Labels

Label (noun): 1. a slip of paper, cloth, or other material, marked or inscribed, for attachment to something to indicate its manufacturer, nature, ownership, destination, etc. 2. a short word or phrase descriptive of a person, group, intellectual movement, etc.

Labels are a part of life. Many of them can be very helpful. Labels help me distinguish between Gala and Fuji apples. They allow me to choose the right size shirt. Thanks to labels, I’m able to determine which grade of gasoline I’m putting in my truck. In many ways, I’m thankful for the various labels I encounter throughout my day.

In some cases, though, labels can be frustrating. Like when certain labels (due to excessive amounts of adhesive) refuse to come off an item that I’ve just purchased. It’s no fun trying to scrape off the remnants of paper and glue that seem to be determined to cling to my newly purchased item. And, of course, nothing seems more agitating when something is mislabeled. Ah, the annoyance that comes from having to return a mislabeled item that doesn’t fit or fails to work!

We often use labels to describe people. We use words like funny, kind, handsome or intelligent to characterize the people we come in contact with. It’s our way of classifying their physical attributes or personality traits. And generally, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to use a descriptive label to understand one another.

But there can be a real danger when we rely too heavily on using labels when it comes to distinguishing members of the human race. As helpful as most labels are, some labels carry negative connotations. The nursery rhyme may state that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But the reality is that some labels can be extremely discouraging and damaging.

I believe that if we are people seeking to accomplish effective ministry, we will have to make a concerted effort against employing the types of labels that often keep people from experiencing recovery and restoration.

Perhaps the best motivation for avoiding any negative labeling of people is by understanding some of the reasons why we label them in the first place. A few thoughts:

We label others because we’re fearful of trying to understand a person’s complexities. The reality is that every human being is complex, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. When we put a label on someone, we put on blinders and see only a narrow view of an expansive and complicated human being.

We label people because we’re too lazy to take the time to get to know them. Sometimes we’d rather just assume something about a person than really take the time to discover who they really are. What we end up doing is casting a stereotype upon that person. It’s easy to assume a person is snobby or uncaring, when the truth of the matter may be they are just shy.

We label others because we’re judgmental. Labels are a quick and easy way to spread our prejudices. Without knowing anything about a person, we may make all sorts of presumptions based upon the color of their skin, where they live or how they dress. We ought never judge the actions of others until we know their motives. In other words, we need to judge them with our heart and mind, not our eyes and ears.

We label others because we don’t want them to succeed. In some cases, we cast labels upon people hoping they will permanently stick. We call someone a loser. We describe them as failure. We brand them the “black sheep” of the family. And the reason we do so is an insidious attempt to put limits upon their ability to flourish and thrive.

Once we understand why we label others, we can work on eliminating the habit of labeling. We can overcome negative labeling by cultivating unconditional acceptance, compassion, and understanding. We can learn to observe and experience the world without judgement. We can remain detached from expectations and demands. We can learn to accept what is and people as they are. We can grow in humility.

As a pastor, I encounter all sorts of people from a myriad of experiences, cultures and backgrounds. As a result, I can often feel the tug and temptation to resort to labeling. At times like these, I seek to remind myself that there is one label that applies to every human being: we are all created in the image of God. God has formed, knit and crafted His amazing imprint into each and every individual. True, humanity is a fallen and broken race. We have faults and we experience failure. But, by God’s design, we represent (in a limited fashion) many characteristics of our Creator.

The other thing I try to keep in mind is that, because of the grace of God and the power of the Gospel, every person is redeemable. In other words, we can break free of the labels that daunt us. Through Christ, we can leave behind labels like loser, failure or disappointment and exchange them with new, fresh descriptions of our identity in Jesus: beloved, victorious, overcomer.

Getting Back to Normal

Who knows how long the COVID-19 pandemic will alter our way of life?

Things  certainly have changed.

  • Theaters are closed.
  • Sporting events are cancelled.
  • Beaches are off limits.
  • Restaurants are trying to function under severe restrictions.
  • And when we are able to go out for commerce or entertainment, it’s all face masks, disinfectants and social distancing.

More than once I’ve heard people mention their desire to “get back to the way it was.”

Back to a time when we could work, shop, gather or worship without thinking about what was touched or how close we get to other people.

Simply put, many are longing for a time that wasn’t so heavy and disheartening.

