It was a winter wonderland. The snow was perfect.
To the internal soundtrack of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman" from Frozen, the little girl's head was filled with dreams of the most epic snowman... ever.
We need lots of snow! Check. Buttons for eyes! Check. A carrot nose! Double check! Maybe a hat! Stolen hat from Dad, check.
And it was on. Creation filled with hope and possibility. There was only one problem. The temperature was dropping and the snowman head was converting from shape-able snow to impenetrable ice way too quickly. We couldn't get the nose all the way in, because the snowman's head (like so many of our heads) was just too hard.
Nose precariously perched, the snowman was pretty good. Not quite the physical manifestation of the dream inside the girl's head... but still pretty good. Then it happened.
Time slowed down.
And the snowman's nose fell from his icy snow head. Tumbling, down, and further down until the old vegetable landed with a resounding thunderous boom in snow at our creation's feet. Maybe it would be ok. Maybe we could get it and fix it. Perhaps we could pack some new snow around the carrot to pack the nose more securely. Then it happened. Before the girl could recover the vegetative nasal perfection lying peacefully in the snow...
...the dog jumped on it and ate it immediately. Not an unimpressive performance actually.
This was bad on two levels. First, the snowman now looked like a nightmare of Cyrano de Bergerac, noseless after some horrible French accident filled with swords and music and angst. Second, the dog has a sensitive stomach. There is no chance that we won't see that carrot again. That will be, you know, kinda gross.
And the replacement nose was substandard at best.
The girl was disappointed. Why does the difference between the dream and the reality have to be so LARGE?
It's a good question. And as I was struggling for an answer, I thought of four things that might make the next time a little better.
1) Build flexibility into the plan.
We're not professional snowmen makers. And growing up in an area of the country with less snow... my skills in this area are lacking. Knowing that, we should have realistic expectations. Chances are low that this will go off without a hitch. If you plan for some bumps in the road, they won't be devastating when you hit them. Pack in some time to recover as part of the plan - rarely will things go perfectly.
2) Let the snags add to the magic of the moment.
From the perspective of the six year old really looking forward to building a Disney snowman of her very own, this was disappointing. But you have to admit... even for her... the whole dog thing will be comedy gold for years to come. Don't let the minor snafu steal the magic of the moment, or the magic of the bigger picture. The memory of a family playing in the snow together is a good one, disappearing carrot and all.
3) Approach creativity with a lot of grace.
Birth is messy. So is songwriting, sculpting, painting, writing, church planting, thinking and pretty much anything new. Nothing comes fully formed and fully capable - there is a learning curve in life and in all human activity. Be ok with early steps looking like the early steps of a toddler... with lots of fumbling and falling and wobbly goodness. Whenever you take on something new, that you haven't mastered yet, give yourself and your team of snowy engineers a lot of grace.
4) Don't give the old dog a moldy carrot.
That's not a brilliant metaphor. Take this one completely literally and just don't do it. He will make noises no living thing should ever make and yak it up onto the carpet later and upset Karen.
So build your snowmen and let little girls everywhere delight in the process, learning to love a little better every day and learning to never, ever, ever give up.
We've been going through the Sermon on the Mount, the single greatest teaching ever delivered. Our text was from Matthew chapter 6.
Matt. 6:22-24 The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
We Need Healthy Eyes
One of the primary ways we understand and interact with the world around us is through seeing. The room can be flooded with light, but if you don't apprehend the light, or take it into yourself – it does you no good. We can be surrounded with light, but if our eyes aren't healthy, we don't benefit from it.
The Problem isn't that God isn't working. It's that we don't have eyes to see. And we can't get there on our own – we need His help to have healthy eyes.
We Need to Focus on God
Jesus then kicks into the two masters, and the total impossibility of divided loyalties. That in every debate we might have about what to do, the Holy Spirit in us leads us to a place where Jesus wins out, that we side with Him every time.
Devoted and Despise... we did some digging into what those words mean. They are both related to value. Devoted is pretty clear - it’s something we will cling to, be loyal to. But despise seems to mean something other than being disgusted. it’s the same word used in Heb. 12:2 - He despised the shame. Here it means that Jesus considered the shame as having very little value in comparison to something else. He looked at all the shame of the cross, and then looked at all the joy gained by the cross, and the thought of opening the door of heaven to you... and the joy had more value.
In the same way, if we love, or are devoted to, money or any desire or lust or object, we will despise God—God will seem of less significance to us. He will simply be in the way, and we will disregard Him as we make daily decisions. And that will push us down a path affecting our destiny. But the one who loves, or is devoted to, God, will despise money, seeing it and all it offers as insignificant to what God offers.
SO, we can profess to be devoted to Jesus, but the true test of our deepest devotions are proven by what we live out. What truly is our master will be borne out by how we live out our lives. Whatever has captured our hearts for real, whatever we love the most, will be the greatest authority in our lives.
In the end, what we truly love, what we truly are devoted to, will win out. It is not about what we profess, it is what we actually do.
What you really believe, you'll act on. The rest is just religious talk.
And we can see it when lives around us are messed up. When the alcoholic chooses to take one more drink instead of going to his kid’s birthday party. It's why some celebrities will struggle so much in their personal lives. If you make fame, success, money your god... what happens when you get what you're striving for? Fame is a terrible God. It's mean and cruel and fickle and will take any quality of life away from you... then will leave you for the next person on the list when your 15 minutes are up.
We Use Healthy Eyes to Focus In ancient times, seamen would navigate their ships through Washington DC by fixing upon the North Star. As a polar star, it doesn’t appear to move as time passes. The fixed point allowed them to stay on course. But what if some rookie picked the wrong star? They’d navigate in the wrong direction and end up in the wrong place. So, maybe Jesus is saying that there’s a reference point, a fixed point that we need to focus on, and if it’s the right one, life’s going to end up in the right place. I suspect that’s God and the things of God. And it’ll lead to light.
And if we fix on the wrong thing, life will be headed to darkness.
If my North Star is me, maybe I end up in a bad place - full of pride and selfishness, discontent and fear, easily offended, unforgiving, devoid of any real sacrifice for others. We need something outside of ourselves to guide us. It's like me, driving around in DC because “that way” feels right to me at the moment – I was just going in circles.
Jesus is saying that there’s a reference point, a fixed point that we need to focus on, and if it’s the right one, life’s going to end up in the right place.
If we fix on a God dying for His enemies and praying for them as they killed Him, wouldn’t our lives be marked by the light of forgiveness and love?
If we fix on a God who became poor for us so that we, in poverty, could be rich, wouldn’t it lead us to a life marked by humility and generosity?
If we fix on a God Who came to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many, wouldn’t that make us less demanding people, not as easily disappointed or offended, more willing to serve?
If we fix on a God Who is sweating blood in the garden saying, “Let this cup pass from Me, but not My will, but Yours,” wouldn’t it lead me to be more obedient even when it costs me?
If we fix on a God Who tells me that love was Him giving Himself up for me, then wouldn’t I love sacrificially in the face of insult and injury?
If we fix on a God Who didn’t spare His own Son and says He will freely give us all things, then wouldn’t I have less fear and more trust. I think this would make for a life full of light.
SOTM, part 12, Investing Your Life
We’re in the Sermon on the Mount, and this week, we take on just three short verses. But, what a lot is packed into them. Let’s check them out, and then see what God might have for us.
Matthew 6:19-21 - Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus has continually highlighted how citizens of his Kingdom are going to be different from most people walking around on planet Earth. They’ll be different in how they talk, how they handle money, and sex, and their commitments, how they deal with anger issues. Jesus’ goal is to so bless citizens of his Kingdom that those who are not part of it will want to be. Sad to say, sometimes Christians are not operating in a manner that makes Jesus’ rule and reign very appealing. But when they do, it’s not because it happens by accident. Indeed, it’s quite on purpose, as we’ll see in these verses.
Jesus essentially says that there really are only two places we can invest, and his followers should be investing heavily in the kingdom, not laying up stuff for themselves here on earth. Now, investing in the stock market can be challenging—thousands of companies, thousands of mutual funds, and that’s just here in America. It can be tough for the novice, so most people grab themselves a so-called expert to help them for a fee. Jesus is our expert if we’re his followers—and he recommends investing in the kingdom. By investing, he’s talking about our money, for sure, but also our time, energy, creativity, passion, and intelligence. Use all the resources God has given you, in other words, to invest in kingdom things and not just stuff here on earth to consume.
To be frank, then, Jesus commands us not to be materialists, where everything terminates just on us. A materialist, for example, gets a raise, and sees that as an opportunity to increase his own standard of living, his own quality of life. It’s time to get a bigger house, better car, new clothes, a boat, a house on the beach, another in the mountains, a ski chalet in Colorado. Everything is about them.
The problem? There is no place in Jesus’ kingdom for a materialist. Jesus was fairly direct when asked to solve a family dispute over an inheritance. See Luke 12:13-21.
Luke 12:13-21 - Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Notice what the guy did, and what he didn’t do. He talks only to himself. He never brings God into the equation. There’s no, “God, what would you have me do with this incredible abundance.” He only thought about consuming it all for himself. Jesus’ point is simply this—this man was a fool. Tough words, no? And why was he a fool? Because he was departing this life that very night, and he wouldn’t be taking any of his stuff with him to where he was headed. Even had he not died that night, Jesus in Matthew 6 makes it clear that a bunch of stuff stacked up here on earth is at risk—moths (or inflation, or volatile markets) eat it; rust (or depreciation, or a housing crisis, or a recession) destroys it; or thieves (or con artists, or identity theft, or insurance companies who jury rig things so they don’t have to pay for your medical bills) steal it. Stuff here on earth can be here today, and gone tomorrow.
Can you imagine signing a one-year lease and then investing all your savings to renovate the place? Who would do that, given that you’re going to be moving out at the end of the year? And when you depart, you will not be taking that apartment with you. It makes no sense to do that with an apartment; why do it with your life? And to contrast this, Jesus claims that things invested in the kingdom are secure, safe from rot, decay, and theft. You think compound interest works well here? You ain’t seen nothing until you see how it works in heaven.
Now, I get it. A materialist hears all this and mocks. But the resurrection of Jesus tells us all something. This is not the only life we’ll get. The mantra, “You only live once!” is patently false, and the resurrection proves it. We’re all coming back. It’s just that some will come back to be welcomed into the glory God has for them, and the others will come back to hear the sentence of judgment. And for those of us headed to the kingdom of Jesus, there will be rewards fashioned in large part by how we lived our lives in the here and now.
To make sure I’m not confusing anyone with this, let me remind you that we are saved by grace apart from any works. Nothing we could ever do to merit God’s favor. That only comes through faith in Jesus Christ and Him alone. But, once saved, we are told that we are saved to be about good works. Of course, those are carried out by people who are in submission to Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out those works. Our job is simply to be willing to let the Holy Spirit operate in and through us. But if we do, Jesus says that rewards for that willingness results in storing up treasures in heaven and rewards coming our way. As Randy Alcorn said, “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.”
So, if you’re going to invest your money, time, resources into the things of God, what will that require? Let me mention three specific things.
Number 1: You must get to know God. You’ve got to get to know what matters to God. Listen, if you get a new job, would it be wise to get to know your new boss? To know what he or she expects from you, to know what he or she would consider “success” for you in that first year? Does it make any sense at all to just lumber along trying to guess, only to find out at performance review time that you disappointed that new boss on several major items through the year? Of course not. So, if you’re in the kingdom of Jesus, it makes sense to find out what Jesus is all about, what’s on his heart, what does he care about, and then be about those things. Get into the Word, get into a small group where you can grow and encourage others to do the same, discerning what it is that God cares about.
Number 2: Get to know yourself. Know where you are susceptible to materialism, and then fight it with your whole being. Confess it, repent of it. Again, be in that small group where you can get encouragement and link arms with others doing the same. Also, know how you are wired, or better, how God has wired you. How are you gifted? About what are you passionate? What are the spiritual and physical needs around you that you spot and that you feel need to be dealt with? Maybe God’s calling you to get engaged there. What is it that God points out to you that makes you furious, less because it offends you than the heart of God? A need for foster parents, orphans in your neighborhood, widows struggling to make it with kids to take care of? Listen, there’s nothing wrong with rescuing dogs and cats (well, maybe there is something wrong with rescuing cats—the jury is still out on that one), but scripture tends to suggest people are more on God’s mind.
Number 3: Intentionally neglect some things. See, if you’re going to invest your energy, talents, passions, money, and time in God’s things, you will have to not invest in other things. Folks have encouraged me to participate in office pools and fantasy leagues for years, and I’ve resisted, not because they are evil, but because I wasn’t willing to invest the time in them to do them well. The one office pool for football I did play in for one week kinda forced me to choose the Oakland Raiders to win a game. My problem? I didn’t want the Oakland Raiders to ever win a game. (Sorry, I grew up in the Midwest where we saw the Pittsburgh Steelers every Sunday, and no one roots for Pittsburgh AND Oakland.) But I had to root for them to win that week because of the pool. It really messed me up, so I bagged the office pool. The truth is this: any time you choose to invest in one thing, you are making an intentional choice not to invest in something else. In economics, this is known as the “opportunity cost.” Once you do something with your money, you’ve lost the opportunity to do something else with it.
Here’s our problem. Some of us have disordered loves. We love the wrong things too much and the right things not enough. We love our sports too much, our careers too much, our cars too much, our vacations too much, our houses too much. Nothing wrong with those things. Nothing wrong with a little bit of love for them. I think God wants us to enjoy things. But we can love them too much and expect too much joy to come from them. We can easily forget that God is the one who deserves our honor and our praise for providing any of that stuff to us. It’s too easy to fill up our lives with things that really don’t matter on the scales of heaven. That’s why, in Northern Virginia, it seems there is a storage facility on virtually every corner. We’ve got to have places to store the stuff we can’t even fit into our big houses. It’s why there are garage sales everywhere, to get rid of the treasures we invested in that now have no value.
And this is what Jesus is getting at. Don’t lay up treasures for yourself here. The things that matter to God should be the things that matter to citizens of his kingdom, if they are really in his kingdom and not just kidding themselves that they are. And investing in God’s things will require you and me to intentionally neglect some of those things that don’t matter as much.
We’ve been talking small groups now for several months, and we’re getting ready to launch a bunch of new groups. If you’re not already committed to being in a small group, for you to make it happen, you are going to have to intentionally decide to give up something or some things to make the time and space for that small group. If you are going to serve others, you are going to have to intentionally choose not to serve just you.
One final note. If you get into this investing in God’s kingdom, please don’t measure everyone else around you based on what you are doing. There is no one on earth who can seriously be engaged in all the things that weigh on the heart of God. God might lead you to be heavily engaged with the homeless. Great! God might, however, lead the person next to you to be heavily engaged with human trafficking survivors. Neither one of you should look at the other person and judge their walk with God as diminished just because they aren’t investing in exactly what you are investing in. Here’s the truth. God’s going to lead us all, each of us individually. He knows what’s best. And my belief is that if we all move as God directs, God will lead The Surge to do exactly what He wants it to do in all the areas that matter to him, not only in our area of Northern Virginia, but globally.
If none of this strikes a chord with you, it could be that I’m a bad communicator. Very possible! But it also might be because the things of God don’t really matter that much to you. Maybe your heart is just not that invested in God’s things. See again, verse 21:
Matthew 6:21 - For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Do you see from this one verse that your heart will follow your investment? It can’t be helped. Whatever you have invested in, your heart will go there, too. If I invest in the things of this world, my heart will go there. They will preoccupy my mind and my passions and my heart. They will monopolize my affections. But if you want your heart tethered to God and His kingdom, you will have to put your treasure in the things that matter to him. As you do, you will find your heart naturally follows along. It can’t help but go there.
Finally, Jesus isn’t asking us to do anything He’s not done. He endured the cross, we’re told in scripture, for the joy set before Him. What was the joy set before Him? It wasn’t just being God in heaven. He already had that before He came to earth. He came to earth to rescue you and me and anyone who would trust in Him. The joy Jesus was anticipating was not just being back in heaven, but being back in heaven with the likes of you and me. Can you believe it? And his joy surges any time a believer ends up with him there, so as long as people continue to accept the gospel down here, the greater the joy Jesus is anticipating having when it’s all said and done. And when we’re investing in the kingdom down here, we’ll be actively involved in carrying the gospel of Christ to those who haven’t heard and helping those who have to grow in that relationship with Jesus. Let’s be about kingdom stuff, shall we? It is the one risk-free investment, guaranteed never to lose value.
SOTM, Whose Yer Audience?
Indeed, we are back with more from Jesus’ most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount. We’re in Matthew, chapter 6. Here are His words. Let’s read them and see if we can get what He’s telling us.
Matt. 6:1-18 - Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Lest we get off on the wrong foot here, I hope you don’t think Jesus is anti-prayer, or anti-giving, or anti-fasting. Note that He doesn’t say, “If you pray or fast or give,” but “When you pray and fast and give.” See the difference? Good! As Christians, citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, we ought to be engaged in these things. These are activities theologians refer to as "spiritual disciplines," and that’s just a fancy way of saying these things contribute to connecting with and enjoying this new found relationship we have with God. We could add other things to this list, such as loving our neighbors, meditating on God’s word, and worship—anything that gets us into that spiritual dimension of life where we can engage God and He can engage us. Apart from these activities, it’s going to be almost impossible to deepen this relationship with God because we will not be coming to know him better and better along the way. Note the benefits of this highlighted in 1 Timothy.
1 Tim. 4:7-8 Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
Like a runner who’s preparing for a marathon, or you and I just trying to get into shape, days will pop up that we just don’t want to hit the pavement or the gym. That’s why they call it training, not entertainment. We purpose to train, we make time for that training, because we’ve a goal at the end of it—to set a personal best in the race, or maybe just to not look like a beached whale at the beach. If we want to develop a best-friend relationship with God, we’ve got to train, to discipline ourselves to do the things that get us there.
Well, if Jesus is not down on prayer, fasting, and giving, what’s His point here? It has everything to do with our motives, what’s going on at the heart level. What audience are we playing to? Are we doing these things to look good to other people, or are we doing these things to deepen our relationship with God? Jesus pretty much has us figured out, and he knows that our craving approval from other people can actually invade the activities designed to gain approval from Him. Here are some questions, drawn from a book by counselor Ed Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small, to help us spot whether we’re doing what we do to be seen by other people:
If we’re saying “Yes” to any of these, people may be our primary audience. Ouch! I just got zinged. How about you?
Jesus then proves that no one is totally useless: at the very least, they can serve as bad examples. He pings on the scribes and Pharisees, his favorite target, for giving, fasting, and praying to be seen by other people doing them. And He tells us not to fall into that trap. Now, this does not mean that no one can ever see us doing these things. There’s a difference between giving to be seen giving, and being seen giving. You get the difference? Jesus prayed, and was totally focused on communicating with God. But his disciples were watching him, saw something that made them want to do it, too, and asked Jesus to teach them. Jesus drew everyone’s attention to the poor widow who was giving—“Hey, look at that woman over there!” Her giving wasn’t tainted because someone saw her doing it. Jesus was pointing out the difference between her heart and those of the Pharisees, who made a big show of giving to show everyone how spiritual they were. It’s all about what’s happening inside the heart. So, we can think we’re doing something really spiritual, and it can count for absolutely nothing with God. Now, that’s a bummer.
Three times in this passage, Jesus warns us that if we’re doing spiritual things to show off to other people, then our reward ends with the praise of other people. God basically gives us what we really want, deep down. If it’s to look good before people, God gives us that, and nothing more. Could the reason that we don’t experience more answered prayer, more spiritual breakthroughs, more quantum leaps in our life with God be because what we really want is approval from people more than the approval of God? Maybe God gives us just what we really want.
So, how to keep ourselves honest as we live out the Christian life? Number one - zero in on the greatness of God. Once we have a good picture of God, it’ll pretty much put man in his rightful place. Read through Isaiah, chapter 40. Better still, hop on our website, click on the media button, and then the message archives. Scroll down to a series called How Big Is Your God—four messages that will help you contemplate the magnificence of our God.
Number two: Beyond what we do in public, spend time with God alone, in secret, away from any prying eyes, away from any temptation to play to the crowd. One of our problems is not only wanting the approval of other people, but also trying make ourselves feel better about us. That is what’s behind Jesus’ comment about not letting the left hand know what the right hand is up to. Don’t let our pursuit of God mask our pursuit of feeling better about us. It has to all be about connecting with God. A. W. Tozer says it this way: God waits to be wanted. God is wanting to spend time with you alone. You ever taken someone you really like to some special place, and all she does is spend time taking pictures of everything to send to her friends, and the time actually spent with you is very limited? Yeah, now you know how God feels.
You want a great and deepening relationship with God? Spend time in the things that get you there. This works the same way with, say, money. You want some money, right? How do you get some money? You engage in the things that lead to some money: Study, get good grades, get a job, work hard, be indispensable. Amazingly, you get paid.
The key thing here is this: What do you want, really want, deep down? If you want the adoration of people, you’ll get it, and that’s all you’ll get. If you want a deeper relationship with God, you’ll get that. But you can’t have one eye on rewards from people, and the other eye on rewards from God. Choose wisely.
At The Surge we love doing things together... that includes writing a blog! Here are a few of our main contributing authors:
Our fearless leader, Dwaine is the lead pastor at The Surge. His experience in counter terrorism with the CIA prepared him for ministry and he likes dogs and babies even more than E does.
E (short for Eric Reiss) is the Wingman at The Surge and likes dogs, music, Mexican food, his wife Karen and his little girl Evangeline... not necessarily in that order.