-are acceptance is discovered, the result is freedom. It is not the whip of an overbearing master that will change our hearts to follow Him. No, it is His kindness that leads to repentance. (Romans 2:4) It is His love that draws us to follow Him. It is His unconditional acceptance that leads us to stop looking for it elsewhere.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1a)

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. (Galatians 5:1a)

The Gospel is not just Good News for new followers of Jesus. It is Good News for you and me.

Every. Single. Day.

Perfection Required

We all know the story of the rich, young ruler who approached Jesus and asked what he had to do to be right with God and inherit eternal life. (See Mark 10:17-27)

Jesus gave him a to-do list, straight from the law: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, no stealing, no lying, no deception, honor your mother and father…

The young man responded that he had fulfilled the law perfectly, but Jesus looked deeper into this young man’s eyes and into our hearts as well. He digs down to the motivation of our hearts. And He does this to show us something, but it may not be what you think.

He does this in the Sermon on the Mount when He equates hatred with murder and lust with adultery, but on this day with this young man, Jesus shows him (and us) that what God requires is perfection. He tells the young man to go and sell all his possessions and then come back and follow Jesus.

When we read this, we wonder to ourselves, “Is Jesus asking me to sell all I own? Is that what being fully surrendered means?” And we – correctly – talk ourself out of it, by concluding that’s not what Jesus is trying to get across. What we conclude is that Jesus is stating that we must fully surrender our hearts to Him and leave our allegiance to this world behind.

While I agree with the idea of surrender and admire any motivation with following God and God alone, what I think Jesus is actually reminding us of follows in the next few verses.

We see the rich, young ruler walk away sad, presumably, we think, because he doesn’t want to sell everything… because he wants what the world offers. But as he walks away, the disciples (who HAVE left everything to follow Him) even wonder, “Who, then, can be saved?” And how does Jesus respond?

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

Salvation doesn’t depend on our actions. Because none of us have pure, holy, and honorable actions all the time.

Salvation doesn’t depend on our surrender, because – How much surrendering is enough?

God requires perfection. Thankfully, He also supplies all the perfection we need in Jesus.

Eternal life – “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

God made a way. It was Jesus’ actions, not ours, that made a way.

It was Jesus’ surrender, not ours, that made a way.

Remember that as you worship today.

The Glory of God

“If I knew then what I know now.”

How many times have you said that? How many times have I? Many, many times.

Hindsight is 20/20 is how the saying goes. It’s true; if you have eyes to see, that is.

The entire church prayed many, many times the words of John 11:40. We prayed for the Lord to show us His glory. If I would just believe, I would see His glory. That’s what the verse said. I didn’t really know what I would see if I did see His glory. What would it look like? Would I know it if I saw it? What would it require of me? More faith?

I didn’t see it for a year and a half. I felt like I didn’t believe enough. No glory; therefore not enough faith, right? Through a series of events, I had to leave that church. I had been there for 15 years, but I had to leave for reasons that are irrelevant now. What matters is what happened as a result.

Out of the tragic departure from a church I loved so dearly came heartache, many, many tears, broken dreams and shattered promises, and even anger. But through this season came a new perspective. From the ashes came beauty. Through the teaching and counsel of a great pastor at my new church — Brandon Williams — God gave me a fresh perspective of His love.

This is no small thing.

This was – and is – monumental. It changed (and changes) everything. It provided (and provides) a new freedom, a new lightness, a new trust, and a new passionate love for Him who first loved me.

Pure and simple, this was God’s glory shining into my life. This is what I had longed for! This is what I had agonized over in fervent prayer! Through hardship and adversity and heartache, God’s glory was (and is) seen.

I’m not sure I can explain God’s glory, but I know it when I experience it.

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40)

The weight of the world…

Do Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:30 really have any effect on you?

He says:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Do those words do anything to you? Do you ever feel that you’re carrying more than you should? Do you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders? Do find yourself trying (and trying) but things aren’t improving?

I’ve been there. I’ve felt that it all depended on me. If things fall apart, it’s my fault. It’s my responsibility. I’ve felt the need to work harder, try harder, re-double my efforts, and pull myself up by my bootstraps. I’ve felt like I needed to be the strong one… the rock… the one who doesn’t waver. I’ve felt like I needed to keep it together.

It’s exhausting. It makes you weary.

Until… the Good News:

“Because Jesus paid it all, we are free from the need to do it all. Our identity, worth, and value are not anchored in what we can accomplish but in what Jesus accomplished for us.”*

You may think that’s over-simplified. You may think, “You don’t know the pressure I’m under. You don’t know about my debts. You don’t have a clue.”

You’re right. I don’t. But Jesus does. And He came to release you from carrying ALL the burdens you carry: financial, relational, religious and spiritual, marital… you name it, He came to free you.

Allow Him to carry these burdens for you. Allow Him to set you free from having to do it all yourself. You don’t have to earn His favor. You don’t have to curry His blessing. Doing more for God won’t make Him love you more. Walk in freedom and allow Him to have free rein in your life.

Allow Him to work in your life for your own good and for His glory, whatever that looks like. It may not be all fun and games. It may be painful, but He is molding and shaping you into Christlikeness, so He can show you off to a world that needs to see what He looks like.

As pastor and author Mark Batterson would say:

“Work like it depends on you and pray like it depends on God.”

And I’ll add: “Because it does.”

* from One Way Love, by Tullian Tchividjian. David C Cook Publishing. 2013.

Better Than Counting Sheep

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” (Colossians 3:16a)

As I’ve written many times recently, for the past two and a half weeks, I’ve been memorizing a passage of Scripture, Colossians 3:1-17. I finally finished a couple of days ago, and am still thinking about the verses as I go through my day. I normally recite it silently when I go to bed at night and when I first open my eyes in the morning.

Last night, I discovered one more thing about memorizing Scripture. Not only do you think about it constantly as you go about your day, being reminded of various verses in different instances. Not only does it seemingly permeate every fabric of your being. Not only do you find yourself reciting it over and over. But last night, as I tried to recite it yet again, I only made it through the first four verses before I fell asleep. When I opened my eyes this morning, I realized that fact, and began reciting again, beginning with verse 5. I made it all the way through, but I noticed myself ready to fall asleep again.

I’m not saying reading or thinking about the Word of God is boring. Far from it. But instead, there may be nothing better than falling asleep basking in God’s Word. It’s like falling asleep in the Father’s arms.

It’s much better than counting sheep!

Renovations and Laundry

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m memorizing a passage of Scripture, Colossians 3:1-17. To date, I’ve memorized the first twelve verses. Memorizing Scripture has an effect on the way you think, both in day-to-day life, and having something to draw from later in life. I find myself thinking about the verses or being reminded of the verses as I go through my day.

Also, as I work my way through each verse, memorizing the phrasing and even the placement of commas, I begin thinking about the meaning of certain words.

For instance, in verses 9-10, the apostle Paul says:

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

One of the words that catches my attention is the word “renewed”. Once I am “in Christ”, after accepting what God has done for me through His Son, I have “taken off” the old Tim and have “put on” a new Tim, which is in the process of being renewed in knowledge. It’s almost like I’ve taken off my dirty laundry and put on clean, fresh clothes. In fact, Paul uses that exact metaphor later in verse 12.

The word “renew” shows up elsewhere in Paul’s letters. In Romans, Paul exhorts:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)

Again, the renewal of the mind. In Colossians, our new self is to be “renewed in knowledge”. In Romans, we are “transformed by the renewing of the mind.” But how does this renewal happen? What does God do? What part do I play? I believe that Colossians and Romans both give us the answers.

In Colossians 3:1, Paul says, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ…”. In other words, “Since Christ has done this for you…”, this is how you ought to live. In Romans 12:1, Paul says, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy…”. Again, what he is saying is, “Since, through Jesus, God has been so kind, gracious, and forgiving…”, this, then, is how you should live.

The first step is to realize where we would be without God. Most people never get to this point. They openly refuse His help or deny His existence. They want to run their own lives. They don’t want to appear weak, leaning on a “crutch”. But what they don’t realize is that, in the paradox of God’s wisdom, through weakness, we gain strength. Through what seemed like a dismal defeat at The Cross, came the victory over death, sin, sickness, loneliness, and so much more. It starts with an attitude of gratitude.

Secondly, after seeing how gracious and kind God is, we must trust Him and surrender our lives to Him, to be used however He sees fit. In Romans 12, Paul says, “Therefore… offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…” In Colossians, he says, “… set your hearts on things above (v.1)… set your minds on things above (v.2)… put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature (v.5)… since you have taken off your old self with its practices and put on the new self… (vv.9,10)” It is a conscious decision. It is an act of worship, trusting that God knows how to run our lives better than we do, and surrendering our hearts and minds to Him.

Once we do, He begins to do a work anew in us. We become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is both an instantaneous occurence and an ongoing work in progress. At our initial conversion at salvation, it is instantaneous. But as Colossians and Romans tells us, it is an ongoing, lifelong process of allowing God to have more and more of our lives. In fact, the Greek word used in both places implies that a renovation is taking place. As He fully takes over, He continually shows us where we need more of Him in our lives… where we haven’t allowed Him full access… and as we allow Him in, the renovation happens.

We allow Him access through our prayer time with Him, allowing the Holy Spirit to show us areas of our lives which need renewing. We allow Him access by reading His Word and allowing it to penetrate our hearts. As we allow Him to work, we become “renewed”. We begin to think differently. We begin to see others differently. Our hearts begin to feel the same things Jesus’ heart feels. We lose our old habits. We lose our “stinkin’ thinkin'” (as Joyce Meyer would say). As we follow Him and His lead, we are gradually transformed into the image of Christ.

As I memorize the passage in Colossians, that renewal is taking place. My laundry is being done. I’m being renovated!

Set your station…

As I mentioned a few days ago, I am memorizing a passage of Scripture: Colossians 3:1-17. It’s a daunting task, to be sure. However, I’m doing it by working my way through a devotional book based on those verses and it’s helping me take my time, ponder the meaning of words and phrases, and delve deeper into the richness of God’s Word.

In verse 2, Paul repeats something that’s a common topic in his instructions for Christian living. He says,

“Set you minds upon things above, not on earthly things.”

In the companion devotional, the author likens “things above”, “heavenly things”, or things “of the Spirit” to an AM radio station. He compares “earthly things” or “things of this world” to an FM station. We all have radios in our cars and we can choose the AM band or the FM band. The FM band has clear stations. The sound comes through loud and clear. The sound is in stereo. The message of this world is unmistakable: money, power, selfishness, and materialism.

The AM station doesn’t come through as clear. The station is difficult to tune in. It takes a little work to tune it in just right and hear its message. There is interference, but its message is also clear: self-sacrifice, compassion, and love. These are some of the values of the Kingdom of God.

Thinking about “things above” also involves contemplating what God has done for each of us. With the love He has lavished on us, we are now His children! Because of the love of the Father, Jesus made a way for us to be intimately connected to God through His Spirit. He now intercedes for us, seated at the right hand of God. Because of the Cross, we have been raised with Christ and are forgiven forever! That is something to think over.

Paul says in his letter to the Philippians…

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (4:8)

There is an acronym in computer programming – GIGO. It means, “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” What is inputted as programming language becomes output. If you program incorrectly, you get erroneous output. It’s the same in our lives here on earth: What we allow past our “ear-gates”, “eye-gates”, and “mind-gates” powerfully influences how we live.

This could translate as imposing a bunch of rules to Christian living, but laws never work. All I know is this: What I think about and where I set my heart drastically impacts my life and its quality. And I have a choice.

Justice. Purity. Love. Excellence. These are the “things above.”

Where are you tuning your radio?