I imagine that’s how Adam and Eve felt.

For a time, Adam and Eve enjoyed unfettered fellowship with God in the Garden of Eden.

They delighted in the beauty of creation.

And they functioned with a sense of order and purpose.

All was good!

And then sin messed everything up. Disobedience against God broke the harmonious connection they once shared with Him.

Genesis 3:21-24 describes how it all fell apart:

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (NIV)

I imagine Adam and Eve often thought about what it would be like to go back to normal.

They lost so much!

  • They lost significance.
  • They lost security.
  • They lost relationship.

Regarding the Coronavirus, “normal” seems to hinge on finding an effective vaccine.

But when it comes to normalizing our relationship with God, everything depends upon Jesus.

When Jesus carried out his ministry here on earth, healing people of physical maladies was part of how He demonstrated his power over the physical realm.

But, I believe these healings also serve as a reminder of Jesus’ ability to heal us spiritually.

Jesus ultimate mission was to restore our fractured relationship with our Creator.

Colossians 1:21-22 says:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. (ESV)

There is a pathway back to God. It’s Jesus.

Jesus himself declared. “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

What was broken and lost in the garden can be restored and reclaimed.

I think Timothy Keller sums it up nicely when he says:

“When we look at the whole scope of this story line, we see clearly that Christianity is not only about getting one’s individual sins forgiven so we can go to heaven. That is an important means of God’s salvation, but not the final end or purpose of it. The purpose of Jesus’s coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world. God created both the body and soul, and the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both body and soul. The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world.”

Through Jesus, everything will ultimately line up as it should be.

Order, meaning, beauty, security and purpose will all be in place.

Some things will happen now, others are reserved for the future.

But the bottom line is this: Jesus is the source for discovering and experiencing what “normal” really is.

 

 

Daring To Get Real With God

One of the by-products of the COVID-19 situation has been the increased use of video as a means of communication.

Several of us have been part of Zoom meetings. Others have created videos in order to teach, preach or sell. The interesting thing about creating video content is that we can create an image that isn’t entirely accurate. We can create the illusion that we live in an orderly, sanitized environment depending on where we point our camera.

Think about it: our “set” may look cool and pristine, but if we turn the camera just a few feet either way, we may see a pile of unfolded clothes or a sink full of dirty dishes! We can also make our videos appear seamless through editing. Here, we can eliminate anything we don’t want people to see. All of our stammering and mess-ups are simply excised from the original recording.

I’m not against purposeful camera placement or editing. They can help us create a more palatable video experience.

But, it got me thinking. I wonder if sometimes we try to do the same thing to God.

You know, we try to fool God into thinking things about us that aren’t really true.

Which, in the end, is a fool’s errand. Because God knows the truth about us, whether we present it to Him or not.

Sadly, I think we might be tempted to try and give God a picture ourselves that is highly edited and contrived.

But here’s what the Bible has to say about such an approach:

As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever. (1 Chronicles 28:9)

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous;
For the righteous God tries the hearts and minds. (Psalm 7:9)

Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart. (Psalm 44:21)

This ability of God to know us inside and out is theologically known as OMNISCIENCE, a word which speaks about God’s capacity to know everything. God knows the amount of grains of sand on a beach and the number of hairs on a human head. And he knows the thoughts and motivations of the human heart.

We can approach God’s ability to understand in two ways: we can continue to try and hide from Him, or we can stop trying to fool God about who we are and what we’ve done.

Psalm 139 is an amazing description of a proper attitude toward God’s omniscience. In it, Dave acknowledges God’s ability to know all things; even the things that may appear hidden. And in response to this truth, David writes:

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (verses 23-25, ESV)

Instead of considering hiding from God, David moves toward God! Why? Because that’s the safest place to be.

Here’s the deal: because God is omniscient we can be real. God’s omniscience means we don’t have to pretend with Him. We don’t have to clean up our thoughts and emotions before we approach Him. He already knows everything. God understands why we’re upset. He knows the root of our insecurities, disappointments, and our needs. He can handle our doubts, fears, and critical thoughts. He’s the perfect One to guide us to peace, health, and healing.

