I’ve had quite a bit of response this week on a piece I posted to Facebook back in December 2015. I thought I’d share here too. Couple things to note with that: first, although the piece does reference New Year resolutions, the overall gist is simply to encourage anyone whoever to keep moving forward, even in the simplest things; and two, I like to think the below list of possibilities are more about practical daily decisions vs ambitious annual achievements. I have no problem with either, except to say that I personally have more success with the former :)
GOOD THINGS I’D FORGOTTEN I’D SAID
Dan Behrens, Co Pastor EFC
Here are a few things I’d forgotten I’d said over this last year. A few of them are actually pretty good. They are in no particular order here. If they were in some sort of order originally, I’ve forgotten that too. At any rate, let me say again…
- Unless you feel the Lord has called you specifically to be a judge or critic (for I do believe there is place for these), perhaps focus your energies on truth-telling. That is to say, speak the things that are true in keeping with righteousness and edification and reconciliation and affirmation. There is much brokenness all around us—broken promises, broken systems, broken relationships, broken people. Each of us has suffered wounds as much as we have inflicted wounds. Some more critical than others. Some nearly lost altogether. Some desperately needing your particular brand of tenderness.
- In the church where I pastor there a number of wonderful people who are ailing tonight in various ways, some in their bodies, some in their minds, some in their relationships; some are even suffering over pending decisions and uncertain outcomes. I know this is in no way unique to my church or the people I hold close. There is much that wears on us all. Some people have just the right words, words that comfort. I do not. Or at least I don’t have them now. Now… I pray in the spirit.
- Last Sunday I preached a message on the promise of God’s provision, how the provision of God is himself, and how this provision is most readily realized in our continuing to believe by way of demonstration—i.e. obediently moving ahead with doubt and uncertainty along for the ride. Funny. It’s now only Saturday and already I’m struggling with my own words; they feel rather empty and weighty at the same time. My prayers barely clear the floor. But my feet still move. And those first few steps of doing what we know we ought to do seem to conjure up a sort of resolution, whether or not our feelings ever really catch up.
- We read in the gospels how a group of men lowered a crippled friend down through a thatch roof to get him close to Jesus. Perhaps one of the most compassionate gestures anyone could do for a friend—get him close to Jesus. Braver still, the only real worthy gesture any one of us ‘cripples’ could reciprocate would be to actually receive this Jesus we are now so close to. Have you received him yet? You, the one all bound up in your reluctance? Blessed are we in this land of plenty, for there is not another thing needed from family, friends, neighbors or ministers to get us closer to Jesus. We are certainly close enough. He is right in our face. We now have to take him. And take him at his word!
- I have never been one for chasing big dreams, in the sense of pursuing grand accomplishments or wanting to see particular things come to pass. Others are. And praise God for that! Many of you are my heroes. I have encountered big disappointments, however, in the sense of having expectations of people or circumstances that completely bottomed out. Haven’t we all? We are hard to please. Yet I was thinking just this morning, maybe we all, for this one day, can conjure up in our mind that “other” category! You know what I mean. That type of experience that rises above any accomplishment, dives deeper than any disappointment, is more akin to another world, borderline miraculous. That category of experience where we say “God just did that” or “There is no way it should’ve happened that way” or “I could not have dreamt such a thing.” Hard to please yes, but not so hard to astonish. And isn’t that point? We could not ever have dreamt the size and scope of God. And we cannot, apart from Him, dream of what He has in store. Everything God gives is new to us: new information into old stale thinking. And that is by design. Dreams, no more than miracles, are not ours, but His. He is the dreamer! And His dreams are for you. #BIGGOD #BIGDREAMS
- If ever there was an essential to spinning your work day in a more positive, less anxious, direction—especially when the margins are running thin—its leave room for ice cream on the drive home.
- The story of Jesus healing a blind man in John chapter 9 is only 7 verses—the whole scene. In only 7 verses Jesus gives us a world of practical theology as he opens up the eyes of a social outcast. “I am here to work the will of God” he says. “But I will not always be here to work the will of God.” “While I am here, I am the light of the world” he says. “But the day will not last forever; night is surely coming.” Here we see the subtle hints of authority and dependence interwoven, of power and discretion working as one under the Father’s direction. And by the end of John’s gospel Jesus himself gives it all away… “greater things than this will you do” he says. And he says this to us. Is it then too far-fetched for us to believe that through our own prayers and petitions, comforts and encouragements, we too are making a kind of salve out spit and mud, applying whatever means necessary into those crusted areas entrusted to our care—our family, friends, neighbors, dare I say enemies—trusting that just as much in our day as in Jesus’ God opens blind eyes? I think not! We are the light of the world. Work in the world now. Be light.
- Then there was that widow with her “two copper coins” for the temple treasury. An odd scene really, tucked into the folds of the gospel amidst all the other busy bustle of temple commerce. Nothing ever really comes of it. Jesus makes a comment or two, but nothing in the way of intervention. No miracle for the poor widow. No rebuke of the rich prigs. Nothing. Just our Lord’s observation. I think about her. Her two coins remind me of two tiny precious stones. She holds two tiny stones tight in her hands then lets them go. Down down down into the temple treasury; two tiny stones, falling like the enormous temple columns Jesus refers to in the conversations that follow: “Not one stone here will be left upon another.” I like to imagine Jesus had already spotted his precious stone making her way along, fixed his gaze on her as he taught, as the words “devour widows houses” poured forth from his lips. And of whatever else he may have observed that day we ought to be mindful. We find his compassion falls equally on all parties—the widow and the scribe. As much as the scribe devours so also is he devoured in the end. The religious spirit spares no one.
- Pray. Believe. Smile. Walk. Listen. Laugh. Apologize. Forgive. Call. Text. Give (then give some more). Drink more water. Drink less Kombucha. Respond with patience. Fold the clothes. Pet the cat. Feed the dog. Read the bible. Adopt a parakeet. Encourage a friend. Ask more questions. Do more praising than correcting. Read out loud (it’s a different pathway of learning than reading silently). Do less defending than confessing. Eat smaller portions. Bear the burdens of others. Listen for Christ’s correction in your friends, family, parents and kids. Acknowledge and pay close attention to the fact that you are created in the image of God. Love yourself. Love others. Don’t over-emphasize “me time”. Limit your Netflix, Hulu, Sling, and Amazon Prime binge watching. Write out in your own handwriting one encouraging scripture a week and dwell on it five days. And if you are guilty of texting while driving, admit it, forgive yourself, then stop doing it. And stop saying yes to every ask of help that comes your way. Separate your recyclables. Lift your hands in praise to the Spirit of God. And wherever you’re at this morning, this season, this year… hang in there! Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Don’t stop running. Too many others are pulling for you. Happy new year! Grace and Peace.
- Before Immanuel (God with Us) was revealed in our American christianity. Immanuel was first revealed to a young Jewish couple hiding in a cave in the middle of the night. God can be found. Perhaps most often while working in the dark.
- “Do not be afraid to take this child into your care Joseph. Both his Father and yours who will one day take the whole world into his everlasting arms.” –the visiting angel. In that first Christmas story it seems Joseph is called to adopt as his very own the One by whom we are all adopted, taken in, loved and cared for. In Joseph, it seems the invisible uncreated I AM entrusts himself into the hands of every father. From those first few cries forward we are brought into the story of Jesus being given over—for better or worse—into the hands of sinful men. Whether Joseph in his youth, John at his baptism, disciples in his ministry, Judas at dinner, soldiers at his crucifixion, doubters at his ascension, anyone and everyone on into the present. Joseph is long gone now. But we ought to be exceedingly mindful of our elder brother. For a season, sinful man as he was, held in his obedient hands the salvation of the world.
- Some of us need prayer today. Some of us need encouragement. Some of us need acknowledgement. Others need to be heard. Others need to be appreciated. Still others need a genuine smile, a high-five, a fist bump, a side-hug. I don’t know what we all really need. Maybe we all need to be cheered on, congratulated, applauded, recognized, preferred, loved. Or maybe its not so extreme. Maybe it’s simply that our legs are much more weary than we all thought they’d be in this stage of life, and what we’d like is the offer of a soft bench where we can hold up a minute and rest, set all these burdensome expectations down and talk. I don’t know what we all really need. But until I do… I have cleared room on the bench next to me for others looking for a safe place to land. People need a safe place to land! And when they do… pray, encourage, acknowledge, listen, appreciate, smile, cheer, congratulate, applaud, recognize, prefer and love. And then give them a high-five!
