I just can’t get past it…

There is something in Christianity I can’t get past. It’s something I’ve discovered fairly recently and I just can’t stop thinking about it; I just can’t get past it. I’m sure my wife is tired of me talking about it, because it dominates my thoughts. Even my friends have noticed my obsession with it. Maybe you have, too.

It’s the love of God.

“Oh, brother,” you think, “Here we go again. I know about the love of God already. After all, John 3:16 says, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son..’. I know that. That’s Christianity 101.”

Yes, that’s probably the most famous and well-known verse in the Bible. Yes, you probably know that verse by heart. But do you really know the depths of God’s love? Do you really understand what it means for you everyday? Do you know why the Gospel is really Good News?

I think not. Well, at least some of you reading don’t. Because if you REALLY understood the love of God, it would be a game-changer for you. (And I see a lot of sour-faced, defeated people out there who claim to know Jesus and the love of God.)

First, the love of God is not the kind of love you and I are used to. It’s not based on our performance, our attitudes, our actions or behaviors. God loves us the same today as He did yesterday… and the day before… and the day before that. He knows all about the bitterness you still hold on to. He knows all about the lies you told last week. He knows all about your pitiful prayer life and the fact that you don’t read your Bible as you should. And He still loves you with a dance-on-the-rooftops, swing-on-the-chandelier-kind-of-love! He sings over you, Scripture says. Despite all your daily screw-ups, failures, blunders and mistakes, He loves you the same as the day you were born. Unbelievably, He loves you and I the same as He loves super-saints like Billy Graham or Mother Teresa.

In turn, this means that He won’t love you more if you become a super-saint yourself. He doesn’t love you more for reading your Bible two hours every day and spending two hours in your prayer closet each day, although you may get to know Him better. It’s startling to think about, but even though you may do that, He doesn’t love you more than He does any terrorist or pedophile or murderer.

For me, this kind of love ends all my “checklist religion”. It is (or should be) the end of performance-based living, which dominates our world, and dominates how we give and receive love. We love those who love us in return. We love those who do nice things for us. But God, while He wasn’t even on our minds at all… while we were living our own selfish lives… while we even cursed His Name… loved us and died for us. In doing so, He wiped the slate clean… and He continues to wipe the slate clean – with the blood of Jesus – every day. Since my life is “hidden” with His, my soul is secure. I don’t have to strive and strive and strive to earn God’s love, His favor, His gifts, or His blessing. I have Him. And He is all I need.

Lastly, this is amazing, Good News! If you were to ask someone what the Gospel is all about, they might reply that Jesus died for our sins and now we have eternal life. Yes, but that’s only scratching the surface. Eternal life is not just life after death.

It’s eternal living, too. The love of God doesn’t end with sending His Son to the Cross. While it’s true, that is where the amazing grace of God is discovered, His love endures through all generations. He loves you as much right now as He did when Jesus went to the Cross. What this means is that He is with you right now! He knows what you’re going through right now. And He is working things out for your good right now, even though you may not think so. Even if you are suffering right now, He promises to be with you through it all and turn it into something that makes you more like Christ, giving Him resounding glory.

Not only that, but in the end, you, I, and Christ WIN. Evil will be defeated. There will be no more pain or sorrow, and God Himself will wipe away our tears. This is where Christian hope comes from. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky, wishful-thinking kind of hope. It’s a sure thing, a certainty, and Rock-solid. It’s the hope of a better tomorrow, no matter what today looks like. We are living in the unshakeable Kingdom of God!

All because of the love of God. Good News indeed!

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

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!

Simplicity.

My mornings begin similarly each day. Make coffee and oatmeal. Walk my dog Bella. Read.

I don’t read much. I might read a little Scripture. I might read a few paragraphs from a book I’m working through. I don’t read novels. I read in the morning to set my thoughts and heart on God.

This morning, I read like I always do. I love James Bryan Smith. After reading his trilogy of sorts: The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community, I was hungry for more.

