The power of literature: written and spoken words impact us with truth

I’ve been profoundly influenced by the convergence of what I’ve been reading and experiencing lately. I have to say that my heart is full of compassion and love for the Body of Christ. The combination of recently reading Susan Isaacs’ Angry Conversations with God, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and Henri Nouwen’s The Road to Daybreak and Making All Things New have catalyzed in me an appreciation for the diversity of those who follow Jesus and the great difficulty that God experiences in answering our prayers. God is regularly required to ignore pain, suffering, injustice and disappointment in the lives of his adopted children for His Higher Agenda. It has given me pause and affected my prayer life in some deep ways. Having the presence of the Holy Spirit is enough. The security, love and satisfaction that comes to me by his presence is remarkable and surprising.

Rationally: I was quite surprised at how deeply these stories have shaken me. The resonance I have felt as I’ve related to different characters in these stories has helped me understand and appreciate their pain.

Emotionally: On more than one occasion I have been moved to tears as I’ve observed the pain and degradation experienced by God’s creatures (both real and imagined). The moralistic requirements and expectations being shoveled on to a broken Susan Isaacs by Christians; the hatred spewed out on black people in Mississippi in the name of God and those who have grown cold toward God in Nouwen’s Dutch homeland. And, yet, Jesus shed his precious blood for them ALL.

Deep Desire: That my appreciation for the price and power of the crucifixion of Jesus would never leave me.

Volitional: That I would act and grow in patience and kindness toward God’s children.

Overlooking the obvious – Instructions for men

It happens all the time. We become so familiar with a passage in the Bible or the storyline in a movie or lines in our favorite poem that we miss other parts of the story. For instance, I say, “First Corinthians 13,” you say, “the Love Chapter; read it at weddings; put it on a plaque.” But, did you know that the “Love Chapter” has important teaching on sanctification and growing in our walk with God and what happens when we see Jesus?

Psalm 23? The funeral psalm that we read as caskets go into the ground. Actually, it’s much more about life and about the abiding presence of God in good times and hard times than about death or the afterlife.

So, that brings us to First Timothy 2. This part of Paul’s letter is most often quoted regarding the office of mediator that Jesus holds due to his redeeming work on the cross or the teaching on the wardrobe and demeanor of women and their place in God’s hierarchy. But there is one pivotal verse that is often overlooked. It’s verse 8 and here’s what it says, “Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.” Wow. We could unpack this for weeks. And, yet, we often miss this critical teaching.

So, immediately, this is how I respond to this pivotal sentence.

  1. Pray – Come to God and share how you feel about what is going on in your life. Ask for his help. Cry out to God with your anxieties, pains, fears, joys, hopes and desires. Pray for those in your community and your community of faith. Ask God to open the hearts of those around you to hear the Good News that Jesus is the mediator between God and man.
  2. Lift up holy hands – what an amazing picture of our reaching out for God’s help. Coming to him with empty hands is very difficult for most of us. Sometimes God has to take away those things and people that we rely upon so that we can have holy hands to raise. They are holy because we raise them with singularity of purpose. We are lifting up our hands to God and God alone. We are saying that Jesus is our only hope for connecting to our Creator and Heavenly Father.
  3. Without anger or argument – I’m pretty much assuming that Paul’s talking about not being angry with those who around us and not while we are in the midst of an argument. It seems to be way too common that the people of God manifest anger and resentment within the church. Whether it is the attack of evil or our hiding behind our false selves, Paul says that we must shed those feelings and positions to raise our hands in prayer. Certainly, this would follow that if we are to come to God lifting our holy hands that we cannot come grasping to our hatred, disrespect or unwillingness to forgive, forget and move forward.

Won’t you join me in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument?



So, exactly how does God work to make us look and act like Jesus? The theological term sanctification is a term to describe the process of our being changed to reflect more clearly the image of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “Set apart” is a common definition of sanctification. I’ve never found a word like sanctification very satisfying or even understandable.

