Greater than the Blanks

My kids used to love to do Mad-Libs. If you’re unfamiliar with them, Mad-Libs are just simple short stories with blanks in place of certain words. The fun came when you solicited words from the kids to fill in the blanks and then read the story aloud. When you did, you’d end up with a car flying to the moon or a whale walking into a grocery store or some such silliness. And, since there were kids involved, you did have a good number of references to boogers and other bodily functions. It was the blanks that made the story personal.

When we read Psalm 6, we find David struggling. He’s in a difficult season where he speaks of being weak, shaken, and filled with terror. He pleads for rescue. He describes sobbing all through the night. But, there is a big blank in the story. We’re not sure of the reason David is so distraught. Some commentators suggest he was battling some type of illness. Others say his struggle came from his enemies. Truth is, none of them are certain.

I like the uncertainty in the context. It allows us to see our circumstances in the psalm. How many of us can identify with the struggle David shares? Most of us I imagine. We all know what it is to cry ourselves to sleep and wake up the next morning with our eyes swollen from grief. We know what it’s like to be so tired from weeping that the only thing keeping us awake is our weeping. The context may vary from person to person. Our circumstances may be different than David’s, and your situation may be different than mine, but we know the heartache that comes with being overwhelmed by something.

Regardless of how you fill in the blanks, whatever circumstances may be buffeting you right now, know this: God hears your cries. You are not alone in your sorrows and troubles. You are not without help and solace. The situation you are in may seem hopeless, but God accepts your prayer. Through Christ, we have access to our Heavenly Father to find mercy and grace to help in time of need. David knew God heard his pleas and would work in the circumstances of his life. He was not alone. And, neither are we. God knows our trials. He hears our cries. He works in our circumstances. He’s greater than all of the blanks in our lives however we may fill them in. Look to Him today.

I am weary from my groaning; with my tears I dampen my bed and drench my couch every night.  My eyes are swollen from grief…the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. The LORD has heard my plea for help; the LORD accepts my prayer.

Psalm 6:6, 9 (CSB)

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The Right Path

It’s easy to go the wrong way. When we read the open verse of the songbook known as Psalms, we are reminded just how easy it is.

How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers! Psalm 1:1 (CSB)

The psalmist tells us that blessedness (or happiness) is found by avoiding the wrong img_4800paths in life. The person who is truly happy avoids the advice of the wicked. He avoids the direction of the sinner and does not engage in the company of mockers. To be blessed is to listen to the right counsel. It’s to journey in the right direction and connect with the communities that encourage one towards godliness.

 

Furthermore, note the progression of the verbs used for the journey. A person wrapped in godly happiness does not walk in wicked advice. She does not stand along the paths of the sinful nor does she take a seat in a group of those who reject God and His ways. When we pursue sin, we walk towards it. Then, we pause, linger, and stand in its presence. Then, we pull up a chair and sit. We go from just passing through to taking up residence.

So, let’s seek the happiness only God can give. Let us turn a deaf hear to the counsel of the wicked. Let us travel along the narrow path of the righteous and avoid the pathway of the sinner. And, let us not join in and become part of the company of mockers. If by God’s grace, we refuse to walk the wrong direction, then we won’t linger there. And, if we don’t linger, we won’t take up residency. No walking. No standing. No sitting. That’s our mantra when it comes to going the wrong directions in life. Rather, let us embrace the joy that comes with walking, standing, and dwelling with God. Let us relish His ways and His Word.

Difficult Seasons

Apparently, I’m middle-aged. At least that’s what the folks who categorize these things tell me. As I move deeper into middle-agedom, I’ve slowed down. I’ve lost hair. I talk about the good old days more and I have a growing desire to yell “get off my lawn” for no reason. In addition to all of these, I’m also learning to deal with aging parents.This past spring, my mom fell. And, while she didn’t seem to suffer any serious injuries at first, time has proven that the fall has indeed marked her life. Since June, she has been through two hospital stays, two rehab stints, and a couple of weeks in an assisted living facility. In addition, during the same period of time, my dad has also had two hospital stays, three surgical procedures, and a rehab stint of his own (sadly, my dad passed away right before I published this). It’s been quite a summer.

As I’ve walked through this journey with my parents over the last few months, I have been reminded of a few things.

Plans are great, until they blow apart. 

