For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. -Ephesians 6:12

It is difficult for me, and perhaps for many followers of Jesus, to remain within this tension about which Paul is speaking. We fight against the demonic rulers and dark powers of the world, not against the humans through which that evil is made manifest. And yet, as the events of Charlottesville exploded across our social media timelines, it became nearly impossible to discern between the dark powers of evil and the white supremacists through which that evil came. As a foster father with two African-American children in my home, I felt a personal rage welling up within me, a readiness to fight to protect these two kiddos whom I have grown to love. While I have always found the evil of white supremacy to be particularly vicious, putting black babies to bed in my own home has created a heightened sense of urgency for me.

Even though my family has not been directly assaulted in any way, I have seen the vileness of white supremacists online as they have spewed their hatred at ethnically-mixed families in general, and white families with black children in particular. To see it manifested in the real world, as it was so brazenly this past weekend in Charlottesville, activates a fighting instinct within me. (And I have never been a fighter.)

This instinct to physically fight white supremacists, however, is neither constructive for our society nor reflective of the way of Jesus. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood people, even when those people are trying to pick a fight by insulting our most deeply held values by denigrating entire ethnic groups. Instead, our struggle is against the systemic evils of our society – racism, in this case – that entrap our fellow image-bearers of God into their broken ideology and dark philosophy. Racism is the invention of Satan and his fellow evil spiritual forces, for they lust to divide humanity into competing subgroups, driving us to devour and destroy each other. They do this, as they do everything, with lies; particularly, they do this with the lie that a human’s value is dependent upon their ethnic identity, and this lie’s equal if not opposite twin, that all the world is out to destroy my particular ethnic group. Racism is the ironic combination of ethnic arrogance and perceived ethnic victimization. Pride and fear, convenient footholds for the devil’s lies.

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The Sanctification Cycle

Several weeks ago I preached a message at Hope Church called The Sanctifying Work of the Holy Spirit (audio is above) as part of our 5 Marks of a Healthy Disciple series. A big chunk of this sermon was taken up by an explanation of what I call the sanctification cycle. I have found that sanctification happens in four general phases. (I use the word phases rather than steps because these do not always go in order, they often overlap, and sometimes happen all at the same time.) These phases represent the cyclical work of the Holy Spirit as he forms believers into the image of Jesus. Just as we are never truly done with phase one, we never truly master phase four in this life.

As you journey with Jesus, perhaps the sanctification cycle can serve as a sort of map for where the Spirit has you. On what is the Spirit focussing his sanctifying efforts in your life? Identifying the work of the Spirit in specific terms will help you cooperate with him to achieve his goals for your good. Is he convicting you of sin? If so, what sin? How can you focus your energies on overcoming that sin? Is he empowering you for mission? If so, has he given you specific direction? Of course, it may not be so easy to identify the work of the Spirit, but having a map could help you hear his voice more clearly.

Phase One: Conviction of Sin

The first phase of the sanctification cycle is the conviction of sin. As he was describing the work of the Spirit, Jesus told his disciples that one of his primary tasks was to convict the world of sin and righteousness. This is true for every believer, too. One of the most important tasks of the Holy Spirit is to name our sin and call us to repentance. Unnamed sins maintain their hold on our lives, but God longs to set us free from the power of sin. He wants us to live in the same freedom, and with the same power over sin, in which Jesus lived.

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Over Your Head
Ezekiel was an enigmatic prophet who saw and proclaimed strange and beautiful things. In chapter 47 of his book, he records part of a powerful, hopeful vision given to him by God. In this vision he saw a river flowing from the restored temple. At first, the water of the river was only ankle-deep. But as he was led out a little bit farther, it became knee-deep. A little farther still and it was waist-deep. Beyond that, however, it grew deep enough to swim in – so deep, in fact, that no one could cross it.

Everywhere the river flowed, even in the wasteland, life sprang forth. Fruit trees grew up on either side, yielding all kinds of fruit for food and leaves for healing. The river flowed down to the Dead Sea, where it turned the salt water fresh, and fish from all over the world lived in it. Where the river flows, the prophet testified, everything will live.


Where the river flows everything will live.
Wednesday night at General Council (the biennial national conference of our denomination, the Christian & Missionary Alliance), David Hearn, president of the Alliance in Canada, preached a powerful message on this passage. His main point was this: The Spirit is the river, and it’s time to get in over your head. Too many Christians are settling for an ankle-deep experience of the Holy Spirit. We ask the Lord for a favor, but not for power. We ask Jesus to save us from our sins, but not to send us on mission. We’re not interested in discovering or using the gifts the Spirit has given us, and even when we are it’s usually for the purpose of self-fulfillment. We’re ankle-deep in a bottomless river because we’re afraid of losing control. We’re afraid of what might happen when we get in over our heads.

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I don’t know much about the refugee crisis, or why President Trump has issued an executive order to close our borders to people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Libya. I’ve read the executive order, but I couldn’t parse the political or social implications of it for my children. The global political situation is beyond my comprehension. I don’t understand the causes of the war in Syria. I can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, and I’m not sure there is a difference anymore. My Twitter timeline and Facebook feed are filled with posts of varying degrees of outrage at Trump’s executive order. I don’t know whether I should be outraged, and if so how much, because, in our post-truth culture, I don’t know who to trust to explain this to me.

When the chaos and confusion of our culture swirl around me, my instinct is to lash myself to the only fixed point I know – Jesus Christ. He is my Rock, and the one on whom I can rely in distressing times. When I don’t know how to move forward, I try my best to find Jesus and just follow him. While I cannot speak to the complexities of holding political office (particularly the office of President), I believe I have something to say to my fellow Christians, particularly my evangelical brothers and sisters.

The world is a dangerous place. It has always been this way, though some of us in America have not had to experience the kind of imminent threats that people in Syria deal with today. But the reality is that death, disease, and suffering are never far away. Whether the threat is from a microscopic virus or a bloodthirsty warlord, there is much in our world to make us afraid. Fear is, more often than not, the rational choice.


Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus.
But it is not a choice that Christians are permitted to make. Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus. All of life is an act of discipleship, therefore all of life must be a demonstration of the agape love Jesus exemplified in his life, and most completely at the cross. The Scriptures are clear: “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Our own love may be imperfect, but if the Holy Spirit dwells within and among us, then so does the perfect love of God. The Church is the place where fear does not get to have a voice because the melodies of God’s love are too loud, too strong, too catchy.

As the people of God, we do not have a choice between fear and love. We are compelled to love and commanded to reject fear. Fear must never be our rationale for any decision, large or small. We cannot support public policy that rejects refugees because one of them may (by the tiniest of chances) be connected to a terrorist organization. It is impossible to faithfully follow Jesus by carrying your cross while at the same time deny hospitality and refuge to those in need because you are afraid that they might mean you harm. Jesus knew what the Romans were going to do to him, and he overcame the fear he expressed in the Garden by steeling himself toward the cross. Why did he do this? Because he loved the world – even the Roman soldiers who crucified him!

Perhaps there really are terrorist agents trying to sneak into this country through the refugee process. Jesus didn’t command us to be unwise or naive. But in the absence of clear information, we must not assume the worst of others. We must love without fear. We must welcome the stranger; after all, how do we know we aren’t secretly entertaining angels? We must provide for the needy, because as Jesus himself said, when we do this we are doing it for him. We must love others and entrust ourselves to God.

I admit, that’s not a very good public policy. But I’m a pastor, not a politician. My primary citizenship is in the kingdom of God, not the United States of America. I’m not calling on the state to enact a more Christian policy. I’m calling on the Church to act more Christianly. Don’t be afraid, Church. Jesus has conquered our greatest enemy, death itself. There is no one, then, that we should fear; but there is everyone that we can love.

Zekey would be seven today. It’s hard for me to imagine what a healthy Zekey would look like as a seven year old. The last time he was healthy he was two and a half. How do you project that young stage onto a seven year old? Kids change so much in those years. The essence of him would be the same, of course. He would be tall. His eyes would still light up a room. He would be mischievous and curious. But would he love the Buckeyes? The Tigers? Legos? Would he be interested in the same things as his older brother Cyrus, or would he be forging his own path? It’s fun to imagine what your child will grow up to be like; it’s dreadful to know that you’ll never see those days.

What am I missing out on? This question is what stings the most these days, nearly two and a half years after Zekey met Jesus. I watch my other kids grow up, follow Jesus, go to school, make friends, have concerts, develop interests. This is all supposed to be the glory of parenthood, but each of these experiences are tinged with sorrow. A part of me is always turned toward Zekey, gazing into the emptiness left by his death. I am haunted by the boy he should have become.

I worry that this is unfair to the three kids who are still with us. Am I cheating them out of the fullness of my attention? Does my sorrow diminish their joy? Is it wrong to wish that Zekey was with us at every concert, game, race, or party? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not despondent. I don’t wallow in despair. On the contrary, I love my life. I love my family, my church, and my vocation. God has brought me out of the shadow of death and into green pastures and along quiet streams. But there is a voice I will never hear again in this life, a face I will never see except in pictures.

This is the tension of learning contentment: experiencing both the goodness of God and the heartbreak of loss. It’s impossible for loss to be the goodness of God, but as I have come to discover, you can find God’s goodness in the depths of your heartache. You must hold this truth in both hands in order to find contentment, which is what it means to truly love your life. Life is hard. God is good. You can find him in your pain and suffering.

Even after losing my son, I can love my life because I know that God has conquered death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This gives me hope that I can’t find anywhere else. Because of the Jesus’ resurrection, one day all who believe in him will also rise from the dead. Until that day, our souls are kept with Christ in heaven. This is what Zekey is currently experiencing – comfort and wholeness with Jesus. On that great and glorious day when God gathers all of his people together – those who have died, and those who are still alive – I will see my son again, and together we will enjoy the power of the resurrection and the glory of the new creation. This isn’t wishful thinking. This is the reality of the coming triumph of God.

I want everyone to have this hope. I wish everyone could know the power of Christ’s resurrection. I hope everyone gets to meet Zekey someday. But that’s only possible through Jesus, and nothing else. The only way to experience a resurrection is to follow the one who has already risen. The only way to have hope for eternity is to surrender yourself to the one who has conquered death.

This is what I’m thinking about on Zekey’s seventh birthday. I’m sad. A part of me is empty. But a much larger part of me is full and hopeful. And if that fullness, contentment, and hope can spread to someone else…well, I can’t think of a better way to honor my little boy’s life.

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