Saturday, August 23, 2008

Clothed With Humility

I Pet.5:5 - …and be clothed with humility…

The Spirit doesn’t suggest we be somewhat seasoned with humbleness. He doesn’t teach us to just barely keep ourselves in check with a smattering of humility. He doesn’t nudge us to tone it down and show a little humility. No, the Holy Spirit sets the bar infinitely higher than those easily reached plateaus. God desires us not only to act humble, and not just feel humble, no, He says be clothed with humility. What does being clothed with humility actually look like?

In the end being clothed with humility is a crimson garment of skin, hanging dead on a cross. Do what you will to this garment, mock it and you get no response. Say all manner of evil against it and still no response. Draw more blood and it only adds to its glory. Reject this garment and still it offers its love. And only when you have put on this garment will you understand its meaning and power made perfect in its humility and in fact humiliation.

As you walk inside this garment you will hear words of unkindness and attack as nothing. You will not see anything good about you except the garment in which you are clothed. You will find complete fulfillment that makes selfish responses unworthy of your garment. This garment reminds you of the grace which forgave you of your sins and it allows you to love those who have as yet no garment. This humility shrinks from self praise and is embarrassed by any mention of its own works regardless how sincere and sacrificial.

We as followers of the One who hung almost naked on those planks of death are to somehow emulate that infinite humiliation with a living humility about our own situation that should reflect Him and not us. Speak a word against the Savior and we are grieved, speak a word against us and we receive it as a platitude for Him. How often do we say great and swelling words of humility that profess us to be nothing and Christ as everything, only to respond with aggressive defense when personally challenged? And sometimes even returning evil speaking for evil speaking reveals our utter lack of humility about ourselves. Every time we defend ourselves we take from His glory.

And what is this? Our example, our Lord, lifts up the very instrument that caused Him such humiliation and through His servants preaches it throughout the uttermost parts of the world. And look again, the Lord Creator of all brings with Him the very marks of humiliation to His heavenly throne and eternally displays them for the entire universe to see. What humility is this? What utter humiliation is this that beckons us to follow and reflect? How can this humility do anything but drive us to our knees in Godly sorrow over our own hollow hubris and self righteousness? We are again undone by the glorious example of He who holds the stars and yet became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

This Lamb of God wore the spit of sinful man upon His face and responded with forgive them. This Prince took the stripes upon His back of flesh and yet walked to the cross which awaited to humiliate Him in death. This Son of the Living God bowed His head and wore the cursed thorns as a crown of humble glory for the wicked and self righteous world. He went to Golgotha, yea, He sought the cross. How can we ever even scratch the surface of that loving humility? It will redound for all eternity to God’s glory and yet the Spirit bids His followers to follow in His steps. How often do we desire to avoid humility and run straight for the Garden tomb? Resurrection, yes! The humiliation of the cross, no! We think too highly of ourselves, and in fact, we should never think of ourselves, only of Him.

There is nothing that lifts us up so high as when we bow to Him. There is nothing that so mightily reflects Him as when we stand in the midst of persecution with joy and praise to the Risen Christ. There is nothing that so exalts Him as when we are abased. Our commandment is not only to reject returning evil for evil, it is to bless them which curse you and do good unto them which despitefully use you. Forbear and forgive with gentleness and meekness of heart is our journey, and the path to which we are called leads continually to Calvary. How our flesh detests humility, and so often our carnal minds construct some imagined scenario in which we stand as mighty soldiers, unjustly attacked and treated despitefully, and if we don’t return fleshly fire we most certainly articulate a pitiful inventory of our innocence and publish an inflated story of our sacrificial discipleship, all of which are obstacles not reflections of our Lord.

The Lord Christ refused to retain his untouchable eternality, exalted and separated from sinners, but condescended with the mystery of the ages and came in the likeness of sinful and repugnant man. That alone is without sufficient human definition and reveals a colossal, love driven humiliation. Just living as a man would have been a most breathtaking portrait of divine humility, but to actually seek the cross is without any words with which to draw any comparison worthy of the evidence. Even the angels were dumbfounded at such a spectacle and were ready to intervene if called, but they, like us, could not fathom how deeply God would bow to prove and provide what His enemies desperately needed.

