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.

 

Spinning Plates

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Jugglers are just one of the many entertainers we pay to generate anxiety. As if we don’t have enough anxiety already, we watch death-defying circus acts and terrifying movies that keep us on the edge of our seats. Perhaps it’s a type of catharsis for us: seeing others under more pressure or in worse situations than we are facing may make us feel better. But I’ll leave that to the trained psychologists.

Back to jugglers. They begin juggling a few harmless, ordinary balls, but then toss in a knife, then an ax, then a bowling ball—and we are just hoping they don’t cut off a finger or drop that ball on their toes. I can’t imagine doing what they do— until it comes to spinning plates. When I see a juggler spinning plates I feel like they are talking directly to me.

Spinning plates is what I do! I have lots of energy and very high expectations (we can talk about my Enneagram sometime, if you like…) and get too many plates spinning. It’s no surprise that I can get stressed running back and forth to all the wobbling projects just about to fall.

The good news is that I don’t waste much time on cheap plates. I am spinning many fine pieces of porcelain projects. Right now I’m spinning intentional preaching plans and vision plans, as well as leadership development and coaching plans for several different situations. I spin the usual you-gotta-do-this-to-keep-your-job plates. Oh, and I have a goal for publishing this blog and some other new materials. And did I mention that I’m a husband, father, grandfather and friend? Lot of plates. But you likely have as many.

So here’s the question: What do you do when you’re over-extended, especially with projects you are really interested in doing?

First, look at what’s “driving” each plate. Why did you choose to spin this plate? There are a number of commendable motives. The key is that you affirm that validity of that particular plate. It may not be a plate you would choose (like caring for a loved one with chronic illness), but you know it’s what you are called to do at this time. On the other hand, it may feel a plate imposed on you that you could choose to put down. I think of the pressure Jesus felt to meet expectations for performing miracles. When pressured, he refused to spin such plates (Matthew 12:39).

Second, give yourself permission to put one or two aside for the time being—as in my pause from blog writing. The world didn’t end when I didn’t publish weekly (though I’m sure many were just heart-broken not to have a nugget of wisdom from me… right?) I disappointed myself, but realized that there are seasons not only in the climate, but in life. Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 speaks of these varied seasons:

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: 2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… 5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them… 6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, 7 … a time to be silent and a time to speak…”

Third, manage your expectations for each plate. This is where your journal and a great listening partner come in handy. As you might have guessed, I feel compelled to give everything my best effort. I’ll never forget my annual personnel review when one of the elders, Wally, said to me, “Doug, we’re very pleased with your work—but also concerned.” “Concerned?” I responded with genuine alarm. “Yes, concerned. You need to learn that not everything deserves ‘A’ effort. We’re not grading you, but you need to figure out a way to get a few ‘C’s,’ or you’re going to burn out.”

Fourth, savor the present moment.  Plate spinners are most alive in the spinning. There will always be more plates and poles and opportunities to spin. Welcome Jesus’ invitation to focus on now.

“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).

Gotta’ run– there’s a wobbler that needs some attention!

What Would Jesus Pray? (WWJP)

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It’s all too common to approach prayer as an obligation. It’s like a duty we know we should fulfill, rather than a joyful engagement. If you’re like me, you wish there was more to our experience of prayer. How do we change prayer from being like placing just another “online order” for our list of needs?

As a new believer I learned a Scripture that said Jesus “ever liveth to make intercession” for us, quoting the King James Version of Hebrews 7:25. Sadly, I didn’t really realize the implications of this verse for many years.

There’s a powerful picture here. You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” (from Charles Sheldon’s famous book, In His Steps, published in 1896). It became popular again a number of years ago with the acronym WWJD. The verse from the Letter to the Hebrews made me think of a variation on that: “What would Jesus pray?”

Here’s a contemporary translation of that verse in context. “Because Jesus lives forever, his priesthood lasts forever. Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf. (Hebrews 7:24-25 New Living Translation).

My prayer life has been energized by mediating on how Jesus is praying (interceding) for us.

As I enter into prayer, I begin by centering on this verse, picturing Jesus seated on the throne of heaven with our Heavenly Father.  It’s a holy conversation. They are lovingly discussing their family members.

