Sometimes a turn of phrase spoken or sung at the right moment can grant us an epiphany. What is it about a lyric or a quote that seems to stir us so deeply? How can words impact our lives so powerfully? These questions hint at a deeper question. How does our humanity translate into reality?
We have undoubtedly heard the expression that at times something is “without rhyme or reason.” Actually, I’ve come to find that even what seems to be pointless has both rhyme and reason. Those seemingly pointless and often painful experiences we face find their translation in songs, poems, essays, blog posts, and books. One such lyric for me comes from a Rich Mullins song called, Hard to Get.
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt blame and regret
I can’t see how You’re leading me unless You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get“
Mullins’ honest lyric (I recommend the song in it’s entirety) connects with me in a way that few others can. From the moment I first heard it, I sensed something resonating deep inside and have often listened to the song as a means of lament.
However, for all of the power such a turn of phrase can have on us, there is no greater power than that contained in the word of the living God. As the author of Hebrews states,
- For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (4:12)”
Contemplate the piercing power of the word of God. No clever wording, phrasing, structure, melody, rhythm, or lyric can compare to the richness, beauty, and resonating of God’s word. Moreover, He who became the word of God in the flesh expresses the truest and best translation of our humanity into reality and, more importantly, the translation of God’s glory into humanity (John 1:14).
I am a sinful man. There is no denying my natural bent towards my own self-exaltation. God has been exposing me for who I truly am under the scrupulous light of who He is. This process has proven painful and precious. How often have I doubted the sheer power of God’s grace to accomplish His great glories in favor of my own manufactured facade? How little have I proclaimed the intensity of God’s love through Jesus Christ on the Cross to the broken, weak, and scarred? What has my heart run to in immediate sincerity and my mind defaulted to in familiar comfort? These are difficult questions for me and for you.
We are a proud people. Grace should change this. Recently, I have had various confirmations of convictions that I hold regarding the nature of ministry. It is impossible to improve on the moving of the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to make the word of God more effective than God has made it. It is impossible to strategize another way to minister the gospel which is superior to God’s way. Our pride tempts us to believe that God, His word, and His gospel aren’t enough. Blasphemy! God’s grace is still amazing, His glory astounding, His love abounding, and His mercy surrounding. His heart is still pounding for you and for me.
Have we become so presumptious to think that our clever programming or culturally relevant hype are really better than the simple proclamation of the gospel? Our incessant need to be in control of all aspects of our lives has led to the unfortunate, yet prevailing, thought that we need to help God out a little. Of course we would never use that phrase but the underlying acts of human self-sufficiency are still pervasive.
When we truly grasp the magnitude and scope of the gospel’s power in our lives, as well as in the world, then we will find ourselves looking at much of the church culture that has developed and wondering when we started wading in the shallow end of Christianity. When we apply the “filter of global reality” we can also see the superficial spirituality that has come to characterize many of our American churches. Our brothers and sisters around the world are satisfied with Christ alone; meeting in caves and underground rooms at great risk to themselves and their families. As we pursue Christ with our shopping cart mentality the unfortunate reality is that we forget we were bought with a price.
My venting may sound somewhat grim, but I’d like to end with the optimism of the gospel itself. Regardless of our past, present, platitudes or pride, the grace of God can enter in and transform us into a vibrant body of believers who hold Him highest of all and seek to advance the glorious gospel of grace!
Remembering has a way of warming and chilling the heart. Words spoken and left unsaid hover like angels and ghosts over our memories. We are defined by what we say, mournful for what we don’t, and afraid to think about it for too long. Losing people who were part of shaping you is like losing your personality or character. All the conversations, laughter, tears, and understanding are like threads of the tapestry of your life. When those threads are torn away, it can feel as if it will all come unravelled. There are two such threads recently removed from the tapestry of my life.
My grandmother could be defined as the antithesis to Teddy Roosevelt. She spoke loudly and carried a little stick, but she didn’t mind using it when necessary. I remember the irony of portraying strength and offering comfort, despite my own inner turmoil, during my grandmother’s eulogy. Though my outward composure betrayed any evidence to the contrary, inside, a tsunami of grief was making landfall on my heart. A few things stick out in my memory about her. First, she enjoyed joking with people. There was a teasing nature about her humor, which left everyone in laughter and wondering who was next. Second, she was very talkative. What people say define them. My grandmother said a lot of things. She said funny things, stern things, loving things, and insightful things. Yet, somehow they usually seemed to blend together and come full circle in a conversation. One of the most insightful things she ever said was, “everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” I still remember the weight in the air when she made that statement.