And yet the Spirit through the great apostle beckons us to carry that cross as a garment of our own death and His glory as well. We are to put on Christ and reckon ourselves dead. What words does a dead man speak? How indignant is a dead man about untruths spoken of him? How ready is a dead man to respond to attacks against his character? How many lies, how many mockings, how many insults does it take for a corpse to leap from his coffin and defend himself? Does this corpse have his limits and is there only so much he can take?

Let us die to ourselves and in that death watch as God rolls away the stone of our flesh and allows our Savior to resurrect in our lives anew and afresh. We have nothing about which to defend, much less to boast. Our only boast is Christ and in Christ do we live. To roam about in our own desires and lusts and self righteousness is to walk in death. Lay down the lusts of the flesh and remove the grave clothes of our own making. Rejoice when pummeled and suffer persecution in silent worship of the One we serve. It is of no benefit to Him when we are offended at others. Great peace have they that love thy law and nothing shall offend them. A dead man takes no offense, and a resurrected follower of Christ hears nothing but every word that proceeds from His Master’s lips.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Manifestation of Christianity

I Cor.2:4-5 - And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of men’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

There is much, much talk today in Christian circles. It comes in volumes through books, radio, television, blogs, preaching, teaching, and many other forms of media meant to provide a platform for…talk. Yes, talk is at a low premium today both in secular genres and in Christian formats as well. The brain thinks, it then sends the communication of that thought to specific muscles and nerve endings, resulting in forced air coming from the lungs and vibrating chords in the larynx, finally escaping through the mouth and contoured by the lips, volume, and a general manipulation of the sound waves to create…you guessed it…talk. Most everyone can talk, so it is of no great consequence to hear someone talk and even in evangelical spheres almost anyone with a voice box can and does talk for God.

But as they say, talk is cheap because it usually doesn’t take anything more than wind. People talk who do not believe what they are saying and people talk about things about which they are generally ignorant of and many times are regurgitating something they have been taught by some else’s…talk. So like grabbing a baton, one person listens to another talk and emulates his words if not indeed his style. Some talkers eventually garner a following because of the creativity and stylistic components in the way they talk. Many people are saying the same things and yet some rise to popularity while others saying the same things talk to much smaller crowds of talk receivers. This is due to both tangible and intangible elements.

Now come and sit in the imaginary bleachers with me and let us watch as millions of professing Christians hop in their cars and drive to a building that usually is in debt, and they sit and listen to talk. Some preachers talk verbatim from a copied talk of someone else; some talk from a script they have created by reading or listening to another’s talk; while others have constructed a logical thought process from the Scriptures and it now comes forth as…talk. So in essence we have become followers of talk about Jesus. Read again the verses above and see that Paul did not just talk, he through Christ manifested the works of the Savior.

Some of those works were helping the poor, some were enduring suffering and persecution, some were just supernatural manifestations of God’s love. But some were dramatic and powerful manifestations of God’s power which were not meant to exalt the Apostle Paul, but were used of the Spirit to allow sinners and saints alike to experience the presence and power of the Great God they claim to know and follow. The gospel spread like wild fire across the greater Mediterranean world on the wings of the demonstration of God’s power in gracious suffering, persecution with forgiveness, and many different revelations of the miraculous power of Jehovah Shammah, the God who is here.

To be sure the gospel was preached and lives were changed and believers were birthed, but this gospel was preached not with 40 minute talks followed by a return to unaffected normalcy, this gospel captured attention by the sheer power that was demonstrated by the lives that spoke this message of the kingdom. With no man made lighting, no spectacular sound systems, no nicely coiffed men dressed in cultural splendor, and with no visual electronic screens meant to enhance their talk, these pitiful but powerful followers of the Risen Christ carried the tangible demonstration of resurrection power in the cities into which they were led. They were divine conduits of redemption by much more than just…talk.

I realize the church has over the years given the written Word of God a primal place in the proclamation of God’s gospel, but is has now atrophied into a poor excuse for the powerlessness of God’s body on the earth and basically reduced us to a series of talks. To be sure the visible sacrifice of Christian workers who have heard the Spirit’s call is more than just talk, as is the thousands of missionaries who have left everything and serve in the uttermost parts of the earth this very day. These are more than just talk. But does God require of them and does God exhibit his power through them and not the church as a whole? Do we just continue to talk and listen to talk mostly void of the supernatural manifestations that authenticate that the words are spoken in the presence and approval of Almighty God?

