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

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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.

© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved

The Apologetics of Incarnational Living

Mick Turner

Any thoughtful, observant Christian should be aware by now that the Western church is in crisis. Don’t be deceived by the growth of the so-called “mega-churches” and the various and sundry “evangelistic explosions” that we see taking place. The fact is, people are leaving the faith in droves and fewer new faces are coming through the doors. Moreover, these dwindling numbers, along with our culture’s increasing negative view of Christianity, have relegated the church to a position of peripheral social influence.

Once the bedrock upon which our culture’s value system was built, the church is now little more than marginal voice in the constantly shifting tides of post-modern America. Identified by most Americans as joined at the hip with Right-Wing Conservatism, the church is viewed with increasing disdain and animosity. Traditional attempts at evangelism and apologetics only seem to make the situation worse. Evangelism is seen as an attempt by elitist Christians to ram their faith down people’s throats and apologetics is viewed as an archaic attempt to make the unreasonable make sense.

If the church is to survive, drastic changes must take place. It should be obvious by now that the old ways of “doing church,” especially evangelism, is doomed to failure.

Personally, I have come to believe that the most effective form of Christianity involves being faithful to our calling to incarnate Christ to a hurting world. This is the essence of what is often called “Kingdom living.” It is a lifestyle which, if carried out with compassion and commitment, will in and of itself draw people to the faith. It involves a simple paradigm: find a pressing social need and address it.

Put simply, it means giving flesh to grace. This is what Christ did and we are called to no less.

When people of faith express the love of God through acts of service and kindness, people take notice. These simple acts of grace accomplish far more than reasoned arguments, stadium rallies, popular seminars, and best-selling books. These simple acts of grace, especially given the church’s increasingly negative image in our culture, are the most effective forms of evangelistic activity we can engage in. It was not so different in the early church, which can serve as a model for what we should be doing.

In the middle of the Third Century a terrible plague devastated the Mediterranean world, dealing death to large swaths of the population. Many of those stricken with the disease were sent out of the cities, destined to die agonizing deaths alone and terrified. The Christian faithful, however, responded in a much different fashion. Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, describes the acts of grace this way:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting t heir pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

Many people were drawn to the fledgling church by the acts of service and sacrifice that so typified the early Christians. I am of the belief that it is here that the modern church can find its methodology of renewal. Crafting theological arguments is not the answer in today’s post-modern culture; nor is allying the church with a political party or ideology. Withdrawing into our own “Christian culture” is equally misguided. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves into the hurts of this world and find creative ways to bring God’s healing light to those hurts. Anything else misses the point.

Paul stressed that in order to be effective witnesses for the gospel, we must become “living epistles.” We must become open letters that anyone can read and by reading, come to a deeper understanding of just who this radical Galilean was and is. It is a high calling, indeed and not one to be taken lightly. If we take Jesus’ words about the final judgment as recorded in the 26th Chapter of Matthew as true, then it should be obvious to even the most dense among us that the litmus test for defining a Christian is not belief in Christ, but in embodying Christ.

Michael Frost, in his excellent book Exiles, points out that this incarnational living is incumbent upon all who would claim Jesus as Master and Teacher:

Practicing the presence of Christ means being a living example of the life of Jesus. This raises the stakes enormously. It means that our lives need to become increasingly aligned with the example of Jesus. It doesn’t require sinless obedience – as if that’s possible anyway. It means, though, increasingly becoming people of justice, kindness, mercy, strength, hope, grace, generosity, and hospitality.

Yes, this divine calling is an invitation to a life of fulfillment and reward beyond our imagining, if we will only yield ourselves to it with complete abandon. Yet for many of us, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Still, it is necessary to move forward as best we can, relying on the promises of God and the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For many of us, we get better in spite of ourselves. I know that is often true in my case.

This call to emulate Christ is a call to give flesh to grace. The whole story-line of God’s Great Saga is one of proactive grace. God saw that we needed grace and gave us Christ and Christ saw that the world needed grace and gave the world us. Just pause and chew on that one for a minute. What a great honor and what a great responsibility.

As “living epistles” we have the opportunity to meet God in the divine moment, what Erwin Raphael McManus calls the “epicenter of God’s activity.” When we consistently engage in these acts of Christian kindness, we in essence become what Gary Thomas accurately calls “God Oases.” Thomas explains:

A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the ways they listen and use their eyes to love instead of lust, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy men and women are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation threatens to tear this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out, and they will have something to say.

I find this description of godly men and women highly inspirational, not to mention vivifying. Thomas’ words encourage us to sensitize ourselves more and more to God’s activity in this world and further, to take compassionate action in emulating Christ’s acts of grace and healing. In ways both great and small, we can locate that epicenter of God’s activity and get to work.

It is nothing less than our calling, our responsibility, and our honor. And in so doing, it is my earnest prayer that more and more of us can become living epistles – God oases – and give incarnation to the godly image described in Isaiah 32:2:

Each man will be like a shelter from the wind

and a shelter from the storm,

like streams of water in the desert

and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.

© L.D. Turner 2010/ 2014/All Rights Reserved

Whatever Your Past, You Are Still A Needed Servant

Mick Turner

Josh is a brilliant man and is one of the most creative, visionary people I know. Possessing the uncanny ability to look at a problematic situation, size up its parameters, and come up with positive, workable solutions to address the problems, Josh would be an asset to any organization that employed him. People with the visionary foresight and strength that Josh has are few and far between.

That’s why it is so hard for me to believe that Josh just completed his fourteenth year employed as a stockroom worker at a retail shoe store. A college graduate and now in his mid-thirties, Josh is working the same job he obtained while working his way through school. It’s not that Josh has not had opportunities; it’s just that he doesn’t take advantage of them. On several occasions he has been offered good positions with local social service agencies after fellow church members, aware of Josh’s talents, have put in a good word for him. Each time Josh turned down the job.

After providing invaluable help to his pastor in getting a couple of community projects off the ground, Josh was asked to take a leadership role in an exciting development and expansion program his church was undertaking. Predictably, Josh declined.

Unfortunately, there are many like Josh who go through life under-employed, under-utilized, and unfulfilled. Although this is not what God had in mind, these talented individuals sabotage themselves and never leave the starting gate.

This happens for a variety of reasons. Some folks feel inadequate to the task of manifesting their vision in the reality of the day-to-day life in which they dwell. Others, top put it bluntly, are just too plain lazy to do what it is they are called to do. Still others lack basic motivation and for unconscious reasons quench the passion they feel for their purpose in life. Like the Beauty School Dropout in the musical Grease, they have the dream but not the drive.

Many, however, simply cannot believe God wants to use them due to past failures and disappointments. This was basically Josh’s problem. In his late teens he was involved in several crimes in which someone was seriously injured by accident. Josh was never caught and has no criminal record. Still, he feels responsible for what happened and, although God has forgiven him, he hasn’t forgiven himself. Moreover, Josh is convinced beyond a doubt that what he did disqualifies him for service to the Lord.

Josh and other believers like him choose to ignore the many biblical examples of heroes used by God even though they failed in the past. Think of Moses for example, a murderer who delivered his people from bondage in Egypt. Think of David, an adulterer who was also involved in a murder conspiracy. This sinner became a great king, an ancestor of Christ, and “a man after God’s own heart.” Think of Peter, who denied Christ three times on the night He was arrested. It was upon the “rock” of Peter that the NewTestamentChurch was built.

No, my friend, you are wrong if you think God will not use you because you failed in the past. Your failures, your shortcomings, your screw-ups – oddly enough, in God’s way of doing things may be your chief qualification for service to the Creator.

I want to use this article to encourage you to understand and accept the reality that God put a potential and purpose in you before you were born and, further, he still wants that purpose to be realized. Stop looking back at the past and instead, step forward into the service that God has for you. You cannot change the past but know this: whatever happened is history in God’s eyes and in God’s heart. As a Christian you have been forgiven so turn your eyes forward instead of keeping them riveted in your rear view mirror.

Do all that you can to let this truth sink deep into the depths of your heart: where you are going, what is in your future is far more important that what’s behind you. Scripture tells us that with God, all things are possible. So if it seems your dreams have died, let the Lord resurrect those dormant dreams and allow those dreams to drive you and motivate you to be all that you can be for the glory of God and the sake of others.

Our world is a hurting world and there are many areas of need. The dream God placed in your heart is designed to deal with one of those areas. More than anything, the church, the Body of Christ, needs compassionate people of noble character and a heart of service. That’s you, my friend.

Take the gifts God has given you and put them to work in service to something larger than yourself. You will be amazed at the transformation that will take place in your life if you consecrate yourself to using your talents for God’s plans and purposes.

Also, keep in mind that God would never place a dream in your heart without giving you all the talents you need to bring it to completion. I encourage you to take this principle on faith and act on it. Just put one foot in front of the other and start taking small steps toward making that God-given dream a bit closer to manifestation. Again, just trust that God has placed in you everything you need to succeed. Pastor Joel Osteen speaks clearly to this issue:

God would never put a dream in your heart if He had not already given you everything you need to fulfill it. That means if I have a dream or a desire, and I know it’s from God, I don’t have to worry whether I have what it takes to see that dream fulfilled. I know God doesn’t make mistakes. He doesn’t call us to do something without giving us the ability or the wherewithal to do it…You have to realize that God has matched you with your world. In other words, even though at times you may not feel that you are able to accomplish your dreams, you have to get beyond those feelings and know deep inside, I have the seed of Almighty God in Me. Understand, God will never put a dream in your heart without first equipping you with everything you need to accomplish it.

In contrast to my friend Josh, Marty is an amazing example of how God often uses our areas of failure as a way of carrying forward his kingdom purpose on earth. Marty, a native of New York, had moved to South Florida in an attempt to find a geographical cure for his long standing addiction to heroin and cocaine. Had his thinking been even half way rational, Marty would have reasoned that moving to Miami, the hotbed of the drug world, was a mistake. Finding that drugs were much cheaper in Miami, mostly due to lack of transportation mark up, Marty quickly returned to his old ways. Quickly spiraling downward, Marty soon hit bottom. Arrested for an assortment of petty theft charges, Marty found himself in jail awaiting his hearing. He had neither bond money, nor any friends in the area. Marty had no choice but to cool his jets in the Dade County Stockade.

Marty’s time in jail provided him with an opportunity to face his situation honesty and he didn’t like what he saw. The Holy Spirit also went to work on Marty and helped ripen him for what was to come. After over five weeks in the slammer, he was informed that a local pastor was coming to give a talk to the inmates and, if he so desired, he could attend the lecture.

Feeling an almost magnetic pull to go to the presentation, he initially resisted. Marty feared that this pastor would be someone from the straight world and highly judgmental, he almost talked himself out of going. Still believing he had nothing to gain, he went anyway.

Sitting near the back of the room, Marty listened as the stockade chaplain introduced the speaker, Brother Larry. Marty was confused because the chaplain was the only person sitting at the front table. Maybe he hadn’t noticed that this Brother Larry wasn’t there, thought Marty. Next, a rather large man stood up from his seat in the front row. He walked to the podium and when he looked out at the crowd, Marty almost fainted.

Brother Larry was a large man with waist length hair and tattoos all over his arms and hands. He had a large scar on his right cheek, evidently from a knife wound suffered long ago. Then, as Brother Larry began his sermon, Marty almost fell out of his chair.

Not only did Marty recognize Brother Larry, he realized that it was he who had cut the preachers face. Many years earlier, in a drug deal gone sour in Queens, a fight had ensued and Marty found himself being pummeled by a large man. Reaching in his boot, Marty took out a dagger and slit his attacker’s cheek to the jaw bone. His attacker that night was none other than Brother Larry.

To make a long story short, Brother Larry spoke of his addiction, his crimes, and his eight-year term in Attica State Prison. He also spoke of how, as the result of a visit from a volunteer with Prison Fellowship, he found Christ and his life was turned around. Brother Larry now ran a halfway house in South Miami that gave recovering addicts a place to stay after they were released from incarceration. His ministry found them job training, gave them work to do, and made certain the residents were well connected with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Marty wondered if Brother Larry had recognized him that evening at the meeting in the stockade. He did. Two days later Brother Larry showed up to visit Marty. After being released, Marty lived for two years at Brother Larry’s halfway house. And that’s not all. Brother Larry recognized potential in Marty and encouraged him to return to college and finish his degree. He told Marty he had managed to get a donor to pay for Marty’s tuition, but the truth was Brother Larry paid for it out of his own pocket. Displaying true Christian forgiveness, Brother Larry never mentioned the scar he would carry for the rest of his life, nor any resentment toward Marty for inflicting it upon him. Instead, he paid for Marty’s college education and, after Marty had graduated, encouraged him to go on to seminary.

Marty graduated from seminary two years later and now runs the ministry begun by Brother Larry. Under Marty’s guidance and with God’s help, two more halfway houses were opened in nearby cities and are full with long waiting lists. One week after Marty’s graduation, Brother Larry had left this earth for his heavenly reward. He left behind a legacy, as well as a successor.

God used Brother Larry and he used Marty in the very arena where both of them had failed, hurt others, and suffered. Instead of punishing this pair of wayward prodigals, God exhibited a healing love to Brother Larry, who in turn, gave this same forgiving love to Marty. Brother Larry gave flesh to grace, just as Jesus did when he came to visit this planet.

The next time you think God can’t use you, think again. What do you think would have happened if Brother Larry had felt God could not and would not work through him? Certainly Marty would not be where he is today.

Look around you, my friend. Find a need and get busy doing something to meet it. You may very well be surprised what God can and will do through you if you just give him a chance.

Think about it.

 

© L.D. Turner 2008/2013 All Rights Reserved

Wise Words for Today

Cover of "A New Kind of Christianity: Ten...

Cover via Amazon

What if the Christian faith is supposed to exist in a variety of forms rather than just one imperial one? What if it is both more stable and more agile – more responsive to the Holy Spirit – when it exists in these many forms? And what if, instead of arguing about which form is correct and legitimate, we were to honor, appreciate, and validate one another and see ourselves as servants of one grander mission, apostles of one greater message, seekers one ultimate quest? That, I’d say, sounds like a new kind of Christianity.

But what would that one mission, message, and quest be? Around what one grand endeavor can we rally? What one great danger do people need to be saved from and, more positively, what one great purpose do they need to be saved for? Around what melody can we harmonize without trying to homogenize? Of many possible answers, there is one to which I am continually drawn, embarrassingly obvious and simple to understand, but also embarrassingly challenging to do: the church exist to form Christlike people, people of Christlike love. It exists to save them from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less than and other than they were intended be, gaining the world but losing their souls.

Brian McLaren

(from A New Kind of Christianity)

The Path of Sacrificial Service

English: The Lord Jesus Christ in the image of...

English: The Lord Jesus Christ in the image of Good Shepherd. Early Christian trsdition of symbolism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mick Turner

In examining Jesus’ life we have seen that he was a complete incarnation of God’s wisdom and compassion. In conducting his life the Master exhibited these traits consistently in thought, word and deed. These twin foundations of Christian spirituality, wisdom and compassion, are not ends in and of themselves. Instead, wisdom and compassion are the means leading to another end: sacrificial service.

Even the most cursory examination of Jesus’ life, from his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, right on through his washing of his disciples’ fetid feet and his death on the cross, we see clearly the consistent theme of sacrifice. Indeed, the Master’s life was one continual incarnation of his teaching that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground” and his words to the rich young wanna-be, “ go and sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor.”

Yet this kind of sacrifice does not come natural to us. At least I know it doesn’t come natural to me. I have within me a fibrous root of self-centeredness that, without divine assistance, will rule my life and in the long run, bring me to ruin. Scripture teaches that we all have this selfish core and left unchecked by the Holy Spirit, can infiltrate and poison all aspects of our being. Tyler Edwards, in his excellent book entitled Zombie Church, describes how this tendency toward self-cherishing can even get its tentacles into our prayer lives:

It sometimes seems like we want God to be a genie in a bottle. Sometimes we pray asking God to do everything for us and then expect it will just magically happen. We pray for patience and want to wake up a more patient person. We pray for wisdom and expect that God will just download it into our heads. We just want to put it on the Almighty Santa list and wake up with it under the tree. Then when God puts us in a situation where we can learn the very things we asked Him for, we get upset. We don’t want to have to work at it; we just want God to make it happen. I know I’ve tried to use Him like this………………..I have tried to make my faith a spiritual investment where I get as much out of it as I can while putting in as little as possible. Ever done that? This attitude degrades the church. Oftentimes we show up looking for what we get, not what we have to give.

“Ever done that?” I know when Tyler Edwards asked that question in the quotation above, it hit me right between the eyes. Yes, I have done that, many times over. Thank God I am less prone to do that than I once was. Increasingly, I have come to see the Christian walk of faith, contrary to what many of the “Prosperity Gospel” teachers will tell you, is more about what I can give than what I can get. The fact is, if you really deep down get what  the gospel is all about, you fully understand that you can never give enough to equal what you have already been given by God. When I truly and prayerfully reflect on what Christ’s mission to this world did for me, I am humbled beyond description, filled with not just thankfulness, but more than that, I am imbued with a motivational gratitude that creates in me a desire to be of service to the divine source that has been so gracious to me. Consider:

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. (Ephesians 1:3 NLT)

Or this:

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires. (2 Peter 1: 3-4 NLT)

Just prayerfully reflect for a time on what has been said in these scriptures. Paul tells us in Ephesians that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In the “heavenly realms” does not mean they await us after this life, but instead, means that these blessings are already ours. All we have to do is be open and receptive in order to move these blessings down from the spiritual realms. Once we grasp this, once we fully understand that God has already provided everything we could possibly need, we take possession of these blessings by “reckoning” that it is so. (See Romans 6:11 ).

Even more astounding, however, it that in addition to all these promises and blessings that are ours through God’s gracious provision and Christ’s completed mission, we are also able to “partake of the divine nature.” We share the very nature of Christ and from a personal perspective, when I truly grasp this incredible truth, I am rendered speechless.

In an often overlooked passage of scripture, we get a glimpse of how this is possible. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:10 that Christ ascended “higher than the highest heavens so that he may fill all things with himself.” Just chew on that one for awhile. With Christ’s ascension into these realms, the entire universe underwent a complete change. Since his ascension, everything that exists has within it the fullness of Christ. Granted, for some aspects of existence, that fullness remains latent, but if scripture is to be trusted, it is there nonetheless and only needs to be awakened. These are metaphysical mysteries too great for me to get my understanding around completely, but even taken on faith, they stagger the mind.

As followers of Jesus we must understand a cardinal truth when it comes to these spiritual blessings. We are not to squander them. Instead, we are to do everything we can to appropriate these blessings, especially spiritual gifts. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, we develop these gifting and, in the process, become closer to the optimal version of who and what we are. In essence, we become what the Master intended and what scripture describes when it talks about being “in Christ.”

My point in discussing these spiritual blessings and our spiritual gifts, along with the process of becoming the kind and caliber of beings God intended, is that we engage and develop our blessings and gifts in order to bless others through sacrificial service. Just as Christ was wholly obedient to the Father through his service to others, so we are obedient to the Master by our service to those in need. In this way we become the hands, feet, and heart of Jesus in our hurting, needful world.

In essence, we can say that God blesses us so we can be a blessing to others. In doing so, we emulate Christ in carrying out much-needed sacrificial service. Jesus’ entire life can be seen through the lens of what biblical Greek terms “kenosis.” Kenosis is typically translated as “self-emptying love” and from beginning to end, Jesus’ mission exemplified this spiritual virtue.

It is this very concept of kenosis that makes the Christian path unique. Even within the faith itself, it seems there were and are still many who missed the boat, so to speak, in terms of understanding what Jesus was bringing into manifestation on this planet. Traditionally, the path of spiritual development has been seen as one of “ascent,” where the spiritual aspirant engages in spiritual practices in order to purify themselves. Growth is seen as an upward spiral or ladder.

His entire life can be seen through the lens of what biblical Greek terms “kenosis.” Kenosis is typically translated as “self-emptying love” and from beginning to end, Jesus’ mission exemplified this spiritual virtue.

Paul gives us a clear description of how Christ’s entire life and mission was characterized by this kenotic ethic:

Though his state was that of God, yet he did not deem equality with God something he should cling to.

Rather, he emptied himself, and assuming the state of a slave, he was born in human likeness.

He, being known as one of us, humbled himself, obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

For this, God raised him on high and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name.

So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

And so every tongue should proclaim “Jesus Christ is Lord!” – to God the Father’s glory. (Phil. 2:9-16)

Built upon the twin pillars of wisdom and compassion, the spiritual formation within the Christian tradition is kenotic – a journey of self-emptying love and sacrificial service. Although most faith traditions have an element of sacrificial service within their framework of spiritual development, the Christian faith tradition is somewhat unique in that it places the ethic of kenosis at its core.

Granted, many contemporary churches are far from this ideal, choosing instead to go off the rails in terms of theology, practice, and especially political alliances. Still, there remain pockets of genuine kenotic spirituality and it is in these pockets that the true presence of authentic Christian spirituality may be found. It is in these living, vibrant churches that the vision and tradition inaugurated by Jesus is alive and well, making life better for all who come in contact with its heart and spirit. It is in these authentic pockets of Christian practice that the people understand that on the path begun by Christ, the motivational emphasis shifts from “me” to “we.”

© L.D. Turner 2012/ All Rights Reserved

The Fullness of God and Spiritual Formation

Stained glass window 1: Jesus Christ

Stained glass window 1: Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mick Turner

As Christians, each follower of Christ is not called to a lukewarm, mediocre walk with God. Instead, if we are to be the best version of ourselves, we are to pay close attention to just what it is Christ is calling us to be. At times, when we truly analyze the claim and responsibility placed on us by Jesus, we might think it anything but an easy yoke. This is especially true when we read between the lines of what Paul is telling us is several of his letters.    

Taken singularly, it is easy to perhaps miss the magnitude of the goal of Christian spiritual formation. I think this is one of the reasons that many Christians so often become so complacent in their faith. Each week they get dressed, go to church, sing a few hymns, take part in corporate prayer, listen to a sermon that waters down the gospel message, put their envelope in the collection plate, then speed to their favorite eatery before the waiting line gets too long.

To tell you the truth, somehow I think Jesus and Paul had more than this in mind. What Jesus had in mind was spelled out with clarity in the Sermon on the Mount, sort of a compact distillation of the kingdom principles he brought with him when he left the glories of the heavenly court and came a’callin’ on earth at that stable in Bethlehem. Let’s have a closer look at Paul’s take on what happened as a result of Christ’s mission.

I am certain you are aware of Paul’s idea, repeated in one way or another throughout his correspondence with the fledgling churches, of the relationship between Jesus and God. Paul tells us that all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Christ, which meant that God and Jesus were in some mysterious way the same being. In the Jewish culture of his day, Paul was making an incredible claim here. Jews were not supposed to make any image of God and even to speak his name was considered a capital offense. Now, here was Paul echoing Jesus by implying that the great and mighty Jehovah was in essence a loving, cosmic “Daddy” who was not only the Father of Jesus, but was also Jesus himself. And the reverse was true. Jesus was not only a great teacher and a skilled Rabbi; He was not only a great healer and the leader, the Grand Poobah of a band of shady-looking disciples. Jesus, according to Paul, was Jehovah Himself.

Standing alone, that sort of statement was enough to give the High Priest a prize-winning wedgie. Paul, however, wasn’t finished. In fact, he was just getting started. If you take a look at Ephesians 3:19, the Apostle tells the early church members that he prays “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (NSRV) Here Paul was pulling no punches; instead, he went straight for the knockout. Paul basically was saying that he prayed that, as Christians, the new believers were expected to become like Jesus.

No wonder the religious establishment saw Paul as a dangerous, if not demented, man. Equating Jesus with God was a reach. Saying that a human being could become like Jesus was beyond the pale of acceptability.

In case his readers missed his point, the Apostle repeats this theme in the fourth chapter of Ephesians. In verse 13 he equates Christian maturity with the achieving “the measure of the full stature of Christ.” He then drives home the point two verses later by stating:

Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NRSV).

In case you might be thinking that this message was somehow only for the believers in Ephesus, think again. Let’s wander over to Corinth and take a look at one of Paul’s letters to this stressed out church. After briefly covering a few topics, Paul tells the Corinthian believers that we “beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness” (2 Cor. 3:18). Aiming his words in a different direction, Paul tells the Philippians to emulate the same manner of being that Jesus had (Phi. 2:5-8).

By now it should be clear that that Paul felt it essential to get this message across. He believed that in order to function as effective Christ-followers in their world, the members of the early church had to work, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, in securing personal change and continually grow toward the full stature of Christ. This was the goal for the early church and it is our goal for today.

The logical question at this point is: How am I supposed to pull this off?

It is here that we are confronted with one of the many paradoxical conundrums of the spiritual life. The first shall be last – the last shall be first – to save your life you must lose it – etc. For the theme we are discussing, we are confronted with the riddle of Christian spiritual formation. There is nothing that we can do to save ourselves or sanctify ourselves; it is all a free gift of grace and we just have to accept it. Still, Paul tells us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” So what gives here?

Some sincere believers will tell you to stay away from spiritual disciplines because they are, at the end of the day, useless. We are powerless to change ourselves; only the Holy Spirit can pull that one off. Some of these Christians will go so far as to tell you that engaging in the classical spiritual disciplines is like sleeping with Satan….all this spiritual formation mumbo jumbo smells like smoke and brimstone.

Other equally sincere Christians will tell you the opposite. Even though personal transformation is a free gift of grace, we have a responsibility as well. We have to place ourselves in a receptive position in order to maximize our potential for change. I confess that I am more in this camp than in the former. I believe that spiritual formation requires a good deal of effort on our parts. God makes it all possible, but we have to appropriate what he has made possible. It’s like the great Quaker mystic Rufus Jones often said:

“The grace of God is like the wind blowing across the lake. If you want to get to the other side, you have to raise your sail.”

© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved