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I was reading 2 Corinthians earlier, and it reminded me that it’s important to monitor our spiritual temperature. I know, you can’t remember where that thermometer is, right? Me either. That’s no problem, because taking our spiritual temperature doesn’t require any special equipment, just a willingness to be honest. Here’s the passage from 2 Corinthians 5:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:14-18)

How does this fit in with taking our spiritual temperature? The answer lies in the first few words: “For Christ’s love compels us”. How compelled are you to share the good news of God’s grace with lost people? Would you respond to God’s voice with “not my will but yours, Lord”, or would you ignore Him if He’s asking you to do something difficult or inconvenient?

Christ’s love compels us to reach out to the lost, to be His “ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (v. 20) I hate to admit it, but my spiritual temperature has been rather lukewarm lately. I’ve allowed the devil to use my emotional struggles to discourage, distract and disarm me. My focus has shifted away from God and onto myself, my feelings, my pain, my heartache.

There is a time to focus on ourselves. Introspection is an important part of letting God’s light shine on our brokenness, so that He can heal us. However, if we’re not careful, the devil will take what God means for our good and distort it for his purpose, namely, our harm.

Here are some indicators to watch for if you sense that your spiritual temperature isn’t quite what it should be:

  • “that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them…” Who are you living for? Is God on the throne in every area of your life? Living for ourselves is a dead-end street. Joy and peace cannot be found in the cul-de-sac of self-absorption.
  • “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” Once we accept Christ, the Holy Spirit enables us to see people through God’s eyes. His vantage point is not superficial or worldly. Rather, He sees our need for forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. When we get a revelation about the depth of our own brokenness and God’s love, we will develop a “fervour fever”, burning to share what God has done.
  • “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” Are you bored with your Christian walk? Wish you had a high-profile ministry position? Change your vantage point. God has given all of us the most significant ministry going – the ministry of reconciliation. It’s our “raison d’être” as Christians.

So, how’s your temperature? If you’ve allowed the enemy to distract, discourage and disarm you, don’t give him the extra ammunition of guilt and shame. Remember who you are in Christ: Totally forgiven, reconciled to the Father, deeply loved, and significant. And remember His promise: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)

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istock_000003621683xsmallThe journey we’re on in life isn’t meant to be walked alone. From the earliest chapters of the Bible we learn that God made us to be in relationships. After creating a multitude of animals and the first human being, He said, “It’s not good for the man to be alone; I’ll make him a helper, a companion.” (Genesis 2:18, The Message) He created Eve to meet the need in Adam’s heart and life for companionship – a need that no animal could meet.

We usually think of the above passage of scripture as referring only to marriage, but it contains a principle with broader implications. Part of how we bear God’s image is in this need for connection and companionship. We know God is intensely relational, partly because He has existed as the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – from before the beginning of time. But perhaps more significantly, we know it because of the enormous price He paid to repair our fractured relationship with Him. He longed to restore fellowship with His lost image-bearers so intensely that He came, willingly, and died for us on a cross. This is what Jesus means when He says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NIV)

Once we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we become journey-mates with Him and with all other Christians, regardless of ethnicity, skin colour, language or background. The wonderful thing about journeying with Jesus is the way He’s able to take any life, any person with a willing heart, and turn that life into something worthwhile and God-honouring. He doesn’t pick and choose His journey-mates, opting to walk only with a select few: He will take anyone who is willing to “walk the walk” with Him. This is the same attitude we should have towards each other. What will the journey with Jesus be like? Read what He says:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28, The Message)

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petunia-seeds1Walking like Jesus walked means being open to interruptions. Not just open to them, but expecting them. Have you noticed that He was never too busy for people? Those burning questions we ask – “why am I here?” “what’s my purpose in life?” “what is God calling me to do?” – can be answered in one phrase: We’re here to go to seed.

When you hear the phrase “going to seed”, what image does it conjure up? If you’re into gardening you probably picture a straggly looking petunia, well past its prime. By the time something has gone to seed, we write it off as old, unattractive, barren. But going to seed is exactly what Jesus did, and what He calls us to do.

Think about the plant analogy some more. God is the Master Gardener. He plants us where He wants us. He waters us, feeds us, prunes us. Under His care we grow, absorbing and reflecting His light. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, as Psalm 139 puts it. But our purpose is more than skin deep. God wants us to reproduce, just like a plant – by going to seed, a process of dying in order that new life can spring forth. Listen to what Jesus said as He looked toward the cross:

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24, NIV)

Some of the deepest satisfaction in life can come from knowing that we’re going to seed. Every day we have fresh opportunities to sow seeds on God’s behalf. Whether or not we do depends to a large extent on our attitude. Do we see others as “bit players” in our life, there to meet our needs, or as precious individuals whom God has placed in our path, so that we can bless them? The next time you are served by someone – for example, at a restaurant – consider the possibility that God may want you to serve them.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” ~ Jesus, speaking to His disciples
(Matthew 20:26-28, NIV)

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istock_000000391369xsmallLife is so bizarre sometimes. Here we are at the end of 2008, moving into a new year. I had a terrible year in a lot of ways, but God turned everything around in the most unexpected way. In fact, He used a near-catastrophic accident to wake me up to see just how blessed I am. I struggled through months of serious depression, and just as I was starting to get back on my feet, I had an accident that could have ended my life or left me disabled. But it was through this accident that God showed me some very important things.

