In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, there is a poignant sub-plot involving the character known as “Brooks”. After 50 years in prison, he suddenly finds himself a free man desperately trying to adjust to his new life on the “outside”. Sadly, after spending so many years living within the unchanging regiment and routine of prison, he simply cannot cope with the dramatic variations and pace of life in what has now become an entirely foreign environment. Unable to function, he contemplates committing another crime in the hopes of returning to the only place that feels normal to him, but ultimately he opts to take his own life instead. He writes a letter to his friends who are still on the inside describing his plight. After reading it aloud “Red”, Morgan Freeman’s character, explains to the other inmates that Brooks had been “institutionalized”. “These prison walls are funny.” He says, “First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
In the last couple years, I’ve began to realize that many believers are struggling with a similar predicament. We know that there is more for us to do and be outside the four walls of the local church, but because so much of our Christian experience has taken place within these narrow parameters, we no longer know how to think or live like free men and women. For many of us, “going to church” and “doing our church thing” has become the central activity of our faith. Week after week, year after year of faithful attendance has conditioned us to think that institutional life is all that there is for us. So much so, that any attempts to go beyond these well defined boundaries has often been deemed too dangerous, or even forbidden. It’s almost like we’ve learned to fear what might happen to us if we dare to venture out and traverse this land so fraught with evil and temptation. The evidence of this mind-set is found in our church-speak. For example, “The world” has become the term we use to describe that place we don’t want to be influenced by and those people whose behavior we just can’t tolerate. We’d like to think outside of the church box, but somehow we’ve been convinced that the box is not only a good thing, it is there for our protection and should never be tampered with lest we mess it up.
Lately we’ve been asking people this question: If you could do anything you wanted in ministry for the Lord, what would you do? The responses have been so consistent it’s frightening. Almost without exception, they will get the “deer in the headlights” look and then say, “Well… I guess I’m not sure.” With all due respect to those who have propagated this mentality, myself included, it is time to set ourselves and the people we care for free. Free to do all manner of things that have nothing to do with our regularly scheduled meetings. Our programs, our structures, and our Sunday morning routines can, in fact, become a form of bondage if we’re not careful. In principle, we all agree that we’re to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. But if we’re honest about how we’ve spent our time and energy, it’s obvious that we’ve focused the vast majority of our ministry efforts in those places already well lit and sufficiently seasoned. When I look at how Jesus did what he did, I see him out there mixing it up with real people in the real world… meeting each individual at the point of their specific need, loving them, listening to them, treating them with respect, and bestowing on them the kind of value that we all secretly long for.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, over time we’ve began to believe that we must find our place within an organization before we can “do our ministry.” When in reality, most of us our called to serve outside the well guarded confines of what we now call “the church.” Although some gifts and callings are primarily for equipping and caring for other believers, many more are bent toward impacting those we come into contact with on a more regular basis. This is why Jesus elevated the idea of “loving our neighbor” to a place of primary importance on every believer’s to-do list. The apostle Paul was dealing with a similar problem in the church of Galatia. Many Christians had been persuaded to believe that they must come back under the law and its practices in order to be truly justified. Paul had worked so hard to enlighten these young believers to the principles of freedom, grace, and justification through faith, only to have them drug by their feet back into religious bondage by the self appointed “church wardens” of the day.
“You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5: 1-8)
Please understand what I’m trying to convey here. I am not saying that going to church means that we are submitting ourselves to bondage, nor am I suggesting that we should rebel against that which we might flippantly deem “the institutionalized church.” The point is that most of us were pretty good at living in the real world before we got saved. What happened to us? We cut our hair, got our uniform, and started walking in formation. We were institutionalized, that’s what happened. We took on the yokes of others and in the process lost touch with the uniqueness of our personal callings and passions for ministry. Come in, sit down, stand up, sing a song, pass the plate, listen to a sermon, sing another song, pray, go home. Call me crazy, but after doing the same things the same way for so long, I think maybe its time to step back and evaluate how well what we’re doing is working. In many respects, our institutions no longer serve us, but it is we who now serve them.
In the next reformation, we must stop trying to get people to our meetings and instead make it our goal to get them to Jesus. We must each seek the Lord for what he has for us to do… AND THEN DO IT! It’s almost like we’ve forgotten how to follow the inner leadings of the Lord for ourselves. If we’re waiting around for our pastor, or some other church leader to bestow upon us the privilege to minister, then we’ve adopted the wrong mode of operation. Maybe we’ll muck it up a little… so what? Jesus sent his disciples out there knowing full well that they weren’t prepared for everything they would encounter. That’s how we learn the fastest. “Oops… I won’t do that again.” The time has come to encourage one another to go out and do what our heart longs to do for the Lord. And if that means we lose our best nursery worker, or our most faithful usher, than so be it. The world needs the church a lot more than the church needs itself. If like me, you can’t stand the thought of living out the rest of your life on the inside, maybe it’s time to start chipping away at the wall of our cell. We might have to take a long crawl through a whole lotta nastiness, but at least we’ll get free. Now’s the time to “get busy livin or get busy dyin.”