James writes:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring — what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15, CSB

More than once over the last several weeks, I’ve made the two-and-a-half-hour trek to my hometown to be with my parents. I came with my clothes, my iPad, and a plan. And, almost without fail, those plans never worked out. I’d get dad out of the hospital only to have to put mom back in. There were falls, insurance issues, and unforeseen events at every turn. And, while I continued to try to plan out the next week, something would always happen today to completely wreck everything. As a result, I’m trying to take each day as it comes. Yes, I still like to try and plan things out, but by God’s grace, I’m slowly learning to focus on today and not be anxious about tomorrow.

In the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks stars as Jim Lovell. In one scene, the crew is worried about the re-entry plan to come back to earth. As the stress and tensions mount, Lovell says, “All right, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order, we are on number eight. You’re taking about number 692.” I’m trying to learn to deal with number eight before worrying about what’s down the road.

Friends are precious. Over recent weeks, I’ve received countless texts and calls. Friends (and family) have reached out to offer their prayers, help, and encouragement. I’ve had people offer to help transport my parents to appointments or to bring them meals. I’ve walked into gatherings and had people drop what they’re doing to come and pray with me and for me. My church family has been incredibly gracious in all of this to allow me the time to minister to my parents. All of this really makes a difference. I’ve been reminded that friends are really a blessing from the Lord.

Prayer is vital. I know we all know this…or at least give lip service to it. But, I’ve been reminded anew about the importance of prayer through all of this. I like to think I can control most of the events in my life (I know, I know. Go back and read James 4 again). But, the events happening in my parents’ lives are well beyond my control. I can’t make bodies or brains heal. I can’t make bureaucracy work faster. I can’t open up beds in facilities where there are not or make resources magically appear. All of this has driven me more and more to the only One who can.

God is sovereign. The sovereignty of God is a great theological truth. We read of it in theology texts and expound on it in theological conversations. But, there are times in life when sovereignty has to become more than a concept in a book. It has to be a reality that pierces the circumstances of our lives. Romans eight tells us

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28, CSB

This verse is meaningless if God is not sovereign. If He’s not sovereign over the circumstances of life (both good and bad), then the best we can do is hope things work out for the best. But, if God is in control and He is working and His promise is true and meaningful, then we have the confidence that He is accomplishing something. We may not understand it or even agree with it, but we know that while things are hopelessly beyond our control, they are not beyond His.

I love these words from Tenth Avenue North:

“As I walk this great unknown
Questions come and questions go
Was there purpose for the pain
Did I cry these tears in vain
I don’t wanna live in fear
I wanna trust that You are near
Trust Your grace can be seen
In both triumph and tragedy
I have this hope
In the depth of my soul
In the flood or the fire
You’re with me and You won’t let go”

As I enter this new chapter with the people who molded me into who I am, I’m resting on this Sovereign Lord. I’m looking to Him more in prayer and drawing strength and encouragement from the people He brings into my life. I’m learning to adapt to His plan for today rather than trying to force my plan for tomorrow. It’s not always easy, but I’m trying. Like they say, getting old isn’t for wimps.

Maybe you too are in a season of struggle. Perhaps your season, like mine, involves helping the people you love navigate the difficulties of aging. Or, maybe your struggles fall into a completely different category. Whatever the context of your life right now, I imagine the lessons above still have relevance for you. Learn to focus on the step in front of you. Be encouraged by the people around you. Dive deep into the pool of prayer and trust confidently in a sovereign God. May He help each of us move manage the difficult seasons of our lives.

The Depths of Anguish

desperate-prayer“Can I help you?” It’s a common question. We hear it all the time. Whether it’s in our local store or on the phone with a customer service rep half way around the world, we all have heard some well-meaning person ask us how they can help. And, much of the time, these folks do a great job providing us assistance. They point us in the direction of the item we’re looking for or they help us solve an issue with our computer or with our phone bill. It’s great to get the help we need. But, where do we go with the stuff that bigger than all of these kinds of things? Where to we go with our fears and our heartaches? To whom can we turn when the stuff of life is just too much for us to bear?

In the opening chapter of 1 Samuel, a childless woman name Hannah is in the temple praying. As she pours out her heart, she silently mouths her prayer. The priest on duty accuses her of being drunk and asks her to leave. Hannah replies, “No, my lord…I am a woman with a broken heart. I haven’t had any wine or beer; I’ve been pouring out my heart before the Lord. Don’t think of me as a wicked woman; I’ve been praying from the depth of my anguish and resentment” (1 Samuel 1:15-16, CSB).

