You didn’t join a club

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:5-11

Play the funeral dirge, and play it with gusto and joy, in cut time and in a major key.

“Why?” you ask.

Because you’re dead.

Your old self, that is. Feel free to give the eulogy, but don’t talk well of the not-dearly departed and please do wear a large smile. This is both good riddance and good news. It’s OK to shout. Throw some dirt on the grave. If you’re inclined, feel free to do some mudding in your ATV over the grave site tonight. Laugh long and hard while you’re at it. Then drive off and never look back. No need to refresh the flowers.

You are united with Christ. You didn’t join a club, and he’s not your CEO. Your body of sin went with him to the cross, and it died there. Your new self rose with him at his resurrection and now you’re free in him. And by “in him” I mean united closer than flesh and bone. And by “free” I mean freer than you’ve ever imagined, if you can only see it.

Free at last. No longer a slave to sin, but free to live to God, free to follow your Lord in love, forever free in Jesus. If you’re wearing shackles, you put them on yourself and the key is easily within reach, in your hip pocket.

Drop those blasted things and enjoy!

Lost sheep

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. – Luke 15:1-7

I want to tell a story about someone – I’ll call her Denise. Denise was a leader in our student ministry. She led Bible studies, went on every mission trip, worked on every service project, and appeared to really love the Lord. But sometime in her Junior year, something slipped. She became confused in her faith and despondent. She stopped coming to church as much as she had, and she dropped out of leadership. She had questions, and doubts. She decided not to go to student camp that year.

Then she just disappeared.

Denise became a lost sheep. The thing is, I don’t know how many people reached out to Denise after she left. I like to think I did, and I know that others did too (they must have). But in a bitter rant on her MySpace a year or two later she leveled her complaint at “church people”. She complained that only two people had ever reached out to her after she quit going to church. In her words, all her friends “ditched her”. She fell into some bad choices and I don’t really know how she’s doing these days.

I’ve seen this pattern repeated, numerous times. I’ve watched it in frustration and powerlessness.

The Luke passage above points to some answers, though. These are pointed directly at me as much as at any of you.

Move quickly. I believe that most lost sheep want to be found when they first become lost. Don’t worry about your dignity and forgo any nonsense about “giving them space”. They want to be found. But only for awhile. There are numerous lost sheep I know that I didn’t act quickly on who, frankly, don’t want to have anything to do with church or with me anymore. And they were once my brothers and sisters and some like sons and daughters. I’ve failed them

Never, ever, ever assume that it’s OK, because your numbers are still good. This is a heartless response to the death of faith. Jesus speaks as though it’s natural for us to leave the ninety-nine for the one.

Is it?

Excuse my french, but please, screw church growth strategies that teach that it’s more important to bring in new bodies than it is to keep the ones you’ve got. Jesus didn’t teach that, and the Biblical model is to both feed and nourish your own sheep AND add to them daily.

Add to the joy of heaven. The heavenly hosts rejoice over a lost sheep restored. Launch a rescue mission, if you can. Invite someone who has dropped off the face of the earth out to dinner, or over to watch movies. Let them know you care and you miss them, and that you love them even if they never come back to church. You might win them back.

Screw church growth strategies that teach that it’s more important to bring in new bodies than it is to keep the ones you’ve got. Oh, wait, I think I already said that. 🙂

If you’ve been in church anytime at all, you know someone. Reach out to them today. I’ll do the same.

And pray for my friend Denise today.

Cold love

. . . the love of many will grow cold. – Matthew 24:12

When I was a young college christian, I remember making the statement to another Christian that I had “never known a Christian to fall away”. I was newly come to the joy of the faith and it seemed impossible to me that anyone would leave it.

The person who I was speaking to, who was older than me, looked at me like I had a screw loose.

I’ve found, to my grief, that he was right. As a former lay-minister to junior and high schoolers and a current college/young singles worker, I’ve become quite the heartbroken student of the multiple way young people fall away from Jesus. Let me count some of the ways.

In my observation, a common cause of steps away from Christ is a lack of community after high school. That analogy student ministers use of the burning branch being removed from the fire is remarkably accurate. Oh, how we need community, yet we run from it! Often times a person’s first step away from God is a step away from his people.