I picture them discussing the person on my heart. What does our holy, loving Lord want to do in his or her life? It’s like the breath of the Holy Spirit inspires my prayers. Instead of a list of “Please, Lord…” or “Lord, I hope…” phrases, I begin to pray with confidence rooted in God’s promises of mercy and grace. I pray like this:

“Lord, thank you for interceding for my friend, and carrying their burden with them. I am so grateful they are not alone and that you are making your presence known to them…”

“Lord, thank you for hearing the heart desires of my loved one. I know you are asking us to trust your timing, your wisdom, your power…”

Jesus’ prayers in the gospel give us numerous examples of how to pray. I have found praying the Lord’s Prayer over a person opens new vistas for creative intercession. Here’s a paraphrase I use as a framework. For convenience and clarity, I’ll frame this in terms of a prayer for my wife, Sarah, and include the New Living translation of Matthew 6:9-13 as a heading for each petition.

Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy (Matthew 6:9);

Our Father in heaven, thank you for adopting Sarah into your family and caring for her as your precious daughter. Come in the power of your Holy Spirit to bring honor to your name through her by the way she thinks, acts and lives.

May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10);

Our Father, I pray Sarah will experience the love and power of your sovereign rule in her life. I know you want to work through her to bring your love, your care, your power, your life into ever relationship and every responsibility.

Give us today the food we need (Matthew 6:11);

Lord, Sarah and all of us rely on you to provide for our needs: physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, financially, vocationally, in relationships and in every other way. You provided manna in the wilderness for your people during the Exodus, and provide yourself as the Bread of Life for us through your life, death and resurrection. Reassure Sarah that you are with her to provide her every need and continue to give her a spirit of confidence and gratitude, trusting you at all times.

and forgive us our sins (Matthew 6:12);

Our Heavenly Father, we are still all-too-human. Your work in us has begun, but is not yet completed. Let Sarah know the cleansing gifts of your mercy (in not giving us the judgement we all deserve) and your grace (in giving us the favor none of us deserve). Release her from regret, shame and self-condemnation. Silence the voice of the Accuser of your children, the evil one.

    …as we have forgiven those who sin against us (Matthew 6:12);

Merciful God, we are all quick to keep records of wrong done against us and to hold grudges instead of holding on to you. Heal Sarah’s wounds, her sense of being devalued, and whatever other pain has lodged in her heart. Give her both the willingness and the will to release others from the consequences their words and actions have generated. Help her surrender her right to hurt them in return.

And don’t let us yield to temptation (Matthew 6:13).

Lord, there is an enemy eager to trip us up and see us fail. And too often we all-too-willingly go along with him. Awaken your power within Sarah to resist temptation. Give her eyes to discern the evil lurking in the shadows of the world and even in her own heart. When the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, come in your power to keep her heart, mind, soul and body stayed on You.

…but rescue us from the evil one (Matthew 6:13).

Almighty God, we are so vulnerable to the powers of darkness. Dress Sarah in your amour (Ephesians 6:10-18) so she will stand strong against the evil one. Above all, Lord, protect her by your power and might.

When we begin to pray with holy imagination, inspired by God’s Spirit using God’s Word– prayer becomes an experience far beyond an online order! I invite you to make a simple sign to post in a number of places: WWJP.

It’s Who You Know

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(Not my bookshelf!) Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Early in my ministry I was sitting in my study one morning. I was particularly discouraged by the stacks of unread books and magazines that continued to grow as my time for reading contracted.

“Lord,” I cried out in prayer, “how can I ever know enough to serve you properly? I’ll never get caught up!”

Then a stillness came over me, and it was as if the Lord said, “Doug, look at your library.” At that time I had one bookcase with six five-foot shelves.

“Can you hold all those books?” the Lord continued. “If you stacked the books, one on top of the other, how many could you carry?“

I realized I couldn’t carry even one-third of one shelf.

“Don’t hold your books. Hold on to me.”

Refreshment and relief swept over my spirit.

One of the joys and challenges of ministry is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding in almost any and every field imaginable. Our medieval ancestors called Theology the “Queen of the Sciences” (a title sadly discarded by most today). That designation points to the fact that all knowledge finds its roots in God. We are stewards of this world in every aspect, including mining the treasures of knowledge and understanding.

So there’s hardly a subject I find irrelevant. This has led to a love for—and a significant accumulation of—books. After seminary and over 40 years in pastoral ministry, I have nearly 20 times the number of books than when the Lord first communicated, “Don’t hold your books. Hold on to me.”

I am committed to pursuing Biblical knowledge and theological understanding. It’s part of our obedience to the greatest commandment.

“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:29-30).