I found Embracing the Love of God, which, like his previous books, are about replacing the narratives we naturally repeat to ourselves with God’s narratives. As Joyce Meyer would say, we have a lot of “stinkin’ thinkin'” going on, and we need to reverse that trend by renewing our minds with God’s Word, His truth, and His promises.

To be frank, I didn’t get very far in my reading. After skimming a couple of pages, I read the header: “The Secret of a Blessed Life.” 99 out of 100 people will read on to find out this “secret”, and being in that group, I read on. I didn’t have to read very far.

“God with us. This is the secret of the blessed life.”

I stopped there. Wow. Simplicity has its beauty… and so does truth.

Smith goes onto to say that this is what David the psalmist meant in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

In other words, I have God with me and I don’t need anything else. He provides. He protects. He is wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, and He is right here with me. Better yet, He is inside me! As I get out of the way and yield to Him, He makes Himself more and more known, evident, and eventually, obvious in my life… both to me and to those around me. He makes Jesus known through me. He is all I need.

Blessings come in many forms, but the essence (and source) of blessing is God Himself. Immanuel. God with us.

Blessed indeed.

I am WITH YOU and will watch over you wherever you go (Genesis 28:15a)

And surely I am WITH YOU always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20b)

All that really matters…

“What really matters is what God says about us. What would it matter if a thousand people bowed before us and praised our name if God condemned us? What would it matter if ten thousand people reviled and cursed us if God accepted us and loved us? We have already been accepted by the one whose acceptance is all that really matters.”
— James Bryan Smith, Embracing the Love of God

I find myself dependent on the approval and acceptance of others, from my friends and co-workers to my wonderful wife, Sharon. I may say outwardly that I don’t care what others think, but my thoughts and actions say otherwise. Approval addiction is what some would call it. I’m not sure where this comes from… early childhood probably.

But what James Bryan Smith is getting at in this passage and in this book is that knowing — really knowing — that God loves you and me and accepts you and me, JUST AS WE ARE (before we shape up, improve, get our act together, kick our bad habits, or clean up)… this love and acceptance can (and should) profoundly transform us. When it really gets deep down inside us that you and I are truly God’s “beloved” as His Word says over and over, we are changed. This is all that matters.

We then can accept ourselves as we are. We no longer are perfectionists, aggravated and disturbed by our weaknesses and flaws, our shortcomings and warts, and our repeated failures. We are loved and accepted. That’s all that really matters. We all want to be loved and accepted by others, but we are no longer ruled by it. Whatever we lack from others, God gladly, freely, and overwhelmingly makes up for. His love is all that really matters.

Knowing that God loves and accepts us, as we are right now, allows us to love and accept others, with all their flaws and failures. We don’t have to accept their behavior, but God’s love for us allows us to accept and love others as they are right now. We are able to give grace to others because we have received it so abundantly.

Lastly, God’s nearly unbelievable acceptance produces in me and in you an unexplainable desire for holiness. It is not a matter of being more pious, but a desire for more of God. The former leads to self-righteousness; the latter to His righteousness. This wonderful love, acceptance, and grace does not lead to loose living as a license to sin, but it is a springboard to the life of love and freedom that God desires for each one of us.

It is abundant life. It is eternal living.

His love and acceptance… all that really matters.

Divine Coincidence?

As many of you know, I’ve been reading a series of books by James Bryan Smith. First, The Good and Beautiful God; next, The Good and Beautiful Life; lastly, The Good and Beautiful Community. Everyone at Church on the Hill has been reading these books, as Pastor Brandon has been preaching from them in a nine-month series entitled “The Disciple’s Pathway”. All the small groups are working through them in unison as well. The series has had a tremendous impact on my life and I heartily recommend them.

I’ve enjoyed them so much that I’ve searched out more books by the same author and I’ve found two more: Embracing the Love of God, and a piece of fiction, Room of Marvels. I’m reading these two books a little bit each day.

James Bryan Smith is a chaplain and theology professor at Friends University in Kansas. He was a close personal friend of singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, who died in an auto accident in 1997. In fact, when Rich was at Friends University, he spent two years living in a makeshift apartment in Smith’s attic. The two became very close friends.

