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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Into the Depths of Me

For God so loved the World that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Do you believe that? Do you believe that it means that God love you, individually, enough to sacrifice His Son for you?

To be honest, I still struggle with this. I believe it, but I cannot understand it. Like David, I ask "Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them?"
Do you believe that God looks at you, that He looks into the very depth of you, that He sees you for exactly who you are and loves you enough to give His Son for you?
We are told that Jesus did not need anyone to tell him anything about men because He saw into the hearts of men. I think it is safe to say that the way that Jesus ministered to people was show them what He saw, the person within. He showed them the person they forgot they were, the person He created them to be.
I am grateful for all God has done to help me see who He made me to be. I'm glad He sees past all my shortcomings and all the labels other put on me.
When Jesus looks out at people, He doesn't see what the world sees. They call us junkies, bums, drunks, fools, thugs, tramps, screw-ups, dope-heads, losers, hypocrites, heathens, trash, liars, cheats, criminals...  like Everlast's song "What It's Like" says, "they call her a killer, they call her a sinner, they call her a whore." But that's not what Jesus sees. Looks with compassion on us shepherdless sheep and sees Children of God who have lost sight of who they really are.
When Jesus had a woman dragged before Him and was asked if she should be executed, He didn't see an adulteress, He saw a woman caught in adultery. He saw past the label, past the sin, to the women that the sin was hurting. By saving her from her would-be-killers, he showed her she was more than a sinner, she was capable of getting up, leaving her past behind and "sinning no more."
But Jesus was not always gentle when He showed people how to discover who they were. Consider the people who came and said they wanted to follow Him.
One was an eager young man. He was a good kid; he loved God and believed Jesus. He was not only a good man, he was wealthy. In the eyes of the disciples, this was the type of follower any Rabbi would be blessed to have; he was young, rich, powerful, he knew all about God, and had a desire to follow. In their eyes, if anyone was going to make it, it was this guy. The world saw a man who was all he should be, but Jesus saw another man who was trapped and needed to be set free.
The young man ran up eagerly and asked what he needed to do to have the eternal life Jesus talked about. When Jesus said that he should know what to do if he read the commandments, the boy was proud to say that he had always followed them. But then Jesus hit at the heart of it all. He hit at what was keeping this young man from being who God always knew he could to be. He saw a man who was owned by his possessions and gave him the words to set him free. "You just lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasures in Heaven. Then come and follow me."
Jesus didn't beat around the bush, he didn't give the guy slow steps to become less attached to his stuff; no, Jesus said get rid of it. Anything that would keep this young man from serving God with all his heart was a poison to him that had to go.
This was too much for the young man, he could not let go. He had no words to express his sorrow, he just turned and left. Following Christ had too high a cost.
Like the rich young ruler, most of us don’t mind Jesus making some minor changes in our lives but Jesus wants to turn our lives upside down. What Jesus wants is a complete renovation not little touch-up, an overhaul not a tune up, a makeover, not a little make up. Jesus wants to remodel, not redecorate, a commitment, not a decision.  Jesus wants to be your life, not just a part of it. Jesus is not interested in a casual relationship, He wants the real thing.
Jesus wanted to peel back all the layers that stood between this man and the image of God. Jesus sees it in us all, and He asks us to get rid of everything in the way. But, the rich young ruler held on to who he had become and missed out on who God always knew He could be. He didn't really know himself, and though he knew all about him, he didn't really know his God.
I have been there. When I was in preaching school, I memorized over 100 verses in my first quarter. By the end, I had memorized the book of James, half of I Corinthians and hundreds of other passages. But I couldn't really tell you what it meant. Sure I could tell you what my teachers told me, I could parrot it back, but I knew nothing from sitting with God and His word and getting to know Him. I knew all about God, but I didn't know Him, and my relationship with Him was very shallow.
One day, while memorizing a passage I planned to speak on, I realized that I knew very little about what it actually said. I saw preachers who memorized large portions of the Bible preach shallow sermons that really told me nothing about God or my walk with Him. Then it hit me, I was looking at a mirror of myself. I saw the effect that this had on the way I lived. Though I did not recognize it at the time, I was beginning to see that I was not who God always intended me to be. I needed to get to know my God and get to know the real me.
The failure of the rich young ruler was a shock to the disciples. All they saw was what the man had; they had no clue who he was. Jesus was not surprised, but he was saddened. He said it is easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom.
The disciples were devastated by this, they asked "Then who can be saved?!" And Jesus reminded them that what is impossible for men is possible with God.

