Seeking First....

When I first came to Chicago, questions like this one (see below) challenged me and took on a new meaning for me. I was challenged in brand new ways. I was challenged again to view the world through, not my own self-centered lens, but through God's lens. I was challenged to put aside my natural instincts, what I feel more comfortable with and to live a life following Jesus and His ways.

Coming from New Zealand, these kind of questions had challenged me before, but in moving over here, to Uptown Chicago, my circumstances changed. This meant I now had to cope with different problems and issues; new challenges and situations surfaced, and they rocked my faith in new ways! 

When I head off to work every day, these new circumstances cause me to ask myself questions and pray for answers; "How should I respond when someone plays me for a fool? How should I react when someone cusses me out? What should I do when someone threatens a friend? What should I do when someone repeatedly does the same negative thing over and over and over again? How many chances shall I give this guy who has blown it a thousand times?"

My natural instinct is not to do what God wants! I want to stand back. I want to escape. I'm not a fighter, so if there's a conflict, my natural instinct is to disappear or ignore them; pretend they don't exist and intentionally dodge them. Even though I want to walk away, Jesus challenges me to go about things His way! When I turn my back on the issue, I often hear that still quiet voice of the Holy Spirit whispering to me, "turn around and love them with My love!" 

We all, in different ways, are challenged to put aside our own ways, and to instead, follow God's ways! It's hard! It's difficult! It takes us out of comfort zone! It makes us feel weak and we often don't believe we have the power or ability to do what God wants us to do. When we desire to follow God's ways; it takes faith! It takes love!

In Matthew 6:33, Jesus challenges us with these words; "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." 

I got to admit, on too many occasions, I have ignored God's voice and sought my own selfish way. But tonight, I don't want to focus on the negative, I want to share with you about a time when I actively sought out His Kingdom and His righteousness, and God led me and taught me mightily through that experience. 

Years ago, there was this guy stayed at Cornerstone. He had a reputation; he was tough and a lot of people feared him. One day, he'd had a couple too many and decided to push his weight around. This guy wanted everything and everyone to be sparkling clean, and because of that, he was angered by a few of our weaker, more fragile fellas who hadn't showered and didn't care about their hygiene as much as him. He went after them, yelling at them and belittling them. I had to do what I didn't want to do; I had to confront this dude who'd spent a couple decades in prison for a violent crime, who didn't like authority and get him to stop bullying these other guys. 

After plucking up the courage, I approached him and confronted him. But, he didn't stop! At that point, his attitude changed from anger to rage, directed straight at me. In front of everybody, he followed me, got in my face, pointed at me, called me names and threatened me. I stood my ground, tried to stay calm and let him know he couldn't stay and he had to leave! Thankfully, he didn't hit me, but I can tell you, he was very close. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he said his final threats and stormed out the building. 

The challenge was on. How do I respond, the way Jesus wants me too, when I'd just gone through such an embarrassing hostile confrontation? I had choices to make, I had the power and privilege to make this homeless man's life worse. I could make it so he would never enter Cornerstone again, and at that moment, and in my anger, I wanted revenge, I wanted him to suffer, I didn't want to see him again.

When I went home that night and lay in my bed, I remembered many of the things Jesus said; how He told us to love our enemies, forgive people 70 times 7, repay evil with good and let someone who's already slapped us, slap us on our other cheek. That night, God challenged me to follow His way and to pray for him, to choose love over hate, forgiveness over revenge and compassion over any passive-aggressive thing I could have done to him. As I lay there, I prayed for him and told God, "Your way is hard, in fact, I'm scared to do it, but if You want me to do it, give me the strength and the courage, increase my faith, and I'll pursue Your way, I'll pursue Your kind of love!" I told God there was no way I could walk those steps without Him empowering me to do it! 

We just celebrated Easter, and the story of the Cross reminds me of what Jesus said to His followers, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 NIV)

Jesus carried the very cross they were about to crucify Him on. Jesus had just prayed a very humiliating and gut-wrenching prayer, "Not My will, but Yours be done!" Jesus chose the harder path, He chose to carry His Cross, He chose God's way, for you and for me. "Seeking first His Kingdom" is not supposed to be easy, but as we see with the Cross, what seemed to be wrong, too hard and final, transformed into eternal salvation for you and me. Good Friday crushed everyone's hopes, but Easter Sunday came and resurrected those hopes, by setting things right and saving people who had no chance!

