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When Up is Down, and Down is Up

The most dangerous place in which pastor can ever find himself is when he forgets why he is doing what he is doing. This vulnerable place can lead the pastor to make bad choices, or become ineffective in what he does. Some become angry, or impatient. I refer to this as “disorientation in ministry”, or what my friend and professor at Toccoa Falls College, Phil Howard, refers to as disorienting dilemmas. The pastor can either unknowingly slip into this condition of ministry, or a crucible event can force him off track. Sadly, some pastors suffer from disorienting dilemmas and never know it.

Several years ago, under heavy stress, I slipped into this disorienting condition and it took writing an angry blog and a subsequent call from our District Superintendent for me to realize I was losing control. Fortunately, someone was willing to risk a relationship with me to tell me I was way off my game. What drew me back was aligning my heart, mind and soul again to the purpose of ministry, to my reason for pastoring, my call to the Gospel and to the Great Commission.

I am a pilot and one of the things I had to learn early on in my training was how to recover from a situation in flying called spatial disorientation which is defined as the inability of a person to correctly determine his/her body position in space. Spatial disorientation happens when you are flying under certain conditions, whether it’s cloudy and you can’t distinguish the orientation of the airplane, or it can also happen when you are flying over water and you can’t distinguish the sky from the water. Your brain and your inner ear are telling you something different than what is actually true. That can be dangerous. This actually happened to me once when, living in Wisconsin, I decided to fly over a portion of Lake Michigan. The airport was situated in a low valley just ten miles from Lake Michigan, and I loved flying toward the lake and then soar parallel to its edge, either south toward Milwaukee, or north toward Port Washington. On this occasion I chose to fly east facing the vast blue horizon separating sky from water.

I immediately regretted it.

Panicking, I could not tell what was water and what was sky. So to get out of it I turned right, but the plane pulled up. I pushed the controls in, but the plane lost speed, something which is only possible if I was climbing, not descending. If you lose control as a pilot, you enter into this frightening thing called spatial disorientation and it is actually possible to be flying upside down and think you are right side up. Or you are flying at a rapid speed down, but you think you are maintaining a level altitude.  Many pilots have died doing this. It is believed this is how JFK Jr. died, when his plane crashed to the ground on July 16, 1999. Now, it was happening to me.

There is only one way to recover from spatial disorientation.

You lock your eyes, and full attention, on the instruments. You must trust your instruments, despite what all the external indicators are telling you. In my training, my instructor would cover my eyes with a hood (blindfold me) and after putting the plane into various positions he would remove the hood and expect me to recover the airplane. I did this by ignoring what was going on outside the plane, and concentrating completely on my instruments: turn coordinator, attitude indicator, altimeter, speed indicator, horizontal turn indicator, heading indicator and vertical speed indicator. Every internal impulse would tell me something different than what the instruments were telling me, but I was told to trust the instruments, not my instinct.

So it is in ministry, or actually for anyone who serves Jesus. The only way to recover from ministry-spatial-disorientation is to lock your eyes, place all your attention on the instrument of God’s Word. In my situation I recovered by fixing my gaze on why I did what I was doing, what I was called to do by Jesus and for him. My recovery came when I made a recommitment to the gospel, a renewed devotion to the Great Commission. This reminded me that in whatever was going on around me, there were some very certain realities I could trust. I will trust in your unfailing love, wrote David following the 4 verses in Psalm 13 in which he expressed his disillusionment and discouragement in God. His own recovering from disorientation came in an instant. I will trust in your unfailing love. (Psalm 13:4).

For pastors, the signs of disorientation can be easy to detect. Impatience, angry responses, withdrawal, demand-filled preaching, not grace, depression, a sense of being overwhelmed, falling into sin, or beginning to look elsewhere for ministry opportunities. However, when the pastor fixes his eyes again on Jesus, the author and perfecter of his faith, who for the joy set before him, endured far more than what the pastor will ever endure; the pastor, and all of us, are able then to consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3)

Jesus never took his eyes off his mission, and purpose. He was fully oriented to the will of his Father. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38). He is not just the example for those who suffer disorientation; he is the way out of such dilemmas. This is far more than being able to say, I can do it because Jesus did it.

Far more!

By living in me, by his Spirit who indwells me, I have the capacity and the responsibility to never trust the circumstances around me. I trust him and him alone. His Spirit living in me pushes me to fully trust in God. If you’ve suffered from ministry disorientation may Jesus call you back to himself and his mission. Like he did for Peter following Peter’s three denials, Jesus is eager to call us to look to him again, to lock eyes with him, and to hear him say, “feed my sheep.”

Now, go and serve him!

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THE OTHER SIDE OF UGLY

My wife and I spend a lot of time with our granddaughter, and I often ponder the sort of world she will have to grow up in. I think of how much has changed in just ten years and shudder at her future. Thankfully the role I can have as a grandfather is joining her parents in raising her to love Jesus and ultimately live in His Kingdom, a kingdom far different than the one we live in during these brief years. “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” – John 18:36 

WRONG ASSUMPTIONS

I find those struggling in ministry face the same challenge.  Many of them struggle because of a bad assumption that they deserve a better world than the one they’ve been given. It’s why I’m meeting with them. Their assumption that their context must improve before they can ever experience health and joy again is false. I try to help them understand that faith in something larger provides a path that allows us, invites us to live an ordered, healthy and even joyful life despite what is happening to us or around us. It happened to me some years ago.

My wife, Elaine, and I found ourselves in a ministry that I can only describe as deeply disappointing leading us to take a three day retreat to get our bearing.  It was there, following some professional counseling and after reading a great book appropriately titled, Before You Quit, by Blaine Allen, that my head and heart did clear. I was reminded especially by the book that throughout scripture God’s servants faced deep hardships. Their world was harsh, but their souls could withstand that harshness because their flag was planted on another kingdom, one they could trust. “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

WHAT JOY! 

They knew this life, this context, even this ministry God called them to was not perfect, was messy and full of ugliness. I found from this time away that it was possible to live a quiet, purposful life in an uncertain world full of trouble. I returned  to ministry with a new, fresh perspective.

Interestingly the context I returned to did not improve. Things actually got harder, but we survived because we did not need it to get better. Our health, the state of our minds and the quality of our faith did not depend on this ministry being healthy. What anchors us soundly to this perspective is the story of Jesus best seen in his dying moment on the cross. “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame….” (Hebrews 12:2)

For the joy set before him, he endured… What joy? It was his knowing the cross, the symbol of cruelty, built by ugly men with ugly hearts would be the means to express the deepest love imaginable, a love extended even to those who crucified him. Even to us, culpable in his death. That joy! The same joy available to me following a cruel church meeting where the ugly hearts of church people burst wide open in a place meant for worship. That same joy offered to the pastor who wants to quit because he feels abandoned by the sheep he hoped to lead. The same joy provided to the shattered missionary forced home by team members he’d hoped would have helped him reach the lost around them.

It’s the joy of knowing that on the other side of the ugly, stands God Himself with wide open arms. The door to that embrace is the ugly-rugged-despised cross.

While I cannot guarantee that Anora, my granddaughter, will grow up in a better world than ours, I can be assured that by trusting Jesus she can survive and thrive in this world knowing her real place, her real home is with Jesus. And the same can be said of all of us who long for his return.

“As outfitted soldiers of God, standing firm, we can say the same thing, … Satan may kill the body, but he cannot touch the soul. He may take all that we have, but he cannot have all that we are. God’s child may lose everything, but he will be known forever as the one who got it all.” – Blaine Allen Before You Quit

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My Healthy Struggle with Healing

I remember once preaching a really good sermon on healing. It contained all the ring of truth and was received with enthusiasm and praise. I felt good about myself after that sermon because I had wonderfully exposited on a difficult issue. I would not be able to preach on healing with such confidence and polished skill if I were asked to do so now. I do not assert here that I no longer believe that God heals; on the contrary, I believe firmly that God is able to heal. I am simply and honestly uncertain why it so rarely happens. My belief seems to clash with what I observe. I have prayed for God to fully heal my wife who has suffered now for over eighteen years from the impact of a brain tumor, and later, when my son Travis was dying, we prayed fervently for his healing. For his own reasons, God chose to not heal my son, and for his own gracious reasons he’s provided Elaine the courage and joy to press on without the benefit of full healing. 

My first real encounter with the struggle of healing occurred in the early months of my ministry when I was a youth pastor in North Carolina. Shortly after we arrived, Don, the pastor, took me aside one day and shared that his wife had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was saddened, but confident that God was going to display His power in the church through her healing. I tried to affirm this hope, but deep inside I was attempting in vain to drown out the skeptical voice suggesting it wasn’t all that easy. I had seen many people pump themselves with faith, convinced that somehow enough scripture, and sufficient claims of healing would convince God to move on someone’s behalf. I was new to the ministry, and so I desired to join Don in prayer and believe with him that God would do this healing.

Some weeks later, we met with the pastor’s wife, the elders, and the deacons. I felt like a bystander, being called upon to join these spiritual giants in claiming a healing from God. Would my lack of faith or my skepticism put a damper on the Spirit’s power, I wondered nervously? The room grew quiet as attention was placed upon the fragile figure of the pastor’s wife, who struggled to keep herself propped up in her wheel chair. For a moment, the silence seemed sacred as she shared with deep conviction that God had told her she would be healed.

Wow! I thought. Something is going to happen here.

She quoted the famous words from Psalm 6:5: “‘Who praises you from the grave?’ I am no good in the grave,” she concluded. “God wants me well so my life can be a testimony for Him.”

The elders and the deacons closed in on that dying figure. They offered a prayer in faith and dabbed the oil on her forehead. I left that place with a deep certainty that God would heal her.

He did not.

She died a few months later.

Today, I am less confused about healing. What I mean is that I am more at peace with unanswered questions. I have also come to believe that God seems able to accomplish just as much – or more – through someone’s suffering than He does through a testimony of healing. Like Paul’s chains in Philippians 1:12 our chains actually serve to advance the gospel. I’ve only heard of people being healed; I’ve never been a first-hand witness to a genuine healing-miracle. When I say a genuine healing, I am referring to a serious/terminal ailment that is completely and visibly reversed with no possible human explanation. * Toward the end of my son’s life, the doctors admitted that nothing more could be done for him. Now, if he had been miraculously healed from this, the miracle would have shocked the medical world. No recovery has been recorded for the sort of cancer that he had.

I believe that God chooses in this dispensation to glorify Himself through the suffering of His servants more than He does through their healing. Western culture denies pain, so God uses it to confront us. We do what we can to run from suffering, so He crosses our paths with it. People identify with pain; therefore, the strength and the resolve that they observe in someone who suffers and remains true and faithful to Christ has a deep and penetrating effect on their lives. I will never stop praying for healing, and neither will I cease to believe in the power of God to heal. I base my confidence in God more on the evidence of Scripture than on the experiences and observations in my life. The testimony of God’s power over death and sickness is well documented and anchored in the Scriptures. My confidence that God is able to heal is well grounded, but so is my conviction that He can work just as powerfully when we suffer and are asked to continue suffering. The same God who gives grace to those who are hurting is the same God who heals sicknesses. In either case, God is the One at work doing what He wants and what seems best to Him. I can live with that assurance: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Phil 2:13).

In short, I do not need another miracle to believe in Him or to prove His love for me. The greatest miracle of all history is the miracle of the cross, where, interestingly, God did not intervene. He let Jesus die! However, three days later God’s power brought Jesus from the dead. Therein lies my hope. Not that God will, at my demand, intervene in my sickness, but that one day when I, too, will die I can die with the promise that death is not the end.  God lets us die. Sickness must run its course and the effect of sin, death, itself, must transpire. Our hope rests not in the guarantee that God will run interference every time we ask it of him, but in his promise that, thankfully, we will not have to live in this “body of death,” but rather we groan, waiting for our redemption. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!.” (Romans 7:24-25)

* Of course, God uses modern medicine to bring about healing. I do not at all discount this as healing, but for the sake of this blog, I am comfortable defining and distinguishing a healing miracle from the cures that come through many wonderful means of intervention today. I choose here to lean on CS Lewis’ definition of a miracle/healing as, “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.” (CS Lewis, Miracles)

I believe God can heal, God can do anything He wants to do. I do not believe the gift of healing is for today because it was to authenticate the Biblical message and messenger. That is in place; it needs no more authentication then the authentication given to it by the Spirit of God to the heart of the reader, but I do believe that God may in His grace choose to heal, and we have every right to pray for that, at the same time seek the finest medical help that we can because the Lord desires us to do that as well. – John MacArthur (https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/90-60/does-god-still-heal)

2 thoughts on “My Healthy Struggle with Healing

  1. Mark Allison

    Great article! I strongly disagree with MacArthur’s quote at the end, but he’s a cessationist who believes that tongues are demonic, so it’s hard to take him seriously whenever he comments on the spiritual gifts.

    God had one priority for our lives—to make us more like Christ. Everything else is secondary. So while sickness and disease is never God’s will, He will often allow it in order to accomplish his greater purpose in our lives.

    Reply
    1. Mitch Schultz Post author

      Hi Mark, I usually don’t check the comments on the blog page as most comments come by email. Sorry for the delay. Ah yes, John MacARthur. Got a back lash from that didn’t I lol. Just mention his name and wow! The quote actually backs up what I said, or so I thought, but it seems people associate his name with everything non charismatic. I should have quoted Benny Hinn, would have been safer. YOU know I am kidding. As for tongues, man I am still so confused on that one. Sorry it makes no sense to me, but that can be another conversation. I have read MacArthur on this subject and yes he is a cessationist which forces him to see tongues as demonic. He is strong on that isn’t he. Anyway, thanks for your comments to the article though. Really appreciate it and I got a lot of good feedback. Keep up the good work.

      Reply

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I’m Not Impressed with Your Faith!

I woke up early this morning, when it was still dark. I quietly walked across the room, found the door, opened it and remembered Elaine telling me the hinges squeak. Walking softly doesn’t make much difference when the doors squeak, she’ll be sure to tell me again. My right hand skims across the surface of the dining room wall and stops at the feel of the light switch. The flip of the tan lever floods the room with light. From there on it’s all routine. Coffee. Devotions. Prayer. Then, an hour or so later, a cup of coffee, two ice cubes to cool it for Elaine. 

Going back for a second to that flipping of the switch. It’s such a simple routine, I thought little of it until today. Maybe because I was thinking about faith and how it’s so much like my trust in that switch. It’s an easy task, but one that comes with amazing response. If something was wrong with my house, with the wiring or with Hart Electric, our power provider, I would think about it. When something doesn’t work, you tend to notice it more. But I trust the system and design of this house. Rarely has Hart Electric disappointed us. This is not like a third world country where you can expect an outage several times a day. Those in such circumstances live with uncertain, wavering faith. Because of my faith in the construct of this home, from wiring to lightbulb,  and knowing the electric company is solid,  it takes little thought on my part to flip a switch and know the lights will come on. I never take credit for the light coming on because I did such a good job gliding my hand across the wall, and with great skill flipped that little lever. It has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the object of my trust, the perfectly structured system and company that provides the electricity I need.

I get the impression, sometimes, the way faith is talked about, that we should be impressed with ourselves. Yet faith is nothing apart from a trustworthy Savior. Faith requires an object. A subject, and yes, he’s Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). An emphasis on our faith is always a misplaced emphasis. The more I trust Jesus, the more I believe in him, understand him and his claim and work, the more my faith in him grows, requiring little effort or thought. It’s a given.  That is really solid faith, because Jesus is so worthy of trust. When Jesus commended the centurion’s faith whose servant was sick, the emphasis was not really on the man’s faith, but on his confidence in Jesus and his ability alone to heal the ailing servant. When pastors preach on this story, I tense up when the focus is on the centurion’s faith, not on the object of his faith. When Jesus said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” (Luke 7:9) you have to ask, faith in what? When we boast about our faith, or someone else’s faith, that question is necessary. Faith in what? Someone we know might have GREAT faith, or BIG faith, but in what? Is his faith great, or is the person he places his faith in great, so trustworthy, so competent to deliver, because of that he’ll risk everything for him. Is it ever right to be impressed with someone’s faith?

Any story about faith in the Bible is about Jesus.

Imagine sitting in an airplane, your seatbelt securely fastened, and the flight attendant says something like this, “We’re sorry ladies and gentlemen. We are unable to take off today because some of you don’t have faith in this airplane. Two of you in this plane don’t trust our pilot, and five of you are afraid of flying, and until that changes, well, we’ll have to sit here on the tarmac.” Our trust and confidence in the pilot and the airplane makes no difference in whether that plane will fly. It might determine your anxiety level, but not the performance of the plane. The plane doing what we assume it will do doesn’t depend on our faith.

I lived for five years three miles from Lake Michigan in Cedarburg, WI where most winters, the lake’s edges would freeze. Had I decided to walk on the ice, a lot of faith would’ve made no difference were the ice thin. Conversely, a little faith would’ve mattered little if the ice were one foot thick.

It’s never about my faith. It’s about the thickness of the ice.

Spiritually, it’s always about the object of my faith … Jesus.

I struggle a lot with faith, but in the end it’s my confidence in Jesus that lands me in a good place. When my two sons suffered through cancer, mustering up enough faith wore me out. Eventually, I gave up and ended up collapsing on the Rock himself. I found him to be so worthy, so faithful, so good and kind. Often, still, I grasp through the dark, find a wall and with little strength my fingers find a verse or two that remind me that he is reliable. The room of my heart lights up with the love of my savior.

Next time someone talks to you about your faith, or theirs, ask them, “Faith in what?” Then the conversation can go to talking about Jesus, not you and your faith. The more you know Jesus and what he came to do for you in forgiving you of your sins and promising you eternal life, faith will be a no-brainer reality. It will be as simple as flipping a switch and seeing your life illuminated by the reality of the gospel.

When I think of CH Spurgeon, the 19th century Prince-of-Preachers, I think less about his faith in Jesus and more about his descriptions of his wonderful savior. Spurgeon, during his last sermon before dying, did not talk about his rich faith, but rather, he talked about the one in whom he’d placed his entire life and trust. Here is what he said about Jesus on June 7, 1891:

“Those who have no master are slaves to themselves. Depend upon it, you will either serve Satan or Christ, either self or the Saviour. You will find sin, self, Satan, and the world to be hard masters; but if you wear the livery of Christ, you will find him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest unto your souls. He is the most magnanimous of captains.

“There never was his like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yea lavish and superabundant in love, you always find it in him. These 40 years and more have I served him, blessed be his name! and I have had nothing but love from him. I would be glad to continue yet another 40 years in the same dear service here below if so it pleased him. His service is life, peace, joy. Oh, that you would enter on it at once! God help you to enlist under the banner of Jesus even this day! Amen.”

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Reading the Bible With Jesus in Mind (Part II)

Part I from August 2016 can be found here.

There are two ways to read the Bible. To see what it says about us, or what it says about Jesus. Reading the Bible with you in mind leads to a self-centered, empty and meaningless pursuit. Some refer to this as narcissistic eisegesis. (Eisegesis reads yourself into the text while exegesis seeks to read what’s out of the text.) Reading the Bible with Jesus in mind is selfless and comes with unimaginable gain, Jesus Himself. Michael Horton claims that the Bible is not about us, it’s for us. The Bible is the story of Jesus, for us. God’s revelation of Himself through the pages of scripture is an invitation to know Him, and by knowing Him, discover ourselves. You discover yourself best when you seek to know Him first. The only way to truly discover yourself, sinful and in need of a savior, is to begin with Jesus. 

There are plenty of preachers, too many, who approach the Bible looking to see what it offers to make life better and easier.  Bryan Wolfmueller in his book, Has American Christianity Failed? refers to this as a moral reading of the Bible. Many take passages meant to relate a historic story, or serve as a type and shadow of Christ, and allegorize for today, thus promoting a theology for now never intended in the text. This is as futile as looking at a road map to try to understand what’s wrong with your car. We are not David, and Goliath is not our financial giant, easily knocked down by one stone called faith, or a second stone called prayer, a third stone call trust, a fourth named hope or that fifth called patience. (Yes, I actually heard it preached like that once.) The Bible was not written to help you lead a better, healthier more fulfilling life. It was written to know God, His commands, and by consequence to understand our problem, that we are hopelessly sinful and in need of a Savior. And in scripture God has revealed to us that Savior. 

A right view of self leads to an encounter with Jesus on every page of scripture. 

Several years ago I decided to read the Old Testament looking for Jesus in every story. The scriptures came alive. I’m not just permitted to do this, but instructed to. You remember Jesus walked with two men who seemed perplexed by all the events surrounding his resurrection. When their eyes were finally opened, Jesus took the rest of the journey, explaining to them how all scriptures prepared for and pointed to him. And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:27) Think about it. Every story and every event in the Old Testament either was about Jesus, or pointed to him. Consider, too, these words from John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (Note the contrast between using scripture for your own end – eternal life – instead of knowing him –bear witness about me.

If the Bible is about Jesus, we should read it with him in mind, not us. If you read scripture as a way to live better, you’ll end up in a dark place, for the Bible paints a pretty dismal picture of man. If you really want to look for yourself in scripture, here’s what you find; “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18). Clearly, to read the Bible looking for encouragement and personal affirmation, outside of Christ the Savior, is a pretty disappointing exercise. 

It’s tempting, for example, and on the surface, logical, to go to passages where barren women received the provisions of a miracle birth and take that to mean God will meet you in all your equally barren situations. However, God put those stories in the Old Testament to point us to the most amazing, unbelievable miracle of  all history; the impossible birth of Jesus to a virgin. Those stories, where barren women get pregnant, were meant to point us to the birth of Jesus, not to promise us that each time life gives us a short end of the stick, he will deliver. (Pun intended).

Recently, a famous female speaker used the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 in Mark 6 and took every point of the narrative to show what God will do if we give him the little we have, like the boy gave Jesus all he had. This story, though, has nothing to do with that. The moment the attention shifted away from Jesus to the boy, his two fish and five loaves, the speaker stepped onto a narcissistic, self-indulging path, and the story bogged down completely in a muddy and sluggish trap where we, not Jesus, become what the story is about. It’s a pitiful place to walk. It completely misses the whole point of the story, which Jesus quite clearly explains as the narrative expands. 

A thorough and complete reading of this story tells us what this miracle was meant to teach, and it’s a story for us, not about us. Later in John 6:35 he explains that he is the bread of life.  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” The whole miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 was to teach that truth. Sandwiched in this story is another, often misunderstood and misapplied wonder work of Jesus. When the disciples left Jesus following the feeding, and were alone in a boat, a fierce  and unexpected storm swept over them. In their panic they saw what they thought was a ghost, but it was in fact Jesus. That part of the story is not a place for us to turn when financial or health or relationship storms rock our world. This is a story about Jesus and his power over nature and his demand that we acknowledge him to be God, like Peter did. But it was also when the storm calmed that Jesus referred to the miracle of the feeding, pointing to their lack of faith in both instances. for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”  And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded,  for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6:50-53) So the miracle of the feeding did two things: showed them their hardness of heart, their sin, and revealed himself to them as the bread of life, the one who came to save them by offering eternal life.  This grand story was written to show his disciples that he is God, they are not – they are sinners – and that he came to offer eternal life. And his provision to the 5,000, and his great display of power over sin showed that he had the authority to offer that promise of eternal life. 

The point of both stories, the feeding and the storm, was to prove that Jesus is the bread of life who promises eternal life to those who take him in (eat his bread) and that he has the power over death (calming the storm.) 

The beauty of this approach is once we truly meet Jesus in this way, by making the Bible about him, not us, we get to bring ourselves, our problems and all life’s challenges to someone who is bigger than us, sovereign, just, good and fully in control. There is no guarantee he will resolve our current problem, but I didn’t go looking for that. I came looking for him and meeting him in the scriptures is enough. 

When my son Travis was dying of cancer I rushed often to the story of Jairus who in Mark 5 pleaded for Jesus to heal his daughter. Now, I did not run to Jairus with my need, I ran with Jairus to Jesus. Honestly I never expected Jesus to heal Travis like he healed Jarius’s daughter. I simply went to this passage to meet again the same Jesus who looks with compassion on his children and whom I trust has the right authority, the appropriate power and who can sovereignly give me, what he wants and bring me to that place where whatever the outcome, I will love him all the more. And I do.

There is great value in reading the Bible with Jesus in mind. You might not get what you want for this life, but it’s the way to truly meet him. 

Once it was the blessing, Now it is the Lord;
Once it was the feeling, Now it is His Word.
Once His gifts I wanted, Now the Giver own;
Once I sought for healing, Now Himself alone. A.B. Simpson HIMSELF 

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Marriage, The Great Platform to Tell the Gospel! 

Yesterday I officiated at my niece’s wedding. My brother’s daughter and the man she married are a wonderful couple. During our pre-marriage sessions, we talked a lot about the purpose of marriage, how it’s meant to model God’s perfect and wonderful relationship with us. I talked about that during the ceremony. As the sun pushed back dark, threatening clouds, the outdoor crowd responded in delight as the couple stood in front of an archway framing a beautiful lake set below the valley. I always tell couples before the ceremony to focus on the vows. “You will only do this once,” I encourage, “so listen carefully. Take it all seriously.” I spoke for a moment, saying again, this time before witnesses, that marriage is designed by God to reflect his relationship with us. Paul, in Ephesians 5, calls it a mystery, but not because it’s hard to understand; it’s not that kind of mystery. It’s a mystery in the sense that this is awesome. Full of intrigue and deep with profound truths, and rich parallels. Notice the comparisons between the way Jesus loved us and the way the husband should love his wife. Notice, too, the parallels with how the church responds to that love and how the wife responds to her husband’s love. This is deep and full. A mystery in the sense that the deeper you dig into it the more amazing it is. Look for yourself. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:22-28)

The way the husband shows his love for Jesus is by loving his wife. The claim to love gets legs. The wife, too, shows her love for Jesus by the way she leans on her husband, and responds to his love for her.

It gets better.

Deep in the ground of this mystery is the profound suggestion that marriage, by design, is one of the greatest platforms to show the world what Jesus did for us and how he now relates to us, and wants us to relate to him. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. There is something about the way the husband cherishes his wife that tells another story, a greater truth. When he sacrifices for her, giving up his own desires and impulses, puts her first over his own needs, it’s more than a reminder of what Jesus did by giving up himself for us, his bride. This selfless love, that other-centered devotion, is an infusion of sorts of Jesus and his love for us. The world sees this and can say, “Ah, so that is what Jesus did for me.” When the wife eagerly submits to her husband, the world can say, “Oh, I get it. So that is what Jesus did for his church, and that is how the church should be to him.” Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.

We pastors, somewhere in the ceremony, will state that marriage is the most sacred institution created by God. It best displays the harmony in the Trinity, and the nature and character of that relationship with us.

No wonder, then, that it’s the one institution most under attack!

No wonder the enemy tries to blur the lines of distinction between man and woman!

Take away our uniqueness as male and female, and you take away the very thing God meant to model his love for us. Marriage! I said so during the ceremony. “Because marriage is the most sacred institution given to us by God, it will be the one place the devil will most attack. Remove that witness, marriage, and you’ve discarded the one platform meant to most effectively portray the gospel. 

I love to encourage couples; relating to each other is more than about good communication and a motivation to get along well. There’s something deeper going on.

A mystery.

Spiritual.

Marriage is a stage to rehearse, again, the story of the gospel. Of our Husband, Jesus, going all out to save us from our sin. Seeing our helplessness, he entered this sinful world where we were held captive and set us free, but he did more. He claimed us as his bride. Made us his own and declared his deep love for us and demanded our allegiance for him. And in the background, through the arches of this covenant rests the beautiful view of the cross, more stunning than the lake view in the background of the wedding last week.

Perhaps the greatest way their children will one day understand the redemptive work of Jesus is by watching what goes on between mom and dad.

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Heavenly Minded, Earthly Good! 

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded where this is all heading, and why as followers of Jesus we do what we do. Otherwise we’re left gazing at a shrunken and desperately limited horizon.

There is an end-game to all this. One day, Jesus is coming back to take us home. He will then place us on a very real, new earth, and that will be our home, forever. 

And ever!

Our new home will be a real place, absent of sin, with Jesus as King. That’s what we are working and waiting for.

I hope to encourage you and motivate you with this blog, by reminding you of where this is all heading and why you are doing what you’re doing. The two are connected.

This is all heading somewhere.

And it’s good!

And we’re not left guessing where that is.

The scriptures are so clear, and the stories of the men and women within its pages model for us a life full of expectation, putting up with so much here because their vision rests on eternity. Hebrews 11:16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

Sadly, I hear less and less about the afterlife as a motivation to come to Jesus and as a motivation to live faithfully for him on this journey. Years ago I attended a two week evangelism training called Evangelism Explosion (E.E.). E.E. helped me tremendously in my interaction with unbelievers. The premise, or assumption of this methodology, rested on the notion that we are eternal beings, heading for one of only two destinies.

Heaven, or hell.

The conversation-starter penetrated into what happens after death, on what is transcendent. If you were to die today, do you know for sure you would go to heaven? This diagnostic question exposes what the recipient truly believes and what I, the messenger, needs to offer from the gospel to point to the right eternal destiny through our Savior Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on  the cross. And then offering an invitation to acknowledge sin, confess those sins to God and embrace what Jesus did when He took the penalty of sin for all mankind. About ten years ago, a shift took place. I attended another training, produced by the same ministry organization, but this time the underlying motivation, the focus of conversation, closed in on having purpose for this life. Here, the diagnostic question stated, On a scale of 1-10 how fulfilling is your life?The transcendent, the then and there, was replaced by immanence, the here and now. Based on the hearer’s response, I, the messenger, would offer Jesus the Savior as a gap-filler for a better life here, now.

I meet with a neighbor each Tuesday morning to discuss the Bible and pray together. Two weeks ago we talked about eternity, life after death. I can’t shake a comment he made. Mitch, the last sermon I heard on the topic of hell was 24 years ago. 

I agreed with him that there is little emphasis on the afterlife in our preaching. Most of our preaching today presents Jesus, offers the gospel, that we might live a better life, and that is it. Your best-life-now does nothing more than diminish the scope and reach of hope. If this is the best it gets, we’re a sorry bunch. One Christian radio host boldly goes where few would go when he says, If this is your best life now, you’re heading to hell. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:10) 

No, it’s gonna be a lot better than this, folks.

The best is yet to come, and we need to talk about it more, think about it more than we do. Yes, I want to see healthy relationship here and now, but only so that couple can live with hope that after this life they’ll enter, finally and fully into a deeper lasting relationship with Jesus. And with each other. And out of their healthy relationship they have so influenced their children to also enter that rest. What good does it do to see a healthy marriage  that renders itself meaningless after this life? Sure, I want to see the hungry fed, and poor clothed, but fed and clothed with a longing that one day they will be fully wrapped by the righteous garments of Jesus. No, of course I don’t want to see families struggle financially, but I long more for them to prosper eternally, having placed their hope in an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you ..(1 Peter 1:4)

The gospel offers life now and for eternity. To present the gospel only for this life is like offering life insurance to a dead man. It’s meaningless.

Here’s the irony, or paradox. Talking and thinking about eternity makes life purposeful now. Yes, the way to be of earthly good is to be heavenly minded. You want purpose and fulfillment? Think of tomorrow, about heaven, and eternity and being with Jesus forever. That puts pain into perspective. It’s a motivation to say no to sin and avoid the mess that comes with it. It provides value to patient suffering. It’s a motivation to work on your marriage, to know that one day you’ll stand before God, and he’ll say well done good and faithful servant, you hung in there when it was tough. You did not give in. You thought about me, and how being faithful would one day be rewarded. You put the other as more important than yourself because you knew one day you would be standing here before me. And I would be pleased. And I am pleased. 

