Sunday, July 22, 2018

77-8B Does God Need Me?

Inspired by the song "Control (Somehow You Want Me)" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers. Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

We all want to be needed. We feel valuable if someone needs our presence for some reason. Sometimes it's because we have a specific skill that will help them accomplish something. Or sometimes it's just because they need a friend with them at that moment.

Jesus gave a parable called the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. It tells about three slaves who were loaned "talents" by their master. When the master returned from a long journey, he was pleased with the first two slaves who invested the talents and reaped a harvest. But he was disappointed with the slave who feared the master enough to just bury it in the ground and give it back to him with nothing additional earned.

Often, this passage is taught as an example of how God has given us various talents or skills, and we are called to use them for the glory of God and to not waste the opportunity. This is a great application of this scripture, and pretty much sums up the point Jesus was trying to make.

But the word "talent" doesn't actually mean "talent" in the standard English definition. A talent was actually a sum of money, equivalent to about fifteen years wages for the common laborer. It is only so convenient that the English translation comes out to be the same word used for some skill we have.

Regardless of how the word is to be specifically interpreted, it still makes the same point, that God has given us certain qualities that He wants us to use and to grow to reap a harvest. If we don't take the risk and step out to use the gifts God has given us, whether money or skills, we have failed in the whole point of having those gifts. As Jesus says in Luke 12:48, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded."

But teachers tend to emphasize this story to specifically apply to the word "talent" in the English meaning solely, because it appeals to peoples' desire to be needed. People don't want to be just a face in the crowd; they want to stand out and be noticed for something, which usually ends up being a talent or skill.

If you can ride a unicycle, that is what you can be known for. Or if you play the banjo really well, there's a spot for you in some praise band somewhere. In my case, I like to memorize ridiculous things like the names of every stop in the TriMet bus system or the ages of every plane in the Alaska Airlines fleet. Because, you see, few people have done these before and it makes me unique to do these things.

And while uniqueness in an non-prideful sense is valuable, too often it becomes part of our spiritual identity. As enjoyable as it is to be known by people, it's only so valuable until you're not needed anymore or that skill goes out of style. Like, imagine if I moved away from Portland: would knowing all the TriMet bus stops matter anymore? Of course not. So I need to remember that my spiritual identity can use these skills for good works, but it is not defined by these skills. My spiritual identity can only be defined by God Himself, the One who created me and has a plan for my life.

But does God really need me?

Simple answer, no.

Wait, what? Doesn't that devalue myself by saying that? No, not at all. Because, you see, God doesn't value me because of what I can do or how well I can do it.

My mom has always said that God doesn't need my talents or skills. He doesn't need my money, He doesn't need my time. He's God! He has everything. If I don't do it, He can find someone who will.

That's not to say we should pass up the callings on our lives or forego the opportunities that have been placed before us. But we have to remember that we need God, not the other way around. He desires to use our talents for His glory, but He doesn't really need them.

And, as the song states, this is incredibly freeing. Why? Because that means there is no pressure to measure up. Christianity is not a religion in which we succeed or fail depending on how well we hit the requirements of being a Christian, how many people we lead to Christ, or whether we make it to church at least three-quarters of the Sundays each year.

God doesn't need us. We should never think so highly of ourselves that we think God couldn't accomplish something without our help. This life isn't about us, and God doesn't owe us anything because of our works.

Yet in spite of our relative unimportance, God wants us.

In fact, He wants us so much that he overcame the greatest obstacle possible to have us. He paid the penalty we deserved with His own life.

And therefore, our value is now worth the life of God's Son. What a pendulum shift. We went from worthless to infinitely valuable.

But it's not a value that is at all defined by our abilities. It is defined by the great love of our Father. He wants us because He loves us, not because of our talents.

What this means is that we are valuable whether we succeed or fail. If we do well, we are loved. If we absolutely blow it, we are still loved. And if we absolutely keep blowing it, we are STILL loved. God's love is such that He isn't critiquing us on success or failure; He overcame our failures so that we could have the rewards of success forever.

So should we view the Parable of the Talents any differently? No, because He has given us talents and skills and even money that He wants us to use for His glory. It is by our service, generosity and love that we demonstrate our relationship with God, and if we aren't doing these things, as the book of James teaches, we need to question whether we are really living in that relationship.

But know that the source of your salvation is entirely Jesus. He wanted you before you were born, and nothing you can ever do will change that. Win or lose, your value to Him is beyond anything you can imagine. Rest in the peace that comes from knowing that you don't have to live up to some standard to be wanted; you already are!

Lord, thank you for wanting me. Even though I have failed the course so often, You still desire me and want to be in relationship with me. Thank you for overcoming the barriers that kept me from You so that I can spend eternity with You. Use me for Your glory and help me to reap a great harvest for Your kingdom, but let me find rest in the fact that You don't need me, but somehow You want me.

Friday, July 20, 2018

77-8A Who's In Charge?

Inspired by the song "Control (Somehow You Want Me)" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers. Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

Are you a control freak like me?

When I was younger, my mother always told me that I was born to be a leader! I really didn't feel like a leader at the time, but when I started college, I found myself leading my project groups more often than not.

My strategy always went something like this: class started, we formed our groups, and I would take the initiative to take down everybody's cell numbers and email addresses. Then, I would email the group the contact information. I didn't say anything about wanting to be in charge at the time, but I would work with the group to organize our first meeting within the first week. At our meeting, we would then discuss who would be the "point person," as we would call it. Whether they were the real authority or not, it was always good to have a person who would help coordinate all the schedules, deadlines, and receipt of everybody's parts of the project.

The idea of the initial contact sheet was twofold: (1) to make sure everybody got the necessary information, and (2) to put my best foot forward. Sometimes, someone else who was louder and more authoritative in general would step up to be the leader, which I fully supported. If I didn't need to be the leader, that was fine by me. I really didn't need the added stress. But if nobody stepped up, or that specific person who would step up would likely not fulfill the necessary obligations, I would assert myself as the leader.

At that point, nobody would complain. They would do their parts, I would do my part, I would combine the papers, I would assemble the PowerPoint, and we would get an A. It was like clockwork.

Why did I want to be the leader? Because I learned in one of my earliest classes that if I let just anybody lead the group, there would be chaos.

My father has very high standards. Too high, to be honest. But his attitude has influenced me to believe that there is usually one best way to do something, and it falls on us to try to find that best way. When I had that early class, there were three leaders, no accountability, and way too much bickering. People weren't showing up to meetings. They weren't keeping up with the expectations of the group. And when we tried to email them, all we received back was electronic crickets.

What drove me crazy about this was that I was helpless to do anything about it other than my own work. However, I did try to remedy the problem by reaching out personally to the missing people, taking them aside, and helping them understand what we were expecting of them, what they needed to do to catch up, and how they could show everybody else that they really meant it when they said they cared about the success of the project. In the end, we had a successful project, if not significantly hodgepodge.

And I decided that day that I would never ever let a group flounder that far. If I needed to be the leader, I would be the leader.

Why did this matter to me? Because the success of the group directly affected my success at college. If we didn't do well, I wouldn't do well. Not everyone was under the pressure to get all A's, but when your parents are footing the entire bill and you make the mistake of getting all A's the first time around, you gotta keep it up as long as you can. So I wanted to be in a position where I had control over our destiny. If we did well, I did my job. If we didn't do well, then it was no one's fault but my own.

I feel no shame in having had this attitude. I knew that I didn't come across as demanding or egotistical. I cared as much about everybody else getting the A as I did about me getting it. Often, this was the best grade some of the students would get that term, and if I could help them be better off, then that made me feel like the effort was that much more worth it.

But I realize that I try to manage life the same way. I want to be in charge.

Do you feel this way, too? Do you worry when you don't know what the future holds? Instead of praying, do you try to get your hands on anything that might help the situation? We end up being busybodies trying to manage our own lives, when God has told us to do something better: give up our control.

I remember every sleepless night I had in college: the two overnight take-home finals for macroeconomics, and every single night before final grades were posted. As Portland State required all grades in at a certain time, they were guaranteed to be there on the website at 8am that day. And I would lay there, worrying, stressing, having nightmares about what would happen. What was so dumb was that I was worrying not about failing the class; I was worrying about, heaven forbid, getting a B+. Because that would be so terrible!

I forgot to put my trust in the Lord. Trusting the Lord is not just something we say or choose to do when we are at the altar. It is what we do when we know the grades are going to be posted and we don't know what we will find out. It is what we do when we learn that the same car rental was booked 6 different times due to a web glitch and we are going to have to call the billing department in the morning about getting 5 of them cancelled with no penalty (which is exactly what I have to do tomorrow). It is about going to the doctor because we have a pain in a place and have no idea what it could be.

Jesus calls us to follow Him. That means letting go of our need for being in control of everything. He is more than capable of taking care of our every need. He is wiser than we could ever be, and He can see further down the road than we could even guess.

He has given us the ability to do our part. I did my part in my schoolwork; the rest was up to Him. And I did see literal miracles that helped me get those ridiculous A's and A-'s every single term of my college career. So, after all that, why do I doubt Him at all?

My hope is that we can lay down our plans and our dreams and follow what God has, to trust Him along the way and to not worry about what is outside our control. It is so freeing knowing that I don't have get everything right, that I have a leader who I can rely on to guide me to the greatest of all success.

Lord, thank you for being capable of anything and willing to use your power to help us in our time of need. Give us energy to do our part, and to be satisfied with the effort we put in. And help us to leave the rest to Your capable hands. Help us to feel the freedom that comes from taking our hands off of our problems and giving You control.

Monday, July 16, 2018

77-7 Happiness or Joy?

Inspired by the song "No One Can Steal Our Joy" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers. Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

"God wants me to be happy."

A lot of Christians say this or believe this, and it sounds really good. But is it a true statement?

I would argue, yes, it is true, but a little misleading. And there is something certainly more valuable.

Happiness is, simply put, the state of being happy. We all know how it feels to be happy, but we also know how quickly we change from being happy to being any other emotion other than happy. If there's anything we as humans can possibly agree on, it's that everybody would rather be happy than any other emotion. Where we differ is in the things that make us happy. That's where people get in trouble.

You see, there are a lot of things that make me happy. Planes, buses, bunnies, corgis and coffee all make me happy. I like reading books. I like writing a story and seeing it come out exactly as I hoped it would. Pad See Ewe (a Thai dish), Olive Garden's Braised Beef & Tortelloni, and, lately, the basic crispy chicken sandwich at Wendy's all make me really happy.

What makes me more happy is playing on the worship team at church and watching people dive into experiencing God's presence. Or hearing one of my kids that I have mentored for years tell of the great things God is doing in his or her life. These things make me the happiest of all.

But the sad fact is that there are negative things that make me happy. If they didn't, I wouldn't be tempted to engage in them. Usually, this happiness is very short-lived, as I feel regret and sorrow and a loss of self-worth after making these mistakes. Yet, somehow, they entice me because they tell me that I will be happy if I do them. And every time they let me down.

I come to the realization that happiness is more of a primal emotion than a part of being godly. Everybody wants to be happy, but we obviously are not all the time. When we aren't happy, we get very selfish and wish to be happy. We complain because we are not happy. And we strive to do whatever it takes to get back to that state of happiness, even if it's not God's way of getting there.

So given all of this information, does God want me to be happy?

We were made by God to live in His glory and perfection. We failed, and therefore sin and pain are in the world. So, in my opinion, given the facts of how we were created, we were intended to experience nothing but happiness. But happiness is circumstantial; once sin entered the world, the ebbs and flows of life take away the certainty of my happiness.

