Words + Works

I’m still on a quest for being the kind of person that speaks words that have weight. Not for the sake of becoming a better preacher, but for the sake of being a person God can use to influence others for eternity in everyday conversation and interaction. When I look at the life of Jesus, I see a Man whose audience knew that whenever He spoke it was time to listen. In fact, Matthew 7:28-29 tells us that Jesus’ teaching “astonished” people because “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Do we just chalk that up to the fact that He was the Son of God? Do we just assume that only He can speak words of weighty authority and significance because of His divine nature? Or could it be that even here Jesus models something we each can emulate as followers of Jesus?

NOT AS THE SCRIBES

And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Matthew 7:28-29, NKJV

I’m sure Jesus’ audience in Matthew 7 had been awestruck by the content of what is now known as the Sermon on the Mount. But more than the content, it was the contrast that deeply impressed the people. The astonishing authority felt by Jesus’ hearers was in stark contrast to others they were accustomed to listening to, i.e. scribes, teachers of the law, religious leaders of the day.

Undoubtedly, these religious leaders were well-trained scholars and communicators, but still the weight of their words couldn’t come close to the impact of Jesus’ teaching. It wasn’t a difference in oratory skill or eloquence. What, then, was so different about Jesus’ words?

CONNECTING THE DOTS

I’m not sure Jesus’ audience could explain it, but they sure could feel it. Early on in Jesus’ ministry, Nicodemus seemed to catch on when he greeted the famed Teacher in an evening interview:

Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.

John 3:2, NKJV

Nicodemus himself was “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10), and he affirmed that Jesus’ words were of distinct impact because of the distinct quality of the deeds that accompanied them.

Nicodemus drew a connection between the powerful works of Jesus and the powerful words of Jesus.

While Nicodemus hinted at the distinction, Jesus eventually came outright with it when He pinpointed the shortcomings of the religious teachers in Matthew 23:3…

Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.

As you can imagine, the widening chasm between Jesus’ authority and that of the religious leaders didn’t sit well with the powers that were. As the scribes and Pharisees became aware of Jesus’ distinctly weighty words, they responded with more resistance than openness. They eventually enlisted soldiers to apprehend this astonishing Teacher to quell His impact among the people (Jn. 7:32). When asked why they had come back empty-handed, the officers responded with reverent awe, “No man ever spoke like this Man!” (Jn. 7:46).

Again, what made Jesus’ words so different than not just the scribes and leaders but everyone else in all the world? Commenting on the conclusion of these officers, Ellen White hits the nail on the head:

The officers who were sent to take Jesus reported that never man spake like this man. But the reason of this was that never man lived like this man; for if he had not so lived, he could not so have spoken. His words bore with them a convincing power, because they came from a heart pure and holy, full of love and sympathy, beneficence and truth.

Gospel Workers 1892, 244

Jesus’ teaching was unlike the religious leaders because Jesus’ life was unlike the religious leaders. Jesus didn’t say one thing and do another. His words were consistent with His deeds.

Because Jesus’ life was genuinely pure, His words bore great power.

OUR TURN

So how is it with us? When we wish we could get something across to our kids or co-workers. When we long to share a word of comfort or influence with our neighbors. Do our words come with weight like Jesus? We can spend lots of time self-editing, trying to pick choice words that inspire, but what if the weight of what we say has more to do with our general lives than our great language? It’s more about integrity than eloquence. Convincing power in speech comes from a life of consistency, purity, and sympathy. Instead of asking myself what I should say to him or her, maybe I’m better off investing effort in how I live around him or her, being mindful of the example of my life in general rather than the sound of my words specifically. May the Lord cause us to live as Jesus lived so we can speak as Jesus spoke!

Skillfully Spoken

Like apples of gold in settings of silver,
so is a word skillfully spoken.

Proverbs 25:11, NET

Have you ever found yourself fumbling over your words? Whether responding to a trusted friend’s plea for counsel or even just an everyday exchange of pleasantries with the store cashier, there are times when I feel verbally flat-footed, unable to say anything of worth or meaning. Yes, even career communicators often feel at a loss for “skillfully spoken” words, words of weight, words of wisdom. Like Proverbs 25:11 points out, something that’s well-said and aptly spoken is as precious and valuable as fine gold. I want to speak words like that! Not just professionally but personally, not just from the pulpit but also at the dinner table. I may be assuming too much, but I imagine that we all want our words to have weight and significance. We all want the things we say to have high impact in whatever arena we find ourselves and in every relationship we engage. Truth is, skillfully spoken words don’t come out of thin air. As with all words we speak, they come from the overflow of our hearts (cf. Mt. 12:34). So what kind of heart work can we engage? Over the next few posts, let’s explore what we can do on a personal level to become the kinds of people who speak words that matter.

A TRAINED TONGUE

The Lord God has given Me
The tongue of the learned,
That I should know how to speak
A word in season to him who is weary.
He awakens Me morning by morning,
He awakens My ear
To hear as the learned.

Isaiah 50:4, NKJV

Though this is primarily a Messianic prophecy, a description of the experience Jesus would have as God’s anointed One here on earth, I believe this is an experience that is available to all of Christ’s followers. God wants to give us a learned tongue, a trained tongue. According to this verse, the capacity to speak skillfully is a gift, it’s something granted us from the sovereign Lord. One of the first steps toward becoming a person whose words make a difference is simply acknowledging that it’s not in our natural makeup to speak words of weight and wisdom. It requires learning, growth, and deliberate development. If we’re willing to grow, God is able to make us know how to speak the right words at the right time.

IN SEASON

Isaiah 50:4 also highlights a factor of impactful communication that is somewhat independent of us. Timing factors in to the worth of our words.

It’s not just the content of what we say but also the context in which we speak it, and that context has less to do with us as it does with those on the hearing end.

What makes it the right season for a word to be spoken? It’s the need of those who hear it. It’s our audience’s weariness, soul fatigue, heart longing. And if I want to be someone God can use to speak impactful words in season, then I need to be in tune with the needs of others around me. The focus isn’t about me being a quality communicator. The focus is on lifting others up who may be weary and heavy-laden.

MORNING BY MORNING

Our capacity to speak has everything to do with our capacity to listen. Just ask someone who has grown up with hearing impairment or deafness. On a spiritual level, our ability to speak words of life has everything to do with our ability to listen to the Word of life. Isaiah 50:4 points to a morning by morning experience that Jesus had, a daily rhythm of listening, of communing with the Father not just to tell Him everything on His heart but to actually hear everything on the Father’s heart. Jesus had a learned ear, one that grew to hear the voice of His heavenly Father. And I believe this is something we are invited to experience ourselves.

giving our Father the opportunity to speak to us MORNING BY MORNING is THE heart work we must engage in order to skillfully speak to weary hearts.

A trained tongue comes from having trained ears, ears that are constantly open to hearing God’s Word for ourselves so we can be constantly used to share life-giving words to others. Our spouses deserve it, our kids need it, our co-workers and neighbors may have no other access to it. If we forfeit this morning by morning experience, could it be we also forfeit our capacity to minister to weary hearts right around us? If words of worth come directly from the overflow of daily communion with God, then let’s learn to listen. May the sovereign Lord awaken our ears and instruct our tongues!

Mending Relationships

In this series of posts on “mending,” I saved the most difficult for last. I wish I could say that with the additional time to ponder and process, I feel more able to address the issue with comprehensive clarity. But no, not even close. (And that’s probably why it has taken me nearly 5 weeks to have the gumption to even attempt addressing it now!) So what else needs mending in our lives? Relationships. We’re all familiar with the pain of strained relationships and of the longing to experience peace and wholeness in those once-close connections. Even in the Garden of Eden, ever since sin entered the human experience, the relationships God made us for have been plagued by tendencies toward dysfunction and distrust. But I am so thankful that the story of our interpersonal brokenness CAN be rewritten by God’s saving grace. After all…

He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation. Ephesians 2:14, NKJV

NO IMMUNITY

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul uses the verb katartitzo as an appeal to experience mending of divisions in the church (1 Cor. 1:10; 2 Cor. 13:11) or a restoration of a fellow believer whose missteps have generated some relational distance (Gal. 6:1). Remember, Paul was writing here to churches he had established, believers he knew personally and had invested in. Just so we’re under no illusions here, the reality is that mending relationships is something we all need, even in — or especially in — the church community. It’s true. Just because I’m a church member or a ministry leader, I cannot expect to be completely immune from interpersonal conflict or relational divisions.

BUT because of my relationship with Christ, I can experience the power of the gospel to transform who I am and how I respond to these situations in a way that heals instead of hurts.

So how do I do that? How can I be a part of mending relationships instead of messing them up? The following may not be an exhaustive answer, but they’re principles and practices that I’ve personally found to tip the scales toward restoration.

HEART CHECK

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Galatians 6:1

In this passage, Paul addresses a specific situation in which a fellow believer is caught in some sort of moral misdirection. I believe that the same counsel the apostle gives for the spiritual restoration of one who trespasses against God can be applied to the interpersonal restoration of those who trespass against us. And it all starts with checking our hearts. Before approaching any effort to restore and mend a relationship broken by offense or distrust, we ought to step back from the situation (one that is in all likelihood very emotionally charged) and ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Am I spiritual? In our day, we often talk about being spiritual in contrast to being religious, or in reference to our priority for heart relationship with God over and above the external forms of religion. But that’s not the question Paul has in mind. In the broader context of all his epistles, being a spiritual person is set in contrast to being a carnal person, i.e. living in the Spirit and not the flesh (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14-3:1; Gal. 5:16-26). Paul is saying that the first qualification for approaching anyone in need of restoration is that we live lives dependent upon God alone and not ourselves. If we live our lives by the power of God’s Spirit and not our own, we’ll restore relationships by the power of God’s Spirit and not our own.

  • Am I gentle? Any and all effort to mend a relationship should be abundantly saturated with a spirit of gentleness. We often associate gentleness with weakness, but in the Bible gentleness is a strength that knows how to hold itself in reserve. There are times when we may feel very strongly about what has caused relational rift. But a spirit of gentleness makes sure we use our emotional strength not to prove ourselves right but to produce restoration.

  • Have I considered my own faults? Have I been there before? Let’s admit it. We tend to identify others’ trespasses and faults more quickly than our own. Sadly, this can mean that we sometimes attempt to correct others’ trespasses and faults before correcting our own, or even before knowing that we need to be corrected ourselves. When we’ve been offended, we can spend a lot of time and energy analyzing that offense, the motivations, the coulda shoulda woulda’s of the situation. But have we spent that much time and energy considering ourselves and our own tendencies toward that kind of offensive behavior or destructive decision? Considering ourselves first gives us a chance to remove the plank from our own eyes prior to focusing on the speck in someone else’s eye. Considering ourselves first can lead us to the kind of humility that guards us from a holier than thou approach to restoring relationship.

SPEAKING & THINKING

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 1 Corinthians 1:10, NKJV

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. 2 Corinthians 13:11, NIV

Can you hear the pleading heart of Paul? The bookends of the Corinthian letters center around the appeal to be mended, perfectly joined together, fully restored. Aside from checking our hearts before approaching the work of mending relationships, we ought to speak and think in lines that moves toward unity.

Voice of oneness. Part of Paul’s appeal to be perfectly joined together involves speaking “the same thing.” It reminds me of the builders of the Tower of Babel whose eventual inability to speak the same language resulted in division and confusion. Metaphorically, when we don’t speak the same language or when we’re not on the same wavelength of understanding, it’s impossible to experience mending. On the flip side, have ever noticed how many of our relational dysfunction is a direct result of poor communication and subsequent misunderstanding? While the appeal is to “speak the same thing” in 1 Corinthians 1:10, the parallel imperative is to encourage one another in 2 Corinthians 13:11. But more than just speaking in a positive tone and looking for things to affirm and encourage, the biblical term for “encourage” literally means “to call alongside.” It points to a form of communication characterized more by talking with. This is probably the most difficult dynamic of mending relationships, the nitty gritty of communication. Whole books have been written on this subject, but for now this point is essential:

When we’re striving for full restoration, we must be willing to talk with the person, not just talk-to or talk-at or talk-about.

This makes a world of difference. Talking with means we’re journeying together toward understanding. Talking with allows for us to not just speak the same thing but to also hear the same thing about a situation.

Mind of oneness. The other factor for experiencing relational restoration in the Corinthian bookends involves not just speaking the same but thinking then same. In 1 Corinthians 1:10 it’s having the “same mind,” and in 2 Corinthians 13:11 it’s having “one mind.” It reminds me of Paul’s appeal in Philippians 2:5 to have the same mind that Christ had, the mind of sacrificial humility, the mind that would esteem others better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). The key isn’t just thinking the same as the person we’re seeking reconciliation with (which really may be quite impossible), but thinking of that person as Christ would think of them even if we don’t end up seeing eye to eye with the other person. That kind of mind cultivates oneness in spite of differences in opinion. When we approach the work of restoration with this mind, we’ll focus not just on what’s different or what’s needing correction. We’ll focus on serving and sacrificing…even if that means we don’t think the same about an offensive situation or break of trust.

Would you join me in praying for the power of the gospel to mend our relationships here on earth? May God produce in us a love that believes all things, hopes all things, bears all things in our relationships.


Mending Influence

I can’t say that doing yard work is my sweet spot in life, but I must admit that it’s pretty fun when my kids get enthused about helping daddy out. It’s pretty entertaining really, cute even — especially with the 2-ft shovel I purchased just to be sure everybody had a tool their size. Good times for sure…that is, until it’s time to clean up and one of the kids picks up a garden tool bigger than themselves! Whether the rake, hoe, or full-size shovel, all those warm fuzzies turn into anxieties about what (or who!) might get whacked and thwacked unintentionally. Though hopeful of being helpful, my kids’ efforts can turn destructive when they’re oblivious to their radius of reach and blind to their sphere of impact. Thankfully, like all of us, my kids will eventually outgrow that spatial unawareness to a relatively safe degree.

But it makes me wonder: Is there a spiritual unawareness that we all need to outgrow?

Are there blindspots in our spiritual radius of reach that make others anxious about what or who might get whacked and thwacked around us?

LIKE TEACHER, LIKE DISCIPLE

In Luke 6:39-42, Jesus asks some pointed questions that should make us pause to consider whether we have blindspots in our lives. The urgency of recognizing our own blindspots is highlighted by the reality that there is a mending (Gr. kataritzo) that occurs whether we want it to or not. Over the previous two posts, we’ve begun a journey of exploring what all needs mending, restoring, proper adjustment, and exact fitting in our lives. In Luke 6:40, Jesus identifies a mending that happens almost as a rule of nature:

The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.

Luke 6:40, NIV

Simple enough, right? The student-teacher relationship is a relationship of influence. As the teacher’s influence is exerted, the student eventually becomes properly adjusted and exactly fitted to the mold of the teacher. Students are mended to their teachers, so to speak. If Luke 6:40 was a stand-alone verse that showed up in the book of Proverbs, we’d just think of it as a succinctly phrased truism. But, this statement of truth isn’t an isolated proverb. It has context, and that it’s tucked away in a parable that Jesus tells about those who attempt to lead the blind even though they themselves can’t see a lick:

39 He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.

41 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Luke 6:39-42, NIV

Do we see what Jesus sees? Go ahead, read it again and ask yourself, What is Jesus getting at here?

BEWARE OF BLINDNESS

I’m sure there are a lot of ways to apply this teaching, but as I’ve been reading and re-reading this passage over the last few weeks, here are my big takeaways:

Takeaway #1 — In our relationships, we all have influence. We all have the capacity to lead others around us. Leading others is a given in Jesus’ parable. It’s not just a possibility, it’s the reality. It’s such a fact of life that even when we’re blind and unfit to lead others, i.e. when our influence isn’t all that welcome or productive, we have an impact on those in our relational spheres. In terms of Christian community, that means we all have the potential to disciple one another…for better or for worse.

Takeaway #2 — If we all have the potential to disciple others in our spheres, that means we have the potential to make others become like us. Therefore, we must be careful that we don’t lead/influence/disciple from blindness. Remember, as Jesus said, students aren’t above their teachers. Instead they become mended to, reflectors of the teacher’s example. There are times when we conclude that others around us are blind or that they need to be redirected. No problem with that, but when we step into the role of teacher/influencer in someone else’s life by attempting to actually initiate that redirection, when we take a hands-on approach to that friend’s or family member’s correction, we may be doing more harm than good if we’re approaching that situation while plagued with our own blindness and need for redirection. For one thing, they won’t rise above the example we ourselves set. They’ll only be led to more blindness. Furthermore, like a child toting a shovel in my two-car garage is blind to their spatial reach, a blind influencers’ desire to help may actually result in hurt.

And in that case, the real need is for our blindspot-ridden influence to be mended and properly adjusted.

Takeaway #3 — The rest of Jesus’ parable spells out a prescription for mending our influence:  have the good sense and the heart humility to remove planks from our own eyes. I’ll admit that the word pictures Jesus draws up here are pretty hilarious. But don’t let the humor of it distract you from Jesus’ intent. Sure the comedy softens the blow for a poignant pill to swallow (oh man, I have a plank in my eye!), but the hyperbole of Jesus’ teaching actually underscores that, relatively speaking, our own plank-sized blindness needs to be dealt with long before seeking to lead others out of and through their own speck-sized issues. That’s why the apostle Paul exhorts the Christian community to engage discipling relationships and dynamics in others that need correction with a spirit of gentleness that comes from having considered and examined yourself (Gal. 6:1-4). It’s when we haven’t taken the time to examine our own hearts, motives, and lives that we approach those situations without gentleness and end up having a destructive impact, both on the one we hoped to help and even on ourselves.

So how’s your influence in others’ lives? If that’s a knot that needs some mending, join me in praying for heart humility. May the Lord grant us both eyes to see our planks and the courage to actually let God remove them so we can have a saving influence in others’ lives.

Mending Praise

When you hang around kids (including my own), it doesn’t take long to discover they have a particular ease about saying exactly what’s on their minds…for better or worse. It’s the reality that made Bill Cosby’s show “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” such a hit in the 90s. It’s also one of the things that makes going out in public with our kids a high risk, high reward venture at times. In the worst cases, most parents can remember a few face-palm moments and subsequent efforts to explain away what our kids have said to unknowingly offend or embarrass someone nearby. But in the best case scenarios, which thankfully outweigh the awkward ones, a child’s spontaneous expressions of affirmation and appreciation can produce warm-fuzzies like nothing else can.

IN THE COMPANY OF KIDS

Jesus appreciated this quality of childlike communication, and I think that’s why, as He neared the passion week, He seemed to crave the company of children more and more. When asked about greatness, Jesus brings a child front and center and flips our natural framework of selfish ambition upside down (Mt. 18:1-4). Later Jesus makes sure kids have full access to Himself and adamantly instructs His disciples to “let the little children come to Me” (Mt. 19:13-15). He wanted children nearby. He wanted to connect personally with them. Not only for what they could receive from Him, but I believe there was something that He received from them that was hard to come by as His earthly ministry drew to a close. I think there was something healing and therapeutic for Jesus to surrounded by little ones whose hearts were unpretending.

He knew that kids have a knack for making their hearts heard without much prodding and without much fear of consequence.

Genuine interaction like that was a stark contrast to the subtle, subversive testing (cf. Mt. 19:3) of the religious leaders who would say one thing but really mean another.

And then comes a crucial sequence that brings things to a head. Jesus rides into Jerusalem in prophetic, kingly fashion and cleanses the temple to restore it as a house of prayer for all nations (Mt. 21:1-13). This public display of authority generates a collision of popular sentiment and Pharisaical hostility. At the same time, those who love Jesus can’t get enough of Him, and those opposed to Jesus can’t wait to arrest and kill Him. What happens next?

IN THE MOUTH OF BABES

Leave it to the kids. Heated arguments and haggling over inflated temple trade rates are now replaced scenes of healing and and sounds of hosannas…childlike sounds of heavenly praise.

But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?”

Matthew 21:15-16, NKJV

The religious leaders are aghast! At the sound of kids belting out glory to God, the chief priests conclude that this is one of those embarrassing moments, needing explanation for offended ears, but Jesus hears things differently.  He doesn’t hear offensive blasphemy.  He hears perfected praise.

And Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise’?”

Matthew 21:16, NKJV

Hold the phone. What did Jesus hear? He didn’t hear praise that was perfect, but praise that was perfected. Jesus heard praise that had been mended, restored, katarizo’d if you will (see last post). These young voices were expressing worship that was in extreme contrast to the broken chords of the chief priest’s feigned zeal for God’s glory.

tune my heart

Question: When Jesus puts His ear to my heart, what kind of sound does He hear? In other words, does my praise need to be mended?

The praise of the scribes & priests needed some serious rehabilitation. Their was a praise that merely pretended, a worship that was more concerned about how they’d be perceived by others than received by heaven. Their worship was more about what they could get from God and others than what they could give to God and others (e.g. “I just didn’t get anything from worship today.”) This kind of broken praise oozed from the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and persists even in our day. And whenever and wherever it shows up, we tend to become tone-deaf to our own need for heart tuning and get indignant when others’ praise is out of tune with our own. When we start walking the road of the chief priests, worship becomes more about my preferences and my expectations than about God’s purposes and God’s revelation. Taken to its logical end, we unconsciously cultivate an elitism and exclusivism that keeps our hearts and others’ from knowing who God is. Broken praise results in modern-day dens of thieves that rob the nations of knowing God and knowing salvation. Oh Lord! Please mend our broken praise!

But those children…

Their praise was perfected. Their praise had been kataritzo’d.  There’s something about a child’s praise that doesn’t go through an over-thought editing process and results in a genuineness and authenticity that cannot be matched.  When my son says things like “You’re the best daddy ever!” he means it.  Of course, he’s not factually correct in his assessment of my fatherly prowess. But he’s not wrong for saying so, thank you very much. :) Why? Because he’s expressing real appreciation in the best way he knows how. No one prodded him to coin those superlatives.  They spontaneously originated in a heart that was bursting with awe and needed a way to express itself.

In the temple courts that last week before the crucifixion? Jesus heard the very same. Unsolicited, unrestrained response to a vision of Jesus that was untainted by their own expectations of who Messiah ought to be. Perfected praise sees Jesus for who He really is and is humble enough to let God reveal Himself in ways we didn’t previously know or anticipate. The heart whose praise has been mended views Jesus as the Promised One and calls on Him to save out of a genuine sense of need for salvation and a healthy sense of self-distrust. Perfected praise has a big view of God and a small view of self (cf. Ex. 4:31, Lk. 5:8). When our praise is mended like this, we won’t be robbing God of His glory but becoming a community where real communion with God opens up for our own hearts and those God brings us in contact with. Healing and wholeness go hand in hand with perfected praise just like it did in that house of prayer that day. Oh that God would perfect our praise!


Mending Nets

Even though I can probably count the number of times I’ve gone fishing on two hands (ok, maybe three), somehow I grew up thinking I was a pretty good fisherman. Maybe that says less about my skill and more about how my dad encouraged me whenever we’d go out. Or maybe it’s because I had relatively low standards for success. You see, I equated success with casting my line into the water rather than getting it stuck in the shore brush behind me (or someone else’s hair behind me!) Sure, actually reeling in a fish was the climactic evidence of a job well done, but because a catch was so few and far between, the young fisherman in me found joy in the simple, repeated act of casting a good line. There was something satisfying about holding the line against the rod just so, timing the overhead release of the line, and then hearing its subsequent sounds — bzzz, splash, click, click, click. Good fishing for me was all about good casting.

And maybe that’s why I had missed this simple but significant detail in Scripture until just a few months ago.

16 And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18 They immediately left their nets and followed Him.

19 When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. 20 And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him.

Mark 1:16-20, NKJV

NOT JUST CASTING

Did you see it? As Jesus steps into His public ministry to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom (Mk. 1:14-15), the first partners He recruits to this weighty mission are fishermen — men who are experienced in both casting nets and mending nets. Truth be told, I’ve never tried net fishing, but I’ve always assumed I understood these men of Galilee. There’s water, there’s waiting, there’s casting, there’s catching. It’s all in a good cast, a timely cast, etc.

But no, the first disciples knew that to effectively cast their nets, they must intentionally mend their nets.

As a follower of Jesus, I see myself as a fisher of men, commissioned to connect with others in a way that leads them into a saving relationship with Jesus for themselves. But while I have been diligent about casting “nets,” while I’ve spent time and energy to extending myself to others and leading churches to do the same, it recently dawned on me that I hadn’t been as diligent to ensure the wholeness of the nets I was casting. Instead of reinventing different ways or places or times to cast nets, maybe I ought to be still and carefully mend the nets around me. After all, an unmended net only leads to unfruitful fishing.

NOT JUST NETS

So what all could this point to in the experience of a disciple? If we’re to take this metaphor seriously, what all needs mending in our lives? Interestingly, the word translated as “mending” in Mark 1:19 comes from a verb that literally means “to properly, exactly fit; to adjust to be in good working order.” Apparently, the New Testament points to several other things besides literal fishing nets that need to be adjusted and restored — our praise to God (Mt. 21:16); the blind, judgmental, hypocritical disciple (Lk. 6:40); a divided church (1 Cor. 1:10; 2 Cor. 13:11); an erring brother or sister in Christ (Gal. 6:1); anyone who wants to do God’s will (Heb. 13:21), just to name a few!

Here’s the point: WE need mending! We need the restoring power of the gospel to be applied to our relationship with God, our love toward others, our growth in unity, and our effectiveness to do good works for the kingdom. I believe God has called us to more than just fruitless nights of fishing. And over the next few posts, I hope you’ll join me in exploring how we can actually let God mend our nets in order to be effective in casting our nets for others’ salvation.

Bless the Lord

Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits:

Who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from destruction, who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies, who satisfies your mouth with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Psalm 103:1-5, NKJV

We’re just days away from putting 2018 in the history books. And although time itself will not stop, I would suggest that the turning of the year affords one of the best times for us to personally stop. The appeal of Psalm 46:10 to “Be still and know that I am God,” is appropriate everyday of the year, but there’s something about the end of the year that makes it especially impactful. As Psalm 103 reveals, one of the best ways we can bless God is to remember how He has blessed us. So before 2019 whisks us away into the future, let me suggest just a few questions that can help us reflect on the past in order to be still, to know God, and to bless God.

GROWTH | HOW HAVE I GROWN SPIRITUALLY?

Growth isn’t something that’s easily perceived. Have you ever tried to watch your lawn grow? Though difficult to detect in real-time, however, we can look back and discern changes and differences more easily in our rear view mirror. Last January, I shared this Discipleship Self-Assessment with our church family. Though originally intended to be a tool to map out future growth, the assessment portion may help you understand past growth if you compare how you would have answered the questions at the beginning of the year to how you can answer them now. If this tool is a little too dry for you to really make use of, try reading through the the fruit of the Spirit passage in Galatians 5:22-23 and reflect on ways God is growing you in love, joy, peace, etc.

PRAYERS & PROMISES | WHAT PRAYERS HAS GOD ANSWERED? WHAT PROMISES HAVE BEEN PRECIOUS TO ME?

Take time to reflect on the nature of your conversations with God throughout the year. How has He worked in answer to prayer. How has He encouraged You through His Word this year? If you’re feeling like this set of questions doesn’t apply to you because you don’t think your prayer life or time in the Word has been ample, give yourself more time to process and ponder. You may find that God has answered prayers you’ve felt but not expressed or that there have been promises that are clearly precious now only with what you can see in retrospect.

PRESENCE & ABSENCE | WHEN WAS I ESPECIALLY AWARE OF GOD’S PRESENCE? WHEN DID I FEEL LIKE GOD WAS ABSENT?

