Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Debt Free

This past Sunday, I wrapped up a series on the first twelve chapters of the book of Exodus.  It has left me thinking a good deal about forgiveness.  In particular, the fact that it's never free. 

The reason one led to the other is the way the plagues end.  It was only after the death of Egypt's firstborn that Pharaoh submitted.  Not to mince words but Israel walked free because people died. 

This foreshadowed the believer's freedom from the bondage of sin.  We're free because the Firstborn of Creation (Col 1:15) died.  In other words, our forgiveness came at the cost of God's only Son.     

Thankfully, because of Christ, such a payment will never be demanded of us but that doesn't make it any easier.  Forgiveness is never free.


Intrinsic to the idea of forgiveness is the concept of loss.  There's a progression.  Someone wrongs us and the result is, to some degree, hurt.  We feel that way because something's been taken from us like if we've been physically injured. 

When that happens, what we've lost is comfort.  It's been replaced by pain.  Think back to a bad breakup you had.  Whatever that person meant to you, when the relationship ended, you lost what they provided.  The benefit died.

Human beings don't process pain in a vacuum.  We can't simply consider it in the abstract.  Our equilibrium is upset and in order to reestablish it, blame must be assigned.  It's as natural as breathing.  We feel this way and we shouldn't and it's someone's fault and as soon as we've identified the culprit, that person owes us.  I'm not saying it's wrong.  It's just life.

It could be an apology, maybe money (in the case of a car wreck), or possibly even penance.  How many times have we heard (or used) the words, "I trusted you.  It's going to take time to earn that back." 

This is precisely why forgiveness comes at a price, and a particularly high one at that.  When we forgive, we effectively release that person from their debt.  We are choosing to forgo restitution.  That's expensive.   

Sometimes, it's so costly that the only solution is emotional foreclosure.  When the debt is deemed too great to ever repay, the relationship consequently ends.  Many of us are casualties of such a conclusion.

Those who trust in Christ, however, are not doomed to walk down that road.  Foreclosure is not inevitable.  We can be motivated by more than the economics of emotional value.

I am confident of this for two reasons.  The first is Jesus' example.  To quote the author of Hebrews, "Consider Him who has endured such hostilities by sinners against Himself," (12:3).  Can that even be quantified?  If we were to follow Paul's words in Ephesians 4:32, "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you," would any grudge last the night? 

It isn't complicated.  If He forgave me for everything I did, I should be able to forgive others for anything they've done.

The second is His provision.  Philippians 4:19 states, "And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus."

If this is true, then I already possess everything I need.  It may not be all that I want.  I might have to make an adjustment or two but if the apostle's assessment of reality is accurate, my cup is full.  In fact, as a friend of mine often says, "It runneth over."

If my relationship with Christ has given me what I need, if His love has left me emotionally sufficient, then even when I am wronged, no matter what I have lost, I do not need to be repaid.  No one owes me anything.  I can, in fact, live a life that is relationally debt free. 

This isn't easy.  On the contrary, experience has taught me the opposite.  It requires that I both acknowledge the words of Scriptures like Philippians 4:19, but that I also believe them.  God asks me to trust Him.  I have to live by faith instead of sight.

When I do, when I accept His death as a substitute, not just for my life, but for what I want out of life, I can forgive and forgiveness equals freedom both for me and those whom I hold dear.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Identity Theft

Each time I walk through the door of my gym the drill is the same.  I smile, hand them my card and say, "Hi there," at which point they scan the card and hand it back with something akin to, "Have a good workout."  Sometimes, they'll even use my name, "Have a good workout Brad," since my name comes up on their monitor.  It's a little phony (I don't know any of these people) but it's nice.     

A few months ago, the person behind the counter surprised me with a single sentence, "Your mom called." 

Questions bounced around my mind.  My mom called?  Am I in junior high?  Does she want me home for dinner?  I'm 40 years old.  Leaving aside the fact that my mom called my gym, I wanted to know how this person knew my name.

Maybe a note appeared on the screen when they scanned my card.  That's reasonable except for one thing.  There was a line that day.  I was two or three people back.  My card was in my pocket.  The gal behind the desk got my attention before I had the chance to provide it.  How did she know it was me?

The answer isn't complicated.  I'm easy to spot.  My right arm is hard to miss.  It's ok.  I'm not asking anyone to feel sorry for me but, I'll be honest, I was frustrated.  Truth be told, there was some yelling in my head.  I am not my arm!! 

As is often the case, this was an opportunity.  This gave me a chance to remember my identity. 

It's a nebulous word, like Jello.  Dr. James Fearon, professor of political science at Stanford, describes identity as a social category defined by, among other things, expected behaviors.  That's helpful because many of us do indeed think about who we are in terms of what we do but is he correct?  Are we really the sum total of our responsibilities?

According to the word of God, the answer is an emphatic no!  Colossians 3:3-4 states, "For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with Him in glory."  Jesus Christ decides who we are, period. 

The mistake Christians make is believing their identity is up for discussion.  Yes, the world has many categories from which to choose but what makes Jesus categorically different is that arguing with His conclusions is utterly futile.

If He says we are loved then we are.  If He says we have value, it's the truth.  No matter how unbelievable it might be, if He says we are clean, all other opinions are moot .

For example, when I, Brad, look for my identity in my physical appearance, if I allow myself to be defined by how I look, the disappointment will be profound but if I define who I am by what Jesus says about me, the sorrows of the world grow weak.      

Does this mean there isn't any relationship between who we are and what we do?  Not at all.  In fact, if we properly understand how the former relates to the latter, the difference is significant. 

Jesus said in John 10:10 that He came in order that we might have life and have it abundantly.  As nice as those words sound, few of us understand them not because we don't get the vocabulary but because we wonder if that kind of experience is even possible.    

Think back to when you served on a mission trip, led a Bible study, shared the gospel, or even helped someone understand something about God that confused them.  You had fun.  You know you did.  Your heart felt full.  Life was different if even for a brief season.  You experienced an abundance.

Who we are has no foundation in what we do but when what we do flows from who we are in Christ, we don't sense disappointment or futility or frustration.  We realize the opposite.  We sense satisfaction.  That's the difference.

God saved your soul because He loves you.  His death and resurrection made you clean but it wasn't for giggles.  He saved us for a purpose: to love Christ and love others for His sake.  When fulfilled, that gives Him glory.  Living consistent with His purpose, with your identity, is what results in an abundant life, a life made full.

The coming days will offer you a myriad of options for how to spend your time, they always do.  Prayerfully consider taking advantage of what will give you a chance to be who you are. 

Join a small group.  Volunteer to serve in your church's children's ministry.  Grab a few guys or gals and go through a book together.  Do something, anything, that is consistent with who God created you to be.  

The bottom line is, if you define yourself by what you do, you'll suffocate but if you allow Christ to define you and then exercise your identity with your actions, living water will follow and your thirst will feel like a bad dream.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Cost of Prayer

I have this routine in the morning that involves coffee, eating breakfast, and reading my Bible.  I love it.  Throw in a mountain or an ocean view and you'd be as close to my idea of perfection as is possible this side of heaven.  It sets a tone for the whole day.  A morning enjoyed does a satisfaction in the evening provide.  Words to live by.

Yet, with the sunrise comes an inevitable hurdle, namely my children.  Don't get me wrong.  I love my kids.  No matter the burden, there is nothing for which I would trade them.  Their smiles, their voices, their feet sprinting from their rooms are a reminder that God's blessings are indeed new every morning but why does morning need to come so early?

My oldest son Jamison's current passion is birds.  If he wakes at 6:30 (6:27 today) I can expect the first ornithological discussion to begin at 6:31.  You can set your watch by it.

Consequently, if I want to have any time to enjoy my routine, then I must wake at 5:30.  That way I can get my reading and coffee in before the thundering herd begins to rumble.  What I cannot do, beyond a few seconds, is pray.

Part of this is my fault.  I developed this habit in high school where I write out my prayers in a journal.  The reason is my brain wanders far too easily to do otherwise.  Writing in a journal is hard to do in the early morning hours not just because of the time; it's an issue of light.  If I turn on too many, the boys won't even sleep till 6:30.

My solution is to save my prayer time for when I first arrive at the office.  Every morning I am thus reminded of a single, solitary fact.  Prayer has a price.

When I get to my desk I want to hit the ground running.  I want to bear down and dive into whatever projects demand my attention.  If I start with prayer, I have to delay what I want to get done.  Quite frankly, prayer costs me and it's not a cost borne easily.