Happiness does not equal holiness, and unhappiness does not equal sin. Jesus demonstrated this when He wept over Lazarus's death. Isaiah 53:3 (NASB) calls Jesus "a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." Obviously, when Jesus died on the cross, He wasn't happy. When Peter denied Him, He wasn't happy. When he turned the tables in the temple, He wasn't happy. But that doesn't mean happiness is undesirable; it just means that happiness is not all we should be willing to feel.

If you look as happiness as an absence of any negative emotion, then you could say that heaven will be a place where we experience eternal happiness. And I know God's heart breaks for those whose hearts are breaking. Therefore, I can state that I believe, yes, God wants me to be happy. This is the same kind of thing as that verse that says that God wants all people to be saved. He desires this for us, but as we live on this earth, there is no guarantee of happiness. God might want us to feel another emotion if it brings Him glory and benefits us or others. He also lets a lot of things be, since He is sovereign and wiser than anyone else, and he has given us all free will to make our own choices.

So if happiness is not what we are supposed to focus on, what is the thing we should seek?

That is something called joy. No, joy and happiness are not the same thing, not even close. Joy isn't being bubbly, giggly, or giddy. It is a state of being satisfied with who God is and what He has promised. It is something that is extremely difficult to define because it often goes against logic.

I know what joy is because I have watched people who are in the darkest place have it and demonstrate it. I have watched people lose loved ones and still be filled with joy. I have watched people without direction and unsure where God is leading them still be filled with joy, I have watched people who have lost everything still be filled with joy. Millions of Christians around the world are literally on the verge of death and their joy is the only thing that gets them by. Joy is powerful and hard to believe sometimes, but when you see people experience it who you think logically shouldn't, you know that true joy is real.

The world thinks it knows what joy is. They are thrilled when they win the lottery, marry an attractive spouse, buy a beautiful house or close a super business deal. What they are feeling is not joy; it is extreme happiness. Taxes come, spouses get sick, houses burn and businesses collapse, and their happiness goes with it.

But those who put their confidence in the Lord will find something that this world can never have. When we rely on God for all our needs, we find that He is powerful enough to protect and provide, to show us love we couldn't imagine, and to do the impossible. He also gives us the hope of eternal life, that there is something greater after this life that will make the struggles of this life quickly forgotten.

Then, when the Holy Spirit fills the Christian, they will feel that buzz of joy that radiates through all situations. It doesn't matter if you are sick or healthy, rich or poor, scared or strong, sad or happy, you can take the joy of the Lord as your strength. It comes from God and can't be stolen by anything.

Maybe you feel like you have lost your joy. Maybe sorrow, loss, depression, addiction, or any other negative aspect of life has put a damper on your joy. I'm not saying those things are going to go away, but when you cry out to God and remember all He has done for you and all He has given, you will be reminded of who He is and how much reason you have to rejoice. Sometimes it might take a conscious decision to resurrect the joy you seem to have lost, but as long as your reliance on God is present the joy of the Lord should be too. Rejoice in the Lord! He is enough to give joy enough to live forever.

So should you seek happiness? Sure, if it is in God's will. Wanting to be happy is not wrong, and those good happy moments of life are worth remembering forever. But you should instead consciously seek joy, which is so much greater and doesn't care about your circumstances. Joy will stay with you forever and will give you peace even in the midst of the unhappiest of experiences.

Lord, thank You for loving us. Thank You for giving us so many reasons to experience happiness in Your will. But thank You that You have given such a greater gift. Help us to always feel the joy You give even in the most painful of times. Help others to be able to see the truth of who You are through the joy we have. And let us always put our trust in You in everything, so that we can rest in the confidence that no one can steal our joy.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

77-6 Behind The Bird

Inspired by the song "Sparrow (Under Heaven's Eyes)" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers. Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

One day at work, I was running the shop while Dad was out of the office. I was on the phone with someone not incredibly important when my good friend and co-worker Jake called to me: "Patrick, come here!"

I first thought, well, I'm on the phone. So I decided to finish the phone call. But Jake came to the door of the office and made it clear that I should come now. So I hung up the phone and followed him out of the office to the shop floor.

He stopped, turned, and pointed up to the top of a set of shelves. I asked him, "Where am I looking?"

He replied, "Up there, behind the bird."

I quickly understood our situation.

Now, occasionally, we get a bird fly into the shop through the large overhead door. Our protocol is to close all the interior doors and turn the lights off so that he is encouraged to leave the way he came in. We don't want to come back in the morning and find a dead bird laying around somewhere. And after a bit of coaxing, they usually figure it out and leave.

This one didn't seem to get the message. First, we made loud noises. He didn't fly. Then we got up on a ladder and tapped the panel next to him. He still didn't fly. Then Jake got a glove and reached to pick the bird up gently. He made no attempt to evade capture.

So, he held the bird as we tried to figure out what to do. Obviously, this little bird wasn't doing very well if he was just letting us handle him like that. We look at him as he panted. He was clearly overheated. So, using our best bird skills (which weren't much), we filled a container lid with cool water, took him outside, and set him in the shallow pool near a bush. He sat compliantly, making no effort to leave. Jake took a leaf and dribbled some of the water on the bird to cool him off. He seemed to be in good spirits, but still didn't fly away.

We went back to work, having done all we could. Occasionally, we looked out at the bird. He still sat there, looking around, fully alive but not flying. Finally, Jake pointed out that the bird was no longer there. Unless some other bird picked him off (which didn't seem likely), he must have regained the strength to fly away.

That was the day that we became heroes to a little bird. It felt great, knowing we did our best.

It also felt ironic, considering I was studying the Tenth Avenue North song about sparrows.

We know that God loves all people, and has forgiven all who call on His name in faith. He has made a way so that we can access holiness without restriction or fear of exclusion.

