I haven’t blogged in a while. My “blogging” had become little more than a regurgitation of sermons I was preaching, and well, honestly, that seemed like a waste of time, so I let it go. Maintaining margin in life demands that we must let go of some things. Posting an edited sermon (though it didn’t take a lot of time) was one of those things I could let go without affecting too much else. But…
Since I haven’t “blogged” in a while, a lot of random thoughts have just sort of piled up, so anyone reading this will get my thought vomit as I use today’s blog for what blogging was supposed to be in the beginning–a journal. Speaking of journaling, I used to be an avid journaler. Not so much anymore. Since I started a job in the “real world,” I find it difficult to find the time to journal like I once did. It makes me appreciate in a much deeper way those persons who do live in the rhythm of a regular spiritual discipline. Cudo’s to you, I say!
Okay, so random thought number one is to confess that I found it easier to establish a pattern of spiritual discipline when I was serving in vocational ministry. I’m not sure if that is because I had more time (I seriously doubt it), or I made more time (out of guilt or a sense of duty), or if I was simply more in-tune to the Spirit and that brought intentionality. Whatever the motivation then, I am challenged more to find and/or make the time to practice the spiritual disciplines.
One spiritual discipline that I haven’t relinquished is prayer. I still pray…a lot. One thing I’m praying for even in this moment is for my friends and former colleagues in Southwest Louisiana. They have been hit hard over the past several hours with rain and tornadoes. Of course, that rain and those tornadoes is on top of the hurricanes from last year from which people are still recovering. I pray for strength and hope to fill their hearts and lives, and for the merciless insurance companies to discover some amount of mercy as flood waters recede and recovery begins.
Speaking of prayer. Yesterday, I prayed what I thought to be a bold prayer–“I’m broken…Lord, break me more.” I suppose this is confession number two, but I’ve been a bit spiritually broken lately. I won’t bore you with details, but there has been a bit of unsettledness in our lives as of late, and that unsettledness has caused me to question the Lord on not a few occasions. I have dealt with some anger. I have dealt with some doubt. I have dealt with some confusion, and if I’m being totally honest, I’ve dealt with some fear, too. I just sort of laid that out before the Lord and said, “I’m broken.” Immediately, I knew my prayer had to be, “Lord, break me more.”
Well, be careful what you pray for!
Here’s what I heard in reply:
“You know, Lynn, one of your problems is that you are confusing your wants and your needs. What you want is for Me to be an add-on to your self-centered life, but what you need is for Me to totally eradicate your self-centeredness. You also know that if I give you what you need, it’s going to be painful, and I know you really don’t like pain that much. So, as long as you waver between what you want and what you need, you’re going to continue to be unsettled. When you’re ready, I’ll give you what you need. That, too, may be unsettling, but you’ll have peace, and that’s really what you’re lacking right now.”
So, as is always the case, one prayer leads to another, and today my prayer has become, “Lord, give me peace.” Confession number three, I’m a little afraid of how He will answer that prayer, too. In some ways, I feel a little like Sonny (played by Robert Duvall) from the film “The Apostle.” I said in some ways I feel like Sonny…not all ways, but I do want to shout out “Give me peace! Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me!” If you want to see what I mean, you can watch it here.
So, I’m going to just leave it there for now. It might give you pause for contemplation. And besides, that’s about all the random thoughts I can handle for now.
You know my friend, Boudreaux? I think I’ve told you about him before. Well, Boudreaux and his wife, Clotile, go down to St. Peter’s Catholic Church, and down there at St. Peter’s, they hold weekly husband’s marriage seminars.
At the session one week, the priest asked Boudreaux, who was approaching his 50th wedding anniversary to Clotile, to take a few minutes and share some insight into how he had managed to stay married to the same woman all these years.
Boudreaux replied to the assembled husbands: “Well, I’ve tried to treat her nice, spend the money on her, but best of all is, I took her to Italy for the 25th anniversary!”
The priest responded: “Boudreaux, you are an amazing inspiration to all the husbands here! Please tell us what you are planning for your wife for your 50th anniversary?”
Boudreaux proudly replied: “I’m gonna’ go pick her up.”
A METAPHOR FOR GRACE
Oh, that life were that easy, right? We all know it’s not. Those of us who have been married any length of time know that marriage is hard work. As we continue resetting our understanding of God’s grace and how we experience our relationship with God, I remind us that our relationship with God can somewhat be compared to a relationship of a husband and wife in marriage. There is the courtship stage of the relationship, where one partner “woos” the other, inviting them into a relationship. That courtship stage, when God is wooing us into a relationship with Himself, we experience God’s prevenient grace.
Then, there is the moment we say “I do” to God, when we are, by grace, able to acknowledge that God desires to have a relationship with us…we hear His voice…and we say “Yes” to Him. That moment, that part of the relationship, we experience the justifying grace of God. We experience the forgiveness of our sins, and we are given new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As a husband and wife stand before the altar and publicly proclaim their love and say “I do” to each other, so we proclaim our love and commitment to Christ.
Something happens after the wedding ceremony, though. Yes, I know we like to think it’s called the honeymoon, and there is that honeymoon phase of marriage that everything seems to be wonderful. Of course, I can say I’ve been on an almost 40-year honeymoon, but that’s for another day. Seriously, though, we know what happens…and it’s called life. It is God’s sanctifying grace that sustains us over the long haul of life. It is His grace made real in the challenging times, in the everyday times…when life happens.
A CALL TO HOLINESS
Sanctifying grace is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us. Our journey, our spiritual journey, is a journey toward transformation. When we come to Jesus Christ and he forgives our sin and gives us a new start, that’s not the end of the journey. In that moment, Jesus does something for us. If justifying grace is God doing something for us, sanctifying grace is God doing something in us. The something He desires to do is make us holy. We hear that word “holy,” and we think, “Who me? Holy? No way.” Yet, that is the life Christ call us to.
Let me pause here and insert that living a holy life is not living a holier-than-thou life. None of us will likely ever live a sinless life, at least that’s been my experience—but that could just be me. Certainly, John Wesley taught that not only does Christ deliver us from the consequence and penalty of sin, but he also delivers us from the power of sin.
As we journey through this life, there will always be temptations to sin. There will be challenges to our faith. There will be crises that cause us to doubt. We will deal with death. We will deal with disease. We will deal with difficult people. We will be angry. We will be frustrated. That’s life! In those times, we need grace, and God gives us grace so that we need not surrender to the baser instincts of our fallen nature. Christ gives us new life. Christ gives us new hope. It is Christ who sustains us through the journey.
The holiness Christ call us to is different than sinlessness. As Wesley taught it, and we understand it, holiness is nothing more…but also nothing less…than love for God and love for neighbor. It is to love as God loves. Jesus gave us two great commandments. We find them in Mark 12: 29 – 31: “The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Holiness is about growing up in love. It is growth, and as I anticipate the coming of summer and that first ripe tomato of the season, I’m reminded that growth is a process. We don’t miraculously love as God loves. Oh, that it would be so simple. Growth is a process, and holiness is a process. Yes, there is, in one sense, where we are made holy by the work of Christ on the cross, but holiness that is lived out occurs over time. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t wake up the day after you accepted Christ living a holy life. But also, don’t be surprised if he begins a work in you, too.
C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, explains it this way. When he was a child, he often had a toothache, and he knew that if he went to his mother, she would give him something which would deaden the pain for that night and let him get to sleep. But, Lewis said, he did not go to his mother–at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason he did not go was this: He did not doubt she would give him the aspirin; but he knew she would also do something else. He knew she would take him to the dentist the next morning. He could not get what he wanted out of her without getting something more, which he didn’t want. He wanted relief from his pain; but he couldn’t get it without having his teeth set permanently right. And he knew those dentists; he knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. Our Lord, says Lewis, is like the dentists. Lots of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.
