Messy but Magnificent

One of the pastors that I work with at Grace recently shared with me a theme for one of her upcoming ministry areas in 2019 and it was so good that I have to share it with you. Her inspired ministry theme is messy but magnificent.

Don’t you love it? That is both who and what we are. We are messy but magnificent, broken but beautiful, vessels of clay but possessing the brilliance of heaven. When God’s grace reached us and we responded to the Holy Spirit’s work in our life, He began sculpting a masterpiece out of the mess and the murkiness of our personal histories.

As a pastor, I have witnessed this more times than I can count. I have seen wounded people begin to heal people. I have seen fragile people become unshakably strong, and I have seen extremely gifted people add humility and grace to the strength and power of their gifts. It has been an amazing thing to behold, and I am sure I will see it again in 2019.

The Apostle Paul described it this way: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Let’s swap prayers for each other in 2019. Let’s pray that wherever our lives feel messy or out of control, God’s magnificence would shine through, bringing life, hope, brilliance, and love to the world around us.

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You will never get snared if you do not stray

You have certainly discovered how dangerous life can be right? Surely, by this point in your story, you have faced both demons and human treachery. You have had your back against some walls, and you have found ways to break through other ones. You have won and you have been defeated. You have been both elated and filled with despair. You have made good decisions that moved you forward like the ladder square in the children’s Chutes and Ladders game, and you have made other decisions that made you slip back to square one.

You have fought for the liberation of people’s hearts, and you have been awarded both trophies and scars. There is quite a bit at stake in this faith life of ours.

Sometimes, in our dizzying journeys through life the wisest counsel is the simplest. Indeed, true wisdom is usually not profound; it is so painfully obvious that anyone could dispense it. The challenge is in following it.

Psalm 119:110 presents wisdom that is powerful enough to save your life, and yet it is simple enough for a child to understand. It says, “The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts.” Said differently, you will never get snared if you do not stray.

It’s true isn’t it? If we stick to our commitments…if we honor our promises…if we do what is right…if we retain our integrity at all costs, we won’t get snared. The snares are set a half step outside of the right path, and if we stick to the path we will avoid nearly all of them.

Are you on your right path today, or are you straying from it? If you are straying, beware of snares. They will take you out, and you will be remembered for your failure, instead of your exploits. It may seem difficult to walk the right path, but it will cost you vastly less than your forays off the path will.

Now, if you have strayed, and if you have been snared there is still good news. There is a way back! You won’t always be colored by your failure, and you will be able to start again. Lamentations 3:40 says, “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.” Psalm 119:59-60 says, “I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands.”

Let’s stay on the path. Let’s pile up victory after victory in our life of faith. Then let’s cross the finish line together with our consciences clean and our heads held high.

A ‘storied’ people

Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story.” (Psalm 107:2)

In your readings through the Old and New Testaments, do you ever marvel at the constant, even redundant, telling of Israel’s story? Doesn’t it seem like the biblical writers are always rehearsing Israel’s formation, bondage, rescue, decline, and promised renewal?

It is sort of like shampoo instructions on an endless loop: wash, rinse, repeat.

Why is that? Why is the rehearsal of a story–a history–so important? And do you think it might be equally important for us?

There is power in story, in remembering where we have been and where God has brought us. Although it might get tedious to constantly be reminded how God parted a Red Sea for Israel on their way out of Egypt, that story never loses its potency. It is a constant, real-time reminder that God can still split chaos and lead us safely through to the other side.

We are a ‘storied’ people. We have a history and a life with God. And when we remember what God did back then, it can bolster our confidence for today. Remembering yesterday’s rescues, prepares us for glorious victories in tomorrow’s looming battles.

The old hymn, Blessed Assurance, declares, “This is my story, this is my song…” and it is powerful. We have a story to tell, a song to sing. We are a storied people, and perhaps we should follow Scripture’s lead and spend more time remembering it. It will bolster our courage and vivify our souls when we do.

Let’s do it this week as we pause for our Thanksgiving celebrations; let’s let our expressions of thanks become a re-telling of stories that become predictors of better futures.

Love built this

There are two things happening in and through your life, whether you realize it or not: you are becoming what you love, and you are building what you love.

It is an undeniable fact of life that we humans begin to resemble what we love. If we love kindness and honor and courage, we begin to resemble those things. Conversely, if we love ego gratification or winning at all costs, those things begin to shape us too.

We look like our gaze. We look like our passions. Counselors and coaches tell us that in five years we will look the composite of our closest current relationships. For better or worse, love sculpts, shapes, and defines us.

Additionally, love determines what we build. Regardless of who or what we say we love, the reality of our love will be found in what we spend time building. I might say that I love certain people, but if I never invest or build into their lives, my words of love ring hollow. I might say I love my loved ones, but if they routinely get my emotional leftovers while everyone else in my life gets my best efforts, then I might not love them as much as I say I do.

It is fascinating to consider what the Scriptures say about what Jesus loved. He loved the rich, young ruler (Mark 10:21). He loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (John 11:5). He loved His followers (John 13:1). He even loved the whole world (John 3:16). Consequently, when it came time for building, His words were to be expected, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).

Jesus loves people, so He builds a church with the intention to serve them.

