I had tried several times, with little success, to propagate some of my favorite roses. Propagating is the process of planting a stem cut from an existing rose bush to obtain a new bush. When the stem is placed in the soil, it will develop new roots to support and sustain itself. I wasn’t totally unsuccessful, but the few times I tried to replicate a few of my rose bushes, it seemed that the new roots took so long to develop that the stem died before the roots were able to nourish it.
It wasn’t until this year that I learned what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t wounding the stems. I know this may sound counterintuitive, but I discovered that I had to injure the cutting before planting it to get healthy roots. This year, before placing the cuttings in the soil, I scraped away the thorns on the lower half of my cuttings and pealed back small portions of the dark green outer layer exposing the bright white wood underneath. According to the dictionary, this layer known as Cambium is a layer between the xylem and the phloem that gives rise to new cells and is responsible for secondary growth. In laymen’s terms, wounding the stem and exposing the white stuff encourages new growth and enables the cutting to establish roots faster. The roots grow from the wounds.
The spiritually minded man cannot make this discovery without seeing the correlating spiritual metaphor. When God chooses a stem for Himself and cuts it away from its native branch, He is always wise enough to wound it before planting it. He does this not because He is harsh but because He knows that the stem will not survive without roots, and without wounds, the roots will never form. It is the wounding that we endure that causes our roots to go deep into the soil and establish us in the grace of God. When God wounds, He does it not so that we will die but so that we will survive and thrive. My friend, if you feel God has cut you, remember He did it because He loves you and wants to see you bloom. He wounds the cutting to establish it and establishes it to enable it to achieve prize-winning roses.
Joshua, chapter 11, records a drastic command issued by God to Joshua. The order was given in the context of an impending battle. Jabin, the king of Hazor, heard how God had fought for Israel at the battle of Gibeon. If anyone wondered, the battle left no doubt as to whose side Heaven was on. In Joshua, chapter 10, the Scripture records that God cast the gathered coalition of the five kings into absolute chaos. Not only did He throw them into confusion, but He also lobbed large hailstones from heaven, crushing Israel’s enemies to the ground. The Bible tells us that more died from the attack God launched from the sky than died from the attack Israel launched with the sword.
If there was any remaining question about where God stood, one final sign silenced any vestiges of doubt. Seeing the day was passing and there was still much ground to be taken, Joshua prayed a bold and breathtaking prayer, “Sun stand still over Gibeon and moon over the valley of Aijalon” (Joshua 10:12). So impressed was God with such an audacious faith, He slowed the earth’s rotation to a crawl. The sun did not set that evening. In fact, it appeared to stand still for nearly a whole extra day. Never was there a day like that before or since.
These true accounts that proved God was enlisted in the army of Israel caused Jabin’s throne to rattle as he trembled in fear. Fear often causes men to do stupid things. When Jabin heard this news, rather than surrendering, he gathered the most incredible coalition of the day together to fight against Israel. Joshua 11:4 tells us that the multitude was as vast as the sand on the seashore. Interestingly, the Scripture doesn’t only note the number of men; it also reveals that accompanying this multitude of men was a vast number of horses and chariots.
It was in this context that God issued the order I have previously mentioned. Joshua 11:5-6 says, “And when all these kings had met together, they came and camped together at the waters of Merom to fight against Israel. But the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Do not be afraid because of them, for tomorrow about this time I will deliver all of them slain before Israel. You shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.’”
We expect to hear God say things like, “Do not be afraid,” or, “I will deliver all of them slain before Israel.” Still, the end of verse six is somewhat suspicious and unexpected. Why was it necessary for Israel to hamstring the horses and burn the chariots? Doesn’t this seem like a waste of life and technology? The lightweight horse and chariot were the most advanced weapons of the day. However, that is likely exactly why they had to be destroyed.
Allow me to explain. Psalm 20:6-7 says, “Now I know that the LORD saves His anointed; He will answer him from His holy heaven with the saving strength of His right hand. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.”
I think God commanded this seemingly drastic action because He did not want Israel to adopt and depend on enemy weapons to defend against enemy attacks or defeat enemy advances. Later in the book of Joshua, the tribe of Ephraim specifically complained that the inhabitants of the land had iron chariots (Joshua 17:16). Had Israel allowed the horses and chariots to survive, they would have been tempted to deploy them in both offensive and defensive maneuvers. They would have come to rely on human weapons rather than the power of God for victory.
There is always a great danger in God’s people learning to lean on anything but God to do the work of God! Therefore, God ordered Joshua to destroy the enemy’s weapons lest they utilize them and be defeated because of them. Israel’s power was not found in what she held in her hand but in the hand of the God that held her. This must cause the church to inquire, what have we added to our arsenal, or what have we adopted that we should have eradicated? Could it be we are hamstrung because we have not hamstrung?
It troubles me that the modern church is more consumed with technology than we are theology. There is no shortage of conferences on how to keep our horses healthy, nor is there a lack of books on keeping the wheels on our chariot clean and inflated. I fear that we have come to depend on fleshly weapons to fight spiritual battles. Rather than spending nights travailing in prayer, we purchase a new system or promote a new program. Instead of petitioning God to make the sun stand still, we invest in new lighting to keep anyone from recognizing how dark things have become.
Whatever happened to the gospel itself being the power of God unto salvation? How did we get so far off track that we began to depend more on iron chariots than we do hail from Heaven? Hail from Heaven knocks down towering horses, and a single word from God can drive chariot wheels deep into the mud. I fear that the church has become so invested in moving forward that she cannot see her need to go back.
I am not prohibiting the use of new technology or the study of better practices. These things can be used for the glory of God. However, they can never produce the glory of God. The glory of God is only revealed when the people of God humble themselves in His presence and obediently hamstring the horses they have been feeding and char the chariots they have been leading. I wonder what would happen if the church threw out all the substitutes she has used to hide her missing power? I wonder what would unfold if she repented of her pragmatism and shed what should have already been dead? I wonder what God would do if His people turned to Him and Him alone as her only hope of help and salvation? I think the answer would be a thing we call revival.
Joshua 11:9 records the only proper response to God’s command, “So Joshua did to them as the LORD had told him: he hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots with fire.” My prayer is that we always seek to be a people who depends more on God than we do the means and methods of men.
I love them, but I don’t always like them. I’m talking about the two lemon beagles that came to live with us a year ago this month. Their names are Copper and Penny, and they are every bit as destructive as you expect two one-year-old puppies to be. If I plant a new bush, they count it an honor to dig it up and bring it to the porch as if expecting a thank you. If I close a gate, they are convinced that I have personally challenged them to figure out a way to open it. To them, obedience is a concept as incomprehensible as algebra; they just don’t get it.
As much as I complain about their behavior, I have to say that I would be devastated if anything ever happened to them. Though they were only supposed to be with us for a few weeks, they have become part of the family. Watching them navigate the backyard from our kitchen window has become one of our favorite past times. However, simultaneously watching them tear down whatever I build has become one of my greatest frustrations.
Let me say again, I really do love and enjoy having them around. However, at times, neither of them seems to be the most grateful or intelligent. For instance, it’s not uncommon for me to watch them argue over a scrap of food while there is a full bowl sitting only a few feet away. I have discovered if there is something filthy, they are going to eat it. If something is buried, they will dig it up. If something is rotten, I can be confident they will both roll in it; and if there is something dangerous, they will get dangerously close.
Maybe it’s just because I am a pastor, or maybe it’s because I see things differently than others, but as I try to take care of those two little troublemakers, I can’t help but think about how much my frustrated care for them must be a small reflection of God’s care for me. Two events come to mind that illustrate what I am trying to say.
First, one day after filling their bowl with fresh water, I watched in disgust as they lapped up the muddy, stagnant water that I had emptied onto the ground, rather than indulging in the cool, clean water I had just provided for them. At first, I rolled my eyes at their stupidity. Then, I became irritated as I—to no avail—tried to show them how much better the clean bowl was than the dirty puddle. Their stubbornness was frustrating, until I saw my own reflection in the puddle.
Looking at myself through the same lens I looked at them was sobering. Suddenly, I was confronted and convicted by the thought: how often have I, in pure puppy fashion, lapped up the filthy, stagnant things that God has rejected and rejected the fresh, clean things that God has so graciously provided? It was a hard truth to swallow, but my unaware puppies demanded I face it. They do what they do because they don’t know any better. I do what I do despite knowing better. I thought they were stupid; but at that moment, with dirty water running out the sides of their mouths, they became my teachers.
The second event was far more serious. I had just lain down for a nap when I heard a knock at my door. It was my neighbor returning a piece of Tupperware. As he turned to walk away, I was surprised when he casually turned back toward me and said, “Oh, I think your puppies have trapped another snake.” He said another because this wasn’t the first time they had cornered a snake in our backyard.
When I opened the back door, I was surprised to see the puppies barking at the largest black snake I have ever seen. The snake, hanging between the fence and a walnut tree, was lashing out at the puppies as they barked from a couple feet below. Every time they lunged at the snake, he lunged at them. I knew one of them was going to get hurt if I didn’t do something. So, I stood about fifteen feet away, trying to coax the puppies to leave it alone, but they were too preoccupied even to hear, much less obey my voice. Though I didn’t want to get any closer than I had to, I was eventually forced to drag the yelping puppies away from the snake one by one. As I was helping the snake onto its eternal reward, the thought again occurred to me, people behavior isn’t so different than puppy behavior.
God calls us away from the things that mean to do us harm, but we just keep toying with the serpent, utterly indifferent to the consequences. Eventually, God in His goodness pulls us away, scratching and yelping as we are carried. He rescues us because He loves us. We resist because we don’t understand what love is. Somehow, we convince ourselves that the snake is harmless, and we know better than the Master.
Now, every time I watch my puppies fight over food or chase the wind, my smile doesn’t last as long as it once did. The realization that puppies and people are not so different, at least in this regard, has sobered my thinking. I find Isaiah’s words, “All we like sheep have gone astray,” confirmed day by day. Like a dog who knows he has been bad, I often want to hide in a corner. But I have a Master who not only forgives, I have a Master that transforms.
In the shadow of my own bad behavior, this consolation shines brighter; God loves me more than I think I love myself. He loves me so much He refuses to allow me to destroy myself. I’ve learned, when He says bad boy, it’s not because He hates me. It’s because He loves me. I am growing more grateful each day that He kindly, patiently, and mercifully pulls me from the things I want to play with. I’m glad to know the Master has power over the serpent, but I am more thankful that He has power over me.
The Christian life can really be summed up as one lifelong trip to obedience school. The process of sanctification is slow and long, but the results are divine. The good news is that God always completes what He begins. Though stubborn and “puppy-headed” I may be, of this I am sure—He that has begun a good work in me will complete it on the day I see His face. One day, I will sit by His side, in perfect contented obedience, no longer distracted by squirrels, enticed by serpents, or shamed by my own bad behavior. One day I will be like Him instead of them.
The light must have been exactly right in the garden that morning as I passed by one of the climbing roses in my garden. It was as if the thorns were glowing. I was intrigued. I had to get a closer look. I assumed that maybe the remnant dew from the night before was causing the effect, but I was wrong. As I knelt beside the long canes running up the trellis, it all became clear—the beauty was coming from the tiny painful daggers themselves.
The cane was still young enough that the thorns had not yet hardened off into solid wooden green. The sun wasn’t just shining on them; it was passing through their translucent young forms. The light highlighted each segment of the thorn as each color flowed into the next. The blood-red base burst into a glowing autumn orange that ran like hot lava into a lemonade yellow. The refreshing summer yellow slowly evaporated, leaving a sharpened point glowing white like hot metal fresh from the furnace.
I tried to get a picture of the phenomena, but none of my efforts did the scene justice. So, for a brief second, I just sat there thinking about the profound nature of what I had witnessed. I have been cut by many a thorn, but that day I was blessed by one. There in that quiet moment, I couldn’t help but think that even the sharpest thorns are painfully beautiful when viewed in the right light.
Most of us are probably aware of Paul’s passionate plea for God to remove his thorn in the flesh. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he wrote these words: “And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
The nature of Paul’s thorn has been a subject of debate for centuries. Yet, it is not the nature but the origin of the thorn that interests me. Notice Paul said it was a messenger of Satan sent to batter him. Doubtless, the trouble, whatever it was, was used by the enemy to discourage and dissuade Paul from carrying out his God-given mission. However, though used by Satan, the thorn was given by God. Therefore, it was a thorn that even prayer couldn’t remove. It couldn’t be plucked because it had been divinely placed.
This truth is far too big for some immature believers to chew, much less swallow. One may argue, “How can God, who is good, even consider allowing His children to suffer the pain of an embedded thorn?” The answer is because God is good; He allows pain in the life of His people. You see, in the hands of the surgeon, the scalpel always cuts before it cures. SO, God cuts in to cut out. God pricked Paul with a painful piercing to protect him from the much greater pain he could potentially inflict upon himself.
According to Paul’s own testimony, the thorn was given to humble him. One of the greatest yet most painful gifts God can give his children is the opportunity to learn humility. Pride is the most dangerous and deceptive of all sins. It presents itself as harmless and sometimes even robes itself in a fake facade of self-righteousness. Therefore, God often must cut into us to cut it out of us. But make no mistake, when He hurts us, it is always to heal us.
I imagine Paul spent many sleepless nights tossing and turning. No matter which way he laid, the thorn was there agitating the skin and pressing against the nerves. Yet, of this prickly bed partner, he came to say, “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Co 12:9–10).
Paul’s thorn was painfully beautiful because it was the piercing that gave him power. It was that undesirable, deeply embedded source of constant sorrow that kept him usable, humble, dependent, and blessed. In some sense, we owe our existence to his ache. Every gentile believer is, at heart, a rose that bloomed above Paul’s thorn. Yes, the piercing was excruciating; but more importantly, it was effective.
The most painful things can be the most beautiful things, but always and only when seen in the right Light. When viewed through eternity’s lens, these long-lasting afflictions are momentary, and their heaviness light. Even our thorns are painfully beautiful in the Light because they are seen for what they really are—gifts of God, given to protect us and prepare us for eternity. It’s against the backdrop of darkness that the Light and everything in it becomes most beautiful.
This year marks the second spring in our new house. When we moved to Rural Hall in 2019, I brought more than just furniture and clothes. Over a long period of time I had collected nearly forty unique rose bushes, and there was no way I was going to leave them behind. After unpacking the necessities, I got busy planting. However, I had not yet taken the time yet to fully plan out my long-term garden design. I just wanted to get my investments in the ground before they began to wither and waste away.
One growing season revealed that I had not planted some of them in the best location. Many of them were suffering from a lack of sun, while others were taking up too much space. I decided my best option was to move the entire collection to one location in my front yard.
It wasn’t long after the transplant that I noticed a trend. Some of the leaves began to curl up and die. At first, I wasn’t too alarmed. I expected the plants to experience some minor shock from the move. What really began to alarm me was when the death spread from the leaves to the canes and down toward the roots. In just a little over a week, the future of my rose garden went from bright to bleak.
I knew exactly what the problem was. I had made one crucial mistake, and it was something I knew better than to do. I moved the plants too late in the year. It may have only been a few weeks too late, but still, it was too late. I watched almost helplessly as some of the plants slowly recovered while others dwindled and eventually died. In the end, I lost nine bushes. I learned a valuable lesson–the right move at the wrong time can be deadly. However, that wasn’t all I learned.
My immediate reflex was to dig the plants up and throw them away. I thought empty space would look better than brown, bare branches. Still, I don’t know whether it was the voice of laziness or wisdom, but something told me to leave them alone. Day after day, week after week, I watched the progress of the other bushes as they began to flourish and flower. Yet, even with all the excitement of the first bloom, I felt a twinge of sadness every time I passed those dry, prickly sticks reaching up from the ground.
Then, one day something changed. Passing by one of the bushes, I noticed a little green bump with a single red freckle. To most people, that would mean very little, but I knew that meant the show I thought had ended was coming out with a sequel. Day after day, other bumps appeared and unhurriedly turned to buds, but it only happened to four of the nine dearly departed plants. After giving the matter a lot of thought, I decided to leave the five dead bushes in the ground until next spring. I couldn’t replace them this year anyway, so I cut the dead shoots down to the ground and left the roots to rot away. It seemed that that was the end of the story, but I soon discovered it was only the beginning of a whole new chapter.
Only a few short days ago, I was weeding the rose garden and uncovered something shocking. I reached around a plant to pull a tiny little weed that was barely peaking its green head above the surface. Just before I pulled it, I realized it wasn’t a weed at all. Carefully, I scratched the mulch away and found three other shoots almost ready to break out into the light. Further investigation revealed that two other graves were bursting with life as well. Although I know it was a natural process, it felt like a miracle. I had just witnessed the dead raised to life. Some of my roses were going to make it after all! Even though the bushes appeared to be dead, things were going on beneath the surface that the eye could not see.
God has always taught me the most memorable lessons while in my garden. That day I was reminded of a truth that became fresh and real all over again: we never know what’s going on beneath the surface, but time will always tell the truth about the root.
In the New Testament, Luke recorded one of Jesus’ parables. He said, “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)
I think that Jesus’ obvious point was that a life that does not bear fruit is a life that will one day be cut down. Yet, though not Jesus’ primary emphasis, I can’t help but think about the gardener’s response–give it time, I will give it attention, and then if it still doesn’t bear fruit, we can cut it to the root. The words, “let it alone this year also,” have been bouncing around in my head ever since I discovered all my bushes weren’t dead. I almost made the mistake of killing living plants because they appeared to be dead for a season. God used that moment to remind me that though His work is not always visible, it is always viable. By that, I mean, just because things look dead on the surface does not mean that God is not bringing about new life underneath.
Whether it is in the lives of those we love or the situations we face personally, the story is never over until God runs out of ink, and God’s ink well has never run dry. We can’t always see what He is doing, but that is not a reason to assume He isn’t doing anything. Underneath what appears to be the browning branches of a loveless marriage, the shriveled leaves of a long dry season, or the sharp thorns of a rebellious heart, may be a living root that God is personally cultivating and caring for.
Our part is learning the wisdom to wait before we dig, to listen to the voice that says stay when we would rather go, and to hope for life when all we see is death. When God is involved, there may still be shoots from roots we thought we killed and buds on bushes we were certain were dead. It’s easy to look at a person’s exterior and assume there is nothing happening on the interior, but we must be careful to remember that God often digs in depths we can’t see. He works beneath the surface. He transforms graveyards into gardens.
Recently, as I thought about the condition of the American church, I envisioned a room full of lifeless bodies; not human bodies but local bodies of believers. If I may, I would like to borrow your imagination and take you to a place you probably have no desire to visit–the morgue. I want you to imagine a cold, lifeless room in the basement of a hospital, full of gurneys draped with long white sheets. At the end of each gurney, protruding from under the sheet, are two feet with a single tag hanging off the right big toe. The tag may have several things written on it, but there are only two inscriptions I want you to pay attention to—the name on the first line and cause of death listed somewhere near the bottom.
I’m sure that some already feel that this exercise is far too morbid to continue, but I beg you not to eject from the tour just yet. It may be that this imaginary visit to death’s museum will be the one thing that keeps your church from becoming one of the exhibits. No matter how strong its past or vibrant its present, no church has any assurance that it will live to see next year. No church is so healthy that it could never become unhealthy. No church is so alive that it couldn’t die.
A dead church is a place where change and growth are not only unwelcome; they are impossible. Once rigor mortis sets in, the body grows stiff and still. Rather than being unmovable from the truth, it just becomes downright unmovable. Show me a church that sings about the wonders of Christ yet functions as if He is still dead, and I will show you a church that is dead and in need of resurrection. Like anything dead, a deceased church has eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, and a mouth that is open yet empty.
Again to return to our exercise, I want you to imagine several specific corpses covered in white linen arranged in a row at the center of the room. Each has been assigned an apparent cause of death by the medical examiner. With their blue, lifeless lips, each testifies to the possibility of death if we do not heed the Great Physician’s orders.
I imagine the first toe-tagged body we approach. A glance at the ME’s report reveals her cause of death to be COPD. A postmortem investigation reveals this particular church was filled with smoke but short of breath. There is one thing that the dead always have in common. They are breathless. When I approach a casket, it is not the makeup or the coverup that captures my attention. It is the eerie stillness of the body in the box. We have all had the experience of peeking in on a sleeping love one and the relief we feel when we see the steady rise and fall of their chest. We look for breath because its absence means death.
In the beginning, it was God’s breath of life that made man a living soul. So it is the breath of God that gives the church life. The Holy Spirit is the wind that animates the body. Where the Spirit has ceased to move, the body has ceased to breathe. No matter how many machines the church is hooked up to, pumping it full of air, making it appear as if it is inhaling and exhaling, where there is no breath, there is no life. How many churches have resisted the influence and operation of the Holy Spirit to the point that He has left the building? The church that continues to push forward, even when short of breath, will eventually find herself out of breath. The church that’s out of breath will die.
I imagine a second dead church lying on the examining table. This church died of blood loss. Most likely, her condition started as treatable anemia. Yet rather than addressing her ailment, she allowed herself to be led astray by a man whose title was doctor, yet required a physician himself. Her blood loss was a tragedy, but it was not the result of an accident. She had given her blood away. Medical science and scripture agree that the life of the body is in the blood. When the blood stops flowing, the body stops going. In like manner, the life-giving current of the church is the precious blood of Christ. Any church who surrenders the preaching and treasuring of the blood forfeits her own life. A church that struggles with poor circulation will be constantly cold and lethargic. How sad it is when a church can no longer bear the sight of the blood that bought her pardon. Show me a church that has allowed the world to bleed her, and I will show you a dead, decaying church!
If we look to the next gurney, we will find a third dead church; cause of death, cirrhosis of the liver. The liver is the body’s filter. When the filter fails to function, toxins will begin to build in the body. Unremoved toxic waste will contaminate and kill the body. This dead church abused her liver with the intoxicating pleasures of the world, the flesh, and the devil. What is unique about her is this before her death, she probably appeared to be growing. Still, in reality she was only swelling. The first sign that the liver was failing was when the church started turning yellow and giving in to pressure rather than remaining loyal to the word of God. This church gave her liver little attention because she was more concerned that her makeup was attractive to outsiders. In the pursuit of relevance, she allowed herself to be seduced into drinking the poison cup of compromise. In the process of time, she silenced her liver’s cries of abuse and partied on. Now the church without a liver is a church without life.
We must move on. If we turn from the tables in the center of the room to the exterior wall and open one of the drawers, we will find a sad case. It appears to be an older church with a long, rich history of life, but she died of heart failure. Of all fatal ailments in the church, one of the most overlooked yet easily preventable causes of death is heart failure. This church didn’t abuse her liver or neglect her lungs; she just didn’t take care of her heart. Her diet was poor. She never came to the table of God for a balanced meal, nor did she exercise in the weight room of faith. Little by little her heart became hard and finally quit beating all together. Though she was old, she could have had many good and fruitful years ahead of her, but she made one mistake. She didn’t give any attention to her heart health. She is a reminder that a church that does not guard its heart will lose its life.
If we opened other drawers along the wall, we could talk about the church with treatable skin cancer. It started as a small spot on the surface but left untreated; it spread to every member of the body. We could discuss the curious case of the church that had no feet. They didn’t go, therefore they didn’t grow and subsequently perished. However, I want to give our attention to one final church that I think certainly must be mentioned.
This church’s cause of death was self-inflicted. Before we even pull back the sheet, there is something obviously off about this church. Something about the shape just does not look right. Upon pulling back the sheet, it’s immediately apparent what’s off–the head. I mean this in a very literal sense. This body is missing its head. A cephalectomy is the surgical removal of the head from the body. The mysterious thing about this church is that it was decapitated by its own hands. It wanted to be independent of Christ. It wanted to direct its own steps and decide its own destiny.
Any church that does not clearly submit itself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a church without life. Please understand me: a body without a head may continue to move and make noise long after its death. Still, she has become nothing more than the proverbial chicken running around with her head cut off. She has no direction and is just operating off muscle memory. When the body becomes convinced it doesn’t need its head, it is already as good as dead.
This visit to the morgue should cause us to stop and seriously consider the mortality of our own church. We are not immune to any one of these foolish actions or fatal diseases. Therefore, we must be faithful to watch and pray lest we also slip into the sleep that leads to death.
I don’t read through the Bible every year. I know that’s probably an unexpected confession from a pastor, but it’s the truth. I previously tried on multiple occasions but always seemed to fall just short, or worse, succeed yet not remember a word of what I read. A few years ago, I decided to make some devotional changes that have been extremely beneficial.
First, I surrendered my ego-based need of saying I read through my Bible every year. In all honesty, it had become a source of dishonesty. I didn’t exactly go around bragging that I had finished another round. but I also wasn’t quick to confess I hadn’t. Reading the Bible had become more of a merit badge than an accurate metric of grace. Honestly, I was more concerned with what people said about my spiritual habits than I was about what God thought of my heart. When the Spirit made me aware of that, I knew something had to change.
Second, I had to relearn what time in the word meant. I approached time in the word as just that, time in the word. Though I wasn’t always consistent when I read, I had a certain mentality about how many chapters were required. I tried my best to do right, but it all still felt so wrong. When I sat down to read in the morning, it was a legitimate struggle to stay awake, yet I felt I had to do what I was supposed to do. Therefore, I got into the Word without giving it any time to get into me.
I’m not saying reading Scripture was fruitless. I just personally realized that, though I was doing what I was supposed to do, I wasn’t getting what I was supposed to get. I was checking a box, but the word wasn’t changing my heart. Yes, Scripture promises that God’s word will not return void, but I was still left with a void. I began to recognize that I was consuming large portions of scripture, but I wasn’t digesting anything.
That realization forced me to ask myself the question, “What gives? If the word is alive, why can’t I hear its voice?” I slowly realized that the problem wasn’t that the word was being silent, but that I was in too much of a rush to hear what it was saying. I was trying to complete my assignment without any time for assessment. As the old saying goes, I was trading quantity for quality. I was reading my self-assigned three chapters, but I wasn’t really taking anything in. The Lord had to retrain me to understand that time in the word consisted of more than just reading. It consisted of meditating. The reason I was getting so little was that I was investing so little. I was trying to swallow without chewing. It was that realization that led me to my next change.
Third, I quit biting off more than I could chew. I decided to read less and get more. This, of course, isn’t an excuse to read one verse in the morning and be one your merry way, feeling you have done God some excellent service. I mean, I traded in large portions of Scripture for a few verses that I could think, study, and pray through. In the spirit of transparency, I sometimes still read several chapters at a time. At other times, I may settle on one paragraph. It has been tremendously helpful for me to learn to read until the Spirit speaks and then stop there until He is finished.
When some specific phrase or thought catches my attention, I often find it an excellent place to stop and meditate. Asking questions like, “What does this mean? What does this teach me about God’s character, and what implications does it have on my life today?” has been hugely beneficial. By God’s grace, I am now finding that I can recall what I read in the morning because, unlike a rushed breakfast that I bit into while on my way out the door, it was something I took the time to taste, chew, and enjoy. Trust me, it is far better to have a small meal you genuinely enjoy and are nourished by than it is to have a buffet you can’t remember.
We are now entering the second month of this new year. My encouragement to you as your brother, your pastor, and your friend is, get in the word and give the word time to get in you. Find a system that works for you. When you open the word, you are opening a window into the heart of God. That is a privilege not to be rushed or taken lightly. Therefore, have a pen and notepad ready. Please write down the things you learn, make notes of the verses that spoke to you, journal how they apply to your life and circumstances, and revisit them throughout the day.
I promise, if you open the word, God will speak.
You probably will not hear an audible voice. Yet, make no mistake, if you are reading the word of God, you are hearing the voice of God. If you make one change this year, let it be giving the word the time it needs to change you.
I can’t remember why, but I can remember where. I was traveling through Virginia when I came upon a road closure. Bright orange signs marked detour pointed in the direction I needed to go, to get where I was going. I watched as the other cars followed the sign and made the right turn, but I thought I knew better. I needed to go west, but the signs were pointing east. “There has to be a better way,” I thought to myself; so rather than taking the turn, I just turned around. I drove until I came to a road that was going my direction and took the turn off the main road.
It was afternoon, so it seemed a logical gamble for me to drive away from the sun. I figured if I took enough right turns, it would have to bring me out on the other side of the road closure and put me back on track. The reasoning seemed sound, but the outcome was far from reasonable. I traveled for a few miles before I came upon a right turn. The road I found seemed a little suspicious. It was marked as a state road, but it was unpaved and unkempt. My first thought was to keep going forward, but after a brief discussion with myself, we decided to take the chance.
The going was slow because the road was rocky and full of ruts. The further I went, the more aware I became that I was going nowhere and getting there fast. I thought about turning around, but the road was too narrow, and I couldn’t risk ending up stuck in a ditch. So, I drove on, hoping the road would eventually lead me somewhere. Like water in a desert–after quite some time–I thought I saw pavement ahead. When my front tires reached it and proved it to be more than a mirage, I was thrilled. I had two choices, right or left. Right was the right decision. I took the turn somewhat relieved and more thankful than ever for asphalt.
“Now,” I thought, “I’m back on track or at least heading in the right direction;” but oh, how wrong I was. I didn’t consider how far to the left the gravel road to the right had taken me. What I didn’t know was that the road I was on ended up nowhere near where I wanted to be. I knew something was wrong when my right-hand turn took a sharp left curve and started heading back down the mountain. This was before I had GPS on my phone. Honestly, I doubt any cellular driven GPS would have helped where I was anyway. When I started seeing road names like Squirrel Holler, Bear Foot Drive, and Possum Trot Lane leading off into the woods, I knew I was in trouble. I turned down my radio to see if I could hear any banjo music.
One might think, “Why didn’t you just turn around?” Trust me, I thought about it, but I had been driving for so long at that point I was too stubborn to turn back. Indeed, as I suspected, this road led somewhere. However, the somewhere it led was far below the somewhere I thought I was going. As the nose of my car continued rolling downhill, it dawned on me that whoever posted the detour sign knew more about how to get to my destination than I did.
A scripture I learned as a child came to mind. In Proverbs 16:25, Solomon wrote, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” It dawned on me that I thought I knew better than those who had mapped the detour, and now it was getting dark, and I was lost because of it. I’m afraid many people will realize, as I did, just how lost they are a moment too late. When the car started heading downhill, I knew I had missed my chance to turn around. I had followed the way that seemed right to me, and I wasn’t thrilled when I discovered where it led.
Is this not an allegory of the lives of lost men? God says go this way, but they choose to go another. Truthfully, men shouldn’t be surprised when they spend their whole lives driving away from the Son to, in the end, end up in the darkness. No one gets to write their own directions to Heaven, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from trying.
Has it ever occurred to you that maybe the best person to tell you how to get to Heaven is someone who has already been there? Jesus said I am the Way. He has mapped the road to Heaven in His own blood. There is no other way to get there than the way He has chosen. The only way to Heaven is following the Son. Following His directions, however, means more than just acknowledging His deity. It means driving the way He’s pointing.
Many think that because they “believe in God,” they have nothing to worry about. However, Bible straightforwardly states that demons believe in God, yet are not saved. What gives? Didn’t Jesus say believe in me, and you will have eternal life? He did, but we don’t. When Jesus said believe, He didn’t mean just to accept that He exists or that He came from Heaven. When Jesus said to believe, He meant to turn towards Him and put all your faith in Him and Him alone. Yet, if you asked many who claim to be Christians why they think they will be allowed into Heaven, they would respond, because I have tried to be good. What they tragically fail to realize is that their goodness will never be good enough.
Only Jesus is good enough for Heaven. Trying to get there any other way is not only dangerous; it is impossible. Narrow is the way that leads to life. If we could have been good enough, Jesus would not have needed to die. There is only one way into Heaven, which is through the work Jesus did on our behalf. I’m afraid that far too many admirable Americans have yet to understand this. They are lost in broad daylight and rolling quicker than they realize downhill toward the darkness.
The gospel is clear: Jesus Christ suffered for us and as us on the cross. He bore the penalty of our sin and offers us the provision of His goodness.
All who come to Him by faith, rejecting their goodness, and embracing His, are granted free and full access to the Father in Heaven.
All who refuse to come His way will certainly go their own way. Our own way will undoubtedly lead to darkness and death. I was lost in Virginia’s mountains and, thankfully, eventually found my way out. Still, I fear many are lost on the road of life and will one day be surprised to find that the direction they were heading didn’t take them where they thought they were going. The sad part is they are lost in broad daylight. God has posted clearly marked signs along the way; yet still, some believe they can devise better directions on their own. Friend, there is no better way to God than through Jesus. He is not just the right turn; He’s the only road that leads home.
Politics, just the mention of the word, sent many running to gather their arsenal of arguments. Some ran to the left, others ran to the right, but both sides may have unintentionally rushed past a critical truth. Politics are parabolic. They tell a story. The story they are telling right now isn’t a fairy tale; it’s a true-crime documentary. However, all the crime isn’t taking place behind locked doors in low-lit Washington conference rooms. Much of the crime is taking place in open, well-lit living rooms.
I don’t want to come across heavy-handed or accusatory, but current events have brought me to a clear realization. A realization that first applies to me and may secondarily apply to you. I’m afraid that we are often not as concerned with the truth as we are ensuring everyone knows the other side is lying. If we will open our eyes and listen, the current crisis has a secret to share. It’s not a secret about the corruption in politics; it’s a secret about corruption in people. It’s not a parable about them; It’s a parable about us.
In recent days God has graciously helped me to see something I would have otherwise been blind to. What goes on in Washington is not so different than what goes on in me. What can politics teach us about ourselves? The answer may be one we are not ready to hear. However, ready or not, here it comes. Hypocrisy is not a political problem. It is a human problem.
We say one thing but do another. We point out the inconsistencies of our opponents while acting as if ours are unimportant. We rant and rave about the singularity of truth while covering up multiple facts and dismissing mountains of data that don’t fit in the boundaries of our preselected narrative. The contradictions of our politicians should force us to ask a question. Am I as concerned about the integrity of my party as I am the integrity of the other?
According to scripture, the Church is both the pillar and foundation of the truth. As people of truth, we must be careful to hold the standard high, even if it means bringing our party low.
If you are thinking, I wish my liberal neighbor or conservative co-worker would read this; then, you’re probably missing the point. If your immediate reaction was to assume I’m talking to them, then I’m probably actually talking to you.
While we are saddling up the donkey and harnessing the elephant to pull the splinter out of our opponent’s eye, modern politics has a way of revealing the log in our eye. It may be true that sometimes, “they” are hypocrites. However, it is also true that sometimes, so are we. Truth matters even if it disproves the story, we are so desperate to share. Before we can ever tackle the corruption in government, we must first be willing to deal with the corruption in us.
No matter the outcome, I challenge you to use the same ruler on yourself, your party, and your ideals as you do on your opponents. You may be shocked to find that many of your own assumptions don’t measure up. God doesn’t have a double standard. Neither should we. Integrity matters to God; therefore, it should matter to us.
Recently, while traveling down the interstate, I noticed a billboard that I had passed many times before yet never read. Big white letters stamped on a baby-blue background read, “Broken crayons still color.” At first, I only smiled and continued driving; but then, in the same way a warm breeze can bring back a long-lost memory of summer vacations, the big white words transported me back to a wooden table situated in a dimly lit dining room.
At that time, I was working as a children’s bereavement counselor for a local hospice organization. I often said that I was paid to play, but honestly, I learned some valuable lessons about life, love, and loss while coloring submarines and drawing dragons with grieving children. One case involved me meeting with a seven-year-old boy whose father had been murdered one week prior to our visit. This appointment vividly illustrated a lesson for me that I hope never to forget
As we sat there rummaging through my box of crayons looking for specific colors to complete our self-proclaimed masterpieces, my little friend and I discovered that many of my crayons were bent, broken, or bare. I had a bad habit of leaving my coloring box in the car on hot days. I should have remembered my childhood discovery that crayons don’t react well to heat. I had learned this the hard way as I scraped splattered crayon from the roof of my grandmother’s microwave after attempting to make finger paint in a Styrofoam bowl.
While apologizing that my crayons were in such poor shape, I remember casually saying, “I should probably throw all the broken ones away.” Immediately he looked at me with a confused expression, picked up a broken cherry red Crayola that was missing its wrapper, and said, “Why would you do that? Broken crayons still color!” Whether he realized it or not, I was dumbfounded. That seven-year-old had just preached one of the best messages I had ever heard in only a few simple words. While he continued to color, I sat there thinking about that fact that “broken” and “worthless” were not synonymous.
That day I went to counsel him, but he ended up doing far more for me. When I later saw that sign on the interstate and reminisced to what I had learned at my little counselor’s table, I couldn’t help but think about the broken, bent, and bare people that I encounter every day. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times others, like myself, had suggested throwing them away. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times Jesus, like the little boy, chose them as the perfect tool to complete His masterpiece.
We’re all flawed in different ways. Some of us have been bent by the consequential heat of our own choices, others have been broken, like a crayon snapped in half by the overbearing pressure of a preschooler, while others are as bare as a Crayola without a wrapper because of the inescapable wear and tear of life. Because sin exists, so do defects. They are an unavoidable part of being human. However, our defects do not have to define us. Even broken things can become useful again when placed in the right hands. My little friend didn’t let the crayons limitation limit him. He used it despite its faults to create something beautiful.
That’s exactly what God does with broken, bent, and bare lives that are placed in His hand. God sent His Son into the world not to condemn sinners, but to save sinners who were condemned already. Jesus did not come to judge us, but to justify us. God demands perfection–a state none of us could ever achieve. So, Jesus came and achieved it in our place. Furthermore, He not only did what we couldn’t; He suffered so we wouldn’t. When Jesus died on the cross, He was punished in our place. Our sins were placed on Him who knew no sin so that His goodness could be placed on us. This is what we call the gospel.
Jesus is the good news in the middle of our mess. He came to bring beauty from the tragic ugliness of sin. Looking back, I remember the final strokes my little friend added to his picture. I can still see him, tongue barely sticking out of the corner of his mouth, hard at work. When finished, he proudly held up his picture for my approval. I have to say it was the most beautiful red rose a seven-year-old boy ever imagined onto a sheet of paper; and the miracle was that it was all done with a half of a warped crayon that was missing its wrapper.
If you are reading this and you recognize your life looks more like my hodgepodge box of mixed up, messed up Crayola’s than it does a pack of new, unopened, and unused crayons right off the shelf, you are actually in a good place, not a bad place. You are just the color God is looking for. He didn’t come to help people who were well. He came to help people who were in need of a physician. If you’re broken, you are not helpless; if you’re bent, you are not useless; if you’re bare, you are not worthless. God makes His best masterpieces with tools that others considered to be a throwaway mess.
If you will come to Jesus, I guarantee you, He will come to you. If you will take Him at His word and trust Him for His forgiveness, He will take you as you are and change you into what you were meant to be. He will take the broken, bent, and bare parts of your life and restore them. Not only will He restore them, He will use them to create a masterpiece He can hold up and show His Father, a masterpiece that the Creator of color Himself will find breathtaking and be proud of. Jesus chooses, and Jesus uses the broken ones, because Jesus loves them too much to throw them away.