All Is Well

There’s an old saying that tells us, “All’s well that end well.” Although I’m not sure this is absolutely true, the Bible clearly does provide many supporting anecdotes.

There would have been nothing “good” about Good Friday if it weren’t for Resurrection Sunday. The seemingly tragic and unjust story of the cross ended in complete triumph. Resurrection changes everything.

The final word in the Old Testament (Malachi 4:6) is CURSE (Hebrew cherem), quite a sobering reminder if we’re ever tempted to live under the Law again. But fortunately the story of redemption isn’t over yet. The New Testament ends on a completely different note: The GRACE of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen”  (Revelation 22:21). Praise God for His grace. It changes everything.

If you would have met Job midway through his story, you would have declared him a quite pathetic fellow. But his story certainly ended well: “The Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before”  and The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part”  (Job 42-10-12). Don’t you love happy endings like this? Happy endings can change just about anything.

That’s why I love the story in John 2 where they ran out of wine at a wedding feast. We’ve all run out of something at one time or another, and it’s not a pleasant experience.  Yet the story ended well, for Jesus turned water into wine.

It’s exhilarating to read that Jesus didn’t turn the water into some kind of ordinary or CHEAP wine. No, the master of the banquet said the BEST had been saved for LAST (v. 10). I’m claiming the “best for last” principle for my life, and I hope you are too.

However, perhaps you feel like you’re still living in Good Friday or in the middle of a story akin to Job’s. Maybe you’re not yet ready to declare, “All is well.”

But the good news is this: Your story isn’t over until it’s over. A day of resurrection is coming. Until then, God is still at work to bring ALL things together for your happy ending and a glorious fulfillment of His purposes (Romans 8:28).

So take a deep breath and trust Him to finish the work He has begun (Philippians 1:6). He will.

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Bridging the GAP Between Your Rhetoric & Your Reality

Each of us has a gap between our Rhetoric and our Reality. In some cases, the distance between the two is enormous. Remember the Jerusalem crowds shouting “Hosanna” one moment and “Crucify Him” just a few days later? There was quite a gap between their enthusiastic Rhetoric on Palm Sunday and the Reality of their hearts when Jesus was on trial.

How can we explain such big gaps between Rhetoric and Reality? Sometimes this is simple hypocrisy, reminiscent of politicians who persuade voters with lofty promises they have no intention of keeping.

At other times, there’s a major problem with self-awareness. We’ve all met people who sincerely believe their glowing press clippings—the Rhetoric—but are oblivious to the Reality of their situation. That’s why we all need a few honest friends in our life, those who will lovingly reveal our blind spots (Ephesians 4:15).

This is not a minor issue. When there’s a large gap between a believer’s profession and their possession, the stinging words of Romans 2:24 come into play: “God’s name is blasphemed among [unbelievers] because of you.”  Ouch.

But sometimes the gap is completely well-intentioned, a matter of “confessing the Word” when we aren’t yet walking in what it promises. We tell people we’re healed and then sneeze all over them. Or we proclaim that God has touched our aching back, but we’re still bent over like a Neanderthal. Whatever maladies we still face are just “lying symptoms,” we like to tell people.

In the case of Mephibosheth, there was a wide chasm between his calling  as a prince and his deplorable experience  living in the squalor of Lo Debar (2 Samuel 9). But this huge gap between the Rhetoric of his calling and the Reality of his experience was suddenly and dramatically bridged by three of the most beautiful words in the Bible: “I WILL RESTORE” (v. 7). This is God’s powerful message to us as well, no matter how wide the gap may be right now.

Often the gaps we face are not the result of any misdeeds or lack of effort on our part. Abram (“exalted father”) was renamed Abraham (“father of a multitude”). All the while, he and Sarah had no children, though they had tried for many years.

What a lesson! Often it is humanly impossible to bridge the gap between our calling and our experience. We need a miracle from God in order to finally get our “Isaac.”

And be clear on this: The first step in transformation is being honest with yourself and recognizing your need.

What gaps are you facing? What Realities in your life are falling short of your Rhetoric? Once you’ve truly faced the gaps, you can believe God for healing and restoration. But transformation will remain elusive if you insist on putting your head in the sand and pretending there aren’t any gaps to bridge.

Your turnaround can start today. Leaving behind any frustrations or failures in your past, you can press on toward God’s best for your life (Philippians 3:12-14). No, this doesn’t mean you will suddenly be perfect. But it does  mean your new Reality will become much more in line with your Rhetoric. And that will bring peace, wonderful peace.

 

 

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Regaining FOCUS in a Distracting World

Without a doubt, we live in the most distracted and unfocused generation in history. I was in a meeting recently and got rebuked by someone who caught me checking emails on my phone and sending text messages. “Pay attention!” she told me. “It’s disrespectful to be looking at your phone while people are talking.”

Things only got worse when I tried to explain that I was simply “multitasking.” Yes, I’ve gotten good  at multitasking, which also may mean I’ve gotten good  at being unfocused in my life.

Lately I’ve been thinking about a problem I had with my showerhead many years ago. The bathtub lever that was supposed to divert water to the showerhead became defective. So instead of the normal gush of water through the showerhead, there was only a trickle. The rest of the water went down the bathtub drain.

I had been in showers before that trickled because of poor water pressure, but never had I seen one that had such high water pressure and yet insufficient water actually going to the showerhead. For a while I tried to just live with the situation, but soon the problem got worse and I had no alternative but to get it fixed.

I’ve discovered that God can teach us vital lessons even in the mundane situations we encounter in life, and that was definitely true about the defective shower mechanism. I saw that my life too often has been characterized by plenty of “water pressure,” but with a lot of the water going down the drain instead of toward my main priorities and calling. Although the living waters of the Spirit were present in abundance, they weren’t properly directed toward God’s primary purposes for my life.

I see many people trying to handle their lack of focus same way I initially tried to deal with my shower problem. It has been so long since they’ve had a good “shower,” they consider their situation the “new normal” and simply try to adjust to lower expectations. Or perhaps they’ve given up on taking showers—i.e., given up on their true calling—and have resigned themselves to taking baths instead.

Rather than resign ourselves to low expectations or an unfocused life, maybe it’s time to get the shower mechanism fixed. Instead of adjusting to a diversion of our energy in the wrong directions, maybe it’s time to adjust to this sobering but encouraging fact: God’s purpose for our lives has never changed

This is exactly what Paul tells us Romans 11:29: “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”  Isn’t it time that we adjusted everything else to THAT?

But what if your showerhead mechanism has been defective for years? How can you regain your life’s focus once it’s been lost? Look at how The Message translates Romans 11:29: “God’s gifts and God’s call are under full warranty—never canceled, never rescinded.

Isn’t that good news? Your calling is under “full warranty”—and that warranty can never be cancelled or rescinded!

If your energy, time, and resources are being diverted away from your true purpose in life, don’t tolerate the situation any longer. It is time to divert the full force of living water toward what God has truly called you to do.

You can’t afford to allow the precious water of the Spirit to go down the drain any longer. If you find your showerhead is merely dripping, you need to take urgent steps to re-divert the full force of water toward your true calling.

 

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The Power of Relinquishment

 Rediscovering the Lost Secret to a Fulfilled Life

If you’re like me, there’s hardly anything in life more frustrating than when you lose something that’s important to you. The day is off to a bad start if you can’t remember where you put your car keys, your cell phone, or the computer file you’d worked on all day yesterday.

Everything else is put on hold until you find what you lost.

On the other hand, nothing is more exhilarating  than to find something you thought might be gone forever. Jesus tells three stories about this kind of experience in Luke 15, where a lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son all were regained with great joy.

Have you ever had this kind of experience?

Recently I uncovered a “lost” secret to having an adventurous, discovered-filled life. I feel like the man in Matthew 13:44 (MSG) who unexpectedly found “a treasure hidden in a field for years.”  How could I have missed or neglected this “treasure” for so long?

The secret is amazingly simple, found in a single word. It’s a word that probably sounds wimpy or even defeatist at first—yet it’s anything but that.

The word is filled with explosive power and potential, but this may not be obvious at first. It is a lot like nuclear energy—power hidden away for millennia inside of tiny atoms until activated.

Even though this word is never used in the Bible, the concept is found throughout. However, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard a sermon by this name.

So here it is, the forgotten key to a happy, impactful, and prosperous life:

RELINQUISHMENT

Dictionaries define relinquishment as surrendering, releasing, letting go, or yielding. The closest Bible “proof text” I could find was an obscure marginal reference in Psalm 46:10 (NASB): LET GO and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

The secret to having God exalted in our lives is in simply letting go—relinquishing  something we treasure to Him. Or, as Jesus told us, we must lose  our life in order to find  it (Luke 17:33).

Relinquishment takes a person’s life from ordinary to extraordinary…from bland to blessed…from victim to victor…and from boring to bold. In contrast, nothing is duller or more depressing than trying hold on to what we already have.

