The Tension

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Life is full of irony. Sometimes it’s a light-hearted, funny irony, and at others times it’s an irony that causes you to enter the tension. We want to be successful in business, but for many it comes at the cost of a healthy family life. We long and fight for justice, yet many products we buy are unjustly produced. We long to eat healthy, yet most of the “good” tasting food is full of sugar, fat, and grease (at least for my taste buds!). We want to be unified, yet we have this pull to label, box in, and identity on a certain side. We want to serve the poor, but when we do, we often realize it’s we who are being served. We pray for answers, but when the answers come, they aren’t what we’re looking for, so we miss it. We hate racism, but when we truly address it we can’t deny the small (or large) seeds of racism in ourselves. Our children are living in relative comfort, while other children are rocked by a bomb, sitting alone and bloody, scared, confused (I guess this isn’t irony as much as tragic disparity). As Christians we brag about being servants of Christ, but when we’re treated like a servant, we become angry and feel entitled to better treatment (again, this is at least true with me…) Irony, yes. Irony that produces tension.
Tension: the state of being stretched tight. These issues, when exposed to us, seem to stretch us tight, create discomfort, and the tension sets in. “What do we do with this?” Most of the time, the easiest answer is to find a way to relieve the tension, so we run to one side of the issue and neglect the other side. Problem solved. Until the next issue arises, and if we’re honest with ourselves, these tense issues rear their ugly heads every day. We can’t run from the tension, but we can deny it, numb ourselves from it, remain ignorant. We can… but could it be that these are the very things that destroy our souls. 
This is why Jesus constantly drove people into the tension. Time and time again when asked questions like, “What’s the greatest commandment?” “Who’s my neighbor?” “Do we pay taxes or not?” “How do you inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answers created tension. He didn’t give a pass to those looking for a quick way out or a quick answer through a doctrinal loophole. He pressed them to be honest, to live in to the tension of honesty, self-reflection, humility, sacrifice; to die to the habits that were killing them, and oppressing others. 
Most of the answers we are looking for in life, aren’t easy ones, or else we would’ve found answers already. And most of the time, the partial answer is mysterious and left open ended. It’s in this place of tension, where we can’t fall back on programmed responses. It’s here that we are thrown into the depths of our desires, our beliefs, and we are left to wrestle with who we truly are. Are we going to live in to the mystery, the tension, and trust that we aren’t the ones holding all things/all beliefs together? Are we going to allow the process of unknowing to shape us into a people who truly know the one who does hold it all together, at the cost (or risk) of being labeled by your own tribe as “going off the deep end,” according to your tribe’s standard, or are we going to settle, run to one side of the camp, and stake our flag on the “right” side. 
It’s in the tension where we have the opportunity to become properly tuned. Jon Foreman gives a great metaphor for tension, likening it to guitar strings that are strung tight enough to hold a tune. It’s in the tension where we play on tune. Strung too tight, we bust. Not strung tight enough, we make awful noises. If you have honest friends around you who aren’t just a fan of yours, they’ll tell you when you’re  about to bust, or if you sound horrible. When you are offended by a friend or acquaintance, you are then offered the gift of tension. Who are you going to choose to be? Are you going to run to one side and stake your flag, or will you live in to the tension of teachableness, humility? This is all too convicting for me, even as I write this. 
Right now, in this season, we have a great opportunity to live in to the tension of life without running to one side or the other, claiming the other side as demons, or wrong, or lost. I confess, I’ve done plenty of flag staking, and I am not proud of it, and neither has it produced any beautiful lovely sounding music. It won’t, because it’s not tuned. Today, we have opportunities to embrace the beauty of mystery and unknowing. To admit we’re not the ones holding it all together (or to admit that our country or tribe isn’t the one holding all things together). 
Jesus constantly broke the mold of what was right, and I’m convinced followers of Jesus are called to live in to the same ethos, to passionately stand in the middle, confidently living in mystery and certainty. Embracing the tension in our own lives first, then embracing others who are struggling to find the confidence to stand where it hurts as well.
The glory of God is revealed through a broken man. Tension. 
The cross, the greatest act of love. Tension. 
The tomb becomes a womb. Tension. 
Beauty is found in death. Tension. 
Ashes produce life. Tension. 
The way up is down. Tension. 
The way to access power is to give up power. Tension. 
To become the greatest, you must become a servant of all. Tension. 
Gain life by losing your life. Tension. 
“With that in mind, I feel like dying to myself is a daily task necessary for true abundant life.” Jon Foreman