The more I reflect on how the Holy Spirit works in my life and the lives of others to “make all things new” I see a definite pattern at work. I didn’t come up with this pattern on my own. But when I heard it, the words immediately rung true. I heard it in an interview with Henri Nouwen conducted several years ago when he was asked to discuss his views on a variety of topics. When the topic of Communion or the Lord’s Supper came up, I was blown away by what I heard. Henri talked about the picture created by communion being a metaphor for the life of Jesus and ultimately the life of all who follow Him.

And since hearing the colors that make up the palette of that picture, I have come to see them at every turn. They are vivid in the lives of many. And the result is a beautiful portrait.

Called – Jesus was called to preach freedom to the captives. At the start of his public ministry, Jesus read from Isaiah and confirmed that the prophet’s words were about Him. He was called by God to appear as a man. Called for a mission of mercy and grace. Jesus was called to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. His calling was specific, personal and powerful.

Blessed – Right out of the gate, Jesus was marked as being God’s Beloved Son. That blessing carried Him through trials, temptations, heartache and pain. The blessing also gave Jesus vision, purpose, a powerful message and the strength to bring healing and hope to those who were sick.

Broken – Jesus was abandoned, beaten, speared and nailed to a cross. His brokenness has emerged as the very symbol of brokenness for cultures and peoples worldwide. He knew that being broken was an essential step in His mission and calling. Yet, it was painful and degrading.

Given – Indeed, Jesus life, death and resurrection was a gift to the whole world. If He had succeeded in living as a great philosophical or political leader, it would not have been enough. His life was a gift, but it was only effective after He was broken.

I’m sure you see the parallelism in Jesus’ life with the practice of the Lord’s Supper. We are called to the table, the elements are blessed, then the bread is broken as a reenactment of Jesus’ last supper with his closest friends. And also a reenactment of Jesus’ broken body and spilt blood on the cross. Then the bread and wine are given to the world. In the same way that Jesus was given as the savior of the world.

We were recently watching the Ron Howard Film, Cinderella Man, and I saw the pattern again. Based upon a true story, the boxer James J. Braddock was called to be a fighter from a young age. Braddock was blessed with success in the 1920’s as a boxer, a husband and father. Seemingly, with the stock market crash of 1929, Braddock’s career and life came crashing down. He was broken man. And he almost lost everything. He even suffered a broken hand. Through his brokenness, he learned the value of everything and his life was purified so that he could be given to the world. And he gave hope to a nation that was in great need of inspiration.

So, when I look for evidence of the sanctifying work of grace in a follower of Jesus, I look for a pattern. It is a powerful pattern that seems to be evidence of the Spirit’s work of making all things new. And I encourage you to embrace the pattern of calling, blessing, breaking and giving.

The presence of evil

We often downplay the presence of evil in our lives. Due to our sophisticated and scientific minds, we are prone to doubt that a spiritual dimension exists in our finite world. Of course, we will make some allowance for a God-oriented spiritual influence of some sort that helps us in our difficulty or may have an interest in the affairs of the world in which we dwell.

As we dismiss the role or presence of evil, we do, of course, delete large portions of the Bible that we otherwise believe to be infallible, inerrant and authoritative. Inconsistency thy name is human.

I believe there is considerable evidence that not only is evil present in our world, but that evil has an agenda. And that agenda is to seek and take out all who belong to Jesus. And we don’t have to look any further than the opening chapters of the Gospel of Matthew at the beginning of the New Testament to see powerful pictures of evil’s presence. The threat to God’s plan to purchase for himself his chosen people forced the Heavenly Father to use his strongest forms of communications: dreams, angels and Scripture.

Herod was determined to kill the baby Jesus before the Messiah could have an impact. God sent a vision to the wise men to return home a different way, he sent an angel and dreams to Joseph to go to Egypt, then to return to Israel. And as Joseph, Mary and the baby were traveling back to Israel another message came to hide out in Nazareth. All of this maneuvering was to protect Jesus from evil.