I believe fervently in apologetics (the logical explanation and defense of the faith—as represented by Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ). I have a satisfied mind and continue to love God with all my mind, as well as with my heart, soul and strength.

Problems arise, however, when knowledge about God replaces continuing fellowship with God.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… 8 Love never fails… where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. (1 Corinthians 13:1-10 selected verses).

If I never read another book or developed another concept, God would love me no less.

It’s not how much we know about God— it’s knowing God that matters most.

God Hates Death

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Photo by Thorsten technoman on Pexels.com

“Doug, I’d like to ask you a theological question.” That’s not a typical comment from my brother, Dave. And we weren’t in a typical location—but it was perfect for getting perspective.

Let me set the context: In June 2018 my wife, Sarah, and I led a missions retreat in Austria. We decided to stay overseas for an additional 10 days in France. We wanted to do a bus tour of northern France and the Loire valley and invited my middle brother (I’m the youngest) and his wife to join us. We had a delightful time.

So we were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around to take in the views, we all got cappuccinos. Dave and I sat down, overlooking the Champ de Mars, the larger green space southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

Then came the question: “What do you say to parents who’ve lost their young child? Why would God allow that?”

That’s one version of the toughest question we all ask: Why does God allow suffering and evil?

Within moments I heard myself say, “Dave, God hates death.” I paused as that thought sunk in—for both of us. I can’t recall ever saying it that bluntly before.

“God hates death. Like a doctor hates cancer. Like an educator hates ignorance. Like a judge hates injustice. God is all about life. God gave us life in the first place and made this amazing creation. Death – and all that goes along with it—came into the picture because humanity didn’t want to love God or live in harmony with God.”

“The whole Bible is about God providing ways for us to choose life and love and hope in the midst of death,” I said, “God hates death so much he sent Jesus to defeat death so we could have abundant life now and eternal life with him forever.”

“Is that what you tell parents?” Dave asked.

“In a more interactive and pastoral way, yes, that’s part of the conversation.”

I am so thankful that, in midst of unbearable pain, through faith in Christ, death is not the last word.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. 
Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As Dave and I continued in conversation, one other thought came to me, “And I don’t think we will ever know why things happen the way they do (at least, not in this life). But that’s probably for the best…”

In my experience, even knowing why some decisions are made or why some things happen doesn’t necessarily help. We are likely to question and challenge any reasons. It’s not about why. It’s about God’s love giving us hope and God’s power giving us strength.

 

Clutter and The Distraction of the Rear View Mirror

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I feel like I’m a “selective hoarder.” I don’t think you’d look at either our home or my study at church and think I’ve got way too much stuff—except for the rows and rows and rows of books and the stacks and files and stacks and files of articles from newspapers, magazine, profession journals, newsletters and my own notebooks of ideas. It’s pretty overwhelming. Because my ministry of communication relies on ideas, I have accumulated many resources I call “You-never-know-when’s:” you just never know when that book, article, note, or file will come in handy!

But I recently experienced the burden of clutter I hadn’t felt before. I didn’t see it coming.

Our church campus has recently gone through a building program. We’ve also been upgrading many buildings, including the one where my study is (I don’t call it an office). Everything had to be removed. Everything. So that started the process of evaluating what to keep, what to give away, and what to throw away.

In the process, I began going through my past “day-books.” These notebooks contain daily notes on appointments, to do lists, meeting notes, phones messages and so on.

Reading through the days’ notes from several years ago was like re-living the day in detail. While that was fascinating, it was also overwhelming. The responsibilities and burdens and feelings of each day rose up within me, as if they were happening right now.

After this experience I came across this passage in the writings of Fenelon (the French spiritual director from the court of King Louis XIV):

“The wise and diligent traveler watches his every step, and always has his eyes upon the part of the road directly in front of him. But he does not turn constantly backward to count every step, and to examine every track. He would lose time in going forward.”

It’s dangerous to drive with your focus on the rear view mirror. I now see more clearly what Jesus meant when he said, “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34). My energy drained away as I went back over the notes in my day-books. I realized at that moment that I had to – in the words of Elsa—“Let it go!” (with apologies to Disney!).

I need all my energy for today. For right now. I made a bold (for me!) decision: I shredded all those day-books. And it feels good—mostly. (Gotta’ be honest—change is not comfortable!)

“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Getting rid of yesterday’s clutter makes room for today.

Oh, I still collect stuff—and I’ll go through the-sort-and-throw-out-stuff process for years to come. But I’m more aware of the need to set a wiser standard for what I keep. Live now. Focus on what is needed now. Trust God for tomorrow’s ideas.