The Body of Christ

In the book of Ephesians, the word body in the Greek language is sṓma, which means “an organized whole made up of parts and members; a body, a collective mass.” In other words, the whole body of Christians collectively, of which Christ is the head. This word shows up in the book of Ephesians many times (1:22-23; 2:15-16; 3:6; 4:4, 11-12, 16, 25; 5:23, 30) (see also Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:13, 27; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15).

There is a very striking illustration in 1 Corinthians 6:15 regarding the body of Christ (the Church), where Paul says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” If you are a disciple of Christ, then you are a “member”, joined as a part of the body (family) of Christ, and the parts of your body are parts of Christ’s body. And this body feels what the other parts of the body feel. It also hold the body accountable to take care of itself when it’s hurting, neglecting itself, hurting others, etc.

We’re not Christians, we’re ‘family members’ joined by and with Christ, with a mission to make His beauty and worth known over every earthly treasure. Jesus Christ has a body here on earth. It is called the Church. She has legs to go to the places that Jesus would go. She has arms to do the work that Jesus would do. She has mouths to say the things that Jesus would say. She has backs to carry the burdens that Jesus would carry.

Paul said that his aim in life was that “the life of Jesus might be made known to others in his mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). In other words, his aim is that his body might make Christ’s body real to the world. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you follow me, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). Love, not self-centered interest, or nationalistic commitment over the good of your neighbor.

Since this is not alway the case, Jesus calls out religious short-sightedness in Matthew 23:23c: “…you neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.” It’s this kind of neglect from among those who identify themselves under the term Christian, that misrepresents Jesus’ body.

It seems we as a church in all our forms and commitments, have often neglected the weightier matters of God:

– We’ve been far too focused on success…

– We’ve been far too concerned with entertainment and comfort…

– We’ve been far too consumed with material goods…

– We’ve been far too obsessed with being the best…

– We’ve been far too competitive with our neighbors…

– We’ve been far too promiscuous with others…

– We’ve been far too neglectful to the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner

– We’ve been far too quick to conform to the patterns of this world…

– We’ve both far too blind to injustice and the imbalance of powers…

– We’ve been far too committed to the American dream

God’s people are willing to humble themselves, receive the correction, and let God’s spirit change them from the inside out. We’ve all blown it. We’re all among those who are far too something… Christianity isn’t about perfection, it’s about death. God’s people are willing to die, to admit when they’re wrong or have blown it.

They are people who embrace brokenness, who boast in their weakness, and look for ways to serve the least, the last, the lost. Again, this is not a perfection competition, but a death sentence. A death sentence that places the Jesus follower into a tomb that becomes womb. The new birth that takes place after the death, is like ashes on forest floor, oil on dry skin, water in a dry desert, forgiveness from an enemy. A new life is willing to be poured out and consumed like the elements of communion, so that others might have access to God, or be refreshed, included,  The bride will not always look like this, but she also will not blatantly ignore these corrections either. Her heart will be soft and teachable, eventually.

The late Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, writes this in 1967 with her message being addressed to the church: “As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”  “In Peace Is My Bitterness Most Bitter”, The Catholic Worker, January 1967, 1, 2.

The body is the bride. She is messy. She is adulterous. She does not act like a bride of a king at many times. She has members, and those who claim to be members, and they both shall remain together for now. She is often entangled in affairs that makes the groom cringe. She is in many ways lost. She needs to run back to her first love. She needs a conversion of the heart, not a reform of methods or a GOP who can give her the freedoms she wants. It will take humility and love to move forward, and I know God’s people will rise up to the challenge.

Peace: Is This The World You Want?

Peace. What a tricky word! What is peace? What do people imagine when they speak of world peace? I’m sure much of the desires and imaginations of peace would be for the wars and killing to stop. For there to be no more children abused by pastors, priests, and family members. For the sex trafficking to no longer be a business and the porn industry to dry up financially. For those who are hungry and thirsty to be fed and have clean water. On and on this list could go, and these are all parts of my prayer when I pray for peace.

This advent week of peace, I want to remind us of what we know of peace from the story of God, which is in agreement with our desires listed above, but it’s more. The biblical concept of shalom (the Hebrew word for peace) is much broader and more intimate than the common understanding of peace understood as “the absence of conflict or pain.”

The Old Testament has over 200 occurrences of the word shalom, and it has come to be defined in the broad sense of the definition, as not just peace as “the absence of conflict,” but universal wholeness, well-being, justice, or peace with justice. In other words, as the philosopher Cornelius Plantinga Jr. has articulated, shalom (peace) is “the way things are supposed to be” as created by God (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, 1996).

Plantinga says this as he speaks about what Old Testament prophets/authors would have dreamed of when thinking about peace:

“They dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would straighten out. The foolish would be made wise, and the wise made humble. They dreamed of a time when the deserts would bloom, the mountains would run with wine, people would stop weeping and be able to sleep without a weapon under their pillow. People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. A lamb could lie down with a wolf because the wolf had lost its appetite. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with wonder upon wonder. All humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood; and all nature and all humans would look to God, lean toward God, and delight in God. Shouts of joy and recognition would well up from women in streets and from men at sea.”  (taken from an online article by Plantinga; http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/cci/Pantinga.pdf)

If this is true, then for there to be shalom (or at least more glimpses of it) there must be a confrontation with ourselves and the world views that we live by that need to be challenged, or that challenge the imagination which Plantinga articulates above. We all want the world to look a certain way, and we all have our opinions and judgements, but few of us live our lives in line with our opinions and do not want to be judged with the same standards of judgements by which we judge others. It’s the degree of separation between what we believe and how we live.

So really, peace begins with us, by asking ourselves, “What kind of people do we need to be in order to resist the destruction that our prejudices and judgements create? What are the virtues of true peace? Am I starving to be peaceable with peace and to be peaceable with God, ourselves, and the non-human creation?”

In the New Testament, James the letter of James) speaks of peaceableness as a key ingredient to the wisdom from above: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18, NASB)

To be peaceful is to be full of good fruit and to be absent of hypocrisy. This is a tall order. I admit, I’m a terrible peacemaker, but maybe it’s the admission of our hypocrisy that creates the beginning of peace.

Listen to the words of Jesus in Mark 9:50: “Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” To be at peace with others, true peace, is to be salty and useful, to inspect ourselves, and to admit where we are not useful or have become twisted in our thinking/views.

Later on in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says something that stirs the pot and moves us into more questions: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:51) What’s Jesus doing here? Is he contradicting himself? I thought one of His names was “Prince of Peace”?

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the One who says often, “Peace be with you”, knows that for true peace to be made, there must be a stirring, a realization that we are not alright and all right. Peaceableness then, must entail bringing to light that which we ourselves want to corruptly keep hidden… this will cause division and anger within ourselves, but peace will prevail… eventually.

This is where shalom breaks beautifully into this discussion. Shalom is one of those words that we learn what it means the more we see/realize the absence of it, like we do today when looking at all the headlines. The world is longing for shalom and we are all saying “Enough!”, but we are all saying “Enough!” to different ideologies. Where shalom is absent, we begin to grieve the way things are supposed to be and then, if we are able to critique even our own beliefs, we will receive a new set of lenses with which to view and interpret life because of our newly interpreted experiences.

To be peaceable is to be shalomic, displaying the way things were supposed to be when God created the heavens and the earth and all of the life that inhabits planet earth. Where shalom is absent, we are called to move into those places to display and model it, to be peaceable, not quarrelsome. To learn the discipline of living in the tension of disagreements and bringing light to those who are not at peace. To be able to navigate difficult friendships, networks, differing political parties and beliefs, even how to behave in the midst of eminent danger. However, being a presence of peace will often disturb first. It’s like turning on really bright lights in a dark room when people are sleeping or just waking up; angry shouts are hurled at the one who turned the lights on.

But here’s the thing, we all have different cries of “Enough!” which means we are going to rally around something that pisses off another person or group of people. What do we do then? Well, if our cry of “Enough!” is really because of the loss of shalom, then compassion and humility towards those we differ from will (ought) to be present. The problem is, many of our “Enoughs!” are because our personal narrative of how things are supposed to be, and they have taken over. Social scientists would label this as a “self-serving bias.”

A self-serving bias could be explained as our tendency was humans to have a superior view of our social desires. We tend to view ourselves as more humble, or ethical, or skilled and tolerant than others. In short, we are really good at justifying our thoughts and behaviors because they are better, or more superior than others. This helps us “mis-remember” our pasts and interpret them through more of a rose colored lens, as we numb ourselves from all the memories of our failures and self-centered behaviors.

To use a Christianese term, this is called “self-righteousness,” or “pride,” which is the root of all sin and the most deadly of the seven sins. This is why it’s easy for the Pharisee to say, “Lord, thank you that I am not as bad as that sinner over there!”, and then you and I say to ourselves (quietly of course), “Lord thank you I am not like that arrogant Pharisee. Darn self-serving biases… this corrupts our relationships with one another.

Our cries of “Enough!”, if they are really for peace, would not be rooted in our self-serving biases, but in humility and driven by compassion and a desire to listen, which doesn’t mean you have to change your conviction. What it does mean is that you’ll be more open to celebrating diversity and will understand that if Jesus were among us today, he wouldn’t champion everything you champion, he wouldn’t vote Republican or  Democrat, etc.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, most of our lack of shalom is not because of most of the headlines on the news, but because of our unwillingness to step outside of our own world views, humble ourselves, and admit that we are part of the problem, that we are actually shalom breakers. What a thought!? Most of us can’t resolve marital conflict or conflict at work with a mean boss or annoying coworker. Our desire to see wars end and gun violence disappear and terrorism be eradicated is good, but we need to look inward and take care of business at home, within our own hearts and minds, and commit to release that which is opposite of peace in us; contentiousness.

In the book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Brian Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger say this about contentiousness: “Like a parasite living on a host, contentiousness feeds on rage and rancor, antipathy and animosity, to fan the fire of discord and accelerate the spiral of violence.” (214)

Peace happens when we wage war on that which is evil inside of us, and this can only happen when we realize how we’ve neglected the parts of our lives that have waged war on shalom. This includes our relationships with God, people, ourselves, food (and how we grow and consume it), what we buy and how much of it we buy, who we’re friends with, and who we neglect. If you’re up for the challenge, add to the list what you’ve been courageous enough to observe in your own life.

Peaceable people look for non-violent ways to address conflict, although I do not believe this means that there is never violent ways to deal with evil. Peaceable people don’t deal with others in stereotypes or labels, rather they seek to know people beyond hot topic issues. Peaceable people expose false world views of consumerism and materialism not by loud arguments but by their lives of simplicity and contentment. Peaceable people know when to say enough. Peaceable people are essential oils to the soul of humanity and culture. Peaceable people seek peace with God, themselves, people and the non-human creation with equal fervor.

And this is why Jesus came. This is why advent is necessary every year, to remind us of the call to be the change we want in our own lives by first embracing Jesus as the only means to truly eradicate evil and bring about shalom. Jesus, who is himself peace, came to undo our messes and wars and to grant freedom for the captives, forgiveness for the sinners, and peace to the broken and contrite in heart. His presence brought and brings peace because he is the Prince of Peace. 

Advent for those who truly love the advent season, is birthed from a cry of “Enough!” and a longing for the Prince of Peace to have mercy on them, and in turn, create in them a heart to be peaceable people in the world, as agents of reconciliation and peace. No, this is not a euphoric view of peace, this is peace rooted in the story of God, which has the power to make new life from death, to make the tomb become a womb.

As I close out this post, I am reminded of a newer song by the band Switchfoot entitled “The World You Want.” The bridge of the song reminds us that our lives are always saying something and they have a great impact on life as we know it:

You start to look like what you believe

You float through time like a stream

If the waters of time are made up by you and I

If you change the world for you, you change it for me

What you say is your religion

How you say it’s your religion

Who you love is your religion

How you love is your religion

All your science, your religion

All your hatred, your religion

All your wars are your religion

Every breath is your religion yea

Is this the world you want?

You’re making it

Every day you’re alive

Nothing…

Nothing to hide. Nothing to fear. Nothing to prove. Nothing to lose.

I had lunch this afternoon with a business-man friend of mine who left a lucrative job over six years ago to serve men and women in the marketplace. He’s one of those people you meet with, and you know you’re going to leave the meeting stirred up and challenged. So, as a glutton for punishment, I knew I needed to have lunch with him.

As our time together unfolded over a lunchtime eggs Benedict at the Breakfast Club (downtown at City Scape; great food!), it was clear that my friend was not fooled by my attempt to explain why I am justified in being mad at how God has been ordering life. He’s no stranger to suffering and change.

He very graciously and lovingly leaned over the table, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Jeff, do you really want to be in a place where Jesus is following you, or you are following Jesus.” I paused, and gave him that look that said, “I’m supposed to say ‘No’ as a Christian, but right now it would feel pretty good for Jesus to follow my plan.” He went on to say, “Jeff, listen to me, there’s no better place to be in life than to be in a situation where if God doesn’t show up, you’re done.”

I have to admit, I hate hearing that, partly because I know it’s true, but also because I hate the unknown, not having clarity, or control. To be in that place, is to be okay with mystery and okay with not having control. My friend closed our time together by saying, “When you can sit with Jesus in the unknown without knowing details or having clarity about what’s next, then you are on your way of having nothing to hide, nothing to fear, nothing to prove, and nothing to lose”; and I would add, nothing to manage.

I am learning to release my weaknesses, inabilities, fears, and identity in this season of life, and it seems to create more anxiety at times… but in a weird way today, I feel relieved again that God is managing my life, and I really do not have control. I feel relieved that there’s much unknown in my (and my family’s) near future. I feel humbled that Jesus is meeting with me in a fresh new way, on His terms, not mine.

Embrace Your Limits

Everyone has limits, few want to admit them. In a day and age when limits are ignore because of the advancement of technology in many ways, limits are seen as hindrances to personal growth and pleasure. But we would be wise to embrace our limits and have eyes to see that limits in your life might even be what God uses to accomplish His purposes.

We can learn about limits by looking at the life of John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer (Johnny B). He was a prophet who came before Jesus to prepare the way for Jesus being the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, and of the whole world. Johnny B had a very unique, but successful ministry. He lived out in the desert, off the grid. He wore clothes that you could make out in the wild, he only ate food that you didn’t have to pay for or pay temple tax for. He was not immersed into the religious system of the day. That’s exactly why he was so crazy and weird.

Anyone who doesn’t want to live within the confines of a religious system will always be looked at as “weird” by those who are within that particular system. Johnny B’s message was simple: “Repent and be baptized.” In other words, “Turn from worshipping the system, and worship God again. Come back to your first love. The Messiah is coming. You better be ready for Him or you will miss Him.”

Johnny B was a weird-o, but he had a following and he was getting famous as a prophet of God. So when we come upon this passage in John 3, what Johnny B does is actually a very mature thing; he embraces his limits. He realizes who he is and lives in reality. Turn to John 3:22-30 with me now:

22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).

25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Peter Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, says, “There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality. In fact the true spiritual life is not an escape from reality but an absolute commitment to it. Loss marks the place where self-knowledge and powerful transformation happen…” Let me say that last part again: “Loss marks the place where self-knowledge and powerful transformation happen…” In other words, not having enough to give, or coming to the end of yourself is the very means of growing up. This is called the gift of limits. This is what Johnny B models for us here.

Limits (or limitations) are the cause of much of our loss in life. Can you imagine the ego shot that Johnny B took by surrendering to his limits at the prime of his ministry? It is here that he fully felt and realized his limitations as a human being, and that his time was up. It was time to move over to let the more qualified person step in, in this case, the God of the universe.

We are limited creatures, but that is often a problem to us in our fast-paced, get-what-you-want, comfort-driven, climb-the-ladder-of-success kind of society. Many of us view limits as this attack against our freedom that interrupts our desired “normal” lives.

And because of these limits that keep us from that life that we think to be the “good life”, we turn to things to cope with the grief of the loss. Again, Peter Scazzero says, “We numb our pain through denial, blaming, rationalizations, addictions, and avoidance. We search for spiritual shortcuts around our wounds. We demand others take away our pain.”

To be honest, addictions of many kinds has been the drug of choice to help us deal with pain. We want to manage our lives and protect ourselves from the risk of being let down or bumping into our limits. We consumers demand that someone or something (a marriage, a sexual partner, an ideal family, children, an achievement, a career, a church, or a church leader) take our loneliness and pain away.

The sad thing about all this is that by running to addictions and short cuts, we deny and minimizing our pain and losses, and what this does over the course of many months and years, is that we stop being human the way God intended, and experience a way of being human that deteriorates our bodies and souls. We become empty religious Christians with very sophisticated masks. Eventually, this way of living wears us down so much, that we stop knowing how to feel altogether.

Much of our pain and misfortune from losses are like experiencing deaths (death of a dream, desire, family system, comfort, youth, routines). God has given all of us the gift of limits, and many of us hate it. We are limited, and believe it or not, it’s a gift. Limits keep us grounded and make us humble, needy, and creative.

Think about this: the reason why we all relate to the book of Job somehow, and the reason why whenever suffering and pain is spoken of, we are interested even though it brings up pain and other realities that we want to dodge, is because we all experience the same types of losses that Job did.

Job lost everything in one day: his family, his wealth, his health (Job 1:13-2:8). Most of us experience our losses more slowly, over the course of our whole lives, until we find ourselves on the door of death, leaving everything behind, but none-the-less, we still experience these losses like Job, and they hurt, they max out our limits. We are limited.

Many of you have experienced losses at church or in another intimate and vulnerable setting. You’ve been betrayed by a tradition, a leader, or a spouse. You’ve been hurt by someone in your community and you lose the joy of feeling comfortable there. You lose friends; they move, they don’t forgive you, they change.

Everybody who gives of themselves in community with other believers, sooner or later, experiences these kinds of loses and the grief that comes with those losses.

I’m going here because I want to take us to where our limits end. I believe it is at this place where special things happen; growth happens; maturing happens; a realized need for help happens… oh these are specials things! Often times our eyes and hearts are not opened to the deeper and more beautiful things of God until we reach our limits; we get to the end of ourselves; and that’s where we find Jesus.

But we need help going here, because turning to consult our pain and losses is counter-cultural today. But if we were to actually get to the heart of the gospel, we would see that this is actually normal. Let me show you:

John 12:24-25: Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Mark 8:34-35: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

Mark 9:35b: If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.

Mark 10:43-45: But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The way up is down. The way to real power is to give up power. The way to gain power is to lose power. The way to become rich is to become poor. The way to be great is to be the slave of all! Limits!! We are limited, and realizing our limits is the key to embracing the good news of Jesus. That’s called living in reality. Oh how beautiful!

