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

[*micdrop*]

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?

 

HE LIVES, I STAND

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?

 

THERE'S AN ORDINANCE FOR THAT

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.

 

INTO THE WATER

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

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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.

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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?

 

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

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.

 

SUPERLATIVES ARE SUPER

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.

 

PASSION & PURPOSE

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...

 

CHEERLEADERS & REFRESHERS

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.

 

NOT ALONE

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.

 

SIGNS MATTER

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?

LAYING HOLD ON GOD

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.

LOVING OTHERS, LOVING GOD

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

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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.

The Master of Ministry, Pt. 6

By the time we break into chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, we’ve already been treated to five different portraits of Jesus and His sensitivity to the present needs of those around Him.  Rather than imposing a preset ministry program upon His audiences, He meets them with a genuine interest in their current situation and a compassion to bless them in whatever way they needed it most.  We’ve seen Him bless people in their social, spiritual, emotional, and physical needs.  And now in John 6, we can see the impact of that person-first ministry:  

Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased.  John 6:2, NKJV

Word gets around quickly that Jesus cares about our needs and that He can actually do something about them, and the people respond with great enthusiasm and interest.  Maybe that’s an understatement.  Their interest turns into an initiative to crown Jesus as their king! 

These people had never seen Someone who was so unselfish and caring, Someone who understood the full spectrum of their needs and was moved with no-strings-attached love to minister to those needs.

If this was the response of people to Jesus’ selfless ministry, I believe it is to be the expected response and openness of people to the selfless ministry of Jesus’ church.  When our communities and neighbors feel that we take interest in them for their good and that we are not only sympathetic to but practically invested in their needs, we will see surprising receptivity.

 

BUT...

But popularity does not always equal success.  Ratings do not always translate into discipleship.  Notice how the story turns on the issue of motive and ambition:

Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled." John 6:26, NKJV

In the heat of the moment, Jesus discerns what truly fuels the multitude’s fervent pursuit of His presence.  The people had not in mind the things of God but the things of men, something that Jesus’ own disciples were guilty of as well (cf. Mt. 16:23).  The values of the frenzied multitudes were not aligned with eternal values, and Jesus checks that swell of self-centered, short-sighted enthusiasm.  He was not willing to sacrifice the mission of revealing the eternal gospel for catering to the crowd’s expectations.  At the risk of letting popularity ratings fall, Jesus sets before the people what they ought to fix their hopes upon and what their souls should hunger after:  the everlasting gospel, the good news of life in Jesus alone.

 And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst."  John 6:35, NKJV

In meeting the needs of the whole person, our Savior prioritizes presenting the eternally transforming power of the gospel, i.e. life in Him, even if it’s hard to swallow, even if many end up walking away (cf. John 6:66).

And in the same way, Jesus’ church ought to be just as discerning and willing to stand true to what really matters.  In our efforts to meet needs and invest in people’s interests, we ought never to compromise our essential commission:  to lift up Jesus as humanity’s only hope.  Even if that risks popularity and perceptions, we must value what Jesus values and emphasize what Jesus emphasizes.  It’s not a bait and switch or an issue of serving people’s needs with ulterior motives.  It’s about giving people abundant life that is felt both in this life and in the life to come.

May the Lord raise up His church to minister to real needs around us with a heart that is fixed on raising up before our communities the life-saving and life-transforming message of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming King!

The Master of Ministry, Pt. 5

Someone once explained to me the value of health in this way:  “Health may not be everything, but without it, everything is nothing.”  Physical wellness is something we all need but is too often sabotaged by disease, accidents, or poor choices on our part.  Even though the American Heart Association has funded more than $4 billion dollars in research since 1949, cardiovascular disease remains the underlying cause of 1 out of every 3 deaths in America.  I’m sure more stats can be shared, but the point is that physical illness abounds...even in a land where healthcare abounds. (We'll leave the healthcare discussion for another forum. ;))

Does Jesus care about all this?  Is the Master of Ministry concerned with the ailing condition of our bodies as much as we’ve seen Him to be invested in our relational, spiritual, and emotional needs in the last few posts?  

As we continue to walk through the opening chapters of John’s Gospel, we find Jesus going back to Jerusalem in John 5.  His steps take Him toward a particular entrance of the temple grounds known as the Sheep Gate.  It’s easy to imagine Jesus taking a stroll to the temple, wanting to prayerfully meditate on His mission as the Lamb of God.  But His quiet thoughts are jarred by a scene of heart-breaking suffering.

Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.  Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  John 5:2-3, NIV

The scene was likely an unpleasant one, filled with woeful sounds, sights, and smells.  But instead of walking away to carry on with His prayer time, Jesus engages the suffering before Him. 

When it comes to our physical needs, Jesus doesn’t walk away in disgust.  He draws near with compassion.

