One of my favorite authors and speakers, Gayle Erwin, has an article on his website where he describes hell as being in an ocean of oatmeal. From his article he talks about being caught in this oatmeal abyss:

“We try to scream. But our passion of soul earns a mouth full of oatmeal. The years trudge by as we rest in the mire, thinking slow, lizard-like thoughts.

Hell is cold oatmeal. It is life without passion or desire. Hell is numbness as well as pain. Hell is believing there is nothing worth getting excited about. Hell is a swamp of blandness.”

Sound familiar?  I know my life often feels this way, devoid of excitement, energy, passion.  I recently took my daughters and their friends to a trampoline gym (yes, these places exist and why didn’t I think of them?) and I noticed that they ran everywhere.  Excited to get to the next court, running to the next activity.  It made me realize that I don’t really run anywhere anymore (and not just because I have bad knees).  I don’t have that passion for anything anymore.  What happened?  Where’d my passion go?  How did I get mired in oatmeal?

Jesus’ final week suffering and death is referred to as the Passion.  If you think about it, it’s kind of an odd thing to call passion: suffering, pain, betrayal, death. The word comes from Greek (πάσχειν paschein, ‘to suffer’), but I don’t think it is a coincidence that we use this word for the things we get excited about as well.  When we are passionate about things, we’re willing to suffer for them.  We’re willing to endure pain for them.

While Jesus was going through the pain of the final week, He was passionate.  Not about the pain, not about the betrayal, but about us.  The week of Jesus’ passion was a passion for us and for redeeming us from our brokenness and sin.  So what are we passionate about? Our football team?  If we’re truly passionate for our team, there’s pain when they lose.  Our families? Our good friends lost their daughter at age 8 and believe me, there’s pain there.  Good food? Entertainment? Material things?  There’s pain because these are passing things.  The pleasure they bring ends.

Ultimately, Jesus calls us to really be passionate about the things of God and our relationship with Him.  Revelation 3:15-16 says

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

The word used in this verse that is translated as spit, actually means to violently spew.  We’re talking serious blowing chunks here.  God cannot stomach apathetic lives.  He is not looking for wishy-washy, passive, half-hearted followers, but rather he wants people who are willing to be on fire.  On the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit didn’t show up as a bowl of room-temperature oatmeal.  He showed up as tongues of fire.  As a friend of mine said at a summer camp years ago, “you better be a fireball or a snowball.  If you’re not a fireball or a snowball, you’re gonna be a spitball”

Many years ago, a good friend of my family’s used to get together with my dad to talk about God and spiritual things.  My father, who was Jewish, was born in Germany at the wrong time to be Jewish.  He was fortunate to have escaped to America (the rest of his family wasn’t so lucky), but over the years he became apathetic to all things spiritual.  My mother, who was Catholic, took us to church every Sunday, and my dad came along. But it was more to just keep the peace with my mom, than it was out of any spiritual desire.  I would talk to Stuart after he would meet with my dad (Stuart was also Jewish, but had faith in Jesus as his savior.  A completed Jew he would call himself) and he would say that the most frustrating this about talking to my dad was that he would just say “okay, sure” to whatever Stuart was talking about.  He would say to me that he would prefer that my dad would get angry and argue with him, but that there was no way to deal with the apathy.

I think that sometimes, even more so than outright rebellion, apathy grieves the heart of God.

In Matthew 5:13 Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”  When we hear this scripture talked about, it’s usually about how salt is used as a preservative and how we are the preservatives of the world.  When God was getting ready to destroy Sodom, Abraham negotiated with Him to preserve the city if he could find just 10 righteous men in the city. And God agreed.  For the sake of 10 righteous men, God would preserve the city.  However, there is another use for salt, and that is as a spice.  We use spice to make food more interesting, more flavorful. To give food a little kick and enhance the flavor.  In the same way, we need to be spice to this world.  We’re here to make things a little more interesting.  To kick thing up a notch.  When it comes to food, I am pretty much a spice wimp.  I don’t really like spicy food. But when I started thinking about this scripture, I started looking into what makes spicy so hot.  The “hotness” of a pepper is measured in Scoville units.  The higher on the Scoville scale, the hotter the pepper.  For example, a bell pepper has a Scoville rating of 0.  A pepperoncini has a Scoville rating of between 100 – 500 and a Habanero pepper has a rating of between 250,000 – 300,000.  That’s getting pretty spicy.  The hottest pepper we know of is the Trinidad Scorpion pepper, which has a Scoville rating of almost 1.5 million.  Yes, that’s 1.5 million Scoville units.  Suffice it to say that if you add a Scorpion pepper to your food, you’re going make things interesting.

So, if we’re supposed to be the spice of the world, if we’re supposed to get the world fired up about Jesus and what He’s done for us, the question is: what kind of spice are you going to be?  Will anyone notice you in their food?  Or do you just get lost in the mash of flavors that make up the meal?

1 Peter 3:15 says to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  This verse makes one very big assumption: people are asking us questions that we’re going to have to answer.  Now why would people be asking us questions?  If we’re living our life the same way everyone else is, if there’s nothing different about us, if we’re a bell pepper, people won’t have anything to ask about.  But if we’re living a life full of passion, a life that stands out, if we’re a scorpion pepper, people are going to notice.  People are going to ask questions.

Okay, so what does this actually look like?  A life that stands out? A life that people ask questions about? A Scorpion pepper life?  Scripture gives us two very clear answers.  In 1 Peter, Peter writes that people are asking questions about our hope.  That’s the first hallmark of a spicy life.  We have hope in a world where hope is pretty thin.

What does hope look like then?  Hope, true hope that Jesus brings, is more than just wishful thinking or blind ambition.  Scripture defines hope as “the assurance of things looked for, the evidence of things not seen”.  Webster’s defines hope as “to cherish a desire with anticipation; to expect with confidence”. Expectation. Anticipation. Confidence.  Assurance that God will provide for that bill that’s due and there’s no money to pay it.  Confidence to live without fear.  Understanding that this life is transitory.  That we have something better in store. Hope’s not easy, but hope stands when everyone else runs.  As they’re looking back in fear, they see your hope standing firm in the evidence of what they don’t see.

Jesus gives us the second indicator of a spicy life, a life that people take notice of: love.  In John 13:34-35, Jesus said he gives us a new commandment: that we are to love one another, just as he has loved us. “By this everyone will know you that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Now our society is full of “love”.  Just watch an hour of TV and you’ll see plenty of “love”. But the love that Jesus is referring to is something different.  Something real.  Something eternal.  1st Corinthians 13 describes this love in detail: patient, kind, not boastful, not proud. Love doesn’t take advantage of the troubles of others. I’m reminded of the finale of the movie Cars.  Lightning McQueen is about to win, but when the king is run off the track and flips, he stops and goes to help.  He lost the race, but people (well, cars anyway) noticed.  That’s what love does.  The world sees love as a transient thing. Disposable, when it’s not convenient. To the world, love is an emotion, and when the emotion is gone, so are they.  To us, love is a commitment. It’s saying that I won’t give up on you, even when every emotion inside says to run. It’s saying that I will choose those that no one else wants.  So when we commit to love, when we love others, prefer others, give to others when we may not even have enough for ourselves, commit when it’s not convenient, then the world will take notice.  They will know we are his disciples. Then we will be a scorpion pepper and fire up this world.

The Alluring Beauty of the Merciful Moment

“Yet while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”Romans 5:8

A while back I visited Jakarta, Indonesia on a business trip during the month of Ramadan and after watching and talking to many of the people there, I once again was reminded of how much we could learn from the true followers of Islam.  Now there are many Christians that would have my head at that statement, but bear with me and allow me to explain what I mean.  First, I don’t mean that I in any way endorse or believe in the Muslim faith.  I truly believe, with all my heart, soul, and mind, that Jesus is my Lord and Savior.  I believe that Christ died on the cross for my sins (I will talk about this later), was buried, and three days later, rose from the dead and provided a way for me, with my screwed up life and sinful nature (As Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am the worst of sinners”) to get into heaven.  I believe that Jesus was wholly man and wholly God – a claim that Mohammad cannot make.  Mohammad may have been a good teacher and a good man (so was Mr. Gunderson, my second grade teacher), but he was not God (neither was Mr. Gunderson).

Then what am I talking about when I say that I think there’s a lot we can learn from Muslims?  I am talking about their dedication and devotion to their spiritual disciplines and their integrity to their faith.

Now, I should stop here and mention that when I’m talking about we, I really mean American Christians (myself included).  I think that most of the rest of the world, particularly Christians in Third-World countries, or countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith, or have to practice their faith in secret, have a depth of understanding and an appreciation of the truths of Christianity and an integrity of faith that we in America struggle to attain, if we ever truly attain them at all.

So what are these spiritual disciplines that I’m talking about?  These disciplines that Muslims seem to have a grasp on, but that I think eludes us? There are two areas that I think we need to look at:  sacrifice and prayer.

As I was working there, I found that I often ate lunch by myself.  Not because I was ostracized for being American, or shunned for not being Muslim, or smelled (I did bring deodorant), but because during the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown.  No food all day.  So the team would continue to work (so they don’t think about how much they’d like to eat) and I would have a sandwich down in the cafeteria alone.  I spent a lot of this time thinking about how much we really don’t understand the concept of fasting and sacrifice.  The majority of us here in America have no concept of hunger.  What it means to go without.  We would have trouble fasting one meal (or for some of us, one hour), let alone the entire day.  Or the entire day for an entire month.  What would we be willing to give up to get closer to God?  What would we sacrifice to sharpen our spiritual discernment and discipline?  Yet this is often the very thing that can release our giftings and ministry.  Before Jesus began his ministry, he spent 40 days fasting in the desert.  Then He went out and began to minister to the people, as the Father directed Him through prayer.

Which brings us to the second area of spiritual discipline.  When I was planning the training sessions with the team there, I had to adjust our schedule to allow for their daily prayers.  Three times a day we would take a break from the training sessions and the team would go to the room set aside and pray.  Removing their shoes, facing Mecca, they would spend 10 to 15 minutes focusing on God and their faith.  Again, I think about my own prayer life and find that it’s woefully scattered and inconsistent.  My prayer life, like, I think, most of us, consists of evenings, lying in bed, falling asleep, or while driving in traffic, asking for God’s vengeance on that idiot who just cut me off.  Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians to pray without ceasing.  The NIV translates it as “pray continuously”.  Without stopping.  What difference would we be able to make if we actually did that?  Jesus said that He does nothing except what He sees the Father doing.  How amazing would our lives be if we actually lived that way?  Imagine if we could combine the discipline and focus of the Muslims in prayer but with the power of the One True God and with Jesus, our Intercessor.  Paul writes that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”.  And our weapons in this battle are prayer and the Word of God.  Think about if we prayed, not three times a day, but 30.  Or 300.  Or truly without ceasing.  Imagine how we could change this world.  Imagine how many battles we could win, not against Muslims, or Buddhists, or Jews, but against our true enemy: the principalities and powers of this world.

I was walking around one of the malls in Jakarta during the latter part of my trip and hanging throughout the mall were banners proclaiming the statement The Alluring Beauty of the Merciful Moment.  When I returned to my hotel, I was speaking with one of the hotel staff and I asked her what the phrase meant.  She told me that the merciful moment was the one time, during Ramadan, when there was some hope that they could see a miracle in their lives.  That perhaps God would be gracious enough to grant them a miracle.  But as I walked around that mall and reflected on what I had experienced and seen that week, I began to realize that this phrase captures the fundamental truth of Christianity.  And the reality of what keeps us connected and returning to the truth of Christ.  That there is an alluring, mystical, beauty to the moment we receive Christ’s mercy.  The moment we realize that God didn’t give us what we really deserve, but rather sent His only son to pay for our miserable sins.  “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.  That saved a wretch like me.”  And this happens continually (like our prayer should).  Daily.  Hourly.  Every time we screw up, put ourselves before others or before God.  Every time we choose our will over God’s.  Every time we reject God by choosing sin, we can return to this alluring beauty.  This merciful moment when we can turn back to God and inexplicably, amazingly, unreasonably, God accepts us again.  This is the miracle that we can see time and time again.  it’s the miracle that we can don’t have to wait for.  We don’t have to wait for Ramadan, or Passover, or any other special holiday.  We don’t even have to wait for Sunday.  We can receive God’s grace and mercy now.  Today.  Here.  All we have to do is ask.

Combined with the truth of God’s mercy and grace, the two disciplines of prayer and fasting could transform us from an impotent people who are scorned and ignored to a people of influence who have an impact on the people and places around us.  In these two disciplines lie the secret to a more powerful and influential ministry.  As we practice these and make them a part of our life, we will begin to see a change, we will see things that were beyond our grasp come into reach.  Jesus was talking to the disciples after they failed to cast out a demon, and they couldn’t figure out why they were having so much trouble in their ministry.  Jesus told them that these ones only come out through prayer and fasting.  The difficult times and tasks are conquered only through prayer and fasting.  What demons haunt our lives that we could send back to hell if we would only heed Jesus’ words?  What freedom would we experience in our lives and our ministries if we lived the way Jesus did? Imagine how we could put to shame other religions, not only because of our discipline and dedication, but because we would be showing the world a religion and faith that truly has power.  A faith that has influence and integrity, beauty and mercy, grace and forgiveness.  A religion that doesn’t just display these ideas on a billboard on a freeway or a banner hanging in a mall, but that displays them in the lives, the attitudes, the actions of the people who walk them out daily.  Then the world would truly see the reality of the Alluring Beauty of the Merciful Moment.  Amen.   Let it be so with us, Lord.

Wonder and Waterfalls

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.”(Psalm 42:7)

Years ago, when I was in college, I worked at a summer camp near Yosemite Valley as their music director and lifeguard.  Near the camp was a small river that ran through the valley.  At one point in the river, it had a small waterfall, only about ten feet high.  But the water poured over this edge with some serious force and power.  A number of us often went down to the river to hang out and swim and talk. Every now and then, we would hike down to the waterfall and just stand under the falls and let the water pound us.  There was an awesome feeling of power and cleansing as the water thundered off the cliff and permeated through our bodies.  However, not everyone was so eager to stand under the falls.  A couple of people would just stand off to the side and catch the spray.  And there were a few of the camp staff that refused to go to the falls at all so as to avoid any risk of getting even the least bit wet.

Years later, as I was thinking back to this time and reminiscing with a friend (a sure sign I’m getting old), God began to show me that how my friends and I reacted to the waterfall is similar to how we often react to the Spirit of God and His calling on our lives.

God pours out His Spirit on us and some people stand back as far as possible to avoid getting the least bit of Him.  “My life is just fine, thank you very much.  I don’t need God getting in and getting me all wet.  I’ve got it all under control.”

Others stand on the sidelines and just catch the mist and spray blown by the Breath of God.  Not willing to go too deep, concerned about how they might look to others. Hey, don’t get on my case.  I go to church on Sunday.  I pray during the week.  I’m involved.  We just have to keep these things in perspective.  I don’t want to be seen as a fanatic or anything.”

And then, there are those who run full speed into the “reckless, raging, fury they call the love of God”.  Those who want all that God has for them and allows the power of the Father, Son, and Spirit to wash over them and make them new.  To allow waves of the Spirit to permeate every part of their lives; to not hide parts of them or limit God’s access.  Once you step into the falls, you are instantly soaked through to the very marrow of your bones.  Nothing is hidden or dry.  The Power and Glory of God can drive you to your knees, both figuratively and literally.  “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God?”1  These are those who don’t care what the world thinks.  They don’t care that they walk out of the falls they are drenched and dripping the Spirit of God all over the carpet and upholstery.

Today, you must decide: Who will you be?  How will you react to the call and power of God?  “Will you run from Him?  Will you stand by the sidelines?  Or will you run full into the Power and Glory of God?”  “Who will you be?”