Friday, June 1, 2007

Rest and Simplicity

Drummer audition joke: The band leader asks the drummer, "Can you play a samba pattern with your bass drum?" The drummer obliges with a boom...b-boom samba pattern.

The leader then asks, "can you add a Mozambique cowbell pattern along with that with your right hand?" The drummer thinks, "No problem," and obliges with his best effort.

He is then told, "Now add a 2-3 clave with your left foot on the hi-hat.” He struggles a bit but gets it happening.

Next he hears, "Now add a cascara pattern on the snare with your left hand." Years of studying polyrhythms, practicing independence, and listening to world music finally come to fruition and the relieved drummer finds he can easily play the whole pattern.

Pleased with himself, he asks the band leader, "So, do I get the job?”

"No," says the bandleader "that's why we fired the last guy!"


This is a reminder to me to not let my mind be “led astray from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor 11:3)! Remember when Martha was busy running all around in an effort to serve her houseguest (Jesus), all the while complaining that her sister Mary wasn’t helping her? And what was so important that Mary couldn’t come help her sister? Can you believe this – Mary had the gall to be sitting “at the Lord's feet listening to what He said" (Luke 10:39). Come on, Mary! Martha's busy over there banging out all these wonderful drum patterns for Jesus, and all you’re doing is sitting there listening to Him! Get with it!

Jesus, of course, saw it differently. Martha was actually the one who needed to get with the program. Her problem is perhaps similar to the one the Ephesians had years later, when they had patiently persevered and labored much – all for Jesus’ sake – and yet they had left their first love, Jesus. Luke describes Martha’s problem by saying that she was "distracted with much serving" (Luke 10:40). Martha was busy serving Jesus, but Mary was the one who was actually doing what Jesus wanted her to do! Jesus tells Martha, “Only one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

This story doesn't sit well with the busy, performance-oriented Christian - and I readily admit how that statement is an indictment on much of my own life. I sure can preach “sitting at the feet of Jesus,” but do I always walk the walk? (Or would that be “sit the sit?”). Describing His own service, Jesus said, "the words that I speak to you, I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in Me does the works" (John 14:10). His service came not from a focus on performing for His Father, but from knowing His Father. There's a huge difference! In the same way, how many of us busy “Marthas” would do well to stop and consider if we're letting our service for Him get in the way of knowing Him? Countless times I’ve been in the homes of friends who were so busy serving their guests that they essentially spent the entire evening ignoring their guests! I don’t knock on my friends’ doors, and ask if I can come in, so that I can have them serve me. I want to come in so I can spend time with them. I want to know them, and them to know me. I’m convinced that God’s purpose in creating mankind was not to create a bunch of weary, worn out servants, but rather that we may “know Him, or rather be known by Him” (Gal 4:9).

Are we focused on knowing the Person, Jesus, or are we focused on our performance for Him? Are we focused on keeping our various agendas and systems in place (for His sake, of course), or are we at the feet of Jesus, listening to what He has to say? To stop, and wait, in this fast-paced world is a challenge, I know. But what if we end up actually hearing what He says – and what if we find that it’s not what the Marthas in our lives expect of us?

Can you imagine truly serving God with constantly renewed strength? Can you envision yourself soaring through the sky like an eagle? Can you imagine running and not getting tired??? Walking and not becoming weary? Can you grasp the idea of serving the Lord in a constant state of rest? This is the life of "those who wait on the Lord" (Isaiah 40:31).

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Fertile Soil of Grace

My parents live in the southeastern part of Missouri, and the six-hour drive to see them is filled with all kinds of scenery. We pass through a lot of ‘grape’ country – with lots of billboard signs for wineries and lots of grape farms. Lots and lots of grape farms. Did I mention all the grape farms that we see?

What’s so cool about making this drive at various times of the year is that we can see the grapes and grape vines in their various (and natural) stages of growth – from complete dormancy to full bloom, and everything in between. We see them during times of fertilizing and times of pruning, times of planting and times of harvesting. There are many stages that are necessary to produce the final product (the grape, raisin, wine, grape juice, etc).