He isn’t overwhelmed by our suffering.  He doesn’t content Himself to let someone else take care of it.  As He narrows His compassionate focus to one particularly extreme case, we’re given a glimpse of how Jesus ministers to humanity's physical needs and how we may be able to do the same.

 

3 SIMPLE ACTS, 3 HEALING GIFTS

1)  “Jesus saw him lying there and learned…” (John 5:6a, NIV).  Jesus gives attention.  Before He offers healing, Jesus takes interest.  Those who are suffering physical illness are prone to feel forgotten.  They see others milling about, proceeding with their own business while they themselves are stuck in time by the limitations of their affliction.  It’s easy for a sick person to not only feel forgotten by those around them, but even forgotten by God.  Jesus demonstrates an approach to people’s physical need as one that is personally sensitive, an approach that takes time to see and to know, to understand and to acknowledge.  Jesus gives attention, and so can we.  Jesus does care about the physical illness all around us, and so should we.

2)  “He asked him, 'Do you want to get well?'” (John 5:6b, NIV).  Jesus gives a choice.  Physical disease and suffering can cause us to feel utterly powerless.  Whether the cause of our physical ailments is the result of our own poor choices, the collateral damage of someone else’s choices, or the tragedy of an accidents, there’s a point at which one’s broken body can eventually break the spirit.  It's a mental script that says, “There’s nothing I can do about this now.” 

But Jesus addresses this bed-ridden man with a question about desire, not to play with his emotions but to restore a sense of dignity and empower him with a choice in the matter. 

There IS something you can do about this, i.e. you can trust ME to do something about this.  When ministering to those around us in their physical need, one of the best things we can bless them with is to restore and even redirect their capacity to choose.  Though some choices have been taken away by the onset of illness, we can help people identify the choices they CAN make in their current situation.  Rather than dwelling on the pathology of their affliction, they can identify the choices they can make moving forward.  This is where health resources and lifestyle education can be a huge benefit and blessing to others.  I remember sitting in a Diabetes Undone seminar with a small group of pre-diabetics and diabetics, and it was amazing to see the light bulbs turn on as they realized that they can actually make simple lifestyle choices that can actually reverse their insulin resistance.  Like Jesus, when ministering to the physical needs of others around us, we can ascertain desire and empower people with the gift of choice.

3) "Jesus said to him, 'Get up! Pick up your mat and walk'” (John 5:8, NIV). Jesus gives His Word.  If the Word of God expresses the will of God, Jesus is essentially agreeing with the desire of the man’s heart to be made well.  Jesus gives His Word to heal and to make whole.  That’s His desire, and it’s also His promise. 

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget not all His benefits:
Who forgives all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases...  Psalm 103:2-3, NKJV

Whether or not this assurance is fulfilled immediately or eventually in the resurrection when we’ll be given new bodies (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51-53), we can rely upon this Word.  Jesus is deeply invested in meeting our physical needs.  He values our physical wholeness as much as our social, spiritual, emotional wellness.  He paid for our healing with His precious blood ("...and by His stripes we are healed" Isa. 53:5, NKJV.)  Jesus gave His Word with the assurance of His own life in order to heal not only this man but the suffering of the entire world.  We can give others the assurance of God’s Word and His infinite love.

May the Lord use us to meet the physical needs of those around us.  May He make us courageous and compassionate to give attention, give choice, and give His Word!

The Master of Ministry, Pt. 4

Unlike His nighttime interview with Nicodemus, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well outside of Sychar was in the broad daylight.  The hottest time of day wasn’t the most popular period to draw water, but maybe this was exactly why the woman chose to carry out her errand.  Seeking to avoid the stares and snickers of others, the woman ventured out in solitude.  That is, until she met Jesus.

3 So He [Jesus] left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

4 Now He had to go through Samaria. 5 So He came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as He was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.  John 4:3-6, NIV

 

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

At first glance, the story recorded in John 4 seems normal enough.  At this point in the Gospel of John, the reader has come to expect to find Jesus discovering needs and meeting them -- whether a social need or a spiritual one.  And yet, Jesus is full of surprises.

Surprise 1 -- Jesus is at the well.  It's a surprise to the woman from Sychar expected to run her errand without any bystanders.  But it's also a surprise to any Jewish reader.  A straight line from Jerusalem to Galilee runs through Samaritan territory, but conscientious Jews willingly took a wide, circuitous route in order to avoid unwelcome encounters with Samaritans.  Jesus didn't have to be at the well.  To some, He probably shouldn't have been there.  But according to John 4:4, Jesus "had" to be there.  In tune with His Father's leading, Jesus had to meet this divine appointment.

Surprise 2 -- Jesus initiates conversation.  Completely caught off guard, the woman vocalizes her own surprise at this custom-upsetting dynamic (John 4:9).  It's surprising on two fronts of ancient near eastern norms:  Jews didn't willingly associate with Samaritans, and men didn't typically address woman in public.  What is Jesus doing?  

