Street Cred

What are your goals? Do you ever sit and ponder that question? This is a question I ask married couples who come to me for counseling. I try to ascertain the depth of their commitment to each other and to the counseling process. The question often reveals things that forecast the potential outcome of the process.

Many times we get complacent in some of the aspects of our life and stop working toward certain goals. If retirement is your goal, what will you do when you get there? If a promotion is your goal, what will be your next aspiration when you’ve gotten it? We encourage our kids to have goals in sports and schools, but I wonder how many of us encourage them set goals for their married lives and their spiritual lives?

Do you have spiritual goals?

Paul did.

In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul wrote to his friends about his process of becoming a Christ-follower. He began with a long litany of how he got to where he was at that moment. This is an interesting look at Paul’s “street cred,” or street credentials if you will. It almost seems a tad braggadocios, but truly Paul has earned that right!

Philippians 3 (Common English Bible)

though I have good reason to have this kind of confidence. If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:

I was circumcised on the eighth day.

I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.

I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.

With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.

With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.

With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.

Now Paul shifts his list to a more theological exploration of what the past became in light of his present reality. All of the things he lost in order to follow Christ are now considered “sewer trash,” and all the things he gained have led him to pursuing the goal of the resurrection:

These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.

Here is the kicker. Paul had completely given his life to Christ, but he still had goals. He still pursued Christ. He still pursued the prize of God’s upward call. He was reaching, learning, growing, and striving to put the past behind him and reach for the things ahead of him:

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

Are you letting things in your past hold you back? Is God telling you to let go?

Do you continue to have spiritual goals, or has a complacent attitude taken over?

It is never too late to reach for Christ. It is never too late to change. It is never too late to walk away from the old things and vigorously pursue a new life.

So sign up for that Bible study! Get sober! Go on the mission trip! Grow your bangs out! Volunteer to help with the youth! You are never too young or too old, and as long as you’re still breathing, it’s never too late.

Morning Clouds by Vic Miles

Lent is Not a Diet

I read an article somewhere recently that stated “Lent is not a diet.” The writer went on to discuss how we sometimes use Lent to correct poor eating habits, focus on exercising more, and try to lose weight by giving up or fasting from the things that caused us to gain it over the winter. As a colleague mentioned in his sermon, Lent comes just in time for “beach body preparation.”

Boy, when you combine a typical winter with a pandemic, you can end up with a lot to “give up!”

But of course the focus of Lent is to fast from something that is distracting you from God. Many people have given up social media. Some have pledged to stop arguing with their spouse. Others gave up Netflix or the news channels. What have you given up?

One year I gave up complaining. I didn’t have much to say for six weeks, much to my husband’s delight. We laugh about now, but I have to confess that it was a STRUGGLE. It was a good exercise in learning how much complaining I do on a regular basis. What an eye-opener!

So yes, Lent is not a diet … but today’s Scripture calls us to consider that we have made our “stomach our god” and we can easily become too focused on filling ourselves up with earthly things:

Philippians 3 (Common English Bible)

17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 

Paul boldly challenges us to imitate him in his righteousness (if not his humility). He makes the clear point that we are enemies of the cross if we continue to pursue earthly wealth, status, achievements, etc. at the sake of the cross-life, which calls us to a life of sacrifice, obedience, and service.

20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.

Our citizenship is in heaven! Ponder that for a moment. That means that the “rules” for our lives here are the same rules God establishes for those who live in the heavenly realm. This passage makes us question our motivations. Are we too focused on earthly things?

Stand firm in the Lord

4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

Paul encourages us to stand firm in the Lord. We can forsake the pulls and pushes of secular life and keep our hearts in tune with God. Where is God calling you to change? Are you using this time of giving something up for Lent to fill the void with Jesus? What are you learning?

Paul reminds us in this Lenten season and in our Lenten disciplines to stand firm. You belong to the kingdom in heaven!

Act like it.

Heaven on Earth by Michelle Robertson

Off and Running

How many among you are runners? I am one of those weird people who enjoys running… in certain circumstances. Mind you, I definitely have some requirements for when I like to run.

I like to run when:

it’s not too early,

it’s not too late,

it’s not too hot,

it’s not too cold,

it’s not raining,

it’s not too humid,

or when a dog is chasing me.

For over a decade I have run with two women who are my bffs, therapists, hand-holders, comediennes, and steadfast supporters of everything I have ever tried. One of our husbands dubbed us as “toggers,” i.e. talking joggers. Really, the whole point is to talk. Running is secondary. We call ourselves Elite Toggers because when it comes to talking while running, no one can hold a candle to our nonsense.

I don’t know if Paul was a runner/jogger/togger but he really had the lingo down. In a letter to church at Philippi, he uses running imagery to describe the pursuit of all things holy.

He begins by laying out his credentials as a properly born Jew:

 Philippians 3 (The Message)

You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.

Then Paul goes on to say that he is throwing away all of his credentials for the sake of Christ. He contends that any gain his credentials gave him are a loss now because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.

10-11 I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.

And then the beautiful running analogy:

12-14 I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.

How about you? Are you running toward Jesus or trying to slink away? Do you keep turning back toward your sinful behavior, past mistakes, old habits, and ways of doing things that slow down your forward motion?

Make today a day to be off and running. God is at the finish line, so keep your eye on the goal!

Elite Toggers by Wende Pritchard

ONE thing

Many of you know that I have a dog named Georgia. She is a big yellow lab, and by big, I mean 110 pounds big. Georgia loves many things….long walks, swimming, any kind of food, and anything that smells. She can be a real challenge to walk.

Often when I am walking her, my arm suddenly gets yanked out of the socket because she has found something good to smell. I keep explaining to her that we came out for a walk, not a sniff! I spend the whole walk telling her to lift her head up…more than once she has walked smack into a mailbox post that she never saw coming. She has amazing focus….just on the wrong thing!

Philippians 3 (New International Version)

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.

But ONE thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

This scripture is a beautiful portrait of Paul, the Jesus-follower. The fact that Paul had such a passion for following Jesus is amazing, considering where he started. Remember that before he became Paul the apostle, he was Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of Jesus-followers. Paul’s credentials were impressive: he was circumcised eight days after his birth, was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, was a Hebrew among Hebrews, a Pharisee, and a zealous advocate of the Jewish faith until he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. 

From that point on, he was a zealous advocate of only one thing: Jesus. Look again at vs. 13 and 14: “But ONE thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Did you notice Paul’s focus? “But ONE thing I do…” Not ten things, not a hundred things, but ONE thing. 

I would bet that if we were to hire a consultant to look at our lives and advise us on how we can be more successful, the first thing that consultant would say is, “You’re trying to do too many things.” Henry Ford once said, “A weakness of all human beings is trying to do too many things at once. That scatters effort and destroys direction. It makes for haste, and haste makes waste.” The key to a successful life is to have one goal, and to pursue that with all your heart, might, and focus.

What ONE thing is Christ calling you to focus on right now? Is it healing your marriage, forgiving someone who has hurt you, releasing a grudge and moving on, starting a deeper, intentional commitment to your discipleship…where should your focus be?

Paul invites us to join him in his ONE thing. Forget the old baggage of what lies behind. Strain forward to what lies ahead. Press on toward your goal. Pursue the upward call of God….and find Jesus.

Focused Fishermen by Michelle Robertson

Standing in Awe

I recently watched the movie I Can Only Imagine, which is the story of how the number one Christian song by the same name was written and produced. The band Mercy Me and its lead singer Bart Millard are the central characters in the story, with a great performance by actor Dennis Quaid as the abusive father. There is a surprising twist of how Amy Grant played a pivotal role in what happened. Those are all the spoilers you will get here, so go find it and watch it.

The song explores what happens when we die. Millard asks the question, “Will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you, be still?”

I have a friend who is actively dying. I have lain awake at night trying to process this. I am no stranger to death. My parents are dead, and as a pastor, I have seen more funerals than baptisms and weddings combined. I have been with people at the very moment of death and watched that transition.

A group of Girl Scouts once interviewed me as part of their merit badge program, and the question was asked, “What is your favorite part of your job?” I looked at this pack of giggly girls and I’m sure they expected me to say, “Weddings!” Every giggly girl would think that would be just wonderful, to be part of so many weddings. This is not the case. I told them that ministry with the dying was my favorite part, and their faces fell. I went on to explain that it is in those moments that I feel closest to God and experience the pure and uncomplicated “sacred.”

We understand the word sacred to mean set apart. Things that are sacred are set apart from the ordinary, set apart from the earthly, and set apart for God’s use and his glory.