And, regarding those areas where we fall short, God’s heart is to hear our confession and fully forgive us (1 John 1:9)

Edward Welch said,

“The fact that God sees every aspect of our lives may, at first, leave us afraid and eager to hide from God rather than in awe, wanting to embrace Him. But the fear of the Lord makes us aware both of God’s holy purity and hatred of sin and His holy patience and forgiveness. When we remember both, we have no reason to run in fear, especially since there is no place to run beyond the gaze of God. Instead, as we look at the Lord, we see that He invites, cleanses, and empowers us to grow in holiness.”

The truth is that hiding stuff from God (which He already knows about!) is a lot of work. It’s tiring trying to keep up an image that doesn’t match reality. No wonder Jesus uttered these words found in Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ESV)

What’s better? Us trying to maintain the image of having it together, or actually allowing God to put us back together? It’s only when we get real with God that He can do a cleansing, transforming work in our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

Take Advantage of the “Pandemic Pause”

“Let us examine our ways and test them,
and let us return to the Lord.”
Lamentations 3:40

“We must clean the lens of our hearts to see the state of our souls. However, too often the former is too dirty to even know that the latter exists.”
Craig D. Lounsbrough

There are many differences between the games of football and basketball, but there’s one difference that really stands out. In basketball the play is fluid, with both teams going back for several and forth without taking a break for several minutes. In football, the teams take a break after every play! And what happens during those breaks is what’s known as a huddle: a short meeting to (1) make a plan for the next play and (2) make adjustments and corrections so as to play the game with more effectiveness and efficiency.

Due to being quarantined for the Coronavirus, a lot of us feel like our lives have been put on pause. Some of us are probably chomping at the bit for life to return to something we consider useful and productive. But have you considered that perhaps the Lord intends us to use this time to stop, reflect and re-evaluate our lives and ministries? Maybe God wants us to use this season to huddle with us about how we approach life and ministry when we begin to re-enter society.

One thing we’ve talked a lot about as a ministry staff is taking this season of “pause” to strongly evaluate our ministries. Why? Because when life is buzzing along, we typically struggle to find the time for serious introspection and evaluation. Even if there are aspects of our ministries we feel aren’t helpful or are unproductive, we plow ahead. We feel the pressure to stay busy. But taking time for assessment is vitally important.

When we dare to evaluate, we sometimes discover our life or ministry could use some big changes. In some special cases, the need is for a complete overhaul! Other times it may just be some fine tuning. But here’s the deal: if we never stop and consider the effectiveness of our ministries, we may be needlessly wasting time and burning up a lot of energy.

Writer Alannah Francis writes:

As Christians, self-assessment becomes an increasingly important part of our faith as we grow and mature spiritually. Just as periodic checkups with doctors and dentists help us take care of our physical health, regular reflection on how we’re performing in accordance with our faith and what steps we need to take to remedy any areas of weakness helps us become stronger spiritually. It also enables us to tackle problems before they become out of control.

Organizational trainers often talk about something called “mission drift.” The idea behind mission drift is how, at one time, an organization had clear goals, succinct objectives and distinct targets. But over time, other interests and activities come along and push our prior goals and targets to the side. Simply we put, we’ve come to a place of missing the point and losing the plot!

When we enter a time of evaluation, we once again revisit our purpose. Why do we exist? What are we supposed to be doing? What am I shooting for? These questions act as powerful tools to help get us back on track. And a believers, we must run such questions through the grid of scripture.

A simple approach to evaluating our lives and ministry is to ask three simple questions:

  • What needs to start? (implementation of new ideas and activities)
  • What needs to go? (elimination of anything that is unhelpful, ineffective or inefficient)
  • What needs to continue? (maintaining what is working well and worthy of continuation)

Paul revealed an attitude of ministry focus and purposefulness when he talked about his approach to evangelism and ministry in 1 Corinthians 9:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Using the analogies of a runner and a boxer, Paul shared that he wasn’t satisfied running in circles wildly swinging his arms. Paul’s goal was to cross the finish line and land a blow against his opponent. I appreciate Paul’s strong sense of focus and mission!

Examination and evaluation of our lives isn’t always easy. Sometimes in order for change to be made in a positive fashion, we must force ourselves to look unblinkingly at painful realities and seek the courage to make changes.

We are in the midst of what may be the most historic event of our lifetimes. Wouldn’t be a shame to emerge from such a dramatic, life-altering season not having learned anything? This lockdown has provided us plenty of time to so some spiritual sorting and reflecting. Let’s not miss a golden opportunity.

