Resting in His Presence

A friend of mine and I are working our way through The Good and Beautiful God, a wonderful book by James Bryan Smith. It is framed around the premise that we have many false narratives about God, His character, and His nature that need to be replaced by the way Jesus saw and knew His Father. In essence, we need to renew our minds. Its subtitle is: “Falling In Love With the God Jesus Knew.” I highly recommend it.

We are on Chapter 4: God is Generous. At the end of each chapter is some homework: a “Soul Training Exercise.” The exercise for this chapter is to memorize the already familiar Psalm 23 and recite it as many times as possible throughout the week (two weeks in this case, since my friend and I meet every two weeks).

So here it is from memory:

The Lord is my shepherd.
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil,
For you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil.
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I’ve meditated on those verses, on each phrase, and in most cases, on each word. I have mental pictures of each verse or phrase, such as “green pastures” and “still waters.” Those word-pictures are easy to envision. However, as I meditate on “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies,” I have trouble with that imagery.

As I conjure up an image in my mind, it is one of confident defiance of any enemy, or of the Enemy of my soul. It is a confidence of knowing that I am a child of God, with Christ dwelling within me, and I live in the unshakeable Kingdom of God. There is nothing that the Enemy can do to ULTIMATELY defeat me. God is mine, and most importantly, I am His. No matter what lies ahead, even in the darkest valley, God is with me.

How is it that the Lamb of God, who died for me and you and who takes away the sins of the world, now is the Good Shepherd!?! My mind almost cannot comprehend that kind of love!

I can truly rest in that generous love. He DOES make me lie down in green pastures. I CAN rest beside still waters.

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.

Good News… Finally!

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3 NIV)

I can remember teaching on this verse (and on holiness) in men’s group a few years ago. In essence, I taught: “God has equipped you with everything you need to live godly lives — it says it right there! Now go out and do it! If you fail, keep trying! In fact, try harder! If you don’t think you can do it, then you’re saying that God’s Word is not true. We all know that’s not the case, so you ought to be able to live holy lives.”

Mishandling God’s truth is a scary thing, and I did it over and over again. But here’s the Good News…

Yes, he has given me everything I need for life and godliness IN CHRIST JESUS. In Christ alone, I have life! New life. Eternal life. Abundant life! I am a child of God with Christ dwelling in me and I live in the unshakeable Kingdom of God! My hope is secure because His promise is sure. His love endures forever. Hallelujah! I have life… REAL life!

In Christ alone, I have godliness. I am clothed with Christ, in the robe of His righteousness. My sins – past, present, and future – are covered by His blood. Through the Cross my punishment has been cancelled. I have been bought back from slavery by Christ. I am redeemed! I am free from guilt, shame, and condemnation! Yea! Shout for joy! I have godliness… His godliness!

I have those wonderful things in Christ alone, not because of my merit or not because I am living a good life. It is only by His divine power, given as a wonderful, amazing gift of love and grace in Christ Jesus.

As I’ve heard one author say, “Holiness is not what God wants from you; He wants His holiness in you.”

His Sweet Presence

Have you ever felt the closeness of Jesus? I mean, TRULY felt He was right there with you? Have you ever felt the sweetness of His Presence… as if He were touching you or touching the person you were talking with? Yesterday, I felt the closeness of Jesus unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

Yesterday, at Love In the Name of Christ (where I work), we gathered items to help a woman get back on her feet after spending time in a shelter. We gathered furniture, pots and pans, dishes, glasses, curtains, blankets, sheets… all coming to Love INC through generous folks like you. She was so appreciative. She had a friend with her who was providing the transportation, and as she was helping load the items for her friend into her vehicle, she mentioned she was trying to do the same thing: come out of the shelter, get an apartment, and get back on her feet as well.

Before they left, we all prayed together, hugged, and they went happily on their way, saying they would come back for the couch they couldn’t fit into the vehicle. Later that afternoon, sure enough, the friend came back, and together, we loaded the couch into her vehicle. She was alone this time, without the woman for whom she was transporting the couch. After loading it, we stopped to catch our breath, and with one simple statement, the floodgates opened.