But often we – I – feel like I've fallen too far that I don't qualify for that hope anymore. As a Christian, it is easy to believe that God loves everybody. But it is often hard to believe that God loves me. I know the mistakes I have made; rather, I know the mistakes I make. I am fully conscious of my position toward God when I am doing exactly what I desire not to do. I try to strive for that accessible holiness and then still find myself giving into the temptations of the world.

I look through my eyes and so clearly see what a failure I really am. And any encouragement of the Word, mentors or learned doctrine doesn't do anything to change the fact that I have done what I have done.

The truth is that we need to change the lens through which we are looking.

When God sees us, He sees us through the blood of Jesus. He sees us as holy because Jesus' blood becomes the lens that changes how God sees us. We are no longer doomed sinners; we are righteous, not because of our actions, but because of Jesus'. This is why salvation is by grace through faith: it's not by our works, it's by the work of salvation that God did through Christ.

Still, we come back to looking at ourselves and recognizing our failures. No, maybe our sins won't doom us to hell anymore, but they still make us feel worthless. As a human who has done these things, even as a Christian who has done these things, how can God still want to care for me?

Look at Jesus' words in Matthew 10:29-31:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

God cares about birds. And He showed that to me when he let a little one fly into my shop so that we could take care of it. Had we not been there to help it, it wouldn't have been able to fly away. Was that an accident? Absolutely not, especially in the context of this song.

If God cares about a little sparrow, how much more does He care about me? I am more valuable than a bird, even in my most fallen state. And He died for me so that I don't have to stay there. He has plans and promises for my life, and He will be faithful to forgive all sin and care for me even when I feel unlovable.

So, if you are still in that hole, take heart. I've been there too, more times than I'd like to admit. We all have. Sin doesn't scare God. He hates it, and hated it so much that He destroyed its power so that it can't defeat us. God has saved us from it and will lead us to the eternal home He's promised.

And remember, He hasn't saved you from your sin so that you just stay in that sin. Grace is not a license for sin; it is a license for freedom. We don't have to be shacked anymore. We've been given permission to forget our sins completely and move forward into the joys and promises that God has in store for us.

"I sing because I'm happy; I sing because I'm free."

Lord, thank you for completely freeing us. You've freed us from the penalty for our sins, from the shame of our past and from the shackles of our present. Let us break away from those snares and use the strength You give to overcome. Thank You for loving us completely, and for caring about us more than birds. Thank You that we are so valuable to You no matter what we ever do. Help us to stop looking at ourselves through our own lens and instead see the value You see through heaven's eyes.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

77-5 Needs

Inspired by the song "One Thing" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers.

Americans are spoiled.

We have so many material blessings that reality becomes clouded. We forget what are really needs and what are really blessings. These blessings then become needs in our hearts, and we are no longer satisfied. We complain about the disparity between what we have and what the 1% has, and we forget that most of us qualify to be in the 1% of the world.

Let me give you a personal example. This week, my dad had to add a new shut-off valve on our sprinkler system. This meant shutting the water off for a few hours so that they could accomplish it. I ate my lunch while my mom came home from somewhere. When I was done and she was back, we had the harsh realization that we couldn't wash our hands. Oh, the horror!

We immediately had a laugh. First world problems, we said. There are people in Africa who have never seen clean water, and we are complaining after not having it for fifteen minutes. Isn't that the way we are?

And this is a serious problem in our society. People more and more think that they are owed something by the world. No one is satisfied by what they have, and if they get more, they still won't be satisfied.

It goes deeper, deep into our spiritual selves. Americans have become deadened to the things of God because they have been deadened to the need of God.

Think about evangelism. Isn't it amazing how one person goes to Africa and preaches and thousands of people come to salvation because of it. Here in America, either people have heard it before, it isn't convenient for them, or it doesn't appease them in the way they desire.

Why such the difference? Because the people in Africa see their need for God. These people have basically nothing, and when Jesus comes, he satisfies all their spiritual needs and many of their physical ones.

Americans are so caught up in the flows of living that they don't notice their souls crying out for a savior.

Also, the capitalist consumer society we live in teaches that through hard work we can provide for all our needs. Or, if you buy into more socialist views, if I can't accomplish it then the government will do it for me. In Africa, the people can barely get by. Most of the basic needs are iffy from day to day.

In Philippians 4, Paul says, "my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus." It's that simple: God will provide for all our needs. It's a matter of believing that and trusting Him.

The American way of viewing that is skepticism. How can God provide for my needs? Has he seen how complex and unique my situation is? Besides, I'm doing pretty well and can get by if I just work hard enough and keep a positive attitude. And never in this thought process is there the conscious acknowledgement of our deeper needs.

The Africans hear that Jesus can provide for their needs and they are filled with joy! Their hopes have been answered! Someone has finally come who I can trust to provide for myself and my family, and take me to heaven when I die. The solution to all their needs is clearly Jesus, and He becomes their all and all. Everything pales in comparison once Jesus becomes the center of their life.

Do you see now why Christianity is spreading like wildfire there but barely noticed anymore here? To them, Jesus is their Savior; to us, Jesus is a religious leader. To them, Jesus is their most valued posession; to us, Jesus is an inconvenience. We nitpick Jesus' teachings to find the parts we find the most 'relevant;' they follow Him as true disciples. Here, people keep their faith to themselves; there, they tell all their friends, and tens of thousands come to Christ.

And the difference is all because they can see their need, and we apparently cannot.

Jesus doesn't call Christians to just do good, go to church on Sunday, pray for the meal and vote to repeal abortion. He calls us to follow Him. That means whatever He does, we do. However He speaks, we speak. Whoever He loves, we love unconditionally. This is because He is the center of our attention, our sole source of motivation, inspiration, and strength.

When Jesus is the most important thing in our life, the other things in this life fade away in comparison. We are no longer shackled to the stresses and concerns that seemed overwhelming before. We believe that God can supply all of our needs; why should we fear?