God’s sanctifying grace works on those problematic places…those sinful places in our lives. Conviction is part of His sanctifying work. Sure, most of us don’t wrestle with big sins…even the day after accepting Christ. You know, like murder and stealing and lying. No, what we deal with are much more subtle sins…like selfishness, jealousy, greed and envy. Those sins need transforming, too, and when we struggle with those along our journey, when they sap us of our energy and capacity to love, it’s then we need grace, and the promise of Scripture is that God gives us His grace—His sanctifying grace—to give us strength, to give us energy, to give us hope in the face of the struggle so that we move closer to the place…closer to the destination… closer to holiness
THE HARD WORK OF HOLINESS
Any relationship takes work. Whether it’s the relationship between a husband and wife, or between parents and children, friends or co-workers. If we don’t do the work to sustain relationships, they will break down and there will be distance between the persons in the relationship. In our relationship with God, it is God’s desire to make us holy. I think I’ve written before that God is not nearly as concerned about our happiness as he is about our holiness.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12: 1-2 (NIV)
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Roman Church, says “be transformed” (Romans 12: 2). That’s passive, my friends. Transformation is something that happens to us and in us. We can’t say, “I’m going to transform myself, I’m going to change.” We may give it the old college try, but we’ll most probably fail because it is God and His grace that does the work.
I hear you asking, “How?” What makes us holy? I remind us of the disciplines of the spiritual life—prayer, solitude, fasting, accountability.
Accountability? Let’s not blow by that one. Yes, accountability is a spiritual discipline. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must hold each other accountable to living the “holy” life-the Christian life. We are meant to do life together. We can’t simply watch a brother or sister in Christ who struggles with sin and not offer encouragement, correction and hope. Jesus didn’t mind challenging his disciples when their faith waned, and he certainly never backed down from challenging the Pharisees. That’s accountability at work, and it is a means of experiencing God’s sanctifying grace.
We know about bible study, too. There is another one without which no transformation will occur. It is the spiritual discipline of submission.
Submission is the spiritual discipline that frees us from the burden of always needing to get our own way. In submission we learn to hold things loosely. We also learn to diligently watch over the spirit in which we hold others— honoring them, preferring them, loving them.
Submission is not age or gender specific. We learn to follow the wise counsel of the apostle Paul to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). In Ephesians 5, Paul is introducing the “household code” for the Christian, and he uses the analogy of husband and wife in speaking of the idea of mutual submission, but this submission is not limited to that relationship alone. Each of us is to engage in mutual submission out of reverence for Christ.
The touchstone for the Christian understanding of submission is Jesus’s statement, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).” This call of Jesus to “self-denial” is simply a way of coming to understand that we do not have to have our own way. It has nothing to do with self-contempt or self-hatred. It does not mean the loss of our identity or our individuality. It means quite simply the freedom to give way to others. It means to hold the interests of others above our own. It means freedom from self-pity and self-absorption.
Indeed, to save our life is to lose it; to lose our life for Christ’s sake is to save it (see Mark 8:35). The cross is the ultimate symbol of submission. Again, the Apostle Paul writes, “And being found in human form, [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7 – 8).
Jesus didn’t just die a “cross death.” He lived a “cross life” of daily submission to God the Father. We, too are called to this constant, everyday “cross life” of submission. It is as we submit to the Holy Spirit that He does His transforming work in us and we grow in holiness by His sanctifying grace.
A man and woman had been married for more than 60 years. They had shared everything. They had talked about everything. They had kept no secrets from each other, except that the little old woman had a shoe box in the top of her closet that she had cautioned her husband never to open or ask her about.
For all of these years, he had never thought about the box, but one day, the little old woman got very sick, and the doctor said she would not recover.
In trying to sort out their affairs, the little old man took down the shoe box and took it to his wife’s bedside.
She agreed that it was time that he should know what was in the box. When he opened it, he found two crocheted dolls and a stack of money totaling $95,000.
He asked her about the contents. “When we were to be married,” she said, “my grandmother told me the secret of a happy marriage was to never argue. She told me that if I ever got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and crochet a doll.”
The little old man was so moved; he had to fight back tears. Only two precious dolls were in the box. She had only been angry with him two times in all those years of living and loving. He almost burst with happiness.
“Honey,” he said, “that explains the dolls, but what about all of this money? Where did it come from?”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s the money I made from selling the dolls.”
Day after day, year after year, life happens and we make the daily choice to submit to the other, and we wake up forty, fifty years later and the love has grown deeper and more meaningful, and we discover our life in the other. Ultimately, the other for the disciple of Jesus, is Jesus Himself. We love Him and we love like Him. That is holiness. That is God’s sanctifying grace at work.
In the midst of Holy Week, with Lent winding down, I’m contemplating the season in which I consciously chose not to “give up” anything for Lent. No, the season didn’t begin with me receiving ashes. I didn’t chose to fast, or refrain from eating meat on Friday. I gotta’ confess…I don’t feel like I’ve missed that much in opting out of any particular Lenten observance. You may argue, therein lies the problem.
The observance of Lent hasn’t historically been a Protestant thing. I never knew of Lent in the church where I grew up. It wasn’t until I entered seminary that I was challenged to “observe a holy Lent,” as the United Methodist Book of Worship extended the invitation. I sought desperately to learn what this “holy Lent” was all about. It was more pronounced by the fact that in Junction City, KY, where I served as pastor during seminary that the Roman Catholic Church was literally next door. Yet, it was all still new to me.
I suppose it’s a good thing that seminary opened to door to all things Lenten because my first post-seminary appointment was in Morgan City, LA. Does anyone know where Morgan City, LA is located? That’s right. Deep in the heart of cajun, heavily Roman Catholic south Louisiana. There, almost everyone observed Lent. Sit down restaurants in Morgan City? During Lent you wouldn’t find meat on the menu on Friday. Catholic churches would have fish-fry fund-raisers every Friday. Lent was a real thing. I’ve sought to observe a “holy Lent” ever since.
Honestly, as I anticipate the coming of Easter Sunday, I think more about Christ’s call to new life, and not just to new life, but to a holy life. Too often, in my observances of the Lenten season, my anticipation for Easter was that I could have coffee once again, or re-engage with social media, or have a big, old juicy steak on Friday evening. It was about getting through Lent to celebrate what I could do once again. It was about going back to the old life, not living into the fullness of the new life.
I suppose it is for me that the Lord hasn’t called me to observe a “holy Lent,” but rather to observe a “holy life.” I rather believe the Lord has been calling me to instill the practices that constitute a holy Lent into my life throughout the year, not just for a season. It might just be that practicing fasting regularly (which John Wesley did, by the way) will take me deeper into the life of a disciple.
Perhaps I’m just over-thinking things here. Perhaps I’m convicted that I didn’t observe Lent this year. Maybe that’s what really has me thinking out loud. Perhaps it’s just that it’s Tuesday and I should be writing a blog and I couldn’t think of anything else to write about. I’m not sure what it is, but I am sure that if a “holy Lent” doesn’t lead to a “holy life,” then it’s been a wasted Lent, and I hope none of us have a wasted Lent.
Maybe I shouldn’t think out loud so much. Maybe I should just focus more on Easter. Yeah, that’s probably what I should do.
I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m thinking a lot about love this week. After all, yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and I shared a message with the folks at Beulah Community Church on the biblical understanding of love (watch it here). As much as I think I understand the concept of love, I find that I struggle greatly with the actual act of loving. That’s the rub for me.
Those of us who have grown up in church have heard these words all our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 30-31, Lynn Paraphrase). We’ve heard them, and I, for one, have always asked, “What does it mean to love God?” Let’s not talk about loving others. I want to know what it looks like to love God? What does it feel like to love God? Sometimes I think it’s easier to love others than it is to love God. Of course, the Apostle John wonders, “if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:21). I assume if you’re reading this that you do, deep in your heart want to love God, too. Like me, you just want to know how.
An Encounter with Jesus
I think to know how to love God, we first need to understand the context in which Jesus made the statement. Jesus made the statement after his authority was challenged. The Pharisees were attempting to entrap him, so they had challenged him on the issue of Jews paying taxes. Pharisees didn’t like paying taxes to the occupying government, and worse, they hated the Jews who served as tax collectors for the Romans. Inhabitants were responsible for paying 1% of the income as an income tax, but in addition to that tax there were import and export taxes, crop taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, an emergency tax and others. Sounds familiar to me! Jesus said, “Pay your taxes.” He wasn’t going to be trapped.
Then, some Sadducees approached and asked a question about the resurrection. Hey? If the Pharisees couldn’t trap him, perhaps the Sadducees might. Sadducees and Pharisees were like political parties in the United States, except they were religious parties and they held differing opinions on theological issues. It might be more akin to Baptists and Methodists today. They’re both Christian, but with different understandings on certain issues. Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead, and to prove their point, they chose to challenge Jesus with an outrageous puzzle. We won’t go into what Jesus said to them. Suffice it to say, Jesus answered well.
One lawyer who had been witnessing the entire episode perceived that Jesus was a pretty smart fellow, so he thought he might give it a try. Now, think about this: a lawyer is steeped in the law—even the religious law. So, the lawyer asks a religious question, and if he was asking a religious question, he was expecting a religious answer. That’s exactly what Jesus gave him.
Jesus answered the Jewish lawyer with the Jewish “Shema.” It’s Deuteronomy 6:4 – 5, and every self-respecting Jewish male recited it every morning as part of his daily devotional. Listen to Deut. 6: 4 – 9:
4 “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. 6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. 8 Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Loving God, for the Jew, as it was meant to be, was about living in the constant awareness of God’s presence and grace. The purpose of the Shema was to incorporate God into daily life. Daily living was the context for teaching children about God. Daily living was the context for experiencing God. God was not just for one day a week. God was for every day. God IS for every day. If we don’t experience God somewhere, some way every day, we need to question whether we experience God at all.
Jesus told the lawyer, “Love God with all your life—heart and soul (the emotional & spiritual self), mind (the intellectual self), and strength (the physical self). Jesus was saying, “Employ all your energies—put your whole self into it. In one word—be passionate. I love the way Eugene Peterson says it in The Message: Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’
What are we passionate about? That’s a fair question, isn’t it? It’s fair because we know we invest in those things we’re passionate about. Here’s a list of passions. Where’s yours?
Food (my personal favorite)
We can even be passionate about faith, but that’s usually only one day a week. If we’re not careful, we can let life steal our passion. That’s what happens to most of us in our relationship with God.
Pastor Rick Warren has a list of what he calls passion killers. He says these things are what kill our passion for Christ. First is an unbalanced schedule. Life is about balance. Too much of anything, even a good thing can be bad. Work is a great thing, but too much work can kill our passion for our spouse, our hobby, our children, or our relationship with God.
Second is an unused talent. I know when I was a DS, and I wasn’t preaching every week, I could feel myself losing that passion. I’m passionate about preaching. I may not be very good at it, but I love to do it. You pay me to be your pastor, but I preach for free.
A third passion killer Warren identifies is unconfessed sin. Guilt is a great passion killer. Warren says that, “We don’t walk around thinking, ‘I have a sin in my life. I am a guilty person’.” Rather, we rationalize it. Consciously we think, “It’s no big deal,” but subconsciously it gnaws at us. We don’t have to carry that guilt, though. Christ died for our sin. Confess it, and move on. Don’t let guilt kill your passion for God.
A fourth passion killer is unresolved conflict. Conflict divides us from one another. If there’s conflict at work, you don’t want to go to work. If there’s conflict at home, you don’t want to go home. If there’s conflict at church, you don’t want to go to church. Conflict will kill our passion for anything, and that includes God.
A fifth passion killer Warren notes is an unsupported lifestyle. He says we’re created for relationship, and if we live in loneliness, we find our passion for most all life diminished. God created us for relationship with himself, and with each other.
Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is about rediscovering that passion. How do we restore the passion in our lives? Three words: desire, devotion and discipline.
Desire is the first characteristic of loving God. We’ll never love God unless we first desire Him. We pursue the passions of our lives –whatever they are—yet, they too often leave us unfulfilled. It might just be because our hearts are made for God. I love how the wisdom writer says it in Ecclesiastes 3:11: Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.
Devotion is the next characteristic of loving God. There is no better picture of absolute devotion than a man and woman standing at the altar on their wedding day. The smiles, the endearing gazes into each other’s eyes, the little wink as the vows are spoken to each other, and the anticipation of the coming night.
I get a good view of this every time I perform a wedding, and even the worst couple, in that moment, are carried away in heart, soul, mind and strength. The great A. W. Tozer said, “We are called to an everlasting preoccupation with God.” That is devotion, and as husband and wife stand at the altar hopelessly devoted to each other, I am reminded that we are the bride of Christ.
The final word is discipline. I don’t like that word mainly because I have little self-will. It makes me cringe and think I have to do legalistic things to meet God’s approval. I think it’s being “obedient.” Obedience is not how we love God. Obedience is a response to love. Obedience is evidence of our love. Discipline is not law, but is a means of experiencing God’s grace. Spiritual disciplines like fasting, confession, Bible reading, solitude, worship and prayer are tangible ways we incorporate God in the every day.
As I write this morning, I am reminded that Lent begins Wednesday, and Lent is the perfect time to practice the spiritual disciplines more intentionally so that I can love God more meaningfully. Oh, and there’s one more discipline—the sacrament of Holy communion—it, too, is a way to incorporate God in the everyday. That’s what it means to love God—experiencing Him every day!
Life has taught me a lot of lessons. Some of those lessons I learned the hard way, and some came rather easy. As I’ve reflected on prayer over the past four weeks, I discovered there were a number of lessons concerning prayer that I’ve learned that I thought if I wrote them down they would become more tangible to me. I want to share seven lessons on prayer that seem rather profound for me at this time in my faith journey.
We are hard-wired to pray. When I say “we,” I don’t simply mean Christians. I mean people are hard-wired for prayer. God made us that way. I love what the writer of Ecclesiastes says in 3: 11, “He has planted eternity in the human heart…” With eternity in our hearts we long for a connection to something/someone beyond ourselves. There is a deep longing for the Divine which lies within us, and prayer is the language that connects us to God. No matter where we may go in the world, we will find praying people, whether those people be Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish or some other obscure faith. Prayer is at the core of what people of faith do.
We all pray. No, we may not all have that set time each day that we consciously focus on matters of prayer, but we pray. Even if we don’t consider ourselves a praying person, when there’s a crisis, we treat prayer like a fire extinguisher. We run to it when we need it. While some of us my treat prayer like a fire extinguisher, others are prayer warriors that have learned to pray, as the Apostle Paul counsels, without ceasing. No matter. We are hard-wired to pray.
No one feels they are very good at prayer. Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Think of the profound nature of the disciple’s request. Most of Jesus’ disciples were Jewish men who were taught to pray from a very early age, and most of them had done it twice daily since around the age of 12. These were praying people, and yet, when they saw Jesus praying, had the awareness that they weren’t very good at it.
We, too, (perhaps I should only speak for myself) feel inadequate to pray, and the reality of most of life is if we’re not good at something, we don’t do it. We get frustrated because we can’t develop a habit of prayer. We feel insecure in our knowledge of prayer. We are sometimes confused because we don’t see answers to prayer. Let me say all that makes us is normal.
I’m reminded of the words of Thomas Merton, one of the greatest men of prayer to ever live. Merton said, “But let us be convinced of the fact that (when it comes to prayer) we will never be anything else but beginners all our life!” We may go all our lives feeling we’re not very good at prayer, but let that not stop us from trying.
“But let us be convinced of the fact that (when it comes to prayer) we will never be anything else but beginners all our life!”
Prayer is communion with God. If we feel confused in our prayer life, it may be because we are trying to make prayer something that it isn’t. Prayer is conversation with God, meant to keep us in communion with God.
Do you have a person you call your best friend yet never talk to them? Can I tell you about Bill? Bill was my best friend. My family and I moved to Kentucky for me to attend seminary. We didn’t know anyone in Kentucky. Sure, we’d get to know the church folks, and eventually some of the students from the seminary, but one day shortly after we moved, I looked out the back window of the parsonage and I saw someone mowing my yard—a two acre yard, I might add (I don’t know why anyone would leave a pastor responsible for a two acre yard, but that’s for another blog). I met Bill. Bill was not a church member (he did eventually become one, and I had the honor of baptizing him), he was just a neighbor. We became best friends who saw each other almost every day. We went fishing together, to flea markets, to gospel singings.
We eventually moved back to Louisiana. When we first moved I would talk to Bill on the phone once a week. Over time, it became once a month. It wasn’t long before it became every other month. As more time passed, it became once a year. Now, twenty years later, we keep up with each other on Facebook. We lost our communion because we stopped talking. Why would it be different with God?
Prayer deepens our relationship with God. The Apostle James says in James 4:8—“Come close to God, and God will come close to you.” Prayer is the primary thing that makes us more like Jesus. That’s why the disciples would ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. If we want to be more like Jesus, we must pray. Service is great, but serving more will not transform us to be more like Jesus. Prayer transforms us. We pray hoping to change circumstances, but prayer is meant first to change us, and we are changed when our relationship to God is deepened.
Prayer is not just an event, it’s an attitude. Oswald Chambers says, “Prayer is not only asking, but an attitude of mind which produces the atmosphere in which asking is perfectly natural.” The Apostle Paul counsels the believers in Thessalonica, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Apostle Paul doesn’t mean that we are to constantly remain in our prayer closet, but we are to have an attitude and mind that we are always aware of the Person and the needs around us…to know that God is always present and always listening and always ready to hear. Prayer is not just an event, but an attitude.
Prayer is simple, but not simplistic. Jesus gave his disciples the “model” prayer when he was asked to teach them to pray. The model Jesus gave is not a long, eloquent prayer, but rather a short, to-the-point statement, yet that short statement encompasses all that is necessary to nurture a life of prayer.
In “The Lord’s Prayer” (which really should be called “The Disciple’s Prayer) there is adoration—“Hallowed be Thy name.” There is confession—“Forgive us our trespasses…” There is supplication—“as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is provision—“Give us today the bread we need.” There is a request for strength—“do not lead us into temptation.” That’s all deep stuff.
I’m going to paraphrase an early church mystic by the name of John Climacus. Climacus, in essence said, flowery and abundant words fill our minds with images and distracts us, while a single word can focus us in reflection. The more simple the prayer, the more potential for power, and that is not a simplistic idea.
Prayer is far more significant than we realize. It is significant because it can release God’s power and provision in our lives, or I should say, prayer is the means whereby God’s power and provision is released in our lives, and that is significant. If we want to see God’s power and provision in our lives, then we must be persistent in prayer. That’s why Jesus would use the examples he gave his disciples.
Prayer is not a one and done thing. We must be like the persistent friend at the door. We must continue to ask, seek and knock. We must P. U. S. H. through in prayer. PUSH is an acronym that stands for Pray Until Something Happens. Power and provision come through our persistence. No, we don’t wear God down. Persistent prayer reflects our faith in the One to whom we pray, and faith can move mountains.
The profound nature of this particular lesson is visited upon me over and over again. Over a period of three years, Vanessa and I spent time in deep prayer seeking to discern where God was calling us in ministry and in life. He was calling us away from the United Methodist Church, and at that time, away from vocational ministry.
I learned the significance of prayer yet again as we entered into a period of prayer and discernment concerning planting a house church. That was at a time when I had no real desire to be in ministry leadership, but prayer reveals some really significant things!
There has yet been one more significant development as a result of a season of prayer, and that development has been to step back into the pulpit as a “pastor,” which is something I NEVER believed I would do. I believed my time in vocational ministry was done (I wanted it to be done). I was content to work, attend worship and fill the occasional pulpit. That could be satisfying, indeed. The Lord had other plans.
In September of last year, I was asked to “fill in” for three weeks at Beulah Methodist Church beginning in October. They were without a pastor and I couldn’t think of a good reason to tell them, “No.” At the end of the three weeks, no pastor had been appointed and they asked if I would stay on until the end of the year. Saying “No,” seemed a bit selfish since I had no other commitments, so I committed the congregation. I met with the congregation and stated in no uncertain terms that I was NOT their pastor. I was simply their guest preacher for this time. My commitment was to establishing and growing The House Church Movement. The Lord had other plans.
The Beulah Methodist Church congregation, long a United Methodist congregation, through their own time of discernment voted to become affiliated with the Evangelical Methodist Church, and to withdraw from the United Methodist Church (we’ll see how all that works out). On January 31, 2021, the Evangelical Methodist Church chartered a congregation named the Beulah Evangelical Methodist Church, and I was appointed its pastor by Rev. Kevin Brouillette, the District Superintendent for the area that includes the state of Louisiana. Prayer pervaded the entire experience, and that is significant.
The decision did not come hastily, or without persistence in prayer. Vanessa and I have been patiently listening over the three months we were preaching at Beulah to hear God’s voice and learn His direction for our lives.
We have been like the man who lived alone in a cabin by the lake. There was a large rock in front of the cabin. One night while he was sleeping, his cabin filled with light and the Lord appeared to him telling him he had work for the man to do. The Lord showed the man the large rock and told him, “I want you to push against that rock with all your might.”
The man undertook the mission, and day after day for years, the man went and with all his strength pushed against the rock. For years the rock never moved. Frustrated and weary from the struggle, he took the matter to the Lord in prayer. “Why would you have me push that rock for all these years with no hope of ever moving it?”
The Lord replied, “I didn’t ask you to move it. I asked you to push it, but in the pushing you became stronger. Look at your hands, your shoulders, your back. They’re all stronger because you were obedient. Now, I’ll move the rock.”
Vanessa and I believe the Lord is calling us to take this step of faith. We will serve the church as a bi-vocational pastor. That simply means I’ll continue my “day job” in the banking industry and serve the congregation, too.
Life and ministry have taught me a lot of lessons. None are more powerful than these practical lessons I’ve learned about prayer. I suspect that many of you are seeking clarity concerning God’s call on your life. My encouragement is to keep praying simple, persistent prayers. The Lord will eventually show you the way.
We all pray. Admittedly, it may only be in times of crisis when we have no other option, or even before we realize that’s what we’ve done, but we all still pray. Carrie Underwood sang a song that illustrates the point—Jesus Take the Wheel. The song is about a women driving on Christmas Eve when she loses control and she cries out, “Jesus take the wheel.” She is spared a horrible accident and thanks the Lord. She then tells Jesus to take the wheel of her life. It is a powerful song, and it illustrates that we are more prone to praying than not. There is, however, a great difference in that momentary crisis prayer, and the prayer that changes the world. That’s the type of prayer Jesus prayed, and that’s the type of prayer the disciples wanted to pray when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus prayed earth-shattering, life-changing prayers, and we can, too.
That raises the question, “Why pray?” Why should we, as disciples of Jesus, make prayer a regular part of our lives? If I see prayer as another duty to add to an already overcommitted schedule, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as a waste of time because we see so few answers to prayer, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as something for other, more religious people, then I will never pray. If I see prayer as something to be done only in emergencies, then I’ll only pray in emergencies, and I’ll never know the power of life-changing prayer. Prayer is more than a duty. Prayer is more than looking for answers to problems and struggles, and prayer is more than being religious.
I know of three reasons (there are many more, but in the interest of time…). I see the three reasons exemplified in the life of Jesus in an encounter recorded in Luke’s Gospel called the “transfiguration:”
28 About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. 31 They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.32 Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 34 But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them.35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” 36 When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone. They didn’t tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
Jesus is on Mt. Hermon with his inner circle of Peter, James and John, and there on the smoke-covered mountain, they entered the presence of God. This encounter reminds us of the time in the Old Testament when a prophet named Moses (who appeared here with Jesus) went up to the mountain to see a bush that was not consumed and there he discovered he was on holy ground in the presence of God.
Elijah, likewise, was whisked away into heaven on a whirlwind by a flaming chariot to stand in the presence of God. We could get lost in the symbolism of God and the mountain. It is rich symbolism, indeed. Lost in the symbolism would be the detail that is so important in understanding why we pray. The first reason why we pray is because prayer brings us into the presence of God.
Into God’s Presence
God wants an intimate relationship with us. God wants with us the type of relationship he shared with Jesus—a parent/child relationship. He wants to watch us grow, and he wants to give us the best that he has to offer, but we have to embrace that relationship, and we can only do that as we enter into his presence, and prayer brings us into his presence.
God invites us deeper in and higher up. Like our relationship with our children, we love it when they ask us for things. The very fact that our children ask us for things enhances and deepens our relationship with them because it shows their trust in us and their dependence on us. P. T. Forsythe said it this way, “Love loves to be told what it already knows…it wants to be asked for what it longs to give.” Prayer takes us deeper in and higher up in our relationship with the Father.
Prayer places us on the mountain of God’s presence even in the midst of the daily, ordinary circumstances of our lives. The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary because that is where we live most of our lives. We don’t live on the mountain, and though Jesus went to the mountain, and was on the mountain when he entered God’s presence, it was Jesus’ prayer that brought him into God’s presence, not his position. Our prayer brings us into God’s presence. Our prayer takes us to the mountain in the midst of daily and ordinary struggles.