All I said was, “So tell me about the shelter.” I was wanting to know how it was helping her and trying to discern how I could pray for her before she left. She explained the reason she was at the shelter, and all that had transpired while she resided there. She was a mother of two young children. Now without her kids, she was heartbroken without them. She had a head trauma which had rendered her incapable of defending her rights as a mom and she had lost her kids in court. Now, nearly fully recovered from the injury, caused by abuse, she was completely broken.

As I listened to her story, my heart broke, too. I was able to briefly tell her that Jesus didn’t come to help the folks who have it all together; He came to minister to the broken and battered… the forgotten and forsaken… BECAUSE THAT’S ALL THERE IS! We are all broken. We have all been battered. We have all seemingly been forgotten and forsaken by everyone we trusted, we befriended, and we believed in… except Jesus. He came for the brokenhearted, because that’s all there is.

We prayed together in the parking lot, hugged, and… she wouldn’t let go.

In that simple conversation, I have never felt closer to Jesus.

Surprise Me!

Yesterday (Saturday), I read a few posts on Facebook alluding to the fact that although “Good” Friday was dark and gloomy, Sunday was coming. The posts said that the joy of Resurrection Sunday is on the way. It’s only right around the corner and we can celebrate the eternal life found in Christ’s resurrection.

It’s easy for us to look ahead to Easter Sunday. We know the story. We know how it all turns out. We know the happy ending. But the first disciples didn’t know that.

Were they surprised? An understatement, to be sure. Shocked? That’s more like it, but certainly stunned as well. That partly described the disciples. I wonder about the gloom they must’ve experienced and the despair they must’ve felt. Scattered in Gethsemane and most watching the trial and execution from a distance, the disciples would wander the streets and hide away, together and separately, for Friday and Saturday. They would not only wander, but they would wonder… at what might have been.

What happened?!? Jesus was being proclaimed King of the Jews. The winds of change were blowing. The people were fully supportive. A revolution was brewing and they were front-and-center. It was all going so well. What happened?!?

First surprised by Jesus’ clear announcement that he would have to die, and then surprised by the Roman detachment in the garden, the disciples were overwhelmed by the announcement that Jesus was to be executed. How could this be!?!

Now reality had hit home and they were finally together. Hiding out partly from fear of reprisals from the ruling council and partly from despair, the disciples lamented their fate. What would they do now? Matthew wondered if he could be a tax collector ever again. No way, he thought. His life had been changed. Peter could always fish. But things would never be the same.

Imagine their surprise Sunday morning when they heard that the stone had been moved! Imagine their shock when Jesus body was said to be gone. What a surprise awaited them when Jesus would join them in that room!

As I sat there reading the resurrection accounts yesterday, I wondered if there is still room in my faith for Jesus to surprise me.

Could He do the unthinkable?
Could He really move that mountain?
Could He touch those who are seemingly untouchable?
Could He clean those who we would deem “unclean”?
Could He save those we fear are too far gone?
Could He open the eyes of the blind and make the lame leap like a deer?
Could He resurrect those who have been given a death sentence?
Could He bring life from death? Victory from defeat?

Sunday is here! Surprise me, Jesus!

Covered in Blood

Malchus had heard the stories. How could he NOT have heard? This man from Nazareth had done amazing things. He had fed the crowds that had surrounded him and his disciples… several thousands at once! How is that possible?!? He had healed the lame, stopped bleeding with one touch, and put his hands on the blind, only to have them open their eyes to a brand-new world.

A brand-new world indeed. The winds of change were certainly blowing and his boss, the chief priest, and all of his cohorts were trying to figure a way to keep the peace. Jews were restless, being oppressed by Roman rule; and the Roman government authorities knew it. Things were getting worse. Malchus sensed this as well. Being the chief priest’s servant, he had heard all the conversations. He had heard the grumblings. The Jews sensed that this Nazarene could be their new king, and the one that would break them free from Roman rule. Every day seemed to grow more tense. Something had to be done.

Now Malchus was face-to-face with the man himself: Jesus. Judas had done what he was paid to do, and now Malchus could arrest this man, who proclaimed peace and brought peace, seemingly everywhere he went. He was in Gethsemane, as expected. What he didn’t expect was what happened next.

