Shades of Comparison Leave Us in the Dark

My path to vocational ministry is non-traditional.  Leading up to this transition in my occupation, I worked previously as an Army officer, business manager and owner as well as an attorney at law.  When I first practiced law, my primary focus was in the sphere of criminal defense.  The bulk of that criminal defense practice was representing court-appointed clients.  These were folks charged with a crime who couldn’t afford an attorney.

In those days when I talked about work or now when I tell stories about that time, some people have a noticeable reaction.  They make a face, however subtle, that indicates they can’t pay attention to the details because they are distracted by the arrangement.  “How could you represent those people? They aren’t Christians, and you are, so how could you represent them?”  Many times, it’s just the look, but sometimes it’s explicitly asked.  Church polite, of course, but asked just the same.

By contrast, one day walking out of the courthouse I called my wife and told her, “I can’t believe more Christians don’t choose the practice of law as their place of calling.”  After all, I reasoned, where else are you in a position where broken, desperate people come to you asking for your counsel and assistance?  Where else is light so necessary than in the darkest places of society?

Working closely with those whose lives were in peril of being consumed by darkness gave me a greater appreciation for light.  We all need some realization of darkness to remind us of the Light within.  We also need some realization of darkness to remind us of the darkness within.  The degree of separation between “them” and “us” is less than you might imagine.  A twist here and a turn there in life’s circumstances can lead people into situations both unplanned for and undesired.

The overlap in working with “church folks” and court-appointed folks is more similar than you might think, as well.  Sure, most of the church folks in the relatively privileged suburbs present themselves better than the accused of the court-appointed criminal justice system.  The underlying human condition, however, is just as dark.  People are people.

Here, however, is the biggest difference: Those accused and convicted of crimes realize the urgency and near hopelessness of their condition.  They know they need help.  They know they’re messed up and more often than not are desperate for any glimmer of hope.  The socially acceptable, comfortable Christians often think they have things figured out.  They rationalize that Jesus loves them regardless, and nobody (they hope) knows about their “indiscretions.”  And after all, their flaws aren’t as “bad” as the indigent criminal; likely not even perceived to be as bad as the rumors they’ve heard – and helped spread – about the guy across the pew.

Dark is dark and pretending it’s light by shades of comparison cheapens the grace of Jesus Christ.  He didn’t die for us to be judgmental by comparison or dismissive of the heart in need of redemption.  He wants to transform us from glory to glory, but we can’t go to the next glory believing the glory we’ve already experienced somehow jumped us ahead to a place of superiority.

– From “Transforming the Prodigal Soul” available here

The Freedom in Raising Your Hand

I am, among other things, a minister.  I am called to walk with others toward freedom from bondage and toward recognition of their identity in Christ.  I’ve spent countless hours studying, considering, praying for and ministering in freedom. I am thankful God has called me to this purpose and embrace the opportunity as an honor.

A few years ago, in the middle of this calling, I got into an argument with my wife.  It was an ugly argument, and I said ugly things.  What came out of me wasn’t free at all.  It was depraved and destructive.

Following this argument, I went into a kind of dark hole.  I was embarrassed, but more than that, I was doubtful.  I was full of doubt regarding the contradiction between what I believed and knew and ministered in compared to this blatant display of depravity.  The fact that I had this kind of anger and venom in me caused me to question everything.

  • I questioned whether or not I was a phony.  If this was going to be a way I might act, is there any integrity in my ministry?
  • I questioned whether or not I was disqualified.  If I do these kinds of things or even if I am capable of them, am I qualified to help others?
  • I questioned the very idea of freedom.  If a so-called freedom minister is so full of darkness that it comes spilling out, is there even such a thing as freedom in the first place?

Those are the questions I was asking as I prayed and considered the events of the argument. The next day, I received a group text to five or six of us from a pastor friend also called to walk alongside those engaged in the quest for freedom.  He explained in his text that he needed prayer as he’d lost his temper in his home the night before. The aftermath of his anger was evident in damaged relationships and broken trust.

Almost instinctively, I typed a text in response.  My response to him was, “You win.  By raising your hand, inviting us in and sending this text, you win.”  That was it.  That was the answer to my questions.

