That Church ain’t Dead

empty_pew_68916012_800512b224_oThis morning over my third cup of coffee, I was thinking about some churches I know that are experiencing diminishing congregations, a mass exodus of Gen X and Gen Y attendees, and a lost focus outside their own church box.  The phrase that popped in my mind was “Ichabod,” the Glory of the Lord has departed.

But then immediately in my gut, I felt that was wrong.  Completely wrong.  As long as people are there, the Spirit of God will be there.  That’s a given.  God loves human beings, it’s just not in his nature to abandon us, so wherever we are, especially if our hearts are inclined toward him in anyway, the Spirit of God will be there.

I remembered a few years ago when I was driving home from work, the car radio tuned to a Christian talk show where listeners called in and asked questions about the bible.  At one point, they were debating “the End Times” and when and how the Holy Spirit will be removed from the planet, and then Evil would be given free rein.  And as I listened, I knew instinctively that they were wrong.  They assumed some event would occur in history that would cause God to depart from this planet and turn his back on humanity.  Of course before that occurred, all the saints would have been gathered up in a great rapture and pulled into his heavenly bosom.  The poor wretches left on earth would suffer through some arbitrary number of years of incredible and unimaginable misery before God would return and reimpose his reign physically on the cosmos.

And in my gut I knew that was dead wrong.  We can be so glib sometimes when we say that “God is love” and then go on to attribute horrific and spiteful acts to him.  What I sensed at that moment was that as long as human beings existed on this planet, the Spirit of God would be there living among them.  Tribulation or no tribulation, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Even in the darkest moments of our history, God was — and will continue to be — close to those who reach out for him.  To deny that is to deny the very character of God.

So when I was thinking about these poor churches, having lost their vision, lost their way, floundering in a sea of mediocrity and irrelevance, making no impact whatsoever in the world around them, acting only as a weekend social club for the same familiar faces week after week, it was very tempting for me to fall into that same trap and think that God would abandon them.  But the truth is, as long as there is a living, breathing soul in that congregation who is seeking God with even an ounce of their strength, I do not believe the Spirit will abandon them.  That church ain’t dead.  It may be on critical life support, just waiting for someone to pull the plug, but it’s never too late.

My job, then, as a member of the faithful community is not to wish them ill, or to pray for their speedy and merciful demise, or even to sit back with my bowl of popcorn and watch the slow, painful, inevitable conclusion unfold. As cliché as it sounds, my job is — should be — to pray for them.  I may not feel inclined to dedicate my life’s energy into trying to revive them — most dying churches are dying for a reason.  They are usually resistant to change.  They are often locked within the trap of their own limited vision, usually anchored in some romanticized moment in the past, and usually focused inward, too preoccupied with self-survival, and too out of touch with the world around them.  They often have become “of no earthly good.” But I can still pray that God will at least stir one or two of them with the hunger for more.  I can pray that their leaders’ eyes will be opened to see clearly what is happening, and that they will reach out to God in a real way, beyond a perfunctory routine of simply walking through a Sunday liturgy.  I can pray like the Apostle Paul that the eyes of their heart will be enlightened and that they will know the great hope to which they are called.  I can pray that even if there is just a corner of their hearts that has not yet turned to stone, that they will look outward and see the people around them, and be moved with genuine love and compassion to do something other than turning on the lights Sunday morning for an hour and then going home. I can pray that the Spirit, who is still there — even if constrained by their lost interest and their restricted time table — will be unleashed to work among them. The church is dead only when everyone in the church is dead.

I learned this morning not to so quickly write off churches that seem to be failing — at least from my viewpoint.  As that old prophet Ezekiel discovered, even a valley full of dry bones is no match for the breath of God.  As long as people are still there, the Spirit is still there, lurking, waiting to breathe new life.

Even where the pulse is weak, those churches aren’t dead. There’s still hope — just like there is for the old guy needing that third cup of coffee in the morning.

photo credit: Ally on Flickr, cc

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Big Problems Just Mean a Big Life

big-problems_3537904106People with small lives don’t have big problems.

That was the nugget of wisdom that fell out of my mouth during a talk with a couple of friends about the $h!t-storms they were experiencing recently.

Drama and trauma with friends. Bosses. Legal issues. Relationship issues. Money issues. Crises that just seem to happen out of nowhere, that blindside you. And you’re stuck there, confused, steaming with anger, wondering where the heck God was, and what he was doing – or if he was doing anything at all.  Does God even care?

“Is God cruel?” my friend asked.

This is real life stuff.  Stuff happens. Life happens, and it isn’t always pretty. And we shouldn’t expect it to be.  Even with God on our side, we should not expect everything to just fall into place easily, readily, smoothly, and think we’re just gonna experience happiness, peace and joy all the time.  It’s just not realistic. Nor is it good faith.


