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!

That’s us.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10)

There is no “us” and “them.” There is no separation. Social standing doesn’t matter. Family heritage doesn’t matter. Wealth doesn’t matter. Education doesn’t matter. Power or influence doesn’t matter. Age, race, national origin, gender, creed, familial status, color, nor sexual preference matter.

Jesus came to the hurting, the sick, and the destitute. He didn’t have to look far.

Because that’s all there is.

Musings from Psalm 139

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
(Psalm 139:7-10 NIV)

I’m memorizing Scripture again; this time Psalm 139. It’s always been one of my favorites. It has a wonderful cadence or rhythm. It seems as though it were, at some point, set to music… maybe ancient music. Of course, that’s what the psalms are: songs and prayers. Some pleasant. Some, not so much; but all are poignant.

Although it was one of my favorites, I used to interpret it in a negative way. I used to think upon the verses above in a way that was not very positive, reassuring, or encouraging. Possibly that’s because I viewed God in a similar way. Let me explain.

When I read the verses above, I used to think that God was relentlessly eyeing me, evaluating everything I did. I believed He was up there, hammer in hand (or worse yet, a lightning bolt), ready to punish me for a bout of selfish anger or some stray word or thought. I believed He was a strict task-master, ready to rap my knuckles with His divine ruler. In fact, I can remember a time 30 years ago when I was caught out in the middle of a golf course in a lightning storm. I ditched my clubs under a bush and ran for the clubhouse. As thunder and lightning were crashing overhead, seemingly closer each time, I can still recall the scene: running for shelter, all the while thinking that God was about to punish me for the life I was leading at the time (which was not a pretty picture 30 years ago). Even then, I viewed God as the Divine Disciplinarian, and I was “going” from His Spirit. I was “fleeing” from His presence. He was chasing me, in hot, angry pursuit.

Today, as I read this psalm and memorize its verses, I am overwhelmed, instead, with the love of God.

As I read verse 5 which says:

“You hem me in, behind and before,
And you lay your hand upon me,”

I can actually feel God’s gentle, loving, nurturing hand on my shoulder. And when I read the verses mentioned above, I am not reminded of running for my life from an angry, vengeful god, but instead, am overwhelmed by His relentless, unending, unconditional love.

I know now that I can’t go anyplace where I’m not overshadowed by the umbrella of his great love. As Pastor Shane Lilly says, “God loves you and there’s nuthin’ you can do about it!” I can rest in the thought that God loves me regardless of what I say or do, and His Presence is always with me.

I can say, as the psalmist David did in verse 6:

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain!”

A simple hug…

I had a very moving experience Friday as part of a Love INC delivery to one of our neighbors in need. It was a small delivery — paper products, hygiene items, and a footstool. A footstool? Yes.

Our neighbor was a below-the-knee amputee who had diabetes, fibromyalgia, neuropathy, and had a heart valve replaced, too. She was younger than me. She seemed in surprisingly good health — physically. She requested a footstool to keep her leg propped up.

Before we leave, we always pray for our neighbors, so I asked her how I could pray for her. With her head bowed, she said that she couldn’t possibly ask for prayers for herself. I just let that hang in the air. Then I got down on a knee to her level in her wheelchair, and with the gentleman who helped me, we held hands and formed a small circle of prayer.

As I prayed for wholeness for this neighbor, I heard a sniffle, and when I said, “Amen,” she was sobbing. I asked her about it and she replied that she had worked hard for her family for years and years, but now at she needed help, they weren’t helping her. It was heartbreaking. I hugged her, and… she seemingly wouldn’t let go. She was still sobbing. I imagine it was the first hug she had received in months!

She said that she couldn’t pray for herself because she was supposed to be strong, right?!? I said, “No. We aren’t supposed to be strong. In fact, none of us are. We are supposed to be weak in order that God can be strong.” I told her that my New Year’s Resolution this year was to be weaker and dumber than ever. After a laugh, I told her why.

“I want to be weak, so that God can work more and more in me, and more and more through me. And I want to be dumber, so that I can be filled with His wisdom. That way, He gets all the glory.”

We hugged again, and again, she wouldn’t let go.

I don’t think I was hugging her.

I think Jesus was.

The Greatest Donor

This past week I had the opportunity to meet a man who recently had a liver transplant. He was recovering nicely and was in improving health. However, he is also on dialysis and once he reaches an acceptable level of health, will need a kidney transplant as well.

“What would it be like to be a donor?”, I wondered to myself. My mind spun in possibilities.

I know a husband who gave one of his kidneys to his wife who needed a transplant. It took him longer to recuperate than her, but they’re both doing wonderfully. What a sacrifice! What love!

Last night, I watched the 1993 movie, “In the Line of Fire,” the Clint Eastwood movie in which he plays an aged Secret Service agent. In the story line, 30 years earlier he had been assigned to the motorcade when President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The memory still haunts him. Fast-forward to today: In the course of a routine investigation, he discovers a plot to assassinate the modern-day president. Throughout the movie, he battles the memory of his failure to protect Kennedy and wonders if he really had the courage to take a bullet for the president. In the climactic scene, he does, indeed, take a bullet for the president. He’s wearing a bullet-proof vest and survives, but proves he is willing to do his duty and lay down his life for the President of the United States.

In Scripture, Jesus tells us, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NIV)

Our military heroes are in the line of fire for one another all the time. They show us what sacrifice means. While we might donate a kidney for a loved one or friend, another thought came to me: Would I donate a kidney or organ to someone I didn’t know, or worse yet, someone I knew was living a selfish life, a life lived only to please themselves?

I am an organ donor. Once my life is over, my organs – if usable – may be able to save or improve the life of another. But what if, in my opinion, they don’t deserve it?!? Thankfully, I don’t get to make that decision.

However, I know someone who did. There was One who laid down His life for others, even when they didn’t deserve it. He showed us not the “greater love” that He spoke of above — laying down a life for friends, but the GREATEST love. Paul tells us:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8 NIV)

God knew that some would waste their life on selfish living. He knew some wouldn’t be worthy of a kidney donation, let alone a life laid down in sacrifice. He knew that we weren’t righteous – none of us – and yet, in His astounding, extravagant love, sent His Son to die for us.

That is love. Not “Oh, I’m in love with you, baby.” Not even the wonderful, selfless, sacrificial human love of a husband for a wife who needs a kidney. This is a love that trumps all. Dying for the selfish. Dying for the ungodly. Dying for me. Dying for you. That is the GREATEST love. That is God’s love.

I don’t know about you, but that changes me.

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only only Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

The seat next to you…

Yesterday, I came across a post about the Church on Facebook that was quite thought-provoking. It was an open letter to the Church about why folks are REALLY leaving the church or won’t venture inside a Sunday morning service in the first place. In a nutshell, here are the reasons:

1. Our (the Church’s) Sunday productions have worn thin.
2. We speak in a foreign tongue – Not speaking in tongues, but too much church lingo.
3. We can’t see past our own building.
4. We choose lousy battles.
5. Our love doesn’t look like love.
(Source: http://www.churchleaders.com/outreach-missions/outreach-missions-articles/244545-dear-church-heres-people-really-leaving.html)

The last one is the one that really got me. That’s the one that grieves me the most. The open letter goes on to say:

“It feels like a big bait-and-switch sucker-deal; advertising a ‘Come as You Are’ party, but letting us know once we’re in the door that we can’t really come as we are. We see a Jesus in the Bible who hung out with low-lifes and prostitutes and outcasts, and loved them right there, but that doesn’t seem to be your cup of tea.

Church, can you love us if we don’t check all the doctrinal boxes and don’t have our theology all figured out? It doesn’t seem so.

Can you love us if we cuss and drink and get tattoos and, God forbid, vote Democrat? We’re doubtful.

Can you love us if we’re not sure how we define love, and marriage, and Heaven, and Hell? It sure doesn’t feel that way.

From what we know about Jesus, we think he looks like love. The unfortunate thing is, you don’t look much like him.”

I was at a local church to see a southern gospel group, The Talleys, last night. They did a song entitled, “The Broken Ones”, and to be frank, I almost couldn’t stop crying. The chorus goes like this:

Love the broken ones, the ones that need a little patchin’ up
See the diamond in the rough and make it shine like new
It really doesn’t take that much, a willing heart and a tender touch
If everybody loved like He does, there’d be a lot less broken ones
(© Newvip Songs)

There’s just one more thing: WE ARE ALL BROKEN ONES. There is not one among us that is not broken in some way, shape, or form. But broken people cannot fix brokenness. We need divine intervention. We need the love of Jesus.

Today, as you go through your church doors, keep an eye open for the broken ones.

They’re sitting right next to you.

Valuable…

As most of you know, I work for the non-profit ministry Love In the Name of Christ (Love INC) in Fishersville. Our mission is “to mobilize the church to transform lives and communities in the Name of Christ.” We meet needs and transform lives by the love of Christ through the Body of Christ (the Church). It’s a great organization which brings unity to the Church and where God works every single day.

If you’re like me (and virtually everyone is), you want to do something of value in your lifetime. Whether it’s raising your children or finding the cure for cancer, we all want to do something of value. We want our lives to matter. I really think that is a universal quality of mankind. Yes, there are some whom are oppressed in one form or another and never get to live out that kind of hope, but I think every human wants to do something that is of value. I chose to work at Love INC because I want to do something of value, too.

However, I think we all get caught up in performancism. We fall into the trap of believing that the more value we contribute to society, the more valuable we are. Tullian Tchividjian writes:

“Performancism is the mind-set that equates our identity and value directly with our performance. Performancism sees achievement not as something we do or don’t do but as something we are or aren’t. How we look, how intelligent we are, how our kids turn out, what people think of us — these things are synonymous with our worth. In the world of performancism, success equals life and failure equals death.”

Think about it. We do this. All of us. It may be subtle, but we do it. We value those who are successful. We treat them better. We cozy up to them. We want to be just like them. If we have a success, we feel like a success. If we fall and fail, we feel like a failure. We create identities based on our behaviors. Tchividjian writes:

“In other words, we’re exhausted because we’re trying to rescue ourselves from a meaningless existence by what we do. We’re weary because we feel the burden to create our own validation. But broken people cannot fix brokenness. We need divine intervention. We need validation, but we can’t muster it ourselves. What an amazing thing, then, that the holy God of the universe, who set the standard for validation higher than we could ever reach, reaches down to us and proclaims over messy sinners who can’t ever get their own act together, ‘Justified!'”

We are ALL of equal value and worth, based on the fact that we all are made in God’s image. We are all incredibly valuable simply because Jesus chose to die for each one of us… and all of us. “For God so loved THE WORLD…” John 3:16 says. All of us. Each of us.

You are loved. You are accepted. You are PRICELESS!

That is the Good News.

Counter-intuitive Resolutions for the New Year…

I’ve thought of two resolutions, although they’re not new.

A couple of weeks ago during a staff meeting at Love INC, we were talking about what 2015 might hold — both for the ministry and personally.

A thought came to me: A just want to be dumber and weaker. These are my resolutions for the coming year (and beyond).

I’m discovering that the older I get, the less I know. Yes, I may have gained more knowledge in the world’s eyes by taking various classes or by learning through “the school of hard knocks,” but in the deep things of life, I know very little. And as I get older, I see that I will never have the answers… at least not on this side of heaven.

Through schooling, experience, and through trial and error (mostly error), I’ve learned a few things, but just enough to be dangerous. I can just as easily stick my foot in my mouth today as I could twenty years ago. I can just as easily rush into a bad situation and make it worse. But worse than anything, I can think that I can get by on my own smarts and cleverness. I easily think that I can figure things out on my own. I can easily fall into the trap of trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps, independent of any help from God (who gave me any smarts or abilities I may have in the first place).

I want to go into every situation I face in the coming year with zero preconceived notions, and with both ears wide open ready to listen to those around me and most importantly, to hear the voice of God. I want to hear God’s still, small voice. I want His wisdom to guide my decision-making this year.

Secondly — and surely entwined with being “dumber” in the coming year — I want to be weaker. I want to be slow and prayerful to react to the chaos around me (sometimes called “life”). I can easily fall into the trap of trying to work things out by myself. I can easily fall prey to thinking that by trying harder, re-doubling my efforts, or “cleaning up my act”, I can earn some sort of special favor with God. I can easily think that I can just “make things happen.”

I don’t want to solve problems by myself. I want to be dependent on God’s strength, His wisdom and His promises. I want to rely on those God has placed in my life and partner with them. I want to hear their wisdom and make use of their talent, if possible. I am inherently flawed. I know this. I am genetically sinful. Again – on this side of heaven – I will never be free of those characteristics. I am weak. That’s why I need Jesus and His grace, His strength, and the power of the Holy Spirit. I need it… desperately.

So, it may be counter-intuitive, but I want to be dumber and weaker in 2015. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll catch a glimpse of God working… and He will get (and deserve!) all the glory.

Revolution, Not Resolution

It’s coming you know.

Yep. New Year’s Day. A new beginning. A fresh start. Time to turn over a new leaf and begin anew. It’s time for a New Year’s Resolution.

Phooey.

I wonder how many folks follow through on their New Year’s Resolution. Wait… let me look it up… (Google is a wonderful thing) … Care to hazard a guess? 40%? 30%? 15%? What do you think?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the fail rate of New Year’s Resolutions is about 92%. Whether it’s a diet or exercise program, chances are that 9 out of 10 will not follow through. If you’re reading this, you may not be climbing the mountain of endless exercise or eating rice cakes, but you may be thinking of starting a Bible reading plan or beginning a new devotional. I’m afraid the same statistics apply to you as well. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Most of our New Year’s Resolutions are done in our own strength. We exert our willpower to overcome the obstacles. We try harder. We begin again. We love do-overs. A fresh start. A chance to wipe the slate clean. And most of the time we fail because we do so in our own strength.

What if I told you that you needed NO strength whatsoever?!? What if I told you that the spiritual transformation would come with no effort at all? What if I said that, as a Christ follower, the good work He began in you would be finished eventually — by Him… by God?!? (See Philippians 1:6)

The only work required is to receive. No re-doubling your efforts. No more vows to God to read the entire Bible in one year. No more beating yourself up because you don’t pray an hour every morning. Let me explain.

When you truly receive the love of God into your life and understand — really understand — what it means, you are freed from having to worry about yourself. You can now focus on God and others, which are the only commandments to follow now. (Matthew 22:37-40, Galatians 6:2) When you know that your fate is now secure and that no one or nothing can snatch you away from God (see John 10:28), a burden has been lifted and you can walk in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. It becomes (more) automatic. The more you understand your identity in Christ, the more automatic it becomes. The freedom will spread to every area of your life, and as it does, you’ll avail yourself more and more to God. You can abandon yourself to God completely without fear, because His love and unconditional acceptance eliminates the fear. (See 1 John 4:18)

Will you fail and fall? Of course. From time to time (edit: every day), it’ll happen. But as you understand God’s love, you’ll come running back to His arms, not fleeing in guilt and shame. You understand that nothing can separate you from the love of God. You understand that your obedience doesn’t make God love you more. You understand that everyone is disobedient. Everyone is unrighteous.

Correction: There is One who was (and is) obedient. There was One who was, and is, righteous; and because of Him – Jesus – all our spiritual resolutions are unnecessary. The focus isn’t on what you and I do; it’s on what Jesus has done.

The work’s been done. It is finished.

No more resolutions. It’s time for a revolution. Receive the Good News.

(By the way, Bible reading plans are wonderful. Beginning a new devotional on January 1st is a great idea [Here’s a good one]. Just cut yourself some slack. Quit measuring your progress and growth. Remember, it’s not about you.)