If God were a vending machine, things would be different.  If I knew that what I ordered in the morning would arrive in the afternoon, you wouldn't be able to get me off my knees so to speak but it doesn't work like that.

More often than not what we find in the tray at the bottom of the rack of goodies isn't an answer so much as a call to persevere.  I don't want that.  I want the goodie.  It's like getting a birthday cake made out of broccoli.  I wonder if it's worth it and I'm not just talking about time.  When I ask, I risk disappointment.  We wear our hearts on our sleeves when we pray.  That's how hearts get broken.       

Jesus said in Matthew 16:24, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up His cross, and follow Me."  To deny means to reject someone with whom you have a relationship.  In this case, it's ourselves.  If we want to grow in Christ, we have to literally say no to a life-long friend.  I have to say no to me.

This is what happens when we pray.  We say no to ourselves, even when we ask for ourselves, because prayer is trusting in someone other than ourselves.  Prayer is taking up our cross.  When we pray we admit our helplessness.  That's self-denial.  That's following Christ.  Prayer may cost me time, effort, and energy but what I get back is a life more conformed to the image of Jesus 

There's never a shortage of needs for which to pray.  There are people you know who are sick.  There are people you know who need to know Christ.  Marriages are hurting.  Children are struggling.  Pick something, pick someone, and pray.  

Hebrews 4:16 tells us to draw near with confidence to the throne of grace.  Doing so will cost you.  It will take time.  It will take energy.  I can't promise that God will answer in the affirmative but I can promise that Christ will change your heart even if just a bit.  That's worth more than the price of gold.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What's it Supposed to Be?

I know this sounds like I've just discovered objects fall to the ground when you let go of them but I'm going to say it anyway.  Summers in Texas are hot. 

True, it isn't just Texas, but where I live to the north of Dallas can be absolutely brutal.  Walking outside in August feels like stepping into a blast furnace.  Forget, "average temperatures."  Those numbers are meaningless.  Any day between June and August that ISN'T a hundred degrees or higher is a win.

I've lived here for 11 years now.  I'm not used to it but I can cope...until September. 

That's because my house is close enough to the local high school that I can hear the marching band practice when I leave for work in the morning.  The drums and horns evoke a Pavlovian response that makes me think of sweatshirts and jeans. That's what I'm supposed to be wearing, not shorts and a t shirt.  It should be crisp and cool and not as if there's a hair dryer blowing in my face.  That's not what September is supposed to be like!

If that's irrational, I apologize.  Blame the heat.  What the weather is, "supposed," to be is relative.  Ask people from Alaska and Guatemala what winter should be like.  You'll get vastly different answers and neither one of them will be incorrect.  Weather is allowed to be in the geographical eye of the beholder.

The local church is different.  There are some things that are supposed to be.

Consider 1 Peter 2:9, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."      

Peter is quoting from the Old Testament and applying language whose original audience was Israel to the New Testament church.  In doing so, he expands the meaning of the word priesthood. 

In the days of the Old Covenant, a priest was a priest because of the family into which he was born.  Was he or was he not a member of the tribe of Levi?  That's what mattered. 

Under the New Covenant, a priest is a priest because they have placed their trust in Jesus Christ.  Are they or are they not a Christian? 

Under the Old Covenant that meant administrating the sacrificial system; burnt offerings of grains and animals.  Under the New, it means living out the purpose for which Peter says God's people are chosen, "proclaiming the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." 

People tend to view church much in the same way that they view the dentist or the place that fixes their car.  They view it as a service provider.  Has it been a tough week?  Could the battery use a jump?  Church should do the trick and as long as it does, we're satisfied. 

Obviously, I'm not against refreshment.  Jesus said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink (John 7:37)."  The problem is when we see our involvement as an exchange, when we see it as give to get. 

Just like we pay to have our car fixed, if we expect the giving of our time or money to yield a return on that investment, we are falling short of God's design.

When I was on Young Life staff, my favorite times of the year were staff conferences.  I loved those 24 hours at the Holiday Inn in Zanesville because the room was filled with people who were putting it on the line for the Kingdom and I couldn't believe I was one of them.  I thrived on the sense that a small corner of the ministry was my responsibility.

That's the way the local church is supposed to function.  That's the way it's supposed to be.