And a scene from the life of Moses suddenly took on new relevance. I don’t remember if it was in The Ten Commandments movie or not, but there’s this scene after Moses has his encounter with the Burning Bush, and God commissions him to go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go!”  The Hebrew people had become so populous in Egypt that the Egyptians feared they were becoming a minority in their own country. So the politicians decided to implement a form of immigration control: first, kill all the newborn Hebrew baby boys. Then enslave the people (to keep them under control). And after Moses passes on God’s message to the top dog, Pharaoh, to let the people leave to get on with their purpose, Pharaoh responds by ordering that straw no longer be given to the Hebrews in order to fill their daily quota of brick-making. Now they had to go scrounge for straw themselves – and not miss their quota: “not one brick less!” (Exodus 5-6)

And the Hebrews do what we all do. Gripe. At the slave-drivers, at their foremen, at Pharaoh, and even at Moses.  “Why have you done this to us? You have made us a stench in Pharaoh’s nose, and now given them a reason to exterminate us. May God judge you for what you have done” – this from the Israelites to Moses. And you know Moses had to be thinking, “this is what I get for trying to help.”

So Moses gripes to God. “Lord, why have you caused all this trouble for them? Why did you even send me here? Ever since I went to the king to speak in your name, he has treated the people worse than before. And you have done nothing to help them!”

Moses expected great things. He had this moving encounter with God, gotten his marching orders, received a new purpose in life, a new mission. He was gonna be the savior of his people.  And it all just got worse. It all went downhill from that point on.

And most of us will experience this in life. We get a moment of inspiration, we discover a new found purpose and meaning to life. We may even have had a fresh encounter with God that has revitalized our spiritual life.  We’re on fire with new life, new excitement, new mission, new energy, new purpose. Everything seems to make sense now: “this is what I’m on this planet to do!”  And then … everything begins to fall apart. Nothing works out the way we planned. All the scenarios we played out in our heads about how things would happen, how our life would go, how events would transpire … all come crashing down around us. And we’re left traumatized and in shock.  Shaking our heads to clear the confusion – what just happened? Did I make all this up? Was this just some fantasy, some delusion?  What happened to God? Why is all this crap happening to me?!

And here’s God’s response: “Now you will get to see what I’m about to do. By my mighty hand and my outstretched arm, I will compel Pharaoh to let my people go.”

In other words,
the bigger the problem, the greater the power.

The deeper the crap, the more amazing the outcome.

Little problems don’t require divine intervention. We can handle them ourselves. What bragging-rights does that give God?  It’s the big stuff, the stuff too big for us to handle, that requires the supernatural, the miraculous.

People who are content with little require little. Those who are happy to have small lives, to just have a convenient job, to pay their bills and have a comfortable home where they can just relax and watch the football game on Sunday afternoon – what need do they have of mighty displays of the miraculous?

My gut feeling when talking with my friends about the startling amount of difficulties they were experiencing was that they were destined for bigger things. Big trouble means a big life.

That doesn’t mean that every little situation was going to work out wonderfully. That did not mean that suddenly things were gonna start falling into place.  Even knowing God was working in the process does not mean it was gonna be easy.  In fact (unfortunately!), it often means the opposite.   But it’s the big picture where things begin to make sense. It’s in the looking back afterwards that we get to see the divine power at work, doing things beyond our control, even beyond our imagination. And it never is how we expect. God never works in ways that we could have predicted.  That’s way too small for him, way to restraining. And way too small for us!  We deserve bigger things. For those who want it, for those who feel it deep inside their gut, we have bigger things in store, bigger destinies. Destinies that touch the world around us.

Those who don’t want that kind of big life probably won’t experience these kinds of big difficulties.  They’ll have challenges appropriate to the size of their dreams.

And for Moses and the complaining Hebrews, they got to witness the amazing hand of God – to the point that we’re still talking about 3500 years later. And they even made a movie about it.  Beyond that, here’s a little nugget: they not only got a new freedom and vision for themselves, they get to see a new side of God they hadn’t seen before. “I appeared to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as El Shaddai, God Almighty. But I did not make myself known to them by my holy name, Yahweh, “I AM”.  This name is for you, from now on …”   Oh, and by the way, “I have heard their groanings, I have seen their troubles, I remember my promises, and I will deliver them …”

That’s the message to those going through some deep doodoo right now. It never happens like we expect. And we gripe and moan about it. That’s okay. That’s human.  It’s the end results that count.  The bigger the problem, the greater the solution. The more resistance, the more spectacular the outcome.  Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 8:28, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose…”

To doubt God, to ask where he is in all the stuff that’s going on, that’s human. It’s okay.

Our mistake is putting our “faith” in how we expect God to do things, rather than “trusting” that he’s gonna work it all out in the end.

That’s the real mark of a vital faith, a solid spirituality.  “We’re gonna get through this, and God is gonna make it all work out for our good. And in the process, we’re gonna grow, we’re gonna become better and stronger, and we’re gonna see a new face of God we’ve never known before.”

So as hard as it might be to do in real life, our game plan when going through the deep doodoo is pretty simple: Don’t focus on the immediate situation. Don’t lose heart over the immediate circumstances. Don’t get lost in the details of the small picture. The grander scheme, the big picture, is where it all makes sense. The more complicated the situation, and the uglier the mess, … the more clearly it indicates a bigger outcome, a more beautiful and purposeful life.

Small lives don’t require a divine “outstretched arm and mighty hand”.  Big lives do. And that’s where you’re headed.
—–
photo credit: B Rosen via photopin cc
[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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You Need Some Help!