I encourage you take advantage of this pause to look into your life as well as anything you do for ministry. Have you drifted from your mission and calling? Do your efforts produce the outcomes you desire? Is there anything that needs to go to make room for something more effective?

“I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands.”
Psalm 119:59:60

A Season to Learn

“Our vision is so limited we can hardly imagine a love that does not show itself in protection from suffering….The love of God did not protect His own Son…. He will not necessarily protect us – not from anything it takes to make us like His Son. A lot of hammering and chiseling and purifying by fire will have to go into the process.”   Elisabeth Elliot

“Being a Christian today sadly has no connection with being formed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). The apostle Paul constantly reflected on his example and his walk. He said that what others saw in him, they were to pass on to others (Phil. 4:9).”    Jonathan Hayashi

I’m not sure where such thinking comes from, but a lot of Christians have it in their mind that God’s job is to make our lives as smooth and comfortable as possible. But the over-arching theme of the New Testament is that God is mostly concerned with us being formed into the likeness of His Son, Jesus. Which (at least in my case) means God has a lot of work to do!

I don’t think it’s uncommon for many of us going through this time of self-isolation and quarantine to have one constant, dominating thought: let’s get this over with and get back to normal! But what if that isn’t God’s plan? What if His desire is to use a season like this to shape, mold and form us?

Pretty much all of the NT letters were written to churches going through difficult times. See, being a Christian in the first century wasn’t very popular. Being a Christian often brought persecution. But, rather than tell people they didn’t deserve such unfair treatment, the epistle writers consistently challenged their readers to grow up and rise up. The expectation was not on just enduring difficulty, but maturing in the midst of difficulty.

But external persecution wasn’t the only reason the NT authors wrote their letters. There’s also the reality of our inward sinfulness. Sometimes instead of being led by the Spirit, we’re pulled by our flesh. The fact that churches are made up of selfish, sinful people creates the potential for conflict! Sadly, human beings are all too capable of being driven by greed, laziness, pride or anger.

Because of the COVID-19 situation, I imagine over the past month most of us have found ourselves uniquely challenged. Maybe we struggled maintaining patience. Maybe we’ve found ourselves angry. Perhaps we discovered we have some idols or addictions, and self-isolation only made them more real for us. That’s what pressure will do…reveal areas of weakness!

But when those weaknesses are made known to us, we gain the opportunity to deal with them. We can confess them to God, and seek the help of His Word and Spirit to bring about change in our thinking and behavior.

I like how C.S. Lewis put it:

“God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.”

Make no mistake, going through a pandemic is utterly disrupting to our lives. Our rhythms are shot! But, if we don’t come out of a time such as this without learning something, I believe we will have likely missed a huge opportunity. Because of COVID-19 may we grow in grace, love, hope, patience, humility and purposefulness.

Free to Release My Freedoms

Well, we’ve been at this for almost a month now.

For many, the feelings about self-isolation have moved from novel to tiresome…maybe even aggravating. The realization that these are not normal times, and the COVID-19 crisis is not a joke, become more real each day.

As a freedom-loving American, I get it. We are a people who enjoy and celebrate our freedom.

For the person who lives in a country where freedom doesn’t exist, such restrictions wouldn’t seem like much of a change. (Aren’t you glad we don’t live under a controlling dictatorship?)

The concept of freedom is ingrained into the psyche of most Americans, because freedom is the overarching theme of the documents that served as the foundation of our nation’s birth.

From the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness .

And former president Dwight D. Eisenhower said:

“America is best described by one word: freedom”

So, we Americans are presently experiencing the loss of something we hold dear. We miss the ability to do what we want, when we want, and how we want.

On the other hand, it’s also a good thing to be willing to give up freedoms for the well-being of others.

Another president of the United States is well known for this powerful statement:

My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. – John F. Kennedy

This was Kennedy’s challenge that we not only think about our freedoms from the vantage point of individuals, but also as a nation. There is a danger that if I only concern myself with my freedom, I may be trampling on someone else’s freedom!

Freedom is like a coin with two sides. It is something we treasure, but it also something, for a just cause or good enough reason, we can release. In other words, we can choose to suspend our freedoms if their is an higher goal in view.