Abraham’s son Isaac was just an ordinary young man until Abraham relinquished  him to the Lord and put him on the altar of sacrifice (Genesis 22).

Once Moses relinquished  his ordinary shepherd’s staff (Exodus 4:1-5), it was transformed into “the rod of God,” able to perform mighty miracles.

There was nothing extraordinary about the five loaves and two fish the disciples had on hand—until they relinquished  their supply to Jesus (Matthew 14).

The stone waterpots in John 2 contained only ordinary, colorless, tasteless water, until Jesus took the bland water and did a miracle—turning it into sparkling, tasty, intoxicating wine. You see, whenever RELINQUISMENT takes place, God does miracles and life gets exciting.

So why is it so easy to miss this? The answer is simple: Because of fear and unbelief, we tend to hang on to our meager resources rather than entrust them into the hands of God. How sad, for He has shown throughout history that He can do far more with the resources than we can.

The life of faith is never ordinary, bland, or unexciting. But the “religious” life is a completely different story. Religion always turns the wine back into water and removes the fizz from the adventurous life of discovery God planned for us.

Jesus relinquished the rights and privileges of His heavenly life in order to embark on the great adventure of redeeming humankind and giving us a right to enter the kingdom of heaven. Still today, He beckons us to a life of relinquishment, where it is “more blessed to give than to receive”  (Acts 20:35).

Instead of being a life of boredom or defeat, a life of relinquishment is a life of anticipation, success, and victory. What could God do with that “thing” you are holding in your hand? You’ll never know until you relinquish it to Him. That’s when the fun starts and the fizz returns.

 

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The Troubling Allure of Barabbas

We live in dangerous, deceptive times, when it has never been more important to be like the sons of Issachar, “who understood the times”  and knew what God’s people should do (1 Chronicles 12:32). In recent decades, many Christians have been hoodwinked by smooth-talking, emotion-stirring politicians and philosophies. Too often, we’ve allowed feel-good rhetoric, Santa Claus handouts, or demonization of opponents to twist reality and sway us from biblical values.

I’m old enough to remember the old “To Tell the Truth” TV program, where three mystery guests claimed to be a certain person, and the four celebrity panelists had to guess which one of them was telling the truth about their identity. Each segment of the program culminated with the host saying, “Only one  of these is the real ______, and the others are imposters. Will the real _____ please stand up!”

Matthew 27 tells a story remarkably similar to an episode of “To Tell the Truth.” Two men stood before the Roman governor (Pontius Pilate) and a large crowd of people. Both of these men were revolutionaries, but they advocated two very different kinds of revolution. Both were radical in their approach, but in completely different ways.

Pilate made it clear that only one of these men could be chosen: “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”  (v. 17) The people had to carefully evaluate the claims of these two revolutionaries before making their all-important decision.

According to many early manuscripts, the full name of the first man was Jesus Barabbas. Jesus meant “savior,”  and Barabbas meant “son of the father”  (Bar = Son, Abbas = Father). This man was widely known as an insurrectionist who had participated in a recent uprising against the Roman authorities (Mark 15:7).

The message of Barabbas was clear: “You all could have a great life if it weren’t for the Romans. They’ve victimized and oppressed you, making it impossible to be happy and productive. Let me  come to your aid and get rid of the ‘bad guys’ who’ve ripped you off and done you wrong.”

In some ways, Barabbas was probably ahead of his time. It was a message that would later be echoed by populism, progressivism, and communists from Karl Marx to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

And, no doubt, there was a grain of truth in Barabbas’ case, just as there have always been elements of truth in the manipulative arguments of political demagogues throughout the centuries. However, the cure he promised didn’t address the more fundamental cause of people’s misery.

Standing next to Barabbas that day was a very different kind of revolutionary, though there were some intriguing parallels between the men. This radical young leader from Nazareth was also named Jesus, and his followers considered him the Savior. And just as the name Barabbas meant “son of the father,”  this other Jesus was known by many as the son of Father God. Ultimately he was referred to as Jesus the Christ, or Messiah.

Jesus had some fair-weather followers who probably weren’t much different from the followers of Barabbas. They saw his miracles and hoped he would liberate them from Roman oppression and restore the independent Jewish nation. Mostly likely, this was their misguided motivation in shouting “Hosanna” (save  now!) when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey a few days earlier.