I think it’s the same with our life in the Vine (Christ). Are we always being pruned? Are we always in full bloom? Is our “fruit” always being harvested? Can we sometimes just rest in the “dormant” times of our lives? Let me get more to the point with that last question. Why do we find it so hard to simply rest in and enjoy the fact that life in the Vine sometimes means natural periods of dormancy? Does the branch cease to be a part of the vine during the dormant times and during the times of fertilizing and pruning?

Modern church culture tends to put quite an emphasis on the end product – bearing fruit. We have such a “do, do, do” (“bear fruit, bear fruit, bear fruit”) attitude all the time! We feel guilty (or we make others feel guilty) if no tasty, juicy fruit is not only on the branch, but on the plate right here and right now. Don’t get me wrong - we all want to bear fruit! It’s a branch’s natural desire to bear the fruit of the vine from which it gets its life. But “natural” means a whole process is involved – not just an end result.

I once heard someone talking about a certain section of scripture from the Psalms:

“The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
Those who are planted in the house of the LORD shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall still bear fruit in old age; They shall be fresh and flourishing.” (Ps 92:12-14)

This person said that he had recently learned something about palm trees. He said that palm trees don’t bear fruit during their first ten years. The tree spends that time growing its roots deeper and deeper into the soil, becoming more and more firmly established in the fertile soil from which it draws nutrients and life. I was truly taken by this person’s beautiful description of the leaves and branches: If you look at a palm tree, it’s as if it’s standing there with its leaves and branches spread out, simply looking upward in a “Godward Gaze.”

There is praise in this picture, and no pressure. There is an expectation of great things to come, but no superficial or obligatory timeline in which these things must happen. There is true faith in this picture, assurance of things hoped for but not yet seen. There is true Life in this picture. Life that says, “rest in Me and you will bear fruit.”

The soil in this picture, to me, is a representation of grace. Grace is the fertile soil in which real life and godly nutrition for the Christian are found. It takes time for our roots to become firmly established in the fertile soil of grace. And notice that the above verse doesn’t say we’ll be like dandelions. Dandelions sure do grow to maturity quickly - but where’s the substance? The Psalmist says we’ll grow like a cedar in Lebanon - a tree that Ezekiel 31 describes this way: “fine branches… high stature… thick boughs… its height was exalted… its boughs were multiplied.” A cedar doesn’t exactly pop up overnight.

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” This is a lifetime process. Don’t rush it. Don’t contaminate the soil with legalism. Enjoy the journey!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Exchanged Life

“Hudson Taylor’s… years of toil and hard work for the Lord in the mission field yielded many saved Chinese. Ironically, this work (that) revealed life to so many, also sapped the life and energy from the man who was behind it. Hudson Taylor strove to do his best for the Lord he was serving. His greatest desire was to be an imitator of Christ. To achieve his goal, he did what seemed more fruitful: he studied the Bible more fervently, prayed continually and fasted more often. He was so engrossed in his effort that his life became an endless effort to please God rather than to know Him. In a moment of divine insight, Hudson Taylor suddenly understood the Truth about his relationship with God. Jesus said, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ He realized that the vine is not merely the root that provides nourishment to the branches, but is itself the whole plant - root, branches and leaves. Jesus is not merely our provider, but is a part of all who have called on His name. Fruitful labor was far more dependent upon an ever-deepening fellowship with Jesus than upon works designed to please Him.” (Copied with permission from, emphasis mine).

Hudson’s life of toil and hard work “for the Lord” was suddenly changed by the realization that it was all about God’s union with him - not his work for God. A branch doesn’t work to bear fruit for the Vine. A branch abides, rests, in the Vine. The essence of this fellowship is the natural flow of Life throughout the whole Vine, including all the branches. Each branch is far from unproductive or lacking in substance. Each branch simply understands that the full substance of his life - all the activity, all the production – doesn’t come from his own attempts at being a good, hard worker for the Vine. Hudson had come to this realization. He could now cease from his labor and rest in the sufficiency of the Vine’s Life, allowing the Vine to be the sole, sufficient, source of Life and Fruit. Hudson’s son, Howard Taylor, coined the term “Exchanged Life” to describe his father’s life changing realization.

