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I learned some things in church on Sunday. Well, I say I learned them – I already knew all that stuff, but it was presented in a new way that made me think. And it put me into a really weird mood. I was wresting with it all day on Sunday, all evening, all night, all day today. And I was crabby and irritable and generally off-putting to those around me. I sometimes get that way when I have to work through something, but not very often. It depends on how much thinking I need to do. And to be honest, the less I have to think, the better.

It’s not God’s fault I was in a bad mood. Even though it’s God stuff I was thinking about, it really wasn’t his fault. It’s my fault.

Here’s what we talked about yesterday – being born again. Should be a pretty elementary topic for a Christian, right? But this message threw me, and made me think long and hard about my salvation experience, and all that has happened afterward.

We talked about the story of Nicodemus from John 3. The pastor walked us throught the story – a Jewish religious leader, a Pharisee, came to Jesus during the night, probably so none of the other Pharisees would see him. They kinda didn’t like Jesus much. As a group that is. All through the Gospels you can read about Jesus doing something miraculous and the Pharisees complaining that he did it on the Sabbath and then saying that they were going to kill him for it.

Nic was a bit different. He told Jesus, “We know you’re from God – nobody can do all this stuff unless he’s from God.” Jesus stepped right around that statement and made one of his own – “Unless you’re born again, you’ll not see the Kingdom of God.” And Nic was all like, “Wait. What?”

It’s all about perspective, and you have to understand where Nic was coming from. As far as God loving, Law abiding, tithing, fasting, Scripture memorizing, church attending, praying people go, there were no better people than the Pharisees. And from what I’m reading, Nic even believed in Jesus!

What else is there? What other qualifications are there? What is expected of us? If none of that is enough to get into heaven, what do we have to do?

We must be born again.

Wait. What?

Nic didn’t get it, and most people who love God, read the bible, do the right thing, tithe, fast, pray and go to church miss it too. And maybe I’m missing it and just don’t know it yet.

You must be born again. Jesus said we have to born of water and Spirit. The first one, water, is natural birth. If you’re reading this, you may have actually been born at some point in your life. Except for that small segment of the population that was delivered by stork, or who crawled out from under a rock somewhere. Seriously though – you were born.

The second birth is Spiritual birth. This is salvation. The first birth is from your mom, the second is from the Holy Spirit. I have previously written a little bit about the role of the Spirit in salvation (which you can read about here) but basically the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, leads us to salvation and regenerates our spirit. This is what it means to be born again. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (Jn 3:6).

So far I’m hanging in there, really eating up everything being said. Then I started thinking. “Well,” I thought, “I do all those things. I mean, I’m not much for fasting, but I’ve done it. And the other stuff too.”

Then the pastor went on to give examples of people who said they became a Christian at some point, but nothing really happened after that – not much in the way of change in their lives.

And I started thinking even more. Who am I? How do I act? What goes on in my mind? Is it God stuff or worldly stuff?

If you could see into my mind, you’d most likely puke up a lung. It’s a mess up in there. I’m not going to list my sins here, my thoughts, the things I think and do when I think nobody is watching. I’ll just say that to a certain degree, I lack integrity. Integrity is the glue that holds it all together, and my glue dried out. You can’t even pull the lid off anymore.

So, I spent most of the night kicking myself for all the junk in my life. I even had a pretty deep conversation with Cheryl about it. And I still don’t have an answer yet.

I could also list all the good things – all the things that the Pharisees did that were not good enough to get them into heaven either. It’s not about the good outweighing the bad and if there’s just a little drop of good left, “Whew, I made it!” No – I must be born again. Am I? Are you? How do you know??

Here’s the answer – before I was saved, I did good and bad things. When I did bad things, I was punished and instructed not to do those things anymore. I didn’t even care. My freshman year of high school I was in so much trouble. My dad was seriously going to send me to a military academy about 4 states away. I couldn’t change, and I didn’t care to. I kinda tried, but it was no use. I was just a bad kid. No – really. I was a bad kid, and no amount of effort on my part could change that.

