Friday, June 29, 2018

Great Expectations

Heart check. When you or I are busy with ministry, how often do we pray for God to do our will? And how often do we ask God to do His through us?

I am working my way through Matthew 11 and processing what God is communicating through Jesus and His Word. In that passage John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” In other words, "Are we working together?" John's sacrificed all he had and could have had for Jesus and the sake of the gospel: his career, a family, home, priestly reputation, creature comforts. He was all in. Even so, after intense ministry and in the midst of sacrifice, he was checking to make sure he was where God wanted Him, working alongside the Father, making way for the Savior. He didn't take his role and ministry for granted.

The people, on the other hand, wanted Jesus (and John) to meet their expectations. John was a curiosity. Jesus was a disappointment (see Matthew 11:7-9, 16-19). John was interesting. Jesus was out of control: a glutton, drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners. Neither one met their  profile of the ideal religious leader.
The cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were unwilling to repent. They saw the miracles. They experienced Jesus and said, "That's great, but we're not interested." They had a religious system, a way of thinking about life and themselves that suited their comfort and interests.

How often, as I'm planning and doing, do I think, "God, Your plan's not (glitzy/good/exciting/whatever) enough. I'm going to tweak it"? The temptation is to control or seek a specific outcome rather than please and serve the Father. The truth is that it's not about my idea, goals, or mission. It's about His glory, His power, His ways, His plan--and He will accomplish His will with or without me. Life and ministry is not about God aligning with my plans, but me aligning with His. That's the importance and power of prayer through God's Word--getting my heart and brain in the right place before (and in the middle of) serving God and others. It's a matter of realizing that God's desires and ways are better than mine. His ways are perfect, best, loving, and holy. Mine are not.

When I have great plans and goals for my life (and ministry), I wear myself out with unnecessary effort. I push for my way of ministry, my desires, my long-term goals, my "way of doing things." As one mom said recently, "I'm going to make my child ______ or die trying." The answer? You'll die trying. Instead, I'm learning to stop. Look at God's Word. Prayerfully seek His will and way. Examine my heart. Repent of personal demands. Ask for wisdom. Wait. Consider. Move.

When I'm churning my wheels in the "...or die trying" phase, Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, 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.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Personal newsflash: God's not all about VBS, summer carnival, tents, concerts, and 5 day clubs. He's about Himself. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 14:6). As I let go of my expectations and represent Jesus in spirit and truth, not only does my job gets easier, but His joy and peace increase exponentially.

Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in You.
I said to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
I have no good besides You.”
As for the saints who are in the earth,
They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight.
The sorrows of those who have bartered for another god will be multiplied;
I shall not pour out their drink offerings of blood,
Nor will I take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup;
You support my lot.
The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places;
Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.

I will bless the Lord who has counseled me;
Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.
I have set the Lord continually before me;
Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices;
My flesh also will dwell securely.
For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.
You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever. (Psalm 16)

Monday, June 25, 2018

Effective Ministry

We spent this last week on a mission trip with our youth--and I'm home now, trying to catch my breath, encouraged by seeing the truth of God's Word at work.

When we minister within our churches through Bible studies, teaching, and our lives, we may wonder what, if anything, we're accomplishing. Days are long, rest is rare, tests and trials abound.

But as I reflected on our experience this week, the phrase "[equip] the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ" came to mind (Ephesians 4:12). And that, I realized, is the test of effective ministry. It begins with the pastor and leadership. Their equipping affects parents, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, and lay leaders which then trickles down to every area of ministry. And the teaching of those in authority is reflected by service to others.

No service? No effective ministry. Know service? Know effective ministry.

Before passing the buck to your pastor or leadership team, it's important to recognize our individual responsibility. Am listening to and responding to the equipping God has provided in my local church? If so, how am I equipping others to serve and build up the body of Christ?

If that's not happening, it's time to stop and evaluate what's really happening.

In our case, youth serve alongside and under adults in many different ways in our local church. This week, as we ministered together in both manual labor and spiritual endeavors, they did so with a cheerful heart and ready hands. Service doesn't determine spiritual growth, but the result of spiritual growth is service; a love for God and others that makes itself evident in outward speech, attitude, and action.

It's a valid test for my own life as well. Am I serving only when others' eyes are on me? Or am I regularly, intentionally, secretly serving others for the glory of God? It's the test of effective teaching and ministry.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.

“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

“Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
'Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
‘Give us this day our daily bread.
‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 5:1-18, emphasis added)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Hide and Seek

When was the last time you watched children play hide and seek? As a child we would play Sunday mornings--after we were ready for church, but Mom needed to take care of herself. Apparently she could see Dad "hiding" in the kitchen, but we never could. We'd come tearing around the corner only to be grabbed with a roar, squeezed with a squeal, and let go. Adults see things kids are oblivious to--either they can't or don't want to see them, so they don't.

In reading Jesus' sermon on the mount, the same is true of adults.We don't want to see our sin for what it is. We call it "discernment," "overlooking and offense," or other nicely coined term instead of lying, deceit, or unforgiveness. Jesus called out the people for greed, anger, covetousness, worry, adultery, and hypocrisy, among others. It doesn't matter if we see sin for what it is, God does. God sees what is done in secret and He rewards it.

So one question is, "What kind of rewards are heading my way?" Based on what God alone sees (even if people don't), what's been happening in my mind and heart. That's an examination we need.

The next question might be, "What needs to change?" And this, perhaps, is the harder question with a more difficult answer. I could try to clean up my act (and I probably should). I can try to be more aware of the sin lurking in the corners of my heart and God's holiness (that's a good idea, too). I can try to look out for and love others (that's not bad). But the greater answer is that there is nothing I can do to get rid of my sins of the past or prevent sin in the future. There's just too much of it. It runs deep. And it follows me. Just when I think I'm making progress, it resurfaces. The answer, then, is not me, but someone else. Someone greater, someone better, someone holier who will do it for me.... And that's where Jesus comes in.

The challenge is to admit I can't. I can't change myself adequately. I can't do away with sin. I can't fix the past or prevent the future. I. Simply. Can't. But Jesus did--and Jesus can.

I don't know about you, but today, I need Jesus. When I run around the corner of life, whether I see it or not, He's already there--with a squeeze and a roar. Will you run to His arms or run away? The choice is yours.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall." (Matthew 7:13-27)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Follow the Leader

The point of this blog is to refresh those of us in ministry--and we should all be involved in full-time ministry whether or not we receive financial compensation. Jesus was not about blocks of time, divvying up work, home, friends, fun, and "ministry" or church. When He says, "Follow me," that's what He means. You. Follow. Me.

Jesus wasn't referring to changed behavior, although that should happen. He wasn't referring to being homeless or eating a specific diet, taking on political figures or drawing large crowds. So what did He mean?

- You. Whomever "you" are. God gave you a specific temperament (Psalm 139). He put you in a specific place at a specific point in time (Acts 17:26-27). He already knows every day of your life (Psalm 139:16). You are you. God made you that way. He designed and purposed your work, life, marriage, family, ministry, environment, location, friends, etc. He knows exactly who and where you are. So when Jesus, through His Word and by His Spirit, says, "Come," He isn't expecting someone different. He's talking to you, and He knows who you are. He's not disappointed or surprised to discover your failings or struggles. He is calling you for your benefit (not His--although the goal is His glory).

- Follow. Based on social media, we think "follow" means I can experience your life vicariously. That was not the meaning of the word in 1st century Israel. The literal interpretation is, "come." When Jesus calls us to follow, He intends for us to go to Him (versus our liberal interpretation of Him coming to me, serving me, answering me, caring for me). Going to Jesus, following Jesus, means I give up my desires, plans, and modus operandi. I learn of Him (Matthew 11:28-30). When confronted with a dilemma, personal struggle or sin, I seek to address it the way Jesus would. He is my reason for living. Pleasing Him is my goal (2 Corinthians 5:9, 15). I choose to leave behind what others value, what I once valued, and put Jesus front and center. I no longer measure myself any standard but His because He bought me with His precious blood (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 1 Peter 1:18-19). I belong to Him. I am His slave and bond servant. He is my master (Luke 17:7-10).

