Lessons from demons

Some guy talking

Throughout the New Testament Gospels, it’s rarely the church folk who recognize the true identity of the insightful yet salty carpenter from Nazareth who teaches like nobody they’d ever heard before. It certainly is not the church leaders who recognize the true identity of the incomparable son of Joseph.

You probably guessed from the title. It’s the demons. Those rascally unclean spirits get it right every time. Those spirits from below see him, hear him, know him, and are aware of his nature and power.

In Mark 1.21-28, there are a couple of lessons I think we can glean from one such unclean spirit (Mark’s choice phrase) who inhabited a local from Capernaum.

And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes23 And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee. (ESV)


These lessons are for those who ever craft sermons or draw the short straw to give the obligatory devotional talk before what everyone else is really looking forward to. Because of my extensive theological training and study, most of which could be Googled, I read verse 22 and know why the people aren’t enthralled with the teachings of the scribes.

Lesson 1: If you want to stand out as a preacher or teacher of the Bible, you have to resist giving into the scribal practice of regurgitating what everyone else thinks about a text. Synthesizing a series of other peoples’ commentary on what a passage of scripture says and calling it your own is not only disingenuous, it’s an ‘F’ in English class everywhere.

Why, then, is it so readily accepted in church?

I’ve done it myself in the angst of feeling like I’d better have something worthwhile to say on Sunday. Or, when I’ve been told to hit a home run with the sermon. I don’t know what that looks like…do people swoon, bark (it’s happened before), stand up and mean mug me while I say something inspirational a la Steven Furtick’s Elevators (I assume that’s what Elevation Church attendees are called).

No, Jesus taught with an authority that first-century women and men hadn’t experienced because he was the author. There was originality, albeit a bit unfair since he’s always existed, to what he spoke and how he connected it to their lives. The point remains. There is a temptation to find what a popular speaker, communicator, or preacher has already said, take notes, repeat that process, and then smush it all together to make it “your own” by adding a dabble of personal stories.

Bottom line of lesson 1–fight the urge to be a grown up smusher together of everyone else’s opinions. Read widely for sure. But make every effort to craft your own thoughts first.

Lesson 2: Here’s is one of many questions to ask when sitting with a passage or idea or topic. As the unclean spirit looked and asked of Jesus, What have you to do with us, so we must ask of the Scriptures before us.

Whether reading in the prophets or psalms or epistles, the question is the same. Jesus, what have you to do with us in this passage? And, correspondingly, what would have us do because of it?

I used to be quite satisfied with spouting off a running commentary of a Bible passage. Here’s what this means and how it connects to history and what so and so has to say about it. Good luck doing anything with it!

Application is more than giving someone an idea of how the Bible is relevant to their life. It’s teaching and showing people how to lay their lives bare before the Lord of the Bible and to find a place in the unfolding story of Redemption. I haven’t done that well historically. I thought I was getting better, but the doubts are always there.

Lesson 3: (though not in the Bible) You’ll probably always doubt whether you did any good with your talk, devo, sermon, blog (wait, what?). Who said anything about blogging? But seriously. You’ll doubt.

What do you do with those voices?

If you’ve really asked of Jesus, what have you to do with us here, and have wrestled with the what do you want from us here, then you can rest after the fact knowing that you were not striving to make something happen in the moment.

Approval, acceptance, and you

stairs-people-airport-escalators

I’m not a hunter. I don’t have a moral issue with hunting. It’s just not something I grew up doing. I did own a pair of camo cargo shorts that my wife eventually made me throw out.

Hunting would be more of a sport if you didn’t use the urine of an animal to hide your scent. Also guns. Guns are cheating. At least chase that animal down like a nomadic hunter whose life depends on it and look it that beast in the eyes whilst taking his life and whispering, “It’s all gonna be okay….” #Epic

I have been hunted, however. Not in a “rich guy pays to hunt you on his private island” sort of way. But in a “you want the approval of others and don’t realize it’s going to kill you” sort of way.

