When being troubled is good

 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols. Acts 17:16

There are things that happen in human history that make us pause because they demonstrate a darkness among us that is so terrible we cannot fathom it.

Like 9/11.

Like Ferguson.

Like last week in Oregon.

And because it troubles us all, we are willing to talk about it. We do talk about it. We read articles. We find out about the victims. We celebrate heroism. We reach out to those who are hurting in the aftermath.

Those are good things.

But we must not stop there.

It does no good for us to pause and feel the lostness around us unless we then enter into it with the gospel in a way hurting people can understand. There are moments like this, not devastating on such a widespread scale necessarily, but moments every day where the lostness of the world should make us pause.

Athens was one of those moments for Paul. The city was like a modern-day Paris or New York in terms of cultural influence. There were more idols in Athens than there were people, and when Paul walked through the streets and saw the idolatry firsthand, it troubled his spirit. I picture Paul exasperated to the point of tears in the middle of the city street because of its lostness, much like when Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and wept (Luke 19:41).

I’m not advocating that we walk around crying our eyes out every day, but we do need to acknowledge how dire the situation is. We will not step into darkness to bring light if we do not acknowledge the seriousness of that darkness.

Ephesians 2:1-3 lets us know the hopelessness of every person’s condition apart from Christ. Sin doesn’t make us pretty bad off. It makes us dead. We are not mostly dead. We are dead-dead. John Piper puts it this way, “We’re in the morgue, not the doghouse” with God.

Our lost friends aren’t simply needing to make some good choices to turn their lives around; they are dead in their sins.

Our country isn’t simply headed in the wrong direction in need of moral leaders; our country is dead in idolatry.

But before you decide this blog post is a real downer and close this window because you’d rather just come back for List Wednesday, consider this – where sin brought death, Jesus brings life (Ephesians 2:4-10).

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That’s why Paul didn’t plop down in the middle of the street in despair. He didn’t throw his hands in the air and leave that place, either. He recognized the seriousness of their condition, and he also knew he had the answer they needed.

So Paul took Jesus right into the heart of Athenian culture (Acts 17:19-34) and confronted their idolatry, sharing the gospel in a way they could not help but understand. In doing so, he brought the life and light of Christ to a dark and dying place.

And so can we.

Nodding the head does not row the boat

 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:19-27

There’s an Irish proverb that says, “Nodding the head does not row the boat.” I don’t know much about Ireland or how that proverb got its start: Did Irish oarsmen sit in the boats for morning meetings to discuss where to go and how to get there before they set out each day? Did some guys just kick back for awhile even after the meeting ended, drinking their coffee, filling in the blanks and pondering the notes on their handouts instead of rowing? I don’t know, but if you think about a boat like a church pew, then maybe it makes more sense.

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James describes two kinds of listening. There is the kind of listening that compels activity, and then there is a lackadaisical kind of listening.

Maybe the latter listener is lackadaisical because he talks too much, is holding onto anger, or remains unrepentant regarding a particular sin (Jas. 1:19-21). Each of these problems reflects a spirit of pride that, through deception, blocks truth from making any sort of real difference in a person’s life. Whatever the reason, James says we should get rid of it.

We need to do something besides sitting and listening.

A fun fact about writing devotions, Bible study curriculum, and articles is there are times I’ll reread something I wrote months or years ago that causes me to think, “Hey, I should probably do that.” My blog and Word documents are more like an album of selfies than an actual mirror, but it serves to illustrate the same principle we find in James 1:23-25. The point is it’s not a one time thing.

We must keep on listening and keep on becoming doers of God’s Word.

It is not enough to give God’s Word a quick look, fill in a few blanks while nodding our heads, and then go on with life as usual without remembering or applying what we learned. Neither is the pinnacle of righteousness summed up in moral living. That’s why James picked controlling the tongue and looking after orphans and widows as evidence of the active listener and compelled doer of the Word. Outward religion without inner control and genuine compassion is a sign of lackadaisical listening.