Pastors, preach about heaven and hell. It’s the best news ever. No one ever has to go to hell because Jesus came and took the punishment for us. How will people ever know if you don’t tell them?

Heresy is not just preaching what is false, it’s also withholding what is true, even if it’s just portions of truth that are being held back.

Missionary, what you are going through, what you’ve said goodbye to, all you’ve given up to do what you’re doing is worth it, because heaven exists. Because following this world and this life, is a new life in a new, lasting, permanent world. You are where you are, ultimately to tell lost people about that. I know, it sounds so old school, so passé, but it’s a promise still full of hope.

Believer, live today serving others at work and at home, setting your heart and mind on things above, not just on earthly things. (Colossians 4:1-2) See those around you as spiritual beings facing an eternal destiny. Let that both bother you and excite you.

Are you not a follower of Jesus? I do mean to scare you with this, and I love you too much to not say it. This month the news is dominated by a suicide bombing at a concert in Manchester, England. I lived only twenty miles from there, and have been to that area often. I would not be surprised if I hear that I know people who knew people who were there. No one who died knew this would happen to them. Some were small, young children.

Life cut so short.

It could be us, at any moment.

Unexpected.

Real.

Traumatic.

Where will you go when you die? Do you know? If not, I have the best news ever, which far surpasses anything I can offer you for this life. And it comes straight from the Bible.  Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.. (1 Corinthians 15:1-14)

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

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Trading What You Want, For What Jesus Wants!

As a counselor and life-coach I’m responsible to help people move from asking, “What do you want?” to “What does Jesus want?” Better yet, progress is made when what you want lines up with what Jesus wants. That only happens by obedience to his will.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing a struggling couple push aside their own interests for the interests of Jesus. That exchange is well worth the sacrifice. In time, the interests of Jesus become what drives the interests of the couple. 

I’ve yet seen a marriage heal from one spouse convincing the other of his or her point of view. It is when one gives up his or her rights that the gospel can begin to infiltrate the marriage and create new life. Sure, it’s a process, and often a long, hard one, but well worth the work.

I spoke to Tim yesterday, who admitted his and Tina’s marriage hung by a single thread. * He called because that thread was about to snap. Tim’s suspicion that Tina cheated on him years ago, despite all her denials, angered Tim and now nearly hardened him. The last vestiges of love rested on that one thread. In moments like this, once I’ve understood all the dynamics and contributing factors, I can do very little other than talk about Jesus and how he accepted us and died for us, even though we were/are sinners. And how in Ephesians 5 God commands the husband to love his wife just as Christ loved the church, died for her and gave himself up for her when she least deserved it. Husbands are commanded to show that kind of love to their wives. Marriage becomes the closest place for us, the nearest stage, to act out that kind of love that reconciled sinners to God, and reconciles us to each other – especially in marriage. The script that narrates this kind of story is when the husband moves toward his wife, motivated by the love of Jesus. Moved by other-centeredness and her promotion over his own. Where his interests are surrendered to hers. By asking, “What does Jesus want me to do even if it goes against all my own impulses?” 

All this, and more, I shared with Tim. 

Tim was quiet. I sensed these thoughts were fighting for a place to settle within his shaken framework. So I I threw Tim a thought I later saw would become his last lifeline. The last thread holding his marriage would snap as this chord would take its place. His marriage could now heal.  I said this to Tim. Tim if  this marriage breaks apart, let it be because of her disobedience, not yours.

I could not see Tim swallow hard, but I heard it. Wow, he shot back. You’re putting a lot on my shoulders. 

Yes, indeed I was. Jesus died while we were yet sinners. What happened at the cross was not a concession, a meeting in the middle. It was an all-out, one-sided sacrifice of love. 

Undeserved. 

And unearned. 

Tim, if you want what Jesus wants, that is it my friend. I hope your marriage will be restored, but if it isn’t, at least let it be said, that you did what you could. Show her the sacrificial, all-out-giving-up-self love that Jesus showed to both of you.

Tim and I closed our time praying. In my prayer I asked Jesus to help both of them be obedient to a kind of love Jesus calls for when two people are not getting along. The only miracle I’ve ever seen in broken marriages is when two people, and it requires both, are able to say, “Jesus what do you want us to do?” Outside of infidelity, or abuse, although that should not disqualify anyone from the miracle of healing, there is really no reason any broken relationship cannot be restored. 

That is the power of the gospel.

In the past month a good friend (and someone I serve with) and I had a rather sharp disagreement over a matter. It was not a major issue, but big enough where if ignored it could have severely affected our relationship. If either of us held to our right to be heard, and clung to our own positions, a drifting threatened the relationship. I noticed that both of us were deeply sensitive to what this was doing to the other, and both of us went out of our way, immediately and with urgency, to make sure the other was okay. We cleared the air; both admitted how we contributed to the problem, expressed our love for each other and we moved on, eager to keep serving together. It was beautiful. 

It is that kind of eagerness to obey Jesus when faced with tension in relationships I long for in families, marriages and Christian communities. 

To have the impulse to ask, “What does Jesus want me to do?” 

In my ministry I meet ineffective pastors and unproductive missionaries who tolerate others because of unresolved tension, rather than serving together because they’ve laid their burdens of sin at the foot of the cross. They’ve failed to ask what it is Jesus wants. 

I often begin a conversation in counseling by asking two questions: 1. What do you want? 2. What does Jesus want? Initially the answer differs. My goal is to end the session by hearing the same answer to both questions. 

Husbands, it could be that the closest your wife will ever understand and experience the extent of Christ’s love for her is by the self-sacrificial demonstration of that kind of love from you to her. 

Wives, it could be the closest your husband will ever understand and experience the joy of what Christ did on the cross for both of you is by receiving and embracing the sacrificial love he longs to give you. 

* Names and some details have been changed to protect identities. 

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Trust, but Verify

In December of 1987 Ronald Reagan, in his attempt to build a cautious relationship with Russia, coined the phrase, “Trust, but verify.” The Russians, who particularly loved proverbs, understood that Reagan would work with them, but only in so much as the Russians could back up their end of a deal through honesty and credibility. And that would need proof. I wonder if we ever, even unconsciously, deal with God in that way. I think I have. “God I trust you, but I need you to verify in some way that you will live up to your end of the bargain.” And so we look for some kind of proof, verification of sorts, that He will do what he promised he would do. Like Gideon’s fleece (Judges 6) and Moses’ staff (Exodus 3) or Peter’s water-walking, (Matthew 14.)  

In 1999, the year our son was dying, I submerged into what I call the dark side of faith. It’s easy to trust God when things are going your way. Faith, in those moments, is riding the wave, skimming the surface with no effort needed on your part because the wind kindly and boldly pushed you across the water’s wakes. Trusting God when the wind dies, and you fall into hard cold water is another thing all together. This other side, the beneath-side of faith, absent of wind and light, and all you seem to have is your own effort, can be frightening. During those ten months, as our son’s condition worsened, and death seemed inevitable, I trusted God with little verification. 

But I trusted – 

And that was it –

No promise, no vision of what it would be like when the wind’s final wisp settled and ended in death. 

I tried once asking God to prove to me that I’d be okay on the other side of this loss when it came, but my words got lost in the darkness. 

I heard nothing. 

And so I  went back to what I knew to be true of him from scripture. Certain things I believed; my theology, doctrine, suddenly mattered. And that was my answer to asking God if I would be okay. When I resurfaced from this dark pool, I’d fallen in love with His character, and nature and redemptive work. 

In loss, doctrine matters most. 

God said it. I believe it. That settles it. 

Since then – and friends who know me well are nodding incessantly right now – I’m a cynic to all sorts of claims carried on the back of faith. A sign in the sky, a prophetic word from someone, a vision, a dream or word of knowledge I hear as unnecessary ways to get God to verify, while we trust. Why do we need all that when we have all his promises in the scriptures? I’ll mutter. The proof of how good, and involved and caring he is, is all recorded. And so we hear people like David, while looking only at the dark side of faith in Psalm 13, who can still say by verse 6, but I will trust in your unfailing/steadfast love. 

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

 

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;

light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” 

lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;

my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the Lord,

because he has dealt bountifully with me. Psalm 13

In this world where God-things happen to so many, I feel left alone sometimes, in my own world where all I seem to have is the silence of God. 

Oh, and trust… in his unfailing love.

Oh, and obedience to what he’s told me to do and how to live especially when walking in the valley of the shadow of death. 

That seems to be when I am strongest. Not when God shows up, but when I find that God-given strength, that gift, to obey what he told me to do, in suffering, in loss, in the chaos, and even in the lack of answers. 

Trust and Obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus. 

I spoke to someone hurting last week about this kind of faith. He’s got little vestiges of faith left, a strand or two, but that’s it. I asked him to define faith for me and he told me it was something like believing in God. But believe him for what? I asked. He wasn’t sure, so I explained. 

Faith has to have an object, and that object is Jesus. We put our trust in Jesus. In who he is, and what he came to do. Once we capture the essence of the gospel, that Jesus tore into this sin-full world and rescued sinners, but left them, us, here for awhile until he comes back, we learn to just trust him. (Maybe that is why we are left here, to learn to trust him more deeply.) In my darkest moments, I just knew it would be okay because I know him. The friend I was talking to really doesn’t. And so, rather than talking him into having greater, or BIG faith, and trying to match his insatiable appetite and lust for evidence and proof with clever answers and stronger arguments, I just kept telling him more about Jesus, and what he’s like and what he came to do, for us, sinners, who outside of him would have no future other than hell. 

Whatever verification we need from him, is there for us, at the cross. An empty cross and an empty grave and an occupied throne is proof enough that we can trust him. If I never hear from Him again, that is all the verifying I need. 

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,

What a glory He sheds on our way!

While we do His good will, He abides with us still,

And with all who will trust and obey. – John H. Sammis, 1887

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Marriage, a Showcase for the Gospel! 

I’ve had the privilege in the last months to provide premarital counseling to five young couples. We cover together dozens of topics. One, and primary to me is the biblistagecal basis of marriage, or, what I refer to as the gospel in marriage. So, all sessions begin with a thorough and foundational biblical overview of marriage. By the time the couple stands before the minister, embedded deeply into their hearts, and seared deeply into their minds, is this notion that marriage is more than two people hooking up for life. It’s about two people living out, in relationship, a kind of love that led Jesus to come here to purchase his bride and to present that bride to his Father. During this session, I talk in depth about what that kind of love looks like, how it’s played out in their day-to-day interactions, and even rubbing against the common daily frictions that will seek to roughen the edges of their relationship. Halfway through this particular session, I hand out a sheet with the bold title hovering over the top that reads, Mitch’s Three Pillars for a Healthy Marriage. While three pillars provide a bad and shaky design for a physical building, they are essential for the foundation to a strong, solid, lasting marriage. I go through them carefully because they are so ess
ential.

Pillar One: It’s not about you. (Ephesians 5)

Pillar Two: The other is always more important than you. (Phil. 2:4-5)

Pillar Three: Humility trumps pride, always! (Matt. 20:26)

My voice is full of conviction and excitement as we walk around these pillars, discussing their place and value to the building of this home, this family. I all but guarantee that building from this foundation assures a vibrant, love-filled, lasting and secure relationship. Free of tensions and conflicts? Not at all, but the motivation to always place the other before yourself leads the couple past tense corridors, to a room absent of anger or even the memory of what was said or done that might have caused the tension. This room, full of I Corinthians 13 is where love keeps no record of wrong, is kind, does not envy or boast, nor is it rude. It never insists on its own way, not irritable or resentful, never rejoices in wrong doing. And according to Philippians 2:4-5 this love seeks and longs for the best for the other. So, as we complete the tour around each pillar, I Pillarsinsist to the couple that building the marriage on these three pillars will bring about a lasting life-full relationship, the kind that shows the world the kind of love, a kind of love that God demonstrated to us when he sent his Son to redeem us, restore us and include us in his family. What happens in marriage can be proof that that kind of love is real. 

Any and every marriage will be healed and strengthened when humility, other-centeredness and self-sacrifice is the drive. If you are on the receiving end of a husband’s anger, or tired of your wife’s demands, your posture matters. Unless you are in danger, the drive to give back the very antithesis of what you are receiving could reverse the course of your marriage. Love back when the other hurls hate. Break down a criticism by affirming. Take the air out of gossip by praying. Proverbs 15:1 promises that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”. Respond with a warm hand over an accusing finger. Sling an arrow tipped with patience at the heart of impatience. Laugh rather than defend. Acknowledge your vulnerability over refusing to see your own sin. Biblical love has the power to bring hate to ashes and on that heap see a new life, a marriage restored. I all but guarantee it will. It’s proven. Proven best at the cross.

At a recent wedding I reminded the doting couple before me that what Jesus did on the cross for his Father displays the kind of love that gets to be played out, lived out in their relationship. Their marriage, should they accept the privilege and challenge, gets to be a stage to show that kind of self-sacrifice-all-out-other-centered-love played out for a lifetime. Their legacy, I told them, the narrative spoken about them for generations, will be of a marriage, two people who sought all their lives to outdo each other with love.

And it will be said of them, “Now, that right there is an example of the very thing Jesus came to do for us”.

Order my new booklet DID I SAY THE RIGHT THING? here

This resource is perfect for pastors, church leaders and all Christians who seek to be purposeful and intentional in reaching out to those who suffer. 

An excerpt:  “Many who suffer loss never come to the place of wholeness and restored usefulness, because others do not give them permission to grieve and mourn openly. They walk among friends who treat them as strangers. They learn to put a lid over their pain and come to assume that speaking of it is taboo.”

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The Miracle I’m Waiting For 

I love healing stories, even though I do struggle with why God often doesn’t heal. When pastoring, we often celebrated with those who gave Jesus the glory for his obvious touch in restoring them to health. My wife nearly died 18 years ago. Today she’s far exceeded all our  expectations. I still remember the surgeon following the surgery telling me there was a chance she would never speak again. If you know Elaine, you rejoice with us how God graciously gave her back her speech and so much more. healingOur family rejoices often over our youngest son’s victory in his battle with lymphoma cancer. Having lost our oldest son to brain cancer, Brett’s healing is so much more precious to us. I also recognize that had God not intervened I would have struggled with life-long depression that began in middle school and stayed with me all through high school.

There is no doubt God intervenes in our lives.

I am one, though, who lives with a tension when it comes to healing. Claims of healing-miracles often make me uneasy. Sometimes I feel guilty for my skeptical reaction to purported healings. I’m often left cynical, not convinced that a genuine, truly remarkable, no-other-explanation-than-Jesus miracle has taken place. Too much about it leaves me unsure. My most recent struggle came after viewing a video where a short-term mission team to South America, while on mission in a village, recorded the miracle of a young boy with deformed legs walking for the first time. I honestly rejoiced, but part of me remained confused as the video showed him walking, but his legs still severely deformed. I tried in vain to ignore that voice that came from deep in my spirit, where cynicism dwells, which protested, wait! If a true miracle had taken place, yes he’d be walking, but his legs would have also been restored. Straight. Not completely twisted and bent.

I have some people very close to me who even though God spared them, strokes and brain tumors have left a lasting mark. They are not fully healed.  Others, also close to me, will more easily than I, refer to their progress as a true healing-miracle. On a few occasions I will say, no, what you are seeing is evidence of God’s grace and mercy, his measuring strength given in weakness, but no, don’t call that a miracle. Call it a miracle when all disabilities have been replaced by the abilities that existed prior to the injury. 

So, I live in tension. I love the stories. I praise God with others and even for how good he’s been to me and my family, but I long for more. And I long to understand why the healings I see and hear about are sparse and dare I say, not all that impressive when placed in the light of the gospels.

My struggle has been really good for my faith. It should be for yours, too. Think about it. The fact that God doesn’t always heal, or for me, hasn’t fully healed, pushes me to long for heaven, for an eternity and life with God where sufferings will have ceased and sicknesses will be a distant memory, if even memorable at all. I can’t accept that God is a God of half-jobs. I prefer he would invade into our tragedy and reverse a condition that has no other possible explanation, and what he does would be so complete and full, and thorough, we are left in jaw-dropping-awe. A God who does better than removing backaches and headaches. While I believe there are places and times even today when he does all this, they are rare and distant from us. Usually they come to me by third or fourth hand stories, not something I have personally witnessed. Often from remote regions where the gospel has yet to penetrate.  I would love to see the kind of healing-miracles like we see in the Gospels when Jesus healed every possible condition, or in The Acts of the Apostles when the Apostles touched and spoke sickness and death away.

But we don’t. Not now. Not yet.

Again, my struggle over healing miracles has actually been good for my faith. It makes me long for more than what we see around us. The fact that God doesn’t heal as much today as we see in the Gospel period, or rarely heals, (some say, never heals) reminds me that sin has to run its course. Even the healings we read about in scripture were not lasting. The man brought to Jesus by four friends did later fall again to weakness and eventually died. The ten lepers touched by Jesus, while cured of leprosy succumbed later to another sickness that caused death. Furthermore, and a comfortable explanation for me to accept that healing is less prevalent today than it was in the Gospels, is that all of Jesus’s miracles were both tokens of his authority over death, and his way of establishing his credential to perform a greater, more lasting miracle, that of forgiving sins. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven. Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone? Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man,“I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2: 5-12)

Today we have sufficient testimony and record of God’s power over sin in the gospels themselves to point people to that same power over death, and authority to forgive sins. I guess what I am saying is, perhaps one reason we see far fewer healing miracles today is because they are not needed as proof of God’s power over death and authority to forgive sin, because the story of Jesus and what he did on the cross is enough. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts …(2 Peter 1:19)

I ache deeply for the several people very near me who await their full healing. I agonize with them over the day to day struggles, and sometimes come short of truly understanding the depth of their pain. I live daily with the promise unmet of seeing full healing. That ache barely touches what I know is a deeper burden they carry. Yet, we long for the day, that day, when finally, because God has power over death, and because he has authority to forgive sin we will be fully healed. What we will experience, all of us, will be more than a token gesture by Jesus to affirm he is who he claimed to be. The gospel makes me long for full restoration. In the meantime that same gospel does not promise healing, but it proves and promises that God has authority over death and the power over sin. The proof is not even in the healings Jesus performed, but ironically, in his willingness to face death and to take on himself the full penalty of our sin. The proof is in the cross. And the resurrection – something we now get to wait for. Well, actually, I can hardly wait.

Come Lord Jesus, Come!

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A Strange Encounter with Prayer and How it Changed My Life

I leaned against the seat and watched as passengers streamed in to find their places in this Boeing 787 flight bound for Europe. Having failed my first and only attempt for a business class seat, I tested the recline button, relieved that British Airways gives a far better lean than Spirit Airlines. At least I should sleep some, I muttered to myself. My attempt for business class was motivated by my friend Bob’s confident prayer while meeting over coffee the week before. I shared with him how I dislike traveling, especially the overnight trips to Europe, thus his prayer. His hand rested on my shoulder, our heads bowed, and Bob’s faith-laced prayer moved me, and filled me with hope. Especially the part that the Lord miraculously provide me a business class seat on that plane. When I checked in at the gate and asked for availability in business, the agent chuckled and said, “Well you can try flirting with the flight attendant.” “No I would never do that,” I snapped with an air of spirituality. “I’ll just ask nicely.” And I did ask the male flight attendant, who informed me they can’t do that anymore, even when business class has many empty seats. And it did! So, I settled for 27-D, two rows into the general seating with a great view of the five empty rows in business. I leaned back again as the cabin filled with people from every part of the world, all so different, now bound for a common place.

Having failed my quest for a business class seat I folded my arms, closed my eyes and reflected now on another friends, Richard’s, back up prayer, that I would just sleep the whole night. “It’s never happened,” I retorted to Richard, my lack of faith not even slightly hidden. “This is my fifth trip to Europe in three years, and I’ve yet to sleep even an hour, total, from all five trips. “Well, then I’ll pray that you will feel so rested when you arrive, it will be as though you slept all night.”

All hope was dashed at the sight of the young couple making their way through business class, only a thin curtain and four more rows separating us. A wiggly, already screaming toddler dangled from the father’s arm. They inched my way, and I glanced at them and then at the empty row in front of me. No, please, no! I muttered, every muscle in my body tensing at the now very limited possibilities available to them.Crying baby Keep walking, that’s it, keep walking my hands gripped the arms of the chair. I assumed the crash position. No, no, I screamed silently. All hope is lost. No sleep, again! The chairs bounced in front of me as the family jostled into their places. A sound and movement to my left distracted me from the family, and the screams of the toddler faded to background noise. A large man, no less than three hundred pounds wedged his body past 27A and plopped next to me in seat 27C, the plane bounced for just a second. The portly man settled, looked at me and smiled, but then leaned in and said, “Can’t believe we have to sit behind a screaming baby.” I forced a grin and muttered, “Yes, a shame indeed,” but I was more worried about him now than the baby. I wanted to say, Hey buddy my seat is too small for the two of us, but refrained and went back to praying, this time that God would just let me survive the trip.

Many were praying for me on this trip knowing its importance for the kingdom and many agreed with me that a healthy Mitch was an essential component to the success of this mission. Prayers were very specific, with little chance of God misunderstanding what we wanted. I needed to sleep well, be healthy for the week and serve at the top of my game.

That is far from what happened.

I barely slept, and it was my own coughing that seemed to wake me more than the crying of the baby. The heavy snoring of the man next to me, still sharing my seat, did not help. An hour into my three-hour-layover in London, I decided to purchase a thermometer at Boots Pharmacy. I ripped the package opened, took the instrument out and placed it in my mouth. 102 degrees Fahrenheit. And so my week began, and actually continued, in weakness. With a fever, having slept little and every specific prayer NOT answered.

It struck me later, actually on my fourth night on this visit how unbelievably selfish I can be. I was making an assessment of prayer based on one moment, concerning one or two particular needs I had. No, it did not go as I asked it would, and how others asked. But when I look at the totality of my life, God has been taking care of me, and providing for me in ways that go far beyond the moments I was asking for something from him. God has provided for me EVEN when I was not asking him to. I was like that “local freethinker, Jared Olson who called into question the ‘absurd’ idea that God had ever done anything for him, all while inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide in a complex process well beyond his mind’s capability of understanding in its entirety.” (See link here)

Our lives all fit in the backdrop of Job’s story, who by the end, after one litany of complaint after an other over all God’s failures to provide, we are forced to stand in awe of him and say, I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. (Job. 19:25). And God reminds us, as he reminded Job and his praying friends, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding.” (Job. 38:4) And Have you entered into the springs of the sea Or walked in the recesses of the deep? “Have the gates of death been revealed to you, Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness. “Have you understood the expanse of the earth. Tell Me, if you know all this.” (Job 38:16-18). Wow, talk about being put in one’s place.

By not answering my specific prayers, I had a strange encounter with prayer. I am more cared for, and protected and provided for than I ever thought. Jesus’s prayer to his Father is being answered daily just in the fact that I am still alive, and breathing and able to do what I do. I am protected from the enemy, kept from temptation and delivered from evil because God answers prayer, Jesus’s prayer, our prayers. When the focus of my prayer is more about His kingdom, than it is my own, something in me wakes up. I realize he owes me nothing, but still fills me with everything that is good. And sometimes all those things that are so good, and awesome about him, show up in the moment when I do not get exactly what I am asking for.

Unanswered prayer introduced me to the mystery and awe and holiness of God and his delight in being my God. 

Strange isn’t it? It is when God doesn’t answer specifically what you are asking from him, that you find yourself more in awe of him.

Our faith develops most strongly and God is most glorified most fully when we feel only his absence, when every trace of His presence vanishes and our resolve to trust continues. Larry Crabb (Real Church)

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Your Part Matters

Elaine and I pulled into our garage three days ago at 3 a.m. Fifteen hours earlier we’d said goodbye to newly made friends who work as Wycliffe Bible Translators in Peru. At this early hour the only decision we needed to make was whether to bring in the suitcase now, or wait until the next morning. We were tired, but content. As tired as I was from this trip, and even through the fight to keep my eyelids open on the two hour drive home, I did not easily fall asleep. What seemed to be a fight to stay awake turned now into a struggle to fall asleep. So, for over  half an hour, I stared into darkness reflecting on the trip and how profoundly it affected me. The trip opened my eyes again as to why they (my new missionary friends) and I do what we do. Bridge

Four nights earlier I stood in front of 45 adults and reminded them that all their effort of translating the word is so those who read will know The Word. I can only imagine what it’s like to spend fifteen to twenty years translating the scriptures into a remote indigenous language. Several of these missionaries work with a language group of less than 300 people. Their attention to detail is unbelievable. The commitment to get it right is unparalleled by anything I’ve ever done. How do you speak about pride and humility to a culture who views everyone equally? What do you do with the phrase Kingdom of God, when their language has no equivalent term? I wondered too, is it possible to get so caught up in the translation that you forget the larger purpose; so people can read in their language of the one who lived here, died in their place and rose again so they can be reconciled to God? Perhaps this one week when they all gather together, away from the task, is their way of reaching that perspective. It humbled me that my role was to provide that context for them to pull back and embrace again the Great Commission behind what they do day in and day out.

All of us in vocational ministry can forget why we do what we do. We can be like the bridge-welder, who having spent weeks on a beam forgets his part is for a larger purpose, so one day, when the bridge is completed, people can cross from one side to the other. Keeping that large purpose to the mundane task gives value where otherwise, lost in the moment, there would be discouragement. Wrestling over a pronoun, agonizing for a synonym, jockeying for an appropriate verb are little and significant moments to a larger narrative. Pastors discouraged by the hard work of preparing sermons and counseling hurting people, will quickly rise with the encouraging realization that their part, albeit small, are contributing to the expansion of Jesus’ kingdom. The your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, is made up of small, seemingly unnoticed moments and conversations, tasks and movements that, done in the name of Jesus also serve to promote his name – making him famous.

My take-away from this recent trip to Peru is to appreciate again why we do what we do. We’re renewed because of it. One day, Jesus is going to come back and finally set up his Kingdom to replace this broken one. I want, again, to do whatever I do to work heartedly, as for the Lord and not for me, knowing that from the Lord I will receive the inheritance as my reward. (Col. 3:23-24) Like you, I am a bridge builder, whose role might seem insignificant until I step back and see again what it’s all about. A bridge, when complete, will allow lost people, now reconciled to God because of Jesus, to step from death into life. (1 John 3:14)

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The Gospel Is Gold!

I don’t give much advice to hurting couples anymore. My advice is worth five cents, maybe less. The Gospel though, is worth more than gold. The Gospel is GOLD. When hurting couples look to the Gospel for help and healing, there is no stopping them. I’ve seen it first-hand. gospel-goldSeveral years ago Mark and Joan (not their real names) came to my office admitting they fought like cats and dogs. In fact their cat and dog stopped fighting out of deference to their owners. I met with Mark and Joan for months, and gave them the best tips imaginable to help their marriage, but like kindling on a smoldering fire, what I offered worsened their relationship. On this particular day, I sat behind my desk, the two sitting across from me with arms folded and shoulders slanted away from each other. I’d prepared nothing for this session, knowing it would do no good. Mark sighed heavily, and Joan frowned at him and gave me a look that said, “See, he’ll never change.”

I startled both of them when I threw my arms up in exasperation. Now I sighed and frowned, my hands slamming carefully, but hard on my desk. With an intense and grieving look I said, “I give up on you both.” Their shoulders slumped in defeat. “I really don’t think I can do much more for you guys.” Nearly all the air left them. A tear found its way out of Joan’s eyes, rolling down her cheek.

“There is only one thing that can change your marriage.”

Both raised their shoulders cautiously in hope.

“All I can tell you is to come together at the cross and there remember that Jesus died for you both. He took on himself your sin, this sin,” my index finger waving between the two of them, “and he rose again to offer new life. There is no other place you will experience transformation.”

I had their attention. The effect of just telling that story again seemed to raise some hope, and kept the one thread holding them together from snapping. “Guys, all I can tell you is you both need to stand at the foot of the cross; remember what Jesus did for you, and then look at each other and say you’re both so sorry for what you have done to each other, and to Jesus by the way you’ve behaved.”

What I did next paved the way, no, pointed to the place for a miracle, and it changed their marriage completely. “Mark and Joan”, pointing to the carpet at their feet I said, “Would you both kneel right now?”

They did.

“Now hold hands and look at each other.”

They did.

“Now tell each you are sorry, and ask Jesus to forgive you and to come and bury this mess, all this sin he died for, and bring about new life to your marriage.”

They did, and more.

Like repeating wedding vows these words were pushed out by streams of tears. Weeping, they held each other. Long silence followed. They finally stood. I stood with them. We hugged, and they left my office.

Their marriage was saved.

And since, I never counsel without first telling the story of what Jesus came to do and why.

A couple struggling with their daughter’s suicide.

A pastor’s family wearing masks, for fear their congregation will see what they are really like.

A missionary wife reviving from her husband’s resurrection from years of tormenting silence. He now speaks life to her.

I often tell now of the power of the cross, the gospel, in what I refer to as the moment. The moment the usual impulse is to lash out with harsh words, bury it, and let the new man, the resurrected Spirit-filled man speak love and life. Remember, at that moment what Jesus came to do. It’s what resurrected born-again people do. It’s how they speak. To live in old patterns of abuse, fighting with harsh damaging words is to pull out of the grave that which is already declared dead. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.  In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self[c] with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:5-10)

The gospel reminds us daily that we are different people, who are not allowed to behave in the old way. Remembering that in the moment produces a completely different response that can only bring life and restore what is broken. Do that enough times, and you, too, will discover a miracle.

Should you ever find yourself in a position to offer encouragement and hope to someone hurting, or a couple facing the end of their marriage, can I urge you to start your conversation with them by just telling the story of the Gospel? Once you’ve told that story, ask them to tell their story next to what Jesus did for them. You will be amazed at the power of the Gospel of Jesus.

It’s worth more than gold.

Because our salvation is an act of God’s grace—giving us something that we don’t deserve—we have a model and standard of grace for our marriage. Our desire is to extend unmerited grace to each other in our marriage, just as God showed it to us through Jesus.…Our forgiveness of each other has to follow the example extended to us. When we forgive, we make the conscious choice not to hold past transgressions and hurts against each other. We let it go and trust God with the situation. … As a couple we don’t live in defeat, but in confidence. The world and its troubles are temporary, but heaven is forever! – Brad & Heidi Mitchell, Build a Legacy Through Your Marriage

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 What’s Wrong with Ordinary

Much of the contemporary music I listen to and preaching I hear leaves me feeling like I am not doing enough for Jesus. While driving home yesterday, with time on my hands, I reached over and pushed the button on my radio and quickly reduced the volume as the song’s heavy beat swept through the cabin of my car. I hummed along to a familiar and popular song, drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, but abruptly stopped as the repeating words struck a resisting chord in my heart. When I do turn on the radio it’s usually for background noise and often I pay little attention to the words. Unlike my two children, I’ve never been that good at “singing along” when a song plays.hand

This time was different.

What I heard clashed with where I am in my life right now, where I know I should be. I slowed the car, and leaning in to catch every word. The song, obviously intended to rally a young generation to rush into the battle field with passion and all out gusto.

Great tune. Wonderful beat.

The growing unease with the core message, though, pounded hard against the framework of an already tired life of trying to do all I can, or more, for Jesus. Songs like this come with certain assumptions about redemption. About salvation. It assumes that we are saved to make a difference, and for this generation especially, to change the world. It also leaves a lot of Christians feeling inadequate when an inventory of their lives points to failure. Most of us just don’t measure up. Our lives, at least most of us, are rather ordinary. We aren’t thriving. Press deeper and many I know are just surviving, but they still love Jesus. Their lives aren’t making headlines, but they seek to obey him daily, even in the small stuff. Pretty ordinary stuff. man-working

By the time I pulled into my driveway my fists wound tight to the steering wheel. Coasting the car into the garage, I relaxed my hands and turned off the radio, quietly needing a few minutes to sort through my unease. The fact is my life is pretty simple and I am actually okay with that. What’s wrong with ordinary, with managing another day without huge outcomes? I muttered to myself. Are we called to do great things for God, or are we called to be faithful to him even in the small things of life? 

I don’t think this message come out of a vacuum. There is theology behind it, tossed off a doctrinal stage where singers and preachers rally a young and restless generation to greater commitment and new heights of surrender, while marginalizing the older generation for having failed.

The call to thrive, to do more than we are doing, over living ordinary lives that glorify God and enjoy him forever becomes counter intuitive. Bluntly put, it can backfire. Eventually those who follow it run out of energy and settle at best for ordinary, at worst for disillusionment. Men are restless by the ordinary responsibility of providing for their family thus missing out on their greatest calling, at home, or young people travel the world hoping to leave at least a dent on global evil, only to return defeated and discouraged because they did not meet the demand placed on them by that song or from the preacher. Pastors face discontent over a church that fails to grow despite his faithfulness to preach and love his people as the scriptures call for. (2 Tim. 4:2)

So I guess my question is, what’s really wrong with ordinary? Weren’t we made, created, saved, to love God and enjoy him forever? (The Westminster Shorter Catechism). Did not Paul urge us in whatever we do, to work heartedly, as for the lord and not for men? Aren’t we ordinary jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us? (2 Cor. 4:16). When Paul explains that preachers, teachers and apostles exist to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, (Eph. 4:11) he later illustrates what that work is in Ephesians 5 and 6 as a husband loving his wife, a wife submitting to her husband, children obeying their parents and slaves (employees) obeying their masters (employers) with fear and trembling. 

Pretty ordinary stuff. real stuff. Everyday sort of stuff.

The Great Commission does not call us to change the world, as much as it calls us to go into that world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them from everything Jesus taught the disciples. Changing the world is a responsibility that belongs to the Holy Spirit, our part is to tell the story wherever we are, whether people respond or not. The mark of my spirituality is not measured by how many respond to that message, but rather my faithfulness to the one who called me.

I’ll settle for that ordinary task any day.

Men who preach that we are to change the culture put unrealistic expectations on the lives of the flock. We’re sheep, not Iron Man, called by God to follow Christ, not to change that which we have no power to change. -Timothy J. Hammons

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Just Trust Him

I discovered years ago that trusting God doesn’t mean you need to, or can understand what he is doing. Nor why. Just Trust Me are some of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard him whisper when confused and mystified. Jesus told his disciples to trust* in God and trust also in me (John 14:1-2) at the very moment they expressed their fear of his leaving them. While he did give some glimpse of the future home awaiting them, and the promise that he would take them there, that was a long way off. It was not that promise that necessarily calmed their fears; it was the simple words, trust in me. In the following chapters Jesus had more to say about imminent persecution and hardship, and less about the good days that were right around the corner. The invitation to trust him settled more on fearful heatrustrts that looked forward to more hard days, not necessarily better days. In contrast to many of the promises made today, trusting God does not guarantee better days in this life. These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. (Hebrews 1:13).  The fact is, you and I trust him, while continuing to live in an uncertain world where the hope and promise of our new home is a long way off. Yes, I look forward to it, but it’s not what keeps me going. What keeps me going are those sweet words, trust me. By promising his disciples that he would prepare a place for them and then come back and take them to be with him, Jesus assured them that in the meantime, while he was gone and they remained here suffering, he was not going to forget or abandon them. The Holy Spirit was then given to them, and us, to give courage to live on in a hard world.

Even a cursory glance over Hebrews 11 provides a clear glimpse down the corridor of past saints who believed and trusted while never really knowing what it would give them in the immediate. Faith, by definition, is believing in something you don’t at that moment have sufficient and reasonable evidence to believe is really possible. That kind of faith just assumes that the object of our faith, Jesus himself, is big enough and loving enough, and committed enough to help us blindly move forward despite how hard it might get. And entering that faith path can actually take us into even rougher terrain. Faith again, empowers us to believe that Jesus has not forgotten us. 

I fear the kind of faith espoused today promises an immediate response from God, not the kind that gives us courage to trudge on despite where it might take us, or how long we might have to linger. And so, many young and vulnerable believers end up disillusioned because God did not deliver as the preacher or Facebook post promised. Simply typing “amen” or “share this post” as a response to a clever ditty on Facebook doesn’t work in God’s economy. Faith, trusting, is a long-haul proposition that requires deep belief in the One who promised, and the ultimate reward of that faith is to live with him forever. The words, I will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5) were uttered by Jesus because he would leave them … for a time. He would leave them, but not forsake them. There lies the heartbeat of faith. 

Because my parents were missionaries in what is now called Papua, I, along with my siblings, was sent off to boarding school at the age of six. Two things kept me going despite the long nights of crying, and the occasional sense of loneliness. I knew my parents still loved me; they would never forsake me, and I would see them again. And so faith provides us the same courage. He loves us so deeply and so profoundly, enough to trust us to be alone for a season, but not really alone. That keeps me going. I will go out on a limb here and even suggest that the sense, or feeling that Jesus is not near me, the sense of distance from him is a legitimate feeling. The promised Holy Spirit is given to reassure in the meantime  that Jesus has not at all abandoned us (even though he might at times seem far away) and the promised Holy Spirit is given to us, to dwell in us, to help us trust him when on our own we can’t. And finally, the promised Holy Spirit dwells in us to keep that promise alive, who according to Ephesians 1:14 is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Do those words, Trust Me, encourage you today? Remember he loves you enough to leave you alone for a season so your faith in him will be tested and stretched, and a day is coming when, finally, you will be hometrust-1

With Him. 

Forever. 

“Faith is not necessarily the power to make things the way we want them to be; it is the courage to face things as they are.” Ronald Dunn (When Heaven Is Silent

*I use the word trust here, while most translations use the word believe. The Greek word is pisteuó which means to entrust, or believe in, or, to think to be true.

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The Gospel and Our Broken World

This will be my only political blog, but it’s really more a blog about what our recent political situation reveals about us and our need for the gospel. Facebook has been a fascinating forum to serve out our opinions. Regardless of where one lands on the political runway, the cry is the same; can we all please just get along now? Both sides claim to have answers, a corner on the market of resolving political, racial and social tensions, but everyone disagrees how to get there. broken-worldPrior to the election, both candidates promised that their first 100 days will be focused on healing the divide. That’s hard. How do we come together when certain social issues stand in stark contrast to the Bible. There is no coming together when values, and morals are polar opposites. How do you unite on the issue of abortion? There is no healing the divide on abortion. That divide needs to exist, as is true of most, if not all secular, godless policies. It’s noble to say we need to come together, but light and darkness cannot. I pray the light will permeate the darkness. That hearts will be open, and healed at the cross, where Jesus died in our place. The divide is solved by the gospel, our only hope for ever coming together.

All this has me considering again the power of the gospel of Jesus. It’s an expansive power that first reveals our need, our sin, before it can take us to the place of healing, the cross itself where Jesus died in our place, for us. The only place for restoration is the cross. The cross tells us we are sinners. Hopeless. Dead. Deserving the full wrath of God, deserving Hell. But Jesus took it for us. On the other side of the cross, the burial and resurrection now behind Jesus, the gospel tells a fuller more victorious message. There is hope for the brokenness in our world. There is hope for our nation. The gospel, this story of who Jesus is and why he came and what he did tells us we are still sinners, still deserving death, but also promising us that we will never receive the justice we deserved. Because of Jesus, and what he did in our place. It’s a story we remind ourselves of daily.

And the gospel does divide. It must. Ultimately, when it’s all over with, Jesus graciously, and thankfully warned us of what will happen to those who reject the gospel. It’s a horrible, dark scene, but one that ought to make us rush to him for reconciliation and forgiveness. And rush to our friends and family to warn of the cost of ignoring Jesus. It’s that final moment Jesus once described this way, as the final divide:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ …“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” Matthew 21:31-46

This is a story our nation desperately needs to hear. Our role as believers is less to change what is around us through politics and personal effort, and more to tell a story. Even that story, of what will ultimately happen to those who reject Jesus. And it’s a story, the gospel, that assumes certain harsh realities. That we are lost, heading to Hell, but there is a way out, through a Savior who came to die for us.

I can only pray, and do pray that pastors will get back to this simple message. Our nation desperately needs to hear it. Many tip-toe apologetically around that story. It’s hinted at, but rarely directly mentioned. When Jesus prayed and taught us to pray, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, he was praying that the world would respond to the gospel. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). God’s will for our world is simple. It’s what heaven longs for. It’s why Jesus came and why he died. That all people, all of God’s creation, every living soul would repent of their sins, confess their sins before their Savior who died for them, and receive the forgiveness that God freely and gladly offers.

That’s unity! That’s when people of different stripes, cultures and backgrounds will finally come together. Not when we concede on our difference, which when you think about it, is really ignoring the differences that are still there.

The Gospel of Jesus! The story of his life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension.

It’s what Donald needs. It’s what Hillary needs. It’s what we all need. Only then will we see the divide that so desperately exists between us disappear. Until that happens, it’s a necessary divide that separates believers from unbelievers, truth from lies, evil from righteousness, that can only be erased by the cross. To ignore, or blur those lines is to disregard the greatest move and sacrifice ever made in the history of mankind.

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Not Ready to Settle, Yet!

I don’t handle change well. It comes from a heart that longs to settle, but can’t. So it was no surprise that our recent move from one home and state to another, happening in the midst of a ministry trip to Spain stretched my capacity for change.

The timing was, well, let’s just say, awkward. The closing took place while in the very middle of our ministry trip to Spain. All of it done remotely. Gradually, as I gave to others I decompressed from six weeks of stuffing boxes, and long discussions with Elaine on what would and would not fit in a new home literally half the size of the one we sold.

Conversation with missionaries, meetings with national pastors and leaders, riveted attention from myself to a country that hardly gives any heed or interest to God. I was impressed by a group of faithful servants who’ve left all to serve 5,10 and even 20 years to offer the gospel as a precious gift to hardened hearts. (An underwhelming 1% of Spain claims to be born again Christian, and the majority of these are migrants.) The highlight for us was serving the missionary team at their annual pastoral care retreat held this year in a 14th century monastery in the town of Segovia. Elaine and I taught, encouraged and interacted with twenty-eight adults, while our son, Brett, discipled eighteen teens on the life of Joseph.

By the end of this trip, knowing we’d return to a house full of unpacked boxes, my heart lay split wide open to the harshness and hardness of the world we live in. To know that we could give one week of our lives to men and women who’d given up everything to unpack the gospel, week after week, day after day to a culture who long ago distanced themselves from Jesus, reminded me again of why I am here, and why I now do what I do. My new home simply becomes a place from where to do it. That’s all. I might not be on the cutting edge of this Kingdom work, but I get to encourage those who are. Upon returning, I received this email from one of the team members in Spain, confirming to me that our story continues to belong to Jesus. “Last week I attended a Pastoral Care Retreat in Segovia with fellow ministry workers from the C&MA Spain team, and God spoke to me in one of the most beautiful ways I have ever experienced. For the last few months, I have been mulling over a specific calling that God has placed on my heart. At this retreat, amidst hearing the pastoral care couple share their testimony of suffering and how they trusted God; and learning about how they view suffering, tragedy, discouragement, and depression from their personal experience, I felt God confirm my calling with such strong confidence in Him and a burning passion for what He laid on my heart.” 

Elaine and I are in conversation with the leadership in Spain to serve as pastoral care couple to the team there. This would mean a trip or two a year back to Spain. Between those trips I hope to coach, interact with and encourage team members through social media. Looking around me this morning, this home looks pretty settled. One or two boxes remain unpacked; several pictures sit unhung on the floor, but for the most part the place looks like it’s been home to us for some time.

I know this is just a temporary home. The longing to settle remains unmet, and that’s good. I’m really not ready to settle yet. There’s a world of people out there far from home who still need to know that someone, God himself, came here two thousand years ago and pitched his tent with us and gave his life for us so this cruel, harsh sin-damaged place will never have to be our home. So hell will never have to be anyone’s next and final move. As the writer of Hebrews puts it so beautifully, …God has provided something better for us…” (Hebrews 11:40). I can’t wait!

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I Don’t Trust You, but I’ll Love You! 

My wife and I sat across from a young man who’d just returned from the mission field. After meeting with him three times, I found him to be tender, full of grace and longing to see his life used effectively by Jesus. Yet, here he was, wounded and desperate to find someway past the hurt that now replaced the youthful vigor from years past. Two years ago he left for a foreign country, eager and confident that God would do great things through him. Now he wondered if there was any way to rebound from the disappointment and disillusionment of team conflict and lack of fruit. trust

It was the team conflict that forced him back home. I’ve also seen this sort of thing happen. Often you get along better with lost people who are far from Jesus than those partnering with you to take the gospel to them. 

My elbows rested on the table, and I leaned forward, my way of letting him know that he had my full attention. That’s when the bombshell came, said with conviction and emotion. My elbows pulled back and I sat straight. This was the real reason he was here. It took three weeks to get to it. And what he said started a long conversation.

I just don’t trust Christians anymore,” he blurted. 

Yes, I murmured only to myself. I know that feeling. Been there, done that. However our new friend was proposing something I wasn’t going to agree with easily. I’ve heard it often. It was the notion that if you cannot trust people then something is wrong, out of whack, and before you can ever be used again, trust has to be restored. You might as well move yourself out of the game, and find something else to do. Because we all know that Christians are all supposed to get along, and loss of trust is a huge breach to the harmony the Bible calls for. Where there is lack of trust, the people perish. (Sarcasm intended). 

I pulled myself away from my own thoughts and asked him, “What makes you think you have to trust them? I mean, after all, you did everything you could to address sin; you showed love, and they still stabbed you in the back. Do you really want to trust them? Should you trust people who are bent on doing you harm?” 

I then gave this example. “Suppose you’re married and have several children, and a robber breaks into your home. Would you not rush to stand between the robber and your family? You would never consider trusting a robber who’s barged into your house intent on stealing from you. So why would you trust anyone who has robbed you of your joy and ministry?”

Tom nodded, his eyes attentive, so I continued with another example. “Or suppose I take my granddaughter to the Grand Canyon, and near the edge I let go of her hand. Would I trust her to not walk too close to the edge on her own?”

“Of course not,” Tom replied, his furrowed brows now relaxing to match the the growing encouragement that came with this conversation. 

“Tom,” I continued, “I counsel couples where the husband was unfaithful to his wife. You would not expect the wife to trust him for a long time, would you? But I do urge her to love him. Not trusting him will actually strengthen the relationship. It makes him accountable. She has to be on her guard, and that’s good for him. Eventually, her love will allow him to earn that trust again.”

Tom tensed, wondering where I was going with this. 

“Sometimes,Tom, not trusting is important in developing a healthy relationship. I’ll show you in a moment how we are commanded to love others, but not necessarily by trusting them. But I’ll get to that soon.” 

I think my friend was getting it.

“Tom,” I chimed, “tell me where in the Bible we are commanded to trust other people?” 

We then discussed together how there are more places in the Bible that warn of us being too trusting. Consider the following: 

Put no trust in a neighbor; have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house. -Micah 7:5-6

Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come…Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream …The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?  -Jeremiah 17:5-12

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. -Psalm 118:8

But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. –John 2:24-25

Tom and I decided we’d covered plenty of ground for one day. We agreed to continue the conversation next week when we will discuss how loving can open the door to forgiveness, and how ultimately God wants reconciliation, and trust can be the outcome. We said goodbye, and I stepped back into my office. I had my own thinking to do. I plopped down on my recliner, pulling back the lever, forcing my feet up. The recliner faces a large window, and through a spread of branches I could see several of the Smoky Mountain’s special peaks. I sighed and reflected again on my own struggle with trust, longing for the reconciliation which to this point remained unmet. I allowed myself to think about the man, who claimed to be my friend, yet turned many against me in a recent ministry. And it cost us that ministry. Because I now counsel in a room down the hall from his office, I’ve learned to love him, evidence by the fact that because my heart is filled with compassion for him every time we talk. I pray for his business to prosper, and rejoice that it has. But right now I cannot trust him. Loving him allows me to live comfortably with that tension. However, l long for him to see his sin, as I see mine, and for the gospel to produce reconciliation so trust will be restored, but that is an outcome of when the Holy Spirit has equal access to each heart. In the meantime, I am comfortable loving him, absent of trust. Looking up again at the mountains, I then thought about Jesus and how he did so much better than me in this arena. Yet, he did it as an example for me and for Tom and people like us who live daily, rubbing shoulders with others who have caused us pain. I thought again of John 2:24-25 how Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. But he loved them, and died for them. 

Like Tom, I used to feel guilty that I could not and would not trust certain people. But now I understand how the best thing I can give them, for their own growth and sanctification is to be guarded around them. But I will love them, despite how they might have treated me. And that’s been great for my own growth. In fact, to keep loving people who’ve hurt me and might hurt me again is one way to see the gospel at work. And it is that gospel that allows for a forgiving heart and leads to repentance and ultimately to reconciliation, where yes, trust is possible again. In the meantime, I will keep displaying the love of Jesus. 

The world needs to see more of that.

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The Bible Is About Jesus, Not Us!

Over lunch some time ago my friend, between bites of a burrito asked me what I thought of that morning’s sermon. Not wanting to say too much about the guest speaker, I chose instead to process some of my thoughts concerning preaching today. There are two kinds of preaching, I explained. The kind that focuses on us, and the kind that focuses on Jesus. When Jesus is the focus, it also then becomes about us. Our lives find life in his life. Our purpose and call relates to his call and purpose. Most preaching I hear today uses the scripture to address us, not Jesus. It’s as though the Bible was only written to help us navigate through the tough seasons of life, or assist us in our troubles. This narcissistic approach to preaching makes us the center, forcing Jesus to play the role of life coach, not our savior. A well known Christian radio host refers to this kind of preaching as Narcigesis, combining the two words, narcissistic and eisegesis. Eisegesis (draw in) compared to exegesis (draw out) is the discipline of reading the Bible by placing ourselves in the story. Exegesis seeks to draw out of scripture from it’s context what the writer intended, making Jesus the main character of the story rather than us. Most contemporary preaching today uses the scripture to address us rather than Christ. Consequently, you hear more today about our purpose than you do about his purpose. 

I’ve always believed that Christ can be found in the Old Testament, but for the most part I treated it like a child looking for Waldo on a page with other more prominent characters. I’d read and preach through the Old Testament as though Jesus played a cameo role against the many other main characters to its stories. He’d make an appearance here and there, but only fully showed up in the New Testament.

Some years ago I woke up to the fact that the Old Testament is about Jesus. Every part of it. Take the book of Judges for example. Each judge is a failed picture of Christ, who ultimately came to lead and rule over us. Or more accurately the book of Judges exists to show us, by our failure that we need a good and godly king. That we need a savior. Ultimately, Jesus, not even David is that king. Read Judges with Christ in mind, and the stories come alive. The story of David killing Goliath was not written to show us how to beat our financial and relational giants. It’s a foreshadow of another unlikely hero, who would one day defeat our enemy once and for all at the cross. Jonah’s rebellion was not written to help us obey the call of God on our lives and the unfortunate consequences of rebellion. His life is the very antithesis of Jesus, who was called by God to go to another Nineveh, (our sinful world) and how he obeyed completely. Reading Jonah with Jesus glasses brings every part to life. The early part of the story where the sailors throw Jonah overboard to calm the storm, foreshadows Jesus taking the plunge in our place so we would not perish, and the storm calms when he’s swallowed by death’s cross. Even Jesus drew attention to the real purpose of Jonah. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40) Similarly, the barren women you read about in the Old Testament did not receive their miracle baby to tell us that God will all but guarantee a miracle in our barren situations. They served as foreshadows for the miracle of the virgin birth. Everything in the Old Testament is about Jesus.

Following his resurrection, Jesus happened to walk one day with two men deeply disturbed by his arrest and death. When their eyes finally opened to who it was walking with them, Jesus took the duration of the walk, explaining the entirety of scriptures this way; “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27). May our hearts burn like theirs as we discover how all of scripture is about Him, not us!

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Radical In The Mundane (Part 2)

Twenty youth stood bashfully on the stage; the youth pastor, mic in hand, in just a moment would pray for them before they headed off to the annual youth convention. But first, he challenged them to be fully open to God’s lead in their lives. My eyes shifted from the pastor to scan the faces of the youth, straining to see what might lie deeper in their hearts. My gaze moved down the line of teens as the pastor continued his challenge, which sounded strangely close to a warning not to come back unless their lives were radically changed for Jesus. Thread and NeedleWhile this pressure was building on these young vulnerable lives my eye-movement jolted back to the youth pastor. It’s what he said next that brought about this sudden shift to my attention, away from the teens to him. “Who knows?” he said with excitement. “Maybe, just maybe, some of you might be called this week to become a missionary, or even a pastor.” And then he prayed for them, committing each of them to God, asking the Almighty to call some into full-time ministry.

I can still remember those moments in my youth where the call to serve God offered only two valid options. Well, maybe three. Commit yourself fully to God, which meant full time ministry; do something else and live a mediocre life, or rebel against His will for your life (by not going into ministry). I wondered how many of the youth who stood on that platform and who bent under the pressure of the pastor’s prayer-of-high-expectation came back from the conference with a sense of shame and guilt because God did not call them. Most, I’m sure, settled for second best to God’s purposes, forced to a life of less-commitment, like being just a homemaker, or just an engineer or school teacher while the few who were more fortunate to have been touched by God led a more committed life of vocational ministry. (*)

There’s been a slight shift in emphasis today in this clarion call to serve God that sounds a bit different than a call to full-time ministry, but the pressure on our youth is still the same. I’m a dad to two children still in their twenties, and one who is sixteen and lives at home. I try as best I can to keep tabs with their generation by listening to a lot of podcasts of sermons and messages from large conferences and popular pastors who are the shakers and movers in their lives. The call into full-time ministry as God’s preference has now been replaced by the marching order to change the world. You are the generation that can change the world, is one example of what this inspiring call sounds like. And of course, after some years when the teen enters his twenties, or thirties and the world is no different around him, he’s left with little choice but to conclude that he’s failed God. Incidentally, you’ll find no scripture that calls the believer to change the world. The world’s a mess, and will get messier and the Bible makes it very clear that lawlessness will increase and more people will fall away from God than ever before (Read Matthew 24 if you don’t believe me). Instead, the church is called to make disciples who will remain faithful to Jesus (v.45) as the world spins wildly out of control. Remember how Jesus responded to the disciple’s indignation to the woman wasting the perfume on him by insisting the money would have rescued many poor people? Jesus responded by saying, You always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could(Mark 14:7)

Making disciples who remain faithful to Jesus is something I can work with. It’s manageable and appealing. It allows me to stay where I am, or move around in the mundane arenas of life and still live obediently to the call of Jesus. Had those youth been challenged to come back and keep loving Jesus wherever he places them in life, even if it’s in the ordinary places where the spotlight is not as bright, I can only imagine their excitement and the testimonies they’d be eager to share. After all, the ones who Jesus will say to, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,’ are those who simply used what they had for him. (Matthew 25:21). They did what they did for him, whether it was turning a wrench to lock a motor in place, or thread needles for keeping a well-worn pair of socks together, or preaching to a lost tribe in India; theirs were lives that pleased Jesus.

 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. (Colossians 3:23)

(*) It’s important I distinguish between the distinct call upon a man’s life into ministry from the special blessing that is associated with that call. As a pastor for 30 years I know I was called to this particular occupation. But I realize even more so now that this does not come with any more of a special blessing than the blessing of serving Christ given to someone working in a factory or teaching in a classroom.The role of the pastor according to Ephesians chapter 4:11-12 is uniquely to equip the believer in his works of service. And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; This puts tremendous value on the ordinary person who sits in the pew every Sunday. The pastor is uniquely called with a specific purpose of empowering those under his care to serve and love Jesus with faithfulness in whatever place God has him or her. This means the uniqueness and burden of the call for the factory worker is as special and important as it is to the pastor in the role God has given him. To be called by God to follow him and live for his glory, wherever he puts you, is the greatest privilege given to every believer.

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The Master Does it Again

The sermon I never preached is the sermon I desperately needed because of the reason I did not preach it. Let me explain. Elaine and I were in England recently where I’d been invited to speak at a church/denomination anniversary celebration. We first spent a week in the town where we once lived re-connecting with old friends, and helping the church leadership process some very important decisions. chiselingBy the end of the week we made our way toward the Leicestershire area for the celebration where I was scheduled to speak three times. Saturday afternoon’s events involved games, light snacks and topped off with a dinner spread of some of the best pork loins I’ve eaten in a long time. When late afternoon rolled into evening, the folks filled the small auditorium for the celebration to commence. Worship songs and reflections of the past set the stage for my first message on the faithfulness of God. It all went well; the mood that filled that small room reassured me that people were encouraged and looking forward to continuing the celebration the next day.

And they did, but without me.

That night I became violently ill. I assumed the migraine and rattled stomach would subside by morning, aided by a good sleep, but I was wrong. When I awoke, I felt worse. It turned out, because of my illness, that I could not fulfill my responsibility of speaking, nor attend, the rest of the event.

And so, the sermon I’d prepared for that morning, on the sovereignty and goodness of God remained unopened and un-preached. Yet, because of my disappointment and discouragement over having to bow out, it became the message I desperately needed. Rather than preaching to others that God is in control of everything, even when we’re hit by unexpected events, the Holy Spirit preached the sermon to my vulnerable and weakened heart, a heart that beat rhythmically between sheer embarrassment and deep discouragement.

I am still discouraged by what happened. The team there put a lot of time and resources into planning our time with them. I’m embarrassed by it, and slightly angry. Many back home prayed for us to be used effectively. I reminded God of that through the groans on the first evening of my illness, assuming he was more than eager to respond by allowing me to feel better the next morning. I was also frustrated that I’d spent over twenty hours preparing these messages, and now they’d be wasted.  Incidentally, this is the first time in 30 years of ministry that I could not fulfill a speaking engagement due to illness.

If you know me well, you know I’m not one to look for silver linings to give life’s dark cloud trials a more appealing background, but I’m forced this time to realize certain things about myself and the way God works with me, and us. The whole experience reinforced and cemented several things I knew to be true, but I guess I needed to go through this to really believe it. I keep reminding God that I could have discovered the lesson just as well by reading a good book about it.

First, I realized how God often uses us in the most unexpected ways. Elaine told me how that Sunday morning the pastor preached a great message, building on what I’d shared the night before. It was a powerful message, she explained, and exactly what God used to remind the folks how faithful and good he is. God did just fine without me, and even used what I was going through as part of his message. We prefer he uses healthy servants, but his way, as seen so often in the Bible, is by way of our struggles, sometimes even at our expense. God is a master at taking the unexpected and the disappointing and chiseling his best work through them.

I also discovered from this that there are no guarantees that faith will deliver desired results. Sure, I prayed; many others were praying, and I prepared well, assuming that what I brought to the table would result in good spiritual outcomes. I anticipated reporting back to those who prayed for me of the amazing ways God worked. Faith, however, contrary to what many teach today, is not the primer that assures certain results. Instead, faith is what empowers us to keep trusting when none of it goes our way, or what we had assumed was God’s way. Ronald Dunn, in his book, When Heaven is Silent, puts it like this. “Faith is not necessarily the power to make things the way we want them to be; it is the courage to face things as they are.” Every disappointment reminds me that God owes me nothing, and every disappointment gives me another opportunity to keep leaning on him with only one guarantee; I can trust him.

I look back over this experience in awe. God does what he does the way he wants, not the way I want. He owes me no explanation for what happened. And I love him more for it.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. Isa. 55:8

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use? Romans 9:20-21

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Radical in the Mundane of Life

I often read or hear of people calling us to radical living for Jesus. I’m not sure if we know what is meant by that. Or maybe I just don’t know what that means. A Instagram post recently placed an acronym image that left me little choice but to live my life all out, radically and audaciously for Jesus leaving no option for me but to be bold and adventurous. Ordinary

When I was young and newly committed to following Jesus I saw only one way to do it. With gusto! The books I read, chapel speakers and college professors emboldened me with the charge to give my all for Jesus. Most of us interpreted this call to mean leaving everything behind, going to the furthest, darkest regions of the world. Anything less would not suffice and did not fit the criteria for a true follower of Jesus. Early in my ministry this high octane standard fueled me and empowered me to share my faith, challenge the lost, and even insist one time that my wife join me in going door to door with the urgent message that if people did not repent, well, they’d end up in hell. 

I still believe in hell, and I still love sharing my faith, but several years ago I ran out of that driven energy that defined my early years. It’s not disillusionment that causes me now to dispense of (or perhaps redefine) the radical-all-out-everything-or-nothing call to follow Jesus. I’ve just concluded that most of us don’t live there, can’t live there for all that long. I’m also observing something in scripture that calls us to live radically in the mundane, to be faithful in the ordinary places of life. To be like the widow whose unimpressive offering Jesus affirmed as more note-worthy to God, and costly, than the proud, visible-to-all sacrifice made by the Pharisee. (Matthew 12:41-44). I also note how when Paul tells us in Ephesians that we are created for good works in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:10) he describes those good works later in the Epistle in terms of a husband loving his wife, a wife honoring her husband, children obeying their parents and employees obeying, without complaining, their employers. Pretty mundane stuff. 

Maybe it takes more commitment to serve well and hard on the stage of an empty theater when no one notices me. It takes more courage to push away sin in the quiet of my home, when I’m alone and no one would have ever seen what I did anyway; it’s radical to refuse to let bitterness creep and settle in my heart when I could harbor anger toward someone. Often the adventures of following Jesus take place when no one notices but Jesus. 

Today I’m asking different questions than the ones that pushed me into ministry early in my life. Questions like, How can I make a difference? are now taken over by, Am I willing to live an unassuming, behind the scene life from here on? How can God get the most of this life? made an exchange for the reality that it is okay to live through this life where not every hit is a grand slam. The longing to hear God daily and insist that he show up in my life has now been subdued by the truth that I’ll still love and trust him, even if he remains invisible and distant for the rest of my life. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 76:23) replaced the early cry of Philip in John 14:8 Lord show us the Father, and that will be enough. Jesus mildly rebuked Philip by reminding him that the Father had been with him, all along, in the normal daily, ordinary journey of knowing Jesus. 

I’m looking for a way to put all I’ve written here into the acronym, O.R.D.I.N.A.R.Y, but I’ll leave that for you to play around with. All creative entries welcome.

Welcome to the adventure of following Jesus, wherever you are right now! 

“Discipleship is built entirely on the supernatural grace of God. Walking on water is easy to someone with impulsive boldness, but walking on dry land as a disciple of Jesus Christ is something altogether different. Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus, but he ‘followed at a distance’ on dry land. (Mark 14:54) We do not need the grace of God to withstand crises – human nature and pride are sufficient for us to face the stress and strain magnificently. But it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours of every day as a saint, going through drudgery, and living an ordinary, unnoticed, and ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God – but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people – and this is not learned in one hour.” – Oswald Chambers My Utmost for His Highest Oct.21

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Christianity Doesn’t Work For Me! 

A popular apologist and evangelist recently told his audience that the reason he is a Christian, and the compelling reason they, too, should be, is because Christianity works. This dangerous proposition, to accept Christ for a better life, leaves an open door and easy out for many to abandon the faith when it fails to deliver on its promise. Popular books and speakers are delivering this message en mass. Splashed on the TV screen and spread across shelves of XnityChristian bookstores are messages and titles that are far from subtle. Book titles such as, Your Best Life Now, The Purpose Driven Life, The Power of The I Am, Breaking Free, Jesus Calling, Power Thoughts, Destined to Reign, exist because of the audience’s insatiable appetite for a cheap grace theology, for a faith that works for them. The Apostle Paul was spot on when he predicted this would happen. Writing to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-5 Paul warned, For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. We have in fact, raised up, accumulated, teachers to suit our own passions.