- Me. Who is this Jesus? I must know Him to follow Him. I cannot follow Jesus if I am not reading His Word and submitting myself to its truth. I am not following Jesus if I don't care to talk to Him. To go to Him, to follow the way He leads is to love others more than myself. To follow Jesus is to give up my "rights," to be humbled and humiliated, to sacrifice for others, to please and obey God. To follow Jesus is not a list of doing, but a way of being. It is leaning on God instead of myself; trusting God to provide instead of worrying or seeking control. There is more to Jesus than I can every put into words or begin to know and understand in a single human lifetime. But God has given me enough. His Spirit, Word, and people can and will actively guide me in Christlikeness when He is at the center.

So the question: Am I following Jesus? How am I following Him today? This moment? If not, what needs to change? If so, how am I praising and thanking Him? That is clear evidence of His presence.

 All the way my Savior leads me,
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who through life has been my Guide?
Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know, whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well;
For I know, whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well.

All the way my Savior leads me,
Cheers each winding path I tread,
Gives me grace for every trial,
Feeds me with the living Bread.
Though my weary steps may falter
And my soul athirst may be,
Gushing from the Rock before me,
Lo! A spring of joy I see;
Gushing from the Rock before me,
Lo! A spring of joy I see.

All the way my Savior leads me,
Oh, the fullness of His love!
Perfect rest to me is promised
In my Father’s house above.
When my spirit, clothed immortal,
Wings its flight to realms of day
This my song through endless ages:
Jesus led me all the way;
This my song through endless ages:
Jesus led me all the way.

"All the Way My Savior Leads Me" by Fanny Crosby, 1875

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Inside Out and Upside Down

How often are you on the path to success when you realize you've got it all wrong? It's inside out and upside down?

That's what happens when we believe our relationship with God is a result of our choices and actions. The Bible teaches (and we inherently know) there's a connection between what we do and God Himself. The problem is that, if we don't know better, we think that's all there is to it.

Instead, God says it's the other way around: our relationship with Him affects our choices. Our choices do not affect our relationship with Him. That might get you a little excited. And you may think I've lost it and gone heretical. Yep. Because that's what Jesus says--and it runs against everything we want to believe.

In reading today, the Pharisees and Sadducees  were "coming for baptism" (Matthew 3:7). And I had to ask myself if I'd read that right. Really? They wanted to be baptized by John? That made we wonder why? Why would the most religious members of Jewish society go to a man in camel skin clothing from the wilderness for baptism? And the answer, based on their reputation, is that they were doing one more thing to guarantee a right standing with God. They really, really wanted to be righteous, holy, and blameless. That's what they lived for; it's what they were willing to kill for.

What, then, do I think I need to do better? More of? Less of? What is my "if only" that will finally clinch my holiness, reputation, and righteousness? I'm sure the Pharisees and Sadducees found their list growing: as soon as they made one change or added one new habit, there was a new one. That was Benjamin Franklin's discovery in his 13-week self-improvement plan. It's never enough. There's always more and the way is fraught with failure.

John answered, "...bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father...’" (Matthew 3:8-9). In other words, change is evidence of a life that belongs to God, it does not create a life lived for God. If you really know Him, your life will be different. You will think, speak, and act the way He does. You will change from the inside out. Repentance begins with the way we think about God--that He is the instrument of change, we are not.

And, really, the fact that Abraham is your father is a great excuse for sin. Most of us can't use that one, but I know I have others. The truth is that we can depend on our parent's reputation, lives, and actions to a point, but it doesn't work when it comes to personal, spiritual responsibility. There is a level of acting in accordance with God's grace once we've received it; after we put Him in the place of doing and winning our salvation. But thinking we have any part in making it happen is where we get it wrong.

If there's a list in my head, or a series of spiritual self-improvement goals that will finally get things right, I've missed a huge piece of God's plan. God's plan is already done. Finished. Complete. And accomplished from eternity past to eternity future in Christ.  If that sounds like heresy, then I've got it right. Grace is anti-effort. Grace always pushes the envelope. Grace is always better than it sounds. Grace is God at work, not me. And that's what makes it so amazing.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun