Playing UNO

Earlier this year, my daughter was introduced to the game, UNO.  She has become slightly obsessed with it ever since. There is rarely a day that goes by that she isn’t begging me or her Daddy or her oldest brother to play a game of UNO with her.  And she’s good. At five years old, she gets it. She understands the game. You don’t have to “play nice” with her. She can legitimately win.  And she loves winning.

Well, my husband and I prayed and felt that it was right for her to join me on the summer mission trip that I was leading to Romania this past summer.  She had had the opportunity to go to Guatemala the year before with our family, but this year would be a special trip for her and I to take together. Her heart is soft to the things of God. She asks a lot of questions about Jesus and frequently reminds me of people that we need to pray for. I see a desire in her heart, even at an early age, to learn more about faith and following Jesus. It wasn’t a hard “yes” to her coming with me to Europe.

With any short-term trip, there are many unknowns, especially when you are traveling to a country you have never been. Which up until last month, I had never been to Romania.  I even wrote about my weaknesses in going on this trip in my last blog post.  {You can read that here.} But with this particular trip, there were more than your typical unknowns. We didn’t necessarily have a daily schedule.  There had been ministry opportunities suggested, but nothing was set in stone.  So, this left a lot of room for the Holy Spirit to show up. Which don’t get me wrong, it’s always a great thing when the Holy Spirit shows up.  BUT when you are the leader, you kind of like to have an idea of what you’re stepping into, so you can actually help lead.  {I’m just saying.}

But in my last blog post, I was nervous to go. I was nervous to be away from my boys. I was nervous about the unknown. But God showed up. As He always does.

My time in Romania was one of the best and sweetest mission trips that I have ever had the opportunity to be a part of. Each morning, we gathered as a team to worship, to pray, to read the Word together.  And the Holy Spirit led us each day in the work He had for us.  Some of us had the opportunity to serve a Safe House for victims of Human Trafficking.  Others of us were able to go on prayer walks through strategic areas of the city.  Some of the team met for bible study with young women or baked cookies that were distributed during evening street ministry.  We were united as a team but sent out in smaller pairings to make much of Christ.

My girl and her pack of UNO cards were a huge part of ministry that week. We traveled on a trip through the Romanian countryside, where we met a young family and invited them to join us in our card game.  We talked about life and Jesus. Smiles were exchanged through broken communication and we laughed over my daughter’s relentless pursuit of winning at UNO.

She played endless games with team members as one spent time recovering from a health issue or another needed time to unwind from the day. These simple cards gave us time to bond, to talk, to meet strangers, to build relationship, to share Jesus, to draw together.  They are now worn and tethered.

UNO wasn’t the only way she was used by God that week, though. She helped to bake cookies that were handed out to prostitutes during outreach one night. She didn’t know the life or circumstances of those that enjoyed her cookies, but she was very much a part of sharing the Love and Hope of Christ that night.

We met another mother and her boy in the middle of the city center as our children ran around together.  We shared stories and prayed together as cars rushed past us on busy streets.

There are mission trips that have grand plans and itineraries, there are other trips that require less planning and preparing. Each has significance in their own way.  We are not the ones to give value or worth to the work to which we have been called. It is He who assigns that. We simply step out in obedience to what He has asked of us.

Our God is a God of relationship. He is in the business of connecting His people. He goes to great lengths to make His name known and He will stop at nothing to have the nations declare His glory. Whether we preach to hundreds or to one, there is purpose and value. For each sheep is precious to our Father.

Our time in Romania was precious. It may not appear that way to some in our reports, but each person, each conversation was destined by God Himself. There is eternal value to those we encountered and shared life with.

It doesn’t have to be big and fancy. It doesn’t require a lot of materials or a big budget. Sometimes it can be a pack of UNO cards and willing spirit that can make the biggest impact.

What do you have in your hands that can be used as a connector in sharing Christ with those around you?

 

 

Confirming Our Standing Before God

Sam grew up in a Christian home. She placed her faith in Jesus at a young age, and she was baptized shortly thereafter. She learned more about following Jesus from her mom and her small group leader at church. She grew in her faith, and her zealousness for Christ was real. Her teenage years were rather mundane and uneventful, filled with normal teenage drama, athletic pursuits, and a yearning for more freedom than her parents allowed. Her social life primarily revolved around church activities and a small band of loyal girlfriends. All in all, her life was rather predictable: school, soccer practice, youth group, and sleep. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Upon graduation, she enrolled at a state university. She was excited about the change of scenery in her life, and she was looking forward to living to magnify Jesus as a young college student. She knew it would be challenging to live for Jesus while at college, but she felt well-equipped for the task.

More personal freedom resulted in less relational accountability. Her class load often derailed her attempts to spend time with Jesus in personal devotion and prayer. Sunday’s became a time to “catch up” on lost sleep. The faith of her youth was regularly questioned, discounted, and at times, even mocked. Professors and classmates alike ridiculed the “simple-mindedness” of her “blind faith”, especially in dialogue about science versus faith. On campus, most people agreed that religion was a social invention for the weak-minded, and Christianity was a particularly annoying superstition. Untethered from the friendships of her youth and the godly influence of faithful Christian adults, Sam’s faith began to waver. Before she even knew what hit her, her de-conversion was well underway.

By the time Sam graduated, she was living as a functional agnostic. She had not renounced the faith of her youth, but nor did she live as though Jesus was real and relevant to her life. She wasn’t an atheist in the truest sense of the word. She still “believed” in God, but she no longer saw his relevance to her life on everyday matters. She didn’t pray, read her Bible, or attend church, well, except when she was home for the holidays. When momma said, “We’re going to church,” everyone went to church.

If Sam stays on this trajectory, what would you say about her faith? Is it real? Is she a Christian? When she dies, will she go to heaven?

Sam’s story isn’t unfamiliar to most of us. We all know people like Sam, even though the details of their lives may be different. We know people who have professed faith in Jesus, walked with him by faith for a season, but then at some point in their lives their confession of faith becomes irrelevant. They don’t live to make much of Jesus, their lives don’t bear any significant spiritual fruit. I guess the best way to assess the situation is to ask, “What confirms a person’s standing with God?”

1 John was written to answer this question. 1 John is an interesting book because, if you’ve ever read it, it’s the kind of book that can make you wonder whether you are really a Christian. But John didn’t write this letter to stir up doubt in our hearts. Quite the opposite. He wrote it to “you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (4:13). John wants us to have assurance that our faith is real, that we belong to God, and that when the last chapter of our life is written, we will dwell with God forever as his people (Rev 21:3).

In 1 John 2:19, John writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” Who is this group of people? These are confessing believers who have left the church and functionally abandoned their faith. And it’s clear in John’s writing that this is a painful event for the church, and their departure has raised the issue of eternal security and assurance.

We feel this tension, right? We know people who once walked with Jesus who aren’t walking with him now. We feel concern for them, but we aren’t sure how concerned we should be about their spiritual state. We find some measure of hope from Bible passages that tell us no one can snatch us out of Jesus’ hand when we trust him by faith for our salvation (John 10:27-28). We find reassurance as Paul promises that God will glorify (finally save) the one he justifies (Rom 8:30) and God will finish the work he starts in us (Phil 1:6). How do we interpret 1 John 2:19 in light of these promises?

John isn’t contradicting other parts of the Bible. God himself is committed to keeping his own sheep and preventing them from utterly forsaking him. But what John is telling us is that those who truly belong to Jesus will not ultimately and finally depart from the faith. He is saying that because they left the church / faith, they are showing themselves never to have been in Christ in the first place. If a person forsakes the faith, that person was never really a part of the flock.

This, of course, raises another question in the text: “If some of our church leaders can abandon the faith and be lost, then how do we know whose faith is genuine and whose faith is not? How can we be sure about ourselves?”

The answer is embedded in 1 John. For the sake of simplicity, here’s the false teaching in the church: you can be in Christ (i.e., have faith in Jesus), but that faith does not have to produce good fruit (i.e., good works). You can be a Christian and keep loving sin. They are saying you can enjoy assurance of standing sinless before God in righteousness and light, even if you walk in darkness (1:5-9), disobey God’s commands (3:6-9), and hate your brother (3:10). That’s the false teaching John is correcting. And this teaching, of course, isn’t consistent with what John, Paul, or Jesus taught.

What, then, does confirm our standing before God? How do we know we belong to Jesus by faith?

