The death that never dies.

In my last post, I had been pondering the consummate question. I was not inclined on that day to dig into the consequences of denying Jesus as the Son of God, so I sort of skipped past it with a reference to “the death that never dies.” Perhaps you’ve been wondering what I meant…

When I was a very young child, I remember hearing “fire and brimstone” sermons that terrified me. That was the intent, I’m sure, but not very healthy for a 5-year-old growing up with nominally-Christian parents. In other words, we never talked about it. When I reached confirmation age, that terror re-surfaced. This time, however, I was blessed to have a pastor that encouraged my questions and was happy to reassure me that I was avoiding such a fate by accepting Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.

I still shy away from the “fire and brimstone” idea of hell. Yes, I’m well aware that scripture speaks of it and that to interpret scripture literally leaves no doubt that such a place exists. Maybe it really does. Maybe it’s also a metaphor for something that, in my mind, is much worse.

When I really accepted Christ as Lord for once and for all, I was in my early 30s. I exchanged a life that felt hopeless for one that was full of promise. I remember thinking that the grass looked greener and the sky more blue than I had ever noticed before! Nature, music, people…everything was more vibrant! A deep joy began bubbling up within me, and my life took on more meaning and purpose than I had ever dreamed possible.

I want to be crystal-clear that my problems did not magically disappear. My children did not become little angels. My husband did not turn into Prince Charming and I did not become Cinderella! I didn’t find the perfect job, our debt didn’t suddenly disappear, our house didn’t turn into something out of Southern Living magazine or Architectural Digest. My church wasn’t perfect, either. In fact, nothing was perfect. Nor has it ever been since then. Jesus Christ is not some kind of cosmic vending machine that spits out whatever version of utopia we are looking for when we push the button that says, “Yes, I believe.” What Jesus Christ offers is hope, the promise of a better life than we can ever imagine. A life that is never again lived alone.

The death that never dies? It is hell, of course. Jesus described it as a place”where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48), and I have no reason to doubt what He says is true. But in my mind, hell is not just a place reserved for the future. Hell can be here and now. Hell is any day not lived in the company of Jesus Christ. That is an unbearably lonely existence. And, in my experience, that version of hell is much more terrifying than the threat of some future place.

Lonely girl on a chair

The consummate question…and the second one that is like it.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asked this question of his disciples, and He continues to ask it today. It echoes through the ages, like a resounding bell. It is a rock that never erodes, over which everyone will stumble.

It is undoubtedly the single most important question we will ever answer.

I’m not sure what happens if we simply ignore the question, if we just turn a deaf ear. Perhaps it fades until we can no longer hear it. I’m guessing, however, that to choose not to hear is, in effect, an answer. To reply in any way other than Peter did is to endure a death that never really dies.

But if, like Peter, we profess Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, more questions will follow. Question after question will find its way into our hearts and minds every single day, and each one will hinge on our answer to that first question.

“Who do you say that I am?” is the consummate question.

The second question, “If you believe that I am the Christ, now what?” is like it.

No, you won’t find Jesus explicitly asking that question anywhere in the gospels. But it is implied repeatedly, as the follow-up to the consummate question. And Jesus asks it of us again and again. When we tune our hearts to His voice, each time we are about t0 make a decision about what to do or what to say, we hear Him ask that question. And slowly but surely, our life is changed, transformed into something more, something much better than it was before or would have been otherwise.

However we choose to answer the consummate question, the implications are question marklife-changing. To answer as Peter did, “You are the Christ,” is to grapple with the second question for a lifetime. But the prize for getting the right answer is truly priceless.

 

 

 

Motivation to Serve

What compels people to serve? It’s a question every ministry coordinator asks when trying to attract volunteers. Some people serve because it makes them feel good. Others serve because they believe in the “cause,” whatever it may be. Some serve out of a sense of obligation. A few serve because they don’t have anything better to do. Figuring out how to motivate people to serve is like trying to hit a moving target!

But there is one common denominator for every Christian, one thing that should motivate every one of us to serve: Gratitude. Lavish gratitude for the countless ways Jesus has served us should be what compels each and every Christian to serve. Stop and think: When has Jesus served you?

Remember the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law? Mark says that Jesus, along with James and John, heads to the home of Andrew and (Simon) Peter following a time of teaching and casting out demons in the synagogue. There they find Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Now, it’s helpful to know that back in Mark’s day, fever wasn’t understood to be a symptom of some disease–it was just considered a disease in and of itself. So it’s a safe bet to say that this woman was very sick with some disease that brought on a high fever. So Jesus does what Jesus does: he heals her. Immediately Peter’s mother-in-law gets up from her sickbed and fixes the evening meal for Jesus and his companions.