And lackadaisical listening will never get you where God wants you to go.

Humbly accept the word planted in you, believer (Jas. 1:21b). You might think of it this way – God has given you the oars you need. Don’t let them just sit there. Pick them up and keep rowing.

Straight Outta Sardis

I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Rev. 3:1-6

 

I recently joined a gym, and I didn’t even do it for the blog material, y’all.

Turns out, when you join this particular gym, you get a free session with a personal trainer. I knew this was about them trying to sell me the services of someone far more dedicated to physical fitness than I am, but it was free, and I’ve always wanted to be able to use the phrase “my personal trainer,” even if only for a day. So I went.

This is where the story gets a little fuzzy for me. It’s hard to remember how it all went down exactly, because about 10 minutes into the workout with my personal trainer, I became parched, dizzy, and somewhat nauseous. I do remember her telling me that my face had changed to a whitish hue and asking me what I had eaten that morning. Also, she wanted to know how much water I normally drink, and seemed overly concerned about hydration; which is weird, because I know for a fact I’d had at least 3 and maybe even 4 Coke Zeroes the day before.

It’s really not my fault. In our pre-workout talk, I told her what a sedentary lifestyle I live. I’m a writer, and sometimes sit at the computer for 10 hours straight, only getting up for the Chick-fil-A drive thru.

But it must have been tricky. Genetics gave me a lean frame; add to that my spunky workout clothes, athletic inclination, strong 10-minute showing on the leg press, and sunny disposition, and at first glance, I might seem somewhat fit.

I am not fit.

Clearly, she overestimated my physical abilities based on appearance. And so it was a middle-aged-woman-passing-out-one-sixth-of-the-way-into-her-workout just waiting to happen.

straightouttasardisIn terms of a place like LA Fitness, the church at Sardis was filled with Christians who seemed to be fit and lively, but were, in reality, about to pass out. On the outside, they looked alright. After all, they had been full of strength and energy in the past.

Jesus wasn’t fooled, though. He knew all about their sedentary lives, and neglect of the Holy Spirit they’d been given. But He wasn’t finished with them yet. There was still more work left to do; work that wouldn’t be completed if they didn’t wake up and strengthen what little spiritual muscle they had left.

I love the emphasis on Acts 2:42-47 there is in the church today. But the thing is, you can’t be Acts 2 if you’re happy and content in Sardis. Just like I can’t run through leg day with someone 20 years younger who spends her time in the gym, we can’t demonstrate the strength of the early church if, at our core, we are weak and listless in faith.

The good news is, change is possible. When we decide we will not tolerate our unhealthy spiritual state any longer, and turn from the appearance of true religion (neglecting the Spirit) to the reality of it (being filled by the Spirit), we’ll find a revival of Acts 2, even right here in Sardis.

We’ve been unfaithful.

 I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to Yahweh my God…our iniquities are higher than our heads and our guilt is as high as the heavens. Ezra 9:1-15

One of my strongest early memories is from the time I was 6 years old in a dance class in Houston, Texas. There was another girl, a year or two older than me that I carpooled with. After class, we would go into the convenience store next door. I felt so grown up getting to buy a pack of gum with the change my mom had given me.

Then one day the dance instructors called me into their office and said the other girl (we’ll call her Thelma) had been caught stealing from the store. Thelma told them I had been stealing, too. This was the first I had heard of it; I was 6, and still mostly sweet, so I was devastated and cried all the way home.

My parents knew I hadn’t stolen anything. I had the money to buy Juicy Fruit, because they had given it to me. So I wasn’t crying because I was in trouble; I was crying because it was unfair. I was embarrassed and didn’t like being blamed for something I didn’t do.

In Ezra 9, Ezra cried in embarrassment, too. But here’s the thing that gets me – he was broken and even shared responsibility for the sins of others, sins he didn’t commit.

Israel was supposed to be set apart. They were God’s chosen people. But they hadn’t acted that way. In fact, even the leaders had been unfaithful (v. 2) by embracing pagan practices in the most intimate way.