I am not a Christian because it works. Of course, I can testify that God has been good to me, but that conclusion comes mainly out of biblical conviction, not necessarily from personal experience. Determining what God is like based on my experience would leave me an atheist. I believe God is good because the Bible says he is, not because he’s bailed me out every time I’ve been in a tough place. I’m tempted to say he is also good because He’s shown Himself really faithful and present during the hard times of my life. It’s early morning as I’m writing this and I’ve only had one cup of coffee, which means I’ve not had enough time today, or caffeine, to borrow from the usual cliches for conversations like this. I’m going to be brutally real here, honestly raw. I really can’t tell you he’s shown himself to be good to me during the hard times of my life. I’ve often not felt his presence. In truth, he often seems absent. What brought me through those dark moments was a faith and trust in what I knew to be true about him from scripture. The Holy Spirit then confirmed those truths during the pain, as reminders of what is true of him, but not necessarily by providing relief in the moment. Many of those moments were actually anguishing, nearing the edge of tormenting.  Where is God when it hurts? is an all too real question most of us ask from the darker corners of our painful places. Those are times we could easily conclude that this Christianity is not working, but only if we were to determine that in the moment of our crisis.

The Lord used me some years ago to bring Charlie to faith. I discipled Charlie for several months, and we became friends. Six months into his faith-journey he wanted to meet with me. Mitch, he said in an accusing tone. Ever since I accepted Christ, everything is falling apart. My business is losing money, and nearly every member of my family has turned against me. What’s up with that? 

Oh, I responded rather sheepishly. I forgot to tell you something. God doesn’t promise that everything will go better for you once you turn to him. I opened my Bible and continued, In fact, let me show you some examples where things actually got worse for the follower of Jesus. 

So, why consider Christianity? For you who are Christians, why stick with it? If not because it works, then why?

I suffered four years of severe depression as a teenager. What kept me going was knowing that Jesus would one day bring me through. I clung to what I knew to be true about Him. I knew I was forgiven, and even at a young age understood that the ultimate goal of my faith was eternity with him. I believed deep in that place where only faith can dwell that one day I’d be delivered and free. By my seventeenth birthday, I was completely cured of depression and my faith intact.

I came to Jesus and continue with Jesus, not because it works, but because of the hope it offers. It’s the hope of my salvation. I am a Christian because Jesus found me while I was dead in my transgressions and sins (Eph.2:1) and he made me alive in Christ. (Eph. 2:5) Salvation offers hope because it stands on a sure promise by a very dependable and faithful God who did a very certain thing for me, and for you. A promise that one day Jesus will finally rescue us from this hard life lived out in a hard, tormented world where a lot of bad stuff happens equally to those who love Jesus and those who don’t. Sorry Joel Osteen. My best life is not now. It’s still to come. But, in the meantime, I keep trusting and continue serving. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling. (2 Cor. 5:2) I am a Christian because my sins have been forgiven, and I’ve been reconciled to God my King, and one day he promises to establish his reign in a new heaven and earth when finally we will see him face to face. In the meantime, I’m willing to shrug off the empty promises of a better life now.

One thought on “Christianity Doesn’t Work For Me! 

  1. Vivian Parlin

    Hi Mitch,
    I don’t usually respond to much but this blog disturbed me & I finally decided I had to say something. I agree with some of what you said. I agree that promoting Christianity as “the good life” is deceiving but I have to question whether you read the books you mentioned before you put your thoughts in writing. I question more than one of them and I have read them. The one I am choosing to focus on is “Jesus Calling”. I have read it through twice and received much encouragement from the things she has shared. Often we hear a sermon and say ” that was just what I needed to hear today”. I believe that is God speaking to me and I felt that way many days when I read “Jesus Calling”. I’m not reading it this year but I would like to share today’s entry.

    June 1
    I am involved in each moment of your life. I have carefully mapped out every inch of your journey through this day, even though much of it may feel haphazard. Because the world is in a fallen condition, things always seem to be unraveling around the edges. Expect to find trouble in this day. At the same time, trust that “My way is perfect”, even in the midst of such messy imperfections.

    Stay conscious of Me as you go through this day, remembering that I never leave your side. Let the Holy Spirit guide you step by step, protecting you from unnecessary trials and equipping you to get through whatever must be endured. As you trudge through the sludge of this fallen world, keep your mind in heavenly places with Me. Thus Light of My Presence shines on you, giving you Peace and Joy that circumstances cannot touch.

    As for God, his way is perfect;
    the word of the LORD is flawless.
    He is a shield
    for all who take refuge in him.
    Psalm 18:30
    “For I am the LORD, your God,
    who takes hold of your right hand
    and says to you, Do not fear;
    I will help you.”
    Isaiah 41:13

    I can’t find anything in there that is not in the Word of God or would make anyone think the Christian life is all good. Please point it out to me if you can. I would also like to share a portion of her introduction to the book. If you haven’t read any of her writing I would challenge you to at least read the introduction.

    ” I had been writing in prayer journals for years, but that was one-way communication: I did all the talking. I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day. I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believed He was saying. I felt awkward the first time I tried this, but I received a message. It was short, biblical, and appropriate. It addressed topics that were current in my life: trust, fear and closeness to God. I responded by writing in my prayer journal.
    My journaling had changed from monologue to dialogue. Soon, messages began to flow more freely, and I bought a special notebook to record these words. This new way of communicating with God became the high point of my day. I knew these writings were not inspired as Scripture is, but they were helping me grow closer t God.”

    I believe that God speaks to all of us at different times and in different ways such as His Word, ministers sharing what God has given them, writings that are God centered, and sometimes He impresses something on us relative to a particular situation. Many times when I think I don’t hear from God it’s because I’m not being diligent or intentional about listening. I also believe sometimes our faith is tested through silence. Those times are very difficult and hard for me to understand but that’s when I learn to trust. (something I never learned as a child)
    I was raised in a negative environment and didn’t understand that God loved me. I thought I would be punished if I was bad. I am still in process of changing my thinking and writings like “Jesus Calling” have both challenged and encouraged me and I am thankful that they share what God has impressed on them.

    Thanks for reading my rather lengthy “vent”.
    Vivian

    Reply

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Suffering’s Unwelcome Privilege 

SufferingObedience is necessary in times of hardship, as much as it is in every other area of life.  Jesus anguished in the garden, not because he did not want to go through with what his father asked of him, but because he feared he might not. When Jesus said, “Not my will, but yours be done,” he was asking his father to help him be obedient with the burden his father had placed on him. He longed to do his father’s will. John 4:34 “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” John 6:38 “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” We know from Philippians 2 that Jesus never strayed from this one mission, nor did his passion for it diminish. However, this was not without a struggle. Philippians 2:7 tells us he was, “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Why does it not say he was faithful to the point of death? Why obedient? In the garden, Jesus was not asking God to remove the prospect of dying on the cross, but asking God to give him the courage, obedience, to face it. He anguished that he might not go through with it as the Son of Man. (See Oswald Chamber, My Utmost for His Highest, April 5)

I’ve suffered four harsh experiences in my life. Child depression, and three members of my immediate family suffering through life-threatening cancer all challenged my claim to love and follow Jesus. Beginning with my childhood experience, I was conscious of the need to accept what God was asking of me. The option to rebel existed as no less real than my choosing a particular path on a journey I might take. The prospect to disobey was as real to me as it must have been for Jesus in his anguish of not having what it takes to go the distance while in the garden. When my youngest son was diagnosed with Burkett’s Lymphoma cancer in 2006, this third burden on my shoulders nearly forced my previously open hands to ball up into a fist. The temptation to shake my fist at God was all too real. Again, this heavy burden forced me to fall to my knees, and I found myself pleading that God would give me the grace to be obedient. Disobedience would have meant not accepting the burden, and would have resulted in bitterness and refusal to lean on and trust in Jesus.

During a prayer at my oldest son’s funeral the pastor referred to what our family was going through as an, “unwelcome privilege”.

Suffering becomes another opportunity for us to tell Jesus we will trust him. We acknowledge that he trusts us with what he is placing on our shoulders. Our longing, then, is to be obedient with it.

Sadly, I meet too many who fail to see what God has given them as an unwelcome privilege. An unwillingness to accept what God has placed on them can lead to unimaginable brokenness, and loneliness. Unfortunately, by the time I meet some of them, the hardness of their hearts makes them deaf to the call to obedience. Yet the gospel is so powerful, as we saw with Peter following his denial, Jesus continues to call us to experience the renewal that comes with obedience. This is why when I counsel a hurting couple whose marriage clings by a single thread, I urge them to first repent, then confess their sin toward each other and toward Jesus, and then embrace the healing and cleansing that comes as we meet together at the foot of the cross.

Suffering always pits us against one of two tensions. Our will, or the will of the One who redeemed us. Not, my will Father, but your will be done.

I choose obedience.

Yes, it might be harder, but it’s the only path that leads to true health and life.

What are you going through right now? Are you obedient with it?

Dear Lord, I don’t like what you are asking me to go through. Sometimes the burden weighs so heavy I can barely manage it. I fight off the impulse to be angry at You for putting me in this position. However, the prospect of being alone scares me. The idea of being disobedient right now, terrifies me. Please, help me to be obedient during this time of suffering. I want to live by your will, not my own. Thank you for the example of Jesus, who in the garden experienced everything and more of what it is like be human. My greatest fear is to give up now when you have been so faithful and trustworthy in the past. My greatest fear is that I would not go through with what you have desired for me. Grant to me the courage to be obedient. -Amen

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A View from the Stump

_MG_2958A broken, dying stump, the remnant of a once strong tree now forms the beautiful foreground for this picture I recently shot. Much of what I do in helping pastors and ministry leaders in pain is to guide them to get perspective. For so many the youthful hopes of this life and ministry impacting the kingdom are now nothing more than memories of what could have been. Rather than towering as a tall tree, the life of the pastor, reduced by years of failure and resistance by others, now sits, an insignificant stump in the landscape of all God does through the apparent successes of others. Yet, here there is victory, and meaning. Once his troubled and broken life is viewed through the lens of God’s sovereignty and purpose, everything else appears in proper perspective to the pastor. A accurate view of oneself, against the backdrop of God’s larger mission, gives meaning to brokenness. This is why I rarely talk a pastor, or a missionary, out of what he is feeling, or going through. I have no right to that. Neither can I do much to change the hard circumstances that have contributed to his brokenness. He, too, has no access to alter his history. All I can do is speak of Jesus, his love, his sovereignty and the larger purpose of his mission. I also carefully suggest that God allows brokenness to further advance his purpose. Like Paul in prison we are able to say, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” (Phil 1:12-13)  Once the pastor views his broken, frail and fragile life next to what Jesus is doing, he sees it all differently, especially his own experiences. I love that moment when the eyes light up; the chin lifts and a long sigh releases the burdens of a heavy heart. Why? Perspective! A selfish, self-centered view of oneself, the sort driven by desire for recognition, will not allow a pastor, or any of us for that matter, to see what God is really doing. I know the message has gotten through when I hear the pastor say something like this: “You know, I think God actually wanted me to go through this. It is helping me to see better what he is doing. My trial, and this burden I carry,  this difficult church, antagonistic people, are allowing me to see him and what he is doing in a new, fresh way.” This willingness to allow the broken dreams of a great life, to stand now in the foreground as vulnerable and weak, roots the pastor more deeply in his relationship with God and brings deeper meaning to the pastor’s life and his ministry.

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The God of Deceleration

Prosperity preacher, Joel Osteen, declared 2016 the year of acceleration for members of his congregation. He presented it like this: For those who have been faithful and have honored and obeyed God, I declare that He is going to put you in a position that you could not have ever gotten into on your own. He is bestowing favor and honor in a fresh, new way! I declare that this year, doors are going to open for you that have not opened before. What should have taken you 40 years to accomplish, God is going to do in a split second. I declare you are coming into acceleration. Suddenly, a dream will come to pass. Suddenly, a promise will be fulfilled. Suddenly, the negative situations are going to turn around. Now, get ready for the surpassing greatness of His favor! 2013 is going to be an exceptional year for you as you come into these supernatural shifts in Jesus’ name! Amen! blessed

Notice what I underlined above, that this is available to those who have been faithful and have honored and obeyed God. This is a set-up for disillusionment. Many will look back on 2016 and assume they missed out on their acceleration because of their lack of faith and inability to honor and obey God sufficiently. What was lobbed at them in the form of a promised guarantee turned out to be an exploding grenade with damaging shrapnel tearing apart the very fabric of faith. This morning I scanned the comments by readers on the webpage where the above statement by Osteen is posted. Most were favorable comments by Osteen cheerleaders eagerly awaiting their acceleration from God. One sole critic wrote the following, I’d rather partake of Christ’s sufferings in my life than to have a life of luxury. I pictured this man ducking under the subsequent onslaught of attacks by Osteenites obviously insulted by his suggestion that this might not be God’s way for us.

Here’s my take: Rarely does God bless us as a way to draw us to Himself. That privilege usually comes by way of suffering and the restraint of his material blessings. 2016 for some, and I propose for many, will be the year of deceleration. But we need that.

I was struck while reading through the book of Amos this morning for my devotions that God tends to withhold blessing from us until we have only Him to hunger after. That alone, then becomes the blessing. Consider this pattern from Amos chapter four:

•I gave you … lack of bread in all your places …yet you did not return to me.

•I also withheld the rain from you …yet you did not return to me.

•I struck you with blight and mildew … your fig trees and olive trees the locust devoured … yet you did not return to me.

•I sent among you a pestilence … I killed your young men with the sword …yet you did not return to me.

•I overthrew some of you … yet you did not return to me.

The implication from each of these statements is that God provided his people a clear path to Him by way of suffering and loss. Unfortunately, they refused it.  Osteen’s claim that God will honor our faith by giving us an acceleration of blessing goes directly against scripture, therefore demonic in origin.* Even in the New Testament you will not find a servant of Jesus who did not suffer as a reward for his faithfulness. Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matt. 19:27). Interestingly, this conversation started with Jesus saying to his disciples, Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. (v.23) Prosperity preachers are actually making it more difficult for people to find God. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalms 73:26

*I have spoken a number of times to Christian bookstore managers about the featured books by prosperity preachers and authors visibly displayed, front and center, in their stores, even sending them sound articles explaining their danger. I have yet to see any willing to give up the promise of a sure sale at the expense of doing what is right. Jim Elliot put it well when he said, He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.

Once it was the blessing,  Now it is the Lord; Once it was the feeling, Now it is His Word. Once His gift I wanted, Now, the Giver own; Once I sought for healing, Now Himself alone.

                                  -AB Simpson Himself

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  The Pastor and His Church-The Burden and Privilege of Leading Prodigals (Part Two)

“And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

The default setting for many pastors whose churches are struggling is to assume they are inadequate or perhaps failed in some way. I have met few, if any pastors who when looking in the face of a struggling ministry consider it a privilege, who assume God has placed them there because the ministry was struggling. Our society nurtures the notion that if you work hard, do the right thing, the outcome will be good and healthy. Tied to that, lingers the assumption that if something you worked hard for did not turn out well, it can only mean you somehow failed. Where this exists in ministry, the result is discouragement.

A biblical perspective offers a different way to look at the struggles of ministry. Perhaps God has placed such a pastor in such a church because He knew the church would be struggling, and this is the man God wants to lead them. Every prophet God called in the Old Testament marched confidently for God into rebellion, chaos and disorder. That was why God called him. Rarely were prophets called during times of peace. Small Church

Last week I proposed to parents of prodigals that God often drops troubled teens in our lives because in His providence he knew they would need us. Rather than living with guilt that we have failed as parents, we take on that responsibility as a burden and privilege. I believe the same is true when God gives a pastor a struggling church – a prodigal church.

Imagine you’re in a doctor’s office and you wonder what in the world the doctor did wrong that so many under his care are sick. We would say that is a ridiculous conclusion. Sick people go to a doctor because they need help. The doctor confidently sees himself in that position to care for those who are unwell. Is it any different for a pastor? The church is made up of unwell people. Some churches, apparently blessed with more people than other small struggling churches, are simply gatherings of more people who carry the same needs and problems as smaller communities. I would contend (and to unpack this will require another blog) that larger churches filled with hurting people, often are unhealthier than smaller churches, particularly where the gospel is not presented soundly as the answer and cure.

I long for pastors to consider where God has placed them with whatever condition exists in their church, as a privilege, burden and responsibility.

Perhaps, Pastor, Jesus has you where you are because He trusts you with that burden.

He knew that group would be a struggling collection of individuals, and He wants you to be the man to lead them to drink from the well of the gospel. Unhealthy churches are not small churches, but any church, large or small, absent of a leader who is convinced Jesus has called him to take hurting struggling people to the cross and there meet Jesus. A secure, confident pastor is the man I meet who knows God put him where he is, and that is enough. He will just be faithful with what has been given to him, even if it’s a struggling church.

A healthy church is one where the pastor leads the people to discover the life -provision of the gospel found in Jesus and His redemptive work alone, regardless of the size or number of ministries of that church. 

Several weeks ago I visited a popular church attended by several thousand people. The room was electric with anticipation. The worship was alive, but the gospel was hardly mentioned. What was offered for preaching could have easily been given with equal enthusiasm had the pastor spoken to the local Rotary Club. The cross was barely visible. Mention of Jesus; a footnote to an enthusiastic speech about what Jesus can do to make your life better in 2016. The Holy Spirit was referred to as your life coach should you need Him. I looked around and thought, this is one of the unhealthiest Churches I’ve seen in a long time. I’m surrounded by thousands of hurting, needy and thirsty people who will not find life in Jesus today. I missed my church that Sunday, a small church attended by no more than sixty people, but where the Word is preached, people are loved and the gospel of Jesus is central. Where hurting, struggling people straining to meet the demands placed on them by life, come week after week longing for a message of Grace, and who are never disappointed.

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. Luke 16:10

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The Burden and Privilege of Raising Prodigals (Part One)

These are the sons God has given me….”  –Genesis 48:9

Many parents carry a tremendous weight of guilt when their children take the road of rebellion. The burden seems greatest on the shoulders of those in ministry. Granted, there are some parents who are negligent and probably deserve an award for worst parent of the year. Take the parents of Ethan Couch, for example, the supposed “Affluenza Teen”. At thirteen, his parents allowed him to drive. At sixteen, one late night he slipped his intoxicated body into his father’s pickup truck; three friends hopped into the back, and Ethan ended up killing four people who were standing next to their broken-down vehicle waiting for help. Under deposition his parents admitted they’d never disciplined their son. A psychologist taking the stand in his defense blamed the problem on Ethan never knowing the difference between right and wrong, the consequence of being raised by parents who spoiled him rotten. Thus, the famous label was placed on Ethan Couch, that of the “Affluenza Teen.”

Most parents are not like the Couches. They try hard. Many are rewarded with good, healthy, obedient, loving children who repay their parents efforts with affectionate love. Yet others seem to get the short end of the stick, and while they feel they did their best, the outcome raises self doubts. These parents live with the sadness and guilt, that their child’s rebellion, or lack of interest in spiritual matters can only be explained by their parental neglect.

I believe for many it’s an unnecessary burden, and here is why.

I spoke not long ago to a hurting pastor’s wife whose heart ached for her prodigal daughter. The daughter is now in her mid-twenty’s. She lives at home occasionally, stumbles in and out of relationships, and goes on and off drugs. Got pregnant recently, but miscarried. The parents love her, and while she depends on them they feel she is using them. I listened, and saw the lines across her forehead tell a story of years of pain, lines taut with tension, and beneath the lines, set eyes worn by tears, darkened by hard days of hopelessness and sadness. Prodigal

I looked at her and then said, “Can I share something with you that might be an encouragement?”

She strained to lift her heavy eyes, inviting me to speak. “Have you ever thought that perhaps God has trusted you with your daughter and this situation, and rather than feeling guilty for the way she has turned out, maybe you need to see this as a responsibility, and even a privilege? I wonder if God needed her in a family like yours, with parents like you, because He knew she would need you both?”

The lines seemed to loosen like the release of a tightened rubber band, and her eyes filled with what looked like a fresh flow of tears, the kind that now washed, rather than clouded with more pain. She sighed, looked at me with a sense of relieve and said, “Wow. I’ve never thought of that in my life!”

I’ve spoken of this many times with hurting parents. If we really believe we are stewards of our children, given to us by God for a season to raise them, nurture and love them, He will trust us to see them through even the darkest moments. In His providence and foreknowledge, perhaps He knew best what kind of parents they needed. Such perspective turns guilt into a sense of purpose. It shifts blame to value. Despair flips over into hope. Rather than beating yourself up, you begin to pray with power, because you understand your God-given role now and why He has allowed it to be the way it is. Of course, it doesn’t at all end the pain, nor the heaviness.

It burdens me to see parents suffer the anguish of ongoing rebellion. But, it saddens me more to see them give up. So, I’d rather encourage them by giving them a glimpse of how Jesus must see it.

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Where Suffering Meets Creativity (Blog Two -The Healing Power of Writing)

Crammed in our basement closest, in a dark corner sits a box groaning under the pressure of several other heavy, unopened boxes. This one box, bent, but intact, contains half a dozen journal, I’ve hardly glanced at in thirty years. They’ve moved with me from Georgia to North Carolina, Indiana to Texas, Texas to England, England back to Georgia,Georgia to Wisconsin and Wisconsin back to North Carolina. Stored cargo, these forgotten words are hidden deep in my ship’s hold, perhaps one day to be discovered by someone who cares enough to look through them. I’m not sure why I don’t dig back through those notes. Why I don’t glean those lost pages. Early on, a few years after writing them, I’d review the journal, scan what I’d written, but grow bored. I decided while writing this to pause, and like a revived pirate scavenged that box to see what would happen if I ran my fingers through those gleaming pages again. canvas

Aye, Aye Matey, I’ve returned. Nearly ruined Elaine’s collection of delicate kitchen cups in box number two, the box responsible for crushing the journals.

It struck me, reading my journey back then, how I wrote things just as I saw them. Raw stuff with little creativity, or description, or excitement. Frankly, compared to now, it seems there wasn’t really that much going on in my life. Not a lot to be writing about. My life seemed dry. Uneventful. Routine. Little drama. Consider these entries:

Nov. 12, 1984 Really tired last night, went to bed about 9 a.m. 

Dec. 29, 1984 Watching football, Playoffs – 49ers vs NY 

May 20, 1985 Went to some friends to play a game of Rook

August 10, 1985 Our neighbors are really nice

March 15, 1986 Elaine is pregnant (Okay, that is exciting!)

Jan. 21, 1987, 7 a.m. As usual I am watching the Today Show

May 26, 1987 Dentist called and said he could do root canal 

So there you have it. My life. Back then. Pretty routine. Life. As it was. I kind of miss it actually.

The one time journal notes were worth reading and re-reading was when hard things happened to me, to my family. Those found a place in my journal years later. In red. I wrote about that in the previous blog. The pen dipped in a well of tears and pressed hard on paper by fingers latched to a broken heart. I’d thought I’d never write like that again, because I hoped to never be in pain like that again. I often tell my sister-in-law, who edits my writing, that I can only write when I have something to write about. When I wrote Fires of Sorrow (the story of that journey) I had something harsh to write about. The stuff in my heart was raw. The thoughts in my mind were freshly borrowed from the wounds in my soul, and formed into words still wet from the pain. People read words like that. I try to read books written by people who think they have something to say, but it’s all so dry. Mechanical. Put’s me to sleep. Like my “old” journal notes.

The second season in my life where I had something real and raw to write about happened on the open space and broad plaines of ministry. While cancer in my family nearly robbed me as a husband and father, the anguish of ministry nearly robbed me of passion. Pastors and missionaries who experience attack from the sheep they lead, or attack from the outside know exactly what I’m talking about. I held onto that pain for a while and carried it nearly alone into a new ministry, hoping it would disappear on its own, but the load only increased. Talking helped some. Elaine and I looked for ways to speak to each other about it, but our emotions crisscrossed into each other’s vulnerable spaces. We seemed to only trade emotions. We found others who could help us navigate our feelings, and they brought relief for a moment. The new ministry provided a good place to serve, and more people to love, and love us back. But, it was writing that finally helped bring the most release. I pounded on the keyboard all that sprang from the crammed wall of my heart, and welcoming words of release slung to the screen of my computer. Eventually a theme came together. Key ideas and principles swung off these themes into neat chapters and sections, but I wasn’t satisfied yet. It felt good to get it off my chest, but I was bored when I re-read my notes. I thought, if I’m bored, others will be bored.

Then I had a novel idea.

Literally. A novel.

A novel.

I decided to place my experiences into a story on the shoulders of a fictional character, and the story flowed. Three months later the draft was complete, and a year later The Whisper was published. It was my story, my way of trying to figure out what rebellion would have looked like, had I chosen that way. Of course, I did not choose rebellion, but what if I had? Like a journal written in the heat of suffering, this novel written during the pains of ministry, set me on a path to recovery in a way simply writing out my struggles blandly could have never accomplished. Since then I’ve written a sequel called The Guardian describing how a pastor discovers tremendous healing from the support of the community of his elders. His Guardians.

Not everyone can write, or needs to write to process their pain. It is never wise to hold onto pain, however. God has made us emotional beings, but also creative beings. Much of that creativity involves expressing ourselves during times of suffering. We know of artists whose best works were created during their hardest times, musicians who composed their masterpieces in times of deep loneliness and loss, athletes who performed best when something had been taken from them. My father, for example, became an accomplished pianist while convalescing from TB for two years as a teenager.

Is it possible God will press us to bring out the best in us? Work His best through us when we are hurting? It was AW Tozer who said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.” Have you ever thought that your pain can become God’s canvas to create His best work? Are you allowing Him that? Or are you resisting Him?

Consider what Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 4:4-8  But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.

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The Healing Power of Writing

I first discovered the power of writing when my wife, Elaine, fought for her life following emergency surgery to remove a meningioma brain tumor in Liverpool, England. The surgeon’s words to me following the operation cut me as deeply as the scalpel he used on my wife. “Had she come to us twenty minutes later she would not have survived.” There was more. “Right now she’s fighting for her life. If she makes it, I’m afraid she’ll never be the same again.” Writing copy

It took Elaine more than a month to emerge from a coma. A year later she  was was still fighting to regain her speech, struggling for comprehension, and barely able to match picture cards with their corresponding words. We moved back to the states for her recovery, but progress was placed aside to face the anguish of another tragedy, our oldest son’s diagnosis of an inoperable malignant astrocytoma brain stem tumor, which ten months later took his life.

I searched for answers and groped for meaning by writing. For the first time in my life the gift of writing, the art of matching the anguish of emotion with words was born. My father was the first to point this out. When Elaine struggled for her life during that first month, I returned home to attend to my three young children, first handing a stack of hand-written notes to my father. They were journal entries written at the bedside of my wife. My father and mother had flown across the Atlantic to help me manage the home and my sanity. Each day the routine homecoming was predictable. I greeted my parents, handed the notes to my dad and feebly pushed away the sadness for Elaine by drawing strength from my three children. I’d play, read and hug. Each night, perhaps an hour into this routine, my father would enter the room in tears. Holding up the handwritten notes, which he’d typed into our computer, he said, “Mitch, this is powerful. Deeply moving.” Two weeks later he dared to mention the possibility of a book. “Mitch, someday others will benefit from this. But that will be later.”

Three years later I published my first book.  The Fires of Sorrow recounted my journey, our journey of survival. I spread my feelings on paper, sorted the anger on pages and resolved all the tensions into multiple chapters and sections. I wrestled with my theology over God’s sovereignty by laying bare my soul and poured the questions and doubts into capsules of words. Thus, I found strength and courage, and writing became my helpful companion.

Since then, I write to process. It happened again several years ago following a hard ministry. I set to work out the experience by writing a book. I had a novel idea. Literally. A Novel. In my next blog I will share how putting my experiences into a story on the shoulders of a fictional character became exciting and extremely helpful.

Next time!

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Grasping Mercy’s Reach!

I’m on a quest trying to understand how restoration can happen in community rather than out of community. The best I can do in this blog is lay out the burden and come far short of reaching any answers. Perhaps raising the question can get us to figure out how we can do a better job seeing people healed and restored with the help of community. I know it’s the biblical thing to do, I just don’t see it happening much today. Perhaps our way of doing church doesn’t make it easy, or even possible. shame

When our pastors fail, ethically or morally, typically, if not always they are asked to leave. Rarely does the community they served play a role in their restoration. If anything they are told to leave quickly (and quietly), get help and get better and perhaps we might consider someplace they could serve again. Unlikely in the same ministry. If they do serve again it’s usually by wearing a clearly visible badge of shame.

Last month, Dallas Cowboy’s quarterback Tony Romo was seriously injured. A broken collar bone forces him to sit out the remainder of the season. You’ll see him again, not on the field, but wearing a sling in the players stand with many second string players. He will stay with the team until he is well again. And the team will contribute to his healing. Team doctors, trainers and coaches will do all they can to make sure he recovers certainly and quickly. Encouragement from fans and teammates will motivate Tony back to his starting position.

What would it look like if a church contributed to the healing of the injured around them? What would happen if rather than sending away we embraced and loved and cheered toward full restoration. An elder blows it morally, and while, yes, he must step down, he is not shamed. He remains and embraces the love, accepts the discipline, but still shows up – immersed in the acceptance of the body he served. The body contributes to his healing, and one day, possibly, he’ll serve again stronger and healthier than ever before.

Remember the pastor you know who had the affair with the secretary? He was led out the back door the day he was caught and never seen again. That Sunday an elder stood before the congregation; you sat there feeling the tension in the air, knowing something was wrong. Rumors swirled that the pastor had to leave suddenly, but no one knew why. An announcement would be made that Sunday.  You sat there, breathing heavily, tears pushing past the lump in your throat expecting the worst. Your gut told you the pastor, that man you looked up to and respected and loved did something terribly wrong. Stan Headelder stepped to the mic; you saw him take his own deep breath. His left hand shook as it reached for the inside of his suit pocket and pulled out a worn, wrinkled piece of paper. You thought you saw tear stains on the edges. Stan read slowly, voice shaking. The statement was short, but firm. “Pastor Daniels was asked to resign because of an affair with the secretary. The elders ask all members not to contact the pastor, nor Charleen, his wife. The two need time to heal, to reconcile. They’re meeting with a counselor, therefore in good hands.”

The lump in your throat seemed to drop to your stomach and you felt like throwing up. You wanted so badly to see pastor Daniels and Charleen and just hug them. To forgive him. You pushed aside the urge to stand up and ask why you couldn’t see them. After all he served us, loved us and shepherded us for fifteen years. Oh well, the elders must know what they’re doing, so you pushed away that impulse.

I meet a number of pastors and ministry workers who live in isolation, ostracized by the community they need for their healing. They fear being seen, knowing their scarlet letter is clearly visible. They, too, have a longing to be embraced. To be told they are forgiven. To confess sin and cry with those they sinned against. To hear some say, “We struggle with that, too, and we love you”. They live in the silence of the phone call that will never come, the knock on the door that exists only in their imaginations.

A popular pastor I listened to regularly on podcast spoke often about grace. It was his drumbeat. He confessed that he was a sinner who needed the gospel preached to him daily. I felt refreshed listening to his messages. I swam daily in the ocean of the mercy and grace he spoke about that flowed from the cross and shed blood of Jesus. The depths of that pool was immeasurable. Then one day I heard this pastor had slipped up. His messages were no longer available. All past sermons, removed. Every fingerprint of his life and message wiped clean. He was forced to resign. I’ve no idea what happened to him, or how he is doing.* I pray often for him. Yet, knowing he believed so strongly in his message of grace, I sense he’s taking it more seriously now than those who asked him to leave. I am stretching myself trying to imagine how possibly he could have stayed and experienced discipline, healing and restoration by the community he served. I’m struggling picturing it. Not because the gospel doesn’t call for it, but more, because our lack or inability to truly understand and extend grace doesn’t seem to match our claim that it is so important.

I’m not suggesting we diminish the severity of the sin, or that we overlook sin. I’m longing to grasp mercy’s reach that pulls toward full restoration, not just in the sinner’s life, but also for the community.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. What is your story? What do you long for that would have been done differently in a story you know? How was it done right? 

*I discovered yesterday that this pastor was hired by another ministry organization, filling a non-pastoral role that will allow him to make a living, and continue healing while surrounded by a loving, graced-filled community of believers. Now, that’s what I’m talking about!

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Fools Gold and the Gospel

A young friend called me not long ago and sounded a lot like me. He leads a ministry team at his college. The team travels nearly every weekend to minister to youth groups around the eastern and southern parts of the U.S. Most times, the team provides the full service of drama, worship and powerful speaking. Sometimes, though, the church chooses to bring in their own speaker. That was the case when he called me. His concern? While challenging, and calling the teens to follow Jesus and serve him, not once was there any mention of sin. There was no call to repent and pursue righteousness. No word about why Jesus came, and his substitutionary work on the cross, his death and burial and resurrection. That the reason they struggle is because they are sinful, and they can be set free of sin and experience victory in every area of life because of Jesus.

This omission, of never mentioning our core problem, has become mainstream, where we are called to follow Jesus without any awareness of what keeps us from following him. Jesus came, they say, not as redeemer, but as our motivational coach to help us reach our goals and passions, and to talk us out of feeling so badly about ourselves.

A popular song (on the radio almost every hour it seems) by Britt Nicole entitled, Gold, seeks to encourage struggling teens by valuing their worth. LooFools Goldk at some of the words:

So don’t let anybody tell you that you’re not loved – And don’t let anybody tell you that you’re not enough – Yeah there are days that we all feel like we’re messd up – But the truth is that we’re all diamonds in the rough

So don’t be ashamed to wear your crown – You’re a king you’re a queen inside and out – You glow like the moon, you shine like the stars -This is for you, wherever you are

Oh, oh, yeah, yeah, oh, oh, – You’re gold

This, this is for all the girls, boys all over the world – Whatever you’ve been told, you’re worth more than gold – (So hold your head) So hold your head up high, – It’s your time to shine – From the inside out it shows, you’re worth more than gold – (Gold gold, you’re gold) -You’re worth more than gold (Gold gold you’re gold)

 

Our problem is a sin problem. Not a misguided view of ourselves. I believe an audience of teens longs to be told that their problem is that they are sinners, but there is hope. The reason they struggle with their identity is because, yes, their identity is marred and damaged. Imagine a speaker, rather than saying, “You’re more than gold, and …whatever you’ve been told, you’re worth more than gold …from the inside-out it shows, you’re worth more than gold…” would say, “Everyone of you here feels the way you do, and you act the way you do because you are sinners, and God does not accept sinners, but let me tell you there is hope, because Jesus died for you, and he was buried so your old sinful self can be buried, and he rose again so you can experience a new life. You are not gold; you’re rotten and damaged, but Jesus is gold, and he wants to give you a new life…” Such a message would fill a room full of teens with hope and excitement. The message that they are gold clashes with and confuses their inner sense that something is horribly wrong inside of them. They need a better explanation for why they think and behave the way they do.

When I sit across from a couple struggling with each other, I envision two people still fighting their sin nature. The flesh will not give into the Spirit’s demand to die. So I always take the couple to the cross, and I speak to them about the gospel. How the gospel addresses first their problem, that ultimately their only victory, their only hope is not when they finally understand each other, or manage to meet in the middle – but when they meet together at the cross. It is there, at the cross that we discover Him whom Ephesians 1:12-17 so beautifully introduces us to as, “our peace.” And what did he do there that gives hurting marriages hope?

“…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”

When I tell someone their problem is because of sin, I’m not being offensive. I’m giving them hope. I get impatient with my wife, because I am, by nature sinful, and sinful people get impatient. When one is tempted to lust after another woman, that happens because he is a sinner, and sinners lust. So tell anyone their problem is sin, and you’ve given them the best message ever. You’ve given hope. That’s the law part of the gospel. That we are sinful people and stand in that condition under God’s condemnation. The gospel first tells us there is a problem. The problem is sin. The offer of hope then comes in the good news part of the gospel. That Jesus came and took on himself that sin (or, me a sinner), and died for it (me) and then buried it (me) and then rose again so I can experience new life.

A marriage event that seeks to help strengthen marriages must address the core reason why couples do not get along, and why divorce rates are so high. Problems go much deeper than bad communication or misplaced priorities. The cause is deeper than a man who never learned how to relate well, or who had a bad role model as a father. These problems are real, but as extensions of something else, not explanations on their own. The real problem is, two sinful people trying real hard, but ignoring the root cause.

Joel Osteen, a top selling, feel-good, popular speaker explains why he will not emphasis sin by saying, “People feel bad enough. Why would I want to make them feel worse by telling them they are sinners.” Uh, maybe because you would be tapping the very reason they feel bad, Joel! Imagine a doctor reluctant to tell me I have cancer, because I already feel bad enough because of the cancer. The best thing the doctor can do is first tell me I have cancer, and then offer the hope of a cure. I would never pursue the cure until I was first overwhelmed by the problem.

In defense of Britt Nicole and her song, Gold, I do think she’s right on one thing. Her reference to, “Whatever you’ve been told, you’re worth more than gold” speaks to the one-side-only of the gospel so many have been raised by, the law part. Legalistic preaching stops short of telling people they are bad. A balanced message completes the story by saying, true, but Jesus is good, so good he came here and took on our bad in exchange for his righteousness.

Let’s get back to that message.

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Misappropriated Anger

Anger at others and toward the institution (church, church leaders or district and district leaders, the mission organization and true of any organization) will often distract us from the necessary attention for the deeper issues in our own life. AngerWhen I meet a hurting ministry leader the first thing I often encounter is a level of bitterness or anger at the people who have done them wrong. Rarely do I meet someone who is immediately devastated by his own self-discovery of sin. Typically I hear anger toward those who once looked out for them, but now have turned against them. The very ones who should contribute to their healing, seem to instead add to the pain. We are not all that good in the Christian community at helping our own wounded. The indirect message given by leaders is: get back on your feet, and when you are well let us know, and we’ll figure out how you can get back on the team. (But, I’ll leave that for another blog.) Left alone, the ministry leader must now figure out how to navigate through the pain. Sadly, this feeling of abandonment becomes the enemy to defend against, instead of whatever it was that first brought about pain.

My first objective is to help the pastor trudge past that layer of anger toward the institution, and begin working inwardly to deal with more critical realities that might lie within. Often, however, anger toward the institution becomes a distraction to the deeper needs that might exist in his or her own life.

It’s easy to be mad at others, but not common to be mad at ourselves. Feelings of anger toward others allows us to ignore the sin that exists in our own lives. Perhaps this is why Jesus instructed us in Matthew 5:7 to “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Focusing on what others are like deflects the attention to what is accessible, that which lies within me. Several years ago I felt justified in my anger toward several leaders who I felt treated me wrongly. I was marginalized and singled out, and meanwhile others seemed to battle for the frontline of their own promotion. They came out stronger, at my expense.

It took several years and some hard conversations with trusted friends to realize that God allowed all this to happen so the spotlight would be focused on my own heart. The problem around me was used by God to show the problem in me. God actually allowed me to be marginalized, misunderstood and at times mistreated to show the sin that lay dormant and ignored in my own life. The focus on the problem needed to be me, not them. God used them, to show me, me!

I will often put before a pastor a sheet of paper with a number of circles. In the outer circle I will write, The Institution. The next circle, closer to the center I write, The Marriage. Next, even closer to the center, The Sin, or, the Offense. Finally, at the very center I have a small circle with the words, My Soul. I call this, The Anger Processing Chart. I encourage the pastor to move past the outer circle as quickly as possible, their feelings toward the institution, church leaders, district leaders etc… and begin working toward the center where eventually all that is left is the core condition of the soul. Ultimately, everything God does, he does to expose us and heal us. To reveal our sin, and our own need for Him. Once there, we join Paul who cried out in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

I have neither control nor access to the soul of another. What I can do, is manage my own life and responses to things that go on around me and affect me. My counsel to others is to let God do what he needs to do in the lives of others, even if they have mistreated us. “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:12-14) All we can do is what is within reach, and what concerns our own soul. It could be God is allowing someone to be mean to you to give him or her one more opportunity to repent of the sin in their life. But, that is God’s business, not yours. What I can manage, and what I am responsible for is what lies within me. True healing occurs when we let God deal with others, and we pay attention to what he is showing us about ourselves.

Every humiliation, everyone who tries and vexes us, is God’s way of breaking us, so that there is a yet deeper channel in us for the Life of Christ. The Calvary Road by Roy Hession

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In Our Day, Truth is a Revolutionary Act! 

I often write to process things in my own life, probably as much as to instruct others. That’s certainly the case with this blog. Here’s what I’m processing right now. Christians can be amazingly compassionate when wrong is done, but not all that good at confronting hurtful behavior. I see that going on in the church. We do a lot of forgiving, but little effort is placed in effectively addressing and eradicating sinful behavior. As a result, forgiveness becomes like painting a rusted frame; in time the rust will push through and overwhelm again. Unresolved sin will do the same. In my current work, Fruitful Vine Ministry – a service helping Christian leaders discover health- I pick up pieces left scattered by this skewed and incomplete approach to relationships. truth

I wonder if the world is better at this than we are.

Take sexual abuse for example. More specifically, look at how the secular world responded to the Duggar family with the sexual behavior of their oldest son, compared to the way Christian’s have responded. It was fascinating to watch. The world called for his head, while Christians spoke of forgiving and forgetting without any consequence. They’re a good family, they’ll take care of it.

A recent article by a popular Christian pastor gave a testimony that really got me thinking more deeply about this. A vicious, antagonistic member of his church did everything imaginable to malign the pastor, nearly wrecking his ministry. For years the pastor defended himself against the lies told about him, only to brace himself for the next attack. The offender was there, every Sunday morning, greeting the pastor with a large smile only to attack him again for another week. What was the pastor to do? How could he survive this?  Well, the Holy Spirit stepped in and provided exactly what the pastor needed. A different attitude toward his antagonist. Full victory finally came, not because of any change of behavior in the mean member, but because of the pastor’s now supernatural ability to forgive. To love his enemy. He even prayed for the man’s success. And that God would bless him. It worked. The pastor moved on with a new heart toward the man, and the man continued to tell his lies about the pastor. (Before posting this, I wrote the author of this article asking why the man was allowed to continue this behavior. I was encouraged to hear that the pastor had done everything to involve his elders in confronting the man. Because they refused to, he had no choice but to deal with this on his own. That reinforces my concern, however. That a pastor is left to his own discipline and strategy to handle and overcome abuse, while leaders responsible to watch his back and stand by his side sit idly by, leads to more damage strewn across the landscape of the church.)

I’ve seen it happen too often around me. Mean people move around uncontested. Uncontrolled. Victims survive by forgiving. Little is done to put an end to the offensive behavior. If the elders confront the sinner, others might intervene and call for a forgiving heart. After all, this is church, not a war zone. And so, people get away with sin, and a lot of superficial compassion and forgiveness gets tossed around with insufficient force to stick.

Is it possible to be compassionate and forgiving, while also maintaining strength in firm opposition to sinful behavior? Is it possible for love to actually drive us to confront sin? I think so. Well, I know so because the Bible tells me so.

Titus 3:10 “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.”

Matthew 18:15 – 17  “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 

1 Corinthians 5:11-13 “But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you.”

I Timothy 1:3-4 “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work – which is by faith.”

The most loving and compassionate thing we can do is tell sinful people to stop their harmful behavior. They’re hurting themselves, and they’re hurting the body. And, if they continue, they are out! We care too much about them, and love them too much to allow them to continue in damaging behavior. We want them whole, and complete; their continuing sinful behavior is keeping them from truly walking in victory. Love drives us to see the offender experience victory.

After all, forgiveness sticks best on a wall etched by the the marks of sorrow-over-sin, repentance and longing for reconciliation. When we confront sin we are then able to introduce the gospel as the cure. The gospel means nothing apart from the raw awareness of one’s own sinfulness. We live in a day where it’s deemed intolerant, un-compassionate, inconsiderate and offensive to point out sinful behavior. However, if we really love people, and are truly convinced that continuing in this behavior might cost them eternally (as is true of any willful rebellion against God) is not the most compassionate, the most considerate and loving thing to do, to confront them with this truth?

In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act. – George Orwell

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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

I used to help people wiggle out of problems. As a pastor and counselor I thought this was my role. After all, people came to me hoping that somehow I could rescue them from their dilemma. Why else would they come? When you go to a doctor, you expect him to provide the necessary remedy for healing. In short, you see the doctor expecting to leave with something in hand, usually a prescription, promising relief. It’s why you made that appointment. Visit a pastor, or a counselor; you have the same goal in mind. The expectation is to walk out, with something in hand, usually some really good biblical advice, that will surely bring relief from your pain. Dark Clock

I see my role differently now.

I spoke to a hurting missionary yesterday. We’ve talked a lot. Covered a lot of ground. He feels mistreated, unfairly marginalized. When we first connected, he hoped I would help him pan the gold mine of truth. I’ve heard it before.

“I want the truth to come out.”

“We won’t stop, until we’re finally understood.”

“We need an opportunity to tell our side of the story.”

“If people really took the time to know us, they would not say what they say.”

I’ve disappointed this missionary. Well, at least in the sense that I’m not at all the kind of rescuer he was hoping for. But I think he appreciates, now, what I do bring to his table.

It’s soul nourishment, perspective and…spiritual health!

As I prayed and prepared to leave I said this, “Tim, consider two things as you go through this difficult time. What are you learning about God because of this, and what are you learning about yourself because of this?”

It doesn’t matter what you go through; it holds value  when you walk away from it with a deeper understanding of Him and a better understanding of yourself. Is it possible that God intentionally puts you in a difficult situation because that becomes the best place for you to really know Him? And yourself?

I lost my son to cancer when he was nearly thirteen years old. He was diagnosed just weeks after my wife underwent brain surgery for an undetected tumor. To quote Charles Dickens from A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” Seriously! I look back over that ten month season and it was painful. I mean, really hard. Faith-wrenching-hard.  I clung to hope during those months because letting go would have meant total collapse. My knees had no strength to hold me up. Yet there was something about that time I miss. I know, strange right? I miss the intimacy I knew with Jesus. I actually miss the clarity of faith, that mist lifting reality that lets you view for just a few brief months what really matters in life. I discovered so much about Him during that time. His love. Holiness. Mystery. Awesomeness, and His peace that passes all understanding. I also discovered a lot about …me. How weak I really am. How sinful I was. And proud. How I covered up so much by being a certain way around others for fear they would find out what I was really like.

During those months, people saw what I was really like. Broken. Vulnerable. Weak!

It was good for me, to go through this. No, I will never say I’m glad it happened, or if I had to do it all over again, this is what I would choose. I’d rather read a good book, or hear a great sermon to discover Him, and me!

…but that’s often not how it works.

We learn the best about God, we learn the most about ourselves when all’s been stripped away.

Asking, “What are you learning about God, and what are you learning about yourself as you go through this?” gives God time and room to grow you in loss, or when mistreated or misunderstood. Rather than looking for the first door out, you actually value the place you’re at, and you give God permission to do what He needs to do before releasing you. He’ll move you on when the time is right. “Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God and He will lift you up in due season.” (1 Peter 5:8)  By then, you might actually miss where you were because you met Him there, and you met you there!

So, what is God revealing about Himself right now?

What are you discovering about yourself right now?

 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities

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Before I Un-Friend you, I Have Something I Want You to Know

You’ve been a friend of mine on Facebook for some time now.

Today, I plan on un-friending you. (* see comment below)

Before I un-friend you, I have just a few things to say, and yes let me establish first that I do this because I love you too much not to. More on that in a moment. First, the reason I am un-friending you, besides the obvious reason that I can, is because by being my friend (on FB) whatever you post ends up on my page. On my computer. It’s like whatever you post, think about it, I am also posting. What you write shows up under my name, on a site I own and control. So, in a way when people read what you write they are probably going to assume that it’s what I believe, too. keyboard

You represent me on my Facebook page.

By allowing your posts to remain on my page, I am unintentionally endorsing your views. I am all good with you sharing your opinions, or countering various points for a healthy interaction. But that thing you said, how nowhere in the Bible does God ever judge, so Christians shouldn’t judge either, well I’ve got some issue with that. Your pronouncement added some weight, certainly bending your argument in a strong moral (or immoral) direction with your profile picture overlaid by the ever-now-popular rainbow colors. That alone tells me exactly where you stand. I’d probably be okay with that, but again, back to that thing you said about God … not judging … Well I need to talk to you about that, before I un-friend you. I love you too much not to.

It’s really kind of sentimental to say that nowhere in the Bible does God not judge, so therefore Christians shouldn’t either, but I know you well enough, used to be your pastor; I know you know better. Your vision is blurred right now, probably due to the strong streams of radiant multi-color lights you’re waving around in misguided sympathy for a movement now sweeping our nation. I’m not going to wave back at you all the verses in the Bible that do speak of God judging (after all He is judge, and last I checked what judges do, is judge) and neither am I going to pull out the other flag and wave that at you pushing in your face how, yes, the Bible does actually say Christians do judge and ought to judge. You’ll see at the end of this that I offer you several passages that will suffice. But again, I don’t need to do this, because I know you well enough and I know you already know this. You’re just caught up in a movement right now, and I get that.

I’m scared for you.

I’m also scared for many other professing Christians who’ve joined this recent freedom parade.

I’m scared for you because, and again I know you know this because I heard you say it before when I was your pastor, this parade has a bitter end. I love you too much to not remind you of that. Our family visited the Grand Canyon when my kids were really small. I loved my children too much back then (still do) to let them stand too close to the edge. Once I raised my voice at my son who was walking too close to the edge for my comfort. He’s never really said it, but I think he’s thankful for it. When my daughter was learning to drive, I yelled at her when she nearly neglected to stop at a stop sign right when a car was crossing our path. I loved her too much to let us both get hurt. It’s why I raised my voice. So, you and your friends can refer to what we say as “hate,” but again, I know you well enough to know that deep down inside you hear the love. I think you’ve been hurt somewhere in your life and you’re crying out and this, what you’re doing is what that cry sounds like. Everyone cries differently. I think I hear yours pretty clearly. I think you’re mad at God right now. I get the sense you’ve forgotten how much he loves you, so much so he crashed into our scene and loved us so much he actually pushed us aside and stood, just in time in the way of God’s outpouring wrath. It fell on Jesus, instead of us.

Ever since, and actually for a long time before, God expresses how He loves us too much to not tell us we are hurting ourselves. That, there is a way that seems right to a man,but its end is the way to death. (Prov. 14:12) Grace and mercy are the antidote to sin and death. 

By un-friending you, I’m raising my voice to tell you you’re standing too close to the edge, to tell you there’s an out of control car careening toward you, and I don’t want you to get hurt. If I did not tell you, well, it’d be because I didn’t care. I do care. It’s why I’m writing this.

Oh yeah, I did promise several passages. Here they are. I’ll let them speak for themselves.

James 5:19-20 “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

1 Cor. 5:11-13 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside?  But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.”

Rev. 18:9-10, 20-21 “And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas! Alas! You great city, you mighty city, Babylon! For in a single hour your judgment has come… Rejoice over her, O Heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her.” 

(*) When I posted this I suspected it might solicit some concern and strong response. Let me respond with several things. First, this was written with some hyperbole in mind. What I mean is, it was intentionally provocative with a slight fictional edge to it. While yes I did unfriend several people who were aggressively posting things about this issue, I did not specifically write one person with this message. This is a blog, and represented my loving but strong response. Secondly and please hear this because this is key. I am writing here clearly to an evangelical christian who is, again, aggressively promoting their stance on this movement. Flaunting it. I have dozens or more unbelievers who hold to the same stance who remain good friends, on Facebook and outside Facebook. I hope they read this so they hear the love, the kind that also points to the cross and offers grace and hope.

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Depending On Jesus’s Total Commitment, Not Mine!

The rain fell hard against the windshield. I had just purchased new wiper blades and they proved their worth by pushing layers of water long enough for me to keep my eye on the road before the glass was assaulted by another round of strong rain. The voice from the radio helped me focus. A popular radio preacher spoke of commitment, the sort that is needed if youHigh Jumper are ever to receive the blessings of God. Your total commitment, he said, is what it will take for God to give you what he promises. I’ve heard this preacher raise this high bar before, and I disagreed with him then as I did again now. The wind whipped hard outside, but my growing frustration with this teaching is what  forced me to drive slowly. I gripped the steering wheel firmly as swashes of water repeatedly pushed off the window of my car. I gripped harder because of what I heard. I hear it a lot. Too often.

Think about it.

“The only way God will ever bless you is when you are totally committed to him.”

Well, that rules me out.

Total commitment!

And once I reach that total commitment how long does it last? Does God remove his blessing the moment I lose my commitment?

I’ve heard others say that unless I love God with all my heart and soul and mind, he will stand back, withholding his blessings. Knowing ‘me’ as I do, I’ve never loved God with ALL my heart, soul and mind. It’s part of the demand of the law none of us can ever meet. This high bar of the law, according to Paul in Romans, shows us we can’t, so when we realize we can’t and we see the sin inside of us that makes us unable to, we are then forced to look elsewhere for help, and hope. To Jesus. Who can! And did!

So back to the radio preacher. He’s suggesting that God will only bless us when we are totally committed. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I assumed and hoped that he was simply laying out the law, to present the impossibility, in order to, by the end, offer us grace – that the demand of the impossible was met for us by Jesus. It never came. The program closed with an invitation to offer ourselves wholeheartedly to Jesus – and subsequently, once that was done, claim the prize, the promised blessing … that comes only by total commitment.

David admitted that all he had to bring to God was a broken spirit and a contrite heart. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psa. 51:17)

“Broken spirit.”

Broken over what? Well, broken over the miserable attempts at trying to be committed enough. Had David achieved the high demand, there would have been no need for Jesus. If anyone ever managed to offer God what he required we would have no need for Jesus.

I’ve stopped promising God to no longer sin. Now I promise to just be honest with him. To admit I can’t do it. That I am a sinner. I love the sort of preaching that reminds me of what Jesus did for me and how he promises to bless those who come to him broken and helpless.

It’s Jesus’ total commitment that offers me the blessing of God. This means, sinners are the ones best qualified to receive His promises.

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The Glory of God and the Silver Lining

My tendency when describing my life is to paint a lot of silver linings. Like an artist who is not fully happy with his work, I tend to distract the viewer from the harshness in the frame by adding colors and light where they probably don’t belong. I am learning to be content to let people view my life, and hear my story for what it is. Silver Lining Cloud

Two years ago I was interviewed for placement in a Clinical Pastoral Education program in Columbia S.C. This is the sort of training chaplains are required to take. During the interview I was asked to tell my story. I did. I told them about my wife’s struggles following brain surgery, my son’s death, my youngest son’s cancer. Difficulties in ministry. I held a brush of sorts in my hand and painted a verbal picture of a hard life, and over each dark cloud and around every rough spot I splashed some light, gave it some color so it would not stand out as that bad. I said things like, “but God has been so good to me,” “I would never know Jesus as I know him had I not gone through all this,” “I understand what people go through, because I have gone through it,” “I know how to speak to a pastor who faces opposition because I too…” On and on I went… adding silver linings to every dark part of the painting.

After a few minutes, certain they saw my experience as more than necessary qualification to enter the program, my interviewer asked me this question, “Tell me something that has not worked out so well in your life.”

The brush fell out of my hand. I understood the point of the question immediately. Some day I will have to stand at the bedside of a dying person, and nothing I say will change the harshness of their experience. Some day I will sit before a man whose wife abandoned him with no hope of restoration. Some times they don’t need me to explain it, or take the sting out of it, but simply to share the harshness with them. To say something like, “Wow, that is hard, unfair.” “I hate what you are going through.” “That is totally wrong.”

I read Psalm 9 this morning struck by the balance, maybe tension, between what David was going through now and what he hoped for in the future. Take a moment and read the Psalm, and you will notice something. David speaks of hope without undermining the harshness of the present. He allows pain to be painful. He treats tragedy for what it really is. Tragic. He allows for the honest portrayal of the enemies for who they truly are, evil. He doesn’t explain away sin, or rationalize what God is permitting. He allows God to hold the brush, knowing the silver linings will not be added till the very end, when it’s all over with and the King has conquered and established His reign. In the meantime it is okay to look around and say, “This is all so wrong, and hard.” Doing so makes room for a kind of hope that will make the waiting and the gutting out worth it. One day, the glory of God will replace the silver linings and fill our lives, our world with such beauty and majesty and all in the absence of sin and evil.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 2 Cor. 5:1-5

I reflected on these thought with a good friend who serves as a hospice chaplain and her response is worth placing here: She writes: “This is the most important thing I have learned through CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) and in my work as a Chaplain – not to fix things!!   It never works and usually makes the person you are helping feel frustrated.   The best thing to do is to listen, empathize, listen and listen some more.    Mirroring back to a patient the emotions you hear them expressing is healing. Do I want to tell them it will work out in the end and that God is there for them – yes!  Does it ever help – not often.  It can come across as dismissive and minimizing their pain.  I have had to let go of the need to defend God.”

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The Fine Line Between Sanctification and Self Righteousness

Mark 2:17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

I used to think that a long streak with little spiritual trauma and the absence of struggling over sin meant I must be doing quite well spiritually. Now I am not sure, and wonder if I was confusing sanctification (the Spirit’s work of setting me apart for holy use) with self-righteousness (my own discipline at living right). Perhaps the seasons where I struggled more with sin were actually the moments when the Spirit was most at work in me. I quoted Tullian Tchividjian in my last blog who wrote, “Spiritual growth is not arriving at some point where we need Jesus less and less because we are getting better and better; it’s realizing how utterly dependent we are on Christ’s cross and mercy.” handwashing

Could it be that the awareness of how sinful we are is actually evidence of a stronger work of grace taking place in our lives? I am beginning to think so, and it’s a refreshing discovery. In the past, my sinfulness pushed me away from Jesus. Now it’s drawing me to him. When I felt really good about myself because I had a streak of really good months, with little struggle, I was actually functioning out of my own righteousness. I confused sanctification for self-righteousness. Read Romans 7 again and you will hear Paul saying that he fell into the welcoming arms of God’s grace and mercy most when he saw how utterly sick he was. Then and only then did he understand and embrace the source of his victory, the cross of Jesus. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25). 

Paul could never have made this discovery had he not been standing in the mud of his own sinfulness. Prior to coming to Jesus he really thought he was quite godly. As Paul grew older, the closer he came to Jesus, the more Jesus did in his life, the more sinful he saw himself. He did not become more sinful, but became aware of the sin that already existed in him, the very insight previously clouded by his self-righteousness. Sanctification to Paul was more about seeing the muck and filth existing in him than it was about getting cleaner and cleaner. But then this allowed Jesus access to actually bring about the necessary cleansing.

I have my friend’s permission to share the following story. We both feel it’s powerful enough to tell. Ten years ago he stood before a group of a hundred men and publicly pledge a commitment to sexual purity. He was tired of the fight. This stand, before others, placed him on a path of purity that lasted three fulfilling years. He tells me how during those three years he felt so close to Jesus. The Word was alive, Jesus was real, and it felt like he lived on a higher plain. He confesses now that he viewed himself as more righteous than others. If he did sin, it was in comparing himself to those less fortunate than he, those who did not devote themselves as well as he did, deprived of enjoying the blessing that came with it. It was a good season, but came crashing down like a house of cards when a family member died in a car accident. Out of anger, or perhaps because of deep tension, he gave in again to some of things that defined his life three years before. He’s had ten years to reflect on this and admits now that those years of spiritual structure and abstinence from sin, came out of his own strength, the product of determined self-discipline. He described his life now like this, “Mitch, I still slip up a lot. I look at myself at times, and I see such filth. So much pride. I do well for a season, but mess up again. I get angry, impatient, and withdrawn, but each time I discover more of what it means to be forgiven. Grace meant nothing to me during my three years of purity in my perceived spiritual health. It means everything to me now.”

Sanctification, for my friend, and admittedly for me, provides the deepening awareness of my need for a Savior. I always need my Savior. Not just that one time when I was six years old and, “gave my life to Jesus,” but daily. Yesterday. Today. And, I will need him again tomorrow.

Where sin runs deep Your grace is more

Where grace is found is where You are

And where You are, Lord, I am free

Holiness is Christ in me

Lord, I need You, oh, I need You

Every hour I need You

My one defense, my righteousness

Oh God, how I need You. MATT MAHER

www.youtube.com/watch?v=gS9e0nxHP-w

2 thoughts on “The Fine Line Between Sanctification and Self Righteousness

  1. Jason Bernard

    Sin is abundant & continuous. It took me a long time to realise this also, I am surrounded by non-believers (as far as I’m aware), I am leading a solitary life in many ways due to the nature of my job. I cannot live another moment without Jesus in my life, after all it is He who bought me here, thats why I am prosperous at present. I cannot live another moment without Him, the Holy Trinity….

    Needing someone is somewhat different than wanting someone. If I am sick i want a doctor, but if I am not sick (or perceive I am not sick) thats when I really must have healthy food to ensure the prevention of sickness!!

    Therefore I need Him now….

    Reply
    1. Mitch Schultz Post author

      Hi Jason
      Thanks for your deep and insightful response and comments. I appreciate your heart and desire to lean on Jesus as he is presently with you, knowing he will still be there tomorrow. I appreciate it. Trust you continue to remain encouraged. What can you tell me about yourself?

      Stay encouraged

      Mitch

      Reply

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Living In The Present!

Often when Elaine and I walk together, we talk and reflect on where we are in life. Sometimes we talk about the past, but most often I dream about the future, of what’s next, around the corner. The pattern of these conversations have been the same for over thirty years now. We begin our walk quietly, often holding hands. She will make a comment about something light-hearted, and I will respond with something equally light-hearted. Holding HandsThen it gets quiet again, then I will bring up something about a recent conversation with someone, or an event that recently occurred. We’ll walk, get quiet again and then I do it … almost every time we get away together, I do it. I will say something about what I want to do in the future and Elaine will stop me in my tracks and say, “Mitch, can’t we just enjoy this, what we are doing now?”

There are moments where I do long for the past, later realizing that this past I long for contained its own longing for the past. What I mean is, the time I am referring to had its own moment when I would reflect back on times before that. I have a hard time enjoying this. Now! I have always longed for the past, always hoping for a better future, but … seem to ignore the redeeming God is doing in the present. Elaine is a lot better at enjoying the moment than I am. Time suspends for her. She can be still, take in what is around her and enjoy it. I fight it. To just stop, and absorb the moment clashes with the restless need to grab from the past and borrow from the future. So, I am learning to settle in the present and recognize that right now, at this very moment God IS. He is not working in my past right now. He is not working in my future right now. He is my EVER PRESENT help in time of trouble. (Psalm 46:1).  I am to know Jesus, discover his goodness and his life as I can, right now. I can’t grab from the past, and I cannot borrow from the future. I have to experience what I have in the present. Oh Jesus lead me to this. Let it become my pattern. Break from me this tendency, such an unhealthy tendency to not see what you are doing right now. 

Perhaps the pivotal moment that invited me to enter into the room of this new kind of experience was reading Jerry Sittser’s book, A Grace Revealed. In one key moment of the book, that door shut behind me as I was ushered into the presence of God, through Sittser’s writing, to embrace the redemptive value of now! Allow me to place here what Sittser writes that Jesus used to bring about this significant adjustment to how I view time. It’s helped me to enjoy God, and Elaine a lot more than in the past … or in the future for that matter.

“My hope is that a redemptive view of time will free us to be completely attentive to what God wants to do in our lives in the present moment, whether we are spending time with a friend, playing a sport, commuting to work, planning a lesson, driving a truck, sharing our faith, listening to music, or raising children. Since “here and now” is all we really have, I am curious to see if it is possible to be fully present to what is here and now, and thus not be distracted by what is “there and then,” whether in the past or in the future.”

Excerpt From: Jerry L. Sittser. “A Grace Revealed.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/jB14I.l

One thought on “Living In The Present!

  1. Jason Bernard

    Living in the now, how many times have people told me that?
    The past is the present & the present is the future!
    But we/I must live in the present as this is all I can do, this is the only part of life that I have control over (or suppose to have control over).
    I am here right now typing & I have the ability to delete what I have written unless I press submit, then its too late…. past…
    I could of written something very important from my heart but it should of come from my head, & I could of lost me my job because of my heart,
    The breast plate of righteousness – guard your heart with diligence this is how I interpret this part of the armor of God (please correct me if I am incorrect). This is why we must live in the NOW, Present… because we only have a form of control presently….

    Even though there is a hearts desire (desire is the future, in my interpretation), where one must contemplate the present moves / direction to achieve this desire. but not submit 100% to it but to move modestly in that direction & not forsaking the present. As your wife said “Mitch, can’t we just enjoy this, what we are doing now?” (It sounded like Elaine was talking to me also…. I do comprehend) …. the Present….

    Reply

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Do I Need to be Perfect for God to Use Me?

Spiritual growth is not arriving at some point where we need Jesus less and less because we are getting better and better; it’s realizing how utterly dependent we are on Christ’s cross and mercy. -Tullian Tchividjian

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. (1 Tim. 1:15)

For most of my life I believed God would only use me if I was a completely healthy and clean vessel. It’s what I grew up believing. The preaching that influenced me most stressed this point, that I better work really hard at being good, because God will only use spiritually strong people. It’s why in college I burned all my secular records. (I did justify keeping an LP of James Taylor and Supertramp, though.) Dirty VesselThe speaker at our Spiritual Life meetings that week told us, “God cannot use a dirty vessel”. My wife and I were preparing to be missionaries, and there was no way we could serve effectively by dragging the world with us. I have lived most of life with the pressure that if God is going to use me, I had better shape up and be holy. So I tried hard to be good. Working out my salvation with fear and trembling. Sometimes literally with fear and trembling wondering quietly if my effort measured up enough to receive the approval of God, or, at least, the preacher.

My parents tell the story of when I was four-years-old, walking into the kitchen and finding me in the middle of the floor with sugar all over me. The sugar bowl sat on my lap. I looked up at them and blurted, “I didn’t do it.” In some sense, I have lived my life refusing to admit my true sinful condition for fear that God would never want to use me if He knew what I was really like. Even my spiritual upbringing and development under a holiness movement pressed me to embrace sanctification; being set apart for holy use. (They got it right, but I interpreted it in a way that placed the stress on my goodness, not on the goodness of Jesus given to me.) I preached it, expected it of myself and of others, and even quoted once in a sermon, “God can never use a dirty vessel”.

I’ve had a lot more time think about it, and a longer track record to review my lack of success, and I’m seeing it a bit differently now. If God only used perfect people, little if anything would get done. He’d be alone. The truth is, he uses sinners who are forgiven. Still sinners, but our sin no longer counted against us. He does what he does best through broken and failed people. It brings Him more glory that way. Why else did Paul say, “For it is by grace that we have been saved through faith, not of works otherwise we would have something to boast about.” (My paraphrase of Eph.2:8-9)

I no longer look cynically at the bumper sticker that says, “Sinner, Saved by Grace.” Yes, of course, I am still a sinner. What else would explain that I still sometimes sin. A perfect person would not sin. God uses sinners. People who still mess up, get back on their feet, ask forgiveness, receive grace and keep serving. Yes, we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. I get that. But that is the point. I am accepted by God, and available to him, and his to use, because of Jesus – not because of me. I am a sinner – still – but one who is forgiven. One who God can look at and say to Jesus, “You see that sinner there? I accept him because of what you did for him. He is pardoned.” Being aware of my sinfulness draws me deeper into the embrace of the one who declares me free, who chooses to never count that sin against me. I am no longer under condemnation, Paul says not, no longer a sinner. (Romans 8:1)

I drove four hours this last week to visit a high school friend who is spending life in prison for murder. Since being in prison (18 years now) he has come to know Jesus and embraced what Jesus did on the cross for him. He told me so. He has repented, received forgiveness and knows God no longer counts his sin against him. Jesus died for what my friend did 18 years ago. It does not change though that he is a murderer. It will always be true of him. But, he is a forgiven, pardoned criminal. We talked a  lot together about parole. There is a good chance he will be set free soon. He has a story to tell. One of being a sinner who is forgiven and how God uses people like that.

I’m a strong proponent of preaching that stresses law and grace. On one hand we preach the law because it reminds us of God’s perfect standard of righteousness and holiness. Preaching the law also condemns us, reminding us that we are unable, incapable of ever living up to its standard. (Read Romans 3-4)  A lot of preaching today stops at the law. “You should,” “You need to,” “God expects you to…”, “You can’t unless you…” – All to make us aware of what God wants, but leaving us frustrated that we can never do it. I grew up under that kind of preaching. (I do not mean that we are under the law, but that the law would still bind us had it not been for Jesus.) Grace, though, reminds us that Jesus met the requirements of the law for us. Yes, we can’t, but he did for us. The Gospel reminds us that we are embraced and accepted by God only because Jesus took on himself the punishment we deserved. I will never measure up to his standards. But thank God, literally, I do no need to. I don’t need to be perfect, and can never be perfect. I am still a sinner, but a pardoned sinner. And that is the kind of person God will use.
Paul could never forget it. It’s why he wrote this in 1 Timothy 1:15-16: Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

and …. 1 Cor. 15:6-11: Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. 

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Hope Birthed in Hardship! 

Many are not happy with where they are in life. There is this underlying assumption that things can always be better and should be better. Even our society promotes the idea that if you can improve your life, you should. I agree, but I find it creates tensions when the place we are might be where God wants us. A lot of the preaching I hear today is abouhopet improving your life far more than it is about offering courage for the hardships of life. Thus, we hear buzz words like, purpose, destiny, vision and so much more as motivators to press toward a better life. Consequently there is less emphasis on the return of Jesus and the hope of eternal life, because the focus is more on what God can do for this life. Those who pound the pulpit with the narcissistic aim of seeing what the Bible has to say to make my life better are sending a mixed message. It rarely works. The person who suffers from poor health, or depression, or financial hardship ends up blaming their lack of faith, or if brave enough, blames God when things have not gone as well as the preacher promised.

It’s hard in our, “I can do it”, and, “God wants you to thrive”, environment to understand what courage looks like. We are told to be victorious, rise above our problems, overcome our hardships more than encouraged to be strong in those hardships and trust God with the problems. Most of what I read in my Bible helps me to endure, and trust and lean on Jesus, more than it tells me that if I trust God enough things will get better. I learn more about Jesus and His deep love for me in hardship than I do in deliverance. Hardship doesn’t only increase hope and faith, it introduces me to hope and faith.

I know in my life, if I received everything I wanted, and if I wiggled immediately out of every hardship because God promised it, I would not trust Him very much. My impulse when something comes my way that I don’t like is to fight it. My discipline, coming out of growing up and maturing spiritually, is to ask what it is Jesus has me there for, or what does He want me to discover about Him, and even about me, by having me there.

I suffered severe depression through my high school years. I was institutionalized for a short time, and received lengthy psychiatric treatment during the entire time. My parents left the mission field because of it, and faced an uncertain future as they watched me slowly recover. My pre-teen and most of my teen years were robbed of normality. On several occasions I seriously considered suicide. It was not the lack of courage that kept me from doing it, but the know-how. Why did God not immediately rescue me from this agony? My parents, and many others pleaded for Him to. I know He heard those prayers, but for His own reasons He choose a different path for me.

I do not look back over the hard parts of my life with some noble recollection that it turned out to be my best years, and, how I am so thankful God put me through it. However, it was during those years that I leaned heavily on Jesus. It was in the lowest points that I clung to hope. Hope is such a wonderful gift in hardship. I would go so far as to say, that apart from hardship we cannot understand hope. Hope forces our gaze up and ahead. Hope, nurtured in hardship, promises a day, some day, down the road the burden will be lifted. Hope presses us forward. Hope reminds us that it will not always be like this, but it might need to be like this for a while. When you tell me that God doesn’t want me to hurt, and experience some rough days, you have taken away my hope.  After all, most if not all the heroes of the faith Hebrews 11 speaks about, never received during this life what was promised to them. That is a huge statement to me. I am told in Hebrews 11:13 “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised…” Why? Because, “…they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one…And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God has provided something better for us…” (Hebrews 11:16,39-40)

Sometimes I will delay asking God to deliver someone from a hardship by first asking Him to reveal Himself to them during the hardship. I know it is unlikely that they, or I, will get it unless the conditions are rough. This last week a young CEO of a thriving company equalized the playing field and gave each of his seventy employees the same salary. The million dollars he made created an unhealthy disparity to the twenty or thirty-thousand dollars his employees were making. So now, everyone, including the CEO, receives a salary of seventy thousand dollars. I wonder what the work environment will look like in six months, or one year from now? That the person who barely earned the high salary, receives the same reward as the person who puts in sixty hours a week, and put His life and guts into this job, I suspect will create some new tensions.

Imagine if God leveled the playing field and took away all the disparities, and gave you everything you asked for when you asked for it, and never  placed a hardship on you, or if He did it would be no harder and different than what He asks of anyone else. A person’s years in the faith, and level of maturity, is no longer a factor to how God works in you and what He demands of your life. He rewards you without ever asking you to grow, and earn the strength of your faith, birthed out of hardship. I don’t believe any of us would see that kind of world as very attractive.

I am not necessarily thankful for the hard things God has asked me to take on. But, I am thankful for what He did during those trials. I would not be who I am today. I would not know Him as I know Him, because in the hardest trials I was forced to look away from myself to Him. I would also not look forward to seeing Him again as much as I do, had it not been for those many times I longed for Him when He seemed absent.

I like the preaching I hear today that speaks of courage and trust, hope and faith, far more than I do the kind of empty preaching that by-passes all this by telling me God is so good He will deliver me and give me what I want now!

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might your learn statues. Ps.119:71

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My Blog About What I Would Blog About From a Rugby Match

I’m flying home from England as I write this.

Last night was only the second Rugby match I’ve attended. Same team, but seventeen years separate my two experiences. The team (belonging to the Rugby League – not Union) is named the “Warrington Wolves,” but from what I saw the team would be better represented by the “Ox”rugby mascot. I thought American football was rough! Rugby players wear no helmets, nor pads. One player did wear some kind of head protection, possibly due to a recent injury. Certainly the exception. I used to think Rugby involved dragging players to the grass, but I’ve changed my mind. There’s no less tackling than what you would see in the NFL. I asked my friend, Andy, who kindly invited me to the game, how well these players would do in the NFL. Then we envisioned together how well Seattle Seahawk’s Marshawn Lynch would do playing this sport. We laughed, picturing him rushing the field dragging with him five opponents to the end line.

During a rare break, Andy leaned to me and asked, “So, can you come up with a good blog from this?”

“Sure,” I said, laughing, “just give me some time. I’ve got lots of good material to work with.”

So this blog is about what I could blog about from watching a Rugby match.

This is for you, Andy.

Where do I start?

Well, I could begin by trying to understand why in this sport several coaches, along with water boys, rush in and out of the game offering instructions and water, – all of it during the active play. Their agility to avoid tackling matched that of the players. I’m tempted here to parallel this with what happens, or should happen in the church – you know the scene – of “coaches” rushing in to give support and encouragement to those on the front line of the battle, and others running in to give a refreshing word, and an encouraging push to keep going. rugby2 copy

Or, I could describe to you the rules of the game, very similar to our football. Sort of! Rather than four downs to make ten yards, Rugby League gives you six tries to go as far as you can. It’s a fast paced game with few breaks or timeouts. They’re given only ten minutes for a halftime. The players are relentless. Tireless! (They would collapse if the young men did not come to their aid from the sidelines with those water bottles.) Makes me think of some of you who are unstoppable in your commitment to reach the finish line, tireless and relentless in the pursuit of a singular goal. A goal that can only be summed up by one word.

Victory! 

We play for a bigger prize, of course. The kind you don’t forget about a day or a week later. This is the final prize. The finish line our eyes are locked on. We don’t quit after four tries to make ten yards, nor six to make the whole field. Refusing to let go of what was handed off to us by Jesus, we hold tight to it. We press on toward the high call. We fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. We strain ahead encouraged by the cheers of that great cloud of witnesses who never gave up, because, for them, and now for us, winning is non-negotiable.

What about the crowd? Not the eight-thousand rooting on their home team, the Warrington Wolves. I’m talking about the several hundred sectioned off in the “away fan” area, pinned as dwarves shadowed under the intimidating thousands who sat, and stood on both sides of them. They’re undeterred by the home crowd. The home crowd cheered some, yelled more while their team remained behind for the entire game. (Sorry for the loss, Andy). But, it was the small number, on the far end, -in the sectioned off area – that caught my attention.

The away fans.

They sang, chanted, and drowned out the home crowd. Their team, the  Huddersfield Giants, ironically came into the game as underdogs. In this matchup it was their spirit that reached Giant like proportions. They reminded me some of the small number of “us”. 

You know, Christians!

We don’t amount to much in this world. Sectioned off in our own corner, our existence seems oddly small next to the imposing presence of the rest of the world. Yet, we’re the ones who seem to have something to sing about.

There’s always something to sing about when you’re winning. 

Wherever I travel I meet small number of fans whose singing seems at times to drown out the cry of those around who don’t seem to have much to sing about. Like the small group of believers who meet together in the town of Warrington, England, where I preached last week. Three men lead this body. They’re the ones who rush in and off the field, cheering, encouraging and refreshing those who run tirelessly with the gospel. Holding a firm grip to what they believe.

Andy is one of them.

It’s not easy worshipping, living, serving and loving as a small community where what you do is viewed as old-fashioned and irrelevant, sometimes even received by mocking laughter. I know. I used to serve here as pastor to these “fans of Jesus”. But, the singing goes on.

To my dear friends in Warrington – you who sit as “away fans” under the shadow of the imposing presence of the world that surrounds you – your relentless commitment to keep a tight grasp to the gospel, handed to you by Jesus, will one day be rewarded by a final whistle, and one long-loud cheer the sound of which will never, ever, diminish.

Keep pressing on my friends! It’s worth it!

So, that is my blog about what I would blog about from a Rugby match! 

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Hope For the Future and Memories of the Past

I am in England as I write this, visiting the place we lived for seven years. We raised our children here and the place is packed with memories. I sat on a bench this morning overlooking a soccer field gazing at some of those memories. The memories are strong, some still painful. It took me seventeen years to return here and, except for remembering what turns to take on new and old roundabouts, few memories have faded. bench copy

On that bench, I gazed back in time seeing my son Travis moving his feet skillfully over a soccer ball. I moved my head slightly to the right and saw my daughter giggling uncontrollably as I pushed her on a swing. Little seems to have changed. The swing-set looks the same, and the soccer field no different than it was. Many of the trees are larger now, but that’s about all. I could see myself rushing past on my bike on a paved path bordering the field with my youngest son, Brett, sitting in front of me. He is seated on the bikes bar, gripping on the handle bar as I hold him tight with one arm. 

This place also holds memories of loss. 

I thought I had packed those memories, but each one emerged, one by one, and I wept slightly, but not much. A lot heals in seventeen years. For some people, memories are tormenting, for others, comforting. For me, they do both. Something began to happen though, as I sat on that bench. I began to look ahead. Considered the future and the memories gradually were replaced by hope.swing

I meet people who only have the memories. 

Those who lacks faith in Jesus have only the past to dwell on. 

Like wisps of wind, a warm promise moved through me, and then another. Slowly the dust of memories cleared offering me a view of an exciting future. In that moment, my heart leapt. It did not last but just a second or two. But, enough to lift my spirits. The promise that all that happened here in this place, in this town, with us … did not go unnoticed by Jesus. Nothing can ever replace the loss; no words, no new experience. The memories tell me that. But, the hope of a future full of joy, absent of pain – the hope of holding my son again, of experiencing love with others – is good. The promise of complete healing for my wife deepens the longings. The hope for that kind of future, is stronger than the memories of loss. Or, at least, becoming so. Gradually. 

Hope urges me forward. Memories cannot do that. They pull me back. While comforting at times, dwelling on memories can become selfish and self absorbing. For an overly nostalgic guy like me, pulling away from the past is not easy. I can get stuck there and it makes the present unsettling. Thinking of what lies ahead requires trust, and faith. There is something freeing about it. I like what it does to me, and to others. My wife, Elaine, is far better at this discipline than I am. Perhaps, because her memories are more painful than mine. She lives by hope. Hope drives her. I decided on that bench today to do a better job joining her there. 

I like the view it offers! After all, they do say, nostalgia is a thing of the past! (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling. (2 COR. 5:2)

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It’s Not As Easy As it Looks!

I listened to a podcast sermon recently about discipleship. The message promises me a good life, right away, if I choose to wholeheartedly follow Jesus. Ten minutes in, the guarantee is quite undeniable that choosing Jesus will bring about “contentment, love, joy and peace” and I will find myself flowing down the current of God’s purposes in a stream of fulfillment. Life now, can be good. The only limit to reaching this “open place” sadly rests in your life, because of your lack of faith.hardship copy

I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, because the experience described in this message is in sharp contrast to mine. Following Jesus is hard. For me, it’s taken me on a journey with long stretches with little evidence of God. Contentment, love, joy and peace always seemed around the corner. I think I’m there, but realize it must be around the next bend. I’m still looking for it. (Please understand, I might be overstating this to make my point. The outcome of all I am writing here is an inner peace that far surpasses anything that can be gained here that excludes the hope of eternity!)

When I became a Christian at a very early age (6) I was taught that following Jesus would really cost me something. I blame Pilgrim’s Progress for that. It was my assumption at the starting blocks to expect a lot of obstacles and opponents, so during my life there have been few surprises. I just assumed it would be hard. 

It scares me when believers are told upfront to expect it to all go well from here on. That God’s best for you is for now, and if you’re not experiencing it the problem is with your small view of God. Your lack of faith.

Years ago, the Lord used me to lead Pete to Himself. Several months into his new found faith we sat together over coffee (of course) to discuss his progress. 

He was upset with me. 

“Mitch, ever since I gave my life to Jesus my business is failing, and several in my family are beginning to turn on me.” My response was no different than what I told him when he first considered his options, whether to follow Jesus or not. 

“Pete, you need to understand, following Jesus might cost you, a lot. It always does.” 

I hear more sermons today promising rewards to those who choose to follow Jesus, than I do sermons that prepare believers for the harsh realities of life. The faith we preach works in America, but not so well in third world cultures. It is expected in our country to urge people to work hard, and if they do the outcome will be good. I am not sure if this message works in third world countries. I try to picture Joel Osteen preaching at a refugee camp in Sudan, and I wonder if he would have anything to say. 

I spend a lot of time picking up the pieces from shattered dreams. Even with a pastor. I meet him at a crucial time in his life. When he is stripped, and has little left, the stage is cleared for a new story. I love to share my observation at this current place of my life, twenty-nine years in as a pastor, that I am really quite okay getting little out of this life. I have settled that I might enter, and survive this last season with little visible impact. I am excited, now, living an unassuming life; the sounds of applause fade into the backdrop of the new sound of a quieter life.  One characterized more by abiding with Jesus, and trusting him, than the kind of life which tries to prove something. I gave up on that long ago. Suffering, however, draws us deeper into the life and work of Jesus. Apart from suffering, I don’t know if we can really be drawn to him. It is when life is hard that we discover how unbelievably good he is.

I join the thousands who according to Hebrews 11 lived for something bigger, and better. 

“These all died in faith, having never received the thing promised,” 

“They desired a better country, a heavenly one…” 

…“And all of these … did not receive what was promised.” 

(Heb.11:13, 16,39) 

“For while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened…” (2 Cor. 5:4)

Sadly, the promise of a better life now, leaves few at the finish line, as many drop out over the disappointment of a promise that did not prove true.  The promise of eternity, however, provides strength and hope and I believe also offers a deep settledness that can never be known if all we are looking for is what Jesus can do for us here and now. 

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The Path of Acceptance Is Good for Your Health

The choices we make when we experience hardship determine the kind of person we become and also how we view Jesus. We can embrace what Jesus is asking of us, or we can resist it. Resistance blurs our view of Jesus as sovereign, good and kind. On a number of occasions I stood at the crossroads with these two options before me. 

The path of acceptance, 

or,Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 4.13.00 PM

… the path of resistance. 

When my son Brett was diagnosed with cancer I took several steps down that path of resistance. Anger fueled protest against what I perceived to be an unfair act from God. My hands, which had been reaching out to Him, quickly curled into fists, and I found myself beginning to raise my fists toward the throne. I did not like what Jesus was asking of us. My view of him as kind, gracious and compassionate quickly blurred as my situation became the focal point of my attention. That changed the day an elderly lady reached out her hand and placed it on my arm. Her words, offered in a thick German accent were used by Jesus to set my gaze again on his sovereignty. She said this; “Mitch, God must love you very much to ask you to go through this.” Usually I resist such comments. They can sound so trite. 

Cliche. 

This was different. 

The woman who spoke survived Hitler’s concentration camp. A German Jew, she witnessed the death of her entire family. If she could say, “Mitch, God must love you very much to ask you to go through this,”  I would listen. 

I did listen. 

This was my turning point. The clenched fists loosened, opened again, and I found myself extending my hands to receive what Jesus assigned to me, even this hardship. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 9.13.00 PMI meet people who are quite far down this path of resistance. And they are bitter. Some too far down that road to see anything of the goodness of Jesus. I encourage pastors and struggling believers to walk back down that path, stop protesting and think again. Stand at the crossroad, and consider the two options.

What kind of person will you become if you continue down the road of resistance? 

15 – 20 – 30 years from now?

For me, I pictured myself a bitter, crotchety man, hard to be around; the prospect of that repulsed me. 

So, I stood at the crossroad again, and envision what I would be if I accepted the hardship. What I saw appealed to me. I found myself, 15-20-30 years from now gentle, kind, gracious and compassionate, concerned for others, in love with Jesus and talking often of his goodness and love.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 9.13.51 PMI believe I have taken some good steps down that road. 

Those who resist what God places in their path will eventually protest God. 

Stephen Fry, famous British actor and comedian is also famous for being an outspoken atheist. Asked recently what he would say to God if given such an audience, he said this: “I’d say: How dare you! Bone cancer in children? How dare you! How dare you create a world where there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I’d say.”

I would love to tell Stephen Fry about a young boy who died of brain cancer at the age of twelve, who loved Jesus so much he expressed more interest in being with Jesus than being healed. I would like to tell him about a God and a savior who died for the world as he put it: so full of injustice and pain. I would like to tell him that, actually, it is our fault. We are to blame. Our sinfulness condemns us before God, but He sent Jesus to take the blame and punishment so we would never have to. I would like to tell him there is another path that shows this God to be so good. 

And Holy. 

And Gracious. 

I would love to tell him that really when you think about it, in a hundred years from now it will not matter if a child with bone cancer lives to 12 and not 104. What will matter then and for eternity is that his name was found written in the book of life, and because Jesus is so good, so righteous and so full of mercy he died so that child will never have to exist eternally separated from God. 

I made the statement many times that I would not be who I am if I had not experienced loss. I would like to rephrase that. 

I would not know Him as I know Him if I had not gone through all I have gone through. I have found Him so good. 

So caring. 

So compassionate. 

So full of mercy.

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God Does What He Does, Through Us! 

He has chosen us to bring comfort to those who grieve.

ComfortRecently a good friend’s wife died of cancer. I had the honor last weekend to officiate at her memorial service. I know from experience how a person is supported well during the early days of loss. The attention given and the necessary arrangements are often God’s way of cushioning us during what would normally be an excruciating period in our lives. I carefully compare it to going to the dentist. When the dentist does the hardest work of drilling, we don’t feel anything because of the numbing affect of anesthesia. It’s when the medicine wears off that the pain hits us. You would think the hardest time would be at the epicenter of loss, at the time of death and the several days that follow. However, the hardest moments are often when the anesthesia wears off. The distraction provided by the planning and presence of others no longer serves to provide that cushioning. And so, the pain is felt for weeks, even months. Others go back to their lives, but the one mourning the loss is left to grieve alone.

This is often when God shows up!

Through us!

I can pray for my friend to be strengthened and encouraged, or I can pray … and… call him several times a week to see how he is doing. Thus, God is comforting him through me.

In some sense, God has limited how he works by doing what he does through his people. He gave us the Great Commission, and it’s the churches responsibility to do it. He supplies the needs of the poor by urging us to give them help. God is a team player. It brings him glory when His people serve as His hands and His feet. I can pray for the homeless and the poor in my community, or I can pray for them … and… I can promise God I will pick them up and give them a ride when I see them walking for miles from home to grocery stores.

This morning I read the following in my devotions. Paul is writing to his friends in Corinth. He writes this, “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus.” (2 Cor. 7:6)

God is not unilateral in how He works. He does what He does through you and through me.

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When Words Aren’t Enough!

As a pastor I am often invited to shed light on life situations covered by dark shadows. What do you say to a husband whose most recent guest is the hospice nurse checking the vitals of his dying wife? A year ago she was healthy. Now, still in her thirties, she is dying. What do you say to an angry husband whose wife chooses the selfish life of independence over the responsibility of caring for a home that includes three wonderful sons, and a daughter? 

Words can be so hollow! 

I recently received the following from a family member: 

“ Here’s a topic I’d love to have you explore (in one of your blogs) if you feel like it:  A beloved friend of mine at school lost her father a few days before Thanksgiving.  She and her dad were best friends, close and caring, each a vital part of the other’s life and dedicated to one another’s welfare.  She doesn’t understand why God called her father home.  It was a sudden, unexpected death, a hypertensive brain hemorrhage. Any thoughts?” 

Not really.  I try, but they are mostly empty cliches. 

When I dare to join a thread of comments, attempting to encourage a Facebook friend recently diagnosed with cancer, I brace myself to be un-liked, a solitary voice that says something like, “That really sucks,” or “Man, I hate cancer,” or “I am so sorry. That is so wrong.” Interestingly, such brutal honesty matters to the hurting, crying soul, tired of empty religious cliches handed out like candy at a parade. 

Our oldest son was diagnosed with terminal cancer seventeen years ago. I was thankful for so many who called and wrote. Honestly, they all meant so much to me. I remember one call of the hundreds, though. A good friend from England had been traveling and heard the news of my son’s diagnosis a few days later than most. It was 10 p.m. when he called. I remember exactly where I was standing when the phone rang, and I welcomed his broken voice. I remember these details simply because what he said stood apart from the caring, and I know genuinely meaningful other conversations I had that day. He said, “Mitch, that stinks!” There was anger in his voice. That was it. One Christian brother to another, offering nothing more than a brutally honest reaction to devastating news. His words matched the agony in my soul. It gave me permission to stay where I was, not forced to enter a place I had no desire to be. Typical responses to crisis are invitations to deny and run from the harsh reality of what Elaine and I were going through. 

I try to be careful with my words, particularly when someone is really hurting; words alone will not change what he is experiencing. I am reminded nearly every time I enter the brokeness and agony of another’s life how Jesus did something for us that words alone cannot reproduce. He entered fully into it and took on himself our sin. He did not speak to our pain: he joined it. Took it as his own. As one person said, “He always carries the heavier end of our cross.” He looked over Jerusalem and wept. He stood before Lazarus’ tomb and wept again. He received beggars, and lepers and said little, but reached out and touched them. He felt their pain. Literally.

I don’t see many silver linings framing tragedies I am often asked to speak to. Saying little keeps it what it is. It’s wrong. Horrible.

 If I try to explain away cancer, or a spouse’s infidelity with hollow, empty words, I undermine the pain. 

By calling it what it is, by saying something like cancer, or the impact of immorality on a family is really wrong allows me to, in time, speak about something else, something better that brings hope. So, I can say to the husband watching his wife face the last days of her life, “Yes… this is so wrong; this sucks … but…” And it is this “but” that invites us together to consider in time the alternative to this devastation. We agree together that this loss is devastating, it hurts … but we know, deep in our gut there is something else that transcends cancer. It is different. It’s the new, the resurrected life that helps us begin walking away from the agony to look to a new world full of love and joy and the complete absence of death and sickness. 

So to answer my family member’s request to say something to the friend who doesn’t understand why God called her father home, very simply, I can’t. I won’t. I can’t explain it. Even if I could it would not change what has happened. Words do not replace what is lost. But, I can speak to something else. Something better. Something new. About a restored life for her friend and for all of us, made possible by a loving God who cared so much he did more than speak about our pain, he entered it. He entered it, died because of it, but literally rose above it and now invites us to experience more than answers to our questions. He offers new life! He gives us hope that one day it will not be like this. Never … ever…! 

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away: behold, the new has come.” 2 Cor. 5:17-18

 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Rev. 21:3-4

Several years ago I wrote a booklet addressing how best to speak to those who are suffering loss. This booklet, DID I SAY THE RIGHT THING? has been a valuable tool for helping Christians speak intentionally to those grieving loss.

You can order the booklet here: 

did i say cover 

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Losing Our Voice and The Danger of Too Much Change

Right now, I am reading a book about change. I like a lot about the book, but it’s also got me thinking about some things that make me resistant to the popular premise (not necessarily of this book – I haven’t read enough of it to make that judgement) that the church better keep up or lose its place in culture. The world is changing so quickly, the church is at risk of being left behind, lost in the dust of the fast moving, scrambling feet of society pushing into an ever changing future. The Church is the tortoise; culture is the hare. If we are going to keep the attention of the world, we had better change with it. Ignore this need to change, and we will become increasingly irreverent, oops sorry, I meant irrelevant. Old fashioned. Outdated. After all, look at how much has changed in 100 years. 20 years. 10 years. The church? Doing pretty much the same thing as it was a 100 years ago. 1,000 years ago.

ChangeI get it. I agree with a lot of it. Understanding culture, trends, mindset, all drove me when I pastored. Consideration of worship style, language, methodology, image, presentation: all need to be factored in our attempt to reach the lost and unchurched. However, an opposing thought, taking on the form of a devil’s advocate, (sorry, poor choice of words) has recently vied for my attention. Maybe with all the changes taking place around us, people desperately need something steady and unchanging; something, a place perhaps, an experience maybe, or just a message that is reliable and trustworthy. I wonder if the church’s role is to be a safe haven that speaks of sameness, a refuge to meet a God who does not change and never will change. A sanctuary where one can take a deep breath and gain perspective again from a world that is spinning, and changing, wildly out of control. It’s just a thought worth considering.

To my pastor friends, just a couple final thoughts. I am all for keeping up with the times. I encourage adjusting and adapting, and presenting ourselves in way that is appealing and relevant.

…But can I ask you to not change three things?

1. YOU – Be yourself. Not in the “just be you” sense, but just be yourself. Be honest, open and vulnerable. The day I felt permission to just be myself was the day I decided to tuck my shirt in deciding to defer “cool” to the younger pastors. I realized my role was to preach the Word, love people, and show them what it means to love Jesus.

