Exercising Dominion Begins with Yourself

We live in an age where taking personal responsibility for oneself and one’s behavior is an endangered commodity. Increasingly, we have become a culture of “victimitis,” where no one is really ever a fault for anything. Instead, our problems, whatever they may be, are the result of the malfeasance of another or some series of bad breaks and misunderstandings. When all else fails and we can’t find someone or something to blame our troubles on, we can assert along with Stooge Curly Joe: “I’m just a victim of circumstance.”

Let’s face facts and not seek to become overly intellectual or get bogged down in a mire and muck of philosophical sophistication. The reality of the situation is actually quite simple: until you establish control over your thoughts, feelings, and behavior you life is going to be characterized by instability and difficulty. Until you develop personal discipline, you will exist but never truly live.

Referring to an undisciplined person, James Allen states:

He does not intelligently reflect upon life, and lives in a series of sensations, longings, and confused memories which are unrelated to any central idea or principle. A man whose inner life is so ungoverned and chaotic must necessarily manifest this confusion in the visible conditions of his outer life in the world; and though for a time, running with the stream of his desires, he may draw to himself amore or less large share of the outer necessities and comforts of life, he never achieves any real success nor accomplishes any real good, and sooner or later worldly failure and disaster are inevitable, as the direct result of the inward failure to properly adjust and regulate those mental forces which make the outer life.

I still clearly recall the time I first read these words by James Allen, along with the above cited comments about taking a meandering route down “trackless wastes of perplexity.” If ever a message described my undisciplined nature, especially related to my thought life, this one surely did. Allen’s words hit me between the eyes with the impact of a 2×4. It was, in short, one of those personal epiphanies that we are blessed with from time to time. I’ll be the first to admit that at the time it didn’t especially seem like a blessing, but in retrospect, that is exactly what it was. It was this revelation, engineered no doubt by divine forces, that began the process of a profound change in my thought life. Did that transformation take place overnight? Of course not; but it did take place and I am forever thankful. Allen, in his remarkable little work entitled, Byways to Blessedness, continues by describing the necessity of getting a grip on our cognitive life:

Before a man accomplish anything of an enduring nature in the world he must first of all acquire some measure of success in the management of his own mind. This is as mathematical a truism as that two and two are four, for, “out of the heart are the issues of life.” (Here Allen is referring to Proverbs 4:23). If a man cannot govern the forces within himself, he cannot hold a firm hand upon the outer activities which form his visible life. On the other hand, as a man succeeds, in governing himself he rises to higher and higher levels of power and usefulness and success in the world.

We all seek a North Star, a point of reference to which we can align ourselves and thereby judge our position. Without such a point of reference, we waste valuable time and energy, flitting here and wandering there and ending up nowhere. John Wesley wisely taught that when seeking such an anchor for our lives, we can turn to four sources: tradition, scripture, reason, and experience. During the course of my life, there have been occasions where I have used any one or combination of these sources to make proper judgments and reach vital decisions. Yet more than any other source, I have found greatest value in that “inner light” which God deposited in me. Known by many names, this is indeed the “light which lights every man that comes into the world” as John so aptly put it in the famous Prologue to his gospel. It is this same inner luminous core that George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, spoke of as the radiant wellspring of Christian revelation.

If we are to reach any degree of mastery over our lower self, we must establish, deepen, and maintain steadfast contact with this inner light. James Allen, speaking in context of establishing an anchor for our lives, describes the process in very succinct terms:

A man does not commence to truly live until he finds an immovable center within himself on which to regulate his life, and from which to draw his peace. If he trusts to that which fluctuates, he also will fluctuate; if he leans upon that which may be withdrawn he will fall and be bruised; if he looks for satisfaction in perishable accumulations he will starve for happiness in the midst of plenty…Be contented that others shall manage or mismanage their own little kingdom, and see to it that you reign strongly over your own. Your entire well-being and the well-being of the whole world lies there. You have a conscience, follow it; you have a mind, clarify it; you have a judgment, use and improve it; you have a will, employ and strengthen it; you have knowledge, increase it; there is a light within your soul, watch it, tend it, encourage it, shield it from the winds of passion, and help it to burn with a steadier and ever steadier radiance. Leave the world and come back to yourself. Think as a man, live as a man. Be rich in yourself, be complete in yourself. Find the abiding center within you and obey it.

Often the Holy Spirit brings to our attention areas of our thought, feeling, action, or belief that are either inaccurate or no longer serve a useful purpose. It then is incumbent upon us that we cast aside these aspects of our being. Paul speaks to this theme repeatedly when he tells us to take off the old and to put on the new. James Allen tells us:

He who would be clothed in new garments must first cast away the old, and   who would find the True must sacrifice the false. The gardener digs in the weeds in order that they may feed, with their decay, the plants that are good for food; and the Tree of Wisdom can only flourish on the compost of uprooted follies.

At first glance, it would seem this process of personal mastery and changing problematic behaviors would be simple. We just identify those behaviors and make up our minds not to engage in them anymore. However, as anyone who has ever tried to change deeply ingrained behaviors will attest, this process is far more difficult that it seems. Further, we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to this sort of personal mastery.

From the time I was five years old I have been an avid baseball fan. I played the sport throughout my school years and, once I became an adult, played competitive softball for many years.

I normally played middle infield, either second base or shortstop. For many years I used the same softball glove. In fact, I used it so long that the strings kept breaking, all the padding was gone out of the pocket and the leather was cracked in several strategic places. Nevertheless I refused to buy a new glove, in spite of the frequent protestations of my teammates.

The reason was simple. I was comfortable with this old glove. It molded to my hand perfectly over the years and it felt reassuring to put in on before I took the field. All too often, however, I would catch a hard line drive right in the pocket and my hand would sting, then remain numb for several minutes. Still, I wanted no part of a new glove.

A new glove, as anyone who has played the sport knows, is a real pain for awhile. It feels funny, awkward and stiff. It is easy to make errors with a new glove, at least until it is broken in properly. No, my old glove was find thank you very much.