And Jesus becomes our most valuable possession. We don't need anything else to be satisfied. That distinction between needs and blessings gets into the proper light. We truly understand that God is the only thing that can satisfy.

Please don't think I have this all figured out. This isn't easy. But join me in reprogramming our minds so that Jesus is the center of everything we do and everything we think. It will help all of life make a whole lot more sense.

Lord, thank you that we can trust You to provide for all our needs. Help us to put You at the very center of our entire beings, so that we see our need for You daily. Let us watch the other needs become less and less important as You become the one thing that we need.

Friday, July 13, 2018

77-4 Those Who Have No Hope

Inspired by the song "I Have This Hope" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers.
Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

I have gone through some tough times in my life. Most of these, I will admit, are usually my fault, but there have been many times when I feel like I'm lowered part of the way into the abyss with very little idea how I will ever get out.

I know you can relate. It's the way life is. Even the best lived life has its hurdles. Even the life with the fewest hurdles has had enough abyss moments to understand. The nature of living in a world with people not abiding by God's ways is that pain and sadness are inevitable. And the sad part of this is that most often that pain is actually caused by the people nearest to us, many of whom are abiding by God's ways most of the time.

A lot of the pain is not entirely someone else's fault, or not entirely the fault of our individual actions. Our minds are really great at blowing things way out of proportion, so that the emotional effects of the hurt become more painful than the original hurt by itself.

For a lot of people, these hurts start to become interwoven until this massive mega-hurt monster rises and threatens to destroy us, and we know that we are too weak to stand against it. Often, the very well-meaning people around us really can't empathize with our situation, or for some reason they don't try to. Or, as often happens, we don't want people to see our weakness, and so we hide it. We end up at church on Sunday morning surrounded by a sea of smiling faces, and that fake smile we try to put on doesn't feel very convincing anymore, especially when compared to everybody else's obviously fake smiles. We feel alone, rejected, and on the road to being lost.

The pretty little life we think we're living starts to crumble, and we don't have any energy left to pick up the pieces. We feel that there is no way anything can ever get better. Praying doesn't make the problems go away (it seems) and we go to sleep and blame ourselves for causing all the problems, even when it might have started with somebody else.

And that was just Sunday! And we know what day follows Sunday...

Is that where you're at right now? If so, I pray that the God of peace will be present in your heart, and that you see that He is still strong enough to defeat your toughest obstacles, even if it doesn't seem possible in the moment.

Almost four years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts analyzing how a Christian should view suicide. It sparked a backlash of comments stating how depression is a mental condition and that those who take their life because of it should still be able to go to heaven. In all honesty, my brain was left spinning after thinking so hard about it that I stopped blogging for months. Even four years later, I still don't have the answer.

But what I do know is that I have been to the breaking point. And I haven't broken. No, I'm not saying this to make me look holier than thou. I'm saying this because I discovered something that I have that those who don't know Jesus do not have: hope.

Hope is this interesting understanding that something better is on the horizon. It's oddly encouraging, because even when everything seems destined to the disposal bin, there's this glimmer of understanding that something is going to happen in the future that will make carrying on worth it.

In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul instructs the readers how to view the death of loved ones. You see, most people in that time were certain that Jesus would come back in their lifetime. So when their loved ones started dying, they became confused. Would they ever see them again? Would they make it to heaven if they died before Jesus came back? These were questions that seem silly today, since none of us were alive when Jesus walked the earth. Obviously, when we die as believers in Christ, we know that we will spend eternity with Jesus.

But in their confusion and grief, Paul wrote to comfort and encourage the brethren:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)

It is completely alright to grieve over the loss of a loved one, to feel sadness when that person is no longer with us. But Paul makes an interesting distinction between how we as Christians should grieve versus how the rest of the world has to grieve. And he gives the reason they have to grieve that way: because they have no hope.

Our primary hope as Christians is the hope of heaven, of eternal life with Jesus. We don't have to completely understand it or have a firm grasp on what we really are looking forward to for it to make a decisive impact in our own lives.

Without this hope, the world has no reason to carry on. If this is all there is, and if this sucks, then what good is living anymore? Being purely honest, I don't know how the suicide rate isn't even higher than it is! I know that my hope in Christ has given me a solid and certain reason to carry on when I have reached the bottom of the emotional hole. Without that, I wouldn't know why I should keep trying.

This hope we have because we have seen the proof of who God is. We know by faith that the Word of God is true, and even if that faith is the size of a mustard seed, it's enough to give us a clear reason to lift up our heads and push through whatever comes our way. This life is not all there is. It simply can't be.

What's even more encouraging is that Jesus is alive and active in our lives, if we choose Him to be. If we have been pushing Him away for a time, He will still be there with open arms to embrace us when we come back to Him. So heaven is not the only hope we have; we can have heaven here on earth, although in a very incomplete form due to the existence of sin in the world. But since the main ingredient in what makes heaven heaven is Jesus, we really can have more of heaven on earth than we think, since we have Jesus in our hearts. (And feel free to re-read that sentence and accept the fact that I did mean to say the world 'heaven' twice in a row.)

If you have never felt this hope, come to Jesus. He is waiting for you to call on Him. Romans 10:9 says "that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (NASB)" It's so simple and there's nothing you've ever done that will disqualify you from this. Open your heart to Jesus and find a real reason for living.

If you are a Christian and think you have never felt this hope, you are still living aren't you? Hope isn't this overwhelming feeling of joy; it's the still small voice that whispers that you are valuable and that your life has a reason. Seek the Speaker of the voice, and you will find the hope you thought you didn't have.

And understand that life is still going to suck. It's the nature of the world you live in. Hope isn't going to make that friend not betray you, that illness not come, or that layoff never happen. It's there for those times to get you through it to the great blessing God has for you in both heaven and on earth.

