Trying harder is not your best option

Try harder! Try harder! It is the mantra of both American culture and American Christianity.

Do you want to get ahead? Work harder!

Do you want to excel? Do more!

Do you want to be a better Christian? Strive more intensely!

Do you need to deal with some sin or struggle in your life? Start fighting to overcome it!

This is common fare in many Sunday morning sermons, and on the surface it sounds like wise counsel. The Apostle Paul talked about “pressing toward the mark” and “fighting the good fight,” and the author of Hebrews even said, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your own blood.” So apparently, there is a greater striving to be reached and a fiercer resistance to be waged. However, the striving and the resistance are not the starting points.

The reason we sin is because we love it. Sin is not an annoyance that we need to deal with, it is something that we have actually grown to love. Granted, it is possible to both love and despise our sin simultaneously, but the reality is that if we only hated it, we wouldn’t keep returning to it. So, technically speaking, we don’t primarily have “sin” issues we actually have “love” issues.

The first step in moving beyond a lesser love or addiction is to develop a greater love. We cannot merely tell ourselves, “Stop sinning! God hates it and it isn’t good for me. It will hurt me in the long run, and I need to be a better person.” All of those sentiments may be true, but none of them can cure our longing for the sin, unless we learn to long for something greater.

Here is how one of America’s early Pilgrims expressed it in The Valley of Vision: “Teach me to believe that if ever I would have any sin subdued I must not only labor to overcome it, but must invite Christ to abide in the place of it, and He must become to me more than (the sin) had been; His sweetness, power, life must be there.”[1] In other words, we overcome sin when we begin to love God more than our sin; we say no to lesser loves when we encounter something greater to say “yes” to.

Let’s process this in our hearts with God. Let’s admit that we love our vices. And then rather than beating ourselves up and pledging another round of well-intended vows, let’s ask God for a greater love. Let’s ask Him to reveal Jesus to us and introduce the Holy Spirit to us to such a degree that everything else grows dim by comparison.

[1] Arthur Bennet, Editor, The Valley of Vision (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 295.

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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.

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.

My new friend–a Maasai warrior and pastor from Kenya

So…have you ever killed a lion? Have you ever jumped into a pit and killed a marauding lion on a snowy day? Have you ever risked your life to defend your loved ones from a giant cat with bad intentions?

I haven’t, although I’ve talked about it a lot. In my preaching I’ve often highlighted the exciting lion-hunting passages where King David, Benaiah, and others risked their lives to defend against these frightening beasts. They’re great passages, and they help to illustrate powerful spiritual truth about: A) our need to engage in spiritual battles, and B) God’s grace to help us overcome them.

Recently, my appreciation for these passages radically increased when I became friends with an actual warrior from the Maasai tribe in Kenya, East Africa. Pastor Jeremiah is a Maasai warrior, and he has actually been a member of lion-hunting war parties (I should probably mention that he was armed with only a wooden club).

Interacting with a man who has literally stared down a lion with nothing but a heavy stick changes you. It brings a slightly different perspective to the metaphorical idea of lion-hunting. Whereas I urge people to “fight the figurative lions that want to assault your family and faith” this guy has actually looked into the eyes of a real one. He has actually faced his fear and put his life on the line in the pursuit of honor and the defense of the people he loved.

When you look at this pastor, he looks so kind (and he is). But he also has a fierceness  and a courage that our generation needs to recover. He sort of reminds me of Jesus “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOUR Olympics (a Post-Rio Reflection)

olympic_ringsDid you get your Olympics fix this summer? Did you carve out enough time to vicariously swim, jump, lift, dive, tumble, and throw alongside the greatest athletes in the world?

Fortunately, for Jessica and me, this summer’s Olympic Games occurred in the middle of our ministry sabbatical so if you missed any of it let me know—we watched it all!

We have always been Olympics fans, and every two years we clear our schedule so we can cheer and cry and pretend that we too are being crowned champions in our chosen disciplines. When we lived in Colorado Springs we routinely visited the Olympic Training Center there so we could touch the spirit of the Olympics even in the off seasons. There really is something about the Olympic Games that strikes a profoundly deep chord in the human soul.

