An Honest Assessment

When my daughter was two years old and my son was two months old, my husband and I sold our house and moved back to Chicago so he could pursue his Master’s of Divinity. We went back to the school where we met and moved back into the same building I was living in while waiting for him to graduate the first time around.

Part of the master’s program requirements was to attend weekend retreats a couple of times a year. Students were required to go, and families were encouraged to. So we did. The kids and I participated in everything offered for families of grad students.

One weekend in February 2001 we were in a camp in Wisconsin on one of these retreats. We spent the last morning in the camp dining hall eating breakfast. The place was filled with about 300 grad students, their families and faculty. Nick was ten months old at the time. I have to stop here and mention how different my two kids have always been. Abby didn’t crawl until she was 9 months old. She kept her hands to herself, could sit in church on my lap quietly reading, and never showed any interest in anything outside of her immediate reach.

Nick was not like this. Not even a little. His interest piqued over shiny silverware, pieces of fuzz, his sister’s pigtails, anything. He was on the move months earlier than Abby. I frequently dressed him in overalls so that in a moment I could grab him by the straps from the jaws of disaster. Everyone should have a child like this. It’s only fair.

Why I didn’t have this in mind that morning I will never know. Maybe because I hadn’t had my coffee, and the gray matter was still fuzzy. I was attempting to remedy that very thing as I set the cup of scalding hot brain juice in front of me and turned my head for 3 seconds to grab the creamer. Within those three seconds Nick’s busy marshmallow fingers grabbed the cup, and he was wearing it.

His screams drowned out the noise of those 300 people. My husband jumped in, grabbed him from his seat and ordered whoever would listen to rip his clothes off and get him to cold water. When I saw the layers of skin literally peeling back from his stomach, I froze. I didn’t know what to do.

Suddenly, there were about 5 people with nursing degrees, some students some spouses of students, that went into emergency mode and started doing things to help. They asked me questions I should have known the answers to. They handed Nick to me so I could comfort him while waiting for the ambulance. I handed him back. I didn’t know how to comfort a baby writhing in pain who was experiencing this because of my oversight. I couldn’t answer any of their simple questions. I shut down.

This week we take the “A” in ENGAGE. Assess the damage. Assess the need.

I love this quote by musician Kathleen Casey Thiesen:

“Acceptance is not submission; it is acknowledgement of the facts of a situation. Then deciding what you’re going to do about it.”

In the example I gave, protocol demanded that the situation be assessed by those with the correct skills and abilities and then determine what needed to happen next. Not only did I not have any medical training or knowledge, I had nothing mentally to contribute to the situation. Left to my own devices I would have sunk into a pit of despair with the cries of my injured baby somewhere in the distance.

Sounds bleak, but that is exactly where our culture is. If we’ve decided to engage it with the message of Jesus then we’ve taken the first step toward in being a light in the darkness-not burying our heads in the sand and trying to live around it. What comes next is an honest assessment of the damage and then assessing the need.

We see the damage broadcast all over the news, on our college campuses and behind the doors of abortion clinics. We see it on our streets where the homeless wander, at the food banks where the starving wait for a meal. We see it in our courtrooms and on Capitol Hill; some decisions made to undermine righteousness others made in an attempt to “fix” things. And if you look closely you can see the damage on the faces of friends and coworkers who muddle through life wondering “what went wrong with society.” The damage is sin. The need is Jesus.

For those of us who know Him personally, we have the solution to every one of those issues.

In Luke 4:18-21 Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read these words from the prophet Isaiah:

“’The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (NIV).

Jesus just declared Himself the solution to every problem that plagues humanity. Just like I didn’t have it in me to deal with the situation that day, those in our culture  don’t  have what they need to deal with the situations they find themselves in. I needed clearheaded medical professionals to jump in and help Nick and me. The world needs those of us who have access to the Expert. They need what we know.

I can’t imagine how I would have felt to be in a room full of people that, not only couldn’t figure out what needed to be done, but worse, didn’t even get up and assess the situation. To respond that way would have drifted into the area of malpractice for those with medical degrees. How devastating to be in trouble with no acknowledgement of that trouble from those who have the solution.

We’ve heard the saying that “nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.”

So what are you doing? What are the needs in your family, your neighborhood, your circle of friends, your corner of the world? Who do you know that needs freedom proclaimed to them, good news preached to them, and a release from oppression? You can’t do everything, but you can do something. Assess the damage around you, and assess the need. Then do it.

Gifts Are Meant to Be Used

Nine years ago a very generous family member purchased a brand new van for my husband and me right off the lot. It had everything. Great stereo system, DVD player, electric windows, keyless entry. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven. It wasn’t long, however, that our dream vehicle turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment.

From the very beginning the paint started to peel in different places all over the van. Since there was a recall on that particular color of paint on that year’s model, it was covered. No big deal. I’ll admit it was a bit of an inconvenience having to take it in every few months to have another part of it repainted. At one point I even suggested that maybe they should just repaint the entire thing once and for all and be done with it. It would save me the trouble of coming in all the time and them the unpleasantness of seeing me.  That, of course, is not how they do things.

The real difficulty started once the recall was up. All of a sudden, they weren’t nearly as accommodating. In an effort to get them to take care of this issue I’ve sent 13 letters to all 13 members of this company’s Board of Directors with pictures. It cost me a small fortune. I’ve been on the phone with headquarters several times trying to get them to understand what it means to stand behind a product. I’ve searched high and low for paperwork they insist I have to have in order for them to even start to address the problem. Apparently they purge their files every 18 months if you haven’t been in to see them.

I asked if maybe my information was somewhere in cyberspace and that they would need to dig a little deeper. They assured me that, despite the fact that this is indeed the computer age, all of my information was on paper documents that would take days even weeks to locate.

I got of the phone and cried out of sheer frustration. There is nothing worse than feeling like you’ve been given the runaround, like the powers that be think you’re stupid and will buy just any story you’re given, like if they frustrate you enough you’ll just give in and trade up. They haven’t met me. This van has 140,000 miles. I plan on driving it at least to 200,000. That’s three more years for me, that is, unless the rust on the roof is not addressed in which case, I’ll be driving around town with a sunken roof and snow on my head in the middle of winter! I really can’t take it.

Up to this point when I’ve thought about engaging my culture my understanding of the concept has been limited to situations in which I am intentionally witnessing or trying to lead someone to Christ. I don’t think about the way I respond to the bank teller that tells me to have a nice day when she’s taken about ten minutes too long to process a check or the person at AT&T who just can’t figure out why I don’t have internet service and happily tells me they’ll send someone out in a few days to look at it, or the guy at the dealership that tells me there’s really nothing that he can do for me until I find the paperwork he needs.

There were so many things I wanted to say to the dealership like how it’s their job to fix their product, like this is the 21st century, the age of computers, and how it’s not my fault if they can’t get it together, how they should be embarrassed to have their product driving around town looking as bad as it looks, how a $1,000 paint job is a drop in the bucket to a multi-billion dollar company, like how the customer is always right, etc.  Yes, I know. I had an adult-sized temper tantrum in my head until the Holy Spirit reminded me that engaging our culture is something we do every time we leave our house and enter society. If you’re alive and functioning you’re engaging whether you want to or not. How you do it is really dependent on how much you buy into the idea of the role of the Holy Spirit in your life.

So this week, we take the “G” in engage. Gift of the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 1 before Jesus ascended into heaven he was eating with His apostles and said this:

“Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:4,5,8, NIV).

Yes, the Holy Spirit is given to believers as a gift to help carry on the message of Jesus, but He’s the gift that keeps on giving.

He’s the Counselor, John 16:7

He’s the Spirit of truth, John 16:13.

He’s the Comforter John 14:26.

And the piece de resistance: He is the same power living in us that raised Christ from the dead, Romans 8:11.

During this whole process I’ve become acutely aware of my need for help from the Holy Spirit, not just in my feeble attempts at evangelizing the human race, but also in my day-to-day interaction with them. On my own I simply do not have what it takes to interact with the outside world in a manner pleasing to God. But I have this promise:

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 2:3, NIV).

