Aug 26, 2013

The More Corps

What makes us want always more from our spouse? Why do we do that? I know a number of people in my circles with great spouses, myself included. From day one, these husbands and wives were beautiful people, a truly great catch by anybody’s standard. And yet, I observe that most all of us who married these wonderful people continue to want more from them.

They never had any great flaws to begin with. So, in the absence of bigger issues, we start harping on much smaller and less important ones. 

Maybe we do that because we have no sense of scale.  That is, there were never any big issues to give us a perspective on just how petty our demands really are. 

Nevertheless, after we have abraded away these small issues to bring these already great people closer to our specification for perfection, we pat ourselves on the back, rest a moment, And then, the process starts over. 

And now that the smaller issues are out of the way, we start on the truly itty bitty ones.  Thus we continue to demand that these, too, be addressed by a spouse who is probably already, far and away, our better.

And on and on the process goes through years of marriage. Until finally, having abandoned all sense of reason and scale, we find ourselves down on the microscopic level demanding that even these miniscule issues be addressed by these gracious people that we are supposedly cherishing.

And so the question is begged, “Will they ever be good enough?” Will these people, who started out twice the people we will ever be, ever be able to really satisfy our constantly escalating standards? Obviously not, unless we break this ridiculous “always more” cycle.

And, it's true.  In fact, there will certainly be some truly significant issues in a marriage which should be addressed. But, that is where the process should stop – at the truly significant issues. 
It should never be allowed to become an increasingly abrasive process. 

And isn’t it a bit arrogant, after all, to deed yourself an arbitrary right to entirely re-design the person you originally chose simply for who they already were. “Approving” and “Appreciative” are great words upon which to establish a really happy and fulfilling marriage. “More” is not, if it comes up too often.

Jun 3, 2013

Relevance And Risk

Here is a question for ministers.  What would you sacrifice to remain relevant in your role as a minister?  To say it another way, what would you give up to retain a credible voice in the cultural discussion?  What would you be willing to sacrifice of your consummate self in Christ in order to stay in the mainstream conversation?

Add to that, this query.  What would you be willing to sacrifice from the nature and role of the Church to maintain its relevance on the world stage?  How far would you go to accommodate the demands of the secular society in order to secure their continued attention and general respect?  This is the strategic crux of a game which is played out in our world every day. 

So, here is how the Devil’s deadly game of Risk And Relevance is played.  There are only two players at the table:  the Devil, or one of his minions, on one side; and some Representative of the Church on the other side.  The rest of humanity, as individual souls, are on-lookers, and the cherished prize to be won or lost by one opponent or the other. 

The ultimate goal for each player in the game is to maximize their own influence over humanity and while attempting to neutralize the influence of their opponent.  The play involves only one of two strategic decisions:  “Risk or Don’t Risk.”

To affect their opponent’s play, the players are allowed to employ Intimidation Tactics to manipulate their opponent to a losing position.  So, here are some typical gambits from the annals of this deadly game…

A Minister: (His opening play)    I will Risk myself to the service of Christ in order to reach humanity and save souls through the ministry of God’s Word.

The Devil:  That’s fine, because I suspect you will only be an obscure minister of little import or impact.  So, I’ll Risk it.

The Minister:  I will not be small and unimportant.  I intend to be very successful and influential in my ministry.  So, I will Risk my money, my time, and my energy.  I will invest them in education and training.

The Devil:  That’s fine, but I know the complexity of the religious politics that will be involved in your attempt to rise to a position of prominence and influence in the Church; and I don’t think you have the political skills or the good sense to simply “play ball” with the powers that be.  So, make your investments if you will.  I’m happy to Risk it.

And so the daily game goes on until the minister eventually finds himself, after his educational years, in a five year old ministry in a smaller local church that has entirely plateaued numerically.  And the game continues…

The Devil:  Well, it seems I was right in the beginning.  Here you are, stalemated by your own stubborn adherence to your antiquated values and ideas which are becoming increasingly counter-cultural. And now, your reputation and personal standing are at risk.  Your superiors are watching and beginning to have serious doubts about your abilities. 
            And, the gap is becoming very visible between your value system and that of the laymen in your congregation.  They are obviously pulling back from you.  Is this what you understand to be success?  If it is, I’m happy to Risk your continued impact on humanity.

Beads of telling sweat begin to pop out on the young minister’s forehead.  He begins to feel the great weight of his personal exposure.  He looks away and down to ponder his next play. And then, he makes a critical decision.  As he lifts his head there is obvious relief on his face.

The Minister:  No, no, in fact, I will Not Risk my personal intentions, my reputation, and my influence.  That does not serve my purpose.  So, I do not think that it is the strategically correct thing to do. 
            I think this would be my better play.  I will exchange my present perspectives for new, more culturally accommodating views.  This will bolster my credibility with the secular culture and bring back the confidence and appreciation of the more shallow but influential members of my congregation. And so my own influence will be enlarged.  And through that increased influence, I will become more effective.

At this point in the game, the Referee pronounced the young Minister “Neutralized.” To his complete surprise, the young man was then instructed to leave the table to make way for the next player.  He was directed to stand on the Devil’s side of the table as one of his captured souls.

The Devil leaned back in his chair and lowered his head to smile a gloating smile as the young minister made his way around to his side of the table.  “How easy these guys are,” he thought to himself. "I had him from his second play."

As the defeated minister vacated his chair, a layman, representing a local church body sat down to take on the Devil.  He was a devout man of no small experience in these games.  The Devil had met this warrior before; and he was taking nothing for granted.  So, he opened with one of his best psychological plays.

The Devil:  Sir, I know of your local church.  I know that your numbers are dwindling.  Does that not tell you that you are out of step with your community?  I challenge you to Risk some small adjustment to the values and teachings of your church so that not so much is required of people by them, thereby making you church more attractive to the larger community.

The Layman:  No, I don’t think so.  We have every confidence in the power of the God’s Truth to draw men’s hearts to Him.  We’ll just Risk it.

The Devil:  You will risk it?!  You will risk it?!  Sir, do you not realize that you are risking the souls of men. Not that I mind, but don’t you know that God will hold you accountable for the loss of those souls.  However, if that’s your play, I am happy to Risk it with you. 
            But, I just have to say, it seems to me that if you want to continue to keep your doors open, and pay your bills, and get your numbers up, the smarter play would be to “slightly reinterpret” the divine requirements in your Gospel, so they are more comfortable for people.  But, hey, I’m certainly not going to complain.  I sat down here to win.  So, I’m happy to take those souls who are retreating in droves from your challenging Truth. 

The Layman:  Sir, there are some things that you need to understand.  First, I don’t keep the doors of my church open, God does.  I don’t pay the bills, God does.  And I am not responsible for the number of people who may or may not embrace His Truth.  I am only responsible to the Truth, itself.
            And should I fail that single task for which I am, indeed, very responsible, what real difference would it make if the whole world attended my church?  They would still end up on your side of the table at the end, anyway.
            So, speaking for my church, we will Risk it when it comes to holding faithfully to God’s Truth.  We will Risk the ridicule.  We will Risk the rejection of a wayward culture.  We will Risk our own accountability before God. 
            But what you need to know, too, is that these are all calculated risks.  For, in facing up to these possibilities, we have also factored in some unchanging realities: the power of God and the timeless attraction of His Truth to the human heart, to name a couple.   We are also counting on the effectiveness of our personal devotional lives, our personal and intimate friendship with God, which can easily keep any of those failures from permanently defeating our church.
            Sir, the long term plan at our local church is not to accommodate the culture.  It is to tell them the Truth in love.  So, just to be clear – our unchanging approach will always be a simple one.  It is for our membership to walk closely with God and to Risk everything on the power of His Truth and the blessing of His help. 

One thing the Devil had learned from centuries of playing this deadly game was that there really is no counter-play for real faithfulness.  So, with a frustrated sigh, he simply rose and walked away from the table, even before the Referee could declare his decisive loss to this opponent.

 But, even as he did so, he was contemplating tomorrow.  “There is always tomorrow,” he thought.  “And these days especially, I like my chances of finding a much less determined opponent in the next round...”
 

Such is the deadly game that the Church plays every day. Always the projected illusion is the same: That somehow our relevance is put at risk by our faithful adherence to God’s Truth. And always, in the face of this insinuation, we are left to choose between one of two plays.
 

"Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?" - Jesus

Apr 1, 2013

Grace Gets Bum Rap

  A few years ago my oldest daughter called me with a problem. She and her husband, starting to fix up their first home in a distant city, had a ceiling fan to hang in a room with a very high ceiling. However, they did not understand how to connect the wires of the fan to the wires in the ceiling - all while standing atop a very tall step ladder and holding the weighty and cumbersome fan. Thus, while hubby was at work, daughter called dad whom she knew to be fairly knowledgeable in all things “ceiling fan.”

After Sarah described the fan to me, I told her that the best way for that particular fan was to simply support the fan with a piece of heavy wire (I suggested a metal coat hanger) through the mounting bracket. I explained that, while the fan was hanging by the coat hanger, Joal (hubby) could then connect the electrical wires, with both hands free. Then it would be easy to simply remove the coat hanger and attach the fan to the mounting bracket. 

Sarah was duly impressed. Then she had another idea… Joal didn’t know, as yet, about Sarah’s phone call to me. So, her shrewd impulse was, “Why should I bother him with unimportant details.” So, she didn’t.

That afternoon, Joal came home and began preparing to install the ceiling fan. He set up the ladder and started for the top with the fan, apparently hoping for some mechanical revelation as he neared the top. However, none was forthcoming. 

So, as he stood atop the ladder, in no small quandary, Sarah then offered a suggestion. She said, “What if we get a piece of wire, maybe a coat hanger, and hook it through that little hole on the mounting bracket and then attach it to the fan base and that will hold the fan up while you connect the electrical wires.”

Sarah latter reported that Joal was dumbfounded. Her description: “The look on his face fairly screamed, ‘You’re not supposed to know that! How could you possibly have figured that out before I did?’” 

For a short while, Sarah simply soaked up the awe and the new level of respect that she was now receiving from her husband. But, eventually, she did “fess up” to what she had done. No doubt all of this was a truly “cementing” episode in their marriage; and, I think, from Joal’s point of view, one never to be mentioned again (except here, for the whole world to read.) 

Now, one lesson in all of this is very obvious: Wives, no matter their age or the age of their marriage, are very, very sneaky, and never to be entirely trusted when it comes to the male ego. But, that lesson is for another article. There is really a much broader and more important lesson that we can learn from this little story.  

It starts with this idea. (Now hold on, we’re going to make a pretty tight turn here, but we are coming back to this very spot.) Grace, a fairly important term in our redemptive vocabulary, has gotten a bit of a bum rap over the last few decades. Pop-preaching has actually altered the original and true meaning of the term in many people’s mind. So now, the popular understanding of Grace has largely come to be “Unmerited Favor.” But, in fact, that definition is really just a “paste over,” often employed to support the idea of non-responsibility of the believer, another serious popular error.  

Using this definition, Grace is often twisted into a license to opt out of a real investment in our relationship with Christ. Instead of being understood as the empowering thing that it truly is, Grace is seen as the exact opposite: a kind of “New Testament Free Pass” for bad behavior.

The dictionary simply defines Grace as an innate, or naturally occurring, goodness. And that is exactly the way the word is used throughout the New Testament. So here is the short version of the true story and nature of redemptive Grace. 

We first understand Grace to be the natural goodness in the character of God. It is this aspect of God’s nature which first prompted and ultimately designed the redemptive plan for fallen mankind. It was God’s grace, His natural inclination to do good, which caused and defined His response to humanity’s need. 

What we often don’t understand about grace at first is that through our Spiritual Baptism into Christ this divine goodness ultimately comes to be a part of the believer’s nature also. As a part of this literal merger of the human nature with the divine nature, we begin to share in the character essence of Christ. And happily, this character infusion from the Savior includes His gracefulness - His naturally occurring goodness. And so, through Christ, a natural goodness also becomes part of the character of the believer.

And this new basic instinct, which is entirely funded by the indwelling Christ, changes everything. Instead of the wayward drives of the old nature, the believer is now driven by this instinct for goodness. And this enables and establishes a whole new form of personal government.  

This Government of Grace is a much more natural and intuitive, heart based, government. And this new heart government is diametrically different from the former, awkward and completely unnatural personal discipline which was based in External Laws.  

The law forced humanity to correct actions against our basic wayward inclinations. Gracefulness allows the believer to experience “correctness of action” as a part of his or her own corrected instincts and desires – obviously, a whole new and much better way to experience life and a relationship with God. 

Under Grace, the old incorrigible waywardness simply melts away as Christ establishes his innate goodness in our inner person. Thus, we experience a new peace and closeness in our relationship with God based in this shared “essential goodness.” And it is all entirely the product of the Living Christ living within the believer.

Now, let’s get back to the ceiling fan story (almost forgot about that didn’t you?). Indeed, it gives a neat perspective on the true process and nature of Grace. Let’s begin from Joal’s point of view.

From Joal’s point of view, atop that tall ladder, it appeared that Sarah suddenly developed a keen sense of “ceiling fan know-how.” But, in fact, that know-how did not originate with Sarah. It originated with me. She simply borrowed it from me; and it then became hers – especially as far as her perplexed husband could tell.  

That is exactly what Jesus does for us through our Spiritual Integration with Him. He transfers His grace, His “instinct for goodness,” to us in a way which then makes it our instinct for goodness.  

To casual observers, the process looks exactly like Sarah’s sudden “ceiling fan know-how.” And they, like Joal, are usually left scratching their head and wondering where this “new us” came from. But, in fact, this new “life know-how” is just the divine sense of goodness, which we borrowed from the nature of Jesus.  

The pop-preachers and the casual religious culture which they cater to will no doubt continue to hold to the idea of “unmerited favor” as their working definition of grace. And it’s all but certain that many will continue to use that definition as an excuse to under invest, or even opt out altogether, on a truly vital relationship with God. But, that is just what pop-preachers and the pop-religion people do.  

However, serious believers are destined for the real impact of the Living Christ. They are destined to know that graceful transfer which entirely enables an easy and natural heart government in our lives and thus brings us into a perfect harmony with the heart of God.  

To experience Grace as an instinctive inner goodness provided to the believer by the indwelling Christ is the life transforming reality of true faith. The illusion of Grace as some kind of “Free Pass” is nothing more than that – an illusion.

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. - Jesus





Mar 24, 2013

Easter New

Easter is about many important things, but none more important than the promise of newness. Easter is a promise of renewal, set in a season of renewal, when everything starts over in the freshness of a new awakening.

How desperately our world still needs that fresh awakening. We need a renewing return to our innocence, to the “childhood” of our soul. We need again a time to be free of the crush of overwhelming responsibility. We need again to know an existence without the creeping cynicism which comes from knowing too much and being too aware.

From the very beginning, God envisioned such a renewal for His people. Always, His redemptive plan has been about the restoration of the human spirit and the human condition. His intention has always been and remains today to redeem not only our soul but our everyday circumstance.  

What He never intended to do was forgive us only to abandon us to a depraved or debased existence. To encounter Jesus Christ correctly is to rise from the ashes of our own inner and outer failures and know a true and enduring personal success. And that has always been the promise that God held out to mankind in redemption.

Even in the Old Testament of The Bible, the prophet framed God’s vision of newness for the redeemed. It goes like this in the book of Ezekiel, chapter 36, where the prophet speaks ostensibly of the "Promise Land" but prophetically, of the "Promised Life" of these New Testament Times.  

 He says,“…For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.”
 
“Filth” is very heavy, but “clean” is very light and enables a light heart. A part of God’s vision of newness has always been for His people to be “clean” and, as a result, light hearted.  

The Prophet goes on to speak on God’s behalf about the thorough redemption of humanity, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” 

 God obviously intends that we no longer be consigned to our base nature or the past patterns of our personal failure.  His avowed intention is to set us free from our previous tragedies and the mechanisms which caused them. Instead, He promises a new vitality and a new level of success in our aspirations toward goodness, all based in the sufficiency of His indwelling Spirit.

The resurrected, Living Christ is the link who connects us to God's Spirit.  Through our Spiritual Baptism into Christ, we are merged with the divine vitality.  And in that vitality we find the power to experience true and complete newness.

So finally, the prophet concludes with this. “Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God.”

The thrilling point of this wonderful presonal renewal in Christ is what might be called the “access of innocence.”  It is, in essence, the same access which exists between a parent and a beloved child. It flows from a perfected harmony of hearts and a confirmed “trustability” on both sides of the relationship.

This priveleged access, this deeply enriching daily friendship with God, is the best part and the ultimate benefit of what comes from our Christ empowered renewal. And so, God would say, through the prophet, "...you shall be My people, and I will be your God.”

