Finding Freedom

Recently after giving a youth group lesson I was confronted by a group of 5 teens that wanted to debate me about Christianity. Our youth group is a mix of Christians, atheists, and everything in between. Most of the teens stayed after the lesson to watch this debate go down until about 11pm. The leader of their little group said to me, “You’re a Christian. So that means you’re confined by so many rules. But I am free to do whatever I want. I can do drugs if I wanted to, but you can’t. I can get drunk if I want, but you can’t. I watch porn whenever I want and enjoy it with no shame, but you can’t. I’m free, you’re not.”

I thought about this for a moment. I responded by saying, “I don’t think you understand freedom. It’s not that I can’t do those things, it’s that I am free FROM those things. Sure you can watch porn whenever you want, but I don’t think you could stop if you tried. You’re a slave to it without even realizing it.”

If we were to define freedom we might describe it as having the ability to do whatever we want with absolutely no consequences. But imagine if we lived in a world where we had that kind of freedom. That would be like driving down a 4 lane highway with no speed limit signs and no dividing lines. You can drive however you want with no rules…but this would lead to a pileup of disaster.

Freedom requires restraint. It’s actually just like playing drums. Imagine a brand new drummer who’s never played before sitting down on a beautiful pristine kit with new heads, fresh sticks, and fresh cymbals. They sit down and just blast off with no rules. It’s a mess of cymbal slams, dramatic tom hits, chaotic double bass, and of course, cracks and dents in those new sticks.

If you want to be a good drummer, the best place to start is on a practice pad. Learn the basics. Put in the time and discipline. During this process you might feel confined and even bored, but this is what it takes to be great. Once you go through this discipline you now have freedom to play whatever you want with skill and excellence.

The same thing is true about having freedom in Christ. When God calls us to discipline and restraint it’s not meant to confine us, but it’s meant to give us the ability to live free and upright without falling into all these sins traps that are all around us.

Freedom in Christ has two main components. Freedom from & freedom to. You are free FROM your sin. You are no longer slaves to sin, but set free and set apart for God (Romans 6:18). And you are free TO live a new life. God gives you a calling and equips you with everything you need.

So this weekend we are remembering our freedom and independence as a nation. That freedom came at the cost of people laying down their lives. When it comes to your salvation, the same principle applies but in a much larger context. Your freedom came at a cost. Jesus laid down His life so that you could be free. Don’t run back to the chains that He delivered you from!

Have a Happy 4th of July weekend!

Christians with Bad Gas

Mark 8:14-21

A lot of Christians have bad gas.  They stink.  Their stench is partly to blame for driving people away from the church.  Of course, I say ‘partly,’ because those who don’t go to church have to take responsibility for their actions and stop blaming Christians with gas.  But I digress.

I’m not talking about butt gas, but ego gas, and, believe it or not, there’s a difference.  We’re up to Mark 8:14-21, where Jesus warns his followers about the gas of religious people, only Jesus calls it ‘leaven.’  But, let’s be honest, it’s more fun to say gas.

Leaven is the agent in bread that gives off gas so the bread will rise.  Leaven could be either chemically based, like baking soda, or naturally based, like yeast, sour milk, or beer (mmmm, beer).

When the leaven begins to break down, it releases gas inside the body of the bread and the bread rises, becoming bigger than it really is.  A lump of dough could grow twice its size because of the leaven. 

This helps us to understand why Jesus cautioned his disciples, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15).  What did Jesus mean?  Jesus knew that a lot of religious people were puffed up, making themselves appear bigger than they really were.  In other words, they had leaven gas inside them, which inflated them to about twice their size.  That’s why Jesus couldn’t stand the smell of religious people.

There was a kind of leaven inside the Pharisees that gave them an inflated ego or sense of self-importance.  They thought they were bigger and better than everyone else; and they felt their good works made them bigger and better in God’s eyes, too, which is really damnable.  The bottom line (no pun intended) is that they trusted their good works to make them righteous before God and men.  They were inflated, puffed up, and full of gas.

Scour the Bible and you’ll discover that there’s nothing Jesus hated more than self-righteous, puffed up religious people.  Jesus embraced all kinds of people, but not the ‘Pharisee’ kind.  He embraced dirty lepers, prostitutes, drunks, liers, thieves, and even murderers, but he had no patience for puffed up religious folk.  Hell, Jesus even made time for demons and the demon possessed, that’s how low his standards were!

Jesus just wanted the bread how it was, not all puffed up.  He didn’t want self-righteous leven in it.  And that’s pretty cool.  Jesus will take bread that’s moldy, half-eaten, soggy, small, burnt, or underbaked, but he won’t have anything to do with deceptive, leavened bread.  That’s the good news.

But there is bad news: everyone who has ever lived is infected with the leaven of the Pharisees.  It’s in our human DNA.  It’s what makes you want to puff yourself up and look better than others; it’s why social media works.  It’s what makes you think you can earn God’s favor by being good or obeying his commandments.  It’s what makes you give up on yourself for failing, because you think you’re better (and bigger) than you really are.  It’s what causes you to thumb your nose at religious folks, because you think you’re better than they are.  Wow, that just came full circle.

There’s no getting around the fact that we all have religious leaven in us, giving us spiritual gas.  So how do we get rid of it?

Let’s go back to our passage of Scripture.  

