Monday, July 25, 2016

The Cost of a Great Gift

I love gifts.  It's fun both to give and receive good gifts.  It's one of the ways I feel loved, and it's definitely one of the ways I like to give love.

So when I found out I was getting tickets for the Ohio State/Michigan game for my 30th birthday, I was incredibly excited.

If you're unaware of why tickets to THIS game is so important, let me help you understand the significance.

First, there's the significance due to the game's magnitude.  It's (arguably) the greatest rivalry in all of sports.  Both teams are in the pre-season conversation to win both the conference and to make the playoff.  It's likely both teams will rank within the top 15 at the end of the season (maybe even top 10 or top 5).  It could essentially end up as its own playoff game on the way to a national championship appearance.   I was taught one thing as a buckeye fan: this game is everything.  You could lose every game, and if you won this one, the season was a success.  But if you lost?  It didn't matter how many games we won that season, it would feel like a failed season.

This game is huge.

Second, there's the personal significance.   It was my dream to go to this game one day.  But tickets to this game cost a lot of money.  So, going into ministry, I never thought I would get a chance to go.  I knew, at least in my own conscience, that I couldn't justify investing that much of God's money into a one game experience.  That's not a law, per se, I just knew that it wasn't something I could ever feel comfortable with.

But here I am, tickets in hand, for free.  My wife and I get to go to the best game, for free.  At least, it's free for me.

But it was a great cost for many others.

On Saturday, I found out that nearly forty people contributed to make this birthday gift happen.  FORTY!  That's incredible.  I'm not sure who gave what, but that's a lot of people to make something like this happen.   My wife Heather spent weeks, possibly months, organizing it so that I could feel loved and be able to do something that I've always wanted to do. 

Could you imagine if I turned around and said thanks for the gift, and then threw them in the trash?  For the people that gave to get me those tickets, they probably would be sad.  For my wife?  Devastated.  All that time, effort, and money, just so I could ignore it.

When we say the Gift of Christ is free, and don't act on it, we do the same thing to God.  We ignore that there was a deep cost to God's grace, and that we had great need of it.

You see, a relationship with God is the best thing any of us could have.  It's the reason why we were created, to have fellowship with our creator!  But we rebelled.  We sinned.  We hated him.  So God sent a gift.  The gift of His perfect Son.

The significance?  It's the matter between being reconciled to God and being separated from Him forever.  And the cost?  Invaluable.  Jesus gave everything.  If we do nothing with this gift, it demonstrates we don't actually understand what the Gospel is, or what it means.

The Gospel is so great a gift that it both saves us from God's wrath and makes us more into who we were supposed to be, comformed to the image of Christ.  If we just want it to save from wrath, but not change, we have missed both the significance of our condition AND the deep cost Jesus paid.  It's like saying, "Jesus, thanks for heaven, but I don't need anything else."

Have you missed the cost of the greatest gift ever given?  What would it look like for you to accept the gift with delight, allowing God to demand anything of you?  Because ultimately, the greatest gift we could have is to be able to rightly follow God and become more like Him due to pleasure we have in knowing Him.


Monday, July 18, 2016

The Nature of Hostility and Division

“Side? I am on nobody's side, because nobody is on my side, little orc.”  
Treebeard, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 

For many, July 4th is a day to celebrate in our country.  It reminds us that we are a country that is devoted to the freedom of all people.  However, Christian rapper Lecrae tweeted a picture of what his ancestors were probably doing on July 4th all those years ago: working as slave hands.  It was a sobering reminder that not everyone has had the same advantages or circumstances.  Even more so, it was a reminder that America's Independence Day is not going to be viewed in the same light by everyone.  

Some appreciated it.  It provided clarity to the cries of the black community about white privilege.  Others, however, claimed it was disunifying, un-american, and even racist.  

Unfortunately, things have dissolved further since then.  Two killings that went viral.  A sniper murdering five policemen.  And now, it feels like the battle lines are drawn.  

#Blacklivesmatter.  #Bluelivesmatter.  #AllLivesMatter.  "If you are silent, you are part of the problem!"  "BLM and these complainers are part of the problem!"   

The anger, frustration, and hatred has led many to wonder, "What has happened to our once great nation?"  Others are crying out, "It has never been great!"  It begs this question: why is this happening?  Thankfully, while we don't necessarily know why, God knows exactly why, and we can be sure it will bring Him the most glory.  

What we can be sure of is why divisions like this happen.  Many point to racism and privilege.  These are very real things that are happening.  But the scriptures point to an even deeper issue.  Paul speaks to it when he addresses the churches in Ephesus.  In that time period, and in that location, Jews and Gentiles were in serious conflict.

