Sovereign Song Selection

Monday was a hard day.

Monday was Gotcha Day–six years ago on a Monday in Nanning, China, a little girl (whom we have since named Anah Joy) marched through the door of our hotel room and we became a family of six.

Despite the truth that special-needs adoption is a beautiful picture of the Gospel, the reality is that special-needs adoption is also very, very hard. And as much as we need to celebrate the goodness of God’s gift to us in this adoption, we would not be honest if we downplayed the difficulty that we have encountered in the course of these six years.

So I wasn’t really looking forward to Monday. It just felt like another reminder of how hard life has been, how much I have failed to love and lead my family well, and how far away any significant change feels.

I sat through my Talbot class early Monday morning, then headed immediately to church for our weekly staff meeting, attempted to cram six hours of work into two hours of afternoon, and got back on the crowded freeway to pick up Anah at home and take her to a physical therapy appointment.

After the appointment, as we got in the car to drive home, I selected a playlist from my phone because Anah loves to sing and listen to music (and I didn’t feel like trying to talk with her). I couldn’t think of any particular songs I wanted to listen to, so I hit “shuffle” and started driving.

Some people may argue that God’s sovereignty surely doesn’t dictate such small things as the order of songs in shuffle mode, but I think God selected the six songs that played in that 30-minute drive. Why do I think that? Because they weren’t just songs that Anah knew and could sing along with, but they were a series of songs that my moping soul desperately needed to hear on Gotcha Day 2018.

Now of course if a favorite song plays from a shuffled playlist (especially when the playlist is called “Favorites”), I don’t immediately think “Wow–God did that!” But when the song that plays connects directly with the particular heaviness my heart is feeling, I am grateful. And then when the second song that plays connects again with that heaviness, I think “Hmm…that’s pretty cool.” But this was six songs in a row! All the way home! Every one touched that hurting place in my heart, reminding me of God’s good work in the midst of the pain. You can do the math and figure out the probability if you want, but I say God selected those songs to minister to a son He sees and knows and cares for.

Monday was a hard day. But God ministered to my heart in the midst of all that is hard. And He did so in a rather unexpected and uncommon way. Isn’t that just like our God?

 

If you’re interested, here are the songs that God selected for me on Gotcha Day Monday:
Blessings (Laura Story)
Fall Apart (Josh Wilson)
The Hurt & The Healer (MercyMe)
Already There (Casting Crowns)
Mercy Awaits (Enfield)
All I Have Is Christ (Sovereign Grace Music)

 

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Treasure

The word “treasure” can be used as both a noun and a verb. The noun “treasure” refers to objects of immense value. The verb “treasure” implies granting high value to something by holding tightly to it. Thus a tattered stuffed animal, which has no monetary value whatsoever, can be treasured by the toddler who loves it and carries it around everywhere he goes.

What do you treasure?

Twice in Luke 2, we read that Mary, the mother of Jesus, “treasured up” something in her heart. When the shepherds came to see the baby Jesus, they told Mary and Joseph all that the angel had proclaimed to them about this baby who was their Savior and Messiah. How is a young mother to process the wonder that the baby she has just given birth to is the promised Savior of the world? Verse 19 tells us that Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

At the end of Luke 2, Mary and Joseph realized the boy Jesus was not with them on their journey home, and they frantically searched for him in Jerusalem, finally finding him sitting among the teachers in the temple, listening and asking questions. In response to Mary’s relieved reprimand, Jesus calmly replied that he must be in his Father’s house. Yet even after such a bombshell announcement, Jesus returned to his father’s home in Nazareth with his parents “and was submissive to them.” How is a young wife to process the perplexity that this son of hers has a Father who is not her husband? Here again, we find that Mary “treasured up all these things in her heart” (verse 51).

Mary had believed the angel when he revealed to her that she would be the mother of the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Yet I would not be surprised if, in the course of the 9 months of pregnancy and the first few years after birth, questions would have entered Mary’s mind: Was all this a big dream? Is this baby truly the Son of God? Thus to hear humble shepherds proclaiming words of confirmation from an angel, and to hear her 12-year-old son speaking of his heavenly Father, would have truly been treasures to the hopeful heart of this young woman of great faith.