But Ezra didn’t shake his head in disgust or condemn the people in his heart. Devastated, Ezra fell on his knees and cried out to God in confession. Like similar prayers in Nehemiah 1:5-11; 9:6-38 and Daniel 9:4-19, the pronouns throughout Ezra’s prayer are revealing.

Never once does he say “they.”

Our guilt, our iniquities, our slavery. This is the prayer of a guy who understood what it means to be a part of God’s family. Yes, each one of us will stand alone to account for things done while in the body (2 Cor. 5:10). But we are also tightly and irreversibly connected to that body (Rom. 12:5). When one part fails, we all feel it. And we need to fall on our knees and cry out in confession.

In the wake of the Ashley Madison list, Ed Stetzer estimated at least 400 pastors and church leaders would resign their positions yesterday. That number was based on his conversations across denominational lines, and clearly, is only a microcosm of the apparent unfaithfulness in the church.

praying3As the body of Christ, if we are not devastated, humiliated, and spreading out our hands to God, then something is wrong. We need a lesson from Ezra. We need broken hearts, honest confession, earnest prayer, and a greater awareness that spiritual warfare is real.

There are true believers all around us who have been and are still now falling into the temptation of all forms of unfaithfulness. Fall on your knees and pray. And when you do, change your pronouns. Instead of praying for “them,” pray for “us”. We are, together, the body of Christ.

#OOTD

 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Ephesians 6:10-18

Abby juniorI miss the days when I got to pick out my kids’ first day of school outfits. Today is the first day of Abby’s junior year in high school, and I didn’t even know what she was wearing until she came down the stairs and I sat up in bed to tell her a new box of her favorite protein bars was in the pantry.

Of course, I’m joking. Even though she has to leave for school before the literal crack of dawn, I did get out of bed. I’ll point my daughter to the pantry for a Pop Tart, but I won’t be the mom who takes a first day of school picture from the unmade bed I’m still trying to sleep in. You have to draw a line somewhere.

Anyway, how you dress the first day of school is a big deal. Just ask the kid who is right now sitting in the front office because he showed up in a “School is stupid and I hate it” t-shirt.

What you wear can say something about your outlook and readiness. Take me, for instance. I have found that if I put on athletic clothes in the morning, there is a greater chance I will get up from my office chair and attempt to break a sweat at some point during the day. On the other hand, if I head straight to my home office in pajamas, there is absolutely no chance exercise is going to happen. How I dress reflects my attitude and even impacts my behavior.

We get it when it comes to actual clothes. No one would show up for an interview at a law firm wearing Chacos and bermuda shorts. In Ephesians 6, Paul lets us know we should think about our spiritual lives in the same way.

There are battles you’ll face today. Difficulties you’ll confront. Temptations that will threaten your obedience to what the preacher said and you amened on Sunday. At some point, circumstances might even have you thinking, “This day is stupid and I hate it.” Or maybe everything will be great. Either way, it’s the same.

This is not to minimize Paul’s point about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:11-12. But Satan often does his best fighting when we don’t even recognize there’s a battle going on. His scheme is to distract us from eternal things with the stuff of earth.

So before there were ever selfies and clever hashtags, Paul said there is an outfit of the day. It’s the same outfit we should wear every day, whether it’s the first day of school, the 563rd day of work, or a week of vacation. The way you stand strong and keep your focus is to wear the right clothes; to put on the full armor of God – truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, God’s Word, and prayer.

It’s all part of my testimony

My mouth will tell about Your righteousness and Your salvation all day long,
though I cannot sum them up. I come because of the mighty acts of the Lord GodI will proclaim Your righteousness, Yours alone. God, You have taught me from my youth, and I still proclaim Your wonderful works. Psalm 71:15-17

 

“It’s all part of my testimony” is something I say often. Like when I misjudge the space through an open door and slam my shoulder into the door frame, for instance. I typically say it for laughs, but it’s true. Every part of every day really is part of my testimony.