The second of these questions may not appear to generate a pleasant train of though on the surface, but I encourage you to go there anyway. You may be surprised that what felt like a time of distance from God actually turned out to be a season in which you walked most closely to Him. The reality is that whether we feel like it or not, God is always true to His promise to never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5). Your willingness to reflect on God’s presence and apparent absence this year can actually fortify you to be even more aware of His nearness in all seasons of 2019, whether filled with daylight or darkness.

So go ahead. Be still and know that He is God. Bless His holy name and forget none of His benefits. Enter into the new year with confidence in and assurance so you can boldly say:

The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear.

Hebrews 13:6, NKJV

Exploring the Extras, pt. 3

I don’t remember his name, but I do recall what he looked like, sounded like, and how I felt around him. While on a whitewater rafting trip with our Pathfinder Club, a few of my classmates and I were grouped with the bearded, sun-tanned guide who looked like the oldest yet strongest one on the river that day. He wore a Crocodile-Dundee-esque hat that he didn’t allow anyone else to touch or try on. Whenever he gave instructions, my friends and I were quick to listen. He seemed to know a thing or two because he had seen a thing or two on that river. It’s one of my earliest memories of recognizing that years of experience yields depth of perspective.

By the time they’re mentioned around the story of Christ’s birth, Simeon and Anna had lots of life behind them and consequently could see things in front of them like no one else could. What about their experience can deepen our own this Christmas season?

SIGNIFICANCE IN THE SAVIOR

Simeon was an exemplary citizen of Jerusalem. He was both “just and devout” (Lk. 2:25, NKJV), upright in outward living and holding to the highest values in heart . The term translated as “devout” is a compound word in Greek literally meaning "taking hold of what is good." In other words, he set his heart and hung his hopes on the best things. And the next few phrases describes just what those hopes centered on:

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.

And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

Luke 2:25-26, NKJV

Simeon’s life destiny and sense of personal significance revolved solely around seeing the Savior of Israel and of his own heart. Seeing the Christ brought meaning and motivation to his life, and that hope was fulfilled when Mary & Joseph presented their miracle baby before God in the temple that day.

Anna the prophetess held a similar hope. Luke’s description of Anna seems to emphasize the enduring nature of her hope. Anna was a woman “of a great age” who apparently had lived as a widow for decades. Reading between the lines, we can imagine the sorrow she may have felt over relationships and dreams unfulfilled.

Yet in spite of these long-standing circumstances and the burden of her unplanned life of singleness, she wasn’t holed up and confined to depressing solitude by grief and loss.

…and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.

Luke 2:37, NKJV

Did you notice how, where, and in whom Anna found personal meaning and significance? Though bereaved of her relationship with the husband of her youth, she found completeness in a daily, devoted relationship with God. In His temple, serving Him, giving things up for Him, praying earnestly to Him, all day, everyday.

Both Simeon and Anna and fixed their hearts on the One person in life who can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. Their stories should cause us stop a moment and assess upon what or whom our hearts’ hopes hang. In what is my life bound up?  In what or whom do I find greatest significance and satisfaction? I pray that the testimony of the psalmist and the devout inner life of Simeon and Anna would be our very own:

Whom have I in heaven but You?
    I desire You more than anything on earth.
My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak,
    but God remains the strength of my heart;
    He is mine forever.

Psalm 73:25-26, NLT

EYES TO SEE

The heart priorities and hopes of both Simeon and Anna allowed them to see life differently than most worshipers in Jerusalem the day baby Jesus was brought before the Lord. Because they had a heart to believe, they had eyes to see.

They both recognized God’s presence when most others casually passed by.

They saw more than a baby and his humble parents. Simeon confessed that he saw God’s salvation (Lk. 2:30), and Anna “in that instant” saw reason to not only give thanks to the Lord but also inform everyone else around her that redemption was near (Lk. 2:38). They were fully aware of God’s activity and fully appreciative of God’s nearness. What their eyes saw moved them to lift their hearts in worship and their voices in witness.

Do we ever pass by unaware of God’s personal presence in our lives, or do we have eyes to see God when He is near in subtle yet saving ways?  I urge you to join me in praying for eyes that are fixed on Jesus, looking for Him and His work all around me, especially this Christmas when it’s all too easy to get caught up in the hustle & bustle of the season. Let’s not miss the miracle of God with us.


Exploring the Extras, pt. 2

She may be mentioned in only one chapter of the Bible, but she’s an extra in the Christmas story that can’t be forgotten. Her name means “God is my oath,” and her life reveals just how reliable and merciful God is. After all, she too gave birth to a miracle baby just a few months before her cousin Mary gave birth to Jesus. Elizabeth’s story paints a beautiful portrait of God’s love and faithfulness.

BARREN YET BLAMELESS

The brief introduction to both Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1:5-7 highlights the elderly couple’s age, priestly lineage (on both sides of the family interestingly), upright living, and childlessness. As I pointed out (in the last post) Zechariah’s faithfulness irregardless of the presence or absence of blessings he deeply longed for, the same can be said of Elizabeth. Though barren til her old age, Elizabeth was a woman of faith and faithful living. That’s not because it was expected of her as a priest’s wife. When you read Luke 1 with your eye on Elizabeth, it’s easy to discern an admirable steadfastness of faith that appears stronger and more exemplary than her husband’s. Through many years of disappointment, Elizabeth carried on a life of obedience to and trust in God because she was confident that God was carrying her:

Even to your old age, I am He,
And even to gray hairs I will carry you!
I have made, and I will bear;
Even I will carry, and will deliver you.

Isaiah 46:4, NKJV

He has DONE THIS FOR ME

Nearly five months into her miraculous pregnancy, Elizabeth reflects on all that’s happening in her and expresses something deeply profound about the way God’s grace works:

“The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

Luke 1:25, NIV

Do you hear what she’s saying? When mentally processing this divine intervention — a miracle baby who would go on before the Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17) — she undoubtedly has a grasp of what this means for the hope of Israel and all of humanity. Yet in Luke 1:25, the awe-filled conclusion she whispers to no audience in particular is not about what the Lord has done for the nation or for the human race, but what the Lord has done for me.

Elizabeth is overwhelmed by the individual attention of God’s shame-taking, heartbreak-HEALING grace and favor.

I wonder how often we give ourselves the chance to think along the same lines Elizabeth does. Yes, we know that God so loved the world (Jn. 3:16), and that is surely nothing to sneeze at! The love of God that moved Him to give Himself through His Son is so expansive and immense that it reaches beyond this globe and includes the entire “cosmos” (the literal Greek word for “world” in Jn. 3:16). But while we know that God so loved the world, do we give ourselves time to remember that God loves me? To come to grips with the humbling reality that I’m not just a number in a sea of faces to God, that He knows me, loves me, and gives me personal, individual attention? When David was overcome with this very thought, he expressed his response in question form:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
    the moon and the stars you set in place—
what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
    human beings that you should care for them?

Psalm 8:3-4, NLT

Some of us need to hear this more than we give ourselves permission to — that God actually loves lil’ ol’ me individually, that He has special grace and blessing to pour out not just upon all people but upon me personally. I think that’s why David actually prayed to hear that kind of love every morning (Ps. 143:8).  Maybe we fear being selfish in prayer, not wanting to just seek God’s love for ourselves. And while that may be humble and modest, it can come at the cost of not availing ourselves of how personal God is to us.  I think Elizabeth’s story gives us permission to pray for God to do things “for me.” And at the same time, it reminds us that we shouldn’t be surprised when the very things we pray for personally have saving impact in others’ lives beyond our own experience.

EMPTY NO MORE

Though the Elizabeth’s introduction in Luke 1:5-7 highlights her barrenness, the end of her story in Luke’s narrative emphasizes her fullness. In 1:41 she’s “filled with the Holy Spirit.” And as she’s interacting with her now pregnant cousin Mary, it’s obvious that she’s filled with faith and belief. The fact that Elizabeth addresses Mary as "the mother of my Lord” (Lk. 1:45) indicates that she is one of the first to confess belief in Jesus not only as the Messiah for Israel but as her very own Lord.

And to top it all of, the once barren Elizabeth is now filled with joy, a joy that can’t be kept to herself, a joy that overflows to those around her.  She’s so full of joy that even the baby in her womb shares her joy (Lk. 1:44). And when that baby is born, Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives share her joy (Lk. 1:58).

Have you experienced a season of life that has felt barren, dry, and empty? Elizabeth’s story reminds us that no matter how long of stretches have felt that way that doesn’t have to be the end of our story. God is the One who pours water on him who is thirsty and floods upon the dry ground (Isa. 44:3). He’s the One who turns our mourning into dancing (Ps. 30:11). Rest in the promise and power of God to fill your emptiness today. Lean upon the love of God that is willing to do these things not just for the world at large, but for you and me personally.

Exploring the Extras

It was strange but exciting all at the same time. My uncle had become a Hollywood actor. As a young child, I knew my uncle as the one who loved to serve orange-flavored Tang at parties, who sported new hair-dos that eventually trended with the rest of the uncles in the family. And then at one of our holiday gatherings in his Los Angeles area home, my uncle gathered us around a TV and showed us a couple scenes from a Seinfeld episode where he made an appearance…as an “extra.” For the first time, I wasn’t paying attention to the main actors and their comedy. I was fixated on those who didn’t have the spotlight or major lines. After all, as I learned, they’re important too!

