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Saturday, 31 March 2012 15:13

The Arc of Life

The Arc of Life

- Living life at any age -

As I turn 40 today, I can’t help but get a bit philosophical about life and its natural course.

As a pastor I work with people of all ages and from all places of life. On any given day, I’ll counsel teens, young adults, middle aged people and senior citizens. I’ve prayed with prostitutes and politicians, dined with drug dealers and doctors; and while I still have much to learn about life, I have a unique perspective that seems worthy of mentioning.

Because I have spent so much time with people of such an array of stations in life, I’ve observed something I’m calling the “Arc of Life.” What I mean by this term is that there is a natural rhythm of life that keeps pace with us, and even limits us, to what we can or should be doing at any given time. I began seeing this arc of life as I have had the chance to develop such close relationships with people of so many different ages and accomplishments. What I’ve seen is that there is a natural arc to life, an arc of productivity, an arc of family, an arc for things of God.

The book of Ecclesiastes has a passage (made famous in the 60’s by Bob Dylan and The Byrds) that speaks to this arc:

Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—2 A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. 3 A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up. 4 A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance. 5 A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing. 6 A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away. 7 A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak. 8 A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.

Now you’ll see in this passage that God has ordained certain times for certain activities. There may be a degree of flexibility from person to person, but by and large, life in alignment with the Lord follows this arc: preparation> production> concentration> transition. I have found that our modern society that seeks to throw off all restrictions—people no longer think in terms of proper times and proper seasons. But whether or not we understanding it, our lives follow this arc. The less we live in harmony with it, the less peace and joy we’ll find.

In a nutshell, the arc begins with childhood—this is where children learn about life, about values, about work and play, etc. The lessons they learn here propel them into early adulthood.

Then, in early adulthood people decide upon their course for life. They refine their skills and step away from the edge of the pool and start swimming. Along the way they pick up a spouse, have children, and settle down. They are moving up the arc.

In their middle-aged years (from about 30-50) they are living in a renaissance of personal productivity. They are producers—making something, having an impact, seeing results. They are full of activity—if it can be done, they will do it. Should it be done? Maybe/maybe not, but they’ll give it a try. The folks have time, resources, vision and passion. They are nearly at the top of the arc.

But I have seen—when a person is following God’s natural arc—somewhere between 50 and 60 years old, rather than the typical notion of “slowing down” that the world pounds into our thinking, instead when a person has properly followed this arc, during this time they will enter into a realm of purified productivity—they are ultra productive, but not existing in a realm of hectic activity. They will be wise and seasoned. They will know what matters. They will still have resources of energy and vision to accomplish great things; but they will have the added blessing of seeing life from an eternal perspective. They start marking days and years and realizing that they can leave a legacy if they focus on the right things. They have the discernment to leave behind things that waste time, and they focus on what will count for eternity. Now they are at the top of the arc.

Where they go from here depends on how they have gotten here. If they have followed God’s arc to this point, they are rich with perspective and wisdom. They have much to offer others and seek to pass the baton on to the next generation of leaders. Their joy is found in giving away the riches God has given to them. They have much to offer and people come to them to receive. They continue to lead, but they lead into the twilight, lighting the way for those who follow, and because so few today have followed God’s arc to this point, many people gaze at these saints with love, joy, respect and gratitude.

This is the arc. It is an arc filled with hope, optimism and peace. It’s an arc most could follow, but few choose.

The more I interact with people, the more I see how living out of balance with this arc causes great misery. It seems as though society has increasingly derailed good people from this perspective. Society, with its sophomoric wisdom, tells itself that it can ignore this arc, that there are more immediate ways to happiness, that we shouldn’t be bound by such naïve notions. Yet people wonder why our misery continues to rise, our contentment continues to lower, and we increasingly descend into despair—especially as we age. Life is painful and without knowing their place on the arc, they forsake hope and give up.

And that’s why I thought I’d take a moment to write this post—for many people reading it—there is still time to redirect efforts and recognize our place on the arc.

First and foremost, the Lord needs to be at the center of our lives. Back in High School, I thought I was pretty cool by saying that God was my Co-Pilot. What I didn’t realize then is that a statement like this is simply foolishness. God IS the Lord and master of ALL life—even if we ignore Him or deny this truth. I can say I don’t believe in gravity, but it still dominates everything I do. God is not our co-pilot, He is THE pilot! He has determined the course of our days and the times and places we live. He is moving us along this arc whether or not we admit it. Unless we are surrendered to Him, we’re going to find that each stage of the arc is frustratingly toilsome. We’ll be out of sync with God’s natural rhythms of life.

