Delighting in the Storm

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Let’s talk about the weather. Have you ever had a storm ruin a perfectly good day at the beach? Instead of sunning on the sand you sulked on the sofa, watching the last hours of your vacation drizzle away in a grey fog. Why doesn’t God make every day blue skies and sunshine?

But weather’s a funny thing. Have you ever had a sunshine ruin a perfectly good rainy day to stay inside and not mow the lawn? Okay, that probably hasn’t happened since you were 14 – but you can easily imagine a scenario where rain, not sun, is the desired weather condition. There’s Murphy’s Law, as it relates to weather: we wish for sunny days, and get rain. We hope for rain as a good excuse for inactivity, and get sunshine instead. “That’s the weather for you,” we say, and shrug our shoulders and move on.

But there’s a value system imbedded in the whole Murphy’s Law-weather conundrum. It’s so common and universal we almost never notice it. Subtly, unobtrusively, but persuasively, it says, “A stormy day is bad if it interferes with my plans; it is good if it furthers my plans.” Do you see the value system, the assumed point of reference? Me. My plans. This is my universe, and everything in it must bow to me!

Okay, that’s probably a bit extreme. Most of us don’t take our gripes about the weather quite that far. But the pattern prevails: I rank external circumstances – sadly, even people – by whether they serve me or hinder me. Don’t you?

The problem is that such a way of looking at the world will frustrate us (since we all do this, you have seven billion competitors all attempting to run the world to the beat of their own drum) and lead us to an empty, vain life. Actually, even that’s not the ultimate problem. The ultimate problem is that seeing the world through this lens puts us on a collision course with the One who does rule all things for his purposes.

There’s a better way, the way of the creature before our Creator. C.S. Lewis was learning this even before he became a Christian:

The first lifelong friend I made at Oxford was A. K. Hamilton Jenkin…He continued…my education as a seeing, listening, smelling, receptive creature…Jenkin seemed able to enjoy everything; even ugliness. I learned from him that we should attempt a total surrender to whatever atmosphere was offering itself at the moment; in a squalid town to seek out those very places where its squalor rose to grimness and almost grandeur, on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge… [to have] a serious, yet gleeful, determination to rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was.

“To rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was.” I don’t know if Jenkin was a Christian, but that’s a Christian virtue. This world is God’s world, not ours. God delights in the windy-ness of the wind and the stormy-ness of the storm just as much as he does the sunniness of the sun. And he invites us to share in his delight – not to assign value to his creation based on whether it fits our plans.

That’s not to say you can’t ask for sunshine for your beach vacation. But here’s a thought. The next time the weather doesn’t cooperate, when the storm clouds ruin your plans, find a way to “rub your nose” in the storm, delighting in its stormy-ness. Then we can say with the psalmist,

O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all” (Psalm 104:24).

Even the storms.

Photo by USFWS.

5 Easy Steps to a Shallow Christian Life

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Wait no longer! Write them on Post-It notes, cross-stitch them on your pillow, have Siri repeat them to you daily.

1. Don’t stop searching until you’ve found “The Secret to the Christian Life.”

It’s out there! Don’t give up. It might be baptism in the Holy Spirit. It might be true surrender. It might be faith. It might be resting in what God’s already done. It might be…well, you go find it on your own. Don’t let the fact that two thousand years of Christian history has yet to produce the final solution to the perplexities of living as redeemed sinners in a fallen world stop you. Maybe the secret was just waiting for YOU to get out there and discover it…

2. In your advice to yourself and to other believers, use the word “just” regularly.

This will be a lot easier after you’ve found the answer to #1. Then you can tell people, “Stop struggling! Just (insert SOCL [Secret of Christian Life] here).” Until then, sprinkle “just” in as many tidbits of advice as possible: : “Just believe…just remember…just trust God.” That helps remind people that, after all, the Christian life is really easy. So suck it up and deal with it, wimp.

3. For simplicity’s sake, assume that God deals with everyone in exactly the same way. If you want to make things even simpler, assume that you’re the pattern.

Listen, there are a lot of Christians out there. If you let the thought enter your mind that God is a person who might deal with people as unique individuals, not generic cookie-cutter-Christians, it will overwhelm you! You might have to actually listen to people, charitably assume that God is at work in their life in ways you can’t see, or even learn from the ways they’re different from you. That’s going to take a lot of time. Just don’t go there. Here’s the code you live by: God is easy to figure out, not very creative, and has already used all his tricks in your life. (I know, it seems a little hard on God, but trust me on this one. The alternative is just way too complicated. You’ll thank me later.)

4. Don’t waste time checking your assumptions against the Bible.

After all, there’s only so much time in the day! Begin your sentences about your key beliefs with, “The Bible clearly says…” but don’t bother with actually proving it. The basis for this is that everything that’s worth knowing in Scripture is so clear that only a fool wouldn’t already see it from your point of view. If you can find one verse that proves your point, that’s more than adequate!

5. Reduce everything to “5 Easy Steps.”

See? I’ve already modeled it for you! Remember, the point is EASY steps. It’s not enough to just list things that are true (preachers do that all the time). The real test is whether or not you can make them so simplistic that they require no work or deep thought. That’s the mark of a true Easy List.

Actually, these are probably the definitive 5 Easy Steps for the Christian life, so there may be nothing left to reduce to further lists. You’d probably be better off just memorizing this one.

Photo by Barbara Eckstein

Don’t Use Scripture Like This!

Does anybody remember the old Viewmaster toys? The Viewmaster was a plastic contraption that looked like a cheap pair of binoculars. You dropped a circular cardboard reel with tiny squares of 3D film into a slot, looked through the Viewmaster, and voila! The tiny film suddenly became a 3D world. After you got tired of one picture, you moved a lever and advanced to the next square of film. As long as you pointed the Viewmaster at a good light source, the picture was pretty clear, but if you pointed it at a dark corner of the room your vision of Mickey and Minnie Mouse got a lot fuzzier.  I was fascinated with Viewmaster for several years as a kid before the novelty wore off.

I know, you’re wondering why I’m dragging you down memory lane with me and what this has to do with the Bible. But before I answer that, let me tell you one more story.

When I was about nine, I found out I needed eyeglasses. I was not a happy camper. I cried all the way home from the eye doctor. I wanted to be a mountain man like Davy Crockett when I grew up, and everybody knows mountain men don’t wear glasses. The cursed eyewear crushed my career plans in one fell swoop. There was a silver lining in the cloud, however; blades of grass, leaves, and small insects suddenly returned to my world! I had forgotten there were so many hard edges and clear lines out there. Fuzziness had become the norm.

Viewmasters and eyeglasses. Both let you see things, but with very different results. One let you see, with varying degrees of clarity, a miniature world that had nothing to do with your life. Mickey Mouse might look close enough to touch, but when you put down the Viewmaster you weren’t going to find him standing in your living room. But glasses are different. Put on a pair of glasses and suddenly everything in your world took on new crispness. You could see things you had never seen before.

Too often we read the Bible as though it’s a Viewmaster, not a pair of eyeglasses. The stories, the prayers, the praises and songs become windows into another world that has little to do with our own lives. Maybe we can describe with great accuracy and detail Abraham’s faith in God or Paul’s boldness for Christ – but when we put the Bible down we’re still just as anxious or timid as we were before.

God intends better things for his Word and his people than mere insight into past lives or historical situations. Scripture is a pair of eyeglasses, not a Viewmaster. It is a story of how God has acted and is acting to save his people through Jesus. It’s the story of how God is saving and transforming you.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that you and I are the stars of the show. The star is our God, who saves sinners through Christ in the power of the Spirit. But as we see how God acts we are intended to see the world around us and our own lives with increasing clarity. God is not merely the God who once turned evil to good in the life of Joseph; he is the God who even now, perhaps in the darkest hour of your life, is creating a story with a triumphant, joyful ending. He is not only the God who reversed childless Hannah’s fortunes and gave her Samuel; he is the God who will one day, when Christ returns, repay everything you thought he took away with blessings unimaginable.

It’s not enough to simply know what God did in the past for people whose lives are distant from ours. To live faithfully and joyfully in this world we need to see our present circumstances with new eyes: eyes of faith, eyes trained by the Word to see what God sees. May God “enlighten the eyes of your hearts, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

Photo by Delirio Verde Anaranjado

Syria, Civil War, and King Jesus

Recently the civil war in Syria and America’s possible military intervention has been occupying a lot of time in the headlines. Attention is focused in both national and international news on President Obama’s request that Congress approve military action in response to the chemical weapons attack that took place on August 21st. The death tolls from that specific attack are estimated in the hundreds, possibly as many as 1,400, but the total casualties from the two-year long civil war are around 100,000.

How do we as Christians think about and respond to this kind of human suffering and evil? Let’s be honest – it’s difficult to process something like this Christianly, isn’t it? I find it easy to alternate between two easier, but unhelpful, responses. It’s easy to have a partisan political reaction and simply “toe the party line,” supporting whoever you voted for. It’s easy simply to ignore the situation as long as it doesn’t affect you personally. Those are easy ways to process it – but they don’t ultimately deal with the realities of life in a fallen world, life that includes things like civil wars and sarin gas attacks. Let me suggest four Christians “lenses” through which we can think about this situation.

The ultimate problem is human sinfulness. Without a worldview that includes God, we’re left straining to explain how humans do such horrible things as gas one another. Is it a lack of education? Is it poverty? Is it rage against injustice and oppression? No, not ultimately. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve rebelled against God; in Genesis 4, the blood of the first murder victim stained the earth. Every tear of sorrow, every crime, every war in human history can be traced back to our rebellion against God. Claiming to be wise, we have become fools. Hating God in our hearts, we hate one another as well (Titus 3:3). Yes, in a situation like Syria there are multiple layers of injustice and wrong committed by both sides. But underneath the entire problem is the seething enmity between God and man. Civil wars come from human sinfulness.

Governments have a role in restraining the effects of sin. With so many discouraging headlines, it’s to become cynical about any government. But we as Christians can’t give in to that temptation. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 make it clear that one way God restrains human evil is through the gift of government. While I don’t pretend to know what the right political solution to a problem like Syria is (and in a fallen world there are often no good solutions, only the “least worst” solution), it is right for President Obama and other world leaders to attempt to address the situation. Having said that…

Only King Jesus can bring true peace. Until the Lord returns there will be wars and rumors of wars. Governments can restrain human sinfulness; they cannot eradicate it. Only the second coming of our King can finally deal with the problem of sin. On that day justice will be done. On that day peace will finally come. The sins of every human being, great and small, will either be covered by the blood of Christ or charged to the humans who committed them. There are no utopian solutions to our problems in this world, and we of all people should see through shallow claims of false redeemers.

So Christians should pray. We have access to the one Ruler who can actually accomplish his purposes! Pray for peace in Syria, even though all human peace is limited. Pray for God to save men and women through this suffering. Pray for our brothers and sisters in Syria. And pray with those brothers and sisters: come Lord Jesus!

Photo by Freedom House

When All You Can See Is How Bad Things Are

Lazarus of Bethany is dying.  In desperation his sisters Martha and Mary send for Jesus.

He may hesitate to come – the local religious leaders are seething with hatred for him – they’re watching for him with stones in hand – so the sisters don’t ask him directly, but appeal to his love for their brother – “Lord, he whom you love is ill,” knowing Jesus would want to return to heal languishing Lazarus. But Jesus doesn’t come right away.

But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4).

How can Jesus know this illness won’t lead to death?  He isn’t there.  He can’t see Lazarus writhing and groaning on his deathbed. He doesn’t see Martha mopping the sweat on her brother’s brow or Mary helping him take a few precious sips of water.

Jesus knows because he’s God.  He knows all things, past, present and future.  And he knows what he will do in the future. From Martha and Mary’s perspective, it looks desperate.  But Jesus has a different perspective – a divine perspective:  “This illness does not lead to death.  It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through It.”  Someday, something will lead to Lazarus’ final death, but THIS illness won’t. This illness will lead to an opportunity to glorify God and glorify the Son of God.

God has a greater perspective than we do.

We might only be able to see how evil a situation is, how gut-wrenchingly sad and burdensome it is.  And God doesn’t deny that.  We live in a fallen world pervaded with heartbreak, devastation and death.  It is sad.  Jesus doesn’t refute that.

He doesn’t say, “Oh, Lazarus isn’t that bad.”  It’s just that Jesus, as God, sees a much more complete panorama than anyone else.  He can see whole picture, the whole vista.  He can see the future and knows what he is going to do.  He’s going to take something evil – Lazarus’ death – and turn it to God’s glory.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)

For his children, God takes all things, including genuinely evil things – sickness, injustice, sin, hurt, divorce, depression, accidents, hunger, pain, poverty – and triumphs over them, causing them to bring us good.  He takes poison and transforms it into a cure.  He takes a crucifixion and transforms it into salvation for multitudes.

Jesus answered Martha and Mary’s request – not in the way they expected, but in a far greater way.

He could have come immediately and healed Lazarus, which would have been wonderful.  But instead, by delaying, he glorified himself in a much greater way by raising Lazarus from the dead – a much more amazing miracle.  Jesus could answer your prayers immediately if he wanted to.  If he hasn’t he’s got something far greater in mind for you.

Trust him.  Wait for him.

photo by zaana

Listening To The Blues

I’ve noticed a pattern in my heart recently. At the end of the day, after work or preaching or even a day off filled with recreation, I find myself beginning to get just a touch “blue” – not a word you’ll find in your Bible, I know, but a good description. This isn’t depression or deep discouragement or hopelessness, but just a barely-present feeling of low-grade dissatisfaction with something, if I could just put my finger on it. It’s easier to describe it by what I notice is lacking: a zeal and an excitement to approach another day in God’s world. Instead, I’ve been feeling just a touch “ho-hum.” Until this morning.

This morning the Lord spoke to me through the first two verses in Psalm 111. “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.” The phrase “with my whole heart” grabbed me. I had begun my devotions asking the Lord to show me what was going on in my heart. I knew I needed help “listening to the blues” – in other words, actually interpreting what this “stuff” going on in my heart meant. When I read that verse I realized that, once again, my heart has been given over to other things recently – good things, but things other than God Himself. And yet those good things can’t truly bring me life – hence the blueness.

The more I thought about it and prayed, the more I realized how important “listening to the blues” is for my soul. This isn’t an isolated experience for me, but something of a cycle. I begin to find my energy and zest for life not in the Lord, but in the things I do for the Lord: pastoring, preaching, studying, talking with people; or my personal pursuits:  hobbies, books, etc. The problem is none of those can really give life – only the Lord can! And when they become my functional reason for living, no matter how subtle a shift that might be, they are bound to disappoint and leave me dissatisfied. If I just live with that dissatisfaction without listening to what it’s telling me, the “blues” become like a low grade, untreated fever that never goes away.

So what’s the solution? Repent of hewing out cisterns that can’t hold water and come back to the God who is the fountain of living waters (Jer. 2:13)! This morning I was able to do that, and found my joy and life beginning to return. Will my day change outwardly all that much? Probably not. But inwardly, I’ve been reminded yet again that Jesus alone can provide abundant life. When my heart is inclined towards Him, everything else finds its proper meaning and place. When it’s leaning elsewhere for satisfaction, nothing can give my day meaning and purpose.

So do you know how to listen to the blues? Do you know how to listen to the music of your soul and trace the subtle trail of your heart’s affections? It’s not complicated. Whatever we find life, energy, and meaning from is what has our heart’s affections. Listening to the blues will tell you where those affections are set. The good news is that God is not out to squelch our affections or desires, but to be the fountain of living water that animates every other part of our life. Listen to your blues. Then listen to the One who offers life satisfaction at no cost:

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).

Two Steves, And What Really Matters

I was sad when Steve Jobs died two days ago.

It felt like the sadness when John Lennon was killed. It’s funny, though most of us don’t know celebrities personally, we often feel a connection to them because we’ve enjoyed their work.  They’ve contributed something to our lives and we’ll miss them.

But yesterday I couldn’t help but think of how many “unknown” Christians died the same day Steve Jobs did.

Missionaries who served for decades in obscurity. Little old Christian grandmas who quietly left this world from elderly care homes after devoting their lives to their families. Pastors we will never hear about in this life who labored faithfully week after week preaching the word of God. Faithful believers who loved and served who we’ll never know about in this life.

I thought of Carol, a godly Christian wife and mom who died recently after decades of being wheelchair bound and bed-ridden because of MS. I thought of John, a Christian husband and dad who cheerfully battled Lou Gehrig’s disease on his way to heaven.

I couldn’t help but think of my friend Steve Murphy.

Tomorrow it will be 2 years since he lost a battle with cancer and went home to be with the Lord. Steve lived his life for Jesus Christ. He was a pastor in our church for 10 years. He devoted himself to his wife and children. He loved and cared for God’s people. He was a real example of faith. He trusted God for many years through many trials, including his oldest son’s suffering as a result of a car accident.

I couldn’t help but think of the two Steves.  And what matters.

Steve Jobs gained worldly acclaim, success and wealth.
Steve Murphy knew Christ and gained heaven.

Steve Jobs changed much about the world through his genius, from computers to music.
Steve Murphy changed lives for eternity.

Steve Jobs leaves us the legacy of Apple.
Steve Murphy left the legacy of a godly wife, believing children and hundreds of others he touched for Christ.

Steve Jobs received the praises of men.
Steve Murphy heard Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I know very little about Steve Jobs. So I don’t want to say he didn’t affect others for good apart from his work. He may have been a loving husband and father.  He may have given away millions to charity.  He too may have left a wonderful legacy besides his work.

But thinking of the two Steves made me think of this passage:

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:26-27)

I want to leave a legacy like Steve Murphy.

What’s Your Interpretation? (Part 2)

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It’s not the FACTS of our circumstances, but the INTERPRETATION we bring to them that determines whether we experience blessing or trouble from them (see my earlier post).

In Lost in the Middle, Paul Tripp describes 2 sufferers, whose interpretations of their trials have radically different consequences:

Phil, a successful managing engineer, was laid off at age 40.

“At first Phil seemed like he was doing quite well. He talked about God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. He seemed quite confident that, with his résumé and experience, he would soon be back to work. He got his résumé out and anticipated quick responses. Phil was shocked when the first batch of mailings didn’t even get one response. After a month of the same his confidence began to flag.”

“Phil’s wife Sarah noticed at first. He was spending hours alone in his office at home. He was increasingly short tempered and irritable. There were outbursts of anger that she had never experienced before. Phil became more sullen and depressed as the months dragged on…”

Eventually Phil committed adultery and rejected God.

“He couldn’t believe that a good God would let this happen to him. He couldn’t believe that after years of obeying God, this is what he got. He felt like everything he had ever worked for had been taken away from him….He saw life as unfair and unjust and God as distant and uncaring. Bitter and cynical, Phil not only forsook his family; he forsook his faith as well.”

Dean, in upper management, was physically active, loved sports and the outdoors. At 46 he suffered a series of strokes.

“Dean was very discouraged to be on disability such a young age. He had lost his physical capabilities so early in life that he could not imagine what the years to come were going to bring…. but Dean was firm in his belief that God is good, and he was humble enough to recognize that he did not deserve anything that had been taken from him. He also realized that every day he still received from the hand of the Lord everything he needed to do what God called for him to do.”

“Dean began to see disability as an opportunity and the fact that he had many years ahead of him as a real benefit. He could do things that many people yearn to do but are never able. Dean had been able to put his job behind him at a very young age and turned his focus to active Kingdom ministry…. Dean refused to give in to the discouragement that he so powerfully felt or the doubts that had hit his heart with the force of a sledgehammer…. Although living with a chronic disease was very hard, Dean lived each day with joy and expectancy, busy at the work that God had given him to do.”

How are you interpreting the facts of your life today?

I hope that whether you’re enjoying blessings or enduring pain, you see your circumstances as ordained by our sovereign, loving God for his glory and your ultimate joy.

photo by Leo Reynolds

What’s Your Interpretation?

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“We do not live by the facts of our experiences, but by the ways that our interpretations have shaped those facts for us…. Whatever trouble [life] brings to us is essentially caused by the wrong thinking we bring to it.” –Paul David Tripp, Lost in the Middle

It’s not the FACTS of our lives that bring us trouble or blessing, but our INTERPRETATION of them.

We can interpret a painful trial in various ways. Interpretation #1: God is not good. He doesn’t care about me.

This interpretation won’t bless you, but bring you trouble.

Same trial, Interpretation #2: Though this is extremely painful, God is sovereign, loving and good. He has ordained this trial ultimately to display his glory and bring me gladness in him. He never does me evil, only good, so in the end, this is for my good.

This interpretation will bless you.

In Genesis 45, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers who have not seen him since wickedly selling him into slavery almost 20 years earlier:

And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God…(3-8)

Joseph’s amazing interpretation: Though you sold me here, ultimately it was God who sent me before you to provide for you and your families in this famine. “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Later, after their father dies, his brothers again fear Joseph will take revenge.

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (GE 50.19-20).

Joseph interpreted his brothers’ sins against him as ordained by God to get him to Egypt, where as Pharaoh’s right hand man he could provide for them in famine. Joseph saw their sins as being under the control of his sovereign, loving God who causes evil to work for his glory and the good of his people.

Whatever the facts of your life, look to the Lord and his Word for the interpretation. Trust God’s interpretation and put your hope in him.

photo by riacale