2. THE WORD – Preach the Word! Aw man, writing that sounds so old fashioned. So be it. The Bible is about Jesus, not about us. So preach about Jesus, not about us. Study and preach the Word to understand Jesus better, and perhaps by doing so we will understand us better. If the Bible is about Jesus, than ask this question: “What does this text teach me about Him?” I believe every scripture, every story from Old Testament to New Testament is about Jesus. There are two kinds of preaching. The one that uses the Bible to help me live better, and the one that uses the Bible to help me understand God better. Tell people about Jesus, and you will address a lot of the questions people are asking about themselves.

3. The story about THE CROSS – There is no life apart from a death. There is no end to sin without a burial. There is no healing and hope without a resurrection. Standing between death and life is a cross. A rugged, ugly cross, but ugly because of what happened on it. There, God died. For me. For you. There, my sins were placed on the shoulders of a sinless perfect man. There forgiveness was not just uttered, but offered. The setting of the cross ought to be the platform from which every sermon is preached. Please, pastor, don’t forget this. No one will ever find hope and life apart from the cross of Jesus. Talk about it. Remind people that they are sinners. Yes, we are all naturally bad. Rotten to the core. Born that way! We live, and then die that way, except for… the cross. Because of the cross, and the grave, and the throne, we are now good and worth something. But, it’s the cross that made it possible. If that’s so central, so critical, so significant and so life changing, shouldn’t you be talking about it? I know its old fashioned, and yes the world is on a train rumbling explosively toward a constantly changing future, but for most people around us, it’s an uncertain frightening future. The world needs some good news, and we have it.

Maybe we need to hold our ground on some things, and not change. Maybe the problem is not with the church but with a world around us that is just getting all the more evil. I am worried that if we bend too far we might lose our voice. 

Just thinking out loud here, that’s all!

2 thoughts on “Losing Our Voice and The Danger of Too Much Change

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Relationships Are Like, Well … Apples and Oranges. 

Relationships are a funny thing. They are kind of like eating an orange, or an apple. An orange is a fruit that, when yapples orangesou peel the cover off, you better eat it right away. It’s messy if you don’t. You don’t peel the skin off an orange and leave the orange sitting on your counter till later. Sameis true for apples. Peel an apple and you’ll watch it turn brown quicker than the sun sets over the Smoky Mountains. So, apples and oranges are meant to be eaten right away following the peeling. I’ll get to the connection between apples and oranges and relationships in a moment. Only because I love how right now you are scratching your head wondering if Mitch has either had too much coffee, or if you know him really well, maybe not enough coffee. 

Lately I have had a lot of conversations with pastors. It’s what I do. My ministry, Fruitful Vine Ministry, takes me past the foyer, through the living room into the dining room of the soul. We have conversations together that go to depths rarely experienced by either of us. You see, when I sit with a pastor I do so to engage his soul. It’s easy to talk about the church. Pastors do it all the time. Usually when I gather with a number of them, predictably the conversation centers around his or her church. Now, I look for a way into the heart where deeper conversations can happen, that sort that engages the soul, not just the church. 

Talking church is easy. Talking soul is not. It’s true for all of us, whether you are a pastor or not. We keep conversations safe. It’s either because we have never discovered how to go deeper, or we don’t trust people all that much. Most of us live guarded lives. Pastors, because they have been hurt and choose to be more guarded in their next ministry, and others because, well, we just aren’t quite sure if it’s worth the risk of letting someone else in, again. The memories made up of rejection, gossip, rumors, become the mortar blocks to build the wall between us and others. So, we move around others living a mostly superficial life where only a few, if any, are allowed past the living room into the kitchen of our lives. 

Case in point. My sister-in-law knows me about as well as anyone. Next to my wife, she is one of the closest person in my life. Twice a week, or more, we spend thirty minutes to an hour on the phone going over much needed editing to my blogs and two novels I am working on. Something about reading and correcting someone’s writing, is you get to know them really well. Add this to thirty years of being married to her sister, and you really get to know someone. My sister-in-law, and my wife for that matter – and I would add my son and daughter, parents and siblings to this list, have every reason to not like me. Around them, my guard has been down often. I am vulnerable around them, and have permission to be. Why? Because I know I will never be rejected, or loved less. It’s funny; to have relationships that are so intimate because others have seen the ugly and rough stuff, and they still like me. That invites depth. 

I long to have more relationships like this in my life, but I am not sure I will. I am working on it. I am on a  quest for a way past the peripheral and what’s safe, and risk entry through another door that takes me past the foyer, through the living room into the kitchen where some deep stuff can be shared. (I read this to my wife and she suggested I should refer to the closet as a better metaphor. I told her that sounded weird, so we settled on the kitchen to make my point. Thank you though, Elaine.) In the meantime, I am trusting a few more people who I sense are accepting me for who I am, despite what they hear and see as they get to know me better. Or, I wonder is it because of what they see and hear, that they are going deeper with me? A couple local pastors are becoming such friends. I also want to be an influence in others’ lives to see them go to new places in relationships. 

I wonder, too, if we are like this with Jesus. Guarded, I mean. However, when I read the gospels he invites vulnerability. Jesus pierced the hard surfaces of people’s lives, peeled hard, and probed deep. Often it was painful. Nicodemus. Peter. Martha. The Pharisees. Thomas. Paul. Me. You. When Jesus peels the layer, he never recoils from what he sees. It encourages him deeper. I want to be like that. Like eating an apple, or an orange. Once the layer is removed, I want to love what I see, not discard the person, or distance myself from them. apples oranges 2

Yes, relationships are like apples and oranges. Peel away the layer, and the best is what is inside. But, you have to be willing to give of yourself to do it. Do you have someone in mind you could begin with? The easy thing to say is, “Yes, I have it with Jesus,” but we need it in relationships. With members of his body. That is how we, “have it with Jesus,” by having it with members of his body. I don’t want to just be close to Jesus, I want to live close to Jesus by living really close with others. 

One thought on “Relationships Are Like, Well … Apples and Oranges. 

  1. Bryant Hendricks

    My dad (who strongly supported HOME Bible Studies/Small Groups) often reminded me: “You don’t REALLY KNOW someone until you’ve been in their home!” I don’t mean the kind of guest that comes to the front door and rings the doorbell, but the kind of FRIEND that comes to the back door and comes on in w/o knocking. That’s the kind of relationship that we desire to have with Jesus and therefore, as we are to be like HIM, so we desire that kind of relationship with others (I Cor. 11:1 and Eph. 5:1 esp. NASB).
    Thanks for the insightful reminder, Dad:)

    Reply

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I Am Not Jealous of My Wife’s Love for Jesus!

My wife, Elaine, often says that Jesus is her best friend. I am not offended by this. I’m actually better off because of it. If she is able to draw her strength from Jesus, her expectations of me are less. We tease about it. Well, I do anyway. She takes it rather seriously. I try to catch her off-guard, especially when she is just beginning to drift to sleep. You know, that moment when you really don’t think about what you’re saying. I try to take advantage of that vulnerability. It never works. “Elaine,” I will say, “who’s your best friend?”

“Jesus!” The reply is quick and unapologetic.

So, I resign myself to second place. But again, I ‘m good with it. Pressure’s off. Sand

Elaine has earned this right. A brain tumor survivor, she lives, too, with the agony of losing a son to cancer and watching another son suffer but survive cancer. Stuff like this forces you somewhere. Either to despair, or deep trust. She chose deep trust. In Jesus. Not me. I’m too fragile. Vulnerable. I admit that. I get really impatient at times. She knows it, but shrugs it off. She is extremely forgiving, often forgetting about the fight we had the day before. Were she fully dependent for her security on me, it would be different. I would disappoint her, over and over again. She would keep a record of my wrongs. Jesus, however, is reliable to her, and she knows that. He has proven himself trustworthy to her. There are times I will look at her with awe. Her Bible and journal open on her lap. Reading and writing were two things taken from her because of her brain tumor. She has strained to regain these. Not without cost. I am invited in occasionally, to help write a word, or define it – but this experience around God’s Word is too sacred for me to come too close. I do my own reading, and studying, usually across the room with my own Bible, and lap top. I will pause, look at her, and I know someone else is sitting next to her, sharing a depth and intimacy I can neither give her nor share with her.

I want to know Jesus as Elaine knows him. I want to speak to him as she speaks to him. What I long for most is to love him like she loves him.

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The Gospel in Conflict – Part Three; Supporting Your Pastor

Let me say at the onset that I am all for prayer. I believe deeply in prayer. I pray often. I have seen answers to prayer that on their own prove the existence of God. So, when I set out here to suggest that praying for your pastor is not enough in your commitment to him, it might sound odd, given how I just promoted its importance. Not long ago I read an excellent article urging parishioners to pray for their pastor, particularly when their pastor is under attack. The writer called for intentional, aggressive, war-like devotion to prayer that lets, not just the devil know their man is covered, but those who are antagonistic also better understand what they are up against.Gossip copy

*Several months ago, a dear friend shared with me how her pastor was under a lot of pressure. She told me this story: My friend’s mother is generally a very easy going, loving and supportive woman, but for some reason got caught up in a movement within her church, which my friend also attends. It all came to a head the day before a church business meeting. My friend discovered that her mother was planning on reading a letter during the meeting citing some rather serious accusations against the pastor. Others, too, planned on standing in support of the letter, which by implication called for the pastor to resign. My friend, along with two other sisters and a brother were shocked. They loved their pastor and prayed often for him. “Mitch,” my friend explained with a touch of sadness in her voice, “I have been in a prayer group that meets once a week with three other ladies and we pray fervently for our pastor. We pray that he will be covered by the blood of Jesus and live under the shadow of the cross. We pray that those who are bent on evil would be frustrated from their malicious plans. We pray that malevolent behavior in the church would not exist. And here my own mother was part of something that could seriously damage my pastor.”

She continued speaking, her voice choking to fight back tears, “Mitch, now my mother is one of them.”

“What did you do?” I asked with concern.

“Well, I know this isn’t going to sound very spiritual at all, but calling the girls to pray for the meeting, and for my pastor, was the last thing on my mind. You wanna know what I did?”

“I think I know. But tell me anyway.” I was smiling at the courage of my friend.

“I called my two sisters, and then I called my brother. We went over to Moms’ and we had a long hard talk with her. We said, ‘No, mom. Not here. Not with this family. You aren’t going to drag our name into this mess. It stops here. You repent of this before us, and you find those who you were are going to do this with, and you ask for their forgiveness. And you tell them you will have no part of it.”

“Did she respond well to that?”

“Mitch, at first she was shocked, but then she melted and wept for twenty minutes. She was so ashamed. She asked each of us to forgive her. Then with us still in the room, she called three others who were privy to what she was going to do, and did not just ask them to forgive her, but, and this was awesome, Mitch, she told the friends that if they followed through with their plans, she would make life miserable for each of them. We then spoke with mom about the proper way to handle concerns we might have, about our pastor, or about anyone for that matter. Sure our pastor might not be perfect, and sometimes the leadership does make poor decision. But there is a right way, and a wrong way to handle these concerns. The Bible is very clear about that.”

I did not realize that I had been holding my breath through this last part of her story, but now took a large gulp of air. The conversation ended by my extending appreciation for how my friend handled the problem, commenting that this is the sort of thing that needs to happen more in churches.

Rather than saying praying is not enough in our commitment to support our pastor, perhaps I should say that there are some things that flow out of our commitment to pray that include action. Some times we need to be the answer to our own prayers. Stepping in when a sister or brother in Christ is being malicious and adversarial and saying with dire warning, “No, not here. Not in this family. You aren’t going to drag our name, Jesus’ name, into this. This stops. It’s wrong. This is not the way to handle this. It will lead to further brokeness and pain.”

I am all for prayer. But I wonder if just praying deflects to God what ought to be our responsibility. That part of a commitment to pray also includes proper behavior in the family of Jesus. Perhaps the greater offender in church conflict is not the one who causes the pain, but the one who stands by and watches it, and does nothing. The one who is like the observer of a crime on a New York Subway, who sees a man pushed onto the tracks, but does nothing to rescue the victim. The Sunday School teacher who could speak biblically against the behavior of some who attend his class, but doesn’t. The good friend who knows his brother in Christ is collecting letters to send to the district director, but does nothing to stop it. The grandfather, who with one word could end the plotting by his grandson to undermine the leadership of the elders, but chooses family harmony over righteousness. The choir director who overhears a number in the group gossiping unkindly about the pastor’s wife, but leaves it alone.

May we include in our prayer commitment, may we add to our high value of prayer, the notion that when people behave in a way that is unbefitting to people of prayer, we step in and say, “No, not here.” Suddenly prayer looks a lot more real to me, and I am a soldier for Jesus whose devotion to him is so serious, I will do anything to keep people who love him together.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light. – Dr. Martin Luther King January 27, 1965

*Significant details of this story are changed so as not to betray the confidence of people who share their stories with me.

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Conflict and the Gospel: part 2 (Relationships in the Family of Jesus)

 The enemy will do all he can to interrupt the mission of the church, usually in the form of conflict. I have on many occasions brought people together who were involved in petty, or major conflict, and said, “Folks, this is getting in the way of what Jesus is wanting to do in and through us. And that scares me. Because what he has called us to is so HUGE and amazing and adventurous. Let’s not get in the way of that. Let’s jump on board again and not get distracted. Come on, come together and let’s pray, and if you need to ask forgivenessPeoples, or confess any sin toward someone, this is the time to do so. Too much is at stake.” 

What I have done is resolved conflict around the mission and message of the Gospel. When Paul admonished people who were in conflict he always appealed to the Gospel. The Gospel was his motivation for unity. I think you will see that in the following passages. 

Romans 12:19-20  

The command: If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 

The Motivation is the gospel: To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 

Romans 15:5-6 

The Command: May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,

The Motivation is the Gospel: that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God

Hebrews 12:14-15

The Command: Strive for peace with everyone, 

The Motivation is the Gospel: and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;

When we address conflict just so two people can get along, the motivation is not that great. They might not want to. Some prefer to hold grudges and stay mad. But when you bring in the Gospel, suddenly it takes on new light. It is frightening to me that when two people in the body of Christ refuse to reconcile, they are standing in the way of what God is doing. I don’t ever want to be found unreconciled when Jesus returns. 

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The place of the gospel in dealing with conflict (Part One – Marriage)

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. Heb. 12:14-15

For many, the goal in resolving conflict is to see two people, or two parties, get along with each other again. It’s far bigger than that.

Couple

When I met with Jim and Nancy their marriage hung by a thread. Even counseling sessions seemed to weaken that thread. It threatened to snap any moment. Every word, every defense, each accusation seemed to harden further their feelings toward each other. I wanted to say it out loud, but knew I shouldn’t. You mean there was a time when you two actually loved each other? 

We met for months and the only thing keeping them going was their commitment to me. Little, if any commitment existed to each other. I wanted to give up, and almost did. The idea came to me on the day they showed up to tell me they had made the decision to move apart. I felt defeat. I failed them and began to lose hope, too. We sat across from each other with only silence filling up the space between us. I finally spoke. Jim and Nancy, I want you both to get on your knees and face each other. Let me be honest here. Given the climate in the room, this was the last thing I expected them to do. Evidently, they still trusted me, still clung to some hope, so they did what I asked them to do. I then leaned forward and continued, sensing another presence in the room. Now, look at each other and repeat after me. Nancy, you first. She was looking at me and nodded slightly, then turned her head to face Jim. I thought I saw the first gatherings of tears lining the edges of her eyes. Okay, you ready?  She nodded again, still facing Jim. He could not make eye contact with her, yet, but she continued to fasten her eyes on his.

I, Nancy. 

“I, Nancy,”

Take you, Jim, 

“Take you, Jim,”

To be my wedded Husband…

And for the next few moments I had her repeat the wedding vows exactly as they were said ten years before at their wedding. Earlier that morning I had pulled out the notes from my files. I am the one who officiated at their wedding. I asked Jim to do the same. Three lines in, his eyes were locked on hers. Four lines in, she was sobbing. I then reminded them of what else they said as an appendage to their vows. How they were committing their lives for a larger purpose than their own. By coming together, they promised to show a broken world what the cross does in bringing two people together, who exist in harmony as an exhibition of the glory of God. When it was over, the two were embracing. Both were crying. I sat back, amazed. Wondering what just happened. Something beyond me, bigger and more magnificent than what I can explain with mere words.

Jim and Nancy walked out of that room holding hands. They have been madly in love since. And that was five years ago. What did happen in that room? Well, first I have to admit, I gave up. Nothing worked. Recommending books on marriage, attending that marriage conference, doing homework together all seemed futile against the strong grip of anger and bitterness that now seemed to define their relationship. Secondly, what happened in that room was supernatural. The moment I asked them to repeat their wedding vows, the Holy Spirit stepped between them to make room for his friend, Jesus, who invited them to meet again at the cross. There, at the cross, something happened that I cannot really explain. The gospel took over. Far beyond repeating wedding vows, he spoke to them again of his death, burial and resurrection and the reconciliation power that defined it all. This became more than two people finally deciding to get along. It became about three people, Jesus in the middle, interacting around the greater purposes of God. That the reason they must become reconciled had more to do with the power of the cross than mere words. See, I am trying really hard to tell you what took place that afternoon, but I am stumbling to do so. All, I can tell you is my approach to helping couples deal with conflict has changed. I don’t always ask them to repeat their vows to each other, but I do talk a lot about the cross of Jesus and what happens when that becomes the altar where we meet.

When the goal in helping hurting people is simply that they get along, we fall way short of what God wants. We stop short of the cross of Jesus. When hurting marriages stand at the cross they are reminded of why Jesus came. To reconcile us first to God. And then the power that brought peace where there had been enmity in that relationship can overshadow and over power all broken relationships. We desire to be restored to one another because that becomes the best way to celebrate the greatest relationship ever. And the world needs to see what that looks like, and it looks best in the image of an embrace, with the cross in the background, than it does in the posture of anger and bitterness where the presence of reconciliation is absent. Paul reminds us in Romans 15:5-7 how the purpose of coming together goes far deeper than being reconciled to each other. It’s so that, together, you both may bringing honor and glory to him. Where the motivation for getting along is the gospel not just your peace of mind.  May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,  that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Let’s never give up on what Jesus can do, and continues to do, for those in broken marriages. He uses the miracle of restoration to point again to what he came to do for all mankind.

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When Difficult People Cross Your Path

The tendency when there is conflict is to react in one of two ways. I can defend myself and assume the other person is in the wrong, or I might humble myself and agree with the criticism just leveled at me.  Well, there is a third option, the kind when we might not agree with what is said, but still not respond in anger. I’ll get to that in a minute.

arguingIt took me a long time to understand that conflict of any kind is a double-edged sword. In fact, my impulse now is to assume God is doing two things at the same time in the context of conflict. He is working in my adversary’s life and my life at the very same time. It can happen, and often happens in ministry.

Okay, let me get a bit more personal on this one. I would not say I have a contentious personality. Most people would probably describe me as relatively calm and controlled. I don’t often get angry and rarely lose my temper. Oh yeah, my wife just reminded me about the argument we had about sixteen years ago. The one where I ran out of words, and threw a salad bowl against the wall. It was also the day I discovered that cucumbers stick on walls better than tomatoes do. Back to me. Through most of my life I have enjoyed good relationships and gotten along quite well with people. I jokingly say that in twenty-nine years of pastoring, I can count on one hand those who I think don’t like me that much, and all of them were in one church I pastored.

During that season I discovered a great deal about myself. I even wonder now if God purposefully put certain difficult people in my life for two reasons. I call it the divine orchestration of relationships. First, I believe, by putting that person in my path, God is confronting something in his or her life. And, secondly, he is using that person and the criticism leveled at me, to peel another layer off my own stubborn heart. What has helped me keep my sanity as a pastor is to assume right away that I am not always the problem when something contentious happens. If I am, God will reveal that to me. Otherwise, the person who just said what he said to me, maybe did so because of the rhythms in his own life. He has his own history, his own story of brokeness and patterns of responses that explains the personality that now defines him, and even his manner toward me. He did not have a perfect life until suddenly he met me. I am not the reason for the way he is. And that frames my response. I have no control in the way other people are. I do have control, though, of the way I am. So, at times, I believe, God puts a difficult person in my life to show me just a bit more about myself. Where my attention is not on what was said to me, or about me, but on my response to what I might think was unfair or unjust.

There will always be tensions and conflicts in our lives. Until Jesus returns, we will struggle with each other and be tested. You have two choices. Fight conflict, or allow the Holy Spirit to use it to make you more like his friend, Jesus. Getting to that point will not easily change the other person. The struggle might continue until the end. Imagine though, living victoriously because you look inside yourself before you react. Lately, I have been working really hard at throwing fruit instead of salad. The sort Paul speaks about in Galatians 5. The kind that sticks, on people, not walls.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. Gal. 5:22-26

I believe this kind of fruit is born best out of the seed of conflict.

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The Antidote to Failure Is Not Better Performance

It is easier to be a fanatic than a faithful soul, because there is something amazingly humbling, particularly to our religious conceit, in being loyal to God. O. Chambers

We are a culture that measures effectiveness by outcomes. Anything short of a good outcome is deemed a failure. Carry that over into the Christian context, and we measure our spirituality by how much we do for Jesus. The measure of effectiveness, however, in the Christian experience, is faithfulness, not fruitfulness. We are called by Jesus to be faithful, never fruitful*. (John 15:5) Being fruitful is his doing: faithfulness is ours. There is danger is measuring my spiritual health by how exciting things have gotten as a result of how much I have done for him. When I listen to some Christians describe their relationship to Jesus I am jealous because mine has not had the exuberance and impact they describe. failure

For the most part my Christian experience has been at best, tiring. This bothered me for years. Recently, due to the change of pace in my life, I am rethinking what God really expects of me. Sure, I am to remain busy for him, but does that mean I will ultimately be judged, or my spirituality measured, by how much I did, or how excited I was when I did it? I am beginning to think not!

Pastors are under as much pressure to produce as the employee in a business is expected to meet the bottom line at years end. It is not uncommon for a congregation to determine how spiritual their pastor is, how well he walks with Jesus, because of the church’s bottom line: Is the church growing? Are we bringing in enough money to pay our bills and manage our outreaches? In one particular church I pastored, I don’t remember the leaders checking up on my walk with Jesus. I did, however, feel less than adequate when the topic of outcomes came up in our meetings. People are leaving. The spirit is no longer here. Some are threatening to no longer give, Several say they are not being fed.  These concerns led them to question the state of the leadership’s soul. While it was never directly stated, I felt a failure, because I did not bring the results the church assumed were my responsibility to bring.

The antidote to failure is not better performance. It is discovering, in failure, the undeniable, unshakable, irresistible, loving, accepting and unrelenting presence of the Almighty God, Himself. When Jesus spoke to Peter’s failure, he did not say, “Peter, what was that all about? Denying me? Peter! I am ashamed and disappointed to have ever called you to follow me.” No! He simply said, three times, “Peter, do you love me?” To address Peter’s failure, Jesus spoke to Peter’s soul. When God met Elijah following the overwhelming experience of challenging the Baal prophets in 1 Kings 18 the prophet ran in discouragement because this encounter did not produce the results he expected. Instead, we are told in 1 Kings 19:3 that he was afraid and ran for his life from the wicked King Ahab and the equally wicked Queen Jezebel. This was not the outcome Elijah wanted. It led him to deep discouragement. When God met Elijah he did not speak to Elijah about what could have been done better on the mountain with the Baal prophets. After a few days rest, God instructed Elijah to hide behind a rock where in that safety he would reveal himself to his prophet in a soft whisper (1 Kings 19:13). God’s interest for Elijah was not to address better performance, but the soul of his tired friend.

When I meet with a ministry leader, I am more interested in the state of his soul than the condition of his church, or how well he is managing all the responsibilities. The goal of our ministry is to build spiritually strong ministry leaders who will impact the world for Christ. I would rather see a pastor walk closely with Jesus, pursuing holiness, than for him to pastor a successful church while his heart remains cluttered and distant from Jesus. I would rather see him pay attention more to what Jesus is doing in his soul than in his church. Somehow, I think the church would be far better off with such a pastor. He might not be dynamic, but he will draw people to Jesus.

Several years ago I met a pastor who struggled against the tide of discontent for over seven years in his church. The man who sat across from me appeared calm and humble. I did not hear anger, nor did I detect a serious level of defeat or discouragement. From his story, he had his share of Mt. Carmel encounters. Certainly he spoke with concern and carried a burden that his congregation might capture the beauty of who Jesus is and the true purpose of the church, but this has not defined him. I don’t see this often in a discouraged pastor. Too often, like the chameleon butterfly, he adapts to his environment. He is discouraged because the church is discouraged. He falters in defeat, neglecting his Bible reading and prayer, because the church is spiritually stumbling and not responding to his preaching and ministry. Something allowed my friend, the pastor, to transcend this. He guarded his soul from being influenced by the harsh situation around him. I asked him why. How did he keep his joy when most would have theirs drained by this time? His response was both simple and profound. Mitch, he said, pointing up with his index finger, I serve an audience of One. He lives, hidden behind a solid rock, responding beautifully to the Whisper of God to his soul.

My faith has found a resting place, Not in device nor creed; I trust the Ever-living One, His wounds for me shall plead. I need no other argument, I need no other plea; It is enough that Jesus died, And that He died for me.  –(Hymn: My Faith Has Found A Resting Place by E.E. Hewitt)

* I realize that statement might be mis-understood. I am simply making the point that our fruitfulness must be the product of his indwelling,  and how our faithfulness to him produces the fruit of his desire and doing.

2 thoughts on “The Antidote to Failure Is Not Better Performance

  1. Terry Bloemsma

    Mitch,
    thanks for this awesome reminder of this truth – “I serve an audience of one.” If / when I truly believe this and wallow in it I find peace in the storm and joy in the trials. TB

    Reply

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Featured post

Not Really A Sacrifice

A Thanksgiving SHOUT Out to Mom and Dad from their four children

The day my son, Travis, turned four I had scheduled an elders meeting at the church I was pastoring. I did something that is still embarrassing to write about. I postponed his birthday party until the next day so the elders’ meeting would not have to be rescheduled. Like I said, embarrassing. I vowed that day to never again do ministry at the expense of my family. In 2006 we moved south to pastor a large church with many responsibilities and burdens placed on me. My youngest son, Brett, had just undergone four months of chemotherapy for cancer and was emotionally vulnerable.

He needed me more than the church needed me.

On countless occasions I came home early from meetings and social gatherings during those first months, because my son asked me to come home and be with him. This might have cost me some collateral with the church, but I doubt anyone remembers their pastor leaving early to go home to his son. I do know my son remembers. We still talk about it. mom dad

In 1976 my parents left the mission field, unsure if they would ever return. Years earlier, in 1957, Mom and Dad departed from Europe, left family and all that is familiar, to obey the call of Jesus. Working with a primitive tribe in Papua (formerly, Irian Jaya), they assumed this specific call, to this place, would last a lifetime. They gave their lives to this call. Left everything for it. Jesus blessed their obedience, evident in the fruit that came from loving and serving the lost around them. Even though the four of us children were sent off to boarding school beginning at the age of six, we always felt we were a part of the call given to our parents.  Being separated was hard for us, and I know hard for them. IMG_0134

In 1976 my parents had a hard choice to make, although they will tell you there was no struggle about which was the right choice. One of their children was spiraling into deep depression, the sort that could have easily led to, and almost did lead to suicide. The choice was to leave the mission field to find help for their desperate son. The family spent two-and-a-half years in Georgia while that son received professional treatment. He gradually improved. For two-and-a-half years my parents wondered what they would do with their lives, and if they could ever return to do what they had given their lives to. Thankfully, in 1979 that son was declared healed. My parents returned to the mission field, served well, and served faithfully for a total of 38 years. They have been retired since 1996 and now live in Georgia.

I am that son, eternally grateful for parents who were willing to abandon their life call for the sake of family. I think they understand it to be part of the call to serve and follow Jesus.

Some might find this decision hard when placed against Jesus’ promise in Mark 10:29-30, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,  who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life… At first glance this implies that ministry should come before family. Some, out of obedience to this command, have made the tough decision to remain faithful to ministry while not sure of what to do with a struggling child. As a child, I heard, from a few, this to be justification for sending off children so the parents could serve out their call. (I will brag on my parents here, and say they lived well with this tension, and despite the tough decisions they made, they left on us the deep impression that we came first. They certainly proved that when I was ill. So, a big shoutout here to Mom and Dad.)

I believe what Jesus is referring to in this passage is the kind of separation that was forced on families due to persecution, not the intentional willing sacrifice of children for the sake of following Jesus. Yes, Jesus does insist we place him above everything else, including family. Our love for family should not supersede our love for him. Love for family ought to never keep us from loving him. That was the dilemma presented to the rich man in this story whose wealth kept him from following Jesus. He was also afraid of being persecuted for it. He knew if he chose Jesus it might ultimately cost him everything he had. Even his family might be taken from him. Jesus is also reassuring the grieving mom who saw her children ripped from her as she and her husband were hauled off to prison because of their devotion to Jesus, that he will take care of them. He is telling the dad doubting his decision to not renounce Jesus now that he sees what it has done to his family, that it will be okay in the end. They were promised to receive so much more for their commitment to suffer loss for his sake. Read what follows in this passage, and Jesus speaks of his own pending suffering and even the inferred suffering that would follow for his disciples. No wonder verse thirty-two tells us how those who followed were afraid…They began to understand the cost. Notice, too, the reference to persecution in the passage cited above.

Yes, we are to give up our children to Jesus, but we are not to give them up to ministry. When we give our children to Jesus, he hands them back to us and says, “Here, raise them to love me. They are mine, and I am entrusting them to you.” For example, Moses’s mother had to give her son up to Pharaohs’ daughter, but then she was called to live in the palace to raise him. (Exodus 2:7-8) Before Samuel was born, she promised, if God gave her a son, to give him up to serve in the temple. (1 Samuel 1:22,28)  She kept her promise, but raised Samuel till he was twelve, and remained heavily involved in his life afterwards (1 Samuel 2:19). (I refer to Jewish custom and the account of Josephus who described 12 being the age when young boys were released- or weaned- to serve in the temple.)

Give your children to Jesus, and the way they understand they belong to Him is in knowing you placed them first above everything else you do in the name of Jesus.

Thanks Mom and Dad for not just teaching this, but showing it. You left a solid legacy that will last generations. It’s already showing fruit! Nine great-grandchildren, and counting, will be talking about you for generations to come.

I spoke with my Dad about this again the other day and he said something interesting. I asked my parents to read the draft for this blog and my father responded with this, “Mitch, it was no sacrifice to do this. No sacrifice at all. To not do it would have been the sacrifice and God did not look kindly in the Old Testament to the sacrifice of children.” 

One thought on “Not Really A Sacrifice

  1. Candi

    Mitch,

    That was an awesome article! I too, am very proud of your folks. I believe they had their priorities straight and blessed you children and, no doubt left a mark on all who watched!
    This is a powerful reminder to all who are in ministry to love God above all else but you never neglect their children to the priority of ministry

    Reply

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Theology Matters… Even In Road Rage

Yesterday, Elaine and I were driving back home from visiting a friend, when a car recklessly veered into our lane. Fortunately, there was enough room on the shoulder for me to swerve away from his bullying move. As his car rushed ahead of me, every fleshly impulse in me fought to react to this injustice, and to let him know that he had nearly taken my life. I had to quickly reign in the carnal  desire to see him pay for what he had done. Within seconds, before I had to time to obey these impulses, I was reminded that Jesus would not be pleased, and was not pleased, with my response.

Road rage

In that very moment, what I believed to be true about God and about myself affected the way I chose to behave. (I am sure Elaine will have a much different take on this story. I don’t think I was as calm as I am describing here. But, lets move on….)