Church is not meant to be filled with consumers of services provided by a professional staff.  We are what Peter says we are: a royal priesthood.  We should walk into Sunday mornings hungry to worship the God who called us out of darkness and privileged us with the shared responsibility of the advancement of His Kingdom.  That's His intention.  That's His design.  What does that mean?

Discipleship is meant to be everyone's responsibility.  Evangelism is meant to be everyone's responsibility.  The same is true for care, service, and support.  No one gets left behind if all are involved.

Do you see yourself as part of the team?  Do you believe that you have a role in the discipleship of the body?  Is it your conviction that people need to hear about Jesus and that God has equipped you to be involved in the process?

If not, what do you think the apostle meant in 1 Peter 2:9?

It isn't easy.  The temptation to see the church as give to get is real but when Christ died on the cross He didn't simply pay the penalty for our sin.  He supplied all our needs according to His riches in glory.  We lack for nothing.  We are therefore able to give.

Instead of looking for where to find life, trust the words of Christ who said, "Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it."

That's the way it's supposed to be.

Monday, July 8, 2013


When you get back from vacation, there's always stuff.  The refrigerator needs replenishment.  The laundry is relentless but it's worth it because you are...home.  You know what it's like.  As good as it was to be away, nothing feels quite like home.

We recently returned from a week in Delaware.  Yes, Delaware.  I understand if you're confused.  Who vacations in Delaware?  I get it.  Google, "Wayne's World Delaware." You're in good company.

So why Delaware?

Well, after my grandfather retired, he and his wife bought a small sectional home 25 minutes from Rehoboth Beach in the southeastern part of the state.  My grandmother, who now lives in Spokane, Washington, turned 90 in April and asked the family to take one more trip back east.

Even thought I hadn't been back since 1986, it felt like I never left.  The shop on the boardwalk where you buy saltwater taffy is still there.  The same is true for the pizza place and that spot where you get the fries in the bucket with the vinegar.  I couldn't stand those as a kid.  I can't stop eating them as an adult.  It's as if time was polite enough to pause.

Two days after arriving, my grandmother asked me to take her to the old house.  I remembered it as a mobile home development filled with nice, quiet retirees enjoying their golden years.

Time was not as kind as it had been to the boardwalk. 

The homes still stood but many had aged poorly.  My grandmother's sat empty, a casualty of foreclosure.  The front lawn consisted of weeds and a rusted-out boat trailer.  We walked around the property looking in windows and checking out the backyard.

On impulse, my brother tried a door and it opened.  We went inside, my grandmother on my left arm.  I hope I never forget her reaction.  When she saw the kitchen, it wasn't for long but she literally sobbed.  My wife, standing behind her, described it as a physical response.  Her shoulder slumped and I felt the downward tug on my arm.  Through her tears, I heard her say, "I loved this house."

Why?  What was so great about it?  The floors and walls were so thin you could put your fist through it.  I know because it was clear that someone did.  There were horse flies and because the house was near a series of canals, the smell outside was what my son called, "Yucky."  How could you love a place like this?

The same reason we all love wherever we call home.  Places have a way of housing our memories.  What my grandmother recalled were the friends with whom she shared, "Happy Hour."  She saw in her mind's eye my grandfather's smile when he went crabbing (yes, it's a verb).  They were yet to face the limitations of age while at the same time beyond the responsibilities of work and raising a family.  It was her ideal season of life.

We all have an ideal whether it's rooted in what once was or what we hope will one day be.  It drives our aspirations and is the root of our disappointments.  Every experience is measured against what few of us have ever even said out loud.  Why do this?  Wouldn't it be easier if we never wanted more, never dealt with disappointments?

C.S. Lewis put it well, "If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world."

We yearn for yesterday or tomorrow because this world is not our home.  The other world Lewis spoke of is heaven.  It's home because that's the place where our deepest desire is met, the desire for a relationship with God.  Yes, in Christ we have that but as long as we're on earth, it's diluted, having to pass through the strainer of the Fall.

Whether you are aware of this or not, your, "hopes and dreams," are your brain's attempt to quantify what you and I crave.  We want to go home.  What's frustrating is when we can't explain what, "home," is.  It's even worse when we can't find it.  If you've been there, you know what I'm talking about.

The Bible helps.  1 Corinthians 13:12, "Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.  All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely (NLT)."