The disciples forgot to bring bread (14) and were arguing about the fact that they had no bread to eat (16).  That’s when Jesus chimed in with his cautionary tale about leaven, which seemed to come out of right field.  The disciples wondered what the heck he was talking about, for they were starving and Jesus was warning them about the dangers of leaven.  So Jesus told them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread?  Do you not yet perceive or understand?” (17). 

They were still confused, so Jesus reminded them of the multiple times he provided bread for them when they didn’t have any.  “Don’t you remember?” (18), he asked them, when there was just the twelve of you, I miraculously provided bread for over 5,000 people, then I did the same for over 4,000 people, and each time there were leftovers!

In other words, Jesus reasoned, trust me to give you bread when you don’t have any; also, trust me to give you the kind of bread you need.

When we are empty, Jesus will provide what we need.  When we don’t have what it takes to earn God’s favor, Jesus will provide for us.  When we don’t have our own righteousness, Jesus will give us his righteousness.   There’s no sense in puffing yourself up in order to look twice your size, because Jesus is able to give you 9,000 loaves of bread with plenty to spare!  (That’s about 9,000 times your size!)  You don’t need to be full of gas when Jesus is full of grace.

Just be you.  Be ordinary, flimsy, plain-bagel-you.  Stop trying to impress God and those around you.  Jesus is able to provide all you need, and then some.

Here’s a thought that just occurred to me: there are two kinds of people, those who tell the truth and those who trust in their own inflating self-righteousness.

The Breakdown

  1. What did Jesus mean by ‘leaven?’  Where do you see leaven in your life?
  2. In what situations are you afraid to be your ordinary self?  Why do you think this is?
  3. Have you ever been ‘empty’ and experienced the grace of Jesus filling you up?  What was that like?  Was the ‘bread’ he provided better than what you would have been able to provide on your own?
  4. What do you think the last sentence means (“There are two kinds of people, those who tell the truth and those who trust in their own inflating self-righteousness.”)?

Idol in Every Home

If you’re reading this, then you have an idol in your home.  Well, to be more precise, you have the potential to have an idol in your home.  Before I tell you what it is, you need to know that this post is going to be about porn.  So the idol I’m referring to has to do with your screen, whether a computer, phone, or tablet.  The actual idol is pornography.  

When you think about an idol, you may imagine a carved statue, sitting on the mantel or in a spot within the home where it can be best venerated.  You might picture the people in the house offering sacrifices to the idol or spending time sitting in front of it expectantly and entranced.  You might imagine someone bowing down to it and it holding power over a person.  

Am I talking about idols or porn?  It’s easy to get the two confused.

I don’t know about you, but I have the tendency to look on ancient people and think condescendingly to myself, ‘They were so primitive!  How could they actually bow down to a wooden or metal idol and worship it?  How could they actually believe it could give them something in return for their sacrifice?’  Most of us believe we’ve ‘evolved’ past the days of statues and idolatry.  We think idolatry like this is a thing of the past.  Oh, sure, we might believe in idolatry metaphorically, as in our capacity to make money or career an ‘idol,’ but we don’t mean it literally, heavens, no.

But I mean it literally.

Our sophisticated, evolved, cultured, educated, christianized, western world bows down before idols each night and worships.  Just about every household.  Don’t believe me?  Then what do you call this: a person sits down before his computer (an idol carved from various metals and materials); types in search words (tells the idol the magical incantation so the idol gives the person what he wants); goes into a trance staring at the pornographic images (worships); wastes countless minutes and hours each day searching and staring (the sacrifices he offers to the idol are time, health, resources, work, relationship, and family); perhaps he masturbates or fantasizes (more offerings to the idol); feels shame and guilt afterwards (idolatry always wrecks you).  Need more evidence?  In ancient times, there were prostitutes in pagan temples, because part of worshipping the idol culminated in ritual sex; again, this is just like how our worship of the porn idol often leads to masterbation.  

Whenever you seek after or watch porn, you engage in idol worship.  And every idol has a demon attached to it.  This is why it’s so hard to stop, why you feel so much shame and guilt, and why it consumes your life.  Pornography devours because that’s what demons do.  You may get a little rush, just as someone receives some sort of ecstasy from idol worship, but the demon quickly revokes the ecstasy and replaces it with misery.  Whenever you look at porn, you are inviting a demon into your home and it will wreak havoc on you and those around you.

In ancient times, people prayed to an idol so it would comfort them or help them avoid problems; in modern times, we pray to porn so it can comfort us and help us avoid problems.  We do it for the same reasons. 

Does it have to be porn explicitly?  Here’s a rule of thumb: it’s porn if you make it porn.  It could be a PG-13 movie, but if you use it as porn, then it is porn, an idol.  So be careful and don’t play games with these demonic idols.

The vast majority of us would never bow down to a wooden idol in our home and worship it, knowing full well that God hates idolatry.  Most of us know that God truly loves us and can make our lives better, not worse.  We’ve just never realized the connection between idols and porn.  

But now you know.

The best way to stop worshipping a false god is to start worshipping a real God.  So instead of bowing down before a screen and worshipping the porn idol, bend your knees to God and seek his beautiful Face.  You will find love, meaning, and forgiveness; and your life will start to come together, rather than continue to fall apart.  

Here’s a prayer Martin Luther taught us to pray every morning, why not start to do the same: 

“I thank you, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.”

True Judgment Free Zone

Mark 8:11-13

The Pharisees were the religious leaders in Jesus’s day and Jesus clashed with them quite a bit.  They were literally the ‘religious police’ of their day, judging and condemning those who did not live up to their impossibly high standards.  

Near where I live, there’s a Planet Fitness gym; on the building there’s a huge banner that says, ‘judgment free zone.’  In our day, we frown upon judgment, in fact, we do everything we can to create safe spaces for people and help them feel accepted, rather than judged.  

When we pick up the Bible and learn about the Pharisees, we’re quick to side against them, thinking we’d never be like them.  They were so judgmental and we’re so accepting, we assume.  

But I’ve got a secret to share with you: the role of the Pharisees in the Bible is to show us ourselves.  Those who wrote the Bible needed a ‘mirror’ to show people what they were like, so they chose the Pharisees.  When we look at the Pharisees, we’re supposed to see what we look like, for we are as judgmental as they are, despite our gym banners. 

And the more unbelievable it seems to you that you are just as judgmental as the Pharisees, the blinder you are to the reality of your snobby, pharisaical heart; hence, the more important it is that the Bible shows us the Pharisees so we can see what we look like.

Here’s how this plays out in our short passage today, Mark 8:11-13.  The Pharisees were up to their usual ways of judging Jesus, demanding he perform a miraculous sign for them to prove his claims.  They were testing him.  But Jesus knew how their hearts were operating, so he refused to comply.  He sighed deeply in his spirit about the generation who demanded a sign.  And then he left.

What’s really going on here and how are we like the Pharisees?

A Pharisee is anyone who thinks that we can look better in God’s eyes by keeping the law.  “If I do this, then God will look with favor on me,” is the reasoning.  Now look closely and you’ll see the telltale sign of the law, which is a conditional if/then statement.  “If I do this…then this will be the result.”  

Not only was Jesus’s day filled with the law, but also ours is today.  

“If I lose weight, then people will like me more.”

“If I make more money, then I’ll be better off.”

“If I don’t do bad things, then I’ll be a good person.”

“If I keep the Ten Commandments, then God will love me more.”

You get the idea.  Now, it’s important to realize that these sorts of law-conditional statements could be true!  If you look a certain way, then people (albeit shallow people!) might accept you more.  Again, that could be true, but that’s not the issue here.

The issue is whether or not our conditional mentality can give us more favor in God’s eyes.  And Jesus’s resounding answer is, “No!”  

But first he has to break our addiction to the law, and to do this, he cannot play along with our legal demands.  So when the Pharisees come at him with their conditional statement, “If you perform a miraculous sign, then we will believe you…” Jesus must not comply, for if he did, then he’d be sanctioning the age-old law-mentality.  It’s as if they tossed him a coin, but he let it drop to the ground.

So let’s use the analogy of a coin.  There are two sides to the law coin, God’s and ours.  On God’s side, the inscription reads, ‘If God does a miraculous sign for me, then I will trust him.”  But on the other side of the coin, our side, the inscription is, “If I keep the law, then God will save me.”  That’s the law coin in a nutshell, the coin humanity has been flipping for generations, down through the ages.  On the one hand, we honestly believe that if we do the right things, then God will save us; and on the other hand, we honestly think that if God did a miracle for us then we would believe him.

But Jesus wants to take this kind of coin out of circulation and introduce a new coin to the world, the grace coin.  

The grace coin has two sides, as well, God’s and ours.  God’s side says, “I will not do a sign, but you can still trust me” and if you flip it over to our side, the inscription says, “You don’t have to perform any good work, and I will still save you.”  And that’s where the real money is at.

By not giving a sign, Jesus does not validate their current system.  Instead, he refuses to play along and challenges the world’s system of law and judgment.  He wants us to doubt our current system so that he can introduce his radical new currency of grace, which is the greatest treasure the world can discover.  

We can hang all the banners we want that say, ‘judgment free zone,’ but people will keep on judging until the world ends.  Ironically, the only one who does not judge is THE Judge, himself, God.  God doesn’t require us to keep if/then laws to earn his favor.  He does not say to us, “If you do this, then I will accept you.”  Humans do that, but God doesn’t.  

Only humans say, “If I make all the correct choices, then I will live happily ever after.”  That’s the way all our old myths go, but Jesus has a new, true myth for us, which says, “You can make all the wrong moves and still live happily ever after with me.”  Jesus says to us, “Let’s make a deal, I don’t have to prove myself to you and you don’t have to prove yourself to me.”  That’s the new formula of grace.  

But grace has a jarring side effect to it: God won’t always perform for you when you ask him to.  In fact, in order to shake the law coins from our tight pockets, he’ll gladly interrupt our current life system, so we stop flipping the law coin in his face.  As he did with Job, God may cause things to happen in your life that make no sense at all.  This is not to punish you, but to liberate you from your reliance on the law.  Again, he doesn’t have to perform for you and you don’t have to perform for him, he wants and gives only love.

There is a tiny Pharisee lurking in every person’s heart, trying at all times to convince us of the law.  This makes Jesus very sad.  He doesn’t want anything to do with the spirit of judgment.  Instead, he wants to pour his love into our hearts and make us worthy by his grace.

The Breakdown

  1. Can you see a tiny Pharisee in your heart?  What sorts of judgments about the world and others is he/she making?  Why do you think this is the case?
  2. How can Jesus break our addiction to the law?  (Think about how you might attempt to break the addiction in a loved one.)
  3. What do you think keeps you from realizing God’s love right now?  Be honest and read over Mark 8:11-13 again.  What might Jesus be doing in your life?

Empathy and Action

Mark 8:1-10

Empathy means to “feel into” the situation of another.  To have empathy for the plight of another is to be able to put yourself in his or her shoes and feel what the person feels, as if you were going through the same situation as that person would.  Truly to have empathy doesn’t mean you experience their situation as you would experience it, but as they would experience it.  You try to imagine what it must be like to be that person, with the same history and hindrances, facing the same situation.  

Quite often, my ability to feel empathy is hijacked by my lack of sensitivity to the disposition of the other person, so I end up thinking to myself, “Well, if that were me, I’d just do this or this; it’s not a big deal, I could handle it.”  Again, this is not true empathy.

Jesus showed true empathy to the large crowd in Mark 8:1-10.  Even though there were about four thousand people there, he ‘felt into’ each person individually.  “I have compassion on the crowd,” he said.  To have compassion means to be moved in one’s inward parts, the bowels, to be specific.  Jesus had a belly ache for each person there, his stomach was in knots, just thinking about each person in the crowd.  

He stepped into their shoes and experienced their circumstance not as if he were the Son of God, but as if he were one of them.  Notice the detail in the text.  Jesus knows they had been with him “three days” and he realized they had “nothing to eat.”  Then he imagines each person on the long journey home and says, “And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way.”  He even knew how far each person had travelled, “And some of them have come from far away.” 

Jesus felt into the plight of each person and was emotionally moved.  He had true empathy.

What is your plight right now?  What are you facing?  What are you lacking?  What dangers are ahead of you if something doesn’t happen soon?  Friend, Jesus feels into your life and circumstances today, just as much as he did then.  Whether you realize it or not, he stands in your shoes each morning and walks with you to face all your problems.  His stomach still turns when he sees what you see and feels what you feel. 

When he said, “I have compassion on the crowd,” you and I are in that crowd.  

But Jesus does more than have empathy, he also takes action.  He has empathy and action; he feels into your plight and takes action out of it.  Sometimes Jesus takes action directly, but sometimes he uses other people, as in Mark 8.  Remember this great truth: Jesus loves to use ‘means.’  He uses other people, objects, or events to minister to us.  

In Mark 8:1-10, Jesus used the means of the disciples and the bread and fish they were able to collect.  Jesus could have instantly filled the bellies of the four thousand people, but instead, he used the actions of the disciples to gather seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.  

How does Jesus act?  Now, it’s really important to see the pattern here, because it’s repeated twice in this passage, both with the bread and the fish, for emphasis.  Here are the seven steps of Jesus’s action in our lives.

  1. He uses what we have.  Again, God often uses means in order to minister to us.  He tends to use what we already have, rather than giving us something completely new.  Most likely, the answer to your problem is with you already, but you just don’t know it.
  2. He adds up our resources so that we can see they are not enough.  There were just seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.  Part of his action is for us to realize we don’t have what it takes.  His action doesn’t happen when we think we have it covered, but when we’re staring at an empty plate.
  3. He has us sit.  He directed the crowd to sit down.  For us, this means he humbles us, puts us in a posture of reception, waiting, and patience.  Also, sitting is the posture of grace: he serves us as a waiter as we sit and enjoy.   
  4. He takes away what we have and puts it in his own hands.  The crowd only had seven loaves of bread and a few fish, but Jesus took these away from the crowd.  Often, God will take away what little we have before he acts.
  5. He blesses or gives thanks for it.  We struggle to give thanks for what little we have, but Jesus doesn’t.  He gives thanks on our behalf for what we have.  He blesses what we have, in case we forget how special the little we have truly is.  
  6. He breaks it.  After taking away our meager resources, he breaks them.  While his breaking hurts us and we don’t understand what he is doing, it is necessary.  Just as a grape must be broken to produce wine, so must our hopes and dreams be crushed.  Useful things are broken things.   
  7. He has his disciples set it before us.  We depend on other people more than we realize.  When we’re broken and hungry and waiting on the Lord, other people will minister to us.  God loves to bring us to a desolate place where we have no resources and can no longer depend on our own strength; then he uses other weak and hungry people to care for us.  Sometimes we don’t realize how much God is using other people to help us; it’s okay to let it happen.  The most important meal others can serve to you is the word of God itself, reminding you of the truth of God’s grace in your life.  This is the meal that truly satisfies.   

Look at these seven steps, can you see any of them unfolding in your circumstance right now?  If you can, then you can see the action of Jesus.  Remember, he acts mysteriously and he uses others on his behalf, but he is directing the miracle.  His action will never turn out how we normally think it would, because he is always doing something new and gracious.  But in the end, his way is always best and always satisfies the most.  

There were four thousand in the crowd that day and you were one of them.

The Breakdown

  1. What is empathy?  When have you experienced true empathy?  When have you given true empathy?
  2. Go through the seven steps of Jesus’s action.  Which do you see at work in your life?  
  3. How has God used other people to care for you?  Take one minute and think about all the ways other people have loved you.

Box Top Parable

At the beginning of your life, you are given a bag full of puzzle pieces.  Some bags are bigger than others, but that’s not ours to decide.  It simply is what it is and no one can do anything about it.  

Our job is to put the puzzle together, one piece at a time.  At first, it’s really hard, because we’re just gazing at a mass of jumbled pieces and we don’t have much experience.  Some people are better than others, but for the most part, we all struggle at the beginning.

But soon enough, we’re able to connect one piece to the next.  Perhaps we start at the border or a corner, because those seem the easiest.  

Day after day goes by and we put the puzzle together.  

Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, months turn into years, and years turn into decades.  

The Funeral Scene

By now, a picture begins to emerge, that of a funeral.  The borders of the puzzle show the inside of a funeral home.  Going in from the borders are the flower arrangements, so beautiful and colorful.  As you get toward the middle of the puzzle, you start to piece faces together.  They are the faces of your loved ones.  You see your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters.  Going in toward the center even more, you see your spouse and your children.  You recognize each face as you put the puzzle together, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

Now you’re at the very center of the puzzle and it becomes obvious you’re putting together the coffin.  After a while, you work your way to the top half of the coffin and begin to put together the body that has been laid in the coffin.  

The Face in the Coffin

The body is dressed well, that’s for sure.  You work your way to the head and begin to put it together.  Who is it?  The puzzle is almost finished now, just a few more pieces to go.  You put the face together, noticing the shiny, plastic skin, typical for an embalmed person.  Their lips are flat, much like the rest of the face.  Their eyes seem to be forced shut and their earlobes are sagging.  

By now you know who the person in the coffin is: it’s you.

You put in the last piece and then look again at all your family and friends standing around the coffin, looking at you.  You look at your own dead face again.  You get a chill.

Belief in Death and God 

You wonder why you didn’t get the box top with the picture at the very beginning, when you were handed the bag full of pieces.  Then you’d be able to see that every day you were putting together the puzzle of your own death scene.

Most people believe in their own death about as much as they believe in God.  We might claim to believe we will die, just as we might claim we believe in God, but how we live each day doesn’t support either claim.  Most of us live as both atheists and a-mortals, denying both God and our own death every day.

If we can come to actually believe we will die, then maybe we can also come to truly believe in God.

Your Face Is on the Box Top

But let’s return to the box top and replay the scenario.  At the beginning of your life, you were handed a bag full of puzzle pieces.  You were also handed a box top with a picture of what the puzzle would look like once you finished it.  It’s a picture of your own funeral.  

Every day you live, you’re putting in another piece of the puzzle of your funeral.  Every day you know where your life is headed.  Yet every day, you wake up, grab the next piece, and live your life. 

Teach Us Our Days Are Numbered

According to Psalm 90:12, this is how the wise person lives, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  The wise person knows his days are numbered.  She knows that each day she is reaching into the bag of life, choosing a random piece, and then laying down another piece of the puzzle of her death scene.

Help Answering Life’s Questions

Life is very complex and unclear.  The vast majority of us have a hard time putting it together.  We struggle with questions like, ‘What am I to do with my life?’ or ‘Who should I marry?’ or ‘Where should I live?’ or ‘Where should we spend the holidays?’ or ‘Should I take that job?’ or ‘Should I leave that job?’  Our questions go on and on, because life is such a complex puzzle!

So we cry out in frustration, “I wish I had the box top to my life, so I would know what to do next!”

But you do.  

You have the box top.  It’s the picture of your death scene.  When you get every last piece of the puzzle of your life together, that’s what it amounts to, and nothing more. 

The Vision of Ecclesiastes

Can you see why I say that most people don’t really believe in God or their own death?  Because we think there’s more to it.  We magically think that somehow we’re the exception, that somehow it’ll turn out differently for us, that somehow our lives will really make a difference.  

But if you read the book of Ecclesiastes, you’ll see that all our labor and toil lead to the same place: the grave.  Ecclesiastes says this not just to be depressing, but to get us not to place the meaning of our lives in what we do.  Rather, once we truly see our own death, then we can truly see God and enjoy Him in the little things of life.

Don’t you want to enjoy life?  

A Task for the New Year

Here’s something you can do in the New Year.  Get a single puzzle piece and write on the back of it, ‘Psalm 90:12.’  Just write down the verse reference, as a reminder of what it says.  Then each day, as you grab your wallet or phone or keys, put the puzzle piece in your pocket.  Let it remind you that today you’re putting down the next piece of your life.  

And, be honest with yourself, for you don’t know if today’s piece is the final piece of the puzzle or not.  You could be placing down your face, who knows?  Nobody knows how big their bag of pieces is.  We only know that each day we have one piece to put down, and in the end, it will be the scene of our death.  

If you struggle to believe in God, then start by believing in your own death.  And if you struggle with the complex questions of life, then start by grabbing the next puzzle piece of your funeral scene and putting it in place.

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” 

Merry Christmas from Holy Ghost Notes!

Christmas, 2020

Martin Luther, the 16th Century monk who protested against the wrongs of the Church, knew his share of trials, including a pandemic.  His precious thirteen year old daughter, Lenchen, died during the plague, almost paralyzing Luther and his wife, Katie, with grief.  This was the second daughter they had lost. 

Luther literally had a death sentence put on his head, so he lived much of his life under constant threat.  At one point, he had to hide out in a castle, disguise himself, and go by the name ‘Junker George.’

He battled with depression, too, which he called ‘anfecthungen,’ afflicted on him by the devil. His struggles with these ‘dark nights of the soul’ are well documented today.

He was condemned by the church as a heretic.  His teachings resulted in many bloody revolts, in which hundreds of peasants violently died, and for which he blamed himself. 

He was mocked and his name was publicly slandered by many of the elites of his day. In some circles, he became a laughingstock.

His own supporters were much divided and hostile at times. 

Luther greatly suffered physically from a severe bowel disease that eventually took his life. 

Martin Luther was very close to suffering and death during his lifetime, perhaps more than we ever will be today.  Nonetheless, on Christmas in 1534, at the dinner table, he shared this devotional thought with his family and friends from Luke 1:26-38:

We sustained a hurt through Adam’s fall.  Through it all of us are tainted with sins and subject to death.  But greater than this hurt is the blessing we receive through Christ.  He became man Himself in order to redeem us from sin and death.  The devil came close to us; but he did not come so close as to assume our nature.  For although he fell through pride and thereupon persuaded man also to fall away from God, he nevertheless did not become man and did not come so close to us as did God’s Son, who became our flesh and blood.  

Meditating on what it meant for God to become a real person, Luther realized that God comes closer to us than our pain.  

Suffering comes near to us, but God actually became one of us.  He put on our flesh and blood and shared our humanity.  He became a man and became born of a woman. 

Martin Luther realized God came closer to us than pandemics, death, bowel disease, controversy, slander, riots, death threats, fear, failure, division, depression, and the devil. 

Much closer. 

God came closer to save us than did the devil to ruin us.  Life might have done its best to try to ruin us this year, it might have come frighteningly close, but not as close as God came to save us.  How close did God come?  He was born into our world in the Person of Jesus Christ.  He became our flesh and blood, and you can’t get any closer than that!  

Jesus is able to save us more than the devil is able to ruin us.  Take it from me, we humans can do a pretty good job of ruining our lives!  But my capacity to ruin doesn’t outdo God’s ability to redeem, for God has come much closer to me than the devil.

Often when I suffer, I instinctively begin to sing a song to myself.  Music has the ability to get closer to my heart than even my trials.  When his daughter died, Luther and his wife sang many songs to themselves to get through the pain.  One song he sang the day after she died contained the words from Psalm 78:9, “Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.”

Not just the compassion of God comes to us at Christmas, but God himself comes to us.  In fact, he comes just as low as we are, entering our world through the depths of a manger. 

As 2020 ends and 2021 begins, we pray you would find God in the depths with you, no matter how low or long you’ve been there.  Remember, and say to yourself, whatever you’re going through, “Jesus is closer to me than this.” 

Merry Christmas from Holy Ghost Notes.

He Heals by Breaking

Mark 7:31-37

So far in Mark’s gospel, we’ve been learning about the power of Jesus’s words.  His words are like seeds planted in soil that break open, grow, and bear fruit.  His words are not sterile, but potent.  We’ve learned this is why Jesus is constantly repeating, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” because Jesus’s powerful words are meant to be heard.  Once they are heard, they go to work and do something in our souls.  His words get inside us like impregnating seeds and cause new life to form inside us.  This is part of his plan of grace, it’s not something we do on our own, but something he does to us.  He gives us new life, he causes us to believe, he heals us.  

But what if you cannot hear him when he speaks?  In other words, what if you’re literally deaf?  Does this mean Jesus’s words cannot get inside you and change you?  Mark 7:31-37 tells the story of a deaf and mute man, who can neither hear Jesus’s words nor confess Jesus to be his Lord.  As we will learn, not even he is beyond hope.  

There are no special cases, in case you think you might be one.  You are not beyond hope, so let’s turn to the story to see how this truth is shown.

“And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).  Here is a man who cannot hear Jesus preach the word, nor can the man voice his faith in him.  But this does not mean he is beyond the reach of Jesus.  This man might not have been able to hear or speak, but he had wonderful friends, who cared enough to take him to Jesus.  His friends did more than casually ask Jesus on his behalf; rather, they begged Jesus to help him.  So far, Mark’s story is leading to this point, because of the emphasis on hearing and responding to Jesus’s word; suddenly, here is a man who can do neither.  What will become of him?  

If there’s one thing I’d like people to know about Jesus it’s this: there are no cookie-cutter solutions.  Jesus is not an assembly line worker, applying the same nut and bolt to everyone he meets.  He takes each person as he or she comes and ministers to his or her individual needs.  He knows you personally and cares for you personally.  He honors, values, and respects your struggles, situation, and needs.  And you are not beyond his reach.  You may look at yourself in the mirror and honestly believe you’re a ‘special case’ that Jesus hasn’t dealt with before; but even if he has not seen ‘your kind’ before, he will joyfully, lovingly, and gladly make an exception for you.  He will take you as you are and determine the approach that works best with who you are and what you need.  He honors and respects every individual story and soul.  

Here’s how it looked for the deaf, mute man, for Jesus did something to him we don’t read anywhere else.  “And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.  And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’  And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” (Mark 7:33-35).  

What a beautiful scene!  In all its weirdness, it’s incredibly intimate and individual.  Jesus intimately fingers his ear holes; Jesus touches the man’s tongue; the man’s tongue gets Jesus’s spit on it!  On the surface it might seem awkward, but, when you think about it for a moment, it’s incredibly beautiful.  Could you imagine having the spit of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, on your tongue, so that you’re literally tasting Salvation?  

Doesn’t that stir your heart like nothing else?  In everything we do, whether eat a cinnamon roll, write a song, do the dishes, or argue with our coworker, we are looking to taste salvation.  We want to be saved, healed, made whole, fixed, repaired, fulfilled, embraced, completed, once and for all.  This man got to taste the Savior who gives salvation.

Notice the ironic actions of Jesus: the man couldn’t hear, so Jesus stuck his fingers in his ears; the man couldn’t speak, so Jesus held his tongue.  Jesus plugged his ears and held his tongue in order to get him to have unplugged ears and a free tongue.  

Take in that extraordinary truth for a moment and think about your life.  Jesus restricts in order to make free.  You have an issue, a problem, an inability; to surrender to God means to let him hold you down.  He won’t just instantly take away your problem, but he will solve your problem with a problem.  He will crucify your problem.  To be free, you have to nail yourself to him.  

Think about how Jesus destroyed death.  He did it by going to the cross and dying.  He destroyed death with death!  In the same way, he destroyed deafness by making the man deaf; and he destroyed muteness by holding the man’s tongue and making him mute.  This is God’s strange and wild work!  However you think he should help you, chances are, he’ll do the opposite.  

Your problem cannot be solved by logic or keeping the law, do you realize this?  In other words, if your problem is sexual immorality, you can’t solve it by trying to keep the law of being sexually pure.  Nobody can keep the law and the law cannot keep anybody safe from sin.  We must stop trying to fix ourselves by keeping the law; we must surrender to Jesus, instead.  Bind yourself to Christ who will crucify your flesh.  He will do the opposite of what you think and cause you pain in order to heal your pain.  He heals by breaking.

Jesus gave the man unique treatment and ‘crucified’ his deafness and muteness.  The man was healed and set free.  Afterwards, the people who saw it said, “He has done all things well.  He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Mark 7:37).  Jesus found a way to get his living word inside the deaf man, so it could take root and grow.  There is nothing he can’t do well.

This means he knows just what to do for you, too.  You are not beyond hope.  When it says, “He can do all things well,” it means he can heal you ‘well,’ too.  Jesus will embrace your weakness until you’re able to make it on your own.

Finally, in order for God to help you, you have to come clean and show him your weakness.  Even more, you have to let him put his hands all over your weakness.  We like to keep our dirt away from him, we like to keep our problems at a safe distance, because we think he’d be too offended by them.  However, as this passage demonstrates, Jesus wants to grab hold of our tongues and put his spit on them!  He wants to finger our earwax!  In other words, Jesus is not afraid to get dirty.  He longs to be intimate with you and take hold of your problems, no matter how disgusting they might seem.  Don’t be too proud to be real with Jesus Christ.  Expose your weaknesses and shameful underbelly to him.  

This is a message for the church, too, who often is too afraid and too proud to show its dirt to others.  Thank God the deaf and mute man wasn’t too proud to expose himself and his weaknesses in front of his friends and his God.  That is true Christiantiy.  

The Breakdown

  1. Be honest, do you think you’re a ‘special case’ that God cannot help?  That he does not want to help?  Why do you think this way?  Who gave you this message?
  2. If Jesus were to touch a part of you right now, what would it be?  Where do you need healing?  Consider how Jesus made the man deaf and mute in order to heal him of being deaf and mute, what would Jesus do for you?
  3. You must allow God to know your weakness and touch your weakness.  This might be incredibly scary to do, but there’s no other way.  Pray right now and confess your weakness and ask God to grab hold of it.  Also pray for the courage to expose your weakness and shameful failing to another person.

Bitch May I Be…

Mark 7:24-30

There are several provocative things about this passage of Scripture.  First, Jesus was hiding (Mark 7:24).  He didn’t want anyone to know where he was.  Has this ever happened to you?  You were looking for God, but he was hiding from you?  

Next, a strange woman tracked him down (Mark 7:25-26).  She not only found out which town he was in, but also she located his exact hideout.  Whether we’d admit it or not, sometimes it’s the strange ones who find God before anyone else does, for some reason, the ‘normal’ ones don’t know where to look.  

Third, the strange foreigner had a demon-possessed daughter and believed Jesus could cast out the unclean spirit (Mark 7:26).  We don’t believe in unclean spirits anymore, fewer of us have ever witnessed an exorcism.  Do you believe demons can possess a person?  

Fourth, Jesus refused to help the woman because of her race, for she was not Jewish, but Syphrophoenician (Mark 7:27).  So he wouldn’t give her the healing gifts meant for his own people.  Has God ever done anything that seemed unfair or unjust to you?  

Next, even though she begged him, he called her a name, a bitch, to be exact.  “Let the children be fed first,” as the old saying went, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  It’s bad enough he called her a dog, but, you’ve got to understand, in ancient times, dogs were not thought of as cute and loyal pets, but wild, dirty scavengers.  The name ‘bitch’ captures the sense the best.  Has God ever offended you like this before?

Sixth, the woman didn’t slink away in disgust, disappointment, or depression, but stood up to Jesus Christ.  She immediately responded to him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).  She believed wholeheartedly that the crumbs of Jesus were far better than the richest delights of this world.  “Bitch may I be,” she smirked, “but you have all the goods!”  Have you ever violently asserted your confidence in the magnificence of Jesus Christ, even when you had been previously denied?     

Seventh, Jesus turned her words of confession into healing agents, saying to the woman, “For this statement you may go your way, the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29).  The woman went home and found her daughter lying peacefully in bed without the demon (30).  Did you know your words carried authority in spiritual realms?  Did you know your thoughts and words about your life and your God matter?

This passage has many disturbing elements to it, but probably the greatest one is the woman’s initial sense of entitlement.  Just because she had a problem (a daughter with a demon), she felt entitled to receive help from Jesus, as if Jesus owed her.  But Jesus doesn’t owe anybody grace…

Which is why it’s called ‘grace.’  God gives his grace freely and lovingly to those in need.  We don’t merit it or deserve it.  We don’t get grace because of our race, accomplishments, or level of need, for if we did, it would be based on our merit, rather than God’s love.  

Finally, consider how God often roughs us up, before he helps us.  Jesus knew he could speak roughly with the woman, he knew there was something inside her that could handle it.  In testing her, he brought out treasure hidden deeply within her, which would have remained buried, if he had granted her request immediately.  The treasure he found was true faith.  The woman would have never known this kind of true faith was in her if Jesus had gone easy on her.  

Have you been hurt by Jesus?  Has God ever let you down?  Often, there are two parts of God’s grace toward us, the rough side and the smooth side, and we need both.  The rough side of grace shows us our sin, helps us to see we are undeserving, and calls forth a richer faith from within us.  

“We need to realize just how much we need God’s mercy and goodwill,” wrote Martin Luther.  The rough side of God’s grace exposes our true situation and need. 

If you’re experiencing the rough side of God right now, meditate on the faith of this strange woman, learn from her, and wait in faith and hope.  

Go to God and pray, “Bitch may I be, but your grace is all I need.” 

The Breakdown

  1. Out of the seven things mentioned, which surprised you the most?  Why?
  2. How has God been ‘rough’ with you?  How did you respond?  How would you like to respond next time?
  3. If there is treasure hidden within you, how can God mine for it?

Are You Out of Touch?

Mark 7:14-23

Jesus gives us a pretty heavy dose of reality in these verses.  The religious leaders had been telling everyone to perform religious traditions, such as ceremonial hand washing, and condemning those who didn’t.  But, as Jesus pointed out, these religious leaders didn’t really love God, they only loved looking better than other people.  They worked hard at keeping up the appearance of being godly, but, ironically, their hearts were far from God.  

So Jesus called his followers to himself and said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15).  In other words, they had to realize that performing religious rituals would not help their relationship with God, because the source of all their problems was within them.  

Recently, we had one rotten potato in our cupboard, making the whole kitchen stink!  It didn’t matter if we scrubbed every countertop, washed every pot and pan, and sterilized every appliance, so long as the black potato sat undisturbed in the back of the cupboard.

Religiously speaking, you can eat all the right things, wash all the right ways, perform all the right tasks, and you wouldn’t have touched the true problem.  The problem is not ‘out there,’ but it’s inside.  You can keep all the rules, be a good person, go to church, and pray five hours a day, and you wouldn’t be any closer to God (or closer to your true self, for that matter!).

Don’t believe me?  Well, consider what Jesus says next.

Jesus went on to teach, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23).

Did you notice the sort of things that come out of the human heart?  Evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, deceit, and so forth…  Notice these are the broken Ten Commandments.  The broken Ten Commandments live inside your heart, all the time.

The Pharisees and religious leaders thought they could keep all the commandments and all would be well.  Since keeping the Ten Commandments seemed so difficult to everyone, they broke them down into doable chunks, baby steps, if you will, like washing your hands and giving your money, so that practically anyone could be successful at keeping the law.  

While the religious leaders looked to an external law to keep, Jesus taught, “It’s a little late for that!  For every broken commandment is constantly gushing from every human heart!”  As soon as we fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, we became manufacturers and septic tanks of broken laws.  Our hearts are constantly producing broken laws; the problem is not ‘out there,’ but the problem is in here.  Trying to keep the law in order to be undefiled is like trying to stay dry when you’re already sunk two miles beneath the Pacific Ocean.  

There are two things I want to point out from this passage of Scripture.  First, be careful you don’t become out of touch with yourself.  The Pharisees thought everything and everyone else was the problem, failing to realize they carried around the problem with them at all times in their hearts.  Imagine being paranoid about bugs.  I mean, they seriously freak you out.  So you’re constantly checking every where you go, terrified you might find a bug.  All the while, you have live grenades strapped to your chest and you don’t even realize it.  

We have to own ourselves and our dirt; we can’t pretend we’re fine.  We can’t pretend like we don’t struggle with sin, have issues, are weak, doubt, and hate God.  If I pretend like I don’t have some of these problems, then not only am I out of touch with myself, but I am a danger to everyone else!  I walk around thinking the problem is out there, so I become careless with the grenades on my chest.  We see this all too often today, as everyone’s pointing their fingers at everyone but themselves.  We’re champions at blaming others, blaming the system, blaming politicians, blaming parents, blaming circumstances, etc.; but we fail to take ownership of the lion’s share of evil gushing out from our own hearts into this world.  

You are never more dangerous to society and yourself than when you are not conscious of the evil within.  In fact, as Jesus is saying, the more you notice evil ‘out there,’ the more you’re probably hiding the same evil (or worse!) in your own life.

Here is the second thing I’d like to point out: we cannot fix ourselves, but desperately need a Savior.  Jesus teaches this parable not so we’ll try even harder!  He doesn’t want us to become aware of the evil within ourselves, just so we can figure out how to fix it.  Rather, he wants us to know about our evil hearts so we realize we’re trapped, doomed, and can do nothing to save ourselves.  Then we will cry out to him to save us.  

We are not saved by our good works, by keeping the law, or even by being enlightened; rather, we are saved by Christ on the cross.  This frees us to come out of hiding, be honest with ourselves, and stop pretending to be better than we really are.  This frees us to embrace ourselves and others, rather than condemn. 

The Breakdown

  1. How is God speaking to you through the Bible today?
  2. Have you been quick to point out the sins of others, but have failed to see the same sins in yourself?  Take an inventory of yourself, ask God to help you see the broken commandments that live within you.
  3. Why is someone who is out of touch with themselves so dangerous?  Where do you see this today?