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.

Pushy Prayer

"Well, that sounds a little pushy and demanding."  It's a one-liner I first heard from my older sister in response to her young kids whenever their urgency sounded more like a complaint than a request.  And yes, it's a one-liner I've used pretty often since having my own children.  The intent is to encourage communication that comes less from presumptuous entitlement and more from polite inquiry.  "I don't have a napkin" coming from my 5-year-old at the dinner table may sound innocent enough in print, but when it comes with a furrowed brow and an impatient whine ("naaaaapkin"), it's not just a benign observation but a subtle accusation that someone hasn't provided sufficient resources for an enjoyable meal.  Ok, maybe that's a little over the top, but you get the idea.  Pushy and demanding.  I recently came across a familiar Bible story that made me wonder if I slip into that kind of talk with God every now and then.  Is it possible that we get a little pushy and demanding with Jesus?

 

WHY DO YOU INVOLVE ME

It was a joyous wedding feast.  Food, friends, and family.  The perfect recipe for a great celebration.  But according to John 2:1-3, there was a seemingly small hiccup in the course of the festivities that could turn into serious embarrassment.  Mary, aware of the issue, hurried to find an immediate solution.  Approaching the world's Savior as her son, she spoke in the declarative and rather than the interrogative, "They have no more wine."  Not just a description of what's new but an implied prescription of what Jesus should do.  It may not seem like it in print, but I think Jesus sensed a pushy and demanding dynamic in Mary's tone and approach.  How does Jesus respond to this pushy demands?

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” (John 2:4, NIV)

Addressing His mother with a common term of endearment in that culture, Jesus doesn't snap at Mary but slows her down long enough to cause her to reflect.  Why are you involving Me?  Consider for a moment your motivations here.  Jesus was not unwilling to get involved in the situation (evidenced by His eventual intervention), but He was not about to get involved from whatever motivation Mary had in mind to begin with.

We get into situations that are urgent and desperate too.  And in those times we come to Jesus with less questions and more demands.  We're right to want to get Him involved in our struggles.  But WHY do we want to get Him involved?  If we were honest, I think we usually involve God so we can have success and avoid failure, so we can experience blessing rather than barrenness, pleasure rather than pain.  Those aren't terrible desires...but they are kind of self-centered when you think about it.  Is there an alternative that's more about Jesus than it is about myself?  I think there is.

Rather than involving Jesus so we can have success, we can involve Him because we’re fully surrendered to Him.

 

WHATEVER HE TELLS YOU

There are few details provided in John 2:4-5, but I imagine there's a whirlwind of communication in look and tone between Jesus and Mary that even in the haste of the moment, Mary experiences something profound.  Her next words, though seemingly still demanding to the nearby servants are actually full of surrender to her Son.

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” (John 2:5, NIV)

This is the point where selfish ambition turns into surrender and submission.  

Right now, our church is in the midst of considering next steps regarding larger worship space and where we can most effectively fulfill the mission God has entrusted to us.  Reading this story with that kind of discussion going on, I've concluded that to invite Jesus into this question/situation before our church is not to tell Him what we want Him to bless or tell Him what He should do.  Instead, God is inviting us to be attentive & submissive to what He’s telling us to do.

What questions have we been pushing to God in prayer?  What situations have we been demanding God's involvement in?  We're right to seek His intervention, but let's seek His action and providence because we're surrendered to Him, not just because we want success.  Let's put in check our tendency to give God instructions.  And instead let's give Him permission to lay our selfish ambition to the dust, to make us fully attentive to what He's instructing us to do.  God forgive us for praying with the presumption that You'll do whatever we say.  Instead, teach us to pray for the ability and humility to do whatever YOU say.

Stand By Me

I didn't expect too much as I walked down the school halls for my kids' "all-school exhibition."  My plan was to simply cheer on my 2nd grader as she presented her projects, and then wrap up my parental duty for the evening.  But before I could find her classroom, I was invited to step into another room where a middle school class was presenting different aspects of their year-long Real World Learning project entitled "Refu-Jesus."  And I was amazed!

Refu-Jesus.  No, that's not a typo.  It's descriptive of this class's efforts to minister to refugees for the glory of Jesus.  Over the course of this school year, these twelve and thirteen year-olds had been researching the plight of refugees in America, collecting donations for local non-profits that serve refugees, and even volunteering time at a refugee-specific food pantry...every Thursday afternoon!  These young people had not done their homework to become aware of a rapidly growing population and their unique needs, but they had put forth individual and collective effort to alleviate those needs.  It was reported that they had actually collected 2,000 pounds of rice and over 2,000 diapers for local refugees.  In fact, as a culmination of their efforts to bring awareness and help in practical ways, the class has organized a Concert Cafe for this Saturday night to raise even more funds and collect even more donations.  Like I said, I was amazed.

And I was humbled.

Humbled that a group of young people understood something about compassion and practical kindness that I didn't.  Humbled that these kids were following the footsteps of Jesus in a way that I was unfamiliar with.

This morning, when I opened to Psalm 109 to start my devotional reading, this simple line brought back yesterday's Refu-Jesus presentation:

But I will give repeated thanks to the Lord,
    praising Him to everyone.
For He stands beside the needy,
    ready to save them... (Psalm 109:30, 31, NLT)

I believe the God we serve is not only aware of the plight of "the needy" but identifies with them personally, intimately.  He stands beside.  I love that.  To stand beside is the opposite of running away, abandoning, or forsaking.  In the time of Jesus' greatest adversity here on earth, there were plenty who ran away.  But in the times of our greatest need, Jesus stands beside each and every one of us.  And He stands ready to save.  That's why Paul could face the Sanhedrin again though he had almost been torn to pieces by them the day before (Acts 23:11).  That's why the psalmist calls God our "refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble" (Ps. 40:1).  When the Lord stands with, there's strength, there's safety, there's salvation.

If the God we serve is the God who stands beside, then shouldn't we be a people who do the same?

These middle-schoolers were modeling that very principle for me, and I feel inspired to follow their lead.  Be aware and actually give attention.  Take the time and put in the effort to understand a need and those who experience it.  Partner with others who are meeting that need well and loving people well.  Lord, thank You for standing by me.  Please use me to stand by others in need.

Tell Me More

Three very simple words, but believe it or not, these three words can be a serious game-changer.  In fact, some would suggest that every young person is dying to here these words and that they're the three most loving words in the English language.  In a world of instant messaging, click-to-like feedback, and emoji responses, we have lost the art of listening.  We often default to the language of pragmatism (being quick to solve problems) and have forgotten how to speak the language of presence (being quick to sympathize and understand).  So what are the three words that everyone in all life stages long to have spoken to them?

Tell me more.

Too simple?  Just try it.

In at least one conversation over the next seven days, look for an opportunity to address these words to a friend, a neighbor, a child, your spouse.  And do so with unquestionable sincerity, i.e. speak it with a genuine desire to hear more.  Let your body language and tone of voice align with those words to show undivided attention and interest, and watch what happens. Tell me more.

My guess is you'll discover more about not just the other person's day or experiences that day, but you'll probably discover a bond and an understanding that will surprise you.  It surprised me too when I first began slipping in this phrase in my car-ride conversations with my daughter after picking her up from school.  It wasn't about interrogating, it was just about being interested.  Her one word answers of "fine" and "good" turned into stories that expressed excitement and sometimes disappointment.  It gave her a chance to share without having to feel like she had to measure up to anything in particular.  

 

Learn to Listen

As a preacher and teacher of the gospel, my radar is always up for more effective ways to share with and bless others, especially when it comes to best practices for communicating truth.  And this isn't just true for preachers and teachers.  Most Christians I know have a burden to share with others but often feel insecure about their ability to communicate or their knowledge of what to communicate with their friends and family.  But what if the first thing people need to hear from us is not our preaching but our presence?  I wonder if the simplicity of these three words -- Tell me more -- can remind us that

...before being concerned about what to say to people, we ought to educate our hearts to be concerned about people.

I believe Jesus modeled this kind of approach to people.  The stories I've been reading in the gospels lately have reminded me that frequently Jesus' first words to people were questions.  Think about that.  The Creator asking His creation a question.  Questions like "Where are you?" or "Who touched Me?" or "Who do people say that I am?" did not come from a position of ignorance but interest.  The questions were door-openers, allowing for a story to be told and a bond of mutual understanding to give way to trust and teaching.  Jesus was interested in people, interested in letting them tell their stories, and interested enough to actually stop crowds and hold off pressing appointments to both ask those questions and listen to responses.

Let me share two simple prayers that I'm learning to pray these days:  God, give me a genuine interest in the people around me.  And, God, give me time to actually listen.  Would you join me in praying those prayers?  May God increase our capacity to love and listen as we let others tell us more.

God Has a Dream

April 4 marked the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Though his physical presence came to an end that fateful day fifty years ago, his dream lives on.  Many of us can probably quote portions of that famous "I have a dream speech" and find that it moves us just as deeply as it moved those who heard it over fifty years go.  As the nation paused to remember King yesterday, my mind has been impressed with just how powerful dreams, like King's, really are.