I’ve been pouring out my heart before the Lord…I’ve been praying from the depth of my anguish and resentment.

Hannah knew where to take her heartache. She knew who to call with her anguish and resentment. She poured her heart out to God. She cries out of the depth of her anguish, so caught up in it that she’s oblivious to the fact that others are even watching her.

Many of us can identify with this kind of struggle. We know what it is to feel so burdened and overwhelmed that it’s hard to know what to do or we to go. Paralysis sets in and we find ourselves stuck in place with no idea what to do next. Whereas Hannah took these burdens to God, so many of us let our burdens crush our souls. We carry that weight and brokenness like a badge of martyrdom, completely unwilling (or perhaps unable) to let them go. We talk to friends and family about it. We post about it on social media. We might even ask others to pray about it. But for some reason, we fail to truly take them to God praying from the depth of our anguish and resentment. God is the one who can truly work in these heart-breaking, gut-wrenching situations. He’s the one who can offer help when we feel so helpless.

So, open up with God. Be honest with Him. Pour your heart out to Him. Be vulnerable. Show your brokenness. Pray from the depth of your anguish and resentment. Take these things to your loving Heavenly Father and trust that He will work in them for your best and His glory. Whatever the burden, however large or overwhelming it may seem, He can help you. He may not move in the way you’d like, but you can go to Him. Don’t be hesitant. Cry out to God, praying from the depths of your emotion and heartache. And, as you do, trust that He is able to help you in your despair. Have confidence in Him because he is bigger than whatever it is we bring to Him. He indeed can help.

Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. Hebrews 4:16, CSB

Clarity

csb_logo-300x143Clarity is important. When we read something that has life-changing implications, we want it to be clear. We want to be able to understand what’s being said, and how those words impact our lives. We want to be able to share them with the people around us, and be certain that those words are clear to them as well.

I was reminded of this the other day while reading the book of Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 8, the people gathered at the city gates to listen to the reading of God’s Word. As Ezra the priest read the Scripture, people moved about the crowd helping the masses understand what was being read. Why? Because clarity is important.

Through the years, I have used a variety of Bible translations. I have read, preached, and taught from most of the more popular translations. And, even though I settled on a teaching translation for me a few years ago, I continue to struggle with how to help people find the best translation for them. I want something for them that is both accurate and clear, and sometimes the translations that I love are more of the former than the latter. I want the text they read to be true to the text, but I also want it to be understandable.

Thankfully, I can now encourage people to look at the Christian Standard Bible. The CSB is both clear and accurate. When the previews debuted a few weeks ago, my teenage son (who’s a fairly accomplished reader) and I began reading through the gospel of Mark together. And, while I was struck by what I read, I was more struck by what he said about what he read. He immediately commented how much more clear and understandable the text was, and how much more he enjoyed it than the Bible he had been reading. That was big for me. And, in the weeks since, I have only continued to grow more impressed by the translation. It is without a doubt where I would point someone seeking to buy a Bible.

I am reading the CSB devotionally this year. I am also preaching and teaching from the CSB for the next month or so. I’m primarily doing this to expose our church family to the translation. To be honest, I haven’t decided whether I’ll switch my preaching translation permanently (partly because I changed texts a few years ago), but I am really tempted to make that transition.

So, check out the Christian Standard Bible. You can read more about it at csbible.com. You can read the text there as well. In addition, there are apps for both Android and iOS devices, and more digital options become available all the time. You can also find print copies in Christian bookstores and various online retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

More Than Numbers

advertising-by-the-numbers-its-big-business-with-big-numbers-to-matchNumbers are my life. No, I’m not an accountant or a mathematician. I’m not an engineer or a banker. I don’t run actuary tables for insurance companies or develop spreadsheets for corporations. My math skills top out with basic algebra and my knowledge of Excel is pretty limited. Nonetheless, numbers are my life.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve had a few health problems. And, like anyone who has had serious issues with their health, numbers begin to play an important part in determining how things are going. I track my weight, my blood pressure, and my glucose levels. I use apps on my phone that chart how many steps I take and how many miles I walk. I have lab work regularly that measures everything from my cholesterol to my medication levels. So, every day…every week…every month, some number comes in that tells me how I’m doing.

In addition to being a patient, I also have a day job. I pastor a church. That means in addition to preaching and teaching and ministering, I deal with a number of…numbers. Every week I process through attendance and offerings and other statistical measures of how our church is doing (or at least that’s what many say measures how our church is doing). Due to our facility being destroyed by a fire in 2015, we are now in a building program which involves things like budgets, blueprints, and insurance reports. Yep, you guessed it. More numbers.