Steve McVey had spent many “successful” years in the ministry, in which his hard work as a pastor of several churches had paid off, consistently resulting in growth. But after 29 years as a Christian (17 of those in the ministry), and after a year in a new church, he found himself in a completely new situation, devastated that all his dedication and hard work for God was now proving to be ineffective. He felt like a failure – as a pastor and as a Christian. He relates his frustration in his first book, Grace Walk: “Couldn’t He see that I was doing everything I knew how for Him? I couldn’t imagine what more He expected from me than my best. And I had done my best. God, what more do you want from me?” Steve has shared that coming to this low point in his life was exactly what God had intended. It was through these daunting circumstances, in which his “best” – his dedication and hard work - weren’t paying off, and were even working to the contrary, that Steve came to find out that it wasn’t that God wanted something from him. God simply wanted him.

There is no amount of human righteousness or dedication that can actually produce a godly life or godly fruit. One can dedicate one’s life to God and to holy living, and one can re-dedicate one’s life over and over again, but no matter the amount of dedication, it still falls short of God’s glory, and it falls short of real Life. Imagine offering God a bunch of shiny, tasty looking plastic grapes - along with a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich, with arsenic sauce. Do you think He’d bite? That’s what our dedicated lives amount to. Isaiah used the term “filthy rags.” But the Apostle Paul said, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). He said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God…” (Gal 2:20). Paul’s Crucified Life, Taylor’s Exchanged Life and McVey’s Grace Walk are summed up in this: I have laid down “my” life (I have died, I no longer live) and I have received His all-sufficient Life in exchange. The Christian life isn’t mine to live. Instead of God depending upon me to live for Him or to dedicate my life to Him, He had me lay my life down! It was only when I died that He could raise me up again (the new birth) in Him. It’s not about my futile offering of grapes. The grapes are His fruit to begin with!

Friday, December 1, 2006

Walk By Faith, Not By Sight

Have you ever tried to “figure out” God’s will for you? In my life I’ve had issues with jobs, with churches I’ve attended, with relationships with people and countless other issues in which I’ve sought God about what to do or what not to do. Something I’ve slowly learned to trust in, and to rest in, is that God Himself knows the plans He has for me and He knows that He created me in Christ Jesus for good works that He Himself prepared in advance for me to walk in! (Eph. 2:10). Since I, on the other hand, don’t know all His plans for me, my default position must be one of trusting in Him and resting in His sufficiency. Sometimes I see parts of the puzzle and sometimes I’ve gotten a glimpse of how some of the pieces fit, but overall I can’t see the big picture. We walk by faith, not by sight.

“By faith,” the writer of Hebrews says, “we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” He says we understand “that” God did all these things. He doesn’t say we understand “how” God did all these things. By faith we understand “that” God has a plan for us but we, with our limited human vision (compared to God’s omniscience), almost never know the full plan or “how” it’s all going to work out. If you’ve walked with God even for a short time, you’ve probably discovered that it hardly ever works out in the way you thought it would! No matter how intentional or careful you were with the steps you took, God intentionally took you in a whole ‘nother direction! During the process you may have wanted to curse Him, but afterwards you have nothing but thanksgiving to offer!

“Not knowing” can be frustrating, and sometimes I start to get worried about how things are going to work out. But yet I have a hard time picturing God running around all nervous and frantic, worrying about how things are going to turn out! God’s will and His plans are accomplished because He is God. Billions of people have roamed planet earth, and if each one has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that is an awful lot of sin that you would think would stand in the way of God’s holy plans! We have all kinds of opposing ideas, varying motives, and varying religious and political views, not to mention all the sin and evil in the world. But can you point me to a place in the Bible where God has anxiety about whether or not His plans will be fulfilled?! Ephesians 6 tells us that the true struggle is against principalities, powers, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Colossians 1 says that God Himself created all of these principalities and powers, and Colossians 2 says that with the Cross He Himself made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them!

As for sin, the Bible says that God “made Him who knew no sin (Jesus) to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” God dealt with the sin problem Himself. He dealt with it fully and completely and left nothing undone. “How” did God become a man? “How” did sinless Jesus become sin for us? “How” did sinful man become the righteousness of God? “How” does a Holy God fulfill His plans in the midst of such chaos? If we were to take a look at our individual lives - all the decisions, all the mistakes, all the weaknesses, all the falling short of the glory of God – and multiply that by all the people who have ever lived, it would be quite astounding to see just what God has had to deal with! And He did deal with it. He took care of it completely and sufficiently on a cross.

If He can put the sin of the world upon Christ, and exchange our own sin for righteousness, by nothing we’ve done but entirely by His own work, then it might not be too hard to see that He Himself can work all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I said, “that” He can. “How,” however, I don’t know! I take it by faith. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Heb. 11:1). This is “how” we walk the walk – not with human wisdom or sight, but by trusting in the grace of God and the very life of Jesus working in and through us. God isn’t a mere spectator in our lives. He is our all in all.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Close To God

Not long ago I was digging through some old teaching tapes I had stored in a box, and I ended up listening to one in which the speaker commented on an ad he saw in a magazine selling Christian music tapes. In this ad was a picture of mountain, alongside a picture of the Christian tapes. The caption read something like, “Which will bring you closer to God?”

“Now wait a minute,” he said with more than a slight tinge of sarcasm and facetiousness. “I thought that JESUS came 2,000 years ago to bring us close to God! And you’re saying that now we can bypass all that just by listening to a tape?!?!” Although I’ve always valued how Christian music helps people feel connected with God, I fully get the point - that it’s not music that brings us close to God, nor does anything bring us close to God except Jesus Himself. Ephesians 2:13 says that in Christ Jesus we have been brought near to God. I don’t think we need to spend our time trying to figure out how to get close to Jesus. Rather through the person of Jesus Christ we have been brought close to God. It’s a done deal!

That said, there’s a paradox of sorts in regards to our closeness with God. James says “draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” So on the one hand we are as close to God as we’ll ever be. We’re never “not close” to God, because He lives in us and is one spirit with us. But the paradox is that even though we’re already close to Him, He still wants us to “draw near” to Him. This is one thing that I think is so wonderful about God. He has given us, as a gift, complete access to Him and oneness with Him by nothing we’ve ever done to deserve it, but rather through the sacrifice of Jesus. Yet He doesn’t force this closeness upon us in experiential form. He allows us to get to know Him and understand the closeness we already have with Him by our “drawing near” to Him.

But I really do think that being confident about the first part of the paradox is essential to living in the second part. Unless we are fully assured that it’s solely by Jesus’ blood that we have closeness with God, we may have a hard time “drawing near.” If we somehow think that drawing near to God is contingent upon how well we’ve performed, or if we think that our failures and weaknesses keep Him from allowing us to be near Him, then we may live the rest of our lives afraid to do what He longs for us to do! But if, instead of trying to figure out how to get close to Jesus, we live with the constant mindset that “in Him we (literally) live and move and have our being,” and that in Christ we are (already) close to God, then we will have confidence in “drawing near” experientially. And not only that, but we will also realize that our presenting ourselves to him as “a living sacrifice” is an act of His grace working in us, rather than something we try to conjure up through our own holiness.

Sometimes instead of letting my weaknesses be an opportunity for God’s strength, I subconsciously turn them into an opportunity for self-pity and self-condemnation. The condemnation for our sins is a weight that Jesus bore on our behalf. If we begin to try to bear that weight ourselves, we not only lose the joy of the salvation that He gave us freely, but in a sense we’re telling God that Jesus’ blood wasn’t good enough. There are times when I slip into that mode in which I try to get “close” to God through my own attempts at godly living and through trying to cheerlead my soul into becoming a “better” Christian. But since that always fails, what I try to do is to constantly remind myself of all that Jesus has sufficiently accomplished for me. This brings me back to trusting in His grace and strength.

Here are just a few examples of what Jesus accomplished for us by His blood. We have been purchased with His blood (Act 20:28). We have peace with God through His blood (Col 1:20). We have been sanctified with His blood (Heb 13:12). We have been justified by His blood (Rom 5:9). We have been redeemed by His blood (Col 1:14). By His blood, we have the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7). We have been cleansed and purified, and our sins are taken away by His blood (Heb 9:22-28). And finally, “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb 10:19) – with or without Christian music!