Are You Excelling?

I’ve been thinking a lot about love. 

Thinking about how it is something so readily spoken of, but so rarely expressed. 

Why is that we–who have been loved so lavishly by God–are so frequently stingy or insincere in our love for one another?  Does that strike anyone else as an outrageous incongruence? 

I get that there are some people who are just prickly.  They’re hard.  They’re hard to love.  We all know someone who pushes the envelope of our tolerance. 

However, what concerns me is that love for others is becoming such a rare commodity.  I mean the kind of love that really treasures, values, and esteems others.  We don’t seem to have any problem loving ourselves.  Maybe this is why I’ve been jarred awake by the lack of love expressed in our communities of faith–the Scriptures tell us that in the last days people will be lovers of self (2 Timothy 3:2). 

Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart.  ~1 Peter 1:22

Our lack of love is not a knowledge issue.  We know love is prerequiste of true discipleship (John 13:34-35).  No.  This is a practicum deficiency.  Love isn’t love if it’s only in word–it’s in becoming deed, or action, that it qualifies itself as truly love. 

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.  By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.  In this is love, not that we loved God,  but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  ~1 John 4:7-11

Do you note the action verbs?  He didn’t just think about it or consider it or wave a happy wish.  He acted…bodly; outrageoulsy.  He risked it all to demonstrate His love.

I think this is where we get hung up.  We’re afraid to risk; risk rejection, misunderstanding, or maybe even vulnerability.  But that’s self-love.  When we choose safety for ourselves over the risk of reaching out to others we miss the whole message of the cross.  There was nothing safe about the cross.  It was a total commitment for the sake of another.

To whom can you say you are totally committed for their sake?  Where are you taking risks?  Where are your risking vulnerability to image God in His love for others?  Really?  Stop and ask yourself the question…and don’t be satisfied with your safe answers.  The Biblical authors were not soft about the love that was to be experienced in the Christ community.  Note how many times they exhort us to love and then follow it up with an urging to love even more deeply.  Doesn’t God know how quick we will be to justify and reward our half-hearted attempts? 

I’m preaching mostly to myself.  I find myself wanting to check-out on love more than I can humbly admit.  But if I don’t preach to you and you don’t preach to me, won’t we just keep growing colder in our apathy to one another?  We must expect more from ourselves!  I think about my 65 pound basset hound as the picture of what love should be like.  When Percy Basset loves you, you know it.  He smothers you with his enjoyment of being with you; slobber, howls, and all.  You never have to doubt if he really means it–there’s no denying he digs you.  Shouldn’t we all be so free with our love?

Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed, you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in Macedonia.  But we urge you, brethren to excel still more.  ~1 Thessalonians 4:9-10

Excel still more.  It’s never done.   There’s no box to check.  As long as you are breathing, be excelling at love!

The God of Your Assurance

I spoke today at a women’s retreat.   [Now if you know me, go ahead and pick up your chin off the floor.  Yes, I know I don’t usually attend women’s retreats, let alone speak at them.  God changes things and people.  Get over it.]

Women’s retreats are interesting places for reflection, which is good if your life is in need of some time and space to examine the things you might otherwise overlook.  But…if you’re asked to speak, then you feel just the tiniest bit of pressure to be an agent to help provoke some of that reflection.  So I went in thought up, studied up, and prayed up.  I went ready.

Or so I thought…

When you’re the last speaker of a retreat you second guess everything.  I. mean. everything.  By yesterday afternoon I had rewritten everything.  By nightfall, I was once again ready.

But today came and as I sat, waiting for my turn, fear and uncertainty rolled into my heart like a freight train.  It was all wrong.  All of it.  Somehow I had heard wrongly in all my preparation and it was too late to do anything about it.  All that could be done was to pray…and pray…and pray. 

It was in this moment that I looked up and saw what the worship artist in front of me had been painting–a child bowing on their knees. 

You have to understand that Carole, a precious woman who paints & sketches during worship, prays diligently about what she should paint.  I had no conversation with her about my topic.  She wasn’t provided a cheat sheet.  She showed up and sketched only what she believed the Lord had a placed upon her heart and it captured my topic perfectly.  Unbeknownst to her the very thing I was doubting was the point in my outline that said, “Where are you standing your ground with God where He is asking you to bow?” 

The moment my heart saw it, it was captured by the goodness of God’s provision for the topic in my hand.  Doubt fled. Conviction rose to the  occasion.   I was subdued by the knowledge that God had been leading me. and leading others, so that He might be greatly glorified in our hearts and minds. 

I spoke with Carole afterwards and thanked her for being so faithful to seek the Lord about her art.  Her response, “I felt so weird about this picture because I had no idea what a bowing child had to do with theme of the retreat, but the minute I heard you speak about bowing I knew.”  We both entered with doubts.  We both left with a confirmation that indeed God is in our midst!

Why do I share this with you?  There are times in each of our lives that we are desperate to know that we are hearing the voice of the Lord in our lives.  We are so apt to let the buzz of doubt, confusion, and other people’s opinion drown out the conviction that can only be found in that which the Lord proclaims to a trembling heart.  I don’t know what you might be going through, but if you are doubting or searching, know that God sees you and it is His heart’s desire to confirm His wise plans and purposes to you and through you.  Self-confidence isn’t enough.  The affirmation of friends will only get you to the mic.  But God.  Oh, how many times we read that in the Scriptures!  But God,  He can make the trembling heart steady into the perfection of His plans.   Look for His hand.  Rest in the assurance that He will not forsake you in your seeking of Him.

Wine, Ideas, and the Problem with Relevance

What a curious conversation I had this week.  I was browsing through the wine section of a store while I waited for a large item to be delivered to the front.  A happy-go-lucky salesman came by to offer assistance and in the course of the conversation he asked me what I did for a living.   I always hesitate when I answer this question–It’s a difficult answer for a lot of reasons, but how do you boil down into the fewest possible words what my job is?  However, I sensed that this time was going to be more awkward than usual.  “I’m a pastor.”

Long pause.  Very long pause.  Long enough for the smile to drop from his face and the engagement in his eyes to pack its bag and run out the door.

“I sell wine. You sell ideas.”

I looked at him rather confused.   I hadn’t noticed “sell ideas” on my job description.  Sell ideas?  I sure hope not!

As I confessed here last week, I’m struggling with the tension between faithfulness and relevance.   And I’m concerned that more churches don’t seem to be doing so.   Instead, they seem to pitch their tent at one or the other and call it a day.

Furthermore, my most recent observation about the emergent movement and those seeking to have greater cultural relevance is that the catalyst seems to be for the comfort needs of those who already know.    Those on the inside need something different than their papa’s liturgy.  So many have been burned by the legalism of their upbringing and a fresh expression helps them to feel better and more at ease.  But does it make the gospel more relevant to those who don’t understand it?  Does it draw the lost in and if it does, to what are they being drawn?

And so the wine man may be right.  If we lose our faithful commitment to the person of Jesus Christ and we strive for too much relevance we sell ideas.  People don’t need more ideas.  Thanks to the internet there are already far too many of them.  What they need is relationship.  They need truth.  They  need love.  Relationship is the most relevant thing we have to offer.

“Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.  This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.  The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him.  We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us”  I John 3:18, 24.

We are not called to ideas–no matter how interesting they may be, they do not have arms and legs.  On their own they accomplish nothing.  They may entertain our time, but they don’t have the power to turn a cold heart warm.

I hope that I don’t sell anything.  What I have, I have been freely given.  May you and I be faithful to freely give what we have been given.

You are well loved, so love well today!

Faithful or Relevant? Can They Live Together?

Can relevance and faithfulness live in harmony? 

This past week in class the professor referenced applications he had been reviewing for an open position at his church.  “Relevance” is a buzzword making its way onto many resumes and has become a “thousands points of light” comment within the contemporary church’s vernacular.   For those that believe the church has become disconnected from culture, “relevance” is the battle cry to present a compelling message of hope.   Yet, in the words of my professor, “Our job is to be faithful.”

Relevance is about being real, authentic, relate-able, new, edgy, current.   Relevance lives with two toes in tomorrow, fearing that he will become a dinosaur of yesterday.  Relevance is not your grandma’s communion cracker.

Faithfulness is about being true, consistent, predictable to the established patterns, guarding and protecting the treasures of the past.   Faithfulness lives anchored in the victories of yesterday, fearing that yesterday’s battle and its heroes will be forgotten.  Faithfulness tethers itself to the family album.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about the tension that exists between these two imperatives.  I see the need on both sides.  I’ve seen churches oblivious to the needs of their community, while being “faithful” to the words of their liturgy.  I have seen churches in an attempt to make all welcome and comfortable eliminate any elements that may alienate, even if that element is the gospel itself.   What is the right balance?  Is holding the balance even our responsibility?

Faithfulness is more relevant than any of us may fully realize.    Where does one go to find faithfulness anymore?  You won’t find it in the institution of marriage–marriages are failing at a high-speed rate.  You won’t find it in our politics–it’s too, well, political; a place where words change to suit the audience and garner support.  I don’t have to read too far into the daily newspaper or survey too much of my personal landscape to recognize that faithfulness to anything or anyone is something sorely missing in our homes, schools, communities…and yes, our churches.

The writers of Scriptures weren’t concerned with relevance.  They knew that to preach Christ, anchoring His message in the proclamation of old, was to speak a relevant message.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.  Hebrews 1:1-3

I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.  2 Peter 3:2

Being faithful.  How relevant.  How refreshing.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.  I Timothy 1:15-16

What about you?  Do you think we spend too much time in the church thinking up something new or creative?  How do you manage the tension?  What dangers have you seen in the “relevance” search?  What safeguards are necessary to keep relevance faithful?  I would love to hear your thoughts…because I know this is one I’m going to keep thinking about.

Of Holding On and Letting Go

The LORD will accomplish what concerns me; Your lovingkindness, O LORD is everlasting; do not forsake the works of Your hands.

Psalm 138:8

I suppose 2010 would best be characterized as the year of hanging on.

 It seems there was a daily struggle to hold on to the things I treasured.

I’ve been holding tightly to children who grow up too fast; to a way of life that is comfortable; to pursuing a dream that’s wrought with struggles outside my control; to a mom who is dearly loved, yet battling cancer.  There are days when it has felt like I have been holding on to the last threads of sanity. 

 Post 40 is far too late in life to have an identity crisis.  And yet, if 2010 was anything, it was about my crisis to hold on to me—the me I thought I was supposed to be.

It was tiring…exhausting…depleting.

2011 has to be the year of letting go—letting go of all that my hands have held too tightly—letting go to a God who has promised that He will accomplish all that concerns me. 

 This year, I’m letting go of …

My “wants” I have called needs.

My desire to “accomplish” something.

My self-imposed expectation to “be better” than I am.

My disappointments & hurts.

My search to find my “spot in the world.”

My obsession with Diet Coke…really, I have to let that go!

 I am resolved to live with open hands before the LORD who I know loves me and will hold that which concerns me.    Am I scared?  Not really.   I am well-acquainted with the LORD prying misplaced devotions from my hands—things I thought I had to clasp for fear that if I did not the seams of life would unravel.  Yet I have found that in the unraveling, the LORD always stitches things back together most beautifully. 

It reminds me of the first miracle Jesus performed.  When the wedding host ran out of wine, he panicked.  Jesus saved the day by turning ordinary water into the best wine of the day.  I think I usually leave just a drop of wine in my goblet, fearing that when it is all gone there will be no more.  I wonder how many empty-handed miracles I’ve missed by clinging to the metaphorical “last drop?”   Oh what wisdom there is when we finally recognize that what we hold in our hands is rubbish compared to the treasure with that which God longs to replace it!  

With this confidence I will learn to live with open hands.


“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” 1 Corinthians 2:9-10.

How about you?  Will this be another year of just barely holding on?