As we enter into another Christmas season, what are you focused on? Maybe you already know the main actors and plot lines of the Christmas story, but how many of the “extras” are you familiar with? About 52 weeks ago, I posted some simple attitudes that make for a meaningful Christmas. This year, I invite you to join me in taking another look at the story of Christ’s birth in the gospel of Luke to pay close attention to the “extras.” As we do, I hope we’ll see ourselves in the story and end up fixing our hearts on the Savior who came once to dwell with us and who will come again so we can dwell with Him.

faithful still

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were faithful and devout Jews. He was a priest. She was “a descendant of Aaron” herself (Lk. 1:5). Known for their upright, blameless lives (v. 6), they were also known for their empty home, absent of any descendants to call their own though they were “well advanced in years” (v. 7). It doesn’t take much to read between the lines of Luke’s narrative. The aged couple had endured year after year of disappointment and unfulfilled desire. But this never stopped Zechariah from living for the Lord and serving His people. In the very next breath, Luke portrays Zechariah dutifully carrying out his priestly ministry:

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division,…his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.

Luke 1:8-9, NKJV

Zechariah’s faithfulness in ministry wasn’t contingent upon the fruitfulness of his personal life.

Life didn’t have to be full of perks in order for him to walk with God or work for God. Ministry wasn’t a this-for-that deal for Zechariah. Even though his lifelong prayers for Elizabeth had seemingly been unanswered, he didn't stop praying to God and praying on behalf of others. Don’t run ahead too much in the story and point out the fact that he was unbelieving of the angelic message he received a few verses later. Take a moment just to admire Zechariah’s track record a bit in his life context. Through the years of disappointment, he was faithful still. Makes me wonder how many times he leaned on the words of Habakkuk and if I can do the same:

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Habakkuk 3:17-18, NIV

ASSURED of answers

It wasn’t just another day at the office for Zechariah. The angel Gabriel “who stands in the presence of God” was sent to this faithful priest to bear a message of hope for Zechariah’s family and for all of humanity. Not only would his wife Elizabeth bear a son, but he would eventually prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah! The message is grand in scope, but the story of Zechariah’s trembling fear underlines it all. Sure there’s the natural fear that strikes when a routine duty is dramatically interrupted by a heavenly apparition! But Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah seem to highlight a fear that lay deeper in the heart of the soon-to-be-father.

Do not be afraid…for your prayer is heard…

Luke 1:13, NKJV

Did you notice the basis for the angel’s assurance? The reason Zechariah doesn’t need to be afraid? “Fear not” is one of the most oft repeated commands in Scripture, and most commonly the rationale that follows is the assurance that God is with us. (For starters, check out Gen. 26:24; Deut. 31:6; Isa. 41:10; 43:5; Jer. 42:11.) In other words, fear often originates from our unbelief that God is truly with us, and we don’t need to fear when we’re convinced of God’s loving presence.

But that wasn’t the assurance behind Gabriel’s instruction to not be afraid in Luke 1:13. Instead, Zechariah needed to be assured that his prayer was heard.

Zechariah’s fear originated from his unbelief not about whether God was with him but about whether God heard him.

I wonder how many of us have ever felt that fear. Sometimes that uncertainty has actually held me back from praying for particular things or people so I can avoid the hurt of feeling unheard. On the other hand, there are times when I’ve voiced other prayers while subconsciously telling myself not to get my hopes up! The expectation of being unheard may show up differently in your walk than mine, but if you’ve experienced it you know how deflating and debilitating it can be.

God’s messenger invited Zechariah to rise above that and to experience what David once testified of in the Psalms:

In the day when I cried out, You answered me,
And made me bold with strength in my soul.

Psalm 138:3, NKJV

And I believe God wants you and I to bear that same testimony, to find a new boldness grounded in the assurance that God both hears and answers the cries of our heart. This season, let’s pray those prayers we’ve held back. Let’s re-pray those prayers we once threw out like meaningless pennies into a fountain. Let’s accept the invitation to be unafraid, freed from the uncertainty about God’s attentiveness to our needs and hopes.

Light in the Darkness

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness can never extinguish it.

John 1:5, NLT

Over the last few weeks, my heart has been burdened by the violence that is sadly becoming a new normal in our world. First, it was the shocking news of a family friend’s wife who was senselessly shot while driving home from work two weeks ago in Florida. She is thankfully alive but has a very difficult road of recovery ahead. Then it was the national news story of the Pittsburgh shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, actually taking the lives of eleven worshippers and wounding several others last Sabbath. The darkness of this world and of sin’s curse seems overwhelming at times, but I’m choosing to trust that the light of God’s presence and goodness can never be extinguished (Jn. 1:5). But how? How do followers of Jesus persist in making God’s light inextinguishable in the midst of growing darkness?

AS A WITNESS

With the last days of human history in view, Jesus warned His disciples of many “signs” that would not only indicate the nearness of His coming but also the desperate need for His return (Mt. 24:1-8). It’s in this context that Jesus gave a made a simple prediction that describes our day with startling accuracy: “the love of many will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12). The violence that casts a dark shadow over our world and even over our houses of worship does not come as a surprise to our Lord. For that I am thankful. But more than that, I am thankful that Jesus could foresee even then that the darkness could not extinguish the light. Notice the glimmer of hope that arrests the downward spiral of end-time signs:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.

Matthew 24:14, NKJV

The darker the night, the brighter the light. Followers of Jesus don’t have to cower or clam up as these tensions mount. We are not to be silent by-standers who look at the tide of hurt and evil as if it cannot be stemmed. As deception, warfare, and disaster increase, the light of the gospel will be proclaimed “as a witness,” i.e. as a visible demonstration to all the world. In other words, the good news of who God is and how He saves will be preached not just in more religious rhetoric, but through lives that reveal God’s glory, a glory that can be “seen” and not just heard:

Arise, shine;
For your light has come!
And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
And deep darkness the people;
But the Lord will arise over you,
And His glory will be seen upon you.

Isaiah 60:1-2, NKJV

Somehow in the midst of growing lovelessness, we can courageously live lives that reveal the enduring, persevering, never-giving-up love and glory of God.

WITH GOOD

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21, NKJV

As with most of today’s news, the reports of the Tree of Life shooting have been difficult to read. But two stories I came across from the tragedy have revealed God’s inextinguishable light and love, a love that will not be overcome by evil but overcomes evil with good.

Story 1 is of the hospital staff of the Allegheny General Hospital where the synagogue shooting suspect arrived via ambulance after suffering several gunshot wounds himself. Though still raging with anti-Semetic remarks, the hospital staff took care of him as they would any other patient in need of medical attention. Might sound like just another day on the job for this hospital staff, except that several of the suspect’s first caregivers were Jewish — his nurse the son of a rabbi and the hospital president who came to check on him a member of the Tree of Life synagogue.

Story 2 is of a well-loved family practice physician who was one of the eleven killed in the shooting. Dr. Rabinowitz was in a separate Bible study room when he heard the gunfire. The doctor immediately ran — not away from the scene but to the aid of the wounded. Rushing to the sanctuary to help, Rabinowitz ran into the line of fire.

Though fallen, Rabinowitz revealed a love that overcomes evil with good. Though received by a hardened heart, the hospital staff revealed a love that overcomes evil with good. Even in the midst of hatred and violence, you and I don’t have to be overcome by evil. Whether in the public sphere or in the home circle, wherever darkness seems to be mounting, let’s lean in and let our light shine. Let us persist in giving, sacrificing, loving. The darkness cannot extinguish the light of God’s glory revealed in the lives of His people. Let’s cling to the promise and courageously live it out each day:

…But the Lord will arise over you,
And His glory will be seen upon you.

Isaiah 60:2, NKJV

What Can I Render?

Have you ever known someone whose natural mode of operation was to serve and help? They’re the kind of people whose love language is acts of service. Without thought of reciprocation, they are quick to lend a hand, fill a need, and give of themselves for others’ benefit. If you have people like in your life, then you know how golden those friendships are. Now let me ask you this: Have you ever known a couple in which both individuals seek first to give and serve and help? A couple like that would be able to “speak” the same love language to each other and also to others alongside each other in powerful ways. In a recent conversation with one such dynamic duo, I was not only impressed by the amount of good they’re able to accomplish in their spheres of influence, but I was also taken by surprise to discover a unique difficulty they’re slowly learning to navigate.

Difficulty? Can a giving couple like that experience any problems? It’s not really something you’d typically classify as a relational “problem,” but I’ll do my best to explain. Because both in the relationship are quick to give help, they are both relatively slow to receive help. Over the years, they’ve individually cultivated habits of service and sacrifice, but now that they’re together, they’re having to cultivate the habit of being served and sacrificed for. “Will you just let me love you?” is the common question they’re each learning to say “yes” to. And then in the most gentlemanly manner, my friend shared this insight: “The best thing she can give me in that kind of situation is to receive my help.”

Sometimes the best we can give is a willingness to receive.

Giving to the greatest giver

I believe our God “speaks” all five love languages with infinite intensity and fluency, but I would venture to say that His acts of service declare His love most compellingly. In the upper room just hours before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus looked around at His disciples and “loved them to the end” (Jn. 13:1). In what way? The narrative immediately follows by describing Jesus, the One who once sat on heaven’s throne, wrapping a servant’s towel around His waist to wash His disciples’ feet, even those of His eventual betrayer. He served and sacrificed, laid down not only His pride but ultimately His life. “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16).

What could we possibly give to the great Giver? How could we possibly serve the suffering Servant? Of course, we can attempt to reciprocate, to give back, to offer our service. While those may be appropriate responses, I wonder if the psalmist can point us to what just might be the best response:

What shall I render to the Lord
For all His benefits toward me?
I will take up the cup of salvation,
And call upon the name of the Lord.