Others fall away because they grow angry with God. For some of these the problems of pain and suffering in the world preclude belief in God (or alternatively cause a lot of fist-shaking in God’s direction). Some back away from the Lord due to the perceived disconnect between the Bible and science, as their faith is – illogically, in my view – swallowed up in the overwhelming weight of eons and light years, and the infinite smallness of man. “How could such an arrangement include a personal God?” they think. For many, I think being a christian just seems like too much work. Their faith consists of lots of dos and don’ts, and little else, so what’s the point? Some, perhaps more than you think, leave the church due to perceived hurts, or disillusionment, sometimes because their faith was placed in fallable student leaders, or the church itself, rather than Jesus. Disillusionment and hurt can be crushing. Finally, I think many become enamored with all the hope that they see here on earth, and they love this present world, chasing after what will make them rich, or famous, or popular. Why give up earthly hopes for the perceived less attainable hope of being with Jesus?

It is on such rocks as these that faith is shipwrecked.

But there is a heart-issue at the bottom of every falling. The issue can appear to be a lack of faith, or misplaced hope, but I think at its root the problem is a lack of love.

If people have been won to a belief (of some sort) in God but not to a love and

desire for him, what love there is by definition is already cool. What we win them with is what we win them to, and if people are not won to a love of Jesus, because he loved them first; if they are not won to a deep love for God and their neighbor because of the great mercy and love shown them in Jesus, I submit that there is no heat to that flame. And yet they can still fit in pretty well in a Christian context. For awhile.

I’ve heard former believers describe the deep commitment to the Lord that they once had. “I went on mission trips! I led people to Jesus!”. Their zeal was hot. But zeal and love are not the same thing. I’ve known zealous christians that are full of hate, often for other christians. I think the only way they reconcile this with the command to love the brothers is by making the leap to “no one knows the truth but me”, which usually turns into “no one truly believes but me”. And that is such a dangerous place to be. Hating your brother is murder, and a million miles away from Christ’s calling of love.

Love grown cold; I’ve seen too much of it. Yet I continue to hope that the flame has not completely died out for the beloved prodigals I’m thinking of. Fire still falls from heaven and love never fails.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Twenty three years

Twenty three years ago, I married the love of my life.

Four kids and lots and lots and lots of joys, trials, hard work, fun, and just good, solid friendship and teamwork later, I love her even more than I did on that day back in 1988.

And, babe, have I told you recently how fabulous you’re looking these days?

I’m a very blessed man. So thankful to the Lord for bringing you into my life.

Happy anniversary, sweetie.

Out with the garbage

Oh, this is so good. From Ray Ortlund’s latest post, Out with the garbage:

“We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” 1 Corinthians 4:13

Gospel people know where they belong – out with the garbage. In this world of false glories, the cross and all who love it will never measure up to this week’s definition of cool. The early church accepted that, and triumphed. Now it’s our turn. And one thing to gladden us is this. Even below the bottom of the heap is the Lord Jesus Christ, the weakness of God and the foolishness of God, saving everyone low enough to discover him there.

This happens

Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” And Gideon said to him, “Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” – Judges 6:11-13

It’s a familiar story, the calling of Gideon. I also think it’s a familiar happening, if we can but see it. I think this happens all the time, albeit not usually with the outwardly spectacular results that happened in Gideon’s case (read Judges 8-9).

But this happens. Perhaps it has happened to you.

There are a few things we can discern about Gideon even in this short passage. First, he’s scared, threshing his wheat in a winepress. I’ve had some experience with wheat, and a wheat thresher/combine. I’m also insanely allergic to wheat dust. Threshing wheat in an enclosed winepress would be miserable for me, and my guess is it wasn’t much fun for Gideon either. He was hiding because he was scared. Unless you’re in a child’s game, hiding is never much fun, and generally only done in grave necessity. Hiding demonstrates anxiety, fear of being found out, terror.

Many of us live in fear. Fear of the future, fear of enemies, fear of circumstances, the wrong kind of fear of God. This happens.

In the midst of this the Angel of the Lord appears, bringing joyful tidings of the Lord’s presence, and royal compliments to Gideon’s valor. Who is this Angel of the Lord? Bible scholars call this appearance a theophany, meaning a pre-incarnate visitation by Christ himself.

Gideon responds to the Lord with no small measure of cynicism and bitterness. “If the Lord is with us, why?”. That’s ironic, to say the least, because the Lord was standing right there. But Gideon couldn’t see. He didn’t perceive the Lord’s presence. This happens. It might happen to you, more than you think. We are, many of us, even as believers, dull of sight regarding the presence of the Lord. It’s common as believers to intellectually assent to God’s omnipresence and Jesus’ promise to be with us always, especially when all is well. But when you’re scared and at your wits end, you’ve got to know it in your gut. Gideon didn’t know it, not yet. In his defense, I often don’t either. This happens.

But here’s the beautiful thing that happens! The Lord God has no fear, and has perfect sight, and is infinitely valiant! He sees his children not as they see themselves, but rather as he has made them to be. You and I don’t often perceive the workmanship that we are, partly because we’re locked into time. So what we may only see as a half-formed and useless block of, well, something, God sees as a glorious work of art. God is not blinkered as we are,

“The Lord is with you, O might man of valor.” True words, though Gideon did not yet understand them.

This happens. I hope it has happened to you. It happens when God’s presence breaks into your despair. It happens when you find yourself used by him in ways you never would have thought possible, for things you never thought you could do. It happens when he saves you out of desperate straits and sets your feet on solid ground. It happens when God transforms you into a beautiful vessel of light and blessing to others, his courage courses through you, and against all odds the obstacles fall and his kingdom expands.

The story of Gideon gives me a hunger to have the Lord’s valor and to see his delivering work.

Golden and sharp

The law of the Lord is perfect,

reviving the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure,

making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right,

rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is pure,

enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the Lord is clean,

enduring forever;

the rules of the Lord are true,

and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,

even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey

and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover, by them is your servant warned;

in keeping them there is great reward.

– Psalm 19:7-11

and take . . . the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. – Ephesians 6

We’ve been looking at the Ephesians 6 armor of God passage in church lately. My pastor said something in his message last Sunday that I want to remember:

“Many view the Bible as God’s manual for successful living. This is true in part, but the Bible does not give us what comes naturally, but what comes supernaturally.”

Read the Bible and you may become wise. Follow its teachings and you will very likely live more successfully. But if that’s the extent of it, you’ve missed it all.

There’s a reason the Bible is called the Word of God. These living, powerful, sharp-edged words aren’t just ink on a page. They will slice you in half if you’re not careful.

God uses this word in the unsuspecting believer’s life, if that word is appropriated, to bring unlooked for revival to the soul, to bring external, Godly wisdom to the simpleminded, to bring joy to a heart that has no natural reason to rejoice. The purity of God’s word brings light to our eyes, and clarity to our thinking. It will endure forever, and, though in my darkened reasoning I can’t always fathom it, it is altogether sure, clean, pure, true, and righteous.

A confession: I don’t feast on the word enough. I don’t know it like I should. I think the reasons are expressed, in a way, in the Psalm 19 passage above. Notice that the Bible, embodied in the law, testimony, precepts, etc., owns the action verbs. Letting God change me through his word means that I wasn’t able to change myself. I want the natural remedy, and the credit that goes with it. I want control of the pace and the nature of the change. Or at least my flesh does. The status quo is comfortable and safe, and I’m even OK with a slow change that turns me into a better person. God is uncomfortable and dangerous and he means to make me like Jesus. I yearn for that and fear it at the same time. You may feel the same way.

Oh, surrender already! May I desire this sharp, sweet, golden treasure like never before.

Vanity and sanctification

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:11

I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes lately, and pondering on vanity.

This can be a dangerous business. Through recent conversations with some friends who didn’t realize they were being used by God, but mostly through the long-running conversation that goes on inside me (you have one of those too, right?) I’m beginning to understand some uncomfortable truths about myself. God keeps reminding me. He sneaks into those conversations, often uninvited. He is a gentle teacher, but also very, very determined to get through.

To see myself as I truly am, with all the judgment I secretly heap upon others, with all the petty nonsense that takes so much of my mental energy, all the sloth that consumes me, all the vanity and thoughtlessness . . . this is hard. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that too. My spirit wants to do the right thing. My flesh is too lazy or disobedient to do it. “Redeem the time”. We live in evil days. And yet I expend energy on things that are truly vanity and chasing after the wind.

And I’m a slow learner. But I am thankful that I have a determined Savior, and that he is preparing for himself a people, of which I am a part, holy and blameless. Free.

That’s good news!