In Philippians 2, Paul wrote to this church about making sure they think of others, not just themselves. He wrote in verses 3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

And then, to illustrate his point, Paul used Jesus of the supreme example of someone who let go of His rights in order to serve others:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as
Christ Jesus:Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8 NIV)

Even though I am an American who truly enjoys my freedoms, I am also (and more importantly) a citizen of heaven with a has been given a new title by my savior: servant. As one who follows Jesus, I have a responsibility to concern myself with what best serves the people around me.

Remember the story about the Good Samaritan? The truth is he didn’t have to stop for the wounded man. In fact, two other people passed him by, coming up with justifications from their religion! But, the man was compelled to rearrange his schedule and take money from his own pocket to make sure the man was taken care of. The Samaritan gave up his freedoms so that another man might live.

Paul talked about the forfeiture of his rights in regard to his passion for the Gospel. As an Apostle, Paul could have demanded compensation for his ministry. But instead, Paul did without so that the gospel would go forth unhindered.

Paul wrote:

Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NLT)

Make no mistake, I find the inability to gather, shop, and travel to be a gigantic disruption. As the days go by, I find myself feeling more and more worn out from the all the restrictions. Like many of you, I wonder how our country will emerge from such a long timeout.

But I also want to do my part to help our country – and our world – navigate something that holds the potential to bring death to so many people. In some ways, I view my willingness to restrict my life as a pro-life statement.

When Jesus was with his disciples, they had a knack for arguing about who would be most important in heaven. The disciples seemed fixated on making sure they would have great influence and power. They had no problem looking out for themselves. In one instance, Jesus broke up their arguing, gathered them together at uttered these priority-changing words:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

My prayer is that I be a person who loves my country and seeks to protect the freedoms it offers, but that I also love my fellow citizens enough to serve them. Today, may I find my heart aligned with the heart of Jesus.

Are We Ready?

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:8 NIV)

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10 NIV)

This morning I heard a bit of Ed Stetzer’s Saturday morning radio show, Ed Stetzer Live.

Like most radio shows of late, the topic was all about the COVID-19 crisis. Most recently, Stetzer has been heavily preoccupied with helping the church prepare for the flood of ministry, service and evangelism opportunities that will come our way as a result of the pandemic.

(For those who have never heart of Ed Stetzer, he holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center.)

A regular component of Stetzer’s show is giving people the opportunity to call in to ask questions. And today, some of the questions presented by a few people concerned me. My impression was this: many Christians are simply unprepared to be salt and light in the midst of a global disruption.

One segment of the show focused on how believers should take full advantage of the present COVID-19 crisis to connect with and care for our neighbors. It was a challenge to be Christ’s hands and feet, taking the love of Jesus to those within our immediate sphere of influence. In response, one caller (who identified themselves as a Christian) came on the air frantic, fearful and flustered. They wondered how they could ever demonstrate love toward a particular neighbor they didn’t get along with. Wisely and graciously, Stetzer took the next five minutes of the program to talk about the basic Christian practice of forgiveness, along with the scriptural mandate to show kindness to others even if they don’t do the same to us.

I found it tragic that rather than being ready for ministry opportunities, this caller was in retreat. They were mystified, not mobilized.

When crisis strikes, Christians are provided opportunities to shine like lights and season like salt. But if we have not prepared our hearts and minds for “a time such as this,” our impact will likely be minimal.

Discipleship is certainly about what one knows about the faith, but I would contend discipleship is even more about how we respond to life with our faith.

James wrote about how faith is translated into action when need arises:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? (James 4:12-20)

James point was this: faith isn’t something we treasure like a museum piece; rather it is more like an tool we apply to life. Our faith is not just something we possess, it is something we practice!

Just like an athlete’s training program or a soldier’s drills, we too must apply ourselves to growing in the faith so we become readied for the tests that come our way. Such training comes through deliberate practices such as:

  • Time in the Word (reading, meditating, memorizing)
  • Time in prayer
  • Fasting
  • Worship
  • Serving
  • Learning from mature believers
  • Generosity
  • Yielding to the Spirit

If we neglect such practices, we will almost assuredly miss out on opportunities. Like a person who tries to run a marathon without any training or preparation, we will fall miserably short.