One day our third baseman wasn’t able to make the game and I played the so-called “hot corner.” Things went okay for the first two innings. Then, in the third inning the batter hit a hard liner right at me. I responded quickly and raised my glove, only to have the ball break right through the ancient webbing an hit me square in the forehead, knocking me out cold.

Two days later I bought a new glove.

My experience with my old softball glove is not unlike my experience with the behaviors that flow from my old self. No matter how much I try to take off the old and put on the new, the old keeps rearing its head and biting me. I suspect that I am not alone in this predicament.

Many of my old behaviors, like my old softball glove, may hurt me time and time again. But, they are comfortable in the sense that they are familiar and predictable. My old self resists change and it is here that we are vulnerable to our habitual responses to life, however unhealthy and painful they may be

There is no need to complicate this issue of self-mastery beyond what it is. On a very practical level, mastery of self involves nothing more complex or arcane than saying no to self. Granted, this is often easier said than done, but let’s not kid ourselves by inserting all sorts of esoteric metaphysics or psychoanalytic mumbo jumbo into the equation. Like James Allen, let’s cut right to the chase:

By his personal indulgences a man demeans himself, forfeits self-respect to the extent and frequency of his indulgence, and deprives himself of exemplary influence and power to accomplish lasting good in his work in the world.

Remember the runaway bestseller The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck? The author could have started the book in an infinite number of ways, but Peck chose this as his opening sentence: Life is difficult. I think he started the book that way because that theme, the difficulty of life, is universal. Everyone could relate to those words.

As Christians, we also know that life is difficult. We are going to fact all kinds of problems. The good news is that no matter how difficult our present circumstances might be, God has got our back. He never presents us with something that we just cannot overcome. Bishop Jim Lowe, in his excellent book Achieving Your Divine Potential, makes the following cogent observation:

This is God’s promise. Every problem or issue you encounter in life has a solution. It is merely a matter of time before you discover it. Don’t give up hope; keep on pursuing your goal relentlessly. For all you know, the next thought you have may be the one that reveals to you how to subdue that one issue or problem that has been confronting you.

The word dominion basically means to “rule.” It implies the act of taking one’s authority over something for the purpose of establish order, discipline, and positive control. We have been given the divine directive to subdue, but that is only half the equation. The other half, dominion, means to take control of the situation by exercising your God-given, God-mandated authority.

Whenever you decide to exercise your dominion authority, however, be prepared to meet with resistance. This inevitable counter-force to your authority is, like most other obstacles that arise in the spiritual journey, comes from one of three sources – the enemy; the world; or yourself.

Of these three, most people think Satan is the hardest to deal with, but I don’t think so. True, the enemy is still a formidable foe, but he has already been defeated by Christ and his ultimate end has already been scripted in God’s overall plan. Granted, the enemy is still shrewd, cunning, and clever, but he has for the most part been defanged. His bark is still there but his bite is gone. Yes, he can still gum you half to death, but he can no longer chew you up unless you allow him to by abdicating your divine power. The world is also a considerable source of trouble but if we have established a solid biblical worldview and are grounded in its principles, we can consistently deal with the world.

Of the trio of troublemakers, I am of the opinion that we are the most difficult to get under control. I firmly believe that self-mastery is essential if we are to become the optimal version of ourselves. Now please understand that we can’t master ourselves under our own power – we must and do have the power of the Holy Spirit. But we can do quite a bit and we should work as hard as possible to discipline ourselves.

Often we are our own worst enemies. Paul spells this out clearly when he talks about doing the things he doesn’t want to do and not doing the things he wants to do.

One of the most significant lessons we can learn on the spiritual journey is the fact that we cannot effectively take charge of any situation, person, place, or thing until we have effectively assumed charge of ourselves. The words of Gandhi sum this inescapable principle up quite well:

I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him, I seem to have very little influence.

I don’t know about you, but I can relate very deeply with Gandhi’s words. All too often we are our own worst enemy, sabotaging every noble thing we set out to do. I firmly believe, however, that the key to self-mastery, like all other directives we have been given, lies in the realization and application of our identity in Christ. As we have seen, we are far more powerful spiritual beings than we have realized and we need to apply this understanding to dealing with our own chronic tendencies to sabotage ourselves. Bishop Lowe offers the following sage advice:

God has given you authority and power to take dominion over all things on earth. Your first responsibility, however, is to subdue and take dominion over the only enemy that can defeat you – YOU! You cannot triumph over the external world until you subdue and take dominion over you! You will have to wage war against every argument within you that challenges what God has said about you.

You have been taught by the world to see yourself as inferior to what God’s original plan was for you. Your years of conditioning and indoctrination will cause you to doubt what the Almighty said about you. You will find yourself struggling against what God has said. Doubt and unbelief will be unrelenting in their challenge to influence you to believe what God says cannot be true.

It will take some time to undo the conditioning of years of misinformation, but God’s Word is sure and powerful. If you continue hearing the Word of God over and over again, your thinking will become aligned with it and your mind will be renewed. Then, because of our persistent and diligent efforts, your life will be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Let’s keep one other important principle before us at all times. Just as David faced a seemingly unbeatable foe in the Philistine giant Goliath, we also face our own giants – giants of fear, lack, poverty, discouragement, depression, illness, abuse, addiction – the list goes on and on. But just like David, we must come to understand and accept that our victory will not come from our own power, but instead, will flow down like a mighty blessing from the spiritual realm. No matter the nature of our problem, the solution is always a spiritual one. That is why the prophet Zechariah reminded us of the Lord’s words

Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit (Zechariah 4:6).

If you believe your situation is hopeless realize this: that is a perception that is both erroneous and self-defeating and further, it is from the very pit of Hell. God can and will help you if you ask and this is a reality that has been proven over and over again in countless lives. Does that mean you have nothing to do but plead your case before God and wait for him to fix your problem? No. What it does mean is that God will supply you with all you need in terms of perseverance, fortitude, and inner resources. You, however, have to do the leg work. James Allen, in his own straightforward, no-nonsense way, lays it out clearly:

However tightly a man may have bound himself round he can always unbind himself. Into whatever morasses of trouble and trackless wastes of perplexity he may have ignorantly wandered he can always find his way out again, can always recover the lost highway of uninvolved simplicity which leads straight and clear, to the sunny city of wise and blessed action. But he will never do this by sitting down and weeping in despair, nor by complaining and worrying and aimlessly wishing he were differently situated. His dilemma calls for alertness, logical thought, and calm calculation. His position requires that he shall strongly command himself; that he shall think and search, and rouse himself to strenuous and unremitting exertion in order to regain himself. Worry and anxiety only serve to heighten the gloom and exaggerate the magnitude of the difficulty. It is a great day in the life of a man (though at the time he knows it not) when bewildering perplexities concerning the mystery of life take possession of his mind, for it signifies that his era of dead indifference, animal sloth, of mere vegetative happiness, has come to an end, and that henceforth he is to live as an aspiring, self-evolving being. No longer a mere human animal, he will now begin to live as a man…

I don’t know about you or your past, but speaking of my own history I can readily identify more than a few occasions when I found myself in a “morass of troubles” and even more often, discovered that I had lost valuable time and energy by wandering down “trackless wastes of perplexity.”

The only way out of this morass of confusion and perplexity is to gain some degree of personal mastery in general and mastery of the mind in particular.

As we have seen, establishing and maintaining self-discipline has many rewards, the chief of which is an internal sense of strength and confidence. Rather than some willy-nilly, unfocused, and nebulous sort of confidence, the confidence that comes from being a master of oneself is a practical, concrete and highly efficient trait that serves as an anchor in life’s sometimes turbulent seas. Allen concludes:

With the practice of self-discipline a man begins to live, for he then commences to rise above the inward confusion and to adjust his conduct to a steadfast centre within himself. He ceases to follow where inclination leads him, reins in the steed of his desires, and lives in accordance with the dictates of reason and wisdom.

© L.D. Turner 2010/All Rights Reserved

An Apology

I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to my readers for my lack of activity on LifeBrook since the end of April. This lack of posting stems from two primary sources. First, my health issues have been kicking up again. Nothing too troubling, but anytime heart disease rears its head, it tends to impact every aspect of one’s life.

Second, we are completing the process of moving. We have moved 25 miles south of where we previously lived and as anyone who has ever moved knows, it can be a royal pain in the keester to say the least. We are still moving items and at least partially, still living out of boxes.

I hope to get back into the swing of things as soon as possible.

Blessings,

 

Mick

Responding to God: Just Keep it Simple

Mick Turner

I think one of the most comforting and encouraging truths of the gospel message is that, in spite of past screw ups, Jesus loves and accepts us as we are. Not only that, but through the actions of the blessed Holy Spirit, he is willing to help us change. And even more mind boggling, he is planning on making us a full partner in his father’s business. Author and teacher Billy Joe Daugherty speaks to these themes in a clear manner:

This is the good news of Jesus: He loves you just the way you are, yet He sees you for what you can become…..He sees you sharing the living water with others who are dry on the inside….God has big plans for you. It may seem like you have wasted your life, but with Jesus you can make up for lost years in a short time. He will not reject you for your past failures. He welcomes you to come to him and receive living water.

As I said, I find this aspect of the Lord to be most comforting because I have certainly messed up things many times. Further, I can truly relate to that feeling of having wasted my life. Yet Jesus is willing to put that behind us now and turn both His eyes and mine toward a more positive, successful future, one where I can have a positive, beneficial impact on the world in general and my family in particular.

More amazing is the fact that I never have to go it alone. Instead, the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit is walking next to me and living inside me in a miraculous way I can never understand but can fully appropriate through the simple act of faith. I don’t know about you, but when I truly take time and reflect on all this, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. The only thing required of me to receive the healing water of Christ is faith. It really is that simple. Unfortunately, many Christians fail to understand what if means to have faith. Jesus plainly told us that he has overcome the world and all that we have to do to have a life of spiritual fulfillment is to accept what He has told us in faith. As I was sitting here writing these words I was reminded of the following words, again from Daugherty:

Faith is the victory that overcomes the world. It is our faith in Jesus and what He did on the cross. In His death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus defeated Satan and took the keys of authority from him. Now Jesus Christ reigns forever.

Jesus reigns forever and scripture assures me that I am co-heir with Him, as are you if you have accepted his gift of grace with faith. This acceptance I am speaking of here involves more than the forgiveness of sin, although it certainly involves that. By His blood the Lord purchased our forgiveness and justified our being before the Father, but the cross also accomplished something equally significant, not to mention precious. Through Christ’s cross, his death, and his resurrection, we are empowered to live as he says we should live. Just as we could never do enough to attain forgiveness and justification before God, we can never live the full Christian life under our own power. We need something more and Christ has provided that power for us in the person of the Holy Spirit.

Further, we have on the inside of us the same resurrection power that brought Jesus back to life. The ultimate nature of that power is far too profound and mysterious for me to ever get my mind completely around but, on faith, I am fully convinced that it is mine.

So what stops us from simply accepting what Christ is freely offering us? There are a number of reasons I suspect, but one I encounter with more than a few sincere believers is one you might not immediately think of. Christians seem to have an uncanny knack for taking simple truths and complicating them through debate, dogma, and doctrine. I don’t mean to imply that these issues are not important. Certainly doctrine and dogma have their place. But I often wonder if Christ smiles in approval when he hears us debating his simple truths to the point that we divide ourselves into countless denominations and sects and tear asunder the Body that he meant to live in love and unity. On the contrary, I suspect this endless hairsplitting and theological nitpicking brings tears to his eyes.

During the early 1980’s I enrolled in several Religion courses at a small university near my home in north Alabama. I recall one course in particular that centered on the life of Jesus. My fellow classmates were an interesting group. Some were undergraduate students pursuing coursework in Religion and Philosophy in preparation for seminary. Others were ordained pastors of small local churches who, after preaching for a number of years, felt the need to further their education. Others, like myself, were there seeking a deeper understanding of the Christian faith as well as its history and traditions. Then there was Henry.