Freedom isn’t the absence of sin but the willingness to expose darkness to light. Freedom isn’t living a perfect life, but living life’s imperfections with others to disarm the accusations of guilt and shame arising from our faults.  Freedom is simply the ability to raise your hand.  Raising your hand is the first step on the return journey to an inheritance that abounds beyond our limitations.

– From “Transforming the Prodigal Soul” available here

The Universal Benefit of Calling Out Identity

I volunteered as a mentor in a youth prison for several years and worked with boys, ages 14-17, as they worked towards a greater chance once they were released. What I found was that they are normal people; regular kids. Obviously, they had problems but the problems they had are not as unfamiliar to most of us as we might initially believe.

We never asked them why they were in jail or what they had done. The things that they had done to get them into this situation did not define who they were and I didn’t want to reinforce it as their identity. They didn’t steal because they were blessed by God with gifting as a thief (in fact, they couldn’t have been too good at it since they were obviously caught). It was a manifestation of junk inside of them leading to an act of rebellion, greed, laziness, desperation, etc.

The gifts and abilities that these young men did have had been hijacked to be applied in negative ways with negative consequences. Some of these boys were quite accomplished as drug dealers or gang leaders While that is both illegal and wrong, there are some leadership, marketing, entrepreneurial and organizational skills that were evident in those endeavors. They weren’t drug dealers or gang leaders by their design, but they were quite possibly destined to be great business owners, salesmen or leaders with the proper nurturing and application of their abilities. Instead of dwelling on what got them into prison, we would call out those gifts which were evident in them to help them see themselves for who they were actually were.

With the simple power of an affirming word, we would call them who they actually were instead of labeling them with the twisted mis-application of their abilities. We would very directly compliment them on their strength, leadership, intellect, etc. How do you feel when you get a compliment? These guys liked it, too; they would literally change right in front of your eyes, pulling their shoulders back, looking up, smiling and even gaining clarity in their eyes and expressions.

Most of us know when we mess up and don’t actually need much of a reminder from those around us that love us. We will face the consequences of our mistakes willingly or otherwise but a word of encouragement will help us move beyond that failure and into the truth of who we really are much more than reminders of our failures.

This is true for boys in prison, teenagers in the suburbs, middle-aged professionals, employees, church people and any other types of people who make mistakes but need to know that mistake does not define them. Those boys aren’t that much different than most of the people reading this blog or the guy writing it.

The Connection of Comfort

We were in Northern Virginia this past weekend and decided to head into Washington D.C. on the way to the airport. We had mentioned going in to see some monuments if we had time and the kids had shown strong interest in doing so. We were running short of time as we had to catch a flight, but we decided to give it a try.

We drove past the Jefferson Memorial, the Capital and the White House as we looked for a place to park. Without much time to waste, we were fortunate to find a parking spot as D.C. was crowded with tourists. From our parking spot, we walked past the Vietnam Memorial towards our intended destination, which was the Lincoln Memorial. After checking it out, in addition to the reflecting pool and Washington Monument (from a distance), we had to head back to the car and onto the airport.

We walked back towards the Vietnam Memorial towards our car. I’ve been to the Vietnam Memorial before; it impacted me then as well as this time both going and coming. My father served two tours in Vietnam and the names on that wall of those that didn’t come home are a grim provocation of what could have been for my dad and our family. I’m thankful.

As we were moving towards our car, I was processing some emotion as we walked briskly to be on time for our flight. Julie noticed an older Asian man along the pathway where we were walking near the Vietnam Memorial. She noticed he was weeping. It caused her to cry as we continued to walk and, about 50 yards past the man, she had to go back. She turned and jogged back towards him.

When she reached him, she comforted him and asked him if she could give him a hug. If you know her, you aren’t surprised. He smiled and welcomed the comfort. That was it. We had to go; we had a flight to catch.

I’m really glad we decided to detour our trip to the airport. The kids loved it and this brief encounter was rich and deep. While the man was a little older than me, he apparently has a story that cause him emotions in much the same way that the realization of what could have become my story did for me.

