A Strange Encounter with Prayer and How it Changed My Life

I leaned against the seat and watched as passengers streamed in to find their places in this Boeing 787 flight bound for Europe. Having failed my first and only attempt for a business class seat, I tested the recline button, relieved that British Airways gives a far better lean than Spirit Airlines. At least I should sleep some, I muttered to myself. My attempt for business class was motivated by my friend Bob’s confident prayer while meeting over coffee the week before. I shared with him how I dislike traveling, especially the overnight trips to Europe, thus his prayer. His hand rested on my shoulder, our heads bowed, and Bob’s faith-laced prayer moved me, and filled me with hope. Especially the part that the Lord miraculously provide me a business class seat on that plane. When I checked in at the gate and asked for availability in business, the agent chuckled and said, “Well you can try flirting with the flight attendant.” “No I would never do that,” I snapped with an air of spirituality. “I’ll just ask nicely.” And I did ask the male flight attendant, who informed me they can’t do that anymore, even when business class has many empty seats. And it did! So, I settled for 27-D, two rows into the general seating with a great view of the five empty rows in business. I leaned back again as the cabin filled with people from every part of the world, all so different, now bound for a common place.

Having failed my quest for a business class seat I folded my arms, closed my eyes and reflected now on another friends, Richard’s, back up prayer, that I would just sleep the whole night. “It’s never happened,” I retorted to Richard, my lack of faith not even slightly hidden. “This is my fifth trip to Europe in three years, and I’ve yet to sleep even an hour, total, from all five trips. “Well, then I’ll pray that you will feel so rested when you arrive, it will be as though you slept all night.”

All hope was dashed at the sight of the young couple making their way through business class, only a thin curtain and four more rows separating us. A wiggly, already screaming toddler dangled from the father’s arm. They inched my way, and I glanced at them and then at the empty row in front of me. No, please, no! I muttered, every muscle in my body tensing at the now very limited possibilities available to them.Crying baby Keep walking, that’s it, keep walking my hands gripped the arms of the chair. I assumed the crash position. No, no, I screamed silently. All hope is lost. No sleep, again! The chairs bounced in front of me as the family jostled into their places. A sound and movement to my left distracted me from the family, and the screams of the toddler faded to background noise. A large man, no less than three hundred pounds wedged his body past 27A and plopped next to me in seat 27C, the plane bounced for just a second. The portly man settled, looked at me and smiled, but then leaned in and said, “Can’t believe we have to sit behind a screaming baby.” I forced a grin and muttered, “Yes, a shame indeed,” but I was more worried about him now than the baby. I wanted to say, Hey buddy my seat is too small for the two of us, but refrained and went back to praying, this time that God would just let me survive the trip.

Many were praying for me on this trip knowing its importance for the kingdom and many agreed with me that a healthy Mitch was an essential component to the success of this mission. Prayers were very specific, with little chance of God misunderstanding what we wanted. I needed to sleep well, be healthy for the week and serve at the top of my game.

That is far from what happened.

I barely slept, and it was my own coughing that seemed to wake me more than the crying of the baby. The heavy snoring of the man next to me, still sharing my seat, did not help. An hour into my three-hour-layover in London, I decided to purchase a thermometer at Boots Pharmacy. I ripped the package opened, took the instrument out and placed it in my mouth. 102 degrees Fahrenheit. And so my week began, and actually continued, in weakness. With a fever, having slept little and every specific prayer NOT answered.

It struck me later, actually on my fourth night on this visit how unbelievably selfish I can be. I was making an assessment of prayer based on one moment, concerning one or two particular needs I had. No, it did not go as I asked it would, and how others asked. But when I look at the totality of my life, God has been taking care of me, and providing for me in ways that go far beyond the moments I was asking for something from him. God has provided for me EVEN when I was not asking him to. I was like that “local freethinker, Jared Olson who called into question the ‘absurd’ idea that God had ever done anything for him, all while inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide in a complex process well beyond his mind’s capability of understanding in its entirety.” (See link here)

Our lives all fit in the backdrop of Job’s story, who by the end, after one litany of complaint after an other over all God’s failures to provide, we are forced to stand in awe of him and say, I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. (Job. 19:25). And God reminds us, as he reminded Job and his praying friends, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding.” (Job. 38:4) And Have you entered into the springs of the sea Or walked in the recesses of the deep? “Have the gates of death been revealed to you, Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness. “Have you understood the expanse of the earth. Tell Me, if you know all this.” (Job 38:16-18). Wow, talk about being put in one’s place.

By not answering my specific prayers, I had a strange encounter with prayer. I am more cared for, and protected and provided for than I ever thought. Jesus’s prayer to his Father is being answered daily just in the fact that I am still alive, and breathing and able to do what I do. I am protected from the enemy, kept from temptation and delivered from evil because God answers prayer, Jesus’s prayer, our prayers. When the focus of my prayer is more about His kingdom, than it is my own, something in me wakes up. I realize he owes me nothing, but still fills me with everything that is good. And sometimes all those things that are so good, and awesome about him, show up in the moment when I do not get exactly what I am asking for.

