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The word, “triggered” has become a popular part of today’s vernacular, and is generally applied to anything that might cause one to become upset. But for the purposes of this discourse, I will use it in a very specific context, which is when in the midst of an experience that is happening in real time (i.e. right now) we make an emotional/intellectual/spiritual connection to an experience that has happened in the past. In such moments, the magnitude of our response can quickly escalate well beyond what seems reasonable for the current circumstance.

 

One of the clearest examples I can give of being “triggered” is something I witnessed while I was in the Navy. During those years, guys routinely messed with each other and rough-housed. One day, a big guy (John) snuck up on a smaller guy (Jim), and grabbed him from behind. Jim let out a blood curdling scream, and rammed John into a piece of machinery, causing him to let go. When John released him, Jim turned and furiously began to pummel John with his fists. Eventually, it took five guys to restrain Jim and keep him from killing John.

 

At the time, Jim’s reaction didn’t make any sense to us. But we later learned that his step-father had molested him for years, and that what he was experiencing at that moment wasn’t his friend playing a practical joke on him, he was reliving the terror of a little boy being raped by his step-father.

 

Though it is an extreme example, it drives home the seriousness of this phenomena. Our responses often seem inappropriate because we’re emotionally/spiritually connected to some other moment.

 

For those who consider themselves to be spiritual, and believe that there are actual forces of darkness at work against our souls, you can be sure that making these connections is a valuable tool of the enemy. By linking the two moments, the illusion that Jim was about to be ravaged eclipsed the reality that he wasn’t in any real danger. The enemy of our soul loves it when he can get us to react to an unreality, and if we choose to hold on to those emotions, it opens the door for that painful moment to turn into an altered perception of reality going forward.

 

An example of this would be a woman whose first husband was unfaithful to her. Years later, after marrying a more honest and loyal man, she still experiences feelings of hurt and anxiety whenever she sees him talking to another woman. On an intellectual level she can say that her second husband is nothing like the first. But emotionally, she continues to reconnect her past hurts with her present fears. The voice of the enemy tells her that all men will eventually cheat, and on some level, she believes it. Every time she hears of a man being unfaithful, the enemy reinforces the stronghold, “See, that’s just how men are”. Without healing, she might actually be the one to drive her second marriage to destruction.

 

The enemy’s ultimate prize is our identity, and as we accept that the hurts of the past are who we are as opposed to what happened to us, he gains a valuable stronghold that he can revisit again and again. When this happens, it doesn’t take a traumatic event to trigger strong emotions. It simply takes a mirror.

Our Creator stands at the ready to show us who we really are, but that type of healing requires a willingness to surrender our old identities.

 

Once in this “triggered” state, several common patterns emerge. Accompanying the magnified sense of current and past events is the tendency to vigorously defend the legitimacy of this heightened emotional state, to lash out at anyone who attempts to provide a more balanced perspective, to speak in definitives (e.g. they always do this, they never do that, nothing works, no one ever has…), and to project the characteristics/actions of an individual (or a few individuals) onto the entire group (e.g. men do this, women think that, that generation believes…).

 

Remaining in this condition for any appreciable amount of time can be like putting on a pair of sunglasses, as it begins to color every other thing we look at. If we feel disrespected, we begin to perceive disrespect in everything that goes on around us, even from people who don’t know us, and in situations that don’t involve us. All it takes is a spark in the right spot, and soon the whole forest can be ablaze.

 

We live in a culture that is filled with stimuli which are meant to provoke a reaction. Every day we are bombarded with images and words that are intended to incite some type of a response. If we don’t recognize the danger, and guard our hearts, we too will be tossed about on the waves of emotional / spiritual turmoil.

 

The enemy loves to exploit these moments, as heavy and lasting damage to relationships is often the outcome. Like Jim in the previous story, we can feel as though our very existence is threatened, and therefore act / speak in a way that is completely out of our normal character. Unfortunately, when the moment is over, and the emotions subside, the damage often remains. In the end, both Jim and John felt like they’d been attacked, and their friendship never recovered.

 

Being a gifted and genuine believer does not exempt a person from falling into this trap. Elijah had been ministering in the miraculous power of God for some time before Jezebel’s threat sent him running for the hills (1 Kings 19). Fresh off a spectacular showdown with the prophets of Baal, and even after the Lord literally shook the earth with His power, Elijah was convinced that he was the “only one” left, and wanted to die. The veil of his fear blinded him to the reality of seven thousand other believers who had not bowed to the god of the age.

 

The scriptures warn us not to focus on what is seen, because it is perishing (i.e. temporary). It exhorts us to take every thought captive, making it subject to Christ, and to fix our hearts on things above (i.e. eternal). It is vital that we discern the spirit which lurks behind the things that trigger our emotions and provoke us to wrath. We must learn to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. If not, we risk becoming enslaved by a hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

 

The enemy of our souls has a story he’d like to share today.  It’s a tale of frustration, failure, and pain.  It’s a narrative filled with “if only’s” (e.g. if only this would happen, if only that hadn’t happened) which will always leave us one step away from wherever we want to be.  The Creator of our souls also has a story He’d like to share today.  It’s a plan of provision, strength and hope.  It’s a narrative filled with “even if’s” (e.g. even if that happened, even if this never happens), which will free us from the constraints of our circumstance.  Ultimately, the reality of our day will boil down to whose report we believe.

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There is an old saying that goes something like, “I wish I knew back then what I know now”. And as I look back to my own graduation, here are some of those things I wish I had understood.

 

  1. Life is not a ride, it’s a journey.  A ride is simply being carried along to wherever the vehicle happens to be going, while a journey has an ultimate destination, which requires some navigation and effort to complete.  Unless we purpose in our heart to be someone, or to do something, we are likely to live life like a pinball; propelled by gravity and bouncing from one obstacle to another.  Anything worthwhile in life will require some investment on our part. Those who are unwilling to make such an investment will generally be pushed along by the winds of circumstance to some uncertain end.
  2. Not everyone who agrees with you is for you, and not everyone who disagrees with you is against you.  In this era of political correctness openly disagreeing with someone is often viewed as being “intolerant” of their beliefs (i.e. a hater). But there are times when caring for a person dictates that we confront and contradict them.  Conversely, there are those who are perfectly willing to allow you to drive headlong into disaster, as long as it serves their own selfish agenda.
  3. Misery not only loves company, it wants to settle down and have children too.  I’ve noticed that miserable people not only seek out other miserable people to bond with, but that they’ll often unconsciously sabotage anything that has the potential to pull them from their misery.  There are few emotions that are as debilitating and self-sustaining as self-pity. Generally, the only way to remain free of such feelings is through a dogged determination not to live that way.  As long as we are willing to blame other people, and circumstances, for our condition, we will remain powerless to change it.
  4. What other people believe about you isn’t as important as what you believe about yourself.  Only the things which we genuinely believe have the ability to impact how we live.  Therefore, the only words (positive or negative) that have the power to move us are those which we accept as truth.  If a man concludes that he is a failure, no amount of praise or encouragement can bring him to victory; and if a man concludes that he is an over-comer, no amount of criticism can hold him back.  While we are generally powerless to keep others from speaking about us, we possess the ultimate responsibility for what we are willing to accept as truth.
  5. Planting apple seeds won’t get you an orange tree.  Just as dependable as the law of gravity is the concept that we will reap (i.e. harvest) what we sow (i.e. plant).  Though this phrase is immediately recognizable to most people, there are few who actually live as though it were true.  Our human nature will often cause us to be unforgiving with other people, while expecting generosity in return; to be deceptive about our motivations, while expecting others to deal with us honestly; and to be selfish about our desires, while expecting others to be considerate of us.  We must always remain conscious of the fact that the cup we use to dispense blessing is the cup that we will eventually drink our blessings from.
  6. For everything there is a season and it’s important not to despise the season that you’re in.  If you live long enough you notice that there is a sort of pattern that life follows and that things come and go in seasons.  While we have a natural tendency to like some seasons better than others, I’ve found that every season comes with both challenges and blessings.  If we focus on the challenges of the season we’re in, we’ll often miss the blessings, and spend our time pining away for the season to change.  Conversely, if we focus on the blessings of each season, it makes the challenges easier to endure, and brings a sense of variety to the journey.
  7. It’s doubtful that anyone is really “out to get you”.  Generally, a person has to be of significant consequence before someone is willing to invest the time and energy it takes to conspire against them.  I would suggest that we are more often damaged because people aren’t considerate of our position than we are because people have made a conscious effort to hurt us.  Though this knowledge doesn’t necessarily dampen the pain, it should aid in our endeavor to forgive.
  8. When you keep your own score, you always feel as though you’re losing.  The problem with keeping score is that we naturally tend to under-appreciate our blessings, and to have an exaggerated sense of our hardships.  Because of that, people who keep score in life generally feel as though they’re never quite being given their due.  Ultimately, it’s better to just give our best in any given situation and to let someone else maintain the scorecard.
  9. The path of least resistance is rarely a road worth taking.  Often what causes something to be valuable is that it cannot be easily attained.  It follows then that the most valuable things in life normally require some perseverance to apprehend.  While everyone may sincerely want these kinds of things for their life (e.g. a healthy body, a strong marriage, a successful career…), few are willing to endure the process it takes to secure them.  Unfortunately, we live in a culture that increasingly values convenience above quality, and in which many of our children have grown up with an expectation of the instant gratification of their desires. Many a parent has worked hard to ensure that their kids get a great education, so that these children won’t have to struggle like they did.  But this ignores the fact that it is in the midst of the struggle that we tend to develop our character and work ethic; and that without this development we are generally ill equipped to handle adversity.  I’ve found that you can teach someone with character and work ethic just about anything, but without those qualities, an education becomes of little value.  I’ve also come to believe that giving my children everything that I didn’t have when I grew up will likely handicap them for life.
  10. There are few jobs easier than being a critic and few that are more taxing than being a builder.  I’m ashamed to admit that there have been times in my life when I’ve been like the guy who sits in the back of the classroom, ridiculing the person who’s teaching the class. Playing the role of critic, while someone sincerely tries to have a positive influence on the people around them.  While I might try to rationalize that their efforts were less than perfect, or maybe even in vain, life has taught me how little that criticism helps anyone.  It takes a tremendous amount of effort and patience to bring unity where there has only been division, or to stir a group to battle, when they’ve only known defeat, or to restore a sense of hope to a place of desolation…  The builder must make a concerted effort to create, while the critic can bring destruction with little effort.  As a witness to, and a participant in, both of these processes, I’ve committed myself to spending the rest of my days being engaged in the building up and not the tearing down.
  11. It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.  Experience teaches us that the road to victory is generally paved with some amount of defeat; and that how we respond to those defeats will generally determine whether or not we ever come to the place of victory.   While victory tends to be the goal of every player, I’ve found that what we remember is how they played the game.  It is not necessarily the player with the highest winning percentage that captures our imagination, it is the player who played unselfishly, or with integrity, or who overcame the biggest odds…  Even for those who taste great victory, it is always in a moment that quickly passes into a lifetime of other moments.  At the moment we pass from this life, it won’t be that moment of glory that matters most; it will be how we lived all the other moments that ultimately defines us.
