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.

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Fix It

breaking-worldTechnology is great, except for when it isn’t. The other day, my iPhone acted up and some app wouldn’t work properly. I had uploaded some meeting notes into the cloud and the app kept crashing. And, I got frustrated. I tend to do that when things break. My frustrations aren’t limited to the tech world. Leaky pipes, sticky garage doors, and touchy automobiles frustrate me too. Things are supposed to work the way they’re designed to, and when they don’t, it’s aggravating.

My guess is that you share in my frustrations. Most of us can only handle so much brokenness. We want things right. We want things to work properly. We want things fixed. And, our desire to address the broken is not limited to our gadgets and gizmos. We want the same thing for our culture and our world. A simple look at the headlines reminds us of the brokenness of our world and our collective desire for things to be right. Social unrest. Corruption. Lawlessness. Disregard for life. Division and discord. The list goes on and on. We want these things fixed. We want these things to be right. We want things to work the way they’re supposed to.

At its most basic, our desire for things to be right is a desire for justice. When my iPhone doesn’t work properly, I want Apple to fix it. After all, they made the thing. They can make it right. Fixing the technologies in our lives are one thing. Fixing our world is something else. Where do we go fix it? Our governments? At best, their solutions are short-lived. At worst, they compound the problems. Our collective sense of right and wrong? The problem here is that we are fickle. Today’s right is tomorrow’s wrong. We shift with the wind and the tide. Social media? Right. Ranting on Twitter and Facebook really solves things. No, none of these are real answers. We’re going to have to go the One who made us. Only He can make things right. Only He can fix it.

The Bible assures us that one day, Jesus will come and right every wrong. He will fix what’s broken in our world. As believers, we long for that day. We long for His justice to reign and the corruption caused by sin to be completely overcome. But, what about the gap between then and now? More importantly, what do we do when we realize that we are as corrupt and broken as the world around us? We have to look to the One who made us because only He can fix it.

When Jesus died on the cross, He satisfied God’s justice. He bore the judgment we deserve. And, because of that, we are free in Him. While we still bear the scars and the struggles of this broken life, we know that God’s grace has lifted us. We are able to move forward and persevere in a world filled with things that don’t work right. Grace works like that. It deepens our understanding of our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world around us. We grieve more as we mature in our faith. Our heart aches more and more because of the reality of sin and the impact it has in our lives and in our world. But, in the midst of our sorrow, there is the strength to go on and the hope to look ahead. Jesus is indeed coming again and He will right every wrong. Justice will be served. He will fix this broken world and He will reign in righteousness. He will fix it. Until then, His grace is sufficient. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

 

 

I Am Barabbas

gavelIn the classic movie Spartacus, Kirk Douglas plays a slave who leads a revolt against the Roman Empire. When he and his men are finally caught, the Roman authorities want the ringleader of the rebellion and they ask who is Spartacus? As Douglas stands to identify himself as the leader, man after man stands saying “I am Spartacus.”

The New Testament tells us of another insurrectionist…a man by the name of Barabbas. He too had broken Roman law and rebelled. He had revolted against the Empire, robbed, and murdered for his cause. He had now been caught, tried, and found guilty. He was condemned to death because of his transgressions. No appeal was left for him. It was only a matter of time and time was running out.

Inject into that equation, a man by the name of Jesus. He also had been arrested, but the Roman Governor Pilate found no guilt in Him. Torn between political pressure and his own investigation, Pilate attempted to placate the angry mob by offering them a choice between Barabbas and Jesus. The crowd called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified. Many suggest that Jesus would be hung on the cross prepared for Barabbas. An innocent man died in the place of one guilty and condemned.

I am not Spartacus, but I am Barabbas. I have rebelled against the sovereign Creator of the universe. I have revolted against Him and gone my own way (Isaiah 53:6). I have taken what is His and used it for myself. I have murdered in my heart by being angry in unjust ways (Matthew 5:22). I too am guilty, and my guilt justifies my condemnation. Death is a certainty. But thankfully, Jesus died in my place. The innocent bore the punishment of the guilty.

The Bible says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18, ESV).