His priority is definitely not the maintenance of social custom, but the healing of a broken heart.

Surprise 3 -- Jesus asks for help.  Although Jesus' is on a mission of mercy, the first thing out of Jesus' mouth is a request, a plea for help.  Wait...what?!  The Son of God asking a nameless woman for help satisfying a personal need?!  Instead of getting straight to her heart's need Nicodemus found out that Jesus is very capable of doing, the Savior shines attention first on His own need and the possibility that this woman has the capacity of fulfilling it.  Jesus didn't expose the woman's need right away.  He walked through conversation that became increasingly more open and transparent.  Started with external, obvious, non-threatening things and led to internal, hidden, and sensitive realities.  And more specifically, Jesus started with a request.  He extended trust in her, and eventually the woman extended trust in Him.

Surprise 4 -- The spiritual need wasn't Jesus' primary concern.  In conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus addressed the teacher's spiritual, theological concerns right off the bat.  Yet, in the case of this solitary Samaritan, Jesus zeroed in on meeting the woman’s emotional need.  In all the non-verbals of the situation, the time of day, the way she carried herself, the things she said and didn't said, Jesus discerned in this precious daughter of God a sense of shame, insecurity, poor self-image, scarcity of trust/commitment, etc. all as a result of hurt, brokenness, relational dysfunction.  Meeting these emotional needs were foremost on the Messiah's mind.  And as we've seen over the last few posts, the Master of Ministry engaged the needs of those around Him from their starting point.  For the couple in Cana, it was a social need (John 2).  For the teacher of Israel, it was a spiritual need (John 3).  And now for this Samaritan woman, it was an emotional need He wanted to satisfy.

 

MEETING EMOTIONAL NEEDS

No matter how often we say we're "fine" when asked how things are going, we all know there's much beneath the surface that isn't fine.  And most of what's not fine is because of emotional hurt.  If it's true for us, it's more than likely true for those around us.  So how do we go about coming close to people and meeting their emotional needs?

  1. Be present — Jesus was intentional about being present, being in proximity of this woman to actually journey with her toward healing and wholeness.  Remember, Jesus had to go to that well.  He needed to go there.  And so He did.  He re-routed His GPS and went to where the woman was going to be.  When you have a sense of someone’s emotional need, demonstrate your willingness to be present.
  2. Be the first to extend trust — Just as Jesus was the first to spark conversation and even with a practical request, we can do the same.  Jesus sought help from her hand because trust begets trust.  He was willing to cross barriers to engage her, and He didn’t bother to wait for her to cross those barriers to initiate conversation with Him.  We can’t expect those with deep emotional needs to cross the lines of their self-insulated safe zones to ask us for help.  We can take the first step.  In fact there are times when those who are deeply hurting need have become so consumed with their internal insufficiencies that they've forgotten their own potential to contribute to the well-being of those around them.  By asking for their help, we not only extend trust to inspire trust, but we also give them the gift of being reminded of their ability to serve and be of practical use.
  3. Listen for the story behind one’s behavior/actions — This doesn’t mean that we need to psychoanalyze and pretend to have more psychological expertise than we do.  But there’s something to be said about simply loving people enough to pay attention to their behavior and the things that inspire it.  We can be sensitive to consider simple questions like:  why?  what’s the story here?  At times we may misjudge or read too much into things, but Jesus models the gentle use of door-openers to give people the chance to share more than maybe they were initially willing to open up about.  (For example in John 4:17,  "Go call your husband."  The woman's response opened up the door for the conversation to go deeper.)
  4. Offer the satisfaction of a gift that keeps on giving -- When ministering to someone's emotional need, we have the gift of relationship with Jesus to offer.  He's the One who satisfies all our soul hunger.  It's a relationship that brings wholeness, and that wholeness is not contingent upon any circumstance or person (all those have turned out untrustworthy for the emotionally broken soul).  The pleasure of relationship with Jesus makes us emotionally complete, fully satisfied as the psalmist reveals:  "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps. 16:11, ESV).  We may often feel as though we have little to offer our friends in emotional distress, but the God we know and the relationship He invites us into truly is ever-satisfying wellspring of living water.

The Master of Ministry, Pt. 3

Even in the dark of night, Jesus could still see.  The Master of ministry saw beyond the fluff and flattery, beyond the posturing and pleasantries.  And when He looked beyond the outward appearances of this Pharisee and his innocuous introductory remarks, Jesus discerned Nicodemus’s heart need.  Beyond all this religious leader’s attempts to appear as though he had life altogether, Jesus understood his spiritual need for conversion and was moved with compassionate urgency to fulfill it.

