What God Has Taught Me


Today our church service included the testimonies of several of our members regarding what the Lord has taught them over the past year.  Below is a transcript (as best I can provide) of what I shared with our congregation.

testimonies

Looking Back

I wish I could stand before you this morning and tell you that I’ve spent the last 363 days of the year faithfully studying God’s word, desperately pursing him prayer, and passionately worshipping him 24/7; I wish I could rattle off a list of people I’ve personally led to the Lord, that I could say, “Hey – see that table there?  All of them are here today because when I told them about Jesus they listened and responded.”

But I can’t.  And that’s okay.  See, that’s what God has taught me this year.

One Word Summary

If I had to sum the year’s lessons up in one word, it would “grace” – the grace God shares through Jesus every day of the year as he deals with and talks to me.  Jason asked us a couple of weeks ago to talk about how God has moved in our lives this past year so that we could share it.  I wanted to be able to say, “I was sick – now look at me!  I’m healed!” or “One day, out of the blue, God sent a check that paid off my mortgage!” or some other miraculous story.  Instead, I stand before you and tell you that we spent the better part of a year recovering from the consequences of a car accident that totaled our van, delayed our trying to have another child, and put a complete stop on selling our house and moving into another one – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Rather than tell you about the mortgage being paid off, I will stand here and tell you that the promised raise was voted down, sometimes there was more month than money, and the insurance settlement didn’t come close to paying for the new van.

stone of graceYup, that’s our year.  A pretty normal year, a year mixed with both victories and struggles, great memories and pain I think I’d rather forget.  A year that started with good intentions – intentions to read scripture daily, to pray faithfully with and for my wife, to disciple my children – but as I look back I realize that while there were months I did read daily, pray faithfully, and invest in my kids, there are also weeks I’m not sure I even cracked the bible open except on Sunday morning, months that went by where prayers were little more than “Bless this day, God” or “Help feel better”, and plenty of nights where not only did I neglect to do devotions with the girls but where during the day I actually lost my temper and yelled at them.  Yup.  That’s my life – my imperfect, human, raw life.

And in the midst of it, He is here.  God is.  Jesus – he’s in the midst of all the turmoil, all the pain, all the disappointment.  He’s right here. That’s what God taught me this year.  To focus on the increasingly intimate, on-going, day-by-day and moment-by-moment relationship I have with Him, to remember that he speaks to me about and through the “mundane,” he works through me, and he fills in the gaps when I step aside and let him.

The Grant

I look back at the year and realize that when I was one of two people tasked with writing a 300 page grant application in just two weeks, that when the words were flowing through my fingers onto the screen, when the ideas in my mind were literally changing the way we structure support for schools in our district, that they weren’t my ideas at all – they were His. I recognize now that the whole process – a process that didn’t result in receiving the grant – was about growing me in Him.  Through that process he was shared both verbally and non-verbally with my co-workers; he grew my faith and honed my listening skills.  We walked side-by-side through that project.  And we grew closer.

Statistics

I look back at the statistics class I had to take this semester, or the two-nights-out-a-week for school that robbed me of time with family.  And I recognize that he was with me on every drive to Chapel Hill, that those times in the car where I would sing, talk with him out loud, listen to sermons, and listen to him speak to me were times of growth and intimacy with my Savior – times I have come to treasure and even look forward to.  I understand they were times I have to invest in out-of-town friends and family via late night phone calls that serve to help keep me awake as I traveled but minister to them in other ways than I could ever imagine.  He’s worked in and through me even while I drive.

Driving Around Town

I look back on the day I was driving from a school in Winterville out to a school in Farmville.  I was sitting at the intersection of Davenport Farms Rd and Old US264 waiting to turn left.  There was a semi truck coming from the right and two cars coming from the left.  Even though there was more than enough space for me to safely pull out and make my turn, I heard a voice say, “Tom, just be patient – don’t be in such a rush.”  So, for once in my life while behind the wheel, I actually just decided to sit there and let everyone pass – to listen to and not just hear Jesus’ voice.  After the truck passed I turned to wait for the first of the two cars to pass, and after it passed I waited for the second car to pass.  It was then that I saw a third car that had been invisible to me just seconds before – a third car who was executing an illegal pass of the second car, so he was in the lane I would have turned into.  Literally, had I not listened when Jesus told me to wait I would have had a head-on collision with a car that was easily traveling 60+ mph.  And it took me longer to tell you this story than it actually happened in life – it was that quick.

The Missing Dog

I look back at the morning I woke up and the dog had escaped the back yard; of spending 30 minutes driving and walking the neighborhood in the rain when it was still dark outside, only to return home praying, “Lord, just bring her back – or help someone to find her and call us.”  Then I turned onto my street and who was standing in the middle of the road, one door down from our house, looking around all confused?  My Cosette.  And Jesus said, “See – I even care about the dog.  If I care about something so insignificant as that, don’t you think I care about the big stuff, too?”  Sure, it could have ended differently – she could have been lost forever, but I think God was saving me from have the country-music-song year (you know, no raise, car accident, totaled car, hurt wife, dead dog).

The Year to HearThe Lesson: Just Listen

So here’s what I’ve learned this year more than ever before – a year that, while it hasn’t been the most difficult of my life has certainly had its challenges.  I’ve learned that God is faithful in the little things, and he’s faithful in the big ones, too.  I’ve learned that God’s grace overpowers everything the devil can throw at us.  I’ve learned that the best part of life is walking hand-in-hand with my Dad – my Heavenly Dad – and hanging out with him.  I’ve learned that listening to Jesus and hearing him are two different things.  I used to teach my students that the while hearing was a function of the ear, listening was a function of the brain.  Hearing is simply when sound waves hit the ear drum, but listening requires actually processing and paying attention to those sounds.  It’s why we can sit in a restaurant and, even though we hear conversations of other people around us, we only listen to the person we’re having dinner with.  Jesus reminded me of that truth this year, so I want to share a couple of very specific examples when he spoke and I did more than hear, I listened.

Lance Armstrong

To do that I went back and reviewed some of my blog posts for the past year.  Two stuck out…  Two that were turning points in my year when Jesus spoke deeply to me.  The first one I want to share was from last January. To provide a little context, I used to be an avid cyclist, and Lance Armstrong was one of my favorite racers.  Last January was when he finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in each of his seven Tour de France victors.  Here’s some of what I wrote:

There is something about Lance Armstrong that saddens me: he is not a Christian.  I have to wonder how someone who has been given so much cannot believe in God at all.  It’s not that he knowingly serves another spiritual presence, it’s that he doesn’t even believe God exists.  To know that while he may inspire many here on earth to achieve great strides yet not spend eternity in heaven is disheartening.

He writes in his book, Every Second Counts, the story of the home he bought in Spain.  Part of the home is a family chapel that he paid to have restored.  He writes this regarding the chapel: “To me, that chapel isn’t just about worship, but about history, about age, about the hundreds of years that have seeped into the arched ceilings, the gold paint, and the original stained glass.  It’s stunning.”

I fear Armstrong’s comments regarding faith and religion are all-too-common in today’s culture.  Religion is viewed as a duty, as a set of rules, as a hoax, or as a crutch (Armstrong refers to it as this, too).

Yet what Armstrong fails to understand is Christianity is not meant to be a religion but a relationship with the living God of the universe.  Think of it—the creator wants you and I to know Him!  He even came to earth to make a way for us to draw near to Him.  Church is not a building, or a history lesson.  Church, The Church, is the living, organic body of our Savior Jesus.  That’s what Armstrong fails to understand.

This week we see what could be described as the deprivation of man in general and Armstrong in particular.  I didn’t watch his confession, but I read enough in the press to know that his sincerity and regret was, at best, questionable – how else could he still claim he didn’t think it was wrong to cheat?

For me, though, what is even more disheartening than the cheating is the years and years of lying – lying to the public, to his donors and supporters, to his fans, and, ultimately, to himself.  He was vicious – suing those who dared suggest he had doped and calling them terrible, horrible names.  In Armstrong we see the fallen nature of humanity for what it is: an obsession with oneself.  Like the title of Armstrong’s first book, we had confirmed this week that it wasn’t about the bike.  It was about him and only him, at all costs.

And here’s what really gets me… Armstrong’s cycling wasn’t what brought him to fame, it was the fact that he had overcome cancer and then still went on to be what we all thought was the greatest cyclist who ever raced.  We didn’t follow him because of the bike, we followed him because of the healing.