Proverbs 29.25 says it like this: The fear of mankind is a snare, but the one who trusts in the Lord is protected.

A snare is a trap  meant to lure you in and kill you instantly or, more likely, keep you in place and lead to a slow, miserable death.

The fear of mankind is the snare of approval. I seek the approval of a certain person, a certain group, a sector of society. Longing and living for the approval of others  leads to death. And approval seeking leads to appeasing, whether that means living for a lesser dream or violating your conscience, it’s deadly either way.

The problem is some of us don’t realize we’re trapped because the death is slow. The death of a dream. The death of a vision God had given you.

The tricky thing is that dying in this sense can look pretty normal. It could mean going to work, coming home, eating dinner, watching Netflix and going to bed. REPEAT.

All the while we hear a faint echo of what we believed God wanted us to do, where He wanted us to go, how He asked us to risk, what He told us to quit, that thing He urged us to start…

But life in the snare has become normal. Safe. And I have the approval of others.
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I think Jesus knew very well that his disciples (you and me disciples) had a bent towards getting complacent and drawn away into the snare of people pleasing.

So here’s what Jesus instructed his followers then to do as he sends them out to minister in different places and do things that the locals weren’t used to, and I think it’s the same for us now.

Greet a household when you enter it, 13 and if the household is worthy, let your peace be on it; but if it is unworthy, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone does not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that house or town. – Matthew 10.12-14

What do you do if they don’t like what you’re doing or saying? Shake it off.

Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off.

Leave their approval and acceptance right there with them and move on.

Don’t stay explaining why it makes sense and how you arrived at the conclusion. Shake it off and head out.

See, we’ve become conditioned to making sure the people around us understand our intentions and the process we went through to make a decision and trying to let them know that we aren’t crazy….Jesus didn’t really do that. He shook it off.

So perhaps don’t spend precious energy trying to get them to where God has brought you. They’ll need their own journey for that, and you’ll need that energy moving forward. Just shake it off.

Have you noticed there are people who are made uncomfortable when you get out of your comfort zone? It’s like they go, “No, get back in the snare. The snare is safe. It’s known.”

Different is scary.

But God’s love FOR us and IN us pushes us beyond our fears.

And that means if God is calling me to risk something, to sell something, to move somewhere, to stop or start a certain ministry, to leave a job, then it is God’s LOVE compelling me to take the next step.

God is faithfully for me, and in turn I can be fearlessly faithful.

And if someone takes issue with that and can’t understand where I’m coming from and that it couldn’t be of God because God would never tell them to do that, then I respectfully shake the dust off my feet and move on to where God’s leading me.

So if you have that move of God in mind and you’re struggling to take a step out of the snare, repeat after me —  The Lord is for me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? (Hebrews 13.6)

  • When you feel the pull to stay right where you are because people might talk….The Lord is for me, what can man do to me?
  • When you feel paralyzed by the thought of taking a step forward even though all the details aren’t lined up…The Lord is for me, I will not be afraid.
  • When you find yourself caring more about what “they” might think than what God thinks…The Lord is for me, what can man do to me?

If the Lord is for you, what are you afraid of? Who are you afraid of?

Be free

Two significant lies about significance, part 1

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There are at least two lies Satan will whisper in your ear about your significance.

LIE #1: You’re not important.

There are 7 billion people in the world (give or take a few several handfuls of millions).

What makes you special? You aren’t significant, especially compared to that significant person over there.

Sometimes we’re able to shut down such thoughts…other times, we’re crushed. We follow the road most traveled. Destination, self-pity.

The answer to Lie #1 rests securely in your identity.

That you’ve been created in the image of God. You and every person you meet are image bearers of God. “We are God’s workmanship,” wrote the Apostle Paul to some folks in the 1st century struggling with identity.

Just like art curators and experts identify works of art based on certain characteristics or styles of an artist, you are identified as this remarkable work of God because you bear His image. You have the capacity to think and feel and love and imagine possibilities of what could be.