So what do you treasure? Are you–am I–treasuring up the words of our Father that bring hope to our weary hearts?

Unfortunately, we can treasure things that do not carry the value of a treasure. We can hold tightly to bitterness as if it were a treasure of great value. We can store up anger and carry it around like the toddler’s precious stuffed animal. We can harbor envy or entitlement, despair or disdain, diligently guarding it from the penetrating gaze of the One to whom we must give an account (Hebrews 4:13).

Conversely, we can choose to treasure the beauty of the Gospel truth that God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We can treasure the hope that there is an eternal weight of glory being prepared for us through our temporary suffering here and now (2 Corinthians 4:17). We can hold tightly to the reality that God is present as our refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1).

I want to treasure up truths that will fuel my confidence and hope and joy in Christ. God is my greatest treasure, but will I treasure Him? Will you treasure your Treasure?

 

Beneath the Cross

I appreciate the careful thought that songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty give in crafting their modern hymns. Because they put such intention into their choice of words, we as listeners are invited to think deeply about what is being communicated in their lyrics. Hilltop House of Solitude 2

I’ve been listening to their song, Beneath the Cross, during my personal retreat at Hilltop Renewal Center near Idyllwild. The paradox of the cross is that we as sinners are completely unworthy of the astounding cost that Christ paid for us on that cross, yet His amazing mercy beckons us to come to Him. And because He has paid such a price, He does not call us to grovel before Him in our unworthiness but to actually stand in the righteousness He has placed on us. In the first stanza of this song, the Getty’s artfully depict that paradox in this way:

Beneath the cross of Jesus
I find a place to stand,
And wonder at such mercy
That calls me as I am;
For hands that should discard me
Hold wounds which tell me, “Come.”
Beneath the cross of Jesus
My unworthy soul is won.

The cross not only unites us as rescued sinners to Christ, but the cross also unites all of us rescued sinners to one another. Because every soul delivered by the blood of Christ is brought into union with Christ, then at the same time every one of those delivered souls are also united with one another. As Ephesians 2:11-22 describes it, we “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” We have been reconciled to God “in one body through the cross.” Standing together in Christ beneath the cross, we are now united to one another. The Getty’s express it this way:

Beneath the cross of Jesus
His family is my own—
Once strangers chasing selfish dreams,
Now one through grace alone.
How could I now dishonor
The ones that You have loved?
Beneath the cross of Jesus
See the children called by God.

Many practices can fuel our worship of God, but solitude retreats (like the one I’m on) create space for the practice of multiple disciplines in a focused time, which is why I think of retreats as a foundational discipline. Certainly my worship has been fueled in this time, through thinking deeply on this beautiful song, through immersing myself in the Word, through enjoying the beauty of God’s creation, and even through acknowledging and confessing sin. May your worship also be fueled as you think deeply–and stand tall–beneath the cross of Jesus.

 

 

cross at Hilltop 2018

 

Satisfying the Crowd

What motivates me? What drives my decisions? What are the (perhaps unacknowledged) desires of my heart that direct my actions and my words?

I’ve been reading through the Gospel of Mark lately, and one little phrase about Pontius Pilate jumped out at me. In Mark 15:15, the Gospel writer clues us in to the motivating desire in Pilate’s heart: “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.” Pilate was a politician, and his career teetered on the fickle, fluctuating applause of the people. Thus, satisfying the crowd had become the driving motivation of his heart, to the extent that he was willing to authorize the crucifixion of a man he believed was innocent, simply to satisfy the crowd.

The religious leaders of that time were also driven by their desire to pacify the people. Mark 12:12 says that they “feared the people” and thus altered their plans in order to avoid creating an uproar.

In sharp contrast, Jesus told His disciples (in Mark 13:13) that they should expect to be “hated by all” for the sake of His name. Satisfying the crowd was not the motivation that was to characterize followers of Jesus. And Jesus Himself modeled the same thing. Though He had crowds flocking around Him, He was not driven by a motivation to keep them happy. Instead, as the religious leaders mockingly (but truthfully) said about Him: “You do not care about anyone’s opinion. For You are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.” (Mark 12:14)

Obviously Jesus did care about people. He noticed those in need and responded with compassion and truth. But even in His merciful acts of kindness toward people, Jesus did not merely seek to make (or keep) them happy, but to point them to the only source of true and lasting happiness: relationship with His Father, God.

My prayer is that the same motivation will become increasingly the driving force behind the decisions that I make. And may you as well be less moved by the desire to satisfy the crowd than by the desire to please the One whose praise matters most.

Metaphors of God’s Beautifying Work

Woodworking is a hobby I greatly enjoy. Designing a piece of furniture to fit a particular need, and then crafting it to be not only functional but beautiful, is a very satisfying process.

But there’s one part of the process that I really don’t enjoy at all–sanding. Sanding is very tedious. And dusty. And repetitive. I know the importance of a good sanding job, but I also know how tempting it is to try to speed up the process. Because it is rather tedious and repetitive. (Wait–did I say that already?)

A good sanding job starts with coarse sandpaper, which takes out the major rough spots but leaves significant scratches on the face of the wood. The goal is to keep sanding with increasingly finer grits of sandpaper, and each grit in succession removes the scratches left by the previous coarser grit. This process continues until you are sanding with a very fine grit that doesn’t feel much different than regular paper. If you patiently stick with this painstaking (and repetitive) process, the end result is a piece of wood that is silky smooth, even soft, to the touch. Sanding makes it beautiful.

Writing is also something I enjoy (though I wouldn’t quite consider it a hobby). Putting words together on a page, not only to convey some information but to captivate minds and hearts with truth, is a satisfying and meaningful process.

But writing (at least for a novice like me) also has a tedious and repetitive aspect to it–editing. Combing through pages and pages of text to unearth all the little inconsistencies and missing punctuation marks, correcting them, and then reading through those same pages again to find the errors created by the changes that were made, is almost as tedious and repetitive as sanding a woodworking project. At least it isn’t dusty, though. And sticking with the painstaking, repetitive process of editing results in a piece of writing that sparkles with clarity and punch. Editing makes it beautiful.

Perhaps because I recently finished a woodworking project for a friend, and in the same week completed the editing for a major writing project, I began to see the similarities between sanding and editing. Both are repetitive, tedious tasks, yet both are vitally important in making the finished product beautiful. As such, both sanding and editing can be metaphors of God’s beautifying work in His people.

God’s work in us is sometimes slow, often repetitive, perhaps even painful. Sometimes it seems like it’s merely raising a bunch of dust, and we need to be reminded that the Master Craftsman forms beautiful things out of dust.

God’s work in us graciously reveals all our little inconsistencies, corrects our errant ways, and adds intriguing twists to our storyline that we would not have imagined. It may feel like we’re repeating the same process over and over, and we need to be reminded that the Master Storyteller weaves beautiful tales out of hopeless situations.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will
bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Philippians 1:6

 

In Need of Hope

Hope is not a commodity that can be gained by a sheer force of the will. Hope is the fruit of focusing my heart and mind on the truth.

Because of that reality, I find myself returning again and again to a little book by Greg Lucas called Wrestling with an Angel. In it Greg shares poignantly of his experience as a father of a son with severe special needs. His story ministers to me in a number of ways. It gives me perspective, because what he has dealt with is far, far harder than the things I am dealing with in caring for my daughter with less severe special needs. Though I have never met Greg personally, his story connects me to a community of fellow-sufferers, helping me feel a little less alone in the struggles I face. And his story gives me permission to struggle: to accept the limitations of my humanness, to acknowledge the depth of my sin, and to trust in the God who loves me in my weakness.

But more than any of those other ways that Wrestling with an Angel ministers to me, its primary ministry is simply to hold up the truth of the Gospel of grace. As I soak in that truth, hope stirs within me.

Here is one truth from the first chapter, which brought tears to my eyes–and hope to my heart–when I was reminded of it again just yesterday.

I hear religious-minded people say all the time with good intentions, “God will never place a burden on you so heavy that you cannot carry it.”

Really?

My experience is that God will place a burden on you so heavy that you cannot possibly carry it alone. He will break your back and your will. He will buckle your legs until you fall flat beneath the crushing weight of your load. All the while He will walk beside you waiting for you to come to the point where you must depend on Him.

“My power is made perfect in your weakness,” He says, as we strain under our burden.

Whatever the burden, it might indeed get worse, but I know this—God is faithful. And while we change and get old, He does not. When we get weaker, He remains strong. And in our weakness and humility, He offers us true, lasting, transforming, and undeserved grace.

It is this grace that enables us to do more than survive in this world. Grace enables us to thrive in the presence of this world’s sufferings while magnifying the One who breaks us with affliction—that He might equip us with comfort, compassion, and strength to give to others.

[pg. 12-13]

Greg’s story does much more than merely inspire me. It stirs hope within me, because of the rock-solid truth that it proclaims.

If you also are in need of hope, may you find it as you anchor your heart in the truth of God’s amazing grace. You can read the first chapter of Greg’s little book here; better yet, buy it for yourself so that you can read it again and again.

 

What NOT to Do with Warning Lights

I think you already know the answer to this one, but let me just state the obvious: the worst thing to do with a warning light is to ignore it. The worst course of action is inaction whenever the warning light comes on.

I was reading a ministry newsletter the other day, and the author was commenting on the Low Power Mode feature of the iPhone. He wrote, “If only our souls had this feature. Some regular reminder to us that says, ‘Hey Dan, Susie, Jack–your battery is running low. Shut down all unnecessary activity. Don’t drain yourself any further. Go plug yourself back into the Source.'”

I definitely concur with that sentiment!

But the more that I think about it, the more I realize that the problem is not the lack of a reminder or the absence of a special feature like Low Power Mode. No, the problem is what we do with the reminders when they come or with the warning lights when they pop up. All too often, we ignore them.

Actually, we do the same with our iPhones too. At least I do. When I see that low battery warning pop up and the option to enter Low Power Mode, what is my usual response? “Meh, there’s still 18% left–I’m good.” “There’s still 12% left–I’ll make it.” “It’s only at 5% not zero–I’ve got time.”

That may work on an iPhone, which has safeguards programmed in to ensure no loss of data happens from it’s owner’s stupidity, but it’s certainly not the way our life is to be lived. I happen to know…from experience.

This week was supposed to be a major deadline week for me–in fact, today was the deadline for submitting to our designer all the content I’ve been writing for a Bible study series for our church. This has been months in the making, with many long hours and late nights. And now it was down to the wire and crunch time was on. Well, the low battery warning finally blinked on last Thursday when I started feeling a scratchy throat and some congestion. I didn’t totally ignore it (just mostly ignored it)–I reached out to a couple brothers and asked them to pray for me–and then I powered on so that I could finish the job. Can’t stop now!

Well, by Saturday night the scratchy throat had morphed into a burning throat, such that sleep was impossible. So Sunday morning found me in a sleep-deprived haze, with no voice above a hoarse whisper, scrambling to find people to cover my responsibilities at church (responsibilities which I had been looking forward to doing) so that I could collapse on the couch and doze fitfully. Low Power Mode had arrived, but not by my foresight or choice.

After another mostly sleepless night and the discovery that I couldn’t even drink water without gagging from the pain, my daughter brought me to the Urgent Care Center to find out what was going on (other than the obvious answer that my battery had finally been depleted completely). With apologies to my good friends who are physicians, sometimes a doctor’s report of the facts seems to miss something of the drama that has precipitated such a visit. After sitting in the ice-cold waiting room for over an hour, then sitting for another 20 minutes in the stuffy exam room, a cheerful young PA gives a 2-second peek past my tonsils and declares that there is a slight inflammation of the throat.  “Slight inflammation?! Buddy, this thing’s on fire! It hurts so much I haven’t slept for 2 nights! And you have the gall to call it slight?!”

So I left Urgent Care with a couple prescriptions in my hand and just as much pain in my throat. But God has been gracious over these past couple days, and the pain is gradually subsiding…but I missed my deadline today. So I’ll have to trust His grace for that as well. I bet I would have been much closer to meeting the deadline if I had paid better attention to the warnings that I was stretching myself too thin. I could stay up all night and push through to catch up for what I missed–after all, I’m feeling much better by now–but I think that might be missing the point. So instead, good-night! It’s time for the ‘ole battery to recharge.