Jesus asked, “Who are you looking for?”
Malchus answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Jesus replied, “I am.”

With those words, everyone in the garden that night was swept off their feet, as if the force of gravity had increased a hundredfold and a hurricane had hit, all at the same time. The only One left standing was Jesus. After what seemed like minutes, those present nervously gathered themselves, not sure what was going to happen next.

What happened next was chaos. As the Roman detachment advanced to seize Jesus, most of Jesus disciples retreated. Except Peter. Peter, seized with indignation, grabbed a sword from one of the Roman soldiers and swung wildly at anyone in armor, and just missed cutting off someone’s head. It had been a glancing blow, but on the ground screaming was Malchus, bleeding profusely. On the ground as well was Malchus’ ear.

The Man of Peace, later to be called the Prince of Peace, lifted his hand and immediately everyone stopped, likely fearing something else or Someone else knocking them off their feet again. After rebuking his own disciple, he reached for his enemy, Malchus. In one motion, Jesus reached for the ear and the man, and when removing his hand, the man and the ear were one again.

Malchus rose to his feet, not sure he believed what just happened. Jesus hand was still on Malchus’ cheek, and as Malchus looked into his eyes, all he could see was… love. How was this possible!?! How was it possible that, first, my ear has been reattached!?! And how is it possible that the man I am arresting looks in my eyes with such love?!? Surely he is not of this world.

As Jesus pulls his hand away from Malchus’ cheek, it is covered with Malchus’ blood. How ironic. Soon Malchus would witness the crucifixion of this man. Soon Malchus would witness more love than he’d ever seen before. Soon Malchus would believe.

And soon Malchus would be covered by the blood of Jesus.

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.


And now we all have a place at the table.

Wednesday: A Lull

After the confrontations earlier in the week with the chief priests and religious leaders, it would seem that Wednesday brought a lull. Jesus and his disciples retreated to Bethany, while the religious leaders devised their scheme to seize Jesus quietly, behind the scenes, so to avoid a public uproar. They gather a group of loyal traditionalists and one of Jesus’ followers. It would require a bribe and might require force, so they would plan to take clubs and swords, just in case. But now the plan was in place.

Meanwhile, in Bethany, Jesus relaxed for dinner at the home of Simon, who was a leper. The disciples had seen this before: Jesus socializing with those on the margin of society, the outcast, the “unclean” (like a leper), the afflicted, the sick, the forgotten. Simon was no different. He was known as “Simon the leper.” That was who he was. That was his identity. Simon the leper. He had heard that said over and over.That was who he was, at least BEFORE his time spent with Jesus.

Before Jesus cleansed me, I could’ve had labels like Simon. “Druggie”, “Misfit”, “Loser”, “Alcoholic”… that would’ve been me. Those would’ve been my labels. That was said about me. “What a shame. What a waste. He had so much potential.” That’s what was whispered. That was my identity. That’s who I was. I heard the whispers, whether they were audible or not. Looking for answers , like so many, I turned to more self-medication.

The medication took many forms. Looking for something or someone to fill the seemingly unquenchable void, I looked everywhere and tried everything. Drugs and drink. Sex and toys. Nothing changed my identity; they only changed my consciousness.

Then Jesus came to my home, so to speak, as he came to Simon’s. We don’t know how Simon’s life was changed by Jesus sharing a table with him. In fact, we lose sight of Simon. Jesus’ visit to his home, astounding in itself, is overshadowed by what takes place inside. While inside, Mary, the sister of the resurrected Lazarus, anoints Jesus body, from head to toe, with expensive nard, worth a year’s wages.

Scripture never says, but Simon undoubtedly sees this act of worship and begins to understand how this woman can give up what, most likely, was her only financial security. Jesus did for her (and her family) what no one else could do. Simon, most likely, understood that; or he soon would. He would no longer be known by his old label. The old was gone. The new had come. He, most likely, was now “Simon the follower.” Jesus did for Simon what no one else could do.

I suspect his new labels are: “Loved.” “Accepted.” “Healed” “Whole.”

New labels and a new life.

For Simon… and me.

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!

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!”