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.

'Tis the Season

We're less than 24 hours away from December, and you know what that means?  Christmas cheer is here.  Sure, some kick it into gear right at the beginning of November.  I even saw Christmas lights going up right after Halloween in a nearby neighborhood.  K-LOVE starts playing Christmas songs on the heels of Thanksgiving.  The plan-ahead types complete their Christmas shopping by the end of Black Friday.  And while we've gotten an earlier-than-normal start to putting up Christmas decor around our home, I personally make the mental transition in earnest when December 1st hits.

Christmas.  It's definitely a special time.  It's a season that moves many of us to go beyond our normal routines to create memories and give of ourselves for the sake of others.  At the same time, it can be a very stressful time.  Depending on our past experiences and the expectations we carry into this time of year, we can feel the burden of this season rather than its blessing.  I for one want to make an intentional choice to experience its full potential for blessing and joy, and I want to invite you to join me in doing the same.  Let me share a few simple choices & attitudes I'm choosing to embrace in my pursuit of experiencing joy to the world this season.

 

CAST YOUR CARES

Yours may be different from mine, but I can almost guarantee that you've got cares too.  Do I have the budget for that?  Do I really want to travel all that way?  Am I going to get off work?  Am I going to have work at all?  Will my health hold up?  Can I even celebrate if I miss my loved one so much?  Whatever your care or concern, join me in casting those cares on Jesus at the onset of this season and throughout:

...casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7, NKJV
Give your burdens to the Lord,
    and He will take care of you.
    He will not permit the godly to slip and fall.  Psalm 55:22, NLT

This isn't an invitation to naivety and sweeping things under the rug.  It's an invitation to trust that there is One who cares for you and is mindful of the burdens we bear.  

Jesus wants us to lean on Him to sustain us in the midst of our anxieties and to be the One to cause all things to work together for good (Rom. 8:28).

 

CHANGE THE QUESTION

Christmas as a kid was a time to ask:  What can I get?  It was a time to publish wish lists for my parents and hope those would get passed on to aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.  As I grew older, I added another question:  What can I buy?  I started paying attention to my siblings' wish lists, even wondering if my parents ever had one.  And while that may seem like an improvement over the first question, I think the question can still grow up so to speak.  

Rather than just the selfish "What can I get?" or even the materialistic "What can I buy?", I'm choosing a different question this year:  What can I give?

For me, this modified question expands my focus beyond things that can be found on a shelf or a catalogue.  What I give doesn’t always have to come with a dollar amount.  Gifts will always require something from us — time, energy, effort — but they don’t have cost us money.  (Can you tell what one of my primary cares I need to cast on God is this year?)

The other reason I'm choosing to ask "What can I give?" is to be intentional about keeping my focus on the intended recipient.  I want to be considerate of how I can bless others around me, to be thoughtful & genuinely sensitive to the personal needs that my loved ones may have.  When our focus is on ourselves and the demands Christmas makes on our budget, we become stingy and less than enthusiastic.  When our focus is on the other person, we find joy — joy in relationship, joy in paying attention to others' interests and needs, joy in being a blessing to someone else, joy in simply giving.

Remember it's what God gave that we celebrate during the advent season.  He gave all heaven in the gracious gift of His personal presence -- Immanuel, God with us.  Because He gave and eternally gives, we can give too.  

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Isaiah 9:6, NKJV

 

Grinding out Gratitude

I love Thanksgiving.  It's the holiday that has the gravitational pull to draw families together as much as Christmas without the pressure of buying gifts for each other.  It's usually accompanied with mild weather...relatively speaking.  And it's driven by a spirit of gratitude, something we're all too prone to neglect.  Thanks.  Gratitude.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word used for "thanks" carries the visual imagery of God's hand.  In the New Testament, the word is related to the concept of "grace."  Biblically speaking, giving thanks is the acknowledgement of God's gracious hand in our lives.

How have you seen God's gracious hand in your life lately?

Let's admit it.  Sometimes that question is easier to answer than others.  There are seasons in our lives when our hearts are overflowing with a sense of gratitude over the blessings and providences that are so evident and abundant.  On the other hand, there are stretches when counting blessings feels more like a discipline, a slow and deliberate admission without the warm fuzzies.  Those are the times when praise really does feel like a "sacrifice" (cf. Heb. 13:15), giving thanks as something that actually costs us something.  And yet, I would submit that grinding out gratitude in those seasons, although not enjoyable at first, sure beats the alternative of hardening up in bitterness and unbelief.