However, the message of this  Jesus was much different than Jesus Barabbas. Instead of promising political solutions—salvation from the outside—he told his followers they must repent and receive God’s kingdom on the inside. Rather than allowing his disciples to pity themselves and feel like victims, he challenged them to take the “logs”  out of their own eyes and deal with any sin or selfishness that was preventing them from receiving true freedom and abundance.

The unfolding scene in Matthew 27 was almost unbelievable. Which “Jesus”—which savior—would the people choose: Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ? Would they opt for a political solution that let them off the hook in dealing with their own sinfulness and disobedience? Or would they embrace Jesus’ promise of a new heart and a transformed life?

You see, two different gospels were presented by these two men. Both claimed to offer “good news” to those who would follow their pathway. Barabbas promised a better life once the Romans were defeated, while Jesus promised new life in a spiritual kingdom that transcended politics and earthly kingdoms.

To Pilate’s shock, the people overwhelmingly voted for Barabbas and were content to send Jesus to crucifixion. How could this be? Were they simply deceived, lured by Barabbas’ promise of sweet revenge against their oppressors? Were they paid off by the jealous religious leaders, who saw Jesus as a threat to their grip on people’s lives? Or was the problem that most of Jesus’ fans and followers simply failed to show up—or speak up—on that fateful day?

Today America faces an eerily similar moment of decision. As in the days of Barabbas and Jesus, we face enormous economic and social challenges, causing many people to feel desperate for relief. If we are seduced by the promises of Barabbas, we will seek political saviors and opt for government solutions to our woes. We will listen to the alluring siren call of those who stoke the flames of victimhood and demonize opponents with a “divide and conquer” strategy.

In contrast, the pathway prescribed by Jesus seems much more costly and difficult. It beckons us to lay down our lives and trust God to meet our needs. Instead of permitting us to play the blame game, it points us to the ancient remedy prescribed in 2 Chronicles 7:14: We must humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from our own wicked ways. Then, and only then, does the Lord promise to forgive our national sins and heal our land.

It’s time to repent of any tendency to cast our nation’s leaders in the role of our savior or source. There’s only ONE true Savior and Source, and those who put their hope in Him  will not be disappointed (Romans 10:11). Every human substitute is just an imposter and counterfeit, shifting sand that will ultimately replace our soaring hopes with deep disappointment.

 

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Untapped Potential

Over a year ago, my precious wife Mary got her first iPhone. She bought a nice blue case for it, and the phone looks really pretty.

Before getting her fancy new phone, Mary just had a very basic cell phone that she used for making calls and sending text messages. And after having her iPhone for more than a year now, she still uses it for exactly the same purposes—phone calls and texting.

I’ve gently tried to point out to Mary that she is using on a very small percentage of the phone’s potential. There’s so  much more that the phone could be doing for her!

Mary’s phone could  have been used to wake her up in the morning…show the week’s weather forecast…remind her of the day’s schedule…provide navigation to her appointments…keep track of her contacts and her finances…surf the Internet…check emails…provide restaurant reviews and movie show times…read her the Bible in multiple translations…play audio books…take pictures and immediately post them to Twitter and Facebook—and much more!

Why buy an expensive phone and not use even close to its full potential?  It seems like such a waste to me. But despite my repeated attempts to reason with her, Mary still uses the phone for little more than talking and texting.

As I’ve pondered this exasperating situation, God has convicted me that I’ve been doing something far worse  than not using the vast potential of my smart phone. “Jim,” He has challenged me, “do you realize the incredible potential I’ve put in you by the power of the Holy Spirit?”

How convicting! When Christ lives in us by the Holy Spirit, why do we still rely so much on our own ability and ingenuity? And how come we utilize such a small portion of the overwhelming power available to us?

Of course, some believers are simply ignorant of what God has made available. They’re surrounded by other people who aren’t tapping into the power of the Spirit either, so their Christian life seems quite “normal” to them. Like a person who has no idea of all the features available on their phone, they simply don’t know what they’re missing.

But I’m convinced the problem often is spiritual laziness  rather than ignorance. Many people have heard  about the amazing apps available for their phone, yet they refuse to take time to download the apps and learn how to use them. This isn’t really very difficult, but they must see a need for each app and be willing to invest a little time to download it and put it to work.

I wish I could claim ignorance about the power of the Holy Spirit, but I can’t. I’m quite familiar with fantastic Bible promises like these:

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”  (Philippians 4:13).

“He who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father”  (John 14:12).

“God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery…which is Christ in you, the hope of glory”  (Colossians 1:27).

Sadly, I have to conclude that I’ve been no different than Mary with her iPhone. Despite the incredible power at my fingertips, it has gone mostly untapped.

Paul prayed for the believers at Ephesus to see the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power”  (Ephesians 1:18-19). Today, let’s pray this same prayer for each other. God has some amazing new “apps” to show us in the days ahead.

 

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Turning Your Water into Wine

I’ve recently been captivated by the story of Jesus turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). I’ve concluded that we all  have “water” of some kind that needs to be transformed into wine.

Water is an essential, elemental part of life. But in this story it also stands for the plain, the ordinary, and the bland. Wine, in contrast, has flavor and fizz. Jesus said this kind of wine must be put into “new wineskins,” because it is needs room to expand and grow.

Take a second and ponder what boring, bland parts of your life may be due for a transformation like this. Your job? Your ministry? Your marriage? Your relationship with the Lord?

The good news is that Jesus can turn ordinary  things into something extraordinary. If you’ve lost your fizz in some area of your life, He can help you get it back. And if you’ve been stagnating instead of expanding and growing, your turnaround can be closer than you think.

But transformation comes with a price. Jesus’ mother told the servants at the wedding feast, “Whatever He says to you, do it”  (v. 5). I guarantee that if you follow this profound advice, your water will surely be turned into wine.

But it’s a pretty radical statement, isn’t it? Are you willing to do WHATEVER He tells you to do? Think about it. That’s the price of transforming your circumstances and your life.

The wedding feast “ran out of wine”  (v. 2), and perhaps that’s how you’re feeling today as well. You had  money…but it ran out. You had  love…but now it seems to be gone. You had  dreams…but somehow they evaporated or turned into nightmares.

At such times, it’s easy to feel frustrated or disillusioned. “I never thought it would be this way,” you moan. That’s exactly how the people at the wedding feast must have felt when they ran out of wine.

But the story isn’t over yet…or at least it doesn’t have to be.

No wine? No problem! All you have to do is find out what Jesus is telling you to do. More often than not, He will tell you to give Him something you HAVE (like water) in order to get something you NEED (like wine). Sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it?

So what do you have  today, and what do you need? Like exchanging water for wine, I promise you it will be a great exchange indeed.

Those who taste the newly made “wine” in your life may well be like the master of the feast, who did not know where it came from” (v. 9). They’ll wonder where you got such peace, joy, and zest for life, even amid difficult times. What a great chance to tell them about Jesus, the one who can turn their water into wine too.

If you’re a Baby Boomer like me, you may have been tempted to feel that life has passed you by and your best years are now behind you. But this story ends with some additional good news. Jesus didn’t just replace the old wine with something new: He saved the BEST for LAST! (v. 10) He can do the same for you, when you do what He says and give Him what you have.

 

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A Funeral at Charley’s Bar

 

Charley's X 313

I recently attended one of the most unusual, and most inspiriting, funerals I’ve ever been to. This memorial service was for my wife’s friend Jacqueline, called “Bootsie” by all who knew her. According to Bootsie’s instructions before she died, the service was held at Charley’s Bar & Club rather than in a church or funeral home.

Over 400 people crammed into Charley’s. It was standing room only, with an overflow of some people smoking on the sidewalk outside. Young people. Old people. Wealthy people and seemingly down-and-out people. Business people and bikers.

Bootsie clearly had touched lots of people during her lifetime. She was described as being a straight shooter with a heart of gold, willing to give you the shirt off her back if you needed it. Her loved ones fondly portrayed her as a cross between the cooking of Paula Dean, the quick wit of Roseanne Barr, and the sassiness of Madea. She loved handing out advice and pearls of wisdom, often to complete strangers she met in the nightclubs where her husband, “Buddy Love,” served as a DJ.

Bootsie 312

Bootsie loved people & loved life

I’ll admit, I wasn’t entirely comfortable at Charley’s. I don’t generally visit bars, and it was a whole different group of people than I usually hang out with.

But I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Wouldn’t Jesus prefer a down-to-earth memorial service at Charley’s Bar than a phony, pretentious service in some stained-glassed church or sterile funeral home?” After all, He was “the friend of sinners,” and it was mostly the religious folks that He had problems with.

I’m not sure I will schedule my memorial service at Charley’s. But I want to be a lot more thoughtful about whether I’m spending time with the kind of people Jesus would be spending time with.

Thank you, Bootsie, for making me uncomfortable, and for inspiring me to be more like Jesus.

 

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