Jacqueline was an elderly woman who lived to take care of her daughter, who was wheelchair bound. When her daughter died, Jacqueline lost her purpose in life and her living companion. Most of her time was spent in oppressive solitude because all her friends were also dead, and her own health was failing, too.
One day, Jaqueline opened her bible to Philippians 4:5, and four words stuck in her mind: “The Lord is near.” Jaqueline thought, “If that is true, then I should be more aware of it.”
“Lord,” she prayed, “I’m going to pretend you’re here all the time. No, forgive me. There is no pretending to be done. I’m going to visualize you really are here. Help me remind myself of the reality of your presence.”
Jaqueline began to pray that very night. “Lord, I’m going to bed now. Will you watch over me as I sleep?” When she would sit down for a cup of tea, she would read through Philippians 4 again, underlining verse 5, and she would pray. At noon, she said, “Lord, let’s watch the news so you can show me what to pray for. They watched the news and she prayed for flood victims, and a new African president, and a man sentenced to life in prison. At supper, she prayed and thanked the Lord for her food, but she wasn’t praying to someone distant. She was talking to someone sitting across the table from her. Little by little, her attitude was transformed. The loneliness lessened, her joy increased, her fears diminished, and she never again felt she was alone in the house. Her prayers kept her in the presence of God.
Why pray? Because prayer brings us into the presence of God.
A Change in Us
A second reason we pray? Prayer changes us. As Jesus prayed, his countenance was changed. He was transfigured in the presence of God the Father, and in the sight of Peter, James and John (even though they almost slept through it). The glory of God shone all around him and was reflected in him as he prayed. Now, I’m not suggesting that our prayers will reveal the divine nature within us the way it did Jesus that day, but in prayer we catch a glimpse of God’s glory, and God’s glory will be reflected through us to the lives of those around us.
One reason we don’t pray like we should is because we’re simply not prepared to change. How does prayer change us? First, prayer changes us in our relationship to God. We view God in different ways. Sometimes we have no relationship with God. God is just someone or something out there somewhere, but that knowledge has no impact on how we live our lives. God is simply the philosophical first cause, but little more. Yeah, He’s God, but so what?
Others may see God in a relationship of fear. We project our understanding of humanity onto God. Like, God is the big score-keeper in the sky, or judge on the bench. We are limited in our ability to be in a relationship with God because we’re afraid of Him. Who dares confess to the judge? He might condemn us. Or, who would tell the score-keeper we committed an error? That might cost us a run, or a basket, and we’d lose the game. Prayer allows God, through His Word and Holy Spirit to bring us into a deeper understanding of His true nature. Prayer confirms that God is love, and that God really does love us.
But, prayer also changes us in relation to ourselves. Like Carrie Underwood’s song reminds us, there are times we learn to depend on God, and we can do nothing else. Here are the words:
Jesus take the wheel Take it from my hands Cause I can’t do this on my own I’m letting go So give me one more chance Save me from this road I’m on…
We learn our true nature in prayer. We learn of our need for forgiveness. We learn self-denial. We learn God’s will, and we are able, through the Holy Spirit, to adjust our lives to God’s truth. Prayer changes us in relation to ourselves, and sometimes that’s just not a change we’re willing to make.
We also see that prayer changes us in relation to others. Prayer brings an awareness of the great need for salvation and redemption throughout God’s creation. If we don’t see the needs around us, it might be because we’re not praying. We pray because prayer changes us.
Finally, a third reason we should pray? Prayer brings assurance. Jesus was beginning the final leg on a long journey toward the cross. This time of prayer confirmed for Jesus that he was in the Father’s will, and brought assurance that God was with him on the journey.
You and I need assurance, too. We face the uncertainty of life, and we all know that life can pose questions that are unanswerable, but in prayer, we hear God say to us that hope is not found in the temporal circumstances that overwhelm us, but in the eternal love and grace of God.
The reasons we should pray are as limitless as God’s love and grace, and with these three reasons to pray we have only scratched the surface of the benefits and joys that come through prayer, so it leads to the question, “Why don’t we pray?”
Evangelist John Rice tells a dream he once had. He said, “I once imagined I was in heaven. Walking along with the Angel Gabriel, I said, ‘Gabe, what is the big building over there?’”
“You’ll be disappointed,” he answered. “I don’t think you want to see it.”
Rice said he was insistent until Gabriel relented, and proceeded to show him floor after floor of beautiful gifts, all wrapped and ready to be sent.
“Gabriel,” Rice asked, “What are all these gifts?”
Gabriel replied, “We wrapped all the beautiful gifts for people, but they were never delivered because they were never requested.”
We don’t live in God’s presence because we don’t ask. We don’t change because we don’t ask. We don’t have assurance of hope and life because we don’t ask.
God’s presence, transformation and assurance. I can’t think of three better reasons to pray.
If you’d like to watch the message from which this blog was taken, you can do so by clicking here.
“Who am I?” We’ve all asked ourselves that question at one time or another. It is a question of identity. Another question we all wrestle with in at some point in life is “What do I want to be when I grow up?” It’s a question of purpose, and we usually don’t ask it that way. We more often ask it, “What am I here for?” So, two existential questions of life are “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
The questions get complicated really quickly, though. Let me illustrate. Who is Lynn Malone? Well, you would likely say, “He is the pastor of The House Church Movement, or Vice President for Business Development at Peoples Bank.” That is a correct if incomplete answer to the questions. It only answers the second question (“What am I here for?”). The original question is still unanswered. I asked who he is, but our tendency is to answer what he does. See the difference? Tricky, right?
It’s About Relationships
We can’t answer the “who” question without talking about relationships. To understand who Lynn Malone is, you would have to tell me about his parents, siblings, wife, and children. Then I would have a context for his relationships and would understand to whom he belongs. This belonging would help me more clearly understand who he is. This helps me understand his identity better than simply knowing what he does.
And while we’re talking about his relationships, here’s another important one to consider—his relationship with Jesus. Telling me about his earthly relationships only answers half of the “who is he” question. I also need to know about his relationship with Jesus to fully understand his identity because when Jesus enters the picture, everything changes. Literally—everything changes. This is what the Apostle Paul is telling the Ephesians in the second half of chapter 4 of his letter to the church.
Paul shares the tangible and practical aspect of the believer’s new identity which has been changed from what it was to what it is, and that change comes as a result of the believer’s relationship with Jesus Christ.
Paul illustrates this change by using an analogy of taking off an old coat and putting on a new one. I’ve still got an old coat from a former life hanging in my closet. I wore that old coat (it’s nearly forty years old) when I was a sheriff’s deputy in Jackson Parish. It’s an old coat, but it still fits pretty darn good. But, Paul says it represents the old man, and in Jesus, we take off the old man.
I’m a bit of a fashion conscious guy. So, I go out to the mall a few months ago and I walk through the entrance and I see this red coat hanging there. I like color. I like bright colors. So, I see this red coat and I think, “I’ve gotta’ have it.” It is my newest coat. Paul says the believer puts on a new coat. He says we are changed!
As a matter of fact, were we to read back up in Chapter 4:17, we’d hear Paul tell them, “Live no longer as the Gentiles do!” Actually, that’s a little strange because most of the Ephesian Christians were Gentiles. So, Paul is saying that’s the old coat you’ve taken off. It’s not where your primary identity lies anymore. It’s NOT who you are. Now, you are in Christ, and because you are in Christ, you are changed.
Do we understand the implication for us today? Rather than finding our identity in tribes or groups, we find our identity in Christ. We are no longer oppressor nor oppressed. Our relationship with Jesus powerfully influences our identities because in Jesus we are new! Not reformed, refurbished, nor remodeled—we are simply and totally new! 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT) says, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”
In our old lives, we thought and acted a particular way and belonged (spiritually) to a particular entity. But when Jesus entered the picture, we became new. So as a result, we began to think and act a new way, and we belong to a new person—God.
The New Questions
This means when Jesus enters our lives, He changes the answers to our two questions. In fact, we need this new set of questions to explore our new identities:
Who am I in Christ?
Who is Christ in me?
Our truest and most powerful identity is hidden in the answers to these questions. Who I am is now framed most strongly by the One to whom I belong. I am no longer who I was. I am now who He says I am. The more I understand Jesus, the more I understand me.
But that’s not all. When I ask who Christ is in me, I discover all Jesus has done to set me up for the strongest contribution to the world. Jesus not only radically alters my belonging, but His power and presence in me now physically affect what I am capable of. His presence awakens spiritual gifts that give me a strong contributing edge I never had before. His passion for people awakens my passions, which give me fuel to pursue what matters to Him.
