PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

WHOM GOD SEEKS: The Missing Key to Meeting God

I will never forget Promise Keepers (PK) ’96. I was in the Georgia Dome with ten or twelve men from my church, fifty yard line, on the mezzanine level. The Saturday evening worship session was in full swing; sixty-thousand men in full-throated song. In those days, PK would end with founder, Coach McCartney, calling all the pastors down front to be affirmed and prayed over by the whole stadium.  I had participated in this before, in Colorado in ’94 and it was electric.  We felt like soldiers on parade being consecrated for battle; deeply moving.

But we were an hour or two away from that; just worshiping with full abandon for twenty or thirty minutes, pausing for prayer, and singing again. All of my attention was focused on Jesus, giving him praise and glory, as if I could see him, riding high, seated on his throne up high in the middle of the Dome.

Suddenly, I could see him, not with physical eyes, but spiritual sight. As surely as I saw the men in the stadium I knew Jesus was standing before me, speaking to me.

I cannot tell you what this was about, but in that moment my Master Jesus spoke five simple words that comforted, healed, and touched me in such a deep and powerful way that my knees buckled and I sat down utterly stunned, weeping with gratitude. It was as if I had been walking around with a sword deep in my soul and in one motion he removed the sword and healed the wound. What I did not understand at the time, but would later on, was that those words were also preparation for a battle on the horizon.

I share that story because many who seek a deeper experience of God ask, “How can I have an encounter with God? I hear about, and read about, people experiencing his presence and hearing his voice, but that has never happened to me, and I want to know God that way.”

By sharing my story I am not intending to portray God as a spiritual vending machine. We do not put in a certain coin and push a certain button and get God in a bottle. Further, following God’s guidance in our day-to-day, learning to discern his will and the nudges of the Holy Spirit, is as much a matter of using our heads as we engage with him through Scripture as it is anything overtly mystical. Many sermons and books are available on the subject.

Still, one thing stands out that is often missing in such sermons and books: the place of pure, uncomplicated, intensive worship; complete abandon of one’s inhibitions to the adoration of God. Moses’ most powerful encounter with God came when, in the middle of his regular prayer time he said, “Show me your glory.” Jesus explained that the kind of person God seeks is the kind that “worships in spirit and in truth,” nothing held back, no agenda other than complete adoration of and abandon to God for whom and what he is.

Looking back on PK ’96 nothing else the rest of the night mattered. When it came time for pastors to go forward and be affirmed my friends would not let up.  They insisted I go.  I did not have the heart to tell them that they could have torn the building down around me and it would not have mattered. I had been in the presence of God.

Two cautions for those who’ve read this far: Worship with abandon is always the right thing to do, but these moments, these encounters, are the exception, not the rule. That pattern is clear enough in Scripture as is the second warning: often, as it was with me, they are precursors to difficult times, moments of gracious preparation by a loving Lord before the battle begins.

Still, if meeting with God is your highest aim learn to praise, honor, and adore him, in the quiet of your room or with a congregation, with no other agenda than his glory. That is the kind of worshiper God seeks, and what he seeks, he finds.