Dreams drive us.  Dreams move us.  Through adversity or through apathy, dreams have a way of reorienting us toward truth north and urging us to keep putting one foot in front of the other toward the goal set before us.  King's dream compelled a young preacher to speak and act with great courage beyond the pulpit, even if it cost him a prison.  Joseph, though captive in Egypt against his will, could have easily succumbed to misery and hopelessness, but I believe the dreams of his younger years kept him clinging to God's progressively unfolding purpose in his life.   Consider Paul on the borders of Asia Minor, frustration mounting as his desire to advance a second missionary tour seems to meet dead end after dead end (Acts 16:6-8).  How did he persist in that season of closed doors?  God gave him a dream, and that dream gave him direction and renewed passion (Acts 16:9-10).

That's what dreams do.  Dreams drive us to move forward in mission, fulfilling plans and purposes that have eternal impact.

The question that crossed my mind today is a question that probably has more answers than I can adequately describe here:  Does God have a dream?  Absolutely.  Time and again, God's desires and plans have been met with detours and difficulties, but I believe our God has a dream for humanity that compels Him to persist and persevere in achieving that grand dream of restored oneness with you and I.  Many references can be drawn from, but these two spell it out clearly for me.

...For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Hebrews 12:2, NIV
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among His people! He will live with them, and they will be His people. God Himself will be with them.  Revelation 21:3, NLT

No cross or cruelty would keep Jesus from doing all in His power to seek and save His lost children.  Soon and very soon, this joy that was set before Jesus and is now set before us in prophetic tones will be fulfilled.  That dream still lives in my heart.  Does it live in yours?  That dream still moves all heaven to work perseveringly for the salvation of precious souls.  Does it move you and I to do the same?  Let's make God's dream our dream.  May we be spurred on to overcome difficulties and detours in order to fulfill God's redemptive purpose.

The Joshua Problem, pt. 2

By default, my personality tends toward being a quiet, listen-first kind of guy.  So as a 25-year-old associate pastor sitting on a church board for the first time, it was easy for me to watch and observe the other, more experienced board members handle the agenda month after month.  There were times I probably shared my two cents, but honestly I wasn't very motivated, especially after one of the elders of the church prefaced a comment by reminding me how old he was and how young I was in comparison in order to attribute more credence to his point of view over and above mine.  Though stated somewhat jokingly, I didn't find it very funny.  Thankfully, I don't know of many others who joke around like that in that kind of setting, but I have a hunch that that kind of dismissive attitude toward young people still exists in the church at large.

I was of that board room experience from more than a decade ago when I came across an article that caught my attention:  "Why We're Afraid to Let Young People Lead -- and How to Overcome It."   Toward the end of the piece, the author articulates six objections to letting young people lead, but then turns those objections into thoughtful questions.  I found them to be so valuable that I want to share those points here by recasting these as negative assumptions that we can turn into positive expectations.

  1. We assume that youth = inexperience.  Instead, let's expect a young person's experience, however limited, to provide a perspective that's needed nonetheless.
  2. We assume young adults won't stick around, that they move on too quickly to make lasting impact.  Instead, let's expect that their involvement now can maximize their impact wherever life takes them even if we're not the primary beneficiaries of that fruit.
  3. We assume young people take ill-advised risks.  Instead, let's expect that we have much to gain by taking a chance on a young leader.
  4. We assume that youth will fold under the pressures of leadership.  Instead, let's expect that they'll thrive when we intentionally surround them with support.
  5. We assume that young leaders will replace us.  Instead, let's expect young leaders to partner with us and multiply effectiveness in a way that we wouldn't have experienced otherwise.
  6. We assume youth are sitting on their hands.  Instead, let's expect them to step up when given permission, when invited to serve, when they know they're needed.

If we don't want to see our church with a vacuum of grounded, godly leadership, we need to invest in and genuinely trust the next generation of leaders.

But let's be real, that kind of investment and trust is held back by negative assumptions and crude comparisons to underwear.  Those are the kinds of things that have the devastating potential to drive the Joshua's in our life far away from God's purpose.  I for one want to educate myself to see potential and hold elevating expectations for the young people in my sphere of influence.  I invite you to join me in creating a culture shift that empowers young leaders to take ownership of the church in amazing ways today.

The Joshua Problem

"Service for others becomes fuel for us to be there."  It was a profound moment of clarity.  I was sitting around a table with a handful of young adults when conversation turned reflective and deep.  One shared her honest desire to reconnect with church, but admitted that the spectator, seat-filling role wasn't very motivating.  Others nodded and chimed in.  Making an impact, being entrusted with responsibility, serving a purpose.  Sure these young adults desire togetherness and connection like the rest of us, but I realized that...

...beyond the social dynamic is the significance dynamic -- I'll go where I can make a difference.

 

Are we missing something?