He showed me that I really am loved – by Him, by my family and by my friends. People from church fell over themselves to help me, bringing meals, driving me to appointments, visiting me – really taking care of me. As a result of the accident, I’ve had some wonderful, priceless time with my elderly parents. Another thing God showed me is that life is so precious. Every moment is a gift from Him to be savoured and treasured. Nothing matters more than our relationships. Things that troubled me before my accident were put into perspective rather quickly at the realization that God had protected me and spared my life. What could have been an ending for me became a new beginning in God’s hands, a sort of divine wake-up call to fix my eyes on Jesus, to live my life with purpose and an attitude of gratitude.

What delights me is that the whole situation has God’s fingerprints all over it. He loves to work in unexpected ways, through situations that look hopeless or impossible. Think of the death of Lazarus in John 11. Jesus knew that Lazarus was sick, but instead of rushing to heal him, he stayed where he was for two more days. By the time he reached Bethany, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. There was no question that he was dead. When Jesus asked for the stone to be rolled away, Martha protested that the body would smell. In response, Jesus said, “did I not tell you if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” He then raised Lazarus from the dead. Nobody expected this to happen or thought Jesus could do it. The whole reason He waited before coming was to show God’s glory. He did something impossible. So what seemed like an ending, an omega, turned into a beginning, an alpha – and not just for Lazarus, but for all the people who witnessed his rebirth. That is incredibly exciting. I know God spared me not just for me, but for people around me. They witnessed a miracle first hand. Never stop praying and believing for the salvation of your loved ones.

We all have endings and beginnings throughout our lives, but with Jesus, nothing is ever final. What seems like a catastrophe or a dead-end can be a new beginning in God’s hands. It’s all about perspective. I’m doing my best now to look for Jesus in every situation, no matter how hopeless it may seem, because I know He’s there. What is faith if not the expectation that God is working on our behalf to turn bad things around for good? Lazarus had been dead for four days and his body smelled, but this didn’t faze Jesus. He isn’t put off by the stench of the dead, buried parts of us either. He will take the ashes of our lives and change them into something beautiful and lasting, if we let Him. I hope the coming year will be one in which your faith and hope in Jesus is strengthened. The Lord bless you and keep you.

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istock_000004142818xsmallEver since my accident a couple of months ago, I’ve been reminded again and again of how God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The most recent occasion was at my church’s Christmas eve service. I was scheduled to play “Silent Night” on guitar for the final song of the evening. I was certainly nervous beforehand, but as the service progressed I was flooded with joy and peace and began to relax. As the second-last number neared its end, I strapped my guitar on and got ready to walk on stage. I made my way into the spotlight, plugged in my guitar, took a deep breath and began to play. Suddenly I felt extremely vulnerable, the sound of my lone acoustic guitar coming through the speakers. My hands started to shake uncontrollably. It got so bad that I didn’t think I’d be able to finish. I silently begged God to help me, hoping my sudden case of the shakes wasn’t too obvious. He answered my cry for help and I made it through. I spoke to a close friend afterwards, and she said something that really stuck with me. When I told her I thought I wouldn’t make it, she said, “yes, but you did.” I saw in an instant how faithful God is when we step out and trust Him. It may have been a difficult experience for me, but it was an excellent example of what God said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It has taken a long time for me to see my frailty in a positive light. Until recently, the thought of my weaknesses and struggles being exposed evoked feelings of fear and shame. Fear of being seen as I really am – flawed, weak, broken. Shame about the fact that I’m not perfect, and that people might find out – and reject me.

You might laugh at that last sentence. After all, it’s ridiculous to suggest that I might be perfect or anywhere near it. Growing up, I absorbed the unspoken message that being loved and accepted depended on two things: performance and pretending. It was very important to behave well, to achieve high, and to be the best at everything. On top of that, unpleasant things were not acknowledged or discussed. Instead of facing conflict head on, we pretended everything was okay. I learned how to perform and pretend early on in life, and carried those skills with me into adulthood.