What happened between this hostile guy and I didn't end in despair. It was awkward at first! It's hard to be compassionate and forgiving to someone who we think hates us and I was sure this fella was going to keep spewing profanities at me every time he saw me. It's hard to love someone who I feared might attack me on the street. But God had said "trust Me, I'm with you, I need you to listen and obey!" 

I believed God had the power to bring restoration, but I doubted God could do that with me. Without uttering these exact words, I basically prayed this prayer, "I do believe, help my unbelief!" I wanted God to prove me wrong, and He did just that! When I have a mission, I can be very stubborn, so I took up the challenge. I pursued the dream of conquering hate with love! I knew I couldn't do it on my own, so I prayed a lot! I needed Jesus and He was right there with me!

God tells us pray for our enemies and choose forgiveness, compassion and love, so that's what I did. I made the difficult choice of "seeking first His Kingdom" and "picking up my Cross!" I wanted to see a miracle and God delivered just that! What seemed impossible became possible before my very eyes. 

Things changed for the better, so much so, that one day this guy who'd been so volatile and hostile, comes up to me humbly in our crowded cafeteria and asked me to pray for him. I couldn't believe it. What a humbling experience. God turned this horribly embarrassing moment into something amazing. We now have a friendship and bond that would have never happened without that awful conflict, and without both of us willing to humble ourselves, love each other and seek first His Kingdom!

God taught me a valuable lesson during those few weeks. He filled me with an unusual joy and hope! Jesus showed me the power of His love and His Kingdom. God showed me how He uses our weaknesses for His good. He taught me to have faith, courage and to trust in Him, because He is able to make what seems impossible, possible! He is the One who delights in making us "more than conquerors!"

My wife recently attached a Martin Luther King Jr. quote to our door at home; it goes, "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear!" These words remind me of this incident, because if I'd chosen my way, if I'd chosen hate or revenge, it would have gnawed at me and taken me down! When we submit our ways to Jesus, and stick with love, even though it may be gut wrenching at the time, a burden is lifted and so are the doors to freedom, hope and new opportunities. 

God has shown me time and time again that when we follow His way, no matter how difficult, He'll help us along the way and give us peace in doing it. I've actually found, when I choose, through God's grace, to seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, the more I want to follow His Way! When we pick up our crosses, He strengthens us, uses our weaknesses, gives us peace within our storms and makes what seems impossible become possible!

I love watching God in action! I love seeing Him perform miracles! I love the experience of God moving within us and strengthening us in seemingly impossible situations.

My encouragement for you all is this: no matter how hard it seems, follow the Lord. Don't do it your own! He loves you dearly, and wants to lift you up. Come to Him in prayer and live in His power, He'll meet your needs, strengthen your faith mightily and take you on an unbelievable journey, where He'll make you more than a conqueror. 

A brief summary of why I wrote this: There's a ministry on the West-side of Chicago called Mission:USA; every Tuesday night they have a Church service called The BRIDGE. Their services are open to everybody, but especially those who find it hard to gel in their local congregations! Or to put into cruder terms; a lot of these men and women are ex-offenders, homeless and low-income folk who have felt ostracized and rejected by many churches, so their mission is to be a bridge between prison, the streets and the Church. The Bridge helps these wonderful men and women find churches that will welcome them with open arms..... 
And isn't this exactly what the Gospel and the "Kingdom of God" is all about? 

Every Tuesday night, The Bridge has a host team from a Church, who greet the guests and provide a meal. The guests anonymously submit questions about their "walk of faith", and staff from The Bridge pick out a relevant question. Meanwhile, they have invited 3 pastors from 3 different churches to come and give a 10 minute sermon each about this specific question or topic. In my humble opinion, this is a great concept and ministry, who's staff is very loving, compassionate and supportive to the "least of these".

This was a sermon preached on 3/29/16, in response to this question; "Why Is God Like That?"
I'm trying to follow the Lord, but everything He says to do is the opposite of what I want to do. I know God's way is right, but my way always feels right. At least in the moment it does. Why does God always give so many hard things for us to do?
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