This page is taken from a sermon I was asked to preach in my own church in The Denver, Colorado area. It was my first opportunity to speak at length about how God has used my circumstances to wake me up and change me, which is the theme of my entire blog. I wrote it to fit into a sermon series my pastor is preaching on living in the Spirit. What follows is the basic text of that sermon, adjusted so it makes sense as an article.
I don’t want to scare anyone with this title. I’m not talking about dying tomorrow or anything. Just dying to my old selfish ways. Coming to the end of myself. I’ve discovered that it’s the key to living in the Spirit.
To me, living in the Spirit means being aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives, and acting accordingly. Because the Holy Spirit is always with us, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. We don’t have to ask him to be with us. He’s already there. It’s up to us to be conscious of his presence. I’ve had as much trouble with that as anyone. But in my life, that changed in a moment. And that moment happened in my church, during one of our services.
The biggest thing that, I believe, keeps us from living in the Spirit is self satisfaction. Feeling like we can take care of ourselves. When we’re self-satisfied, we don’t feel like we need God so much.
I certainly thought I could take care of myself. So God had to allow something dramatic to happen to me to get my attention, so I could begin experiencing him on a level I never had before.
My scripture reference is Matthew 5:1-4. It’s the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and the first Beatitude. This sermon is also recorded in Luke. There, it’s called the Sermon on the Plain. So Jesus preached this sermon more than once. In fact, scholars believe be preached it many times, in many places. And he seems to have always begun his signature sermon with this blessing. I think that’s significant.
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessing, as Jesus lays out in the Beatitudes, (when he says Blessed are the or Blessed are you…) He’s not talking about a temporary state. He’s not talking about receiving individual blessings from God, like answered prayers, or material needs met. He’s talking about a perpetual state of being. He wasn’t saying, “If you’re poor, or persecuted, or in mourning, hang on, because eventually God’s gonna bless you.” He was saying that we are already blessed if these things are happening to us. We just need to realize it.
The version of this blessing in Luke is different. There, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Not poor in spirit, just poor.
In that blessing, I think Jesus is actually talking about material poverty. He’s saying that we’re blessed if we’re poor, (which is the opposite of what everyone in that culture thought) because our need for God is more apparent to us than it is for those who have their material needs met. It’s the old camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle thing.
Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t know where your next check was coming from, or how you were gonna pay a certain bill? We have, and recently. There have been a couple of times when we didn’t know how we’d be able to pay my medical bills. It was beyond us. Then, God provided. I can tell you that it’s much easier to experience God when you have no choice but to depend on him than it is when everything’s great.
But here in Matthew, Jesus isn’t taking about being poor. He’s talking about being about being poor in spirit. What does that mean? The Greek word for poor here means abject poverty, the type of poverty that forces a person to beg. If we are poor in spirit, it means that we realize our utter dependence on God for our salvation. We recognize that we are so spiritually bankrupt that we are willing to beg for God’s mercy.
So how do we get there? I don’t recommend taking the road I took. The terminal illness route. Until I had cancer, I never had come to the end of myself. That is, I’d never reached a point where I realized there was nothing I could do to fix things.
The trouble with me is, I’d had it way too easy. Not much in the way of tribulation. Just in terms of my health, I’ve never had so much as a broken bone. After my biopsy, when I was sent to Porter Hospital for an MRI and bone scan, it was the first time in my life I’d ever worn a hospital bracelet. At age 60. No wonder I thought I could take care of myself.
Now I know there’s nothing I can do to help myself, so I have to trust God. This is the opposite of self satisfaction, and it’s the doorway to blessing. It’s the key to living in the Spirit.
In 2015, I was a worship leader at a church in town, busy making a living as a self-employed musician. I loved the Lord, and I did my best to live the Christian life, but I wasn’t experiencing that perpetual state of blessing. I thought I could take care of myself, and for many years, I did a pretty good job of it.
I had a good life, a good career, and a great marriage. I was doing what I loved for a living. Then, things started to go sideways. The church where I led worship closed. My music work started to dry up. I was turning 60, and my career prospects weren’t very good. This just in: Churches aren’t very interested in hiring 60 year old worship leaders. My ability to take care of myself and my wife was slipping away. I wasn’t sure what to do.
Then, the other shoe dropped. I was diagnosed with aggressive, inoperable prostate cancer. It was caught too late for surgery. It was found to very aggressive; nine on a scale of one to ten. After some months, I was confirmed to be Stage 4, with metastasis to spine and ribs. Now, after more than a year in treatment, I also have osteoporosis, which was caused by treatment.
No matter what anyone tells you, modern medicine can’t cure metastatic cancer. The survival rate for my particular type of cancer (and they’re all different) is 3%. That is, 3% of men with the type of cancer I have, whose cancer is as aggressive as mine is, and have metastasis to bone, live for five years. The doctors hope to extend my life as long as possible, and I’m doing some things on my own to try to give myself more time and quality of life, but the numbers are against me.
Of course, I believe God can heal me. I believe that with all my heart. But he hasn’t so far. And I’m at peace with whatever he chooses to do.
I wish I could say the spiritual transformation I experienced happened as soon as I received my diagnosis, but that’s not true. I struggled to let go of my old ways and mindset for a few months. But one weekday, God got through to me. I realized that all I had to do was let go of a few things that I had no more use for. Things that were holding me back. So I did that, in the privacy of my home, while my wife was at work. I’ve never looked back.
The next Sunday, we attended church. During the offertory, the worship leader led us in the song, “At The Cross.” That’s when the gates of Heaven opened for me, and they haven’t shut since.
I couldn’t sing. I just sobbed. Then we had communion, which I barely got through. The speaker for that day spoke on forgiveness, a subject I very much needed to hear about. As she spoke, something came loose inside me, and I’ve never been the same.
Ever since, God has been revealing himself to me on a dally basis. I keep saying that I’m getting closer to God, but I don’t mean that I’m inching closer to him on my own. It’s like he opened a big door and he’s just showering me with his presence. It’s nothing I’m doing. It’s all him. And it’s indescribable.
You see, what happened was, I lost control. I was faced with something that I couldn’t fix. Suddenly, I had to depend on God. No choice.
Since then we have had to depend on God for pretty much everything, from our finances to my very life. And for the first time in my life, I’ve experienced peace, joy, and blessedness. I experience the Spirit every waking moment. All I had to do was come to the end of myself. I had to recognize my utter poverty, and my total need for God.
I’m not sure how to advise anyone here how to “come to the end of yourself.” Mark’s Easy Steps To Walking In The Spirit! Step One: Get Cancer! I don’t think you can make it happen. It took 60 years for it to happen to me. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. I hope it isn’t a terminal illness, but whatever it is, when you get there, don’t miss the opportunity to let go of the reins and let God take them. Once you do, living in the Spirit becomes much easier.
I write a blog about my cancer journey. It’s my new ministry, and it’s reaching many people. I tell my story from a Christian perspective, and I’m very open about my treatment and its effects on me. But my experience with God through it all is a constant, running theme.
Since I started sharing my journey publicly, I have received an incredible amount of love and support from people all around the world.
I talked earlier about how much easier it is to experience God when we have to depend on him for our material needs. On the day I first shared my diagnosis on Facebook, and started writing my blog, we also opened a GoFundMe campaign to help us with my medical expenses and our living expenses. We set a goal amount that we thought would get us through about three months.
The first day, we were overwhelmed by the response. The sheer number of people who reached out with love, concern and prayer was astonishing. And in the first 24 hours, we raised more than half of our goal. By the time the campaign was over, we’d raised enough to sustain us for seven months, not just three.
The night of that first day, before we went to bed, Sharon and I embraced, and Sharon said, “A miracle happened today.” Over the course of the next few months we discovered that there was a worldwide network of people who loved us, supported us, and were praying for us. We never would have known that if it weren’t for cancer.
For the first time in my life, I can feel people’s prayers. I’ve heard people say that they can feel people’s prayers for them, but I had never been able to do that. Now I can. Here are a couple of passages from my blog to give you an idea of the journey I’ve been on.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2015, I posted this about the subject of thankfulness. The post was about being thankful, not just in bad times, but for them. I’d never understood that concept either, but I did once I had cancer. Here’s what I said about it then, just a month after I went public and started writing about my journey:
Are we really supposed to be thankful, not just in the bad times, but for them? I honestly don’t know if it says that in the Bible anywhere, but as I sit here at my desk on the day before Thanksgiving, I find that I actually am thankful for the cancer. Here’s why.
If it wasn’t for the cancer, I wouldn’t know how loved I am. If it wasn’t for the cancer, I would be alarmed at the state of my career. 60 years old with no church that wants to hire me. If it wasn’t for the cancer, this holiday season would not have nearly as much meaning. Life would not taste as sweet. If it wasn’t for the cancer, I wouldn’t have discovered the joys of writing this blog. If it wasn’t for the cancer, I wouldn’t be counting my blessings the way I am. If it wasn’t for the cancer, Sharon and I would be discouraged, worried, and broke. Because of the cancer, we’re blessed, know how loved we are, and our needs are met. What’s not to be thankful for?
One of my most read posts is one from a few months ago titled, “Welcome To Stage 4.” It’s the one where I revealed to my readers that I’m metastatic. I wrote it as soon as I got home from the appointment with my oncologist where I found out about it. My head was still spinning, and I called my parents first, (call your mom before you tell the world), but then I wrote that post. It’s doesn’t have much humor or inspiration in it, but it does have what I think is my favorite quote from the entire blog, since I started it in October of 2015 till today. It reads like this:
I still say that if I could go back in time and change all of this, I wouldn’t do it. Not if it meant that I had to go back to how things were before I woke up. I’d rather love and be loved while awake for a short time than sleepwalk in selfishness for decades and never know this much love, or feel God this close.
I still feel that way. I wouldn’t change a thing. Not if it meant having to go back to being the guy I used to be, and losing the joy, the peace, the blessing, and the constant presence of the Spirit.
I don’t know what circumstances may drive you to come to the end of yourself. Chances are, it won’t be fun. I don’t know what you need to let go of to experience God like I am now. But I’ll bet you do. Don’t miss your opportunity to live in the Spirit because of some worthless thing you can’t let go of.
Because, as we all know, the Holy Spirit is always with us. He never, ever leaves us. We just have to be made poor in spirit, and come to the end of ourselves to see it.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. #waroncancer