Identify!

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There are times when we don’t quite believe who God says we are. But that never changes who we are or the plans He has for us.

There are even times when we put a lot of energy into making excuses and explaining to God why we aren’t who He says we are. But that doesn’t change anything either.

Case in point: Exodus chapter 3.

A man named Moses finds himself in a conversation with God, who informs him that he, Moses, will be the one to go bring the Israelites out of Egypt. He is going to be the voice that frees six hundred thousand men and their families from slavery.

Moses’ response?

  • “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…” (3:11)
  • “[But] If I come to the people of Israel …and they ask me ‘who sent you?’ what do I say then?” (3: 13, paraphrased)
  • “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice…” (4:1)
  • “I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and of tongue.” (4:10)
  • “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” (4:13)

With each comment, God continues to explain how He has chosen Moses, how He will influence the Israelites to listen to Moses, how He will enable Moses to handle whatever is ahead, how He will display His power through Moses, how He defines who Moses is and He has decided Moses is the man for the job.

But Moses responds with more excuses. Moses simply refused to buy it. He was sure he was a nobody, and that the best place for him was right where he was, in obscurity taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep.

So finally, in 4:14-16 God essentially says “Fine. Your brother Aaron will go with you and he’ll do the talking. Does that make you happy?” (My personal interpretation, of course…I’m pretty sure none of that was in the original Hebrew text.)

But here’s the rub  – pay close attention now – because if you read through the next 9 chapters of Exodus, in all the interactions that took place with Pharaoh, not once do you read “And Aaron said unto Pharaoh…

The only place we see Aaron taking the lead is when they first talk to the Israelites (4:30). From there on out, Moses is the point man.

To me, this is significant, because it is one of the starkest examples in scripture of what Bob Perdue and others refer to as the concept of the true self.  It says “You are who God says you are, not necessarily who you think you are.”

As much as we try to hedge and detour and deflect and make excuses, God knows who we really are. He knows because He defines who we really are.

Our maneuvering, our excuses, our doubts, what we think we’re capable of or not capable of – none of that trumps what God planned from the beginning of time.

Our mistakes, our past, our faults or failures – none of that disqualifies us from what God planned from the beginning of time.

The Creator of the universe, designated you for a purpose and then designed you to meet that purpose.

Trust Him, you’ll find that the person he designed you to be is exactly what brings deep fulfillment, more so than your highest personal aspirations. (I’m pretty sure that in the end Moses knew that what he accomplished was a whole lot more fulfilling than another 40 years of tending sheep).

So stop making excuses and believe who God says you are.

He knows what He’s talking about.

 

Cowboy

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The light fades on the prairie as he settles in. Just a dull orange glow remains on the horizon, countered somewhat by the orange glow of the campfire flames.

Close by there’s a rustle as something scurries through the brush – probably a rabbit or some small rodent.

In the distance somewhere a coyote bellows.

There’s comfort in the solitude.  No one to answer to. No one to keep up with and no one keeping up with him. He’s self-sufficient.

Community is overrated. This much he understands. Letting someone get close means responsibility, accountability, and lots of other troublesome “ility’s”.

Sure there are responsibilities out on the plain, but if he fouls something up it’s only him that has to suffer for it. No one else hurts. No one is disappointed. No one looks down on him or judges him. He can be his own person out here.

But what he doesn’t allow himself to see is that he was built for fellowship. There is this innate part of him that just doesn’t function as designed out in the wilderness. That part of him needs others to lean on. It needs the sense of accomplishment that comes from being present for others. If he messes up, there are no apparent persons to be impacted, sure. But the truth is, repercussions of his choices emanate out into the world even if he doesn’t see it. In fact, his mere absence is impacting lives.

These are the things he can’t afford to realize.

And so he just presses on. He settles in next to the fire. He thinks over his choices of the day, and wishes he had made different ones. In fact, most times he wishes he could make different ones, because the same regrettable poor decisions seem to pop up again and again to the point that he feels incapable of doing anything differently.

‘Oh well, put a lid on it and cowboy up,’ he tells himself. No time for sentimentalities.

