Confessions of a Professional Christian

prayingIf you’ve been around the Christian environment long enough, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “It’s not about religion.  It’s about a relationship.”  This is a true statement. Many people just go to church and “do” the professional Christian thing.  Arrive at church.  Sing. Listen. Leave. And then live their lives with God on the back burner.

There have been times (too many) when I’ve done this very same thing.  In fact, I often find myself going back to this default setting, even though I am a committed follower of Jesus Christ.  Christianity has been a way of life for me for the almost 30 years.  I loved going to youth group and hanging with friends as I was well-known and liked (at least, I believe I was).  I went to a christian college and remained in the culture of Christianity where I made new relationships, found a great Christian woman to marry, was elected as elder and eventually, elected as Associate Pastor.  Why? Maybe because I’m a good Christian and fit the mold.  After all, I speak Christianese very well and listen to Christian radio all the time.

Honestly, it’s been easy for me to live the Christian life.  Not that there haven’t been tough times.  There have been.  But, overall, it’s been easy.  Too easy.  Christianity can become a way of life more than anything, especially for the child being brought up in a Christian home.  I find myself living so much within the culture of Christianity that I sometimes forget to focus on that which really matters…my relationship with Jesus Christ.  I sometimes even believe that I can handle situations with the knowledge I have as a professional Christian. Sad thing is, I know I am not alone.  You may be like that, too.

As a counselor, I challenge people to involve Jesus into their struggles and work on their relationship with Him.  Read a Biblically based book, read Scriptures, pray often, seek Him, etc.  But as a “Professional Christian,” having all the good Christian pat answers are frequently on the tip of the tongue.  I can’t help but ask myself, rather frequently in fact, if I practice what I preach, why I do what I do, whether my fly is down before I preach, and whether my faith is as real as I show it to be.

A few months ago, I was challenged by a friend to make sure my relationship with Jesus is real and I’m not just playing the cultural Christian.  I’ve altered his advice to make it as an acrostic, because that’s what we professional Christians and Pastors do to help us remember (I need all the help I can get!).  So, without further ado, here is one way to keep it real between Jesus and Me:

T — Thoughts – What have I been thinking about today?  What are my worries and concerns?  What keeps popping up in my mind?                         Tell Jesus

H — Heart – What am I feeling? Am I afraid? Worried? Sad? Excited? Depressed? Confused? Anxious?                                                                     Share with Jesus

A — Answer – What does God’s Word say about my concerns and feelings?  What words of His will I need to apply in my life?                                              Listen to Jesus

N — Name – What is the name of God that rings most true for me? “Prince of Peace”? “Jehovah Jireh”? “I Am”? “Alpha & Omega”?                               Trust in Jesus

K — Kingdom – Whose Kingdom will you live in today?  The kingdom of me or the Kingdom of God?  Whom will you serve?                                     Follow Jesus

S — Share – Will you be open and honest with these things with the Lord and share what the Lord is doing in your life with others?                                     Testify about Jesus

Truth be told, I don’t do this as an everyday activity…but it is a challenge to you and to me to make it real with Christ and not just play the cultural Christian game of life.  We need Him more than we need to play the game of Cultural Christianity.  We need Him because our default settings are to turn back to sin and to remain comfortable in being cultural Christians.  My friends, continue to pursue Christ and not Christianity.  After all, it’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship…a real relationship with Jesus.

Father’s Day Worship

ImageIn college I was pressured to declare a major.  What did I want to do with my life?  I had no idea.  I took a course called “Interpersonal Relationships” and while taking it, my heart jumped as I soaked in every minute of the course (minus the tests, of course).  Shortly after, I declared my major to be Family Studies.  What was the rationale behind this?

I enjoyed the class and I had learned how to make better relationships.  This course helped me get what I really wanted.  It helped me have good relationships… so that people would like me.  Of course, it is only natural that I declare Family Studies to be my major as, I thought to myself, “I want to be a good husband and father.”  Why was this important?  So that my wife would one day say, “You’re the best husband ever” and then my kids would say, “Dad, you’re the best.”  What did I really want?  I wanted their worship.

I thank God that He revealed these sinful motives of my heart throughout the course of my walk with Him.  There is no one worthy of our worship than the Father above.  In my pride and arrogance, I was determined to take what I did not deserve.  Yet now, more than anything, I hope my children and wife worship The Father (and not me).

There is only One who is worthy of our Worship.  This Father’s Day, give thanks to the Heavenly Father for all that He has given to you out of His love for you, especially His Son, Jesus Christ.  Give honor to your earthly father, too.