  12. It’s hard to be Clint Eastwood if you’re really Mr. Rogers.  As I was growing up my conception of what a man was came largely from my father, who was a big fan of men like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.   Throughout my adolescence there were other icons (e.g. John Travolta – Saturday Night Fever, Sly Stallone – Rambo, Don Johnson – Miami Vice…) who seemed to collectively shape the culture’s conception of manhood, and who I unconsciously graded myself against.  Since I was nothing like these men I assumed that I just wasn’t much of a man, and in subtle ways I let their image affect how I walked, talked, dressed… But as I got older I began to notice that there weren’t many things less attractive than someone trying to be something that they’re not (e.g. a middle aged woman dressed like teenager; a suburban white kid acting as though he grew up in the ghetto; a man with a bad toupee, acting as though it is his natural hair…).  I eventually came to peace with the understanding that regardless of the fact that I bear little or no resemblance to the trendy cultural images of manhood, the best thing I could do was to be myself.  That catharsis has  allowed me to do things like wear the clothes that I feel comfortable in; to act silly in public, just to make my kids laugh; to say “I love you too honey” when I hang up the phone in front of someone; to cry at sad movies…, all without feeling self-conscious.  I highly recommend it.
  13. Love grows over time. We live in a society that seems affixed on the idea of trading in and up, on an almost constant basis (e.g. cellphones, computers, cars, houses…); and that basic philosophy carries into our relationships as well. Most of our cultural allusions toward love seem centered on initial attraction and the titillation of something new; but that is ultimately the shallow end of the relationship pool. It isn’t until you’ve experienced a love that lasts for years that you come to understand the depth and profound fulfillment that accompanies it. This same aesthetic applies to friendships as well (i.e. I wouldn’t trade a few old friends for 500 “friends” on Facebook).
  14. No person or thing can “make you happy”.  People can support us, love us, inspire us, and even enhance the quality of our life. But unless we determine within ourselves to find the joy, the beauty and the hope within our given circumstance, we will never be “happy”. The idea that it is someone else’s role to bring happiness into our life places tremendous pressure on our relationships, often causing them to fail (e.g. they just don’t make me happy anymore…).  Similarly, material things do not have the ability to bring satisfaction to our souls.  I’ve noticed that people, who can be grateful for what they have today, will generally be that way regardless of what they have. And that people, who crave something more, will normally continue to crave regardless of what they get.
  15. The best things in life cannot be held in our hands or necessarily even be seen.  A young person’s dreams are often rooted in tangible gains, like a mate, income, a career, a family, a home…  But as a person attains those kinds of things, values seem to shift from the tangible to the transcendent.  At the end of a long life, it is things like friendship, faith, love and hope that are ultimately treasured.
  16. No regrets. I’ve often heard people speak of having “no regrets”, both when looking back on their lives, or in the context of their hopes for the future.  I’ve even heard some say things like, “if I could live my life over again, I wouldn’t change a thing”.  And while those sorts of bold proclamations may sound good as T-shirt slogans or on sports drink ads, they don’t actually play out well in real life.  The truth is that we all make mistakes, and if we have any conscience at all, that is bound to stir up some feelings of regret.  Though unpleasant, it is often those feelings that provide the incentive to grow and change.  A wise man doesn’t pretend that he’s never done things that he wishes he hadn’t; he simply owns up to his failures, learns from those mistakes, changes his mind/direction and leaves those regrets on the side of the road (where they belong).
  17. A failure to communicate. In today’s culture there is a lot of value placed on the idea of creating dialogue, but in reality, that rarely happens. Dialogue is talking to each other, presumably with the intent of reaching some new level of understanding, while rhetoric is talking at each other, generally used to establish the superiority of one’s position over another.  One has the potential to move us forward together, while the other can become the basis for civil war. Understanding the difference could be crucial to the future.
  18. True strength. The strength that actually matters in this life cannot be forged in the gym. Though we should endeavor to maintain some level of reasonable health, we are rarely called to bring substantial physical power into a situation. On the other hand, we are challenged intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, on an almost daily basis. Thus, qualities like the ability to think clearly when chaos reigns around us, or to put others needs above our own, or to continue to love when our heart has been crushed, or to hold onto our values in the face of rampant compromise, or to have faith in the midst of the storm… prove to be of far greater worth. Yet, as a society we seem to be much more focused on our physical state, while these other aspects of our being remain weak and under-developed. One day, our bodies will be buried in the dirt, and it will be what we did with the rest of us that ultimately determines how we are remembered.
  19. Out of control. One of the most frustrating aspects of human nature is that we so often try to control things that we have no authority over, while neglecting the one thing we can control (i.e. ourselves). This is why every twelve step recovery program includes the Serenity Prayer, where one seeks the strength to change the things that can be changed, the patience to live with the things that cannot be changed, and the wisdom to recognize the difference between the two.
  20. Look out for that curve dead ahead. Growing up can often be a disappointing process. When you’re 10, you imagine that becoming a “teenager” will change everything. But a few days after your 13th birthday, you realize that things are pretty much the same. Then you start dreaming about turning 16, and getting your license, which is cool; but again, you quickly recognize that it doesn’t make as much difference as you thought. Even 18 is that way. Yeah, you’re legally an adult now, yet you still have to turn in your homework and get up for school the next day. But finishing High School is different. Though you may not sense it immediately, the rules change dramatically. Up to this point, there was a system specifically designed to carry you along. There was a whole panel of adults (e.g. parents, grandparents, pastors, youth group leaders, teachers, coaches, counselors…) assigned to provide guidance, boundaries, bedtimes, wake-ups, rides, resources, and incentives to stay on the right track. There were organized activities intended specifically for you, like sports teams, school plays, dances, and 4H club. And there was an education system built to pretty much ensure your success. As long as you cooperated (i.e. showed up with a decent attitude) with these processes, you were almost guaranteed to make it through. But now, that all changes. Adulthood is very much a give and take proposition. Generally, you get out of it what you put into it. Even staying in school changes. Colleges and Universities are businesses. You pay to take their classes. If you don’t show up, the teacher isn’t going to come looking for you. If you don’t turn in your work, they will not scold you, or even ask about it. If you fail the class, they will happily allow you to pay them to take the course over again next semester. The workplace, and relationships, and almost every other facet of life works similarly. If you want to have a great marriage, a successful career, or even to live in an exceptional community, you need to invest yourself (i.e. time, energy, passion…) in it. Simply showing up, empty handed, will no longer get it done. Ultimately, life was never meant to be a spectator sport – so I’d highly recommend that you dive in.    

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As this Corona Virus crisis began to ramp up a few of weeks ago, I tried to block it out. I’m not one who looks to interpret what God may be thinking by observing natural events; I’m more prone to see natural events through the lens of whatever He seems to be saying at the moment. But as events began to pile up, I started to get pulled into the conversation. I read credible Infectious Disease experts who said that this virus wasn’t much more hazardous than the seasonal Influenza virus, which also kills those with compromised immune systems, while other medical experts were speaking as though it was the return of the black plague. Like everything else in our culture, this virus soon became a political volleyball, which was being pounded back and forth across the net. As the preventive measures began costing people their jobs, and I saw people begin to suffer, I felt the frustration brewing in me, and stealing my peace. I found myself formulating an argument in my head, and it seemed to be pressing on my lips to get out. But before it was able to escape, the Lord broke in.

 

“What do you know?”

 

It wasn’t in a sarcastic or mocking tone. He was asking a simple and sincere question about what “facts” I had. There seemed to be credible voices on both sides of the argument, and everyone seemed to be speaking as though they knew exactly what was happening, and moreover, what was going to happen. But the Lord was challenging me, as a man who felt as though he had something to say, as to what I really knew. And in an instant, I knew that my words were of no value, and that my voice would just be more fodder in the trough. As I began to fully appreciate the degree to which I’d been sucked in, the Lord spoke again.

 

“What do you know?”

 

Though the words were the same, I sensed a different question. He wasn’t asking me what I knew about the Corona Virus, He was reminding me of the way He’s taught me to deal with the world. He’s given me “eyes to see” and “ears to hear”, so that I can live by every word that proceeds from His mouth. He was challenging me on what He’d said to me about this virus and/or pandemic, and as I pondered that, I realized that He’d not mentioned it one time. Again, a wave of regret washed over me, as I remembered that the “genuine Spirit of Prophecy is not only saying what God is saying, but it’s not saying what He’s not saying”. Indeed, if God wasn’t speaking about these things to me, what exactly did I have to say to anyone else. In the midst of my repentance, the Lord spoke again.

 

“What do you know?”

 

Again, same words, different question. This time He was striking at the depth of my soul. What is it that I “know” in my heart? “I know you Lord”, was all I could think to say. And with that, I sensed His loving hand on my shoulder, and I understood that this was all I would ever need to know.

 

Like everyone else, we are being impacted by what’s happening in our world. And now, more than ever, I find myself running back to the one thing that I know.

 

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Several years ago, an internationally known TV ministry sent one of its associate pastors to prepare our church for a visit from their senior pastor.  Everything about this man seemed to be an exact duplication of the senior pastor, his voice, his hair, his mode of dress, his mannerisms, expressions that he used…  He began his presentation by exclaiming what a great church we were and with a spiel about how he didn’t know what we were paying our pastors, but it was not enough, he didn’t know what kind of car they drove, but it ought to be a BMW…  Ironically, when the senior pastor arrived a week later, he began his presentation with a word for word rendering of that same spiel.

 

While it is not particularly surprising or even a problem that these two men would share certain characteristics, such a complete replication of someone else’s image edges dangerously close to a cult of personality. And in the midst of this, I felt like the Lord began to speak to me about the difference between “raising sons” and “producing clones”.

 

As a father of four children (two boys & two girls), I can attest that each of my children share some measure of similarity to me.  Though some of that is undoubtedly due to DNA, there is also the profound influence that comes from sharing life experiences together on a daily basis.  For example, how they see their mother and I relate undoubtedly helps to shape their ideas about relationship and marriage; just as our beliefs and attitudes about things like God, politics, patriotism, education… helps to form their conception of those things. A testament to the profound effect of this is that one of my daughters is not my biological child and yet I can see myself in her almost as clearly as I can in the other children.

 

But just as easily as I can identify the similarities, I can also see that all of them possess many other traits that we don’t share, and to be sure they are four completely unique beings.  They each have different gifts, fears, learning patterns, strengths, inspirations… I believe that this is a testament to the fact that while God may have used some raw material from their mother and me within the creation process, He created them to be far more than just an amalgam of the two of us.  He created them to go further than we’ll go, and to do more than we’ll ever accomplish. To be sure, we as parents must be diligent in helping them to forge a good foundation, but it is ultimately the “Master Architect” who designs what is to be built upon it.

 

There is a very natural temptation to want to duplicate the things that we view as being successful, but as the old saying goes, if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.  It is often what has been successful that causes us to become protective of what we’ve already attained and reluctant to venture into new territory.  Some leaders fall prey to the idea of leaving a lasting legacy, which on the surface can almost seem virtuous, but which in practice can often cause what was once a dynamic organization to become little more than a lifeless monument.

 

In truth a legacy is not something that we ourselves can create, it is simply the byproduct of how others perceive us.  As much as I hope to leave a legacy of faith for my children, the danger in them asking themselves how I might handle a given situation is that they may never bother to ask God what He would have them do.  As we seek to “empower” the leaders of the next generation, we must ensure that they understand exactly where that power comes from.  We’ll know that we’ve genuinely “empowered” them when we allow them to draw different conclusions than we have, and when they are allowed to pursue visions that didn’t come from or through us.

 

As I considered the scriptural representation of these issues I thought of Moses and Joshua.  To be sure, Moses was an amazing leader, with an unparalleled record of achievements and yet it was God who ordained that Joshua would be the one to lead His people into the Promised Land.  There is nothing in scripture that seems to indicate that Joshua did anything to imitate Moses and I’m sure that it isn’t a coincidence that Joshua’s introduction to leadership began with a very definitive proclamation from heaven, “Moses is dead”.  That pronouncement seemed to signal the end of one very painful era and the beginning of another, more fruitful one.  While some might suggest that Joshua could never have done what Moses did; I would suggest that it is equally true that Moses could not have fulfilled Joshua’s mission either. In ways that may have only been known to God, Joshua was just the right man, at just the right time.

 

Those who count themselves as fathers need to be mindful that their children’s destiny is to be transformed into the image of Christ. If we are being effective in the discipleship process, they will look more like Him than us. He created each of His children to be a unique representation of who He is, and not one to be a replica of a person who happened to come before them.

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The members of an orchestra don’t come together by taking their cues from each other, they do so by fixing their eyes on a singular person and responding to the promptings of that Conductor. And so it is with the Body of Christ. We will not achieve genuine unity through increased dialogue or simple cooperation. It will only happen when we collectively succumb to the guidance of the One, who is the Author and Finisher of our faith.

 

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Make no mistake, there is a world of difference between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of God. One is rooted in the temporal, while the other is rooted in the eternal.  One is about gaining your life, while the other is about losing it.  One is centered on edifying self, while the other is centered on dying to self.  One is endlessly elusive, while the other comes with the promise that if you seek, you will find.

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Exposing the counterfeit is of little value unless we go on to manifest the genuine.

 

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There is no doubt that life is a long journey, made up of a countless number of moments. Most of them, good or bad, eventually dissolve into a mist of vague memories.  But there are others which distinguish themselves in such a way as to become watersheds, where the very flow of our lives can be altered.  These instances ultimately come to define our journey, and often times can significantly impact the way we see ourselves and/or the way we are perceived by others.  Such an occasion is commonly known as a “defining moment”.  Just as significant as the moment itself, is how we interpret it in real time, and the lens through which we choose to view it in retrospect.

 

An example of interpretation can be found in an experience I had in elementary school. As the youngest of three boys, I struggled mightily in school, while my older brothers were both model students.  My beleaguered parents were constantly being called in for Parent-Teacher conferences, which isn’t something they had to deal with previously.  So when I managed to go for an entire 9 week period with no significant issues, and brought home a solid report card (A’s and B’s), they decided to reward me with a new Harlem Globetrotters lunchbox.  All they were trying to do was acknowledge my progress and encourage me.  Unfortunately, I was keenly aware that both my brothers had straight A’s on their report cards, and that they were getting nothing for their efforts.  Thus, I interpreted my parent’s gift as an implicit acknowledgment that I was their stupid child, which completely diffused the virtue of their intent.  Instead of encouraging me, the lunchbox became a symbol of my inadequacies.

