What’s Going Before You?

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You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.

Psalm 139:13-16 (New Living Translation)

“Well, what are your plans for the New Year?”  It’s a question often passed around every late December and early January.  It makes for good conversation around the break room at work, or in the foyer at church before or after worship, or while we’re waiting around between Sunday School and “church”.  We all like to make plans.  Whether it’s about that vacation we will take this year, or that perfect vacation we would like to have; plans for that “perfect” house we would like to build someday; plans about our careers or seeking a new career; plans for retirement.  It is good to make plans, to dream for something better.  But what about God’s plans?  Did you notice some very important phrases from our Scripture this morning?  “You made….You watched……You saw…..(clearly implied) YOU recorded….”  Sounds to me that our God is a very busy God.

Now, don’t misinterpret that last statement to mean that God is too busy for you.  The spiritual reality is that God’s “busyness” has to do with us and our daily lives.  God desires to be involved with our lives; every day and every moment of that day.  So, this week’s word is PREVENIENT GRACE.  Now, there’s a word that sounds really big and important—prevenient.  Let me tell you a story about this word.

It was in late March of 2004 when I received a call from another pastor, Lyle Holland.  Now, Lyle and I did not travel in the same circles; in fact, our only connection was that many years ago we were both in the former Florence District.  Other that time, I can’t remember that we served in the same district.  Now, we would see each other at Conference events and speak to each other, but that was the extent of our friendship, until March of 2004.  Lyle was the Spiritual Director for Alabama Walk 269 that would be held May 13-16.  He had been praying and seeking for one more Assistant Spiritual Director and he thought about me.  Allow me to give you a backdrop to that phone call.

I had just been informed that I would be moving to another appointment in June against my wishes and most of the congregation I was serving.  To say the least, it was a time of great anxiety.  The second fact that stands out in my memory was that it was less than a year since I had been on my walk.  As we conversed on the phone, I told Kyle that the date really didn’t look good to me since I would be in the middle of packing up for the move that would happen less than a month after the Walk.  I was concerned about my inexperience and the fact I was in the middle of a tough season in my life.  And just about the time I was going to tell Kyle no, in the middle of my sentence, I lost all common sense and told him I would be glad and honored to serve. (What in the world have I just done????)  Then Kyle told me all the clergy talks had been assigned but one, Prevenient Grace; and that would be my talk.

Prevenient Grace?  I remember something about that from my studies, it was a Wesleyan term, so I should know something about it, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what I was suppose to remember about prevenient grace.  So, I did what most people do when they find themselves in over their head—-I prayed!  I prayed about what to say and how to say it, and for God to help me remember where I heard that word before—prevenient.

I was so relieved to find I had a basic outline to go by.  So I sat down at my computer and began my research and started to write.  The first word I typed was, of course, Prevenient!  My word processor immediately flagged that word as being incorrectly spelled and offered many suggestions, none of which was the word “prevenient”.  I looked at my outline again—this is the way the Upper Room folks said it was spelled, so it must be right.  But the computer failed to recognize it as a correctly spelled word.  And then it hit me (actually the Holy Spirit hit me, real hard); many times we fail to recognize the activity of God’s grace we call prevenient grace.

I pulled out my notebook from my own walk (Alabama 253) and there it was—the perfect definition of prevenient grace:  Prevenient Grace is the grace that goes before us, calling us and leading us into a relationship of love with our Heavenly Father.  And more than that, it is the nature of God’s grace that is always going before—calling to us by name, leading us, guiding us and helping us through the tough times of life and faith.  I have come to understand that as God’s grace goes before me, He is leading me and preparing me for whatever may lie ahead.  Grace doesn’t stop being prevenient just because we have finally said our own “Yes!” to Christ.

He is still going before us.  But, I wonder, like my computer’s word processor would not recognize the word “prevenient”, how many times are we guilty of not recognizing God’s grace that is always before us?  I found a way to stop my computer from telling me that the word “prevenient” was a misspelled word—I added the word to the dictionary.  From that point forward, it always recognizes the word prevenient as a real word, not a misspelled word.

When we add the word “prevenient” to our vocabulary—when we make the intentional and conscious decision to recognize the many ways God’s grace is at work in us and around us—it changes everything in us and for us.  The Psalm for this week reminds us that God is busy—busy showing us that He cares about us, and best of all, He takes care of us.  After working Walk 269, to be completely honest, I still didn’t want to move, I still didn’t like my Superintendent, and there were still of couple of folks at church I didn’t like.  But I didn’t blame them any more and I was able to accept these changes because I KNEW that God’s grace was going before me and that with His grace, I could and would face any challenge.

When we live with sense that God’s grace is always going before us, then we will be able to say:  “Good, Lord!  It’s Monday!  What shall we do together this week?”

Let us pray:  Lord, I have to confess, many times I’m like that computer—I simply cannot recognize that your grace is going before me.  But Lord, I know I need that grace.  I need that grace to help me to continue to live in this wonderful relationship based on love, not rules.  Remind me that you are very busy showing me your love and offering me your power.  Help me to add to my mental vocabulary and to my spiritual vocabulary this strange word, Prevenient!  Then, may I remember that you really are going before me, and like those disciples on the way back to the village of Emmaus, open my eyes to the ways your grace is working in my life!  Amen and Amen!

Hot, Cold, Or Lukewarm Pursuit?

In law enforcement terminology there’s this thing called “Hot Pursuit”.  It means going chasing after someone with everything they have.  God is always in Hot Pursuit of us, but what about us?  When it comes to the relationship God offers, are we in Hot Pursuit?  Cold Pursuit?  Or Lukewarm Pursuit?

Now those progressives out there that want us to throw away the Old Testament because there’s too much judgment and rules, well just take a look at this:  Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (The Message)

“Attention, Israel! God, our God! God the one and only!  Love God, your God, with your whole heart:  love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!” 

While we can be masters of deception and hide what is really in our heart, eventually, it comes out.  What you say is the result of what is in your heart.  Now sometimes when a person reveals their heart towards us, those words are ugly and wound.  The result is, we don’t want to be friends with them.  We turn our back on them.  But when it comes to God, well, it is quite a bit different.

The heart is like a warehouse that stores things.  It can be good, evil, or both at the same time.  There comes a time when we need to see what is really in our heart.  I will confess to you there are times when I have a crisis of faith, experience brokenness, grief, disappointments—well to put it plainly and to the point—sometimes my heart is messy.  And in those messy times I need to know where I can go, where I can turn, where I know my feelings won’t be ignored, or made to feel small, or like a failure.

We all need somewhere to turn when life gets tough and things don’t turn out like we want.  We need a place that will bind up our wounds and heal them, even if we believe that the wounds are too deep.  And it needs to be a place we can count on to always be there for us.  I have looked for that place and would like to tell you that I found it, but I would be lying.  I didn’t find that place; The Place Found Me.  The Place I’m talking about is the heart of God.

I have had a Job experience—with all my pain and disappointment, I still want God.  I do not always know how to get out of those places, but I know God does, and He will show me and help me and heal me.  And if God still wants my heart in the shape that it was and sometimes still gets in, then I know I need to get in hot pursuit of God’s heart.  Here is how I see giving our heart to God.

Step 1:  Give God Your Whole Heart!

 You can’t give God bits and pieces of your heart a little at the time.  You can’t give God the majority of your heart.  Give Him your whole heart.  You have to take the risk that it’s really true:  That He Loves You With His Whole Heart All The Time.  He’s given you his whole heart in the Son who died on the Cross for me and you.

And giving Him your whole heart isn’t a one-time decision.  It’s not even a once a week or once a day decision you make.  It Has To Be A Conscious And Intentional Moment By Moment Decision For The Rest Of Your Life.  If you don’t give Him your whole heart, You Will NEVER Know That He Can Be Trusted To Love You.

Step 2:  Trust God With All That’s In Your Heart!

Whatever abilities, passions, dreams, goals and gifts you have, hand them over to God.  God can take the simplest ability, the smallest gift, and do great things in your life.  Your relationships—give them over to God.  Trust God to help you find and build those relationships HE wants you to have.  Your time—make God the only priority in your life all the time.  Don’t give God a token Sunday.

Every waking and breathing moment, give it to God and live it in Him and allow Him to work through you.  And when you find your heart is filled with darkness, when in those moments when everything is  messy, trust God with your pain, your doubts, your fears, your discouragement.  God does not want only the good things in your heart.  He will take the tough stuff, too.  Trust that God will deliver you.  Trust that God will transform you.  Trust That When You Just Don’t See How, God Can See How.

Step 3:  Serve God With All Your Strength!

Sometimes you will feel strong in Him.  Serve Him will all that abundant strength.  Whenever you think that your contribution to God isn’t much, serve Him with all of that, too.  When you think someone could do it better than you, go ahead and serve God with all you are.

But sometimes, you may find yourself like I have found myself from time to time—not so strong, feeling broken and hurt.  Whatever strength you have, be it ever so little, serve God.  Serving God isn’t all about being a 5 star athlete.

It’s about taking just one day at a time and whatever is in you that day, the good, the bad, and the ugly; giving it to God.

God Loves You And Even When Your Heart Is Messy Or Broken, He Will Restore Your Heart And Restore You To The Only Relationship That Matters The Most—The Relationship With Him!

Does God have ALL of your heart?  I’m not asking are you perfect.  Breaking News Story:  YOU’RE NOT PERFECT!  NEVER HAVE BEEN!  What I am asking is this:  When Was The Last Time You Surrendered All Of Your Heart—The Good, Bad And Ugly—To The Only One Who Has Given You His Whole Heart?

So, love God with all your heart.  Love others the way God loves you.  And make sure all the glory goes to Him–who longs to call you His Son, His Daughter!

Overlooking The Signs!

Has anyone ever told you of a place you needed to see but you did not have a clue where it was located?  Obviously you needed directions and inevitably those directions included certain “signs” to look for, either the ones mounted on a post or a particular place.  Miss that sign and you miss where you are needing to go.

In the last few years God has been taking me on a radical journey that has completely turned my understanding of church upside down.  Well, let me rephrase that:  it has turned my understanding of the church right-side-up.  And while I thought this journey began about 5 years ago, this morning I realized it started much sooner.  Right now I am recognizing that this journey started in 1990.  Who knows, maybe even further back than that.

In early 1990 a friend and fellow co-conspirator in this work of being a called out pastor, called me to let me know one of our former professors was about to retire due to the continued deterioration of his vision and that summer would be his last time to teach.  Dr. David Naglee was a professor of New Testament Theology and had a profound impact on me.  His insights and style of sharing those insights were amazing and opened my eyes to a new depth of understanding.  I did not need to further my education in terms of Tribal demands, but I wanted to sit at the feet of Rabbi Naglee one more time, so I enrolled.

The drawback, or so I thought at the time, was I had to take 2 courses.  The other course was called “Good and Evil:  A Christian Perspective On Suffering.”  Due to the short term nature of this summer semester, there were required readings and papers that had to be submitted 2 months in advance of these classes.  Rabbi Naglee’s reading list was enjoyable and I loved writing those papers.  But that other class, well, some of those books were heresy I tell you, absolute heresy!  So I accepted the assignment as just a necessary  evil in order to learn from this Rabbi.  By the way, he wasn’t Jewish, it’s just a term of endearment from me to Dr. Naglee.

About 2 weeks before I left for Emory we were taking a family camping vacation at a state park.  We had set up the camper and went to the grocery store for supplies.  When I returned the park ranger had left an emergency message to call a church member.  When I called Ronnie he informed me that one of our youth, a 15 year old cheerleader and honor role student, had just been killed in an automobile accident.  It now fell upon me to find some way to offer God’s comfort in the middle of a tragedy that just didn’t make sense.

But almost immediately I remembered (actually it was the Holy Spirit who reminded me) one of those books from that “other” course, that necessary evil I had to endure in order to sit at the feet of Rabbi Naglee.  It was Philip Yancey’s classic Disappointment With God.    Actually it was the only book I thought worth reading at the time from the list.  Yancey had taught me this:  If it is not Good News in the hospital, if it is not Good News in the nursing home, if it is not Good News at the funeral home, then it is not Good News at all.  But it is Good News because the truth of the Good News endures the hard times of life and even thrives in the tight, dark and difficult places where real life happens every day.

The Spirit flooded my heart and mind with words of hope that I otherwise would not have had IF I had not chosen to sit at the feet of Rabbi Naglee and endure that “necessary evil” called “Good and Evil:  A Christian Perspective On Suffering.” God knew I would be facing a hurting family, a hurting church, a hurting community and a hurting school that urgently needed to know there is still Good News in the middle of tragedy.  On the day of that funeral, the funeral home chapel was full, as were all their parlors, the halls and anywhere a person could squeeze in to stand.  Fortunately the Fire Marshall wasn’t there because that building had exceeded it’s maximum occupancy rating.

Looking back, I now see that God’s gracious presence and plan was already setting me up for even more.  Now I am looking for those signs, those moments that may not seem to be important to me or most and may even feel like a necessary evil, for I know that God is not finished with me and has much more to teach me.  Right now I’m thinking about Romans 8:28 and from The Message it goes like this:

He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

It is inevitable that living in a church-centered world we will miss one of God’s road signs in this Kingdom Journey.  The church-centered world and message will disappoint us because it is built around and upon human effort and human personalities.  But when we live in the Kingdom-Centered Good News, God is prepared for what lies ahead and is preparing us for those moments.  John Wesley calls this part of the nature of God’s grace Prevenient.  Prevenient is a big theological word like mahogany.  It comes from the Latin word that means “to go before”.

God is going before, ahead of you, and along your journey He has some well placed signs for you.  They may not make sense to you at the time, and may even seem like a necessary evil.  Just don’t miss them!  People, things and events are some of the means God uses to bring us into the life that is much bigger and better than we ever imaged.  Don’t give up, and don’t miss a sign, because…..

There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.

(Philippians 1:6 from The Message)

Remember, love God with all your heart.  Love others the way God loves you.  And make sure all the glory goes to Him, by becoming Great in the Kingdom of God!