So, You Think You’ve Died Enough Already?

I recently had an experience that forced me to die to myself. It was a “Who Moved My Cheese?” type of moment, when I made my wishes known on a matter but was overruled.

In the overall scope of things, this incident was clearly no big deal. But I hadn’t gotten my way, and it hurt. I felt disrespected…disregarded…undervalued.

Yet what hurt the most was realizing I had overreacted, blowing up the whole thing much bigger than it actually was.

Thankfully, God graciously showed me what had happened during this strange emotional meltdown. The incident that triggered my flood of ugly emotions was relatively minor. But like the tip of an iceberg, it was meant to alert me to the fact that a much BIGGER hunk of the iceberg was still lurking beneath the surface.

You see, the small incident in question had a very strange effect, causing me to experience flashbacks of numerous other times in my life when I had felt rejected or unappreciated. I thought I had long since forgiven and been healed of these past experiences…but some of the wounds apparently remained.

Ouch. It was painful to see the ugly sense of pride and entitlement hiding deep within my heart. But I also was grateful to the Lord for exposing it. I saw that the real issue wasn’t the tip of the iceberg that was in view, but rather the hidden iceberg in my heart.

I surely don’t like dying to myself. None of us do. And in my case, I felt like I had already died to myself enough to last a lifetime! Why did I have to do so again?

At that point, I remembered a time in the 1990s when I was a senior pastor facing a horrific wave of rejection due to a massive church split. It was excruciating to be rejected and lied about by people I loved and had endeavored to pour my life into.

Finally, I reached my limit. I’d had enough.

So one day I told my pastor friend Duane Flemming of my decision to resign. “I don’t need this, Duane. It’s just not fair, and I don’t have to take it anymore.”

Duane is a man of great wisdom, and he listened intently as I went on and on about how I had been mistreated. Finally, he asked me a simple question that still haunts me today:

“So Jim, are you saying you’re enough like Jesus already?”

How could I answer a question like that? Of course I wasn’t enough like Jesus yet. Jesus bore the cross all the way to His death on Calvary, yet I was ready to jettison my cross at the first sign of pain or injustice.

Forgive me, Lord. You’ve helped me see that I’m not entitled to bypass the cross today, just because I died to myself on some occasions in the past.

What about you, my friend? Are you able to relate to my story today? Is there some issue in your life where you are being forced to embrace the cross…die to yourself…and extend forgiveness to those who may not deserve it? Do you find yourself squealing like a pig, just because you aren’t getting your own way?

Amid the trials and disappointments of life, let me encourage you to fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2-3).

Yes, I know, you probably have already died to yourself a million times before. But the life a disciple requires dying daily (Luke 9:23, 1 Corinthians 15:31), not just in the distant past. That’s the only way to experience more of Jesus’ resurrection power, after all, and it’s a process that’s not going to change until He returns.

 

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Transitions…or Not?

I have a love-hate relationship with transitions. Whenever friends tell me they are going through “transitions” in their life, my heart goes out to them. I’ve been there and done that—and transitions are seldom fun or easy.

However, I also feel sorry for people who aren’t going through any transitions at all. Too often, such folks are dealing with a situation far worse than transitions. They’re stuck in place, locked in an unhealthy coffin of contentment and apathy.

If you’ve ever been through major transitions, you know they’re uncomfortable, and sometimes even terrifying. They typically feel akin to a whitewater rafting trip where you’ve lost your oars and have absolutely no control of where you’re going.

Yet again, the opposite is not so great either. If you aren’t experiencing any transitions at all, it feels like your raft is dead in the water. Just sitting there. No progress in any direction. What a dreadfully boring life…

Sometimes we have a choice to make in whether or not to allow a transition. One day Jesus challenged some fishermen: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). He was giving these men a choice, and certainly not an easy choice at the time. It was a choice to engage in a lifetime of self-denial and constant transitions—but the world would ultimately be transformed as a result of their decision.

Another great story about transition involved four lepers who were sitting on the edge of a city on the brink of starvation because of being surrounded by an enemy army, the Syrians. Things were looking bleak, when finally one of the lepers pointed out an obvious fact: “Why are we sitting here until we die?” (2 Kings 7:3-9)

What a profound observation! Like these lepers, if we just sit in place, refusing to take bold steps of faith, we will surely die. In fact, I’ve met people who are already dead in some ways. Although they are still walking around, their hopes, dreams, and visions have died long before.

No, I don’t really like transitions. I would prefer to just find some comfortable oasis and camp out there until Jesus returns.

And one thing I especially dislike about transitions is the feeling of being “in-between.” It’s like being in limbo—knowing you’re not where you used to be, but not where you’re going to be either.