In the spring of 1980, I went to a revival on youth night at a local Baptist church. Cuz they had free hotdogs. And I ate a ton of them, and tried to sneak out the back door. My plan was to vandalize the majority of the vehicles in the parking lot. I hadn’t thought much past that, but if time remained I would have thought of something.

I got caught by a wonderful man named John Childers, and he made me go to the service. I sat by a boy named Tommy, and we dipped snuff and spit on the floor. But at the end, something got ahold of me. I heard the words, not in my head, not with my ears, but in my heart. I didn’t know what to do. I waited until it was all over – the bus had left, the janitor was shutting the place down. He went and got the pastor, and the pastor took me home and led me to straight to Jesus. I was born again in the spring of 1980. I don’t remember the exact day, but I know it happened! And I have a baptism certificate somewhere around here from just a few weeks later. I was born of the Spirit on that very day!

You know what? I still got into a little trouble. Heck, I was a kid. But the heart behind those action was different. No more anger, no more hate. Before I was saved, I had to work hard to be good and failed, and afterward, I had to work hard to be bad!

Before I was saved, the burden was all on me, and I could not handle it. Afterward, that burden was and is on God – and he’s got it covered. There’s no checklist, no condemnation, no burden of guilt – just freedom! And it is such a sweet deal – I gave up everything that was killing me – physically, mentally and spiritually – and in return I got a brand new life!

I still mess up. My thoughts are still a mess. I still dip some snuff even all these years later. But just ask around – “Who is Rich Nifong?” I know the answer you’ll get. Everyone knows who I am and what I’m all about.

What about you? Are you trying to work your way into the Kingdom? You can’t! You’ll miss it by a mile or by an inch but you’ll miss it either way. You must be born again!

I was never any good at the maths. And you can ask anybody, I never even cared. My last good math was in 3rd grade, because in 4th we started all the junk with the fractions and decimals and all that. So, I did what I had to do to pass, which was cheat. Yep. I’ll admit that I cheated my way through math.

In college, math was required. I got out of it. All I had to do to get out of one semester of math was take four semesters of Greek. Not a problem. I’m a language/word nerd.

Nowadays, I’m a claims adjuster. Guess what? I have to use all that math I never learned every three seconds. I still kinda stink at it, but at least I can soothe people when there’s no coverage for their homeowner claim.

Who made up all that math stuff? Pythagoras? Nope it was already being done by the Babylonians 2500 years before he was born. See, I love the history, too.

God made it up. He set the universe in motion, with the physical laws that apply. Things that he created have weight and volume and dimensions. It was God who made it, and we who have tried to figure it all out.

Believe it or not, I love physics. About 1/3 of my library is books on physics. I understand the concepts, the philosophical ramifications of some of it – example – the universe, on a massive scale, is pretty orderly, and we can observe motion and make predictions, but on the very small scale, all bets are off.

Quantum physics is pretty dark and twisty stuff. There are particles within particles and they really shouldn’t interact but they do. Sometimes a part will spin in a circle and be back to it’s original starting position, sometimes it will spin and spin and spin like 8 times before it’s back to it’s starting point.

There are weird names for stuff, too. Quarks, muons, gluons, and each one has different varieties. There are six different ”flavors” of quarks.  Light is both a wave and a particle. Weird, right?

So why I am boring you with all this? Do you see how big God is? And yet how small? What I mean is, there are things so big we can’t see them – we don’t know how far out the universe goes. Once we think we’ve seen all there is to see, they make a bigger telescope. 100′s of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. And how small can we go? We think we know, then we make a new particle accelerator and all bets are off again.

My thinking is, it just goes on and on and on in both directions. God made it and he sustains it all, both big and small. And he still has time to have a relationship with you!

Why did God do all of this? Because that’s who he is! He is loving, creative, powerful. When you mix those together, you get everything. And yet he is above it, outside of it all. He’s bigger than his creation.