This afternoon I got kinda upset about that.  I found myself upset with God that my sister died of cancer when she was 20, yet this liar and cheater was allowed to live.  It just didn’t seem fair.  Erin wasn’t perfect, but she certainly wasn’t Armstrong.  How come she had to die and he got to live?  If anyone deserved to die wasn’t it a man who would take his healing, shove it in the face of the God who healed him (as he did in his book), and then go on to mock the rest of the world to win by cheating and covering it up for years afterwards – ruining the lives of countless other professionals in the process?  Isn’t that the one who should have died?

And then God reminded about his grace.  It’s what Armstrong needs – it’s what he’s always needed.  Not grace from me or any other person; what Armstrong needs is to accept the grace given him by God.  Erin died a believer, which means she ultimately was healed that night she passed into eternity.  But Armstrong?  He’s headed straight to hell.  Not because he cheated and lied, but because he’s a sinner just like everyone else.  Perhaps worse than some but better than others.  Yet at the end of the day when he dies he’ll spend eternity separated from God because he refuses to accept the grace found in Jesus.

And so God continues to offer grace, one chance after another.  Should Armstrong have died?  Who am I to judge that…  What I can say with confidence is this: God must certainly love him a whole bunch, if you judge it based on the chances he’s given (and continues to give) to come to know Him.  2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Maybe, just maybe, Armstrong will wake up to this fact.  It’s what I’m praying for, anyway

Grey’s Anatomy

The second one I wrote the following month, in February, and I think you’ll see how they are related:

I was watching a little TV with Melissa and she turned on the most recent episode of one of her new favorite shows, Grey’s Anatomy.  One main theme in the episode was a 19 year old who needed a blood transfusion but couldn’t get one because of his religious beliefs.  The conflict in the show revolved around how the doctors should respond to someone whose religious beliefs prevented them from treating a sickness that was curable.  At one point a friend of the dying patient comments to one of the doctor’s that even though they hang out “every day” his friend “never once mentioned to me that he was a Jehovah’s witness.  He never talked about it.  I kinda don’t think he is.” (his being a JW is why he can’t get a blood transfusion).  The doctor responds that maybe he’s just a private person, to which the friend says, “If you believed in something so hard you would die for it, would you keep it a secret?  Wouldn’t you at least tell your friends?”

And that’s when God slapped me upside the head and asked me the question, “Would your friends even know you’re a follower of Jesus?  Have you ever told them?  Would they know what you’re living for?  Would they know what you’re willing to die for?”  See, when God writes them a love letter, don’t you think he wants them to know that he lived and died for them?  Paul tells me that I’m the letter – I’m the ambassador.  So what message are they hearing?  Or am I keeping him a secret?

What about Sunday?

Both of those stories provide the “front book-end” examples, so to speak, of what Jesus was telling and teaching me this year.  So let me use one final quote before I tie this all together to provide the “back book-end”… Just this past week I finished reading a book in which the following question was asked:

“If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus? The reason I pose the question is because most people conclude someone is a Christian or not based on that person’s Sunday religious activities and behaviors. You may not even be inclined to advertise your faith, but inevitably if you attend church often enough, it will come out in conversation. So if Sunday didn’t exist, you would no longer have a building to point to as being the place you attend church…If Sunday didn’t exist, we would no longer be able to use our Sunday activities as evidence that we are followers of Jesus. So back to my question…If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus?”

The Missing Formula

I wish I could give you a formula that said, “This is how you grow closer to the Lord.  You read 4 chapters a day at 6:00am, then make sure you pray for 35 minutes every morning about these 5 topics.  Oh, don’t forget to fast once a week (Tuesdays would be best) so that you can spend extra time with the Lord in prayer.  Always listen to Christian radio, in the car make sure you play sermon podcasts rather than turn on political talk, answer at least 3 out of 5 questions at small group, and….”  Well, you get the idea.  But there isn’t a formula – it’s a relationship between two beings.  And that’s what Jesus has been teaching me.  There’s an ebb and flow to life, and an ebb and flow to relationships.  Hearing Jesus’ voice in every moment of every day isn’t something that happens just because you do X-Y-and-Z.  Hearing is a result of listening, and listening is a result of focus and paying attention – perhaps it sounds like I’m arguing semantics here, but hearing is a physiological process whereas listening adds both the cognitive dimension and the spiritual act of discernment so that physiology, cognition, and spirit all work together.