Psalm 116:12-13

When seriously inquiring about what he could give back to the Lord for all His benefits and blessings, the psalmist concludes that his best response is to take the cup of God’s salvation.

Could it be that the best we can give to the Lord is a willingness to receive His best for us?

David’s words resonate with Jesus’ words when He sheds light on what makes the Father’s heart beat with delight:

Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Luke 12:32

According to Jesus, we can give great pleasure to the Father by letting Him give us the kingdom. It pains the heart of God to resist and refuse His gift of salvation and entrance into His kingdom, but it thrills His heart whenever we receive it. There “joy in heaven” and “in the presence of the angels” over repentant sinners (Lk. 15:7, 10) not just because of a goal accomplished or victory achieved but because God is pleased most when His giving is received by the least.

So let’s do it. Let’s give God the best gift we could possibly give today. May we daily, humbly, gratefully receive all the great Giver has given to us in Christ.

One Thing

Our weekend agenda was ambitious to say the least. Another trip out of state, air travel with three kids, destinations in three different cities in three days about 2-4hrs of drive time apart. In the end, I’m glad we pulled it off. I’m thankful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities it afforded to officiate a friend’s wedding, to re-connect with old friends who feel like family, and to celebrate Debbie’s and my grandfathers’ 98th birthdays (remember them from last year?) But I’ll be honest, I’m also glad we don’t make that kind of rhythm and pace the norm. Now that I’m finally catching up on sleep from that quick trip, I can say that I’m usually better off focusing on one thing at a time. Hats off to those multi-taskers and mothers who are champions of getting things done and keeping all the plates spinning so to speak. But I wonder if more of us would benefit from stepping back at times, letting less be more, and refreshing a vision for one thing that really matters…if there is such a thing?

DAVID’S ONE THING

David’s simple shepherd’s life eventually morphed into a seriously complex drama over time. From shepherd to king, from in-law to outlaw, from taking life to running for his life, David’s attention and efforts were often spread thin. But in his heart, there was one desire that trumped all others:

One thing I ask from the Lord,
    this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
    and to seek him in his temple.

Psalm 27:4, NIV

Undoubtedly, David prayed for many things, but THE thing he desperately “desired of the LORD” (NKJV) was to simply dwell, abide, and remain in the presence of his God. Being with God, knowing Him personally and deeply was what matter most to him. For this king, it was keeping company with the King of Kings that generated in his life the “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11, NKJV).

And this wasn’t just a unique quirk of David’s. Growing out of David’s love for the Lord, the temple services eventually organized not just around sacrifices but also songs and musicians. It was one of these musicians who routinely stood and sang in the presence of God that penned this confession:

Better is one day in your courts
    than a thousand elsewhere…

Psalm 84:10, NIV

The best life has to offer pales in comparison to being in God’s “courts,” dwelling in "the house of the LORD,” abiding in the presence of the living God. Life may consist of many good things, but the best thing, the one thing is being with God.

ONE NEEDFUL THING

And this one thing isn’t just a preference. According to Jesus, it’s the one thing we need. While enjoying the hospitality of His good friends, Jesus slows down Martha who is dutifully preparing and hosting, but has somehow missed the “one thing.”

Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”

And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42, NKJV

Mary had chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus, to learn from Him, to give undivided attention to Him and enjoy His presence. Martha, on the other hand, invested her greatest energies into making things ready for Jesus that she neglected the ultimate necessity of being with Jesus.

Apparently, this is not just one thing to desire. It’s the one thing we need.

And we can choose “that good part” every day, to approach life with an ambition not just to do things for God, but to live life with God — attentive to His presence, mind immersed in His Word, heart wide open to the promptings of His Spirit.

THE BLESSED HOPE

Do we live with one desire and one need in mind? This may require some rewiring of our habits and a transformation of our hearts, but I believe it’s what allows us to experience eternal life presently (cf. John 17:3) and prepares us for life with God throughout eternity. Consider how the apostle Paul takes this principle of “one thing” on the everyday level and scales it up to his eternal, heavenward ambition:

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him...I want to know Christ…

Philippians 3:8-10, NIV

And then just a few verses later…

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:13-14, NIV

Paul’s enthusiastic hold on the “blessed hope” of Jesus’ return someday (Titus 2:13) was daily fed by his supreme aim to know Jesus day by day. Could it be that the more we accept this one priority as our one necessity, the more we’re prepared for relationship with Christ throughout eternity? If that’s true, then pause for a moment and consider the sobering converse: The less our lives are fixated on the necessity of relationship with Christ, the less we’re prepared for eternity with Christ. What are the many things that pull and tug for our attention and affection? What are the many things we’re distracted by? Even the many good things? May the Lord lead us to a life of letting less be more and finding fullness of joy in the one thing that really matters.

A Great Mystery

As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery…

Ephesians 5:31-32, NLT

I think it’s safe to say that most of us enjoy a good wedding. Some are drawn to the rekindling of social connections, others to the anticipated menu for the day. For some, the main appeal is the fanfare, the flowers, or the music. Last weekend, my wife & I were blessed to participate in our friend’s big day. While we had the privilege of enjoying all those festive dynamics, what moved me most was the evidence of a genuine relationship built on self-giving love. No, it wasn’t just their sweet love story that got me teared up. It was a man and a woman willfully committing to live not for oneself but for the other. That’s a good wedding. Repeated day by day over a lifetime? Now that’s a good marriage and, according to Paul, a great mystery (Eph. 5:32).

THE BEAUTY OF IT ALL

Weddings aren’t good just because they make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The reality is that weddings are good because they are the closest thing on earth to revealing the heart of heaven. Just look to the story of the original Creation week. After God masterfully paints the canvas of our earthly home with life-giving words and works, He slows down and intentionally plans the climactic act of creation:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in Our image, in Our likeness...” So God created mankind in His own image,  in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.

Genesis 1:27-28, NIV

The Godhead wanted to etch Their very image within creation, something that would point not just to the physical appearance of God but to the fullness of who God really is. But how? Through what or whom? Humanity…not in singularity but in matrimony (and then in family, cf. v. 29). God originally designed marriage to be the most clear revelation of His heart. And what would that heart be? The beloved disciple who enjoyed close fellowship with the very Son of God said it simply: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8).

That’s the beauty of this great mystery. Some think the mystery is in how to make marriage work, but the apostle has his sights on something higher when he describes marriage as a mystery. Check out the entirety of Ephesians 5:31-32:

As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.”This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.

Marriage isn’t just about convenience or co-habitation. Marriage is a calling, a divinely-appointed institution that in its most complete form portrays in living color what others-centered, self-giving love truly looks and feels like. When we see a husband and wife give of themselves to make each other happy and whole, when we see sacrifice for and sensitivity to the other’s needs, we see but a dim reflection of something infinitely beautiful: God’s love for us. It’s a love that leaves what’s comfortable to sacrifices to become one with us. It’s a love that gives all and forsakes all, even to the point of death. That’s why weddings move us so. It’s not the pictures, the fancy clothes, or the toasts.

Weddings move us because they point to the One who made us. Marriage is an earthly token of heaven’s heart for us.

So go ahead. The next time you get to witness a wedding, be moved and swooned by the frills and festivities. But more than that, be in awe of the God who loves us and gives all for us in order to be one with us. The next time you get to spend time with a married couple or with your own spouse, lift up a prayer for the fulfillment of God’s dreams for that union. The world longs to see more of this great mystery.

All In

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.  2 Corinthians 5:17, NKJV
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I'm not one to settle on favorites, but baptizing someone into Jesus Christ could very well be one of the most thrilling experiences in life.  You can argue with me about your mountaintops, cliff jumps, sky dives, or extreme sports.  But suspend judgment until you have a front row seat to someone's public confession of their entire surrender to Jesus.  Now that is literally awesome.  Whether in rivers, oceans, lakes, or built-in baptistries, it never gets old (especially if the built-in baptistry has its own heater!)  Last week, I had the privilege of baptizing two brothers in Christ, and while the act itself was amazing, what added to the rush and joy of it all was the journey that led up to it, especially for my friend Dave.  Though he shared his story only in broad, summary strokes, I heard two dynamics at work in Dave's life that have deeply inspired me.

 

GOD USES PEOPLE

I first met Dave at our church nearly two months after it launched a year and a half ago.  He was invited by Justin, a co-worker of Dave's and a new church-goer himself.  Justin was just six months into a series of Bible studies at the time, exploring faith in a God who really is love.  In a conversation at work, Justin overheard Dave's cynical perspective on life and love and encouraged him to consider a different reality, a biblical reality defined by a God who isn't selfish at heart but absolutely others-centered and self-giving.  It was enough to spark intrigue, and Dave showed up at our new church the next Sabbath...and the next, and the next.  Well, you get the picture.

In a matter of weeks, Dave went from skeptic to seeker to student of the Word.  The rest of the journey wasn't all roses, but it's a journey that has persisted and matured and continues to move in an upward, heavenward trajectory.  When Dave got up to share his testimony last week before being baptized, it only took a brief sentence,  "Justin invited me to church...," for me to be reminded of how one interaction can impact someone's eternity.  It may sound elementary, but I hope you read it with deep significance:

God uses people to reach people.

What is more, God uses ordinary people to reach people.  Justin wasn't a preaching evangelist or seasoned missionary.  He was Dave's co-worker.  Justin didn't have seminary training, didn't have long years of ministry experience, didn't have a thorough knowledge of Bible prophecy let alone the order of books in the Bible.  But what light he had, he was eager to share.  If God uses people to reach people, who will He use you and I to reach today?

 

GOD GIVES PURPOSE

When I met Dave a year and a half ago, he had just moved to the area trying to rebuild a life that he felt was falling apart.  We started studying the Bible together to seek answers to some of his deep questions.  After accepting the mind-blowing reality that God actually is our loving Creator  who has good intentions for us, the burning question on Dave's heart was:  What is God’s plan for me?  What’s my purpose?  Why would God bring me here?

I don't remember exactly what I said in response to Dave's questions, but I do remember listening intently with a smile.  Not trying to be condescending or cliché, I remember trying to assure him that he'd discover the answer to his questions as he continued to study and deepen a real relationship with God.  It sure didn't feel like a satisfactory answer at the time, but fast forward to last weekend, and I realize that maybe there was more wisdom in that response than I thought.  As he shared his testimony last week, he referenced that conversation about purpose and confessed:  "I’ve found my purpose.  It’s in living for God, and living for others, not myself."

I think we all naturally want to move toward a defined goal.  We tend to operate better when we understand our destination and also the route we're taking to get there.  It's in the uncertainty that we begin to feel uncomfortable.  It's when we aren't able to gauge progress that we feel useless, even hopeless.  In Jeremiah's day, God's people were faced with an uncertain future and fuzzy purpose, and God spoke profound hope to them and any of us in similar shoes:

"For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."  Jeremiah 29:11-13, NIV

Have you ever looked closely at the progression of thought in this passage?  First, God assures us that HE knows the good plans He has for us (v. 11).  Since HE knows those plans for us, our natural response is to call to Him in prayer about those plans (v. 12).  In all our praying and asking about those plans, God says that the journey will eventually elevate into not just praying about plans but seeking the Plan-giver (v. 13).

The great assurance to an uncertain, purposeless people is that in all our seeking we will find God Himself.  Plans or no plans, our great find is relationship with God.

Dave wanted to know the why and how and what for of his life journey just like all of us.  But the satisfaction comes not so much in finding the answers to the why and how and what for.  The satisfaction comes in knowing the One who gives us the why, how, and what for.

And all this wrapped up in the experience of baptism.  It's not just the water that makes us new.  It's the surrender.  Now that's something to get excited about!  May we all experience the thrill of being made new.  Let's be the kind of people God can use to reach people.  Let's be hopeful in the God who doesn't just know the plans but who fills our lives with purpose when we know Him.

Thirsty Ground

Maybe you sang the song as a child too:  "Rain, rain, go away.  Come again another day."  Growing up in the relatively dry central valley of California where rain wasn't part of the norm, I remember thinking of rain as a nuisance.  Rain stopped play and redirected school recess to indoor activities that I really wasn't enthralled by.  Heads-up 7-up anyone?  Regardless of what farmers or firefighters might have said, in my limited perspective as a child, rain was an inconvenience.  A recent, painful experience in my backyard, however, reminded me that rain is so much more vital than I use to give it credit for.

Since moving into our new construction home a year and a half ago, one of the things on our to-do list that hasn't been checked off yet is landscaping our barren backyard.  It's amazing really what dirt can do when it's untouched for 18 months.  This summer we thought it wise to at least trim down the weeds that had begun to compete for sunlight with our neighbors' young aspen trees.  Just this month, after several streaks of rainy days, we got the bright idea of digging out what weeds we could, and even the kiddos got into the act.  (Little boys seems to be drawn to mud and dirt like mosquitos to light.)  Then two bright Sunday mornings ago, still feeling the momentum of our previous progress, I decided to get out there and clear another section of our yard...with one small problem:  we hadn't had any recent rain.

It only took me a few stomps with the shovel (and a re-aggravated back spasm!) to realize we weren't going to make any headway.  That compacted construction dirt was NOT the pliable mud we had worked with a few days before.

My sore back reminded me all through the week that rain makes all the difference.

Ample moisture turns what is rock hard into something redeemable.  Rain makes it possible to remove what shouldn’t be there so we can eventually plant what should be there.  How thirsty is your ground?

There's a beautiful promise in the Hebrew Scriptures that gives us hope when our lives feel dried up and rock hard:

For I will pour water on him who is thirsty,
And floods on the dry ground;
I will pour My Spirit on your descendants,
And My blessing on your offspring.  Isaiah 44:3

I believe the presence of the Holy Spirit, like a timely rain shower, turns the rock hard heart into something soft and pliable.  It's the Holy Spirit who makes it possible to remove what shouldn’t be there -- all that's unwanted and unholy, all that has taken root in the absence of intentional care -- and prepares the way to plant what should be there.

Take a moment and read God's promise again.  Is there thirsty, dry ground in your heart, an area of your life that seems back-breaking and incorrigible?  Or maybe it's someone else who is close to you, one of your offspring that you long for the softening influence of the Spirit to wash over.  God promises floods upon our dry ground.  When we thirst and long for rain of God's Spirit upon our lives and our kids', He is faithful to supply.

Maybe you've become tired like I have, tired of tugging and pulling on your life's unwanted weeds only to snap the tops and leave the roots hidden.  Maybe you've hurt yourself or others in the process.  Oh that we would let God's Spirit be poured out upon our dry ground!  May our first work be to wait for God's Spirit before we ever get to weeding.  

Songs of Deliverance

Are you the type of person that frequently has songs pop into your head while you go through everyday routines and interactions?  Maybe you've heard a word or phrase spoken in conversation and your mind triggers a memory of a song along the same lines.  Maybe you've had days when your life seems like a walking musical.  Ok, maybe not that extreme, but you get the idea.  I go through days like this when my mind thinks in terms of music...even jokingly conversing with or instructing my kids through song.  Most times it's just funny.  Sometimes it's distracting, but two weekends ago it was my deliverance.

It was supposed to be a happy Sunday afternoon at a state beach in California.  It was supposed to be a day cap off a memorable family reunion.  But when our 2-year-old attempted to walk the rim of a non-active fire pit and fell in, the 2nd & 3rd degree burns he instantly suffered threw our life into a whirlwind of pain, fear, and heartache.  I don't want to recount every detail of what happened to Jacob and how God has worked miraculously to the point that 11 days after the incident Jacob's surgeon concluded there was no need for skin grafting and that "everything is pretty much healed."  That would be too much for one post!  But what I do want to share here is a brief chronicling of the songs God used at key times to keep my heart close to His.

You are my hiding place;
You shall preserve me from trouble;
You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.  Psalm 32:7, NKJV

 

BY HIS WOUNDS

It was just 3 hours after the ambulance whisked my wife and Jacob away to the nearest burn center.  Since my two older kids weren't allowed in the burn ICU, I was working on handing them off to the care of my sister-in-law so I could be present with our little guy.  I walked back alone to my car with emotions running high -- panicked about Jacob's well-being, angry at myself for letting Jacob out of my sight for those few fateful seconds, and heartbroken over the visual and auditory replay of Jacob's pain in my mind.

Wiping tears from my eyes, I started the car and my phone alarm went off as it does everyday at 3:05pm -- "Take time to praise."  How can I? I asked out loud.  I tried to verbalize acknowledgements of God's power and goodness, but unconvincingly.  And then it came on.  Pulling from the playlist on my phone, the car stereo played the song based on Isaiah 53 "By His Wounds":

He was pierced for our transgressions
He was crushed for our sins
The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him
And by His wounds, by His wounds
We are healed

I bowed my head in the hospital parking lot til the song finished.  And walked to my son's room with some assurance that God not only knows the pain of our wounds but has the power to heal them too.

 

I AM

A little more than two weeks before Jacob's accident, we were privileged to attend Family Camp at Glacier View Ranch.  It was an amazing week filled with tons of outdoor activity, time with friends, and deeply spiritual programming.  The theme song threaded throughout the week was "I Am," the chorus of which all our kids (and especially Jacob) sing with great gusto anytime they hear it now:

I am holding onto You
I am holding onto You
In the middle of the storm
I am holding on, I am

We sang this at the top of our lungs (along with a few other songs) many times on our road trip out to California.  I downloaded a few of the kids' summer favorites, including "I Am" before we hit the road.  Little did we know how much those words would mean to us just days later.  When we drove away from the hospital with our freshly discharged burn victim two days after his fall, Jacob requested we play this song.  A wave of emotion swept over me as I heard him singing it just as loudly with all his bandages as he had when he had been all well before.

God is holding on to us.  Not just before the storm or after it...but most especially in the middle of it.

 

MY LIGHTHOUSE

Two days after Jacob's discharge, I'm driving I-70 back to Colorado with my two older kids.  We've got a date with my wife & Jacob to pick them up from the airport.  (An 18-hour car ride was not an option for Jacob!)  And then that summer playlist of downloaded songs cycles to another one of our kids' favorites.  "My Lighthouse" was the theme song for a Vacation Bible School they attended at the beginning of the summer.  It's a stretch of the trip when my passengers are sound asleep, but my thoughts aren't.  When the song comes on, it interrupts my anxieties about the unknowns about Jacob's road to recovery -- when would the next surgery be, how many would he need, how are we going to pay for all this, etc.