It might be the beauty of the different people groups of the world…it might be the brilliance of watching someone set records that no other human can attain…it might be the human interest stories that augment the tumbling of Simone Biles or the pole vaulting of Ashton Eaton…or it might be something else.

It might be that the Olympics are a metaphor for our lives. WE are athletes in training, contending for victory and mastery in life. The Apostle Paul realized this, and he sprinkled his letters with powerful Olympic imagery. He spoke of competing for a crown “that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25), winning “the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14), and he compared Timothy’s calling to an athlete who longs to “receive the victor’s crown” (2 Timothy 2:5).

WE are Olympians. As the Rio Games fade into history, OUR Games are just beginning. What prize so consumes you that you are willing to sacrifice to attain it? What victory is so essential in your life that you will rival the work ethic of Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt in your whole-life pursuit of it? Let’s go for it! Let’s pay the price.

When the 2018 Winter Games commence in South Korea, let’s be transformed. When the 2020 Summer Games are inaugurated in Tokyo let’s be brandishing medals and crowns that will never fade away.

 

 

Where your headquarters should be

fortressAt Grace Church we support a ministry called AIM (Agape International Missions), an organization devoted to abolishing sex trafficking in our generation. A number of years ago AIM shut down a horrifying brothel in Svay Pak, Cambodia where young, elementary age girls were employed as sex slaves. In the center of the brothel—the place where virgin girls were kept—there was a brightly painted room called The Pink Room. Through a series of powerful events AIM was able to shut down the brothel and tear apart The Pink Room, and today the former Pink Room is now a part of their ministerial headquarters!

Before King David could set up his headquarters in the city of Jerusalem he too had to drive out some enemy occupants. The Jebusites, entrenched in their Jerusalem stronghold, had defied Israel for many decades until David came along and dispossessed them (2 Samuel 5:7).

Often, strategic centers for mercy, truth, and justice have to be taken before they can be occupied.

I wonder where your headquarters needs to be established?

You might not need to convert a brothel or evict an army from a mountaintop, but you still need a place to set up shop. You need a command center, from which you will conduct your ministry to the world. Perhaps that place is a former stronghold in your life. Perhaps your ministry will flow from an area of former weakness.

  • If your marriage has suffered, perhaps it’s marriage ministry.
  • If you’ve struggled with dishonesty, perhaps it’s a new life of integrity.
  • If you’ve been addicted, perhaps you will bring freedom to others.
  • If you’ve floundered as a parent, maybe you’ll turn a fresh page.

Regardless of its nature, we all have areas in our character and our story that need to be renovated and re-purposed, and sometimes our internal strongholds are harder to defeat than external ones. The proverbs writer said, “He who rules his spirit (is better than) he who captures a city” (Proverbs 16:32 NASB).

Let’s add our story to that of AIM’s and King David’s…let’s be men and women who rule our spirits, capture our strongholds, and use those places as beachheads for the glory of God.

Winning, losing, and the Christmas story

boxersSometimes in life it is difficult to tell who is winning and who is losing.

Consider Joseph’s stint in slavery, the three Hebrews’ stroll in a fiery furnace, and our Lord’s own trial and crucifixion. Each of these events shouted defeat for God’s purposes, and yet each of these defeats became a doorway to a greater victory.

Sometimes defeated moments of extreme anti-climax are actually tipping points.

From all natural perspectives the birth of Jesus Christ was the greatest anti-climax in human history.

  • His entrance in to the world was not with the splendor of a world ruler bent on global conquest.
  • His arrival wasn’t marked by dignity and fanfare.
  • No one would have peeked into the stable and thought, “Surely, a king has just been born!”
  • Rather His nursery smelled like cow manure…his crib was a feeding trough…and his only attendants, shepherds.
  • Everything about His birth was a giant anti-climax.

Yet in that disappointing moment something else was happening and all of heaven knew that the most glorious of victories had just been unleashed. Immanuel, God with us, had come near.

What looked like anti-climax was the tipping point for the universe.

Christmas reminds us that things aren’t always as they appear. Don’t be too quick to judge and label the defeated moments in your life. God might see them as portals to a greater victory.