Holy Spirit is the Comforter and He lives within every born-again believer in Jesus. He lives in us not only because we need comfort, but also because other people do. Giving comfort is a testimony of Jesus, with or without words. The expression of the heart of God is accomplished through people with people. People around us are weeping and we get to connect heaven to earth if we’ll notice earth and offer heaven.

A Priest, A Lawyer and a Business Owner Walked Into a Bar

I’ve been doing this for a living for about five years. Before I did this, I was practicing law. When I practiced law, I was responsible for the representation of clients as an advocate. That advocacy sometimes meant investment that exceeded their legal questions. Life questions got them in legal problems so my advocacy sometimes meant life investments.

Before that, I was a business owner. There were things I did well as a business owner and there were things that I did not so well. My intentions were to serve my clients and my employees in a way that was honoring and gracious. For those that didn’t know Jesus, my hope was to put Him on display in the ways that I interacted with them.

Now I am a professional minister. I’ve had several roles, but my job is Christianity. This has afforded incredible opportunities to  grow, share and multiply in the life I have found in Christ. It has also afforded me a perspective of what is challenging in the professional endeavor of Christian leadership.

The truth is that I am no more or less of a Christian leader than I was when I owned a business or practiced law. I was a born again believer in Jesus Christ, committed as a disciple to carry the good news of the Kingdom of God then as I am now. The recognition, credibility or validation that comes with vocational positioning does not qualify me any more or less than He did in those previous roles.

The problem, to some extent, is that we struggle to accept that. We struggle to accept that lawyers and business owners are the same as pastors and ministers. The separations are subtle, at times, but insidious, just the same. The little hints of superiority or separation feed the lies of inferiority and disqualification. In every way that we elevate professional clergy, we disqualify the saints that are called to do the work of the ministry.

I’m just as righteous in Christ today as I was in the courtroom, and so are you. I’m also working out that salvation through my flawed and wounded soul as a professional minister as you likely are as someone who is engaged in the marketplace. We’re the same. Our flaws don’t disqualify us nor does our knowledge validate us. There is no more pressure on me to live a perfect application of religious expectations as there is possibility that you are able to pull it off outside of grace.

Faith Requires Knowledge and Revelation

All the studying in the world won’t get you to a place where you feel faith. No matter how much material you introduce your head to, it won’t change your heart. Your heart requires encounter and encounter embodies a relationship. The connection with God that we are invited into is one of relationship. Relationship requires encounter, not simply education.

You’ll never call God “Papa” or “Daddy” from the knowledge that He is Father. It takes revelation to cause that reaction. We hear from Holy Spirit in our spirit that we are God’s child and then, only then, do we call out “Abba.” (Romans 8) He says it, we hear it and we declare it because we are so convinced at our core (spirit) that we can’t contain it. Then we can walk in our purpose. Then we can see the Kingdom.

The heart and the head work in concert and neither can supersede the other. If you have revelation of God but no knowledge of His Word, you will walk in error. You’ll be making things up as you go based on emotions and desires that seem good and kind of god-ish. Without revelation, however, the knowledge is dry and rigid and there is no life flowing through your faith. Knowledge, by itself, will lead to pride as you argue points that often can’t be proven or mastered. Knowledge without the breath of God leads to arrogance and argument.

Study is critical and drawing near to encounter Him is just as important. God is Spirit and we are created as spirit in His image. We need to relate spirit to Spirit, not just information to our mind about Spirit. From that place of revelation, we find the satisfaction of relationship and the comfort of love. The grace of Jesus affords us access to the Father’s love, which floods our fears as our insecurity as orphans gives way to the security of His kids.

I wrote a positive endorsement of The Shack the other day because I’ve known God as Daddy for some time. I’ve encountered Him and He has healed me from the inside out. I’m still working it out, but I know Him as Healer, Comforter and Friend. From that, I can receive and process knowledge through His lens of grace and love. I don’t need to or want to know things about Him for the sake of a blog or sermon. I want to know Him intimately and want the same for others.

In that move, the main character (Mac) went into motion immediately following revelation of God’s love. He went about the business of being an agent of healing for his older daughter and a pursuit of growth and community in a local church. He had been to the church before, but now he actually sang. He sang for the same reason that King David sang. He sang because he had the heart of God. We’re invited not just to learn, but to sing; from the inside out.