Unanswered prayer introduced me to the mystery and awe and holiness of God and his delight in being my God. 

Strange isn’t it? It is when God doesn’t answer specifically what you are asking from him, that you find yourself more in awe of him.

Our faith develops most strongly and God is most glorified most fully when we feel only his absence, when every trace of His presence vanishes and our resolve to trust continues. Larry Crabb (Real Church)

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Your Part Matters

Elaine and I pulled into our garage three days ago at 3 a.m. Fifteen hours earlier we’d said goodbye to newly made friends who work as Wycliffe Bible Translators in Peru. At this early hour the only decision we needed to make was whether to bring in the suitcase now, or wait until the next morning. We were tired, but content. As tired as I was from this trip, and even through the fight to keep my eyelids open on the two hour drive home, I did not easily fall asleep. What seemed to be a fight to stay awake turned now into a struggle to fall asleep. So, for over  half an hour, I stared into darkness reflecting on the trip and how profoundly it affected me. The trip opened my eyes again as to why they (my new missionary friends) and I do what we do. Bridge

Four nights earlier I stood in front of 45 adults and reminded them that all their effort of translating the word is so those who read will know The Word. I can only imagine what it’s like to spend fifteen to twenty years translating the scriptures into a remote indigenous language. Several of these missionaries work with a language group of less than 300 people. Their attention to detail is unbelievable. The commitment to get it right is unparalleled by anything I’ve ever done. How do you speak about pride and humility to a culture who views everyone equally? What do you do with the phrase Kingdom of God, when their language has no equivalent term? I wondered too, is it possible to get so caught up in the translation that you forget the larger purpose; so people can read in their language of the one who lived here, died in their place and rose again so they can be reconciled to God? Perhaps this one week when they all gather together, away from the task, is their way of reaching that perspective. It humbled me that my role was to provide that context for them to pull back and embrace again the Great Commission behind what they do day in and day out.

All of us in vocational ministry can forget why we do what we do. We can be like the bridge-welder, who having spent weeks on a beam forgets his part is for a larger purpose, so one day, when the bridge is completed, people can cross from one side to the other. Keeping that large purpose to the mundane task gives value where otherwise, lost in the moment, there would be discouragement. Wrestling over a pronoun, agonizing for a synonym, jockeying for an appropriate verb are little and significant moments to a larger narrative. Pastors discouraged by the hard work of preparing sermons and counseling hurting people, will quickly rise with the encouraging realization that their part, albeit small, are contributing to the expansion of Jesus’ kingdom. The your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, is made up of small, seemingly unnoticed moments and conversations, tasks and movements that, done in the name of Jesus also serve to promote his name – making him famous.

My take-away from this recent trip to Peru is to appreciate again why we do what we do. We’re renewed because of it. One day, Jesus is going to come back and finally set up his Kingdom to replace this broken one. I want, again, to do whatever I do to work heartedly, as for the Lord and not for me, knowing that from the Lord I will receive the inheritance as my reward. (Col. 3:23-24) Like you, I am a bridge builder, whose role might seem insignificant until I step back and see again what it’s all about. A bridge, when complete, will allow lost people, now reconciled to God because of Jesus, to step from death into life. (1 John 3:14)

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The Gospel Is Gold!

I don’t give much advice to hurting couples anymore. My advice is worth five cents, maybe less. The Gospel though, is worth more than gold. The Gospel is GOLD. When hurting couples look to the Gospel for help and healing, there is no stopping them. I’ve seen it first-hand. gospel-goldSeveral years ago Mark and Joan (not their real names) came to my office admitting they fought like cats and dogs. In fact their cat and dog stopped fighting out of deference to their owners. I met with Mark and Joan for months, and gave them the best tips imaginable to help their marriage, but like kindling on a smoldering fire, what I offered worsened their relationship. On this particular day, I sat behind my desk, the two sitting across from me with arms folded and shoulders slanted away from each other. I’d prepared nothing for this session, knowing it would do no good. Mark sighed heavily, and Joan frowned at him and gave me a look that said, “See, he’ll never change.”

I startled both of them when I threw my arms up in exasperation. Now I sighed and frowned, my hands slamming carefully, but hard on my desk. With an intense and grieving look I said, “I give up on you both.” Their shoulders slumped in defeat. “I really don’t think I can do much more for you guys.” Nearly all the air left them. A tear found its way out of Joan’s eyes, rolling down her cheek.

“There is only one thing that can change your marriage.”

Both raised their shoulders cautiously in hope.

“All I can tell you is to come together at the cross and there remember that Jesus died for you both. He took on himself your sin, this sin,” my index finger waving between the two of them, “and he rose again to offer new life. There is no other place you will experience transformation.”