 

This faulty reading of my parents gesture was rooted in both my habit of comparing myself to my older siblings, and the conclusion I had already drawn about myself, which was that I was in fact stupid. Because that was the lens through which I viewed the situation, it clearly colored my perception of reality.  Though my parents never openly compared me to my brothers or belittled my intelligence, I felt woefully inadequate whenever I was around them, and thus I came to that judgment on my own.

 

There is no doubt that what we believe about ourselves is far more consequential than what others believe about us, and once we draw such a conclusion, it becomes nearly impossible for anyone else to change our mind. For me, it took becoming an adult, moving away from my family, and learning to stand on my own merits, before I could gain a new perspective.

 

While we are not in control of many of the things which befall us in life, we do bear some responsibility for how we choose to respond, and we do have a choice about which moments will ultimately define us. Remaining focused on the most painful moments of our lives, pursuing people who reject us, while ignoring those who value us, seeing ourselves through the lens of our greatest weaknesses and failures, holding on to bitterness and unforgiveness for those who’ve hurt us… are all recipes for misery.  People will define us by whatever measure they choose to use, but they do not have the power to control how we define ourselves.  When we blame everyone else for our present condition, we have unwittingly forfeited the power to change it.

 

No one gets through this life without some amount of adversity, pain, and struggle. We can see ourselves as a victim, or a survivor, or maybe even an overcomer.  I believe that we have far more control over this than most of us understand.  If we don’t like the moments that have defined us thus far, it is up to us to change our course.  I have a sister-in-law who was once an addict, a convict, and judged by the courts to be an unfit parent.  She made the decision to change her life, and though it took some time, she is now a sober, loving wife and mother, raising her family.  Not long ago she was seen as being beyond help, but today, she is an inspiration.  She is living proof that if you don’t like your story thus far, you can rewrite the ending.

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The further I walk with the Lord, the less inclined I am to offer an opinion. Indeed, everyone has an opinion, and I doubt that mine smells any better than anyone else’s.  The scripture encourages us to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and so I try to remain focused on the things He’s speaking at the present time.  Because of this, I’ve never really written much about the “five-fold ministry”.  Though I’ve heard and seen a lot of teaching on the subject, the Lord hasn’t spoken directly to me about it until very recently.  To that end, I wanted to share the things I felt like He showed me.  This is in no way intended to be a comprehensive overview, in fact, it may actually spur more questions than it answers.  But I feel as though there are some strong words of caution within, and so I offer them for your consideration.

 

Part of what makes this subject contentious is the issue of authority. Western ethos in general, and American culture in particular, seems to have a love / hate relationship with authority.  Within Americanized “Christianity”, it is not uncommon to see either strong rebellion against any sort of limitation or boundary, or to have people exalting those in leadership into positions God has reserved for Himself.  Some will get up and walk out of the room, while others will likely bow down and worship a mere man (or woman).  Without a doubt, neither of those responses is appropriate.

 

Despite the tremendous freedom we have in Christ, it is difficult to argue that there should never be titles, ordered structure, or positional authority. The scripture clearly states that He has called some to be apostles, and prophets, and teachers…, and He sets about an order within marriage, the family and the church.  The fear of all these things is rooted in what men have historically done with these positions and with this authority.  The current landscape of “Apostolic” and/or “Prophetic” ministry” hasn’t done much to dispel those concerns.  Too much personality, too little character.  Lots of networking, not much community.  Way too much sensation, and way too little transformation.

 

Jesus made the Father’s intentions clear when He told us that He is the vine and we are the branches. No more bloody sacrifices, no more annual visits from the high priest, and no more middle men.  After attempting to walk with them in the garden, and trying to speak to them from the mountain, and wanting to be their King from afar, He would finally have the direct connection that He always desired.  With the perfect sacrifice of His Son, who was both King and Priest, He tore the veil that separated them, and made them a temple of His Holy Spirit.  Now His sheep would know His voice, they would listen, and they would follow.  And He would give them an anointing that would teach them all things.

 

This priesthood of the believer is what Paul envisioned as he spoke of Christ being the head, and of a whole body, made up of many parts, which is supported by every ligament. As each one stepped into their fullness in Christ, they would come to maturity as the body of Christ upon the earth.

 

It was with these points as a backdrop that I felt like the Lord began to speak to me.

 

Paul clearly states that the purpose of the five-fold ministry is to help equip members for service, and ultimately to build up the body of Christ. It is meant to undergird and support the priesthood of the believer.  These ministries are in no way meant to replace, or diminish the headship of Christ, or the leading of the Holy Spirit for each individual believer.  Ministry that infringes upon this relationship has overstepped the bounds of its authority.  Indeed, “The friend of the Bridegroom never steps between Him and His Bride”.

 

Much of the confusion related to apostolic ministry is gathered around the notion that apostles are intended to become something like CEOs of the church, and that is a distortion of the truth. While the Lord has given apostles an important role, it is a very specific role, and not intended to give them limitless authority.  He has not ordained them to become brokers between Him and His children.  The body of Christ will only become fully functional when every member is directly connected to the head (Christ Jesus), and empowered and led by His Spirit.

 

The hallmark of a genuine apostolic grace is humility. It is only when knowledge encounters humility that it can become wisdom.  Without humility, knowledge simply puffs up a man.  Paul spoke of how this calling will “expose the motives of the heart” (1 Cor. 4).  In that same vein, I sensed the weightiness of these issues, the stricter judgment that comes with this role, and the resistance God feels toward the proud.  Even those who are called, and have a pure heart will have to resist the people’s penchant for wanting an earthly king, and be diligent in ensuring that none of His glory is found buried beneath their tent.  Functioning in this role will demand more than just wisdom and experience, it will require a supernatural grace.

 

I was also reminded of Paul’s warnings about “deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor.11) and sensed that there are many who have simply placed this mantle upon themselves. Some have become notable for their extensive “networks”, but the Lord says that they are drawing people to themselves instead of to Him.  I felt like the Lord showed me that in the infancy of this move He is being patient, but that there is a coming age of accountability.

 

Finally, I sensed the Lord say that the first century church is not the model for where He wants to take His Church, and that though we see them as being particularly fruitful, they never walked in the fullness of the things He ordained for them. As in all things, Christ is our model, as He walked in perfect fellowship with both the Father and the Spirit.  It is His desire to do abundantly more than we could ever ask for, or imagine.

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Like a lot of people my age, I can say that I was raised in church. The Catholic Church to be exact.  And in those days my understanding of “the church” was a building where good, God-fearing folk gathered on Sundays, and other specified, “Holy Days of Obligation”.  As a child, I was told that it was “God’s House”, and so I just assumed it was where He lived, which is why we always needed to dress up to go there, and why my mom always insisted that we whisper, even when the service was over.  I did find that last part a little confusing, because I was pretty sure He could still hear us.  Even at a young age, I also recognized that our “church” was part of a larger institution known as the “Catholic Church”, thus my concept of church was largely steeped in the idea of buildings and institutions.

 

In that era, the “Body of Christ” was both the image on our crucifix, and the communion wafer that was such a prominent part of our Sunday tradition. One represented the suffering Jesus endured for us, while the other represented our way of staying connected to Him.  Indeed, participation in the sacraments was the key to remaining in good standing with God.  We had infant baptism to cover original sin, confession to cover our ongoing penchant for sin, and we had the Eucharist to cover our communion with God.  As near as I could tell, if I stuck with the program, God would remain relatively pleased with me, and my spot in heaven would be fairly secure.  For a long time, that seemed like enough.

 

But by the time I reached the doorstep of adulthood, both the internal and external forces at work on me had managed to reshape my reality. Though I can’t say that I ever stopped believing that there was a God, I had developed no real sense of connection to Him, and my ongoing participation in the sacraments didn’t seem to be making much of a difference.  Indeed, my struggles seemed very real, and my religious practice felt largely ceremonial.  So at 19 years old, as I left home to join the Navy, I unwittingly walked away from the tradition that had been such a big part of my upbringing.  Not because I was hurt, or angry, or even frustrated; if anything, I was empty.  I just left it behind like some old shirt hanging in my bedroom closet because it didn’t really fit anymore.

 

I offer this little testimony as an example of how devout religious upbringing/practice doesn’t necessarily translate into a genuine relationship with God. Of course, part of the problem was that I never really understood that was the goal.  Whether it is conscious or unconscious, institutions have the tendency to both preserve and perpetuate themselves, which keeps them at the forefront of your experience.  Even if I had known the importance of relationship, it would have simply driven me back toward the institution.  After all, I was taught that I needed them to tell me what the scripture said/meant, and to administer the sacraments, which could restore and maintain my relationship to God.  Some might read this as an indictment of the Catholic Church, but I would maintain that this esthetic exists throughout all organized religion.  Even ministers who’ll say things like, “it isn’t what happens inside the four walls of the church”, and/or “the church isn’t a building, it’s the people”, have a vested interest in the long term health of their organization.  That doesn’t necessarily make them evil or greedy, it’s just the practical reality of overseeing such an entity.

 

I did go on to build a life without much more than a passive reverence toward the idea of God, and a quiet admiration for people of faith. For a while, that seemed to be working out, as I attained some level of success in worldly terms.  But when the inevitable storms came, my good looking life collapsed into a pile of rubble.  That’s when I finally cried out to God in a way that I never had, and sought to know Him in a way I never did before.  I needed Him to be as real as my pain, and my fear, and my weakness.  It was a journey, and it didn’t change overnight, but I steadily felt drawn into something that was far more profound and genuine than anything I’d experienced before.  Indeed, I would testify that He made Himself real to me, and that radically changed everything.

 

In my desire to know Him more, I decided to take on the daunting task of reading the scripture for myself, and again, I felt as though God met me there. Though many of the individual passages were familiar, I emerged with a very different sense of who God was and what He wanted for me.  Instead of the thundering judge, demanding payment for sin, I saw the loving Father who yearned to be a part of His children’s lives.  Repeatedly, I saw Him create situations whereby He might connect with His creation, and repeatedly, I saw mankind thwart those arrangements.  With the perfect sacrifice of His Son, He finally accomplished what He’d been after all along, as His Spirit could now come and dwell within the hearts of His people.  No more bloody sacrifices, no more annual visits from the High Priest, no more middle men.  Without a doubt, this would be the “better covenant” of which the scriptures spoke.

 

Yet, the same fallen nature which led to the forfeiture of Eden, and to the request that God not speak directly to the His people (from the mountain), and to the refusal to enter the Promised Land, and to the clamor for an earthly king (like everyone else had), continues to plague us to this very day.  Despite the fact that the veil was torn, affording every believer direct access to their Father, we cling to our time honored traditions, expecting someone else to go in our stead.  Despite the promise of His most Holy Spirit coming to dwell within us, we continue to search through the ruins of a torn down temple (as if that is the only way we might know Him) as we cry out for Him to send us something more (as if what He’s already given us is insufficient for the task at hand).

 

The word so often interpreted as church within the scripture actually refers to a people who have been called out by God. It was never meant to rest upon a building or an institution.  It points us to a living, breathing organism, not an inanimate, man-made object or system.  With the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, this body would now have the very real potential (and calling) to become the manifestation of Christ upon the earth.  But to become partakers of that divine nature, one must first be willing to allow the old nature to be crucified, and for most, that is too high a price to pay.  The Apostle Paul repeatedly spoke of the need to participate in Christ’s death, so that we might also participate in His resurrection, while Jesus himself told us to take up our cross and follow Him.  Without that, there is little chance of substantive transformation, and we are left with little more than rote religious practices.

 

While the scripture tells us that there is a form of religion that God ultimately views as pure, we must also remember that Jesus’ strongest rebukes were reserved for the religious elite of His day. He manifested amazing grace for sinners, but great ire towards those who purportedly knew the Torah best, and controlled the temple system His Father had commissioned.  While the Pharisees seemed impressed with their own sense of holiness, Jesus characterized them as a “brood of vipers”.  Indeed, practices that flow out of a vital relationship with God are vastly different from those rooted in trying to appease a God we don’t really know, much less trust.

 

Religion has a tendency to stir spiritual activity, and there is a demonic component that I will simply refer to as the “spirit of religion”. At its heart it is an Anti-Christ spirit that seeks to substitute just about anything for a genuine connection to the Savior.  Jesus taught us that those who abide in the vine (i.e. remain directly connected to Him) will produce fruit.  Without that connection, “the church” becomes indistinguishable from the world, and “Christianity” becomes just another murky philosophy.  It cannot hope to point people to a Jesus that it doesn’t even know itself.  The spirit of religion is fine with folks doing their daily devotions, or going to service three times a week, or partaking of the sacraments, or memorizing scripture verses, or listening to Christian music, or flowing in their giftedness, or any other religious practice, as long as it never really results in a meaningful relationship with the person of Christ.  When this spirit attaches itself to our aforementioned nature, men tend to build lifeless monuments to their own sense of righteousness, and feel good about their eternity.

 

In 2017, the Barna Research group published an article about a growing population of believers who, “Love Jesus, but Not the Church”. It characterized this group as being largely comprised of people who take their faith quite seriously, and who have a surprisingly orthodox belief system.  It cites their distinctive as being their negative views towards organized/institutional religion, and it refers to them as “dechurched”.  In my experience, this term is operative, as these are generally folks who’ve spent years within the institutional structures of Christianity, with the vast majority of them coming from positions of leadership.  They are not only disillusioned by the abuse and corruption they’ve witnessed within the system, they are convinced that the current blueprint (i.e. format/structure) followed by most denominations will never allow the people to reach spiritual maturity.  Because of this, they’ve parted ways with the traditional model for doing “church”.

 

For those who have experienced (and/or witnessed) serious damage done within the church system, the temptation to firebomb institutional religion is somewhat understandable, but the Lord is quick to point out that there are people He loves within those buildings and organizations. He doesn’t demand that they get their doctrine and theology straight before He comes, He meets them right where they’re at.  Those of us who were the beneficiaries of such grace, must also extend it to those who are still finding their way.  In His sovereignty, God uses deeply flawed vessels and vehicles to accomplish His will – ultimately those are the only kind He has to work with.

 

The struggle for the “Dechurched” is finding an expression that more accurately reflects the New Covenant model, and allows people to step into the fullness of who and what God’s called them to be. Another challenge is not falling into the trap of misidentifying the system/institution as the enemy.  To be sure, there are inherent issues with any man-made structure or system, but if we battle not against flesh and blood, then it cannot become the focal point of the fight.  As many who’ve left the pews behind have already discovered, simply changing the venue and format doesn’t fix the problem.  Human nature, and the spirit of religion are just as comfortable in our living rooms as they are in our sanctuaries.

 

Sitting around and sharing stories about our bad church experiences will only perpetuate bitterness. It is not enough to simply leave behind a flawed system, it now becomes essential to step into something deeper and more authentic.  If all we do is free up our Sunday mornings, we are in real danger of becoming even less useful to God.  Any hope for a new and fruitful season must begin with an honest examination of our connection to the vine, but we also need to understand what kind of fruit to look for.  The fruit of genuine repentance is transformation.  Until people know us by the way we love each other, there is little chance that we will reach beyond our own small circle.  If the “Dechurched” simply fixate on the shortcomings of the institutional church, they will likely become nothing more than the new anti-institution denomination.  The Lord deserves better.  He deserves a glorious Bride, worth returning for.

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