Proper Prioritizing Yields Personal Peace

For anyone who thought we would have the presidential situation sorted out on election day, well, don’t forget…its 2020. Remember, this the year of “if it can go sideways, it will go sideways.” As if our nerves were not frayed enough from navigating a pandemic and dealing with social unrest, we now have to wait to find out who won the election.

At some point, the question about who will be declared the winner will be resolved. One way or another, a decision will be made and we’ll know who will be sitting in the White House in 2021. And, looking at how the votes have been divided up, approximately half the country will be pleased with the results; the other half disappointed. Such is the way of elections.

As Americans, I’m glad we get to participate in the voting process. What a privilege to be able cast a ballot for the candidate we deem most worthy for the job.

Yet, as a pastor and a Christian, I sometimes feel concern of how much stock that some put into a political system that, depending on the whims of the electorate, can feel a lot like riding a roller coaster. In one election cycle we may feel ecstatic, while in the next we may feel great disillusionment. Simply put, we can exhaust a lot of emotional capital on something we actually have little control over. Yes, our vote is highly important and should never be taken for granted. Because we get to vote, we should vote. But, at the same time. I’m realistic about the fact that my vote is tossed into a pool with around 150 million other ballots.

Because the United States is a republic. the governance of our nation will always be a moving target. Things will change all the time. Rarely will our nation maintain a particular course for very long. No wonder those who are deeply engaged in politics can count on a steady stream of highs and lows.

When it comes to placing our faith in systems of men , we better realize how easily the world can become unstable. One day things can be going our way; the next day the world feels like its falling apart at the seams. Realizing that the world around us is extremely wobbly, we should be driven to some very important questions: If the world we live in is so unpredictable, where should we place our hope? What foundation can we employ to build our life upon that will not shake, or crumble?

In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul’s wrote about how, from a human perspective, everything seemed to be working against his ministry. As he and his team traveled about sharing the Gospel message, they we’re regularly confronted with resistance, harassment and persecution. Thinking about what Paul described, it would hard to blame him for wanting to throw in the towel. He and his associates were prime candidates for deep disappointment.

Yet three times in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul repeats this phrase: “We do not lose heart.” Which begs the question: “Why not?” What was it that kept Paul going full throttle in his ministry? Rather than sinking like a stone, what kept Paul so buoyant, always popping up to the surface like a cork? The answer is revealed in last few verses of the chapter:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)

So what was it that kept Paul in the game? Why didn’t he call it a day when things got difficult?

For one, Paul mentioned was something he described as inner renewal. This speaks to the idea that Paul’s relationship with God was something that was alive and growing. Even when the world around him was falling apart, Paul could draw inner strength, wisdom, courage and comfort from God. To me, this speaks to the quality of one’s devotional life. What resources can be drawn from time spent in God’s presence!

The second thing Paul writes about was the primary object of his focus. Paul rightly discerned that the things that are seen are temporal. They simply don’t last, thus they are not something to give too much of our time, energy and attention. How challenging it can be to not want to “hitch our wagons” to the things of the world!

Regarding a proper focus, a challenge to keep our eyes on the eternal is found in Hebrews 12:1-2:

1 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

This doesn’t mean that we avoid engagement with the world around us. As long as we have earthly breath, we should be involved in the pursuit of justice, compassion and mercy (Micah 6:8). As Jesus said in Matthew 5, we are to act as salt and light to a dark, decaying world.

The scriptural challenge is to keep the things happening in the world in proper perspective in light of the things that are eternal.

That’s how Paul kept from losing heart. His proper perspective allowed him to experience personal peace.

Election Reflections

Next Tuesday is the day people finally get to go to the polls and cast their ballots (although many people have already ready voted through early voting and absentee ballots). For many, election day can’t come any sooner. All the political banter and wrangling can take a toll on a person’s emotions. Simply put, the political season can be a bit…grueling.

I am deeply grateful that, by God’s grace and providence, we get to live in a country where citizens are allowed to participate in the political process. The ability to vote is an amazing honor. As Americans, we enjoy the freedom to express our opinions on how our nation is governed. Many nations of the world do not afford their citizenry the ability to engage in any debate or dissent.

