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…

How’s Your Snow Pack? Or The Necessity of Margin

 

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I’ve been reminded in many ways that most of us live life “just in time.”

Many live paycheck to paycheck, hopefully earning enough money “just in time” to pay the most important bills. Many complete a project “just in time” to meet the deadline (scary word!).

In retail and manufacturing, “Just In Time” (JIT) inventory management is a concept designed to increase efficiency, cut costs and decrease waste by receiving goods only as they are needed. You don’t stockpile merchandise.

This may be good business, but it can be soul-draining when applied to personal and community life. Just in time praying, just in time communication, just in time physical effort—all equal lots-of-time stress!

It makes me think about the snowpack in the mountains. (Hang on– you’ll see where I’m going…) Living in an arid or semi-arid region means you pay attention to precipitation—rainfall and snow fall.

If you listen to weather reports in California, you are curious about the amount of rainfall, but you are really interested in the amount of snowpack (the accumulated snowfall in the mountains) because the snowpack is the real drought-buster. Rain is useful for recharging groundwater, but a deep snowpack can provide water for months and months. When the average Sierra Nevada Mountains’ snowpack melts in spring and summer it provides about 30 percent of California’s water needs.

Let me mix in another metaphor: It’s not wise to drive until you’re out of gas. In fact, it damages the fuel system of a car by drawing into the fuel lines the impure “residue” that settles in the tank. Problems multiply.

Likewise, we have spiritual, emotional, physical, relational, and financial tanks (to name primary ones) that need to be sustained. We cannot count on the occasional rainfall of inspiration that may come. Each tank needs a “snowpack” source of sustenance.

What I call “snowpack” physician Richard Swenson calls margin. “Margin is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed.” The reserves we develop provide “shock-absorbers” in our lives and relationships. But margin is in short supply.

The conditions of modern-day living devour margin.  If you are homeless, we direct you to a shelter.  If you are penniless, we offer you food stamps.  If you are breathless, we connect the oxygen.  But if you are marginless, we give you yet one more thing to do.

Swenson compares the stressful state of lacking margin with the “blessedness” of cultivating margin in our lives:

              Marginless is fatigue; margin is energy.

Marginless is red ink; margin is black ink.

Marginless  is hurry; margin is calm.

Marginless is anxiety; margin is security.

Marginless is culture; margin is counterculture.

Marginless is reality; margin is remedy.

Marginless is the disease of our times. Margin is its cure.

SOURCE:   Richard A. Swenson, M.D., Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress, 1992),  13, 14. with slight revision.

The problem is that we don’t pay attention to our need for margin until it’s too late (see my blog Drink Before You’re Thirsty). The account of Joseph in Egypt illustrates the blessings of margin. Having interpreted Pharaoh’s dream warning of seven years of famine in the future, we read,

“Joseph collected all the food produced in those seven years of abundance in Egypt and stored it in the cities. In each city he put the food grown in the fields surrounding it” (Genesis 41:48 NIV).

Jesus calls us to store up resources far more significant than worldly wealth and status,

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew  6:19-20).

Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the gifts of time to replenish your soul, of activity to refresh your body and mind, of a phone call or coffee-date to catch up with a friend. It will never be easy to “make” time for these things. You just have to take it!

You may not see immediate results. But who would think, as they watch flurries float lightly down from the sky, that those flurries would accumulate to provide life-sustaining water for months to come?

Why Bother to Pray?

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One of the most basic questions on prayer is this: “Why bother to pray?”

Does prayer really change things? Does prayer really make a difference?

Many people get stuck and don’t pray because they have the wrong concept of prayer. They ask philosophical questions instead of relationship questions.

The questions aren’t: “If God knows everything – why must we ask for things in prayer? Does God really need to be informed? Is prayer merely data transmission?“ These philosophical questions have their place. But they don’t come first.