I was never very good at pretending. Something in me raged against it from a young age. I’ve always had this hunger for truth, to talk openly about what’s really going on inside, to connect with others in genuine, meaningful ways, to resolve conflict, to mend relationships. I tried to put 100% into everything, but the weight of perfectionism crushed me with its impossibly high standards. I wanted more than anything to be loved and accepted just for me, but I felt as though the real, flawed me was unacceptable, so I ambivalently tried to keep her hidden.

Have you ever had that experience of hearing how others perceive you and realizing that it’s nothing like how you see yourself? That’s a good sign that you have a carefully crafted “mask” to keep the real you hidden. I’ve had people describe me as confident, self-sufficient, very “together”, and so on. In a way I’m glad that’s how they see me, but that’s not how I feel about myself, or how I actually am. I have worked hard to conceal the truth because I’ve been ashamed of my weakness. Here’s the truth: I’m not confident, I’m insecure. I’m not self-sufficient, I’m needy. I don’t have it all together – I’m plagued by doubts and fears. I’ve had all sorts of private struggles that I’m embarrassed to admit because they seem so immature.

But I’ve realized, especially since my accident, that my weaknesses are an excellent opportunity to show God’s strength. Hiding and pretending are things we all do to some extent. God says that the truth will set us free – not the truth about someone else, the truth about me. What is the truth, from God’s vantage point? We are all flawed, broken, needy. Every one of us needs His grace, His mercy to get through every day of our life. I can be an instrument of hope and healing in God’s hands by acknowledging my weaknesses and letting Him work through them. If I submit my frailties and struggles to God, then He gets all the glory when I break free.

On Christmas Eve, when despite my shaking hands, I made it through “Silent Night”, I received such a precious gift from God. In the past, I would’ve been humiliated and ashamed at the fact that my hands were visibly shaking, whether I made it through the song or not. But this time, I came away being a little bit embarrassed, but mostly just thanking Him for standing by me in my time of need. It’s even possible that the song was better, not worse, because I had to depend on Him. It isn’t necessary to be a “superstar” to achieve something of lasting value in God’s Kingdom. What it takes is an attitude of radical reliance on Him, and the recognition that without Him, we can do nothing.

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istock_000005464814xsmallI remember my first love. I remember the ones after my first love, but not as vividly, as beautifully, as gut-wrenchingly. I was 18 and she was 16. Yes, I said “she”, because at that time I was exclusively attracted to women. My encounter with Jesus was still in the distant future. We met one summer at a camp where we were both working. Tess was animated, beautiful, smart, and she loved to laugh. She “made the first move”, and I was instantly smitten. I had never been with anyone before, male or female, and the desire in my heart to love and be loved was strong. I really didn’t know how strong it was until Tess came along. I could think of nothing and no one else. We continued to see each other in the city after summer ended. I lived to talk to her on the phone, to see her, to be with her. All the classic hallmarks of a “first love” were there. When she broke up with me I was completely shattered. My world literally fell apart.

Do you remember your first love? I think we all have a story something like mine. If you grew up in a Christian family, you may even have married your first love. Either way, there’s no forgetting the excitement, the hunger and the passion of your first romance.

I remember when I fell in love with Jesus, too. I was completely smitten. I couldn’t get enough of Him. The joy, the peace, the euphoria of His presence and His love made for a powerful, beautiful, almost sacred mix of emotions. My main desire was to spend time with Him and to read the Bible. I remember praying when I hardly understood what that meant. A friend of mine explained that praying was basically talking to Jesus. I talked to Him all the time. Sometimes He seemed so near that I was sure He was sitting beside me on the bed. The first year after I gave my heart to the Lord was in many ways the time when I felt closest to Him. I wasn’t going to church, but I read the bible voraciously, I talked to Jesus – I woke up every day excited about our deepening relationship.

The sense of euphoria and excitement that I had in my early walk with Jesus hasn’t been matched since then, and I have often wondered why. It could simply be that my relationship with Him has matured. I know He’s in it for the long haul, and so am I. Or maybe it’s similar to the process of weaning a baby, learning to walk by faith, not by sight. After all, if you give a baby everything they want every time they cry, they’ll never grow up. But I think there might be another explanation as well: In our culture, “Christianity” and “churchianity” are two different things, but they often get confused. Even in evangelical churches where a personal relationship with Christ is emphasized, it’s easy to get focused on church activities, on “doing” rather than “being”. I suppose the story of Mary and Martha is in the Bible for a reason. Martha was so busy doing things for God that she lost her focus on God. Jesus said Mary had made the better choice by sitting at His feet, listening to Him.

Obviously if we spent all our time sitting at Jesus’ feet and never “did” anything, the gospel wouldn’t have spread across the world like it has. It’s clear that Jesus told His disciples, and us by extension, to do many things – to go into all the world, to preach the gospel, to love one another, to pray, to care for orphans and widows. But I can’t overcome this strange feeling that a lot of what goes on at church isn’t about Jesus, it’s about tradition, it’s about church. I think maybe we’ve moved away from the simplicity of the gospel and made following Jesus into something more complicated than it is.

I know that some of you will not care for what I’m saying here. I happen to believe that asking questions is a good thing. Why do we do things the way we do them at church? I read a book this summer that really opened my eyes on this subject, Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, it is a fascinating book. I have no desire to “bash” institutional Christianity, but history tells us that in the past 2000 years, the church has undergone many seasons of reformation and it will probably continue to do so.

One aspect of institutional Christianity that I think is particularly damaging to the overall health of the Body is the professionalization of ministry. I don’t see this modeled in the early years of the church. It seems to me that it results in two things: first, money being poured into salaries and infrastructure that could be spent elsewhere (missions and outreach, for example); and second, the false notion that only “professionals” can be in ministry, leaving the majority of the Body passively watching from the sidelines, their natural and spiritual gifts undeveloped and unused.

In my first year after giving my heart and life to Jesus, I came to know Him intimately through reading the Bible, talking to Him and hearing His voice through the Holy Spirit. When I began to attend church, I learned all the rules and customs that we associate with Sunday services – how to greet people, how to dress and act, when to sit, when to stand, when to give your tithes & how much to give, when to clap and when not to, how to worship (I went to churches of various denominations in the first few years, so this was a real learning curve!) – and of course I came into contact with fellow Christians, which was a good thing, for the most part. I fully believe that we need each other and that God molds us in and through relationships. It’s not the meeting together part of church that concerns me; it’s how we meet and what we claim our gatherings are. If we call something a “worship service”, we’d better be sure we’re worshiping Jesus, not something or someone else – including ourselves.

I don’t think anyone who truly loves the Lord and wants to glorify Him with their life will find my words offensive. We should continually examine our hearts to make sure we’re seeking to do God’s will, to the best of our ability, with the right motives. Read the words that Jesus spoke to the church at Ephesus in the book of Revelation:

“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”

The Christians in first century Ephesus were doing all the right things, but they seem to have lost sight of why they were doing them and for whom. Does this sound familiar at all? I may be an exceptional case, but I often question what motivates me to do “good” things. I’d like to believe that everything I do is done in the service of God, to bring Him glory, to “be Jesus” to a dying world. I think the truth is that we all have mixed motives, whether we realize it or not.

When my life on earth is over and I stand before Jesus, I hope to hear Him say, “well done, good and faithful servant”. The last thing I want is for Jesus to tell me that I missed the mark, I was so busy doing “good deeds” that I lost my connection with Him. Without Him we can do nothing, at least nothing of eternal value. If Jesus visited your church next Sunday, would He say, “well done”, or would He say, “I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love”?

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Okay, what is going on in Christiandom? I save a news story recently about a Pastor in the U.S. named Ed Young, who recently launched a challenge to his congregation: To have sex every day for seven days straight. Or was it to have straight sex for seven days? Sex seven times a day? I assume he’s talking to the married couples in his church, the heterosexual married couples. It’s very confusing these days, isn’t it?

Now the point of his challenge was apparently to strengthen the bond between married couples. I’m sure the men were, on the whole, thrilled. I’m not married and never have been, but my understanding is that men tend to think about and want sex much more frequently than women do. I’ve heard statistics that suggest heterosexual couples have sex on average three times a week. I may be setting myself up for ridicule, but that sounds like quite a bit to me!

Sex is a wonderful thing (so I’ve heard ;)), but I think Pastor Ed has it backwards, at least from a woman’s standpoint. If men want to strengthen the bond in their marriages, having sex every day won’t do it. Women need to feel loved, treasured, valued and listened to by their husbands. If they feel this way, they might just want to have sex every day. I can’t think of a bigger turn-on than a man who actually cares about my feelings, thoughts and needs.

I saw Ed and his wife being interviewed on some news program and the whole thing really turned me off. To me, they came across as sensationalistic, like the sort of thing you’d read about in a tabloid magazine – even though they were probably attempting to make Christianity culturally ‘relevant’. The trouble is, that’s not what the gospel’s about. It’s not about our pleasure, meeting our needs or feeling good – at least not the gospel of Jesus Christ that’s in my Bible. The gospel is about taking up our cross and following Jesus, dying to self, giving our lives away for others – orphans, widows, the poor.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but I honestly wonder if we’ve gotten off track when I hear this kind of stuff. Are we so comfortable and complacent in the western world that we’ve forgotten Jesus’ call to us – to be His hands and feet, to pursue justice on behalf of the oppressed, to care for the fatherless, to look after widows and orphans in their distress? There are people dying of starvation on the other side of the world, and Ed Young is encouraging his followers to focus on their own pleasure.

I can’t help but think of these words from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 58:

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness [a] will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.”

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