In 1987 I was a young seminary student in Chicago. Each of us was assigned an advisor to help make decisions about what classes we would take and the choices that would determine the direction and focus of our course of study. As a result, I found myself sitting with Dr. Robert Coleman, face to face across the desk in his little office. I remember feeling somewhat in awe of him as I had read some of his books and had heard stories about the strength and uniqueness of his personality. I also remember that he didn’t seem very concerned about my choice of courses, but instead was intent on having me come and join a small group of students that he led in prayer in the early mornings. Although I had many other interactions with Bob during my time there at Trinity, for whatever reason, I never saw fit to become a member of what I now realize was his personal band of disciples. In all honesty, I’m still kicking myself for not taking advantage of this incredible opportunity. Instead of availing myself for a relationship with Dr. Coleman, for the next several years, I spent most of my time doing what I apparently deemed more important… vocational ministry. What a knucklehead!
Although I’m sure serving as a pastor during that period of my life produced some good fruit for me personally and hopefully in the lives of a few others, I wish I had seen the value in being discipled by the guy who, in my opinion, literally wrote the definitive work on discipleship. To this day, Dr. Coleman’s “Master Plan of Evangelism” stands head and shoulders above all other books written on the topic of how to make disciples. Had I understood then what I do now, I would have jumped at the chance of sitting at his feet, and not just sitting there listening passively in his classes.
In the next reformation, we have to somehow recapture the vital nature of discipleship and spiritual parenting as it pertains to accomplishing the ultimate objective of the local church. We can get so busy doing other “church stuff” that we lose sight of what is, for all practical purposes, the fundamental reason for our being left here on earth. Think about it, Jesus said that our lives should be given to loving God and loving our neighbor. Could we not accomplish the first half of that equation more completely if we were whisked away to heaven right after being saved? In his manifest presence we will be entirely consumed by his love. So it stands to reason that we remain in this realm primarily for the sake of others.
Recently, while shopping at the local mall with my wife, I was approached by a young teenage girl with a “bible tract” in her hand. She was with an older lady and another girl about her age. It was obvious to me that they were out “evangelizing” and I apparently looked like a promising candidate. She said nothing to me, but offered me the little tract as she walked on by with the other two without ever breaking her stride. I took the pamphlet and said “thanks” as I saw a look of relief come over her face. It was as if she was saying, “There. I’ve done it!” After reading its contents, my heart just sank. Like most of the publications of this genre, I was quickly reminded of what a complete wretch I am and how I was bound for eternal torment if I didn’t get my act together pronto. Page after page of cute little illustrations depicting what a total loser I was, all supported with scripture of course. I thought to myself, well… so much for the “good” news.
As the years roll by, I find myself becoming more and more of a pragmatist. I’ve wasted way too much time on methodologies and good ideas that simply haven’t worked. No matter how far away I might roam, I always seem to come back to this simple truth, the greatest impact of our life will be made one person at a time. The great commission will not be fulfilled programmatically, but rather in the context of personal relationships.
Many years ago I had an experience that will forever illustrate this revelation in my thinking. We were leading a ministry that was experiencing nothing short of a modern-day revival. I’m not talking about a bunch of meetings where a gaggle of believers get all hyped up for Jesus. We actually were seeing spontaneous salvation and deliverance taking place among many of the lost and addicted young people of our city. The Lord was doing something far beyond our efforts or understanding, and we found ourselves scrambling to try to hire staff and to find people to take care of all the new believers that were coming to our church. At that time, our Sunday morning service was gaining a reputation for being one of the best shows in town. The atmosphere was very informal, the building we were meeting in was virtually devoid of religious icons and artifacts, and we had a really tight rock band leading our worship. Our overall vibe was very lively and light-hearted, a great first experience for many of those who were new to the practice of “going to church.”
At the end of one of our services, I asked for anyone who wanted to give their life to the Lord for the first time to come to the front of the auditorium. I don’t remember how many came forward that morning, but it was a good number. We led them all in the prayer of salvation and then concluded the service. As was our routine, we asked the group of new believers to follow us back to one of our smaller rooms at the back of the building. Once gathered, I said a few words and we began to hand out bibles to those standing side by side, all facing inward in a big circle. Suddenly and without warning, I burst into what can only be described as uncontrollable weeping. I’m not exaggerating, I completely lost it. Here I was, trying to say something profound and comforting to this wide eyed group of new believers, and I self imploded right in front of them. So much so that I had to quickly hand the meeting off to one of the other staff members so I could go hide in my office.
As I waited for the building to clear out so as not to frighten anyone with my disheveled appearance, I began to ask, “What the heck was that Lord? These aren’t tears of joy, I feel like I’m dying here!” It made no sense to me that I was so grieved over what is supposed to be such a joyous occasion. Maybe the angels were rejoicing, but I was overcome with quite the opposite emotion. On the drive home, the Lord reminded me of how sad it is when irresponsible men impregnate young women only to leave them once the child is born. In an instant, I understood what had happened to me in that back room. Somehow, I had been allowed to feel just a small portion of the Lord’s heart for spiritual orphans. We had just created another fresh batch of babies, and I knew there was no way we were going to be able to adequately take care of them. We had only a handful of relatively mature believers in our ministry, and even fewer who were actively trying to disciple anyone. My wife and I had been meeting with a small group of new believers in our home, but I knew our ability to provide any kind of individualized care was completely maxed out as it was.
Everyone knows that making babies is always going to be fun. It’s exciting and enjoyable. But taking care of those babies we’ve made is quite the opposite. It’s hard work. It requires personal sacrifice, an unwavering commitment, and a relentless consistency to raise a child to the point of self sufficiency. So it is with spiritual parenting. In the local church, we often take great pride in the number of babies we’ve made. But I have to wonder how many of them have been virtually abandoned shortly after birth? In our pursuit of “getting people saved,” how many spiritual orphans have we created?
For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers… 1Co 4:15
In the next reformation, church leaders must somehow prioritize the value of spiritual parenting and discipleship. So many believers seem to remain in perpetual spiritual immaturity for the simple reason that so few are willing to invest in the kind of up close and personal relationships that Jesus clearly modeled for us in the Gospels. If your church’s evangelism mentality is all about getting people to make a decision, so you can quickly move on to the next person, and so on, then it may be time for a new paradigm. If you’re mantra is, “some will, some won’t, who cares, who’s next?” you might be under estimating the length of process that most people go through when searching for truth.
Dr. Coleman used to look out over us as promising seminary students and exclaim, “It’s good that you’re planning to enter the ministry, now where are your men?” That question has been ringing in my ears ever since. Where are your men? Whose life are you intentionally investing in right now? Is anyone counting on you for care, or guidance, or prayer support? If we fancy our self a spiritual leader and we’re not really that involved in the lives of any specific individuals, it might be time for a gut check. Are we really in the ministry, or just in denial?
Or maybe you’re not in a leadership position in your church, but you know you’ve been a Christian long enough that you could be helping others along their way. Sometimes, if you want to know who to lead, all you have to do is turn around and see who’s already following you. Maybe it’s your kids. Maybe it’s a co-worker who you know listens to what you say. It’s usually not about going out and trying to find someone to disciple. Spiritual parenting often begins with a simple decision to be a bit more intentional with the relationships we’ve already established. Take the time to read The Master Plan of Evangelism. I think now it’s actually called the Master Plan of Discipleship. The question is not “What Would Jesus Do?” but rather, “What Did Jesus Do?” while he was here with us. The answer is painfully obvious, he made disciples, and he commissioned us to do the same.
I recently asked the question in one of our meetings, “Why is it that we (the church) sometimes seem to have so much trouble going deeper and being more vulnerable in our relationships with each other?” The answers that came back were remarkably consistent. In a nutshell, the standard response was “we’re tiered of getting hurt.” One guy likened his hesitancy to pursue relationships to the memory of being at the Jr. High dance and being afraid of crossing the room to ask a girl to dance for fear that she might turn him down. Rejection can be a crushing blow to our identity and sense of self worth… even as adults. We all have an inborn need to feel that who we are matters, to God and to others. But in our pursuit of validation, we have often been reminded of how limited our capacity can be to bestow value and worth on one another. Some of our attempts at genuine relationship have even resulted in a crystal clear confirmation of that which we fear the most… the sense that who we are and what we have to offer really doesn’t matter that much. This can be especially painful when that message is communicated through our local church experience. And yet, because we were created to function in the context of intimacy and community, we are subconsciously driven to keep putting ourselves out there in hopes of attaining at least a tolerable level of acceptance and approval.