No one knew exactly why Henry was enrolled. He rarely spoke and when he did, it was with a soft, slow voice with a pronounced rural southern brogue. Considering the diverse make up of the class, it was natural that heated discussions would often break out. The professor often encouraged this in fact. The class argued about many issues. The nature of the Trinity, immersion versus sprinkling, the permanency of salvation, the list is endless.

I admit I often enjoyed these ballyhoos as they lent a degree of excitement to the proceedings and made the class time pass more quickly. One night the class was engaged in a verbal free for all centering on the Virgin Birth. I remember clearly hearing a wide range of viewpoints on this, mostly in support of the indisputable validity of the doctrine of virgin birth. I for one remained on the periphery of this dispute mostly out of ignorance. The doctrine of Virgin Birth was not for me an issue of central importance to my daily experience of the Christian path. In fact, unless it was brought up for discussion, I rarely consider it. It was one of those issues that I had placed on the theological back burner.

After a lengthy discussion, the professor looked to the back of the room and said, “Well Henry, you’ve been mighty quiet in this discussion. Why don’t you share your thoughts on the Virgin Birth with us?”

After a long pause Henry folded his hands on the desk, looked cautiously around the room and said:

“Well, I’ve been a settin’ here for over an hour listenin’ to you gents discussing this here thing about the Virgin Birth of Christ. I guess ya’ll know a heck of a lot more about all this than I do. You must or else you couldn’t talk about it for so long. All I know is this. Jesus loves me and I love him and try to do what he says. I reckon it don’t matter much to me what his momma done.”

Point taken Henry, end of discussion.

Instead of simply taking Christ at his word and freely receiving his gift of both salvation and sanctification, we often enter into arcane debates over issues that are not fundamental to the issue at hand. At the end of the day, we complicate a simple offer and this confuses believers inside the church and turns away many on the outside. I could give countless examples of this because I used to do this very thing. We all too often major in the minors and minor in the majors.

One issue that I have often heard brothers and sisters discussing, often in heated tones, is the order of salvation. Some say that we repent, and then we are saved. Others say that we repent because we are saved. I imagine one could make a case for either side of this issue by citing various passages of scripture but in terms of our response to God’s grace I don’t see that it matters much on a practical level. The fact is God makes His offer and we respond. The mere act of responding is in itself an act of repentance. We accept that we are accepted, complete with our cuts and bruises, our shortcomings and short-fallings. This is the meaning of grace, pure and simple.

Our role in this process is not to analyze, dissect, or debate. Our job is to respond. We either accept the offer or we refuse it. God has so arranged this process that it is really up to us.

Grace is not something we can earn. We can’t work our way into God’s grace because, in spite of our best intentions, nothing would ever, ever be enough. We can’t even pray our way into God’s grace. We can’t plea-bargain and attempt to get a lighter sentence for our sins. No, all we can do is get it through our heads, however thick, that grace flows from God to us. Our task is to accept it fully and get on with the task of letting the Holy Spirit flow into us and do His work to make us more like Christ.

The “Doctrine of Grace” is one thing; the reality of God’s grace is quite another. It is freely offered to all who would humble themselves enough to receive it. I suspect that each of us has his or her own way of resisting God’s grace. Some of us, as mentioned above, feel we don’t deserve it; some of us are too prideful, feeling that we can fix ourselves on our own; others think the concept of grace is just too simplistic. Whatever our reasons for struggling with this basic Christian principle, until we resolve our conflict, we will not advance very far on the spiritual journey.

As I have previously shared on this website, I can attest to this fact from my own experience. Paul says that the idea of “Christ crucified” as the means of salvation would be foolishness to the Greeks. Well, for many years it was foolishness to me. I much preferred the complexity of Buddhism and Hinduism, or the sanity of New Thought. Still, somewhere down in the pit of my being, the Hound of Heaven was chewing on me. God was unrelenting in his pursuit of me and I, like Jonah, headed for the hills more than once. Still, God’s grace kept surrounding me and I could not escape. In fact, I came to treasure the comforting feeling of being surrounded by God. Finally, I accepted that I was accepted.

Once I stopped running; once my struggles with God came to a halt, it was like a whole panorama of spiritual reality opened before my eyes, including a deep sense of optimism and hope. As a result, I began to view the world, including its problems and pain, with a greater degree of compassion and a genuine desire for healing involvement.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, I came to understand at a deeper level that I was in fact accepted. Accepted in my weakness because this is where the strength of Christ is seen. Accepted in my brokenness because this is where the healing of Christ is seen. Accepted in my faithlessness because this is where the fidelity of Christ is seen. Accepted in my wandering in the wilderness because this is where Christ’s true and stable mansions are eventually discovered.

What we can do is express our gratitude by being thankful, expressing our heart-felt appreciation for what God has done for us. Our gratitude must further be translated into positive action and a repentant lifestyle, which expresses itself in obedience, faithfulness, humility, faith, trust and, above all, a selfless love. In other words, we accept God’s gift of grace, forgiveness and adoption into his family, then get on with the work of growing in Christ-Character. Again, get this down and get it deep. Grace comes from God, not from anything you have done or will ever do in the future. Listen to Gary Collins:

Grace is not a loan from the past. It is a gift that extends through all eternity. It is a gift that helps mold our lives so that our spirituality is God-centered, Christ-honoring, Spirit-guided, life-influencing, and ultimately, fulfilling.

Don’t you just love that? God-centered, Spirit-guided, and life-influencing. Once we accept God’s gift, and importantly, once we accept that we are accepted by God, our duty is to live a life that is focused on God and makes Him the fulcrum of our thoughts, words and deeds. The amazing thing here is that God’s grace extends even to the point that we are aided in making him the focal point of life. The Holy Spirit comes along side of us, in fact, comes to reside in us and guides us as we seek to open our ears so that we can hear Him speak. As this happens, we increasingly become equipped to do Christ’s work on earth, to be his hands, his feet and his heart in a broken, dysfunctional world. Our life is influenced so we can influence other lives. In essence, once we accept God’s gracious gift, we are empowered to become God-centered, Spirit-guided servants that can make a positive difference in the world.

(c) L.D. Turner/All Rights Reserved

A Prayer from Alcuin of York

The following is an inspirational prayer from Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans. The prayer is adapted from the original by Alcuin of York:

God go with us. Help us to be an honor to the church.

Give us the grace to follow Christ’s word,

To be clear in our task and careful in our speech.

Give us open hands and joyful hearts.

Let Christ be on our lips.

May our lives reflect a love of truth and compassion.

Let no one come to us and go away sad.

May we offer hope to the poor,

And solace to the disheartened.

Let us so walk before God’s people,

That those who follow us might come into his kingdom.

Let us sow living seeds, words that are quick with life,

That faith may be the harvest in people’s hearts.

In word and in example let your light shine

In the dark like the morning star.

Do not allow the wealth of the world or its enchantment

Flatter us into silence as to your truth.

Do not permit the powerful, or judges,

Or our dearest friends

To keep us from professing what is right.

Amen

Wise Words for Today

With good intentions and sincere desires to reach as many people as possible for Jesus, we have subtly and deceptively minimized the magnitude of what it means to follow him. We’ve replaced challenging words from Christ with trite phrases in the church. We’ve taken the lifeblood out of Christianity and put Kool-Aid in its place so that it tastes better to the crowds, and the consequences are catastrophic. Multitudes of men and women at this moment think that they are saved from their sins when they are not. Scores of people around the world culturally think that they are Christians when biblically they are not.

David Platt

Remedies for What Ails The Church: Christ’s Proactive Love

Mick Turner

For quite some time now I have pondered and prayed over the various reasons the contemporary church is in such a state of crisis. In addition to people leaving the sanctuaries in drove, the church itself is rapidly becoming marginalized in its impact on American culture and this, coupled with dwindling numbers and a chronic affinity for internal bickering, has left the Body of Christ in a general state of paralytic impotence.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs – far too many to catalogue in this brief article. I would like, however, to focus in particular on one specific causational factor that I think contributes greatly to the church’s current woes.  Before delving into that issue, however, I want to spend a few moments discussing the issue of “lost faith” or, as some describe it, “weak faith.”

I mention this because I think that these faith problems are related to our overall lack of understanding and acceptance of Jesus Christ, his mission, and the impact of that mission on life as we know it. As we will discuss below, one of the primary factors contributing to the exodus from the church is that it has lost its most vital, life-giving focus. A side-effect of this is that many people have what those – in – the – supposed – know call a “crisis of faith.” This crisis can take many forms, but each tends to share a few common elements. The following description by Brian McLaren provides a cogent summation of what I am talking about:

One way or the other, we outgrew the faith of our childhood or youth. Now we are seeking for a faith that we can hold with adult integrity, clear intelligence, and open-eyed honesty. So, many of us need in this way to renew or replace the faith we lost – to fill the old vacancy in a new way, to see faith with fresh eyes, or better – to let a mature, refreshed faith become the new eyes through which we see life.

Others of us have faith, but it is weak or damaged. We feel that we are walking on a sprained ankle or trying to enjoy a delicious meal with a bad tooth. Perhaps we have been spiritually undernourished, malnourished, or mistreated and injured by a church or religious family member. We don’t have confidence in our faith, and it brings us more pain than comfort. Or we have a faith that is little more than a set of concepts to us. This kind of faith is often called nominal, meaning “in name only.” It doesn’t affect our behavior, at least, not positively. Perhaps for some of us, faith is like a vaccination – we have just enough in our system to keep us from getting “infected” with a full-blown “case” of vibrant faith. There’s faith there, but it needs to be “set on fire”; it needs to come alive; we need to really “catch” it. In these ways some of us need to invigorate the faith we already have.

I don’t know about you, but I can see myself and many others in this description of those in a “faith crisis.” I especially recognize McLaren’s description of those whose faith is like a vaccination, giving them just enough Jesus to prevent them from catching the real thing.

As I stated earlier, the reasons for the dwindling numbers and declining social impact of the church in our culture are many and multi-faceted. And, I might add, the responsibility for more than a few of these problems lies with the church itself. Overall, I think it is safe to say that as a body, we have done a generally poor job of carrying out the mandate given us by the Master before he departed for the heavenly realms.

One major reason for this situation flows from the fact that the church has lost focus on Christ, who and what he was and is, what he accomplished, and what he expects of us. Without this knowledge, a Christian lacks a functional compass with which he or she may navigate through the shoals of daily living. Further, when the focus on the biblical Christ is either weak or lost, an individual lacks the basic information needed to truly make a decision as to whether or not to follow Christ. I dare say that there are untold numbers of self-proclaimed Christians out there who, other than the standard “he died for my sins” teachings, have no clue as to the true magnificence of Christ’s being.

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, in their excellent book Jesus Manifesto, speak directly to this situation and how it impacts the most fundamental question each person who faces Christ must answer:

Can our problems really be caused by something so basic and simple as losing sight of Christ? We believe the answer is a resounding Yes. Answers other than Christ to the problems of the church today mean we are more into solvents than solutions. For that reason, this global, Google world needs a meta-narrative more than ever, and the Jesus Story is the interpreting system of all other systems in this hour…

Sweet and Viola then state that each of us needs to answer one specific question and if you think about it, every other thing that follows hinges upon how we answer that question. It is the same question Jesus put to his disciples:

“Who do you say that I am?”

I have come to the conclusion that the church has, as a whole, done a poor job of educating its members on the importance of answering this question and furthermore, our efforts at educating new believers on the incredible nature of this being we call “the Christ.” We have played the “personal savior” and “Son of God” tapes until they have lost much of their meaning. Although the importance of Christ’s role in the process of restoration of right standing with God and the remission of sins is a key element in his mission, but it is only an element. And his status as the Son of the Living God, as evidenced by Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer, is also highly significant, but this, too, is only one aspect of Christ’s identity and his agenda for coming to earth.

I am of the strong belief that until we educate new Christians (and reeducate established ones) on the truly magnificent nature of Jesus Christ, who and what he is, all that he accomplished, and his agenda for the restoration of God’s plan on earth, we cannot hope to fulfill the mandate we have been given as the Body of Christ.

I am hesitant to give a highly specific prescription for how churches might go about this educational mission, primarily because each church is a unique entity in terms of its congregational demographics, its denominational affiliation (or lack thereof), its theological orientation, and its particular mission. However, several areas of commonality may be mentioned.

To be continued…..

 

Whatever a particular church’s situation might be, it shares with all churches the essential task of educating its congregants about Christ, his identity, his life, his teachings, and his mission on this planet. Ideally, this education will be of a sufficient enough nature to inculcate in those who participate a sincere desire to become a genuine Christ-follower. Hopefully, the church will also give detailed instruction in what it means to be a Christian in this particular age and how to “count the costs” as per Jesus’ teaching.

After accomplishing these goals, the educational focus should shift from Christ to the individual. Hopefully, after being educated about Christ, his identity, mission, and accomplishments and also after counting the costs of true discipleship, the individual is ready to make an informed decision about whether or not he or she wants to take on the yoke of Christian discipleship. I believe this is an area where the church has failed mightily in the past and right on down to the present. I think this is especially true in Evangelical traditions where the primary concern is to get the person to “make a decision for Christ,” or “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” Focusing primarily on getting the person on their knees and repeating the “sinner’s prayer,” these “workers in the vineyard” pay little attention to the importance of educating the individual in exactly what it means to take on the yoke of Christ.

This tendency to reduce the gospel to a focus on the salvation of individual souls and on getting a ticket to heaven has not only cheapened the “good news” of Jesus; it has resulted in the creation of a cadre of confused and lukewarm Christians. The concomitant lack of spiritual fever and passion for the kingdom has contributed greatly to the marginalization of the church as described at the beginning of this article. Richard Stearns, President of World Vision U.S. paints a very clear but distressing portrait of the situation under discussion:

More and more our gospel has been narrowed to a simple transaction, marked by checking a box on a bingo card at some prayer breakfast, registering a decision for Christ, or coming forward during an altar call………..It was about saving as many people from hell as possible – for the next life. It minimized any concern for those same people in this life. It wasn’t as important that they were poor or hungry or persecuted, or perhaps rich, greedy, and arrogant; we just had to get them to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and then move on to the next potential convert. In our evangelistic efforts to make the good news accessible and simple to understand, we seem to have boiled it down to a kind of “fire insurance” that one can buy. Then, once the policy is in effect, the sinner can go back to whatever life he was living – of wealth and success or poverty and suffering. As long as the policy was in the drawer, the other things don’t matter as much. We’ve got our “ticket” to the next life.

There is a real problem with this limited view of the kingdom of God; it is not the whole gospel. Instead, it is a gospel with a gaping hole. First, focusing almost exclusively on the afterlife reduces the importance of what God expects of us in this life. The kingdom of God, which Christ said is “within you” (Luke 17:21 NKJV), was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. It was not meant to be a way to leave the world but rather the means to actually redeem it.

Right from the beginning, I firmly believe that it is imperative that new believers be educated in exactly what discipleship means. Christ certainly gave us this example. In his words, those who set their hand to the plow and looked back were not fit to be his followers. In addition, he did not sugar coat what following him entailed. Scripture relates that on occasion those hearing Christ speak would say, “These are hard teachings,” and often walk away.

After educating its members on what true discipleship consists of, I think it is next essential that churches design programs that deeply educate its congregants in what it truly means to be “in Christ.” I am convinced that the majority of Christians have little understanding and even less personal application of their status and privileges as “children of the Light.” I think this is an area where the church has been highly negligent in the past and it is high time this problem was addressed and rectified. I can say without reservation that this might be the single-most significant causative factor in the church’s impotence today. Popular Bible teacher, pastor, and author Chip Ingram shares the following cogent remarks in his book Living on the Edge:

Chip Ingram speaks cogently to this issue in his book Living on the Edge:

I can’t overemphasize this point because I think it is one of the most glaring omissions in the Body of Christ today. I meet Christians who love God and who long to follow Him with all their heart, but it is apparent that they have no real understanding of who they are in Christ. Their relationship is based solely on their experiences with God, but often not deeply rooted in the foundational truths of who they are and what they actually possess as a child of God. This lack of understanding destines sincere believers to defeat and frustration as t hey seek to live out the new life in their own power.

In like fashion, most new Christians are encouraged to get involved in Christian activities and begin the disciplines of the Christian life in order to grow spiritually. Church attendance, praying, reading God’s Word, serving, and getting involved are the messages young Christians hear – and for good reason. It is critical that we talk to God from the heart, learn to hear His voice, have our mind renewed through His Word, and enjoy the fellowship of His people; but what is missing in all these valuable Christian “activities” is specific teaching on what it means to be “in Christ.” We need to clearly understand how God sees us before we become inundated in activities for God.

To be continued……..

I find it fascinating that the churches that seem to be most negligent in educating congregants in the realities of what it means to be “in Christ” are those at opposite ends of the theological spectrum. Our liberal churches often ignore the phrase altogether or describe it as a quasi-mystical state resulting from long-term arduous spiritual training. It is described more often as a state of consciousness rather than a gift of grace through the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. At the other end of the stick, many of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters are so absolutely obsessed with sin and the “blood of the Lamb” that they never get beyond the theme of atonement and justification. Themes like empowerment and sanctification rarely cross their lips.

Once we come to an understanding of who and what we are “in Christ,” we need to have a thorough education in God’s great mission of restoration, renewal, and the primacy of the Kingdom agenda. We need to know what God is up to and discover how we fit into that agenda both as a church and as individuals. This entails education regarding the kingdom, God’s “Great Story” of restoration, and our equipping in terms of spiritual gifts. Understanding the “kingdom” purpose is especially important as this was the central focus of Christ’s teaching.

Underlying all of our efforts as the Body of Christ is the notion of working along with God to establish the “Kingdom.” I can’t stress this notion of Kingdom enough and, if you take a close look at the gospels, neither could Christ. His first public statement was “Repent for the Kingdomof Heavenis at hand.” After beginning this way, Christ repeatedly stressed that his mission was to inaugurate the Kingdom. As ongoing agents of incarnation, it is now our mission to pick up where Christ left off. This is the foundational mission of the church. Even the great commission is aimed at this and this only: Bringing God’s Kingdom to Earth.

The coming of the Kingdom is really the heart of the gospel. The forgiveness of sins and the work on the cross, although of central significance, is not the heart of the gospel. It is not that which brings life to the body. No, it is the coming of the Kingdom that constitutes the life of the gospel. Unfortunately, the church, especially since the reformation in general and Calvinist theology in particular, has primarily defined the gospel in terms of the remission of sins by the work of Christ. Again, I am not downplaying the importance of this. All I am saying is that it is not the core of the gospel. Jesus repeatedly stressed the coming of the Kingdom.  The remission of sins is part of this, but it is far from the whole enchilada.

Dr. Myles Munroe, author of several books dealing with God’s kingdom, echoes the centrality of the kingdom agenda for today’s Church:

“How important to the Body of Christ is the message of the Kingdom of God? Frankly, we have nothing else to teach. The message of the Kingdom is good news, and the Church exists to proclaim it. If we are doing our job, everything we are about will be Kingdom focused: every sermon we preach, every Bible study we teach, every ministry we perform, every activity we accomplish, and every worship service we celebrate…The Kingdom of God must be our highest priority; Jesus gave us no other commission.”

As individual members of the Body of Christ, it is our duty to share the kingdom message at every opportunity. In doing so, however, we must take care to present Jesus’ kingdom manifesto is ways that are relative to today’s world. Howard Snyder also points out the contrast between kingdom people and non-kingdom people. His words paint a clear portrait of why the church must educate its members in depth regarding Jesus’ concept of “Kingdom”:

The church gets in trouble whenever it thinks it is in the church business rather than the kingdom business. In the church business, people are concerned with church activities, religious behavior and spiritual things. In the Kingdom business, people are concerned with Kingdom activities, all human behavior and everything God has made, visible and invisible. Kingdom people see human affairs as saturated with spiritual meaning and Kingdom significance. Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above the concerns of justice, mercy and truth. Church people think about how to get people into the church; kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church change the world…If the church has one great need, it is this: to be set free for the Kingdom of God, to be liberated from itself as it has become in order to be itself as God intends. The church must be freed to participate fully in the economy of God.

 I find the Church’s lack of focus on establishing the kingdom even more remarkable when considering other popular pulpit themes. A few years back I was conducting research on the growth of several denominations in the county where I live. This research necessitated my visiting eight different congregations over an extended period of time and provided an opportunity to hear firsthand the kind of topics preachers from a variety of denominations were expounding upon. Frankly, I was amazed. I heard at least four sermons on prosperity, four more on the reality of sin, three on the importance of speaking in tongues, two on how speaking in tongues was the work of Satan, at least two sermons detailing the importance of voting Republican in the upcoming 2008 election, and one meandering, 40-minute bombast without a discernable core.

In short, the church is supposed to be in the business of turning out “kingdom people” rather than church people. So, along with the other themes discussed in this article, I feel it is imperative that the church also include as a part of its educational agenda information on just what the kingdom is all about.

I should say at this point that I rocked along as a Christian for many years before, by the grace of God and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, I began to at last encounter Christ in a more profound way. In spite of my personal beliefs and biases, misinformation gleaned from myriad sources, including the church, and perhaps most subtle of all, my own intellectual arrogance and theological snobbery, a sliver of divine light managed to break through. Augmented by much prayer and meditation, this thin beam of illumination expanded into an unexpected eruption of insight and wonder. It was as if some sort of spiritual dawn had exploded across the horizon and standing at the center of this sublime awakening was Jesus Christ – Jesus as I had never seen him before; Jesus as I had never understood him before; Jesus, as he had never impacted me before.

My reaction to this encounter was one of reverence, awe, and wonder. I think the phrase coined by Hebrew writer and scholar Abraham Heschel sums up my feelings quite accurately. When the dust settled and I began to embody the new revelation of who and what Christ was and is, I was literally overwhelmed with a sense of radical amazement.

This sense of wonder, awe, and amazement created in me a desire to obey Christ in things both great and small. I was (and I remain) far from perfect in terms of my obedience, but with divine assistance each day I get a little bit better it seems. More significantly, this revelation of Christ’s nature, his accomplishments, and his ongoing mission created in me a desire to create and maintain a level of excellence in my life that greatly exceeded the  level at which I had been operating. Cutting straight to the chase, my personal mission statement became:

To become the optimal version of myself for the glory of God and the benefit of others.

The way I saw it, and still see it, is anything less than my best shortchanges Christ. I am not talking about perfection, nor am I employing any sort of legalistic program of puritanical holiness. Those flavors of teaching prove time and time again to create more problems than they solve. What I am driving at here is the importance and the necessity of making a consecrated commitment to excellence.

I am convinced that the vast majority of us are living far beneath the level we are capable of, whether in terms of our personal relationships, our professions, our level of knowledge and wisdom, and our moral values. All I am saying here is that in light of the great gift Christ has given us, we can and should do better than half-measures.

Christ gave us his best and our response should be nothing less than our best.

Think about it.

© L.D. Turner 2015/ All Rights Reserved

God Does Not Accept Letters of Retirement

Mick Turner

I had the good fortune of spending most of my formative childhood years growing up on the southwest coast of Florida. The area from Tampa Bay south, all the way down the coast to Naples, was a haven for two types of people in general: “snow birds” who were mostly retired and lived half the year in northern states like Michigan, Ohio, New York, and the like; and other retired folks who lived in the Sunshine State year round.

From a fairly early age, I was an observant sort of child who never took things at face value, but instead, looked to find the reasons for the way things worked as they did. I soon noticed that for some reason, aside from obvious health or economic issues, some of the retired folks seemed happy, active, and more than content with their lot in life, whereas others often walked around our little town looking for all the world like they had just been baptized in pickle brine.

A generally curious child, I set about trying to discover the reasons for this dichotomy that existed among the retirees on Florida’s “Sun Coast.” Space does not allow for an in depth sociological analysis of this issue, nor am I capable of pulling of such a undertaking. I will, however, offer up what I think may have been, and remains to this day, the primary cause of such a difference in the quality of life among these senior citizens. Put simply, what I discovered, and many social researchers have since validated, is this:

Those retirees that had a happier and more positive quality of life had a clear sense of meaning, purpose, and calling in life. Those who had a more negative life experience did not.

I mention all of this because I think it points to a vital issue in healthy aging and also gives us a clear revelation of the kind of God that is the creative force behind the universe. The fact that those retirees exhibiting a more positive, rewarding, and useful lifestyle possessed a sense of purpose and calling points to a reality that scripture repeatedly affirms. God places a personal and unique purpose or “calling” in our lives and when we work toward fulfilling that purpose or calling, our life experience is more positive and rewarding. Further, the Creator equips us with the very gifts we need in order to carry out that unique mission that is ours.

These spiritual realities and how they connect with the issues of aging and retirement are critically important in this age we find ourselves in. In America, the population is aging and the Baby Boomer generation is entering their golden years. Although the economic realities of this age make retirement a pipe dream for more than a few boomers, there remain a significant number who are or soon will be leaving the work force.

Others may have to cut back on working hours or leave employment altogether for health reasons. Even though we have made great advancement in terms of medical care, illness still strikes with alarming regularity and for many, disability becomes a reality that must be faced.

I speak of these matters from more than just an observational or academic perspective. I have lived and am currently living it. I have been struggling with progressive heart disease since my mid-forties and throughout it all, God has given me a number of challenges and callings that, when I took risks and followed his leading, proved fruitful beyond my greatest expectation.

Over the years my own personal callings have led to the formation of a thriving ministry to the homeless, a coalition of service-oriented partnerships among Chinese congregations in South Florida, serving five years on the mission field in Mainland China, and the founding of LifeBrook and its ongoing development.

The unfortunate reality is many people reach their retirement years and feel like they are used up – like they have nothing left to offer. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You have a lifetime of experience to draw upon and I am certain that there are people that are in need of exactly what you have to offer. God knows you, and he knows what people need. Flowing from this divine knowledge, he may very well plant a seed of calling in your heart. Your job is to be sensitive to that calling, however faint it may seem, and act upon it. You are never too old, too washed out or washed up. God can use you and will use you. Frank Damazio, in his fine book Attitude of Faith speaks the truth when he says:

God has a plan for you, a word for you, a future for you. God has something great in store for you. You are not too old to believe and imagine. There have been people in their seventies, eighties, and even nineties who didn’t allow their ages to limit their abilities to imagine and, as a result, brought about their greatest life accomplishments in their latter years.

The fact is, the pages of the Bible are filled with the exploits of older individuals who, following God’s leading, accomplished things that would have seemed impossible to most. Abraham and Moses, for example, were far from spring chickens when God called them out and set them on their way to great accomplishments. I don’t care how old you are, God can and will call you as well. The question again remains: How will you respond? Will you say yes to the Master’s call to a great adventure or will you refuse, choosing instead to stagger across the finish line of life instead of going out at full gallop?

I assure you that if you respond in a positive, proactive manner to the Creator’s calling, you can realistically expect that he will meet you where you are. Yes, you may encounter difficulties and setbacks in pursuing the vision God has placed in you, but you can trust God to do his part and, in the end, you will succeed. I love this version of 1 Samuel 2:8 from The Message:

God puts poor people on their feet again; he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope, restoring dignity and respect to their lives – a place in the sun!

Yes, God is in the business of restoring burned-out, tired people and rekindling forgotten dreams. He is the source of all that is and he wants you to succeed in the purpose to which he has called you. For this reason you can approach the future with positive expectation. Once again, let’s listen to Frank Damazio:

God wants to rekindle a fire in your heart. If you are confined to a sickbed, He is with you. If you are trapped in a hopeless situation, He will bring hope to your heart. He will give you a fresh expectation for what He can do in and through you, starting right where you are. He has His hand on you, and He will use you where you are to do great things for Him.

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you have been, and what you have done. That divine purpose still exists inside you and with a little effort and a lot of faith, you can discover it. Start with prayer, asking God through the Holy Spirit to reveal his divine plan for your life. Be persistent in your asking; be vigilant in waiting for an answer; and be confident that the answer will come.

Also, keep in mind that it is never too late to get started on the dreams God has for you. God created you to accomplish extraordinary things and no matter how old you are, how sinful you have been, or whatever afflictions you may suffer from, God can and will use you because that is one of the primary purposes you were created in the first place. Listen as Jim Graff speaks clearly to this issue:

God uses ordinary people – with all their flaws and problems – to accomplish extraordinary dreams. You and I don’t have to wait until we have it all together, achieve a certain degree of fame, earn a specified amount of money, get a better job, or meet the right person. Instead, we can start today to embrace who we are and how God made us, knowing that he will use us. From this knowledge, wellsprings of confidence water our hearts. That confidence allows us to see our dreams and visions as God’s road maps to significant lives.

A significant life – that is what God created you for. Make a consecrated commitment right now to lead a life of excellence in cooperation and divine partnership with the Holy Spirit. The life of excellence is what Jesus demonstrated for us and it is that same kind of life to which each of us is called. Sure, we may foul up things from time to time, but God is right there with us offering a hand to pick us up, dust us off, and send us on our divinely appointed way.

© L.D. Turner 2013/All Rights Reserved