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:1-3, NIV

 

Direct Diagnosis

Over the last few posts, we’ve been considering the gospel of John’s portrayal of Jesus as One who takes interest in others’ interests and uses their present-tense needs as a starting point for His ministry efforts.  Here in chapter 3, we see an example of someone who was well-off in many ways and came to Jesus not because of a dire emergency or personal struggle.  Nicodemus came to Jesus personally, privately, and respectfully.

There are times in our lives when we, like the respected teacher of Israel, approach Jesus more out of politeness and respect rather than desperation and need.

And in those moments, Jesus sees something we don’t:  we must be born again.  No matter how tidy our life record, we all need to be born again, and this shouldn’t surprise us (John 3:7).  The brokenness of our human sinfulness may not always be something we’re fully aware of, but Jesus is.  Furthermore, Jesus is not only aware of our need, He’s willing to address it.  

We’ve all had that awkward moment when we enthusiastically connect with a friend after lunch and we notice that little bit of broccoli still lingering in their toothy smile.  We’re faced with a decision:  do I risk embarrassing my friend and point out their blemish, or do I preserve their dignity (at least in the short-term) and just let it slide?  I know, it’s a cosmetic need and not a critical, life-or-death scenario, but it illustrates something that moved Jesus in John 3.  He was more concerned about presenting Nicodemus with eternal life than He was about preserving his personal dignity.  Jesus was willing and loving enough to actually say something about the need for conversion that Nicodemus couldn’t see.

 

Eternal Invitation

The Savior’s direct diagnosis of Nicodemus’s and every one of our heart’s need is not intended to be a putdown.  It’s an invitation to look up.  He’s not trying to shame us; He’s trying to save us.  “How can this be?” (John 3:9) was the million dollar question that Jesus hopes each and everyone of us will honestly seek an answer to because inquiry usually flows out of interest.  Nicodemus didn’t start with an inquiry at the beginning of this interview, but Jesus moved this spiritual instructor to become interested in his own need for rebirth.  How can we be born again?  How can we be born of both water and the Spirit in order to see the kingdom of God?  Jesus’ answer is an invitation:

“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” John 3:13-15, NIV

Nicodemus sought a nice interview with “a teacher who has come from God,” but Jesus invited him to seek salvation from the Son of Man.  As Israel in the wilderness looked to an uplifted snake and lived (Num. 21:8), anyone of us who has been brought to self-awareness of our need to be born again can look to Jesus in faith and live.  When we see the Savior lifted up on Calvary’s cross, when we see the love of God that gave His only begotten Son and trust our lives to Him, we can be certain of eternal life (John 3:16), new life in Christ, and the rebirth that we so desperately need.

 

Modeling Ministry

How can Jesus’ approach to Nicodemus’ spiritual need shape our ministry efforts today?  First, be aware of spiritual needs beneath the surface.  I would submit that as God looks on the heart, we ought to be sensitive to the heart need’s of our friends and family for spiritual re-birth.  This is a given for all we come in contact with even if their seem to have all they outwardly need.  Admittedly, some are more conscious of their need for conversion than others.  Even those who are already “in” the church may still very well be in need of the converting power of the Spirit.  Being aware of someone’s need for conversion doesn’t make us better than them, but it makes us indebted to them (cf. Rom. 1:14-17).  

Second, address the spiritual need with compassionate urgency.  As Jesus was willing to address Nicodemus’ need for rebirth, so do we need to be willing to get to the heart of things.  Yes, let’s program for social connection and fulfilling people’s need for belonging.  But let’s also invest personal effort in getting to those real conversations that expose a need for personal conversion.  Jesus didn’t expose Nicodemus’ brokenness in public.  He did it one-on-one, in an environment where Nicodemus could feel safe and ask questions.  These safe environments don’t happen because a church plans for it in their calendar.  It happens as we individually and intentionally are safe people who are compassionate enough to bring it up.

Third, when we do have the relational and conversational momentum to address someone’s spiritual need, let’s lead people to Jesus.  We need to uplift the cross, the story of Calvary, and the character of a God who loves us more than His own existence.  To lead people to conversion is to lead people to the cross.  To lead people to experience new life in Christ is to lead people to encounter the infinite love of Christ.  If there was ever a time to become gospel-fluent, it is now.  More than ever, the world needs a revelation of Jesus Christ through our lives and also our stories.  Let’s make the story of Calvary the story of our lives so that all that Jesus has made available through His life, death, and resurrection doesn’t flow from our mouths like a memorized script but from our hearts as our life song.

Finally, let God’s Spirit bear fruit through our gospel invitations in His time and way.  The reality is that Jesus didn’t have Nicodemus fill out a baptism card that night.  The Master of ministry was willing to let him respond to the Spirit’s appeal when he was fully ready…which, by all appearances, happened to be a direct result of literally seeing Jesus on Calvary (Jn. 19:39-40).  When ministering to the spiritual needs of others around us, we too can be patient with people’s response to the Spirit’s promptings.  We may even have to be willing to wait to see the fruit of our labors in the world to come.