In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow, one of the early proponents of developmental psychology, proposed that our most basic needs include:
- Self Actualization – our need to reach our full potential and destiny.
- Esteem – our need to be valued and respected by self and others.
- Social – our need to be connected to a larger group and to be loved and accepted within that group.
He also noted that we will sometimes be willing to deny ourselves even our most basic of needs, like food, in order to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging within a group. I believe Maslow understood some things that many of us in the church have somehow lost touch with. The top three tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can easily be supported by scripture and are clearly in sink with the Lord’s heart for his people. Does he want us to reach our intended purpose and destiny? To be all we were meant to be? How important is it that we have a deep sense that we are valued, loved, accepted, and connected to something much bigger than ourselves? More importantly, how many of us currently feel that these needs are being sufficiently met?
Because of our culture’s transient nature and the unspoken devotion we have to our long standing local church paradigm, many believers have basically learned to live without some of the very things that we need the most. Even more concerning is the fact that some of us have gone as far as to simply give up our hope of attaining meaningful relationship altogether. There seems to be a growing trend among Christians to adopt the attitude of, “It’s just not worth it… I’ve been burnt before, I’ll just get burnt again.” This has produced an army of believers who no longer have the bond of being united against a common enemy, but now feel it necessary to trust no one and to guard their heart so closely that none are allowed to enter its deeper recesses… including God. This has left much of the bride feeling very alone and isolated.
The lord provided us with the quintessential example of vulnerability in John 13:3-5
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
It has always amazed me that Jesus, knowing full well that he was soon going to be betrayed, rejected, and completely abandoned by his closest of friends, was still willing to serve them in such a personal way. His humility and unguarded vulnerability remained in tact, even in the face of ultimate rejection and unparalleled emotional pain. But notice the first verse in this passage, the Lord had an acute awareness “that he had come from God and was returning to God” I submit to you that Jesus was able to let his guard down only because of the nature of his relationship to his Father. His identity was secure. He knew where he had come from, and he knew where he was headed. Although he loved those men dearly, he did not need their validation or approval in order to serve them in this most intimate and gracious of ways.
At last count, I have held a paid staff position at 10 different churches. Since 1984, my primary vocation has been that of a Pastor. In that time, my wife and I have served in everything from Mega-Monsters to small home churches. From conservative mainline denominational to independent charismatic… upper class suburban to inner-city poor. One thing has remained consistent. People come to church for many reasons, but ultimately they stay for only one reason… relationships. We will invariably put up with all kinds of church craziness when we are “rightly joined and fitted together.” But we will bail at the first sign of trouble if we have the sense that no one really gives a rip about us, or that we won’t be accepted for who we really are. It’s time that Christians come to terms with our need for belonging and acceptance. Ultimately it is about our relationship with the Father. We must constantly be in pursuit of a deeper revelation of his unconditional love and acceptance of us as his children. But this is where we’re missing it. WE ARE TO BE OUR FATHER’S EXPRESSION OF LOVE TO ONE ANOTHER. How do we best receive God’s love for us if not through another’s loving touch, or words, or actions? Jesus clearly understood this principle. He was a living breathing testimony of how we’re to conduct ourselves as believers. Did he wall off his heart for fear of further injury? Did he avoid meaningful relationship in order to forgo rejection? No, he kept throwing himself out there… serving, healing, and ministering compassion through up close and personal contact. Though it is clear that he frequently escaped the constant drain of ministry so he could spend uninterrupted time with his father, he just kept coming back for more, finally to endure unspeakable torture and death as his final demonstration of love.
I believe the Lord is saddened by the overall level of relational superficiality that most believers are currently experiencing in their local church. In truth, what or who’s to blame for this reality is probably a mute point… but as church leaders, it is our responsibility to do something about it. And more often than not, it starts with us. Church leadership will undoubtedly provide plenty of opportunities for relational strife and personal heartbreak. Many pastors, myself included, have had to fight off the tendency of becoming overly protective of their heart in order to survive. But erecting impenetrable walls around our heart eventually results in love starvation and an overwhelming sadness or anger toward God and others.
The next reformation for the church in the U.S. must involve some kind of systematic emotional restoration effort for its people. Christianity has to be lived from the heart. Our passion and emotions must be engaged and alive both vertically and horizontally if we hope to accomplish anything of eternal value. If we find ourselves trying to do all the right things, but our primary motivation is our sense of obligation or duty, we won’t last very long. When we remain offended, or we refuse to seek healing for our wounded emotions, we are a sitting duck for demonic oppression and torment. Our enemy knows that if he can get us to close off our heart… he’s got us. A little un-forgiveness goes a long way toward knocking us out of the race.