Now, years later as Jesus had grown into a man ready to fulfill his calling and purpose, he was called into the wilderness to confront the evil one straight up. Jesus was tempted to give in to the pursuit of the evil one, but through the word of his Father, the strength of the Spirit and the ministry of all of God’s resources, Jesus resisted.

So, if the presence of the attacks of evil were so obvious in the life of Jesus why do we not want to recognize those attacks on us? After all, Jesus lives in us. And it has seemed apparent that evil will try to undermine the work of Jesus whenever and wherever possible. The Apostle Peter warns us, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

Jesus and those around him listened to the voice of the Father, listened to Scripture and prayed often when faced with the attacks of evil. Jesus calls on us to watch and pray. And that includes watching out for each other. In Luke 23 we read, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen…”

The American Local Church: Love it or leave it?

Our Broken Local Churches

Sparked by a combination of reading Eric Metaxes’ Bonhoeffer biography that tells of one of our 20th Century heroes of Christendom not being a big church goer while growing up in a very devout family, and the eventual power struggles that seem to occur as local churches transition between senior pastors, I’m wondering what all the fuss is about local churches.

Do we need small, medium, large, or mega churches for Jesus Messiah’s kingdom to expand?

Do we need the large budgets going for mortgages from the tithes of the faithful?

There was a time that many churches wouldn’t keep a program or ministry going unless there was a committed laity who was leading it and helping to fund it. Seems like a reasonable expectation. But what about the “givens” when it comes to the local church? Got to have a Sunday morning worship time and some kind of program for every age and stage that is offered before or after the worship service. I don’t need to describe the local church to you… You’ve seen the picture many times. And gathering an offering every week is critical to fund the building that houses the activity and pays the staff who organize and create content for the church programs.

So, things are cruising along, but then your pastor gets a call from another church. Should he go or stay? Let’s say he goes. So, you have an interim situation. The deacons, elders, or board members form a search committee and look for another pastor. So, a cross-section of the church members form a group of 5-15 to begin the search. They pray, set goals, write a profile, listen to sermons on CD or online and eventually agree on the guy to call. Everyone is excited. We’re tired of the interim pastor or the assistant pastors who aren’t good at preaching. New energy, new opportunities, new people.

But, whoa, hold on a second. This new guy is not like the old guy or the guy I like online. I think the search committee made a mistake. Now what do we do? Did we call this guy or did God? Our last pastor decided to leave, but this one hasn’t.

… What happens next is a chronic problem in American churches. And it doesn’t look Christian or even communal at all. It’s a power struggle. And most pastors didn’t learn much about it in seminary. And the church leaders are not sure how to handle it either. So, it becomes an opportunity for the devil.

What to do in a local church crisis
The way that Satan works is not surprising or unknowable to us. We’ve seen him doing this kind of thing for centuries. We also know how we are wounded and how we develop protective strategies and a false self or pose. We are pretty simple creatures. Our brains receive input and we act on it. We are scared, we respond with our pose. The status quo is shaken by disagreement over direction or personnel, and we react with our protective strategy. We try to control instead of trust and things go haywire. So, my first suggestion of what to do if you find yourself in this situation is: keep inviting men and women into your discipleship or small group ministry. This is the Gospel being pressed into the psyche and our inner being.

My second response is keep living in the present. Worship our savior, today. Pray for peace, today. Look for someone to help, today. Forget the past and don’t get caught up in “what if’s” of the future.

What evil uses?

I’ve been reflecting over this one for a while. We are a culture of spiritual scientists. Since the 1950s, our educational system has been focused on teaching us the scientific method. You know, gather data, systematically analyze, and come to conclusions. A+B=C. [That is not the way of the Holy Spirit. That is not the way of the gospel]. Most of evangelical Christendom and its leadership has been built through para-church ministries. I was part of one, you were likely part of one. So, we learn to show our intelligence through criticizing or reducing things to a formula. We learn to impress others by what we know. How we can break things down. And much of para-church discipleship is build around an odd mix of apologetics, doctrine and behavior. We do this in evangelical and reformed circles ALL of the time.