The Master of Ministry, Pt. 2

More and more I’m realizing that relationships are the stuff of life.  We find the highest joys and deepest hurts as the quality of our relational interaction ebbs and flows.  When we think about the struggles or questions that occupy our attention these days, behind it all we can probably discern a strained relationship as a root cause..  (And if not, there’s definitely a relationship impacted by it all as collateral damage.)  Relationships matter to us, and they should because we’re created in the image of a relational God.

As we saw in last week's post, when Jesus approached ministry, He took interest in people and their longings first.  He then looked for ways to minister to their felt needs.  As we explore the opening chapters of the gospel of John over the next few weeks, we’ll discover that Jesus modeled a holistic ministry, one that understood the whole person and engaged the entirety of the human experience.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” ...
Jesus said to [the servants], “Fill the waterpots with water.”  John 2:1-5, 7, NKJV

 

JESUS TO THE RESCUE

The young couple so enamored by future together hardly seemed aware of their present failing.  But Mary, likely an involved and invested relative, understood the situation for what it was.  Though there had been months of planning and anticipation, the logistics of the social high point in this couple’s life had come had fallen short of the social norm/expectation.  They had run out of wine, and should the problem not be addressed, it would reflect upon the couple as being inconsiderate and ill-prepared.  

Jesus didn’t have to step in.  And He most definitely didn’t want to step in…at least in the crowd-pleasing way or with the Messiah-proving effect that His mother Mary had in mind.  But He did it anyway.  He anonymously intervened simply because He sympathized with the couple’s social need on their big day, and He even allowed the groom to get the credit for the not-so-anonymous impact. 

Jesus came to the rescue.  He saved them…and in this case it was saving face.  He saved them socially, and that was it.

Sure, many spiritual parallels and analogies can be drawn to reveal the power of Jesus to save from sin, to turn people from the lifeless Jewish cleansing ceremonies to the saving power of His blood, etc., etc.  But on that day and for that couple, Jesus came to their social rescue.

Have you ever found yourself in a socially awkward situation?  Maybe you’ve come short of what’s expected of you in your relationships.  Or maybe there’s tension in other ways that threaten your sense of social comfort.  Whatever the particulars, these are situations where relief is needed, resources are wanted, and help is welcomed.  Apparently, Jesus is willing to step into those social insufficiencies, and I believe His followers ought to be willing too.  

 

APPROACHING RELATIONAL MINISTRY

What are the needs that you observe when it comes to the relational, interpersonal, social dynamics your friends face?  In my context, what stands out most is people’s underlying sense of loneliness even though we’re surrounded by lots of activity/noise.  Many feel an ache for companionship and not just crowds.  Maybe we ought to plan our ministries around satisfying people’s hunger for belonging even before their need for change in their believing and behaving. More than planning socials, God wants His church to be sociable, genuinely interested in and actually present with one another, cultivating a magnetic sense of community that draws others in as if they've always belonged.

Another area of relational need that I come across frequently in my own experience and in others around me is that of communication.  We can all use some help communicating more effectively and enjoyably -- whether at home, church, work, school, you name it.  We tend to think we understand people better than we really do and wish that others would understand us better than we think they do.  Then there's the drama that never fails to flare up, and were we to take an honest look, we'd find that those struggles usually start with or perpetuate because of miscommunication and misunderstanding.  Why not build into our discipleship curriculum meaningful discussions around practical communications skills, how to deal with difficult people, and navigating redemptive conflict resolution?  

Let's strive to grow not just in the knowledge of our Lord but also, as Peter says, in the grace of our Lord and Savior (2 Pet. 3:18)...including the social graces of our King.  As disciples of the One who made relationships in the Garden and restores relationships through the gospel, may God use us to bring healing to the relational needs in our midst.

The Master of Ministry

When I read through the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, I often wonder how He knew when to engage varying modalities of ministry.  What was it that prompted Him to teach publicly one day and then perform a healing miracle privately the next?  What led Him to interact with crowds in the open here and then carve out time for an in-home meal there?  As someone who is continuously looking for the most effective avenues of impacting people’s eternity, I’d love to know if Jesus had a program template or ministry calendar that gave direction to His outreach initiatives.  But as I sat in a meeting earlier this week with an experienced minister, I was reminded of a simple reality that needs constant refreshing:

Jesus wasn’t engrossed with program planning and calendar mapping as much as He was simply attentive to people and their real needs.

 

Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples.  And looking at Jesus as He talked, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.  Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?” John 1:35-38, NKJV

 

SELF-PROMOTING VS SPIRIT-PROMPTING

Jesus, probably just two days removed from His 40-day wilderness experience and the intense affirmation of His divine mission, quietly approaches the scene of John the Baptist’s revival and reformation ministry on the banks of the Jordan.  This would be the prime place to advertise His own evangelistic campaign, yet Jesus doesn’t feel the need to draw attention to Himself or His own agenda, nor does He feel the need to sweep large swaths of spiritual seekers to follow Him.  While Jesus doesn’t try to hide His mission of salvation, He surely doesn’t promote it at the top of His lungs.  He goes to where the people are, to where He can sense that the Holy Spirit is moving on people’s hearts.  And because God’s Spirit is actively working in people’s lives, namely John the Baptist’s and those who are receiving His message, Jesus allows people to choose how they’ll respond to the promptings of God’s Spirit through the Baptist’s declaration:  Behold the Lamb of God!  

How does a church or ministry emulate Jesus’ example here?  Of course, we aren’t called to hide our light under a bushel, but maybe there’s a self-promoting extreme of overt marketing at the opposite end that isn’t quite our calling either.  In our ministry efforts, we need to be in proximity and rub shoulders with those who are open to the promptings of God’s Spirit.  While we may plan for providing information and exposing people to who we are, the goal is for our intended audience to respond more to the invitations of the Holy Spirit than to our charisma.

SEE WHAT IS SOUGHT 

When two of the Baptist’s disciples are moved to action, Jesus turns and does two significant things that highlight His primary approach to ministry:  1) He sees them following, and 2) inquires what they are seeking.

While Jesus is completely assured of His identity and His ministry calling, Jesus’ ministry method is fully about the other.  He sees them, pays attention to them, and takes interest in what they are interested in.  He didn’t design a program and impose it upon them.  He didn’t formulate a favorite curriculum and invite them to enroll.  He started with their interest, their felt need, their heart longing and desire.  And I think that’s where Jesus wants His church to start too.  

Over the next few posts, I want to explore together the way Jesus took interest in the needs He saw right in front of Him and how He moved in ministry from that starting point.  I hope and pray that we as a church, that we as followers of Jesus will re-discover how to approach people not for our sake but for theirs.  And may we find ourselves driven in ministry not just by our own program calendars but by the work of God’s Spirit in people’s lives all around us.

Great Expectations, Part 3

As we’ve seen over the last few posts, expectations influence effort.  Holding to God-sized expectations is key to engaging God-empowered ministry.  Behind all this, however, is the discipline of refreshing those expectations by leaning upon God’s promises.  Remember expectations are a matter of faith, and if faith comes by hearing the Word (cf. Rom 10:17), then keep looking to the promises of God’s Word that fuel faith-filled expectations.

Let’s look at 3 prophecies that can keep raising our expectations bar, particularly as it relates to the way we envision the impact of our ministry efforts.

KNOWLEDGE SHALL INCREASE

“But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.”  Daniel 12:4, NKJV

The ancient prophet Daniel was given several apocalyptic visions, the fulfillment of which spanned from 500 years before the time of Jesus all the way to the 2nd coming of Christ.  Naturally, because this far-reaching scope, portions of these prophecies didn’t make sense to Daniel and really wouldn’t make sense to many throughout history until the fulfillment of the predictions could be seen in retrospect.  Though sealed to many generations, there would be a time when many would “run to and fro,” like rabbinical pupils searching the stretched out scrolls, going from one end of ancient Scripture to the other in an eager pursuit of connecting the dots.  In this snapshot of Daniel 12:4, we can expect not just a few but many people in our day both searching and understanding the prophecies of Scripture, particularly the book of Daniel.  Though it may appear that our culture is steeped in secularism and materialism, we can expect genuine and widespread interest in the truths of Scripture and the hope of these prophecies that this world cannot offer.

 

NO ONE CAN COUNT

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  Revelation 7:9, NIV

When the apostle John was given a vision of God’s people on the other side of eternity, he discovered that those impacted by the gospel of Jesus Christ would be beyond measure — beyond numbers, beyond boundaries of culture, geography, and language, beyond imagination.  In taking up the work of the Lord, we can know for certain that our “labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58, NIV).  This prophecy gives rise to the expectation of immeasurable impact and influence.  We may not see it now, but we can work now with the certainty that the revelation of Jesus we seek to make known in our ministry efforts and outreach initiatives will truly draw all people to Him (cf. Jn. 12:32).

 

GREAT AUTHORITY

After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory. Revelation 18:1, NKJV

In the broader context of Revelation, this particular vision anticipates a time when God’s saving message to the world will need to penetrate an unprecedented climate of spiritual darkness and deception.  But the darker the night, the brighter God’s glory.  Maybe you find yourself in environments where your desire to spiritually influence people is not reciprocated by others’ openness.  Maybe you’ve found yourself uncertain about whether your outreach efforts will be received, whether the message feel burdened to share will be appreciated.  Maybe you’ve even become embarrassed or ashamed about the gospel, especially as it calls others out from what’s familiar or cherished in their lives. This snapshot from Revelation 18 reminds us that we don’t have to hang our heads in ministry.  Instead, we can expect that our ministries align with a heaven-appointed mission to light up the world with God’s glory, and that means we too can speak and share and serve with great authority.