Earlier this week I heard a leadership vlog that caught my attention:  Beware of "the Joshua Problem."  Think about this.  Moses was arguably one of the greatest leaders in biblical history and throughout history in general for several reasons.  Among those reasons I would count his intentionality to share leadership.  His utmost humility (Num. 12:3) kept him from grasping for authority and empowered him to make room for others in leadership.  Remember how quick Moses was to delegate power after Jethro's wise counsel (Ex. 18:24-26) and the deep longing Moses had for the same Spirit of God with which he was filled to equip not just the 70 elders but the entire camp of Israel (Num. 11:25-29).  What is most impressive is that Moses invested deeply in the development of one particular person:  Joshua.  Moses didn't just let others lead, he deliberately invested in a next-generation leader -- someone younger, with a different set of strengths and skills, full of faith in God's power and purpose.  Maybe the greatest leadership lesson to glean from the prophet's story is this:  Moses had a Joshua.

But Joshua never had a Joshua.

Joshua's strong leadership helped Israel cross the Jordan, experience miraculous victories, and possess the Promised Land (for the most part).  But by the end of his story, Joshua has no Joshua of the next generation to lay hands on and entrust leadership to.  The fact that the book of Judges comes on the heels of the book of Joshua ought to be enough to settle that this is not a good problem to have.  He was missing something.  Are we?  As a generation, as a global church, as a local church, are we missing something?

I don't want to have a Joshua Problem.  And my recent table discussion assures me that there are next-generation young adults in the wings who are eager to be called, developed, and trusted.  I'm sure there are uncertainties for some and even objections for others.  But I believe God is calling each of us, no matter where we fall in the generational spectrum, to be part of erasing the Joshua Problem.  How do we do that well?  I'll be the first to admit I don't have all the answers, but I hope you'll join me in the journey of seeking to understand how to raise up Joshuas.

The Legacy of Billy Graham

Arguably the world best-known evangelist, Billy Graham died yesterday at the ripe age of 99.  Known as "America's Pastor," Graham lived a life of consistent integrity and fulfilled an incredibly fruitful ministry.   As a full-time gospel minister, I can't help but be in awe as I imagine the hours and effort required to lead out 417 evangelistic crusades & music events, speaking live to an estimated 215 million precious souls across the globe in his lifetime (3.2 million of which accepted Christ in those crusades) and literally billions more via radio & television waves.  

Wow, what a legacy! Talk about reach! I pray for the ability to impact my neighborhood of 20 homes and my community of 60,000, and here is a man God used to influence billions around the world.  I'll admit, as I read a few headlines, tributes, and statistics yesterday afternoon about this once-in-a-generation evangelist, I found myself feeling small to the task of making lasting, eternal impact.  A tinge of insignificance crept into my heart about the effectiveness of my personal reach for the kingdom.

But then something happened just a couple hours later.  I found myself in my neighbor's living room, enjoying some homemade cookies and catch up time.  The doorbell rang just a few minutes after my arrival, and in walked Andy, one of my church members...maybe the smiliest guy you'll ever meet.  It was a small gathering that God had ordained.  When my neighbor inquired about my understanding of Bible prophecy just a few weeks before, God spun the conversation toward studying more and watching DVDs of a Shawn Boonstra prophecy seminar together.  Last night was our first watch party.  And when my neighbor offered a prayer of surrender and gratitude by the end of the night with an eager anticipation of 20+ more hours of watch parties down the road, I knew I was witnessing waves of evangelistic impact.  It may not have been from a pulpit, but the warmth of personal contact provided the kind of stage for Andy to offer words of reflection and encouragement, the ripple effects of which we have yet to see in full.  Talking with Andy afterward, I realized that my neighbor is not the only person he's been sharing these videos with.  Andy may not say this himself, but God is using his influence to impact people's eternities.  The numbers may not be jaw-dropping, but the significance is just as eternal.

In a well-written USA Today piece, I couldn't help but take note of the kinds of qualities that made for Billy Graham's impact:

"He was so real, he made Christianity come true," Susan Harding, an anthropologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

"...because he yielded himself to God, he was used to accomplish the extraordinary — forever impacting the lives of countless people,"  Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.

We may not all be evangelists on the scale of a Billy Graham, but I am convinced that we’ve all been commissioned to proclaim through word and deed the beauty of the gospel in whatever sphere God plants us.  Oh that we would engage our “audiences” with fervor and urgency whether we have a microphone or not, whether a camera/spotlight is on us or not.  May the Lord use each one of us in our own uniqueness to make "Christianity come true."  May we yield ourselves to our Lord day by day so He can use us to accomplish the extraordinary and even the ordinary.

Learning to Listen, pt. 2

"I already heard you Daddy," says the confident 7-year-old going on 17 as she carries on doing the very thing she says she "heard" me ask her to stop doing.  The parental instruction repeats, and the child's unwanted behavior persists.  "Are you listening to me?!" cries the exasperated parent.  We'll call this exchange fictional, but I imagine we all have an expectation that if someone is truly listening to our instruction or counsel, they're actions will soon follow.  We feel our voices are heard when others respond practically and accordingly.  If this is true of listening to one another, how much more true when listening to God?