  1. Those who know Jesus Christ will obey his commands. John writes, “By this we know we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (2:3). If you know Jesus, your life will bear spiritual fruit. Not perfectly, but increasingly.
  2. Obedience to Jesus is where we gain assurance we belong to Jesus (see 2:3 again). Let’s go back to Sam again. What assurance do we have that Sam belongs to Jesus? Yes, we have her childhood confession of faith and baptism, but as long as Sam’s life is not being lived in obedience to Jesus, we have very little assurance she is genuinely in Christ. This isn’t to say Sam isn’t a Christian. It’s simply to say we cannot say she is a Christian with any measure of confidence based on the presenting fruit (or lack thereof) of her life. What we do know is that God disciplines his children, and if Sam is truly in Christ, God himself will work to bring her back into the fold (Heb 12:7-11).
  3. Finally, if say we belong to Jesus, then we should strive to see that our walk mirrors his own. Notice what John says in 2:5b-6: “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

Knowing Jesus gives rise to obedience. Here we see a connection between what John says and what we learned from Paul this past Sunday morning regarding perseverance or persistence in faith. Our spiritual “before” and “after” story is proven to be true “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Col 1:23).

Fiercely fix your gaze on Jesus every day. Keep pursuing him in the power of the Spirit by walking in his ways and seeking to obey whatever he asks you to do this week. And as you see evidence of his grace in others, encourage their faith by telling them what you see of Jesus in them.

Citizens of Heaven

A couple of weeks ago, Aaron began our series in the book of Colossians and asked us this question: How can we know if we are growing in maturity in Jesus? One way that we know is that we live with an ever-increasing awareness that we are dual citizens – citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven while at the same time (for the moment) living here on the earth.

We have a friend who was born in Croatia, raised in Canada and then moved to America for college.  His wife says he’s a “Cro-Can-Am,” as he is a citizen of all 3 countries.  His wife and son are also dual citizens of America and Canada. This summer, I laughed to see pictures from their trip from North Carolina to Toronto, where he watched Croatia play in the World Cup. I saw all three citizenship’s in one person at one time on display.

As one who has lived in the same town my entire life, I think I may have citizenship envy. However, the subject of their dual/tri-citizenship doesn’t come up very often in conversation.  I know it is an important part of their identity, but as far as I know, my friends don’t get up in the morning and pledge to all three flags before starting their day or hum all 3 anthems as they go out the door.

I thought of my friends when I considered Aaron’s statement that as Christians, we are to always be increasingly aware of our dual citizenship. I thought about how many of us start our day firmly planting our feet into the earth of the Earth with little to no thought that we are primarily citizens of Heaven.

How thin is the veil between what is seen and what is unseen, yet sometimes we move about as if God’s kingdom is a million miles away — that the King is a million miles away. But the longer we walk with the Lord, the more we long for him. The more we long for him, the more our awareness of this dual citizenship grows (spiritual maturity).

One such place that we catch a glimpse of our true home is when God’s people gather in one room on Sunday mornings and the air practically shimmers between the “already and not yet.”

During the last several minutes of this week’s service, I was so moved under the conviction of the Holy Spirit that I wondered how I would ever recover. As I listened to Aaron carefully pull apart the words of God describing his Son as the Image of God and the Sustainer of all, and to hundreds of voices singing about the beautiful name of Jesus, I felt my citizenship of Heaven so keenly it hurt.

Then, in a final drum roll and cymbal crash, in a final prayer and send off, it was done. My heart knew what it needed, there was work to be done within me. I wanted to leap into days of solitude, praise, repentance, conviction and reflection. I knew with all my heart in that moment that I was united with Christ, part of his Church, living in the unseen… yet suddenly, in less than 30 seconds, my mouth was chatting about local eateries, laughing about something my friend said, rounding up my family.

In hindsight, swinging from one to the other should have felt more jarring.  But it comes with our dual citizenship. We feel deeply moved under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, one moment and laugh/make lunch plans/etc.. etc. the very next moment while in the same space.

This is what we do. It is how we drive to the grocery store, sit behind desks, change diapers, pay bills and do homework as citizens of Heaven living on the earth. The two seem so at odds, yet it is how the Lord has called us to live for him and know him and love him —while living on the earth.

Let’s be practical. My Sunday hit its spiritual crescendo at about 12:05 pm. Within an hour I was at Costco, within 4 hours I was with my family celebrating my mom’s birthday. You know, weekend-y things. But the Holy Spirit had stirred up my soul earlier in the day (He had spiritual work to do in me, remember?) and there was a choice to be made. I could let that stirred up soul conviction wash away in the busyness of my week, stack it in with last week’s homework folder and coupons that I won’t ever use, or I could choose to circle back with intention.

It’s a choice that we make 100 times a day. We often put our spiritual ID away in favor of our earthly one. Brothers and sisters, this should not be! It takes intention to stop and check where we have planted our feet, to lift our eyes to where Jesus is seated on his throne and take action as citizens of heaven.

How much could we grow in maturity if we actively made the choice to examine our hearts instead of disregarding the conviction of the Holy Spirit? How much would we grow in maturity as the Church if we took action and prayed for (or with!) that person who just came to mind, or the one we sat next to on Sunday morning, or our pastors and drummers and childcare workers and people who seem to have it all together, and our widows and elders and overwhelmed moms and frazzled dads and lonely people and those who are hurting.

This is our privilege as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Through the spilled blood of Jesus, we have full access to the King. Let us not shirk our blood-bought rights as children of God to approach the throne of our King boldly and bring our requests to him in prayer.

As Andrew Peterson wrote, “There is a city that we long for that feels so far away. We will be together in the New Jerusalem one day… Maybe next year.”

Let us NOT forget this truth, it may be next year, or it may be tomorrow. Until then, may we live here with our hearts fixed there, citizens of a land we cannot see with our earthly eyes, growing together as the bride of Christ, citizens of Heaven living on the earth, for the moment.

Wonderful Counselor

There is a story in I Kings 12 about Rehoboam, son of Solomon, who was about to become King of Israel.  He sought the wise counsel of the elders that had served his father Solomon and they responded with good, sound, godly counsel.  But according to verse 8, “he forsook the counsel of the elders which they had given him and consulted with the young men who grew up with him and served him.” Rehoboam didn’t like what he heard from the older, wiser counselors so he looked to his younger friends, his contemporaries, for counsel.  The results were disastrous for him and the people he led. The fallout from that error in judgement led to a divided kingdom and war.  Much pain and agony came to him and the people he led.

What’s the moral of the story? Get good and godly counsel in all you do! Surround yourself with people who will give you biblically rooted, gospel anchored and Christ centered counsel. Don’t trust your own heart exclusively. That’s what Rehoboam did, and it cost him everything.  There are hints in the text that indicate that Rehoboam really had already made his mind up.  He wanted to treat the people he led harshly so he leaned into the counsel of his contemporaries who thought like he did. He rejected the counsel of the older, wiser men in his life. He sought counsel that agreed with and confirmed his own thinking. That was a catastrophic fail that led to a domino effect of disaster.

We need to learn more and more to lean into the Lord for wisdom and discernment. We often times lean into our flesh instead of the Spirit and we pursue advisors and counselors who will tell us what we want to hear. Listen to God’s instructions about getting wise counsel in the following passages:

Job 12:13With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding.

Psalm 1:1Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

Psalm 32:8I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

Psalm 33:11The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.

Psalm 73:24You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.

Psalm 81:12So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.

Psalm 119:24Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.

Proverbs 8:14I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength.

Proverbs 11:14Where there is no guidance, a people fall, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

Proverbs 12:15The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.

Proverbs 15:22Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.

Proverbs 19:20Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.

Proverbs 27:9Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.

Jeremiah 7:24But they did not obey or incline their ear but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts and went backward and not forward.

2 Timothy 4:3For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 

Dear friends, the Word of God will guide you and give you wisdom in all that you do if you will but seek Him with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  Seek the Lord first and He will grant wisdom and discernment. Avoid foolish, unwise counsel.  Don’t listen to the counsel of those who would counsel you contrary to the Word of God.  You will surely pay the consequences if you do.  Jesus, the Word, is called the Wonderful Counselor for a reason.  In Christ rests all wisdom, knowledge, power and authority! Go to Him first and foremost before seeking other counsel. May God grant you wisdom and blessings as you wisely seek and follow Him.

For more information about our Biblical Counseling Ministry, Turning Point contact Susan Wagner, susan.wagner@cbchurch.org or Jon Eric Woodward @ joneric.woodward@cbchurch.org

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

I once heard a friend say, “Becoming a mom is like breaking up with yourself.” The straightforward reality of that statement resonated in my heart for days. In like manner, I believe we can also say, “Becoming a Christian IS breaking up with yourself.” And yes…breaking up is hard to do. Because, as Aaron often reminds us, we love us some us. Sin always chooses self.

My middle son and his wife recently spent a weekend with me. We enjoyed looking through photos, essays, drawings, and report cards from my son’s elementary school years. The laughs and groans of reliving those far-away days led to a conversation in which we recounted various wrong-doings we had committed in elementary school but had never confessed. My contribution to the conversation was a memory of an act of deception I had perpetrated in the early days of my first year in school.

During that first week of first grade my teacher, Mrs. McLemore, assigned classroom tasks to each wide-eyed student. When she asked if any one of us knew how to tell time, I eagerly raised my hand and waved it around to gain her attention.  (By the way, I was learning how to tell time, but I wasn’t yet aware that the big hand was not always on 12. That was as far as I had gotten in my time-telling education).

My teacher was duly impressed – which caused my heart to swell with pride – and I became the official classroom time-checker. There was a gigantic wall clock in the hallway outside our classroom door. All I had to do upon her request was to go out into the hall to check the time and report back to her.

Imagine my dismay on my first foray into that looming hallway when I looked up to discover that the big hand was not on 12, and the little hand was between numbers. I quickly realized I needed a Plan B. Obviously confessing the gap in my knowledge would have been the preferred choice, but instead I ran down the hallway into the secretary’s office and breathlessly asked her what time it was. I raced back to my classroom and blurted out the time hoping against hope that my guilty conscience and pounding heart were invisible to my teacher.

I don’t know if Mrs. McLemore ever discovered my deception (I feel sure the secretary must have mentioned it at some point since it happened periodically for several weeks until I  progressed  in my time-telling skills), but I became fully aware that my conscience would give me no rest while I persisted in my deceit. It was an early lesson in learning how to “break up with myself,” but “myself” didn’t want to confess. I was afraid I would be forever branded  in the eyes of my beloved teacher.

Jeremiah 17:9 says that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a 19th century Scottish pastor said it this way: “The seed of every sin known to man is in my heart.” That obviously doesn’t mean that we commit every sin known to man, but even my elementary school deception exposed a heart and a nature that was bent toward sin, pride, and self-love.

I love the “cardboard testimonies” that we’ve celebrated in past worship services. I have wondered what mine would say. In my elementary school years I came to hate the nagging of my conscience when I committed what some might think were harmless sins. I became a “good girl” who outwardly complied with rules and expectations. I didn’t like the trouble that accompanied wrong-doing. So…on the front of my cardboard testimony, it would probably say something like this:  “I was a ‘good’ girl, but my heart was weighed down with guilt and turmoil.”

Colossians 1:13 says that when God saved us, He “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.” That means my “good girl” self needed the same shed blood, the same depth of forgiveness, and the same salvation that has been granted to the most hardened of repentant criminals. Ephesians 2:3 says that I was by nature “a child of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Romans 5 says that apart from Christ, I was  helpless, ungodly, and an enemy of God.  It’s a bleak and desperate reality.

The point I want to make is that every salvation is a dramatic one. Being rescued from the domain of darkness is a mission impossible apart from the blood that was shed on the cross to pay the penalty for every white lie, every angry word, every petty jealousy, every prideful boast. Jesus didn’t just have to die for murder, rape, and adultery. We all had to be rescued in the same way from the same domain of darkness. Every salvation is dramatic.

In Aaron’s final message in the Jonah series, he asked this question: “How do we get untangled from self-love, pride, anger, misplaced priorities?” His answer was fourfold: 1) honesty – what’s really happening in my heart? 2) confession – I must say about my sin what God says about my sin; 3) repent – I must hate what God hates; 4) believe the gospel – I am a forgiven child of God.

It would be easy to dismiss my childish lying as harmless and innocent. My son, his wife, and I laughed at our childhood misdeeds and antics. But sin is deadly serious, and when we continue that pattern into adulthood – excusing our easily disguised sins – we forfeit the grace, forgiveness, and freedom that God provides so graciously and abundantly in Christ.

If you’re wondering why you are not experiencing the joy and nearness to God that you desire so desperately, failure to confess and repent may be the issue. Even an outward compliance with God’s commandments can mask a heart of discouragement and spiritual malaise that results from harboring anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, self-pity, or any other “invisible” sins which so easily steal our joy and other spiritual fruit.

Sins of the heart grieve the Holy Spirit, undermine our hope, blind our eyes to the beauty of Jesus, and harden our hearts to the truths of God, and all the while we walk around looking holy and feeling like a fraud. The din of our troubling emotions drowns out the voice of the Holy Spirit who whispers to our anxiety-ridden souls that the most urgent and deadly trouble is in our own hearts.

Breaking up with myself is hard to do. I want to blame others when my heart is filled with sin. But as Aaron said, the first step to freedom from self-love is an honest self-assessment. Ask God to help you in that endeavor. It pleases Him to do so. Psalm 51:17 emphasizes that: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” There’s no other path to a deeper love for Jesus and a more selfless love for others. It’s a lifelong pursuit, but we have an eternal and ever-merciful God.