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.



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)!



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.



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.



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?



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.



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.



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.)



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.



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?



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.)



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.



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).



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.



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?



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).


The Reformer's Heart

He just showed up.  No introductions, no foreshadowing.  Only a context of moral decline and spiritually vacuous leadership.  Unannounced and unexpected — both in the king’s court and also in the reader’s mind following the Old Testament narrative — Elijah the Tishbite declares a word from the Lord with authority and clarity:

As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.  1 Kings 17:1


Oct. 31 this year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses boldly posted on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  But long before Luther and the other Protestant Reformers, the Bible records story after story of individuals who stood for the reformation and restoration of God’s truth in the midst of consuming darkness.  Much like Martin Luther fearlessly proclaiming the truth of God’s Word in the midst of the Dark Ages, Elijah stands out in the Old Testament as a man whose love for God and zeal for His glory would not let him sit on the sidelines to watch God’s people persist in rebellion and self-destruction. 

Have you ever groaned under similar spiritual failures and folly?  Maybe you’ve been in environments or situations where the dynamics were all moving spiritually and morally downward.  As we read headline after headline, I think we’re witnessing those kinds of dynamics in our world today.  I’ll be honest, my first response to these dark realities is usually a sense of disappointment followed by a sense of distance.  I often feel like I’m far from being an effective help, like there’s little I can do to change the story.  Or like someone shared in our small group the other night,

“I feel like checking out when I see all this,” as though there’s no use engaging if it’s all going downhill anyway.

Whether or not you resonate with any of those sentiments of helplessness, I think we can all recognize the value of asking and answering this question:  where in the world does the spirit of reform come from?  In the midst of their respective contexts, Luther and Elijah jumped in the fray to stem the tide of spiritual darkness.  If they did it, how can I?



Embedded in 1 Kings 17:1 quoted above, there are at least two realities that I believe factor into the reformer’s heart.

1)  GOD LIVES.  Elijah wasn’t content to just bemoan the magnitude of idolatry and corruption in his day.  He knew the problem was huge, but he never lost sight of the fact that God is bigger.  He’s alive.  He’s present.  He’s aware.  He’s active.  Because God lives, there’s hope.  Because God lives, there’s a way out and up.  Look again, that grave is empty.  Jesus ever lives, and because of that He is “able to save to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25).  Because God lives, I can be alive and passionate about the things He lives for.

2) I STAND.  “To stand before” someone was an idiomatic expression of standing in the service of a king or ruler.  It expressed a ready-position, a stance of attentiveness to do whatever that leader may wish.  Because Elijah fully believed that the “God of Israel lives,” he conscientiously placed himself in a position of service to the King of Kings.  The reformer’s heart not only recognizes the living presence and power of God but also chooses to surrender to His bidding.  When we stand before God, we don’t have to react fearfully to life’s circumstances.  Instead, we response faithfully to the Lord’s commands.

Just as God has raised up reformers throughout the history of humanity, I believe He still looks for individuals to stand for light and truth today.  In our homes, our classrooms, our communities.  May God grant us the heart of a reformer.  May we acknowledge Him as the Lord who lives and choose to place ourselves at His command.

A New Humanity

I don't remember exactly how it all started, but there was definitely trouble brewing.  I was leading a 3-week youth Bible camp, the first week of which included taking this group of 20+ teens on a 5-night backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  The first few days were filled with fun and meaningful moments, but by Day 4 the natives were obviously restless.  Our staff felt like the students were exaggerating their complaints about the trail.  Our students felt like the staff really didn't know where we were going or what we were doing.  And then to cap it all off, when we got to the lakeside we had all been hyping up as the best camping spot on the trail, it was infested with aggressive mosquitos.  Unfulfilled expectations, loud complaints, sharp blame, divisive and dismissive attitudes.  And all this before we were to head down the mountain and engage two more weeks of spiritual growth activities.  It was time for a leadership huddle.

As the students continued setting up camp, our leadership team assessed the situation and concluded that we couldn't come off the mountain with this kind of relational dynamic.  The spiritual growth goals we anticipated in the coming weeks would have no chance to take genuine root in the students' hearts as long as distrust and displeasure lodged there. 

Broken horizontal relationships too often get in the way of experiencing God. 

What could be done to reverse all this?  After much prayer together, we decided that the kids needed to know that we were all on the same team.  The us vs. them mentality had to go.  They needed to know that we acknowledged and owned our shortcomings, things that didn't go as planned.  And we needed to assure our students that we didn't bring them out here to suffer but to grow, that we were giving our full effort to ensure they're best experience...even if some of those efforts failed.  With all that nailed down, we then asked the more difficult question:  HOW exactly were going to communicate all this in a meaningful way they could receive?