In my wrestling and in my doubts
In my failures You won't walk out
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
My Lighthouse, my Lighthouse
Shining in the darkness
I will follow You
My Lighthouse, my Lighthouse
I will trust the promise
You will carry me safe to shore

Even if I didn't know how things were all going to work out, what I knew for sure is that we'd be brought safe to shore.

I held back tears again in that moment.  And that's when Psalm 32:7 flashed into my memory.  Songs.  Songs of deliverance.  At just the right time and in just the right way, God used simple songs to sing over me and deliver me from my fears.  No wonder a Hebrew hymnal is tucked away right in the middle of the entire Bible.  No wonder we incorporate singing in modern worship.  They're more than just emotional sentiments.  They're for instruction and exhortation, and even deliverance and salvation.  May God continue to surround us all with songs of deliverance!

Heart for the Hardened, Pt. 2

To what lengths does God extend Himself to reach the hardened heart?  As we see in the book of Jonah, the God of unrelenting love doesn't just ignore the longstanding rebellion of an entire city.  Nor does He settle for abrasively criticizing the Ninevites.  Instead He cries out to them.  He sends a message their way in hopes of inspiring awareness and repentance.

But the book of Jonah reveals more than God's heart for a hardened people.  It shows us God's heart for a hardened prophet as well.  We see Jonah's hard-heartedness right from the very beginning of the story.  Though the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the prophet didn't not come along with the word!  His first steps were in the opposite direction of God's call.  And though the reader doesn't clearly understand the reasoning behind Jonah's rebel response until the end of the book, one thing is clear:

God doesn't give up on the hardened heart even if it's in-house.

 

ENDLESS PURSUIT

So what does the unrelenting love of God do to reach the hardened prophet?  For starters, He "sent out a great wind" to stir up a mighty tempest in the sea through which Jonah thought he could escape from God (Jonah 1:4, NKJV).  Was it a vengeful move on God's part?  No, just an attention-getting one.  The fact that God then "provided a huge fish" (Jonah 1:17, NIV) lets us know that God is intervening out of concern and compassion, not vicious violence.

What else does God do to pursue Jonah?  He answers the prophet's heart cry (Jonah 2:1) and speaks to the fish to deposit the bleached runaway on dry land.  But even after all this and the effectiveness of the prophet's message to inspire repentance and reformation among the Ninevites, Jonah exhibits an even bolder hardness of heart:

This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that You would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people."  Jonah 4:1-2, NLT

Reminiscent of the older brother in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, Jonah fumes over the forgiveness and grace of God for the repentant metropolis.  Though this man of God had become insulated in elitism and ethnocentrism, he was not beyond the reach of divine love.  God was still patient enough to reply to Jonah's complaint (4:4) and then provide a leafy plant for shade, a worm to eat it the next day, and a scorching wind to yet again grab hold of the prophet's attention (4:6-8).  

As the prodigal father of Luke 15 ran out to both the runaway son and then later his older brother (Lk. 15:20, 28), our Creator God endlessly pursues even those who choose hardness though they know better.  Lord, cause us to receive the unrelenting love of God for our own hardened hearts, and lead us to reflect it to the hardened around us!

Heart for the Hardened

At first glance, the story sounds like a fairy tale, something you might find in a choose-your-own ending adventure novel.  But it actually comes straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures -- big fish, swallowed prophet, and all.  Growing up, the story of Jonah spoke a strong admonition to follow God's ways lest you walk a plank and end up in the belly of a fish.  But as I read about Jonah now, I see a bigger picture of God's missionary heart.  

I see a picture that's less about a prophet's failed runaway and more about our God's unrelenting love.  

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me."  Jonah 1:1, 2, NKJV

 

OUTCRY

Depending on the way you read these words and tone of voice you imagine God speaking with, this can sound like some serious doom and gloom.  This message of judgment against a city beyond the borders of Israel can presumably be heard as a complaint from heaven, a divine temper tantrum about the neighbors next door.  But what if it's not a cry of complaint?  What if it's a plea of compassion?  What if God's "cry" is not a calling out to criticize but a calling for to convert?

Think about it.  If God was solely motivated by anger and personal offense over the Ninevites' immorality, we wouldn't be reading about a message to them but an obituary about them.  Instead, in the face of vile godlessness and extreme debauchery evident in the ancient Near East, God wants to communicate, engage, and entreat an entire city that has rejected Him.  

What do we do when wickedness comes up before us?

When there's something that isn't right in your sphere of life, when there's great offense, or violence, or abuse?  It's not a pleasant flashback in my mind, but I remember the first time my eyes ever saw a real fist fight.  I was probably only 8 or 9 years old at the time, and as we drove past a convenience store behind a public high school, my carefree heart was frozen with fear at the sight of two high schoolers ganging up on one.  I think I was the only one in the car who noticed.  I wondered why no one was doing anything to stop the violence.  "Surely I couldn't," I thought as we drove on.  It was my first introduction to what social psychologists call "the bystander effect" or "bystander apathy."  When wickedness comes up before us, we can diffuse responsibility, generate stories to explain things away, or do all sorts of things aside from actually engaging the need.  Even when we do respond with heroic intent to heal and help, we often pace ourselves and rationalize that we need to pick our battles.

When Nineveh's wickedness comes up before the God of heaven, He can't just turn a blind eye.  So what if they don't belong to Israel?  God's love isn't bound by territories and jurisdictions.  These are people He created in His own image though they've completely used their lives to live far from Him.  God's heart is prompted to action infinitely more so than the most compassionate of us.  He knows full well how hardened this epicenter of paganism is, and yet, God has a heart for the hardened.  Instead of swooping down with swift destruction, He sends a spoken word and hopes for a willing spokesmen of that word.

When face to face with great evil and great need, God engages with great sensitivity and great salvation.  God doesn't shut down; He steps up.  He doesn't withdraw; He whispers hope.  Oh God, give me your heart for the hardened!

Correcting Correctness

Every now and then, I have fun reflecting on personality types and tendencies.  There's something about understanding myself and others that brings clarity to my experiences.  Usually it's entertaining...but sometimes it gives me pause for some serious reflection.  I remember first becoming acutely aware of my melancholic, conscientious, detail-oriented tendencies when they started showing up in my oldest child.  (Crazy how kids can walk around like little mirrors showing you all sorts of things about yourself!)  As the big sister, she often took it upon herself to correct her baby brother back when there was only one of them around.  Sometimes it was about pronunciation of words, other times what toys were hers and not his.  But more often than not, that conscientious value for correctness would tip toward condemnation and eventually tears...both hers and his.  Now that our once-baby brother has his own baby brother, I've seen that corrective pattern pop up again and again.

It starts with a value for what's right, but it quickly goes all wrong.

How many times have you experienced that?  Whatever your personality type, I think we've all observed or experienced for ourselves an interpersonal dynamic where someone's stance for the right eventually went wrong.  It happens the minute we prioritize our being right and correct over and above our value for quality relationship.  It happens when we become so zealous about our convictions that we become conscience for other people.  It happens when we bully those around us into thinking just like we do.  "I see this to be right and true, and you must too." 

Could it be that when we think we're the most right is when we can do the most wrong?

 

KNOWN FOR GENTLENESS

In his epistle to the church in Philippi, Paul exhorts believers to be known for something more than being right.

Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.  Philippians 4:5, NKJV

The specific context of this call to gentleness actually has to do with an appeal to resolve an interpersonal tension.  Two Philippian church members who were at odds (v. 2).  Everyone knew about their beef, not just people in the church but likely those outside the community of faith as well.  Grudges, in-fighting, and divisions are the last things the body of Christ should be known for!  Instead, the keynote of the church's interpersonal dynamics should be "gentleness."

It's an interesting term.  Used only a couple other times by Paul as he lists hallmark qualities of spiritual leaders (1 Tim. 3:3) and of all believers in general (Titus 3:2), the word is synonymous with non-violence, humility, being peaceable.  But the word itself in Greek is a conjunction of the prefix epi (meaning "on, upon, above") and the root word eikos (meaning "equitable, fair.")  In this light, "gentleness" can literally be translated as "on or beyond fairness."  When Paul calls for gentleness, he's calling not for mere justice but for beyond-justice.  Like the mercy seat that covers the Ten Commandment law in the ark of the covenant, gentleness seeks the right for the right reasons and from a right heart.

 

SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE

Remember Paul's former life?  He use to be perfect...but at the same time a persecutor.  He use to be blameless...but at the same time a bigot.  It was when he was the most "right" that he did the most wrong.  And the violent offense of spiritual coercion is something genuine followers of Jesus should never be known for, especially as we near the return of Jesus (cf. v. 5, "the Lord is at hand.")  The anticipation of Jesus' coming is not an excuse to deal harshly with others who may be standing in the wrong.  While some faith traditions use the threat of fire and brimstone to urge life change, I know of others that seem to ignite the flames of heaven to do the same.  "Jesus is coming soon, so you better..."  Both approaches play on fear, something that perfect love is supposed to cast out (1 Jn. 4:18).  May we never be known for that kind of harshness and spiritual manipulation!

Instead, we should let our gentleness be evident to all, standing in the right while gently leading those in the wrong to a restored relationship with Jesus.  This beyond-fairness doesn't sweep wrongs under the rug.  Instead, it values rightness while valuing relationship even more.  It stands for what's true and just while sustaining the relational influence to lead others to what's right.  Let's be known for that.  May our gentleness, our beyond-justice, be known to all -- to our spouses, our children, our classmates and co-workers, our neighbors, our communities.