Tag Archives: christianity

Rachel Held Evans: On Origami and Trust

The news concerning the death of Rachel Held Evans this past weekend has been hard to swallow.   She leaves behind a loving husband, 2 young children, and a family innumerable who have been blessed, encouraged, and loved through her speaking and writing ministry.   She will be greatly missed.

I first met Rachel back in 2010 when were were both actively blogging about faith and the church.  She graciously shared some of my writings on her blog (which was far more popular than mine ) and we met at a few conferences.  When I was moving from seminary back to Tennessee in 2011 we kicked the idea around of starting a church that would minister to the outcasts and misfits – those who had lost faith in the church but hoped God hadn’t lost faith in them.   Sadly, that never transpired.

Over the years we drifted apart but I continued to read her work.   While we didn’t always land in the same place, I always admired her gift with words and her ability to articulate the questions of faith that all of us have or have had and she did so humbly and honestly.   Never did I doubt that she was and is deeply in love with Jesus and her neighbors.   Today, I don’t doubt that that love is only magnified and more truly known.

I’ve been moved by the many tributes written these past few days.   But I’ve also been appalled by comments and posts from many of her detractors. I won’t reference them here as I don’t want to give them life, but they reveal the dark underbelly of the Church at which Rachel devoted much of her time aiming her prophetic voice, and the remainder of her time creating places of grace and healing for it’s refugees.   She wanted them, and us, to know that the church imperfectly reflects the goodness of our Father and that we can trust Jesus to make all things new.

I fell prey to something these last two days, be it my hero complex or simply boredom, to defend Rachel to some of her detractors.   In the midst of this I realized that this is not something Rachel would have done herself, nor expect any of us to do.  Rather, she would likely pray for them, and instruct me to do the same (or teach me how to turn their hate mail into origami).

But it did get me thinking about trust.  When the judgments of those self-avowed defenders of pure religion are stacked up against the grace-filled, humble words of Rachel and her many friends, a blinding, stark contrast is on full display.  The former is only able to give lip service to trust, whereas the latter embodies it in word and deed.  They do this, I think, because they trust not the frame of their religion but the One who frames them in perfect light to the Father.

This came to me as I was singing this weekend the song, “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less.”   The first stanza goes like this:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

As in life, Rachel’s death is also inviting me to trust Jesus.   To trust less in my understanding of Jesus, or my doctrinal purity, or who I agree or disagree with on certain matters but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

Yes, no doubt there are important things worth contending over, but may my hope and yours be first and foremost in Jesus – the one who loves us and died for us in the midst of our ignorance and sin.  This trust in the work of this Person, I believe, is what is most important, and making this our business is what I believe will best honor the legacies of both Rachel and our Lord.

Rest in Peace and Power, RHE.

 

Is Jesus the End?

Some love Jesus because he can give them what they need.   Some love Jesus because he is all they need.

Roy Hession, in his book, We Would See Jesuswrites,

We do not have to go beyond Him to something else to satisfy our needs.  He is the end of all that we need, and the simple, easily accessible way to that end…We have been availing ourselves of Jesus and His blood as the way, but to ends other than Himself.

Even if our motives are quite free from self-interest, those things are still not to be ends or reasons for which we get right with the Lord.  Our end is to be the Lord Jesus Himself.  The reason for getting right should not be that we might have revival, or power, or be used by God, or have this or that blessing, but that we might have Him.  Our sin has caused us to let go of His hand; a cloud has come between His lovely face and ourselves, and at all costs we want to find Him and His fellowship again.  That, and that only, is to be the reason why we should be willing to go the way of repentance – not for any other motive than that we want Him.  He is to be the end; but alas, other ends, idols all of them, so easily take His place in our hearts.

Is Jesus your end?  Or something else?

Overcoming Addiction; Becoming More Than A Conqueror

This post is part II of my reflections from this past Sunday’s sermon on addiction.    You can read Part I HERE, which addresses the problem of addiction.   Today we will consider the solution.

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Before going further I think it’s important to note that addictions come in all shapes and sizes.   We can become addicted to anything.   Augustine famously wrote, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until they find their rest in Thee.”   How true this is.   When God is not on the throne of our hearts any number of suitors will take his place.

Equally important to note is that addiction is not the problem.   Addiction is merely the symptom of a deeper issue.   Jesus said that it is out of the heart that good or evil flow, so if you find yourself habitually returning to the same sin over and over again then you don’t need a new program or method or counselor to help you get your life straightened out.   You need what Jesus said you – and I – need:  A new heart.

The good news here is that God is still in the business of turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  He delights in breaking the chains of a sinner whose will is chained at the altar of addiction and idolatry, setting them free “to both will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). 

I know first-hand how difficult it is to come to this realization that our heart’s are desperately wicked and that Jesus wants to make us new, not just better.    If you grew up in the church it is especially hard.   Working against me was a history of being a pastor’s kid, an undergrad degree in bible and theology, a seminary degree, and a number of years serving as a pastor.   With so much religion in my life it was easy to fall prey to spiritual pride, which convinced me I was essentially a good person, that my service to God and others counted for something, and that I just struggled with this “one thing,” but hey, everyone has their “thorn in the flesh,” right?

All of that is a lie which serves to keep us from experiencing the power, freedom and hope that Jesus promises we can have in him.   That power is freely offered to you but will not be fully realized until you accept God’s reality of things.   You are not a good person who occasionally (or often) does bad things but a sinner with a bad heart incapable of ever pleasing, or seeing, God (see Isa. 64:6 and Heb. 12:14).

We need new hearts, and thanks be to God, he is willing and able to give us what we need!

So the first step towards freedom from sin (addiction) is letting go of the pride in us that tries to justify ourselves before a holy God and reckon ourselves as that which God’s word says we are:  A sinner in need of a new heart.

Pastor Tim, in his sermon on Sunday, shared a story from Scripture that has much practical value for us here.   It is Matthew 17:14-21.  The first half of the story is about a man beseeching Jesus to heal his demon-possessed son.  He brought him to Jesus’ disciples first but they were unable to drive it out.   Before healing the boy, Jesus exclaims,

O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?

Jesus diagnoses their generation (and no doubt our own) as “unbelieving” and “perverse.”   Because of these two things, the disciples lacked the power to free this man’s son.  What does it mean to be unbelieving and perverse?

  • Unbelieving is to be not connected to God.

If you are addicted to something then you have something else on the throne of your heart other than God.  God is a jealous God and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can treat his temple (our bodies) casually (1 Cor. 6:19-20).   This is related to the second point…

  • Perverse is to be too connected to the world.

If Jesus’ generation loved the world how much more might that be of us today!   We love the comforts and thrills this world offers us and take little notice of how much of a hold it has on our spiritual lives.  Scripture teaches that friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4).    God calls us “adulterers” when we put the things of this world before our connection with Him.

And so, Jesus says, it is because we are not connected with God and are too connected with this world that we lack power in our lives to be the victorious, over-coming Christians we are called to be.

The disciples came to Jesus privately in the second half of our story above and ask Jesus why they could not drive out the demon.   Jesus tells them that they lack faith, but also tells us how we can make right the problem of being unbelieving and perverse.  If you are having a hard time driving out your demon of addiction, Jesus says,

This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting

Jesus calls prayer and fasting essential, so lets consider each.

  • Prayer connects us to God

I am ashamed to admit that I was once someone who scoffed at those who advised me I needed to pray more.  They were the sort of people I deleted from my life (mentioned in part I).   Our cynicism towards prayer and it’s efficacy is just one more symptom of our lack of faith and validation of Jesus’ claim that we live in an unbelieving and perverse generation.

However, there is some truth to the critics of “praying more.”    It’s not so much the “more” but the “how” and “why” that matters.   A person can pray 24 hours a day but if they cherish iniquity in their heart (as most addicts still do) or, for you husband’s, if you do not honor your wife and treat her as God commands, then nobody is listening on the other end of the line (see Psalm 66:18 and 1 Peter 3:7.  Also, you may be interested in a post on this blog titled “When God Doesn’t Listen”).

Most of my prayers as a habitual sinner (addict) were about God removing the painful circumstances that my sins have caused rather than submitting to a holy God whom I knew would demand radical heart surgery on me.   When our prayers are motivated by “worldly sorrow” rather than “godly sorrow” we are praying from a place of pride and the result will be further death, not life (2 Cor. 7:10).   The Puritan William Gurnall says of prayer,

Prayer is the main line that leads straight to the throne of God.  By it the Christian approaches God with a humble boldness of faith, takes hold of Him, wrestles with Him, and will not let Him go until he has His blessing.  (The Christian in Complete Armor Vol. I).

We can be assured that the blessing which God desires to bestow upon us is victory over every sin that besets us, including the most pernicious of addictions, for His will for us is our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3).

  • Secondly, fasting disconnects us from the world.

One of the great benefits of my time at Pure Life was that it forced me to disconnect from the world.   In doing so I realized just how much the love of this world had a hold on me.  I also learned that I would not die without watching TV!   For 7 months I was without radio, TV, internet, magazines, etc.  I fed myself with a steady diet of Scripture, Prayer, Worship and Christian books.

I also took on a weekly habit of fasting for 24 hours from food, something I had never done before that time, nor did I understand it’s benefits.   God used that time where I denied myself food to teach me that I could, in fact, say “NO” to the desires of my flesh.   Without really realizing it at the time I was strengthening my spiritual “muscles.”   Since I knew I could say no to food when my stomach growled I became increasingly confident that I could also say no to lust when it beckoned.   The fruit of the Spirit which includes “self-control” began to take root in my life from the discipline of fasting.

I’ve been home from Pure Life now for over 7 months and have continued my practice of fasting in order to be less connected to the world.   We don’t have a TV in our home save one in the kids room for Ava’s Mickey Mouse episodes.   We listen to Christian music in our home and read Christian books.   My time on the internet is guarded, filtered, and used as needed.   As a family we always went to the beach for summer vacations but this year we opted not to go, as it was a source of temptation.

Jesus said to be radical with sin that threatens to destroy us – to go as far as cutting out the eye or the limb.   If you find yourself being constantly defeated by the same habitual patterns or sins, I can testify that cutting out the many inroads the world has in your life, while adding prayer for the right reasons from a right heart, will destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) and you will be more than a conqueror, (Rom. 8:37) just as God said you would be.

*Thanks to my good friend and pastor, Tim Paul, for supplying the bullet points above.   Your sermon really spoke to me, and I pray my reflections upon it serve as a testament to that. 

Can Methodism Be Reborn?

Below is an edited version of an email I sent out to some pastor friends of mine a few months ago.   In my devotion time this morning I was in Psalm 85, which echoed a prayer I have been praying for the Church for many months.   It reads,

Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?  Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to their folly.

Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.   (Psalm 85:6, 8-9)

What is true for my church, the Methodist Church, is true for many others, I believe.   I hope the following is of some benefit to you, and the churches we love and serve.

I’m reading a wonderful little book I picked up at the library today entitled, Methodism Can Be Born Again, by W.E. Sangster, whom I had never heard of until today (an extraordinary Methodist preacher in Britain, as it turns out).

I wanted to share some insights I have gleaned from this book with you as a way to perhaps encourage some dialog with people more learned than myself and experienced in parish life.   Or, perhaps this will serve you in some other way on a personal level or be something you feel will serve someone else.   Either way, I pray you are blessed.
What I find so wonderful about this book is that it is written in 1938, and as such, prophetic in its diagnosis and treatment of Methodism’s decline.   After examining some of the reasons commonly given for decline in both attendance and ardor by those within and without the church (i.e. the War, loss of biblical authority, competing attractions on a Sunday morning, radio (ha!), a transient society, and a spirit of secularism), he goes on to write this, which I quote:

Endless discussions as to the true diagnosis must give way to some radical cure.  We know enough to make a beginning.  At least, we know enough to know where to begin.  We must begin with ourselves.  General criticism of “Methodism” must give way to clear, incisive and detailed criticism of a Methodist.   Rigorous self-examination is demanded.  When a man thinks he has “explained” the parlous condition of the Church by reference to the radio, Sunday movies, new building areas, or whatever other cause is our long category takes his fancy, he thinks also that the responsibility for the situation is not his, and that there is nothing to be done about it.

I couldn’t agree more.  A pair of books I read at Pure Life, Calvary Road and We Would See Jesus (by Roy Hession) argue that revival must begin within our own hearts.   We cannot lead anyone where we have not first been.   The Cleveland District superintendent, Joe Green, reminded me of the conviction of the late Scottish preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, who wrote,

The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness.

Sangster goes on….

On that dark betrayal night, when our Lord said to His disciples, “One of you shall betray me,” John did not say, “Is it Peter?”   Peter did not say, “Is it John?”   They all said, “Lord, is it I?”

To that point, I believe, the grace of God is constraining Methodists at this time of celebration [he is writing near the bicentennial of Wesley’s Aldersgate experience].   The pew has been blaming the pulpit: the pulpit has been blaming the pew.  The pew says that the preaching is lifeless and irrelevant: the pulpit says the people are absent or prayerless.  Back and forward the blame has gone, and nothing will be done till the utter folly of this mutual recrimination is seen as folly, and pulpit and pew alike humble themselves before the Cross, confessing their own sins, and saying, “Lord, is it I?”

He moves into addressing the cultural malaise towards denominational-ism and the heightened attitude of church-goers forgoing identification with any one group, preferring being spiritual but not religious (remember, he’s writing in 1938!).    He laments our sacrifice of our distinctiveness as Methodists for a more tolerant, unified, catholic Church.   Of this, he writes,

If we are right in our supposition that some do not regret the loss of our distinctiveness in the belief that it will aid the triumph of true catholicity, their satisfaction is surely misplaced.  Catholicity is one of the things that can always look after itself.  To get near to God is to get near to those who are near to Him.   It is a blessed by-product of the holy life.  It need not be strained for, either in lopping off the characteristic differences of the denominations, or by copying customs, precious to others, yet learned for no deeper reason than the desire to be alike.  If we all aim, with a single eye, to get near our blessed Lord, we shall get near to one another.  The hill of Calvary is not as large as all that.  Those who can touch the wood can touch each other.

I’ll conclude with his 4 questions in the middle of the book, each of which the rest of the book aim to answer.   As he analyses the Oxford Group Movement (Groupers) of his day and what they have in common with Methodism’s genesis, he asks,

1. Can Methodism recover fellowship?  (meaning, our distinctive class meetings which urge one another towards Christian perfection, or holiness).

2.  Can Methodism recover assurance?  (meaning, a positive, robust message of the Gospel characterized by a great confidence in the God of our salvation.  In a confused world the Methodist preachers were sure.  I love this line:  “The pioneers of the Evangelical Revival never began a sermon with the phrase beloved by modern preachers, ‘I feel I have a feeling which I feel you feel as well.'”)

3.  Can Methodism recover her passion for holiness?  (John Wesley, he reminds us, believed that sanctification was the chief reason God raised the Methodists up.   Losing this note in both our preaching and practice is, in my opinion, our death sentence).

4. Can Methodism recover her zeal for personal evangelism?  (meaning, the early Methodists, enlivened by the power of cancelled sin in their personal lives could not keep it a secret.   Religion has become too much a private matter, he says (1938!!) and winning souls is no longer the objective of the pastor nor the layperson – instead, maintenance of a machine is the goal).

I believe the answer to all four of these questions is YES and AMEN!   I hope you feel the same.   I pray that it will be so, and I pray it begins with me.

Sober? Or Holy?

One of the unique features of  SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) is it’s sobriety plan.   Unlike AA where the boundaries of sobriety are easily demarcated (no drinking), sex apparently has a lot of gray area.   As such, each person, along with the help of their sponsor (mentor), defines a sobriety plan unique to the individual.

I knew guys who had sobriety plans which stated they had to remain completely abstinent from pornography.   I knew others who thought pornography was OK so long as they did not sleep with prostitutes.  Others had a sobriety plan which stated they could not masturbate more than twice in one week.   Anything more than that was a “slip” which meant they were no longer sober.

Everyone had a different definition of sobriety based upon their own understanding of themselves and their struggle.  A sponsor’s task was to help the sponsee formulate and stick to a plan.  Each member of the group supported each person’s individual goals for sobriety and it was considered improper to question the adequacy of the sobriety plan of another.

Looking back, it’s remarkable to me that as a professing Christian and practicing pastor I never thought to question this.  I probably even thought it compassionate.  Or maybe I thought how wonderfully liberating it is to not have anyone telling me what is best for me!   Knowing myself, probably more of the latter.

Jesus no doubt would have been banned from an SAA meeting because he would not have tolerated such “compassion” to one’s self.   Nor would he flinch from asserting authority where needed.    He would have set the bar much higher than any one of us would set it ourselves and he would demand our pursuit of it.   Jesus would say to us today, just as he did then, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Jesus didn’t call us to be sober.   He called us to be holy.

God’s idea of holiness is not subject to change based upon our understanding of ourselves or our personal struggle.   God is not impressed with our sobriety plans and how well we uphold them, particularly when they fail to meet His plan for holiness in our lives.    Jesus said that anyone who even looks at a woman with the intent to lust has already committed adultery (Matt. 5:28).   Thus, pornography (not to mention sleeping around), is not just a “slip” that may or may not jeopardize a sobriety plan but a sin against a holy God.  It’s adultery, and God hates it.

Likewise, the man or woman who equivocates about masturbation is bargaining with God.   Limiting the occurrence to twice a week (which may be a victory for some) may earn a person a sobriety chip at their next meeting but it is not going to be a sacrifice pleasing to God.   God wants our heart- all of it – and a sobriety plan which allows for “just a little sin a few times a week” is a poor path towards God’s will for us, such as…

Be holy, for I am holy (1 Peter 1:16) or,

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thess. 4:3)

God wants more for us than sobriety.   God wants us to be holy.

The same is true for the Christian who feels they are not addicted to anything.    There is a corollary here between the addict pursuing sobriety and the Christian pursuing God.

In the same way the sex addict gets to choose their sobriety plan we are now part of a Church culture which allows the Christian to dictate their own plan of salvation.   Respect for authority is nil.  We all have our own ways of “doing church” and “worshiping God” and if anyone tells us we are wrong we will happily find another “group” that will accept us as we are and demand little if nothing of us in return.   Pastors in every circle seem to fear man more than God and have long abdicated their sacred calling to disciple people to holiness in favor of catering to congregants felt-needs.   We dare not question anyone’s “salvation path” in the same way it is uncouth to question anyone’s sobriety plan.

Pleasing our own self-interests is not a game only addicts play.   It happens among the best and the soberest among us. 

Jesus said that the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many (Matt. 7:13).   The way forward, Jesus says, is through the narrow gate.    The road may be hard, but it is worth it.   It leads to a life beyond “recovery” and one the Scriptures call “new creation.”

So what should we do?   New creation doesn’t happen unless the old one dies.  Addict or not, it’s wise to follow Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church and,

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor. 13:5)

Does the power of God reside within you, enabling you to say no to your flesh?   Is your heart’s desire to please God and bring Him glory for the sole purpose that He is God?   Do you long for holiness in your life?   Do you allow others to have an authoritative voice into your life to help squash the tentacles of pride and the deceitfulness of your own heart?   Are you walking in the Spirit or in your flesh?

How we answer these questions could reveal a life that is either chasing after sobriety (as an addict or a church-consuming Christian) or one that is chasing after God’s own heart.    The former seems to be what the masses are doing and it leads to death.   The latter, Jesus said, is a path few will find, but it leads to life.

So what will you choose?   Being sober?  Or being holy?

God Wants to Make You New, Not Better

My pastor’s sermon yesterday at Riverstone UMC touched on the power of the Holy Spirit to change our lives.  One of the Scriptures he read was Acts 1:5-8, which is Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit.   Jesus said,

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you

More and more professing Christians today seem to lack power.  I know this was true in my own life for many years and as I look around at the rates of addiction, divorce, depression, suicide, relational woes, church splits, gossip, fears, anxiety and so on within the church world I am left to conclude one of two things:

1)  Jesus overstated his case, or,

2)  The Holy Spirit hasn’t come upon many of us.

I have no reason to call Jesus a liar but I think I have every reason, based on what I see in my own heart, to believe many of us approach the things of God with an attitude that says,

I’ve got all I need, thanks.

And in so doing we grieve the Holy Spirit.

The greatest news on earth is that even while we are here we can be made into new creations through Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  This is tremendous news for the addict who thinks he or she must forever identify themselves with their addiction or be chasing after the idol called recovery.     God doesn’t just want to make you better.  He desires to make you new.

And He has the power to do so.

It’s my testimony that God meets us in our deepest need and becomes that need fulfilled.    Christ truly is our “all in all.”    It’s also my testimony that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).   We must come to God as empty vessels, with nothing in our hands but our brokenness and a willingness to surrender all that was and is about us.

God can’t fill us if we already think we are full.

So how do we walk in the power Jesus promised us as Christians?

What I am about to say would have greatly offended the “me” of a year ago but I have come to see it as truth and power.

First, we must humble ourselves before a holy God and reckon our addiction not as a “hang-up” or a “struggle” or a “thorn in our flesh” but as sin which offends God and makes a mockery of grace.    Jesus did not hang on a cross for us to be saddled with an addiction for the rest of our lives but he came to “destroy the works of the devil.”   No one born of God makes a practice of sinning (1 John 3:8-9).

The beautiful thing about naming it for what it is – sin – is that sin, unlike “addiction,” has a cure.   The same power that rose Christ from the dead will make a home in the  one who truly repents and agrees with God that the reason we continue to stumble is because we love our sin more than we love God.

When I was in the pig sty of my addiction I was still convinced that God and I were OK.   Nothing could be further from the truth!  In the same way that God had departed from King Saul in his sin (1 Sam. 16:14; 18:12), God departs from the one who continues to walk in the flesh.

The second thing we must do is stay needy.    We must learn to stay at the foot of the cross, which we now see as our only hope.    As we fix our gaze upon Jesus we will find it natural and necessary to let go of the things of this world which used to fill our lives as well as find the energy and will to invest ourselves in the lives of others, extending the same mercy to others that we have been so graciously shown on the cross.

This is the beginning of walking in the Spirit, which is power and life, versus walking in our flesh, which is death.   I know that in my own life, the extent to which I denied these truths is the same extent to which I lived a defeated Christian existence.    I had no power.   I had no self-control.    I had no will to please God or serve others.

But all that has changed, praise be to God, and I know the same can be true for you, too.

God doesn’t desire to make you better.  He wants to make you new!