But I’ve discovered that I’m even more afraid of getting stuck than I’m afraid of transitions. Like every other believer, I know I’m called to be increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, and that process will be thwarted if I’m unwilling to grow and change.

So, whether you are going through a difficult transition or feel stuck in place, my heart goes out to you either way. Yet I’ve concluded that transitions are preferable after all. They are an indispensable part of God’s plan to take you from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18, Proverbs 4:18).

So if the white waters of transition are raging all around you, don’t panic. Hang on to the Lord and try to enjoy the ride. You’ll be better for it in the end.

 

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Is God Stirring Your Nest?

Don’t get too comfortable. That seems to be what God is saying to many of us these days. He’s reminding us that our comfort zones can easily become our coffins if things aren’t shaken up from time to time.

A beautiful Scripture passage describes this very uncomfortable process. After providing an assurance of God’s great love for us as “the apple of His eye,”  it goes on to depict Him as a mother eagle teaching her babies to fly: Like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft”  (Deuteronomy 32:10-11).

Picture the scene, which you may be able to relate to: Some baby eagles were enjoying life in their comfortable, well-protected nest, on a mountaintop high above the mundane life of lesser birds. Kept warm and well fed by the mother eagle, they remarked to each other, “It doesn’t get any better than this!”

Just about that time, something drastically changed. The mother eagle, once so nurturing and protective, suddenly went on a rampage. She horrified her chicks by stirring up—and even destroying—their comfy nest.

When it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse, the mother took an even more drastic step, casting each of the baby eagles high into the thin air above the canyon below. One by one, the terrified chicks plunged downward to what seemed like a certain death.

However, at the very last moment, their mother intervened. As the verse depicts, it “spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.”  This process happened over and over, until the young eagles finally understood their mother’s objective: “teaching them to fly”  (Deuteronomy 32:11 MSG).

Take a moment to assess where you are in this process. Have you been resting comfortably in your nest? That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the Bible says our Good Shepherd knows we need to “lie down” at times (Psalm 23:2).

But maybe you sense that God is stirring your nest, making you uncomfortable with the surroundings that once seemed so carefree and secure. If so, you must remember this: He loves you!  You are the apple of His eye, and He wants what is best for you. That’s what this process is all about.

Yes, sometimes you might feel like you are plunging to your destruction, but the Lord has other things in mind. He’s teaching you to fly!  It’s time to grow up and learn to soar like all eagles are meant to do.

If you don’t understand everything that’s happening to you right now, that’s okay. You’re not alone. Some things don’t seem to make sense at the time, but God will explain them later, whether in this life or in the next.

So wait upon the Lord, and He will renew your strength (Isaiah 40:31). Then get ready to SOAR!

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Lessons From a Trapeze Artist

I recently found myself humming an old tune, which is an apt prophetic picture of where many of us presently find ourselves:

He flies through the air with the greatest of ease,

The daring young man on the flying trapeze.

Just as a circus trapeze artist must let go of one trapeze and fly through the air until grabbing the next one, I often have found myself in a similar position—flying through the air in transition between the trapeze left behind and the one still to come. We know we aren’t where we used to be, but we’re not where we’re going to be either.

It must be an exhilarating experience for a trapeze artist to fly through the air like that. But I’m sure it’s also a bit terrifying to know that the force of gravity will take its effect if the next trapeze doesn’t come within reach soon.

Much of the church is in a similar place, it seems. We have been propelled by many wonderful trapezes, past revivals and moves of God. But now many of us are flying swiftly through the air, on our way to a coming trapeze that is not yet altogether visible.

If we recognize that God’s plan is to take us “from one degree of glory to another” in this process (2 Corinthians 3:18), this can be an exhilarating experience. However, it’s easy to feel apprehensive as well, with nothing to hang onto except the Lord Himself.

Experienced trapeze artists realize they dare not look down or they will surely miss the next trapeze. Big mistake! Instead, the Lord’s intention is not only to keep us from falling (Jude 1:24), but to enable us to soar on eagles’ wings (Isaiah 40:31).

Despite the dangers, this is no time to play it safe. If we insist on clinging for dear life to our original trapeze, we are certain to make no progress at all. We’ll never go any higher unless we exhibit the courage of “the daring young man” who was willing to defy gravity and fly.

Be bold and courageous, my friend. As you let go of the past and press forward, I pray you will be strengthened for exciting new transitions on God’s flying trapeze.

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Called & Equipped

Are YOU Ready for the Ministry God Has Called You To?

The Bible makes it absolutely clear that every believer is called to “ministry” of one kind or another (1 Peter 4:10-11). This doesn’t mean everyone is called to be a pastor, of course, but we’ve all been given spiritual gifts of one kind or another—gifts that God expects us to use to advance His kingdom.

However, in addition to recognizing our CALLING as God’s ministers, we must also understand God’s processes to TRAIN and EQUIP us for the work we’ve been called to do.

So here are two vital questions today:

  • Do you know what God has called you to do?
  • If so, what are you doing to be equipped  for that ministry?

For years now, most American churches have largely relinquished their training responsibilities to seminaries, Bible colleges, and parachurch organizations. Many of these have done an excellent job, and we should be grateful for the service they’ve performed in helping to equip people for ministry. However, it’s time for local churches, or groups of churches in a region, to again fulfill their biblical mandate “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up”  (Ephesians 4:11-12).

No matter how a person seeks to be equipped for ministry, there are three crucial steps that will always be necessary. These are shown in the development of Ezra’s teaching ministry: “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel”  (Ezra 7:10).

Ezra’s pattern is valuable for any of us who desire to be prepared for service: Study, do, and then teach.

Let’s take a closer look:

Study. Ezra’s teaching ministry came after he first set his heart to study the Word of God for himself. No matter how good the training is that we receive from others, there is no substitute for personally studying and meditating on the Scriptures. Proverbs 5:15 exhorts us: “Drink water from your own cistern, and fresh water from your own well.”

Do (practice what we’ve learned). Ezra saw that the goal of his studying was not merely to gain knowledge—it was to bring about obedience. Jesus made a similar point when He said that the man who built his house on a rock was the one who not only heard the Word, but also acted  upon it (Matthew 7:24-27). We will have no authority to teach on scriptural principles that we’re not actually living.

Teach. We have a responsibility to share with others the things we have learned. Our training is deficient if it does not result in both doing the Word and also helping to equip others.

We must never forget that God Himself  is the One who ultimately trains His people for ministry. Our hope must never be primarily in the human vessels or organizations He chooses to use. Rather, we must trust in the wisdom of His customized training plan—designed just for us. Our Heavenly Father knows best  which means of training will best prepare us to fulfill His plans for our lives. And often the much critical key is our passionate hunger to fulfill His purposes—whatever that might take.

Although the Lord Himself is the master equipper, He has chosen to do much of the equipping through people. If we are wise, we will humble ourselves and receive from those He chooses to mentor us.

If we’re honest, we should be troubled that our model of church life often bears little resemblance to the New Testament church, where apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers all were tasked to train their replacement. This biblical model demonstrates that, whatever  ministry we have, we should be equipping others to fulfill that same kind of ministry.

So I ask you two questions: Have you been adequately trained  to fulfill the Lord’s purpose for your life? If so, are you actively training others, imparting to them the same lessons God has taught you?

Your answer to these questions will play a key role in determining your future fruitfulness and impact. God wants to get you ready!

 

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Confessions of a Closet Buckeye

It’s confession time: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and have always been a big fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ football team. But in recent years I have found myself becoming a “closet” fan, especially during bowl games. There were years when the Buckeyes had very good seasons, only to completely embarrass themselves in their bowl games.

So this season I was pretty quiet about the Buckeyes when they played Alabama in the semifinals and then had a chance to play the Oregon Ducks for the national championship. Even after their impressive victory over Alabama, I fully expected them to lose to Oregon.

For days I heard Ohio State ridiculed by most sports gurus, not to mention many of my friends. Many people thought Ohio State was lucky even to make it into the final four. And Oregon certainly was too fast, too talented, too powerful, too experienced.

Sure enough, Oregon’s offense dominated the Buckeyes on their first drive. Wow, this could get pretty ugly, I thought.

But the Buckeyes quickly bounced back, and they dominated the Ducks most of the night after that. The final score was an amazing 42-20.

A strange thing happened after the Buckeyes finally won. I found myself wanting to tell everyone that I’m a Buckeye fan! I was ready to get my Ohio State sweatshirt out of mothballs and proudly wear it everywhere I went.

Yes, I was again proud to be a Buckeye. Everyone loves to be associated with a winner, and the Buckeyes’ losses in previous bowl games became a faint memory.

There is a spiritual application to my experience as an Ohio State fan. Countless Christians in the U.S. have become “closet disciples.” Like Peter, warming his hands by the fire before Jesus’ crucifixion, we aren’t so sure we want to admit which team we are on. Who wants to be associated with a loser?

If I had been convinced Ohio State would win, I would have boldly worn by Buckeye sweatshirt before the game. In the same way, if we are absolutely sure Jesus will ultimately come as the victorious Lord of all, we won’t be ashamed to acknowledge Him now as the One we love and serve.

OK, maybe God doesn’t play favorites with football teams. But He does play favorites with His children. If He is for us, who can be against us? If we recognize that fact, we’ll be bold and strong, knowing that our victorious Lord is with us in the huddles and the battles of our lives.

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Andrae Crouch & Me: To God Be the Glory

No Christian musician has ever influenced me as much as Andrae Crouch did. In fact, I modeled my own “music ministry” after his.

Of course, I stunk as a singer and musician, and my attempt to become a contemporary Christian artist ended the day a friend told me, “Jim, your singing is hoarse and out of key, but at least you sing with feeling.”

Oh well. It was painful, but I got the message.

Although I quit singing much in public after that, in my private devotions I always aspired to be more like Andrae Crouch. He sang with feeling too, and I could relate.

I was privileged to see Andrae in concert on numerous occasions. The first time was at an outdoor concert, where I chatted briefly with him as he walked through the crowd and listened to the other groups on the stage before him. Although his group, Andrae Crouch and the Disciples, was the headliner of the day, he was just an approachable, humble brother in the Lord behind the scenes.

But I was the most impacted by a concert in Dayton, Ohio. Andrae’s group was the final act, and I remember sitting through some incredibly boring Southern Gospel groups who came on first.

When the moment finally came for Andrae to take the stage, he was introduced by a rather obnoxious local DJ. For what seemed like an eternity, the DJ went on and on about how great Andrae was, citing all the awards he had already won and all the #1 songs he had written.

The DJ’s introduction was over-the-top, nauseating HYPE, pure and simple. He seemed to be preparing the crowd for Andrae Crouch to suddenly descend from heaven in a cloud of smoke or walk on water as he took the stage. I couldn’t help wondering how Andrae was going to begin his concert after such an uproarious introduction.

The DJ eventually ran out of accolades and declared loudly, “HERE HE IS, GRAMMY AND DOVE AWARD-WINNER, ANDRAE CROUCH!!!”

Despite the hype that preceded him, Andrae took the stage without saying a word. He didn’t greet the audience or even look our way. Nor did he start his concert with a rousing song to match the hype of the DJ’s introduction.

Instead, Andrae quietly sat down on his piano bench, looked toward heaven, and began singing one of my favorite songs: “Thank You, Lord. I just want to thank You, I just want to thank You…for all you’ve done for me.”

The scene still brings tears to my eyes today. Many of us would have fallen into the trap of believing the hype and accepting the accolades for ourselves. But not Andrae Crouch.

Even at the height of his popularity and acclaim, Andrae was careful to lay down his crowns and trophies at the feet of Jesus. You see, that’s what we’ll all do in eternity, but Andrae was wise and humble enough to get a head start on glorifying God while he was still alive.

Today Andrae Crouch is no doubt singing in a much more anointed group than he ever experienced on earth. Casting down their crowns before the Lord’s throne, I’m sure they are singing passionately:

You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created (Revelation 4:11)

Thank You, Lord, for Andrae Crouch. To You be the glory for a life so well spent.

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What Kind of Missionary Are YOU?!

All of us who profess to be followers of Christ are missionaries, whether we realize it or not. We may be good missionaries or bad ones, but the Lord has left each of us on this earth as part of His mission to spread the gospel and fill the whole world with His glory (Habakkuk 2:14).

In the mid-1970s I was just completing law school, and was given my first client in the school’s legal clinic program. It was a traffic violation, and my client, Geneva Clark, had been charged with rear-ending another vehicle. Not only that, but her driver’s license had been suspended and was invalid at the time of the accident. And, to make matters worse, Geneva was drunk at the time of the accident.

When the police officers arrived at the accident scene, they reported that Geneva was “strutting boisterously and unclad” in the center of Broad Street, one of the main roads in town. When they charged her with disorderly conduct, she resisted arrest—so they charged her with that too.

Here I was, an intern with the legal clinic, wanting to do well in my first case. Approaching Geneva before we went before the judge, I told her my pessimistic assessment of her case. “Well, Mrs. Clark, I have reviewed your file, and as far as I can see, you have no defense at all.”

Geneva listened politely, and then with a twinkle in her eye started rummaging around in her oversized purse. “Don’t worry, young man,” she assured me calmly. “I have something to show the judge that will help.” She finally found what she was looking for, a rather crumpled-looking card of some kind.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, this is my missionary card,” she replied seriously. “We’ll show this to the judge and he will understand that I’m a missionary…doing God’s work!”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. There may be some areas of the world where a missionary can be effective by “strutting boisterously and unclad,” but Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio, was definitely not such a place. All I could reply to Geneva was, “Somehow I don’t think that will help your case.”

This admittedly is a rather extreme example, but it shows how the world often looks at those who name the name of Christ. Instead of allowing Him to transform our character and manifest His sweet aroma, we end up living like the devil and then trying to use the name of Jesus to cover up for ourselves.

There will never be an impactful revival of Biblical outreach unless it is accompanied by a revival of Biblical character. Before Isaiah was ready to say, “Here am I! Send me,” his sins were purged by burning coals from the altar of God (see Isaiah 6:1-8). Before we can spread the holy fire, it first must be allowed to do its work in our own lives.

So, what kind of missionary are you?  When people look at your life, do they truly see Jesus or just a repulsive religious caricature?

In order to influence people for Christ, they must want what we have. I pray you are living that kind of life today, full of the Holy Spirit and radiating His fruit in every situation (Galatians 5:22-23).

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Getting My Calluses Back

Jim guitar 115

A few years ago, I shared with a friend how I used to enjoy playing guitar and leading worship in my early days as a Christian.

“Do you still play?” she asked.

“Oh no, I gave that up long ago,” I replied.

Showing her the finger tips on my left hand, I continued, “See, I don’t even have calluses anymore.”

It was a pretty straightforward conversation—or so I thought. But as I was praying later that day, I distinctly heard the Lord tell me, “Jim, if you had more calluses on your fingers, you would have fewer calluses on your heart.”

How convicting! I saw that when I laid down my guitar several decades ago, I also began to drift away from intimacy with the Lord in my private worship times.

Then a few weeks ago, I was sharing this story with a friend named Justin, and he perceptively asked me, “So, Jim, did you get your calluses back after that?”

I was horrified to admit that I’d taken no action at all after God so clearly rebuked me. But I assured my friend that I wouldn’t procrastinate any longer.

“The next time you see me, make sure to ask me about my calluses,” I urged him. “If I still haven’t picked up my guitar and started worshiping the Lord in my personal devotions, tell me I’m a hypocrite!”

Thankfully, I’ve taken action this time. I’m getting my calluses back, ready for my friend to ask me that question.

Both my guitar playing and my worship are very rusty, however. I’ve found that it takes a while to develop calluses on your fingers again—or to remove them from your heart.

Don’t expect to see me leading worship in public anytime soon. I’ve long since recognized that other people are far more gifted.

But I want to make private worship a more intentional part of my life, regularly listening for God’s voice and asking Him to soften my heart.

Quoting Isaiah 6:10, Jesus warned about the danger of allowing calluses to form on our hearts: “This people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes” (Matthew 13:15). What a tragic condition. Yet all too common, I’m afraid.

Like calluses on our fingers, callused hearts develop gradually, over time. If the condition progresses, we ultimately find ourselves in a situation just as the Bible predicts: spiritually unable to hear or see.

If you notice calluses on your heart today, the key isn’t necessarily to develop calluses on your fingers instead. But the process is working for me.

One thing is for sure: Without regularly experiencing God’s presence, our hearts will inevitably grow hard. Like a desert that seldom experiences rain, we become spiritually dry and emotionally barren.

If you truly want to reverse hardness of heart, here’s a homework assignment: Read Psalm 95 in its entirely and ask the Lord to restore you to a heart of worship…listening…and responding. Write down what He tells you to do, and find a friend like Justin to hold you accountable to do it.

 

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Let’s Make 2015 a LEAP YEAR!

I love the story of Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visiting her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with the baby who would become John the Baptist. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, “the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit”  (Luke 1:41).

There’s an important message here: When you’re in the presence of Jesus, something will LEAP within you! It may be your dream…your vision…your faith…your calling—but you can expect something  to leap in your heart when you experience Jesus.

This is good news if something has been dormant in your life. The resurrection power of Jesus can bring to life even things that have long seemed dead.

It’s also good news if you need something in your life to take a leap forward this coming year. Even though the calendar says there won’t be another leap year until 2016, I’m convinced God wants to make 2015 a “Leap Year” in our lives. Because of the presence of Jesus as Immanuel, God with us, there can be a sudden leap forward of something we need—whether our finances…our health…our relationships…our peace of mind…or simply our fruitfulness in the kingdom.

What area of your  life needs to “leap” forward this coming year? God can do more in mere moments through His supernatural power than you can accomplish in months of striving in your own strength.

After the baby leaped inside her womb, “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”  You see, once God causes fresh vision to leap in your heart, you need the power of His Spirit to fulfill that vision.

Can you sense Jesus stirring something in your heart today? Then be filled with the Holy Spirit, and get ready for Leap Year!

 

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