listen-and-learnNow don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting there’s nothing we can do to hear God’s voice or that regardless of what we do nothing will inhibit us from hearing him.  Sin is very real and it sets a wall up in our hearts to make it difficult to hear his voice.  We have to spend time with him regularly – if I never talked with Melissa or spent time with her or listened to her you’d all wonder what type of marriage we had.  But at certain times of our lives those shared times may look different.  When we first got married we had regular date nights every week – but once you have kids and you realize between dinner, a movie, and a babysitter that date nights take the entire month’s entertainment budget, they start to look different than they used to.  I can’t give a formula for the marriage relationship.  Are there certain things we do and don’t do?  Absolutely.  But we don’t get a marriage because we do those things, we do those things because we are married.

Similarly, I’m not so certain that we get a growing relationship with God just because we read the Bible, pray, fast, or engage in any of the other spiritual disciplines.  Reading the bible and prayer no more make you a Christian than babysitting makes you a parent.  Does this mean you shouldn’t babysit my kids for me?  Absolutely not! But remember that we aren’t parents until we’ve had a kid – whether you have them naturally or you adopt them.  Just because you are a teacher who works with kids, or a family therapist who studies child development and know what all the “experts” say about them, a pediatrician who diagnoses their sickness or a L&D nurse who delivers newborns every day – if you’ve never had the sole responsibility to care for a child you aren’t a parent.  That’s not meant to discourage or dismiss people, it’s simply stating a neutral fact.  In the same way, just because you attend church, read the bible, pray, fast, give money, and/or serve in the community it doesn’t mean you are a follower of Jesus.  Does that mean you shouldn’t do those things?  Absolutely not – but don’t overemphasize the vehicle when what is important is the relationship.

rooted

Abiding leads to doing

Because of our growing relationship with God we engage in those disciplines – just like when we get married we do things couples do, or when we have children we take responsibility for our kids in raising them.  But when it all gets dry?  Well, sometimes relationships don’t always “feel” vibrant.  But that doesn’t mean we aren’t in relationship.  Sometimes our sprititual walk with our Dad doesn’t necessarily “feel” great, but it doesn’t mean he’s not there or that he doesn’t care.  The thing that Jesus has taught me more this year than any year in the past is that a deep relationship with him is exactly that – a relationship that isn’t ruled by rules and regulations about what I do or say or think.  In fact, it’s not ruled by anything but His Grace.  To use our Covenant and Kingdom language, I’ve learned that as I abide with and in Him, the doing happens automatically and naturally and I don’t even need to think about it.  Just this past week I read John 3:21, “anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”  When I abide in Him, he works through me and others see it for what it is.

Don’t take these words to mean that when you walk with God that what you consider to be “good things” only happen to you or you always get what you want.  Sometimes the dog doesn’t come home, sometimes your sister dies, sometimes you spend more than you make, sometimes the car accident happens or the tire blows out or you fall out of the tree and break your arm.  I have friends who are Christians who walk faithfully with the Lord and still experience great, great pain – the pain of divorce, untimely death, the sickness of a child, lost jobs, or even the loss of a home – so I’m not naïve enough to think that by walking with and listening to Jesus we are free of the effects of sin in a fallen world.  Walking with God doesn’t guarantee bad things won’t happen to you.  It DOES mean you don’t have to go through them alone.

abiding

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40 Days of Grace


Where the previous devotional I read fell flat on it’s face, 40 Days of Grace blew me out of the water.  Here was a book that every time I opened it I was brought face to face with my risen savior and my own unworthiness as a man, reminding and refocusing me on the grace of God found in Christ.  I found the book challenging, inspiring, convicting, and encouraging all at once.

The daily readings averaged probably 4-5 pages each, comprising of some teaching (sometimes in the form of a story), scripture, a question to meditate on, and a daily prayer.  My wife and I have been going through the book together and it has sparked many conversations every morning – conversations that often times we need to end not because we run out of something to say but because I’ve got work to get to!  The message of the book focuses us squarely on God and his grace, leading us to respond to Him in worship and submission.  And isn’t that what a good book should do?  Show us Jesus and allow us to respond?  If you are looking for a devotional that will challenge and inspire, this is the one.  I give this book an enthusiastic 5/5 stars.

9780857214430For the record, I received a free ecopy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.

Serving


This is the third post reflecting on Kerry Wyatt Kent’s book Deeply Loved; if you’d like to read my first two reflections click here and here.  Today I want to reflect on her thoughts regarding service.

