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.

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.

Think again…

Do you think that God loves you more because of your devotions, prayer time, or obedience? Do you think He favors you more because of your “quiet time” or good deeds?

Think again.

He loves you because He is God. Love is who He is.

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

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

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:15-16a)

And our response?

We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

Bathe yourself in God’s love for you today and worship Him.

Because He loves you.

(Despite what you did or thought last night, last week, last month, or last year)

#GoodNews

R-rated Grace

The following post is long but worth a read when you have time. It’s an allegory of Ezekiel 16 and a picture of all of us and God’s amazing grace toward us. Again, it’s All. Of. Us. (Caution: It’s R-rated, but so is Ezekiel 16, the Book of Hosea, and many other books in the Bible)

“Your father was a pimp and your mother was a prostitute. Your mom found a lucrative way to fund her drug habit by having sex with multiple men, until your father took her in (and a few others) to live under his roof. When a pimp lives with a prostitute, one thing leads to another, and that’s where you came in. With the help of some crack and a bottle of Jack, you were conceived and immediately unwanted. Too scared to have an abortion, your mother waited until you were born, then casually dumped you— her newborn daughter— in a nearby garbage can. Minutes later, a stranger walked by and heard the squalling from inside the bin. He opened the lid and found you— squirming in your blood, expelling your last breath of life. The stranger’s 911 call miraculously summoned an ambulance within minutes, and you were saved. But still unwanted.

“The stranger couldn’t bear the thought of sending you to a foster home, so he signed some papers and took you into his home. But ‘home’ is an understatement. Your new father was the CEO of a multimillion-dollar business. Your new home was a small castle, and your future life would be paradisiacal. And he was a good man too. Humble, strong, generous, and honest. Your new father possessed an unusual joy, which he never failed to shower on you. His time, his money, his affection, his attention— they were all yours. There was nothing you lacked. All the storybook tales combined could not compare to your utopian life. You were the envy of all your friends and the prized possession of a father who had it all. From his perspective, though, ‘having it all’ meant having you. You were the source of his uncanny joy.

“But something snapped when you turned sixteen. The boys at school started noticing your body and didn’t hide their stares. Stares turned to comments. Comments turned to caresses. And caresses opened the floodgates of a different kind of love — one that was both exhilarating and empty, but too addicting to resist. So at the age of sixteen, you moved out of your father’s house, leaving him in pools of tears. You didn’t hide the fact that you were happily leaving him in order to fornicate with your new boyfriend. The more he wept, the more you laughed, as you skidded off in your boyfriend’s Camaro.

“Your adolescent love affair was only the beginning. Before long, your boyfriend’s buddies took a liking to you, and the flirtatious cycle was revisited. Soon, mere sex with your boyfriend became boring, so his friends were added to the mix. But even orgies became dull over time, and drugs, alcohol, and other men — older and creepier — joined in the hellish dance. Your dream of freedom and love had turned into a nightmare.

“But nothing can compare to the pain of the day when your boyfriend decided to mail a picture of you to your father’s house. Delighted to catch a glimpse of his princess, your father laid his eyes upon a sullied whore. Your once silky hair was frayed and knotted. Your eyes — the windows to your soul — were dark and sunken. Devoid of life. And the bruises on your face revealed that your boyfriend’s love had run dry. Daddy’s baby girl was the not-so-prized possession of half a dozen drug-infused teenagers. And there was nothing he could do.

“Sex, drugs, and imaginative acts of depravity piled up as you lived the next two years satisfying your misguided lust for life on nameless boys who used and abused you. Yet you still used them to satisfy your craving to be loved. You gave one boy the car Daddy bought you on your sweet sixteen. Your boyfriend’s other girlfriend took the dress your father made. And you sold the necklace that belonged to your grandmother to buy heroin for another man. Yet the beatings continued. Soon your bank account ran out, and you took to the streets to sell your body in order to keep a steady flow of heroin pumping through your veins.

“And heaven began to rumble with furious excitement.

“Now, you’re sitting in your room. Your ‘friends’ are gone and you are all alone. Coming down off a high, you begin to feel depressed and lonely; your humanity is slipping away. So you head for another hit to numb the pain. Just then, someone kicks open the door and a burst of fear squeezes your heart. The bruises on your body are tender reminders that your new home is never safe. Kicked-in doors are a regular occurrence, and they lead only to pain. Or sex. Both, actually. The fear runs deep. Maybe it’s the suddenness of the blast. Or maybe you just need to feed your starving addiction.

“Your pale stare quickly changes as you see the man standing at the threshold. It’s your father. Your fear intensifies. You recall the day you sped away from his house laughing as he stood on his lawn weeping. How did he find you? Why has he come? Is he, too, going to beat you after all you’ve done? His tears speak otherwise. His face glistens with joy. His hands tremble. You can hear his heart thump through his chest. Tears cascade down his cheeks, but now they look different. These are tears of adoration and triumph. And they are flowing because your daddy has found his baby girl. The one who found you wailing in a dumpster has once again taken the initiative to redeem you and enjoy you again.

“Confused, enthralled, terrified, overjoyed — you can’t move. But your father can. He races across the room to swallow you with an embrace — the first nonsexual touch you have felt in years. A touch that radiates more love than all your sexual encounters put together. You finally feel safe. Loved. Forgiven instantly, as your dad gathers your face in his hands and declares:

” ‘I’ll restore the relationship we had when you were young, only this time it will be better. It will last forever, and nothing will lure you away from me again. You’ll remember your past life and face the shame of it, but when I shower you with the good life you had as before, it will make your shame fade from your memory. Don’t try to fix it. I’ll fix it for you. I’ll make everything right after all you’ve done, and it will leave you speechless.’ (Ezek. 16:60–63, modified from MSG )

Grace. This stuff never old.”

(From Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace For Us by Preston Sprinkle)

Scandalous

I’ve often thought, “What is it like to be ‘a man after God’s own heart’, as King David was called by God? What qualities do you have to possess? Why was David called that by God?” (See 1 Samuel 13)

I ask those questions because, frankly, I want the same God-moniker. I want God to say that about me as well. But what’s it gonna take?

There are a number of wonderful qualities and characteristics about David, both before and after he became king of Israel: He is humble, brave, loyal, and zealous. He is an unrestrained worshipper of Elohim Yahweh, our transcendent, yet intimate God of the Universe. David is self-effacing, courageous, faithful, and faith-filled. He has an unrelenting passion to see God’s great name upheld at all costs.

And he is addicted to sin.

Wait. What?!?

Yep, just like you and me, David is addicted to sin. As Preston Sprinkle puts it in Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace For Us, “Within seconds, the man after God’s own heart turns into a man after the woman next door.” He, literally, can’t help himself. Like you and me, he heads down the slippery slope. (See 2 Samuel 11)

And yet, God declares him to be a man after His own heart BEFORE this scandalous episode (which continues by having her husband killed in war on Israel’s front lines). How could God make such a mistake!?! Or was David STILL a man after God’s own heart?

David was, throughout his life — through the victories and defeats… through the good, bad, AND ugly — desperate for God. He was desperate for God’s presence and power to show through his life. He was desperate for God to produce that humility, bravery, loyalty, and zeal in him. He was desperate for God to be preeminent in his life. He desperately wanted God to take center-stage, to be renowned, to be known in “all the earth.” (1 Samuel 17:45-47)

And God accomplishes all of this throughout David’s life, including this heinous episode of sin, adultery, murder, and deception. God didn’t turn His head during this time in David’s life, thinking, “He IS a man after my own heart… well… um… except for this time.”

No, God shows his unrelenting, scandalous grace to King David and to the rest of the world for the ages to come. It’s a grace shown in the bloodline of the Savior. Deceivers. Liars. Murderers. Whores. Prostitutes. Adulterers. These are the kind of descendents we would hide away! But in order to show to “all the earth” the grace and mercy of Jesus, God uses these ragamuffins to bring Good News time and time again, throughout the Old Testament, and ultimately, in the culmination of this checkered ancestry: Jesus the Christ.

As Sprinkle puts it:

“This is why your divorce, your addiction, your enslavement to porn, or years of sticking your finger down your throat to match up to some arbitrary standard of beauty can all be woven into the fabric of God’s plan of redemption. God doesn’t cause sin. He mourns it. He despises it. But through His gracious power, He’s able to use it. No one and no sin can outrun God’s grace. Charis (grace) has no leash.”

If you are continually desperate for Jesus and His grace, then you no longer have the label of adulterer, harlot, convict, failure, loser, or even murderer. You are a man or woman after God’s own heart.

And He is after yours.

