“Values and purposes can become palatable substitutes for God.” — Henry Blackaby

For years, leadership seminars and Christian conferences alike have extolled the value of Vision Statements, Mission Statements, and Purpose Statements. For a while, many businesses and churches spent more time crafting their statements than living them. Even now, plaques, posters, and strategic plans often lay out these (sometimes) complex statements. Paragraph after paragraph of carefully produced rhetoric adorns company and church literature, with few employees or constituents able to remember or recite any of it. It looks comprehensive, impressive, polished, and purposeful. It’s just — mostly — pointless.

purposeThe underlying assumption is that if we have clear purpose we will channel our energy and efforts appropriately to achieve success. I’ve even heard this applied recently to our personal lives. Someone suggested: “Unhappy and unproductive people simply lack clarity about their purpose in the plan of God.

I ought to back up just a little and affirm that a simple (less than 20 words), memorable (sharp focus with measurable parts), God-honoring Mission Statement for an organization can function like a clear bugle-call to battle. I’m all for it.

But Henry Blackaby’s statement still has a profoundly prophetic ring to it.

A great Mission or Purpose Statement — even a personal one for our lives — may have enormous value. But in subtle and unintended ways, it can also become a palatable substitute for God Himself.

Walking by the Spirit requires more than crafting a Purpose Statement that resonates with our strengths, dreams, and life-goals. Walking by the Spirit means living a life of continual surrender to His leading. The Spirit and our Statements may not always align, and therein lies the rub.

“…a palatable substitute for God.”

When we stand on grace, in grace, because of grace, and for grace, we yield control to the One whose purposes transcend anything of our own. This requires a constant attentiveness, willingness, and responsiveness on our part; not at all easy, when our structured Statements offer so much more predictability and certainty. And in the moment that we resist (or neglect) the leading of the Divine Wind, our Purpose-Driven lives may become “a palatable idolatry”.

By all means develop a life Mission Statement, if you feel so led. Construct a succinct organizational Purpose Statement, if that will help define your main focus. But in this Journey of faith, let’s listen carefully, attentively, and constantly, for the voice of Christ who may call us to the left or the right for His purposes (not our own).

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Out of Egypt

Some time ago, I heard Christine Caine (a fellow Aussie) describe how the Israelites, when they left their slavery in Egypt and headed for the Promised Land, managed to turn an 11-day hike into a 40-year odyssey!

Her one-liner that struck me most deeply was simply this: “It took a few days for the Israelites to get out of Egypt but 40 years for God to get Egypt out of the Israelites.

exodusWhat a powerful and painful metaphor that is. We say “Yes” to Jesus, and are immediately delivered. But sometimes it takes years for us to experience the full freedom which He intends for our lives (Galatians 5:1).

“Delivered but not fully free” might be the uncomfortable admission for many Christ-followers. They’ve gotten out of Egypt, but Egypt has not yet gotten out of them.

Egypt, in the Bible, stands for anything that would enslave us; everything that would destroy our identity as the people of God; whatever would reduce us to nothing more than “bricklayers with mud and straw.” Each of us know the persistent taskmasters in our lives, but Christ intends so much more for us.

How often do we say “Yes” to Christ and follow Him through the Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2), but quickly realize that this deliverance means the end of the “leeks, onions, and garlic” that tasted so good in slavery (Numbers 11:5)? So we complain or we look back wistfully. Some of us may even sneak back to those old places. We’re delivered but not truly free.

If you’ve been in the spiritual wilderness a while, perhaps it’s because you left Egypt but Egypt hasn’t left you. If this be so, here are some simple (biblical) steps to consider.

One, walk away from the ways of the Egyptians; hard as that may seem.

Two, look instead to the promises of God; uncertain though they may feel at times.

Three, trust Him. Every day, trust Him. Profoundly simple; unquestionably challenging. 

It’s the difference between 11 days and 40 years; between simple deliverance and full freedom. May we have grace for the Journey!

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Near But Far

It’s nothing new. We like the benefits of being near Christ.

Having Him around is good for us. It’s good for society. It benefits our marriages, families, businesses, and finances. He makes people ethical. He influences people to be moral. It’s all good. It’s arguable that Christians who take their faith seriously are (by and large) less likely to lie, cheat, and steal.

Churches can be good places to find decent people, even marriage partners. And if we align with large congregations, we’ll probably find they offer counseling services, financial aid for those in crisis, youth workers for our kids, MOPS groups for young moms, and so many other benefits. And the list continues. It’s good to be near Christ.

abidingBut being in proximity to Christ — near Christ — is not nearly the same as abiding in Christ (John 15:4).

In ancient Israel, God delivered a stinging rebuke to His people, through the prophet Isaiah.  “This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13).

Nearly 800 years later, Jesus repeated those words (Matthew 15:8) to describe the Pharisees and scribes, the most religious people of His day. They had a remarkable commitment to Scripture, to moral living, and to religious disciplines. They enjoyed the benefits of being near God, but remained at arm’s length from God.

Might this also be true at times of us?

In John 15, Jesus declares that our best lives come from abiding in Him. This is not the language of proximity, but the language of intimacy.

Churches often attract people who like to be near Christ. Christianity has, historically, brought healthcare, education, and prosperity to cultures. We like that. Who wouldn’t? But Christ intends more for us. While He shapes cultures, He also renovates hearts — our hearts — as we press into Him.

Transformational discipleship involves more than mere association with Christ. It calls for complete abandonment to Him.

What might “abiding” look like for you this weekend?

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The Grace Memo

“Grace is given so that it can be lived. That was the memo the elder brother of the prodigal son missed.” (Laurie Short, Finding Faith in the Dark, p.151)

Laurie Short drives it home. Grace comes as both a gift to us…and through us. We receive a fresh start so we can give a fresh start.

memoWe struggle to think in these terms. Somewhere within us, our system of justice insists that people get (or should get) what they deserve. “What goes around comes around.” We believe this deeply; more deeply than we may realize.

Merit matters to us. Good people deserve a break. Bad people deserve nothing. Tit for tat is only right, in marriages and marketplace alike.

This thinking has marked humanity for eons. Even Job in the Old Testament found himself surrounded by a wife and friends who, much as they liked him, concluded he must have done something terrible to suffer as he did. He might as well just “curse God and die” (Job 2:9).

But grace doesn’t function like that.

“Grace, by its very nature, is unexpected. It’s the last thing you think you’ll get. It’s a party when you expect to be punished, and acceptance when you’re used to being shunned.” (Short, p.125)

Grace. It’s a great word for a new year. It means rising above retribution and resisting the urge to retaliate. It means choosing to bless, not curse (see Romans 12:14). It means extending to others the same forgiveness that we ourselves have received (Colossians 3:13) — undeserved, unhesitating, and complete.

Grace is a game-changer for us and those around us. It’s not soft, weak, or easy. Don’t let anyone suggest that grace is for the feeble-minded. Just the opposite. It stretches us beyond our natural inclinations. It changes everything within us and around us.

Laurie Short concluded that “grace was the memo that the older brother of the prodigal son missed.” Let’s not miss it ourselves. Let’s resolve, by God’s grace, to freely give that which we have freely received. Therein lies freedom for our marriages, families, churches, workplaces …and our own hearts.

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The Gate of the Year

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, “Give me a light so that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a known light and safer than a known way.” — Minnie Louise Haskins, The Gate of the Year, 1908

Many of us have started 2017 hoping for a better year; better health, better marriages, better families, better churches, better workplaces, better finances, perhaps even better grades at school. If 2016 involved some dark days, we’re hopeful that this year will include better times.

minnie-louise-haskinsGive me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” That seems a reasonable and fair prayer. But Minnie Haskins, in her famous poem quoted by King George VI, knew that what we need is not light and understanding, but trust and Presence. Our lives are not transformed by clarity but by confidence. Some of us, of course, believe that clarity is what breeds confidence. But our hope is in the Lord, not any certainties about circumstances.

Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a known light and safer than a known way.

May we find Christ all-sufficient for all of us in all circumstances this year.

Because of Grace.


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All Things New

Happy New Year!

There’s something about the word new that I like; a new pair of running shoes, a new book, a new car (in my dreams). The word elicits all sorts of warm feelings. It speaks to freshness; something unspoiled and something pristine. It involves hope and happiness. Perhaps that’s why “Happy New Year” sounds good.

happy-new-yearSocial media has certainly marked 2016 as a year to be forgotten; spoiled by violence in our cities, incivility in our politics, and deaths among the superstars. The year included European chaos; Brexit, Russian pressure in eastern Ukraine, Syrian and Libyan refugee crises, and radical Islamic terrorism. In other parts of the world cyber-terrorism has made front-page news, while Boko Haram and similar groups continue to oppress innocents in northern Africa.

Out with the old and in with the new” sounds very appealing. If only we could change everything by changing the date. How nice if we could sweep the house clean by flipping the calendar over from December 31 to January 1.

It’s never so easy.

Yet, Christian faith (deep trust in Christ) asserts that indeed a time is coming when all things will be made new.

New is one of our great and most assured words! We have already been made new as individuals, and put on the new self (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:24) when we said “Yes” to Jesus and His Way. He makes us a new creation (Galatians 6:15). He can have “a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20), even as we anticipate a new heaven and new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1) that will one day supersede the decay and the brokenness that surround us every day.

Last year was fraught not only with international conflict but many of us experienced that at a personal level, I’m sure. Our marriages suffered, our children wandered, our churches fractured, and our workplaces restructured. Yet, for all of the heartache and heartbreak, we hold onto one of the most distinctively Christian words in the New Testament — new.

New times await. New opportunities lie just around the bend as we place our confidence in the One whose “mercies are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23) and who declares in the great final vision, “Behold, I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).

So, we embrace the new year, as we embrace the conviction that faith in Christ makes new things possible, every day. Indeed, the more we lean into Him, the more the old things pass away. Behold new things come.

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Christmas: Then & Now

It’s obvious that Christmas today resembles nothing like the first Christmas.

Plenty of people contrast the original simplicity with our current excess. The reality of a pregnant woman with no sanitary place to give birth has been usurped by fir trees, light displays, pageants, and online purchases.

human-natureBut the two Christmases also have much in common. Human history has changed dramatically; human nature has not. The age of technology and materialism has not corrected human cynicism, competition, or selfishness.

In Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ (Matthew 2) we’re introduced to a villain, an anti-Christ by the name of Herod, and “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” (v.4). Herod, the regional ruler, gets wind of the birth of a potential political foe (Jesus) and wants to kill Him. He calls the religious scholars and leaders together and asks them where the Messiah (the new King) would be born. Interestingly, these Jewish leaders provide Herod with the precise prophecy (Micah 5:2) but apparently make no effort to go and check out the rumors themselves.

Just not interested.

Biblical stories, like all good stories, draw us in. But the Gospel writers do not intend to merely fascinate us. They want to challenge and confront us. They tell their stories so that we can understand both human nature (ourselves) and Divine grace more deeply.

Matthew makes Herod the chief figure in his version of the birth story. Why?

It is human nature to respond with hostility (Herod) or apathy (the religious elite) to anything or anyone who might change our status quo. And Jesus certainly does that, still. As others have said so often, “He comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

It’s appropriate that Christmas should be followed so quickly on our calendar by the New Year. If we welcome Christ unreservedly, then “old things pass away; behold, new things come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

This Christmas, will we thoroughly and recklessly embrace the babe of Bethlehem who threatens to turn everything about us and within us upside-down? Or will we walk in the steps of Herod and the religious elite of that day? Hostility and apathy remain two of the most common responses to the coming of Christ.

Seems like Christmas hasn’t changed that much at all.

I’d like to take this moment to thank each of you who has graciously received “Because of Grace” throughout 2016. It has been a joy to share the Journey this year with you. May this Christmas and New Year season be filled with faith, hope, and love for each of you. Blessings. — David Timms

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