(1 Pet 2:4-5) tells us that Jesus was the original “ living Stone–rejected by men” and that “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…” If you feel rejected, you have to understand that you’re in good company. Rejection is an avoidable right of passage for true spiritual authority. And somehow through the process of our heart being repeatedly wounded and healed… it becomes stronger and yet more pliable at the same time. When we are unwilling to be vulnerable with the Lord or others it is a sign that we have lost our trust in our Father’s sovereignty and loving watchfulness over us. The local church is that spiritual house built with living stones. And like the temple rebuilt by Zerubbabel, many of those stones will be burnt and forever scared by the ravages of battle. Nonetheless, in order for us to function properly… or even to survive for that matter, we must be connected to one another. Not just organizationally, but at the heart level.
The local church must regain its commitment to being a refuge for those in need of emotional restoration and a place where the building of meaningful relationships is a top priority. As individuals, we must pursue a deeper revelation of the Father’s unconditional love and acceptance for us so that we have that kind of genuine love to give to others. Only when we lay ourselves before the Lord and become vulnerable to his touch can we find the kind of intimacy that we all secretly long for. As a result of our poor treatment of one another, and our faulty perceptions of how we might feel the Lord has treated us, we can sometimes be prone to relational superficiality. We must resist this proclivity. Our spiritual life depends on it. Our ability to function as an integral member of the body depends on it. The fulfillment of our destiny depends on it. The next reformation will require a renewed focus on the value and importance of maintaining a deep, heartfelt relationship with the Lord and our fellow believers.
Jesus we really need help here. We want to serve you with a whole heart and an open Spirit. Please forgive us for holding on to our offendedness toward you. We know you love us and want nothing more than for us to be able to feel that love in a tangible way. Please forgive us for hanging on to our un-forgiveness toward our brothers and sisters. We trust you, and we release them and what they’ve done to us back to you. We recognize that they’re struggling and stumbling along just like we are. Forgive them. Please heal our emotional wounds. Heal your church Lord. Heal the bride so fully that her beauty will cause the heavens and the earth to swoon.
When Jesus was asked to provide the cliff notes version on how to be a Christian, he said “love God and love each other, cause that’s what this thing is all about.” RBT (Revised Bump Translation) Most would readily agree that Christianity, in its purest form, is truly simplistic. But for reasons apparently beyond our ability to comprehend, we often seem to make our faith and practice a lot more complicated than we would like it to be. Maybe it’s some kind of spiritual A.D.D., but we tend to quickly lose sight of that which was intended to be our primary focus as believers… loving God and loving others. Added to our struggle to stay properly focused is the fact that well intentioned pastors and church leaders sometimes get distracted by lesser truths and teachings and thus inadvertently cause much confusion and loss of clarity as it pertains to what is truly mission critical for the local church. We all have our pet doctrines and specific topics that we particularly enjoy propagating. But I would contend that even more concerning is our shameless addiction to maintaining the sanctity of how we do what we do every Sunday morning. Somehow, because we’ve been basically doing the same things the same way for the last several hundred years, we now associate singing songs and listening to someone talk for 45 minutes with being a believer. What has happened to us? The basis of our faith has become an event that most of us merely attend as a non-essential spectator. In turn, we’ve created a false perception of what it means to be a Christian. We’re not really living as Christians anymore, we’re singing songs about it and letting someone else indoctrinate us on their theories of what it might look like if we actually did something about it. Brothers and sisters, I submit to you that Christianity is not an event that we passively attend, but rather a life we must live and more fundamentally a real being that we must get to know as a friend.
It’s been said that to know someone is to love them. Before we can truly love anyone, we must have some form of up close and personal interaction with them. Especially in the U.S., we’ve been trained to interact with God vicariously through the songs, teachings, and books of others. This is a relatively recent phenomenon that I’m sure would seem quite strange to early believers. Much of what we’ve come to accept as our expression of faith is no more than an obligatory routine that we do each week because apparently we lack the motivation to try something else. According to the Lord, the bare essence of our faith is relational in nature, not ritual. But therein lies the problem. Our culture has trained us to put more effort into our events than we do our relationships. We were created to live out our lives in the context of a family and a community that would allow us not only to function, but also to actually enjoy ourselves in the process. It is my contention that American Christianity has become more about our meetings than what our meetings are supposed to be about… mutual life giving love relationships with God and others.
Looking at the back of each other’s heads while listening to a talking head, although purposeful, is clearly not relational in nature. Of course there’s value in these types of gatherings, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t get together on Sunday mornings anymore. The point is that we’ve just invested an unhealthy percentage of our time and energy in our meetings and not nearly as much as we should in each other and our individual interaction with the Lord. Genuine relationship, be it with God or others, is costly. It is time and energy consuming. It is also very risky and thus potentially unattractive … at first.