King David captures this beautifully in Psalm 139.13-14

For it was you who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise you because I have been remarkably and wondrously made. Your works are wondrous, and I know this very well.

I know. It should say “fearfully and wonderfully…” You start using fearfully in everyday conversation and I’ll change it.

For now, though, you are awe-inspiring, worthy of reverence, distinct, distinguished, set apart. Just how you felt after your last screw up, right?

Think about the fact that the Spirit of the living God inspired David to write that about you, of all people! You. You are remarkable and wondrous. A work of God.

But sometimes you don’t feel remarkable, do you?

Our failures have a way of reminding us how unremarkable we can be. It’s in those moments we feel this thing called SHAME.

SHAME tells its own lies: (Brené Brown gave a TED talk on this that went viral)

  • Shame says you didn’t just make a mistake. You are a mistake.
  • Shame says you didn’t just fail. You are your failure.

And in those moments when shame or guilt or fear or insecurity crowds in and starts telling you lies, that’s when you have to proclaim these gospel truths:

  • I am a work of God.
  • I am loved by God.

Until you are able to embrace the deep reality that you are loved by God simply for being, you will always struggle to feel significant because your identity is not secure. More than likely you will seek identity in what you do, a responsibility of some kind.

But in God’s economy, identity precedes responsibility.

It’s why God came to Abraham and established a relationship before sending Him out. It’s why God established a relationship with Moses and Israel b/f giving the law.

You have been created by God…You couldn’t be loved by God any more than you are in this very moment. Drink it in.

I’ll post Lie #2 soon enough, so check back. Better yet, subscribe and have each new post sent straight to your inbox.

When prayer is more than a transition during church services

Image result for prayer meeting korea

Elim Center, Korea

I’m not going to offer commentary on the following excerpt on prayer.

The words are by Erroll Hulse, a pastor in England and colleague of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Here is what Hulse had to say about prayer meetings in the local church in an article entitled “The Vital Role of the Prayer Meeting”. Take note of the questions (italicized for your convenience) and the role of intercession near the end:

It is said that the weekly prayer meeting is the spiritual barometer for any local church. You can tell with a fair degree of accuracy what the church is like by the demeanor or substance of the weekly prayer meeting. Is there genuine evangelistic concern? If so, it will be expressed in the prayers. Is there a heartfelt longing for the conversion of unconverted family members?  If so, that is sure to surface. Is there a world vision and a fervent desire for revival and the glory of our Redeemer among the nations of the world? Such a burden cannot be suppressed. Is there a heart agony about famine and war and the need for the gospel of peace among the suffering multitudes of mankind? The church prayer meeting will answer that question. Intercession in the prayer meeting will soon reveal a loving church that cares for those who are oppressed and weighed down with trials and burdens. Those bearing trials too painful or personal to be described in public will nevertheless find comfort in the prayer meeting, for there the Holy Spirit is especially at work.

 

Ash to ash, dust to dust

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I remember the first time I saw someone with ash on their forehead in observance of Ash Wednesday.

It was in college (that’s how denominationally aloof I was). It was a professor of mine, Dr. Dillon–great American History professor. [If you read this, Dr. Dillon, I fully regret not caring more about your courses…aging often speaks its own rebuke.]

I thought it strange, though, the ash. Messy and unnecessary. Uncivilized perhaps.

I thought myself as somehow beyond such ancient practices.

I also grew up a little during college, and a bit more since.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I need that reminder.

The psalmist captures it in a hauntingly beautiful fashion: Psalm 39:5 “Lord, let me know my end and the number of my days, so that I may know how short my life is.”

Microscopic organisms and Mack Trucks and malignant tumors are no respecters of persons.

It’s going to end.

Life, that is.

When is the variable, not if.

Ash to ash, dust to dust…

For what or whom are you living? Spiritual or not, everyone has to answer.

Do you live for what you get more of when you die? If so, you could say, like St. Paul, “to live is Christ; to die is gain.”

 

The inevitable loneliness of leadership

crossing-crossroad-businessman-fashion

The really hard thing

Sorry, let me start again…

One of the really hard things about being in Christian leadership (and maybe any leadership) is the unspoken expectation that you have it figured out.

As someone serving on two sides of the aisle in Christian ministry, both in education and the church, the following are representative of the unspoken–

  • You believe all the right things about all the right things, especially those things that other people really hang their theological (or ideological) hats on
  • You uphold tradition because tradition is, well, tradition, and to question it means you’re a troublemaker
  • And you don’t change things, at least not too quickly, because someone might be offended. Someone’s feelings could possibly, perhaps at some time, be hurt…in fact, please don’t change things

It’s a lonely place.

For those in leadership, being in process on matters remains private, just like your obsession with CrossFit should be kept to yourself. I can’t even tell you what I mean…that’s how private it has to be, because to raise a question in voice or print is to signal to the congregation or constituency it’s open season on you.

What’s the point?

When dealing with educators, administrators, elders, pastors, and other Christian leaders, bear in mind that it can be/is lonely, more lonely than you realize.

  • Words are scrutinized and decisions are scandalized…

Usually in the most passive aggressive manner possible, though sometimes by a boisterous, victimized minority. And in the south it’s even portrayed politely at times, which just means the knife is pushed in at a slower rate.

I get it. I’ve played armchair preacher critic, teacher critic, and so on. But how much more do these folks–me, folks–need your prayers and grace?

We need a lot. We’ll make mistakes. We’ll have regrets–so many regrets. We’ll be judged by God more harshly for how we have stewarded these opportunities. We really don’t need other gods.

We need grace-filled, prayer-saturated, meal-sharing, cheer-leading men and women who will help us finish well.

Does that mean never ask questions? Of course not. But what are the motives? Speech should be seasoned with salt that it might give grace to the hearer…that’s how the apostle Paul put it.

I’m working on all of this myself. I’m extending more grace towards leaders. I’m slashing my suspicion quotient and choosing to trust.

That’s hard.

 

Ever feel like you’re serving in a ministry of death?

Death // Spirit

Condemnation // Righteousness 

Fading // Enduring

These are the contrasts employed by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11. For the sake of context, please take it in

“Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stones, came with glory, so that the Israelites were not able to look directly at Moses’ face because of the glory from his face — a fading glory —8 how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? 9 For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness overflows with even more glory. 10 In fact, what had been glorious is not glorious now by comparison because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was fading away was glorious, what endures will be even more glorious.”

— ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭3:8-11‬ ‭HCSB‬‬

It’s a weird text, really. Paul is saying that the old laws (e.g., 10 commandments) were a ministry of death and condemnation and, ultimately, are fading. Makes you want to jump into Deuteronomy and read it all right now, doesn’t it?  

But when you compare the old law, now fulfilled in Christ (Matthew 5:17-18), with the law of the Spirit, now you’re talking about something different. It’s the law of life and peace (Romans 8:6). Life and peace or death and condemnation…tough choice. Yet we choose the latter so often.

This got me thinking about just how easy it is, given our various ministries contexts, we to feel, well, dead. Whether that ministry is on a church staff or in a Christian school or at a dentist’s office, unless it is being lived out though the Spirit at all times, it will feel like death, like condemnation, like a fading fad. 

See, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” writes Paul later in 2 Corinthians 3:17. Freedom. Do you feel free–more free!–in your work because of Jesus? Because the Spirit of God dwells in you and leads you? 

If not, something’s off. If I work day in and day out and feel dead or condemned or like the work is petty, then I’m not living life in the Spirit. I’m living by my power, for the approval of others, or something lesser than the Almighty God. I’m certainly not living by the Spirit. 

If it’s really better for everyone that Jesus left us the Holy Spirit and ascended into heaven, then how about showing the world how it’s better? I think the world is calling our bluff, dear church. It’s our move. 

What would a life of freedom lived in and by the Spirit look like? How radically different would it be from the mostly mundane lives of death we’re living now?