It’s time to get some shut-eye. In the morning he’ll wake up, kick some dirt on the embers from the fire, saddle up, and move on. Whatever happens, whatever poor choices resurface, hopefully he’ll at least do some good along the way.

 

Though this might fit the loner hero in a lot of old westerns you’ve seen, that’s not really what I have in mind as I describe the scene. I’m describing everyday people – each of us – enmeshed in our private struggles.

We have this tendency to be cowboys (or cowgirls). Particularly when it comes to those private, shameful things we don’t want to admit out loud.

We long for solitude. That open plain where we can be alone seems so inviting. Sometimes even the ones who seem the most comfortable around people still spend a lot of time out on the prairie when it comes to some aspects of their lives.

But none of us were meant to be lone drifters in any part of our lives. We were created for fellowship, relationship.

When God said “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), He wasn’t just talking about a sexual partner. He wasn’t even talking exclusively about a marriage relationship. Yes, the immediate plan was to create a female companion for intimate relationship (including physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological intimacy). But we mustn’t overlook the fact that one result of that relationship was procreation, which led to multi-faceted community and a vast breadth and depth of relationship types.

It is in these relationships that we find support, accountability, encouragement, a sense of value and achievement, among other things. And though some of these things may at times seem more trouble than they’re worth, they are in the long run indispensable ingredients for personal growth.

Truth: there are people all around you who will support you. Even for your most embarrassing struggles – those private things that you are sure no one could possibly understand – God has intentionally placed people in your life who will understand, and even if they don’t understand they will still love you. Ask Him to show them to you. He will.

So come in out of the wilderness. This will take courage. Sometimes you’ll get hurt. Sometimes you’ll hurt others. But it’s better than spending your time alone; trying to convince yourself this is for the best while trudging through hopeless solitude and letting the plans God has for you stagnate.

Three Things to Consider While You Wait

Household 791Did you ever wonder about the years between the time the prodigal son took off with his inheritance and the time he returned?

We have a pretty good idea of what happened in the son’s life during that time, but virtually no insight into the father’s.

First, I wonder how hard it was for him to let go in the first place. How it must have torn his heart to hear his son say “I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I’ll just take my money and move on.” What emotions did he grapple with? Confusion? Anger? Feeling like a failure? Desperation? Guilt? Resignation? All of the above?

And what went through his head while the boy was away? We don’t know how long it was, but we know it was probably years. Partying away a small fortune, living through a famine, hitting rock bottom, and entering the workforce in the most demeaning job imaginable – all of that doesn’t happen overnight.

So what about dad during this time?

Did he yearn to go out searching for him? Did he think about sending a search party or hiring a private eye? If the story were pulled into the modern age, would he try to turn on the GPS on the boy’s phone, or Google his name to see if he turned up in the news? Would he have constantly fight the urge to text or email him?

It had to be grueling, just living with the silence, not hearing any news. Thinking about the old times, choking back emotions when memories arose. Maybe wishing he had done some things differently – spent more time with him, worked less, had more patience. Maybe he made some serious mistakes that he wished he could take back, or at least have a chance to explain. Maybe he looked back on the good times and felt a twinge of hurt and anger that his son would dismiss all that good and fly from the nest.

Of course, this is all speculation. We don’t know what went on at the home-front while the prodigal was ruining his life. But some of us can draw from personal experience, and feel like we have a pretty good idea.

Which leads to my point (yes, I have one).

Maybe there’s another lesson in this parable besides the return of the prodigal. We must not lose sight of that key lesson – that just like the prodigal, we can always return home, find unconditional acceptance, and be embraced by our Heavenly Father.

But maybe for some of us there’s also the lesson of what to do if we find ourselves in the shoes of the heartbroken father.

Some of you may be there right now.  If so, here are three thoughts about the wait that may help.

First: Life goes on. We can’t allow the pain of that damaged relationship to damage the rest of the relationships in our lives. Others still need us, and we have responsibilities to them. The hurt is real, and we can’t ignore it. But to dwell on it at the expense of other, intact relationships is wrong. Take the pain to God. Find counsel if necessary (there’s no shame in getting counseling – don’t get caught by that lie). But keep loving those that are still in your life. As far as we know, the father still attended to his farm and the rest of his family in his youngest son’s absence.