We’re like a blind person, sitting in a canoe, being carried down a stream. We don’t know where the stream is going and we can’t see where we are, but we’re paddling with all our might into the darkness. The solution is to recognize what God is doing and let Him lead. This kind of trust and knowledge of God requires that we are reconciled to Him. It’s not enough to be fatalistic and just “go with the flow”. It’s more than that—we need to surrender and do God’s will. This means we need to be in a right relationship with Him.

How do we do this? Well, here’s the basics: God is holy and pure and dwells in absolute purity and perfection. Therefore, He can’t have any sin in His presence—otherwise, it wouldn’t be perfect any more. But sadly, each of us sin, each of us do things that are not like God. This means two things: we are out of fellowship with God here and now, and when we die, we will be out of fellowship with God forever (e.g. we go away from God because we can’t enter into His presence). If we are not in fellowship with God here, we are off His path for our lives.

But God wants us in fellowship with Him, God wants us near. So He sent His son, Jesus, to earth to be our atonement. Jesus was perfect—like God—never sinning. His death on the cross was to shed His life for us; to cover us with His perfection. This is His gift to us: eternal life. We don’t earn this, like any gift, we receive it when we reach out for it by faith. We confess to God we have sinned. We ask Him to be the Lord of our lives and turn us from the things that break our fellowship with Him. Once we recognize and submit to Him as the Lord of our lives, His presence and grace infuses everything we do and He enables us to live out His plan for us. Thus we walk the arc, fulfilling His will, experiencing His peace, knowing our lives are pleasing to Him.

Let’s get back to the arc of life…so, how do we teach it to our children? First, we need to connect our kids to the Lord at a young age. From this root stems a successful life (that is, one that is successful in the eyes of God). When God is at the center of our lives, we fulfill each stage of the arc with His hand guiding us and His strength working within us. We have peace knowing that each season is operating unto God and He will not fail to accomplish His will for us.

As we enter into young adulthood, we get equipped for a life of usefulness and productivity. During these years, we need to hold Christ at the center of our lives to keep from getting off His arc. The world is full of wild lures, seeking to draw us from God’s arc for our lives. Countless people burn through these equipping years without gaining the tools they need to really live. The result is the rest of their lives, they feel like they are playing catch-up, never quite in step with the pace of life.

Likewise, we need Christ at the center of our lives as we steam through the middle-aged years. These are the years when we can accomplish so much for eternity. These are the years when we make an impact. These are the years when we accomplish what we’ll be remembered for. Yet how many people rage through these years and just as they leave this era, they look back suddenly realizing the moment has past and the days were squandered? The old rock band, Rush, wrote a song called “Anthem”—I remember singing its key lyrics: “Live for yourself, there’s no one else more worthy living for”. But if this is our anthem, regret will eventually come like the plague.

But if Christ is the center of our lives during these years, we’ll have tremendous productivity—not just in our workplace, but in our homes and in our churches. We’ll go on Short Term Missions trips. We’ll sacrifice to fund overseas church planting. We’ll volunteer for a crisis ministry. We’ll do things that matter.

As we get older, if Christ is at the center of the arc, when we enter those Golden Years—we’ll find they truly are golden. Not because they are without pain or worry (likely, our pain and discomfort will increase) but rather we’ll have a life-time of godly wisdom that we can pour into our children and others in our family and in our church. We’ll have wisdom validated by a life well-lived and people will be blessed in our hearing.

And lastly, when we enter those twilight years—if Christ has been at the center of our lives, we’ll have known that we have spent them for eternity. We’ll see and know that time is short. We’ll have peace and contentment knowing that life has not been wasteful toil, but rather joyful Christ-filled service. We will have been connected to Christ, the Vine (Jesus taught about this in John chapter 15), for our entire lives and will rejoice in the hundred-fold harvest of fruitfulness as Christ has lived our His life through us.

From here, for God’s people, there will be no “end” that awaits us, but rather a beginning—a beginning of the next phase of life (REAL life) where we walk with Christ face-to-face, in glory, without the weight of sin; where we can fellowship with Him and His people with purity and joy. We will step into eternity in harmony with the arc of life, knowing that indeed God has always been faithful.