I appreciate the attitude displayed in these lyrics from a song called Get Me Ready by the Lost Dogs:

Get me ready for hate and love
For a devil or an angel
For the vulture or the holy dove
For the banquet or the empty table

For long life or early grave
For the cross or for the bliss
To be a free man or a shackled slave
For helping hands or the Judas kiss

Get me ready for the signs and wonders
For the absence and the silence
For the sunshine or the rain and thunder
The age of peace or the times of violence

For doubt and faith, for fear and hope
For the curses and the blessings
Smooth sailing or the sinking boat
For the trials and the testings

Get me ready for the brokenhearted
The down trodden, deaf, blind, dumb and lame
The growing numbers of friends departed
For those who love you
Or those who curse your name

But here’s a sobering reality. With the impact of COVID-19 growing every day, we need to be ready now. There’s little time for preparation.

 

Feed the (Right) Dog

Perhaps you’ve heard this short but incisive analogy:

There was a man who had two dogs. The dog he fed most became the biggest and healthiest.

Likewise, every follower of Jesus has two natures: Spirit and flesh. Whichever one we feed will grow to be the biggest.

In all we do, whether it be our thoughts, attitudes or behaviors, we are either feeding our Spirit or feeding our flesh. Our practices and disciplines provide nourishment to either the Spirit-side or the flesh-side of our being. If we pour most of our energy into earthly entertainment, amusements, pleasures and distractions, we are likely feeding the “dog” of our flesh.

The flesh is that part of us that is natural, and is typically marked by selfishness. The flesh has one goal: to make sure we are pleased.

Another aspect of the flesh is that is is opposed to the things of God and the spirit. Rather than having a bent towards good and holiness, the flesh craves sin and evil. Simply put, our flesh is rebellious to the things of God. On the other hand, the things of the Spirit draw a person toward God.

When a person puts their faith in Jesus, God’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell in them. Meaning, before Christ we had a single tenant: the flesh. But after responding to Christ, we hold both Spirit and flesh.

And that’s where the analogy of the two dogs comes in. How we grow and who we become depends on whether we will feed the flesh or feed the Spirit.

Paul wrote these words regarding the proper approach to dealing with our ingrained flesh and the indwelling Holy Spirit:

ROMANS 5:8-11 (ESV) ~ For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

If we consistently fill our minds with fleshly thoughts, it stands to reason that we will, at least to some degree, act in accordance with our mental preoccupations.

Know this: the flesh is always hungry and will goad you to feed it. But to feed the flesh means we starve the Spirit. It’s simply impossible to feed both. They weren’t made to peacefully coexist.

In the book of Galatians, Paul offered this teaching:

Galatians 5:16-17 (ESV) ~ But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

The flesh desires sin. The Spirit desires holiness. The result? They are categorically opposed to one another! Thus, the we have only one option regarding the flesh: we have to starve it! And at the very same time we are starving the flesh, we are to nourish ourselves by chasing after those things that draw us closer to God.

It could be through Bible reading.

Or prayer.

Or going to church.

Or fasting.

Or serving.

A life of spiritual pursuits is one of the best ways to smoke out the cravings and influence of the flesh.

Look at your life. Is it a life characterized by a pursuit of/passion for God? Or is your life marked by attitudes and actions more in line the sinful flesh? Whatever you determine to be true about your life is likely based on which one your feeding.

Broken, Bitter or Better?

Trials teach us what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of. ~ Charles Spurgeon

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. ~ Isaiah 48:10 ESV

We just entered the second week of social distancing due to COVID-19.

Make no mistake, this nefarious virus has done an extremely effective job of disrupting the normal rhythms of our lives.

We are experiencing severe limitations to our ability to come and go as we please.

No movies. No dining out. No sporting events. Extremely limited shopping. And NO CHURCH!

For the most part, we made it through week one with hardly a problem.

People binge watched movies, interacted on Facebook, played games and engaged in early spring cleaning to pass the time. As difficult as it was to hit the brakes, everything felt somewhat novel. Almost like a weird dream.

But now we face another week in near-isolation. And as the days pass, the pressure will likely increase. Get ready for more anxiety and frustration, which often breeds hopelessness, anger or violence.

Bottom line, we are in for a test.

For some, the response may be brokenness; the idea that this season of hardship will bring about feelings of depression and disillusionment.