"Adam and Steve" by Rahul Gabrielle
“Adam and Steve” by Rahul Gabrielle

 

As a single guy, feeling the full weight of taking care of the house, the yard, the laundry, the cooking, the dogs, a full time job …, I think I now know exactly why God gave Adam a “suitable helper”.

Funny, how every single person I know is focused on finding Mr. Right or Miss Right. The desire for companionship is strong in us humans. And with rare exceptions, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Unless you happen to be graced with the spiritual gift of celibacy, you’ve probably more than once quoted that famous passage from the creation account in Genesis: “It is not good for man to be alone …” (Gen 2:18). And your sights are usually zeroed in on finding a romantic partner, someone to love, to be loved by, to “have and to hold,” and to experience that physical/mystical bond of “the two shall become one flesh”. (Thank you, Genesis, for providing us with all those great images.)

But I recently became acutely aware of what was perhaps the original intent of that spousal description. The King James version of the Bible reads, “an help meet for him”, and thus was introduced into English idiom the term “helpmeet” (and not as some of my more amorously focused brothers think, “helpmeat“). God gave Adam the herculean task of tending a huge garden and all the wildlife in it. And practically speaking, there just weren’t enough hours in the day or strength in the body to do it all alone. Adam needed help — and a help specifically suited to him, to his personality and to his specific needs. A helper was needed to help him accomplish his task. Not just to be a romantic partner. That “becoming one flesh” stuff is all just a wonderful fringe benefit.

Without that help, it is likely that Adam would not have been able to successfully do the thing he was charged with doing.

And that’s the point.

You were put on this planet to do something significant,

something important,

something no one else but you can do.

You were designed to be that unique piece in the cosmic jigsaw puzzle needed to complete the picture. And without you, without you fulfilling your assignment, that puzzle will always remain incomplete. And guess what? You can’t do it alone. None of us can.

Two by two

Two-by-two2It is interesting and informative that when Jesus sent out his disciples to do the work of the Kingdom — to proclaim the message of Freedom, to heal the sick, and to break the power of the enemy — he sent them out two by two (Mk 6:7).

Like Adam, like those disciples, we weren’t meant to try to accomplish the work by ourselves. It’s too big for any one person. We need help. And based on these two important passages, it seems clear that that’s how God intended it. And if that’s the case, then we can also assume that it is God’s will that we have that help. He WANTS us to have our “suitable helper”.

And that’s good news for most of us:
God is right there in the mate-finding game with us.

But here is the kicker. You gotta look beyond the surface. You gotta get past your own romantic and sexual needs, and look at the bigger picture.

God wants you to have the love of your life, that partner who will be faithful in good times and in bad, in blessing and in trouble. Just make sure you find someone who will actually “help”.

Find someone whose heart will align with yours, who will cooperate with your purpose on this planet, who will come into agreement with the important things in your life, and come alongside to help. Make sure your prospective mate can actually contribute. You don’t need another burden, another weight to carry. You don’t need the distraction or the drain on your energy and time. You need someone who will share the burden and help you carry the weight, who will help you stay focused and will re-energize you. Make sure the person you’re considering will be an asset to you, and is of some earthly good — other than providing you some sugar.

Your pursuit of a life companion is a wonderful thing. And if you stay purpose-driven and mission-focused, you’ll have God as a recruiting partner. Because He wants you to succeed even more than you do.

You’ve got important work to do. And you’re gonna need some help! So choose your helper wisely.

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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You Might be the Center of the Universe, Afterall

Some days you just feel like crap.

Sometimes you feel like your life is going nowhere, that you’re stuck in some barren wasteland of a place, no one is paying any attention to you, your future looks bleak and hopeless. You may even feel like your life is cursed, that God has abandoned you, forgotten your name, and moved on to someone else. You feel done, finished, wiped out. And all you wanna do is scream.

Most of us have been there — and probably a lot of us are still there. But hey! Snap out of it. The game isn’t over yet, and the universe is about to stop just for you.

Here’s the Story …
I was reading through a familiar story about a guy who had three strikes against him, but who won in the end despite all his disadvantages. He was blind. He was a beggar. And he was stuck in a dump of a town that had a really bad history. And stranded there, all he could do was call out for help. But life didn’t pass him by; he was not forgotten by history, and in fact, his name is now famous, known around the world — well, at least in the church world, anyway.

One day Jesus and his crew were on a trek from the north country down to the big city of Jerusalem, and they had to pass through the town of Jericho. Everyone knew Jericho. It was on a main highway from the fertile Galilee to Jerusalem, and on the East-West route connecting the Transjordan region with the Judean hill country. Joshua and the refugees from Egypt had marched around it a thousand years before, and (as we all know) its “walls came tumbling down.” A curse was placed on anyone who dared rebuild that city (Josh 6:26), but it was situated at the mouth of one of the largest freshwater springs in the area, so curse or no curse, that little bit of real estate was not going to stay abandoned for very long. And Jesus and his team were passing through it on their way to some important business about to become the first Easter holiday.