Little did they know, they were about to witness the impossible.
When another wealthy man heard that Jesus was passing through his town, he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree just to catch a glimpse of Jesus. When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, he called him down and told him that he was coming over for dinner. He was overjoyed to have Jesus come and eat with him in his own house.

The people of the town had a different attitude. They were insulted! How could Jesus go into the house of a tax collector and eat with such a sinner. Once again, they were looking at the outward man. All they saw was a man who worked in a profession they hated and considered a betrayal of all they stood for. Zacchaeus was used to be rejected by everyone around him. He was used to being hated, after all, who likes the tax man. He was used to being judged and wearing the labels everyone put on him. But Jesus saw a man whose heart was given to God. He saw a giving, loving, and faithful man.
After this one encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus gave half of all he had to the poor and swore if he cheated anyone that he would repay them four times the amount.
Jesus did not ask Zacchaeus to do this. This was just what Zacchaeus felt God wanted of him. This was just the kind of man Zacchaeus was. This was the kind of man God always knew Zacchaeus could be. "This day salvation has come to this house," Jesus said. That day a camel did fit through the eye of a needle, because a rich man entered God's Kingdom.
Zacchaeus was not a collection of labels people put on him; tax collector, sinner, cheat, etc., he was not the mistakes he made; his identity was not in what he owned. No, he was a child of God on his way home.
His journey into the depths of himself began with his encounter with Jesus. My journey began in the same way. I asked God for about a year to help me see His will and to open up His word and show me what He wanted me to see. He showed me who He is and who He knew I could be. He made me fall in love with His Son and made me take a good hard look at the mission He gave Him.  I had always been concerned with what God wanted me to DO, but He really wanted to show me who I was made to BE. He showed me that underneath it all I had a heart like His. And you know what? You do too.
Seeing who God is, and understanding that all His children have the same heart and goal, helped me to see my part in His plan. I looked for some huge epiphany, and maybe that is what the rich young ruler expected, but it was no striking revelation, it was a simple truth I overlooked. I saw the heart of Christ displayed in action, the gospel summed up in four words: Go, Give, Love, Serve. Four things that God knows are key to use becoming who He intends for us to be.
Go where God calls you. Christ left the glory of Heaven and came to this world because it was God's will. Having a heart like Jesus means when I pray for God to guide me, I'm not afraid of the doors He opens, I have the courage to step through them. I worship with a man, a good friend, who left his home and all he had to live in the woods because God called him to leave it all, be still, and come to know Him. That is courage, that is faith, that is what the heart of Jesus looks like, and that is the man that God always knew this man could be. It may sound crazy to you, but isn't that what Jesus said about those who are born of the Spirit? Like the wind, no one understands where they come from or where they are going.
Give what you have. Jesus gave up heaven to give us access to it, He gave up life to give us life eternal, He gave up glory to sit us with him in heavenly realms, whatever He had, He gave. Having a heart like Jesus mean I stop focusing on all the things I don’t have to give and I give what I do have. My friend John never had wealth; he actually had very little materially. But John gave his time every day to come to River City Ministry and serve our poor and homeless friends. It did not matter how long a shift he just finished or how little sleep he had, time and love was what he had and that is what he gave to others for the glory of His God. God knew this was who John was, even when no one around him, not even John himself, could see it. When John came to know His God, he discovered the man he was meant to be, and that is the man he became.
Love actively. "Jesus loved his own who were in the world, and he loved them to the end," and that end was the cross. Having a heart like Jesus means love without limits. When I learn to live by His love it will change my life. Love your brothers and sisters, love your neighbor, love your fellow man, and love your enemy, for this is how you love God. How do I love? By serving.
Serve like the Savior. Jesus did not come to be served to be a servant to all and give His life as a ransom for many. Having a heart like Jesus means letting go of my pride. If I keep thinking “let someone else do that,” or I think anything that another person needs is below mine, I will never be a servant. If we wait to find someone we think deserves serving, we will miss those who need it. Or have we forgotten, Jesus washed everyone’s feet, not Just John’s, the only one who showed up at the foot of the cross.

I never knew I had it in me to be the kind of man who lived this way, but God did. Do you have the courage to stare into the depths of yourself and find the person God always knew you to be? Do you have the courage and dedication to remove anything that stands in the way of you becoming all you can be? Will you let Him recreate you in His image? Are you ready for a new life in Him? Which story will be yours? Will you sadly accept who the world says you are, turn from the master, and walk away? Or will you see what God sees in you, follow him and live a changed life? Only you can write the ending to your story. What will your story say you chose when you encountered the real Jesus?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Saints on the Street: A New Birth Story

My wife and I recently wrote the birth story of our youngest daughter, Dani. It was a hectic and even traumatic delivery and it was difficult but healing to sit down and put it all into words.

As you know, I post every Sunday afternoon, but this last weekend I had writers block. I made an attempt or two, but I just wasn't impressed with the attempts. If I don't draw you into the world of the inner city and the work that God is doing here, then I have not reached my goal. I told Kimberly that I was having trouble with my blog and she told me to take time and pray about it and let the Spirit guide me. I appreciated her godly advice, and that is exactly what I did.

Last night, I was laying in bed and suddenly it hit me. Share the new birth stories! As I sat and thought I was amazed by the similarities.

In physical birth, out of indescribable pain and chaos, a beautiful and perfect new life begins. It is no different in the new birth.

When Steven came into my office, it soon became obvious that he was carrying a heavy weight of guilt. Broken relationships with his family and his God were crippling him. Steven was in pain and his life was total chaos. Steven found himself homeless for the first time and, worse than that, he was separated from his God. "I Just feel totally lost," Steven told me. We talked about how we could find forgiveness in Christ, and seeing how God loves and forgives us can give us the power to forgive ourselves and others. We talked about baptism, but Steven said he wanted to make sure he knew what he was doing and that he did it for the right reason. Anthony and I gave him scriptures to look up and consider prayerfully. We talked through a lot of difficulties in the light of God's love and forgiveness over the next few days.

Thursday morning, Steven told all his friends on the street that he was going to be born again. Steven was immersed in Christ and his life was renewed. Out of all the trouble of Steven's situation, a beautiful and perfect new life began. Steven has since made great strides in restoring the other relationships in his life too. Satan has made many attacks against Steven, but through the power of Christ and the help of his brothers and sisters, Steven has overcome. Steven lead some of his friends to come and talk to me and we studied the Bible together. God has made a difference in Steven's life, and he is sharing that with the world. I am proud to call Steven my brother and to work side by side with him as we try to bring others to Christ.

Midst all the suffering, pain and trauma, hope rises anew. It is such a privilege to be able to witness the miracle of a new birth. Just as it's awe inspiring to watch a newborn grow, develop, learn, and change, it's just as amazing to watch the transformation Christ brings about in the life of one who is born again. God blessed me to be a part of this seven times in August! Praise God for all He does and all He is.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Finding Fruit in the Bushes

Speaking to a supporting church, I was given Gal. 5:22-23 as a text. My topic was evangelism, and I was given this topic because of my work in urban outreach.
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." (Gal 5:22-23).