Your Cross to Bear?

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Definitions matter, especially in theology and spiritual formation.

A common example of an incorrect definition and misuse of a term is in the phrase, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear.” When most people speak of “a cross to bear,” they are referring to suffering or a trial they have to endure: like an illness, or caring for a difficult relative, or putting up with a challenging supervisor at work.

This phrase is based on Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23, “Then [Jesus] said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”

A thoughtful examination of this passage reveals that the cross is not merely an affliction to be tolerated or endured. The cross is Jesus’ place of mission, the place of his ultimate purpose, the place of judgement and redemptive sacrifice. Read the passage again, this time with verse 24 “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.’”

The cross is about losing your life– to save it. As Jesus’ followers, the cross is our place of mission where we open wide our arms as part of Jesus’ life-spending, life-giving mission in this world. The focus of the cross is always on others.

So what about suffering? What about that particular problem that nags you, wears on you and challenges your “cope”? The biblical image that best fits that situation is the “thorn.”

Paul spoke of his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12. After experiencing a vision of the third heaven and paradise, Paul wrote, “…. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). Paul never specifically defined his thorn. Some scholars think it was a significant eye problem (based on Galatians 4:13-16), but the most important lesson is God’s message to Paul about the thorn.

But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Spiritually speaking, a thorn is an affliction, weakness, struggle that drives us to depend on the Lord. (Don’t focus on the ‘messenger from Satan’ right now! That’s material for another time.) Paul spoke of the thorn in the context of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and other difficulties. A thorn humbles us, in the best sense of the word. It exposes our humanity so that our need for God becomes clearly inescapable and undeniable. We come to the end of our resources and make a new beginning with God’s strength.

Both the cross and the thorn express important, valid, yet different dimension of our calling in Christ.

Bear your cross as part of Jesus’ continuing mission in this world.

Take your thorn to the Lord and discover his strength in your weakness.

And remember, Jesus both bore the cross and endured the (crown of) thorns.

It’s All So Fragile

2018_07 HWY 101 FIRE
Fire on CA HWY 101 from “big rig” truck accident

California’s population in 2017 was over 39 million—and I think they were all on the road last week! But this time it was more than the quantity of vehicles. It was a tragedy that, literally, stopped us all in our tracks.

We often take for granted how “powerful” we are as we cruise down any of life’s highways. But one mishap—small or great—reveals how powerless we really are. That’s what happened when we were driving to Northern California last week. We were just north of San Juan Bautista on CA HWY 101 when we saw smoke. We noticed no traffic heading south and knew there was trouble. Our progress slowed and then came to a complete stop. We watched helicopters dump water on the fire about a mile ahead. The smoke turned from black to white—like it was surrendering—then disappeared. But we were still stopped 20, then 30, then 45 minutes. All engines were turned off, and we sat in place. Many of us got out of our cars and were talking about the last time we were stuck like this. (It was our first time). Eventually we learned a “big rig” truck had crashed and caught fire. We were concerned for the truck driver, but never heard any news there. Finally, after two hours, we began to move.

Times like this remind me life is fragile. Traveling by any means is a delicate matter, easily disrupted by weather, mechanical problems, accidents and congestion. The networks of life are also fragile. Life’s support systems are fragile.

Traveling on mission trips has made me appreciate a hot shower, water available at the turn of a faucet, the ease of purchasing food and other “necessities,” and the relative safety and security of our country. But then I realize we’re truly vulnerable, wherever we are.

While we don’t want to be crippled by anxiety over everything that can go wrong, I find it helpful to cultivate three spiritual attitudes.

Awareness. Presumption numbs the soul. Awareness reminds us we are dependent on the Lord. James’ sobering exhortation makes the point: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:13-15 NIV). (I have these verses at the top of all my financial planning!)

Gratitude. I am aware life is fragile so I receive every moment with gratitude. I am thankful for the many blessings I do enjoy, even the midst of disruption, inconvenience and loss. I never tire of being reminded of Paul’s commands: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV).

Humility. Pride rises from the illusion of power and control. While God has given us much freedom and abilities to do many things when and where we want, ultimately, we depend on God’s grace and mercy.  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7 NIV).

While it’s easy to focus on how much goes wrong, it’s amazing to me that so much go right! God’s common grace and mercy keep us in more ways than we can ever imagine.

Live in the awareness that this fragile life, like an egg, is held in God’s sovereign, loving hands.