On having a proper attitude toward voting, founding father Samuel Adams said:

Let each citizen remember at the moment he is
offering his vote…that he is executing one of the
most solemn trusts in human society for which
he is accountable to God and his country.”

If Adams is correct with this viewpoint, then it rests on the shoulders of every voting American to take to proper time to learn about the issues and the candidates. And even more important, it is vital that Americans pray about how to wisely cast their ballot.

For all my gratefulness to live in a country that allows its citizens to vote, I’m also keenly aware that having the privilege of voting doesn’t always guarantee people will make wise, thoughtful decisions. If a culture is marked by attitudes such as selfishness, pride. envy laziness or greed, those attitudes will likely be reflected in the people we elect to be in charge of our country. If we are ungodly, we probably won’t be anxious to have godly leadership ruling over us.

As you have likely noticed, our political seasons have a way of negatively charging people up as well as emotionally wearing them down. As we get closer to election day 2020, some of us perhaps have entertained the temptation to, morally speaking, let our guard down. Maybe some of us gave in. The result of such inattentiveness is that we likely found ourselves losing connection with what the Bible calls the fruit of the Spirit; those supernaturally-empowered, life-giving, God-honoring attitudes such as love, patience, kindness and self-control. Sadly, the political season seems much better at stirring up some very non-Christian attitudes, including slander, hate, fear, strife and rage.

Why does this happen? Well, just like anything else, our politics can become an idol. Make no mistake, idolatry is not limited to people who place a metal or wooden statue on an altar and light incense to it. An idol is anything we give the type of hope, trust and adoration that is reserved only for God. Political idolatry happens when we begin fixating on what a human leader or political party can do for us more than we focus our eyes on our Heavenly Father, our true provider who calls us to trust him and not worry (Matt. 6:25-34). Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton once opined:

“Once abolish the God, and the government becomes the God.”

Bottom line, we tread on thin ice when our engagement in politics motivates us to take our eyes of the providence and sovereignty of God To be able to participate in the political process is a wonderful privilege.

Thankfully, here in America we get to prolifically talk about our politics and freely cast our ballots. But, as followers of Jesus, we must also be careful to stay elevated above anything that might replace our trust in God or hinder our witness to the world.

Love it or loathe it, human governance will always be a part of life. (Chesterton mused, “Government is an ugly necessity.”) What we learn from the Bible is this: all government is instituted by God (Romans 13:1). Because of this reality, we as Christians are called upon by scripture to act as good, faithful, law-abiding citizens.

But the only government that deserves our complete, unwavering, undying devotion is the Kingdom of God, ruled by the King of Kings, Jesus. The apostle Paul held a proper perspective when he declared:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we
await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20)

No one rules better than Jesus. He is totally trustworthy in all his statutes and decrees. Isaiah 9:6 is usually viewed as a Christmas verse, but it really is a timeless pronouncement regarding Jesus incomparable ability to serve as the final authority in our lives:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name
shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God,
The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Human governments will always be flawed because human beings are flawed. But, thankfully, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Which leads me to conclude with one more scripture:

To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord,
be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all
time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:25)

Spiritual Disciplines Prepare God’s People

But have nothing to do with irreverent and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness,  for the training of the body has a limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1 Tim. 4:7-8 CSB)

I recently finished reading Kent Nerbern’s voluminous book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce.

If there’s anything the Nez Perce tribe is remembered for, its how over the course of almost 5 months they evaded being captured by U.S. soldiers. From mid June until October 5, 1877, this indomitable band of 700 men, women and children covered over 1000 miles while being hotly pursued by U.S. troops, settlers and Indian scouts.

While there were surely instances where luck played a part in the Nez Perce ability to elude capture, a lot of of what allowed them to dodge capture was their intelligence, skill, fitness and endurance. For example:

-Early in the book, the author wrote about how warriors would swim in icy waters every single day of the year. This practice was meant to build mental toughness and physical endurance.

-Nez Perce warriors also constantly worked on their skills as horsemaen, seeking to reach the point where horse and rider acted as one unit. They trained themselves to be able to shoot with accuracy while hanging under the neck of their mount.