Lord, thank you for the hope You give. Thank you for rising from the grave and not staying dead and buried. You showed us and told us that we will rise like You did, into blessing, holiness, and a place where we will see you face to face. Help us to cling to this hope when everything has crumbled around us. And give us the soundness of mind in the hardest times to be able to give the reason we can carry on: we have this hope.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

77-3 We Are Cups

Inspired by the song "Overflow" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers.
Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

It's really hard to imagine how big our God is. Like impossible. He is infinitely greater, stronger, smarter and wiser than any person will ever be. More than anyone who's ever lived combined.

What's even harder to fathom is that He wants to reveal Himself to us and to live in us.

In Exodus 34, Moses asks God to show himself so that the people of Israel would know that their God was with them. God was under no obligation to heed this request, of course. Yet, as the compassionate God He is, He announced to Moses that He would in fact show Himself:

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33:19-23)

This account helps us see how powerful God is and how fragile we are in comparison. God is so holy that even looking in His face would cause us to spontaneously die. This is what makes the concept of heaven even more amazing: because of Jesus making us holy, we will be able to see Him face to face for eternity.

Have you ever been in a corporate worship gathering, or even a personal prayer time, and been so overwhelmed by the presence of the Spirit of God that you couldn't hold it in? Usually this manifests itself as becoming emotional, crying, maybe even shivering. These experiences are different for everyone and, other than the cases of outrageous behavior not becoming of someone in the presence of God, there is nothing wrong with these feelings. They are a part of experiencing the presence of God.

I have thought long and hard about why we feel this way. In some of those moments, I have tried to bring some sort of rationale to it, and have concluded that it is something more than purely psychological. Something is happening inside our souls that goes beyond what is normal and into the realm of the supernatural.

This is my conclusion: God is great, much greater than we are. And we are finite, as we are flesh and bones and the individual spirit breathed into by the breath of God at creation. Even in our spiritual sense, we only have the capacity to hold so much.

When the Spirit of God comes, the spiritual has to manifest itself in the physical, resulting in our physical senses and emotions going into overdrive to process what we are feeling. And as God pours out so much love, grace and holiness, we find ourselves overwhelmed and overjoyed by the power of God in us. We literally overflow with His presence.

And sadly, so many people stop there. We love those mountaintop experiences, and I would argue that they are crucially important for our spiritual growth and sustenance. But what overflows is more than just what we are supposed to keep for ourselves.

Pastor Caleb Bryant always puts it this way: We are cups. We are made to be filled up so that we can be poured out. A cup exists for one purpose: to transport liquid from one place to another. If the liquid in the cup stays forever in the cup, then the cup is not serving its intended purpose. It needs to be poured out somewhere so that it can be filled up again.

What we receive from God is made to be passed along through us to someone else. Yes, God wants to provide for and bless us individually, but He always intended us to be used as conduits to show His love to others. We were made to serve, give, and spread the Gospel to everyone around us.

And it should come naturally. When we see how mighty our God is and how great is His love, we should be so excited and empowered to share His love to those around us. The great experience we have with God was never meant to be a secret.

The more we know God and spend time in His presence, the more we should resemble Jesus in everything we do. This means having a passion to reach out to the lost and to spread God's great love to everyone around us. It means loving our enemies and forgiving those who wrong us. It means standing up for injustice and respecting all of God's creation. The possibilities are endless, and they should be, as the God we serve is endless Himself.

I want to encourage you all to strive to daily fill yourself up with God's presence, and to look for opportunities to pour yourself out by showing God's love to others. You can't change the world without loving other people, and you can't have that love if you don't constantly experience it from God yourself. It starts with filling yourself with everything you need from God on a daily basis, with the intention and willingness to pass it on to those around you. Let God's Spirit transform your heart so that you are living out the purpose you were created for: to worship God and to serve others.

Lord, thank You for allowing us to experience Your great and mighty presence. Let us always seek to feel the overwhelming joy of the power of Your presence, and let us be used by You to share Your great love to others. Help us never to forget the reasons for our existence: to receive Your love and overflow.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

77-2 Humble Submission

Inspired by the song "What You Want" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers.
Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

Surrender is hard. It means more than giving up something to someone. It means giving up a bit of our feelings of honor and control.

We Americans live in a society where we have control over our lives and the way we go. This is fantastic, since God made us autonomous and able to exercise our free will. This is what makes humans different than animals and angels: our choices are more than just instinct and programming.

Jesus brings an even greater level of freedom. Through His sacrifice and resurrection, we are free from the bondage of sin and death. We are free to live for eternity and also free to truly live in this life on earth. The innate hostility between us and God is history, and the shackles of sin have lost their power.

But the more we read the scriptures, the more we see Jesus want us to surrender to Him. To submit to His authority. To take up our cross and follow Him.

Doesn't this seem contradictory to the freedom we just discussed?

Well, your answer should be an obvious 'no,' as the obvious purpose of what Jesus did was to bring us into unhindered relationship with the Father, to allow us to live to the praise of His glory.

So why does Jesus call us to take up our cross? Why do the epistle writers seem to be stuck on the concept of humble surrender?

The answer to this is the existence of pride. We are autonomous humans who have the propensity to think we are capable of anything we need to do. And even when Jesus tells us that through Him we can do all things, we tend to forget the "through Him" part in actual practice.

Pride is putting one's own self higher than someone else. If we are proud when around others, we will inevitably treat others as subordinate in value to ourselves. And this leads to other problems, such as hatred, racism, haughtiness and abuse.

I am a firm believer in the written word of Thomas Jefferson when he stated that "all men are created equal." God made each man (and woman) with the same inherent value, in the image of God. He likewise provided the same equal opportunity for salvation through the blood of Jesus. But we also share in the same propensity for failure. We were created equal, and we have equally fallen.

It is easy for me to look at myself when I am doing "well" and think that I am accruing value higher than some other people. When I see the report of a person robbing a bank, I feel highly of myself that I haven't stooped to that level. Or I hear about a person being high on cocaine and I am happy that I am not addicted to any drug (I even take periods of time away from caffeine just to make sure I'm not addicted to that either).

