How’s your “To BE List”?

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Graphic courtesy of Stephanie Curry

I would not live well without a “To Do List.” I’ve been making lists since college (at least) and do so daily. I used to jot them down on scraps of paper that I eventually bundled with paper clips—what a mess! Now, I keep a “Day Book” where I compile my lists and ideas. I know there are far more efficient digital ways. But before we go further on efficiency, I want to ask a bigger question: am I so focused on doing that I forget being?

I can’t remember when I first heard the clever phrase, “Remember, we’re called human beings, not human doings.” In his book Holy Sweat, Tim Hansel takes this a step further. “We aren’t so much human beings as human becomings. Every day we are becoming the person we will be. Some people will become less… but most of us want to become more.”

I think of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be: that is the question…”  That profound reflection was on contemplating suicide. It could be paraphrased, “To continue to exist, or to cease to exist—that is the question.” By God’s grace, I pray that is not the question for any of us.

But we all face the question: “To Be or To Do?” How do we keep from focusing so much on doing that we forget the essence of our being, of our identity? How can we guard against the busyness that distracts us from valuing ourselves and others as people created in the image of God?

To be more precise, it’s not about the choice between doing or being. It’s about the priority of being as the foundation for doing. It’s about being overflowing into doing.

It’s also not about passivity; it’s about receptivity. It’s not about doing nothing, but about doing everything as the natural outcome of receiving what the Lord has for us.

So, here are four affirmations on my daily “To BE List”:

Be delighted in your adoption.

First and foremost, I am God’s child! God has adopted me into his family through faith in Jesus Christ. That alone makes life significant and priceless. I pray this is true for you. If we forget this, we have missed the purpose and joy of Life.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children” (Romans 8:15-17, The Message paraphrase).

Be filled with the Holy Spirit.

We don’t have the power within to live the life God wants for us. So God has given us his Holy Spirit. The real issue is not us getting more of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit “getting” more of us.

“So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:15-18 NLT).

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

God’s strategy for change involves our minds. That gives us hope, because we can begin to un-learn the lies and falsehoods of life so that we can learn and live God’s truth. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), opening our minds and hearts to see life from God’s perspective.

“Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity” (Romans 12:2 J.B. Phillips Paraphrase).

Be here now—be present in the moment.

It’s natural for us to be preoccupied with the past or be concerned with the future. Those mindsets rob us of the gift of the present moment– which is the only time we really have.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34 The Message).

What’s on your “To BE List”?

Cut-Flower Syndrome

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Many in our day have what I call a cut-flower mentality. They focus on the immediate experience of the “flower,” neglecting the need for roots that sustain the plant. It is normal and appropriate to enjoy flowers, but that enjoyment will be short-lived without the long-term nurture of the plant.

This is especially problematic in matters of faith. Many followers of Jesus suffer from “cut-flower syndrome” in the primary areas of biblical knowledge, theology and worship. Without roots, they are subject to being tossed about by fads and pressures instead of standing firm in confidence and understanding.

Immediate experience and crowd-sourced values are real liabilities when it comes to living as a disciple. This leads to situations where our judgments and practices are based on personal preferences and subjective evaluations, rather than drawing on God’s Word. We think we have to figure everything out for ourselves instead of drawing on the witness and careful thinking of God’s people across the ages.

In his book, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship, Michael Horton quoted an article by John Seabrook in The New Yorker Magazine about the ‘dumbing down’ of our culture.

“The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was ‘good’ in the sense of ‘valuable,’ were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define ‘good’ in terms of ‘popular.’ A ‘hierarchy of hotness’ replaced the older hierarchy of value and there was no such things as poor taste anymore, just different tastes… These judgments do not depend on knowledge of the canon, tradition, history, or some shared set of standards as to what constitutes ‘good taste’ to give them weight; this kind of taste is more appetite than disinterested judgement” (Horton, 191).

Deep waters, I know. So why is this such a big deal? How does this affect our hearts and minds? Here’s the point: If nothing is intrinsically true, good, and beautiful–and therefore superior to other things that are not quite as true, good or beautiful– everything is a matter of taste, or personal preference. And all we have are today’s cut flowers, which wither quickly.