-Lastly, Nez Perce warriors practiced fasting, teaching their bodies to go days without food without losing much vigor. It was revealed that one of the reasons the Nez Perce could outrun the soldiers was because the soldiers were conditioned to eat three meals a day. All those stops for food meant the Nez Perce could put a lot of mileage between them and their pursuers.

The bottom line is this: the Nez Perce practiced rugged self-discipline in order to be better prepared for a variety of challenges they might face. Rather than reacting weakly in the moment, they sought to be of strong mind and body before difficulties came their way.

The wise and growing Christian understands that the same holds true for how we approach the Christian life. An undisciplined spiritual life is a life that will often not show itself ready for the challenges life dishes out.

Legendary Dallas Cowboy’s coach said:

“The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.”

In much the same way, Christians are called to make themselves, by the Spirit’s power, do what they would not naturally do—practice spiritual disciplines—in order to experience what the Spirit gives them a desire to be, that is, to be with Christ and like Christ.

Sometimes the disciplines call us to dive into kinetic activities such as reading and studying our Bible, praying and serving. Joining in corporate worship is another way we tend to our spiritual development.

Other times we learn discipline by slowing down and/or doing without. Things like fasting, being quiet or practicing sabbath are what help us develop endurance and grow closer to God.

Spiritual disciplines aren’t a means of earning God’s favor. We aren’t redeemed by God by what we do. Ephesians 2:8-9 says clearly, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast.” Dallas Willard affirmed this sentiment when he said, “Spiritual disciplines are wisdom, not righteousness.”

No, spiritual disciplines are God’s ways to help us grow in faith and fruitfulness. D.A. Carson offered this reflection:

“People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”

It is an undeniable fact that we will never get anywhere in life without discipline – especially in spiritual matters.

There may be some who have innate athletic or musical advantages. But none of us can claim an innate spiritual advantage.

None of us are inherently righteous, none of us naturally seek God or are reflexively good. Therefore, as saved children by grace, our grace-empowered spiritual disciplines are vital toward our being well-prepared as believers.

Discipline is all about being ready. It’s about awakening and strengthening the soul, spirit, eyes, ears and heart so we can see what’s always happening right in front of us.

Ministry Should (Often) Be Uncomfortable

As a pastor of almost four decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of people don’t really understand the concept of ministry.

My hunch, based on hundreds of conversations and years of observation, is that many people are in search of being involved in ministry that is fun, entertaining and self-gratifying.

Several years ago I was talking with a missionary who hosted a lot of short term mission groups. I asked him about some of the biggest challenges he faced. This veteran missionary shared, “It is very rare when groups ask how they can help us. Instead, they often show up with their own agenda in mind; an agenda that is really more about what they want to do rather than what we need done.”

Ouch!

Bringing it closer to home, its not uncommon for people to ask the pastor of a church how they can get involved in service. Yet, even after learning the various ways to plug in, some people remain uninvolved.

Why does this happen? My take is that some people are simply looking for a place to serve that really doesn’t cost them much. Put another way, they’re looking for they type of ministry activity that puts their felt needs ahead of seeking to meet the true needs of others.

But here’s the deal: true ministry is all about pouring ourselves out in order to help and serve others.

This approach to ministry often requires us to grow and stretch. Ministry isn’t really about us feeling good, as much as it is about helping take care of real issues. In fact, it is quite common to feel a level of discomfort when we begin serving in an area of life-changing ministry. That’s because real ministry can be hard work!

Several years ago I took on the task of teaching a class at our local Union Gospel Mission Center for Women and Children. Because the students were all women, I felt very intimidated! I felt like a fish out of water. But I knew UGM needed a teacher for this class, and so I went forward. Over the years I’ve become much more acclimated to this type of ministry, and count it a huge blessing to part of the recovery process for these women. And I’m glad to have been stretched in an area of ministry I wouldn’t naturally leaned into.

So here’s my pastoral advice: don’t necessarily look for a ministry that is custom-fit to you; look for a ministry where the needs are real. Dare to care more about the needs of others ahead of your own interests (Philippians 2:4). Ask God to help you overcome any feelings of fear or insecurity so you can lovingly serve those who need your wisdom, experience and grace.

Playing at ministry is tragic. Doing real ministry changes the life of both the on who is serving and the one being served.

Cultivating the Spiritual Life

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8:15 NIV)

If you’ve ever tried to grow something in a garden, whether it be fruit, vegetables or flowers, you know that having some gardening knowledge – and applying that knowledge – can make a huge difference in your crop.

I know some gardeners and farmers who are able to, year after year, produce bumper crops.

As for me, I am an extremely amateur gardener, and as a result, my garden production is hit and miss. Probably more miss.

Bottom line, I’m not really sure what I’m doing.

I understand the basics:

  • Keep the plants watered
  • Make sure they have sunlight (although some like a lot of shade)
  • Feed the plants now and then

But that’s about it.

I know that there are a lot of different “tricks of the trade” that I could employ to make my garden become way more productive. So, its not that I couldn’t learn to be a better gardener. Its just that I’m just not that interested. Even though I would love more production, I’m generally not willing to do the work to make it happen.

Here’s another thing I know: apart from God, I can’t grow anything.

I can’t make seeds, thus I am unable to manufacture a garden on my own.

Only God can make something germinate. But, through knowledge and discipline, I can impact the development and output of my garden.

As it is with my garden, so it is for many when it comes to the development of the spiritual life.

I can’t create a spiritual life. Only God can renew a heart and regenerate a soul.

But even if I can’t create a spiritual life, I can cultivate one. I can apply myself to certain practices that enhance the spiritual life that God has bestowed upon me. Yet, a lot of us treat our spiritual lives like I treat my garden.

We could invest time and energy into learning how to become more productive, but our lack of interest and lack of wherewithal prevent us from taking steps in that direction.

Truth be told, if I’m not growing as a follower of Jesus, that’s on me.

Throughout the scriptures, God reveals certain practices that help us move closer to him as well as become better equipped for ministry and mission.

Things like Bible study, prayer, Biblical meditation, fasting, and times away from all the noise are ways we can apply ourselves to better knowing God’s ways and His will.

Paul put it this way in a letter he wrote to Timothy:

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 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 4:7-8)

Paul’s point? If Timothy expected to grow in godliness, he would have to exert a degree of discipline. Put another way, Timothy ought not ever think that spiritual growth happens through passive osmosis. We must invest time, energy and thought.

V. Raymond Edman wrote:

Ours is an undisciplined age. The old disciplines are breaking down. Above all, the discipline of divine grace is derided as legalism or is entirely unknown to an entire generation that is largely illiterate in the scriptures. We need the rugged strength of Christian character that can only come from discipline.

Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that our lack of desire to invest in our spiritual development doesn’t directly impact our spiritual maturity and spiritual production.

 

 

 

The Greatest Cause

One thing I’ve noticed over the last few years is how a lot people get involved with various causes.

Why do people do this? Because people like to get participate in causes they believe will bring about change and make things better.

Nothing wrong with that!

For example, some people like to advocate for better treatment of pets, the elderly or minorities. Other people get passionate about issues such as urban renewal, stopping domestic violence or ending abortion. Some people are all about cleaning up the environment or making food safer.

You’ve likely noticed that the internet is brimming with advocacy websites where people can give money, sign petitions or register to volunteer.

The disruptions of 2020, whether they be due to medical, political or social issues, have only added to the amount of causes which people can attach themselves to.

Some causes are great, while some are suspect. Some causes are propelled by pure motives; others have roots that are more insidious. It takes a bit of discernment to figure the difference between a good cause and a cause that may be misguided!

The primary reason I know people are engaged in various causes is mainly through social media. That’s where I find people posting about the causes they believe in and the actions they feel should take place to resolve some of life’s problems.

There are a lot of causes I’m all for. Our world is far from perfect, and sometimes we need advocates to help bring about change in order to better our world.

But when it comes to our myriad of causes, I have a thought: for us Christians, we ought not pursue our cause to the point it impedes or supersedes the cause of the Gospel. That’s because sharing and spreading the Gospel is the greatest cause. Nothing else comes close!

More than anything in this life, people need to know about the forgiveness and peace and restoration that comes from embracing a relationship with Jesus.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t get involved in worthy causes. I’m just saying we ought not  let our investment in our particular cause do anything that might veer people away from clearly seeing Jesus and his message of spiritual reconciliation. Practically speaking, my concern would be that we become too combative or dismissive toward others as we seek to advance our cause.

I’m thinking that we ought never allow our advocacy (for whatever we might be passionate about) make it harder for someone to find new life in Christ.

See, we typically embrace a cause because we care. We believe in the mission. Which is great!  (It really doesn’t make sense to join of a cause that really doesn’t interest you.)

Yet, I wonder if such passion and devotion can sometimes cause us to become so wrapped up in our personal cause that we temporarily forget about the cause above all causes.

In other words, as a result of a strong devotion to our personal cause, we might be in danger of building barriers to the Gospel rather than constructing of bridges.

Simply put, if I’m not willing to defer my passion for my personal cause for the greater cause of reaching others for Christ, I likely need to check my heart and reestablish my priorities.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul wrote about his rights and authority as an apostle. Yet, even though Paul possessed these rights, he didn’t feel he had to insist upon them being practiced. Paul let the Corinthians know that, if he wanted to, he could have pressed them in a few areas, such as being monetarily supported for his labor and having a family. In other words, Paul could have pressed his causes upon the Corinthian Christians.

But what does Paul say the causes he could have pushed? Check out his response:

If I were doing this on my own initiative, I would deserve payment. But I have no choice, for God has given me this sacred trust. What then is my pay? It is the opportunity to preach the Good News without charging anyone. That’s why I never demand my rights when I preach the Good News. (1 Corinthians 9:17-18 NLT)

Bottom line, Paul was a man who, like a lot of us, had opinions and passions about things, but he knew when to set those opinions and passions aside whenever the Gospel was involved.

So, causes are great. It’s good to have issues we are concerned about and seek to do something about them. I’m all for making our world a better place.

But may we never lose sight of the greatest of causes: the message of light, life, grace and hope. More than anything, people need Jesus.

 

The Garden Many Christians Ignore

I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:16-19 (CSB)

The recently passed J.I Packer once commented on the state of the American church like this:

“The North American church is 3000 miles wide and 1 inch deep.”

That’s just a fancy way of saying, in a general sense, we are shallow.

We may have large church buildings.

We may have burgeoning church programs.

We may have large church attendance.

But at the end of the day, if Packer is correct, many of us are grossly undeveloped in regard to our spiritual maturity. Simply put, we’re putting more energy into creating facades than into laying foundations.

Here’s a reason I think this happens: its much easier to work on the appearance of godliness than actually doing the hard work of pursuing godliness.

If all we do is try to appear mature, it won’t take much for the superficiality of our so-called maturity to be revealed. The smallest trial will unravel us because we were not equipped to handle it.

As a result, when any sort of pain, suffering or challenge comes our way, we quickly become unglued. We can’t help ourselves, let alone anyone offer assistance to anyone else. We fall apart rather than stand firm.

So what’s the problem?

From my vantage point, I would say the problem is our refusal to tend to our inner life.

In other words, we aren’t willing to apply ourselves to the discipline of spiritual development. Likely because it’s hard work!

The issue of spiritual shallowness is nothing new. Paul gave his protégé Timothy a clear and distinct charge in order to be effective in his ministry:

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.  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 4:7-8 NIV)

So, what do I mean when I speak of the inner life? I’d describe the inner life as what’s going on inside of us. Its the collection of our thoughts, our attitudes and our emotions.

When the inner life is untended, the outer life is usually a mess.

  • When we think in a worldly, selfish manner, we typically lack in love, humility and servanthood. As a result, we operate out of pride, greed, lust or envy.
  • When our attitudes are driven by the flesh, we often say or do things that aren’t life-giving, but tear down and destroy. Thus, our mindset is set on survival rather than servanthood.
  • When our emotions are unchecked, our life can look like a roller coaster, hurtling up, down and around. We lack self-control, which results in a lot of collateral damage

The truth is that rather doing ministry, many of us with untended inner lives need to be ministered to!

I think some of the reasons our inner lives are so neglected include our over-busy lives, an overabundance of distractions,  and a culture that celebrates performance and production to the exclusion of faithfulness and thoughtfulness.

Add to the mix our propensity toward laziness and disobedience, which only make matters worse.

See, spiritual maturity demands effort. And just like physical exercise, we only grow when we experience some sort of resistance.

Charles Stanley right made this observation:

“Adversity is not simply a tool. It is God’s most effective tool for the advancement of our spiritual lives. The circumstances and events that we see as setbacks are oftentimes the very things that launch us into periods of intense spiritual growth. Once we begin to understand this, and accept it as a spiritual fact of life, adversity becomes easier to bear.”

Another challenge is that, in some quarters of contemporary Christianity, tending to the inner life is seen as mystical, non-productive and self-indulgent. Some will view slowing down to tend to the soul as “touchy-feely,” wimpy or selfish.

The problem with this is that, no matter how much we may deny it, we are multi-faceted human beings, and it does us no good to ignore any aspect of our being. Like it our not, we are emotional beings! Avoiding the emotional aspect of our personhood is a recipe for disaster.

I wonder: could it be that the American value of rugged individualism is actually hindering our ability to grow as a whole person?

I have a hunch that for many of us, the real challenge is tending to our inner life this: we are fearful to look within because we know its a mess. Sort of like that closet we know needs to be cleaned, but every time we open the door to begin the task, we feel overwhelmed and simply close the door. And so the closet remains in its state of disorder.

One more thought: generally speaking, as American Christians, we’re better at doing than we are being. We like to be busy and produce, but struggle with practices that slow us down. Prayer, scripture meditation, fasting and reflection seem terribly slow to us. We like to be on task, but are less interested in preparing for the task.

For these reasons (and certainly a few more) the garden of our inner life goes untended. Rather than flourishing with fruit, it is overrun with weeds. Yet, we don’t seem bothered enough to do much about it.

Such an attitude reminds me of the story about a woodcutter who failed to take time to sharpen his ax:

Once upon a time, a very strong woodcutter asked for a job in a timber merchant. The pay was really good and so were the working conditions. For those reasons, the woodcutter was determined to do his best.

His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he would work.

The first day, the woodcutter felled 18 trees.

“Congratulations,” the boss said. “Go on that way!”

Motivated by the boss words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only bring down 15 trees. The third day he tried even harder, but he could only manage 10 trees. Day after day, he finished with fewer trees.

“I must be losing my strength,” the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on.

“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?,” the boss asked.

“Sharpen? I’ve had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been so busy trying to cut trees….”

Perhaps a way to think about our inner life is in relation to root systems. Some trees are beautiful, but because their root systems are shallow, they are easy to knock over. But other trees, like the cypress trees that inhabit the stormy coastline of central California have deep root systems, which allow those trees to stand in the midst of battering winds and rain.

Here’s the bottom line: what takes place in our outer life is inseparable from what’s going on in our inner being.

If our root system is compromised, then the trunk, branches, leaves and fruit of our outer life will most certainly be negatively impacted.

 

 

 

 

 

The Two Primary Roles Jesus Plays in our Daily Lives

To be a disciple of Jesus means we allow Jesus to get into our lives.

A disciple cannot push Jesus to the sideline, but must allow Jesus to become central to all we are and all we do.

But what is it that Jesus is meant to do in our lives? What roles is He supposed to fulfill?

Of course, Jesus is our savior. At the moment of placing our faith on Him, we are immediately transferred from death to life, from darkness to light and from gloom to hope. Through Jesus, God adopts us into our family and secures our place as participants in His kingdom.

But then what? How is Jesus supposed to function within our daily existence?

Here’s one way I look at it: at any given time, Jesus is meant to serve as either our comforter or our challenger.

Said another way, Jesus either acts as our peace or our provocateur. Depending upon our need at the moment, Jesus will either console us or goad us.

Jesus, our Comforter

In regard to comfort, the Scripture that comes to mind are these reassuring words from Jesus found in Matthew 11:28-30:

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

Truth be told, the entire Trinity of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are concerned about our comfort during times of suffering or affliction. Jesus told His disciples that when he left the earth, He would leave them the Holy Spirit. One of the ways Jesus described the Holy Spirt was being “the Comforter.”

And in 2 Corinthians 1, Paul wrote about the comforting ministry that God provides to His children who are dealing with pain or persecution:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 ESV)

I wonder, how many of us miss out on the blessings that come from God’s ministry of comforting?

Jesus, our Challenger

The other role I see Jesus playing is that of challenger.

The idea being that sometimes we need a gentle push from Jesus to do the right thing.

Although we may from time to time receive comfort from Jesus, the journey of discipleship is rarely comfortable.

That’s because the way of Jesus is typically quite different than how we would do things on our own.

  • Naturally, we are drawn toward pride. But Jesus pushes us to be humble.
  • We love to be in charge. But Jesus calls his followers to be servants.
  • Many of us are up for a fight. But Jesus calls on us to be peacemakers.
  • On our own, forgiveness is hard. But Jesus presses us to consistently practice forgiveness.

Discipleship includes the hard work of facing our sin, repenting, and turning in a new direction.

Through discipleship, Jesus will over and over challenge our natural man to die so that the spiritual man can live. Which isn’t always easy for us. In our western individualist society we do not emphasize Jesus’ values and therefore discipleship requires overcoming huge strongholds of the mind and heart.

But no one can say that Jesus didn’t warn us about the difficulty of discipleship. Jesus said in Matthew 16:24:

Then Jesus said to his disciples: If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me. (CSB)

When we come to Jesus we are like a ball of unformed clay. But God’s desire is to see that we become more conformed to the image of Christ. And so, we will push, prod and poke us in order that we shed the selfish and sinful attitudes of  our “old man” in deference to the values and commands of Jesus.

My hunch is that we are likely more welcoming to Jesus the consoler than Jesus the provocateur.

We’d much rather have a comforting hug than be goaded to change our ways.

But the disciple of Jesus needs to become comfortable with Jesus playing both roles.

And my guess is we probably need a bit more challenging than we need comforting.

 

 

Breaking Down Barriers

A lot of times Jesus is depicted as being fairly passive.

He’s shown patting kids on the heads or wistfully walking among the masses.

Now, Jesus did carry himself with an air of kindness, gentleness and self-control.

But Jesus could also do a really great job of making a bold, courageous point for the purpose of upsetting unhealthy cultural thinking.

Case in point: the time Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman next to a well (John 4).

By daring to converse with this woman, Jesus took on both hateful racism and female inequality.

See, in Jewish culture the Samaritan people were despised.

They we of mixed ethnicity; part Jewish, part Gentile.

On top of that, the Samaritans had taken aspects of religion of the Jews and blended it with other religions. They established as their center of worship a temple on Mount Gerizim, claiming it was where Moses had originally intended for the Israelites to worship.

The Samaritans had their own unique version of the five books written by Moses, the Pentateuch, but rejected the writings of the prophets and Jewish traditions. The Samaritans saw themselves as the true descendants of Israel and preservers of the true religion, while considering the Jerusalem temple and Levitical priesthood illegitimate.

It wasn’t uncommon for a Pharisee to pray that no Samaritan would be raised in the resurrection.

To the Jews, a Samaritan was more revolting than a Gentile (pagan); Samaritans were half-breeds who defiled the true religion.

The hate for the Samaritans was so strong that if a Jewish person needed to travel north from Jerusalem, they would often make a point of going around Samaria, even though it added a lot of time to their travels.

Being a Samaritan was really tough…but being a woman in Jewish culture was harsh as well.

Women were often treated as property, just one step above slaves, to serve the needs of their father, and later, their husband. A woman had to get permission from her father or if married her husband to leave her home. A wife could never divorce her husband, but the husband could divorce his wife by simply handing her a bill of divorce.

In Jesus’ time, women were excluded from much of public life. In fact, for a rabbi to speak with a woman on the street (even it was his own wife!) was considered a disgrace.

So, for the Samaritan woman of John 4, she didn’t have one strike against her, but two. A Samaritan AND a woman!

Yet, Jesus did not allow either of these social barriers to stop him from engaging the woman beside the well.

Jesus’ actions were so bold that John 4:27 tells us how the disciples reacted when they came upon the scene:

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” (NIV)

The disciples knew Jesus was doing something that wasn’t normally done.

Simply put, Jesus dared to knock down a pair of social constructs that had stood for centuries.

And he did it simply by having a conversation.

Now that’s the Jesus style!

People are really good at putting up walls and barriers.

But Jesus is even better at knocking them down.

Paul wrote these words of Galatians to remind us of the oneness we share as human beings in Christ:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,  for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)

If we identify as followers of Jesus, we will likely have some pre-conceived walls about people that need tearing down.

Something we were taught.

Or something we came up with our own.

Which people group are you afraid of?

Which people group are you holding a grudge against?

What barrier within your sphere of influence needs to be broken down?

It might come a-tumblin’ down with a simple conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fences and Bridges

Living life as a Christian can sometimes be difficult to navigate.

That’s because Christianity comes with its own set of challenges and tensions.

For example, as Jesus’ followers we are called to be doggedly committed to truth, yet at the same time be extremely gracious and generous in our interactions with people.

Our model for this kind of “truth and grace” living is none other than Jesus himself, who John described as “full of grace and truth” in John 1:14.

Yet, I find that most of us will lean heavily on either one side or the other of the truth/grace equation.

Either we will tend to be harshly truthful because we lack grace, or we will tip toward being danderously permissive because we lack truth.

But here’s what I think: we are called to build both fences and bridges.

Allow me to break this down a bit.

First, Christians have a serious responsibility to protect true Christian doctrine from being tainted.

The apostle Paul exhorted his protégé, Timothy, with these words:

Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith. (1 Timothy 6:20-21 NIV)

Similarly, the entire book of Jude is devoted to the idea of guarding God’s people from false teaching.

These verses are all about fence building. There are some Christian doctrines that are so important, they must be protected by some sort of barricade.

Some might say that these are, regarding Christianity, the hills we are willing to die on.

One thing about doctrinal fence building: we typically only have to do it once. Once we know which doctrines deserve such protection, we simply establish our fences around these truths in order to keep them from being infiltrated and contaminated.

But fence building isn’t our only spiritual construction project. We are also to be about the business of bridge building.

This is the idea that, relationally speaking, we are to make great effort in connecting with others for the purpose of sharing and modeling the Gospel.

And our bridge building projects ought to be drenched in attitudes of love, grace, patience and mercy.

Paul was a wise and skilled bridge builder. He was extremely mindful of ways to help people draw close to God through his relationships. Consider what Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians:

Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law[d]—to win those under the law. To those who are without the law, like one without the law—though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ—to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 CSB)

What I gather from this passage is that Paul was interested in building as many bridges as he could! And to do so, he was willing to do a lot of flexing and adapting to make connections.

Unlike fence building, which only needs to happen once, bridge building is a lifetime pursuit. Meaning, we ought to always be looking for the next bridge we can construct.

Another occasion where Paul sought to build a bridge was in the account of found in Acts 17 where Paul at first found little traction in sharing the Gospel:

He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.” Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.”  (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.) So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about. (Acts 17:18-23 NLT)

Here Paul was trying to speak to a group of people who had no context regarding Jesus and the Gospel. That’s why the referred to Paul as “a babbler.”

So what did Paul do? He thought about how the city of Athens was filled with monuments to various Gods and remembered seeing one shrine dedicated to an Unknown God. Paul decided to use that unclaimed altar to springboard into a discussion about Jesus!

Once again, Paul found away to build a bridge in order to make Gospel connections.

A final thought:

I believe that some of us are more wired for fence building. We are good at defending, guarding, protecting.

And some of us have a bent towards connecting, engaging and developing relationships. These are our bridge builders.

But I believe we are most balanced and successful when we realize we are called to both.

We are to establish protective enclosures around sacred truths, but at the same time we are to lovingly and graciously extend relationship to those who don’t know Jesus.

Put simply, we are challenged to both defend and extend when it comes to our faith.

If we only defend and never extend, we can become rigid and insular.

And if we only extend, but never defend, we can become sloppy and foundationless.

But if we are willing to both defend and extend, we protect the truth as well as bring the truth to the people who desperately need it.

Fences and bridges. May we be faithful in building both.