I was invited to speak in this summer series which highlighted chapters from Love More, Sin Less. In my chapter, the author focused on how these fruits should be present in the lives of the evangelist. This is true, no doubt. If you preach on the streets and do not walk your talk, you're in for a world of trouble. I found a level of Spiritualty among the poor and homeless that I never knew was present. In the inner city, you learn to depend on God because there is no one else to turn to. So, this urban culture believes in respect for God.

I was watched like a hawk when I first came to River City Ministry (RCM). I went to talk to people about God and asked if I could pray with people, and I was often met by cold stares and silence. I thought I was doing something wrong. It was not until a couple of weeks later that several of our people told me; "We were watching you to see how you live, to know if you're the kind'a man we want praying for us." Wow! I'd never considered that.
I had my eyes open to a lot of things. Just because someone is struggling with addiction, anger, and sin does not mean that they do not have vast spiritual knowledge. As a mater of fact, it can be quite the opposite. Struggles bring wisdom.
"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:2-4).
Along with having the fruit of the Spirit present in his life, the evangelist must also be able to recognize the fruit of the Spirit in others, even when it is not where he would expect to find it. Working in God's vineyard is not all about planting new seed, it is about cultivating what is already planted.

The branches are not always growing up nice white arbors like we would like to see them. This is what we like to convince people "at church" that our branches look like. The seed was planted in the best tilled and fertilized soil already prepared with nice structures for the branches to take hold of. But is that really the case? Have we fooled ourselves?
If we are honest, the fields of our hearts are probably tough rows to hoe. That soil may have some rocks in it, it may be a little dry, maybe it's flooded in places, there's probably some weedy patches, the PH level might be a little off, and some hard tilling wouldn't hurt.
It's easy to overlook all of that in our own field, but why is it so easy to see in others? What an amazing testimony to those living on the streets that in the midst of weeds and thorns, they grow! It show's the power of our God and the effect of His Word. In the inner city, for anything to grow it has to break through the cement and asphalt to reach the light of day, yet it happens!

But should it really be that surprising? If you get samples from both soils, you will find that, though the pollutants are different, they are very similar and cause the same problems. Is the woman on the street who sells her body because of her broken past that different from the man addicted to internet pornography? Is the man we call a staggering drunk because he drinks to numb his pain all that different from the man who claims he is a social drinker, while ignoring the fact that he has a drinking problem, and drinks "just to take the edge off" his day? Somehow the "user" on the street who spends his last dime to get a fix is more of a sinner than the men and women who accumulate debt to have the high of knowing that they live as well, or better, than their neighbors. Is the man who walks out on his children to pursue a selfish life all that different from the father that misses his child's life working hard to give his child "the life he never had."
None of these things are right, godly, or of the Spirit. All are sin. All can keep a person from his God or be an ever present temptation to the person who is trying to live for his Lord. The difference is that some of us don't have the luxury of hiding our sins under well formulated layers.
Get over the differences and don't see some one who is vastly different than you are. See someone, rather, that is in the same boat. A man or woman changed by the Word, yet struggling to make their life match what they read. See a child digging deep to find the image of God in himself. Be humble enough, be loving enough, be patient enough to see the fruit that is present. Thank God for the change He has brought about so far, and don't make the mistake of calling common what He has made holy!
Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He came for the sick. He called the poor, the lame, and the blind out of the highways and the bushes (sadly, that is still where you will find many of them sleeping because they have nowhere else to go), He invited them to His Father's feast. (Luke 14:23).
From a human standpoint, that crowd sounds like bruised fruit, like some worm-eaten branches. But not to my God. No, this was His guest list. I know that elsewhere the Lord talks about those attending the feast wearing clean wedding garments (Matt. 22:11-14), but do you think they snapped their fingers and that happened? Or don't you remember that it was the blood of Christ, and that alone, which made your garments clean?
It is not our job to fix anyone. But, if we look at others with compassion, as Jesus did, if we recognize the fruit God is producing, we may be able to "strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees." Or, perhaps you will find someone who can help you with you shaking hands and knocking knees.
Thursday, Mark spent a sleepless night in the bushes. Mark is new to homelessness. He always had a steady job, a roof over his head, and money in his pocket until his injury. He lost his job because he was physically unable to do it, he lost his home because he had no way of paying the rent, and his disability battles are going nowhere fast. With one fractured and two herniated vertebrae and brain damage from the accident, it is clear that Mark is not trying to milk the system, he needs help. So, a man who is in enough pain in a bed is sleeping in the dirt under the cover of bushes, praying the police don't run him out again.
Friday, a very tired and downtrodden Mark came to RCM. Despite all his troubles, Mark came in with a smile. We was very friendly and even offered to make me a cup of coffee. He had just sat down, and I saw what pain it was for him to get up and down, so I thanked him but fixed my own cup and sat down to have a drink with him. I asked him how his walk with the Lord was and he said he needed to talk to someone about it. Mark was already reading his Bible and was trying to make a change in his way of living but was often discouraged by his life situation. "My saddest realization, was that I have squandered my whole life and never spent any of it on God. I just wish I could go back and change that." When I told him that he could be born again, be a child in Christ, and live the new life that God gave him for God, having wasted nothing... there are no words for the joy I saw in Him.
God's word made an impression, God was already working on Mark, all he needed was someone to tell him that he could live for God and God would forgive him and make him new. After he was baptized, Mark took his turn and taught me. Mark started to make my feeble knees firmer, because I still felt a little fear each time I went to talk to someone about God, but not Mark. Mark walked up to everyone and talked to them about God and how he could make anyone new. You cannot stop this guy!
You see, God often intertwines His branches so that they support each other. Try to take apart a vine. Notice how the tendrils of one branch rap around another. It's not about me, it's not about you, it's about us. Do we take the time and have the heart to see what God is doing in the lives of another? If we do not, we will find that no matter how far we reach out, we find nothing but air, and when we don't have any other branches to grab onto, that is when we start drooping.  

When I think of the fruit of the Spirit, I think of my friends on the street. I think of the Love that Bernie, DJ, and James (I will share his story another time) show me when they have only known me about two months.
I think of the Joy that Mark has because God saved him and give his life meaning, and Steve, who believes that every day is a "mighty fine day," no matter what is going on with him. I think of John and B. Right who stand up in the middle of the hottest conflicts and say "We are all about Peace here, let's make sure we have peace today!" And Tiberius, who finds his peace in talking to God.
I think of the Patience that those mentioned above, and so many more, had with me and my cultural and spiritual shortcomings.
I think of the Kindness that George showed me when I was down over the loss of a friend be reminding me that we are told to rejoice when people leave this world, and the way that my friends at RCM turn up to support me when I speak locally.
I think of how many of my friends at RCM are Faithful to God when the hedges have been taken down from around them and Satan takes all that he can away from them to try to make them curse God.
I Think of how many times it has hit me that Tiberius is too Gentile for the harsh life he is faced with each day and somehow he does not let it make him hard or bitter.
I think of the Self-control of my good friend Lorry, who has been 8 months sober, and how God is his new addiction.

This is why I am an evangelist. Because I need it as much as the ones I speak to every day need it. We need each other, and we all need God. I just thank God for the part He allows me to play in His kingdom.
Then Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father takes care of the vineyard. He removes every one of my branches that doesn't produce fruit. He also prunes every branch that does produce fruit to make it produce more fruit. "You are already clean because of what I have told you. Live in me, and I will live in you. A branch cannot produce any fruit by itself. It has to stay attached to the vine. In the same way, you cannot produce fruit unless you live in me. "I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who live in me while I live in them will produce a lot of fruit. But you can't produce anything without me. Whoever doesn't live in me is thrown away like a branch and dries up. Branches like this are gathered, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you live in me and what I say lives in you, then ask for anything you want, and it will be yours. You give glory to my Father when you produce a lot of fruit and therefore show that you are my disciples. (John 15:1-8)