The Love of God… Overcomes Obstacles

“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” — Romans 8:28 NIV

Overcoming Obstacles

Overcoming Obstacles

Life is just plain hard. Things go wrong all the time. There are many and frequent happy moments for most of us, but the truth is that there are a lot of moments mixed in there that are anything but (happy). Work is hard. Ministry is hard. Juggling schedules is hard. Keeping on top of all our various responsibilities – from grocery shopping to helping the kids with homework to fixing things around the house – is hard. Relationships are for sure hard, especially the permanent ones like family and marriage. They’re wonderful, but they take a ton of hard work to maintain and even more work to make them flourish. I’ve heard my pastor (James MacDonald) say it dozens of times: “There are no enduring relationships without forgiveness.” That’s enough evidence for the “relationships are hard” theory all by itself, right?

One of the things that frustrates me quickly is when I set out to do something that feels like it should be easy, and then it turns out to be much harder than I had wanted it to be. I plan to drive home from work in 30 minutes, but there’s an accident and now it’s going to take over an hour. I try to carry some things downstairs, and it turns out I balanced one too many, and they all start sliding off the pile and falling everywhere. I pop into the store to quickly grab just one thing I need in a hurry, and it’s out of stock … or they have it, but the checkout line is really long … even in the express lane. I’m trying to get a project done at work, and the computer crashes and somehow completely devours a key file three days before it’s due.

I don’t know about you, but being inconvenienced with this kind of stuff doesn’t mix very well with my American I-deserve-to-get-my-way heart. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. I’m a little embarrassed to write about it, but in the reality of daily life, these kinds of obstacles can absolutely set me off. And they’re not even real problems.

What about a cancer diagnosis or losing a job, sustaining a serious injury or losing a loved one, having a child get in serious trouble or the losing the big deal and now you can’t make payroll? Forget the minor inconveniences for a second… Life can throw the far-more-serious stuff at you just as easily, and with frightening regularity. And nobody’s immune or exempt. Disaster is no respecter of persons. Your status, your bank account, your network of high-powered contacts, your political affiliation, your good looks, your stuff… None of it can stand between you and the onslaught of problems that come with being human and living in a fallen, broken, sinful world.

A Broken Sinful World

A Broken Sinful World

Quick aside: We need to stop thinking of “the world is broken” by picturing a small crack in the car’s windshield. When the Bible says the world is broken by sin (Isaiah 24:5) picture an amazingly intricate crystal figurine that it probably took a master craftsman weeks or months to make. Now lift it over your head, and slam it down as hard as you can on a big rock. Then grind what’s left into the dirt with your heel. Look down. That’s what “the world is broken” looks like. That’s on us! Our sin is very serious. With it, we’ve taken what God made so beautiful and utterly trampled it to oblivion under foot. I’m so glad that God is mind-blowingly, amazingly, gloriously brimming with redemptive, resurrection power. This kind of brokenness is overwhelming for us, but by the blood of Christ, God is restoring what we have callously trashed. Another James MacDonald classic: “If that doesn’t get you fired up, then your wood’s wet!” But I digress…

Where were we? Oh yes… money, people, and stuff… None of it can stand between you and real obstacles in your life. But the really good news is… God absolutely can!

That may sound like a cat poster – Did I seriously just use my first Lego Movie reference? *shakes head* — or a bumper sticker, but it’s absolutely true. God’s not dead or distracted or distance or disinterested. God knit you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). He knew you intimately before you were even born (on second thought, read all of Psalm 139). He counts the hairs on your head (Luke 12:7), knows the number of your days (Job 14:5, and back in Psalm 139), saves your tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8), and in general knows ever aspect of your life absolutely perfectly (1 Corinthians 13:12). Doesn’t sound particularly aloof or unconcerned, does it? That’s because God loves you. You know, the kind of love that would sweep broken-to-dust crystal off the dirt floor and with great power and precision, regenerate it into something literally more beautiful than you can imagine. And it’s this amazing love that compels God to rush to your side in the midst of trial, and walk with you through whatever you face. You are never alone … unless you really want to be. And except for the one who loves darkness more than light (John 3:19), who wouldn’t want God to walk with them? Especially when you’re hurting.

But it doesn’t stop there. Two important ways we need to take this to a new level…

First, God is not simply walking through your life with you as a companion (as wonderful and amazing as that is). More than that, God *planned* your life. That thing that is so painful you can barely stand it… Or that trial from which you’re desperately asking God to deliver you… Or that circumstance you absolutely don’t understand and would never ask for…  It might be that God has no interest whatsoever in getting you out of it or in ending it quickly. Maybe that’s exactly what God carefully, lovingly planned for your life, for your good, for your growth … to make you more like Jesus. The truth is that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28 NIV).

I know that might be hard to accept, especially if you’re carrying around a view of the universe that – if you’re honest – says that really you should be calling the shots. But it’s still true. I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that the eternal, all-powerful, omniscient God who took so much care in creating you and paid such a high cost to redeem you, would be any less devoted to and involved in the way your life would unfold as His child. God isn’t shocked and shaken by your circumstances. He’s not scrambling for a way out or a backup plan. Neither your sin nor anyone else’s has the power to derail God’s plans for you. The only way out (of God’s plan) is to want out. Summon the totality of your life into telling God to go away, and He will. But otherwise, the current of God’s river is far stronger than even the best swimmer’s sin-stained brokenness. Trust Him. And not just a little or as a last resort. Trust Him … as in … I dare you (as I am actively daring myself) to put your whole weight on His promises. You will find Him more than able to hold you up.