I confronted my own cut-flower mentality during seminary.

I really struggled with impatience during the three years it took to complete my seminary education. I wanted to get out on the front lines of ministry. When I finally did get “out there,” however, I quickly realized that my education was an invaluable resource to sustain ministry in depth and breadth. In other words, I had some roots. I, in no way, had all the answers, but I knew where to look for more understanding. I, in no way, was prepared for the demands I faced, but I had reference points in Scripture, theology, church history, practical theology and counseling (to name just a few areas) that helped me better frame the questions and issues.

You don’t have to go to seminary, however, to develop roots. To change metaphors, when we develop depth through the renewing of our minds, we move from the burden of having a glass we rely on ourselves to fill to the joy of tapping the well of Living Water (John 7:37-38).

Deep roots drawing on Living Water– that’s key to spiritual vitality. It reminds me of this wonderful verse in Genesis:

Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them (Genesis 26:18 NIV).

I love the image of reopening the wells. First, it speaks to the reality that the wells of truth and grace have been blocked by forces that stand against us. But we are also reminded of the promise that we can find fresh water from old sources. Isaac didn’t just dig new wells. He went back to the old wells that still had so much to give.

There are too many applications for me to develop now, so I’ll close with a few simple questions. Are you putting down roots, deep roots in your faith? Roots that draw on the life-giving waters of Scripture? Roots that draw from the wells of the thoughts and experiences of dear saints who have hard-won insight to share?

Enjoy the flowers– but, more importantly, put down roots.

Playfulness: A Theological Quest

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Your’s Truly performing with “The Fabulous Edsels,” with John, one of the group. (Photo courtesy of Pam Atkins Photography)

Playfulness does not come naturally to me. To give you some background, I was voted “Most Responsible” in my senior class at Colerain High School in Cincinnati. Did you ever hear of such a category?? (One of our sons was voted “Best Legs for a Guy,” so it seems like the categories are wide-open!). Anyway, when I tell people I was voted “Most Responsible,” I then ask them if they know how to spell ‘responsible.’ I reply, “It’s spelled b-o-r-i-n-g!”

Part of my playfulness-deficit is my personality. I want to “get things right.” I like order, efficiency and effectiveness. I start a meeting on time, follow the agenda, and end on time. (Now you get it, right? Boring…). Of course, these characteristics are valuable and greatly appreciated—most of the time. But it’s just wrong to live every moment by an agenda!

In addition to my personal inclination, however, much of my seriousness has roots in my theology. I take very seriously (of course!) the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). I want to use the gifts and opportunities God has given me faithfully. I truly yearn to hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). But I have failed to take into account Jesus’ humor in presenting the image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. And the miracle of Jesus changing water into wine. And Jesus welcoming the children in spite of serious adult objections.

What I’m learning is that I need a theology of play. It’s right up there with the necessity of having a theology of rest. A better way to say this is that a truly biblical theology includes play and rest along with faithful stewardship (and many other topics).

Many of us lead driven lives. We are driven to do all we can; driven to make the most of every opportunity; driven to succeed. But following Jesus is about a “called life,” not a driven one. We are called to “maximize life” (to quote my personal two-word life mission). We are not called, however, to do so at the expense of our souls, our self-care and our relationships. Playfulness, enjoyment, and fun are part of life.

“There is a time for everything,

    and a season for every activity under the heavens…

   a time to weep and a time to laugh,

          a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 NIV)

Or, as I would paraphrase it now, “a time to be serious and a time to have some fun!”

The photo above was taken this past weekend when I played in a “cover band” (a band that plays other artists’ songs) at our church’s “Fall Festival.” Our band’s name is “The Fabulous Edsels” (in contrast to a well-known band, “The Fabulous Thunderbirds”). The brothers in this band (my band of brothers!) are among those the Lord has brought into my life to help me learn to have fun.

As I look back, I can see that many people have taken me on as a sort of project to help me lighten up. My wife, Sarah, most of all! She is so playful. Her sense of wonder for life brings me joy daily. But the challenge has been my “bad” (inadequate) theology. My theology has not made enough room for fun, for relaxation, for “wasting time.” And I need to correct that.

I am breaking free from the “utilitarian spell” that everything I do has be useful, spiritual, significant. It’s not that usefulness and responsibility are inappropriate. It’s more about the proper proportion and perspective.

I don’t have time to develop my theology of playfulness in the post—but I’ve taken the first step: realizing playfulness is part of the grace-full life God provided in creation and promises in Christ.

(P.S. The ponytail is part of the hat!)

Dinosaurs and Heaven

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Dinosaurs may be extinct, but interest in them is very much alive. Millions of people testify to this, buying Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park, or seeing Stephen Spielberg’s movie version of it. Crichton’s thesis, in simplest terms, is that a scientist discovers how to extract dinosaur DNA from blood remnants in a mosquito petrified in amber. He then “creates” dinosaurs in the present, developing them in a wildlife preserve setting on an island. His dream is that people will visit it, like a fantastic prehistoric theme park.

I was bitten early by the “dinosaur bug.” As a kindergartner, my favorite books were about these creatures whose toenails were bigger than my whole house and who could eat the local grocery store for an appetizer. I shuddered at the fierce pterodactyl, a monster, bat-like reptile. And the Tyrannosaurus Rex– well, words fail to describe the terror I imagined, being caught in the vice-grip of those claws, thrust toward his reeking mouth…  Oh my!!

Now that I’ve taken a step back (in more ways than one?!) from the vivid imagination of childhood, I’ve tried to understand our fascination with dinosaurs. I think it might be this: We are fascinated by a reality we’ve never experienced, something we can hardly imagine, but for which we have evidence existed. We are people of the five senses, but we find our greatest fascination in a sixth sense: the imagination. And the imagination (properly understood) is one of the primary organs of faith.

I think heaven fascinates us in much the same way. Heaven and life eternal (some theologians make a distinction between these—but I can’t explore that now), is planted within our hearts.

“God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV).

Yet we can hardly imagine this unfamiliar and different mode of existence. Paul, drawing from the prophet Isaiah, communicates this in 1 Corinthians:

“What no eye has seen,

    what no ear has heard,

and what no human mind has conceived”—

    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9-10 NIV).

While thoughts of dinosaurs may be interesting for science and even entertainment, thoughts of heaven can serve the most practical purposes. Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter wrote in The Saint’s Everlasting Rest:

[Thinking of heaven as our eternal rest] is not our comfort only, but our stability.  Our liveliness in all duties, our enduring of tribulation, our honoring of God, the vigor of our love, thankfulness, and all our graces, yea, the very being of our religion and Christianity, depend on the believing, serious thoughts of our rest [in heaven].

Jesus said to his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).

Think now of that place. Let your imagination feast on the thoughts of dwelling in God’s house: the beauty, the joy, the freedom of heart, mind, body and soul. Our destination is not extinction, but eternity. God’s best is yet to be!!

 

Holy Imagination and Bible Meditation

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I am always amazed at the depths awaiting us in both study and meditation on Scripture.

We easily understand the concept of studying the Bible. The most basic method for personal and group study is often called the inductive Bible study method. It is based on three steps. Observation: What does it say? Interpretation: What does it mean? And application: How do I apply what I learn in my life? We could call study “cognitive meditation” because it uses the analytic functions of the left hemisphere of our brains to come to understanding.

Meditation, however, is a different approach to God’s Word. Meditation is a word that often makes Christians nervous. They rightly think of the problems of “eastern mediation.” “Eastern religions… usually stress the painstaking discipline by which one detaches oneself from the world, losing personhood or individuality and merging with the Cosmic Mind to become one with pure consciousness” (Morton T. Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence, New York; Paulist Press, 1976, p. 1). I heartily agree that Jesus’ followers do not follow that path. We do not empty our minds; we fill our minds and hearts with God’s Word.

Christian meditation is different from study. To meditate means to “murmur” over and over. We could also use the metaphor of rumination, like a cow chewing its cud over and over. Meditation moves from analysis to encounter. Like Mary (Luke 2:19), we ponder God’s word in our hearts.

The Lord clearly call us to meditate on Scripture.

Oh, the joys of those who do not

    follow the advice of the wicked,

    or stand around with sinners,

    or join in with mockers.

2 But they delight in the law of the Lord,

    meditating on it day and night (Psalm 1:1-2 NLT).

In discursive meditation (‘discursive’ because it a type of dialogue with God’s Word) we tap the intuitive functions of the right hemisphere our brain. Discursive meditation is visual and symbolic, connected to stories, art, the physical body, and movement. My own definition of discursive mediation is “encountering the living Lord through the written Word by the power of the God-given faculty of imagination.” (SoulShaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, p. 254).

What does it look like when we use our holy imaginations to enter into God’s Word? We slow down and imagine the scene. We consider the characters and may even have an imaginary dialogue with one of them.

Let me share an example from my meditation on Luke 18:1-8, when I entered into a brief imaginative dialogue with the desperate widow who persistently “pestered” the unjust judge.

DOUG:      Why did the judge refuse you?

WIDOW:  Look at me. I’m an old woman. What favor could he gain? He chose cases that served his ends.

DOUG:      How could you keep going after being rejected time after time?

WIDOW:  This wasn’t a matter of convenience for me. Without justice, I could not survive. I was not asking for riches, nor for ease, comfort or vengeance; only for the justice of receiving what was mine.

DOUG:      What would you say to me?

WIDOW:  You value too little too lightly. You have so much that your true desires run shallow. You want– you get. You lose– you replace.

DOUG:      Is something wrong with me?

WIDOW:  You are distracted

DOUG:      And I have rarely faced my helplessness. I run from situations where it’s exposed.

WIDOW:  You aren’t running now, but sometimes you start to coast or divert your energies. Focus and persist.*

The power of this meditation was the insight I “received” from the widow. I don’t fully understand how this happens. And I certainly do not believe I was in dialogue with any true being. But the Holy Spirit, working through my meditation, revealed insights that “ring true,” calling me to repentance and faith. That’s the “test” for a useful meditation.

Holy imagination can break the spell of boredom and disinterest, leading us into ever-fresh encounters with the Lord in Scripture.

*(I first published this dialogue in my book, What About Spiritual Warfare?, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000, p. 78).

Fired Up by an Amazing Deal

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I get excited by a “good deal.” I like big sales on things I “really need” (“need” can be open to interpretation, I know!) I like getting the best exchange rate when making overseas purchases, using credit cards with no annual or transaction fees, and planning for economy and efficiency in travel arrangements.

It may seem crass, but God’s grace in Jesus Christ is the most astounding “deal” in life. John Calvin expressed this best in a powerful quote. But before I share that, I’d like to have a “sidebar” (that’s fancy talk for chasing a rabbit trail) on Calvin.

Calvin usually gets a bad rap for harsh theology and for the dreaded “Puritan work ethic” that squeezed all the fun from life because of the strenuous demands of a stern God.

These unfortunate stereotypes keep most people from giving Calvin a chance to speak to them. A fair and thoughtful reading of Calvin, however, reveals a deep devotion for God that moved beyond, but did not exclude, the best thinking possible.

Calvin’s motto and seal (like a family crest) was a flaming heart on an outstretched hand offered to God (see the stained-glass photo above). Calvin’s personal motto, developed during his time as a fugitive, expressed his commitment: Prompte et Sincere in Opere Domini (translated, “Prompt and sincere in the work of God”).

Calvin’s test for true theology was that it inspired piety, by which he meant genuine reverence joined with love for God. Nothing inspired that passionate piety more than the person and work of Jesus Christ.

He communicated the “amazing deal” we have in Christ in his comments on 2 Corinthians 8:9, where Paul wrote,

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (English Standard Version ESV).

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection made it possible for God to transact a wonderful exchange in our lives. By God’s grace we trade all our “bad stuff” in exchange for the “good stuff” God gives us in Jesus Christ.

John Calvin described the wonderful exchange this way:

“This is the wonderful exchange which out of his measureless benevolence he has made with us; that becoming the Son of Man with us, He has made us children of God with him; that by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that by accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that receiving our poverty unto himself he has transferred his wealth to us; that taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.” [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter xvii, 2].

I read this passage often to remind myself about the depth and breadth of God’s mercy in Christ.

It helps me to pause and reflect on each phrase. I won’t take time to expand on that now. Let me simply observe that the first three “exchanges” establish our identity and our destiny. Through faith in Christ, we know who we are and where we are going. These are the foundations for the last three exchanges that speak to sustaining us in daily life.

Hope these thoughts light a fire of joy and devotion today—and tomorrow.

Pray with Open Hands

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“Jesus in Gethsemane” sculpted by Duane Unruh

Sometimes I forget what I’ve said in my preaching. That’s not unusual. But what often surprises me is when others remember what I said—and communicate how God used it in their life.

Several years ago we received a fairly large package that was unusually heavy. We weren’t expecting anything, so we were intrigued. I looked at the return address and saw it was from a dear friend, Duane.  Duane was one of the “pillars” in our previous congregation in Kansas City. A wise, gracious, deeply spiritual man. He was also a Hallmark artist and had his own “signature line” of Christmas ornaments. Quite an honor.

We opened the box and saw what you see in my (amateur!) photo above: a bronze sculpture of Jesus kneeling in Gethsemane. Look closely. Do you notice anything different in Jesus’ posture? He is most often pictured with his hands either folded or facing downward in prayer.

I have a different concept for our posture in prayer—and Duane remembered that.

Duane was in a prayer group I recruited and trained to pray during the worship services. We talked much about principles, practices, and postures for prayer. “What I remember most,” wrote Duane, “was that you prayed with your hands open and invited others to do the same. That has changed the way I pray.”

Open hands: We are empty.

Ultimately, we come to God with nothing but ourselves. And that is enough.

The Bible assures that, in spite of our emptiness, the Lord God, who rules the universe and all eternity, wants to connect with us. Psalm 8 expresses this wonder:

3 When I consider your heavens,

    the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

    which you have set in place,

4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

    human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4 NIV).

Those who engage with the Lord in prayer quickly see their emptiness apart from God. Don’t confuse “empty” with worthless. We are of priceless value to the Lord. Open hands remind us, however, that we do not come to God with pride, holding up our achievements as if we have something to offer that God is missing. We come in grateful humility. The lyrics from the gospel hymn, Rock of Ages, say it best, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”

Open hands: We are letting go.

Prayer enables us to release our burdens, our regrets, and even our expectations to the Lord who listens and cares.

Time with God in prayer awakens growing confidence in God’s wisdom and power. And it loosens our grip on our preferences. We surrender because we learn that is the only way to victory. We don’t have to cling to the heavy yoke we impose on ourselves.

Open hands: We are receptive.

We are expectant.

“We must not conceive of prayer as overcoming God’s reluctance, but as laying hold of his highest willingness.” Archbishop Trench

When I prepare for any message (including this blog) I open my hands and pray, “Lord, give me what you want to give me for your people.” I am ready to receive God’s provision.

Paul reminds to expect God to work by considering what God has already done in Christ.

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32 NIV).

God has already given Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our sin. Having invested so much in us, why would God stop now? The Lord wants us to experience the full benefits of salvation and to be equipped for continuing his work in this world.

It’s worth meditating on this verse again, this time reading from The Message paraphrase:

“If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us?”

Open your hands in humility, freedom and expectation.

No Overnight Success

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Impatience comes naturally to me. Not just in driving, or with “difficult people,” or a tight schedule. I am most impatient with myself. I am so frustrated with how far I am from the spiritual growth and maturity I believe God’s expects of me.

My family, colleagues, and friends are quick to reassure me that I’m being too hard on myself. And they are correct—but for a very different reason. They affirm me, and I’m grateful for their encouragement. But I think I’m too hard on myself because I forget the pace of spiritual growth. It’s not an overnight thing. It takes time. And we usually can’t recognize the progress of things that happen gradually.

I remember how my parents used to comment on the changes in our children when they’d visit, having not seen them for months. I’d hardly noticed any changes. Maybe it’s like that shock we get when we look at old photos of ourselves. We see change best by looking back.

Dr. A. H. Strong (1836-1921, Reformed Baptist theologian and minister) observed that “growth is not a uniform thing in the tree or in the Christian. [For a tree, in] some single months there is more growth than in all the year besides. During the rest of the year, however, there is solidification, without which the green timber would be useless. The period of rapid growth, when woody fiber is actually deposited between the bark and the trunk, occupies but four to six weeks in May, June and July.”

Our assumption that growth should be rapid and continual can lead to frustration and discouragement. Growth happens in episodes, in spurts. A time of learning and a time of practicing. A time of inspiration and a time of absorption. Like a tree, there’s a time of rapid growth and a time of living into that growth.

Growth takes time. And God isn’t in a hurry.

One of the ironies of my writing this now is that I have known and proclaimed this truth for years—and yet continually struggle to live into it. Long, long ago, I spoke at the baccalaureate for my graduating class from seminary. Later, I published my remarks in an article for Christianity Today magazine called, “What to Expect of a Seminary Graduate.” Two sentences from that article have been quoted time and again in other publications (including inspirational calendars!) “A lasting work requires extensive preparation. Full grown oaks aren’t produced in three years, and neither are servants of God.”

Impatience with ourselves is a sure sign we have forgotten how we grow in God’s grace.

I take great encouragement from Paul’s words:

“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6 NIV).

Be patient and trust God. Spiritual growth is gradual.  Grow slowly, grow solidly.

 

When You Feel Powerless

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A tour boat on the Sea of Galilee

We live in a culture of control.

Through technology, we have an amazing amount of control over information and access to all kinds of services. We are used to getting most anything we want (within reason) anytime we want: food on demand, entertainment on demand, online shopping, and much more.

But there are times when things don’t always work “on demand.”

In February 2019, Sarah and I were on the Sea of Galilee with our tour group, crossing from Capernaum to Kibbutz Ein Gev on the eastern shore where we always get “St. Peter’s Fish” with our groups.

Sarah had just finished praying with a woman who had been diagnosed with cancer. I walked over to her, and she looked puzzled.

“What am I doing with this?” she asked, holding up a black coat.

“That’s the coat you borrowed from your mom for our trip here to Israel.”

“Israel?? Where are we?”

My mind started racing. She wasn’t joking…

“What have I been doing?” Sarah asked.

“You just finished praying with Babette because she’s been diagnosed with cancer…”

“Babette has cancer?!” Sarah asked with genuine surprise and alarm.

Obviously, we had a very serious problem on our hands. I don’t recall when I have ever felt so powerless.

I prayed immediately, “Lord, have mercy on Sarah and on all of us.”

Then I remembered (that is, the Holy Spirit reminded me!) that about a year ago, a member of our congregation had told me about an unusual experience he had with a sudden-but-brief episode of memory loss. It’s called transient global amnesia.

I immediately called over our daughter, KJ, and her husband, Brett who were traveling with us. I asked KJ to look up transient global amnesia on the internet. “Dad, this fits what’s going on exactly!”

When we docked for lunch, our guide called a host couple that work with our travel agency’s tour groups. They drove 30 minutes to pick us up and took us to the main hospital in Tiberias, Galilee.

As we rode to the hospital, Sarah spoke with Bonnie (from the hospitality team), remembering more and more. I was so relieved, but knew we had to follow through on the assessment.

There’s much more to this story, but let me just say that, after five hours in the ER, the diagnosis was confirmed: transient global amnesia. She regained her full memory and has been fine ever since.

I am so grateful, but I will never forget how powerless I felt when Sarah’s episode began.

I thank the Lord our story has a happy ending. But we all know there are many stories that don’t end this way. And some of you are living one right now.

So how do we experience our living Lord’s power and care when we feel powerless?

The account of Jesus’ healing a desperate father’s son, when the disciples were powerless to do so, gives us a key insight (see Mark 9:14-29).

When Jesus arrived (following his transfiguration) the father pleaded with him, “If you can do anything…”

“’If you can?’” said Jesus, “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Contrary to many interpreters, I think Jesus’ tone of voice was kind, not mocking. Gently encouraging, not sarcastic.

Biblical scholar Dr. Jim Edwards says Jesus’ response makes it very clear that “it is not a matter of divine unwillingness, nor a problem of divine inability, but human unbelief.”

In fact, the father’s profession, “I believe, help my unbelief,” was enough! The boy was healed instantly.

Faith is not a quantity that can be measured, nor a feeling we must produce. Faith is a quality of trusting. Faith is the trust we exercise when we intentionally nurture confidence in both God’s character and God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ.

When I felt absolutely powerless and cried out to the Lord, the Lord worked.

When we reach the end of our resources, we discover God’s unlimited love and power for those who believe.

 

Starting Again– Again

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By Gajus Shutterstock
You may not have noticed, but I haven’t posted a new blog since February 2019—a full six months. I’ve wanted to. I’ve thought about it—a lot. (Some people did notice). But I just didn’t.

I confess I’ve been disappointed in myself, embarrassed I didn’t keep up with my goal of a weekly post. Most of all, I feared I’d lost momentum. Why bother starting again? I mean, what if I hit another long pause in the future? Then I’d have to start again—again!

That got me thinking: How many times have I started strong, but failed to persist? It ranges from practicing both classical and jazz guitar, to commitments to prayer lists, to discipleship projects, to reading the entire Bible yearly, and to a lot more.

We have this idea that stopping means failure. We think beginning again after a long pause will inevitably lead to another time when we’ll stop. Why bother?

But grace doesn’t leave us stuck in feelings of regret, embarrassment, perfectionism and self-depreciation. Three thoughts have helped me start again—again, many times!

Life is about rhythms and seasons.

For example, during my “blog pause,” my wife and I led a 12-day tour to Israel and Petra and a 2-week mission trip to Kenya. We attended our son’s graduate school graduation in Nashville and had visits from out-of-state relatives. We also had 1 week with each of our granddaughters individually (3 weeks total) and a 2-week vacation. OH, (almost forgot), and I preached, led our staff and board of elders, and provided pastoral care and spiritual direction…

I don’t expect you to be all that interested in my activities. But I do invite you to give yourself grace when life gets full, really full. Give yourself grace to “slack off” without condemnation.

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2 RSV).

There are many dimensions to this verse. The primary message is God’s amazing gift of grace in Christ that frees us from eternal condemnation. But there are valid reasons to apply the release-from-condemnation to other aspects of life, including our response to falling short of our goals and intentions.

Consistency is admirable, but not essential.

Jesus said, “Those who endure to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22 and 24:13 NIV).

It’s not about pausing; it’s about persisting. Pauses are part of life. Even long pauses. What’s important is starting again.

This isn’t an excuse for stopping. It’s the recognition that life happens, things go on “pause,” and that isn’t the end of the world.

Persistence, as many have observed, can be far more significant than raw talent or ability.

Vince Lombardi, superlative football coach of the legendary Green Bay Packers, said, “Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful individuals with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

A pause often leads to a rediscovery of grace.

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23 RSV).

God’s grace and mercy are new every day– and any time of day. I’m continually learning that grace is not the reward for my accomplishments. Grace is God’s gift in Jesus Christ simply because I belong to the Lord.

Our greatest examples of persistence in grace are the faithful who have gone before us and, ultimately, Jesus Christ.

“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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV).

Where are you stuck? Do you need to begin again—again? Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t be defensive. Don’t be stopped by the fear you may not continue. Embrace grace– and go for it.

Start again—again—and again and again and again…