It works for us when we are young, vulnerable children to create coping mechanism to help us survive and deal with the pain of being wounded; that is actually a gift from God to children in many cases. Blocking out the pain, or forgetting abuse done to you as a child altogether, enables the child to keep living a “normal” life. So at that point, it’s a healthy thing to not fully experience, or block out, those painful realities when we’re young so we can be relatively stable.

But the transition into adulthood requires that we mature through our coping mechanisms such as: denial, minimizing, blaming others, blaming yourself, justifying actions, intellectualizing, distracting, becoming hostile, numbing, etc. The transition into maturity from childhood is one of honestly, looking at what is true; what really happened; how we truly are emotionally, etc. Jesus himself said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Unfortunately, even as adults, it is ever so easy and convenient to carry with us many coping maneuvers to protect ourselves from pain. Here’s why this is a problem and why embracing reality (our limits) as adults is so crucial: false reality blocks us from growing up spiritually and emotionally, as well as from the light;

1 John 1:6-7: 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

So what I want to do is to put some things out there, things that we who are still coping as children (and if we were honest, we’d all raise our hands to this), that we could do to help us to move in the direction of embracing our limits and reality:

1. Pay attention to the pain and don’t be quick to dismiss it, numb yourself from it, or call it a lie or an attack from the enemy. Jesus did this, even though He knew there was an answer to certain things; Jesus wept over Lazarus and cried out in grief over Jerusalem (see John 11:35 and Luke 13:34). He experienced the pain of the moment and lived in the reality of what happened. He wasn’t ultimately crushed by it, but He didn’t say: “Oh, let go and let God. I’m gonna raise that bro up again. Stop crying everyone!” No, he sat in the emotion of the moment and grieved.

2. Wait in the confusion to hear from Jesus. No one like confusion. There’s even a passage that says: 1 Cor. 14:33: For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. But this passage often times is misused, as Paul was describing different practices within the corporate church gatherings such as speaking in tongues without some to interpret it. God had often used confusion in the OT stories to accomplish His will, and often times, it’s not until we are so utterly confused and we stop looking for answers, that God shows up and reveals somethings so sweet and clear. “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).

3. Embrace the gift of limits. Embrace the reality that your body is the way it is. The same with your mind, your family, your finances, your talents, etc. Johnny B  understood his limits when he said this: “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). Essentially he was saying, “I accept my limits, my humanity, my declining popularity. He must increase. I must decrease. I’m good with that.” (see John 3:30).

4. Climb the latter of humility, not progress and success. Remember the gospel? The way up is down. The way to real power is to give up power. The way to gain power is to lose power. The way to become rich is to become poor. The way to be great is to be the slave of all! Prov. 22:4: The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.

5. Let the dead seed stay dead so it can get planted and grow. Good grieving and embracing your limits is not just letting go, but also letting it bless you. Remember, the resurrection only comes after death, real death. Trust that in God’s economy, ashes always produce beauty. Our losses are real, let them kill you, not destroy you, but kill you. And remember that our God, the living God, is big and He raises the dead! 2 Cor. 1:8-9: 8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

This journey is not popular and it will not be easy, but it is the way to maturity and intimacy with Jesus. There are many beautiful realities that spring forth in our lives as a result of embracing our limits and grieving our losses, and I would say that the greatest and most beautiful reality will be our relationship to God. We will move from a “Give me, give me, give me” prayer life to an intimate, loving prayer life characterized by a loving union with God. When we embrace our limits and let Jesus steal the show, we are changed forever.

Johnny B’s story ends sadly here on earth. Soon after he gives up being the man in the wilderness and begins to decrease, he really decreases. His church plant implodes, he gets arrested, thrown into jail, and then Herod has his head cut off because of a foolish vow he made to his mistresses daughter. Not the way any of us want to go, but the reality of the resurrection for Johnny B was certain, and his life was not wasted. I pray that our eyes and our hearts would be opened this morning to the all-surpassing beauty and power of God in Christ Jesus.