The book, Room of Marvels, chronicles a period of time in the life of a man who is a spiritual leader in his church and his community, but who has reached burnout and despair after the death of his toddler-aged daughter, his mother, and his best friend in an auto accident — all in a span of a couple of months. After reading a short while, it seems to be more of an auto-biographical piece of fiction than anything else, recounting Smith’s own struggles in life, and with death and tragedy.

This past week, God has brought a tremendous intersection of… well, I don’t even know what to call it. I’ve been training a gentleman named Tom, who answered a Craigslist Help-Wanted ad to do some property evaluations. We’ve spent several hours together this past week, and one thing led to another, and I asked him about his background – where he went to school and so forth.

He answered, “I went to Friends University.”
“Huh?!? What? Really?” I replied.
“Yep.”
“Did you know… do you know… of an author, a teacher/professor named James Bryan Smith?”
“Well, there was a chaplain by the name of Jim Smith.”
“Oh my goodness.”
“And he was best friends with Rich Mullins when he died in that car wreck.”
“Yes! Yes!”
“Yeah, I knew Rich, too. That was so tragic. In fact, I played with Rich in the last concert he played at Friends.”
“Wow,” was about all I could mutter, trying to figure out what God was trying to do here.

I explained to him all I’ve been reading, and he didn’t realize “Jim” Smith was such a respected and prolific author. We finished our work together that day and I mentioned that I didn’t want to miss what God was trying to do or trying to teach me with this divine “coincidence”. Tom then said, “It probably is more for me than for you.” Not knowing what to say, I just let that hang there in the air, and we continued to finish up the work for the day.

The next day, in the midst of our work, I mentioned that we should have coffee together, and he eagerly agreed. We meet a little later today.

I’ve been in prayer ever since we agreed to meet, using the prayer my friend Donna taught me this week: “I want your will, God. Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.” I don’t know what to expect or where this might lead but I’m going in with my eyes and ears wide open.

Stay tuned.

“While we were…”

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

I am constantly amazed at that verse. “While I was a sinner…” And I think back to my days B.C…. before Christ. I think of all the things I did in living to please myself. I was so selfish. I was despicable. I hurt many people in many ways. I did terrible things.

And yet Christ died for me… while I was a sinner. Yes, I know it was thousands of years before I was born, but since time is eternal to God and He can see the eternal past and the eternal future, he could see me getting drunk, forgetting where I parked my car, passing out with my clothes on, and yet He died for me! Amazing!

And because of time-eternal, He can see me now, still a sinner (although now not a slave to sin) desperate for His grace to even take another step. He sees me struggling and failing, time after time, in word, in thought, or in deed. “While I was a sinner…”, God demonstrated his love, Scripture says. He loved me first. And He still loves me first.

James Bryan Smith says in his book, Embracing the Love of God:

“God does not love. God IS love. (1 John 4:16) I am capable of loving but I am also capable of not loving. That cannot be said about God. God cannot stop loving, because love is God’s nature.”

If I blow it again… if I fail for the 23rd time (or the 93rd time) at the same thing… God does not stop loving me. In fact, God loved me first and continues to love me first (1 John 4:19). He loves me. He accepts me. He smiles when he looks at me (Numbers 6:26) and thinks about me. I am the apple of his eye. (Psalm 17:8) And as I’ve said so many times before, he takes great delight in me and even sings over me (Zephaniah 3:17).

But (obviously) it’s not just me. “While WE were still sinners…” the verse says, “God demonstrated his own love for us.”

It’s a promise for all of us.

Forgiven much…

In Chapter 5 of his book, The Good and Beautiful Community, James Bryan Smith talks about “The Reconciling Community”, one which forgives readily and lives healed, healthy lives. He expounds on The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

You may know the story: The servant has a huge debt that he owes his master, and the master tells him that he’s going to lock up the servant and his entire family until he can pay the debt. But the servant pleads for mercy and the master relents and gives him more than he deserves: freedom. Free from debt and freedom from being a servant any longer.