- A great many heroes of the faith, brothers and sisters in Christ, receive no mention in the bible, have no great ministry founding, no inspired apostolic movement or significant theological contribution. Rather, a great many of these did well simply to love those few entrusted to them, and by their enduring efforts tend to the Lord’s business while waiting for his return. Whatever expressions moved them, I can hardly imagine there not being included some form of regularly gathering for worship, willfully giving of goods as an offering, graciously welcoming the stranger, and faithfully praying for the sick. The timeline of faith has its fair share of notable fixed points, those significant events that mark our Christian history. But interspersed between and all throughout are those unidentifiable persons who, by some wild stirring within, kept the hope of righteousness flaming in their hearts. Over time, a great many of us (myself included) have seen that light and benefited greatly from it without having much considered the cost. Well, the cost is great. And the journey quite long. How could it not be? This is the nature of committed relationship. Men and women, literally our own family, long since died and raised again, even now rejoicing along with us over the very purpose for why we exist. So where is your rejoicing over the gathered church? Where is your willful sacrifice? Where is the stranger welcomed to your table? Let us all hear your persistent prayers for the ultimate gift of healing we are so patiently awaiting.
PRACTICAL DOABLE LOVE
Dan Behrens, Co Pastor EFC
Over the last 3-4 weeks, our church has been preaching/teaching through a series on love. Specifically, we are focusing on the question: are we growing in love? That is, are we as Christians growing in our love for God and our love for other people? Or, put another way: have we stopped growing in love? stopped pursuing love? even withheld our love from others or from God?
For Christians, this should be an incredibly important focus. This should be a focus we are continually focused on. Love is the core ingredient of all that is of Christ, and therefore, all that is specifically Christian. A “Christ” follower should be known, above all else, for his or her love. Even more, a “Christ” follower should be known for loving those who are quite difficult to love—estranged family, an arrogant friend, the irritating neighbor, your dismissive boss, even that one who wishes you every ill-will in the world (your enemy). This is the love of God, the witness of Christ.
The witness of Christ in our life ought to align with the Spirit of God. God is love and his call of purpose in our life is love. The fruit of his presence—his love, his joy, his peace, his patience, his goodness, his kindness, and so on—ought to be evident in our relationships and interactions. We ought to be him where he is needed when he is needed. And it does follow that we can not do so if we are not growing in love, if we have stopped pursuing love, or are in any way withholding our love.
One crucial observation we come know from the New Testament is that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus”(Rom 8:39). We would do well, even for a whole day, to take all of this in slowly. But know also, that the incredibly assuring comfort that we have in this truth has a flip side. Indeed, nothing can keep us from love. On the one hand, nothing can keep us from being loved by God; God is love and God loves us. On the other hand, because we are unconditionally and inexhaustibly loved by God, we have love to give. We. Can. Love. There is nothing keeping us from loving others.
But here comes a real snag, it’s one thing to proclaim such a foundational fact: nothing can separate us from the love of God! It’s quite another thing to actually walk out our conviction. It’s one thing for me to have faith for my questions: are we growing in our love for others? It’s quite another thing for me to actually put feet to my faith, actually align my behavior with my words, in real life with real people with real practical outcomes as my goal. As I said before, this topic of love should be an incredibly important focus, one we are continually focused on. If love is the core ingredient of all that is of Christ, and as a Christian I really do want to be like Christ, simple, practical, doable love is a great place to start.
Examples of simple, practical, doable love are all over the bible. As part of our series, we looked at the apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon. Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters, and is certainly the most personal and intimate in subject and tone. In some ways it stands apart from any other text in the New Testament. What has occasioned this letter is quite a backstory, including a runaway slave returning home, an interim pastor fending off heretics, a daunting request for reconciliation, and perhaps the most incredible risk for the sake practical, genuine love apart from Christ himself.
What you will not find in this short little letter is Paul laying out any significant doctrine or arguing any particular point of theology. Instead you will find that Paul takes enormous personal risk for the sake of love. Paul takes enormous personal risk for the advance of the gospel. Paul takes enormous personal risk to reconcile relationship. The question then is, am I? Am I taking on enormous personal risk for the sake of others? What is really at stake in my own relationships and interactions? Is my growing in love all that costly? Should it be?
When we come to the Philemon text (and I hope you do make a point to read and consider), we find that Philemon is acting as a kind of interim pastor or overseer for the church that meets in his home (Phm 2). Epaphras, a convert of the apostle Paul who is mentioned in Paul’s closing remarks in both Philemon and Colossians (Phm 23, Col 1), is the actual founding pastor of the church (the church of Colossae). But at present, he too has been imprisoned along with Paul. Philemon, because of his assumed wealth and property, his social standing among the community, and his spiritual posture inside the church, now finds himself the minister of God’s purpose and the recipient of Paul’s correspondence.
Here is the witness of Christ we’re up against. Philemon the slave-owner and Paul the apostle have never met. Yet Paul believes so much in the power of the gospel to heal and restore (Rom 1) that he is willing to get very personal and very practical. Paul believes so much that nothing can separate himself or Philemon or the church from the love of God (Rom 8) that he is willing to risk his own message. He will risk his own reputation as an evangelist. He will risk the claim of the gospel as good news. And he will do so for the sake of love.
Love pursues the very best for everyone involved. Paul knows this, believes this, ministers out of this. Love pursues the very best for everyone. Without hesitation, Paul acknowledges the very best in Philemon: “I hear of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints” and “because of your love, the hearts of the saints have been refreshed”(v4-7). Certainly Paul is advocating an outcome here: establishing rapport, requesting a favor, appealing for Onesimus, but he is doing so by pursuing the very best for everyone. There is in this one observation something for the contemporary Christian to rightly consider—it’s not about me. At the very least, it’s not about me first!
To that end, love is radically risky. Love takes risk for the sake of others. Love takes risk to reconcile relationship. Someone somewhere risked something to love you into a transforming encounter with Jesus and thus into the kingdom of God. Beyond that, the redemption of humanity as a whole is one big risk if you think it out. The God of all worlds, before whose face heaven and earth will flee away, did not create a race of automator. He created a human race, incredibly powerful and fully capable of receiving or rejecting, loving or hating. Why do such a thing? Apparently, He thought it worth the risk.
Paul’s appeal to Philemon is no less a risk: “though I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, instead, I appeal to you on the basis of love” and “I am sending him back to you as part of my very being”(v8-12). Paul risks not only the rejection of his personal request, but also a deficit against his reputation, not to mention potential retribution against the slave Onesimus. Paul is willing to risk the power of God’s reconciling love against any possible outcome. This for the sake of others.
Love may be radically risky, but is there any other attitude more congruent with practical, doable love than preferring others’ needs above my own? Love prefers what others need over what I want (Phil 2). Love prefers others first and me behind them. In short, love makes sacrifice. If we honestly want to grow in love, if we genuinely wish to address areas where we’re withholding our love, it will require sacrifice! To think otherwise is foolish and results in spiritual ruin. Paul demonstrates how love is most readily expressed through the reconciling power of sacrifice—the witness of Christ in us. Genuine love makes the ultimate sacrifice for the needs of others: “I wanted to keep Onesimus with me, [Paul says] so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place” and “perhaps he was separated from you for a brief time so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—a dearly loved brother in Christ”(v13-16).
Before you burden yourself with condemnation over sacrifice—but I haven’t made any Pauline-type gesture, like prison or death, for the sake of others?—take brief inventory of your testimony in God. It’s true. You and I are no apostle Paul, nor were we created to be. Instead, we’ve been created to worship God and celebrate the work of Jesus Christ in our life. And a moments-worth of inventory (perhaps down on paper) of all that Christ has done through your love will account for a great deal of sacrifice. More than you can imagine. The maker of heaven and earth referred to above sees all that you’ve forgotten. All is before him, including your every kindness, your comforts, your songs, your words, your meals, your medicines, your worries, your prayers, and above all else, “your steadfast participation in the faith”(v6). If Christ is at work in you, and we agree that the work of Christ is top-tier, than you really do rest on a rock that is higher than us all.
Lastly, yet in no way less practical or doable is Paul’s bold invitation for Philemon to do what is right. Love invites others to do what is right. I have found this to be a tremendous hurdle to my growing in love—inviting others to love me in return. Perhaps it is for you too. Love desires and pursues what is best for everyone, including opportunity for everyone to love someone in return. In fact, the very best version of you loving others includes your authentic self behind the loving. The fictitious you, the you that appears all together and well-kept, is a despairing imposter who will inevitably be undone. Everyone loses at that point. What is often quite necessary for our own growth is allowing others into our need, our weakness, our struggle, our dependency. Our first attempts feel contrary, but the discipline is necessary. It is daily surrender.
Paul surrenders any position of leverage. He surrenders all authoritative posture. He invites Philemon to do what is right on his own steam: “if you consider me a partner, receive him as you would me” and “prepare a guest room for me, for I hope that through your prayers I will be restored to you”(v17-22). The God of love is always inviting us to do what is right. In a way, it’s almost a surrendering on his part, a restraint, an incredible patience, a gracious invitation for us to receive all that is good and right. God does not force us to choose him; does not force us to follow him; does not force us to let him lead. But He does call out to us to make a good choice. Calls out for us to come close. This is what He does. This is who He is. Now… are we growing in him?
DOES GOD SPEAK?
Dan Behrens, Co Pastor EFC
The boy Samuel ministered to the Lord under Eli. Now the word of the Lord was rare in those days; prophetic vision was infrequent. Yet it came to pass during that time, while Eli was lying down in his place, his eyes grown so dim he could not see, and before the lamp of God had gone out in the tabernacle of the Lord where the ark of God was, Samuel was lying down in his place. There the Lord called out. And Samuel answered him, “Here I am!” (1 Sam 3:1-4)
These scriptures are some of my favorites and I return to them often. They are a comfort and confirmation of my own testimony, of God speaking to me and calling me to follow him nearly 15 years ago. These scriptures answer the question “Does God speak?” And even more intimately “Does God speak to me when I see very little evidence of his presence?” The answer… “Yes!” and “Yes!”
This here introduction into the life of Samuel serves to remind me (and I hope you too) of two important things: (1) Belief, more than anything else, bears the marks of commitment. Belief commits to continue believing when we are full of doubt. Belief continues to stay put, be patient, come close, open up, and believe again, particularly in times of uncertainty, where there is no clear vision or direction, when we despair even of lifting our eyes. This commitment we call faith, and without it we really are lost at sea. (2) Every bit as much in our day as in the days of Samuel, the lamp of the Lord does not go out. It continues right along with us. Whether our eyes have gone dim with disappointment or our hearts have grown hard from perpetual hurdles, the glowing presence of God is aflame the whole night through… the whole night through. Do not despair over evidence. The externals we look for are only a shadow of the real thing we truly want. Believe instead. Believe like a couple of temple ministers that our constant companion walks us on toward morning, toward a Sabbath of sorts, a changing of the guard, a whisper of that long-awaited rest at the end of a shift, where our efforts shut down and His voice awakens.
SET THE CAPTIVE FREE!
Dan Behrens, Co Pastor EFC
“Set the captive free.” I’ve had this thought in my mind the last couple of days. It first came to me after reading the following verses near the end of Philippians—the apostle Paul’s closing remarks:
Give greetings to all the saints there in Christ Jesus. The brothers with me here send their greetings to you. And all the saints greet you, especially those who belong to the household of Caesar. And now may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Phil. 4:21:23).
What catches my attention is this: “especially those who belong to the household of Caesar”(v22). Caesar’s house represents the Roman guard who, whether on this occasion or some other, is responsible for Paul’s imprisonment and eventual execution. Yet somehow somewhere among the imperial ranks belief has taken hold. The power of the gospel of grace that is the righteousness of Christ for both Jew and Gentile has infiltrated the hearts and minds of the opposition. The ministry of reconciliation has slipped through the prison bars undetected. A covert rescue mission is well underway and the real captives are being set free.
It would appear that the early church apostles believed “set the captive free” is an actual assignment, and actually quite doable—possibly less “spiritual” than we first think and perhaps more “practical” than we’d like own up to. We do not know for certain Paul’s method of ministry on this last leg of the race, but for us “set the captive free” may be as simple as a word, a comment, a card, a call, an apology, an encouragement, a favor, a deed, a prayer, an obedient service of no real benefit to us personally except that God has ordered us to do it.
See, here’s the deal. All around us and even in our own personal lives there are beautiful people who all bound up, caged, and holding defensive posture. These may be persons of authority. They may persons under authority, receiving orders, or still searching for their place in life. Today, this week, or in the coming year, you just may be dropped into someone’s life like a secret spy on a rescue mission. You may be spotted, seized, and ushered into rooms you never could have imagined. But here you are—not the God of heaven and earth who establishes righteousness, but you are an ambassador with keys in hand. So quit stalling. Work the mission. Set the captive free. Retrieve whatever’s been lost. Love your unlovable neighbor as you do yourself. And if this requires you slip forgiveness into the room, so be it. Tuck it up your sleeve. Bury it in your sock. Do whatever it takes to disarm the opposition. For although the eternal outcomes are up to God, we do know that already Caesar’s household’s been compromised.