Kent’s words were, to me, comforting to read.  In some ways for me they almost “lowered the bar”, so to speak in regarding expectations for service, but the more I thought about it I realize how difficult what she’s writing about can be.  I’ll just be honest and say that one of the things that drives me crazy is always being asked to serve – I get tired of hearing it.  This isn’t directed at anyone in particular, so if you’re reading it and find yourself thinking, “He’s talking about me” rest assured I’m not.  Here’s my gripe though – we seem to have defined “service” as only doing some sort of formal work for the church or some community organization.  And while that’s important, service is so much more than that.  I get tired of the implication that when I don’t serve in some “official” capacity I’m not serving.

I really believe that I have three main acts of service God has given me – so when someone asks me to serve in another capacity I have to weigh it against those priorities.  I suppose it’s cliché to say it, but I take Colossians 3:23 literally – I don’t work for anyone but the Lord.  And right now he’s given me three primary responsibilities: my family, my job, and my school.  That means that I need to value family time with my wife and girls, I need to be devoted to my job and give it everything I have, and when it’s time to study I need to do that to the best of my ability.  Some people have accused me of using that to avoid service, but I don’t think it is – I truly believe I’m focusing on what is important and serving where God has called me to serve.  I will be the first to tell you I often struggle to give my wife and girls the best part of my time, which to me says I don’t need to add anything else to my plate right now.

But more than that, service is what we do every moment of every day.  It’s letting someone get off the elevator before me, or opening the door as I walk into a building.  Read what Kent writes:

“The simple things you do to care for your family, the work you do to provide for others, the way you treat customers or coworkers – all of this can be service to God, if you choose to see it that way.”

This is what I meant when I said that when I first read the chapter I felt like the bar got lowered – I was reminded that I need to view every act I do every day as service and I felt like I did that, so I felt vindicated against those who would try to convict me – here was a quote I could use to prove to them I was correct.  But then I got to the application part of the chapter, and that’s when the bar got raised again:

“A simple way to practice service is to be open to interruptions, to give your attention to those who ask for it.  When you are interrupted, decide that you will see that interruption as one that comes not from the person before you but from God.”

Well there went my feel-good moment!  I hate to be interrupted.  I’ll let the phone right (voicemail can answer) or close the office door to avoid interruptions.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but too often I’ll put off something with the girls until I finish what I’m doing.  I hate to be interrupted.    And, worse than that, I let people know I don’t like to be interrupted.  I don’t do it intentionally, but I recognize that my tone of voice and my body language communicate loud and clear that I’m not happy with the interruption.  I’m selfish, and there’s no getting around it when it glares me in the face.  Yet according to Kent, allowing for the interruption can be an act of service in itself.

Deeply Loved Cover

Last week I posted a link on my Facebook wall that someone had shared with me about the “iPhone Mom”.  I thought it was a great reminder to live in the moment, to literally allow for the interruption.  And, in all honesty, when I read it I didn’t read it as written to “mom” but to “dad” (since I’m a dad) – I wasn’t trying to put down mothers or say anything negative about them.  But boy was that a mistake – I quickly found out there was a massive back-lash against the author for writing what she wrote (you can read two of the responses here and here).  I’m not here to support or defend the post, since obviously sharing the original one got me in trouble!  But as I reflect back on it I think the reason it struck a chord with me was that author was trying to say is what Kent was saying in this application section – open yourself up to the interruption (at least that’s how I read it).

I have a long, long way to g(r)o(w) here, and I rest in the grace knowing that God is working in me, he is molding me into the person he wants me to be.  This particular day made me re-evaluate (again) my priorities, and recognize where I needed to change and improve.  And, with God’s grace, tomorrow will be better than today.

Building Intimacy


About two months ago I volunteered to be part of a blog review team looking at a new book titled Deeply Loved by Keri Wyatt Kent. The book is a devotional with the subtitle, “40 Ways in 40 Days to Experience the Heart of Jesus”.  The original plan was to read the book during the season of Lent (one chapter for each of the 40 days), but since the book just arrived last week I’m a little behind…  So I read a few chapters to get me in the swing of things, then jumped forward to where I would have been had I started on Ash Wednesday (which, for the record, was February 13).