I am not “talking” about the contrived pony shows that perpetrate counterfeit spiritual theatrics but have no value in the eternal gospel. I do not speak of the money making schemes and the blasphemous talk that creates an atmosphere of suggestion that God is speaking, and then financially rapes the listeners to line the pockets of ravenous wolves. I do not speak of the new movements that suppose that aspects of the eastern religions will provide a newness and interest in the easily bored western Christian church. But I also am not “talking” about the redundant trail of listeners that sit in air conditioned auditoriums and listen to their favorite teacher/talker and leave with a feeling of contentment with both the fulfilling of a religious obligation as well as leaving content with just hearing the Word as they have every week with no real manifested reality, especially in light of the narratives of Acts.

Let us be frank with ourselves, we do a lot of talking with very little manifested reality of that which we say we believe. We say we believe people who die without Jesus go to hell for eternity, and yet our witness is anemic and so void of passion and urgency. We spend more on our dogs than on missions. We say we believe God answers prayer and yet the lights in the church building are not lit during the week nights for praying believers to come and petition God for His power. We say we believe God provides for His people and yet we borrow obscene amounts of money from the world’s institutions. The world looks for something that manifests a reality different than their own, but all they see from God’s church is a paltry political agenda that mirrors those who espouse no God at all.

Have we not come to the end of ourselves? Is it not time to sow in righteousness and tears and lay prostrate in prayer and repentance before our Risen Lord until He rains His power again upon His church? Why could Elijah call down fire from heaven in an open rebuke of Baal’s false prophets and all we have is…talk? When the lights go out in our house and all the power goes dead, do we not run to the electoral box to find the problem? Do we not call the power company and report an outage and expect them to come quickly and return the power to us? Don’t we have perishables that may soil with refrigeration? How can we bathe without hot water? Yes, we realize the long term implications of living with no power in the natural, but we have settled into a powerless Christianity that operates by organization, financial cooperation, and a business like structure in the church usually held together by…talk.

Where is the supernatural love of God that should be coursing through the church and flowing to a dark and needy world? Where is the grace that so extends to sinners that their attention is aroused as they suddenly realize there is hope for the vilest among us. Where are the demonstrations of the Spirit that cannot be explained by the machinations of men? And where are the lives that are so dramatically changed by God’s power that the light they give off cannot be ignored? Where is the manifested reality of the Risen Christ that we, by our talk, portend lives inside us?

Who would go and hear a man give a talk about how strong he is without him ever manifesting that strength? You might go once, even twice, but soon you would grow weary of hearing such talk without any authentic proof. The testimony of Christian martyrs have been used of God to bring many into the kingdom, and yet in today’s church most refuse to abide quietly and with grace even the slightest inconvenience or persecution. Our defense is talk and our offense is talk, rarely do we see a manifested reality of the power of Christlike silence. We can very eloquently expound the doctrines of imputed righteousness, salvation by grace, the indwelling of God’s Spirit, and many other Biblical truths that are quite at home in our systematic theologies but rarely escape to be powerfully displayed individually or corporately by Christ’s church.

Thousands of evangelical churches exist in almost every fifty mile radius in America, but why so little urgent displays of Christ’s reality? Why are there not many street corners filled with people holding signs that speak of God’s good news? Why aren’t the poor in our cities inundated by the passion of God’s people reaching their needs? Why don’t the hospitals find it necessary to limit the hundreds of believers that desire to visit and pray for the sick? Why do old people in nursing homes go without visitors who come with God’s love? Why do most churches have no active ministry to the city’s widows? Ministry to the city’s single parent homes?

Of course there is much room for teaching, and some talk is more beneficial that others. But what do we do when others talk untruth and error? Oh, we…uh…talk. Usually among ourselves as to how bad that other talk is. Special prayer meetings? Solemn assemblies? Fastings? Weepings? Oh no, just talk. Maybe a little louder or a little more caustic, but still just talk. And neither side has much of any demonstration of the Spirit with which to authenticate the truth we espouse, we are usually reduced to a “he said - he said” type of battle about which the world knows nothing. But our brother James assures us that faith talk without deeds is useless, and in fact he uses feeding the hungry as an example.

The world seems to see nothing more than talk from the church. They do not see a manifested reality of the Living Christ, one that unexplainably draws them to us and our God. These sinners hear us talk about them, but do they see us love them? They see us go to church on Sunday, but do they see us be the church in our neighborhoods when we return? Can we live a decade in the same neighborhood without much notice? And even when they come to our church gathering on Sunday, do they see the demonstrable power of the Spirit of God or do they see a well organized, well scripted mini-pageant centered around a mini-talk by a well spoken man? Where is the Lord God of Elijah?