The writer of the book of Hebrews (chapter 8), in the New Testament, referred to the promises of these Old Testament verses in explaining the nature and certainty of the New Covenant in Christ. And, again in the New Testament, Jesus speaks so plainly of the opportunity for newness in the simple terms of being “born again.” The Apostle Paul also speaks, in the New Testament, in such terms as becoming “a new creature in Christ Jesus.”

Sometimes, when it comes to redemption, we focus far too much on the idea of mere forgiveness, and far too little on the spectacular possibility in Christ for starting fresh and becoming new.  But, Easter calls to us to remember that God intends much more than "mere forgiveness." Beyond that first step, He offers an exciting, new, and elevated life plane to be found in the power and energy of the Living Savior.  

The simple truth of Easter is that, in the Living Jesus, resides the power to make us – our soul and our circumstance - to be entirely new. Easter fairly screams:

 “Stop sniveling and start rising! Seek and experience the power of the Living Christ to become thoroughly new!”

Jan 6, 2013

God Unboxed

Our first impression of God, the Father, is usually that he is “The God of the Quick Fix.”  And He is that.  He is the parent of our spiritual infancy.  We bring our life boo-boos to Him, and He makes them all better.

He is the God of the "Box."  He is nicely framed in our youthful mind.  He is very predictable and understandable.  And we happily define Him by our little clich├ęs:  “God will always… God will never…” etc. 

And that’s fine – for spiritual children.  When we’re young in the faith, most of us really need an uncomplicated, comfortable, and comforting God.

But, if we choose to continue to pursue Him, we are destined to meet The More Sophisticated God, the God of our spiritual rearing.  This is the God we encounter on the way to our maturity. 

This God is much too complex to any longer fit into our childish little box.  This God is hard to understand, and even harder to explain.  He is a little scary, and made all the more so by the issues He raises.

He wants to know such things as, “Will you love me to the end of my purposes, even though you don’t understand them in advance?  Will you trust me to work my plan, at the expense of yours?  Will you follow me, no matter what, to your own highest good?”

This is the God of our awakening, whose first requirement is respect for His authority.  So, he has no big qualms about asking us to wait, “in the dark,” on Him, and then wait some more, and then some more, far beyond our assessment of “appropriate.”  This is the God who won’t take no for an answer, and will make you pay if you offer it.  This is the God who is completely willing to ignore our druthers in favor of achieving His purposes in our life.

This is the God who asks of us the ultimate trust.  He asks us to position our trust, not in what He does, but in who He is.

And, this God runs with a weighty crowd.  And, unless you are willing to embrace the requirements for personal gravity, you will find it impossible to penetrate that circle.  

He walks among people like the patient Job, who did everything right, and yet, was ask to endure personal calamity.  The patriarch, Abraham, traveled with Him.  And, this Sophisticated God put His finger right on the thing that Abraham loved most in the world, his son, Isaac.  And then this God of the more sophisticated purpose said, “I want that.” 

And, Moses was among His close fellows.  To him, this God made an insistent offer of leadership, which Moses was not allowed to refuse – though he was completely intimidated by it.  This more insistent God is just not in the business of rearing light weights.

My twenty-two year old son, Andy, was wounded in the neck in Afghanistan and lost the use of his legs as a result.  He was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for his initial intensive medical care.  It was a traumatic and uncertain time for both of us – and the whole of our family and extended friends.

Andy and I spent many nights there (I was the night guy, Mom was the day girl) talking, and crying, and hugging.  It was a very emotionally charged time, as you can imagine.  After about a month, however, Andy was well enough to be medevac’d to Florida, for his extended rehab.

As we said good-bye on that last afternoon at Walter Reed, I hugged him for a long time.  I promised to meet Him in Florida; and then, I turned to leave.  I got nearly to the door of his room when I was overwhelmed by my love for this “kid.”  I turned and looked back at his thin face, as he lay on his pillow, eyes closed, obviously weary with everything.

 I said, in emotional anguish, “‘Ange,’ are you gonna’ be OK?”  He opened his eyes and looked at me, pausing for a second.  Then, a broad smile flashed across his face and his eyes briefly sparkled as he said in a weak but mischievous voice, “Now Dad - we gotta’ be big boys.”

 Sometimes that’s all a worthy pursuit of God comes to.   
                                         
                                      We just gotta’ be big boys and girls.