P.S.  Thanks, Dad, for raising me well and being a good role model.  You’re awesome!

Finding Hope Through Grace Part II: A Relevant Co-Sufferer

hope

Pain and hopelessness are feelings that are common to everyone. It is a good possibility that one of the earliest memories of your childhood includes a “crisis” that brought on significant amount of pain. The fact that we live in a broken world with broken relationships assures us we will not walk very far into life without experience a significant amount of pain. Even in scripture we see pages after pages of lives that are filled with pain. Take Job for instance, or King David. They were true men of God yet their lives were full of intense pain. How did they find hope to carry them through their suffering?

In Part 1 we talked about the importance of perspective and how it can change our outlook on a situation. Balaam was angry at his donkey for not moving forward, until God opened Balaam’s eyes (Numbers 22).  Balaam’s anger quickly turns to remorse and gratitude for God’s grace in sparing his life.  I can frequently respond in anger because of painful situations that occur in my life or I may become anxious and feel hopeless when my life does not seem to be going the way I want it to. However God has to frequently enlarge my perspective to understand what He is doing in my life.

The psalms frequently display this larger perspective that is given by God. In Psalm 142 we see David crying out to God about his troubles in a very personal and direct way (1-4). He asks God to come into the midst of His suffering and acknowledges that only God can truly rescue him (5-6). Another interesting point about this Psalm is that his desire is to praise and worship God and not simply to relieve his symptoms. Even though the Psalm ends in the midst of the suffering experience with no response from God, there is a sense of hope. David is comforted not by God taking away his present suffering, but by reflecting on the person of God, “for you will deal bountifully with me”.

There is no person or thing that can provide more comfort than leaning into the arms of a gracious God. I know I am saved by God’s grace and I am daily reminded that I need God’s grace to continue in life, but the Grace that gives me the most hope is the Grace that I look forward to. As God’s children we have been promised every spiritual blessing in “heavenly places” through the person of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3).

God often has to remind me that here on earth I am to expect suffering because sin has left its thumbprint on the earth I walk on, the body I live in, and the relationships I interact with. God is in the process of restoring me to Himself and at times that means suffering, but I have a confident hope that one day I will see Him face to face and finally experience the full Grace of God. Then I will see clearly as all my suffering is put into perspective by HIS GRACE which He has LAVISHED upon me (Eph. 1:7-8). If you want to know the hope God provides through the riches of His Grace cry out to Him and invite Him into your suffering.

Psalm 142

You Are My Refuge

A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer.

 1 With my voice I cry out to the Lord;

with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.

I pour out my complaint before him;

I tell my trouble before him.

When my spirit faints within me,

you know my way!

In the path where I walk

they have hidden a trap for me.

Look to the right and see:

there is none who takes notice of me;

no refuge remains to me;

no one cares for my soul.

I cry to you, O Lord;

I say, “You are my refuge,

my portion in the land of the living.”

Attend to my cry,

for I am brought very low!

Deliver me from my persecutors,

for they are too strong for me!

Bring me out of prison,

that I may give thanks to your name!

The righteous will surround me,

for you will deal bountifully with me.

Deny Yourself = No Fun. Right?

“Christianity is no fun.” “To be a Christian is to be a ‘stick in the mud.'”  “All Christians are ‘goody two-shoes.'”  Have you heard these accusations (or similar ones) before?  Perhaps you have even thought them yourself.  To follow Christ, seemingly, is to say no to friends, fun, and freedom.  Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  So, are these statements true?  Are Christians really supposed to say “no” to friends, fun, and freedom?mud

The answer is…well…maybe, perhaps, and definitely not.  To get to the answer, we really need to know what Jesus means when he says to “deny”  ourselves.    I remember one time while speaking at a training for mentors, one person asked me what it meant to “deny yourself.”   But when asked, it was with a scowl and a tone of anger.  Her understanding of denying ourselves was for us to think less of ourselves, to put all of our wants and “rights” aside, and to let people walk all over us – in essence, to be a punching bag for others.  This is not exactly what Jesus means.

This woman was correct in thinking that denying ourselves is to put our wants and “rights” aside, however the wants and rights we are to put aside are those that cause us to drift or separate ourselves from God.  The wants and desires that stem from our sinful nature and pride are the “selves” that we are to deny.  Does this make us Christians “sticks in the mud?”  Well, perhaps it does…to the world.  So, are we as believers supposed to say no to friends?  Well, yes, we may have to say “no” to friends who are following their sinful hearts because we choose instead to follow Jesus.  But if our friends are choosing activities that are morally neutral (bowling, rock climbing, etc.) or helping others, than we certainly can say “yes” to these things.

Does this mean we must say “no” to fun?  If fun is defined by following our sinful nature, then we must, but not because we have to, but because we want to.  To choose to “do the right thing” because we have to is be faithful to the law.  To “do the right thing” because you want to love the Lord and follow Him is to be faithful to Him.  Sin is fun.  If sin was not fun, it would not be as tempting.  But in saying this, we must also say that not all fun is sin.  We can certainly enjoy ourselves and should enjoy ourselves in this life.  Enjoyment in the pleasures of life are a gift from God so long as these enjoyments do not become more important than our relationship with Him.

Does denying myself mean I must give up my freedom?  Definitely not.  The world (or is it our hearts?) will say to give in to your wants and desires and to do so is to be free.  It is the law and religion that makes you a slave to its desires.  Freedom is to do what you want and when you want to do it.  I would argue, however, that the act of denying ourselves is not to give up our freedoms, but to exercise them and experience the freedom from which Christ set us free.  To give in to the sinful nature ultimately results in being a slave to whom we gave in.  For example, giving in to excessive alcohol will eventually lead to becoming a slave to alcohol.  Giving in to video games will eventually lead to becoming a slave to video games.  Giving in to pornography will eventually lead to becoming a slave to pornography and other sexual sins.  Giving in to our pride will result in broken relationships and the need to protect ourselves from hurt – resulting in pride as we protect ourselves by blaming others, etc..  Giving in to ice cream will result in making us fatter, which can lead to feeling down, which can lead to more ice cream.  Romans 7 & 8 talk about this: how our sin nature desires and demands more and more and how flesh gives birth to flesh.

Denying ourselves leads to more freedom, not less. It is a spiritual act of self-control that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives (Galatians 6).  Christ died to set us free.  Freedom from sin, freedom from death, freedom from slavery, etc. are essential so that we might be free to love.  Denying ourselves is a decision we make and it is made in our freedom to do so.  It results in freedom for our lives.  In our freedom we experience joy.  And we may share our joy with friends.

Is Christianity a “stick in the mud” religion?  Only to those who are stuck in the mud of their own making.  For more on how to deny yourself, check out this blog!

A Grace-Based Marriage

Two gold rings - reflected candlesIs your marriage based on works or on grace? Let’s be real, shall we? You are married to a sinful person. Your partner is not only imperfect, but they can be self-centered, lazy, forgetful, vindictive, make poor decisions, and well, fill in the blank. Now let’s get more real. You’re not the picture of perfection either, are you? For some reason, that seems far less of a concern because your spouse is worse, or at least, “causes” these…imperfections to come out in you.

Throughout the Scriptures, there are several common and related themes mentioned in the Old Testament and New Testament alike. First, we (believers in Christ) are the Bride of Christ and He is the Bridegroom. Second, our marriages are a reflection of the greater marriage between Christ and the Church. Third, our relationship with God is characterized or built upon grace and not upon works. Therefore, if our marriages are to reflect the greater marriage, than our marriages must also be built upon grace, and not upon works.
How do we have a marriage that reflects God’s grace and not upon works? Let me offer one question to ask yourself:

Do you have expectations for your spouse?  Are you focusing on what your spouse is doing or not doing?  If so, you are focusing on their works.  You set up standards for them (law of works) and your attention is drawn to whether they met them or not.  If they fail, they will be punished (by you) based on their failure (being yelled at, dirty look, no sex, etc.).

Then, is it wrong to have expectations for your spouse?  No, not necessarily.  Obviously, it is appropriate to have certain expectations for your spouse.  For example, you should expect them to be faithful, to treat you with kindness and respect, to love you, etc.  However, there are standards and expectations that may be placed so high that they become idols in your heart.  In these situations, you become high king or queen of the home and your spouse becomes your subject that must meet your expectations.  Your focus then is placed from yourself and then onto them and their actions.

Instead of focusing on what they are doing or not doing (and whether they meet your standards/law), focus on 1) how gracious God is to you by forgiving your sins (or you not measuring up to His standards); 2) ask His help to love your spouse as He loves you (not based on your actions); and 3) give your spouse the grace (the unmerited favor) He has given you.  Unmerited favor is just that – favor, mercy, or love that is not based on what they have done, but on who they are (at minimum, being created in His image or being a child of God).  Though you may find this difficult to do, seek the Help of His Wonderful Counselor.

May the God of grace empower you to do as He wills through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Hurricane Sandy, Power, and God

Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, leaving behind her trail of devastation and destruction. The New York and New Jersey shores have seen the worst in decades. Homes destroyed. Numerous deaths reported. Cars lost. Gas supplies declined. And the electric power, that which we have grown so fond of and depended on, failed. In many ways, people were powerless literally, and they felt powerless figuratively.

As one of the preparations for Hurricane Sandy, electrical line workers were flown in 

Imageand drove in from distances to help cities, townships, and power so that our necessities of heat, food, and water, and our conveniences of TV, lights, and web access may be returned to us. These line workers literally have spent 14-20 hour days working hard to bring our lives back to “normal.” neighborhoods restore 

In some manners, Jesus was like that line worker. Sin had disconnected us from the Father. We were powerless and in need, but we could not connect to the Power ourselves. Sure, we set up generators, temporary solutions that needed to be constantly replenished with gas to work, but this temporary solution was just that…temporary. We needed a real fix to the problem. We needed to be reconnected to our Power, to our heavenly Father. So Jesus sacrificed His life, so that through Him, we might be connected to the Father forever. And yes, even He was ridiculed and persecuted for doing what He came to do, even when it was in the people’s (our) best interest.
 
Believers have been chosen to bring attention to this. We are called to help people put aside their temporary solutions from life’s struggles and to ask Jesus the Line Worker to connect them to God.  At times, we may even hear the complaints, ridicule, and even receive persecution for their perceived thoughts of us. As unpleasant as that is, that is what we are chosen to do.  This connection with God, through the sacrificial work of the Son, will satisfy our deepest and greatest needs.
 
If you are not connected to the Father, ask Jesus to forgive you from your sin (that which disconnected you from Him), believe that Jesus connects you to the Father through His death on the cross and resurrection, and now live with the Power of the Lord. The power to change, the power to withstand temptation, the power to live life to the fullest, and the eternal connection to Him are only a decision away. How easy it is to call your electrical supplier to let them know you need them. Now, will you call upon the Lord and tell Him that you need Him? 

Playing Golf with Jesus

In June, Foundations Christian Counseling Services held our 2nd Annual Golf Tournament to benefit the Karen Hoffner Memorial Fund, our scholarship program to reduce the rates for low-income families in need of Biblical counseling. This is a written summary of the message given:

How do you deal with making bad shots in golf?  Do you get mad at yourself?  Do you curse or throw your club?  Do you shrug it off?  Does it mess up your confidence level?  Do you carry your failure from hole to hole remembering it at each shot?  Henry Longhurst, a renowned British golf writer and commentator said, “No man can succeed at golf until he has mastered the art of not permitting one bad hole, or indeed one bad shot, to affect the rest of his game.”

What are the worst things that you have ever done?  You know what they are because you carry them in your memory only to be brought up on occasion to feel the guilt and shame and then to be buried again.  One terrible shot can bring us down for a hole.  A series of terrible shots may cause us to give up the game.  But it is the one good shot that keeps us coming back.  In life, one big mistake will bring us down awhile.  A series of mistakes may keep us down and ashamed for the rest of our lives.  Now there are some good things that we do that keep us in the game, but at best, they do not bring about what we need to play perfectly.

In golf, the perfect score is 18.  A hole in one…every hole.  You may, at best, get 1 hole-in-one, but for 18 holes it is impossible for us.  In life, the perfect score is O.  If every sin is a stroke against us, it is impossible to obtain.  Today, we played in a four person Scramble.  We each took our turns and made our best efforts to get as close to perfect as we could and we went with the person who had the best shot (or best ball)…the one that’s closest to perfection.  In life, we are in a two-person Scramble.  It’s you and Jesus.  In order to get to the 19th Hole of Heaven and the Trophy of Eternal Life, you need to score a perfect score.  This is impossible for us.  With each stroke we take, we fall short of that perfection.  The only way we can receive the prize is by Jesus’ efforts alone.  He met the standard of perfection.  We might as well put our own efforts down, lay down our clubs, and let Jesus do the work that is required…for the only work that we must do is believe in Him and accept the work that He did for us on the cross.  This can be difficult as we want to do our part, but our best shots (and efforts) end up being unplayable.  

Remember those things that you did in the past that you carry with you and cause shame?  All of those acts can be wiped clean.  You can begin a new round in life with Jesus.  Just ask Him to be your partner in the 2 person Scramble of life, lay down your clubs, and believe.