In John 13, Jesus gave us a powerful example of how to restore relational brokenness in the body of Christ.  In the midst of a roomful of soon-to-be evangelists and representatives of the gospel, pride, hurt feelings, and distrust threatened to hijack the mission of Christ's church.  With few words, Jesus demonstrated breathtaking humility as he stooped to wash each of the disciples' feet, including Judas's!  John prefaces this narrative in these words:

...having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.  John 13:1, NKJV

Through that silent sermon, the disciples were humbled.  Ever after, they would find a blessing in following the example of Jesus' humility (cf. Jn . 13:15, 17).  It's that state of humility, of pride laid to the dust, of differences and hurts washed away in view of Jesus' condescension and amazing grace that disciples of every age are put in an optimal position to receive the gospel and fulfill its great commission.



With John 13 weighing upon our hearts, we broke from that leadership huddle with a clear sense of direction.  As the sun began to set behind the mountain horizon, we called the students together and led them out to a portion of the lakeshore from which two fallen trees made a couple of natural piers stretching a good 40 feet out into the relatively shallow lake.  After leading the students out onto these logs and instructing them to take a careful seat, we could sense that suspicion and uncertainty was rising again.  With few words of introduction, our staff, one-by-one stepped into the chilly water and humbly asked the students nearest them if we could wash their feet.

It was a powerful moment.  The debriefing on the shore didn't require much explanation or convincing.  Tears were shed.  Apologies were extended and accepted.  Attention was diverted away from the difficulties and re-focused on the destination of spiritual growth...and we were going to get there together.

How is your experience with God and effectiveness for His kingdom being hampered by pride, hurt feelings, or distrust?  Or how might the spiritual experience of others around you be negatively impacted by those things?  Whether or not we see ourselves as being part of the problem, we can all be part of the solution.  We've all got our share of relational brokenness and dysfunction, but by the power of the cross and God's amazing grace, we don't have to let that define us and our patterns of interpersonal relationships.  May we choose to lay self aside and allow the power of the gospel to work in us a new pattern of relational wholeness, a new kind of humanity.  And may the purpose of the cross be fulfilled in us.

For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility....His purpose was to create in Himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross.  Ephesians 2:14-16, NIV

97 and Counting


My family and I just returned from a trip to our native state of California.  While it was a nice chance to unplug and vacation, our primary purpose was to be able to celebrate the birthdays of both my wife's and my grandfathers.  Born just 5 days apart from each other back in 1920, these men have both lived 97 very full years and are still going strong.  They're both healthy.  They're both driving their own cars.  They're both mentally sharp and emotionally joyful.  Really, it's pretty amazing just to even be in their presence.


Longevity isn't something we're use to seeing these days, not just in terms of physical livelihood but also in other areas -- technological relevance, relational stability, career satisfaction, organizational success, church health, spiritual growth, etc.  We've gotten use to seeing things come and go on a short timetable.  So when I see the sustained well-being of grandfather and my grandfather-in-law, it catches my attention and increases my desire to achieve sustainability.  They're anomalous lives make me ask:  What can I glean and learn from their experience to enjoy that kind of endurance and longevity in all areas of life?



One of the most obvious features of these 97-year-old studs is their love for family.  While they enjoy their time to themselves, I think they especially enjoy being around their loved ones.  They take great pride in their children, grandchildren, and now their great-grandchildren.  But beyond the pride is a sense of support, the significance found in the presence of others.  Even if the numbers of those actually present may be few, the strength of relationship and connection is deeply felt.  I know how much it warms my heart to see these men smile over my kids, call them by name, and pull them close for a squeeze.  How much more it does for their hearts?  There really is strength in numbers, in close connections.

Whether family or friends, one of the greatest factors that moves us forward in life is knowing that we're not alone, that there are others who support us, who are present, who are invested in us.  

I know this might sound like a repetition of an idea from last week's post, but the principle is worth hearing again.  We can all think back to times when we've flagged in our zeal or thought about giving up on something, times when the though of longevity in an environment or experience was dreadful rather than inspirational.  I'd venture to guess those were times we felt more alone and distanced from meaningful relationships, times when we didn't have the support we had in the more up-and-to-the-right seasons.  To keep sustaining effort in whatever is important to us requires that we stay connected to people who support us in those endeavors.



Over the last several years, I've noticed that my grandpa enjoys speaking in superlatives.  As his birthday party drew to a close a few days ago, he launched into a speech in which he said, "This is the greatest moment of my life."  A few years back, he said something similar.  On another occasion, he was given a large gift he called "the best gift he has ever received."  You get the idea.  All of us extended family have come to expect some grandiose statement to be made every time we see my grandpa.  We laugh and smile at it, but I'm starting to think it's not just something to brush off.  I think there's something in his prodigious use of superlatives that reveals an ability to embrace each day/experience as that which can bring new levels of joy and satisfaction.  There's value in talking joy, talking faith, choosing words that speak a situation up.  It's not just hyperbole or overshooting.  It's not just a show or façade to give off a false impression of things.  

I really think it's about my grandpa being more and more grateful with each moment and experience, of him taking things in with a greater capacity to appreciate life's joy.  

I want that.  I don't want to be stuck thinking how wonderful the golden years were back in the day.  I want to live life not with my eyes on the rear view mirror but with my eyes enjoying the scenery I'm driving through right now.

I know I go through seasons when my response to the "How's it going?" question is relatively melancholy and critical.  Ever been there?  You can insert other things into that question:  how's the job, how's the church, how's the family, etc.  In those melancholy seasons I think I'm being honest and self-aware, but what if it would be better for me to look up rather than look down, to talk faith rather than failure in those moments?  If I took more time to reflect in those stretches, I bet I would still find an experience or dynamic to be utterly joyful about and even speak in superlatives about.  If that became the default mindset, our ministry experiences, our relationships, you name it would likely be filled with more momentum and less sputtering stalls.



Though more could be said about my grandfathers, I'll wrap up with this simple observation.  They're both passionate about certain things, and they lean into those passions in how they plan their calendars, how they converse with others, how they spend their money, etc.  For one, it's helping his local church.  For the other, it's making music.  They're filled with great enthusiasm about these things.  They're gifted in these areas.  But what's even more beautiful to me about their individual passions is the way they both draw others into experiencing the same passion.  It's not just enough for them to enjoy working around the church or making music.  Their passions really come to life when they can encourage and even equip others to do it too.  And in that way their passions turn into purpose.  My grandpa was the one who taught me how to play the trumpet as a 7-year-old...and apparently he taught my aunts and uncles all their instrumental skill when they were young too.  He not only enjoyed music, he loved leading others to step into the same joy.

I think there's a level of fulfillment that comes when we see someone else's eyes light up about the same things our eyes sparkle about...and to realize that we had something to do with that discovery.  It refreshes our own enthusiasm about that particular thing and actually amplifies it in the process.  So in those areas we feel the need for longevity, let's find the things we're passionate about in it and pass it on to others.  It's not just a selfish thing to get back to those dynamics that make our hearts beat fast.  It's about being purposeful in passing on a legacy that lasts.

Running the Race

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.  Hebrews 12:1

The idea had been brewing in my mind for about a year.  Not exactly sure how it started, but I do remember casually saying that it'd be fun to run a half marathon with my 11-year-old nephew/distance-running phenom.  When he ended up running his first 13.1 mile race earlier this year without me, I felt the need to complete one myself to somehow fulfill my end of the bargain so to speak.  Ok, ok...I also felt the need to beat my nephew's under-2-hour race time, but that's not the point.  Seventeen weeks of training later, I finally crossed the finish line this past Sunday.  Beautiful course, big support from my family, and not as brutal wear and tear on my body as I expected.  It was an overall great experience and one that deserves some thoughtful reflection.  So here goes some race reflections fresh of the course...



If you've ever participated in an organized race, you're familiar with the positioning of "Aid Stations" along the race course.  About every 2.5 miles, there were volunteers holding out cups of water and electrolyte drinks for runners.  But hydration wasn't the only aid they offered.  You could hear them from 20 yards out whooping and cheering.  "Way to go!"  "Keep it up!"  "You guys are awesome!"  For having set up before sunrise and standing in the 50 degree morning chill for a couple hours, these aid station volunteers were brimming with energy and enthusiasm.  For what?  For me.  For the other runners.  For people headed toward a destination and goal they could support even without a deep, personal connection.  Those volunteers didn't know me from Adam, but they knew where I was going and wanted to help me get there.  

I think there's a metaphor for the role of God's church here.  The church ought to be strategically positioned, constantly on the look out for those trying to run life's race with endurance.  We don't need to overthink how to help people along.

Sometimes the basic need for refreshment and encouragement just to keep moving forward is the most helpful blessing we can offer.



At various points in the race, I settled into a running pace I felt I could maintain for the next stretch of miles.  After a while, there were shirt-backs a few seconds in front of me that I grew familiar with.  They were other runners, strangers, people I hadn't come to the race with.  But by virtue of their presence on the course and our matching paces, I was running with them whether they knew it or not.  At one point, one of those runners -- we'll call him "blue-shirt guy" -- slowed down to walk for a bit.  When he later caught up to me, blue-shirt guy crowded my space a little and apologized.  Between breaths I said, "No worries man.  You're my pacer."  And he shot back, "I was going to say the same about you!"  

I think we can all relate to times when we've felt alone on our spiritual journey, disconnected, isolated, as though our actions aren't impacting anyone for better or worse.  But what if we're never really alone?  What if our mere presence on the course is helping someone else keep running?

You may not feel like you're directly impacting someone else'e spiritual journey, but your life is observed and bears an influence nonetheless.  

Whether or not we're giving someone Bible studies or actively engaged in a mission project, we can live the everyday and ordinary in such a way as to help others keep running.



Every mile along the race course, there were mile-markers, signs indicating to the racers how far we had come.  Consequently, these signs indicated how far we had left to go.  I had the advantage of having my phone app audibly telling me my mileage, so I didn't pay a ton of attention to the visual signs...until the 13th mile.  After I had crossed mile-marker 12, my body was feeling it.  Though my stride wasn't slowing, it was definitely shortening.  My feet were burning and tummy growling...I even started asking myself where we were going to eat after the race.  People were passing me.  I was getting distracted and weary.  That 13th mile was by far the hardest.  My phone display gave me numbers to know how much course I had left, but it was in that last stretch that my eyes needed something concrete to be fixed on.  Someone's shirt back wouldn't do.  I needed to see the finish line.  I remember looking and looking...and when I couldn't see it, I became discouraged.  I checked my phone -- 12.82 miles and counting.  I knew I was close, but I sure didn't feel close.  It just so happened that the course, which had been following a road the entire race, turned off into a field for the last 100 feet...just beyond a grove of trees that blocked my view of the finish line from even a quarter-mile out.

I discovered that signs really do matter.  Visuals.  Indications that we're closing in on our destination.  Signs seem to take on an even greater level of necessity the closer we get to our goal and the more weary we become on our journey.  I think that's why Jesus has been so gracious to give us signs of His return (cf. Mt. 24, Lk. 21).  And my, oh my, how those signs are increasing in frequency and intensity!  But even more than the signs in the religious, political, social, natural dimensions of reality, I am persuaded that the "sign of the Son of Man" Himself (Mt. 24:30) is the most motivating of them all.  While I was looking for the finish line banner at the end of the race, what I especially hoped to see were the familiar faces of my wife and kids.  Take a look again at the verse quoted at the top of the post along with its subsequent verse:

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. 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 12:1-2, NIV

Fixing our eyes on Jesus...maybe He's the real finish line.  More than a destination to get to or a goal to achieve, when we're able to set our eyes the Person to know and love, we'll find ourselves running with endurance all the way to the end.

Unceasing Prayer

...pray without ceasing...  1 Thessalonians 5:17

Short.  Pithy.  Punchy.  In the midst of other exhortations near the close of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, these three simple words can be glossed over or seen as a given, a spiritual cliché that is taken for granted.  In the context of the entire epistle and particularly in its final chapter, Paul's emphatic desire is for believers of all ages to be prepared for the ever-nearing return of the Lord Jesus.  Could it be that Paul understands something about prayer that many of us are slow to perceive about such a familiar practice?

I am becoming more and more convinced that there's something about unceasing prayer that is so potent and life-transforming that it actually prepares us for the return of Jesus.

I'll admit, I'm not certain that I've exhausted the fullness of what that something is.  I may not know everything about prayer, let alone unceasing prayer, but what I do know is that words like Paul's in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 make me ask some pointed, personal questions.  Sure, it makes me consider how much I actually pray.  But more than that, it makes me ask the quality question behind the quantity question:  what is prayer to me?  Think about it.  The fact that Paul counsels us to "pray without ceasing" says something about what he views prayer to be, i.e. something we need 24/7, every minute of every day.  So what is prayer that it ought to bear an unceasing dynamic in our lives?


Let me share a quote that has both inspired and challenged me in regard to unceasing prayer:

Prayer is the breath of the soul. It is the secret of spiritual power. No other means of grace can be substituted and the health of the soul be preserved. Prayer brings the heart into immediate contact with the Wellspring of life, and strengthens the sinew and muscle of the religious experience. Neglect the exercise of prayer, or engage in prayer spasmodically, now and then, as seems convenient, and you lose your hold on God. The spiritual faculties lose their vitality, the religious experience lacks health and vigor....  (E.G. White, Prayer, 12)

For prayer to ever become an unceasing reality in our lives, it ought to be seen in vital terms.  Inasmuch as we cannot survive physically without breathing, you and I cannot survive spiritually without praying.  Why?  Because prayer brings us into immediate contact with God Himself, and it's in HIM that we live and move and have our very existence (Acts 17:28), not ourselves.  We need prayer because we need God.  Prayer is not a luxury.  It's a necessity.  Furthermore, it's a constant necessity.  We need unceasing prayer because we need an unceasing hold on God.

But here's the rub.  While prayer is an absolute necessity, it doesn't come naturally.  Physically speaking, we have an involuntary nervous system that, when functioning properly, ensures that our respiratory system will inhale and exhale whether or not we consciously tell our body to do so.  With the spiritual practice of prayer, however, we don’t automatically pray without ceasing.  We don’t come out of the womb naturally holding on to God with a vicegrip.  Unceasing prayer requires intentionality, constant effort and deliberateness.


Lately, I’ve been reading through the life of Samuel.  To many, Samuel is probably best known for his availability to God in his youth, ministering to the Lord in the tabernacle as a young child, and becoming acquainted with the voice of the Lord at a very early age.  But lately I’ve been struck by Samuel’s example of unceasing prayer throughout the rest of his spiritual leadership into his more aged years.  As both prophet and priest, Samuel modeled a kind of leadership that was wholly dependent upon God and led others to be dependent upon God too.  In his life can be seen servant leadership, selfless service, and genuine love for others’ best interest…even when they didn’t deserve it.  I would venture to say that the most prominent expressions of this others-centered love can be seen in his commitment to unceasingly pray for the people around him.  Just look at this string of references from Samuel’s ministry:

So the children of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that He may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” And Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. Then Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him.  1 Samuel 7:8-9
Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you; but I will teach you the good and the right way. 1 Samuel 12:23
Now the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the Lord all night.  1 Samuel 15:10-11

Without going into too much detail, what’s clear from the above passages and their contexts is that Samuel led God’s people through intercessory prayer and did so particularly in times when they had royally messed up. 

In other words, Samuel prayed unceasingly for those he led when they least deserved it but most desperately needed it. 

So what was prayer to Samuel?  It was the best way he knew to love others.  Though slighted personally, though offended on behalf of God, though grieved over their rebellion, Samuel engaged unceasing prayer because that was the best way for him to love and lead the people around him.  Furthermore, he held it a sacred calling and a sin against God were he to do otherwise.  Apparently Samuel’s practice of unceasing prayer was to him the best way he could love God and stay faithful to Him.

So what is prayer to you and I?  And how does our answer translate into how much do we pray?  May we give God permission to increase our sense of need for prayer.  May God give us a spirit of supplication (cf. Zech. 12:10) that educates our hearts to regard prayer as the most loving thing we can do for others and a way to remain faithful to our God.  May we discover prayer to be our soul’s very breath through which we lay hold on God so that we it becomes our natural rhythm and impulse to pray without ceasing.

Storms Aplenty

After hitting Texas with devastating power nearly a week ago, Hurricane Harvey is turning out to be the most costly natural disaster in United States history.  While I was still emotionally digesting the magnitude of this storm and the estimated 30,000-40,000 homes destroyed in the Houston area alone, I was pained to find this headline pop up earlier this morning from USA Today:  "On the heels of Hurricane Harvey, Tropical Storm Irma forms."  Are you kidding?  Another one?  Granted, this tropical storm brewing far out in the Atlantic Ocean hasn't hit hurricane speeds yet, and its trajectory in relation to the US mainland is still unknown.  But the reality that strikes me is the relentless nature of storms.

Unscripted and almost always unwanted.  They're multidirectional and they're inevitable.  No wonder Jesus found vehement rains, violent winds, and rising flood waters to be an apt metaphor for life's challenges in his parable of the wise and foolish builders:

Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.  Matthew 7:24-25, NKJV

In all our ambitions to build something stable and secure of our lives, we will all be met with storms that challenge our plans and purpose.  

What's more, when one of life's storms passes, there's no guarantee that we'll be storm-free for long.  Just ask my friend Kevin.  

Over two months ago, Kevin's "house" was beat upon by a motorcycle accident and spinal cord injury in his neck that left him largely immobile.  Words cannot describe the inspiration he has been to me as I've seen his progress through specialized therapy and his daily, conscious decision to keep courage and faith in God's plans for his life.  He's not just putting a game face on.  He has been fighting the fight of faith in a way that I have never personally experienced, and in my book he is fighting it victoriously.  Last week, I got to see Kevin in his own home, in a manual wheelchair instead of the motorized one I had seen him in at the hospital!  He reached to shake my hand.  He was upbeat.  And then...another storm brewed.  A few days ago, he experienced some complications that necessitated another hospital stay.  "I feel like Job," he said when I visited him yesterday.  And yet, Kevin is choosing faith.  He recognizes that the devil is trying to get the best of him, and though it's not easy to sustain courage in Christ, he's choosing to anyway...even in the midst of storms aplenty.


Where does resilience in the midst of storms come from?  

1)  For starters, the resilient, like Kevin, don't hold a false expectation that life should be storm free.  Storms arise...frequently.  To assume otherwise would set us up for failed expectations and dashed dreams.  2)  In the parable of the wise & foolish builders, the key distinction is that the wise man builds his house on the rock and not sand.  His foundation is firm, and we build on the firm foundation of Jesus as a result of hearing His words and actually putting them into practice (Mt. 7:24, NIV).  To be intellectually aware of God's Word and refuse to practically apply it is essentially building on ourselves rather than on Jesus.  3)  Based on the experience of Job, something that I'm just now appreciating is the fact that he never ceased communicating with God.  In other words, his incorrigible grip on God corresponds directly to his incessant prayer life with God.  Storms can drive a relational wedge between us and our Savior, but it's through prayer -- open, honest, frequent, full of faith -- that we develop relational depth in the midst of and even regardless of life's struggles.

In closing, let me share a quote I recently came across while exploring prayer in the life of Job.  May we all discover a fundamental contentment in God no matter what storms brew in our lives.

The question of the book of Job is posed in its very beginning. Is it possible that a man or woman can come to love God for himself alone so that there is a fundamental contentment in life regardless of circumstances (Job 1:9)? Yes, this is possible, but only through prayer.  Timothy Keller, Prayer


When Lows Become Highs


This past Sunday, I had the honor of being a part of the most significant commitments two of my friends will ever make in their lives:  a commitment to each other in marriage and a commitment to Jesus in baptism.  It was beautiful -- breathtakingly beautiful -- in more ways than one.  Sure, the partly cloudy 65-75 degree weather at about 8700' elevation just west of Boulder, CO made for great pictures.  But the story of lives surrendered to and changed by God reveals to my heart a spiritual glory that surpasses the natural beauty of the Front Range.  While I was already acquainted with this story of transformation as I've seen my friends grow over the last 9 months, my appreciation for God's handiwork in their lives deepened when I heard that story from someone else's perspective.

The most exciting moments of the day had already passed by the time I had this particularly impactful conversation.  The vows, the kiss, the baptism, the prayer, the pictures -- all great moments.  But what stands out most is when I went back for a second helping at the reception buffet.  As I stood in line with the groom's 21-year-old younger brother, this young adult spontaneously gushed about his older brother.  "I'm just really proud of Justin," he said.  He explained that while Justin hasn't always set the best example for him as the younger brother, he could see now that it's possible to change.  "He has had low points just like everyone else.  But seeing what he has gone through and where he is today gives me hope."  For this young man who himself was feeling the need for change in his own life, Justin's lows had become highs.  

In that moment, I was wowed once again by the power of God to bring beauty out of ashes, joy out of junk, victory out of defeat.

There is something powerful about the story of grace each and every one of us carries.  Whether we realize it or not, our experience of God's saving and transforming grace in our lives is one that has the power to impact others' eternities.  I think that's why the Bible identifies our testimonies as one of the key factors in overcoming Satan's schemes against us:  "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony..." (Rev. 12:11).  Not only is it a key factor in combatting Satan in our own lives, but it's a chosen factor in extending salvation to others:

Our confession of His faithfulness is Heaven’s chosen agency for revealing Christ to the world. We are to acknowledge His grace as made known through the holy men of old; but that which will be most effectual is the testimony of our own experience. We are witnesses for God as we reveal in ourselves the working of a power that is divine. Every individual has a life distinct from all others, and an experience differing essentially from theirs. God desires that our praise shall ascend to Him, marked by our own individuality. These precious acknowledgments to the praise of the glory of His grace, when supported by a Christ-like life, have an irresistible power that works for the salvation of souls (E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, 347).

Our stories of grace may stir a sense of embarrassment about our lows.  Maybe we even feel like our lows haven't been all that low, that we don't have that dramatic of a story to share.  Whatever the case, our experience of God stepping in to save us from ourselves is always a story worth telling.

Admittedly, sometimes we experience seasons in our lives when all we can see are the lows.  Maybe that season is right now for some.  When you find yourself there, realize that is not put off by our sorrows or struggles.  He in fact is afflicted in our affliction (Isa. 63:9) and is able to make us more than conquerors through Jesus (Rom. 8:37) no matter how dark the night.  May we take courage in the God who is able to make our lows become highs and is both able and eager to give us a story of His transforming grace.

Extremity = Opportunity

It was beginning to feel like the Pacific Northwest last week — consistent rain, lots of gray, with hardly any sunshine breaking through.  (Don’t worry, I won’t make it a habit to keep posting about the untimely rainfall around here.)  Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with copious and consistent rain, unless your church has been planning an outdoor Vacation Bible School (VBS) on a lawn in a nearby neighborhood for the next four days.  Our VBS staff had been praying earnestly for a change in the weather or for God to open up an alternative indoor venue for us to host our event. By Monday afternoon, the prospects didn’t seem very hopeful.

4pm, Monday  —  Just two hours before registration for VBS.  Clouds hid the sun, thunder rumbled, and rain began to pour.  We hadn’t received any callbacks from the organizations we had inquired about using their indoor facilities.  While I was disheartened and preparing myself to cancel the event, my wife Debbie grabbed the car keys and drove out to a preschool just across the street from the lawn we planned to host our VBS.

5pm, Monday — I was supposed to be preparing dinner for the kids, so we could leave for VBS on time, but because I had concluded the event would have to be cancelled, I just slowed down, called the kids over to the living room, and we knelt in prayer together.  It was more of a prayer of submission to be ok with canceling than it was a prayer of petition for God to provide a solution.

5:07pm, Monday — The garage door began to open while I was still kneeling with the kiddos on our living room rug.  Debbie is back home.  But before she even comes in the house, my phone rings, and one of our VBS volunteers is asking what the address is for our indoor site!  Apparently, God led Debbie to connect with just the right person who had just the right spirit to help us in our last minute need.  And a lot of texts and calls had already been going out by the time I got the full story.  

In the end, the Montessori Preschool just across the road from our original location allowed us to use their facility for the rest of the week!  We had a blast, worked hard, met new faces, and were able to bless 20 or so kids with spiritual seeds that we hope can bear fruit for eternity.  Although it may not have been the my ideal script for that outreach effort, there’s not a shadow of doubt in my mind that God was leading. 

All the good that came out of it the VBS was completely His doing and not our own, and I’m convinced of that because ofnot in spite of, those not-so-ideal circumstances. 

There’s something about difficult dynamics that make us realize the limit of our power and control, and it reminds me of this simple reality:

…Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.  E.G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, 145

I wish it were easier to trust this in the moment of those extremities, but it’s something that we must let God educate our hearts and minds to lean into.  As I’ve been reading through Israel’s wilderness wanderings over the last few weeks, I realize that that trusting attitude is something that grows over time and experience…over lots of time and experience.

What are the crises, struggles, adversities you’re facing?  More than just an appeal to positive thinking, I urge you to make prayer your default posture in the midst of extremities.  Give yourself time to be still and know God (cf. Ps. 46:10) as the One who will fight for you (cf. Ex. 14:13-14).  Seek God’s perspective on the situation.  Pray for discernment to see your extremities as God’s opportunities to be glorified even more, to give you fresh evidence of His great faithfulness in the midst of your difficult circumstances. 

Refreshing Reminders

My family and I just returned from 6-days in Omaha, Nebraska where we got to attend and also lead worship for a Mid-America ministerial convention.  The event drew pastors and their families from Wyoming, Colorado, the northern part of New Mexico, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota.  Pretty awesome when you think about it.  Since that event is fresh on my mind (and since it was the only thing on my mind the past 6 days), I figured I could depart from my normal blog style and just share a few takeaways that really hit home from my recent experience there in Omaha.


The blood will never lose its power

On opening night, an appeal was extended to the pastors and their spouses that was simple and powerful:  bring your family to the cross.  We each had our own family's picture in our registration packets, and we were given permission to prayerfully come to the front as an act of seeking the saving grace of Jesus in the lives of our families.  The videos here show what the cross looked like when it was all over and also the last song we sang as we wrapped up that cross-picture activity.

It was a moving experience!  And the truth is that this is our privilege everyday.  Each day, God's mercy is new every morning, and each day we can bring our families to the cross in prayer and surrender.  On another occasion, our worship team led the congregation in a familiar song, the chorus of which confesses that the blood of Jesus "will never lose its power"!  I needed those reminders.  And I'm probably not the only one.


First things first

One of the repeated themes throughout conference was an appeal to pastors to pastor their families.  The reality is that while others may be able to pastor my church, no one else can be a husband to my wife and a father to my children.  

When I pray for and pursue faithfulness in pastoral ministry, I need to stay true to my first ministry calling as husband and father.

That can be a challenge at times.  There are expectations that pressure me to do differently...whether they are merely perceived expectations or actual expectations.  And sometimes my own sense of what's important can be skewed depending on the context and particular responsibility.  In fact, if you look closely at the video of the song above, you'll notice that I slipped off the stage before the song was over.  It just so happened that as the song was nearing its end, our youngest son Jacob let out a distressing cry because he wanted to be on stage with his parents.  It was one of those moments of tension:  let someone else take him off stage to maintain the quality of the ministry product or be present to give him the assurance of fatherly love and trust that the ministry product will take care of itself.  I chose to be present, which I think he immediately appreciated, and thankfully that was without much consequence to the program.  I may not always make the best choice when my responsibilities are in tension, but I pray for God's grace to be aligned with what's truly important to Him, to habitually keep first things first.

I'm sure there are more takeaways to reflect on, but for now, this is what's fresh.  May the Lord give us the good sense to not just share the gospel with the world around us but to firstly and daily receive the gospel for ourselves and for our families.  May He give us the grace to keep first things first, that in all our serving and ministering we would seek first to be faithful in those things which we alone can do.


Prayer -- Does it Make a Difference?

As thunder clouds rolled in last Friday afternoon, our prayer walk plans changed slightly.  Instead of hiking to the top of the iconic Castle Rock, after which this town is named, a small group of us huddled together at the covered picnic area near the trailhead.  Though our faces were sometimes windblown, they were nonetheless aglow with joy as we shared testimonies and then interceded for our community with fervor and faith.  Near the end of our season of prayer, an elderly gentleman who had observed our gathering interjected with words of affirmation and exhortation.  He shared a copy of the card pictured here with each of us gathered and assured us we were doing exactly what God wanted us to do — pray.

I was blessed by that.  Every now and then, each of us needs to know that when we pray and especially when we pray for others’ salvation, we’re doing exactly what God wants us to do. 

Whether we say it out loud or not, sometimes our hearts wonder, “Does prayer really make a difference?”

I read a story this morning in Exodus 17 that reminded me in no uncertain terms that prayer absolutely makes a difference.  Just a little more than a month removed from their miraculous deliverance from Egypt, the Israelites come under attack by the Amalekites.  While Joshua is commissioned to lead an organized defense, Moses stations himself atop a hill, not merely as a spectator but as an intercessor.  Moses was convinced that prayer makes a difference.


Prayer Gives Perspective

It may be a small detail, but I think there’s something significant that Moses chose to pray from the top of a hill.  

And Moses said to Joshua, “Choose us some men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.”  Exodus 17:9, NKJV

That simple, tactical decision provides an illustration of the way prayer allows us to put our struggles and battles into perspective.  When under enemy attack, prayer causes us to be still and know that God is God, that our struggles and affliction are not bigger than our God.  Maybe it’s this prayerful perspective that the psalmist yearns for in Psalm 61:2

From the end of the earth I will cry to You,
When my heart is overwhelmed;
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

When life’s pressures sweep over us like a flood, prayer gives us a vantage point of faith that God is still in control.


Prayer Recalls Providence

When Moses found his prayer position, he was also intentional about bringing along “the rod of God” in his hand (v. 9).  I don’t think this is a prescription for prayer charms or amulets of any sort.  But I do see Moses clinging to this rod as a reminder of God’s leadership and his personal surrender to it.

Prior to his burning bush encounter with God in Exodus 3 & 4, this was his trusty shepherd’s staff, but ever since accepting the commission to lead Israel and God’s assurance that He would provide all that was needed along the way, the Exodus narrative refers to this staff as “the rod of God.”  It was a token of God’s past providence and previous promises.  When we pray in the face of struggles of our own or struggles of those we love, we can recall God’s past faithfulness and plead with God to reveal His faithfulness in the present.  Like Moses, we can hold up hands of hope in prayer when our hearts are filled with reminders of God’s grace and victory in the past.


Prayer Requires Perseverance

Sometimes the victories and breakthroughs we know God can work on our behalf do not come in an instant.  Momentum shifts not just because the enemy of souls is dogged but sometimes because our pursuit of God flags.

And so it was, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands became heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.  Exodus 17:11-12, NKJV

Difference-making prayer requires a persevering faith that God will supply all we need and when we need it most.  It requires a steadfast trust that God actually is greater than he that is in the world (cf. 1 John 4:4), even when outward appearances may indicate otherwise.

Furthermore, the perseverance that inspires difference-making prayer finds strength in numbers. 

Moses’ upheld hands grew weak as the day wore on, but his companions Aaron and Hur understood the necessity of persevering in prayer.  It was their presence and also their united efforts that catalyzed the kind of endurance in prayer that resulted in victory for God’s people.  

Have you experienced your fervor in prayer fizzle and fade?  Maybe we ought to take a page from Moses’ playbook and find the Aarons and Hurs God has put in our lives to pray with us, and I mean to pray with us.  Not just praying for the things you’re praying about in their own time and space, but actually praying with us, alongside us.  There’s nothing quite like uniting with others in faith-filled prayer that fans into flame our fervor for prayer.

In the coming weeks and months, may the Lord bless us with the perspective, the reminders of His providence, and the faith-filled perseverance to pray individually and unitedly.  May He grant us the assurance and evidence of His victories and blessings in response to our fervent prayers.