 

Don't Feel Fine

A couple weeks ago, I came across a friend's Facebook status that didn't sit too well with me.  Ok, it saddened me.  I know, I know, I'm not the only one this happens to.  It wasn't political or overtly offensive.  It sounds like he was just bemoaning the fact that terrible things keep happening in this world without any light at the end of the tunnel.  It was an emotionally-driven perspective that in the process threw shade on what the Bible calls the "blessed hope" -- a hope that I hold near and dear to my heart.  Without quoting his post, let's just say that as I read it and the ensuing comments, the chorus of a popular song from the 90s (or was it the 80s?) came to mind:

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine. (R.E.M.)

I can't say whether my friend's post came from disappointment, frustration, anger, or arrogance.  But what I can say is that when I see and hear evidence of an increasingly broken humanity, I don't feel fine.  I saw my friend's Facebook status the same week when my mind and heart were still reeling from the news of the Sutherland Springs church shooting.  And on top of that, it was also the week I heard that my first cousin's second son was killed in a car accident.  A senior in high school with every bit of potential ahead of him.

When faced with life's tragedies both far and away, we can choose one of several responses.  Naturally, we have fight or flight mechanisms built in us and modeled by others around us.  We can attack in bitterness and anger or withdraw in hopelessness and hardness.  But I think the Bible gives us another option in this simple yet saving discipline of giving thanks, acknowledging God's gracious hand in our lives even against all appearances.

...In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:18, NKJV

I don't think this is about sweeping things under the rug in willful ignorance.  Nor is it about feeling fine about life's brokenness.  Instead, it's about shifting the weight of our focus, finding meaning not so much in what we've lost but in God's gracious providence in the midst of what we've lost.  It's there.  He's there.  And when we realize it, we'll find ourselves more than conquerors through Him who loved us because nothing, truly nothing, can separate us from His love (cf. Rom. 8:37-39).

Whether this is a season that gratitude is overflowing or is something we have to choose, may we all find the capacity to recognize God's gracious hand in our lives.  In spite of, because of, in the midst of whatever life may throw at us, may we be blessed to yet acknowledge God's blessings.

Eyes Wide Open, pt. 2

As our family sat for dinner at a local restaurant, we glanced up at the TV screen in the corner of the room showing Game 7 of the World Series, only to see the LA Dodgers down 0-5 after two innings to the eventual world champion Houston Astros.  While that might seem "tragic" to some, the most sobering moment was seeing the breaking news headline scrolling at the bottom of the screen that reported a fatal shooting at a Walmart just 40 minutes upstate from us.  As I processed that headline, I found myself struck by two different emotions — sadness on one hand and at the same time un-surprise.

Honestly, that sense of un-surprise actually...well, surprised me.  I was caught off guard by that tinge of un-shock over such a violent, senseless crime that is not too far from home.  And it reminded me of a sickening reality:  we live in a world where violence, terror, and a disregard for human life is becoming the new normal.  That bothers me...terribly.  Jesus' words capture it well:  

And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.  Matthew 24:12, NKJV

But when this sign is increasingly fulfilled and the winter chill of human lovelessness ices over the hearts of humanity, I don't want my first response to be a mild sigh of, "That's just what happens."  I don't want to be callous to the depravity of our human condition.

No, I want to remain warm to the reality that this is not God's ideal, this is not my home, and that this world and my heart are in desperate need of Jesus.

 

SEEING HUMANITY'S PLIGHT

In last week's post, we stopped mid-story to zero in on Elisha's first prayer for open eyes in 2 Kings 6.  The faithful prophet prayed for his servant to be able to see the not just the danger of enemy armies but also the protection of heaven's hosts.  That's the eye-opening prayer that most remember.  But there actually is a second round that is, again, quite humorous...and humbling.