In each of our lifetimes there is usually one person, or two at most, who really understand you. They know what makes you laugh and are usually laughing at the same things. They know what makes you tick because chances are that’s what’s ticking inside them. Clay was a friend like that and losing him was like losing a part of myself because he was partly responsible for me being who I am. From middle school on, he and I forged a friendship and fellowship that centered around our faith, music, laughter, trips, ministry, and so much more. Perhaps Clay could be best described as generously practical.
Thinking back has been difficult but helpful. Opportunities shared and lost are reminders of the great gift and responsibility of family and friends. This life and our time together are limited. Eternity is not, so make it count.
I remember taking physical science in high school and on one occasion we did an experiment to determine if a container was actually full. Our teacher gave instructions to fill the container with water until everyone in the group agreed that is was completely full. She then had each group estimate how many paperclips could be put in the container before the water spilled over. The guesses ranged from one to five, but the container held nearly a hundred more paperclips. Fullness is necessary in order to overflow.
2 Corinthians 8:1-7
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.
Paul wrote the Corinthians citing the generosity of the Macedonians as they gave sacrificially to the needy in Jerusalem. Perhaps seeing this act of giving through the lens of grace and the underlying conditions through the lens of love will point us towards an overflowing ministry like those in Macedonia. Ministry is much more than religious activity. It is the overflow of God’s grace as we joyfully serve Him and others. A ministry that overflows is characterized by the fullness of divine power, biblical purpose, selfless priorities, and sacrificial poverty.
1. Divine Power
True ministry must have an enabling and enduring power. Grace enables ministry to go forth and joy enables ministry to go on. God’s grace given among the churches of Macedonia and their abounding joy served as the divine power source for their overflowing ministry. Only amazing grace and abounding joy can initiate and sustain ministry.
2. Biblical Purpose
What is the biblical purpose of an overflowing ministry? The expanded context of this passage teaches at least three things. First, Christians are to excel in everything (faith, speech, knowledge, earnestness, and love). Verse seven offers this apostolic command. Second, this type of ministry is to demonstrate genuine love (verse 8). True love is offered joyfully and sacrificially with no contradiction between the two. Third, it balances lack and abundance (verses 12-15). Based on the context, this balance is not merely for material needs. We are to excel and offer our faith, speech, knowledge, and love as readily as we offer our checks to those who may lack.
3. Selfless Priorities
An overflowing ministry is offered first to the Lord and carried out according to the will of God. That is, He is our highest priority and our chief consideration. Furthermore, it is an eagerly sacrificial offering to those in need. Those in Macedonia gave beyond their means, amidst affliction and poverty, and earnestly begged to do so. These are the traits of Christians so full of Christ, there is no room for selfishness.
4. Sacrificial Poverty
Sacrificial poverty directly relates to selfless priorities; however, it is so much more when you examine the broader context. Verse nine establishes the glorious poverty of our Savior as the foundation for overflowing ministry.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Feel the gospel significance that flows from Christ’s poverty making us rich. His destitution is our redemption. His rejection by the officials of man is our acceptance before God. His dejection stirs within us an abounding joy. His broken body is the lifeblood of our ministry.
Where do these considerations lead us? They lead us to contemplation, repentance, and hopefully to ministry. Like the container in my high school science lab, Christians will not overflow if they are not truly full. To neglect divine power, biblical purpose, selfless priorities, or sacrificial poverty is to engage only in the appearance of ministry. Events may go on, meetings may be held, crowds may be drawn, offerings may be taken, songs may be sung, and sermons may be preached; but only those things done from the overflow of God’s grace and our joy (in Christ) are truly ministry. This is both humbling and convicting as we depend on God, delight in God, and do His will.
The past year has brought many changes into my life. These changes have ranged from joyous to revelatory. Above all the other changes is the tremendous blessing of marriage. Allow me to clarify from the beginning that I do not presume, after six months of being married, to offer any advice; however, I can offer reflections.
First and foremost, marriage has been a wonderful paradox. It has exposed my weaknesses, tenderness, callousness, depravity, and potential. The reality of my identity is like the fierce Smaug (the dragon from The Hobbit), but by sovereign grace more-so like Eustace (the dragon from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) with layers of selfishness being shed by the providence of a covenant companion. As our lives merge, I become more aware of my selfishness and more prepared to deal with it. This is a God-given gift that should result in repentance and sanctification.
Second, marriage has expanded my practical outlook. When I was single, decisions were typically personal and short term. Whether I volunteered, saved money, ate healthy, exercised, and budgeted was all at my discretion with little thought for anyone else or the future. However, my outlook after marriage has to encompass more than myself and beyond today. Spiritually, you must submit to the will of God as revealed in scripture and the guiding of the Holy Spirit, but practically, you must consider the well being of your spouse and your future together in every area of life. In fact, such consideration is spiritual.
Third, vulnerability is a sanctifying force and difficult to embrace. To place your weaknesses front and center is not easy, and pulling back the curtains of your personal facade is frightening. Admitting your limitations and worst qualities is daunting to the point of emotional and relational paralysis. But, the shadows of depravity double as flickers of grace if we step into the light beyond darkness’ edge. Marriage is a providential means of taking that step.
What do these reflections imply? The implications are vast, countercultural, and glorious. Marriage is designed and defined by God. It offers the pleasing aroma of paradox, the contemplative touch of practicality, and the bittersweet taste of vulnerability.
The achievements of humanity can certainly astound, yet the disparity of progress and foolishness is itself astounding. Is it not remarkable that we can fly to the moon but are incapable of reaching the destination of good sense? We live in an age of marvels. We need a glimpse of majesty. This is perhaps most vividly evidenced in entertainment and technology.
Movies, music, and video games are deeply enmeshed into our culture. Just when we think there is no cinematographic magic left, a new blockbuster captivates us with visual sparkle. As we begin to find the billboard hits mundane, we are inundated with the latest sounds and bizarre behavior. When video game platforms have lost their edge, the market either innovates or ups the gore. If we could go back in time merely fifty years, then we could get a sense of how far each of these areas has developed and become integrated into our society. These avenues of entertainment are vying for our awe.
Technology is widely utilized in entertainment, but is certainly more intriguing in other areas. For example, the capabilities of the smart phone itself is somewhat taken for granted to those of us who use them constantly. Instant communication, information, banking, and shopping are literally at our fingertips! Even more astounding are the advancements in areas like medical treatment. One such area is regenerative medicine, which is paving the way for replacement organs to be uniquely created using our own cells! These are modern marvels; unfortunately, those marvels are making us spiritually myopic.
The latest movie, song, game, app, or breakthrough is utterly incapable of satisfying the human heart. Despite the marvels of entertainment and technology, there is a majesty we yearn for and were created to enjoy. With all of man’s accomplishments he is still quite empty and contentment is as elusive as the gold at the end of our “marvels” rainbow. So, our quest is futile until we seek the one who has long sought us.
There are a few thoughts that can help us wrestle through this disparity.
1. Only eternal things can bring about true satisfaction.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Marvels are cheap substitutes for the reality of God’s majesty. In our search for happiness, joy may have eluded us by our own sinful settling for temporal trifles.
2. Majesty is either embraced or rejected.
2 Peter 1:16
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
As Peter urges to make your calling and election sure and advocates for continual reminders regarding virtues of the faith, he makes it clear that the majestic nature of Christ was no mere myth. It is a glorious aspect of reality that demands our submission and transformation.
3. Marvels can serve as distractions or as redirections.
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
Even the angels themselves, marvels though they are, are inferior to Him who sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high. How much more superior must Christ be than the “marvels” of entertainment and technology? These marvels can either serve as reminders of Christ’s superior majesty or as distractions from the only true source of joy.
This world is full of marvels, the gospel brings us into the presence of majesty. Have you surrendered to, trusted in, and treasured Christ for all He is worth? Are you doing so more and more?
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord,be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”
I must confess that I don’t watch Duck Dynasty or any other reality television shows. The stardom that is thrust upon people as the camera rolls is somewhat perplexing; however, the controversy born out of such stardom even more so. Such is the case with the recent “episode” with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. Not being a “fan” gives me a less biased perspective on the issue now trending on all social media outlets. There are at least three things we should consider.
1. Fame does not make truth more famous.
Truth is truth whether it is spoken by Phil Robertson, Billy Graham, or the local pastor that is completely off the public’s radar screen. However, the prestige of the person communicating that truth is only proportional to the truth’s weight itself if it is not offensive to the prevalent culture. That is the reality of our fallen world. Derek Webb has a lyric that captures this thought.
Because truth is never sexy, so its not an easy sell
Well you can dress her like the culture
But she’ll shock ’em just as well
Fame does not make truth more famous; actually, truth can cause the famous to lose fame.
2. Speaking against sin will always be offensive.
Why are Christians surprised that people are offended at being called sinners. All believers were once offended by the notion that they were sinners; however, the Holy Spirit moved and began a work of repentance and redemption at salvation.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. (2 Corinthians 2:15-16a)
Christians seem outraged at the outrage against Phil and his comments. Have we forgotten that we are the aroma of Christ? To those who are born again it is a scandalously sweet aroma, but to those who are not it is a scandalously bitter aroma.
3. Our response matters.
Believers should not be surprised at the world’s response towards such a matter, but their response should continue to give off the fragrance of life. As Christians seek to be salt and light, they should tread prayerfully into the hall of social media. Neither anger, resentment, hasty petitions, biased analysis, crude remarks, nor loveless banter contributes to the conversation, advocates for the truth, or gives off the aroma of life.
Phil was asked a question and he answered. He did not duck and cover (pun intended), and neither should we. However, this is not merely an opportunity to stand with Phil, this is an opportunity to stand for Christ and His gospel. So, if you stand, then stand well.
As Christmas approaches and after Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God concert…
The Christmas season is upon us. I’m annually reluctant to “get into the Christmas Spirit;” however, I wouldn’t consider myself a scrooge. God has a way of guiding my mindset into the significance of Christ’s birth in His own time. The tipping point usually involves a different catalyst each year. In years past, sermons, devotions, concerts, songs and conversations have all served to bring advent into my own personal reality.
This year that catalyst was a song from Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God record. Jill Phillips is the talented vocalist, and the first line of the song was the tipping point. The lyrics made me think, as Peterson lyrics often do. The CD went in and when the track came on I heard, “It was not a silent night.” Those words reverberated in my soul. Obviously, I held this in immediate contrast with the traditional Christmas carol that…
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I Always enjoy thinking through this again as we approach Thanksgiving.
Perhaps you find the title alarming. I must confess, I purposefully chose the title to engage the mind and heart to truly ponder the texts which I believe lead to the implied conclusion. At first glance, it may seem intended to strike against God by labeling Him as ungrateful. But, after careful consideration my hope is that we might understand that God’s being ungrateful is the best news in all the world for us. It means He has no need which can be met because He has no need. He has no desires unfulfilled by His own power. If He could offer thanks to anyone for anything, He would cease to be the God from whom all blessings flow. Thankfully, all thanks goes to Him.
Webster’s dictionary defines grateful as “appreciative of benefits received”. This definition doesn’t seem to sync with the attributes of God found in scripture.
Meditate upon Acts 17:22-28
I. God is Self-Sufficient
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Thinking has a tendency to expose uncomfortable realities. In the weeks since stepping down from an official ministry position I have had the opportunity to engage in such reflection. Particularly, my thoughts have centered around what the church is and what the church should be. My heart and mind have grown heavy with the reality that local churches in the Bible belt are in desperate need of biblical consideration, brutal honesty, and sincere repentance.
The lack of biblical literacy, expository preaching, and basic hermeneutical practices is nothing short of an ecclesiological blight. If the word of the living God is unknown, untaught, and carelessly misunderstood, then what does that say of our view of God himself? In many congregations truth has been traded for triteness and biblical authority has been usurped by either tradition, relevance, or spiritual narcissim. Sermons may range from legalistic banter to spiritualized pop-psychology and the general congregants often don’t have the biblical wherewithal to detect the danger. Have we forgotten that God has spoken in His word?
Truthfulness is that which liberates us from the shackles of facade. Individual and corporate epiphanies of brutal honesty are needed so that we might recognize our own blindness. Far too often we have trusted in politics, morality, psychology, philosophy, culture, marketing, tradition, intellect, and money instead of the sheer power of the word, the gospel, and the spirit. The damning thing about it all is that we are so permeated by American culture that we can’t see our own proclivities, even as we proclaim the word of God. Only the truth and truthfulness can save us now (Sara Groves).
Repentance is a painful and precious response to truth. How have our notions of church, evangelism, missions, service, preaching, worship, and salvation been tainted by a “westernized” orthodoxy? Ask God to reveal His powerful truth from His word individually and corporately so that all our eyes might be opened to our idolatrous inclinations. The pain of that recognition is far surpassed by the release of grace and obedience.
This brutal honesty starts with me. My preferences and presuppositions have been the basis of my perspective for far too long. It also starts with you. Pray for biblical discernment and study the Bible. When it cuts against the grain of your own opinion (because it will), embrace it and repent. There is nothing more liberating than the healing wound of an encounter with eternal truth.