One of my daughters came into my office the other day and blurted out, “I’m mad at God!” Being the picture of parental wisdom and patience that I am, I responded, “Yeah? Why’s that?” She went on to explain in detail several of the things she didn’t understand about her current life situation and more specifically what the Lord wasn’t doing for her that she wanted him to do. She went on for some time verbally re-enacting the conversations she and the Lord had been having. “I said this, and then he said that, then I asked why, and he answered with this…” and so on. It was as if she was describing verbatim an interaction she had just had with one of her high school girlfriends. After she left the room, I have to admit that I had a deep sense of pride in my little girl’s relationship with the Lord. It was real, it was raw, and it was honest… the way genuine relationships always are. Sometimes we get mad and have to give each other a piece of our mind. “I don’t like the way you’re treating me… why’d you do that? Sometimes I don’t understand you.” If we ever find ourselves talking this way with God… that’s actually a good sign. It means we’re getting to know him as he really is… and not just because someone else told us what he was like. Intimate relationship requires truthful, gut wrenching vulnerability more often than not.
And frankly, that’s probably more at the center of the real issue. Most of us are so emotionally wounded, that we have great difficulty achieving much heart to heart intimacy with God or anyone else. Life has been rough on all of us whether we’re willing to own that fact or not. I don’t care how spiritually mature we think we are, we are deeply emotional beings and most of us could benefit greatly from some prolonged inner healing and deliverance ministry. And in my experience, sometimes it’s the most visible and influential church leaders who are in the most desperate need of emotional healing. Many of the leaders I’ve known would love the opportunity to be truly vulnerable with someone, but they realize they can’t go there for fear of certain character assassination. This dynamic has bread much of the rampant superficiality and smiling fakeness that we’re experiencing currently in the local church. Pastors are people too… so we need to cut em some slack. Pedestals tend to be precarious by design.
In addition, we must also not forget that every moment of our lives we dwell smack dab in the middle of a full on, bare knuckled brawl in the supernatural realm. As a believer, we have an enemy who is hell bent on sucking all the peace and joy out of our life here on earth that he possibly can. One of his primary strategies is to simply get us to focus on one another’s weaknesses or mistakes so that we remain in a state of offense toward one another. Or, he just gets us to start doubting the Lord’s goodness or love for us and as a result we become offended at God. Proverbs 18:19 says, “An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city” That sounds like battle language to me. Local church life seems to bristle with opportunities for relational pain and anger, but unhealed emotional wounds and unaddressed offense both have the potential to keep us from honoring our two most essential directives. We can’t love God or each other at a distance. It has to be a transparent, face to face interaction for it to work.
If you think about the definition of “love” provided in 1 Corinthians 13, you will realize that very few of these concepts are easily applicable to a large public gathering. True love must be expressed in the context of relationship, and most often to an individual. Thus, loving God and each other can be difficult to do well in a crowded room with someone singing or talking on a microphone. Forgive my pragmatic nature, but we need to re-think this thing a little. How am I to express love to you if I’m afraid to even look at you when you’re sitting right next to me? God forbid we distract one another and miss some crucial moment of the performance on stage. Is it just me, or is there really something very wrong with this picture? Why are we so afraid to get out of our seats and mix it up a little?
Truthfully, it’s not just the rut we’re in on Sunday morning, it’s the overall shortage of joy and our frequent inability to simply ENJOY our relationships with one another and the Lord that seems to keep dogging us. We’ve been so busy doing the church thing that we’ve forgotten how to BE the church. How we interact with our friends, our family, our fellow employees, or our boss is a much more accurate indication of our spiritual maturity than how well we understand and can articulate the latest and greatest doctrines. Paul called this being “blown here and there by every wind of teaching.” (Eph 4:14) Many of us still think that if we can just get our friend to the meeting…. if they just here the right message, they’ll “come to the Lord.” Here’s an idea, why don’t we make an honest effort to take the Lord to them? He’s in us right? I don’t know anyone right now who would say they suffer from too much kindness being shown to them, or having too many friends who really care about them. Jesus was known as a FRIEND of sinners. Sometimes just being a good friend may be the most spiritual thing we can do for someone. That also applies to our relationship with the Lord. Slowly I’m coming to the understanding that he wants us to see ourselves as more than his child or his servant. Just like us, he needs friends. Jesus likes it when we just hang out together, no agenda, no pressure… friends. Honestly, I still have trouble being a good friend in the Sunday morning environment, to the Lord and to others. Too much other stuff is going on, and we only have so long to do it because there’s another show starting in an hour and a half. Hurry and find your seat, we don’t want to miss the trailers. It’s time for change. God help us, I feel like we’re at a fork in the road.