For others, times of pressure and distress can bring forth a spirit of bitterness. Such bitterness manifests itself in fits of anger, blaming, mistrust and a harsh, critical spirit.

But there is one more path we might take: the pathway of becoming, by God’s power, better.

Biblically speaking, trials and tribulations hold within them the opportunity for us to be refined. Yes, they are difficult. But such challenges provide us the occasion to experience breakthroughs and transformation.

For many people, pressure causes them to fold or to fight.

But pressure can also bring about inner flourishing.

Bible author James, one of Jesus’ disciples offered this sometimes hard-to-grasp perspective of navigating tough times:

James 1:2-4 (ESV): Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

And, for the followers of Jesus, we have access to supernatural power from the Holy Spirit that allows us to turn a trial into a triumph.

Just this afternoon, I noticed this Facebook post from author and pastor Dick Staub:

TR Glover said, “the early Christians influenced their culture by out-thinking, out-living and out-dying their pagan counterparts.“ It is a reminder that our faith is seen in daily life more than on our words. John Chrysostom, a great fourth-century preacher in Constantinople, offered this advice to Christians facing troubles: “When we suffer anything, we should do so for Christ’s sake, not only with courage, but even with joy. If we have to go hungry, let us be glad as if we were at a banquet. If we are insulted, let us be elated as though we had been showered with praises. If we lose all we possess, let us consider ourselves the gainers. If we provide for the poor, let us regard ourselves as the recipients. Do not think of the painful effort involved, but of the sweetness of the reward; and above all, remember that your struggles are for the sake of our Lord -Jesus.”

As bleak as things may seem, the reality is this is our time to shine.

No, it will not be easy. In seasons like the one we are facing we will have to devote even more time and energy toward our discipleship. We’ll have to study more, pray more, fast more.

But out of such rigorous spiritual training we will hopefully see rich spiritual fruit.

Fruit like generosity, service and evangelism.

Fruit such as patience, kindness, joy, faithfulness and self-control.

Fruit marked by self-sacrifice and grace and mercy.

Be sure of this: we have a choice. We can allow the storm to knock us down, wind us up…or we can let the storm be used to refine us into a person who is more developed and more useful in God’s hands.

When the dust settles from the COVID-19 crisis (which will likely take a long time), will we be more mature, equipped and grounded than we were before an invisible but insidious virus ravaged the planet?

 

Raise the White Flag

“God always has and always will look for men and women who say to Him, ‘I trust you so much, I’m all in. I want your way not mine. I am willing to live by faith!'” Chip Ingram

Many people believe in Jesus.

Far fewer surrender to Him.

Why the gap?

Well, through belief we get a lot of things from Jesus. Which is great! Nothing to sniff our noses at.

But we would be wrong to think that getting from God is all that Christianity is about.

Surrender is about those things we give back to God.

Romans 12:1 is a great verse that reminds us of the “surrendering” aspect of our relationship with Jesus:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is your true and proper worship.

Essentially, surrender happens when we recognize that God’s way of doing things is infinitely better than our feeble attempts to navigate life.

The scope of surrender is as broad as all the ways scripture talks about how we live under the lordship of Christ.

We can surrender our thoughts to Jesus. Or our attitudes. Or our actions.

Yet many people who claim faith in Jesus aren’t at the place of surrender. They’d rather have Jesus in the passenger seat. Or maybe the back seat. (Or worse, the trunk.)

So, they keep telling Jesus “no” and keeping Him at bay.

Jesus understood that humans have a tendency to like to run their own lives, and so he said these words to His disciples:

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. (Matthew 9:23-24)

Bottom line, life begins to make sense when we get ourselves under Jesus authority.

Jesus calls for our offering to be living and holy. Notice, God doesn’t want a dead sacrifice; He wants a living one. He intends for His people to live in joyful surrender to Him, finding our pleasure in Him, instead of worldy pursuits. Naturally, since the Lord our God is holy, an offering presented to Him must also be holy — pure and given to His service alone.

To call ourselves a Christian but resist Jesus’ instruction just makes our faith schizophrenic. As much as we try to maintain control of our lives, the reality is we become way less settled in our spirits. It may not make sense to us, but surrendering to Jesus brings a lot of inner peace.

When we surrender to Jesus, we become more useful to Him. That makes sense doesn’t it? When we let Jesus lead and we are willing to follow, things go much better.