But, since the time of Adam and Eve, it’s all been slightly off kilter. What’s the second law of thermodynamics? Anyone? Entropy increases. That means, what started off as perfect is all going to fall apart some day. It’s why your batteries die, why things wear out, why when you drop a glass onto the kitchen floor you’re still stepping on the pieces 2 weeks later. Disorder increases. Until it is acted upon by an outside force. That’s a new law I just made up. The law of redemption. Ok, I didn’t make it up. It’s always been there.

From Adam’s first sin, to whatever you just did that you thought, “Crap that was not the right thing to do,” God has been breaking all the rules so that you could be who he made you to be. He doesn’t owe you this, but out of his love, out of his creativity, out of his power, he made a way to save us. I say breaking the rules but I know there are rules we don’t know about and could never understand anyway.

Who thought it up that something had to give up it’s life and it’s blood to redeem us and save us? Is that crazy or what? What kinda math is that? That a blameless, spotless, sinless, innocent person had to give up his place in heaven and come here to this messed up planet and lay it all down for messed up people like us.

There was no other way. Just like the fundamental laws of the universe that apply to our physical existence, the spiritual law is that when the law is broken the penalty is death. But Jesus is big enough to take that all upon himself. He took our sentence of death and died once for all, and now the law that held us back has been fulfilled! We are no longer viewed by God as rule breakers and sinners. We are seen by God through the filter of the blood of Jesus.

And now, we are living in the kingdom, just like God intended. This world will still pass away, and everything physical and temporal along with it. These bodies that we call home will be shed in death. But we will live on! This is the best news I have ever heard – that the God of the universe loved me enough to die for me! Jesus lives, and because he lives, I know I will live with him forever!

Don’t even try to figure it all out – physics or God. Some things we just need to accept. Start by accepting Christ, and everything else will begin to make more sense.

See that face right there? That face says, “I will punch a wolf.” Nothing trumps Liam Neeson. Liam Neeson is Chuck Norris’ worst nightmare. He is the reason why Waldo is hiding. He finds your lack of faith disturbing.

With that being said, there’s a new Les Miserables coming out. I will see this movie. Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean? Anne Hathaway as Fantine? Amanda Seyfried as Cosette? Heck yeah! It’s even got Sacha Baron Cohen in it! It’s not a question. My greatest hope is to live long enough to see this movie. And then I may enter eternal rest, fulfilled and happy.

Everyone knows the song that Fantine sang, right? “I Dreamed A Dream?” It’s a haunting, sad lament sung by a dying woman who wonders where life went so wrong. “There was a time when love was blind and the world was a song, and the song was exciting, then it all went wrong. I dreamed that love would never die, I dreamed that God would be forgiving…I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living. Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

I know that song. I’ve lived that song. Life killed my dream.

I’ve only wanted one thing, for as long as I can remember. My Grandmother use to pray over me when I was a child – “Make him your servant, Father.” And I wanted that more than anything.

I grew up in church, and everything my pastors did I watched and emulated. I studied the bible relentlessly. I checked out theology books from the church library when I was 11 years old and I even read them. I started making connections between common everyday events and spiritual things when I was even younger. I wanted my life to be a sermon. I wanted my life to be something special. I wanted to point people to God. It was my dream. Then life killed the dream I dreamed.

So many things have happened. So many people have hurt me, and I’ve done the same right back. I worked in churches for years, growing bitter, angry, being hurt and hurtful. The song was exciting – exciting to think about and dream about, but life itself was just all wrong. It was the same no matter where I went, no matter what my job was. I kept dreaming, kept hoping, kept believing that God would be forgiving, that he would bless me, and then that part of me died.

It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

My life was a hell because of my dream. I pursued a dream and not God. His calling on my life was real, and he even planted that dream in my heart, but the dream was not worthy of being pursued. I bypassed the one who called me, the one who gifted me, and made my life all about the dream.

To be who God created me to be, that part of me had to die. The part that held onto the dream, the part that was self sufficient, the part that was created and sustained by my own will.

Your dream is not worthy of being pursued, but the one who gave you the dream is!

Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, everything you do flows from it.”

Your heart’s desire should be the pursuit of a relationship with God. He is already pursuing you! When everything in your heart is right, everything that flows from you will be about him and not you. God will give you a dream and you’ll surrender it to him and he will give you all that and more.

Everything in your life should be an overflow, the excess of the abundance that God blesses you with because of your relationship with him. The dream is worthless, fruitless, without his blessing, and you can’t get God’s blessing. It’s not about not having road rage or working in a church. It’s not about the good you do or the lack of evil in your life. It’s all about resting in him. When you can rest in God, as his child, the dreams you dream will begin to come true.

My dreams died because I was never at rest, I never trusted, I went about making my dreams come true on my own. I, I, I. It was all about me, then that part of me got tired, sick, terminally ill. That part of me withered and died and was cut away. A new me emerged from that death, and God knows I’m still working it out, but at least I’m pointed in the right direction now – and that direction is one of being led by the giver of dreams.

How about you? Is the dream alive or is it dying on the vine? Is your relationship with God sustaining you or are you just barely hanging on, all alone?

Let it go! The dream is nothing without the dreamgiver. Your dream will die eventually anyway. Cut it loose now, sacrifice it at the feet of the one who can bring life from death. And after that part of you is gone, God will plant his dream in your heart and invite you to pursue him. If you do your dreams will all come true!

How I Got Here

June 15, 2012 — Leave a comment

Of all the things I have learned, the most important is that I am blessed – beyond reason. Looking back, especially over the last few years, I have been so ungrateful – for my family, my home, my health, my friends – and the list could go on.

Something happened to me along the way, not just one thing, but several somethings. In the midst of my blessedness, I experienced life. Just like happens to you and everyone else, life happened to me.

When I was 16, I made a huge life decision, and I pursued that decision. When other people didn’t understand, even when it seemed I would never get there, I never lost sight of that decision. I knew that God had gifted me and called me into full time vocational ministry, and even with all the youthful missteps and detours I took along the way, I saw a clear path into that calling.

I took a few wrong turns, but eventually ended up right where I set out to be.  And it was nothing like I thought it would be. It really kinda sucked to be honest. I loved and excelled at certain facets of it, others I disliked so much that I didn’t even do them. Which speaks to my immaturity at the time, and ultimately it speaks to why I’m not working in a church right now.

I used my gifts to cover my weaknesses, and while I am very strong in certain areas, I didn’t even try to develop skills in my weak areas, and I never accepted help from others in those areas either. Since then I’ve learned so much -

I never thought that administrative duties were much fun, so I didn’t do anything like that. I spent my time reading, studying, meeting with people, teaching, preaching, but all the work that was required of me that undergirds all that – I just flat out refused to do it. People even asked me all the time what they could do to help – “Nothing” I would say. Now my job is administrative, and believe it or not, I see the importance in it and how vital it is that those things be done with excellence.

Another thing I refused to do is build bridges. About 95% of the people I meet, I find common ground, and it’s easy to build a relationship. If it wasn’t easy, I didn’t do it. Some people are hard to get along with, hard to build a relationship with, and what I’ve found is, often times these people are the most important ones, the ones that will stand with you no matter what. Another important lesson learned, and I learned it outside the church.

I also learned about who my source is. My source cannot be me. I’m not strong enough, not smart enough, not *anything* enough. I am not sufficient. I thought I was though – I was young, bulletproof, nothing could hurt me, nothing could stick. Until it all fell apart, I thought I was doing just fine on my own. I forgot that the one who called me and gifted me would also be the one to sustain me regardless of what came my way. I won’t forget that most important lesson again.

Where I am now – the place I ended up – is the exact place I learned all this – kicking and screaming the whole way. Not two days ago my boss was bragging on me, and she reminded me of who I was when I first started – lacking in so many skills, immature, whiny – and she reminded me of how much grace she showed me those first two years. She said she saw something there and thought I was worth it. I cried then and I’m crying now. Grace.

Grace is the one thing I have in abundance that I deserve the least. The most important blessing there is. I am so blessed! Beyond reason. But God’s love for us doesn’t have anything to do with logic and it certainly isn’t based on what we truly deserve. We’d all be in deep trouble if grace was based on anything but the fact that God is love. God is love!

God is love and God never changes – I say this a lot because I am convinced it is true -nothing you do or don’t do can cause God to love you any less. He IS LOVE. And what he wants for you is to become the person he paid for, the person he bought with blood, the person he dreamed of, the person he redeemed you to be. His goal for you is for you to live like you will when you are in heaven, here on earth.

There’s a lot involved in that. It’s a process. You’ll be there one day, the next you’ll be 1000 miles away. You’ll walk through deserts, you’ll stand on mountain tops, you’ll be lifted high and you’ll be crushed. That’s the life part.

No matter where you are, know this one most important thing: God is love, God loves you, his grace is sufficient regardless. How did I get here? I lived life on my own, it sucked, I learned to trust God. He is everything, and he is all I will ever need.

Holier Than Who?

June 12, 2012 — Leave a comment

I was never really a bad kid. Just saying that, though, negates the entire statement I think. I have generally been a “I’ve done what I’ve done” kinda guy – I do what ever it is I’m going to do and I’m happy with whatever the outcome is, good or bad. I’ve changed recently (for the better – ask my wife or my boss!), but the majority of my life was spent exerting my own will. And again, the outcome was either spectacular brilliance, or utter failure.

When I’d have one of my “spells” there were many people on hand to let me know just how bad it really was. I started calling those people “Holy Spirit” since they were trying to make me feel convicted for messing up, but they were also there to knock me off my horse when I did something really good and started getting a big head or bragging.

A long time ago, I was a youth minister in a small church in my college town. It was a wonderful experience – and the ministry grew beyond the means of the church to support it. Other youth guys from bigger churches were asking me all the time what I was doing, and I was even interviewed once by a mega church guy.  Maybe it was for a project or something. Probably. But either way, I was thinking, “Wow look at me! I’m the bomb!”

I came to the conclusion it was all about me, and forgot all about Jesus. I still preached, but it was showboating. I forgot where my source was, and (in case you didn’t see this coming) I lost everything. And when I say everything, I spent one Christmas in a broken down 1971 Buick GS behind a gas-n-sip in the middle of Nowhere, OK. I literally lost everything – ministry, home, vehicle, family.

Can I just say one thing? It was worth it. It was worth doing it my way, on a small scale, and losing what is now comparatively just a little, because now I know. I know it’s not about me one little bit, and when I am serving on church staff again, I will not be that guy. I will never again forget who it was that saved me and called me, I know who I owe everything to, I know who empowers me to fulfill the calling. HINT: It ain’t me.

There’s someone in the bible who did it right the first time, bless his heart. The Apostle Paul – so many great accomplishments, so many reasons to boast, and he did boast, but never in himself or anything he did.

Still, Paul probably had more reason to boast in his accomplishments than any other person. It was his efforts and his willingness to follow God’s plan for him that took the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Even before that, though, Paul had every reason to be proud of who he was. He was the model Jew, and the model Roman citizen. He was of the tribe of Benjamin, which was the tribe of the first king of Israel, with whom he also shared the name “Saul.”

The thing Paul would have been the most proud of, though, was that he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees prided themselves on the way they obeyed the Law of God. Nobody was as close to God as the Pharisees, or so they thought.

This is the life Paul had chosen for himself, before Jesus found him on the road one day and ruined everything. And this is the life we often choose for ourselves. We get so wrapped up in our accomplishments and our own holiness that we forget who called us. We forget that God is the source – the source of life, the source of everything. We rely on our own power, and we fail again and again and don’t understand why.

We should be like Paul! We should lay our desires aside and we should put no faith in our own accomplishments. Instead, we should boast in Christ and what he has done for us!

Read Philippians 3:1-6

Why do you think Paul says in verse 3 that we can have no confidence in our own efforts?

What reasons does Paul give for being able to have confidence in himself? Are these valid reasons? What is the reason for your confidence?

What motivates Paul to boast in Christ? What has Christ done for you that is worth boasting about?

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you right now?