Ever-full of confidence in God's power, Elisha prays that the Syrian armies would be struck with blindness.  He then proceeds to lead them "to the man whom you seek" (2 Kgs 6:19), but leads them by the hand instead to the very court of Israel's king who wonders if he has a green light to slay the Syrian army -- a very vulnerable position for this now helpless band of soldiers  It's here and for these foreign forces that Elisha prays the second time for open eyes:

So it was, when they had come to Samaria, that Elisha said, “Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” And the Lord opened their eyes, and they saw; and there they were, inside Samaria!  2 Kings 6:20

Utterly weakened, totally off-course, and oblivious to the fact that they were one step away from death, the Syrians opened their eyes to see the danger of their position and their need for saving grace and mercy from deserved destruction (see vv. 22-23).  That's what Elisha prayed for the second time -- not awareness of God's provision in this case, but awareness of their plight.  And I believe we need to pray for the same at times.

When all seems hopeless, when we're overwhelmed by our helplessness and inadequacies, we can pray for eyes to see God's abundant care and merciful presence that He has already made available to us.  But as my surprising un-surprise from last night has reminded me, there are times when we are under-whelmed by things that really should bother us.  There are seasons and contexts in which we are blind to the danger that surrounds us, and we need to pray for eyes that are open to our pitiful condition, our need for grace that literally saves us.  (Laodicea anyone?  See Rev. 3:17-18.)

Would you join me in praying for open eyes -- eyes open to God's care and also our own condition?  I would venture to say that as we pray for eyes wide open, we'll find ourselves praying all the more -- praying with increased confidence in God and also increased dependence upon God.

Eyes Wide Open

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened... Ephesians 1:18, NIV

A few weeks ago as our small group transitioned from supper to study, the hypothetical question was asked, "If you could keep only one of your five senses, which would you choose?"  Some, still wiping their faces from the satisfying dinner, opted to hang on to the joys of taste.  Others tried to evade the constraints and wanted to keep two senses.  In the end, the majority of our group chose sight because it seems to open up more possibility for functionality and awareness of reality.  When we can't see, we turn the lights on.  When we can't see clearly, we pay for prescription glasses or contacts.  Vision allows for understanding, perception of beauty, appropriate reaction to surroundings.  I think that's why the Bible often uses sight as a metaphor for knowledge and wisdom (cf. Lk. 24:16, 30-31; Mt. 6:22-23) and blindness for ignorance (cf. Jn. 9:40-41).

What do you see?  Or maybe the tougher question is, What don't you see?

 

SEEING GOD'S PROVISION

At a time when the king of Syria sought to pester the king of Israel, the prophet Elisha was used by God to inform Israel's armies of the plots and schemes of the Syrian army even before they were executed.  Syria's king grew frustrated and even accused one of his own officers for leaking confidential information to the enemy.  When it dawned on him that "Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom" (2 Kings 6:12), the king of Syria aimed his attack on Elisha himself.  (I'll admit, this is one of those Bible stories that humors me as much as it inspires me.)

The next morning, Elisha's servant observes something out of the ordinary on his early morning errands.  He runs to the prophet in order to share what he sees -- the Syrian army surrounding the city.  Elisha's servant thinks he's sharing news, informing the prophet of some great danger that he hadn't yet perceived.  In response, Elisha sets himself to prayer -- not for protection, not for deliverance, not for victory.  He doesn't even pray for himself.  He prays for sight, and he prays it twice for two different recipients.  We'll explore the second prayer in next week's post, but for now here's that first prayer for sight:

"Lord, I pray, open his [the servant's] eyes that he may see."  Then the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.  2 Kings 6:17

What do you see?  Or, what don't you see?  I think there are times in our lives when we respond to life in fear, when circumstances and dynamics cause us to shut down in a state of helplessness and powerlessness.  We turn to blaming others, ourselves, even God.  We're paralyzed from moving forward because we can't see which way is out.  

But what if what we see that causes us so much fear and anxiety isn't the full picture?  What if our God is greater, is present, is already on the move to save and deliver even before we have any clue of what He's up to?

I'm convinced we need to pray Elisha's prayer more often.  We need to pray it for ourselves, and we need to pray it for others around us when we have little sense of God's abundant provision for salvation, for life's sorrows, for whatever it is that may hem us in.  Oh that God would open our eyes to see that He has provided everything necessary for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3)!  When surrounded by trouble and terror, may it become our default to set ourselves to pray for sight of God's provision and of the ever-present God Himself (cf. Ps. 46:1).