The list could go on.  Promise after promise could be expanded upon.  Though we won’t articulate them here, may we each sense a renewed sense of hope in God’s promises and eagerness to keep these fresh in our memories.  May the promises of God’s Word continue to fuel our expectations for God’s work.

Great Expectations, Part 2

Over the last several months, a lot of sports media attention has circulated around Lonzo Ball -- a 19-year-old who, after playing one year of basketball for UCLA, has made himself eligible for the NBA draft this summer.  In fact, the most interesting part of the story (and to many the most irritating) is the very vocal role that Lonzo's father LaVar has played in generating a sense of buzz and anticipation about Lonzo's athletic potential.  Without going into much more detail, let's just say that LaVar is a prime example of someone who has great expectations and is more than eager to verbalize those expectations in hopes of somehow speaking them into existence.

Expectations are very powerful.  They can inflate prospects of the future and inspire inconceivable action.  Or, if wielded toward the negative, they can deflate hopes and destroy motivation to move even an inch.  In last week's post, we began to reflect on the role expectations play in the ministry God has entrusted to us, whether individually or as a church.  In today's post, I want to start exploring some promises of God's Word that have been impacting my expectations lately.

EXPECT TO EXPAND

Enlarge the place of your tent,
And let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings;
Do not spare;
Lengthen your cords,
And strengthen your stakes.
For you shall expand to the right and to the left,
And your descendants will inherit the nations,
And make the desolate cities inhabited.  Isaiah 54:2-3, NKJV

Originally proclaimed to a people anticipating God's judgment and foreign captivity, this prophecy gave Israel the hope that one day their well-deserved desolation would be reversed to unprecedented expansion.  It assured them that a faithful people could expect their barrenness to be restored to an abundance that their former boundaries wouldn't be able to hold.

As God desired to expand Israel's physical presence, could it be that God desires to expand our spiritual influence?

God wants us to be not just in the business of inheriting nations but of eternally impacting lives.  Maybe we've felt ineffective and barren in regards to personal influence, but I hear in this prophecy a promise from God that the efforts we invest in today will yield a productivity that requires expanded efforts down the road.  The question is, are we expecting that as much as God is promising that?  Or are we going about ministry initiatives and outreach efforts in such a way that we put a low lid on our capacity to serve?  Why not keep extra seats on hand for a small group, order a few more study guides for distribution, or prepare extra food for a fellowship meal?  Whatever the ministry "tent" you're setting up to serve those around you, go ahead.  Lengthen your cords, and don't hold back.

 

Great Expectations

Over the weekend, I got to hear an experienced evangelist share story after story of how God has worked mightily through various outreach efforts.  It's no wonder that his zeal for front-line ministry seems to have only increased with time over the past 25 years.  He has seen God break through time and time again, and as he considers future evangelistic endeavors, his expectations are great and God-sized.  While I felt inspired by the evangelist's contagious passion for ministry, I also became introspective about my own attitudes and approach to ministry.  Do I have great, God-sized expectations too?  How strong is my faith in what God wants to do and will do in my ministry context?

There's a subtle line between expectations that determine results and results that shape expectations.  On one hand, we expect and believe God will do great things and we consequently move forward with great confidence in cooperation with God's Spirit.  Then there are other seasons in which we don't see the results we originally hoped to see, and that subtle shift happens.  The lesser results (or absence of results) from our ministry efforts actually discourage us from persisting with a sense of great expectation.

Am I the only one this has happened to?  When I've shifted into this mode of expecting less, I rationalize and tell myself that I'm just being realistic, avoiding extremes by reserving my emotional energy to do the work of ministry when it comes and not just waste it on the anticipation of future ministry.  While there is definitely a need for realism and pacing ourselves in ministry, I've begun to realize that the unnoticeable affect that realistic attitude has on me is that I end up walking less by faith and more by sight.  Instead of being full of faith about the things that the God of the universe wants to accomplish in and around me, I become fearful of failure.  Maybe you can resonate.  And if so, maybe you need to ask the same reflective question that struck my heart this past weekend:

Do I have great, God-sized expectations?

I'll admit, while I've been giving this question much thought over the weekend, I'm still far from processing it thoroughly.  So far, here's what I know...

SUSTAINING EXPECTATIONS IS KEY TO SUSTAINING EFFORT

Once our expectations drop, it's inevitable that our effort will follow suit.  The positive flip side is true as well.  When we expect much, we'll attempt much.  Just consider these examples that are definitely worth imitating:

Throughout His life on earth, Jesus was an earnest and constant worker. He expected much; therefore He attempted much (E.G. White, The Desire of Ages, 72).
The disciples were men who knew how to speak and pray sincerely, men who could take hold of the might of the Strength of Israel...They could hold forth the word of life because they had received the heavenly anointing. They expected much, and therefore they attempted much (E.G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, 594).