What do we look like? What are we building? And whom do we really love? At the end of my life, I want to be proud of the things I have built. I want to honestly and gratefully say, “Love built this.” What about you?

Won’t Becomes Can’t

Anne Frank, whose Holocaust diary was posthumously published as the famed Diary of a Young Girl, stated, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. We first make our choices. Then our choices make us.” Miss Frank was a mere fifteen years old when she died in a concentration camp and yet her writings possess a wisdom that continues throughout history.

Consider those words again. We first make our choices. Then our choices make us.

Endowed with free will, we humans have the ability to obey or disobey God. That choice is our right. However, as young Anne—and philosophers through the ages—understood, every choice that we make carries an accompanying consequence, and eventually those individual consequences harden into a consistent reality. In biblical terminology that hardening is called a “stronghold”. And strongholds are morally neutral—they can be either good or bad.

For instance, if I consistently respond to the whisper and prompting of the Holy Spirit in my life I will create a pattern/habit/stronghold of righteousness. Conversely, if I routinely disobey, yielding my mind, affections, or body to sin, I will create a sinful stronghold. And if I consistently won’t obey God (through the exercise of my free will) I will get to a place where I can’t obey Him—I will be gripped too tightly in the stronghold of my sin.

Does this make sense? If I consistently reach for things that are displeasing to God, they will eventually reach back, and then even if I want to let go, I sometimes can’t. I am bound. Addiction counselors understand this. They explain that for an addict the act of reaching for a forbidden, damaging substance is a choice; however, once the choice is made the addiction/stronghold takes over and it is no longer a choice—it is bondage.

I’m not sure if Anne Frank knew that she was paraphrasing a famous adage from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Our actions become our habits, our habits become our character, and our character becomes our destiny.” Variations of this quote have been attributed to Stephen Covey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and numerous others, but it actually appeared in ancient literature that pre-dated the time of Christ, and it has always been true. The exercise of our free will is dangerously powerful—it can create realities that either sabotage us or set us free.

Let’s choose life! Let’s tear down our suffocating, damaging strongholds and let’s build new ones on the rock of Jesus Christ.

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)

Your defiant statement

I wish you could see the larger statement that your life is making today.

And by the way, I am not talking about the statement that your life is making to your loved ones and coworkers who relate closely with you. Certainly, your life is making a statement to them, and hopefully they will take time to affirm some of that with you. I’m talking about something different, something bigger, something on a cosmic level.

The New Testament tells us that God uses the lives of His followers to make a statement to the supernatural world around us. Ephesians 3:10 says that “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”

There is something about the church—in all of our glory and ruin—that makes a defiant statement to the supernatural realm around us.

Our world is bursting with competing ideologies, bitter hostilities, military armaments, sociological complexities, and overwhelming fears and insecurities, and yet those things are never the final word. God still has something to say and one of the ways He says it is through the lives of followers who live in a different kingdom, follow a different creed, relate from a different perspective, and work for a different cause.

When you do that—when you respond to God’s work in your life—a message gets sent into the spirit realm: “There is more going on than meets the eye. There is something greater than our small, exhausting pursuits. God’s quickening, illuminating wisdom is still at play.”

This defiant message of God’s wisdom displayed through His followers’ surrendered lives, reminds me of a scene from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when Aslan tells Susan and Lucy that the White Witch had been deficient in her education. He said:

“It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”[1]

There is a deeper wisdom and a greater power at work in our world today, and your surrendered life is a human megaphone that speaks it into the cosmos.

[1] The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, chapter 15.

Chance vs. Opportunity

Make the most of every opportunity.” That’s what the Bible tells us to do in Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5, but what if we don’t? What happens if we don’t make the most of an opportunity? Or worse, what if we miss an opportunity altogether? Are we out of luck, doomed to never get that particular opportunity again?

Sort of.

Second chances are plentiful in life and Scripture. Indeed, thorough readings of God’s interactions with people in the Bible have dubbed Him the unofficial name “the God of the second chance.” However, even though second chances occur quite often, lost opportunities are a different matter. Once we miss out on an opportunity it is gone, never to present itself in exactly the same way again. This does not mean that our second chances can’t be as good as our first chances—sometimes they can be even better—but the uniqueness of an opportunity only presents itself once.

I have a friend who says it this way. Imagine you are waiting for a bus to pick you up, but when it arrives you decide not to board. Certainly that wasn’t your only chance in life to board a bus and catch a ride across town. You will have other chances to take the bus. However, once that opportunity passes it is gone forever—you will never be able to ride that particular bus at that particular moment again. Additionally, second chances often prove more difficult than original opportunities. If I miss the bus today, it will show up again tomorrow, but it might be raining and there might be a huge puddle for me to cross before I can board the bus. If I miss that opportunity, the next day there might be both a mud puddle and a pit bull guarding the door to the bus.

Granted, this example is both simplistic and a bit pessimistic, but there is truth to it. We have to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves to us because their specialness and uniqueness will never present in exactly the same way again. Also, if we fail to move when opportunities present, future chances might prove more difficult than they needed to be.

In closing, consider a thought from missionary Jim Elliot: “Wherever you are be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” If we followed Mr. Elliot’s advice we would live with less regret and we would indeed fulfill Scripture’s admonition to “make the most of every opportunity”.