The western church is not yet desperately hungry for a fresh revelation of what it means to be a surrendered follower of Jesus Christ. We have created our own comfortable definition of what it means to be a Christian, many times completely centered on belief talk, but without much concentration on being a revelation of Jesus Christ through acts of love, acts of power, and acts of selflessness amidst those who need to see in our lives what they hear from our lips. I fear we are captives of our own talk, and we now glory in that talk which has become centered around the doctrines, albeit true, that do not require revelatory deeds. Written talk reinforces what we already know, and a mature disciple is considered one who has learned to talk accurately about what he or she believes.

So on one corner of the street Christians meet to see an entertaining performance meant to teach some truth or principle, while on the other corner Christians meet to hear a doctrinal rehearsal about what they probably already know. And so many times the different spectrums of service structures do not challenge our lifestyles with a direct and inescapable direction from the Spirit. Any residual effects of the service dissipate before we reach the parking lot. We have heard the talk and remain basically unchanged. Sure there are personal moves of the Spirit, but can we as the church collectively profess to a consuming and unquenchable desire to see and be a part of a move of God’s Spirit that will reach those for whom Christ died with a pattern of supernatural deeds and demonstrations that cannot be dismissed as a program?

So there is much talk that goes beyond teaching, it has become a redundant outlet for the church’s compulsion to share our opinion with ourselves and call it following Christ.

Is it not time for us as the followers of Christ to do less talking and more demonstrating the person, presence, and power of Jesus the Christ?

Monday, August 11, 2008

You're Just Fooling Yourself

You say you believe in Jesus and you are striving to be just like Him.

You say He controls you and yet you speak things that cannot possibly come from His lips.
You say you love Him and yet you spend much more time with others than you do Him.
You say you want to please Him and yet you so often please yourself.
You say He is Lord and yet you’ve created your own plan and called it His.
You say you love His brethren and yet you breathe fire down upon them.
You say you love His Word but you pull out what pleases you and leave the rest.
You say you care for the poor and yet they continue to walk right in front of you.
You say you desire His kingdom and yet you’ve built your own.
You say you care about the lost and yet you shed no tears for their souls.
You say you are nothing and yet you take offense when someone attacks you.
You say you believe in God’s love and yet you speak words of hate.
You say you believe in mercy and yet you show very little to anyone.
You say you believe in a kingdom to come and yet you store up treasures here.
You say you are humble yet you let everyone know what you have done for Him.
You say He says love your enemies and yet you barely love your friends.
You say that eternity matters most but you get all stirred about earthly issues.
You say God answers prayer and yet you pray so little and so predictable.
You say you are growing and yet you act as if you’ve arrived.
You say you believe in God’s truth and yet you act as if it is yours.
You say you are filled with His Spirit and yet you speak and act like you.
You say you believe in grace and yet you live in law.
You say salvation is a gift and yet you refuse to offer it without strings you’ve made.
You say you believe Jesus and yet you return evil for evil.
You say you desire forgiveness but you refuse to forgive.
You search for the sins in others and are blind to your own.
You say you speak for Christ but your words are yours.
You say your life was changed and yet you sound just like before.
You say you desire reconciliation and yet you seek to destroy.
You say Jesus is your Master and yet you love the praises of men.

You say you believe in Jesus and you are striving to be just like Him.

You’re just fooling yourself.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Is God's Grace More Than Theology?

The church of Jesus Christ has become very adept at defining and explaining the word “grace”. Unmerited favor is sometimes proffered as a definition of God’s grace, but anyone who has been changed by that grace knows full well it cannot be captured in human words. And when we think about the cross upon which our Savior died and gave His life, we are again confronted with a grace that must be defined by a speechless worship. Words sometimes detract from that which is fathomless in God’s grace to us.

Every good and orthodox believer knows and appreciates that salvation through Jesus Christ is by grace and grace alone. There are no works, no good deeds, no good intentions, and no religious ceremonies that could ever earn God’s favor much less God’s grace. The word “grace” itself is at odds with any supposed righteousness from our point of view because if it is by works it is not grace. Grace stands alone as a pristine gift of God, untarnished by anything else. It is offered with no strings attached because, again, that would not be grace. Grace does not demand works either before salvation or after.

