Drowning

Have you ever taken a water safety course with lifesaving skills? The instructors teach you skills that they would teach a lifeguard. I was thinking about these skills and instructions when I read a headline about a drowning.

You’ve probably heard that when you jump in the water to save someone from drowning and swim to the scene, you spin them around with their head above water and their back facing you. Then you pull them, swimming back to dry ground, with your arm wrapped under their chin.

Sounds easy, right? I’ve never had to use those skills, but I can imagine that it would NEVER be easy. The most common obstacle in saving someone who is drowning is the person themselves. Normally, experts say, when you arrive on the scene, the drowning person is flailing away, trying desperately to keep their head above water. In their desperation to save themselves, they drastically hinder the efforts of the lifeguard. It’s only when they are disarmed, that the lifesaver can pull them to safety.

So it is with our spiritual lives. It’s only when we come to the end of ourselves that we realize the need for the Savior. It’s only when we stop our flailing that our Lifesaver is able to save us. It’s only when we stop trying to save our self that the One who can save us can do what He came to do: seek and save the lost. It’s only when we realize that we are drowning that we can allow the Lifeguard to save us.

This not only applies to our initial encounter with God’s grace, mercy, and salvation, but also to our everyday walk with God as Jesus-followers, allowing the Holy Spirit to have His way in our lives. It’s only in weakness that God shows His strength. It’s in adversity when God gets to show His glory. Again, it’s when we realize that we are drowning without Him that He can rescue us. It’s only when we allow Him to have His way that He can show us who He truly is.

All our own efforts can’t. All our flailing can’t keep our head above water. Believe me; I know.

We can only be rescued when we allow Him to wrap His arm around us and pull us to dry ground.

“My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, The Message)

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. (Isaiah 43:2)

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.

The Natural Response…

Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13b)

In his devotional book, Hidden In Christ, James Bryan Smith makes a thought-provoking statement, in essence saying that many Christians think that God’s forgiveness depends on us forgiving others, or that we will be forgiven by God in proportion to the extent we forgive others. He points out that is simply not true. While we were sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) Before we even knew God, Christ died for us. Before we had a chance to forgive others, Christ died for us. We forgive as a natural outpouring of what Christ has done for us. In Smith’s words…

“So what is Jesus telling us when He instructs us to forgive others? And why does He connect it with the forgiveness of God in Mark 11:25? He gave several illustrations, through parables, about the necessity of forgiving others because we ourselves have been forgiven (See Matthew 18:21-35). We can easily make the mistake of thinking that divine forgiveness is determined by human forgiveness — in other words, to think that God only forgives me if I forgive others, and in the exact measure that I forgive others.

“We cannot say, ‘I accept God’s forgiveness for my sins, but I refuse to forgive others.’ This is actually impossible, not just theologically but psychologically. If we truly know – in the depths of our being – that we have been completely forgiven, then we naturally forgive those who have harmed us in some way.

“When we do find ourselves struggling to forgive someone, we should not grit our teeth and merely try harder to forgive them. Instead, we should dwell on the fundamental reality that we ourselves are people who need forgiveness, and then set our minds on the reality that God, in Christ, has forgiven us completely.”

For me personally, this is the essence of forgiveness. And I need to be reminded of it constantly. It is understanding how flawed we all are. It is understanding how depraved we all are. We all have baggage. We all have issues. We are all broken. We all have sin. As Smith says, “We are all fighting a great battle.”

And we all desperately need the healing touch of the Savior.

The Gospel is Still Changing Me

The Gospel changed me.

It is still changing me.

Did you think the Gospel message was just for sinners… just for folks that don’t believe in Jesus or haven’t accepted God’s gift of forgiveness?

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah when He began teaching in the synagogue:

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

“Freedom for the prisoners,” He says. Some translations say “captives.” Captive to what? Prisoners of what? Freedom from what!?!

Freedom from the power of sin? Yes.
Freedom from the power of death? Yes!
Freedom from the power of sickness, the power of bondage, the power of addictions? Yes!

But also freedom from the yoke of religion and the law.

He quoted the prophet Isaiah to those who would know… the religious law-makers, the rabbis, the legalistic Pharisees and Sadducees, the self-righteous… like you and me.

Truth be told, we all have a bit of self-righteousness in us. Yes, all of us. Don’t get mad at me here. You can’t help it; it’s your default setting. We all do it. Since the fall of man, we’ve been doing it. Look it up; you’ll see.

I do it and you do it. Unfortunately, we may not recognize it. We may have even subtly passed this teaching on to those who would listen. I know I have. It goes something like this…

If you pray more, God will bless you more.

Or…

If you read your Bible more, God will bless you more.

We all do it. We think it. Be honest. Isn’t there a tinge of that somewhere inside you? I’d bet there is. (Wait, I can’t bet as a Christian; God might not bless me. Oops… there it is again!)

We think that if we do good, God will bless us more, show more favor to us, or worse, love us more. We also think that if we do bad, God will bless us less, show less favor to us, or worse, love us less.

