The Worst

Do you remember Jim Bakker? Of course you do. To be honest, I had to look up how he had “fallen from grace.” It was a sex scandal and accounting fraud that led to his imprisonment and divorce, according to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge – ha!). He is now out of prison, remarried, and pursuing ministry. He is being used by God again.

I recently heard of a pastor preaching a sermon entitled, “I am Jim Bakker.” In his sermon, he detailed, to the horror of his wife, kids, and congregation, how sinful he truly was. He was not guilty of the infamous sins that Jim Bakker was imprisoned and “defrocked” for, but, in no uncertain terms, let it be known how sinful he was — in word, thought, and deed.

The apostle Paul did the same thing in an even more open forum, the Bible. He is, from the grave, constantly reminding us of who he was and what he had done. He persecuted Christians, leading to their imprisonment and death. He was a not-so-innocent bystander at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58). He was a murderer or at least an accomplice.

He reminds us of this in his first letter to his mentee, Timothy:

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

The writer of almost half of the New Testament tells us how bad he is. “The worst,” he says.

Somehow, I think we ALL can say that. I know I can. When faced with the holiness of God, I know I can call myself a sinful man. If you only knew. Like Paul and like that pastor who preached the sermon, I can declare that I am a sinner. Everyday. Plain and simple. Cut and dried.

But Paul continues and thankfully offers hope and shows us our purpose at the same time. He continues:

“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (v.16)

God wants to use me and you to show His love, patience, and glory. He uses our brokenness to minister to others. What the enemy means to destroy us, God can and does redeem for His glory! I’ve seen this in my own life and in lives around me more times than I can count.

In a recent interview, Jim Bakker said:

“I’m glad it all happened. Now I can go anywhere and be with anybody in the whole world, and there are no raised eyebrows. I can go into any bar — any social circle of outcasts — and nobody tells me that I ought to be careful because ’people will talk’ and that I will ’hurt my reputation.’ People have already talked, and I don’t have any reputation to hurt. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m free!”

That’s what walking in the light does. When we bring our secrets out in the open for God to see, we can walk in freedom. When we admit that we’re no better than the next person, we don’t need to point out what the next person did. There are no more masks. No more pretending to be good. We can praise God and His Good News. We can thank Him that He was the only Good One. We can praise Him for what He’s done for us.

And we can join the apostle Paul when he continues in the next verse, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (v.17)

Yes. Amen!

God Will Never Give Up On You

I recently saw this photo posted on Facebook and as I read the words and thought about it, the more and more I disagreed with those words. Although I am so thankful for my Savior and the work done on the imageCross, and know that I did nothing to deserve it, my disagreement with those words stem from how I now think of God.

You see, I spent years and years thinking that the more I did for God, the more pleased He would be with me. I think I projected what I thought about my earthly father upon my Heavenly Father. Achievement was highly valued in my family. I discovered this growing up, especially when I fell short of expectations or failed. I felt the displeasure when I failed and I felt the comparisons to the achievements of my older brothers. Even as a young boy, I grew to fear the anger and wrath of my father. Don’t get me wrong: He was an excellent provider for my family and taught a work ethic that seems to be lost on later generations. My point is: I projected these feelings upon my Heavenly Father; I felt the same way toward God. The more I prayed, studied my Bible, served others, and worked for God, the more pleasing I thought I was to God. I would suspect that I’m not alone in feeling that way.

If you or I feel that God could give up on us, based on what we’ve done (or not done), then we must not have faith that what God – through Christ – accomplished on the Cross was sufficient or that His grace is enough. If you or I feel that God could give up on us, then it says volumes about how we view God.

I (recently) discovered that God’s love IN NO WAY depends on me. His love was a “one-way” transaction, resulting in my salvation, deliverance, healing, and wholeness. That heart-knowledge has brought me tremendous freedom. That is what the Gospel does.

Now I am deeply rooted in God’s love, knowing that nothing can separate me from that love (Romans 8:38-39) and knowing that no one or nothing can snatch me from His hand (John 10:1-18; 27-30). There is nothing I can do to make God love me any less than He does right now or did when Jesus hung on the Cross. God delights in me, not because of what I do or don’t do, but simply because of who He is and the fact that now, by faith, I am His. I didn’t do anything to earn His love or delight, nor can I do anything to make him shun me. He loves me, not as I love, but as He is, because He is love.

He won’t give up on me (or you, Christian) because that is not His nature or character. His love is eternal. His love is unfailing. His love is enduring. His love never fails. (1 Cor 13:8)

If you are His, God will never give up on you.

God Isn’t Mad at You

God is not mad at you.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied,” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ ” (Matthew 22:36-37)

There it is: The greatest commandment is to love God with all that we are. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t come naturally for me. I suspect that it doesn’t come naturally for most. Since it doesn’t come naturally, I guess I’ll just be obedient and muster up some love for God because that’s what I’m supposed to do.

No. That’s not it at all. We can’t just muster up love… for God, for our spouse, or for our enemies (as Jesus tells us to do as well). No, we love because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19) We can respond with love for God when we realize how much He loves us and delights in us.

James Bryan Smith states in his book, The Good and Beautiful God:

“What if God… responds to us with absolute delight regardless of how we look or feel, or what we have or have not done? The only possible response would be to feel ‘absolute delight’ in return. If God is delighted in me — regardless of my performance -— then my immediate response is to feel love in return. And in so doing, I fulfill the greatest commandment.”

So many Christians are taught that God responds to us by how we respond to God. That is, many of us are taught that God will be more pleased with us if we would pray more, read our Bibles more, and serve more. Throw in a little fasting on the side, and you’ll have the favor of God.

But that is not the generous, giving, gracious God that Jesus tells us about. Remember the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard? (Matthew 20:1-15) No matter when they were hired, they received the standard wage. It didn’t depend on how long or hard they worked; they all received the same wage from their generous employer. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God operates the same way.

Smith goes on to say:

“Two of the most important verses in the Bible, in my opinion, are 1 John 4:10-11. They are the verses that began my own transformation by the renewing of my mind: ‘This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.’ These verses became the bedrock of my dominant narrative about God. Our love for God does not determine God’s attitude toward us. God loves us first, and we see that clearly in God’s Son offering his life in order to reconcile us to God. And that love propels me to love God and others in return.”

God is not mad at you.

Seated at the Table

It was Thursday. The disciples of Jesus hurried back to Jerusalem from Bethany. They were instructed by their teacher what to do to prepare their Passover meal tonight. They obediently went to the house Jesus had described, gave instructions to the home’s owner, who somehow knew their plans, and prepared the upstairs room for what was to be their final meal together.

As Matthew sat at the table that evening, his thoughts returned to an earlier time when he and Jesus had shared a meal together. Jesus had been leading his entourage through town when they came upon Matthew manning his customary station — his tax collector’s booth. Those passing through grudgingly pay their tax. They curse, they scowl, and some even spit in the direction of this man who was doing his job and trying to make a living. Granted, he had skimmed some off the top to give himself and his family a little extra, but who hasn’t done that?!? It’s all relative, isn’t it?

But as Jesus came by his booth that day, there was something in Jesus’ face… something in his countenance… something in his eyes… that was different. He was used to seeing hatred and disdain. What was he seeing?

As Matthew sat at the table in the upper room, laughing with his closest friends that night, he flashed back to his first meal shared with Jesus. He was laughing with his closest friends that evening, too, but they were friends more out of necessity than anything else. His closest friends then were his tax-collecting associates and other riff-raff; no one else would dare be seen with him. He was a cheating thief, stealing the working man’s well-earned wages.

Now, as he looked around the room, he reflected on those seated with him tonight. Surveying the room, the men here were not much different from those seated at that first meal with Jesus. These were everyday men with checkered pasts, just like his. There was nothing special about any of them except that they were called by the Man who they now knew to be what his people, the Jews, had been looking toward for hundreds of years: The Messiah, the One who would deliver His people. Just how that would unfold, he was not yet sure, although Jesus was speaking with less riddles that ever before.

Matthew’s life with Jesus began at a table filled with sinners, and now three years later, as he looked around this table, not much had changed… except Matthew’s understanding of who fit under that label.

And looking around the room, he fixed his eyes on Jesus, later to be called “the Author and Perfecter” of his faith. He knew why Jesus would be called that. And now he knew what was different in Jesus eyes that day. Now he knew what he saw.

Love.

And now we all have a place at the table.

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!”

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.