I had their attention. The effect of just telling that story again seemed to raise some hope, and kept the one thread holding them together from snapping. “Guys, all I can tell you is you both need to stand at the foot of the cross; remember what Jesus did for you, and then look at each other and say you’re both so sorry for what you have done to each other, and to Jesus by the way you’ve behaved.”

What I did next paved the way, no, pointed to the place for a miracle, and it changed their marriage completely. “Mark and Joan”, pointing to the carpet at their feet I said, “Would you both kneel right now?”

They did.

“Now hold hands and look at each other.”

They did.

“Now tell each you are sorry, and ask Jesus to forgive you and to come and bury this mess, all this sin he died for, and bring about new life to your marriage.”

They did, and more.

Like repeating wedding vows these words were pushed out by streams of tears. Weeping, they held each other. Long silence followed. They finally stood. I stood with them. We hugged, and they left my office.

Their marriage was saved.

And since, I never counsel without first telling the story of what Jesus came to do and why.

A couple struggling with their daughter’s suicide.

A pastor’s family wearing masks, for fear their congregation will see what they are really like.

A missionary wife reviving from her husband’s resurrection from years of tormenting silence. He now speaks life to her.

I often tell now of the power of the cross, the gospel, in what I refer to as the moment. The moment the usual impulse is to lash out with harsh words, bury it, and let the new man, the resurrected Spirit-filled man speak love and life. Remember, at that moment what Jesus came to do. It’s what resurrected born-again people do. It’s how they speak. To live in old patterns of abuse, fighting with harsh damaging words is to pull out of the grave that which is already declared dead. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.  In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self[c] with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:5-10)

The gospel reminds us daily that we are different people, who are not allowed to behave in the old way. Remembering that in the moment produces a completely different response that can only bring life and restore what is broken. Do that enough times, and you, too, will discover a miracle.

Should you ever find yourself in a position to offer encouragement and hope to someone hurting, or a couple facing the end of their marriage, can I urge you to start your conversation with them by just telling the story of the Gospel? Once you’ve told that story, ask them to tell their story next to what Jesus did for them. You will be amazed at the power of the Gospel of Jesus.

It’s worth more than gold.

Because our salvation is an act of God’s grace—giving us something that we don’t deserve—we have a model and standard of grace for our marriage. Our desire is to extend unmerited grace to each other in our marriage, just as God showed it to us through Jesus.…Our forgiveness of each other has to follow the example extended to us. When we forgive, we make the conscious choice not to hold past transgressions and hurts against each other. We let it go and trust God with the situation. … As a couple we don’t live in defeat, but in confidence. The world and its troubles are temporary, but heaven is forever! – Brad & Heidi Mitchell, Build a Legacy Through Your Marriage

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 What’s Wrong with Ordinary

Much of the contemporary music I listen to and preaching I hear leaves me feeling like I am not doing enough for Jesus. While driving home yesterday, with time on my hands, I reached over and pushed the button on my radio and quickly reduced the volume as the song’s heavy beat swept through the cabin of my car. I hummed along to a familiar and popular song, drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, but abruptly stopped as the repeating words struck a resisting chord in my heart. When I do turn on the radio it’s usually for background noise and often I pay little attention to the words. Unlike my two children, I’ve never been that good at “singing along” when a song plays.hand

This time was different.

What I heard clashed with where I am in my life right now, where I know I should be. I slowed the car, and leaning in to catch every word. The song, obviously intended to rally a young generation to rush into the battle field with passion and all out gusto.

Great tune. Wonderful beat.

The growing unease with the core message, though, pounded hard against the framework of an already tired life of trying to do all I can, or more, for Jesus. Songs like this come with certain assumptions about redemption. About salvation. It assumes that we are saved to make a difference, and for this generation especially, to change the world. It also leaves a lot of Christians feeling inadequate when an inventory of their lives points to failure. Most of us just don’t measure up. Our lives, at least most of us, are rather ordinary. We aren’t thriving. Press deeper and many I know are just surviving, but they still love Jesus. Their lives aren’t making headlines, but they seek to obey him daily, even in the small stuff. Pretty ordinary stuff. man-working

By the time I pulled into my driveway my fists wound tight to the steering wheel. Coasting the car into the garage, I relaxed my hands and turned off the radio, quietly needing a few minutes to sort through my unease. The fact is my life is pretty simple and I am actually okay with that. What’s wrong with ordinary, with managing another day without huge outcomes? I muttered to myself. Are we called to do great things for God, or are we called to be faithful to him even in the small things of life? 

I don’t think this message come out of a vacuum. There is theology behind it, tossed off a doctrinal stage where singers and preachers rally a young and restless generation to greater commitment and new heights of surrender, while marginalizing the older generation for having failed.

The call to thrive, to do more than we are doing, over living ordinary lives that glorify God and enjoy him forever becomes counter intuitive. Bluntly put, it can backfire. Eventually those who follow it run out of energy and settle at best for ordinary, at worst for disillusionment. Men are restless by the ordinary responsibility of providing for their family thus missing out on their greatest calling, at home, or young people travel the world hoping to leave at least a dent on global evil, only to return defeated and discouraged because they did not meet the demand placed on them by that song or from the preacher. Pastors face discontent over a church that fails to grow despite his faithfulness to preach and love his people as the scriptures call for. (2 Tim. 4:2)

So I guess my question is, what’s really wrong with ordinary? Weren’t we made, created, saved, to love God and enjoy him forever? (The Westminster Shorter Catechism). Did not Paul urge us in whatever we do, to work heartedly, as for the lord and not for men? Aren’t we ordinary jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us? (2 Cor. 4:16). When Paul explains that preachers, teachers and apostles exist to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, (Eph. 4:11) he later illustrates what that work is in Ephesians 5 and 6 as a husband loving his wife, a wife submitting to her husband, children obeying their parents and slaves (employees) obeying their masters (employers) with fear and trembling. 

Pretty ordinary stuff. real stuff. Everyday sort of stuff.

The Great Commission does not call us to change the world, as much as it calls us to go into that world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them from everything Jesus taught the disciples. Changing the world is a responsibility that belongs to the Holy Spirit, our part is to tell the story wherever we are, whether people respond or not. The mark of my spirituality is not measured by how many respond to that message, but rather my faithfulness to the one who called me.

I’ll settle for that ordinary task any day.

Men who preach that we are to change the culture put unrealistic expectations on the lives of the flock. We’re sheep, not Iron Man, called by God to follow Christ, not to change that which we have no power to change. -Timothy J. Hammons

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Just Trust Him

I discovered years ago that trusting God doesn’t mean you need to, or can understand what he is doing. Nor why. Just Trust Me are some of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard him whisper when confused and mystified. Jesus told his disciples to trust* in God and trust also in me (John 14:1-2) at the very moment they expressed their fear of his leaving them. While he did give some glimpse of the future home awaiting them, and the promise that he would take them there, that was a long way off. It was not that promise that necessarily calmed their fears; it was the simple words, trust in me. In the following chapters Jesus had more to say about imminent persecution and hardship, and less about the good days that were right around the corner. The invitation to trust him settled more on fearful heatrustrts that looked forward to more hard days, not necessarily better days. In contrast to many of the promises made today, trusting God does not guarantee better days in this life. These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. (Hebrews 1:13).  The fact is, you and I trust him, while continuing to live in an uncertain world where the hope and promise of our new home is a long way off. Yes, I look forward to it, but it’s not what keeps me going. What keeps me going are those sweet words, trust me. By promising his disciples that he would prepare a place for them and then come back and take them to be with him, Jesus assured them that in the meantime, while he was gone and they remained here suffering, he was not going to forget or abandon them. The Holy Spirit was then given to them, and us, to give courage to live on in a hard world.

Even a cursory glance over Hebrews 11 provides a clear glimpse down the corridor of past saints who believed and trusted while never really knowing what it would give them in the immediate. Faith, by definition, is believing in something you don’t at that moment have sufficient and reasonable evidence to believe is really possible. That kind of faith just assumes that the object of our faith, Jesus himself, is big enough and loving enough, and committed enough to help us blindly move forward despite how hard it might get. And entering that faith path can actually take us into even rougher terrain. Faith again, empowers us to believe that Jesus has not forgotten us. 

I fear the kind of faith espoused today promises an immediate response from God, not the kind that gives us courage to trudge on despite where it might take us, or how long we might have to linger. And so, many young and vulnerable believers end up disillusioned because God did not deliver as the preacher or Facebook post promised. Simply typing “amen” or “share this post” as a response to a clever ditty on Facebook doesn’t work in God’s economy. Faith, trusting, is a long-haul proposition that requires deep belief in the One who promised, and the ultimate reward of that faith is to live with him forever. The words, I will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5) were uttered by Jesus because he would leave them … for a time. He would leave them, but not forsake them. There lies the heartbeat of faith. 

Because my parents were missionaries in what is now called Papua, I, along with my siblings, was sent off to boarding school at the age of six. Two things kept me going despite the long nights of crying, and the occasional sense of loneliness. I knew my parents still loved me; they would never forsake me, and I would see them again. And so faith provides us the same courage. He loves us so deeply and so profoundly, enough to trust us to be alone for a season, but not really alone. That keeps me going. I will go out on a limb here and even suggest that the sense, or feeling that Jesus is not near me, the sense of distance from him is a legitimate feeling. The promised Holy Spirit is given to reassure in the meantime  that Jesus has not at all abandoned us (even though he might at times seem far away) and the promised Holy Spirit is given to us, to dwell in us, to help us trust him when on our own we can’t. And finally, the promised Holy Spirit dwells in us to keep that promise alive, who according to Ephesians 1:14 is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Do those words, Trust Me, encourage you today? Remember he loves you enough to leave you alone for a season so your faith in him will be tested and stretched, and a day is coming when, finally, you will be hometrust-1

With Him. 

Forever. 

“Faith is not necessarily the power to make things the way we want them to be; it is the courage to face things as they are.” Ronald Dunn (When Heaven Is Silent

*I use the word trust here, while most translations use the word believe. The Greek word is pisteuó which means to entrust, or believe in, or, to think to be true.

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The Gospel and Our Broken World

This will be my only political blog, but it’s really more a blog about what our recent political situation reveals about us and our need for the gospel. Facebook has been a fascinating forum to serve out our opinions. Regardless of where one lands on the political runway, the cry is the same; can we all please just get along now? Both sides claim to have answers, a corner on the market of resolving political, racial and social tensions, but everyone disagrees how to get there. broken-worldPrior to the election, both candidates promised that their first 100 days will be focused on healing the divide. That’s hard. How do we come together when certain social issues stand in stark contrast to the Bible. There is no coming together when values, and morals are polar opposites. How do you unite on the issue of abortion? There is no healing the divide on abortion. That divide needs to exist, as is true of most, if not all secular, godless policies. It’s noble to say we need to come together, but light and darkness cannot. I pray the light will permeate the darkness. That hearts will be open, and healed at the cross, where Jesus died in our place. The divide is solved by the gospel, our only hope for ever coming together.

All this has me considering again the power of the gospel of Jesus. It’s an expansive power that first reveals our need, our sin, before it can take us to the place of healing, the cross itself where Jesus died in our place, for us. The only place for restoration is the cross. The cross tells us we are sinners. Hopeless. Dead. Deserving the full wrath of God, deserving Hell. But Jesus took it for us. On the other side of the cross, the burial and resurrection now behind Jesus, the gospel tells a fuller more victorious message. There is hope for the brokenness in our world. There is hope for our nation. The gospel, this story of who Jesus is and why he came and what he did tells us we are still sinners, still deserving death, but also promising us that we will never receive the justice we deserved. Because of Jesus, and what he did in our place. It’s a story we remind ourselves of daily.

And the gospel does divide. It must. Ultimately, when it’s all over with, Jesus graciously, and thankfully warned us of what will happen to those who reject the gospel. It’s a horrible, dark scene, but one that ought to make us rush to him for reconciliation and forgiveness. And rush to our friends and family to warn of the cost of ignoring Jesus. It’s that final moment Jesus once described this way, as the final divide:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ …“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” Matthew 21:31-46

This is a story our nation desperately needs to hear. Our role as believers is less to change what is around us through politics and personal effort, and more to tell a story. Even that story, of what will ultimately happen to those who reject Jesus. And it’s a story, the gospel, that assumes certain harsh realities. That we are lost, heading to Hell, but there is a way out, through a Savior who came to die for us.

I can only pray, and do pray that pastors will get back to this simple message. Our nation desperately needs to hear it. Many tip-toe apologetically around that story. It’s hinted at, but rarely directly mentioned. When Jesus prayed and taught us to pray, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, he was praying that the world would respond to the gospel. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). God’s will for our world is simple. It’s what heaven longs for. It’s why Jesus came and why he died. That all people, all of God’s creation, every living soul would repent of their sins, confess their sins before their Savior who died for them, and receive the forgiveness that God freely and gladly offers.

That’s unity! That’s when people of different stripes, cultures and backgrounds will finally come together. Not when we concede on our difference, which when you think about it, is really ignoring the differences that are still there.

The Gospel of Jesus! The story of his life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension.

It’s what Donald needs. It’s what Hillary needs. It’s what we all need. Only then will we see the divide that so desperately exists between us disappear. Until that happens, it’s a necessary divide that separates believers from unbelievers, truth from lies, evil from righteousness, that can only be erased by the cross. To ignore, or blur those lines is to disregard the greatest move and sacrifice ever made in the history of mankind.

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Not Ready to Settle, Yet!

I don’t handle change well. It comes from a heart that longs to settle, but can’t. So it was no surprise that our recent move from one home and state to another, happening in the midst of a ministry trip to Spain stretched my capacity for change.

The timing was, well, let’s just say, awkward. The closing took place while in the very middle of our ministry trip to Spain. All of it done remotely. Gradually, as I gave to others I decompressed from six weeks of stuffing boxes, and long discussions with Elaine on what would and would not fit in a new home literally half the size of the one we sold.

Conversation with missionaries, meetings with national pastors and leaders, riveted attention from myself to a country that hardly gives any heed or interest to God. I was impressed by a group of faithful servants who’ve left all to serve 5,10 and even 20 years to offer the gospel as a precious gift to hardened hearts. (An underwhelming 1% of Spain claims to be born again Christian, and the majority of these are migrants.) The highlight for us was serving the missionary team at their annual pastoral care retreat held this year in a 14th century monastery in the town of Segovia. Elaine and I taught, encouraged and interacted with twenty-eight adults, while our son, Brett, discipled eighteen teens on the life of Joseph.

By the end of this trip, knowing we’d return to a house full of unpacked boxes, my heart lay split wide open to the harshness and hardness of the world we live in. To know that we could give one week of our lives to men and women who’d given up everything to unpack the gospel, week after week, day after day to a culture who long ago distanced themselves from Jesus, reminded me again of why I am here, and why I now do what I do. My new home simply becomes a place from where to do it. That’s all. I might not be on the cutting edge of this Kingdom work, but I get to encourage those who are. Upon returning, I received this email from one of the team members in Spain, confirming to me that our story continues to belong to Jesus. “Last week I attended a Pastoral Care Retreat in Segovia with fellow ministry workers from the C&MA Spain team, and God spoke to me in one of the most beautiful ways I have ever experienced. For the last few months, I have been mulling over a specific calling that God has placed on my heart. At this retreat, amidst hearing the pastoral care couple share their testimony of suffering and how they trusted God; and learning about how they view suffering, tragedy, discouragement, and depression from their personal experience, I felt God confirm my calling with such strong confidence in Him and a burning passion for what He laid on my heart.” 

Elaine and I are in conversation with the leadership in Spain to serve as pastoral care couple to the team there. This would mean a trip or two a year back to Spain. Between those trips I hope to coach, interact with and encourage team members through social media. Looking around me this morning, this home looks pretty settled. One or two boxes remain unpacked; several pictures sit unhung on the floor, but for the most part the place looks like it’s been home to us for some time.

I know this is just a temporary home. The longing to settle remains unmet, and that’s good. I’m really not ready to settle yet. There’s a world of people out there far from home who still need to know that someone, God himself, came here two thousand years ago and pitched his tent with us and gave his life for us so this cruel, harsh sin-damaged place will never have to be our home. So hell will never have to be anyone’s next and final move. As the writer of Hebrews puts it so beautifully, …God has provided something better for us…” (Hebrews 11:40). I can’t wait!

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I Don’t Trust You, but I’ll Love You! 

My wife and I sat across from a young man who’d just returned from the mission field. After meeting with him three times, I found him to be tender, full of grace and longing to see his life used effectively by Jesus. Yet, here he was, wounded and desperate to find someway past the hurt that now replaced the youthful vigor from years past. Two years ago he left for a foreign country, eager and confident that God would do great things through him. Now he wondered if there was any way to rebound from the disappointment and disillusionment of team conflict and lack of fruit. trust

It was the team conflict that forced him back home. I’ve also seen this sort of thing happen. Often you get along better with lost people who are far from Jesus than those partnering with you to take the gospel to them. 

My elbows rested on the table, and I leaned forward, my way of letting him know that he had my full attention. That’s when the bombshell came, said with conviction and emotion. My elbows pulled back and I sat straight. This was the real reason he was here. It took three weeks to get to it. And what he said started a long conversation.

I just don’t trust Christians anymore,” he blurted. 

Yes, I murmured only to myself. I know that feeling. Been there, done that. However our new friend was proposing something I wasn’t going to agree with easily. I’ve heard it often. It was the notion that if you cannot trust people then something is wrong, out of whack, and before you can ever be used again, trust has to be restored. You might as well move yourself out of the game, and find something else to do. Because we all know that Christians are all supposed to get along, and loss of trust is a huge breach to the harmony the Bible calls for. Where there is lack of trust, the people perish. (Sarcasm intended). 

I pulled myself away from my own thoughts and asked him, “What makes you think you have to trust them? I mean, after all, you did everything you could to address sin; you showed love, and they still stabbed you in the back. Do you really want to trust them? Should you trust people who are bent on doing you harm?” 

I then gave this example. “Suppose you’re married and have several children, and a robber breaks into your home. Would you not rush to stand between the robber and your family? You would never consider trusting a robber who’s barged into your house intent on stealing from you. So why would you trust anyone who has robbed you of your joy and ministry?”

Tom nodded, his eyes attentive, so I continued with another example. “Or suppose I take my granddaughter to the Grand Canyon, and near the edge I let go of her hand. Would I trust her to not walk too close to the edge on her own?”

“Of course not,” Tom replied, his furrowed brows now relaxing to match the the growing encouragement that came with this conversation. 

“Tom,” I continued, “I counsel couples where the husband was unfaithful to his wife. You would not expect the wife to trust him for a long time, would you? But I do urge her to love him. Not trusting him will actually strengthen the relationship. It makes him accountable. She has to be on her guard, and that’s good for him. Eventually, her love will allow him to earn that trust again.”

Tom tensed, wondering where I was going with this. 

“Sometimes,Tom, not trusting is important in developing a healthy relationship. I’ll show you in a moment how we are commanded to love others, but not necessarily by trusting them. But I’ll get to that soon.” 

I think my friend was getting it.

“Tom,” I chimed, “tell me where in the Bible we are commanded to trust other people?” 

We then discussed together how there are more places in the Bible that warn of us being too trusting. Consider the following: 

Put no trust in a neighbor; have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house. -Micah 7:5-6

Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come…Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream …The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?  -Jeremiah 17:5-12

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. -Psalm 118:8

But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. –John 2:24-25

Tom and I decided we’d covered plenty of ground for one day. We agreed to continue the conversation next week when we will discuss how loving can open the door to forgiveness, and how ultimately God wants reconciliation, and trust can be the outcome. We said goodbye, and I stepped back into my office. I had my own thinking to do. I plopped down on my recliner, pulling back the lever, forcing my feet up. The recliner faces a large window, and through a spread of branches I could see several of the Smoky Mountain’s special peaks. I sighed and reflected again on my own struggle with trust, longing for the reconciliation which to this point remained unmet. I allowed myself to think about the man, who claimed to be my friend, yet turned many against me in a recent ministry. And it cost us that ministry. Because I now counsel in a room down the hall from his office, I’ve learned to love him, evidence by the fact that because my heart is filled with compassion for him every time we talk. I pray for his business to prosper, and rejoice that it has. But right now I cannot trust him. Loving him allows me to live comfortably with that tension. However, l long for him to see his sin, as I see mine, and for the gospel to produce reconciliation so trust will be restored, but that is an outcome of when the Holy Spirit has equal access to each heart. In the meantime, I am comfortable loving him, absent of trust. Looking up again at the mountains, I then thought about Jesus and how he did so much better than me in this arena. Yet, he did it as an example for me and for Tom and people like us who live daily, rubbing shoulders with others who have caused us pain. I thought again of John 2:24-25 how Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. But he loved them, and died for them. 

Like Tom, I used to feel guilty that I could not and would not trust certain people. But now I understand how the best thing I can give them, for their own growth and sanctification is to be guarded around them. But I will love them, despite how they might have treated me. And that’s been great for my own growth. In fact, to keep loving people who’ve hurt me and might hurt me again is one way to see the gospel at work. And it is that gospel that allows for a forgiving heart and leads to repentance and ultimately to reconciliation, where yes, trust is possible again. In the meantime, I will keep displaying the love of Jesus. 

The world needs to see more of that.

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The Bible Is About Jesus, Not Us!

Over lunch some time ago my friend, between bites of a burrito asked me what I thought of that morning’s sermon. Not wanting to say too much about the guest speaker, I chose instead to process some of my thoughts concerning preaching today. There are two kinds of preaching, I explained. The kind that focuses on us, and the kind that focuses on Jesus. When Jesus is the focus, it also then becomes about us. Our lives find life in his life. Our purpose and call relates to his call and purpose. Most preaching I hear today uses the scripture to address us, not Jesus. It’s as though the Bible was only written to help us navigate through the tough seasons of life, or assist us in our troubles. This narcissistic approach to preaching makes us the center, forcing Jesus to play the role of life coach, not our savior. A well known Christian radio host refers to this kind of preaching as Narcigesis, combining the two words, narcissistic and eisegesis. Eisegesis (draw in) compared to exegesis (draw out) is the discipline of reading the Bible by placing ourselves in the story. Exegesis seeks to draw out of scripture from it’s context what the writer intended, making Jesus the main character of the story rather than us. Most contemporary preaching today uses the scripture to address us rather than Christ. Consequently, you hear more today about our purpose than you do about his purpose. 

I’ve always believed that Christ can be found in the Old Testament, but for the most part I treated it like a child looking for Waldo on a page with other more prominent characters. I’d read and preach through the Old Testament as though Jesus played a cameo role against the many other main characters to its stories. He’d make an appearance here and there, but only fully showed up in the New Testament.

Some years ago I woke up to the fact that the Old Testament is about Jesus. Every part of it. Take the book of Judges for example. Each judge is a failed picture of Christ, who ultimately came to lead and rule over us. Or more accurately the book of Judges exists to show us, by our failure that we need a good and godly king. That we need a savior. Ultimately, Jesus, not even David is that king. Read Judges with Christ in mind, and the stories come alive. The story of David killing Goliath was not written to show us how to beat our financial and relational giants. It’s a foreshadow of another unlikely hero, who would one day defeat our enemy once and for all at the cross. Jonah’s rebellion was not written to help us obey the call of God on our lives and the unfortunate consequences of rebellion. His life is the very antithesis of Jesus, who was called by God to go to another Nineveh, (our sinful world) and how he obeyed completely. Reading Jonah with Jesus glasses brings every part to life. The early part of the story where the sailors throw Jonah overboard to calm the storm, foreshadows Jesus taking the plunge in our place so we would not perish, and the storm calms when he’s swallowed by death’s cross. Even Jesus drew attention to the real purpose of Jonah. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40) Similarly, the barren women you read about in the Old Testament did not receive their miracle baby to tell us that God will all but guarantee a miracle in our barren situations. They served as foreshadows for the miracle of the virgin birth. Everything in the Old Testament is about Jesus.

Following his resurrection, Jesus happened to walk one day with two men deeply disturbed by his arrest and death. When their eyes finally opened to who it was walking with them, Jesus took the duration of the walk, explaining the entirety of scriptures this way; “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27). May our hearts burn like theirs as we discover how all of scripture is about Him, not us!

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Radical In The Mundane (Part 2)

Twenty youth stood bashfully on the stage; the youth pastor, mic in hand, in just a moment would pray for them before they headed off to the annual youth convention. But first, he challenged them to be fully open to God’s lead in their lives. My eyes shifted from the pastor to scan the faces of the youth, straining to see what might lie deeper in their hearts. My gaze moved down the line of teens as the pastor continued his challenge, which sounded strangely close to a warning not to come back unless their lives were radically changed for Jesus. Thread and NeedleWhile this pressure was building on these young vulnerable lives my eye-movement jolted back to the youth pastor. It’s what he said next that brought about this sudden shift to my attention, away from the teens to him. “Who knows?” he said with excitement. “Maybe, just maybe, some of you might be called this week to become a missionary, or even a pastor.” And then he prayed for them, committing each of them to God, asking the Almighty to call some into full-time ministry.

I can still remember those moments in my youth where the call to serve God offered only two valid options. Well, maybe three. Commit yourself fully to God, which meant full time ministry; do something else and live a mediocre life, or rebel against His will for your life (by not going into ministry). I wondered how many of the youth who stood on that platform and who bent under the pressure of the pastor’s prayer-of-high-expectation came back from the conference with a sense of shame and guilt because God did not call them. Most, I’m sure, settled for second best to God’s purposes, forced to a life of less-commitment, like being just a homemaker, or just an engineer or school teacher while the few who were more fortunate to have been touched by God led a more committed life of vocational ministry. (*)

There’s been a slight shift in emphasis today in this clarion call to serve God that sounds a bit different than a call to full-time ministry, but the pressure on our youth is still the same. I’m a dad to two children still in their twenties, and one who is sixteen and lives at home. I try as best I can to keep tabs with their generation by listening to a lot of podcasts of sermons and messages from large conferences and popular pastors who are the shakers and movers in their lives. The call into full-time ministry as God’s preference has now been replaced by the marching order to change the world. You are the generation that can change the world, is one example of what this inspiring call sounds like. And of course, after some years when the teen enters his twenties, or thirties and the world is no different around him, he’s left with little choice but to conclude that he’s failed God. Incidentally, you’ll find no scripture that calls the believer to change the world. The world’s a mess, and will get messier and the Bible makes it very clear that lawlessness will increase and more people will fall away from God than ever before (Read Matthew 24 if you don’t believe me). Instead, the church is called to make disciples who will remain faithful to Jesus (v.45) as the world spins wildly out of control. Remember how Jesus responded to the disciple’s indignation to the woman wasting the perfume on him by insisting the money would have rescued many poor people? Jesus responded by saying, You always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could(Mark 14:7)

Making disciples who remain faithful to Jesus is something I can work with. It’s manageable and appealing. It allows me to stay where I am, or move around in the mundane arenas of life and still live obediently to the call of Jesus. Had those youth been challenged to come back and keep loving Jesus wherever he places them in life, even if it’s in the ordinary places where the spotlight is not as bright, I can only imagine their excitement and the testimonies they’d be eager to share. After all, the ones who Jesus will say to, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,’ are those who simply used what they had for him. (Matthew 25:21). They did what they did for him, whether it was turning a wrench to lock a motor in place, or thread needles for keeping a well-worn pair of socks together, or preaching to a lost tribe in India; theirs were lives that pleased Jesus.

 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. (Colossians 3:23)

(*) It’s important I distinguish between the distinct call upon a man’s life into ministry from the special blessing that is associated with that call. As a pastor for 30 years I know I was called to this particular occupation. But I realize even more so now that this does not come with any more of a special blessing than the blessing of serving Christ given to someone working in a factory or teaching in a classroom.The role of the pastor according to Ephesians chapter 4:11-12 is uniquely to equip the believer in his works of service. And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; This puts tremendous value on the ordinary person who sits in the pew every Sunday. The pastor is uniquely called with a specific purpose of empowering those under his care to serve and love Jesus with faithfulness in whatever place God has him or her. This means the uniqueness and burden of the call for the factory worker is as special and important as it is to the pastor in the role God has given him. To be called by God to follow him and live for his glory, wherever he puts you, is the greatest privilege given to every believer.

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