That simply is not true. That is self-righteousness. And that is one of the things Jesus came to give us freedom from.

Jesus proclaimed in His dying words, “It is finished.”

Pastor Tullian Tchividjian says:

“God’s demand is: Be perfect.
God’s diagnosis is: Nobody’s perfect.
God’s deliverance: Jesus was perfect for you.

The flesh is always resistant to ‘It is finished.’ Always. You want to talk about the mortification of sin? Start there. Start with that part of you that resists, ‘It is finished.’ That’s unbelief.

The litmus test on whether the Gospel has been communicated in a sermon, book, blog post, or tweet is: If you don’t feel lighter or freer after it’s been communicated, it wasn’t the Gospel.”

The Gospel is still changing me.

Celebrate!

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1)

Author James Bryan Smith gives us this affirmation:

“Jesus rose from the grave. (Because I have been raised with Christ,) there is nothing I cannot rise from. Even death cannot hold me down. Nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

It’s all because of the Resurrection. As Christians, all we believe hinges on the resurrection. The Resurrection has the final word. It has the last laugh. It is our victory, our healing, and our hope. Because of the morning the tomb was found empty, we celebrate Easter.

But our celebration shouldn’t stop then and there. We should celebrate this ultimate and underlying victory every single day. Defeat is no longer an option. Death no longer has any hold. Sin no longer has any power.

Because of Jesus and our faith in Him and His resurrection, you and I are raised with Him, and as a result, you and I can rise above it all! As Smith says above, “There is nothing (we) cannot rise from!”

Celebrate!

The Power of Love

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

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

For he goes on to say:

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

“Fullness of life.” “Power.”

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

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

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

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

Eighteen inches…

My former pastor used to (and probably still does) sign his correspondence — his letters, cards, emails — “You are loved, Pastor Jeff”. I always thought that was his way of saying “I love you.” But he might also have been trying to convey a profound truth that is the one thing that has the power to transform. It is the one thing all humans long for. To know…

You are loved.

Love is the one thing that can change everything. Love never fails, as Scripture says. (1 Cor 13:8) It is one thing to love something or someone, but quite another to know you are loved. To be loved is what makes life complete, and yet even if we are blessed with a relationship that conveys human love to us, there is still an emptiness… an incompleteness that only God can fill.

The most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever should believe in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That verse tells us that God loves us. A lot. We get that. But do we really?

Until the knowledge of God’s love and acceptance of us travels the 18 inches from our heads down to our hearts, we remain the same. We may know Bible verses. We may know theology. We may be slightly smarter, but we don’t really know God’s love. Otherwise we would be changed. We wouldn’t yearn for more. We could be content in any circumstance (Phil 4:11). And most of all, we would love others differently. We wouldn’t be as hard or cold to those who are so different from us. We would be changed and it would be obvious.

In 1992, the former president of the American Psychiatric Association noted, “We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy — and the world’s getting worse.” There is an emptiness that lingers despite therapy, counselling, medication, exercise, alcohol and drugs, plastic surgery, support groups, psychic readings, and yes, Sunday school classes and sermons. The emptiness… the yearning for more… still persists for most people.

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” It’s more than a sleepy little Burt Bacharach song from the 1960s. It’s truth. And we need more than the love that we can provide one another. We need God’s love and we need it to penetrate our hearts.

The truth is that you and I are loved more than we can comprehend. It’s an unexplainable love because it’s other-worldly. It’s patient, kind, wanting-nothing-but-the-best-for-you, steadfast, never-wavering, passionate, deep love. When we receive it — fully receive it — it is fulfilling, healing, and transforming. It’s brings a completeness and wholeness that we’ve never known before and that we’ve been searching for our entire lives.

But even more than being loved, we are accepted. We are accepted as we are right now. We are accepted despite what we’ve done. We are accepted, and embraced, and God even sings over us. He smiles when he thinks of you. Is that hard for you to believe? It is for most of us. That’s why God’s love never moves that 18″ I mentioned, from our head to our heart. We somehow can’t accept it.

But believe it… because it is the truth. Just listen to the words of the prophet:

“The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
(Zephaniah 3:17, NIV)

Loving someone or something is easy. Knowing that you are loved is difficult. But it is the truth.

You are loved.

The deepest chasm…

“Religion is the human search for God; Christianity is God’s search for humans.” — James Bryan Smith

Have you ever seen the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel? I haven’t either – personally – but I’ve seen pictures. One of the amazing paintings by Michelangelo is The Creation of Adam, depicting Adam reclining and reaching toward God. God, surrounded by angels, in turn is reaching down from heaven toward Adam. They reach and reach, seemingly straining toward each other and are only separated by what seems like an inch.image

Except that inch would later become a chasm of endless width, breadth, and depth. It is filled with my deepest, darkest thoughts. It is filled with my most wicked acts and deeds. It is filled with secrets. It is filled with sin. My sin. Your sin. Our sin.

In His great love for us, God gave us the gift of eternal living through the death and life of His Son, Jesus Christ. He came to us. He wanted us. He made a way. We owe it all to Him. We didn’t go looking for Him. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. We were stuck drowning in our own chasm of darkness. It’s all His doing. We have tried reaching for Him for millenia. In one instant, He reached out for us and bridged the widest canyon in human history.

And He still is reaching for us today.

That’s why it’s called the Good News.

(Thanks to my friend Nancy Jo for posting in Facebook the short sentence at the top of this post. It’s from the book we’re all reading at church written by James Bryan Smith. Actually, over 250 people are reading from the same chapter of the same books each week for the past nine months, and that is a powerful thing. Lives have been changed… mine included. I highly recommend them. You can find them HERE.)

3 Minutes

At men’s group last night we talked about hope. Pastor Brandon challenged us to put this Scripture in action:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Peter 3:15b)

Yes, he challenged us to take our hope to a world that needs to hear about our hope and see it in action. But he asked us each to give a reason for the hope we have – in three minutes or less – right there in our group.

A couple of guys spoke up and spoke of eternal life and knowing that they will be with Jesus in heaven. When my turn came, I thought of the blessed hope, the hope of heaven, but instead, I just had to talk about freedom.

First, knowing who you are IN CHRIST is key for me. As I’ve repeated so many times, I am a child of God with Christ dwelling in me, and I live in the unshakeable Kingdom of God. As a child of God, God has adopted me into His family, He has chosen me (and you), and He loves me with an unchanging, unrelenting love. He is forever thinking of me, and, unbelievably, sings over me. There is nothing I can do to make God turn away from me or to love me any less, and thankfully, there is nothing I have to do to make God love me, or to love me more.

Secondly, Jesus lives in me. I don’t have to ask Him to come to me. He’s in me! Little by little, as I allow, He is taking over my life. And because I can rely on Him always working for my good, I can relax and let Him take charge. I can’t tell you the freedom that brings!

It’s my identity in Christ that allows me to fully trust Him moment by moment, no matter what comes my way. I realize that God’s intentions toward me are nothing but good. He wants to grow me and He knows what’s best for me. I know that in the end, God wins. He gets the final word. Justice will prevail, although probably not here on earth. But in the end, justice will prevail.

In the end, I win. I may suffer. My world may fall apart. I may get sick. I will die. But in the end, because of all that Jesus has done, I win. That makes me IN CHRIST (and ONLY in Christ) unshakeable.

Plain and simple, that gives me hope.

Are my three minutes up?

The Power of Accountability

Thank you.

“For what?”, you ask.

For holding me accountable.

“How in the heck am I doing that? What are you talking about!?!”

Let me explain.

At some point, over a year ago, I promised Donna and her daughter, Amanda, that I would pray for Donna as she began her journey through cancer treatments. We all promise to pray for folks, and if you’re like me, you’ve said the words, “I’ll be praying for you.” This time I wanted to assure her that I’d be praying every day.

So I began praying each morning and then I’d post an encouraging message borne out of my prayer time, tagging Donna and Mandy so they’d know I’m committed to pray each day. As I did this daily, God seemed to draw closer and closer. And I wanted Him more and more.

Then, to help my prayer time, I began a Bible-reading plan to read the Bible in a year. That sounds daunting, but was much easier than expected. I played an audio version and read along each day. It took about 15 minutes a day. 15 minutes. Seriously. I would then post a prayer on Facebook, birthed from my reading, tagging and encouraging Donna, Mandy, and their family. God continued to whisper encouragement into my heart and for the family, I believe, all the while, drawing me closer and closer to Him. He has been so faithful.

I finished that reading plan in January, and then I began journalling as a way to help the healing after leaving my longtime church. I would post my thoughts, prayers, and readings on Facebook as an encouragement to Donna, Mandy, and the family, tagging them each day. Journalling certainly has helped my healing, and, somehow, others like you have found some encouragement in them, too. Many have told me that I need to continue to do it daily, and so I do. I began this b
Og as a way to that.

Through writing, God has brought His love, acceptance, and healing into my life. He has shown me a new facet of His grace that I never knew before. He has filled me with a zeal for others to know His healing and wholeness. I am amazed by Him. To be frank, when I finish writing, I sometimes don’t really remember what I write. I have to look back and re-read it to remember. It’s almost as if I didn’t write it. Hmmm.

The point I’m trying to make is that what started as a commitment to pray and then progressed into a promise to not only pray daily, but also to post daily encouragement has served to draw me closer to God like never before. It is the power of accountabiltiy and commitment. It is the power of faithfulness… not mine, but God’s. He is so faithful.

I encourage you to be accountable to someone or to hold someone accountable. We all need it. We have been blessed to be a blessing. And the blessings from our faithful Father are immense.

Come near to God and he will come near to you. (James 4:8a)

Thanks for being my accountability partners on this journey of life and faith.