Second: God is in control. No matter how bleak things seem, God never relinquishes control, and He never drops the ball. Whatever is happening, He is there. He’s not surprised, He’s not outmaneuvered, He’s not stumped. We don’t know how long the wait was, but we know this: the father was still waiting and watching expectantly right up until his son appeared on the horizon.

Third: Do what you can, and let God do what He will. You can’t control this. Relinquish the urge to try. If an opportunity comes to let them know you’re still thinking of them, take it. But trust that the love you showed them while you were together will stay with them, and that God will remind them that they can always come home. The father didn’t pursue the prodigal, but somehow the son still knew that he could return, and would find some sort of welcome (even if it was just a job as a farmhand).

And one other thing…

Keep your running shoes on so you can dash out to meet them when they return!

Conditional

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Yes, you read the title correctly.

Last time, I wrote about “unconditional” love and grace.

I want to look at the other side of the coin today, mainly to make clear what that article was not insinuating. It was *not* promoting universalism (the idea that no matter what, everyone is okay in the end). To move on with even a chance of leaving that impression would be a dire mistake.

God’s love is unconditional. At no point do I want to reverse or undermine that idea. It is a core truth, and our freedom depends on knowing and believing it.

Let me say it again. His love is unconditional!

But our relationship with Him is not.

Let me explain.

First, Jesus was very clear when He said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Entering into a relationship with God is certainly conditional … conditional on only one thing – the need to trust that Jesus Christ was God and He died for us. But conditional nonetheless.

Second, the quality of our relationship with Him is conditional.

Jesus: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14:21).

Paul: “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).

So apparently, our actions and attitudes influence not only the existence, but also the closeness of our relationship.

We tend to want to sometimes paint with a broad brush.  Either (1) obedience is key, so everything is conditional – God absolutely won’t bless you unless you have everything in order, or (2) God’s love is completely unconditional, so everything is okay, and God will love and automatically rescue you in the end.

The truth is actually somewhere in the middle.

So…from the top, just to make sure we’ve got it:

Nothing is beyond the reach of God’s love and grace.  We can never mess up so bad that He won’t rescue us (unconditional).

But we have to ask for that rescue (conditional).

And the more we obey, the more precious is our relationship with Him (conditional).

I’m not saying God will bless or withhold blessings based on our actions. Sometimes it works that way, but not as a rule. We can point to lots of biblical examples where God blessed or didn’t bless based on people’s actions. But I can also point to plenty of examples where blessings fell on the dishonest (scheming Jacob, socially deviant Samson) and curses fell on the obedient (righteous Job, humble Ruth). Jesus Himself said that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45).

What I am saying is we will feel more connected to Him, recognize His activity around us, and hear His voice more clearly as we live the way He desires for us to live.

Allow me one more example: Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

A sheep that is standing at the other end of the field and refusing to pay attention doesn’t hear very well. The Shepherd is not deserting him. The Shepherd is not punishing him. But the quality of the relationship is definitely affected.

We have to get away from this image of God as some sadistic bully hovering over us waiting for an opportunity to punish us. We must also not allow ourselves to go to the other extreme of thinking of Him as some washed up pacifist who indiscriminately doles out passes to Heaven.

God is an uncompromisingly just Judge, who loves extravagantly.

He is a pure unconditionally loving Father, who does not abandon His perfect standards.

We can never allow one to cancel out the other. Both coexist, because Jesus reconciled them.

He came to open the door to that one condition that would make the unconditional accessible to all of us.

Tough Love

Old West 253“If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” – Galatians 6:1 (ESV)

There are times when tough love is necessary. When the person is outright refusing to see the cliff they are approaching, or they are blatantly disregarding harm they are bringing to others and have ignored repeated warnings.

At other times, tough love is mostly counter-productive.

For the person who hasn’t really realized the gravity of their choices, tough love could merely trigger defensiveness, denial, or counter-attack. Once the walls go up or their sword is unsheathed in response, they are not likely to think very rationally.

For the person who is trying to do the right thing, tough love could cause them to recoil in shock and make vows to not be honest anymore because it only brings judgment, accusations and pain. If trying to bring their struggles or mistakes into the light only results in harsh responses, they’ll slam the lid back shut and nail it closed more securely than before.

In either case, what has been accomplished is the opposite of the stated goal.

We sometimes have this tendency to want to thump our chests and proclaim the necessity for tough love. Somehow it makes us more of a courageous Christian if we can say “I told them exactly what they needed to hear and I didn’t hold anything back.  I know it hurt, but it needed to be done!”

Actually, the truth is, it probably was exactly NOT what they needed to hear. And NOT what needed to be done.

Sure, we may feel good about our bold uncompromising grit in “standing up for what is right and telling so-and-so a thing or two.” We may feel an extra swagger in our step, like the Dirty Harry of Christian morality, bravely keeping our churches free from riffraff (“Do you feel lucky, punk?”).

But this is exactly what Paul was referring to when he said “keep watch on yourself.” It’s easy to fall into the harsh attitudes of religiosity and pride. And no matter how many times we lament outwardly “I hated to have to do that” it doesn’t change the pridefulness that’s under the surface.

The truth is, probably what the person really needs to hear is that they have someone who will stand with them and hold them up.

They need to hear that someone is there who will be brutally honest with them when necessary, but first and foremost will be there to love and encourage them. And when brutal honesty is called for, it will be with a heart of compassion and sensitivity, not a broken display of hubris disguised as fearless candor.

What they need to hear is that someone is there for them who will pull out the ‘tough love’ only when it is absolutely necessary, and then will only do it gently and prayerfully…and *always* with more ‘love’ than ‘tough’.

Because in the end, most situations don’t need a Detective Harry Callahan.

They need Jesus.

Marvelous Grace!

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I was reminded of God’s marvelous grace this past weekend and the way He displays it through His people.

There are many definitions of the word Grace, but the simplest and most fitting is “undeserved favor”.

Sunday, my church family bestowed undeserved favor on me by allowing me to stand before the congregation and present Freedom Rising Ministries.  The church I’d had to walk away from two and a half years ago opened their arms and allowed me to share my heart and the vision God has given me.

It was humbling, healing, and God-honoring.

When Once You Have Turned Again…

One of the driving verses behind Freedom Rising Ministries is Luke 22:32. After telling Peter that Satan had requested to sift him like wheat, Jesus assured him that He was praying for him.  Then He said “And you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Before Peter ever let Him down, Jesus had already bestowed grace on Him. He knew that Peter would falter. But He also knew that Peter had a calling. Jesus was able to look past the failures that would come, and see that Peter would not only serve Him, but would be able to grow from his experience and even use it to build up others.

Three Facets of God’s Relentless Grace 

When we stop to examine this interaction, we can see similarities in how God’s grace shined on Peter and how it shines on us.

God’s Personal Investment

First, Jesus prays and intercedes for all His followers. Romans 8:34 says “It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.” And Hebrews 7:25, “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”

As with Peter, you and I are on Jesus’ prayer list!

God’s Purposeful Calling

Second, our individual calling is sure. It is not dependent on our successes or our failures. “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).

That calling may look different along the way, but only because of adjustments in our perception and understanding of it. His vision and purpose for you and me is set from the beginning. But as we grow, we are able to see more clearly the calling He had in mind from the start.

God’s Persistent Restoration

Finally, Jesus knows the end from the beginning. He knows we will stumble. He knows there will be times we will fall flat on our faces. But He also knows failure is not the end of our usefulness, no matter how devastating it may seem to us in the moment.

Our failures are not the epilogue to our story. They are merely another chapter. And in many cases, they are still part of the prologue!

Grace that Never Runs Dry

God’s grace.  Sometimes, it can be astounding, breathtaking, and outright stunning. On occasion, it’s scandalous and messy. Always, it’s abundant, limitless, unstoppable.

I recall the closing verse of Amazing Grace…

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.

…and I’m thinking that eternity still won’t be enough time to express our gratitude and love for amazing grace and the God who made it possible!

A humble ‘Thank You’ today is a good start, though.