And that brings me to the second point… God is in control. And God is able. And God loves you. What you perceive as a totally insurmountable obstacle is insignificant to the God who spoke the universe into being with a word (Psalm 33:9). Not “I don’t care” insignificant, but “What else you got?” insignificant.

So, stop trying to power up on your problems, or mastermind your way through the maze of life. You can’t earn enough money or make enough connections to avoid real problems or make them go away once they’ve arrived. Either that trial is from the Lord for your own good, or it’s a consequence for your sin or the sin of others. Either way, run to God. If it is a mountain that needs moving, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to ask the God of Angel Armies to move it for you than to throw your own shoulder into it? And if it’s not to be moved, then trust God as you slog your way over it with Him. He is taking you on a course He charted for you before the foundations of the world were laid.

Behind either scenario is a God whose love for you is literally incomprehensible to you in its greatness. If you can’t lean on that in the face of the “hard” of life, exactly which better plan did you have in mind?

Aslan Attacks

“You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.” — 2 Chronicles 20:17

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The Love of God … Never Gives Up, Never Runs Out

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” — John 6:37 ESV

God's Persistent Love

God’s Persistent Love

A few years back I worked hard to lose weight and get in shape. I even took up running, and spent more time away from my desk doing “outside things” than I ever had before. I studied nutrition, counted calories, and spent a lot of time being hungry. I joined a gym, encouraged a personal trainer to yell at me, and literally worked my butt off to get healthy.

It was tough. It took a long time and a lot of effort, but this time I finally succeeded where past attempts had failed. I lost a lot of weight, and feel a whole lot better about how I look. But even now, years later, I don’t have a metabolism that just lets me eat whatever I want, and the hours and stress and travel associated with work cause my default trajectory to drift more toward Chico grande than Chico delgado. It takes constant effort to maintain the results I achieved years ago, and even with all that work, I’m not as svelte as I once was.

Two Important Food Groups

Two Important Food Groups

Persistence, by definition, is hard. At least for us humans, that is. My general weakness… My natural proclivity to compromise and cave in to even the smallest bit of pressure or temptation (because, let’s face it, I love ice cream and french fries)… My sinful bent to rebel against what I know is best for me and others… And for sure my tendency to overestimate my strength and capability as I frequently bite off more than I can chew…

All these things and more make it extremely difficult to do anything well in the long-term. Sometimes the short-term victory is the best I get. Whether saying no to a cheeseburger or pushing for one more mile on the run or forcing myself to go to bed on time so that I can meet with God early the next morning (how amazing would it be to routinely say the things David says in Psalm 5:3 or 119:147-148?!) … these are all hard to achieve even a few times. But day after day, year after year, they rise to the level of impossible. I’m just not strong enough for awesome like that.

Human Persistence

Human Persistence

But the Lord does not suffer from my weaknesses or inadequacy. God’s strength doesn’t wear down or run out or lose focus like mine does. More than simply not failing to accomplish what He sets out to do, God achieves with ease what man calls impossible. Where in my life, “persistence” is characterized by a blood-sweat-and-tears-two-steps-forward-one-step-back-rolling-boulders-up-a-hill kind of slogging through life, God’s “persistence” is calm and constant. Infinite and unwavering. He never breaks a sweat. Never runs away. Never throws in the towel. Never even compromises. He doesn’t have challenges that He’s working hard to overcome. He’s simply unchanging and unwavering and unstoppable. He rules the universe with His feet up.

Not only does God not run out of strength, neither does He run out of the will to work. When I give up a mile before the designated end of the run or cave in and order fries, it’s not necessarily out of physical exhaustion (like losing my grip hanging from the branch because my hands get tired), it’s failure of commitment (I just don’t want to run anymore or live another day without my taters). But that’s just another form of giving out. Certainly God’s will is no less sufficient than the strength of His hand or the reach of His arm.

And that is God’s love toward His children. Relentless. Consistent. Never faltering or failing. Never giving up. Never bailing on us for an easier play. For those God has chosen, He sets His love on us … permanently (Deuteronomy 7:7-8), and will not fail to accomplish His purposes in that person’s life. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) That doesn’t mean we necessarily get what we want. It doesn’t mean we somehow become perfect by our 30th or 40th or 107th birthday. Remember, the “you” God sees is the eternal you … your soul … the “you” who will either dwell in the house of the Lord or live in a foreign land with your head in a pig trough weeping and gnashing your teeth … forever. God’s knowledge of us is perfect and exhaustive, and even then, His love for us cannot be shaken.

So don’t ever fear that God will give up on you. He doesn’t quit. Anyone who comes to Him, He will by no means turn away. (John 6:37) But here too, remember that “coming to the Lord” isn’t about words. Talk is cheap, and God will see through them to your heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  He cannot be mocked (Galatians 6:7). You might fool everyone else, but you will not fool the one who peers effortlessly into your soul.

God's Persistence

God’s Persistence

But that’s a good thing! To be fully known, and yet loved… Nothing could be greater. The persistent love of God literally draws life out of death, something out of nothing, beauty from ashes. May that be your testimony and mine! Draw near to God, and He will absolutely and completely draw near to you … forever. (James 4:8-10, emphasis mine)

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The Love of God… Never Fails

“Love never fails.” — 1 Corinthians 13:8a NIV

City Retaken by Nature

Depiction of a city retaken by nature from the series “Revolution” on NBC

Everything in this world wears out. It’s a simple law of physics — specifically Newton’s 2nd law of thermodynamics. Summed up simply, it says that everything wears out all by itself. You don’t have to work hard to get things to fall apart; they do all by themselves. In fact, everything in the universe takes constant investment of energy to keep it from crumbling into disrepair and giving out.