Theology matters. Really matters, even when we drive on a dangerous highway. Were it not for theology (my belief in God, or the study of God’s nature) were it not for doctrine (the belief and understanding of scripture) my life would be undisciplined and at best sloppy. Several years ago I began the discipline of processing everything that happens to me, from trials to disappointments, first through the grid of theology. I worked hard to react to things, to unexpected trials, to disappointments, unkind things said to me, or about me, by placing them next to what I believe and understand to be true about God. I watched two sons suffer cancer, reminded that these losses did not move God one bit off his throne. Were it not for theology, my life would have been sucked into despair.

There is something wonderful in embracing disappointments when you allow it to spill over into the grid of theology. To have that impulse to believe God is sovereign and good and loving (doctrinal truths) when someone marginalizes you, or overlooks you for someone else, leads to acceptance. You find yourself okay with it, because you believe God is a sovereign and good and a loving God, and he would not have allowed what just happened without permitting it. Furthermore, these disappointments cause us to embrace his unconditional love and commitment for us. He will never leave me nor forsake me. Others might, but he never will. To see God as just, and still good, when something unjust happens is the outcome of allowing that pain to spill over and fill out that sector of the grid that says God is always just, always good, always in control. In the end, he will sort out all that is wrong. Even this past month, I faced a significant disappointment. Before I allowed it to affect me emotionally (the result would have been discouragement and anger) I remembered again what I believed. Even in the disappointment, I did not forget what I know to be true. Because of it, discouragement did not lead to anger.

There are unguarded times when disappointments spill over into my own emotional grid, because I forgot for a moment what I believed about God and the way he works. What pulls me back, what gives me perspective again is truth; theology and doctrine. That is when the Holy Spirit gently reminds me of what I believe. He points me again to Jesus and reminds me to place everything against what he has told me about himself. This has to be why Paul urged Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely. (1 Tim. 4:16)

One thought on “Theology Matters… Even In Road Rage

  1. Bryant

    Thanks for reminding us that God is not only in control, but His desire is to bless us even in our failures and adversities!

    Reply

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Asking Different Questions From Thirty Years Ago!

I am in a new season in life when I am asking different questions from thirty years ago. For most, if not all of my life I have needed to be needed. Recently with the help of what could be viewed as disappointments, I am being stripped of this need (to be needed) and finding myself just willing to be available. Getting there has not come easy. It’s come at the expense of my self, my pride. Throughout my thirty years of ministry I am not accustomed to being marginalized, or looked over for someone younger with more years ahead of him. I am surprised (and honestly somewhat disappointed) when my opinion is not sought after by another pastor facing significant changes in his ministry. Deep Thought

These recent events, with the added benefit of growing older and growing up spiritually (finally) have forced me to ask some new questions. The questions that drove me into ministry (thirty years back) were:

  • How can God get the most of this life?
  • What difference will this life make in the grand scheme of God’s larger purposes?
  • How many people will I impact on this journey?
  • How will this world be a better place when God is finished with me?

I managed quite well, motivated by these questions until recently. Until I found myself not as needed as before. Until a younger buck was chosen over this graying one, and less people are looking to me to help them manage their own ministry decisions. Until I felt less significant to the greater purposes of God and noticed the world has not changed all that much during my lifetime.

I have honestly enjoyed this change. The pressure is off. When I look back and review the impact I have had, or not had, I feel less guilty about it. While I do feel less effective than I used to, the questions I am now asking make me okay with that. Now I am asking more refreshing questions which I am assuming will drive me perhaps for the next twenty or maybe even thirty years;

  • Am I willing to go unnoticed the rest of my life? I hope so, because I do know from the past that I needed to be noticed.  My history exposes a heart that gets frustrated when not recognized or given credit for something I felt I deserved. I long to be free of that.
  • Am I willing to be ineffective the rest of my life? I don’t know. My story is one of a heart that measures holiness by the fruit of my labor, by the spiritual marks I have left. The post-sermon pat-on-the-back and the doubts about myself when I didn’t get one. One of my favorite authors is Brennan Manning. He lived in disappointments, fumbling through life as an alcoholic and most of his later years unnoticed, taking care of mentally handicapped young men. It’s no surprise Manning lived this kind of life. During his ordination his mentor, Larry Hines, prayed this blessing over Manning:  May all your expectations be frustrated, May all your plans be thwarted, May all your desires be withered into nothingness, That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child, and can sing and dance in the love of God the Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. 
  • Am I willing to be unimpressed by God for the rest of my life? What I mean is, am I willing to live the rest of my life with his silence? What if He never shows up again? What if, from here on I see no visible proof of his presence? Will I still trust Him?  We live for God things, an expression reserved more for when God delivers for us, not when he seems absent. Yet, is He not just as much in control when the cancer comes back, as when it’s in remission? I love what Larry Crabb writes in his book, Real Church. Our faith develops most strongly, and God is most glorified most fully when we feel only His absence, when every trace of His presence vanishes and our resolve to trust continues. I long to be at that place where I can live the rest of my life without one more God Thing, because what I have in Him and what I know about Him is enough to last me, not just a lifetime, but for all eternity. I hope so! It’s at least what I want to rest in during this next and possibly last phase of my life.

5 thoughts on “Asking Different Questions From Thirty Years Ago!

  1. Bryant

    Wow, that’s heavy! Yet I feel UR heart. Our significance comes from Him, not this world! Lord Jesus, take this world, but give me You! UR all I will ever need so Create in me a clean heart (May only UR Spirit motivate me)!

    Reply
  2. Pat Heffernan

    Mitch, I didn’t know you have been living on my shoulder! WOW, it’s so encouraging to know that what God is doing in my life (or better stated, not doing) is also happening to one of the most godly people I know. Thanks for your honesty!!!

    Reply
  3. Jean

    P. Mitch, I so appreciate your honesty in your writings. You have caused me to cry, in a good sense because you have expressed so much of what I am thinking these days at age 69. There are so many losses to struggle through in the aging process. I sure do not like not being needed like I used to be. I am convinced that God designed it that as we become older we lose more and more so we place greater and greater focus and importance on Jesus and eternity. I am finding it true that the way it is suppose to work is He is to become more, we less. When we were on missions team together so many years ago the team was concerned about you being overworked and when we talked to you about it you said that you only wanted to be all used up for Him. You have passed that desire onto me and I thank you for it. By the way, you have taught me more about humility and trusting God no matter what more than any other pastor. It’s a great part of the legacy you will leave.

    Reply
  4. Mark Barnard

    Ran into someone recently in ministry who exemplified all the downside of this article. I couldn’t tell if he was highly gifted, inspired, or just crazy. I settled on crazy. It’s too easy to chase after the wind, even in ministry and I’m not immune. May God give us the grace to humbly wait on his “still small voice” and nothing else.

    Reply
  5. John Washburn

    As one of those touched by your personal ministry, your effects in this world may not be know well in this world, but I am sure Our Father regards them highly. Your meeting with me is one of those events little noticed by this world events that I think He would find important. You were the first person (and the only to date) who could understand the occult aspects of what brought me to Christ. I have now come to appreciate the humor of our Father in using the supernatural to bring a hyper-rational mathematician into His fold.

    Thank you for your trip to Waukesha to discuss my confession of faith. I was comforting to talk to someone who understood that there are indeed “dark powers which rule this world” and who are all to willing to touch our soul if we permit it.

    Reply

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Featured post

When Things Do Not Turn Out Well

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. Genesis 6:5-6

Last year I was interviewed for a placement for a Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.) course. Across from me sat two people who intimidated me with their presence, but more so with their questions. They asked me to share about my life. I did. When I got to the part about the loss of my son, and my wife’s and my youngest son’s cancer, I knew I had an opportunity to share how despite it all God has been so good to us. I even told of specific ways the hardships opened the door for the gospel. Dark Clouds copyOn the canvas I painted a beautiful picture of dark clouds, each lined with silver linings of the redemptive ways God took the hard stuff and made something good out of it. Yes, God takes the ashes and turns them into beauty. I have always felt good, and right, when telling my story, to make sure I end it with hope. Yes, it’s been hard, but…God is still on the throne. God is good. He is kind. See, here is the proof. I ended my story. Like an artist filling in the last dark spots with subtle lighted colors, I put my brush down and stood back to admire the canvas. I assumed they would too. I was wrong.

One of them looked at me sternly and said, “Tell us something that has not turned out right in your life.” I swallowed hard. I thought even harder. I felt exposed and embarrassed. Their question popped my bubble and revealed an unhealthy tendency to have to always explain away tragedy. What was their point? There will be days when I will have to  stand at the bedside of someone dying with no explanation of why it is good. Sometimes the best thing to say is, “This really stinks. It’s ugly. Hard. Tragic.” Sometimes it is best to say it and then sit down and shut up.

Last week a Facebook post shared how hundreds were coming to Jesus in places where ISIS was ravaging and pillaging and raping. The article frustrated me and made me wish Mark Zuckerberg had given us an, “I don’t like that” option. I would have been the first to select it. (*) Why do we need to explain away evil? Does it really help to tell a grieving mother her son is in a better place, and no longer suffering? Do you not identify better with the heaviness of her heart when you simply say, “I hate what has happened to you.”

I discovered something from my interview for the CPE course. Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. Letting the tragedy remain tragic allows us to grieve with God over sin and its impact on the human life and experience.  God did not explain away evil. He entered it and drowned himself in it. He became sin for us so that we can become the righteousness of God. He walked into the horror and grieved, and wept and agonized with us. Our silver lining is the cross of Jesus where God faced evil for what it is. Our hope is not that evil has something good in it that we can point to for consolation. Our hope is knowing that God hated evil so much that he came here to do something about it. Our hope is for the end of ISIS, but in the meantime it is perfectly right to anguish over their existence and what they are doing to God’s beautiful creation, those made in his image.

This week, try not to explain away what sin has so tragically done around you. Rather, grieve over it. I think you will find yourself sharing something deep of God’s heart.

(*) My blogs can sometimes be overstated to make a point. Of course, I celebrate when people come to Jesus even when evil exists around them. That is what victory in the cross of Jesus is all about. I want to make sure that point is not misunderstood.

3 thoughts on “When Things Do Not Turn Out Well

  1. Terry Bloemsma

    This makes sense. It reminds me of the saying, “There is healing in the hearing.” Sometimes the greatest need we have is to share our painful stories with someone who will just listen and we experience healing in our telling of it and their loving listening.

    Reply
  2. Bette Balmer

    Mitch- thank you for continuing to give people permission to grieve the things that society would rather sweep under the carpet. You acknowledge tragedy without letting it control you. You are truly an inspiration!

    Reply

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Featured post

Learning to Pastor Your Family Well

Pastors have two primary responsibilities involving two families.  One involves his congregation, the other, his wife and children.

As I write this, I am taken back to a conversation I had with a friend, and pastor, several years ago. Let me ask you to grab a chair and listen in to our conversation.

 family - 0642My friend is very honest with me about this tension between pastoring his family and pastoring his church. He admits to spending most of his disciplined energy on his church family, but gives the leftover to his immediate family. I love asking this question; “how long do you think you’ll pastor your church family?” While he longs to pastor a good number of years, he acknowledges a day will come when he will move on to pastor another church family. I then ask this mind-waking question. “Okay, how long do you plan on pastoring your immediate family, your wife and your children?” There is little hesitation,Forever, of course.”

This answer comes easily.

For a few seconds, I say little. The silence is not uncomfortable, but certainly probing. To give time for the point to settle even deeper, I find a spot on the table to look at. My own mind stays busy. I wonder what he is thinking right now. I know he spends fifteen hours on his sermon, but he just admitted he spends maybe twenty minutes a month having devotions with his wife and two children. The spot hasn’t moved from the table, so I keep looking at it, hoping my friend is isolating some of his own issues to focus on. My mind begins to review this tension between the two allegiances, two families, in my own life. Married for 31 years, raising five children, I have yet to move on to another family. I am still married to Elaine, and I love her as much now as I did the first day I met her. Even more. My children love me, and now as adults we have a friendship that excites me. (My daughter and her husband recently accompanied Elaine and me to Europe to help in our ministry.) They love Jesus, and I know when we meet together soon for Thanksgiving and Christmas we will speak of years that have passed and the blessings we have all enjoyed together. Many of those blessings have been handed to us out of the fires of sorrow, and we are close because of it.

I love my family. It’s the only family I want and I assume the only one I will ever have. 

My friend remains comfortable with the silence between us, so my eyes shift to another spot on the round table that separates us. I am no longer considering what he is thinking. My own thoughts begin to occupy me. Thirty-one years, one family, one wife and great memories, but during those thirty-one years I have pastored six different churches. Some for just three years, a couple for five or more. One church, just one year. I strain to remember the names of the elders I spent hours with in the early years. The members I counseled, discipled, walked and hunted with can only be remembered through the mist of memory. It saddens me how during many of those years I blocked out time in my office for sermon preparation and gave myself wholeheartedly to loving and helping others, at times at the expense of my family. One time, I actually told the secretary I would call Elaine back when she was trying to reach me. I had to finish that third point in my finally honed sermon. I never failed to show up for a Sunday sermon because I forgot about it, but I did on many occasions forget or neglect to pray with my wife, or take that time to read the Bible with my son, or pray with my daughter. What if I had put as much dedication into pastoring my family as I had my church? By the grace of Jesus, I believe I did put my family first, but against the demands of many people whose names I forget and many I’m sure would strain to remember mine.

My friend and I look up at each other almost at the same time. We say little more. It seemed we knew what the other was thinking. I am excited to see how he will begin to pastor his family as well as he has pastored his church.

5 thoughts on “Learning to Pastor Your Family Well

  1. Margaret Trees

    WOW!!!!! If only every pastor could read your blog today. Not only pastors, but anyone that is tied to their job at the expense of their family. Families go on for generations, careers are just for a season. MT

    Reply
  2. Curt Mackey

    Mitch and Elaine,
    So glad that you are home and that God so wonderfully blessed your time and ministry overseas.
    Your insights shared yesterday are really valuable…and right on! Bless you!
    Curt

    Reply
  3. Bryant Hendricks

    Lord. Forgive me for time spent and energies expended at the expense of those closest to me. Please help me to balance my responsibilities more appropriately for eternity’s sake!

    Reply

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Sufferings’ Privilege

I am in England as I write this. Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking at the church I pastored for seven years. We left sixteen years ago under painful circumstances. Elaine was recovering from brain cancer, and we were about to face the agonizing prospect of losing our oldest son to cancer. So, it was appropriate that I spoke about Isaac’s obedience (when his father Abraham was told by God to sacrifice him on an altar), a story which beautifully falls in the shadow of Jesus’s obedience. Each had a father who placed on the son’s shoulder an unbearable burden. It was love for the father that drove both to carry that burden, all the way to their cross. I spoke, too, how our suffering can only make sense under the shadow of the cross. We embrace it for the father. We accept what our father places on our shoulder because we love him, and we trust him.

After the service, theOld man facey had a lunch for us. Elaine and I mingled with old friends we had not seen in years. We also made new friends. An older man approached me who I did not know. He struggled to speak. I leaned in, straining to listen. His words were not clear, so I strained more. He told me how he was born with a stammer. His words stumbled out of his mouth but out of a heart that spoke clearly of deep appreciate for the burden his Father had placed on his shoulder. I blocked out all other noises and took in what I was hearing as though given the privilege of holding a precious gem. I was. The man explained to me how had God not given him this stammer he would be a very important person today. And, if he were a very important person today, he would not love Jesus. The stammer was God’s gift to him that gave him an unassuming life. He has lived in the background, standing to the side while others elbow their way for attention and positions. His stammer, he told me, forced him to always take the low place. It kept him humble. He actually told me he loved his stammer.

I thought I preached a pretty good sermon yesterday, until I met this man. It’s one thing to stand behind a pulpit and talk about humility. It’s another thing to live it. I met a man who does.

5 thoughts on “Sufferings’ Privilege

  1. george champion

    Thank you Mitch for how you and Elaine are sharing the things God has taught you. And thank you for introducing me to this great preacher.

    Reply
  2. Terry Bloemsma

    Yes, it is glorifying to God to hear and see a life lived out for the purposes our Creator has called us. May the Lord continue to bless you as you minister to those in England and France. Hope your trip goes well! We are praying for you all as you travel and minister to those He allows you to meet along the way. Thanks for blessing me with your friendship and your ministry of encouragement.
    In Him,
    TB

    Reply
  3. Jeny

    What a gracious gift he was not only given but embraced with deep appreciation and acknowledging the love of God! May your travels be blessed by many more experiences such as this one. Please tell Elaine her friend misses her! Be Safe, Stay Healthy, Spread the Love!!!

    Reply

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Avoiding a Fickle and Frustrating Faith

Daniel 3:17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O King. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O King, that we will not serve your gods, or worship the  image of gold you have set up.

BUT EVEN IF HE DOES NOT... WHAT AN EXPRESSION OF FAITH…

I do not worship my God because of what he does for me. I worship him because of who he is to me. I love him when things go my way; I love him when things do not go my way. Perhaps I should say, I love him more when things do not go my way, because that is when I need to love him the most. It is easy to love and worship Jesus when the outcome is good. That devotion is most needed, and I believe most pure, when I look to him in his absence, and I listen for him in his silence.Alone I am one who admits easily that I rarely sense his presence. I never hear his voice. I feed off faith; that is, that deep gut-settling conviction that he is there even when he doesn’t seem there. He loves me even when I don’t feel that love.

I have had enough hard things happen in my life that had it not been for my faith in him, my deep unwavering trust that he is there, I would have collapsed. If my faith depended on evidence of his presence (or that he shows up every time I look for him) I would be walking in and out of Christianity. It would be fickle and frustrating faith. To think that he trusts me enough to place me some distance from his presence and asks me to love and worship him there, has an exciting edge to it. Like Daniel’s three friends, circumstances and outcomes will not deter my trust in his goodness. After all, faith by definition is to be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Heb.11:1).

2 thoughts on “Avoiding a Fickle and Frustrating Faith

  1. Curt Mackey

    Mitch,
    Love your meanderings…everything in life has meaning. Some are instantly clear and others are yet
    to be revealed and experienced. Knowledge (awareness) then comes discernment as to His ways and
    where He is taking (leading) us. Keep them coming. They are appreciated!
    Curt

    Reply

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God Trusts Me with His Absence

It is understandable to assume that when something good is happening it means God showed up, but when something bad happens, well, we just aren’t quite sure where He is. Western Christians, especially, tend to easily connect the dots between our blessings and the blesser himself. When the blessing is lacking, though, we quickly scramble to make the necessary spiritual adjustments. Darkness

I can read threads of Facebook messages and quickly agree and throw my own amen to the obvious conclusion that, “God showed up,” when praise is given for that negative test result for cancer. Or that, “God is still on is throne,” as dozens celebrate that rebellious teen who finally came to his senses and returned home.

I have braved through the book of Ezekiel recently and noticed another thread of conversation, this one a private one, between God and His prophet. I captured an unusual tone about twenty chapters in. God keeps saying things to Ezekiel like, “I will remove them from their land: then they will know I exist.” “I will hurt them: then they will know I love them.” “The enemy will swoop them into captivity: then they will know I am the one who has been caring for them.” Or, this really gripping warning to an enemy of Israel, “I will destroy you, and you will know I am the LORD.” (25:7). This clashes with our expectation that God will show up by doing something good for us. In these cases, he tells us how good he is by doing something not so good for us.

I have recently added to my understanding and appreciation of the way Jesus works this observation, how often He will take something away from us: sometimes He will allow us to experience pain: sometimes He will ask us to carry a heavier burden simply because He does love us. Withholding blessing can also be proof of His love for us, and the evidence of his sovereignty over our lives. It can be His way of saying, “I am going to show you that I am in control, and the best way for you to capture that, is by me taking something from you. It is my way of getting you to look to me. It is my way of letting you know, I care enough to trust you with my absence.”

Who do you admire more? The person who trust Jesus when everything is going well; or, the person who remains faithful when everything has been taken from him?

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.            (Job 1:21 ESV)

Either way, why don’t you praise Him today.

Our faith develops most strongly and God is most glorified most fully when we feel only his absence, when every trace of His presence vanishes and our resolve to trust continues. Larry Crabb (Real Church)

5 thoughts on “God Trusts Me with His Absence

  1. Scott Karcher

    Awesome look at this Mitch! Your experience helps guide me daily. You’ve been a great friend and mentor as I have worked through God’s challenges over the last twenty years.

    These words help confirm to me that He loves me and wants me to grow and glorify his name!

    Blessings

    Reply
  2. Jack Ewing

    Mitch, this is right on…. You know our family story (history) and I have spent my share of time in “God’s waiting room”. Now that He has taken me through periods of silence before, I know He still loves me and is looking at what is in my best interest for His good purpose. I enjoy the “every thing going my way” feeling but He knows what is best for me and how He is going to use it for His glory. So I look to see if “God is in it” which means I’m doing His will as He use me for His good purpose. Even being in the “God’s waiting room” is part of His good purpose and He is working on others to be at a point of our contact, thus Paul tells us to rejoice always.

    You hit a nerve not only for me but the real reason why God wants to use us and we can point others to Him for his glory. It is our act of worship in our daily life. May God keep using you for His good purpose. Amen.

    Reply

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Sheer Joy! What we have to look forward to!

“When the Lord restores the fortress of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘ The LORD has done great things for them’, The LORD has done great things for us” -Psa.126

JoyThe thrill of going home for the summer when I was away from my parents at boarding school…

A wife and her two children shrieking in delight when their soldier husband/dad surprises them at a ball game…

A man laughs uncontrollably in discovering he wins the 1 million dollar lottery…

A young woman cries for joy in the doctors office hearing that her cancer is gone….

The crowd goes wild as their star receiver catches the pass with only two seconds left on the clock, and their team wins…

…..all this not does not even close to the sheer exuberant uncontainable delight of what it will be like when we take that first step into glory….

KEEP IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE THIS WEEK!

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You Are Almost There

Ez.18:7He does not commit robbery but gives food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked”

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 6.20.01 PMIt is not enough that we stop doing what is wrong. We must replace that with something that is right. If a person stops lying, it means he will begin to tell the truth. The evidence that he is no longer a liar is that he now tells the truth. If you stop stealing, the Holy Spirit fills that void and turns you into a giving person. A gossiping person stops gossiping by praising others. A critical spirit is overrun by a beautiful, constructive spirit. A husband can stop nagging his wife, but only be half-way there. He completes that move of grace by now pursuing his wife with kind and gracious words. Having once felt torn-down by his angry words, she finds herself built-up by his kind and proud expressions of praise. To be satisfied with restraint can leave a marriage peaceful, but cold. I have yet to meet a wife who does not melt under the tender and kind way her husband speaks to her and about her. I have yet to meet a man who does not cherish when his wife brags about him, especially in public.

Whenever the Bible tells us to replace something sinful with something righteous, the words that are used are active not passive words. In Colossians 3 Paul tells us to put to death those things that belong to our sinful nature (verse 5.) His admonition, however, to stop sinning includes an exhortation to replace it with what comes from the Holy Spirit. Don’t be satisfied that you have managed to suppress those old tendencies. The process is complete when the vacuum left is filled with righteous behavior. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (verse 12) Try to be compassionate without doing something compassionate. You can’t! Try to be kind without doing something kind. You can’t!  Try to be gentle without it showing up in some tangible way. You can’t! Try to be patient where others don’t notice it. You can’t! The void left in your life by the death of sin is beautifully replaced by the sort of activity that can only be explained by, not just the indwelling, but the movement of the Holy Spirit free now to work in us and through us. Don’t be content that you have stopped doing some things. Replace them now with righteous behavior. You will love the outcome, and so will others.

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The Art of Listening

An important value to me is what I call the “art of asking questions.” I love it when people ask me questions. It tells me they really care and have a real unselfish interest in my life. I have a few friends who, when we talk, ask questions and then simply sit back to listen carefully to my answer. I love it. You can’t really know someone unless you ask them questions.

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Recently, though, I had to (forgive the play on words here) question my motive in asking questions. During an interaction with a pastor I was quietly taking some satisfaction in my ability to drill into the real issue in his life, one question after another. I would ask a question, sit back, ask another question, sit back, … you get the picture. At the end of the conversation the pastor leaned over to me and said, “You ask really good questions Mitch, but sometimes you ask another question before I am finished giving my answer.” It struck me how I was more interested in my questions than I was in listening to his answer. Since, I have been super conscious of asking a question and then really listening and waiting for the full answer. It is not enough for me to ask questions. I also need to listen purposefully to the answer. Where the answer is more important to me than the question that was asked.

Peter Scazzero in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality refers to St. Benedict’s (16th century monk) “twelve step ladder for growing in the grace of humility.” The second-to-last step is, speaking less! According to St. Benedict, “the wise are known for their few words.”

I long to grow in the discipline of going beyond asking good questions. I want to also listen well.

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The Holy Spirit; A Welcome Intrusion

The words stung. It felt unfair. Why would someone say something so sharp to me? What right did he have to speak to me that way? If he really knew me, he would not have said that.

Angry man

I had two options, and for the first several months I chose the less helpful option. I put all my attention on what was said to me and totally ignored the reaction building up inside my heart. In the same room, I avoided eye contact with him. When I saw him walking towards me down the hallway, I suddenly remembered I had forgotten something back in my office. In the privacy of my own room, I allowed bitterness to give way to anger. At times, I stoked that anger and it gave way to moments of hate. One day the Holy Spirit unexpectedly introduced me to another option. A more helpful option. “What is that in your heart?” he pointed. “Is not the bitterness and anger, and yes, the hate, just as bad as what was said to you?”

The Holy Spirit can often be a nuisance in my life. I don’t always like the way he re-directs my attention away from the offender to the offense in my own heart. He begins to tell me that I cannot help what was said to me, but I can help the way I reacted to it. He even so boldly suggested that God intentionally placed that difficult person in my life and even allowed the words to come out of his mouth, all to bring attention to what pre-existed before I had ever even known him. It was all there, lying dormant before he had ever even spoken those harsh words to me. “Are you telling me,” I protested somewhat feebly, “that God puts tough people in my path with the purpose of exposing the sin in my own heart?”

His silence told me the answer was, yes!

Since then, I have practiced a new discipline. The moment I find myself reacting to someone else, I am more curious as to why the reaction even existed in my own heart. Maybe the problem is not the person who offended me. Maybe the problem is in me. This has helped me live out my life around others with a lot more grace.

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for being so intrusive in my life. Don’t stop. You are a welcome intrusion!

 

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When It’s Time to Pack and Move On

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My oldest son died of cancer when he was just twelve. That was fifteen years ago tomorrow. I miss him. Terribly! For weeks following his death I had to force myself to enter his room. I had heard others speak of it. Now I was experiencing it. Little things made me weep. Larger things, such as the sight of his favorite soccer ball on the dresser made me want to scream. The open Bible still on his pillow warmed me some. In moments like this, you don’t want to change anything. For days, sometimes months, you stand at the door and just stare. The room becomes sacred. For some, an unhealthy shrine. To move something almost seems to betray the memory. Or to remove the memory. I have heard of some who become obsessed. Others lock the door and deny others entry. I did not ever want to become that parent who refused to let go of his child. He is gone. I will never see him here, but I know I will see him there. I am convinced of that. It’s what keeps me going. So, one day, Elaine and I took a box and packed his things. Some things we gave away. Others ended up at the Salvation Army. It was good for us. Some item warmed us. Other items made us cry. But it was good for us. It helped us move on.

There comes a time when a grieving pastor, or anyone grieving loss, needs to let go. A pastor friend of mine resigned from a difficult church, but remained in the same town for one year. (I have his permission to share this.) Seeing the same people, passing the building, reflecting on events would draw him back in. He would stand at the door of that memory and see things as they used to be. He fought back anger and tried in vain to relive, to reclaim, what was gone. It rarely felt good, or right. A day came, and comes to all grieving pastors, or anyone who has experienced some kind of loss, where the packing becomes a moment of healing. An admission, a healthy acknowledgment, that Jesus gave those years to you, but now has a new place, a new season. Letting go is often the door to that place.

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Live On and Love On!

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Tensions in marriage are often held tight. Sometimes the springs burst loose and the whole matter is exposed. For most, the grip remains firm. Few ever know, except for the two who stubbornly hold tight to their secret. The fear of others ever discovering how bad things are, the fear of having to pick up the pieces becomes the adrenaline rush providing sufficient strength to keep the springs from ever snapping. Meanwhile, because all the energy is directed at protecting the secret, there is little energy left to work on rebuilding. Sometimes, no, often times, no, all the time, the best thing that can happen to a hurting, fragile marriage is for the two to let go of what they are trying to protect and face the shame of their brokeness. Carefully inviting several others into their broken world permits the two to collapse into the arms of others strong enough, trustworthy enough, to promise and provide hope.

When Elaine and I are invited into that brokeness we are both faced first with the reality of our own story. Because of it, Elaine insists that her best friend is Jesus. I embrace that. It’s her declaration, and my welcome admission, that He alone can provide what I cannot. Our early dreams did not include the nightmarish outcomes of loss and change, but they do promise now the possibilities available to cherish weakness and embrace vulnerability. I like to tell husbands especially that there is joy in tenderly loving the weaker vessel in this partnership we call marriage. Embrace the truth that Jesus wants to love them through you. There are some things you cannot do for her, things that only Jesus can give. Stop waiting for what might never be regained. Live on and love on. Letting go,  could be the beginning of a new season – a beautiful season that will now invite into the brokeness the Master-Marriage-Builder Himself.

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You’re Right, I Don’t Trust You..Yet!

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 1.42.16 PM“You just don’t trust me,” my fourteen-year old-daughter screamed through clenched teeth. Her eyes were narrow, brows furrowed, and lines on her forehead seemed to spell some words that expressed that feeling in her heart. It was everything you would expect to see from a critically hormonally-fueled moment. In hearing words like this, the impulse of a parent is to suggest that this is not at all the case. So we try to explain away our concern, while at the same time convince our teen that trust is not at all the issue. But isn’t it?

She was right. And I told her so. I comfortably told her so. “You are right Natalie. I don’t trust you.” That is not what she expected to hear, but it was sufficient response from me to relax her some. I explained to her how not trusting her was actually good for her. “Can you imagine,” I coached, “if a parent trusted their toddler while camping on the edge of the Grand Canyon?” Now I had her attention, and the tense lines disappeared, and the eyes opened wider inviting me to keep talking. “Would you agree that the parents not trusting the toddler is actually a good thing?” I took the usual, “I guess so,” teenager response as her way of really saying, “Wow, you have an unbelievable point there. I am so happy you are my dad and that you have shown up at this critical moment in my emotional and spiritual development.”

I mentioned last week that God takes huge risks when he trusts us with a trial. There is a  sense, though, where we have to grow in that trust. I wonder if he allows us to suffer so we can grow emotionally and spiritually to the point where, like Job, he can say, “See my servant Mitch. I trust him.” Trust has to be earned. An old hymn explains it well when it urges us to “Trust AND obey.” The more we obey, the more God will trust us. Not fully trusting us, because we are not quite ready for some things, is actually good for us.

I am convinced that trust is earned through suffering.

Am I suggesting that suffering is a badge of honor? A sign that God is ready to do more in our lives? I can only answer for myself. After all, our greatest example, Jesus, “learned obedience through suffering.” (Heb. 5:8) Had I not suffered; had I not seen one son die of cancer, and another son survive cancer; had I not walked with my wife through her cancer, I don’t know if I would be who I am today. Given the trajectory of my life at that time, it scares me who I would be today had I not suffered. I can say that God is trusting me with more today than he did fifteen years ago, but I have a long way to go. My part is to not complain or resist when he asks me to undergo the next season of difficulty.

Will you trust and obey him in your trial?

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