This poor guy, sitting in his sweat, caked in dirt, probably stinking to high heaven, heard the commotion of Jesus’ entourage, and started raising a ruckus. He wanted some attention. He wanted some help. He was sick of where he was, and he wanted out. The crowd around him, preoccupied with the celebrity coming through town, did not appreciate the disruption. He was told in less than friendly terms to shut up and stop making a nuisance of himself. But the guy persisted. And Jesus stopped. Jesus turned around and told his crew to get him. Now that he had been recognized, the crowd changed its tune. “Cheer up. On your feet! He’s calling you.” The man threw his cloak aside, jumped to his feet, came to Jesus, and told him what he wanted. And Jesus gave it to him. Immediately, the man was healed of blindness and joined Jesus on the road (Mk 10:46-52).

So what?
Here’s the point to that little drama. We all sometimes feel like we’re stuck in a rut, that life and our destiny has passed us by. And we may even feel like we’ve earned it, like we deserve to be there, that we made God angry at us, and this is our punishment, our curse. And now we’re in such a bad place we can’t even see our way out of it. We’re blind, we don’t even have any idea which way to go or what to do next. We feel like we’re rotting right where we stand. Our life is over. It seems hopeless. But Jesus stopped for that man. Even with all the things pressing on his mind, Jesus stopped to pay some attention to that insignificant, washed up, dirty and stinking, little man. And the future changed in that instant. Not only did that man get his sight, but his life was handed back to him. He got a new purpose, a new journey. And to this day, Bartimaeus’ name is recited by kids in Sunday Schools around the world. All because he called out and Jesus stopped.

It Ain’t Over
It ain’t over till it’s over. And it ain’t over. You may feel stuck in your Jericho. You may feel like you’re done, the game’s over, you’ve used up all your chances and you might as well just sit on the ground and scream. But Jesus stopped in that cursed town. He stopped for a single person. He interrupted his urgent schedule to breathe life back into a seemingly worthless individual. And everything changed. The man threw his coat aside, he dropped the baggage from his past, embraced his future, and a new stage of his life began.

You may have to do the same. You may have to call out — even to the point of becoming a nuisance to those around you who think they have their acts together. But you won’t be ignored — not by the guy who has the power to restore your life, your vision of the future, your purpose. You may have to stop being so passive. You may have to exert the energy to throw off that heavy cloak you’ve been carrying around, that old stuff that weighs you down and ties you to your past. There may be something required of you to help take those first steps into your new life. But “cheer up. He’s calling you.” You’ve caught the eye of the King of Creation — and right now, that makes you the center of the universe. And your story is just beginning.

You’ve got important work to do — and you’re gonna need some help!

helper2As a single guy, feeling the full weight of taking care of the house, the yard, the laundry, the cooking, the dogs, a full time job …, I think I now know exactly why God gave Adam a “suitable helper”.

Funny, how every single person I know is focused on finding Mr. Right or Miss Right. The desire for companionship is strong in us humans. And with rare exceptions, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Unless you happen to be graced with the spiritual gift of celibacy, you’ve probably more than once quoted that famous passage from the creation account in Genesis: “It is not good for man to be alone …” (Gen 2:18). And your sights are usually zeroed in on finding a romantic partner, someone to love, to be loved by, to “have and to hold,” and to experience that physical/mystical bond of “the two shall become one flesh”. (Thank you, Genesis, for providing us with all those great images.)

But I recently became acutely aware of what was perhaps the original intent of that spousal description. The King James version of the Bible reads, “an help meet for him”, and thus was introduced into English idiom the term “helpmeet” (and not as some of my more amorously focused brothers think, “helpmeat”). God gave Adam the herculean task of tending a huge garden and all the wildlife in it. And practically speaking, there just weren’t enough hours in the day or strength in the body to do it all alone. Adam needed help — and a help specifically suited to him, to his personality and to his specific needs. A helper was needed to help him accomplish his task. Not just to be a romantic partner. That “becoming one flesh” stuff is all just a wonderful fringe benefit.

Without that help, it is likely that Adam would not have been able to successfully do the thing he was charged with doing.

And that’s the point. You were put on this planet to do something significant, something important, something no one else but you can do. You were designed to be that unique piece in the cosmic jigsaw puzzle needed to complete the picture. And without you, without you fulfilling your assignment, that puzzle will always remain incomplete. And guess what? You can’t do it alone. None of us can.

It is interesting and informative that when Jesus sent out his disciples to do the work of the Kingdom — to proclaim the message of Freedom, to heal the sick, and to break the power of the enemy — he sent them out two by two (Mk 6:7). Like Adam, we weren’t meant to try to accomplish the work by ourselves. It’s too big for any one person. We need help. And based on these two important passages, it seems clear that that’s how God intended it. And if that’s the case, then we can also assume that it is God’s will that we have that help. He WANTS us to have our “suitable helper”. And that’s good news for most of us: God is right there in the mate-finding game with us.

But here is the kicker. You gotta look beyond the surface. You gotta get past your own amorous needs and look at the bigger picture. God wants you to have the love of your life, that partner who will be faithful in good times and in bad, in blessing and in trouble. Just make sure you find someone who will actually “help”. Find someone whose heart will align with yours, who will cooperate with your purpose on this planet, who will come into agreement with the important things in your life, and come alongside to help. Make sure your prospective mate can actually contribute. You don’t need another burden, another weight to carry. You don’t need the distraction or the drain on your energy and time. You need someone who will share the burden and help you carry the weight, who will help you stay focused and will re-energize you. Make sure the person you’re considering will be an asset to you, and is of some earthly good — other than providing you some sugar.

Your pursuit of a life companion is a wonderful thing. And if you stay purpose-driven and mission-focused, you’ll have God as a recruiting partner. Because He wants you to succeed even more than you do.

You’ve got important work to do. And you’re gonna need some help! So choose your helper wisely.

From the Dust Bowl to Your Destiny

camals“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran” (Gen 28:10).

What could be possibly one of the most boring verses in the entire Bible suddenly jumped out at me with such intensity and meaning, I just had to stop and stare at it for a while.

Jacob was a weasel. He was a trickster, somebody well-skilled in passive-aggressive behavior. He was a mama’s boy and a manipulator. He let people walk all over him. He was weak and wimpy. And I’m sure he was full of insecurities and self-doubts, and maybe even a little self-hatred. (Hey, kinda like a lot of us!) But he was also a man with a destiny. He had a role to fill in divine history, and God wasn’t gonna let a few personality flaws interfere with his ultimate plans.

So there he was, hanging out in Beersheba, a dusty little spot on the map, barren of life and luxury except for some scrub grass suitable only for livestock and a few wells his grandfather had dug. Not the kind of place to build a name for yourself. Not even the kind of place to build much of a life. But he wasn’t stopping there. He was on his way to Haran, a rich, exotic city sitting on the trade routes of civilization, looking for a wife and his future. Caravans carrying goods from Mesopotamia to Egypt, from Persia to what is now Turkey passed through that city, and it was known for it’s gold, spices, and precious stones. He was going from the southern most outpost of fertile land to the excitement of the big city in the north. But it wasn’t the city that held the key to his destiny. It was the journey itself.

“When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night …”
For many of us on the journey to new life and purpose, we overlook this important aspect: sometimes you just gotta stop moving, and camp out for a while. Something was about to happen to Jacob — he was hours away from that famous vision of angels ascending and descending the ladder between earth and God, a new revelation of God and about himself — and if he’d forced himself beyond that resting spot, if he’d continued his journey through the night in a hurry to get where he was going, he would have missed it. Like him, most of us tend to be restless. We’re running ahead at full steam, trying to escape (or at least change) our current situation, and reach the next stage of life, something better and more meaningful. But if we don’t slow down, if we don’t take advantage of our current situation, if we don’t learn whatever it is we’re supposed to glean from the present experience, we won’t be ready for that next step. Sometimes we have to slow down enough to listen.  And for once, perhaps for the first time in his life, Jacob doesn’t blow the opportunity. He rests. And then God speaks.

“I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”
What’s missing here? Those of us who grew up in Sunday School can fill in the blanks. The title always goes “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But that hasn’t happened yet. Jacob already had some years and experience under his belt, but he hadn’t come fully into himself yet. He hadn’t realized his full identity, nor had he developed a satisfactory relationship with God. His faith was still with the God of his fathers — or to put in another way, it was his parents’ religion. He had yet to really make it his own. But it’s during this journey that all that changes. It’s in the desert, in the sand, in the middle of nowhere on his way to somewhere, that God becomes real to him. And his life is changed from that moment on. After this trip, the God of Abraham and Isaac becomes the God of Jacob.   A new relationship, a divine partnership, is born.  And when that happens, nothing remains the same.

“I will give you and your descendants the land … You will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you …”
It’s here, at this place of camping out, this place of quiet resting, at a break in the running, that Jacob gets the promise of the destiny he’s been looking for. God assures him that he will ultimately come into his own: he’ll inherit the land. But more than that, the purpose of his life is suddenly made clear: through him the whole earth will be blessed. It’s at this moment, at that rest-stop on the journey, that his life suddenly comes into focus. He is somebody. He has hope and a future. He is worth something.  All that scheming and manipulation, that striving for recognition and favor, the tricks and deceit, even his passive weakness, have not disqualified him from a purpose-filled and fulfilling life.  His mess-ups couldn’t shake the love and favor of God for him.

And on top of that, God promises to watch over him: “I am with you, and will watch over you wherever you go … I will never leave you …”  A new depth and quality to his life appeared out of nowhere in that moment.  It’s the breakthrough he needed in his quiet desperation, proof that his life had significance, that the world would be a better, more blessed place because of him.

His story continues, and a few chapters past this passage is another well-known event in his journey. It’s years later. He’s arrived in Haran, married the woman of his dreams (actually, got four women in the process), had eleven sons, and with God’s favor had become prosperous, despite his flawed character. And on one lonely night, still seeking to fill the void in his soul, he wrestles with a divine stranger till daybreak (Gen 32:24). Even though he’d achieved many of his goals — the love of a life-partner, a family of his own, the successful business — he’s still longing for deeper fulfillment. And he refuses to let the stranger go until he gets something from him: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” But that’s exactly what the divine visitor came to do, and he gives Jacob a new name: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men.” That life of constant struggle — deep within himself, with others around him, his family, and with God — God uses as material to forge his new identity. Though his journey in life would continue on for many more years, that part of the search for identity was finally complete. He now knew who he was, and what he was all about.

And none of this would have happened if he’d stayed in the dust bowl of Beersheba, if he hadn’t left his father’s house in search of his destiny.

For many of us, this is the story of our lives.
We’re restless and wanting more. We feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled where we are right now, and we have this nagging feeling in our guts that “there has to be more than just this.” There is.  A lot more. Your job is not done; your life is not stalled out. You are not stuck in the mud, or in the rut of your day to day grind. For those wanting more, there is new purpose and greater significance; there is a coming into your true identity, becoming all you were meant to be; there’s a deeper relationship with God, and a more fulfilling destiny — something bigger than yourself, something that will impact the world around you.   But it all happens along the way. It happens in the journey.

So don’t stop pressing. Don’t stop seeking God for more. Take advantage of where you are now, learn what you can, grow in the place where you’re planted — you’re more likely to hear the revelation you need to get you to the next step when you’re still enough to listen.  But don’t think that’s where your journey ends. You may be in a dusty spot, hanging out by a few wells of water, surrounded by little more than herds of sheep and goats, but Haran is calling. The fullness of your God-designed identity and destiny still await you. And this is God’s promise to you, as well as to Jacob. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. You’re gonna make it. You’re on the road from the dust bowl to your destiny.

 

“You Feed Them” – An Invitation to Divine Partnership

Loaves_fishesI’ve been seeing something lately that’s always been there, and maybe I’ve even known it by another name, but it’s become fresh, more meaningful and more powerfully inviting.

It’s the impression of Jesus’ deep desire to enlist more people into partnership with him in the mission of freeing people, helping them, and letting them know how much they are loved by Heaven. In a hurting world desperate for answers but met only by empty religious duties and regulations, or a culture overflowing with overzealous morality, this mission is as vital now as much as ever.

It’s not about soul-winning. It’s not about Christian duty. It’s not about transforming society or even populating heaven.  It’s about tapping into divine power to meet the needs of those around us. It’s about feeding those who are hungry — in a spiritual as well as physical sense — and easing the pain and hopelessness of people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36; Num 27:15-17).  We see this in Jesus’ heart-felt plea to his followers, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field” (Mt 9:37-38). Immediately after saying this, he sends them out into the surrounding towns and villages with instructions to drive out evil spirits, heal the sick, and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven had arrived. There were so many in need, the burden was too much for him to carry alone.  And he wanted his closest friends to share in the task and with the same divine authority.

Like when Peter wanted to walk on water with Jesus, Jesus responds with characteristic encouragement: “Come on, try it out.”  He is not jealous of his divine prerogatives; he isn’t stingy with his power — especially when there are so many people needing help.  He WANTS us to jump in there with him, to take up the ball and run with it.  So many are depending on us.

You can hear this invitation to partnership when Jesus is faced with a tired and hungry crowd of 5000.  They followed him around, always wanting to hear more, see more, experience more of what he had to offer. And even when he was exhausted from the constant demand on him, he still had compassion on those who were clinging so desperately.  When his protégés wanted to send them away, he replies, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16).  Instead of ignoring the need, Jesus delegates the responsibility to them.

When I read “they do not need to go away,” I hear him saying, “just because I’m tired doesn’t mean the work stops. I’m not the only one who can help. YOU do something about the problem.” Of course, his disciple panic. “How are we going to handle this? We only have a few loaves of bread and two measly fish.”  You can almost hear Jesus sigh as he tells them “bring them here to me.”  “Really? You’re still gonna make me do this by myself. Here, let me show you how.” Then he looks up to heaven, gives thanks to God for the resources (as small as they might be), and starts dividing the bread and fish into meal-sized portions.

But here’s the key: “Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.”  Jesus enlisted their help.  He brought his protégés into the miracle, as though saying “this is what you guys should have done.”  He needed their help, wanted it, even if it meant more hand-holding.  And his disciples distributed the food to everyone. With more coaching from the boss, they we able to meet the need of all those tired and hungry people.

And the result?  “They all ate and were satisfied.”  Catch this. This is the whole point of his invitation. When we partner with Jesus, when we take up his work — as he instructed, as he so earnestly desired — people are satisfied. They move from being needy, from being harassed and helpless, from being tired, desperate and hungry, to being content and fulfilled. It’s a restoring process, the on-going work of the Kingdom. And this is the work assigned to us. No one person can do the job by himself. Your local pastor cannot carry the weight alone. He cannot answer all the phone calls, he can’t visit everyone in the hospital, he can’t do all the counseling, or respond to all the requests for prayer. The work was never meant to be handled by a select few.  It was always intended to be shared by many — by all of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers.

The situation hasn’t changed. The need is great, the harvest is plentiful, but there are always too few workers. Why? Usually because we feel unqualified. We feel like it’s not our job, or that someone else is supposed to do it.  But this is not true, regardless of how inadequate we may feel.  The disciples didn’t feel up to the task; they constantly doubted their own abilities to meet the challenge.  And notice, Jesus NEVER gets on them for trying to do too much. He never criticizes them for wanting to help or even from being presumptuous enough to think they too could tap into divine power to handle situations.  His rebuke only came when they were being lazy or when they lacked the faith.  He attacked their sense of inferiority and inadequacy.  He was trying with all his energy to equip them to take on this great task of helping the people, of freeing them from lack, from bondage, from powerlessness, from fear, from oppression, from spiritual hunger, and from blindness to their great value to the Eternal King. And he knew he could not do it all himself. His job was to train us so we could carry on the work.  And it was the deepest cry of his heart: “send more workers!”  When he saw all the hurting people, he was moved with compassion and stirred to help them. And he longed for many more to come alongside him and join the battle.

That urgent invitation was not limited to those earliest disciple alone. His instructions echo on to us as well. The need is still great. The harvest is still plentiful. People are still hurting, and there is still so much work to be done.

We need to hear the words of Jesus again, this time as a personal invitation to participate in the miraculous. The world is waiting for it. People are counting on it. “They don’t need to go away. You feed them.”

Some Prizes Just Aren’t Worth Pursuing …

nobel_prizeEverybody likes getting an award.  We all like a little recognition now and then, holding the spotlight for our “15 minutes of fame.”  President Obama got another taste of that yesterday when he was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Instantly, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, pundits and the man on the street all began lining up, debating whether the president deserved it, taking pot shots at him and at each other.  And there’s the president, in the center of the fire pit, dancing on the hot coals, trying to figure out how to handle this inconvenient honor.  With all the uproar, it really makes you think: maybe there are some honors not worth having.

As I sat in front of the TV watching the talking-heads on the various news channels argue endlessly about this latest sensation, a few observations became evident.

1. Praise and recognition from others is ultimately empty and worthless.  Yeah, we all like the spotlight once in a while, the pat on the back; it can be good for our egos.  But the most frequent argument heard after the Nobel Committee’s announcement was that President Obama hadn’t done anything to deserve the Prize — at least not yet.  And for many conservatives, it made the Committee look ridiculous, and the Prize itself meaningless.  As one-sided as that perspective may be, it does accurately represent a core truth: praise from other people is essentially valueless.  People are fickle. They can withdraw their respect just as quickly as they gave it. Depending on how we effect them at any given moment, people can love us or hate us, and they can move from one extreme to the other with remarkable agility.  I think of holy week in the New Testament as a perfect case in point.  Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, the streets lined with people shouting “Hosanna” and throwing down their coats and palm branches before him in adoration and expectation.  Five days later, they’re screaming “Crucify him!” at the tops of their voices, and lining the streets once again to watch him — this time on his way to Golgotha, carrying a cross on his back.  All those palm fronds were pretty meaningless at that moment.  As an old seminary friend used to say all too often, “They’ll praise you on Palm Sunday and crucify you on Good Friday.”  Striving for short-lived esteem and honor in other people’s eyes is just not worth the effort.  Those “15 minutes” end all too quickly, and when they’re over we’re usually no better off than before — and sometimes we’re worse.

2. Prizes can put you in the uncomfortable position of having to live up to other people’s expectations.  President Obama, for better or for worse, now has the burden of having to live up to this high honor bestowed on him.  He’s got to perform.  He’s got to achieve great things or risk future condemnation for being a great disappointment and failure.  And this can have the unanticipated effect of causing him to adjust his coarse or change his existing agenda to accommodate those expectations.  This could be true for any of us.  Suddenly we’ll find our priorities shifting, our objectives being modified ever so slightly to fall in line with our new honored status.  Unconsciously, we can begin acting in ways we think would justify the prize, to prove that we deserved it.  Worse, it can throw us into self-doubt, causing us to question our own motives.  Are we doing something because we want to, because it’s in line with our goals and purpose, or are we now doing it to garner further attention?  And Lord help us if the award was given out of manipulation in a deliberate effort to cause us to act differently.  As the president already recognized, the Nobel Peace Prize has sometimes been given “as a means to give momentum to a set of causes … as a call to action,” as encouragement and incentive to behave in a certain way.  Images of puppeteers and marionettes come to mind.

3. Prizes can incite jealousy and active competitiveness in others who may try to sabotage us.  Unfortunately, we’ve already seen this in our political arenas.  Some Republicans are doing anything they can to make Obama fail — in every area, at any cost.  While some may be driven by ideological differences, much of the resistance is motivated by sheer spite and animosity.  They’ve become obstructionists, going to extreme efforts to hinder any progress or success.  As Florida Congressman Alan Grayson recently complained, if Obama cured world hunger, Republicans would blame him for over-population; if Obama were able to bring about world peace, Republicans would blame him for destroying the defense industry. Nothing brings out competitiveness and resistance in petty people like a little recognition. And although it may be true that if they’re shooting at you, you must be doing the right thing, no one needs any extra unnecessary obstacles to achieving their goals.

All this tells me that winning prizes can be a dangerous thing, and doing anything for the sake of — or as the result of — public recognition and award can be very destructive. Does this mean we should shun honors at any cost?  Of course not. But it highlights the necessity of not letting those honors go to your head or influence you in any way.  It’s the old “you cannot serve two masters” situation. You cannot follow your higher calling or fulfill your life’s real purpose and pursue fame and glory at the same time.  Public recognition may come as a result of your great work, but it is a trap, and we need to carry that trophy with caution.

Instead of temporary glory, we ought to pursue a life of true significance, to make a positive difference in the world around us. We should focus on what’s really important, not what’s popular. And that’s as simple as loving God and helping others.  Then our reward will be a deep sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction, a feeling of purpose, contentment and well-being that lasts well beyond a measly 15 minutes. Those kinds of pursuits genuinely benefit us and those around us — and carry forward into the life to come.  And I’ll take that over a Nobel any day.
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“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him.  And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for what is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:13-15)

Created for Impact

You were created for impact.

So how did you spend your day today?

The Bible teaches that God has laid out plans for your life since before you were born.  Plans for purpose. Plans of good things to drop in your lap, gifts from him simply because he loves you.  Plans for a destiny that is both pleasing to him and rewarding for you.  Plans of action, of good works, projects for you to complete placed along the road in your journey.  Plans of relationships — first with himself, and secondly with others.  Good stuff.

And, efficient planner that he is, he gave you all the equipment you need to fulfill those plans.  “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness — through our knowledge of him” (2 Peter 1:3).

We are born with gifts and talents.  We develop skills.  We grow into the internal desires and ambitions that are hard-wired in our DNA. And those gifts, skills, and desires get amplified when we join his family, and our spiritual DNA enhances our natural abilities.  Because of our relationship with him, now “all things are possible”.  We were created, equipped, and then commanded to touch those around us, to use our abilities to help them.  In a word, to have impact.

So how did you spend your day?

I’ll admit, this is a troubling question for me.  “Today? Really?”  Hmmm.  I dropped some money in the Salvation Army bucket while heading into a store.  I looked at my checking account to see how much I could give to an organization that feeds and clothes the poor.  I spent some time writing to a friend, offering some advice on how to overcome some issues in his life (I like to think of it as “encouragement” but it might more closely resemble “nagging”).  Hey, I did let two cars merge onto the road ahead of me (at two different points!) so they wouldn’t have to wait for the mile-long backed-up holiday traffic behind me.  And, resisting the flesh, I didn’t curse at the woman in the opposite lane who seemed to love the sound of her car horn because she was in a hurry and got stuck in the same traffic as the rest of us.  “Impact? Really?”  Hmmm, what else?  I finished up a major project at work that might help make a few customers’ lives easier. (Does that count?)  Ha! — I did spend some time this morning praying for a few friends (squeezed in between my own urgent requests).  Surely, that counts.

You know, we can’t all be Mother Teresas.  We can’t all be Billy Grahams.  Or even Dr. Phils.  We can only work with what is set before us; we can only touch those people we encounter while going about our work-a-day lives.  But our lives have to be about more than just our own interests.  Like Jesus said to his worried parents, we should be more “about out Father’s business.”  And two things he requires of us: to love him and walk with him, and to love others and be a blessing to them.  To deepen our relationship with him, and to become his hands in this world.

My list today seems so insignificant, so pathetic.  But maybe it’s just a starting point.  We have to prove ourselves faithful in the little things before God can use us in bigger things.  I still have so far to grow in my relationship with him, and in becoming more productive in my day to day activities.  But the desire is there.  I want to live a life of greater impact. 

So how did you spend your day?  Today might not have been your most shining hour either, but don’t give up.

You were created for impact.

Deathbed Priorities

LastHolidayI never understood those movies about a person who suddenly discovers they only have a year to live.  And they make a list of all the things they want to do, like take an African safari, or a dream vacation at a luxury European resort, drive a race car faster than they’ve ever gone, date a supermodel — trying to cram a lifetime of fun in the short time remaining.  Like that Tim McGraw song, “Live like you were dying”, where he went sky-diving, Rocky Mountain climbing, and went 2.7 seconds on bull named Fumanchu (although the rest of the lyrics have some redeeming qualities). To my mind, they all missed the target.  When you’re facing the next life, what do you care if you climbed Mt Everest?

Yesterday, my boss tells me he’s leading the company in the number of hours worked this month.  Of course he’s got a lot more responsibilities than I do, got a lot more invested and at stake in the company’s success.  In our conversation I throw out that old cliché about people on their deathbeds never look back wishing they’d worked more hours.  You have to balance work out with the rest of your life, find your priorities.  And that comment got me thinking about how I should be living my own life.  What are my “deathbed priorities”?

When I face God at the Judgment Seat, I want him to say that I’d completed the tasks he laid out for me.  I want to hear that “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  And that means I’d want to have cultivated a lot closer relationship with him now, here on earth, than I have.  I’d want to have listened more to those subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit to avoid those little traps I fall so easily into, to not say that one poisonous word of less-than-charitable gossip, to have said no to that second huge helping at the buffet, or to not have been so quick to say no to someone who could really have used my help at that inconvenient moment.

On the more human level, I’d want to have listened more to the ones I love.  I’d want to have been more interested, and expressed more love, spent more time with them, and less watching TV.  I’d want to have been more helpful to others instead of being too busy.  A little less focused on my needs, my goals, and been a little more self-sacrificing. I’d give up that grudge and forgive more quickly, more easily.  “Whoever wants to find his life must first lose it.”

I admit: I suck at this.  I’m self-absorbed much of the time, insensitive (and over-sensitive), and, okay I’ll say it, most times just plain lazy.

But for the sake of leading a worthwhile life, I want to focus more on some of those things I’d do if I had one month to live.  I’m going to give God a few more minutes a day of dedicated one-on-one time.  I’m going to pay more attention to my friends, listen more and be interested in their lives, their goals, and let them know they’re important to me.  Love God, love others.  One little bit at a time.

Just thought I’d put that out for consideration …

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For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph 2:10)