In an attempt to become more authentic, we seem to be under-valuing the gathering of Christians. And if we gather, we don’t want it to seem like we care that much. Like, “we don’t really need this. We don’t really care. We can do the same thing over coffee.”

I’VE BEEN THERE MYSELF.

But, my concern is that we are so worried about authenticity, and not being a bunch of shallow evangelicals, that we are also losing something precious that our children will have to fight to bring back because we took our eye off the ball.

The Festal Gathering

READ Hebrews 12:18-24

What if we tried to make our “natural” worship gatherings match as closely as possible this spiritual reality?

We often think of Christian fruitfulness in terms of our own personal growth only.  But Jesus left us with clear instructions that our purpose is larger than personal growth.  The growth of others is of vital importance to Him.

CH Spurgeon said that every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.  The question is, why don’t we do more missionary work here in our own spheres of influence?

Let’s explore that together.

Everyone always asks me what pastors do between Sundays.  The answer to that question just might connect with your life more than you think.

One of the most comforting things that we can experience is when someone validates our pain – they seem to understand it, and recognize it as something that is real.

This is empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

This is subtly different from compassion. Compassion is sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

Empathy is compassion taken to the level of entering into another person’s feelings and experiencing it along with them.

This is closer to what Paul means by “bear one another’s burdens”.

Compassion feels pity and concern, but from a relative distance. It isn’t bad. Compassion is never a bad thing. But empathy allows that compassion to push closer to that person in order to better understand. Empathy makes you feel what they feel, at least as much as anyone can.

Empathy puts you in their shoes.

Mental Illness, and all other forms of Suffering

It’s certainly true of mental illness, that the pain is invisible to others. You can see a broken arm, and easily empathize with how that pain might feel. But with a mental illness that isn’t the case (unless you have experienced it yourself).

So the test of your empathy is much greater. Much of the time you have to simply take the person at their word. You have to believe them, and so often we do not.

Or we imagine that they are just weaker than most people. But do you really think that you are THAT much stronger than everyone else?

As I’ve been thinking about this more, I also think that this is true of all of life’s struggles. We are desperate for empathy. We want someone, anyone, to understand what it’s like to be us.

We want someone to believe us, and really understand. And, yet, we are always disappointed. At least a little. There will always be depths that others cannot understand, no matter how hard they try.

Even with someone that knows you well, and is very empathetic, they will not be able to fully know what it’s like to be you.

The empathy of Jesus

There is one that has not only experienced what you are experiencing, but knows how YOU are experiencing it perfectly.

Jesus not only lived a human life, but He lives in you by His Spirit. When you see him again, you won’t have to tell Him how hard life was. He will already know, and He will know it perfectly.

So the comfort He brings you now, in this life, is not distant. It is compassionate, but not compassionate from a professional distance. His compassion compels Him to empathize with you.

And He will not leave it there. He enters into your pain, and stands in it with you. He stands AS you, in your place. It’s the only way it can be true that He works all things together for our good.

Look For His Comfort

Everyone’s life is hard. We need to be able to admit that, and share that with other people. And we need to be people that are worthy of helping others carry their burdens. We need to become people that enter into other people’s pain, take responsibility for other people.

If you find it difficult to empathize with other people, begin asking Jesus to teach you. He is a master of empathy. He will begin to teach you.

The Role of Grace in our Transformation

In Galatians, Paul teaches us that eternal transformation comes through the grace of God.  We are sanctified the same way we were justified.

It is God’s LOVE for us, expressed through his scandalous GRACE the brings about the change that we need.

At the end of Galatians, Paul puts it another way by telling us to walk in the Spirit and we will produce the fruit of the Spirit.  Walk in the flesh and we will produce the works of the flesh.

But the question we are asking this morning is how does this work exactly?  Here we are, the start of a new year and we want to make some changes.  We want to get healthy, improve our finances, have a stronger devotional life, be better parents, whatever the case may be.

How do we get there from here?

How Transformation Happens:

How is grace applied to our hearts, in a way that brings this transformation?

I’m giving you 5 ways.  Maybe there are more that you can think of, but these are my 5 as comprehensive as I can be.

  1. Discipline
  2. Blessing
  3. Suffering
  4. Conviction
  5. Community
  6. Worship

1- Discipline

Discipline is kind of a dirty word with most people.  No one in this room this morning got excited when I said the word “Discipline”.

Hebrews 12:5-13

Discipline is often very closely connected to suffering, but by discipline here I simply mean “God’s correction through negative consequences.”

Discipline is not the same thing as punishment.  We have to separate the two in our minds. Punishment is payment for a wrong that was done.  Justice demands that a punishment be paid that equals the severity of the offense. The punishment fits the crime.  Punishment is about justice.

But discipline has little to do with justice.  Discipline is instruction. Discipline is for the one being disciplined.  Discipline is corrective. Discipline strengthens the soul, drives foolishness from the heart, and builds godliness.

A person cannot become Godly without discipline.  A lack of discipline from a parent is tantamount to a lack of love, according to Hebrews.  An abundance of discipline is a profound expression of love.

Discipline is training through negative consequences.  “I did this thing, it hurt. Now I want to do it less than I did before.”

In Romans 1 we see that God judges those that have rejected Him by worshipping other gods by CEASING TO DISCIPLINE them.  He lets them have what they want and it destroys them.

Hebrews goes on to say that we are to receive all hardship as discipline.  God is not punishing you! One has been punished in your place. Justice has been satisfied in Christ.  You are not under punishment, but under grace. All hardship is intended as discipline. Yes God will correct you, instruct you, through a slap on the wrist.  This is one of the ways we grow in godliness. But do not mistake his discipline for His punishment.

2- Blessing

Romans 2:1-4

God not only draws us to repentance and transformation through His discipline, but He also draws us with His undeserved goodness to us.

Prodigal Sons
This is wonderfully illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Sons that Jesus told during His ministry.

In this story, the son takes his inheritance from his father early and leaves home, shaming his father.  He then spends all of his inheritance on wine and women. And he ends up eating with the pigs in a pig sty.

He comes to his senses and returns home hoping to be a servant in his fathers house.  This is discipline. He came to his senses because he was experiencing a spanking from God.

But then when he gets near his home, his father runs out to meet him.  He blesses him with an over the top party and celebration. It’s unwarranted and undeserved.  Both the pig sty and the party are ways that the Father draws us to repentance.

Paul’s warning in Romans 2 is to us to be careful not to miss the point of God’s blessing.  We can make the mistake of taking blessing as a sign of our own goodness instead of a sign of God’s goodness.

3- Suffering

Romans 5:3-5

3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Suffering transforms us into the image of Christ faster than anything I know.  It causes us to depend of God because we have no other choice. It brings us to the end of our own strength and forces us to submit to His strength in our weakness.  It’s the fast track to maturity.

The reason I want to distinguish between suffering and discipline is that I don’t want you to think that all suffering is because of something you are doing that God is correcting.  Quite often God allows us to suffer simply because He is more interested in our eternal transformation than He is with our temporary comfort.

4- Conviction of Sin

John 16:7-11

7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

It is one of the Holy Spirit’s jobs to convict the world of sin.  But what is conviction?

The ancient Greek word that we translate as “convict” means: “to convince someone of the truth; to reprove; to accuse, refute, or cross-examine a witness.”

The Holy Spirit is like an attorney examining a witness.  He points to the evidence and convinces us that we need a Savior.  It is not a general feeling of shame or dirtiness. It is a specific conviction over sin as an offense against God Himself.

The Holy Spirit convinces us of the truth about ourselves, our sin, and the nature and character of God.

Conviction drives us to the feet of Jesus to repent.  It motivates us into the grace of God, not away from it.  And when intimacy with God is restored through repentance, the conviction of the Holy Spirit is replaced by joy in His mercy.

5- Christian Community

You really don’t have to look any further than Galatians 5 to see this dynamic in action.  Look at all the fruit of the Spirit he mentions.

Galatians 5:22-23

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Most of these only make sense within the context of relationships.  It is in relationships that these things are manifested and challenged.

If these are the fruit of the Spirit, then we actually need each other to even know if we are producing fruit or not.  That’s how important Christian community is. I’d go so far as to say that you cannot produce the fruit of the spirit without being in relationship with other Believers.

James 5:16 tells us to confess our sins to one another so that we may be healed because the prayer we pray for each other is powerful.  We need each other for healing.  We need the listening ear of a friend, and we need the prayer of a friend.

6- Worship

Martin Luther made a keen observation in his commentary on the 10 commandments.  He said that if you keep the first 2 commandments (only worship God, and don’t make idols) then we will keep all the rest.  You have to break the first 2 in order to break any of the others.

In other words, you have to cease worshipping God in order to sin.  Sin is first a foremost an act of rebellion against God. You can’t worship Him and rebel against Him at the same time.  So, worship, is not just us giving God His due, it is also a power instrument that God uses to sanctify us.

Conclusion

In all of the se ways that God changes us, we are not the initiating force.  However, our response to these things are enormously important. We can rebel against God’s discipline, we can take for granted God’s blessings, we can grow bitter in suffering, we can harden our hearts against the Holy Spirit’s conviction over sin, and we can isolate ourselves from Christian community.

Here I am again tackling an enormous and complex topic in about 15 minutes.  I want to talk about this latest school shooting in Florida this past week, and I’m going to do it without talking about gun control (either for or against it).

I mean, really.  We’re Christians.  We have better solutions.

The Latest Story

Here is the link to the news story that I read an excerpt from:  “Death Toll is at 17…” New York Times

We’re Christians

This is going to sound obvious to the point of being ridiculous, but we’re Christians.  We should learn to think like Christians.

But for some reason in these moments, Christians don’t tend to think like Christians.  Instead they think like the world.  They think like politicians, take to social media, and start regurgitating all the old man-made diagnosis and solutions.  And it’s about as helpful as acid reflux.

Debates over mental illness and gun regulation or deregulation, completely miss the root causes of the violence we are seeing.  We use words like “mental illness’ as a junk-drawer that really just means “people that are crazy, unlike me”.

All the while we are ignoring the truth, because the truth is far more frightening than an AR-15.

What Does God Say?

Here’s a crazy idea.  What if we tried to see what God says?  Think He might know?

Eccl. 9:3 – the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

“The hearts of the children of man are full of evil…”  that’s everybody.  Not just a handful of crazy people with access to expensive rifles.

The monster that was in the killer, is also in you, and is also in me.

What Do the Killers Say?

Most of these mass murderers say before they die why they did it.  Not all of them, but most of them do.  And there is a chilling consistency to it.  What is most obvious, and this recent Miami shooting is no exception, is that this was not a fit of rage.  This was not a guy that just snapped one day, grabbed his musket and started shooting.

It’s calculated, thoughtful, intentional, reasoned, murder.

They are almost always weak, ineffectual, emasculated, young men who have full integrated themselves into an identity of victimhood.  And that broken identity makes way for a kind of wicked quest for what they consider to be righteous justice.  Sometimes they express a chilling kind of false compassion.  They are ridding the world of an infection.  They are defending themselves, and others, against what they consider to be a tyranny.  They want all people, or a specific group of people, gone.  They have lost their reason to exist.

It is simultaneously arrogant and weak.  These are not snarling, raging, dragon-monsters charging thoughtlessly into madness.  They are weak, emasculated, young, beta males.

So, demonic forces love to step through that door and provide a little inspiration, a little push of motivation, some small opportunities to act out your plans as a test to see if it feels as good as you think it will until you have the courage to plan and execute the master plan.

It is remarkably consistent from killer to killer.  And this dynamic of the human soul is all too familiar to most people.  It’s disturbing to realize that you can UNDERSTAND and maybe even RELATE TO someone that did something so horrible.

And so we say, eh.  Mental illness.  Guns.  Education.  Those are the problems.  Anything but the human heart.

Eccl. 9:3 – the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

What’s the Solution?

So what do we do about this?  When talking about solutions, I think it’s enormously tempting to be overly simplistic.  It’s another way to avoid the mirror.  I refuse to do that here.

But I know where to start.  I know that all the solutions are found in Jesus.  And Jesus always seems to start with me and my personal responsibility.  He says, “Ben, you feel like a victim.  Let me show you how to be a victim.  I was broken and rejected like you can’t fathom, but I was never a victim.”  Jesus defines for me what a man is, and what a man isn’t.  Jesus was perfectly strong and perfectly gentle.

And Jesus takes my heart, full of wickedness and madness, and transforms it to beat differently.  The wickedness is replaced with His righteousness and the madness is replaced with the mind of Christ.

And then Jesus says, “Now take the light that I’ve put in you and pass it on.”  And it’s in the passing on of the Light of Christ that the world is changed – the wickedness flees and the madness is driven out.

So, it’s too much for me try to fix “society”.  That’s an overwhelming task.  But I can work on my relationship with Jesus.  And I can become a maker of disciples by sharing the Light.  We have no idea what a powerful weapon that is in changing the world.  You have no idea how many school shootings your life can prevent.

This is God’s master plan for changing the world, so let’s get back to it and stop wasting our passions on silly things that don’t work.

T. Keller quote:

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”

Why Can’t We Make Friends?

My wife and I regularly hear people talk about being lonely and isolated.  It’s pervasive, in and out of the Church.  It’s crazy that there are all these people sitting at home by the phone waiting for someone to call them.  WHILE THEY BROWSE FACEBOOK.

You know what it is?  No one knows how to make friends any more.  We learned this on the playground in kindergarten.  Hey… you wanna be my friend?  Ok.

Not sure why, but maybe it’s a combination of things.

Maybe it’s stranger danger.  (BTW – pedophiles look for the kid that won’t scream, fight back, or stand their ground.  They for the kid that is disengaged, unable to interact socially, and won’t talk to adults.  “Don’t talk to strangers” turns out NOT to be good advice.  Teach your kids to look adults in the eye and engage with them directly, don’t let them hide behind your ankles.  Teach them to make friends.  Studies seem to show that that will actually make them safer.)

Maybe it’s the digital age.   What if you made a rule that you don’t look at your phone when other people are around?  What if you made eye contact with people more than you did with your device?

Maybe it’s cultural.  We used to make neighborhoods with straight streets, and houses with front porches that people used most evenings because Air Conditioning and TV was for rich people.

Now the streets are curved so you only see a few houses at a time, you don’t walk much, and you don’t every see your neighbors because you are inside.  The front porch moved to the back deck, with a tall fence around it.

Maybe it’s our hearts.  Making a friend is costly.  It’s awkward and risky.  You might get rejected.  You might look foolish.  You might have your personal space invaded.  You might not have as much free time.

Known & Loved…

But remember Tim Keller’s thought:  “To be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.”

This is how Jesus told us to live as His disciples.  He said, “they will know you by your love.”  What will they know about us?  They will know that we have been with Jesus.

Making friends, as it turns out, is not an optional luxury.  It’s right down at the core of why we are still breathing.

Does anyone know you?  When was the last time you made a new friend?  Maybe it’s time for you to cross the play ground and introduce yourself?  Pick up the phone.  Reach out to someone and go meet them for coffee.  Invite them over for dinner.  Say hello, ask questions.  Get to know people.

This is what truly spiritual people do.

Introduction

Today I’m thinking about marriage.  We are planning a marriage conference this weekend at the church so I have it on my mind a lot.

For those listeners that are not married, I think you’ll get something out of this too because all of it applies to relationships of all types.

With any topic that I teach on, I try really hard to distill things down to their most fundamental elements.  That’s especially important with a topic like marriage, because the marriage relationship is really complicated.  There are always multiple things going on, at different levels, all the time.  Personality, history, sexuality, finances, doctrine, leadership styles, and more come into play.

So, I am wary of over simplifying.  Remember, this is a short 15 minute podcast not a full treatise on Christian marriage.

So that being said, I think I could get married couples to learn and internalize one thing it would be this:

HEALTHY PEOPLE MAKE HEALTHY MARRIAGES

Another way of saying it is that marriage is about sanctification, not satisfaction.  I’ve heard it said, “Marriage is about holiness, not happiness.”  I don’t like that as much because it makes it sound like you have to choose between the two.  That’s a whole other podcast, but suffice it to say you do not have to choose between holiness and happiness.

WHAT I MEAN BY THIS

We all have a strong tendency to think that the answer to the problems in our marriage is the weakest link in the relationship.  And the weakest link is the other person.  We build lists in our minds of their weaknesses and failings, and with as much sanctimony as possible, we petition God to change them because their sin is making us sad.

This goes back to Adam and Eve, the first dysfunctional married couple on the planet.  (and the first couple, period)

When God confronted Adam about his sin, he blamed Eve.  He called her “this woman you gave me” like she was a defective model that needed to be sent back to the factory for some serious retooling.

When God confronted Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, hinting at the fact that God had created the snake so why is she to blame?

From the first sin, with the first couple, there was competition.  Blame shifting.  An inability to see their own culpability in the dysfunction of their relationship.

“Yeah, yeah, I know I shouldn’t have eaten the apple.  BUT EVE KEPT NAGGING ME ABOUT IT!”

Really?  You just single-handedly brought sin and death into the world, and that’s all you’ve got?  My wife bugged me?

But I think you probably recognize this syndrome in yourself.  I know I sure do.

The Single Greatest Thing You Can Do…

The truth is that the single greatest thing that you can do for your marriage, or any other relationship, is to grow in your relationship with God.  To put it in theological terms, “to be conformed to the image of Christ.”

So, when I say “healthy people make healthy marriages” this is how I define what “healthy” is.  It’s not just about becoming emotionally healthy, or well adjusted, or self actualized.  It’s about taking on the character of Christ.  That certainly would include your emotions, but quite often when we limit our need for growth to emotional growth we still make it about the other person and not us.

Jesus was emotionally healthy.  But he also laid down His life for us.  Jesus had boundaries, but His boundaries included a lot of people.

Want to Get Closer to Your Spouse?  Get closer to God.

But, Wait, My Spouse is a SCOUNDREL

This still applies to you.  As you repent of your sin, and draw closer to Jesus, your prayers for your spouse will cease to be self-serving.  Your motivation will shift from simply getting some relief, to genuine love and concern for your spouse that THEY would draw closer to God for the sake of their own souls and the glory of God.

Your joy gets untethered from their behavior, and gets tethered to the grace of God instead.

I need to point out, however, that I am NOT saying you should take the blame for things that your spouse is doing (unless you actually do share the blame).  You can’t repent for someone else’s sin, even if you love them.  And, I hope this is obvious, this doesn’t mean that any kind of abuse is your fault.

Where to Go From Here

1- Forgive them – many times over if needed.  This is not making excuses.  Forgiveness is giving up your right to enact justice.  Instead, you give that to God while you embrace the humility of the cross.

2- Take Responsibility for your own soul – your relationship with God is between you and God.  If it isn’t good, it’s because you aren’t pursuing it.

3- Repent of only your sin – Deal with your own sin before God, confess it to one another, ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen you against it.  But don’t bother listing your spouses sins before God in complaint.  They aren’t your sins to confess.

No matter what state your marriage is in right now, this is your best shot and making it better.

Thin Soul?

Have you ever felt like if one more  thing lands on your plate you’re going to lose your mind?

That feeling like you are at capacity, all of the margin is gone?

Tolkien’s character Bilbo said it well when he said, “My soul feels thin.  Like butter spread over too much bread.”

I know I’ve felt that way.  And this is what today’s episode is about.

I’m titling this episode “Rhythms of Rest” and I use that phrase for a reason.

Our lives move at a certain pace, a certain rhythm and cadence.  Our culture pushes us to move at a faster and faster pace.  It never slows down.  At least not without CONSIDERABLE effort.

Pump the Brakes

The world only has a gas pedal, no brakes.

So the pace of our lives just increases until we find ourselves sort of hurtling forward at break neck speed, out of control, and not sure how to slow it all down again.

Of course, the problem with this is that we can’t keep that up.  We all have a limited capacity for living like this.  Eventually the things that are really important to us begin to suffer.  The immediate and urgent things compete with the important things, because quite often the urgent things are NOT the truly important things.

The things you actually want to do with your life take a back seat to the things that everyone else wants to do with your life.

I know this is my story.  Being a pastor makes it easy to collect burdens without ever dropping a burden.  If I’m not careful I get so loaded down with burdens that I can barely breathe.  It can be suffocating if I don’t manage it.

I think there are several reasons for this, many of which we have no control over.  Technology and culture have changed so much that the pressure to move faster is enormous.  There’s nothing I can do about that.  I can’t change the culture.  At least not fast enough to do me any good.

But one thing I have found that is effective is paying attention to my rhythms of rest.  Just like in music, you need rests.  Without rests, without pauses between notes, it isn’t music.  It’s just noise.

Rest will convert your life from noise to music.

Daily, weekly, Yearly Rhythms

I suggest breaking your life into sections.  Daily, Weekly, and Yearly.  Maybe decades as well.

Every day you need some moments of rest where your mind is allowed to wander, your body gets a change of scenery, and your soul gets a breather.  So a couple times a day, you put your phone down and take a walk around your building outside.  Or maybe instead of going out to lunch with work friends, you go to the park by yourself.

I also suggest getting an hour of rest before going to bed.  Give your mind some time to wind down and process the day.  Add into this some time in the Bible and prayer, and you can maximise the impact of your rest.

On a weekly rhythm, you need a day off.  Maybe Saturdays.  Your day off doesn’t need to be spent doing nothing.  You can use that time getting caught up on house chores.  That’s good for your soul too.  But the key to a day off us disengaging from the outside things that compete with the truly important things in your life – like family, friends, and worship.

Do something on your day off that brings you joy and peace.  Do something that feeds your soul and guard yourself from things that take from you.

And then for a yearly rhythm, I think everyone needs to get out town once a year.  Even if just for a weekend.  It’s best to go alone with family or very close friends, but that isn’t always financially possible.  Just get out of town where the responsibilities can’t find you for a few days.

This is Hard

This isn’t easy to do.  The minute you try to unplug from the machine, the machine fights back.  Try to take 5 minutes away from your desk, and your phone will immediately ring.  The world doesn’t make room for you to pump the brakes.  So the second you try to rest, you put yourself out of rhythm with your surroundings.  You become a dissonant sound.

You are like the person driving slowly down the highway when everyone else is speeding.

Living life in the fast lane really stinks.  Life in the slow lane is so much better!

So you have to develop some disciplines about not answering your phone, or answering emails and texts during those moments.  You have to fight for rest or it won’t happen.

But let’s be honest.  We don’t want to rest because rest requires us to depend on God.  We have to let go in order to rest.  Even for just a moment.  You have step away from your desk, step away from your phone, step away from something in order to do this.