The local church’s leadership is full of guys and gals who came to faith in para-church ministries, who learned a bit of doctrine, what kind of speakers they liked and came to the conclusion that A+B=C. We thought that we had Christianity figured out. God was in a box. Our box. My box. I feel bad means I need to do something good. I need to pray, have a long quiet time, invite a co-worker to lunch. Be nice to my kids. Give away some money. Take my pain to Jesus? And look like an idiot? No, thank you. Believe that God loves me anyway? I don’t think so.

My third response is take your pain to Jesus. Don’t try to do something to fix the problem. Ask God to fix it. Because by “fix IT” I mean fix PEOPLE. And we can’t fix people. Remember our battle is not against flesh and blood. It is against the unseen powers of philosophy and systems that set themselves up against God.

Many local churches are led by the same folks who distinguish themselves in the community or market place. We are led lawyers, accountants, doctors and managers. We fix problems, count things, and try to control outcomes. We live in a world of black and white. Right and wrong. We are proud of the manifold success of someone who is paid well in the market place and is a leader in the church. “Wow, we must be a cool church. We have all of these successful professional people in it.”

My fourth response is read the Beatitudes [Matthew 5]. I mean, really read them and take them at face value. Don’t use some interpretation that takes away their sting and power. God doesn’t use the proud. He just doesn’t. There’s no room for Him at many churches. Satan, on the other hand, loves pride because he knows that it has no real power.

We have to go through hard times financially. It is the method of last resort by the Spirit of God. We worship what we can do with money. We love the feeling of security, of peace of mind, of success that it gives us. It does not bring us closer to God. In fact, it is just the opposite. The lack of money brings us closer to God. God loves us and will use whatever means possible to woo us back to Him and to pull us away from evil. The sooner we get to a point financially that we have no hope in money or people, the sooner we see hearts turn to Jesus and His offer of his broken body and shed blood. This is the ultimate black and white, life and death, and Jesus will stop at nothing to win back our hearts.

It’s a wonderful day to sit before our Risen Savior. It’s a wonderful day to do the work of ministry. It is a wonderful day that the Lord has given us.

Being known versus the hidden life

Several months ago, I told the pastor of my local church that I wanted to teach a series on “The Balanced Christian Life”. He rolled his eyes and said, “Please don’t call it that. Even though I know what you’re going to be talking about and it’s not that tired topic, that theme has been done to death and rarely applies to most of us. God grows us in so many different ways.”

He was right, of course, but what I was trying to put forward was the reality of our public and private lives. There is both a rhythm and necessary balance to our lives to move us toward wholeness or shalom. When Jesus came to earth to live, suffer, die and resurrect, the first 30 years of his life were “hidden” and are basically unknown to us. We know from a few mentions in Scripture that he was growing, learning, working, and interacting. In Luke 2:51-52, we read, “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them… And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Did those hidden years have value? Was he being prepared for an intensive three years of very public life? Of course he was. And, yes, those years had tremendous value.

So, what can we learn from Jesus about the value of balance between private and public time in our development, growth and fruitfulness as a follower of the Messiah? When we are living a hidden life we are more open to God’s Word and God’s voice. There is no doubt that Jesus enjoyed fellowship with his heavenly Father in times of quietness and solitude. And we may do the same. While I believe that the inner dialogue we enjoy with the Spirit of God in us knows no boundaries of time and place, my experience has taught me that sitting quietly in my office or on a park bench or kneeling by a chair produce times of rich communication and peace in the midst of chaos. Most of us live noisy lives and we have grown accustomed to praying while driving to work or crying out to God as we rush from one appointment to the next. You don’t have to read too far in the Gospel of Mark to see that Jesus was a man on the move. We can identify with him in that. But, even for the Chosen One of God, there were times when at the end of a busy day everyone went home, but Jesus went to a quiet place (John 8:1) like the Mount of Olives. And the next morning, Jesus was surrounded by people who wanted to hear him teach.

During his times of solitude, we know that Jesus spoke with his Father about how he felt, about his concerns and desires for close friends and family. We also know that Jesus discussed strategy and expressed his own fears. He expressed love and respect. I assume that we should speak the same way with our heavenly Father, with the Spirit and with our brother Jesus. [Every time I write that or say that I get caught up in the unbelievable beauty and grace of having Jesus as our brother. Wow.] So, there is an aspect of our lives that requires solitude and being hidden so that we can seek the healing of the Trinity, so that we can be covered with the protection and compassion of our Creator.

Personally, I believe this is so important that God will slow us down through suffering, through disappointment, through circumstances or through tragedy. And even then, sometimes, we still don’t get it. My friends, ask God to slow you down. Ask him to repair your heart. It is the way of wholeness and shalom. And ask him for ears to hear and eyes to see. My friend Henri Nouwen said, “In hiddenness, we do not receive human acclamation, admiration, support or encouragement. In hiddenness we have to go to God with our sorrows and joys and trust that God will give us what we most need.

There is also a time to be known. Now, I’m not just talking about living a public life and being in the mainstream of society. Certainly, we desire to be a good citizen and we may want to make a contribution to society. In essence, we also want to fulfill our role in God’s larger story. But, the being known that I’m speaking of has to do with being able to shed our false self or pose and being able to let a few trusted folks know who we really are and who we really desire to be. Over the past few years, I’ve seen the great value of being known by God and by some family and friends in a much deeper way.

Ever since I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together some 25 years ago, I have longed to experience the kind of togetherness he described. And in the past few years, I’ve been privileged to taste that kind of togetherness through sharing some of my burdens with others. I’ve learned that suffering is a catalyst for community and that I miss out on rich fellowship when I chose to keep my story to myself.

The Apostles teach us to confess our sins to each other so that we can be healed and we are to bear one another’s burdens. But for most of us that seems like a mountain too high to climb. The risk of shame, the fear of pain and the anxiety of being misunderstood cut us off like an 18-wheeler changing lanes on I-75. Just when we were about to ease over—boom! We’re frozen and can’t speak.

Friends, there is more. There is more to life than we are experiencing today. Since the idea of a “bucket list” has become a popular metaphor for life’s greatest aspirations or fantastical experiences, add this to yours: Be known. Take the risk and trust a few friends with your pains and joys. Peace and freedom will follow.

Next time I’ll share another perspective on the balanced life: solitude, community and service.

Why I’ve Read So Many Books by Henri Nouwen

Since September of 2009, I’ve read all of these books by Henri J. M. Nouwen. I’ve also read a couple of books about Nouwen.

1. Turn My Mourning Into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times
2. Intimacy: Essays in Pastoral Psychology
3. Beloved: Henri Nouwen in Conversation with Phillip Roderick
4. Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life
5. Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life
6. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
7. The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence
8. Letters to Marc About Jesus: Living a Spiritual Life in a Material World
9. With Open Hands
10. A Spirituality of Fundraising
11. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming
12. Creative Ministry
13. Here and Now: Living in the Spirit
14. Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith
15. The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom
16. Home Tonight: Further Reflections on The Parable of The Prodigal Son
17. Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith

There have been a couple of times in my life when my mental or spiritual appetite was such that reading a book by one author struck such a chord that I had to read more. Just a few years ago this happened with leadership expert and allegorical business writer Patrick Lencioni. After reading one of his books, I wanted to read the next one.

With Henri Nouwen, there was something deeper happening. Nouwen’s words spoke to my soul in a rare and powerful way. His experience with God raised a recollection in my spirit. A recollection that I had only begun to experience again after several years of dormancy. Dialogue with God.

Having the need for a spiritual coach, director or mentor is real throughout our lives. For many, the local church does not provide the level of tutelage we need. Ultimately, we rely upon the Spirit of God to speak to our true self. But where do we start? How do we open ourselves to the voice of God? The community of faith is a community of sharing. Experiences, resources and stories are shared like the proverbial beggar sharing with his fellow travelers where to find bread.

In a future post, I’ll share how God led me to a Nouwen book that helped shape my experience with God and my openness to Him. And, then, how my resonance with Nouwen’s writings led me closer to the heart of God. Suffice to say that God is near to us and desires to open our ears and hearts to His voice of love.

House Castles – circa 2009

A man’s house is his castle,
Unless he lives urban residential.
House after house goes down
making way for manors of destiny.

Living on a Cul de sac is the way to peacefulness,
But trucks and trailers live here too.
Nomads of modernity that park overnight and are gone at dawn.
Laborers come and go as bidden by the chariot drivers
With their two-ways beeping and radios blaring.

Who owns this neighborhood?
Pay three thirds to feather his nest.
Developers have replaced bounty hunters?
Realtors put up the posters.

Electric-powered hammers and saws
Replaced the crickets and birds.
Yellow 4WDs have overcome the daffodils.
Whippoorwills overshadowed by sanders and mixers.

Another’s property rights have taken away our living rights.
Day after day, week after week, month after month
and year after year. The drone and dirt of construction 24/7.

We moved to a bigger house and a bigger yard in a nicer neighborhood to have a better life.
To raise our children and help them through school we wanted
A peaceful place, a retreat from the battles of life.
We expected it for more than 5 years.

© Jimmy Locklear 2011

A Reason to Take Action

I recently listened to a sermon by Rev. Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Church, titled “Holy Discontent” and was powerfully inspired by stories he shared. Here’s a link to the free download I believe the purpose of the talk was to connect us to what God is calling us to do vocationally through a powerful emotion: anger. And by vocation I don’t necessarily mean our job or work, but rather what we must do to fulfill the role God has for us in His story. It’s bigger than a job, but it might be a part of your job.

I was attracted to Bill Hybels website since I had recently read his book The Power of a Whisper. I’ve read others of his books, listened to sermons and actually worshipped at Willow Creek Church several years ago. In reading “Whisper” it became apparent that Hybels listens to God and that has made all the difference in his life and ministry. So, it was doubly interesting to me that Bill’s sermon is anchored in the story of the anger Moses felt at the oppression of his people, the Israelis, by the Egyptians. And the sermon is co-anchored in, well, the cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man. So, I commend the sermon to you.

Here’s what the message brought to me as the Holy Spirit applied the stories and images to my own experience. The Lord helped me see that I am angered that Christians don’t feel how much God loves them and know that He has a role for them to play in His larger story. And non-believers don’t realize or know that God is very near to them. Part of the reason that I know those are passions of mine is because I begin to weep when I share them with someone. It stirs my soul because I’ve experienced that unconditional love.

In reading Exodus 3-4, I see this amazing story played out in living color. A couple of things struck me. Moses passion to see his people set free was burning deep within his heart for decades. I’m sure he must’ve wondered if he was ever going to get to live out of that anger and emotion. Finally, it would become clear that God shared his concern for the Israeli people and He heard their groaning and their cries for help. So, God had to break into Moses’ routine to get his attention and whisper His message to Moses. God is so creative and puts a flame in a bush near where Moses was working and speaks from it. Then there is remarkable dialogue between God and Moses that leads to a negotiated action plan.

So, here’s a formulaic analysis of what we see here.

Moses’ anger x Time + God hearing cries of Israelis (remembering His promise) = Action plan

Pretty amazing story. Nothing exciting going on in your life? When was the last time you got angry about injustice or something lacking in your domain? When do you see a lack of understanding or love or food or water or clothing or God’s Word? Want to see some action in your life? Get angry about something and take that anger to God and see what He does.