In Part 1 of The Good Life, I briefly shared about a couple of the lessons learned during a five year period of my life in which God seemed to be a million miles away. After functioning for many years with what I thought was a relatively significant sphere of influence, my faith journey suddenly took an abrupt turn down a treacherous road that led me to a very dry place on the backside of nowhere. Like most American males, my identity was closely tied to my job and my perceived status in the proverbial pecking order. I went from overseeing a gifted ministry staff and weekly having the attention and esteem of hundreds of people, to being the lowest man on the totem pole in a dead end job. Any inflated impressions I may have once had of my self quickly became little more than a distant memory. Now that I was no longer “The Pastor” I began to question my place in the world and what purpose my life might have apart from my calling and ministry abilities. More importantly, what value was I to the Lord if I could not even hold onto the position of “full-time” Christian servant? The answer to that question came as a result of an elongated wrestling match with God that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. But hopefully, by learning from my boneheaded stubbornness, you can fore go a few of the painful face plants and mat burns that accompany any form of confrontation with an omnipotent being.
OK, so you don’t feel like you’re fulfilling what you know the Lord has called you to do. Or maybe he’s made promises to you about your future that don’t seem to be getting any closer to being realized. Perhaps you’re currently experiencing an unprecedented level of situational difficulty. Money problems? Broken relationship? Shattered dreams? Poor health? For the overcoming Christian, it all eventually leads to the same outcome… an unconditional surrender of our will, followed by a decision to trust in the kind and gentle nature of our Heavenly Father. One of the most crucial truths I learned in the wilderness is this; never put your hope in an outcome, instead, put your hope in the Lord. We often hear the fist half of Proverbs 13:12 quoted; “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” But that’s not the end of the verse. It continues with “a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” If we find ourselves sick at heart, it might be because our hope has been misplaced. Real life begins, and our deepest longings are fulfilled when we can authentically breathe the ultimate prayer of surrender, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Please trust me on this my friend, God will do what he wants, when he wants, however he wants to do it. In fact, if experience has taught me anything, the what, when, and how of God’s plan for us often ends up looking completely different from what we might have envisioned or hoped for at first. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:9) If we can’t be happy unless God does what we want him to, or we somehow withhold our affection unless he does it the way we think he should, then we might as well prepare ourselves for an extended stay in the Heartbreak Hotel because we’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Simply put, man plans and God laughs. We might as well get used to it because that’s not gonna change. Lordship ultimately requires us to give even the good things he’s given us (words, promises, dreams, callings) back to him. God allows in his wisdom what he could easily prevent by his power.
Now here’s the good news. Those promises we have from the Lord don’t lose any of their potency or potential with the passing of time. I don’t care how long it’s been, he will do what he said he would do. He is completely faithful to his word and worthy of any amount of blind trust we can muster. Our job is to live in obedience one day at a time. Each day God will give us the grace to do what he asks us to do. If we ever find ourselves being anxious about our future, then in essence we’re trying to borrow from tomorrow’s grace. Learning to live by faith is a lot like collecting manna. If you try to get enough both for today and tomorrow you’ll end up with something rotten. “Tomorrow has enough worries of its own.”
After a long wander through the desert, I am slowly learning to enjoy my life in whatever form it takes. Many times this begins with little more than a quick acknowledgement of the Lord’s goodness. Sometimes it’s more of a conscious decision to be grateful. All in all, the quality of our life has everything to do with our demeanor toward God. If we stay mad at him, or question his goodness for too long, we’ll find our selves stuck in the dry places. When we choose to believe that he loves us and wants nothing more than to bless us, then the good things he has for us begin to flow again. Truth be known, my situation hasn’t changed all that much since I entered the wilderness. I’m still working the same job for the same pay. My sphere of influence and ministry remains small in comparison to what it used to be. I’m not really in a place where I can do some of the things I know I’ll eventually get to do for the kingdom, but for the first time in my life, I’m starting to find peace and fulfillment in a way I’ve never experienced. Little by little, I’ve been getting the revelation that I don’t really have to do or be anything to earn the Lord’s approval or affection. I’m his beloved son and he likes me just the way I am. I like to hunt, collect stuff, hang out with friends and eat really good food. That’s the way God made me… and that’s enough.
Lord please help us to submit to your will for our lives. Please forgive us for holding back our affection when things don’t turn out the way we want them to. You are so kind and patient with us. Help us to keep our eyes on you and on all the good things you have given us to enjoy. Forgive us for comparing ourselves to others and help us to accept who you have made us to be. You are good and your mercies endure forever. Amen
I know for some it might be hard to believe that the Lord could speak through a classic rock song, but it happens to me all the time. In fact, I believe that there was a very powerful anointing that rested on many of the bands from the 60s and 70s. Even though most of the artists probably had no idea that the Lord was using them to speak truth, He often did just that with or without their intent or acknowledgment. Recently, while driving home after a long day of work, I decided to pick up my cell phone and call my friend about a business start up we were working on together. Knowing that we had both come from a very similar performance oriented background, we were encouraging one another with the truth that many times it’s not about us having to work harder or to strive to make something happen. Instead, the Lord was teaching us that our forward progress is usually more about being willing to trust in his goodness and sovereignty so that we can enter into His rest. The Lord was trying to help us get the revelation that when our soul is at rest, and the peace of Christ is ruling in our heart, then we can just sit back and enjoy the ride. As soon as I hung up the phone, I hit the radio button and the song “Free Ride” by Edgar Winter started up as if perfectly cued. Being the closet rock and roll devote that I am, I cranked it up as loud as it would go. A very powerful encounter with the Lord ensued.
In the formative stages of my spiritual development, I was internally driven by the belief that, “If it’s gonna be, than it’s up to me.” Oh sure I could quote any number of scriptures that were contrary to that mindset, but when it came down to how I was actually living… I was just as self motivated and clueless about the Lord’s leadings as I was before I became a believer. Although lordship starts with making a decision, that is most certainly not where it stops. In fact, learning how to truly depend on the Lord may involve a long and humiliating process. At least it has for me, and I’m fairly confident that I’m not the only one who’s had a little trouble practicing this principle. Most of us, and this is especially true of we American Christians, have been trained from a very early age to be self reliant and self oriented in thought and lifestyle. Think about it, the very formation of our country was due largely to our unwillingness to submit ourselves to a ruler. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a gun toting republican who thoroughly enjoys his freedoms. But learning how to be more lead and less driven has not been easy for me. I don’t know how many times over the course of my Christian journey, my soul has exclaimed, “Stand aside God and watch how much I can DO for you.
It’s taken many years to even begin to comprehend how arrogant that thought pattern must be to the Lord. Whether we admit it or not, we often live as if our Heavenly Father’s interest in us and/or his approval of us is somehow affected by something we might do or not do “for” Him. Granted, we all have things we’re called, gifted, and anointed to do. But believe it or not, he really doesn’t need us to do anything. “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” (Prov 19:21) Regardless of our theology, it is shamefully egocentric to deny the fact that His plans and purposes will prevail with or without our human efforts. This revelation is doubly needful for those of us who’ve committed ourselves to leading and serving in the church. As one who was once the textbook example of a Messiah Complex, I can tell you from experience that much of our need to “serve” may be improperly motivated. Remember, “the poor you will always have with you”. In other words, there’s always more that needs to be done. Our job is to do only what the Lord himself asks us to do. Anything beyond that is a yoke we need not wear. Obedience truly is better than sacrifice, that hasn’t changed. In fact, I’ve come to believe that one of God’s primary intentions for us is that we simply learn how to relax and enjoy the life He’s given us.
If you’re feeling the burden of a heavy yoke, maybe it’s time to inquire of the Lord about what you’re carrying that’s not really your responsibility. If you’re an intercessor, maybe you need to stop watching the news for a while. I’m pretty sure the oil spill in the gulf and that situation in the middle-east that you’re so concerned about will get solved without you losing any sleep over it. No offense, but sometimes we overestimate the significance of the role we play in the grand scheme of things. Go for a walk, enjoy a nap, eat a cheeseburger without feeling guilty for the love of God! It’s gonna be OK. He’ll keep the universe from imploding on itself. Our job is to cease from our striving and enter into his rest. The Lord God Jehovah is on the throne. He loves us and He’s got this whole thing figured out and under control. We need only to listen and obey, listen and obey, listen and obey. Let Him deal with the rest. Come on and take a free ride.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)
The mountain is high The valley is low
and you’re confused on which way to go
so I’ve come here to give you a hand
and lead you into the promised land so…
come on and take a free ride
come on and sit here by my side
come on and take a free ride
all over the country I’ve seen it the same
nobody’s winning at this kind of game
we’ve got to do better it’s time to begin
you know all the answers must come from within so…
come on and take a free ride
come on and sit here by my side
come on and take a free ride.