The primary question is: “If the Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier), created me, saved me and loves me, how can I not pray?!” Prayer is about our relationship with God long before it considers cause-and-effect or the dynamic relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Why bother to pray?

Prayer “Centers” Us.

We bring ourselves to every relationship. Are we bringing our “whole self,” or just “partial attention”? Centering is being truly “present” in the moment. Centering means focusing our attention and energy, our heart, mind and body on the ultimate priority of life: our relationship with the Lord. (In other words, put your phone away!).

Centering in prayer is like taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling. Simply stepping back to focus on the Lord often brings a sense of peace. Try it now.

“Be still, and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10).

Prayer Clarifies

Prayer is like “getting up on the balcony,” to use an image from Harvard MBA professor Ron Heifetz.

In high school I played first trumpet in the marching band. We learned all kinds of formations for half time shows (which were watched by our parents only!). On the field, it seemed like chaos. But from the stands people could see, understand and appreciate the patterns.

When we pray, we not only step back to catch our breath, but we climb up to a higher place.

This is one reason Jesus spent nights in prayer as he sought wisdom about his ministry, as when he selected his 12 disciples (Luke 6:12-16).

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you (James 1: 5 NIV).

The ultimate and fundamental reason we “bother to pray” is because…

Prayer Connects Us with God

Prayer centers us and clarifies things because we connect with God.

Prayer is not like making a list for Santa Claus! Prayer is like a conversation with your best friend, cherished mentor, loving parent.

This is a time for a brief comment on one of those philosophical questions: “If God knows, why ask?”

The answer lies in the fact that prayer is not about information.

Prayer is conversation with the Living Lord. Jesus’ prayed earnestly, not because he needed something, but because he wanted to talk with his Father.

“… Your Father know what you need before you ask him. This, then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father…’” (Matthew 6:9).

Prayer begins not with something we want to ask of God, but with something God wants to ask of us!

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering (Romans 8:15-17 NLT).

Prayer is not ultimately about making requests and getting answers. Prayer brings us into heart fellowship with the Living Lord as beloved daughters and sons.

10 Questions for the New Year

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The New Year is a great time to take inventory as you look back over the past year and do some “holy daydreaming” as you approach the new one. A primary tool for the most effective assessment and planning is asking good questions.

Questions have the power to change our lives. They move us from being spectators to participants. They cause us to stop and take stock of what we believe and how we behave. They push us to challenge our assumptions, assess our needs, clarify our thinking and confront our imposed limitations. They prod us to analyze, criticize and synthesize.

The Greek philosopher Socrates is best known for recognizing the power of leading students to discovery through questions.

In the course of writing my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, I was intrigued by the spiritual power of questions in the Bible. In the course of my research, I became acquainted with Bobb Biehl, President of Masterplanning Group International (Yes, there are two ‘b’s in his first name). In his booklet, Asking to Win: One Hundred Profound Questions, he writes,

As you master the art of asking profound questions you’ll be able to unlock information, insight and wisdom with a friend in any situation. You’ll be able to open doors to inner motivation and dreams which no one has ever been able to unlock. You’ll be able to solve problems, analyze risks and take leadership you’ve never before dreamed possible. For questions are like intricate brass keys which unlock the lock boxes of people’s minds and heart, their hopes and dreams.

I appreciate Bobb’s image of questions as keys. Another image I see is that the right question is like a jeweler’s chisel that breaks open an uncut, dull-looking stone into a precious treasure with gleaming facets of beauty and value.

While we could explore literally hundreds of stimulating questions, that would be overwhelming. My hope is that you will use this blog in the coming days for some intentional reflection and planning. The best way to make any progress is to focus on a narrow framework of simply looking back and looking forward.

Remember: Five questions for looking back to celebrate and learn.

The Bible places a great deal of emphasis on remembering what God has done (and also crying out to God to remember his covenant with his people). Memory awakens gratitude and also provides the context for learning from our lives.

I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes, I will remember your wonders of old. (Psalm 77:11 English Standard Version).