Then the forgiven servant immediately goes to someone who owes him money and, instead of paying it forward, he demands repayment. The master hears of this atrocity and brings the forgiven servant back, reprimands him and throws him and his family back in jail to be tortured. The lesson is simple for us: Because we have been forgiven, we should forgive. (See Matthew 18:21-35)

But James Bryan Smith points out two things:

First, we don’t forgive to feel better. We are told that if we would just forgive, it would help us heal. But forgiveness is not therapy. In some situations, it seems impossible to forgive. That’s because it is — in our own power. We can’t will ourselves to forgive.

Because of the work on The Cross, we have been healed. We have been forgiven of our sins and all the collateral damage that sin brought into our lives. From that healing – in Christ – we have the power to forgive. We forgive from our healed hearts. We don’t forgive to be healed. We are healed and therefore, have the power to forgive.

His second point is where the healing comes from, at least for me. In the story above, the unmerciful servant was originally forgiven a HUGE debt. He could have worked the rest of his life and still not paid the debt. The debt was huge and he got more than the debt being wiped clean… he and his family were given their freedom!

In comparison, the debt of the one who owed this servant money was miniscule. James Bryan Smith points out that the first debt is over 600,000 times larger than the smaller debt.

Meditate on that for a moment. The things that we have been forgiven of (and that we will be forgiven of in our lifetime) are overwhelmingly huge. As James Bryan Smith says, “The point is clear: we have forgiven for so much more than we will ever be called on to forgive.” But not only has the slate been wiped clean, we get the Kingdom, too!

This is not be glossed over. This is a point to be pondered and internalized. And this is where the power to forgive comes from. As we get this narrative deep down within us, we receive healing and out of that healing, we find the power in Christ to forgive.

This does not minimize the deplorable things that have been done to you and me, whether it be adultery, sexual abuse, rape, or even the murder of family or friends. But as you and I meditate on how much we have been forgiven, we find the grace we need to forgive.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

It really IS finished!

Do you know that God holds nothing against you? Maybe this is old news to you. For me, this is a revolutionary idea.

For me, I was constantly trying to get back into God’s good graces, like I would any other relationship from childhood to adulthood. Addicted to the approval from others, I would always try to earn it. Do enough and I was good; not do enough (or worse, rebel), and I would have to work to get myself back into favor. This process carried over into my relationship with God, although I never really realized it until a few months ago. I talked about God’s grace and was certainly thankful for His forgiveness, but every time I screwed up, I would work at getting back to where I need to be. Pray more, read more, serve more. It was subtle, but it was – subconsciously – my mantra. “I really would need to put my spiritual life ‘on the front burner'” or feel like “I need ‘to step it up’ in my spiritual life.” These would be my thoughts. Maybe you’ve had them too.

Now, I have come to realize that Jesus’ words are really true. “It is finished” (John 19:30) applies not only to Jesus’ lifelong journey to the Cross, or to the fact that the requirements of the Law had been fulfilled, but also that all work has been finished to bring you and I back to God. We can now come to God without fear or worry of punishment. We don’t have to work to get back into God’s good graces. Listen to these words by the apostle Paul:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, NO LONGER COUNTING PEOPLE’S SINS AGAINST THEM. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19, NLT, MY EMPHASIS)

James Bryan Smith, author of The Good and Beautiful Community says:

“This is a clear explanation of the finality of the cross. God – in Christ – is not counting our sins against us. God stopped counting and apparently never took it back up. God is no longer dealing with us on the basis of our sins but of our faith. Jesus died for all the sins of all the people for all time — and that means you.”

Do see why Paul calls it a “wonderful message of reconciliation”? Do you see why it’s called the Good News!?!

It really IS finished!

Deal-breakers?

In men’s group last night, we talked about what a loving community of Jesus-followers looks like. We talked extensively about the differences between denominations, and the pitiful, trivial reasons we aren’t unified as one Body of Christ. If it weren’t so sad, it would be laughable.

The question to ask when deciding to partner with others from another denomination is, “Do they believe in Jesus Christ and him crucified as the Son of God?” That is the “essential” question as author James Bryan Smith says in The Good and Beautiful Community.

Could all our others differences be “non-essentials?”

Smith goes on to say, “The essential is our identity as people in whom Christ dwells. Tolerance is not our primary aim; nor is equality. Our highest aim is love. Our primary focus is on Christ as Lord.”

We will always have differences in doctrine and methodology. We will always have differences in style, how we dress, what we sing, and how we worship our God. Yes, we have major differences. But as Pastor Brandon said last night, “Are they deal-breakers?”

James Bryan Smith says:

“I am not liberal and I am not conservative. I am an apprentice of Jesus. I am simply trying to discern that which that which is essential and that which is non-essential. For me, the basic teaching found in the creeds (the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed) is essential. Everything else is non-essential. Not unimportant, just not important enough for me to divide from those who share the same belief in the essentials.”

For me, this rocks my world. It has me re-examining my “essentials” and my “non-essentials.” I wonder how different the Body of Christ – The Church – would look if we all did the same. I wonder if the watching world would respond differently to the Good News.

There are important differences, to be sure. Each must decide what is essential and non-essential. But that shouldn’t stop us from our highest aim: love.

Love never fails.

Drinking Deeply

As I’ve mentioned several times, our church is working it’s way through a series of books by James Bryan Smith. We just finished The Good and Beautiful Life, and we are moving on to the last in the series, entitled The Good and Beautiful Community. I heartily recommend each book. They are life-changing.

The first book in the series is called The Good and Beautiful God, and it is one that God has used most to turn my life around. The basis for the books is replacing the false narratives of the world with the words of truth that Jesus said and taught. In The Good and Beautiful Life, the author helps you replace the false narratives about God that you and I have imbedded deep within us with the words Jesus taught about His Father.

For instance, ever since we were children, we were taught that you get what you earn. If you work hard, you will be rewarded. This continues on throughout our young lives into adulthood as we are taught that working hard, and getting good grades, will earn us favor with our teachers, and later with colleges and universities. We are constantly graded and evaluated. In adulthood, we are given periodic performance evaluations at work. It goes on throughout our lives.

It is not hard to project this cyclical characteristic upon God. We do it without even thinking. There are countless pulpits which say, in essence, “God is good, you are bad, try harder” or “God is good. Why isn’t He good to you? You must not have enough faith. You must not be believing. There must be something that you’re doing that’s blocking God’s favor in your life.” As we hear those messages, we fall into the trap of trying to earn God’s favor. Is any of this ringing true with you?

The Good News is that our heavenly Father is a generous God who longs to show you His love and grace. He is not a respecter of persons. There is nothing you can do to earn His favor and love, or do to earn MORE of His love and favor. It is unmerited. It is underserved. But He longs to pour it out on us anyway.

In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 20), Jesus tells the story of a landowner who pays all the workers a day’s wage, no matter when they showed up for work. And the message that we hear is this: “No matter when you accept Jesus as your Savior, you get into heaven. Even death-bed confessions receive the same reward as the lifelong saint.”

But don’t miss these messages: First, our God is a generous God, and He longs to be generous. The wages paid had nothing to do with how long or hard the worker labored in the field. The wages paid were solely a reflection of the generosity and goodness of the employer.

The “wages” we receive from God, His blessings, His rewards, His favor, His healing, and even His power have nothing to do with us or anything we’ve done as Christ-followers. It has EVERYTHING to do with what’s already been done for us. Whatever we receive, it is a reflection of the Father’s generosity and goodness. It is all received by grace.

To some, this will rub the wrong way. They’ll say, there’s not enough talk about sin and its consequences. They’ll say that I need to mention Hell and punishment. There’s not enough talk about our part: prayer, fasting, serving, etc. Perhaps. But those that lean that way may be more apt to be rule-keepers and rule-makers, looking to measure and evaluate their own performance and the performance of those around them. This is the law. The law brings death, but the grace that gives freedom brings life.

I think what makes this book so attractive and so encouraging is that it has made the Gospel real to me again. The Gospel really is Good News! It is truth and life. Jesus said that I should come and drink. I have. It is so refreshing! I want others that are walking in a dry and dusty land to drink deeply, too.

As Jesus said, you will never thirst again!