The Only Hope…

While reading my Bible and Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us by Preston Sprinkle, I was thinking, and actually became overwhelmed. I am distraught and dismayed because I am becoming more and more aware of how sinful I really am. Seriously. I am SO selfish. I don’t naturally think of others first. I think about what I have to do. I think about my agenda first.

I am depraved. My mind wanders. I have trouble “setting my heart on things above”, as Colossians 3:1 says I should. My heart constantly wanders off course, settling on earthly, temporary things.

I find this somewhat astounding because I purposely try to surround myself with the things of God. I wake up each day and think about God. I ponder and study His Word. I memorize Scripture from time to time. I journal occasionally. I listen to Christian music (for the most part). And, of course, I faithfully go to church.

My little Christian checklist doesn’t seem to work.

I even work for a Christian non-profit organization and am surrounded by wonderful, godly people, also passionate for the things of God. We, along with the Body of Christ, serve the needy and as needs are met, God transforms lives. I witness that first-hand.

And yet, here I am, amazed at my depravity.

This is not false humility. I genuinely echo Isaiah in the temple of God, “Woe to me! For I am a man of unclean lips!” (See Isaiah 6:5) And like the apostle Paul, I cry out:

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:24)

If I had to venture a guess, I’d say you’re not much different.

Thankfully, this question doesn’t have to hang in the air hopelessly, because Paul answers it immediately:

Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (v.25a)

Do you hear the relief in those words? Do you see the exclamation point at the end of the sentence!?! It’s also Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 12 that give me more hope when he, with the Lord’s help, gets a revelation (the lightbulb comes on) about his “thorn in the flesh”.

Many scholars have spent considerable time theorizing on Paul’s thorn and what it might have been. Some have even supposed that it was his poor eyesight or that he was somewhat meek in stature. Somehow, I don’t think that was his “thorn.” Paul was possibly the most mature Christ-follower this planet has ever seen, so I don’t think he would have referred to a God-given malady, like poor eyesight, as “a messenger of Satan.” (2 Cor 12:7)

Although we’ll never know this side of heaven, I believe Paul’s struggle was more of his “inner life.” He, like all of us, struggled. He was faced with his sinfulness, but most of all, with his weakness. But because he knew he couldn’t handle “it” alone — whatever “it” was — he knew it was an opportunity for Jesus to shine and show Himself.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:9b)

For me, that gives me hope.

It’s not about who I am nor what I am becoming.

It’s about who Jesus is and who (or what) He became for me and you.

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

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

And finally:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Beautiful

“Rich, poor, successful, homeless, healthy, disabled, black, white, brown, young, old, famous, abused, abusive, pervert, or priest— whoever you are and whatever you have or have not accomplished— if you are human , then you are cherished and prized and honored and enjoyed as the pinnacle of creation by a Creator who bleeds grace. If you are reading this, you are infinitely more majestic and beautiful than the glimmering peaks of Mount Everest, the soothing turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the commanding cliffs of Yosemite, or the well-titled Grand Canyon, which God carved out of Arizona.

“Beauty is formed in the eye of the beholder. Your Beholder is God. He made you in His own image.”

(from Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace to Us by Preston Sprinkle)

Love Bends Down

“Grace always runs downhill. It always meets us at the bottom.” — Tullian Tchividjian

I was listening online to a sermon from Pastor Tullian when I heard that. It reminded me of a sermon series preached at my old church entitled, “Love Bends Down.”

I remember a lot of things about that series, one of the most memorable being a mini-drama with young woman in the congregation portraying the woman caught in adultery and so beautifully showing the joy and freedom that woman must’ve felt after she encountered Jesus and the forgiveness she received that day. (See John 8:1-11)

I’ll always remember that sermon series. Maybe it’s because, as the series title conveys, God’s love always bends down… down to where we are… down to the pit we find ourself in… when we find ourself at rock-bottom.

It’s a beautiful picture of Jesus bending over to the woman, bending down to spit in the dirt to heal the blind beggar (John 9:1-12), and bending down to touch each of us and make us whole.

Pastor Tullian also said, “God is promiscuous in distributing His love and grace.” So true. He lavishes His love and grace on all of us, not caring about the pretenses of rank, status, income, education, position, race, gender, or any other way we might determine who is deserving and who isn’t.

We all don’t deserve this grace and love. None of us.

Yet Love bends down…

… Down to where you and I are today.

 

(Incidentally, the series was based on a wonderful, enlightening book by Michael Lodahl, When Love Bends Down)

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)