So beloved, like it or not, you are on this arc. How are you doing? Is Christ guiding you on the path? Is He the Lord of your life in all His entirety? If you are young, are you gathering the resources to live life well? If you are middle-aged, are you maximizing the productivity of these days? If you’re in your golden years, are you using your wisdom and remaining reserves for eternity? Are you in the twilight years? Are you looking forward to forever with the Lord letting these last days be spent in fellowship with Him and His people? I prayerfully hope so.

The arc of life…to follow it in righteousness is to know peace and joy and productivity. To fight against it is to know toil, frustration and ultimately despair. If you have not aligned with God’s arc for your life, now is the day for repentance. Now is the day to let Him be the Lord and surrender to His will.

Again, if you’re not sure, here’s how:

Begin by praying to God and recognizing that He is holy and right about what is good and righteous. Recognize that you have not lived with absolute purity before Him. Recognize that when you measure yourself against His purity, He has every right to cast you from Him into Hell. But also recognize that He has provided His Son Jesus in your place. Jesus lived a perfect life and when He died, He died as a substitute for God’s people—that way, God’s holiness and justice are preserved, and we can be forgiven. Call out to God for forgiveness. Repent and turn your life to follow His ways. That means knowing what the Bible says by reading it. That means doing what the Bible says. That means joining with a church and getting involved. That means talking with Him in prayer and listening to His Spirit.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably not too late to align yourselves with God’s arc of life. If you do that, while I won’t guarantee that life will go perfectly, I can guarantee that God will be with you and strengthen you to accomplish and persevere through all that He brings your way.

Thanks and God Bless.

Those are my thoughts, I’d love to hear yours.

Published in Blog
Monday, 27 February 2012 10:54

Touched by a Holy God

Touched by A Holy God

In Exodus 29, the Lord gives Moses an intricate process of consecrating the priests and their equipment for use in the tabernacle. Verse 33 contains the non-politically correct teaching that no one except for priests can eat of the sacrifices, because these sacrifices are holy.

Now, on the one hand, we might simply accept this injunction and move on. Or we might think this makes sense and equally dismiss it. But this point begins to take on a special meaning for God’s children. You see, down in verse 37, God also states that anyone or anything that inadvertently touches these holy items become holy as well. Again, we might miss what is really being said here.

The key to two these statements, and their profound implications for our lives as Christians, is that whoever touches a holy, consecrated item is sanctified by that item. This means that it is forever enlisted into the use of God. A holy garment touching holy things must always be used only for God. It has been set apart, it is now defined by God, it can no longer be used for common uses. It is now God’s, and is now surrendered to Him to be used only for His desires and purposes.

If a knife was used in the tabernacle, since it was now holy, it could not be used to carve the Thanksgiving Turkey. If a bowl was used in the tabernacle, it could no longer be used for Fruit Loops. If a shirt was used in the tabernacle, it could no longer be worn to a Jets game.

Now let’s fast-forward to the New Testament and turn to 1 Peter chapter 2. Throughout this chapter, Peter argues that we are living stones being built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood unto God (1 Peter 2:5). Later in verse 9, Peter states that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.

Peter weaves the teaching from Exodus on holiness into our identity as those who have called upon Christ as our Savior. We are now “living stones” in the holy temple of God. We are holy and thus not to be used for common purposes. We are a holy nation—a separate nation, and thus, we are a people “for God’s own possession.” Just like in the Old Testament when something touched the holy altar of God, we have been touched by the Holy One who laid Himself eternally upon the altar. And since we have been touched by Christ, we have been set apart. Our lives are no longer dedicated to the common purposes of everyday life.

And thus, Peter builds upon these ideas and tells us, therefore “as aliens and strangers abstain from fleshly lusts (vs 11)…keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles (vs 12)…submit yourselves to the Lord (vs 13).” His point is that we have been set apart by God for God’s work. We are no longer ourselves. We’re like that bowl used in the temple—once we’ve touched the holy things of God, we can no longer return to our previous lives. Things are different, things have changed. We are now surrendered to God and are bound in service to Him.

So have you been touched by God? Has His loving hand reached into your life and drawn you to Him? If so, consider yourself consecrated unto Him. Consider yourself placed in His temple. Surrender your entire life to Him. Every part must be holy and dedicated to Him. From now on, this will bring you your greatest joy and fulfillment.

If you have yet to surrender to God, realize that this calling is not toilsome drudgery, but rather the fulfillment of your highest purposes in life. Apart from God, we can do nothing that truly lasts or satisfies. God has designed it to be this way. He created us with a “God shaped” hole in our heart that nothing else can fill. But when we come to Him and surrender to Him, and consecrate ourselves to Him, we find the greatest strength, peace and joy we’ll ever know. Jesus Himself said, “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be made full (John 15:11).” Life will still have trials, but when we go through them consecrated to God and His purposes, His grace and joy courses through us even in the midst of them.

How do you surrender to God? Understand that first, you have not been surrendered to Him until now. Confess to Him in prayer that you have lived for yourself and your purposes. Recognize that He is holy and that you cannot stand in His presence because of your sin (Habakkuk 1:13; Isaiah 59:2). Recognize that Jesus is God’s holy sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:23-28). Call out to Him for forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Romans 10:9 tells us that “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” And with this salvation comes a whole new life (1 Corinthians 5:17), a life now dedicated to God and blessed by God. A new adventure living for Him and doing His will.

Well, these are my thoughts, I’d love to hear yours.

Thanks and God Bless,

Russ

Published in Blog
Monday, 04 April 2011 09:08

Personal Preparation Before Big Events

As I'm reading through the Bible in a year, I've come across several passages that indicate the need to personally prepare before large events. In thinking about my own life, when heading into a major week/event/project, I myself often have the sense that I need take extra measures to cleanse my heart/mind/life of all that would perhaps diminish the presence and power of the Lord in my life.

This principle really galvanized for me during my two years working on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Each week was a whirlwind of spiritual battle, so palpable that it was almost physical. I often used to say that in terms of demons--if drugs brought the presence of the demonic realm, and with 50,000 people doing hard drugs all around, then it was likely that I was serving amidst the darkest cloud of the enemy in the world.That dark cloud was evident every week I was there.

There were countless times that I felt God's hand wrapping me in His protection. There was the time when the drug-crazed prostitute came charging down the street with a 14" butcher knife swinging it at every person she saw. I was talking with a guy about the Lord and held my position. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she charged right past me but without thrusting it at me.

Then there was the time two guys got into a fight during the final prayer of our church service. Knives were drawn and I had to essentially and literally come between them.

Those were formative moments in my walk and ministry because I had to either stand by the protection of Christ or cower in fear. There were countless other times where various situations would arise. I've saw real knife fights, much nudity, pimps dragging prostitutes, gangs, etc. There were days when I'd say the wrong thing to the wrong person and I'd have a very powerful sense that the person was going to try to take me out sometime soon (I think one time they might have even tried, but that's a different story). Indeed, when I took over the children's ministry there was a need because the women who was doing the children's ministry was murdered by knife right in front of the kids.

But having said this, most of the daily/weekly spiritual warfare was not for physical protection, but rather to deliver these poor souls from the clutches of Satan. Countless lives were transformed. Countless people surrendered their lives to Christ. Prostitutes (literally) were getting clean and becoming righteous women. Drunks were getting sober and returning to their responsibilities. The lazy were working. The embittered were finding peace. Lives were changing. It was a glorious (albeit extremely difficult) ministry.

So the presence of evil was real and the power of God shone with an almost literal brightness. And I found that if I sanctified the Lord in my life before going downtown, then great things would happen. I'd be protected from serious harm. Prostitutes would pray to receive Christ. Drunks would confess their pride and laziness. Yet, if I just went down to Skid Row without much personal preparation, it was a lame, frustrating afternoon. Doors would be closed. Minds would be darkened. Hearts would be hardened. Nothing would happen. Early on, it became crystal clear that if anything was going to happen, it had to be of God and God was only going to work if I sanctified Him as Lord in my heart through prayer and confession and surrender.

Returning back to the Bible, I see this same principle in scripture. Here are some examples:

In Exodus 4:24-27 there is a strange passage where God is angry with Moses. At first blush, it doesn't make sense. God has just met Moses in the burning bush and called him to deliver the Jews from Pharaoh. Moses, with some reluctance, agrees to God's purposes and designs, knowing that it will mean hardship for him and his people. So you'd think that God would be pleased with Moses and ready to empower him. But that's not the case. Instead, the text says in verse 24 "Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death." Wow, that's a pretty significant turn of events. For years that passage puzzled me until I understood the next verse more fully.

The next verse says "Then Zipporah (Moses wife) took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and threw it at Moses' feet..." The heart of this text is basically: Moses was disobedient towards God in one of the simplest and most basic demonstrations of obedience: circumcision. If God was going to use Moses to deliver the Jews, then as the leader, Moses needed to be in full compliance with of all of His holy laws. Yet Moses was impure in this most essential area. Since Moses was also going to go into a massive spiritual battle with Pharaoh, then Moses needed all of God's presence and power. Yet God will not be with those who disobey Him. There needed to be personal sanctification in Moses life before the victory was the Lord's.

In a similar, but different passage, Joshua was about to cross over the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. Moses was now dead and the Jews were looking to Joshua as God's newly appointed leader. Joshua sent word to the people gathered in the east wilderness of the Jordan River: "Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you." Indeed, that idea there was to purify and cleanse themselves of all that they knew would displease God. No doubt the people obeyed.

Then, a few pages later, the Jews crossed over the Jordan and were ready to attack the city of Jericho. This would prove to be one of the most amazing displays of God's power in all of scripture. The massive city walls--considered impermeable in the day--would fall flat at the command of God. Yet prior to marching around the city, God told Joshua in chapter 5:2-7 that he needed to once again circumcise the men. Apparently, they had been lax in this rite--again. So the people obeyed God, did as they were instructed, and a few days later Jericho was theirs.

So all of this is to say that I think the principle is clear from scripture: God calls us to be sanctified and cleansed as we embark upon work that only He can do. I believe that we are all called to step out in faith, rely upon God, and engage in work that is infused with His power and grace. If we do not, then our "works" will not endure into eternity. For only those things that we do for Christ and with Christ will last forever (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). Yet in order for us to have the presence of Christ in our lives, we need to be fully surrendered to Him. This is not to say that we make ourselves pure--for that can only come when we have been clothed in Christ's righteousness though faith when we trust in His payment on the cross for our sins (Philippians 3:9). But still, in daily living, we must be fully surrendered to His Lordship so that His Spirit might have full control of our heart, mind and soul. And then, when Christ is fully sanctified as Lord in our lives (1 Peter 3:15) then we will see Him do great things among us. When we embark upon God's work in our lives, we must be fully surrendered and sanctified to Him.
Published in Blog
As Hurricane Earl looms off the eastern coast, and as we're on top of the fifth year anniversary of Katrina, I'm amazed at how the news coverage omits the huge response from churches around the country for several years following Katrina.
Like so many churches, our church sent a group down to New Orleans in 2007. We were working with a large church in the area that had converted one massive building into a barracks-style housing for churches to use. We all slept in a common area divided by canvass walls, ate in a make-shift cafeteria, and each day lined up to receive our day's assignments.
While we were there, perhaps as many as a half dozen people off the street--people whom we were not helping and people whom were not expressed Christians--people kept on saying to us, "Thank you for coming, we so need you. It's not the government that's rebuilding New Orleans, it's churches like you coming from around the country. Thank you!"

I can remember one morning when we were at that church that served as our base camp. One morning, the senior pastor came and addressed our group. His whole message as to thank us and say how important it was that we and other churches were involved with the relief effort. At the time, I assumed his words were graciously acknowledging our volunteer efforts, but still, just niceties.
But later in the week, as we were shopping in the downtown area, I was amazed at the gratitude expressed by the New Orleans public. On several occasions, people such as vendors and store keepers would ask who we were and what we were doing, and we would explain we were a church group coming down to help.
Now this was in 2007, two full years after the hurricane. Yet, I was amazed at how many were nearly tearful in thanking us for coming down. They all echoed the same thought, almost word for word: "It's not the government that's rebuilding New Orleans, or all these other organizations, it's the churches." They all expressed bitterness and frustration at the system, but gratitude that God's people were above political posturing and were just getting the work done.
Yet, in all the years of coverage, you'd hardly know the churches from around the country even were there. Or that we were there for years following Katrina, helping out, cleaning up, repainting, restoring, renewing. God's people were not flashy, but they were getting the work done.

This reminds me of a great quote I recently came across from Albert Einstein and how the church stood against Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II:

“When National Socialism came to Germany I looked to the universities to defend freedom, knowing they had always boasted of their devotion of the truth. They were immediately silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials had proclaimed love of freedom. They were silenced in a few short weeks. I looked to the individual writers who had written much of the place of freedom in modern life. They too were mute. Only the churches stood squarely across Hitler’s campaign to suppress truth. I never had special interest in the church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration, because the church alone had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”

The church has always stood for what is true, right and just. Maybe not alway super popular, maybe not always with the most articulate sound bite, but God uses us to bring real ministry to a lost world. Praise God it's being done and He sees the labors of His people, even if the news corps do not.
Published in Blog