If you light a candle or a light bulb, it eventually burns out. If you clean your bathroom, it gets dirty again (seemingly instantaneously), and you have to clean it again. Doing laundry and washing dishes are never ending tasks — as is the maintenance required on the machines that help us do it. Build a building in the middle of a field, but don’t do anything to keep it up. It will end up a pile of rocks, rabbits nests and weeds. Turn a jungle or a swamp into productive farm land, but don’t maintain it, and eventually it’ll be a jungle or a swamp again. Even the movie Galaxy Quest gets old if you watch it too many times (it hurt to write that).

Even with investment, your stuff will eventually break. No matter how hard you work at it or how many insurance policies you buy, eventually moth and rust destroy or thieves break in and steal. Toys break. Clothes wear out. Computers … well … don’t even get me started. Vast wealth can be created and lost in a day (typically takes a lot longer to lose it than to make it though). Every great city on earth is one war or natural disaster away from being a smoldering heap of rubble. And those which don’t fall to disaster, eventually succumb to the relentless wearing of time and age. Anyone over 25 knows that’s true of your body as well.

Sad, disappointed panda

Sad, disappointed panda

And people are worse than material things when it comes to giving out. If you don’t invest in your relationships, they grow cold and distant. Notwithstanding investment, still your colleagues, friends, even your family, will disappoint you, fail you, hurt you, even betray you. Even the people who love you the most will let you down. Sometimes it’s only in death, but eventually everything fails. Everything runs out.

But God is holy. Set apart. (Isaiah 40:25-26) Entirely different from all the stuff and all the people in this world. God is the only one who never fails, who never lets you down. God loves you and made promises to you. You can put your full weight on His love and His promises, because He is able to show you love without failure or flaw, and He is able to make good on any promise.

There are no weak planks in the bridge of God’s promises, no running out or resources, no getting distracted, no over-committing and then failing to come through, no failed good intentions, no disappointments. We rightfully fear these things with people because the evidence supports it, but if you think God has let you down, then it’s because you don’t understand what’s going on well enough to make that call. God’s arm is never too short to accomplish what He has set out to do. But remember that God hasn’t set out to make you happy or to cater to your whims. God is not a vending machine. He’s not here for you; you’re here for Him.

God has set out to choose a bride for Himself, to redeem her from the clutches of spiritual death, and to present her to Himself spotless and without stain or blemish. “Her” is the church. That’s us. Whosoever wants to be God’s child can be. Anyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved … from death, from hell, from being alone, from fear, from despair, from hopelessness, from slavery to sin, from all the horrible things that your stuff and your friends — though they may claim to have the power to do so — are powerless to overcome or resolve in your life.

My cup runs over

My cup runs over

But where they can’t, God’s love can. It is totally sufficient to save you from yourself and the meaninglessness of a life lived thumbing our puny noses at God. (2 Corinthians 12:9a) God is willing to adopt you into His family. (Romans 8:15-16) God is faithful to keep His Word to us — every promise, no matter how great or small. (Deuteronomy 7:9) He is ultimately powerful (Colossians 1:16-17) and perfectly loving (1 John 4:7-21), and more than able to be everything we need and more. (Ephesians 3:20-21) Pressed down. Shaken together. Running over. (See Luke 6:38 re-contextualized) God’s love is always enough to satisfy. (Psalm 90:14) It never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:8a)

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Let revival come… Once I have made known your name…

A Biblical metaphor for revival?

A Biblical metaphor for revival

We sang our hearts out in prayer for revival this Sunday, and I haven’t been able to put “Come to the Water” down since then. It’s Tuesday, and I’ve probably listened to it 10 times since Sunday. Absolutely love this song. You should have seen the way we all bellowed out the bridge with our hands raised all over the auditorium in church, “Let revival come. Let the people sing the glory of Your Name!” Over and over. And as I sit on the Metra with those words blasting in my earbuds, I’m no less moved.

But this morning I opened my iPhone Bible, and YouVersion‘s featured verse was from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 17. Jesus said, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:26 ESV)

On second thought, I want that to be my new song. The truth is that I have not made known to them God’s Name. When “they” remember me, it won’t be because “that guy really knew Jesus”. That has to change. If I were really honest, I’d have to admit that I’m sitting on a couple decades as a Christian living a life that’s far more full of my getting my way than of Jesus getting His. As I meditate on Jesus’ words, I realize that there’s a clear connection to our worship on Sunday … and an important lesson for all of us.

I believe God would teach His church that revival doesn’t just come. Great to sing. Great to worship the Lord. Great to honestly pray for revival. But terribly un-great to develop an apathy (or worse, a patently false sense of self-righteousness or self-accomplishment) around our role in the work of the Spirit in this world.

Revival doesn’t come because God surprised us all while we huddled in our basement with our small group being decisively and expertly Christian (whatever that would mean). And if we think it does (or just fail to think about it much at all), we can get lazy, distracted, apathetic, self-involved, and decidedly unlike Jesus. Unintentional and unarticulated, but no less wrong and dangerous.

Sometimes God sends unexpected rain...

Sometimes God sends unexpected rain…

Yes, sometimes God sends revival (or other blessings) like a downpour out of nowhere after a prolonged season of dryness. But if that happens at all, it’s typically personal, not corporate, and certainly not for us to expect of Him. He of course might do something in my town or your college or your workplace or Aunt Betty’s beauty salon that is totally unpredictable and totally uncorrelated to to anything we think, say or do. That’s true. And it happens. Sometimes God just does, and we’re shocked when it hits us like a wave out of nowhere. But we don’t rely on that. We don’t wait around for that to happen. We don’t pray without action. There is a real sense in which revival is God’s responsibility, but just as real a sense in which it’s OUR responsibility too. And to believe otherwise is to introduce the risk of extremely bad habits. It’s more likely that God will do something amazing in one of those places because YOU were His witness (see Matthew 28:16-20), and He used you to bring to a watching world whatever He’s decided to bring. God almost always uses people.

And not “other random people”… He uses his Church. He uses you and me. It’s not someone else’s job to make known His Name.

It’s far too easy for “Let revival come…” to effectively (again, unintentionally) translate to “Yea, go ahead take care of that God, while I’m busy over here doing stuff I find more interesting or important or urgent.” And to be blunt, the older I get, the more frequently I’m waking up in a cold sweat from the nightmare that someday soon I’ll stand before God and have to answer for that exact flavor of negligent, sinful self-worship. And I fear that we … that I … might be living a life that unwittingly communicates the answer, “We sang our prayer for you to send revival, and even had our hands up and everything. So, we’re good, right?! Well, no, we didn’t actually DO anything. But we sang well.” That would be … unfortunate. Because remember, we will answer God’s questions at the gate to heaven with our choices (already made) and our hearts (which cannot hide), not with our words.

And I think that’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus modeled for us in John 17.

Instead of viewing revival (or more broadly, the movement of God’s Spirit in this world) as a great rain that comes from above without our participation, I think Scripture would have us think more of how a great oak tree grows…

  1. God calls and equips us to plant, so we plant.
  2. God calls and equips us to water, so we water.
  3. And (only) God makes the tree grow.

Sometimes, God sends the rains of revival … let’s say as “step 2B”. And we’re shocked at how fast the tree grows this year when it hasn’t grown much for the last several. But we did a lot of planting and watering and fertilizing and investing and praying and discipling in the process. I don’t know why the growth happened in year 5 instead of year 1, or in the 4th generation of your local church’s history instead of the 1st, or in Aunt Betty’s life instead of Uncle Herbert’s. Only God knows. But what I do know is that God would have each of us be a gardener. He wants each of us to sow. It’s not something just to sing about.

So, let revival come. Let the people sing the glory of your name. And let it begin with me, because God stirred in me, and I made known to them Your Name (plant). And I sacrificed things I could have had for myself to create time, money, energy, whatever was necessary to lean into other peoples’ lives and continue to make it known (water). And THEN… God came in power upon them in a mighty rushing wind (grow).

And suddenly, where there was once a desolate tundra and a whole lot of investment yielding seemingly-limited return, there is now a mighty forest of great oaks.

What God does with tiny seeds of faith

What God does with tiny seeds of faith

That’s revival. Only God can do that, but God only uses us to do it. Whether you understand or believe or relate to it or not, you’re not on the sidelines of this game, you’re right in the middle of it. We need to position ourselves to be used by God, which (topic for another day) will cost us everything else but be worth it more than we can possibly know.

Yeah, I seriously need a new song.

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A Stone of Remembrance in Zurich

A Stone of Remembrance

A Stone of Remembrance

I’m writing this over the Atlantic, heading back to Chicago after 2 weeks in Europe away from my family.  I can … not … wait to get back.

I woke up this morning in Zurich, Switzerland. I have been in Eastern Europe on business, having one adventure after another visiting new and very foreign places.  When booking the flights for my work-related multi-city tour, I wasn’t surprised to find that prices for plane tickets were very high. What was surprising is that if I broke up my trip at the end by staying overnight at a United hub somewhere in Western Europe, I could save over $2,000 on the plane tickets for my company. That’s exciting. I was SO there.

I did a little research, and selected Zurich. I’ve been to England, Scotland, and Germany, so they were out. Faith would kill me if I went to Italy, France or Spain without her. So, of the remaining choices, the best choice for schedule and my interests in general was Zurich. Here’s a panoramic I shot last night…

Zurich

So, yesterday was my first visit to the land of watches and cheese. And it was pretty cool, I have to say. If you’re rich, Zurich is for sure the place. Modern, clean, great food … “fancy” and “high tech” everywhere. I stayed at a really nice hotel (the Renaissance Tower), enjoyed a marvelous dinner (Swiss-style lamb with vegetables at the Blockhaus Restaurant and Bar to south by the river just off Bahnhofstraße, the “richest street in the world”), and strolled through the winding streets of the city center, snapping selfies and enjoying the atmosphere – including the nice weather. It was a great evening … except that I was alone. Being somewhere interesting and seeing the sights there is always better with company. I wish my family could have been with me.

I returned to the hotel at 9pm or so, stocked up on Diet Coke from the executive lounge (still working the long tail of my past life as a Marriott junkie), got some work done, and eventually hit the sack. And this is where it gets interesting…

I didn’t oversleep. I woke up, showered, shaved, dressed, and packed … all with the premeditated intention of hopping the tram back to the city center, having coffee (didn’t make it to Starbucks the night before), getting one of those awesome German pretzels (was too full after dinner to do that last night too), take a few pictures of the beautiful city in the daylight (it was a very clear beautiful morning), and then take the  S-Bahn to the airport. It’s only a 15 min train ride – just 3 stops on S16. I didn’t know how often the trains run, but figured I could assess that on my way through HB (Haubtbanhof, or “main station”) from the tram to Starbucks. It’s the train to the airport, so it had to be frequent, right!?

I knew my flight was set to leave at 11:45am, so I figured I was good. But standing in my hotel room at 9:35am, I suddenly realized that somehow I had much more time in my head than I actually had out here in the world where only a minute fits into a minute. Ugh! Two hours? To get to the Zurich International Airport? For an international flight? Holy cow! What was I thinking?!

Suddenly, my vision of a leisurely stroll back through the city one last time gave way to the panicked realization that even if I left that second to head to the airport, I could be in trouble.

In a few minutes I was standing at the front desk. They were very helpful, and assured me I had plenty of time. They checked me out efficiently, and as I turned around to walk out the door and head to the nearby S-Bahn station (I had walked from the station to the hotel the day before, and was planning to reverse the trip now), the guy behind the counter mentioned … as if it didn’t matter… the trains run every 30 minutes, and the next one leaves in 3 min.

Seriously!? Instant panic!

I’m walking there. There’s NO way I’m catching this train. So, I ran. Heavy bags. Heavy Jeff. Desk job. Out of shape. A little altitude there in Zurich. None of that was helping! Again, there was no way. Next train at 10:19am … 10 min to the airport … so now I’m arriving at the airport 1 hr 15 min before my international flight leaves! I would rarely have gotten to O’Hare for a two-hour regional flight with that little time, let alone an transcontinental flight out of an airport I don’t know. Oh man!

And here’s the reason I’m writing all this… The moment of decision…

Panic? Fear? Worry? Or trust the Lord?

In these moments in life, when it’s all breaking bad – admittedly this is not the most extreme or severe example I’ve experienced, let alone can imagine or describe – what do we do? On both the inside and the outside, what will our reaction be?

Self-important rudeness that leads us to push others out of our hurried ways?  Impolite words to match? The arrogant assumption that we are more important than those around us, and where we have to be is more important than where they have to be?

Are matters now in my hands? Do I now fix what’s broken? Do I rise in power to overcome my circumstances?

Do I worry? Am I afraid? Do I bargain with God? With others?

And what if we work hard to calm our hearts, and trust the Lord? What if we let go of self even a little, and fight to choose joy regardless of our circumstances? Even in that victory, what if God doesn’t come through with what we want?

What if I work hard to trust him and to be okay even if I miss my flight, secretly expecting that God will “be faithful” to keep me from experiencing “calamity”?

I’m sure we’d agree that God doesn’t “owe” us, but I think we do general expect Him to give us what we want. Am I right? Don’t leave me up here?

So, back to this morning Zurich…

It was in Manila, years ago, that God taught me how to “remain calm, trust the Lord, and work hard”. I’ve remembered that day so often. Here was another chance.

I determined in my heart not to worry. I prayed. “God, I want to catch my flight and get home to my family. Please help me. But no matter what happens, I love you and I trust you, and I will not resent you or be afraid. I chose joy and worship. Take away fear and worry.” And this is what happened…

I stopped running. I was tired and aching. And I was sure I had already missed the train. Just in case if was a few minutes late, I walked as fast as I could. I got to the station at 10am sharp. The 9:49 was long gone. 19 minutes to wait for the next one. Two minutes in, I realized I’d have to do something to distract myself from the temptation to worry. So, I read. I’m in Acts in my reading plan, so that worked great. Absorbed several chapters, actually, which was nice. I also prepared myself to go through security as quickly as possible – everything out of my pockets, belt in my bag, etc.

The train got there on time and left on time, and at 10:28am I was walking quickly into the airport. I had determined in my heart not to push anyone around verbally or physically, but would be extremely bold to ask to cut in line as often as I had to. And I knew there would be a lot of lines – I would look back after and count 6…

Line 1: Check-in

I couldn’t check-in online the night before, due to the new US regulations on passport checks. That was okay then, when I thought I’d have a ton of time, but now I was tempted to worry. I walked briskly through the airport, careful not to cut people off, praying, saying over and over to myself “You will trust God. You will not worry. God, please help me catch my flight. I will worship you no matter what happens.”

I rounded the corner to see HUGE lines at the check-in. Here we go. I chose peaceful trust. Then I realized that those were for Swiss Air. I asked an official-looking woman, “Where’s the United check-in?”

“Around the corner, at the end.”

I rounded that corner, and … nobody. Literally one single person in line at the United counter. Yay! And by the time I got to the counter through the winding dividers, even she was wrapping up. I waited literally 15 seconds, and then the friendliest large black woman in the whole world was helping me. She smiled and joked, and I made a conscious effort to smile and joke back, thanking God in my heart.

A miracle I hadn’t yet appreciated became apparent in the conversation. The day before, I had been concerned when my checked luggage from Odessa hadn’t spit out in the baggage claim at Zurich. I’d hopped through Istanbul, so I was concerned it got lost along the way … until a friendly official told me that the proverbial “they” had gone ahead and checked my luggage all the way through to Chicago. Nice!

But now that meant that I already had my bag checked, so it saved time. I thought I was going to just carry on my other (a duffle bag), along with my backpack (computer bag). But my angelic United representative said, “Let me just check that for you too. The flight’s crowded, it will save you time, and I won’t charge you.” Should have been $100, but not today. I stood and stared … it was like extra icing on the free cake I never thought I’d get in the first place! I think God loves to show off.

I made it a point to shake her hand and tell her she was the answer to my prayers. And, in a matter of a couple minutes, I was checked in, boarding passes in hand, walking with only a backpack to security.

Line 2: Boarding Pass / Passport Check

I rounded another corner to see almost nobody in the passport check line. Three officials, each checking 1 person. No problem. Sailed through there in a flat second.

Line 3: Security

I had to go down an escalator to get to the security area. SO many people had been in check-in lines but so few in the passport check line, so I didn’t know what to expect. As I descended quickly down the moving stairway, and the cues came into vision, my heart leapt to see no more than a dozen people in line at 4-5 stations. I got in a line with only 3 people between me and the metal detector, and nearly cried. I had the thought, “You have to take a picture. It’s important to build memorials to what God does.”

I literally stepped out of line, walked to the side, and snapped this picture…

NoLineAtSecurity

and then looked over. I’d estimate a solid 50 people were on their way into the cues behind me. Amazing! What timing. What a gift from God.

As I mentioned, I was already ready to go through security. I took off my shoes for good measure, and sailed through. Only a matter of minutes.

Line 4: Customs

The last hurdle (or so I thought) was customs. Again, I was amazed as I approached that there was literally 1 person in line in front of me. Again. And that person was almost done. Again.

Waited 15 seconds, he looked at my passport for another 15 seconds, asked me 1 question, stamped my passport, and I was on my way.

Line 5: Waiting for the Tram

Next, I had to take a tram to get to Terminal E. I came down the escalator after the passport check, and saw the timer: Next train in 1:10. Only a minute to wait! I took another picture. God is amazing. At this point, I’m in permanent “blown away” mode.

Got on the train, zipped to the terminal, disembarked, climbed the escalator two-at-a-time, and…

The First Gate

Gate E52 was the first gate at the top of the steps. I literally had to walk 20 feet from the top of the escalator to be in line to board. So cool!

The second I got there, they called my boarding group (#2), and the long line started moving toward the plane. Of course, I was out of the woods by this point, so I was just reveling in God’s amazing grace to just keep showering me with unnecessary and worship-inducing gifts. I had made the commitment to worship Him no matter what happened, but He was repeatedly choosing to shower me with extra gifts … just because a Father loves to give good gifts to His children. I was in awe.

Line 6: New Add’l Passport Security Check

In the middle of these thoughts, I remembered that another US policy is to have the passport checked an extra time at the gate, so that you need a special sticker on your boarding pass to get in the real “boarding the plane” line.

So, I got out of my moving line, and approached the counter from the side to ask if I had to get in that other long line first. The official there said, “Nope. You already have the sticker on your passport right there.”

My friend at the check-in counter again. Eliminated an entire line for me. Why do we ever worry about anything? Thoughts of sparrows and lilies flooded my mind.

So, back in the real line, I approached the door to the jetbridge, and realized that I hadn’t eaten yet. But I looked over, and – wouldn’t you know it? – a café was right next to the gate, literally 10 feet away. Wow, God, that’s cool. My seat was secure, there was plenty of time, all I had to stow was a backpack, and I’m hungry. I’m getting breakfast!

I approached, and there was only 1 person in line, again wrapping up, and I again waited no time at all. I ordered a ham and cheese baguette (disturbingly the healthiest thing they had), a banana, and a bottle of water. Got breakfast and even some Swiss currency to show my son out of the deal.

By now, they were boarding area 3, so I walked right in front of everyone with my now-all-powerful area 2 boarding pass, and got on the plane.

I sat down and looked at my watch: 11:18am. Fifty minutes even from the moment I stepped into the airport. About 90 minutes since I’d realized I was going to be late in my room in a hotel miles away. It was awesome! God was truly good to me.

So, what does this mean?

I feel so blessed that God reacted to my situation this way. He didn’t have to. There was no obligation. My problems were even caused by my own bad planning, not that my having acted more wisely would have in any way increased His obligation to me. God owes me (and owed me in this situation) nothing at all.

But a Father loves to give good gifts to His children.

Did He reward my faithfulness to discipline and lead my heart – not to fear, but to trust? Who knows? Did my choices obligate him to reward me? Absolutely not.

What if I had panicked and acted sinfully at every turn on the way to the airport? Would I have missed my flight? Would He also have made straight paths before me anyway? Maybe? Who knows. Good things happen to the undeserving all the time!

And to be clear, my good choices – in this instance; there have been plenty of examples of terrible choices I could share – did not make me “deserving”. There is none good, not even one. Certainly not me!

The point is…

  • God is not a genie. We have no lamp that we rub to activate him.
  • He’s not a vending machine, dispensing coveted candy bars for $0.75.
  • He’s not summoned by incantation or obligated by our behavior.

God is the Great King over all the earth. Sovereign. In control of everything. He does what He pleases. Life and death and all other things are in His hands.

And what He does is right and good and perfect and loving, simply because He does them. He defines these standards and more by His actions.

So, if everything had gone wrong and God had “given me (seemingly) nothing”, it would not have meant He loves me less. And because I was given the cosmic red carpet treatment today at every conceivable turn (and a few I couldn’t have conceived), it doesn’t mean He loves me more.

God is. It should invoke worship that He identified Himself to Moses, “I am that I am.” That’s … utterly … amazing. Drink that in. God is …… Everything. All that is beyond all that is. The measuring rod that defines everything. The great scale that weighs all mens’ hearts. Perfect in majesty. Glorious and without equal. Not even a distant second. Ruling the universe with His feet on the desk. So, it’s right that He does whatever He wants to do … without explanation or obligation to us, His children. Just as you do not explain every decision to your kids, neither does He.

So, run to Him.
If it all goes right in your eyes, worship Him.
If it all goes wrong in your eyes, worship Him.
Give Him the glory due His name … not due your circumstances or your understanding. They are both extremely limited. He is not!

May this story be a stone of remembrance to the God whose arm is easily long enough to support me, no matter my need. No matter what He chooses for me tomorrow, I will choose to trust Him deeply and worship is matchless name.

And thank you again, Lord, that I’m on my way home.

Posted in Philosophy and Religion, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Come and Worship… Do not be afraid!

Love > Fear

Perfect Love casts out fear

Yesterday I spent the bulk of the day with members of my small group helping one of our members clean out his mother’s home. She was kindof a hoarder, had given up housekeeping, and her son and his wife had to get her place ready for sale. On the way back with our small group leaders, we were talking about how hard it is to sacrifice for others, to be loving instead of selfish, not to judge people, and a number of other ways in which we fall short of God’s standard of perfection.

God is indeed perfect. God’s law also is perfect. I’m really … well … not perfect. To the discerning heart, it’s very obvious that every day is a struggle with sin and fear and pride. Yet God has called us to be perfect. (Matthew 5:48) Nobody can live up to the standard Jesus set, and God has made it clear that He will judge us by our deeds in this life.

This is not good news. As I said, there’s just no way for anyone (myself included) to live up to that expectation.

But my point in the car yesterday, which I thought I’d share here, is that we’re too hard on ourselves. Perhaps that sounds like a contradiction, but let me try to explain…

Everything I just said is true. God is perfect, and calls us to be perfect. And there’s absolutely no way to stand under the weight of that demand. Only Jesus did. Where I fail every day to measure up to God’s law, Jesus is a Great High Priest “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15b) This is the really great news… that while I was yet a sinner (stubborn, selfish, rebellious … an intentional lawbreaker), Jesus died for me. (Romans 5:8) He lived a perfect, sinless life, but died a criminal’s death on a cross and was separated from God for me. He bore the weight of your sin and mine (and anyone who would receive him), so that when I’m judged by God the Father, He sees Jesus’ righteousness, His perfection … not whatever pitiful excuse for righteousness I might be tempted to attempt to cobble together on my own. So, I’m given life instead of death, because Jesus chose to die in my place. He took the nails for me. Paul (perhaps the most influential founder of the early church) put it this way, in Colossians… “you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14)

John, a close friend and apostle of Jesus, wrote, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

If this isn’t you, if you don’t have a relationship with God because of Christ’s death for you, or if the truth is that you’re not even sure you know what I’m talking about here, then you need Jesus. Period. If you have everything else, but miss that, then in truth you have nothing. And if you gave up everything just to walk with Jesus in the garden in the cool of the day and really know Him, then no matter what you left behind God will restore a hundred-fold (Mark 10:28-30). But if that’s you, then you were not the person I primarily had in mind in writing this blog; rather, I’m writing to those who love and follow Christ … about how to walk in the reality of a relationship with a Father who deeply loves you.

And perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). So, back to being to hard on ourselves…

I think it’s easy to think of God as waiting in heaven for me to make a mistake so He can smite me. Finger on the trigger … anger bubbling just below the surface … just waiting to pounce when He catches us breaking one of His many and utterly overwhelming rules. But that’s not how God really is! That is simply NOT God’s heart toward us. And most of us would agree with that in conversation, but how many of us live like it is?! Maybe it’s how we were raised? Something common in my generation? Maybe it’s our culture, and a by-product of our American self-reliant, get’er’done attitude? Not sure. But it’s there. I encounter it in conversation all the time. Sometimes veiled, sometimes not, but real.

But God loves us. He is our Father. I think we (this includes me) do a lot of damage to our relationship with God and our witness before others because of the way we perceive God – who He is to us. Maybe I’ll do a series on the various ways I have heard people – believers – describe God. They would never use these words, of course, but it’s not about words, it’s about the heart. What we believe is inside, and flows to the outside. It doesn’t originate in our words, it is manifested by them. We need a better walking-around theology about who God really is. 

It’s nearly Christmas, and I’ve been listening to “My Soul Magnifies the Lord” by Chris Tomlin a lot lately. And so I’ve been thinking alot about approaching God, about how He views us, about how we should view Him, and about what grace and worship should really be for the one who loves the Lord and is covered by the blood of Christ. Check out these words…

Good news of great joy for every woman, every man.
This will be a sign to you: a baby born in Bethlehem.

Come and worship. Do not be afraid.

A company of angels, “Glory in the highest!
And on the earth peace among those of whom His favor rests.”

Come and worship. Do not be afraid.

Unto you a child is born. Unto us a Son is given.
Let every heart prepare His throne, and every nation under Heaven.

Come and worship. Do not be afraid.

My soul, my soul magnifies the Lord. My soul magnifies the Lord.
He has done great things for me, great things for me.

Of His government there will be no end
He’ll establish it with His righteousness
And He shall reign on David’s throne
And His name shall be from this day on
Wonderful, Counselor, Everlasting Father

My soul, my soul magnifies the Lord
He has done great things for us

My soul, my soul magnifies the Lord
My soul magnifies the Lord
He has done great things for me
Great things for me

He has done great things!

I’ll attempt the series, but the long and the short of it is that God has made a way for you. You are called to be His child – to approach the throne of grace with confidence, not with fear (Hebrews 4:16). Sons and daughters should not be afraid of their fathers. Even earthly fathers know how to give good things to their kids. How much more does our perfect Father in heaven?! (Matthew 7:9-11)

And lastly, a final note about fearing God…

I’m sure some are reading this and saying to themselves (rightly so) that the Bible is clear that we should “fear God”. This is true, and many in our day try to view God as too familiar, too “squishy”, somehow easy on sin. But that is not true. God hates sin so much that he was willing to sacrifice His Son to deal with it. And I cannot even imagine the wrath God will pour out on the one who tramples underfoot the blood of Christ with the “that was nothing, I’ll take care of it” attitude that is I think common in our culture today. Luke spoke the truth when he wrote that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God (Hebrews 10:28-31).

But it’s important to keep these concepts separate. The blood of Christ changes them. The cross is the pivot point of all of history. Without it, we fear God … because alone before Him, we are ruined … destined for the lake of fire as the wages rightly due our wicked and rebellious hearts. But Christ died for us … even for me. And covered by His blood, I am not afraid. I am, only and entirely because of Jesus, what I was meant to be: justified before God. Bought and paid for. Pure. Spotless. Simultaneously a son and a bride. Beloved. Going home.

So, come and worship. Do not be afraid!

Come and worship; do not be afraid!

Come and worship; do not be afraid!

Posted in Music, Philosophy and Religion, Real Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rise and Walk

Silver and Gold

“Silver and gold, I have not…”

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (Acts 3:1-10 ESV)

We in the United States are the wealthiest country in the world. I guess. I’ve heard that all my life, and I admit I sometimes wonder what that means exactly. Our currency sets the global standard. Our GDP is the highest in the world (now rivaled by the EU). We have greater gold reserves than everyone else, and serious oil reserves. English is still somewhat a universal language of trade. Etc.

But so what?

I’m not against money in any way. I do understand that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. (See 1 Timothy 6:10) Money isn’t. Loving it is. I also understand that many things that tout their own greatness are not worth what they cost. Many of the things we can buy in life are like that toy you get so worked up over having, and are so excited about when you find it under the Christmas tree, but when you finally get it open and play with it for a months or weeks or even hours, it leaves you cold.

Things do that. Period. They cannot satisfy. Those who see and feel that reality might feel like it’s a curse, but that’s actually a blessing. If you feel like your stuff is doing it for you, that’s when you’re really in trouble.

So, back to the story… Peter and John were personal friends of Jesus. Followers. Disciples. Apostles. Jesus had gone into heaven, sent the Holy Spirit to anoint and activate them, and now they walked about in the power and Name of the Living God, Jesus Christ, whom they saw crucified, dead, buried, and then risen again in power. These were changed men.

LiliesThey had nothing. No jobs. No status. No real earthly treasure. I’m sure they owned little more than they carried around on their backs that day. They were probably even dirty. Certainly somewhat unkempt.

Walking into town that day, they met a man who was born lame. In our day, someone who can’t walk can still have a very fulfilling life, hold down a good job, own a home, and roll his wheelchair up ramps mandated by the government to make everything from grocery stores to office buildings accessible to him. Having legs that don’t work or no legs at all doesn’t necessarily translate into going hungry in our day. In Jesus’ day, it did.

So, Peter and John meet this man. He has nothing, and asks them for financial help. No doubt he would have bought a bit of bread or some other basic sustenance if they’d offered him a few coins. But the truth is, Peter and John likely had little more than he did, from a monetary point of view.

And this is where the story gets good.

Peter and John get the man’s attention. I’m sure he thought he was going to get some cash out of the deal, so he becomes very focused. Can you feel his dependence? His hanging on their every word?

But they surprise him: “I have no silver and gold…”

Can you feel his disappointment and deflation? His utter helplessness?

Then the real surprise: “But what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”

Now, can you imagine his amazement and utter joy?

None of these men had money, but Peter and John had something far greater: power. Jesus had promised it just a few chapters earlier (See Acts 1:8), and kept His word.

Sparrows“Rise and walk,” they said.

And he did!

Wow.

Do you think the man cared in that moment that they had no money? That he had no money? I doubt it. Something far more valuable was being freely given by the God who provides for our needs, if we’ll let Him.

Did the lame guy earn this gift from God? Not at all. In our day, we study and work and research and toil and educate and purchase insurance and build hospitals and pay deductibles. And we make the lame walk … sometimes. At least, the lame who can afford it. And there is a very real sense in which that too is a miracle. God uses doctors every day to heal the sick. But I wonder sometimes if there isn’t a bit of self-worship and idolatry in it. Like money, the power to heal isn’t bad at all, until it becomes the means by which we trust ourselves more than we trust God.

Now, tougher question… Did the crippled man only experience the miracle and the amazement because he first experienced the helplessness and dependence?

And that’s where I want to dwell for a second…

Thomas AquinasIt is said that, in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas once visited Pope Innocent II while he was counting a large sum of money. The Pope proudly remarked to Aquinas, “You see, Thomas, the church can no longer say, ‘silver and gold have I none.'” And Aquinas replied, “True, holy father, but neither can she now say, ‘Rise and walk.'”

In our age of wealth and science and (perceived) knowledge and power and self-reliance, are we in God’s way? Are we deaf to His voice?

If Peter and John had been sporting expensive suits and fat wallets, on their way to the office that morning, then it would have been a great … good … helpful … what’s the right word? … nice … gesture to drop a couple alms in the lame man’s cup, right? Or maybe a coupon book for a local fast food place? Or a hot cup of coffee? That’s all great. And helpful. But in that version of the story, it’s also highly unlikely that they would (or is it more to the point: could they?) have offered the man a miracle. Can someone with a high-paying job and enough cash in their pocket to afford a great healthcare plan have the faith to allow God to miraculously heal them or use them to heal their neighbor? Can God work miracles in us when we’re that self-sufficient? I’m not sure.

What if we didn’t have the fat wallet, or the high-paying job, or the expensive suit? What if that all went away? What if the healthcare system goes to the dogs under a new government-run approach, or interest rates spike, or China has us for economic lunch, or the dollar collapses, or the next terrorist attack is worse than the last one, or whatever? What if all the stuff we thought was making us secure was suddenly gone?

Maybe then, God would do more miracles because I’d have more faith, borne out in desperate and dependent face-down prayer?

Maybe we’d read Luke 17:6 or Matthew 6:28-33, and actually believe them … taking Jesus at His word when He says our faith has real life-changing power and that if God takes care of sparrows and lilies, He will take care of us.

Maybe the church would act more like the church… sharing what we have, being a real part of each others’ lives, taking the time to care for one another, caring for the poor and needy, and loving our neighbors. You know, acting like Jesus.

And maybe more people would rise and walk.

Posted in Bible Stories, Economics, Philosophy and Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment