Comments from Colossians (1:28-29)

So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me. (Colossians 1:28-29; New Living Translation)

Some folk say, “I pray like everything depends on God and work like everything depends on me.” It makes me smile but it also reflects a biblical tension.

TensionOn the one hand, many Christians do little to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). They live so passively or apathetically that faith seems of little or no consequence. If anything is going to happen, God will have to find a supernatural way to pull it off on His own. No help from these people. Their faith is personal and private. They have families, careers, and hobbies to attend to. They might slip into a Christmas or Easter service but not much beyond that.

On the other hand, other believers just work their hearts out. They volunteer for everything in the church and attend every major event. They always raise their hands when things need to be done. They work tirelessly, it seems; Christian Energizer bunnies who “work hard in the Lord” (Romans 16:12).

But there IS a tension, and should be.

The Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Colosse, “That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.” Hang on a minute! Paul is working and struggling hard, but at the same time he depends on Christ’s mighty power that works within him? Whose strength is Paul really using or relying on?

Both.

The journey of faith is neither apathetic passivity not frenetic activity. It’s partnership. Anything less than our best effort is unworthy of our calling. But self-reliance dishonors the Presence and power of Christ..

Some days I put my shoulder to the wheel FOR Him, and while the results may impress others, the effort usually drains me or draws attention to me. However, when I put my shoulder to the wheel WITH Him, I discover that indeed “His yoke is easy and His burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).

When the journey of faith feels exhausting or futile, when we feel disillusioned or depleted it may be that we’re struggling hard in our own power. Similarly, when we assume that everything depends on Christ, with little discipline or devotion on our part, we may feel distant, disconnected, and dissatisfied.

Can we struggle hard for the Cause of Christ while also depending on (and appropriating) His mighty power? We must. But His power flows from His Presence. Only as we abide in Him will we bear much fruit.

May God grip us, guide us, and go before us today as we surrender “all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength” (Mark 12:30) to Him.

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Christmas Light(s)

I recently read that light is something, but darkness is nothing. It had never occurred to me. We can measure light (how fast it travels). We can refract and reflect light (using mirrors, glass, and lenses). We can bend it and split it (that’s how water produces rainbows). But darkness?

Light and DarkDarkness has no qualities. It doesn’t move, refract, reflect, bend, or split. In fact, it is merely a word to describe the absence of light. It is the nothingness that happens without light.

In the lofty prologue to his Gospel, the Apostle John said of Jesus: “In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness…. There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man….” (John 1:4-5, 9)

Light is powerful. It drives out the darkness. The darkness never drives out the light. We have flashlights, not flashdarks. So, if we live in darkness, it’s simply because we have not opened the door to Light.

Jesus would later say of Himself, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

We should not miss the great irony of this Advent season. As we head towards the winter solstice (December 21) which is the shortest day (and longest night) of the year in the northern hemisphere, it is no accident that just a few days later (December 25) we celebrate the coming of the Light; not merely the lengthening of our day, but the One who gives meaning to our days.

Perhaps this adds poignant meaning to all of the Christmas lights we put on our trees and homes. They do more than simply beautify. They announce and declare that the Light has burst forth into the darkness. Christ dispels our nothingness. He casts out all despair, futility, cynicism, and fatalism.

In August 2007, my friend Joe’s marriage collapsed. After 20 years of marriage, his wife announced her intention to divorce him, and leave him for another man. Shattered and broken (and needing to get out of the house), Joe borrowed a car and drove towards the old family homestead in the Idaho Valley.

It was a hot August night, and the long drive meant he didn’t arrive until nearly 11pm. He didn’t know what to expect. He had hardly spoken to his parents over the years. Their relationship with him was virtually non-existent. But as he approached, he saw a glow coming from the house. When he got close he saw what it was.

His parents, in their 80’s, had hired someone to come and string Christmas lights all over the house and down the driveway. They had adorned the front yard with colored lights and ornaments. And there they sat on the front porch, looking longingly down the road for his arrival.

The lights were an invitation to renewal, to forgiveness, to a fresh start, and to grace. Darkness be gone; the Light has come.

Perhaps our Christmas lights this year will speak the same message to each of us. Perhaps they will remind us of the Light who comes to us in our darkest places and darkest moments to give hope and life.

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Expect the Unexpected

When I was a kid, my buddies and I would taunt each other with a twinkle in the eye and say, “When you least expect it, expect it!” We loved to say that.

In many ways, that’s the message of the Old Testament and the prelude to Advent.

TreesFor seven centuries, the Israelites had suffered at the hands of foreign powers; Assyrians, then Babylonians, then Greeks (Seleucids), and finally the Romans. Israel had felt the ruthless hand of despot after despot. The land was pillaged, the economy ransacked, the people subjugated, and their religion both persecuted and marginalized. Generation after generation knew little more than hardship or political maneuvering.

But if God’s Word had any word of encouragement for the people, it was simply this: “When you least expect it, expect it!” It lay behind the promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15. It was tucked beneath the prophecy in Micah 5:2. We find it sprinkled everywhere throughout the Old Testament.

When you least expect it, expect it!

None of us have suffered relentlessly for seven centuries, but seven weeks, or seven months, or seven years is not out of the question. And it’s easy, when our heads are down, to forget; to forget the promises of God, to forget His faithfulness, to forget His Presence.

As Libby Lane writes in A Good Year, Advent — this special season leading up to Christmas — invites us to look “beyond the routine and the obvious…to watch, to expect the unexpected and to live in hope today.”

I like that Advent coincides with Winter (in the northern hemisphere). The shorter days, longer nights, colder weather, and darker skies all seem like a profoundly fitting backdrop for the explosion of hope that comes with Christmas.

When you least expect it, expect it!

Do you need a break-through today? Need redemption? Need a fresh start? Need real hope? Advent is for any of us who has forgotten to expect the unexpected. God shows up in unexpected ways, unexpected places, and unexpected times…for all of us who look consistently for His coming.

Perhaps today we can share the prayer of the ancient Psalmist (in the very first Psalm of Book 2).

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence. O my God, my soul is in despair within me; therefore, I remember You…. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why have you become disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

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Happy New Year

It may seem like I’ve lost track of the calendar. January 1 is a month away. But today marks the start of the new year for churches all around the world. The liturgical calendar begins on December 1, with the start of Advent.

AdventLast Sunday was Christ the King Sunday, which recognizes that everything is ultimately subject to His reign and rule for all eternity. Every year and every generation moves us closer to the final establishment of His Kingdom in the cosmos.

This coming Sunday, however, takes us all the way back to the beginning of the story—a sinful, broken, and wounded people in need of a Savior and awaiting His coming. I love that the church calendar preaches the gospel to us!

So, Advent (literally, “the coming”) begins today. It has many different traditions associated with it, and dates back perhaps to 480 A.D. Wreaths, candles, vestments, and readings have become some of the common elements. But let’s keep it simple.

Beyond all the trappings, Advent is fundamentally about a) recognizing our need for a Savior, b) anticipating the coming of Christ, and c) celebrating His arrival. All of us are less than we’d like to be, more broken than we ever expected to be, and more needy than we’d like to admit. “Fallen short of the glory of God” puts it mildly!

We live with quiet desperation, hidden pain, unresolved hurt, unspoken wounds, and varying degrees of guilt and shame. We cannot lift ourselves permanently beyond the pits of despair, addiction, or fear. Our lives progress in fits and starts; moments of great joy and then equally great disappointment. We succeed, and then fail. We feel strong, then succumb to weakness. God help us!

Perhaps this weekend, you might read these texts from Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37; and Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18. They remind us of our human condition, and our ultimate hope.

When we feel overwhelmed, Advent calls us to hope.

When frustration and sin seem to have the upper hand, Advent declares that change is at hand.

When our wounds and our frailties threaten to undo us, Advent reminds us to look to the Savior.

When our hearts wait upon Christ, He lifts us to new places. Take courage. The Light shines forth in the darkness. Let’s use these next few weeks to do more than just exchange Christmas cards, buy gifts, and plan Christmas meals. Let’s begin to wait on Jesus with greater intention and expectation than any time this year! And it starts right now.  🙂

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P.S. If you’d like a helpful daily devotional for Advent, you might grab of copy of The Jesse Tree by Matt Timms & Sam Gutierrez. Click here.

 

 

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Grace & Gratitude

We’re surrounded by whingers, whiners, complainers, and nay-sayers. Ever feel that way?

Of course, many people have plenty of good reason to feel victimized and afflicted. Sexual harassment and abuse are no small matter. Domestic violence should not be tolerated. Workplace aggression ought to be confronted. Dishonesty and corruption need to be exposed. Divorce is devastating. Cancer is frightening.

Grace and GratitudeBut many of our complaints and criticisms derive from a much lesser level. And when we live at this lesser level, it’s like having a low-grade sinus infection that simply won’t clear up.

Negativity starts as an observation, gradually becomes a pattern, grows into a habit, and finally establishes itself as a lifestyle. When we live within that fog, it shapes everything. It sucks out joy. It undermines hope. It eats away gratitude. It quenches optimism. It diminishes relationships. But, perhaps most lethal of all, it blinds us to grace.

Grace comes in various shapes and sizes. Saving grace is the redemptive work of Christ that lifts us from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of God. Transforming grace is the powerful work of the Spirit to change us into new creations. Common grace is the abundant generosity of the Father measured in a million small ways; food, clothing, shelter, comfort, safety, strength, etc.

Gratitude “stands in this grace” (Romans 5:2); negativity ignores it.

Gratitude “sets our mind on the things above” (Colossians 3:2); negativity keeps us downcast.

Gratitude guides us “to be content in whatever circumstances” (Philippians 4:11); negativity never has enough.

Gratitude “abounds in everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:18); negativity doubts and criticizes most people and most things.

We can receive grace — and often do — without gratitude. Ten lepers experienced healing from Jesus (Luke 17:11-19) and only one expressed gratitude. Jesus did not rescind the blessing they received, but the nine who raced off to get on with their lives actually settled for lesser lives without Christ.

We celebrate Thanksgiving here in the U.S. this Thursday; a National Holiday to re-calibrate our hearts! Some will use the day to sleep in, then over-eat. Others plan to binge-watch TV or football. Many families will gather for a meal but find ways to argue (or hold each other at arm’s length) about hurt feelings, past misunderstandings, controlling behaviors, or a myriad of other minor irritations.

Grace and gratitude can quickly fade.

Sometimes we’re surrounded by whingers, whiners, complainers, and nay-sayers. Sometimes we are those whingers, whiners, complainers, and nay-sayers. Let’s turn it around. It’ll turn us around.

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Comments from Colossians (3:3-4)

For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is our life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (Colossians 3:3-4; New Living Translation)

Trained philosophers have pondered “What is the real life?” for millennia. On the other hand, arm-chair critics today can be unkind when they tell people, “Get a real job!” or “You don’t live in the real world.”

Sutherland Springs, TXWhat is real? Once we answer that question, we can decide what really matters.

Unfortunately, many of us believe that what we see is what there is. This worldview produces despair.

This past Sunday morning during the worship service at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, virtually everyone was shot by a deranged gunman. When the dust settled, 26 people had died and 20 others lay wounded. Another mass shooting here in the United States.

Many people resorted to social media to air their frustrations and grief. That’s understandable. We need cathartic outlets. But the online posts by distant strangers and the interviews with some of the survivors have highlighted two fundamentally contrasting perspectives of reality.

One angry online post mocked the call to prayer in the wake of the shooting. “They were in a worship service, in prayer, and look what good it did for them!” But others, even the pastor whose 14-year-old daughter was among those killed, refused to reduce reality to such a base perspective. Instead, they have grasped the supreme importance of the Apostle Paul’s words: “Your real life is hidden with Christ in God, and when Christ (who is our life) is revealed to the whole world, you will share in His glory.”

We must not grow complacent about these shootings, as though they don’t matter. Anger, indignation, and action is entirely appropriate; even necessary. But those of us who follow Christ and trust Him, also know that what we see is neither the whole story nor the end of the story.

Our real life is hidden with Christ in God. Gunmen cannot take this from us. And while violence, sickness, accident, and injury may change our circumstances, they do not change our reality. We live by this conviction!

Let’s pray for the small community of Sutherland Springs, Texas, that God’s grace and peace may sustain them through unimaginable grief and heartache. With aching hearts, let’s pray that His Kingdom may come and His will may finally be done on earth as it is heaven. And let’s hold fast to the truth that “our real life is hidden with Christ in God” and one day we will join these twenty-six souls and “share in the glory of Christ.”

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#MeToo

I’m not a woman.

I’ve been married for 32 years to an amazing woman, but I still can’t begin to imagine the sense of powerlessness and violation that so many women have felt when sexually assaulted — sometimes at the hands of moguls and magnates; often at the hands of male family members and acquaintances.

#MeTooThe Harvey Weinstein horror has finally mobilized large numbers of people (both men and women) to acknowledge and consider more seriously the widespread prevalence of sexual assault. Conservative estimates conclude that here in the U.S. a man, woman, or child is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds.

Two more God-designed and God-loved people will fall victim before you finish reading this post.

Eleven days ago (October 15, 2017), actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within 24 hours there were 12 million Facebook posts and over a million tweets with #MeToo. This astonishing outpouring of painful declaration and story-telling begs a response from us all.

How shall we respond?

In her recent blog post, Dr. Mary Kate Morse identified some powerful and important next steps. She included: 1) Believe the magnitude of the problem; 2) Break the silence; 3) Provide safe channels for communication; and 4) Invite people to tell and heal.

She added: “Find safe and loving ways to hear the stories of persons who have had an experience of sexual assault. Have a yearly cleansing or healing service or ritual and liturgy that gives space for people to name the event and grieve the experience.”

This insidious scourge on our culture, perpetuated generation after generation, thrives in secrecy and shame. Darkness and silence strips us of hope and healing. That which remains unspoken also remains unchallenged and unchanged.

The grace of Christ restores our lives and strengthen our souls, but it requires light — the light of repentance from perpetrators and complicit communities; the light of collective grief and resolve; and the light of safety and support from truly Kingdom-conscious and King-honoring Christ-followers.

The cork is out of the bottle, at least for a time. But we can be sure that the darkness will seek to minimize, downplay, excuse, and belittle this blight. Ultimately, our culture cannot and will not provide a solution. Christians can and must.

Alyssa Milano’s invitation to share stories and share pain, has become a call to action for all who believe in the dignity and sanctity of humanity.

Let’s speak to our children, our congregations, and our communities, and stand with and for the many millions who cannot yet find the courage (or opportunity) to say #MeToo.

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The “Christian” Adjective

It happened yesterday in a class of Freshmen college students, and came up again this morning over coffee with a friend. We talked about being Christian leaders, Christian workers, Christian counselors, Christian parents. We used the word “Christian” as an adjective; a way to describe roles and actions.

ChristianI asked the students to help me define what makes leadership, counseling, or parenting “Christian.” It turned out to be a little more difficult than we initially imagined. That can happen with words over time. We know how to use them and the right context in which to place them. We just don’t know exactly what we mean.

I got various responses that included:

  1. A leader who follows the teachings of Christ;
  2. A leader who has Christian values and ethics;
  3. A leader who uses the Bible.

If this is correct, then we’d ultimately conclude that a Christian leader is someone who is ethical. We might also assume that such a person would be reliable, trustworthy, generous, honest, and more. But Christians don’t have the corner on these qualities. Many secularists (who have no time or place for God in their lives) give generously, have high integrity, and are genuinely devoted to service and social justice.

There must be more.

As we read the New Testament we discover there is indeed more. In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul lays out his understanding of what it means to truly be the people of God. He writes (in part) about living differently (ethically), but the real theme of the chapter is “walking by the Spirit, being led by the Spirit, and bearing the fruit of the Spirit.”

The distinctive of Christianity is not a higher ethical code, but empowerment (by the Holy Spirit) to live beyond our ordinary capacity; to become new people and new creations. Empowerment is everything. Otherwise we are simply hopeful folk trying our best to live better and become better in our own strength.

What makes for a Christian leader, or a Christian parent? Ethics, values, and standards play a part, but it’s secondary. What turns leadership and parenting into truly Christian enterprises, is that we walk by the Spirit, are led by the Spirit, and are empowered by the Spirit in these roles and tasks. This is the distinctive of our faith above and beyond all other major religions.

It’s not self-effort — not teeth-gritting determination on our part — but surrender, sensitivity, and responsiveness to the Spirit of God at work within us and through us.

How is this playing out today in your life?

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