The other day, I was thinking about all the numbers that define my life. It was kind of funny that I was having these thoughts while hooked up to a heart monitor and walking on a treadmill. As I was walking, paying close attention to the statistical dashboard in front of me, that phrase “numbers are my life” kept running through my mind. And then it hit me. No, they’re not. Numbers don’t define me. Jesus does.

Through His death and resurrection, Jesus freed me from the power and penalty of sin. He has forgiven me. Because of Him, I have been adopted into the family of God and made a co-heir with Christ. He has promised that He will never leave me nor forsake me and that one day, I will spend eternity with Him. He has changed me…and He is changing me. And, He defines me. Not my weight or my lab results. Not how many people were in church this week or how big the restrooms in our new building are. He cares about my health and the health of our church, but those things are not who I am. I am a child of God because of Jesus. And, that’s something numbers just can’t measure. Numbers aren’t my life. Jesus is.

The challenge for us is to understand what really defines our lives. It’s not our careers or our bank accounts. It’s not if our kid makes the team or the honor roll. It’s not how many miles we can run or if we can fit into the clothes we wore in college. It’s not the fame or the popularity that comes with successful ministries. Our true purpose…our true success is found in Jesus. Our acceptance and joy are found in Him. Our contentment and security? In Christ. So, let us stop seeking these things somewhere else. The numbers will never provide the true picture of who…and whose we are. We’re more than numbers. We’re children of the living God.

I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:16-19, CSB

You Mad?

angry-mob-pitchforks-torchesLike many, I’ve watched the news over the past few weeks with a bit of amazement. Without making any commentary on what has been done by our new president, it is a bit surreal to watch people react. Every day there is a new angry outburst of one kind or another. This anger isn’t new. During the campaign season, commentators kept speaking about the anger of the American people. If anything, that anger has only intensified. It seems as though many are angry without even knowing why they’re angry. We’re like little children throwing a tantrum and when asked why by our parents, we cry out “I don’t know. I’m just mad!” The volume is turned up, the shouting is more intense, and the barbs are more pointed and personal.

How do we are Christians respond in an age filled with such hostility? Obviously, we should be praying, loving, and sharing the gospel. But, I want to go beyond that to one specific admonition from James for us as believers. James writes, “My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness” (James 1:19-20, CSB).

Perhaps in this age of shouting and tantrums, we as Christians would do well to listen more, take time before we speak (or post), and ask God to help us lengthen our fuses just a bit to keep from being angry all the time. When we listen less, talk more, and are angry all the time, it just seems to make matters worse.

I’m reminded of an old episode of the original Star Trek. An alien entity took over the Starship Enterprise and trapped Klingons (enemies of the Federation for all the young, non-nerds out there) on board. The alien then fed off the anger and the hostility between the Enterprise crew and the Klingons. The anger-fueled alien could not be defeated until the hostility between the two subsided.

I wonder what might happen in our circles of influence if we listened a bit more, took a little more time to speak, and got angry a lot slower than we do now? I’m sure it wouldn’t solve all the problems nor make the disagreements go away, but I have a feeling it would be an awful lot easier for those around us to see Jesus.

 

Don’t Go Back

you-cant-go-backPatton is one of my favorite movies. The 1970 biopic won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and George C. Scott won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the controversial general George S. Patton (although he had it returned the next day). Patton was a advance at all costs kind of guy. He challenged his commanders to be audacious and to keep moving forward at all times. In one scene, Patton is encouraged to stop his advance in order to allow his men to regroup. He replies, “Not me…I don’t like to pay for the same real estate twice.” Patton understood that retreat is not usually the best option.

In the opening book of the Old Testament, God calls Abraham to leave his homeland to follow Him. Abraham did so, and God eventually fulfilled His promise to Abraham and gave him a son named Issac. Years later, Abraham is lying on his death bed and making arrangements for his son to secure a wife. As he does, he instructs his servant to “go to my land and my family to take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:4, CSB). He then issues this stern command: “Make sure that you don’t take my son back there” (Genesis 24:6, CSB).