In Acts 19, there were riots in the city.  One of Paul's companions, Alexander, tried to speak to the Ephesian rioters (Gentiles), but as soon as they saw he was a Jew, the crowd increased their rioting!  Tensions were high.  

In Ephesians 2, we see even more evidence of hard relations: "You were once called uncircumcision."  This was a derogatory term for the Gentiles.  Not unlike the use of the n-word for black men or women.  

These were issues that took place 2000 years ago, halfway around the world!  What does Paul say in response to it?  

He says three things:

Remember the nature of hostility --> Paul, a Jew, wants the Gentiles to remember they were once called "uncircumcision."  This was a risky thing for a former Jewish religious leader to say to them.  So why does he say it?  So they would remember that they were alienated not just socially, but spiritually.  Gentiles couldn't enter the temple, so they could not worship God.  It was a literal "dividing wall" of hostility with the Lord.  Vertical hostility with God causes horizontal hostility with people. 

Be Reconciled --> But, Jesus came and preached peace to those who were near (the Jews), and those who were far (the Gentiles).  Jesus preaches peace to the privileged, and to the oppressed.  The first step then is not to be socially reconciled, but to be spiritually reconciled.  It's counter-intuitive.  First we must look at our own hearts and confess the sin within, so we might be reconciled to the God who drew near to us first. 

Be Rooted --> How does society change?  By clinging to Jesus for his transforming power.  Through Him, and only through Him, can a person lay down his comfort to draw near to a person who is radically different from them.  Why?  Because that's what Jesus did for us.  He drew near by becoming a perfect man, and dwelt among imperfect rebels.

It's why the quote at the top is helpful.  God is not on anyone's "side."  Why?  Because He's on His own side.  He's not on the side of conservatives, and He's not on the side of progressives.  He's on His side.  And His agenda is to win sinful men and women back to Himself, and then to make them more into the likeness of His Son. 

So church, the call is to repent of our sin.  If we find racism in the recesses of our hearts, it's time to come clean.  If we find hatred and bigotry and stubbornness, we can come clean.  Because it's evidence of your bigger problem, your hatred of God.  And He took care of that on the cross.

It's only through Gospel transformation that hostility will be vanquished.

It's only through the Gospel that true unity will be established. 

It's only through the Gospel that the church will continue to reform, seeking to draw near to other sin-sick rebels in hopes of winning them to the God who has reconciled us.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

Forgiveness Drives Devotion

Have you ever felt like you are drying up?  You're reading your bible, praying, in fellowship, engaged at church, and yet you struggle to make it through?

If you're like me, you've had seasons where that has lasted a long time, and moments where it's been merely half a day.  But neither are fun.  And it's hard in those moments to love Jesus and be faithful.  It's in these moments where I'd rather not follow Jesus, give in to whatever my passions are telling me, and blame it on my tiredness or dryness.  

What's worse?  It comes off going to two weeks of "Focus," DiscipleMakers week-long retreat, and of course, we left the week wanting to change the world for Christ!  Merely days later it's hard to even get out of bed and skim a few pages and form a few words.  Save the World?  Hah!  

We dream and imagine being part of God's plan and yet how often after we gain a boost of clarity from retreats, conferences, and spiritual highs, that we crash back down to reality?  The fire inside dried up.  My desire to be more generous is sucked away by my greed.  My desire to reach neighbors for Christ is sucked away by my want of comfort.  

Thank God I don't have to be mastered by my emotions.  

As I've planted in God's Word (even when it's been hard), one of the things I was struck by was a passage in Luke 7, where a woman "of the city" (that's code for prostitute) encounters Jesus.  She goes into a religious leader's house, which would have super scandalous.  She weeps over Jesus' feet and kisses them (That's weird... and gross).  And she breaks an alabaster flask, filled with her ointment (which would have meant everything to her, due to her line of work), and anoints Jesus' feet with it.  


The religious leader scoffs at this.  Jesus, however, does not.  He speaks.  And this is what he says: 

"Do you see this woman? I entered your (religious leader's) house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7:44b-47)

The religious leader does nothing, because he does not see his need for forgiveness.  The woman, however, is deeply moved because she knows her both her need, and the one who fulfills that need.  Her reputation is awful, her line of work is shameful, and she herself is most likely in a very broken state.  She's been used by men.  And here is a man who welcomes her not for her body, but because He chooses to love her.  And she gives up everything.  Presumably, she even gives up her occupation because the ointment she would have used to make herself more attractive has been poured out on a man who has no intention of sleeping with her.   

She realizes how much she has been forgiven.  And in turn, she responds with deep devotion.  

When you are in a dry season, do you run back to the cross to remember your need for forgiveness?  Might that be why you are dry in the first place?  Maybe, like me, as we grow we revert to thinking like the religious leader.  We start to get our acts together, our reputation grows a bit, we do more good deeds.  But who got us to that point?  

Jesus did.  He rescued us from eternal hell and shame, and brought us to Himself.  We must remember how much we have been forgiven, often, if our devotion to Christ is to grow.  

Have you looked recently at the depths of your sin that Jesus has forgiven?

Have you looked freshly upon the Cross of Christ? 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Longing for More

 Author's Note: This post was originally written a few months ago, but thought it was appropriate since I am currently on vacation.  It's a good reminder that Jesus is the one who will give me the sweetest rest, which will help me enjoy our vacation even more!
If you looked at my browsing history recently, you would quickly see a repeated pattern.,,, the list goes on. “When can I get away?” We all dream for some sort of escape, and my guess is, if we all are honest, many of us often wander down the trail of the deep desire for a vacation. And not just any vacation. But the one that tops all other vacations.

At the end of 2014, Heather and I went on a cruise that I looked forward to for a long time. I was especially excited because it was on the largest cruise ship ever built, Royal Caribbean's “Allure of the Seas.” And it was amazing. The food was excellent, the entertainment was top-notch, and the ship itself was mesmorizing. I was amazed that a massive ship could hold so much. It was so impressive that it had it's own take on New York's Central Park, with live plant life and butterflies buzzing in the open center of the ship! With trees planted in front of you and store-fronts on either side, it was easy to forget that you were sailing on a vessel in the middle of the ocean!

Since then, I've gone through waves of wanting to go back on that boat, or another just like it. And not a casual, “it'd be fun to do that again.” Rather, a deep, gripping desire to drop everything and go. I want to experience the wonder again. The freedom to just explore. And the freedom to not have to worry about anything, sit on a lounge chair, and read and think and soak in the sun. I just want to escape.

And yet, while being on the seas can be a good thing (barring running into any icebergs!), this deep desire within me is actually a cry for help. There is something in me that feels this need to escape whatever I don't want to be in at this moment. And while God calls us to be in certain places in certain seasons, I'm struggling to be content. A few of these are:

I don't like being confined to a specific time: I love my job. I love ministry. But I often want to do it on my time-table and my terms. But school is in session at specific times, and God has called me to minister at college campuses. In my right mind, I wouldn't trade it for the world. But my sinful desire longs to trade eternal impact in for a lowly week at sea.

I believe the lie that my kids are a hinderance: I love my kids. I love getting to parent them. But they place restrictions on Heather and I. We can't just leave at the drop of a hat, and if we do want to leave just the two of us, we need to go through a lot of hoops to make sure they will be taken care of. It's not just whether we can find someone to watch them, it's also when they can watch them. Not only that, but in the season of having a newborn, it's nearly impossible to go anywhere without our little JJ for more than a few hours for the next few months. This is frustrating to me sometimes, because it's easy for me to believe that a vacation away from them would be better than spending time with them. I'm not believing that “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” (Psalm 127:3)

I dislike increased responsibility: As I'm getting older, there are more things I'm responsible for, which means less and less “me” time. This can feel like a curse. But the scriptures say differently. In Matthew 25, when Jesus tells the parable of the talents, the reward for the faithful servants is MORE responsibility. I should rejoice in gaining more responsibility, not run away from it.

I fear I'm missing out: This is probably the biggest inward struggle, and is linked to the other three lies from above. “What if I'm missing out on the best thing!” Psalm 16 says, “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” This is a helpful reminder that God is my true treasure. And if He has called me to be here and now, then this is what's best. And, through the cross of Christ, I will have a far better paradise to call home than any boat. Because of Christ, I will never miss out on the best thing.

So, I don't need the “perfect” vacation. I don't need to hope that I get to sail once more, and it doesn't need to be now. I can feel free to spend money on a different family vacation and enjoy my children, even if it feels like more work. I can find great joy in the different seasons of life, even when it's a season of hard work, or a season of rest.

Can you relate? Remember, the lines have fallen in pleasant places. And our greatest treasure is Christ. Even if you get time away from the kids. Even if you can take that ideal vacation. Even if you can have a reprieve from all your responsibilities. Jesus will always provide the sweetest rest, and when we trust in Him, He can make even our most fun activities that much more enjoyable, because we've made Jesus the ultimate person who brings ultimate joy.