Kent’s writing immediately drew me in.  Each chapter is roughly 5-6 pages long, with some very specific application suggestions on the last page.  When I first started reading the chapters some of the titles reminded me of spiritual disciplines to practice (confession, gratitude, simplicity), but I found they were much more than that.  Each chapter highlights a specific insight into how (can) relate to Christ.  I’ve found that spending time each day going through the chapter has drawn me into deeper meditation on the nature and person of Jesus Christ and, as a result, my relationship with him.

So today marks the first of several posts I’ll write about the book.  I’ll be doing at least once a week between now and Easter, perhaps more if time allows.  Today I want to highlight my thoughts on one chapter in particular: Confession.

Deeply Loved Cover

Confession

This chapter, in particular, brought some fresh insight into the act of confession for me.  Kent tells the story of when her six year old daughter confessed of being envious of her brother and how she (the daughter) felt like such a terrible person for feeling that way.  Kent then told how she processed with her daughter the difference between thoughts and actions, what sin was, etc, and how the entire experience brought them closer together rather than force them apart.  Having daughters of my own, I related to this.  When they come to me with struggles they don’t need (or want or expect) condemnation but confirmation, love, support, and forgiveness.  They confess when they are confident of these things.  Kent then compared this situation to our relationship with Jesus; she writes,

The spiritual practice of confession looks exactly like my daughter coming to me to admit her jealous thoughts.  We come to Jesus and own up to our thoughts and actions that are wrong.  He receives these soberly, not brushing them under the rug as if they didn’t matter.  But neither does he shame us.  In confession, we sit with Jesus and look boldly at the truth about our struggle against sin and come clear.  We are washing in grace…Jesus sees our struggles.  What we confess, he already knows.  We do not confess to inform him but to access the grace he wants to give us.  He is moved with compassion by our plight and wants to help us.  Compassion accesses that assistance.”

This section brought such a warm, loving, and open reaction in me to the act of confession that it really helped clarify what has become (for whatever reason) so foggy.  Confession isn’t about punishment, but about forgiveness.  John tells us in his letter that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).  One Bible teacher I heard once told me that the word that is translated as “If” here can also be translated as “when”, so that instead of “if we confess” we could (and perhaps should” read it as “when we confess” – it’s a promise that should bring hope and healing, not condemnation and shame.

Kent goes on to conclude,

When we imagine God’s forgiveness as a huge blanket to cover the entire world, we keep him distant.  But when we specifically name the ways in which we have fallen short, he comes to us and wraps us, individually, in the warm embrace of his love. Confession…builds intimacy. (emphasis mine)

What a beautiful picture of what God has given us!  One the last page of the chapter Kent then highlights some very practical and easy steps to take to practice confession.   The last phrase she wrote (that confession builds intimacy) reminds me of something my father once told me; he says, “God doesn’t have favorites, but he does have intimates, and anyone can be an intimate of God.”  We know that in any relationships there is always one person who loves and cares more than the other person – it’s the nature of relationships – and it is the one who cares less who controls the level of intimacy in the relationship.  Because of our fallen nature, it’s only natural to realize that when it comes to our relationship with God we are the ones who naturally care less, meaning we control the level of intimacy in the relationship, and we have to choose to be intimate with Him.  Confession is a choice we can make in the right direction.

For a free copy of the first chapter, please click this link

So It Really Wasn’t About the Bike


As someone who found great inspiration in the story of Lance Armstrong I was saddened and disappointed when he confirmed this week that he had used performance enhancing drugs during each of his seven tour wins.  But one thing I wasn’t was surprised.  After years of rumors and speculation, not to mention the testimony of previous teammates over the years, hearing of his confession was hardly a shocker.  Yes, I followed each of his victories, watching them on TV and reading of them in cycling magazines and newspapers, and I read both of his books.  I was certainly a fan of Armstrong.  I admired him; I wanted to ride like he rode.  And from an athletic standpoint (though certainly not a personal one), I considered him a hero.

Back in 2008 when I first published my book Faith Journeys I wrote about Armstrong in a devotional entitled, “Is the Church Historical Fact or a Living Organism?”

But there is something about Armstrong that saddens me: he is not a Christian.  I have to wonder how someone who has been given so much can not believe in God at all.  It’s not that he serves another spiritual presences, he doesn’t believe God exists.  To know that while he may inspire many here on earth to achieve great strides yet not spend eternity in heaven is disheartening.