If you've found yourself cruising along in your personal outreach efforts or in your church ministry, it may be less about your desire to pace yourself and more about your feather-weight expectations.  Oh that God would give us greater expectation so we can give all-out effort for His glory!

IT'S A FAITH THING

The question about expectations is at heart a question about faith.  Do I really trust God?  Do I trust God to do what He has promised?  When I start to expect less in my outreach and ministry efforts, it's usually because I've become more focused on the results and less focused on God's promises.  The thoughts that occupy my mental space sound more like, "Well, my neighbor hasn't really shown much spiritual interest so far," rather than, "God makes everything beautiful in His time, and I know He has set eternity in my neighbor's heart too" (cf. Eccl. 3:11).  When we find ourselves in those ruts, we end up putting a lid on God's ability to manifest His glory much like the town of Nazareth who witnessed only a few of Jesus' miracles "because of their unbelief" (Mark 6:5-6).  Instead, let's educate ourselves to plead with Jesus like the disciples did:  "Increase our faith!" (Luke 17:5).  Let's discipline our minds to intensify our focus upon what God has done in the past and promises to do in His Word.

"What promises" you ask?  That's what I want to consider more thoroughly in the coming week or so.  But for now, let's hang our hat on the reality that God is at work in the hearts of those around us -- in our family, in our neighborhood, in our classroom, in our workplace, in our community.  Just as Ecclesiastes 3:11 makes clear, God has put eternity in people's hearts all around us.  Whether I'm conscious of it or not, whether my neighbors are conscious of it or not, there's a heart longing for something that this world cannot offer, something that God alone can satisfy.  And if God is able to put that longing there, then surely He can fulfill it too.

The Gift of Giving, Pt. 3

Over the weekend, I joined a small outreach team for a simple compassion project:  hand deliver five dozen roses to moms in the community in honor of Mother's Day.  Though simple in effort, the project was significant in impact.  After gifting about four dozen of our supply at a senior living apartment, we strolled through downtown Castle Rock with these floral tokens of love in hand.  We approached a pair of ladies chatting away on a bench, and as it dawned on them what we were giving them and for what reason, their expressions of surprise were coupled with tears.  As one of the ladies explained between joyful sobs, "You have no idea how much this means to us right now.  We were just talking about how we probably wouldn't even hear from our children this Mother's Day."

Our errand of simple compassion didn't take much effort, and it didn't take much time.  But as we gathered back at the parking lot, one of our team members thoughtfully reflected, "We came here to give something, but I feel like I'm the one getting something today."

Have you ever experienced that?  Maybe you know what it's like to be in the position of the giver, the one supplying someone else's need.  But somehow, in the midst of that giving experience, your heart's cup is filled to the brim.  Maybe the people you interact with on a mission trip teach you a thing or two about how to live joyful lives although you're the missionary sent to bless them.  Or maybe it's just that the act of giving generates a sense of pure satisfaction that no self-serving thrill or indulgence can truly match.  Whatever the circumstances or context, one thing is consistent:

OUR GIVING IS NOT JUST OUR GIFT TO OTHERS BUT IS IN FACT A GIFT TO OURSELVES.

Don't worry about trying to spin generosity to be self-centered endeavor.  We don't give in order to get something out of it.  That's transactional.  But when we invest ourselves in the kind of giving that is sacrificial and others-centered, we find ourselves experiencing a joy that really is a gift, not something we earn or deserve.  While dozens of Scriptures could be referenced, let me just share a couple that point to this very principle.

The generous soul will be made rich,
And he who waters will also be watered himself.  Proverbs 11:25, NKJV
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Luke 6:38, NIV

The wisdom of both the Old and New Testaments express this principle of generosity.  Whether we give time, effort, money, attention, possessions, roses, or whatever it may be, our open-handedness and large-heartedness generates a benefit and blessing not only to the recipient but also to the giver.  Why?  I believe it's because giving aligns with and expresses heaven's principles.  When we truly live as God designed us to live, we'll find that we're living the best possible life, the most satisfying and joyful life.  When God desires us to give and be generous, to invest our lives in the lives of others, it's not because He's trying to limit our fun or restrict our freedoms.  No, it's because He understands what leads to unlimited joy.  After all, Jesus is the One who came "that they may have life, and have it to the full" (Jn. 10:10, NIV).

Though it goes against the grain of our naturally selfish, greedy hearts, it's my prayer that we all would experience the joy that's found in participating in the principles of self-giving love that set God apart as the great Giver and not the great taker and joy-kill that Satan often makes Him out to be.  May we recognize the opportunities all around us to give rather than guard or keep and actually choose to give because we've been given to.  May we find that it's living for others and giving to others that really makes life worth living.