I am guilty. I am condemned. But, Jesus took my place. He paid the price for my sin. He died that I might be set free. I am no longer dead in the trespasses and sins in which I once walked (Ephesians 2:1-2). I am alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:5).

I am Barabbas. And so are you. We are all guilty and condemned. Yet, God in His great love for us provided a substitute. An innocent man died in our place. Our debt has been paid. Our crimes have been paid for. Justice is done and the sentence has been carried out. We have been released from the power and the penalty of sin. In Christ, we are free. In Him, we are alive. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.

Grace Upon Grace

abundanceWe hear quite a bit about the “prosperity gospel” today. That’s the belief advocated by many (particularly on television) that says God wants you to have health and wealth in abundance. And, if your faith is strong enough, He will bless you with those things. You name and you can claim it.

This is simply a false teaching. Yes, every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). Yes, God meets our needs (Matthew 6:33), both physical and material. Yes, He is the One who brings healing to our lives. But this view that God is nothing more than a cosmic ATM is simply wrong. It completely ignores the fact that Jesus died naked and penniless. His closest followers were martyred for their faith. The early church was characterized by its spiritual power, not its material wealth. Sadly, this false teaching presents a corrupted view of God and dismisses the reality of the trials we face in life.

We could talk at length about the role suffering plays in our lives as believers. And, perhaps we’ll look at that another time. But for now, I do want to highlight one thing God does give to us in abundance. It’s far greater and far more needed than health or wealth. It’s grace. The Apostle John writes, ” For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16 ESV).

God gives grace in abundance. Abundant grace to cover our sin. Abundant grace to move us through trials. Abundant grace to raise us above yesterday’s hurts and failures. Abundant grace to move us confidently into an uncertain tomorrow. And, abundant grace to deal with all the circumstances of today. Let us be thankful  for that fact that through Jesus, we have received grace upon grace. For grace is definitely something He gives in abundance.

That’s Life

My iPhone has an app on it that measures how much I exercise. Some days, I do really well and the app plots a point near the top of a graph. Other days, I don’t do so well and the app plots a point near the bottom of the graph. Most weeks, my graph looks like a roller coaster ride with some really good days tossed in with some really poor ones. When I look back over any given week, I can see some great highs and some disappointing lows.

If my phone had an app to measure my life and ministry, I imagine it would look about the same way. There would be some ups and there would be some downs. Peaks and valleys. Highs and lows. We’ve all experienced them. We know what it’s like to be on top of the mountain on one day and plunged into the valley the next. Perhaps Sinatra said it best when he said, “That’s life, that’s what all the people say, you’re ridin’ high in April, shot down in May.” All of us can identify with this roller coaster ride.

Perhaps no one knew this like Paul. When we look at his life and ministry, we see a man who was a great missionary and church planter. He carried the gospel around the Mediterranean world planting churches, training leaders, and discipling believers. In addition, in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, we read that he has this awesome experience where he is carried into the presence of Christ and given great visions. These are definitely some mountain top moments.

But Paul’s life wasn’t all tremendous victories. He had setbacks and challenges along the way. As he traveled the world carrying the gospel, he was rejected and ridiculed. He was threatened and beaten, arrested and tried. In this passage in 2 Corinthians, he tells us that God has given him a messenger of Satan…a thorn in the flesh to afflict him and keep him humble. We’re not sure exactly what that thorn was, but it was severe enough that Paul prayed more than once to remove it.

Like Paul, we too know that highs and lows of life and ministry. Our struggles may come in different shapes and sizes, have different names, and come for different reasons than the one that afflicted Paul, but they come nonetheless. And, like Paul, we often know what it is to cry out to God for the removal of these thorns only to be met with a silence we don’t understand or an answer we don’t want to hear. When that happens, we need to understand something. Like Paul, sometimes God leaves our contexts unchanged so that He can grow us and demonstrate His power in the midst of them.

Jesus did not leave Paul with a simply no. He assured him…as He assures us that “His grace is sufficient.” When we talk about grace, most of us understand what I’ll call “saving” grace. We know that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Furthermore, we know too that we have “sustaining” grace. That is the grace that saves us keeps us saved. But along with these saving and sustaining aspects of grace, there is also grace for living. Grace doesn’t just usher us into the presence of God to leave us on our own. Grace strengthens us as we live our lives every day. It is in our weaknesses that Christ’s power is made perfect.