If grace demands works in any element of its offer it is not grace. And of course sinners, saved and lost, have a difficult time embracing a grace without works because our pride desires some way to be approved or saved or even substantiated by the fruit of our own hands. We wrestle with the words “it is finished” by the mouth of Christ concerning His death upon the cross. We want to elbow our way in to that redemption somehow by something we can do, even if it is extremely small and insignificant. And yet we have nothing, absolutely nothing, that could even be considered helpful to the grace of God through His Son. Anything we have is not only useless, it is counterproductive in any part of this redemption by grace. We should, we must, stand without one plea in our own defense, in an utter and complete need of God’s grace.

And when we have come to that place of admission, and when we have by faith been made a partaker of that grace, we are saved and we are changed. The works and discipleship that follows is not a part of grace, it is because of grace. The change in our lives was not a precondition for God’s grace, it is a visible manifestation of an internal effect of God’s grace in a believer’s life. The expanse and reach of such grace is immeasurable, and that grace empowered by love has reached the vilest of sinners and has wrought a metamorphosis that leaves the wisdom of this world confounded. How could salvation complete with eternal life be offered by grace, free and full, simply by faith? It is the mystery of eternity.

But now that we have discussed the theology of grace, let us examine how a living recipient of God’s grace can exhibit and share that same grace practically with others. This is not as easy as it would seem, and much of the church has lost any sense of being a beacon of grace. Of course some claim they are exhibiting grace, but it is nothing but compromise and goes against the teaching of Scripture. But much of the church walks with an air of self righteousness and looks down upon many who are either brothers in Christ or sinners for whom Jesus died. How do we who contend that we live for Christ show grace in this world, even to those who are walking in darkness or compromise? That is a spiritual discipline which continues to be out of vogue in this generation.

Showing and speaking in grace toward others is never an easy adventure since grace is not in our nature, we are always much more comfortable with our old friends - self righteousness and judgment. Even when it comes to friends we have a short grace fuse, however as it pertains to those enemies or doctrinal combatants we seem to have very little grace indeed. Is it not curious that those who stand by grace alone have so little to share with fellow gracians? Troll the internet and ingest the different posts and comments and you may well come away with a head scratching perspective. You may get the feeling that believers are out to consume each other by means of harsh and demeaning words not meant to convey a perspective but aimed to destroy those of a different view. Should we not speak words with some grace even to those who have strayed significantly?

So is grace a theology that belongs in our statement of faith and systematic theology but disappears when we enter the real world? Someone once said that what we do is what we believe, everything else is just religious talk. And so it is with grace. We seem to show favor to those we believe have earned it in our estimation, not those who similarly do not merit it in our estimation. I find Jesus showing head scratching grace to many who absolutely did not deserve or merit it. Peter himself denied the cross right in front of the Savior, and later denied he ever knew the Lord, and yet Jesus saw fit to allow him to preach the first New Testament sermon. Such grace.

If grace is predicable and measurable, it is not God’s grace. If you can see a reason for grace, it again is not the grace of God. Watch how quickly people run to show grace to their doctrinal yokefellows and how quickly they run with law to those with whom they disagree. How disgusting it is to see followers of the Gracious One project self righteousness when indeed they have no righteousness of their own, only that which was given freely upon the dead body of Jesus who gave Himself in infinite grace. Whatever is not of humility is not of grace. Biblical doctrine without humble grace is not Biblical. Truth without humble grace is not truth. And Christ without humble grace is not Christ.

Showing grace does not come without difficulty and sacrifice. We are trained to respond with a selfish defense and a caustic retort aimed at disarming and even demeaning our brother or sister in Christ. Sharing an iron sharpening dialogue about doctrine often leads to the flesh, but when we are attacked personally we will respond in like kind and many times with graceless invectives that reveal what is truly in our hearts. Are we willing to endure untruths and unkindnesses for His sake? Are we further willing to avoid responding to personal attacks on our character? And further still, are we willing to show grace to those who have despitefully mistreated us, and said many untruths about us, and even used harsh and unchristian verbiage against us? Are we willing to close our ears to the choruses of our friends to respond, and to be questioned by our silence? Are we willing to bless those who curse us and be considered weak and not standing for truth? Are we willing to be criticized for not defending the faith once delivered to the saints? Are we willing to be labeled a compromiser? Are we willing to stand humiliated in front of everyone, unjustly?

He did.