He writes in his new book, Every Second Counts, the story of the home he bought in Spain.  Part of the home is a family chapel that he paid to have restored.  He writes this regarding the chapel: “To me, that chapel isn’t just about worship, but about history, about age, about the hundreds of years that have seeped into the arched ceilings, the gold paint, and the original stained glass.  It’s stunning.”

I fear Armstrong’s comments regarding faith and religion are all-too-common in today’s culture.  Religion is viewed as a duty, as a set of rules, as a hoax, or as a crutch (Armstrong refers to it as this, too).

Yet what Armstrong fails to understand is Christianity is not meant to be a religion but a relationship with the living God of the universe.  Think of it—the creator wants you and I to know Him!  He even came to earth to make a way for us to draw near to Him.  Church is not a building, or a history lesson.  Church, The Church, is the living, organic body of our Savior Jesus.  That’s what Armstrong fails to understand (or refuses to accept).

This week we see what could be described as the deprivation of man in general and Armstrong in particular.  I didn’t watch his confession (I don’t have cable so I couldn’t watch Oprah’s show), but I read enough in the press to know that his sincerity and regret was, at best, questionable (how else could he still claim he didn’t think it was wrong to cheat?).

For me, though, what is even more disheartening than the cheating is the years and years of lying – lying to the public, to his donors and supporters, to his fans, and, ultimately, to himself.  He was vicious – suing those who dared suggest he had doped and calling them terrible, horrible names.  In Armstrong we see the fallen nature of humanity for what it is: an obsession with himself.  Like the title of Armstrong’s first book, we had confirmed this week that it wasn’t about the bike.  It was about him and only him, at all costs.

And here’s what really gets me… Armstrong’s cycling wasn’t what brought him to fame, it was the fact that he had overcome cancer and then still went on to be what we all thought was the greatest cyclist who ever raced.  We didn’t follow him because of the bike, we followed him because of the healing.

This afternoon I got kinda upset about that.  I found myself upset with God that my sister died of cancer when she was 20, yet this liar and cheater was allowed to live.  It just didn’t seem fair.  Erin wasn’t perfect, but she certainly wasn’t Armstrong.  How come she had to die and he got to live?  If anyone deserved to die wasn’t it a man who would take his healing, shove it in the face of the God who healed him (as he did in his book), and then go on to mock the rest of the world to win by cheating and covering it up for years afterwards – ruining the lives of countless other professionals in the process?  Isn’t that the one who should have died?

And then I was reminded about grace.  It’s what Armstrong needs – it’s what he’s always needed.  Not grace from me or any other person; what Armstrong needs is to accept the grace given him by God.  Erin died a believer, which means she ultimately was healed that night she passed into eternity.  But Armstrong?  He’s headed straight to hell.  Not because he cheated and lied, but because he’s a sinner just like everyone else.  Perhaps worse than some but better than others.  Yet at the end of the day when he dies he’ll spend eternity separated from God because he refuses to accept the grace found in Jesus.

And so God continues to offer grace, one chance after another.  Should Armstrong have died?  Who am I to judge that…  What I can say with confidence is this: God must certainly love him a whole bunch, if you judge it based on the chances he’s given (and gives) to come to know Him.  2 Peter 3:9 reads, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Maybe, just maybe, Armstrong will wake up to this fact.  It’s what I’m praying for, anyway.

Corporate Sin


This past week in my early-morning men’s Bible study we began looking at the book of Nehemiah, and the following verse just jumped off the page at me (1:5-7):

And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.

The underlined verses are the ones I want to reflect on.. Let’s put this passage in context.  Israel was taken captivity by the Babylonians back in 586 BC; after 70 years a group of Jews returns to the promised land, and at some point a man named Ezra goes back to rebuild the temple.  A few years after that a young man named Nehemiah becomes the cup bearer for the king – you know, the one who gets to drink the king’s drinks before the king to make sure they aren’t poisoned!  Anyway, some of Nehemiah’s friends go off to Israel and then return and Nehemiah asks how things are going.  But what he hears isn’t what he expects: things are not as good as he had hoped.  Now Nehemiah wants to return to help rebuild the walls around Jerusalem.  The prayer recorded here in Nehemiah 1 is his plea that sets the stage for him to lead a group back to Jerusalem.  But notice how he starts: after acknowledging God’s power and love Nehemiah goes on to confession.  And not just any ol’ simple confession, mind you – no, he confesses things like corruption and failure to “keep the commandments” God himself gave.

But here’s the really interesting part: he includes himself in the confession.  Notice the underlined words: “Even I and my father’s house have sinned.”  This prayer actually reminded me of Daniel’s prayer, as recorded in Daniel 9.   Daniel prays the same thing, saying, “we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled….we have not listened to your servants the prophets…To us, O LORD, belongs open shame…because we have sinned against you…”  I think you get the idea here: both Nehemiah and Daniel include themselves in the sin committed by Israel.

I think this is something we miss today, this idea of individually accountability for corporate sin.  We do a great job in the church of looking at individual sin and calling people to repent for what they have done individually.  We talk all the time about how Jesus came to forgive individuals of their sin.  And these are all true, but there’s another equally important truth that we don’t every discuss: rarely do we talk, at least in evangelical circles, of corporate sin and our individual involvement in it.

I think that’s a reflection of how our culture has infected our theology.  As Americans we are very much focused on the individual and not as much on the corporate.  The evangelical church does a great job of pointing out the corporate sins in our culture, but we don’t like to include ourselves in that mix.  In an effort to not distract from my argument by picking a hot-button moral issue of the day to illustrate my point, let’s look at slavery, which I believe all my readers (regardless of whether they are on the left or the right) can agree on.  Slavery was evil and the fact this country allowed it at all was a monstrous sin.

Let’s assume, for a minute, that slavery was still allowed on the basis of one’s race.  Let’s also assume that the church by-and-large did not approve of or condone slavery but in fact stood against it.  Let’s assume that church leaders constantly brought it to the attention of the public, calling those who kept slaves sinners and calling on politicians to outlaw slavery.  (I say assume because we know that even the church didn’t always see slavery this way)  Now, here’s the question: do you think you’d hear the Church including itself in prayers of confession of slavery, or would we confess that “America has sinned and walked away from you, Lord God” while at the same time removing ourselves from that “America that sins”?

Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see that happening.  The church suffers from a Pontius Pilot complex – we warn sinners of their sin and then we wash our hands of them, saying “It’s their choice.”  We confess that “America” has sinned, but we wash our hands of any involvement by saying, “America may do this, but I do not.”  Yet that’s not how God sees it.  As evidenced by both Nehemiah and Daniel, we need to confess our involvement in the sin around us.  “Wait,” you say, “I don’t own slaves!”  That’s right, you don’t.  But are you trying to tell me that Daniel himself “acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from [God’s] commandments and rules”?  Are you suggesting that the one who was willing to face a den of lions rather than not pray is one who did “not listen to the prophets”?  Absolutely not!  Daniel and Nehemiah were moral pillars of their day, yet when they confessed their sins to Almighty God they included themselves in the sins of the nation.  And they included themselves in the consequences of that sin.

Corporate and generational sin are very real in the Bible – and their influence was not magically removed with the arrival of the new covenant.  How much of what we are suffering today as a country/state/city/church/family is a direct result of our corporate sins?  It is pride that says, “They may have done that sin by I didn’t.”  No, “I” (you) did, because we are a part of the body.  That’s not to say that God will not hold slave holders and traders to a different standard than he will those who are more passively involved because I do believe a just God will punish evil doers accordingly and differentiate consequences based on our involvement (or lack-there-of).  But here’s the real question: Do you really want to be standing in front of God trying to explain how so-and-so is worse than you are – how their participation in the sin was much more than yours?  Do you really want to just be “a little less sinful” than the next guy?  There’s an old joke about how to out-run a bear: just be faster than the slowest person in the group.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just be less sinful than the worse person on Earth.  Yet when we wash our hands of the corporate sin of the family/state/country to which we belong that’s exactly what we’re saying.

“But how can anyone ever be good enough for God?” someone’s objecting.  That’s the point: no one can.  All have sinned, the Bible tells us; through Adam all are dead (you didn’t eat the forbidden fruit in the garden, yet you are and will pay the price for Adam’s sin).  But Jesus tells us that what is impossible for man is possible for God. We can’t ever be good enough for God’s standards – because all of us are so infected and intertwined that even if one of us could live a perfect life we’d still be responsible for the corporate sins of the group to which we belong.

Enter grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved,” writes Paul; and I think that both Nehemiah and Daniel understood that, too.