So if heaven is home, what do we do until then, just gut it out?  Not at all.  Home is someplace you can actually visit, albeit imperfectly.  We get a taste of home when we spend time with Christ.  We get a taste when we spend time with His people in genuine fellowship whether that's Sunday morning or Monday night.  We taste what it will be like when we sing and pray and all of that's because of the Spirit who lives inside us, whom Paul described as, "the guarantee of our inheritance (Eph 1:14)."  It won't just happen.  You'll have to choose to do so but it's worth a try.  Go and visit.  You might even find yourself wanting to invite someone else.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Chance to Get Away

Every summer growing up, my brother and I would visit our grandparents at their home in Delaware just outside of Rehoboth Beach.  We'd play in the sand, challenge the waves, and feast on blue crab.  My uncle decided that for her 90th birthday this year he would take her back one last time. 

In a rare moment of camaraderie and cooperation among Banks men, my dad, my brother, and I decided to join them.  It will be an adventure.

This has made me think about the value of rest in the life of the believer.  It is a biblical principle.  Genesis 1 tells us that God rested on the seventh day not because He was tired but so that we would have a template for how our lives should be ordered.  He deemed the idea critical enough to codify it in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8).  

What I mean is, you can work seven days a week if you want but if you set one aside, your life will, if nothing less, function more efficiently.  Machines and organisms work better when they operate according to their design.  God designed you to work and to rest but is it just about being more efficient?

The author of Hebrews picks up on this concept in chapter 4.  In v. 9 he says, "There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God."  He's referring to heaven and, in doing so, inadvertently teaches us something about the nature of rest itself. 

There's a theological concept called, "already/not yet."  Simply put, we have already received the benefits of our salvation but we are yet to fully experience them.  When we cross into eternity, we will feast forever on what we only taste today.

Rest means something different for everyone.  For me it's a couch and a TV but that's not God's idea of rest.  Heaven is often called our final resting place but that doesn't mean all activity will cease.  There will be things for us to do.  Namely, we will spend our time worshiping God.

My point is is that getting alone with the Lord to read His Word and pray, worshiping Him, is a taste of heaven and, thus, just like heaven will be in the future, a time of rest.  

Don't get me wrong.  Hitting the beach or the mountains or whatever refreshes you is wonderful but know that rest is available to you at any time.  It's easier said than done but all you have to do is carve out space to be with God, just you and Him.  He will do you more good than a thousand vacations ever could.

Reading the Word is rest.  Prayer is rest.  It may not feel like it right away.  We come to Christ like we do everything else, with the weight of our respective worlds in tow.  For the first few minutes, your brain will race but give it time.  It will quiet down.  Your soul will still and you will know what it means to be with Jesus.

A word of warning: when you are with the Lord, He will change you.  People will see Christ in you and experience Christ through you.  When you discover how restful time with Jesus is, time with you will be restful to others.  You will become a cup of cold water on a hot day and I genuinely believe that is God's will for all of us.  It will change how you see your life.  Find time to be with Jesus then watch Him use you to be Jesus to someone else.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Daily Opportunities

Over the course of the first year of Faith Bible Church (we turn 8 this September!), our Core Groups (small group ministry) studied the book of Ephesians.  I chose it because it's as thorough a picture of what it's like to, "do," church together as I think you'll find in the Bible.  The result was that a love affair with Ephesians began in my life that has not waned in the years since.

2:10 has intrigued me, honestly, since the first time I read it, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them."  What does this mean?

The late Harold Hoehner wrote a commentary on Ephesians, aptly titled, "Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary."  He said that, "workmanship," was used in classical Greek to describe a craftsman who took time and care to construct a crown.  We are literally works of God, new creations in Christ, having been fashioned in the same manner as the universe itself.  God did this for a reason that benefits but is not limited to us.

Much like a cooking class where the ingredients are waiting for your arrival, God has prepared good works for you.  He wants to work through you, with you, and in you. 

Pray for eyes to see what those might be.  Where will you have an opportunity to serve, to encourage?  Where will you have an opportunity to love someone for the sake of Christ or to engage in a spiritual conversation with someone who doesn't believe or who is in need of understanding.  There may also be an opportunity to invite someone to church.

By grace you have been saved through faith.  Pass on the hope that is within you.  God loves you more than words can ever express.  He wants you to see the joy that's found in helping someone else discover that truth.  You'll be surprised to see how God responds when you ask Him to show you what He's been preparing to do through you before the foundation of the world.