 

“No” Is Always a Choice

Every year when my kids were in elementary school they participated in field day. It’s a morning spent participating with friends and classmates in everything from the long jump to the 50-yard dash to wheelbarrow races. Basically, it’s an excuse for kids to get out of the classroom in the early spring after being cooped up all winter and for parents to dream Olympic dreams for their kids.

Nick liked sports of all kinds and was pretty good at most everything he tried. At the time, he was an especially fast runner. That was all I needed to harbor the hope of him contending for a spot on the U.S. Olympic track team. As he lined up with six other five-year olds to run the 200-yard dash, my heart started racing, and I worried about the wet grass possibly tripping him up.

The whistle blew, and the boys were off. With wild abandon my fingers pounded the shutter release snapping pictures of my sweet little cherub-cheeked boy running for all he was worth past me toward the finish line. But then something happened. He fell. Stupid grass. Why did it have to rain the night before a big race?

That moment was like every moment in a sports movie where the crowd is still yelling, but it’s silent except for the heartbeat of the athlete as he stands at the pitcher’s mound plotting his last chance at greatness. Or when the underdog makes the last shot of the basketball game. The room is silent as the ball sails to the basket, the only sound being that of the ball hitting the backboard before swooshing into the basket scoring the team the winning 2 points.

Nick was only five, but he might as well have been rounding the last corner of an Olympic trial. He stopped and looked at me, and I could see the wheels spinning crazily in his little brain. Do I give in or get up? In middle school I was a cheerleader, and my cheerleading prowess kicked in full gear. I started jumping up and down like a crazy person, camera flying furiously around my neck as I yelled “Get up! Get up!”

That was all he needed. He pulled his wet grass-covered self up and not only finished the race but won it, which in my mind sealed the deal on heading to the Olympics. Only a true Olympian could fall on wet grass, get up and win. Plus, he was only five at the time!

We are in a series looking at engaging our culture with the gospel of Jesus. Last week we took the “E” and talked about embracing our identity in Christ, understanding that we can’t engage anyone for the cause of Christ if we haven’t even embraced who we are in Christ.

This week we take the “N.” No is always a choice. All of us at one time have had to overcome something so that we can be used by God. We’ve had to say “no” to something so that we could say “yes” to God. “No” always has such negative connotations. No, I will not buy you an iPhone. No, we aren’t eating out tonight. No, you cannot go see that movie. But “no” isn’t always negative. In order to say “yes” to God we have to make the choice to say “no” to whatever is holding us back whether it’s fear, feelings of inadequacy, Satan’s lies, whatever. The Bible is full of examples of people choosing to say “no” to one thing so they could say “yes” to God.

What would have happened if Joseph had said “no” to the angel who told him not to divorce Mary and “yes” to the culture which demanded it? What would have happened if Moses’ mother hadn’t quietly told Pharaoh “no” by hiding her child in the bulrushes rather than obeying and throwing him into the Nile? What would have happened if Esther had chosen to say “no” to Mordecai’s request to speak to the king on behalf of her people knowing that it could cost her her life? What if Paul had told God “no” on the road to Damascas? What if Peter had said, “No, I’m not really interested in being part of building your worldwide church?” What if Jesus had said “no” to God in the Garden because the sacrifice was too great?

There is an endless list of people in scripture who, had they not been willing to say “no” to cultural norms, physical limitations, personal fears and doubts, the spread of gospel would look significantly different.  If we are going to engage our culture in a way that is significant, it will require a radical decision.

My son’s decision to get up and keep running may not have been earth altering, but it’s a great example of saying “no” to a feeling of defeat and “yes” to getting up and continuing on.  He could’ve chosen to let the other guys win, running only to get to the finish line but not to win. The choice was his, and no one could make it for him.

In John 6 Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum to a group of people who considered themselves His disciples, people who followed him around regularly listening to His teachings day in and day out. For some reason, His declaration as the  Bread of Life that came down from heaven was insulting to them. After much questioning and refusing to believe He was who He said He was, many of them walked away.

What came next I find striking:

“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:66-69, NIV).

There it is. Are you staying or going? In this particular exchange the line was drawn. The true colors of both sides came out. Those who really didn’t believe from the very beginning were finally honest enough to admit it and walk away. Those who chose to believe were solidified in their belief. They were all in. They chose “no” to the culture and their own feelings and “yes” to God. Whatever their choice had been, it was theirs to make. We have the same freedom-yes or no. It’s our choice.

 

 

 

 

Embrace the Cross

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel” (Romans 1).

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (I Corinthians 1).

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (II Corinthians 1).

“Paul, an apostle sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Gal. 1).

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Eph.1).

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1).

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Col. 1).

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope” (I Tim. 1).

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus” (II Tim. 1).

I used to gloss over these verses sometimes not even reading them because they seemed insignificant compared to the “good stuff,” the real meat of the text. But in my study of Acts over the last several weeks, God has shown me that embracing my identity is the difference between living haphazardly and living with purpose.

Last week I said it’s time for believers to get over their identity crisis. Deciding who we are is the first step. The second is embracing it, the “E” in ENGAGE. Embracing our identity requires willful submission to a cause greater than ourselves. It’s no coincidence that in Paul’s introductions in these N.T. books he identified who he was. His identity explained his actions. He not only identified with Christ, He embraced the cause of Christ taking whatever came with that cause. If he had written Acts 1, he could have opened with something like this: “Paul, an enemy of the gospel and persecutor of Christians.” That would have made complete sense and backed up his approval of the stoning of Steven and others like him.

But as a new creation in Christ, he identified with Christ, embraced that identity and lived it to the fullest. In Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship, he has this to say about being a disciple:

“’Whom He foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren’ (Rom. 8:29). Here is a promise which passes all understanding. Those who follow Christ are destined to bear his image, and to be the brethren of the first-born Son of God. Their goal is to become “as Christ.” Christ’s followers always have his image before their eyes, and in its light all other images are screened from their sight. It penetrates into the depths of their being, fills them, and makes them more and more like their Master. The image of Jesus Christ impresses itself in daily communion on the image of the disciple. No follower of Jesus can contemplate his image in a spirit of cold detachment. That image has the power to transform our lives, and if we surrender ourselves utterly to him, we cannot help bearing his image ourselves. We become the sons of God, we stand side by side with Christ, our unseen Brother, bearing like him the image of God” (page 298).

So what does embracing who we are in Christ look like in the day-to-day? I think it requires two things: first, perspective. Unless we’ve bought in to the idea of the cross and what Jesus did on it for us, we will never effectively be able to convince others of their need for it. The best way to keep our perspective is to constantly stand in the shadow of the cross remembering that every person we meet is loved because of it, and every situation in life is redeemable by it.

“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 12:2, NIV).

Second, I have found that embracing who I am in Christ usually requires a stepping out of my comfort zone.

One morning a couple of weeks ago my family and I awoke to a scene outside our windows that looked very much like a scene from CSI. In the night there was a shooting six doors down resulting in what was eventually called a triple homicide as one of the victims was pregnant.

My initial reaction was to call my realtor and throw a sign in the front yard, pull the shades and ignore all of it. But I couldn’t, and I knew it. Instead, my husband and I went outside and started praying with people from our street and others who had gathered. In the days that followed, I began the process of starting a neighborhood watch. Not because I’m all that and a bag of chips and not because I  believe that the big blue sign with the eyeball on it will deter criminals. What I do believe is that God has handed me a perfect situation to engage my little corner of the world with the message of the cross through something like a neighborhood watch, something already in place where all of the work has been done for me!

In walking up and down the street getting signatures, I have just now met some of my neighbors who are only 7 houses away from me, but they might as well be on Mars. Some of these people have been my neighbors for five years! I’m ashamed that it has taken tragedy to get me to engage.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10, NIV).

So what would your life look like if you embraced who you are in Christ?  What is the calling He has placed on your life? Have you asked Him? What would you do differently if you embraced this calling? What would you let go of?

Church is Not a Red-Carpet Event

Every year movie buffs from around the world wait in anticipation to see who will win the industry’s biggest prize, the much-coveted Oscar. But for lovers of fashion, the pre-awards show is just as big a deal. You know, the one that famously asks, who are you wearing? The pre-show, the walking of the red carpet, is as much a big deal as the award itself. For a couple of hours the stars are interviewed, talking about their movie, their clothes and the amount of time it took them to get ready. Essentially, mankind sits in front of the big black box in the living room and watches the televised walking of a bunch of people on a brightly colored piece of carpet. Their smiles are as big as their hair. They gush about what an honor it is to be nominated. And the rest of the world lives vicariously through them for a few hours thinking they’ve got the world by a string. Do you know what I’m reminded of? Church.

Until the last couple years, I had a pretty rocky relationship with church. In fact, I could spend this whole time talking about my frustration at how the American church looks nothing like the church in Acts 2. I could wax poetic about why the church has often failed to raise up a new generation of believers that is so in love with Jesus that the things of this world seem like a waste of time. I could talk about my many self-induced sabbaticals I have taken over the years from church and why. I could lament over the years I spent in a church that greeted me every Sunday morning with nothing but rules and rituals making God look like an angry tyrant. Or I could simply go on and on about how we, I, have turned church into nothing more than a red-carpet event, a place to look good to everyone around me.

I am not under any delusions that the church in Acts was perfect. It wasn’t. But the one thing they had going on that is sorely missing in the 21st century was a rock solid identity. They never grappled with their purpose or role. Nowhere in Scripture was the question ever raised, “will I be able to stand?” After all, some of them had actually seen Jesus and walked with Him. Their faith was set, their destiny determined, their lives spoken for. What about us in the 21st century? Though Jesus hasn’t walked the planet for 2000 years, the Holy Spirit’s existence lives as loudly here and now as His physical counterpart did all those years ago. What we so often fail to realize is that we are on display everyday living a running commentary on what we believe about God to the rest of the world.

There’s a flurry of frustration right now as people are learning the lengths to which our government will go to to spy on us. I’ll admit as a political conservative, this is annoying to say the least. I’m an American citizen, and privacy is supposed to be one of my rights. I wonder, though, if I spent as much time worrying about the fact that the rest of the world is watching me in light of who I say I am if I would live a little differently, with more intention.

Hebrews 12:1,2 says:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The only way to truly start living a life that makes a difference is to throw off that which hinders the call of God on our lives. Last week I spoke about my struggle with debt. One of the reasons I wanted out so badly was because somewhere deep inside I knew there had to be more purpose to my existence, but I couldn’t grab hold of all that God had for me while still enslaved to sin. The throne of our hearts has room for only one God. To attempt to house both God and sin is equivalent to nothing more than looking good on the outside while dying on the inside. Eventually we fall apart, and everyone around us discovers what a fraud we are. What’s worse is the shadow it casts on the name of Jesus.

One of the worst things we can do as Christians is to disengage from society and set up our own subculture. We see it all the time. We create the Christianized version of the world’s systems in an attempt to form a sort of utopia so as to get through life unscathed by this world. There is nothing wrong with Christian schools, Christian music, Christian books, Christian coffeehouses. The problem comes in when that’s the only place we can be found. The non-believer does not live in these places.

When Jesus called us to be in the world but not of it, I don’t believe for a minute that this is what He meant. Yeah, we get the part about not being of it. But how do we live in this world successfully in a way that is pleasing to God and that will draw others to Him?

When I read through the life of Jesus one thing He did not do was disengage from the culture. He did not go off and hide from the world b/c it was just too unpleasant. With the exception of the time He took with just His disciples for the purpose of intense training as well as the times He spent alone in prayer, He was in the world engaging in conversation, debating, living out truth, teaching, meeting needs, preaching the gospel. Based on Christ’s examples and the example of the apostles, I will share with you over the next few weeks what God is teaching me about living intentionally in modern-day America. Each week I will take a different letter from the word ENGAGE (since acrostics are the best way for me to remember what’s worth remembering!) because I believe this is the mandate. It’s time for the Body of Christ to get over its identity crisis once and for all. We have to decide who we are and what we’re about and then live it with everything we’ve got.

“Through him we received both the generous gift of this life and the urgent task of passing it on to others who receive it by entering into obedient trust in Jesus. You are who you are through this gift and call of Jesus Christ!” (Romans 1:5,6, The Message, italics mine).