What is it that matters to Him? That’s what Paul lays out in one of the lists that he likes to make. He talks about sin, and they were sins that the first century Ephesians were dealing with. I don’t have time to go into all of them, and even if I did, we’d be focusing on the wrong thing. As Paul unpacks the nature of the 1st century world, he saw people who sinned and didn’t care. Their hearts were hardened to the sin they were in. He saw people who were shameless in the living of their lives. They did what they wanted to do and they didn’t care who it affected. It was the epitome of self-centeredness. I will say, however, that Paul’s take on 1st century Ephesus sounds eerily similar to 21st century western culture. Let that be warning enough for us.
The Christian life is not checking off lists of do’s and don’ts. It is about being changed by the power of God in our lives through His Holy Spirit. What matters to God is sexual purity, and if it matters to God, it ought to matter to us. Truth, generosity, compassion, love and forgiveness. All these matter to God and so they become guiding principles in our lives. They become part and parcel of who we are. They answer the question—“Who am I in Christ?”
Yes, we’ve put on a new coat, but just because we’ve put on a new coat doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t there to grab the old one and put it back on. Actually, that old one can be comfortable. Oh, and it still fits by the way! It’s easier to put the old coat on, too. Putting on the new coat is a conscious choice we must make every day. We put on the new coat every day by faith, by choosing to believe that we are who He says we are.
The Christian life is not a static life. It’s not a thermostat. Those are wonderful creations that we set it and forget it. Keeps things at a cool 68 degrees or a toasty 72 degrees. The Christian life is more like tending a fireplace. When I was growing up, my brothers and I tended to our grandfather, who was bedfast with arthritis. Every night in the late fall and winter, we had to stoke the fireplace with wood so it would keep the room warm during the night. In a fireplace you have to keep wood on the fire all day. That’s the Christian life. You have to keep working on it to keep the fire going.
This is what I love about Wesleyan theology. Wesley understood that the Christian life is not static. That’s what sanctifying grace is all about—going on to perfection—moving further along the road of faith today than I was yesterday—growing more like Christ every day.
We must put on that new coat every day, and through prayer, bible study, fasting, fellowship, worship, meditation, communion, solitude…whenever we practice the spiritual disciplines we open ourselves to the power of God that is within each of us. Everything God wants us to be we already are on the inside in the person of Jesus Christ.
One of the great saints of the church, Augustine, grew up in a Christian home, but by his own admission, rejected the values of his godly mother and lived a sinful life. One of the many sinful pleasures in which he indulged was sexual sin. Augustine lived with a prostitute before his conversion, and legend has it that after his conversion he was walking down the street and this prostitute saw him. She shouted his name and he kept walking. He saw her, but kept his eyes straightforward and walked. She continued crying after him and ran after him. Finally, she said, “Augustine, it is I.”
Augustine replied, “I know, but it is no longer I.”
We are changed. It’s who we are in Jesus Christ, but we only know that if we ask the right questions.
The great Methodist hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, is known for some great hymns of the church. Among those hymns are Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. Historians have noted that Crosby is responsible for over 9,000 hymns in her lifetime. That’s incredible when we remember that she was blind from the time she was six weeks old. She died in 1915 just shy of her 95th birthday, and the final verse she wrote said, “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye.”
Long before she penned those last words, in 1869 she penned another of her now famous hymns. That hymn resonates with me as I spend this Lent at the cross of Jesus. Hear the words of the first verse of her hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross:
Jesus, keep me near the cross;
There a precious fountain,
Free to all a healing stream,
Flows from Calvary’s mountain.
“Keep me near the cross” is my prayer this Lenten season. It is near the cross that we not only see Jesus, but we hear the words he speaks from the cross. Jesus made seven statements while He hung on the cross. They were the last words of Jesus; each one has significance and meaning, and teach us something about the heart of God.
Famous Last Words
First, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.” In the midst of being unjustly wronged, Jesus was still able to offer a prayer of forgiveness. Next, he interacted with two criminals being crucified beside Him. One rejected Him, the other repented and cried out to Him to save him to which Jesus responded, “You will be with me in paradise,” a wonderful word of salvation.
Then, Jesus spoke a third time from the cross. In his anguish, he looked down from the cross and saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved–the Apostle John. Here is what John recorded:
25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene.26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.”27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 25 – 27 NLT)
As I read these words, I make two discoveries.
The Power of a Passionate Love
The first discovery is the power of a passionate love. I see the passionate love of Jesus. Let’s remember all that happened to Jesus in the past 24 hours. He had been whipped, His back being completely torn to shreds. He had been punched repeatedly in the face. Romans had taken a crown of thorns and crushed it down upon His head. He had suffered an incredible loss of blood. He was desperately weak and thirsty. They took spikes, driving them into His wrists and feet, fastening Him to a cross, slamming it into the ground with all of His weight being held only by those spikes. He knew he was dying.
Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British author and poet said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Here is Jesus, hanging on the cross watching the soldiers gamble for his clothes. If there was ever a time Jesus would be justified in being selfish, it was now, but his mind turned not to himself, but to others—particularly, his mother. Jesus dying concern is for his mother.
Jesus saw his mother and said, “Woman, he is your son.” Jesus was taking care of his mother’s needs. It was his tender compassion at work, even from the cross. Joseph was likely dead, and in ancient near eastern culture widows had no means of support. It was the oldest son’s responsibility to care for his widowed mother. Jesus was doing what I’ve witnessed so many others do through 28 years of ministry. As I’ve journeyed with many through their last days the concern most expressed is not for themselves, but for the one’s they leave behind. Who will care for them? Did I leave enough for them? Will they be alright? Jesus had a deep, passionate love for his mother, and he was expressing it from the cross.
Jesus wasn’t the only one expressing a passionate love, though. So was his mother, Mary. What mother could choose to watch her son die such a gruesome and painful death? Don’t you know that with every blow of the hammer, Mary felt the nails going into Jesus’ feet and hands? Don’t you know that with every labored breath of Jesus she lost a little of her own? It was a mother’s love that kept her near the cross in the face of such pain.
A few years ago, a newspaper report out of south Florida reported of a little boy who decided to go for a swim in the lake behind his house. In a hurry to dive into the cool water, he ran out the back door, leaving behind shoes, socks, and shirt as he went.
He flew into the water, not realizing that as he swam toward the middle of the lake, an alligator was swimming toward the shore. His mother in the house was looking out the window saw the two as they got closer and closer together. In utter fear, she ran toward the water, yelling to her son as loudly as she could.
Hearing her voice, the little boy became alarmed and made a U-turn to swim to his mother. It was too late. Just as he reached her, the alligator reached him. From the dock, the mother grabbed her little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. An incredible tug-of-war began between the two. The alligator was much stronger than the mother, but the mother was much too passionate to let go. A farmer happened to drive by, heard her screams, raced from his truck, took careful aim and shot the alligator.
Remarkably, after weeks and weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived. His legs were scarred by the vicious attack, and on his arms were deep scratches where his mother’s fingernails dug into his flesh in her effort to hang on to the son she loved.
The newspaper reporter, who interviewed the boy after the trauma, asked if he would show him his scars. The boy lifted his pant legs. And then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let go.”
This was Mary hanging onto Jesus as long as she could. Her passionate love kept her from turning away.
The power of passionate love was at the cross that day. Jesus, keep me near the cross that I might know such a passionate love.
The Power of an Incredible Purpose
The second discovery I’d like for us to make is the power of an incredible purpose. We find this power in the Apostle John—the one whom Jesus loved. It was this John who had a special place in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. It was Peter, James and John who saw Jesus gloriously transfigured on the mountain. It was Peter, James and John who were invited by Jesus to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and they were invited to go with Jesus deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest. It is an awesome lesson for us that those who are close to Jesus will be entrusted with great opportunity to serve in the Kingdom: to do for Jesus what he could not do for himself.
Jesus was saying to John, “You have to take my place. You have to do what I cannot do.” We see in these words, not simply a concern of a son for his mother, but also a demonstration of the re-ordering of relationships based on Kingdom principles. Jesus was affirming what he taught in his ministry. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been confronted by great crowds, so much so that Mark says his family was looking for him because they thought he has “lost his mind.” Word came to Jesus that his mother and brothers were outside:
33 Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Then he looked at those around him and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. 35 Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 22 – 34 NLT).
We are familiar with the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” In Kingdom relationships, Spirit is thicker than blood. This was John’s commissioning to become the hands and feet of Jesus and demonstrates to us that the purpose of the church is to become the hands and feet of Jesus. As the elder son was responsible for the mother, so those who are becoming people of Christ are responsible for the forgotten of society. You and I are responsible for others. What an incredible purpose!
I am reminded of the story of the husband who had an affair and divorced his wife so he could marry his mistress. The two married and had children. After the children were born, the new wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As her days final days drew near, she asked the ex-wife to visit her. The ex-wife reluctantly went to see the dying woman. As the two chatted, the dying woman looked intently at the ex-wife and said, “I have a request.”
“What is that?” the ex-wife replied.
“When I’m gone, will you take care of my children? I don’t know anyone I could trust more with their care,” was the woman’s request.
The ex-wife hesitated for a few moments and the air became heavy as the mother thought about the request she had made. Finally, the ex-wife replied, “I’ll gladly care for your children after your death.”
Later, friends asked the ex-wife, “How could you consent to do that after she destroyed your marriage?”
“God’s love has given me the power to forgive. I think I can accept her children as my own,” was the woman’s answer.
God’s children become our own when we stand near the cross. Like John, we are charged to do for Jesus what He can no longer do for himself–care for others. What an incredible purpose!
Want to know your life purpose? Stand near the cross. That’s where we discover the power of an incredible purpose.
The countryside is dotted with churches in disrepair. I’ve seen them. As a District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church, I saw several churches that were abandoned and left to deteriorate. I also visited lots of churches that weren’t kept very well. What brings this to my mind is the fact that we’re dealing with many issues of maintenance that need attention where I serve as pastor. But, I’ve visited others where the building was falling down around the congregation and no one noticed. The congregation is so accustomed to the peeling paint and dirty carpet that they no longer notice it. They haven’t taken the time to fix the faucet in the bathroom, and the Sunday school literature, well it’s only twelve years old, but it’s still useable, so…
We just don’t take care of our buildings the way we should. What’s that got to do with Lent? Shouldn’t we be talking about repentance and prayer and other spiritual disciplines? Yes, we should, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The description of those run-down buildings gives us a good idea of the state of the Temple in Jerusalem when the prophet Joel was young man. Centuries of misuse and disuse had caused Solomon’s once magnificent structure to look more like a building in the slums than in the upscale section of Jerusalem. As Joel grew, there was a turnaround. Later, this dilapidated building was cleaned up and refurbished. After the remodeling, the offerings and sacrifices were restored and Temple life returned to normal. Well, almost.
The prophet Joel wrote the words of his prophecy because there was still a problem. The turnaround in the nation wasn’t complete. Everything looked good on the outside, but there really hadn’t been much of an internal change with these people. God wasn’t looking for an outer change as much as he was looking for an inner one.
It’s the same for us as we seek to observe a holy Lent. God is looking for repentance from us. He doesn’t just want us to say all the right words, and he doesn’t want to simply give us a list of duties to work on, or as we walk this 40 day journey. Outward actions are nice, but if there is no inward change, it’s really all for naught. Jesus says as much in Matthew’s Gospel.
That neglected building, that church that no one is taking much care of, is me. If I take an honest look at my life, here’s what I see? I can’t say there’s been more good than bad. I can’t say that during this past year, I have been more interested in the things of God vs. the things of this world. In just this past week, I can’t honestly say that the Lord has always taken first place in my heart, but he has slipped through the cracks as other priorities crowded him out? Work, spending time with friends, the television and the computer, even simply “me” time have all taken priority. I am good at scheduling things that bring me happiness…and making sure that I keep those appointments.
But, have I been so busy taking care of the other matters of life that I neglected the church inside of me? Is that building strong, well-kept, and beautiful? Or, is there deferred maintenance that needs attending too? Sometimes, we lock the doors of our hearts, and just expect that our faith will remain intact, and so we can take a little vacation from working hard on our Christian lives, and when we come back, everything will be fine. If we don’t keep up the maintenance, the spiritual building will begin to fall down around us–metaphorically speaking…
Lent is a perfect time to begin that deferred maintenance in our heart. Joel’s prophecy has one word that serves as the beginning of the work–“Return!” If we’ve been away from the Lord for a while, or if we haven’t followed him as vigorously as we know we should, God is holding out an invitation to us: “Return! I want you back!”
God tells us how he wants us to return to him. The Lord says, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” In Biblical times, if a person were really upset over something, they would tear their clothes as a sign of sadness. But many people played a little game with God. When they were confronted with their sin by God’s priests and prophets, they would tear their clothes, they would put ashes on their heads. They’d do everything that made them look sad, and then they would go back to those same sins. The problem was they were trying to cure cancer with a band-aid.
The outward signs of Lent—putting ashes on our forehead, confessing our sins, singing sad songs—are all nice things to do, but they mean absolutely nothing if we are playing the crying game with God, telling him how sorry we are, but returning home to the same life we have been leading when Lent is over.
Joel helps us get into the proper mindset when he prophesies, “return to me with all your heart.” Returning is repenting, but repenting is not simply being sorry for what we’ve done. Repenting is turning from what we’ve done. Repentance includes not doing it again, and repentance starts in the heart. Missionary Gypsy Smith shares the story of the time he spent in South Africa. On one occasion, a handsome Dutchman came into his revival service, and God laid His hand on the Dutchman and convicted him of his sin. The next morning he went to the home of another Dutchman and said to the homeowner, “Do you recognize this old watch?”
“Why, yes,” answered the homeowner. “Those are my initials; that is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?”
“I stole it,” was the Dutchman’s reply.
“What made you bring it back now?”
“I was converted last night,” was the answer, “and I have brought it back first thing this morning. If you had been up, I would have brought it last night.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever read through the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, but the first of those theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is a process that is repeated over and over throughout our life.
During Lent, as we stress our desperate need for repentance, there is a silver lining. There is time for us to come back to God. The prophet says “even now,” with our rebellious past, the Lord still wants us. We talk about doing deferred maintenance, having genuine from-the-heart repentance, and God does something awesome when we come to him on his terms. The sinner repents, and the Lord relents.
Here’s Joel 2: 13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” We are hopelessly guilty, and we know it. We look around and see the peeling paint of our hearts. We smell the old, dirty carpet. We see the burned-out light bulbs. It’s all around us. That’s exactly why we need Lent. We come to repent because we know He is a God who relents.
Lent is a journey toward the cross of Jesus. The cross is where we learn how God can afford to relent. Our deferred maintenance begins on Ash Wednesday, but it finds its full restoration at the foot of the cross.
It’s popular thing to give up something for Lent. Considering ourselves to be more spiritual than someone who isn’t giving up something for Lent is not an appropriate start to the journey, nor is supposing that giving up something puts us in better standing with God. The proper way of beginning is to remember that Jesus gave up everything for us, so out of gratitude we give up something we love for him. It’s an offering of sorts. But, avoiding chocolate or not watching our favorite TV show for 40 days isn’t going to make us more spiritual unless we fill the time with the Word of God and prayer.
God doesn’t command that we give up something for Lent, but if we choose to do so, here is a way that will be a spiritual benefit to us—think of something you really enjoy doing: maybe it’s eating a particular food or drinking a certain beverage. Maybe it’s an activity like shopping or exercising. Maybe it’s staring at the television or computer screen for hours on end. If you chose to give something up for Jesus, then be sure to replace it with prayer, and Bible study. Maybe instead of spending 2 hours watching a basketball game, you go into your room, and read through the Bible, slowly digesting every word, considering how God is talking to you, praying that the Lord speaks to you and makes you a better disciple. Joel ends verse 14 with these words, “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully.”
We repent, God relents. And when we go into his Word, God opens his storehouse of spiritual treasures to us and gives us gift after gift. The Lord wants to replace the trivial things in our life with real gifts. Gifts like peace in our hearts that can deal with any problem. Gifts like a greater willingness and ability to serve Jesus in our life.
So, let’s start those maintenance projects. Our lives resemble a building that needs some upkeep, and Lent is the time to get to work. Jesus won the ultimate struggle for us. He has fixed us up, and He is fixing us up to make us a glistening, beautiful building in which we will dwell forever. God has made us into a building like that, and now with the Spirit’s help, strive to keep that building up! Let’s not be satisfied with mere cosmetic improvements, but let us plead with the Lord to use His Word to change our hearts to make us a more repentant, more useful servant in God’s kingdom.
Silence is golden! It reminds me of the Psalmists words from Psalm 46:10, where he wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God!” Silence makes us uncomfortable, though, and if you find yourself uncomfortable sitting in silence for 30 seconds, you might need to develop the habit of solitude.
Solitude and silence are two sides of the same coin, for they are both about quietness—inward quietness and outward quietness. We can remove people from our lives but still fill the void with noise, and we can be in a great crowd of people and remain empty and lonely. The habit of solitude is a means of grace that brings inner fulfillment.
What do I mean when I talk about the habit of solitude? If fasting is the abstaining from something (primarily food) for spiritual purposes, then solitude is withdrawing to privacy for spiritual purposes. It is a “going away,” or “getting away” for the purpose of listening for the voice of God. We should note, however, that solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a particular place. We don’t necessarily have to go away to get away. We can possess inward solitude that can set us free from loneliness and fear no matter where we are.
LONELINESS AND FEAR
Let’s talk about that for a moment because it is loneliness that keeps many of us from developing this habit of solitude. I have over the years had the opportunity to go on a few silent retreats—most of them at Catholic abbeys. I remember the first one I attended. I was a first year “resident in ministry.” That means I was fresh out of seminary, beginning the “provisional” process toward ordination and the Conference begins that process by the practice of silence and solitude. I will confess I was scared to death. I’d never been on one before, and this was going to be for three days. I had four children and a spouse. I had just completed three years in seminary with friends and colleagues. I was appointed to a new church with people I needed to get to know. I’m a people person! What in the world was I going to do on a silent retreat for three days? I was going to go crazy, that’s what! But, when it was over, I couldn’t wait for the next one!
Loneliness is inner emptiness—so says Richard Foster. For some of us, we don’t like to be alone because we don’t much like our own company, or because our personality is so shaped by the people around us, we don’t even know who we are when we are alone. It may have to do with whether we are an introvert or an extrovert – introverts gain their energy from within, and are drained by exterior stimulation. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain their energy from exterior stimulation and are drained by interior work. Whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert, whether we don’t like our own company, or whether we don’t know who we are when we’re alone, we need to cultivate this habit because as a means of grace it strengthens our soul.
Jesus knew the power of solitude and he practiced it often. Mark’s Gospel records a time when Jesus and his disciples had been busy doing miracles and ministry across Galilee. There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat. In this span of ministry, Jesus has been rejected in his hometown, commissioned his disciples for a ministry tour and received the tragic news that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. He’s literally “had it up to here,” and so he says to his disciples, “Come on! Let’s get away to a quiet place and rest.” He knew that the clamor of busy-ness will sap even the greatest person’s strength.
Mark’s account wasn’t the only time scripture records Jesus getting away. Jesus began his earthly ministry by spending forty days alone in the wilderness (Matt. 4). With three disciples He sought out the silence of a lonely mountain as the stage for the transfiguration (Mt. 17:1—9). We could go on, but you get the picture that seeking out a solitary place was a habit for Jesus. So it should be for us, too.
What grace comes from solitude? What benefits? Let me mention only two. First, solitude provides an opportunity to get real with God. Charles Caleb Colton once said “Character is who you are when no one else is looking.” If we are going to be real with God, we need to get alone with God. In the quiet of solitude, all pretensions can be stripped away, all the things in life that are trying to mold us in their image are removed, all the requirements of the world disappear, and we can stand before God “just as I am” as the song says.
This is scary for some, but it is in solitude that we am reminded that above all else our identity is caught up in the fact that we are God’s chosen child. If we are not really sure of what God thinks about us, being alone with him might be pretty scary! If we’re not so sure that God loves us, get alone with him, listen to his voice – the first thing that the Holy Spirit teaches our spirit is how to say “Abba, Father” If we can get alone in silence with God, the first thing we will hear is the Spirit whispering in our ear “you are God’s adopted child – he chose you, he loves you.”
Dallas Willard, who wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines, said that the discipline of solitude is for strengthening. You may remember the story of Elijah from the Old Testament. Elijah was God’s prophet to the nation of Israel at a time of great apostasy under King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. There was one instance when Elijah challenged 450 false prophets of the god Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah even did so mockingly, and he called fire down from heaven that destroyed all 450 prophets of Baal and the surrounding altar and their sacrifice. It was a victory of monumental proportions. Immediately after the victory, though, Elijah flees because he’s afraid for his life. Weary and worn out, it’s on a mountain in the Sinai desert that Elijah encounters God, not in a windstorm, not in an earthquake, not even in the fire, but in a still small voice. It was after Elijah encountered God on that mountain that he was able to complete his calling. He poured out his heart to God, he got real with God, and God strengthened him.
When you and I get alone with God, we’ll hear him say he loves us, and we’ll find strength to face life whatever challenge it might bring our way.
Second, solitude provides an opportunity to get centered. Jesus sought out solitude before he made big decisions in his life and ministry. Before he chose the twelve who would be his closest disciples, Luke tells us Jesus spent the entire night alone in the wilderness. Following the healing of a leper Jesus “withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (Lk. 5:16). As he prepared for His highest and most holy work, Jesus sought the solitude of the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36—46).
Billy Graham, in his autobiography Just as I Am, recounts the period in his life when he was being pressured by Charles Templeton to give up his belief in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Graham took some time in solitude and he realized that intellect alone would not solve his problem – that it was an issue of faith. So he placed his Bible on a stump in the middle of the woods, and knelt down and said, “Oh God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Templeton is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.” And through that time of solitude Billy Graham was shaped into the man the world came to know as the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. We get perspective when we get centered, and we only get centered when we get alone with God.
Solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a place, but even so, we can’t forget that habits are actions, whether inward or outward. We can be pious and talk about the solitude we practice in our hearts, but if that doesn’t issue itself in how we act, we missed it altogether. We need to take it from theory and put it into real life. How do we do that?
Why not start simply? Start with those first few moments as we awaken each morning. Rather than thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get up,” why not think, “God, you love me and I love you”? My daily solitude comes with that first cup of coffee in the morning. Nothing but my Lord, my coffee and myself. No computer. No television. No telephone. Just silence…well, and the ticking of the clock. Silence is often hard to achieve.
Could you try silence and solitude while you’re driving? Turn the radio off for a time. Sure, you’ll hear road noise and passing cars, but you also might just hear God’s voice. Could you, instead of saying a blessing as your family gathers at the table, simply bow and sit in silence for a minute? Parents, why don’t you challenge your children when you’re on that long vacation road trip to a game of silence? See who can be silent the longest. It may only last five minutes, but those will be blessed minutes. We might do something as simple as slip outside for five minutes before bed to taste the silence of the night. We can redeem the time in many, many ways. Grab little moments that help us reorient ourselves to who we are and whose we are.
There are other more intentional and intense things we can do. We might not want to immediately through ourselves into a three-day silent retreat, but we can be intentional about designating a place to be quiet. My place is my couch early in the morning. It’s comfortable. It’s quiet. It’s cozy. Perhaps some of you have heard of Joel Hemphill. He’s a Christian singer and songwriter. Vanessa and I visited with him and his wife when they were building their new home in Nashville a few years ago, and the pride he had to show us was the room he had specially built to be his “quiet place.” Why can’t we find a room, or designate a space in our home to be quiet? Maybe your space needs to be a park, or by a stream. Wherever it is…find it…and use it!
Here’s another idea: Try to live one entire day without words. Spouses, please tell your significant other if you chose to do this! Otherwise, they might just think you’re mad at them, and that won’t do anyone any good.
Others have suggested three or four times a year, take three or four hours to get away and reflect on your life’s goals. You can stay late at the office, or you can go sit by the river. Better yet, use it as an excuse to go to the beach. Take a journal and write it all down. God may just surprise us with some new alternatives we never considered.
The fruit this habit will bear in our lives is a more acute awareness of the voice of God. That’s grace to us. But, it will also bear an increased sensitivity and compassion for others. Like Jesus, we must go away from people so that we can be truly present when we are with people. There is a new attentiveness to their needs and a new responsiveness to their needs, and that becomes grace to them. Solitude is the habit that can be grace for everyone, and that is just perfect!