Death is sacred. There is not one sacrament created by the church that can even touch it. Communion, baptism, and all the other things churches observe as sacramental cannot hold a candle to death.

In the moment of death, the veil is literally torn between this earth and that heaven. The process of transition is that moment of our lives where we experience God in his fullest. Even our birth isn’t as powerful as our death.

When I was a very young pastor, I was called to the hospital bed of my church organist’s mother. She was dying, and we waited. We held her hands and talked in soft voices as she took her last breath. It was the first of many times I would experience the moment of death, and the memory is still vibrant to me. I saw/felt/understood her spirit rise out of her body and linger in the upper corner of the room. It was so real, I turned my head to look up at the corner. When I looked back at her, she was gone.

Gone where?

Philippians 3 (The Message)

20-21 But there’s far more to life for us. We’re citizens of high heaven! We’re waiting the arrival of the Savior, the Master, Jesus Christ, who will transform our earthy bodies into glorious bodies like his own. He’ll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him.

The thief on the cross next to Jesus who believed Jesus was the son of God was promised that he would be in paradise THAT DAY. The moment of death becomes the moment of life, when we enter into our citizenship of high heaven. Our earthly bodies become transformed into something glorious, beautiful, and WHOLE. Death has no victory…death has no sting! No more pain, no more illness, no more confusion, no more tears.

Ponder this today, and make it your life’s goal to enter this paradise. And do not fear death. You will never experience the sacred in this life in the way you will experience it in death. God with us, Emmanuel, in a way we have never felt before.

Can you only imagine?

The Open Portal by Michelle Robertson

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_lrrq_opng

Sparking Sadness

Yes, that is a picture of mismatched, old, worn-out socks. I took it against a nice background, since my epiphanies always happen at the Water’s Edge, but it is indeed a nasty pile of socks. These aren’t even my socks, but my husband’s. He walked down the steps with them last week and declared, “I have decided that these socks no longer spark joy.” In my mind I was thinking, “Honey, they haven’t sparked joy for about ten years, especially the red ones.”

His comment was a result of the Marie Kondo phenomenon. Kondo is a television personality who brilliantly came up with the idea to do shows helping people become more organized and efficient with their homes and their usage of space. Disciples of Kondo will recognize the “spark joy” reference. Her greatest teaching is that you should hold an object in your hands, and if it doesn’t spark any joy in your heart, you need to toss it out. I read a news report that said that once this idea went viral, thrift stores everywhere were suddenly overwhelmed with joyless donations. Her thinking is pretty revolutionary, don’t you think? But more importantly, don’t you wish you had come up with it first?? I sure do!

A friend of mine coined another phrase to describe the opposite of sparking joy. She said that she realizes there are things in her home that only “spark sadness.” She described how a beautiful figurine that looked just like her dog now sparks sadness, as the dog has passed away. I have a favorite photograph in my living room of my in-laws holding hands as they crossed the finish line at the Turkey Trot many years ago. Since my mother-in-law died, this picture of her smiling in her Penn State hat and wearing her race number pinned to her sweatshirt often sparks sadness for me. She will never do that race again, which was the highlight of our Thanksgiving day for many years. We keep things like these to honor the sweet bitterness of lost loves, but sometimes holding them truly sparks sadness, and rightfully so.

There is a difference between things that no longer spark joy and things that outright spark only sadness. Sometimes relationships are like that. They can go fallow for awhile, and temporarily fail to spark joy. Then a reconciliation or reunion happens and turns it around. But other times, the thought of them brings only a sweet-less bitter that is permanent. And that’s when you know it is time to let go.

This applies to anything that is bringing you despair and angst. When past mistakes, regrets, guilt, sin, poor choices, failures, bad relationships, hurts, anger, betrayals, etc. bring nothing useful to your life and only drag you deep into a place of darkness, let it go.

Paul calls us to reach forward and grasp what Christ has already planned for us:

Philippians 3:13 “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Remember when you were learning how to cross the monkey bars at the playground? Somebody held you up, and you grasped a bar. Then to move forward, you had to let go of the bar and grasp the next one in front of you. Otherwise your arms would eventually wear out and you would drop to the ground.

Forget what is behind. Strain toward what is ahead. Jesus took hold of the cross so that you could take hold of life, and he promised it would be a life ABUNDANT with meaning, purpose, and joy. So whatever you are holding today that sparks only sadness in your heart, let it go. Jesus has so much more for you than that.