If you’ve ever had a high fever, you know that when it breaks, you are spent. No way do you feel like getting up and fixing a meal! Yet this is what Peter’s mother-in-law does! Jesus has not only healed her, but he has strengthened her as well. No residual lethargy, no lengthy recuperative period. She’s fit as a fiddle and good to go! I’m guessing that she was so grateful healing vesselthat she couldn’t wait to serve Jesus! Her response to the lavish love of Jesus was to allow that love to flow through her and out of her as she prepared the meal and met Jesus’ need for nourishment.

If you are a ministry coordinator looking to motivate people to serve, here are three questions to ask of them:

  1. When has Jesus served you personally? (I’m not talking about Jesus going to the cross and saving us from our sins. I’m talking about something more uniquely personal: being spared a near disaster, something needed that was miraculously provided, an instance of physical or emotional healing, etc.)
  2. How do you feel about that?
  3. What is your response?

The lavish love of Jesus compels lavish gratitude, and an appropriate response to lavish gratitude is following the example of Jesus and serving others as He has served us.

I love my church!

Driving past a local church yesterday, the message on their sign seized my attention.love my church

I didn’t quite know why it hit me the way it did, this seemingly innocuous message. After all, I’ve often said that I love my church! But something just didn’t set well. As I pondered, I realized that it was the little two-letter word, the possessive adjective “my,”  that bothered me.

You see, the church doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to God. It’s not my church. It’s God’s church.

What’s the point? Why pay so much attention to such a small word? Because the more we think in terms of my church, the more we risk inviting a consumerist mentality. When something belongs to me, I can treat it however I please. I can insist that it meet certain needs, fulfill a particular function the way I see fit. I can ignore it, or I can jealously guard it. If something belongs to me, I can control it.

But the church doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to God. The church doesn’t exist to serve me. I exist to bless God as I serve in and through his church. To think of it any other way is to risk loving the church more than I love God.

The role of the church member is to listen to the Head, responding obediently to His direction. She is to do her part, which is to work properly within the body, in order that the body–the church–grows and builds itself up in love in response to the Head’s–Jesus Christ’s–direction. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

As a pastor, I am a steward of God’s church. But that does not grant me ownership of it! I am called to equip the people to do the ministry of God’s church, working alongside them, guiding us all towards unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God. (Ephesians 4:12-13) I love God first, then I love His church!

I hope the folks in that church had a wonderful time celebrating yesterday! I think it’s wonderful to be part of a church that I love, and I’m sure they do, to0. But I always want to remember to whom the church really belongs. “My” church is really not mine at all. It belongs to God!

God, what are you doing?

Yesterday I was seeking the wisdom of an experienced a colleague about a new ministry opportunity. I know this ministry will be a challenge, that there will be days when I wonder what on earth I’ve gotten into. He gave me this absolutely stellar piece of advice:

Look for what God is doing, rather than focusing on what he hasn’t yet done.

Simple. Not easy.

I sat with my dad in the wee hours of the morning, as he lay dying of cancer. He had been staring most of the night at the corner where the ceiling meets the walls, hardly even blinking. He hadn’t spoken in a couple of days, so I had no idea what he was thinking (if he was thinking) or what he was seeing (that I couldn’t see). I had prayed for months for healing of his cancer, and now I was left to grapple with what I felt was God’s disregard for my prayer. In my frustration, I remember crying out, “What is going on, God?” The answer came the moment I opened by Bible.

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. -2 Corinthians 4:16-18

I knew in that moment that God was doing something mighty and eternal for my dad. The cancer would win this battle, but God had the ultimate victory.

God did something mighty in me, too, though I couldn’t see it at the time. My faith was increased exponentially… far beyond what I believe it would have been had God healed that cancer.

Frustration still comes far too easily to me when God doesn’t appear to be answering my prayers, when he doesn’t heal the person I’ve prayed for, or open a door of opportunity I think is such a good fit. But God is always at work! According to Psalm 121:3-4, he never slumbers or sleeps.

Rather than grumbling because God isn’t doing what I think needs to be done, I need to take to heart that stellar Looking over the horizon. (Image from swissre.com ad.)piece of advice! Stop the grousing and arguing and instead look around to see what God is doing. Perhaps he is healing the person in places I can’t see. Perhaps he is doing an important work in a family member as they provide care. Or God might just have someone else in mind for that ministry opportunity who, while I can’t see it yet, is a perfect match.

