Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Gift of Christmas

            Sitting up wide-eyed under the weight of a cotton quilt, a tussle haired child hurriedly drops from the bed to the cold floor and begins to navigate her way carefully and quietly down the dark hallway and into the den. Peering cautiously through the doorway, her eyes adjust to the dancing lights stationed like sentries on the small green tree in the corner, as the darkness of night retreats with the charge of daybreak. Her searching eyes focus, like a lion about to pounce, on the prize that sits partially hidden under the evergreen boughs. A small box wrapped with layers of bright red and green foil paper and a huge white bow silently awaits her searching fingers and excited eyes. The gift she has anxiously awaited all year is finally hers to open. It is Christmas morning!

            Sitting on the dark hillsides watching their sheep, a solitary band of shepherds stared in utter amazement as the angels leaped across the skies like Roman candles in a firework display. A fragile young wife and a frightened young husband awaited a Child that refused to wait any longer for His birth. Amid the stench of the cattle and the pain of labor, the Fragrance of God made His entrance into His creation and was gently placed in a stone feeding trough in a small out of the way town called the House of Baked Bread (Bethlehem). No throng or multitude awaited the announcement of His birth outside this unusual delivery room. The Father of all good gifts had finally delivered the Gift humankind had anxiously awaited throughout the centuries. It was Christmas morning!

            Kneeling beside a sick and broken addict, the young man shares a powerful story with compassion and purpose. For the first time in many years this shackled creature begins to consider what freedom is really like. Not freedom to do what he wants but freedom to be what he was created to be. Calmly and carefully the young man shares a scripture here and an experience there. Unseen, the Holy Spirit hovers above them, like a mother hen with her biddies, bringing forth eternal life. Through the sobs of hopelessness, a confession is offered and a cry of faith is answered, and a new creation is born. The Gift received is new life conceived through Jesus Christ. It iss Christmas morning!

            Christmas is more than a day we celebrate; Christmas is the gift we have been given. Immanuel, “God with us,” has given us the gift of abundant, eternal life in Him. Share the gift with someone and watch God unwrap the real gift of Christmas morning.

And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins. Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with Child, and shall bear Son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel,’ which translated means, “God with us.”’” (Matthew 1: 21-23).

Push Out into the Deep

“Push out into the deep!” Those words echoed like a trumpet sounding the call to arms. Staring out through the railing of a balcony eleven floors above the glistening white sands of the Gulf Beach, above the roar of the crashing emerald waves, the eternal words of Jesus spoke clearly into my spirit—“Push out into the deep!”

The “deep”—an ominous place of mythical proportions.  It’s a destination just beyond the boundary lines where safety and security exist—just beyond the reach of life’s normal journey—the abiding place of every uncertainty—the resident address of unnerving fear—the zip code of the unknown—the abode of the miraculous—the habitation of Almighty God.

The very sound of it strikes at the depths of our primordial craving for safety and survival. The response is almost involuntary—a recoiling—a drawing back like one standing too close to the brink of a bottomless abyss. And yet, the very sound, the clarion call of God, grasps one’s heart like the song of the mythical sirens whose melodious voices caused ancient mariners to crash their ships on the ocean’s hidden reefs of rock and coral in a mad rush to possess what they could never own. His voice seizes both the spirit and the soul and simply will not loosen its grasp.

The “deep” is a place attained only by a clear invitation and utter abandonment. No amount of planning or preparing or programming will transport one to this destination. This is the place where experience falls in the dry dust, where common sense loses its confident bearings and passionate desperate obedience kicks in. This is the place where naked unbridled dangerous faith—not dazzling familiarity or even discernable facts—governs one’s movements.

This is where a determined response—a leap—a “push,” is demanded. A push through the terror of unspeakable fear – through the boredom of safety – through the dread of embarrassment—through long-held dreams and earnest expectations—a push into the unknown to know the unknowable majesty, mystery, and power of the Lord God.

But it is a push with direction. Out! Out from that which is comfortable—out from excuses—out from experiences—out from the ordinary—out from those acquisitions of security—out from anyone who would hold you back and away from everyone who stands between you and the very One who calls you. Push out!

Push out into! Into the unseeable—into the mist of mystery—into the haunts and the lair of faith—into the very place you said you would never go—that place you could not go—out into the God who’s not safe, but who is omnipotent. Out into a place that will engulf you—immerse you—bleach you out—turn you upside down and inside out—out into the only destination that will satisfy the unquenchable longings of your ravenous heart.

“Push out into the deep!” Push out into God! Push out toward the One you can’t explain but desperately desire to experience. Push out away from all that restrains you and into the One who draws you. Deep is calling deep. Spirit is calling spirit. Push out into the deep—let down your nets—and await God’s filling.

Prayer: Thy or My Will be Done?

Is your vision God’s vision? Do you want what God desires or what you desire? The answer will determine what you are satisfied with and the things you pray for. Too often our prayers are “God bless the things I want,” instead of “God, I want only the things You will bless.” Are our prayers empty, selfish manifestations of what we truly are, or are our prayers living demonstrations of who we believe God to be? Who we are now and what we pray for will determine the future. The prayers of today determine the landscape of tomorrow.

King Hezekiah experienced some of the greatest answers to prayer recorded in the Bible. When confronted with total destruction by the Assyrian army, Hezekiah sought a word from God through the prophet Isaiah and prayer. God answered in a miraculous way by sending the angel of the LORD to destroy 185,000 Assyrian warriors during the night. Instead of invading, the Assyrian army returned home in utter confusion and never returned.

Hezekiah also sought the Lord in prayer for physical healing. God not only graciously gave him fifteen more years of life but also caused the sun’s shadow to move ten steps backward on the sundial of Ahaz. Time paused and even moved backwards, as God responded to the prayers of Hezekiah. Hezekiah’s prayers were living demonstrations of who he believed God to be, and they were not ignored.

Alas, this prayer warrior became proud and satisfied by “his” accomplishments. 2 Chronicles 32 states that Hezekiah did not respond appropriately to the kindness shown him (v.25) so scripture says, “God withdrew from Hezekiah in order to test him and to see what was really in his heart” (v.31). This testing involved a visit from the Babylonians and Hezekiah’s prideful display of all “his” treasures. He literally, through his total disclosure of Judah’s God-given riches, invited the Babylonians to invade the city of Jerusalem. God’s response through His prophet Isaiah was all the treasures stored up by your ancestors will be carried off to Babylon…and some of your descendants will be taken into exile(Is. 39:6-7).

Hezekiah’s selfish response would prove devastating for his posterity: The message of the LORD is good. At least there will be peace and security during my lifetime (39:8). In essence, he said, “Whew Lord, at least I’ll be O.K. How sad was the final commentary of a great king and prayer warrior, whose legacy, a son named Manasseh, would prove to be Judah’s most wicked king.

How can the end be so bad when the beginning held such promise? Hezekiah’s lack of prayer at a critical point became a curse for the future. If you hear nothing, please listen to this with all your heart – your prayers matter! The future of your family, your church, your nation, and your world hang on your prayers. It is the height of arrogant pride to think that God will bless what you want instead of what He wants. Repent of those selfish visions, and seek the pure vision of God as you pray. Tomorrow’s victory depends on today’s prayers.

Am I a Servant of the Savior…or the Serpent?

We are all ministers—priests who serve the Lord Jesus and people. The false distinction of clergy and laity does not exist in the mind of God. All of His people are called and gifted to minister. Therefore, if change is to take place in the church, be it reformation or revolution, it must begin with us—those who minister. If we are the problem (no ifs—we are), then our mindset of what is important must change.

As a child, I learned an acronym for joy that is the correct and proper attitude for a ministering servant: J—Jesus first, O—others second, and Y—yourself last. Simple, yet profoundly biblical. Sadly, “yourself” has move to the front of the bus and hijacked it, sending Jesus to the back, and leaving the others on the curb. The position and power of ministry have replaced the service of ministry. “Me” (my individual ministry) has become far more important than the mission. Thus ministry is no longer about Jesus and others; it’s all about me.

That’s not ministry! It is selfish prideful narcissism—the exact sin that deformed Lucifer into Satan. And its crippling effect is twisting the body of Christ into a caricature that looks more like a serpent than the Savior.

Where do we start then? Perhaps the better question is: “Where do I start?”  The mission must be more important than me. For this to become a reality, a few moments of self examination may reveal how warped our views of ministry have become.

1. Have I fallen in love with the church (that is the power, the perks, the position, the programs, or the glamour) instead of the Creator of the church—Jesus Christ?

2. Has my ministry position in the church replaced my identity in Christ?

3. Do I preach or teach one message, but live out another?

4. Has my success become more important than sacrifice?

5. Is my survival more important than servanthood?

6. Have my wants become more important than the needs of the people I serve?

7. Do I seek to impress others rather than express who Jesus is? (A temporary impression or an eternal expression?)

8. Have ministerial reputation, politics, and resume become more significant than the people I am called to serve?

9. Have I fallen so in love with the sound of my own voice that I am no longer willing to listen to the voice of others around me, much less God?

10. Have I compromised my personal integrity so that I might achieve my own selfish agenda? (Am I justifying the end results by using any means necessary to achieve them?)

The Genesis of Real Change

I write because I believe one voice can change a culture and I believe the culture of the church must change if she is to become relevant in the world’s culture she has been called to influence. Influence is a powerful tool and it is judged by impact. When one object collides with another object the impact of that collision produces change. I see the culture of our world impacting the church far more than I see the church impacting the culture. Initially, this impact is not necessarily a visible thing, although I know many so-           called Christian experts who bemoan and compare the music, clothes, language, and social morays of the church and world as having little noticeable difference, and thus the problem. Their arguments and condemnation reveal a sad system of faith that teaches one’s behavior is more important than one’s belief. This behavior modification belief (a teaching of psychology) is not necessarily biblical, because behavior alone is not enough to impact culture. Behavior is learned, but beliefs are lived out.

I would argue the more dangerous influence is internal—contained in one’s world view, belief system, and core values of the heart. The reason our activities stink is our internal guidance system stinks—it’s called stinking thinking. We are living a form of Christianity that began on the outside and has never soaked its way into our hearts—a form which denies the very power of the Holy Spirit. We have become nothing more than religious chameleons—cold-blooded lizards whose colors change with the circumstances. We have become social Christians, who crawl out of the shadows to shine of Sundays, but live like hell the remaining six days of the week.

Real change will not come individually, corporately, or nationally, until the life of Christ is internalized and my (and yours) life becomes His life. In that moment when I disappear, He will appear and radically alter the way I think, and thus act. It’s not the clothes, or the music, or the language, or even the morals that make a person or a nation Christian—it’s Christ, living larger in my life than I allow me to live. The change begins in the heart and works its way out—not vice-versa.

Change will come when we begin to live out not what we claim to believe, but rather what Jesus taught, which is spelled out on the pages of the Bible. Our problem right now is we are living out what we really do believe, or otherwise we would not live this way. Our beliefs determine our impact. If they differ little from the culture, or are lived out in secret—has our heart really been changed?

Am I a Territorial Terrorist?

The Christian culture has become far too territorial. Territorial is a good word if you are a pit bull guarding your backyard or the Marines attempting to hold a critical position in the middle of enemy territory. But if you’re a believer seeking to live out a life that imitates Jesus it’s not. For some unexplainable reason (sin…perhaps), our mindset is that we own the stuff, that is, the accoutrements that accompany our faith, and the only way we will share it is if someone pries it loose from our cold, dead grasp.

A brief look at the landscape of Christendom should suffice to support my thesis. Churches are territorial. They will spend gobs of money and time on community surveys, demographic trends, and denominational consulting gurus to pinpoint a prime location for a new church plant. But…when push comes to shove, and all the data points to the plant being located ten miles from their own front door, they go into lockdown, roll out the razor wire, and build machine gun nests to fend off the thieves who would steal their members. Steal their members…now that’s a novel concept indeed. Think about that one for a moment—if someone can steal “your” (not technically yours anyway, but the sake of my argument) members, perhaps—just a thought here—you may not be doing a very good job after all. And since we’re on this subject, if they are Christians, they don’t belong to you or me anyway, they belong to Christ. Our job is not to make members but to make disciples.

A second piece of evidence is found in the territorial nature of church staffs. I have worked on several staffs over the last twenty-five years, both large and small. Size makes no difference because the mentality behind territorialism is the same. We have rah-rah sessions and talk for hours about team work and unity, walk out of the room, and retreat back into our bunkers of personal achievement. The driving element is not the Kingdom, but rather fear, jealousy, and envy. We are fearful that someone will outshine us, or out do us, or out “whatever it is” us. The problem is it’s all about “u-s” without the “J-e-s” preceding it. “Us” is a sanitary term for our dirty, selfish flesh, and obviously it has not died and made Jesus Lord. News flash—it will not die in an environment of territorialism—it will multiply like the black plague. One thing it will do is kill our effectiveness and destroy any hopes we have in winning our communities.

Perhaps you’re thinking this is all well and good, but I’m not a part the church leadership or staff. I’m just Joe Church Member—what has this got to do with me. Consider this: how often do you blow a gasket when you find someone parked in your prime Sunday morning parking spot, or sitting in your cushy Bible study chair, or your favorite pew during worship? Have you ever felt a tinge of jealousy arising whenever someone else received the blessing you thought you deserved? If so, you are infected just like the rest of us.

What if Jesus had been a territorial terrorist like most of us? He certainly would not have left heaven for this messed up planet. He would never have emptied Himself and taken the form of a servant. Instead, the Jesus we have fashioned in our own image would have been involved in a fist fight every day with the Pharisees and priests in the Temple. He would have punted the disciples like a brand a new football. He would have called down fire on the unbelieving Samaritans before the Sons of Thunder could have even formulated the thought. And—He would have never died on a cross for us, but rather He would have roasted us all like turkeys for falling into the same old sins over and over again.

No wonder the world wants little to do with us and the sad version of Jesus we portray. We are trampling and stomping one another for the fleshly accomplishments of high fives that will mean nothing in a week, pushing and shoving for positions on pews even though we don’t listen or internalize what we’ve heard, or scurrying around to secure funds to build edifices we can’t afford to produce programs no one cares about. And we wonder why the couple down the street won’t visit our church.

The only territory Jesus cared about was the territory held by the devil that belonged to our Savior. Just a note—the territory Jesus came to rescue was you and me. I’m afraid many are returning in droves again to a similar place of bondage—the selfish swamp of religious territorialism.

Holidays or Holy Days?

What do you do when all the turkey’s gone and the dressing is just a faint memory exemplified by some solitary crumbs scattered across the pan? What happens when you wake up and Black Friday has become an even blacker Saturday and Cyber Monday turns into penniless Tuesday? The holidays have become a mind numbing scramble for what can I get and how much. The motto for many during this season is: Get all you can, can all you get, sit on the lid, and poison the rest. Sadly, the holidays have degenerated into a selfish materialism ruled by the terrible triplets Me, My, and I.

What do you do when the holidays become horror days rather than holy days? Thanksgiving was once a day of sharing the bounty of God’s blessings, and Christmas, a birthday celebration for the greatest gift ever given. Not the mindless grabbing and snatching at 3 am in the morning in the dim glow of a blue light special or in the rush of pushing and shoving to get that early bird special on sale. Will you even remember what you bought on January 1 when the credit card bill comes; or even worse, will you even know where you put it?

The original intent of holy days was to celebrate the gifts of God and His magnificent grace shared with those who had nothing and absolutely no hope of ever having anything. God gave…and gave…and gave. Something is terribly wrong with this picture if we are called to imitate Him (make no mistake we are), and all we do is take…and take…and take some more. Consuming, but never giving; blind to the needs of those around us, but stuffed, bloated, and selfishly addicted to our own selves.

There is a better choice—a far nobler pursuit available, but it will mean the tenacious application of what many consider a dirty word—“no.” There. I’ve said it; and you’re probably in shock that a pastor would say such a thing! Surely you don’t mean that I should tell me, myself, and I no. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. To borrow a slogan of another day and another cause…just say no!

Take the two hundred dollars you would have wasted on another mindless video game for the kids and buy some groceries for a family that’s struggling. That money you would have spent on a top-of-the-line battery powered drill that would have looked so good in your tool box—spend it on soap, socks, and coats, and drop it off at the local homeless shelter. Instead of wasting your money on a designer handbag and matching shoes that will not be in vogue next season, invest in the life of a family that will have nothing for Christmas.

The rush of the holidays will come to a screeching halt, and the joy of the holy days will return when imitating Jesus becomes more important than entertaining ourselves. Remember, Jesus did not come to be served, but to seek, to serve, and save those who are lost. I know, I know—you’ve been standing in line a long time, awaiting your opportunity to give this glitzy department store money you don’t have for something you don’t really need. Step out of line and allow that person behind you to take your place and then take that fist full of dollars, open your eyes wide, look around, ask God what He wants to do with the money He has entrusted to your care, and then give it away.