  • Where and when did I see you, Lord, working this past year?
  • If I had to summarize my year in one word or phrase, what would it be? Why?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities came my way I never expected?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities did I miss?
  • What was my primary accomplishment this past year?

Anticipate: Five question for looking forward to maximize your time.

The Bible calls us to be intentional and make the most of the time God gives. There’s power when we focus on specific goals.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16 ESV).

  • What are two or three important goals I have for the coming year? (Think, for example, in terms of personal, relational, vocational and recreational—relaxation and renewal—areas).
  • What projects would energize me this year?
  • What do I need to stop?
  • What do I need to start?
  • What word or phrase can I use to keep my focus in this coming year?

These are my suggestions. I encourage you to ask and respond to additional questions that you feel will be most helpful. You’ll notice I haven’t asked any direct questions in the area of confession and repentance — though that is a rich area for prayer and reflection. Give yourself the gift of time– to make the most of the time God provides.

While wrong questions take us on senseless detours, the right questions take us to the very heart of life.

[Portions of this blog are adapted from my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998, “Introduction,” xi-xii.]

An Inkling: Haunted by a Sense There’s More

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“If you were God, how would you have come into the world?” This question from one of my Young Life leaders has stayed with me for years.

He said he would have gone the dramatic route of having the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flight demonstration squadron do a fly-over at the biggest sports stadium in the world. He would parachute out and land in the middle of the field, dressed in a black leather flight suit that had zippers everywhere. He’d silence the cheering crowd with a wave of his hand and say, “Now that I have your attention—it’s time you listen to me…”

The world has changed a lot since I first considered this question. James A. K. Smith gives a sobering portrait of our religiously-disinterested culture.

Your “secular” neighbors aren’t looking for “answers,” for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary, they have completely different maps. You’ve realized that instead of nagging questions about God or the afterlife, your neighbors are oriented by all sorts of longings and “projects” and quests for significance. There doesn’t seem to be anything “missing” from their lives – so you can’t just come proclaiming the good news of a Jesus who fills their “God-shaped hole.”

Smith describes how our neighbors have no idea they are failing to ask some very important questions.

They don’t have any sense that the “secular” lives they’ve constructed are missing a second floor. In many ways, they have constructed webs of meaning that provide almost all the significance they need in their lives (though a lot hinges on that “almost”)… No, it seems that  many have managed to construct a world of significance that isn’t at all bothered by questions of the divine – though that world might still be haunted in some ways, haunted by that “almost.”

(James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014, p. vii-viii).

I realize these are meaty quotes, but I encourage you to read them again slowly. They describe both our toughest challenge and our greatest hope. The hope is in that word, “haunted.”

Scripture assures us that all people have an innate sense of that there’s “Something” or “Someone” more out there. They try to ignore it or dismiss it (see Romans 1:18-20), but it lingers. The preacher in The Book of Ecclesiastes says,

God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 New King James Version NKJV).

The wonder of Christmas, of the incarnation, of Jesus coming as the Word of God in flesh, is that God gives us much more than an argument for his existence. God gives us much more than a dramatic, coercive confrontation. God stirs that internal, eternal longing.

God’s strategy leaves us in awe because it so very “down to earth”—literally!

God’s response to human longing was more than a sentimental message.

Yes, God continued to give his message through Jesus, as he had through his prophets;

But in Jesus Christ, God gave (and gives) his Living Word– a message not only to hear, but one humans could touch and watch and know.

God’s response to human longing was more than a philosophical proof.

Yes, there are many reasonable proofs for the existence of God.

But in Jesus Christ God gives us much more than a reason to believe; God gives us a person to trust.

God’s response to human longing was more than a show of power.

Yes, God showed his power through Jesus’ miracles: water changed into wine, loaves and fishes multiplied, bodies healed and, above all, his own resurrection.

But Jesus’ powerful acts point beyond themselves to what the fullness of love and the gift of salvation in him look like. God hates suffering and evil and death. Jesus shows us how much more God intends for us.

You see, God gave us nothing less than his very best: God gave himself.

For to us a child is born,

    to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

    and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  (Isaiah 9:6 English Standard Version)

The message of Christmas is this: God exists, and God’s strategy is to win the heart– and with it the whole person through faith in Jesus Christ.

Pay attention to that inkling. Doubt your doubts and follow them to faith.

The Great Train (Set) Robbery (or one way to spoil Christmas)

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I was not an original sinner, but I caught on fast. By that I mean I didn’t usually think up ways to get into trouble. But I was quite responsive to suggestions.

One November, when I was in sixth grade, my friend, Jimmy, said, “I know what I’m getting for Christmas!”

“How could you know?” (I know this sounds like I was terribly naive– but it’s true…)

“I found my presents,” he said. “Wanna’ know what you’re getting? When you’re mom’s not home, we can look…”

So we did. And in the hamper in my parents’ room we found an HO Gauge Train set that I had asked for to go with my road race car set.

So now I knew… and I felt sick to my stomach with guilt.

Christmas morning came. When we opened our gifts, I noticed there was no box under the tree that resembled the train set. That seemed odd. We finished with all the presents, but I must have looked a bit puzzled.

My mom (who was no dummy…) looked at me and said, “Oh, just a minute…” And she came out with a present the size of the train box. “I think you were hoping for this,” and I could see “the look” in her eye.

While we could consider a number of lessons learned from this story, the one most appropriate to right now is waiting. In gift-giving and receiving, waiting is part of process. For many, anticipation itself contributes to the joy. It’s fun to look forward to what’s coming. And that applies to both the giver and the receiver.

Most often the giver has given a great deal of thought and time (and, likely, expense) to getting the right gift. The experience of seeing the reaction the gift elicits is the giver’s greatest joy. To steal that by “peeking” is selfish and hurtful to the relationship.

Waiting is also a significant part of life. Sometimes we wait in excited anticipation. Sometimes we wait in anguish. Sometimes we just plain wait. In most cases, there are lessons in the waiting.

In the Christian Year, Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) is a season of waiting, of anticipation, of reflection. We look back on God’s people awaiting the promised Messiah. We look around to our current circumstances of waiting for direction, for answers to prayer, and for particular projects to come to fruition.  We also look forward as we await Jesus’ promised return.

When we ponder the timing of Jesus’ coming, the Bible tells us that Jesus was born “In the fullness of time…” (Galatians 4:4). The Greek word plaroma could be used of a woman coming to full term with a child, being ready to deliver. God’s people had waited centuries for his coming. God was waiting until the time was just ripe. For instance, it was a time of relative peace under the Pax Romana. It was the first time such an extended region of the world shared a common language that could communicate the gospel and had roads that could enhance the ability to carry the gospel beyond Judea. For these, and many other reasons, Jesus was born at just the right moment.

Waiting is rarely easy, but it becomes more bearable when we trust that the Giver wants to give the best gift possible at the best time possible.

Overcoming Christmas Distractions

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I’m not one of those totally against the way we do Christmas in our culture.

I enjoy taking time to bless our family and friends with gifts.

I like the emphasis on putting up decorative lights at night—that’s a powerful symbol of Jesus coming into the increasing darkness of the world.

I really enjoy the gatherings around food and special events.

And I love the additional church services and seasonal music!

Sure it’s a bit crazy for a few weeks, but much of it is driven by our desires to give, to connect and to celebrate. Those are good things.

Still, as we plunge headlong into the holidays, many forces conspire to pull us away from the real meaning of Christmas:

Searching & searching for new gift ideas for those people “who have everything;”

Being plagued by the post office warning “mail early or else;”

Deciding on a Christmas card list (“Let’s see, did they send us a card last year?”)