Abraham’s words remind us of the danger of retreat when we are following God. It is so tempting for us to go backwards…to return to the familiar and the comfortable, particularly when God is pushing us beyond our comfort zone. As He moves us forward, it’s easy for us to want to go back. But, we can’t. We can’t go back. We can’t walk away from all the new things God is doing in us and through us. We can’t settle back into the comfortable when God has so much more in store for us. We must fight the urge to retreat into the familiar. We can’t return to our old way of thinking and doing. We must continue to press ahead. We must continue to advance by God’s grace and by His power.

The Apostle Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14, CSB). Don’t pay for the same real estate twice. Keep moving forward. What ever you do, don’t go back.

God Remembered

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On more than one occasion in my life, I’ve had to confess that I’ve forgotten something. I forgot about a deadline or an appointment or an assignment of some kind. More and more, I find myself having to use the reminder app on my phone to help me remember what to take where and who to call when. In our busyness and frailty, we often forget. We forget dates, events, promises and sometimes even people.

Frailty and forgetfulness seems to go together. We know that deep down. After all, we forget…and we have been forgotten. Someone has let us down in one way or another. A forgotten anniversary or birthday. A forgotten lunch date. A forgotten promise. We are not only forgetters. Sometimes we are forgotten too.

When we read the story of Noah and the great flood, we read of a man named Noah and his family building an ark, loading up animals, and surviving a deluge. After the rain falls and the storm subsides, the Bible says, “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1). God remembered. What comforting words.

Those words struck me one morning as I was reading this text. In the face of all the fears we have, we do not need to fear that we are forgotten. We’re not. The God who created everything has not lost track of us. A hectic schedule and a full calendar have not squeezed us out of God’s mind. His omniscience is not impacted by the frailty that robs us our memory as we age. God had promised Noah to bring him through the storm safely. God not only remembered Noah, but He also remembered His promise to him. The winds came. The waters receded, and Noah stepped out onto dry land. And as God remember Noah, He remembers us. As God remembered His promise then and He remembers His promise now. In Christ, we are not alone. We are not forgotten. When those fears arise let these two words encourage you. God remembered.

Give Us A King

votingLast night, I sat down with my absentee ballot and began coloring in the appropriate circles. I researched judges and various ballot proposals and cast my vote as wisely as I knew how. Then, I came to the top of the ballot. And, as I did, my emotions went from frustration to anger, discouragement to despair. How did we end up with here? How can these be our choices? I set the ballot aside to spend more time reflecting and praying about what to do. As I did, I couldn’t help but think of the children of Israel.

In the days of Samuel, Israel clamored for a king. In doing so, they set aside their full reliance on God and embraced the wisdom and power of man. God saw this for what it was, and told Samuel, “they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7, ESV). But, He goes on to have Samuel, “solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:9, ESV). 

Subsequently, Samuel warns the people about all the things the king will do to them and take from them. And then he closes with this sobering word, “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:18, ESV).

As I read that verse, I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t describe where we are today. For years now, we believers have invested so much energy and effort into the political process. So much so in fact that in the eyes of many in our nation we are synonymous with politics and politicians. To be fair, many of our motives and causes are noble. It is important for us to be engaged in the process and know the issues. It is important for us to vote our values and our consciences. The things we value matter, and so does our participation.

But, I cannot help but wonder if we have trusted too much in people and politics. Could it be that we have so embraced the political processes and its promises that we have lost sight of God’s leading? Have we cried out so loud “give us a king” that we, like the people of Israel, have rejected God? Samuel’s warnings remind us of the danger found in completely surrendering ourselves to the power of people…and to people of power.

The reality is we have little to gain and everything to lose in such a capitulation. A new president is not going to bring the change we need. Nor will the Congress or the Statehouse. Again, it really matters who sits in these offices, but none of these individuals are capable of changing the human heart, and none of them are capable of stopping one from changing. Only God can truly change lives. Only He can transform us from the inside out through the hope that is found in Jesus.

So, with that said, what would happen if we put the same kind of passion and energy into sharing the gospel and living it out daily as we do into politics? How many lives would be touched by Jesus? How many would see what it really looks like to love your neighbor and to care for those in need? How many would grow to understand that all life is precious from the womb to the grave? How many would catch a glimpse of genuine racial reconciliation and social justice? How many would be impacted by radical generosity? How many would learn that love is more than the stuff of movies and music?

If we really poured ourselves into this kind of living, lives would be transformed and the world would be a vastly different place. Hearts and minds would be changed. The values we hold so dear might not be so foreign to so many. So, let us cry out “Give us a king!” But, let our king be King Jesus and let us live passionate lives for Him.