Oh, Lord, please give me eyes to see where you are at work so that I might cooperate with you in your good and perfect plan rather than insisting you bless my inferior one. Amen and amen!

Yes or No?

Your word is your bond.

Walk your talk.

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Or, as Jesus put it:

Whatever you have to say let your ‘yes’ be a plain ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ a plain ‘no’—anything more than this has a taint of evil. (Matt. 5:37, J.B. Phillips translation)

I am asked regularly how to cope with volunteers who just don’t show up. I have no magic answer, but there are some trouble-shooting questions I usually ask which can shed light on gaps in the structures and processes a leader employs with their volunteers. But I think the problem runs much deeper than any organizational strategy.

It has become commonplace in our culture to say “yes” to something when we know full well that we won’t honor the commitment. “I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by saying no,” is the typical excuse. But more often than not, that’s not the real reason. If we are honest, the true motivation is that we don’t want to look bad because we don’t want to give up our resources (time, money, energy, influence). We don’t want to appear unwilling to help, or blind to the need. It’s why we walk past the beggar on the street corner without looking at him. If we look, we will see the need and then be faced with our own selfishness in not responding. It’s just easier not to make eye contact. If I don’t see you, then you can’t see my hardness of heart. Sure.

Lest you think I am being judgmental, I assure you that the first person to stand in judgment on this is me! I have said “yes” when I knew my real answer was “no.” I have lied–let’s just call a spade a spade, shall we?–to make myself look better. I have refused to make eye contact with someone I knew would ask something of me that I didn’t want to give.

But here is what I have come to see: Every time I don’t keep my word, I breed distrust in someone. That distrust may begin with me, or I may be just one more in a long line of liars (ouch! such an unpleasant descriptor, isn’t it?).  Either way, I’m contributing to the fabric of distrust that pervades our society and encourages self-protective behavior, which often leads to violence of all kinds. I add to the disease of independence that eats away at Christ’s mandate to serve each other (John 13:14-15) , to Paul’s exhortation that the body of Christ must be interdependent (1 Corinthians 12).

Each time I say “yes” when my real answer is “no,” I injure the body of Christ, or place a stumbling block in the path to faith of someone who does not yet know Christ. You may think I look good in the “yes” moment, but God sees my heart and knows my lie. Just because I don’t look at him doesn’t mean he is not seeing me.

Let’s try this the next time you are tempted to say “yes” when you know you don’t mean it. Stop for a moment. Ask for time to consider the request or, if you know your mind already, just say “no” right then. In so doing, you will honor God, the person making the request, and yourself. Yes, that’s right: you will honor your self… in a healthy manner that encourages the same in others.

 

Hope Denied

Yesterday I was given two opportunities to face my many failings as a parent. Now, it’s important that you know right from the beginning that I do not say this with even an ounce of self-pity. I have lived long enough to see parenting for what it is: a challenging task that doesn’t come with an instruction manual for every possible scenario! So this is not about me. It’s about the way those failings were presented: one was wrapped in healing and the other was…well, raw.

As my daughter led a small group study yesterday, she shared a part of her life journey. As her mother, it was difficult to hear. I remembered well her utter anguish as she tried to make her way through what she refers to as her trainwreck of a life. I also remembered the powerlessness I felt to help her in any way. Some of the ways I tried to help just added more pain to what already felt near-unbearable. But there was hope–so much hope!–as she told the story of her struggle. That hope is the healing power of Jesus.

Later in the day, I got my second glimpse of the anguish of one of my children. This time there was nothing but rage. This time there was no hope in the recounting of the pain. There has been no healing. And wounds that do not heal only fester and grow, eventually becoming putrid and–worst case–lead to soul death.

Jesus came to set free those who have been taken captive by the pain of life lived, those who are bound tightly with cords of unforgiveness. Jesus stands ever ready to take the bitterness and pain from anyone who chooses to release it to Him. I am reminded this morning that we suffer nothing that Jesus has not already endured, overcome, and risen above. Gratitude for this is in itself a healing balm.

What bitterness, what unforgiveness do you need to exchange today for Hope?

Or perhaps you, too, know full well the Hope that results from Jesus’ healing power. In that case, who do you know who needs that same Hope today?

Whichever place you find yourself, doing something about it won’t necessarily be easy. Doing nothing, however, is Hope denied.

hope_now