I think the first time I realized that was when I was pregnant with Brandon. It was 4 days past his due date in Orlando, Florida. I had an appointment with my doctor, and he was going to schedule a time to induce labor. The nurse began the routine check of Brandon’s heart rate. Immediately, both the doctor’s and nurse’s faces fell, and I knew there was a problem.

The doctor said, “We need to get him out now.” I explained the hospital where we were scheduled to deliver was across town, about 20 minutes away. The  doctor responded, “We don’t have time for that. He’ll be dead by the time we get there.”

At that point, Clay was trying to pass out on the floor, and had to be helped out of the room. The doctor left to make arrangements, and I started rattling off names and numbers of people for the office staff to contact for us. Then the nurse and I walked together across the parking lot to Sand Lake Hospital next door.

Sand Lake Hospital didn’t have a pediatrics unit; from its location, I think it was really just for people doing Disney World who needed emergency care – probably rule breakers who didn’t keep their arms and legs inside the log ride. So they were flying by helicopter a pediatrics team from another hospital to be there when Brandon was born.

As I walked across the parking lot with the nurse, she was shaking and holding onto me for support. Total calm had come over me and there’s just no way to describe it except to say that it was God’s peace that passes all understanding. We walked into the hospital and a swarm of doctors surrounded me. I had a few things to sign, and then someone counted down from 10, and at 4, I was out.

When I woke up later, the same nurse who walked across the parking lot with me brought my healthy little boy and put him in my arms. She explained the umbilical cord had been wrapped around his wrist and across his neck and he had been strangling himself. Through tears, she told me that my calm was part of what had helped to save him.

Scan 8My appointment was at 10 am that morning, and Brandon was born by emergency c-section at 10:50. That’s how fast the whole thing happened. When I think about the events of that morning and how everything had to happen just right for him to make it, I’m still just amazed.

Before that day I knew that God’s peace passes all understanding, but through that experience I owned it. It’s part of my testimony. And I could go on and on. There are hundreds of other experiences in my life God has used to grow my faith. Some of those experiences have been happy and good, and some of them have been terribly painful, but in each and every one of them, He has shown me more of Himself.

b 20Yesterday we celebrated Brandon’s 20th birthday. For two decades now, he has been a part of my testimony, and what fun it has been for me to get to be a small part of his! I love knowing that God will continue to use the experiences of our kids’ lives, coupled with His Word, to give them understanding. I love knowing He’ll do that for you, too.

I hope you’ll embrace God’s extraordinary love and the unique faith journey He has allowed you to take with Him. And then, like the psalmist, be ready and willing to share that with other people. Your story is your biography of God’s faithfulness to you and your response back to Him. It is the power of the gospel in you.

Whatever today holds, it’s part of your testimony.

Don’t even try to compare

 For we don’t dare classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. But in measuring themselves by themselves and comparing themselves to themselves, they lack understanding. We, however, will not boast beyond measure but according to the measure of the area of ministry that God has assigned to us, which reaches even to you. 2 Cor. 10:12-13

 

“I’m the best writer I know.”

The conversation has stuck with me for years. We had just moved to a new town and I was talking with a couple of church-leader friends about church ministry type stuff. In that context, one of them casually dropped his very revealing self-assessment. He wasn’t joking, but I don’t think he thought it through, either. And he wasn’t directing it at me, necessarily. But there it was, a brick wall thrown up where an open door should have been.

“No, you’re not.”

I didn’t say it out loud, but that’s what I was thinking. Because I am hard-wired the same as him and every other person who walks the earth. We’re sinful, so we’re prideful, and we compare.

Paul called it foolishness.

Whether comparison has you feeling too high or too low, it is a subtle, yet dangerous, missing of the point. Comparison can have you thinking, “You would be more useful if you could __________ ,” or it can have you thinking, “You could be the next (insert really important person’s name here).”

Either way, reject that mess.

When you measure yourself by yourself, or compare yourself to another person, it diminishes the greatness of God, as if His designs for a life are not big or important enough. In a low sense, what happens next is you don’t live out your purpose and calling, because you’re too busy wishing it was something else. In a high sense, you fail to help others to live out their purpose and calling, because you’re too busy being impressed by your own.

You are not the next (insert name here). The world doesn’t need one of those. You are you, with specific gifts, experiences, and a sphere of influence that only you have (1 Cor. 7:17).

You would not be more useful if you had someone else’s gifts and abilities. You are meant to be useful exactly in the way God purposed you to be (1 Cor. 15:10).

The problem with comparison is that it always misses the mark. If you want to compare something, compare God’s call on your life to the reality of how you’re living (2 Cor. 10:13). That’s the only comparison that matters.

There is freedom from both pride and insecurity when we focus on God’s call instead of our own abilities. And then a remarkable thing happens – the brick walls of comparison crumble, and others’ gifts become open doors through which God helps us live out the reality of that call together.

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A good reason to drop what you’re doing.

Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Matthew 4:20

When I was in college, I had a friend who poked her head in the door of freshman biology, called out my name, and whispered, “Let’s go get lunch.” Class was about to start, but I had no trouble packing up my books and heading out the door. It helped that there were 300 other students in the class. I figured I wouldn’t be missed.

Same thing happened sophomore year one night during finals. My friends had finished their exams and came knocking on the door of my apartment. They were going bowling, and wanted me to come. Again, it took about 2 seconds for me to decide I didn’t really need to study for that political science exam. I didn’t have a particularly strong love of bowling, but I did like a fun adventure. They said, “Let’s go,” so I dropped my books and went.

What I’m saying is I would get it if Andrew and Peter dropped their nets to get out of doing something they didn’t really want to do. But that isn’t what was happening. These guys were fishermen. They made their living out on the water with their dad and their friends. If they were on Survivor, they’d be the most popular contestants; when people got hungry, they were the ones who said, “I’ll go catch some fish.” It was what they did; it was who they were.

We see the same thing with Philip in Acts 8. He was busy growing a megachurch in Samaria. Even the apostles came from Jerusalem to check it out. Then God called him away from that ministry to a desert road, and all the Bible says about Philip’s response is, “So he started out” (v. 27).

I don’t know if that challenges you today as much as it does me, but consider this: God isn’t nearly as impressed or concerned with what you think you’re good at as you are. His plans are not in any way dependent on your plans, or even your abilities; they are dependent only on your availability.

Sometimes following Jesus means leaving your nets behind, even if you’re really good at fishing.

It’s easier to drop what you’re doing when things aren’t going well, you feel unappreciated, unfulfilled, or there is the promise of even better things ahead. Certainly God uses seasons of discontent to move us where He wants us to go, but that’s usually because we were stubborn in the first place.

The greater measure of faith is when we answer His call out of what we see as good places – comfortable situations, successful work, the acceptance, appreciation, and even adulation of people. It’s when you’re not sure how His call will play out. It’s when His call and the opinions or expectations of others are two different things.

In essence, it is the call to trust Him more than you trust yourself.

This is the invitation He pokes His head in the back of the room and extends each and every day. What He asks us to drop is different for you than it is for me, but the question is the same: Will you get up and go?

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There is a time for everything…except that.

There is an occasion for everything,
and a time for every activity under heaven. Eccl. 3:1

Not that Kevin Bacon as Ren McCormack in Footloose wasn’t inspiring (clearly, he was), but it’s probably important to note that Solomon wasn’t trying to get the town to let the local high school have a senior prom when he wrote these words.

The context of Ecclesiastes 3 is Solomon’s melancholic realizations about life: we all die, and our pursuits and work die with us. Uplifting, right?

It’s an important point, though. Whether we use our time working, spending, or in a perpetual Netflix binge, we live in time, and time matters. Most of us prefer to live that time on the happy side of Solomon’s list, on the comfortable side of our own lists. Life is easier when you cut loose, footloose, kick off your Sunday shoes. But that’s missing the point.

God created time, and on His never-ending time-continuum, life  on earth is just a blip. It’s a blip, but it’s a blip with immense purpose. So even the downer side of Solomon’s list, the uncomfortable side of yours and mine, is appropriate and ultimately points to a greater reality:

There is never a time for not doing what God has called you to do.

Never.

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In Eph. 5:16, Paul took Solomon’s melancholy and put a powerful twist on it: make the most of time, because the days are evil.

Because the days are evil, because sometimes there’s crying, uprooting, tearing down, war, and silence – make the most of it. When you consider He has put eternity in our hearts (v. 11), it is the only appropriate response.

A little over a year ago was a time for me to step away from personal writing. For me, that meant setting this blog aside, along with a few other things. Without going into all the reasons why, it was the appropriate time for that decision. What wasn’t appropriate, though, was that it became a setting aside altogether. Indefinitely.

Other pursuits – good ones, even, that had me using the gifts God has given me, but not in the way He planned for this time – took priority because it was easier, more comfortable, and it felt safer being on that side of Solomon’s list. I was doing good things, but underneath it all, fully knowing it fell short.

I wasn’t making the most of the time.

And now I’m getting back to it. But the challenge for me is the same as it is for you. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a musician, make music. If you’re a speaker, speak. Servants should serve, teachers should teach, hosts should host, givers should give, leaders should lead. Take a break from a particular activity if it’s appropriate for a time, but don’t ever stop living out who God has made you to be in the ways He has made plain to you.

Numb and Number

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things….As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Colossians 3:2,12-14

napkinapptThis past weekend, I noticed I had written a date and time on a napkin on my desk with no other details. Fantastic.

I still don’t know who I was supposed to meet or where I was supposed to be yesterday at 9 am, but if it was you and you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I wish I could say this kind of absentmindedness is an isolated incident. I can’t.

One time I went to pick up a few things at the grocery store and used self checkout. I decided to get $40 cash while I was there. But it seems I never actually took the cash out of the cash dispenser thingy, and didn’t realize it until I got home. Surprisingly, it was not still there later.

My friend Kim took this picture and sent it to me the next day. She thinks she’s funny.

 

Maybe it’s middle-age, maybe it’s all the Coke Zero I drink, or maybe it’s both.  All I know is, I spend a lot of time standing in the middle of rooms in my house trying to figure out why I went there.

What I’m saying is that I lose focus. Day-to-day activities become rote, and my mind grows numb. When that happens, anything that veers from the norm in my routine can easily get forgotten.  If I don’t intentionally set my mind on the unusual tasks and activities in my day, I end up forging ahead with what is usual, instead.

In reading Colossians 3:1-17 and all the other passages about holiness these 3 weeks of New Start ’15, it hit me how the same thing can happen to us in relationship to Christ.

I don’t think any of us intend to live according to the earthly nature. We don’t receive grace and choose to follow Christ and at the very same time think about all the unholy things we plan to keep doing, too.

But we lose focus. Our sin nature is what is common and natural. Immorality, impurity, evil desires, greed, idolatry, anger, lies…these and other unholy things make up our default setting. Unless we intentionally set our minds on things above, we grow numb and just accept the propensity to sin as part of our lives.

I think that’s why Paul said to put the earthly nature to death. He didn’t say put it aside or try to avoid it or even maim it; he said to get rid of the thing. And then he told us how.

The answer that begins in verse 12 isn’t what we might expect. It’s not a list of verse 5 antonyms, like sexual morality and purity. If it were, we might think that our good behavior earns us right relationship with God; that if we walk a certain moral line, we’re holy. It doesn’t, and we’re not.

Instead, we’re told to clothe ourselves with kindness, compassion, humility, gentleness, patience, love…the same things identified in Galatians 5 as fruit of the Spirit. In other words, put to death what is common in your life and in the world, and set your mind on what is uncommon – things above, by daily submitting your heart and mind to the Holy Spirit’s control.