Losing that favorite recipe;

Trying to make all the parties, pageants, concerts & community appearances;

Trying to make good memories;

Feeling the sting of loneliness, loss and/ or disappointment that is magnified during these days.

It’s easy to lose sight not only of the new life that came to Bethlehem, but the new life faith births in us through Christ.

When you stop and consider, however, that “first Christmas” was pretty chaotic, too: Mary and Joseph’s untimely (from a human viewpoint) journey to Bethlehem, the “housing challenge,” the birth of a child, and the coming of shepherds to offer special greetings… It was a bit much.

And in the midst of it all we read these wonderful words: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19 NIV).

Treasure—See the value of every moment, every interaction, every opportunity– and even every challenge.

Ponder—Give yourself the gift of some time to reflect. Ponder conveys the meaning of thinking deeply about something, of giving something more thoughtful consideration.

How do we resist the many forces that conspire to pull us away from the real meaning of Christmas? Taking time to treasure experiences while they are happening, and to ponder them afterward – perhaps through journaling—can go a long way to enriching every day, especially this holy season.

 

 

God’s Will is like Tacking into the Wind

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Many times God’s plan for our lives doesn’t seem very efficient. Rarely do we travel directly from A to B by the quickest, most direct route. There appear to be many detours.

It’s fascinating to read the Bible in light of God’s timing in individual lives. Here are a few highlights to consider:

Noah. How long did it take to build the ark? Considering Genesis 6:3 and 1 Peter 3:20, it could have been up to 120 years.

Abraham. How long was it between God’s promise of a child for Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac? Genesis 12:4 says Abraham was 75 when given the promise, and Genesis 17:17 tells us he would be 100 when his covenant child was born.

Moses. How long was Moses exiled in the wilderness after killing an Egyptian before returning to lead God’s people out of Egypt? Acts 7:23 says, “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites.” Exodus 7:7 says Moses was 80 years old when he first spoke to Pharaoh. Based on these scriptures, it was 40 years.

Jesus. How long from birth until he began his ministry? Jesus was 30 years old (Luke 3:23).

We could also consider Joseph’s long experience as a slave and prisoner (Genesis 37-41) and David’s delay from Samuel’s anointing him as king and his actually becoming king (1 Samuel 16- 2 Samuel 5). And, of course, there was Israel’s long awaited anticipation of the coming Messiah.

We could find these illustrations disheartening and be tempted to lose hope. When we read each person’s whole story, however, we learn that God was working in a variety of ways both to prepare people for their situations and to prepare the situations for his people.

One Scripture that has always fascinated me (and I’ve never seen on a calendar or in a book of quotes!) is Deuteronomy 7:22:

“The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you” (Revised Standard Version).

Little by little? Why not all at once? The unintended consequences of Israel’s immediate conquest of the Promised Land would have been vulnerability caused by a population explosion of predatory beasts. I did not anticipate that.

One quote of mine you may read in a calendar (I’m serious) is a statement I made in my baccalaureate message at my seminary graduation and later published in my article “What to Expect of a Seminary Graduate” in Christianity Today: “Full-grown oaks are not produced in 3 years; neither are servants of God.”

Spiritual maturity is not instant. God shapes and prepares us one step at a time. And that “SoulShaping” takes time. Detours may be better interpreted as times to grow, times to be seasoned and tempered, times to learn additional truths about God, ourselves and others. Primarily, I see apparent delays as times to nurture our love for God over our desires for what we want from God.

The sailboat moving into the wind overcomes resistance by tacking. Tacking is the process of sailing sideways, perpendicular to the wind, instead of sailing straight ahead. In the process, as the sailboat covers more of the lake, sea, or ocean, it also provides different perspectives. Above it, the adverse wind does not halt progress. In fact, knowing how to tack enables progress.

As I said at the outset, many times God’s plan for our lives doesn’t seem very efficient. There appear to be many detours—until we look back from the perspective of time and experience. Sail into the wind with hope, trusting God for progress.