Then something happens, maybe I clank two valuable parts together at work or I forget my sweater at church again, and my reaction in both mind and words don't live up to the hype I have created for myself. I see very quickly that I am not any better than anyone else in my own self. That even though God is working with me to seriously live a holy life, I am still as prone to failure as anyone else.

Pride is lying to oneself that one has more value than anyone else, when, in reality, that value has and always will come solely from the hand of God.

The logic continues that, if all my value comes from the hand of God, shouldn't I submit myself completely to His will?

The crazy thing about us Christians is how quickly we resort back to depending on ourselves for our successes and joys, not out of necessity but because we simply forget that God is a bit more qualified for doing that than we are. We look at how we can take advantage of the world for blessings instead of letting the Creator of everything have the opportunity to provide blessing greater than anything His creation could feign.

James 4 talks about how we let pride, sin and love of the world come before surrendering to God. I have always been challenged by verses 7-10, because it encourages me to become less so that God can become more:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

It is the last line that always gets me. Obviously, He's not calling us to depression, but rather recognition of our brokenness. Once we reach the point of clearly seeing our insufficiency, we can truly receive the power and blessing of God, who wants to care for us and supply all our needs. We can't do that if we hold on to that control.

Those people who know they have great spiritual needs are happy, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. (Matt. 5:3 NCV)

If we first recognize that we are inherently incapable of providing all our needs, and we then realize that God is the One who created everything good and wants to provide the best for us now and a kingdom in the future that is filled with all that is good, we will be willing to give up control and let God run the show.

Humility doesn't mean not having self-confidence, however. If we are created by God and then even more empowered by God, we shouldn't lack in any confidence. But confidence based on our own power is remotely different than confidence based on God's power. Letting pride get in the way of what God wants to do quickly thwarts the great exploits that are destined for us. It first starts with being willing to surrender to a God who is truly capable of providing the best for us.

Lord, help me to humbly submit myself to You. Help me to see that You know what's best and are capable of providing it. Help me to not trust in my own flawed abilities, but to reach out daily for the power You give. Let my heart surrender my own grasp of control and instead take joy in wanting what You want.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

77-1 Fear

Inspired by the song "Afraid" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers.
Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

Emotions are strange.

They kind of exist and they kind of matter, but really they don't, and it always seems that if we make decisions based on our feelings that they will come back to bite us. Therefore, it is easy to try to ignore or cover up our feelings and emotions so that they don't affect us in a negative way.

But feelings do in fact matter, and they matter to God. God, in all His might, doesn't need to care at all about how we insignificant creatures feel about anything. But he does, and he shows it consistently throughout the Bible. It is how he shows that we aren't just numbers or names on a list, but that He has a personal connection to us that goes beyond casual acquaintance.

But fear is different than the other emotions. It is negative. It brings anguish to a person's soul. And, in reality, fear is more than just a feeling: it is actually a lack of faith.

Ah, I know that seems harsh, but sometimes things that are difficult to hear need to be heard nevertheless. Fear is really a type of doubt. I define fear as a momentary lack of trust in God's ability to take care of us in any situation. It is the belief that maybe God isn't big enough or strong enough to handle whatever it is we are presently facing.

Let's put this into perspective.

I am a machinist. I take little bits of metal and make them smaller. Sometimes, these bits of metal are significantly larger, and therefore significantly more expensive and more important for the completion of the project. If I mess it up when I load the part into the milling machine, or make a mistake when I write the program that the machine follows, CRASH, BOOM, BANG, and there goes four hundred bucks. As you may imagine, this creates a lot of pressure.

So when I am what we call "proving out a program," or running it through its paces the first time to make sure everything works right and the part ends up on size, I typically am a nervous wreck. I don't yet have the nerves of steel my dad, who is also my boss, has developed after doing this for 31 years.

It used to be that I would almost be in tears because I was so afraid of what might happen. I am a realist, and therefore I am acutely aware of all the things that could go wrong. It causes my blood pressure to go up, my hands to get clammy, and I am petrified to press the green button to start the program.

There are a few reasons why this attitude is ridiculous.

First, I am a professional; I know what I'm doing. I've been doing this for the better part of ten years and I am extremely well-trained. This is proven by the fact that I rarely ever waste a part, to the order of three or four out of the hundreds of parts I machine each year.

Second, I remember my mistakes from the past. This does not cause me to doubt myself; it instead causes me to remember exactly the things I need to check for. Are my settings right? Will it call up the right tool offset? Is enough material sticking up past the vise jaws? I know what I am looking for, and therefore I am very unlikely to make a mistake on these details that matter.

Third, no one will die if I ruin a part, though it may seem like it at the time. Our standards are so high, too high in fact, that we treat a lost part as failure when most shops expect a few losses in the process. I, however, am grounded in reality and know that lost parts means lost money and wasted time, and not the apocalypse! I don't make airplanes or artificial hearts, I make french fry cutters. Though I expect excellence from myself, it's not as big of a deal as it is often made to be.

And fourth, God is with me.

This is the fourth item on my list for the sake of dramatic flair and literary intensity, but it all too often becomes the fourth item on my mind in the moment. I forget that God is present and bigger than all of my issues or situations. I forget that He loves and cares for me, and that he goes before me and walks beside me. He is my Father, shepherd, helper and comforter. He can fix anything and is willing to get His hands dirty if that's what He wills to do. If He desires to let things be, than I can trust Him all the more that the inevitable result will be right within the outcome He willfully allows.

That last point can be hard to accept when it comes to cutting metal into chips. But it is way harder when it means watching someone you love die.

At my church, we are going through a time of watching two of our most faithful members slowly waste away from their battles with cancer. A few years back, we experienced the same thing with one of our most beloved choir members. These people are and were amazing followers of God. Their fruit was evident. Their witness sure. And the pain they experience is entirely unfair, for them and for us.

How can their families stay faithful in these times? Because they trust in God. Maybe it's because the battles that they face are so completely outside of their control that they need someone bigger on which to rely. But even in this, I can only imagine the legitimate fear that they are experiencing; the fear of what is happening, the fear of what may be coming, and the fear of what will follow.

To call fear a lack of faith in these context seems incredibly insensitive. Nevertheless, all fear comes from the momentary lack of trust in God. Sometimes it's a conscious decision, and sometimes it's just the inevitable result of our humanness.

But there is hope. Oh, there is hope.

Throughout the scriptures, God speaks to the individuals who we view as heroes of the faith: Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, and so many others. He also speaks to the nation of Israel in much the same way. And what He says brings the greatest of encouragement.

Here is a tidbit from Isaiah 41:9-10 where God is speaking to the nation of Israel:

I took you from the ends of the earth,
   from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
   I have chosen you and have not rejected you.
So do not fear, for I am with you;
   do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
   I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Do you hear the condemnation in there because of their lack of faith? NO! Of course not, because God cares about His people. He cares about how they feel. And instead of reprimanding them for their fear, He shows them compassion and simply tells them not to fear.

And He tells them why: because He is their God.

He is bigger than any problem we may face. He is faithful to follow through with what He has promised. And He will always be the Rock on which we can find our strength. Because even in the toughest of times, we can put our trust in the fact that God loves us and has given us the hope of heaven that will be realized in our lives no matter what.

So fear not, because He is your God. And when you do fear, remember that God is not mad at you because of it. He simply invites you to put your trust in Him.

So Lord, Help us to trust that You are the great God who is higher, stronger, and wiser than any other being who has ever existed. Help us to remember that You love us and want what's best for us, to the point of even dying on a cross for us. Let our trust cast out our fear. Thank you that we don't have to afraid anymore.

Monday, July 9, 2018


I am a Child of God.

I don't feel like one right now, but that's who I am.

Life sucks sometimes. People do dumb things around us, people do dumb things to us. And we do dumb things too. Sometimes really dumb things. We feel insulted, abused, depressed, weak, fragile, like a failure, too weak to carry on.

But that doesn't affect the fact that we are God's children.

Adoption is one of the most beautiful things in the whole world. I have seen the beauty of it in so many ways: serving at Royal Family Kids camp, and seeing some of those kiddos getting forever homes; listening to some of my favorite musicians tell of the life-changing power of their own stories of adopting children or being adopted; being with one of my cousin's and his family, as he was adopted by my uncle many years ago and is now as much as Stanley as any other blood-relative.

The thing people forget about the legality of adoption is that these kids are not half-children. They are, in the eyes of the law, as much a child of the parents as the blood-children. Once you are adopted, you are adopted.

But what is most often forgotten is that God has adopted us in the same way.

The world will tell us that we are worthless, insignificant creatures who will one day be long forgotten. And even though we know the truth about our salvation being by grace, we can so easily give into this lie that what we do determines our destiny.

I know I do. I try to rise above and be something, something more than what I can be in my own capacity. I see the brilliant plans God has for me, and I get so excited and joyful because of my God-given potential.

And then I fall flat on my face. I know that I do not have to surrender to the mistakes or the temptations, but I do. It therefore becomes so easy to submit to the notion that my identity is based in my failures.

But the truth is that I am not worthless, I am not a failure. I make mistakes, but that doesn't affect my salvation, because it cannot change who I now am: a child of God.

Do our mistakes have consequences? Absolutely. We can be saved and yet chained to our mistakes in such a way that it derails the realization of some of the callings God has for us. And since the world is watching, our lives should resemble Christ's as much as possible.

But regardless of this, we are still sinners. We still screw up and we still feel like piles of manure. To some extent, this is unavoidable. And before you yell and scream that since we're Christians we should only strive for holiness, please look at yourself and review how well you've hit the mark. Because even if you are living the holiest you can, you will still find the sludge in the corners that may prove more influential than you think.

But that is the miracle! That is the hope! God wants us to live perfectly holy lives, but He doesn't expect us to live perfectly holy lives. If we could, we would never need a sacrifice. It is the fact that we are still sinners that created the need for Jesus to die in our place.

The Bible says that Jesus died "once for all." Do you know what that means? It sounds really crazy, but it means that He has died for all of our sins forever, every sin that ever will be committed by anyone. And all of those sins are all forgiven already. (Proof)

But it is in the rejection of who Jesus is and the rejection of the convicting power of the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven, or put another way, has not been forgiven. Jesus cannot forgive the error that causes a person to not believe.

So how can that sin be forgiven? By believing and accepting who Jesus is! Then the sin no longer exists in your souls. The unpardonable sin is not a sin that one commits once and dooms them forever; it is living in the state of disbelief. Once belief exists, the disbelief is thereby broken.

And that leads us to the understanding that all of our sins were known to Jesus when He died on the cross. He took on all the sins that have ever been committed and allowed the Father to pour out the required judgment on Him instead of us (or, He poured the judgment out on Himself, depending on the lens by which you are seeing it).

So, therefore, our sins are forgiven. But what if it ended there? We would still have no hope. Thankfully, Jesus is alive, and the Father has now adopted us into His family. (Did you know that we should also view Jesus as our brother? Crazy sounding, I know, but it's true. Because we are the children of God.)

No sin ever can change that. This should bring us the greatest hope of all. God doesn't just think of us positively, or even highly. He loves us and desires us and seeks after us. When we fail, He is there to forgive, cleanse, and show us the way to holiness. He knows we will sin, it doesn't surprise Him. It doesn't cause Him to detest us. Instead, He wants us to live in holiness, and made a way for that through His sacrifice.

So today, whether you are living in full integrity or feel like you are one mistake away from dissolving into a could of dust, take heart: if you believe in Jesus, you are a fully legitimate child of God. And nothing you can do can change that.