To truly listen to God is to respond in obedience to God.

 

GOD'S PRIMARY APPEAL

I once heard an Old Testament professor at seminary mention in passing that the Hebrew Scriptures don't have a word for our English "obey."  The closest approximation is the Hebrew word shema, which is translated into English as "listen" or "hear."  In other words, the concept of listening is so intertwined with obedience that linguistically they're one and the same.  (Check out the word study video on the Shema to find out a little more.)  To truly listen to someone's counsel is to obediently live out that person's counsel.  This is why the all-encompassing commandment of the Old Testament, the one that devout Jews repeat every morning and that Jesus said was the greatest, begins with the simple command to shema if you will:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Deuteronomy 6:4-5, NKJV

The initial appeal of this great commandment is simply to hear it, listen to it, and when we do we'll live out a love for God that is supreme and wholehearted.  God's word and command are life-giving (cf. Ps. 33:6) and life-sustaining (cf. Heb. 1:3).  All creation naturally responds to the power of God's Word, and yet in love we've been entrusted with the unique capacity to choose to respond to the voice of God.  And so primary to any do's and don'ts is this simple appeal to listen, and when we do we'll find life itself:  "Hear, and your soul shall live" (Isa. 55:3)!

 

GOD'S PRIMARY DESIRE

This responsive listening is God's primary appeal because it's His primary desire.  He isn't content with just giving us a manual of things He likes and doesn't like to see in our lives.  What God longs for is a relationship with us that is characterized by genuine faithfulness, a faithfulness not just of profession but of action.  The psalmist hits on the contrast between what God desires and what He doesn't in Psalm 40:6-8:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
    but my ears you have opened...
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come...
I desire to do your will, my God;
    your law is within my heart.”

I long to have ears that are open to God.  I want to know His voice.  Don't you?  Apparently ears that are inclined to listen, ears that are cleaned out of this world's deafening gunk will always be connected to a life that is wanting to actively do the will of God.

This is what God desires over and above our gifts for Him, even our acts of worship.  He wants open ears that are evident in an obedient life.

Let's face it, what we listen to is what has our attention.  And when we know that someone listens to us, there's a relational security that follows when we are certain of their attentiveness and responsiveness to us.  God wants that relational attentiveness with you and I.

 

OUR PRIMARY BARRIER

This leads us to understand what then is our biggest obstacle in hearing and listening to God:  our willingness to do God's will.  If we're not hearing from God, it's not because He's silent.  His Word has proven that God speaks.  He promised we would hear a voice behind us saying, "This is the way; walk in it" (Isa. 30:21).  Jesus put a finger on this barrier of the will in John 7:17:

Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether My teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.

The principle is clear:  We’ll only be able to discern God’s voice of truth when we’re willing to do His will.  We can’t expect to hear from God if the jury is still out about whether we'll obey Him.  

What decision are you trying to make?  What question are you asking God?  What counsel do you hope to hear but haven't yet discerned?  What I've found is that once I'm able to truly surrender my will, once I've genuinely prayed for God to swallow up my will in His and actually let Him answer that prayer first, once I've gotten to the place where I'm willing to not only hear but also do whatever it is that God speaks my way, I more easily hear God's instruction and discern a plain path before my feet.  May we respond to God's appeal, fulfill God's desire, and remove our own barrier.  May we listen and live.

Learning to Listen

I've been reading through the book of Acts the past few weeks, and my heart has been inspired and revived as I see the experience of the early church.  So raw, so real, so empowered to do above and beyond what we often think is possible in the 21st century.  I keep finding myself asking for experiences of the early church to be repeated in my experience and in our church -- the widespread conversions, the involvement in ministry, the genuine fellowship, and of course the sharing of meals. :)  But there's one dynamic of the Acts church that I feel an intense longing for right now:  they consistently discerned the instruction of Holy Spirit and were quick to follow His lead.

We all know that the book of Acts begins with the church being filled with God's Spirit, but the rest of the book details how they were led by the Spirit.  Here's a sampling from just the first half of Acts:

  • Acts 2:4 -- And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
  • Acts 4:8 -- Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them...
  • Acts 4:31 -- ...and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
  • Acts 8:29 -- Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go near and overtake this chariot..."
  • Acts 10:19-20 -- While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are seeking you.  Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them."
  • Acts 11:12 -- "Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing."
  • Acts 11:28 -- Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world...
  • Acts 13:2 -- As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, "Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
  • Acts 13:4 -- So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia...
  • Acts 15:28 -- "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things."
  • Acts 16:6 -- Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia.

The early church was truly led by the Spirit in what to say, what to do, where to go.  The Spirit instructed them with great specificity and clarity.  And it makes me ask if the Spirit still speaks like that today. 

Has the Holy Spirit withdrawn, or have we forgotten how to listen?

I'm convinced that it's not an unwillingness on God's part to lead us but lack on our part to actually listen.  I can't claim to be an expert on the subject of listening to God and following His lead, but I wanted to share a few things that are helping me learn to listen to and be led by the Holy Spirit.

 

EXPECT

I believe experiencing the Holy Spirit's leading starts with expecting Him to lead in the first place. If I'm not expecting the Spirit to give counsel and instruction, then I won't be listening for His counsel and instruction.  It won't be on my radar, plain and simple.  But if we assume that He has plans for us individually and for His church, then we'll be in a position of anticipation and readiness to discern those plans.  The Holy Spirit has been actively involved in the movements of earth since the very beginning (cf Gen. 1:2) and will be until the very end (cf. Rev. 22:17).  Why shouldn't we expect the Spirit to move today?

 

ASK

It's one thing to assume that the Holy Spirit leads, guides, instructs, and counsels.  But it's another thing to ask for that leading.  God isn't one to impose His will on us.  He gives us room to seek and ask.  He's not playing hard to get.  He's just being a perfect gentleman and a Father who wants the best for His kids who are eager and willing to receive what's best from Him.  Jesus made it clear in Luke 11:12, "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!"  If we want to experience more the Spirit's leading in our lives, let's ask for it!

Let me add one caution here.  When we ask for the Holy Spirit to lead, we're asking for the Holy Spirit to lead.  No, that's not a typo.  When we ask for the Spirit to lead, we're not asking for power to do our own agenda.  Instead we ought to ask for this gift with humility, confessing surrender to be led to fulfill the Spirit’s plans and purposes.  The Spirit isn’t a mere power or force for me to manipulate but a Person for me to to surrender to.

 

ALIGN

When pursuing the present-tense instruction of the Holy Spirit, we can't be negligent of the Spirit's past revelation in the Word, inspired and ultimately authored by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:21).  If we want to hear the Spirit's instruction today, I believe we must habitually listen to and align with what the Holy Spirit has already revealed before.  How can I expect Him to speak in the present if I have ignored what He has spoken in the past?  The more we give earnest heed to the Spirit's revelation in Scripture, the more our ears will be accustomed to the Spirit's voice and values, instructions and intentions.

As we learn to listen, may we experience a revival of the Acts church in our day!

 

Making Room for New

My wife told me last night that my daughter would like to go shopping this weekend to spend her Christmas money at a particular store.  I smiled at the thought of my daughter's face lighting up over this and that.  And then my thoughts turned, and I blurted out, "Is there anything we can purge too?"  Maybe I'm experiencing some residual "stuff-overload" that sinks in around Christmas time when numerous presents are opened, or it's a knee-jerk reaction to the plethora of toys that lay dormant in shelves (or the other plethora of toys that have a hard time finding their way to the shelves!)  Either way, it makes me wonder if there's something to the idea of making room for new.

Whatever that "new" is -- a toy, an article of clothing, a family member, a friend, a ministry role, a health habit -- is it possible that in some regard there is a need for old things to give way so that new things can take root?  

I would submit that when God is at work in us, He intentionally removes the old so He can create something new.

 

OUT WITH THE OLD

God is the One who alone "restores our soul."  Take a look at these beautiful promises of the newness He brings about in our lives.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  Ezekiel 36:26, NKJV
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

I think Paul understood well the re-creative work of God in the life of the believer.  He saw that the old order of things, when wracked by sin and severed from God, could only lead to death and destruction.  But God when God makes us alive in Christ (Eph. 2:4), He makes us new.  All new.  Old things pass away.  But in Christ new things have come!

Oh the sweet sound of the amazing grace and transforming power of Christ!

And just so we don't get caught up in the emotional ecstasy of what God does for us, Paul wants to make sure we understand the practical application of this out-with-the-old criteria for newness in Christ:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV

Let's not get this confused with having to change ourselves before we come to Christ.  No, no.  The declaration of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is true when we come to Jesus as we are and choose by faith to be in Christ.  New things have come and old things have passed away because God has declared it so, just as truly as God spoke light into the darkness on the first day of creation.  And it's in view of this declared truth, that Paul urges us to apply the truth in practice and deliberate action:  Because old things have passed away and because all things are new in Christ, I can put off the old self and put on the new self.  He takes the gospel declarative and turns it into a gospel imperative.  (That's Pauline theology in a nutshell for those New Testament scholars out there.)

 

GOING SHOPPING?

So if you're like me and you're eager to experience newness in your spiritual journey this year, then join me in making room for the new by taking stock of what is old, what is corrupting, what is only a deceitful desire that causes distance between our hearts and our Savior.  That may not sound very pleasant, but maybe that's why following Jesus involves taking up a cross.  Let's be real and honest and put off the old so we can truly put on the new.

Star Light, Star Bright

It was a proud papa moment.  Our two older kids performed in their elementary Christmas program last week, and I was moved.  Sure, I was proud of our preschooler for enduring a 45-minute program with a relative degree of poise and concentration.  And it was great to see our 2nd grader nail her few lines acting as one of the shepherds seeking the Messiah in the manger.  But I was most impressed by a particular song that moved me with a such a sense of awe and hope that my hand reached for my heart in gratitude to God.

Depicting the journey of the magi following the star as a journey of faith through the dark, the song's chorus rings:

Look, look, look for the light
Shining in the dark, dark, darkest of nights.
When your way is unclear, there's no need to fear.
Just look, look, look for the light.  ("Arrest These Merry Gentlemen")

As I took in the message of that song, I chain of thoughts sparked the realization that the journey of these worshipers from the East reflects the spiritual journey many of us find ourselves on -- recognizing God’s revelation, responding not just in intellect but in action to that revelation, longing to give our best to the King who has come and will come again.  

That song is still ringing in my ears (especially because the kids' practice CD is still in our van's disc changer!)  And the experience of the wise men is still rattling around in my mind.  Although the message of the magi is multi-faceted, one reality hits home in a new way this Christmas:  These wise men made their best progress at night.

Now, that may seem like mere common sense, but sometimes it's the most elementary things that carry the most significance.  The magi's forward progress was completely dependent upon the visibility of the star they had seen all the way from "the East" (Mt. 2:2).  Seeing the Star not only started their journey but brought it to completion as well.

If they couldn't see the star, they couldn't see their next steps.

This is why the wise men were filled with exceedingly great joy (Mt. 2:10) at the vision of the star well into their journey, not just at its onset.  If their journey by starlight is a parallel to our spiritual walk, then it's only as we see Jesus, the Light of the World, that have any hope of moving forward in faith, not just at the onset but all the way through to the finish line.  Forward progress depends upon keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the true Morning Star that rises in our hearts (2 Pet. 1:19).

But circle back to that very elementary observation again.  The wise men made their best progress at night because that kind of starlight is most visible at night.  I'll admit, I'm not sure how far to take this parallel to our spiritual experience, but could it be that that some of our best spiritual progress is made in the darkest of nights?  It's in the dark seasons of our lives that our way seems unclear, but (as that song sings) there's no need to fear.  That's when the light of God's presence can be seen with greatest clarity.

Some of us may be facing some dark, chilly nights in our lives.  Christmas itself may be very blue and lonely, bringing up things from the past that you'd rather keep in the past.  The whirlwind of everyday life or the insecurity of transition or loss may have you reeling this Christmas.  Whatever darkness may be settling in around you, I truly believe we can look for the light not just in spite of the darkness but because of this darkness.  May we rise up knowing full well that the light of God's presence can be seen even when it's dark.  May you and I rejoice with exceedingly great joy as those wise men of old because we can see the Star this season.

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

The Best Gift

"Daddy, can you stay with me for a little bit?"  It's a bedtime request I've grown accustomed to hearing from my 5-year-old when he settles in for the night.  On some nights that settling is instantaneous; sometimes it's a struggle.  Whatever the case, there's something about a loved one's presence that makes a difference in his capacity to relax, to rest.  There's something about Mommy or Daddy being with him that gives way to peace.

Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.  Luke 2:14, NLT

And there it is again.  Right there in the Christmas story, revealed in the angels' song is that simple but saving reality that there's something about a loved One's presence that gives way to peace.

The angels can sing about peace on earth because they're in awe of the God who is pleased to be with us...personally, concretely, eternally.

Much of the way we live our lives revolves around a pursuit of peace, the ability to settle in, so to speak, enabling our hearts to be at rest.  But here we see the peace on earth is announced to us, not acquired by us.  It's not because we've altered our circumstances, but because Jesus has rerouted the course of history.  I would submit that peace in the fullest sense of the term can never be satisfied with money, pleasure, or the absence of pain.  At the same time the gift of peace cost more than we could imagine, yields unspeakable joy, and heals the deepest of hurts.  The gift of peace is ours through the gift of His presence.

 

THE GIFT THAT COUNTS

I think Jesus understood what we really needed.  He didn't need to give us more money or possessions to grant us peace.  He didn't need to remove our trials and troubles to give us peace. He simply understood that what we really needed was His personal presence, that we would know Him as Immanuel, God with us (Mt. 1:23), that we would encounter Him as the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14).  

The beauty of this gift has challenged me with two reflective questions.  First, am I personally and intentionally receiving this gift of God's presence in my life?  I don't want to let this season pass let alone another day pass with out being wowed by this God who would empty out all of heaven to be with me.  It's more than a nice thought.  It's the gospel.  And each day, I choose to not just acknowledge that good news but receive it, live by it, and be transformed by it.

The second question I've been challenged with is, Am I being intentional to give this gift?  If God's best gift to me is His presence, can I choose to give my presence too?  It's all too easy in the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, Christmas decorating, Christmas programming, Christmas gathering, etc. to skimp on our time with Jesus.  While celebrating God With Us, let us not neglect being with God.  Choose to give God the gift of your presence.  In all our Martha-like activity this season, let's be even more energetic to give God our Mary-like attention (cf. Lk. 10:38-42).

There's an application of this in our horizontal relationships too.  In the midst of bargain hunting and gift brainstorming, let’s be intentional to give our presence to those who matter the most to us.  Be present.  Be attentive.  Be interested and invested.  Find joy not so much in the reaction our loved ones get when they open their presents, but in connectedness and relationship of being present.  Years from now our kids may not remember the gifts they got under the tree, but I bet that they'll remember who they were with.  So let's give the gift that counts, the best gift we could ever give:  the gift of our presence.

 

Joyful Giving

Have you noticed?  Shopping mall parking lots are a bit more full these days.  While some of us feel a bit jaded by the way commercialism and consumerism cast their ego-centric shadows over the meaning of Christmas, I think we can still appreciate the baseline motivation behind the shopping and bargain-hunting.  If so much attention is on gifts, it's because we want to give.  If you're like me, even if you want to give, it's still somewhat anxiety producing to give around this time of year.  Maybe it's the pressure to give, maybe it's the variety of ways we're expected to give -- not just gifts, but our calendars to be here and go there, our efforts to do this and participate in that.  Is there a way to give this season and enjoy it?  How can we experience the joy of giving...of ourselves, our treasures, our time, our talents?

 

READINESS

I think there's something to be said about being prepared to give that makes it easier to be joyful in our giving.  I've written about giving on purpose in a previous post, and I think the principle bears repeating. Giving when we're ready allows us to give on purpose, intentionally, voluntarily.  It guards us from giving that's obligatory.  The apostle Paul understood this in his letter to the Corinthians.  Before showing up with the expectation that they give of their financial resources, he sent messengers ahead of time to allow for personal preparation.

But I am sending the brothersin order that our boasting about you in this matter should not prove hollow, but that you may be ready, as I said you would be. For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we—not to say anything about you—would be ashamed of having been so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given.  2 Corinthians 9:3-5, NIV.

For generosity to be joyful, we need ample opportunity to plan and prepare.  

So what are some practical ways to cultivate readiness in giving?  Some of these suggestions may be a little late, but I hope they're applicable beyond the Christmas season too.

  • clear a runway — If considering a gift of money to a charity or church, or planning your gift list for loved ones, we're likely to find more joy when we've had time to save/budget for it.  If it’s a gift of time to be here or there with this group or that, pace yourself the week prior to and even build in some margin time just before or after your visit so you don't feel rushed on the bookends of that particular appointment.  If preparing a gift of your talents to be involved in a program or a gift of your energy to help someone out, practice frequently for your role or pray for an increased measure of strength/skill.  The point is that the whirlwind of everyday life drains our resources/calendars/energy so we have nothing to give or have little to act on our plan to give.  Being intentional to clear a runway allows us to give from a full tank joyfully rather than an empty one grudgingly.
  • write down your plan to give — If giving money, create the line item in your budget.  When giving time, put it on your calendar (even give yourself frequent alerts leading up to the appointment).  For the gift of talents or effort, make your intentions known to someone else (not for the sake of drawing attention to yourself but generating accountability for yourself.)

 

DECISIVENESS

Again, taking our cues from 2 Corinthians 9, personal decisiveness is a key factor to our level of joy in giving.  Paul encourages believers to individually decide how much they'll individually give.

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”  2 Corinthians 9:7, NLT.

The reality is that joyful giving begins at the heart level, and that is a very personal, individual experience.

Giving can’t be decided or prescribed for us by someone else if it's to be a cheerful gift.  It must come from the inside out.  If it’s the "thought that counts," than it must be my thought that counts in my gift, not someone else’s thought.  Giving from reluctance or giving from compulsion results when it’s not my thought behind the gift.  So have we given ourselves the mental space to reflect and form our decisions to give this season?  All too often I've been swept into the Christmas season, reacting to every expectation to give of myself in every which way.  I invite you to join me in personally preparing and individually deciding to give of myself, my resources, my time and energy this season.  May the Lord grant us grace sufficient to give liberally, generously, joyfully.

And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.  2 Corinthians 9:8, NLT.