Don’t give up in the midst of your struggles and setbacks. Remember that His grace is sufficient. In our weakness, His power is made perfect. The challenges and difficulties are real, but Jesus is there in the midst of them all. Let us remained anchored in the grace He provides.

But he 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV)

Long Days

Science tells us that there are twenty-four hours in every day. Actually, I’ve read some articles that suggests a day is actually about four minutes shorter than that, but you get the drift. Every day is the same length of time. But you don’t have to live this life very long to realize that some days are longer than others. As a kid, I remember that there were some school days that just didn’t end and the days leading up to Christmas were way longer than normal. We all know Mondays are longer than Sundays, the last few days before payday are longer than the first few after it, and the days spent in a hospital waiting room are longer than the ones we spend on vacation. I don’t care what the clock says. Some days are longer than others.

When we glance at a calendar, we don’t always see those long days marked out in advance. Sure, sometimes we see them coming. We know they’re lurking out there and we’ve circled them in red in our minds. But other times, we get up and get going and then find ourselves in the middle of a day that just won’t end. And sometimes, the day that just won’t end becomes a week…or a month…or a season that just won’t end. How do we get through these days?

I was recently reading the book of Isaiah and this verse caught my attention:

“O LORD, be gracious to us; we wait for you. Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble” (Isaiah 33:2 ESV).

To be honest, one phrase caught my attention. The prophet pleas for God to be “our arm every morning…” His cry reminds us that every day is a day where we need the strength and support of God. Every day brings a new set of challenges. Every morning declares anew our need for God.

We need to understand that only seeking out God in a crisis or on a Sunday here or there won’t cut it. Don’t misunderstand me. We should indeed turn to God in our times of crises and we should gather to worship Him on Sundays, but we need more than just a sporadic connection with Him. We need His power and grace to touch our lives daily. Thus, Isaiah cries out, “be our arm every morning.”

The contemporary singer/song-writer Matt Maher has put a new twist on a familiar hymn of the faith. He writes:

“Lord, I need You, oh, I need You
Every hour I need You
My one defense, my righteousness
Oh God, how I need You.”

His words echo the sentiment of Isaiah’s plea. There’s a desperation in these words. A realization that we can’t go on without God. We need Him. Every hour…every morning…every day. Don’t neglect to turn to Him today. Avail yourself of His presence. Rest in the grace and peace He offers. Be strengthened daily by the salvation He provides in times of trouble. Because some days are longer than others.

Nobody’s Perfect

I don’t know who first said “nobody’s perfect” (and apparently neither does Google), but he or she must have been pretty smart. Because, it does indeed seem that no one is perfect. We are all flawed in some way. Our imperfections show in so many areas of our lives. Our attitude, our choices, our behavior and our performance all speak to our imperfection in some way or another. And, almost all of us understand and accept this. Or do we?

It seems as if we all accept that no one is perfect, but we often demand that others be perfect. If nobody’s perfect, then that means there are no perfect people. And, if there are no perfect people, that means there are no perfect spouses, no perfect children, no perfect parents, no perfect teachers, no perfect athletes, no perfect neighbors, no perfect nurses, no perfect servers, so on and so forth.

Now before you think I am justifying anything and everything under the banner of “nobody’s perfect,” I’m not. And, I’d encourage you to quit excusing away your behavior under that banner as well. We may not be perfect, but we can strive to be better. Paul puts it this way, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2, ESV)

What I am trying to encourage us to do in light of all of our obvious imperfections is to show a little more grace. If God has poured His grace into our lives because we have sinned and fallen short of His glory (Romans 3:23), should we not at least try to demonstrate the same kind of grace towards other imperfect people? I’m not talking about justifying someone’s misdeeds or enabling them to continuing perpetrating them. I’m simply reminding us that as imperfect recipients of God’s grace, we would do well to show grace to other imperfect people. It may make a huge difference in their lives. It definitely will make one in ours.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:32 (ESV)