Strength for today–Hope for tomorrow

I love the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness (by Thomas Chisholm). This weekend I was at two different gatherings of ministries who were celebrating major milestones and we sang this hymn at both events. Even though it is an old and familiar hymn, as I sang it again tears came unbidden to my eyes. God used one line in particular to minister deeply to my heart in that moment, primarily because of how that line connects with my own story, but also because it connected with the stories of the ministries we were celebrating.

This great hymn praises God for His faithfulness, while expounding many of the ways we as His people experience that faithfulness. In the third stanza, the fruit of God’s faithfulness that grabbed my heart was the line “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Strength is not something I must muster up or produce, but it comes because God is indeed faithful. And hope is not merely an elusive emotion that comes and goes with the circumstances–it is a solid and constant reality because God’s faithfulness is solid and constant.

Life with a child with developmental disabilities quickly drains today’s strength and clouds tomorrow’s hope. And the more todays and tomorrows that come and go with seemingly little change can make it very hard to recover strength for yet another day, or to keep hope alive for yet another tomorrow. Add to that the ongoing battle with the sin of my heart, and strength and hope threaten to disappear altogether.

It’s one thing to sing that line in the hymn when you are feeling strong and when hope abounds–then you sing with great enthusiasm. It’s quite another thing to sing that line when your strength is failing and your hope is fading–then you sing with a deep gratitude borne out of desperation because you know that apart from the faithfulness of God, you will not be able to keep going.

And yet, God is truly faithful! In Him there IS strength for yet another day, and there IS hope that all these todays are not the end. Therefore I can sing (and so can you):

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
  Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
    “Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!”

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What’s out there? vs. What’s in me?

Should I sing in the choir?

Should I help at the food bank?

Should I teach Sunday school?

Should I join the planning committee for the men’s retreat?

Should I apply for the mission team heading to Thailand?

Amidst long lists of important opportunities to serve, how am I to figure out the unique role God has for me in the Body?

The way we tend to answer that question is by first asking “What’s out there?” In other words, what’s on the list of Opportunities to Serve? In that case it is often the biggest event or the most persistent recruiter or the most urgent need that captures our attention and moves us to sign up.

Certainly there is value in responding to a call to serve or in attempting to fill a need, even if that opportunity to serve is not our lifelong passion. In Nehemiah’s day, when God’s people were rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, someone had to repair the Dung Gate, and most likely the district ruler named Malchijah who did the job would not have listed that as his favorite thing to do (Nehemiah 3:14). In our day, any parent could tell you that there is a never-ending list of mostly mundane tasks that go into caring for a child. Those things are of immense importance, yet few moms would consider diaper-changing as her primary role in the Body!

I believe there is another way to find our unique contribution to the family of God. Rather than first checking to see “What’s out there?” we need to be asking “What’s in me?” How has God shaped me–in my spiritual gifts, natural abilities, experience and passion–to carry out a unique and needed role in the Body of Christ?

It’s possible that nothing on the list of service opportunities fits the unique combination of heart and skills and experience that God has given me. But that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook and don’t have to serve. Nor does it require that I sigh and select something from the list just so I can say I’m serving. Instead, what that means is that I need to find out what makes me come alive…and then go and do it, even if it’s not on the list.

Each Christian has been given by God a unique ministry that is needed for the proper functioning of the Body. What could the Church become–and accomplish–if every person were carrying out the role that God designed us for?! So if a volunteer is needed to change diapers in the nursery, do it with all your heart. But don’t stop there. Keep asking yourself “What has God given uniquely to me for the building up of His Church?” And then figure out a way to go and do it!

My Favorite Book (of the Bible)

In an online course I’m taking on research and writing, my professor encouraged the class to pick a favorite book of the Bible as a go-to topic to focus our writing around. His inspiration for that recommendation was from a sermon by Pastor John Piper in which Piper encouraged his listeners to make a life-project out of getting to know one favorite book of the Bible really deeply. That simple suggestion sparked some serious reflection on what my favorite book of the Bible would be.

I realized I had never really considered that question before. I have a favorite verse: Second Corinthians 9:8. I have a favorite chapter: Romans chapter 8. I have several favorite Psalms: 46, 63, and 130, among others. Jonah is a little book that I have studied and taught often. Philippians is a book I have memorized. But if I had to pick one book as my favorite, what would that be?

I figured it would have to be a book that I keep coming back to again and again, both in my own devotional life and also in my teaching and preaching. It would have to focus on key themes that have become my heartbeat and passion. It would have to contain multiple large sections that continually minister deeply to my heart. And if it were to become a life-long project of plumbing its depths, it would have to hold my curiosity and interest throughout varying seasons of life.

So as I thought through the various sections of Scripture that I am regularly drawn to, what God brought to mind was 2 Corinthians chapters 3-5 and portions of chapters 1, 9 and 12. In those sections are themes of transformation, suffering, dependence, hope, and glory. It is the intersection of those themes that is becoming more and more the driving passion of my ministry to the Church. So 2 Corinthians takes the prize as my favorite book in the Bible.

Granted, there is much in 2 Corinthians that I have not studied very deeply and which may not carry the same interest to me as these favorite sections, but as I compared this book with other possible favorites, I became more and more convinced that this was the one for me to invest deeply in for the remainder of my life on earth.

What about you? If you are a Christian who reads the Bible, what is your favorite book? I pray that this consideration might spark in you the same kind of interest and desire as it has surfaced in me. And feel free to leave a comment–I’d love to hear your favorite book of the Bible too.

Becoming the Gospel

As a pastor, a part of my role is to teach our church to increasingly become a welcoming and hospitable community for whomever God brings through our doors. That role became deeply personal when God called my family to adopt a little girl with special needs. Thus when I read what author and speaker Paul Miller wrote in his seeJesus ministry newsletter recently, I was both encouraged as a special-needs dad and challenged as a hospitality pastor.

So whether you are as directly connected with special needs as I am–and as Paul Miller and his wife Jill are through their adult daughter with special needs, Kim–or whether you are simply a churchgoer who might occasionally encounter someone with special needs, I hope you will take the time to read the snippets of Paul’s newsletter that I have reproduced below. What he wrote here was part of an email conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada, who asked for his opinion on “why the church and its seminaries have a systemic problem when it comes to embracing special-needs families.”

The problem of the church not enjoying and welcoming people affected by disabilities but actually distancing itself is strikingly pervasive. Several years ago, Jill asked me to video Kim walking from the close of church service downstairs to her Sunday school room. It is a moving 12-minute almost silent video. Only two out of 50 people greet her. And this is a very caring church that we had attended for 12 years.

I believe the problem is not bad theology but missing theology. There are four misses, each a function of the other: Missing the person of Jesus, missing community, missing gospel, and missing holiness.

Once you marginalize Jesus as a person, his teaching and life lose their punch. You no longer feel the weight of the kind of community he is creating, as in Luke 14 when he tells his host that he invited all the wrong people to his party, that it may look like generosity on the host’s part, but really it is just an exchange because they are going to invite him back. Next time he has a feast, he is to go out and invite the disabled, the blind and the poor. This isn’t about something else–it is about who I invite to my next party. Jesus is dead serious.

He wants the community that bears his name to love the least, the lost and the lonely. This completely transforms even as simple an act as entering a room of friends and strangers. My first question is not, “Who do I know? Who would I be comfortable with?” but “Who is lost, who is weak, who can I include?” So instead of searching for community, I’m creating community wherever I go.

[In Philippians 3:7-11] Paul is talking about two complementary ways of knowing Christ. The first, v. 7-9, I call “believing the gospel” and the second, v. 10-11, I call “becoming the gospel.” That is, once a foundation of justification is laid, we enter into the shape of Jesus’ life, what I like to call the J-Curve.

I like the letter “J” because it traces the downward path of Jesus’ life into death then upward into resurrection. Paul wants that. He doesn’t just want free justification, he also wants the experience of re-enacting in all his life, all his relationships, the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Paul embodies Jesus. So the entire Christian life is a life of suffering-love followed by repeated resurrections. …We aren’t Stoics, we don’t embrace suffering. Instead, like good Jews, we recoil from suffering, we pray against it. What we do, though, is embrace Christ in the suffering. “Becoming the gospel” is not application. For Paul, it is how he gets to know Jesus even more deeply.

So then, very practically, my whole life is love. Love constantly leads me into suffering. When the typical Christian sees a disabled person in church he sees “the other.” He doesn’t see or hear Jesus loving the disabled, forming a new community out of the broken and despised pieces of this world. He doesn’t look, feel compassion, and then act. Neither does he understand the call to enter the J-Curve. Instead he is frozen, fearful of the unusual. He has no category or model to understand Paul’s desire to inhabit the pattern of Jesus’ life. So he pulls away, fearful that disability might be catching.

If you are the host in Luke 14 and you follow Jesus’ command to fill your table with those affected by disability, you are going to be loving all the time. The person in church who sees Kim walking to Sunday school instinctively realizes that to make friends with her will be work. It will disrupt his Stoic calm. It will be messy. He will make mistakes. He has no paradigm for accepting the fact that he might have to love every second for the rest of his life. That seems overwhelming, unusual, in fact, impossible. He has no theological frame to enter into God’s life of grace, the J-Curve, so he quietly recoils from real relationship.

The result? Kim walks in silence.

May God grant each of us the grace to “become the Gospel” by entering in to the daily mini-deaths and resurrections of loving the Kims–and Anahs–around us, despite the messiness and disruption that entails.

Intentionally Indirect

There is a difference between training and trying.

Trying is a direct attempt to produce some kind of result. Take knee surgery, for example.  If your knee is injured in some way, then surgery is a direct attempt to repair the injury. Surgery is a way of trying a specific methodology that has good potential to produce a positive result.

Training is very different from trying. Training may be aimed at the same end goal, but it is an indirect means of getting there. If your knee is injured, you could opt for a training regimen in place of surgery. The stretches or exercises you do may not be directly producing repair in your knee, but they are creating conducive conditions for repair to happen.

Christian, you are called to “Train yourself for Godliness” (I Timothy 4:7), not to “Try to be more Godly.” There is a big difference in this as well.

None of us can produce Godliness simply by our own fortitude and effort. Rather, Godliness is only produced by God as He forms our character to be more like Christ. So when we tell ourselves (or demand of others) “Just try harder!” or “Tsk, tsk, next time try to be more loving,” we are attempting to do the impossible.

Rather than trying to muster up will-power to somehow produce a change in our hearts, we need to learn how to be intentionally indirect. And that means training, not trying, for Godliness. Unlike knee surgery, we cannot directly operate on our heart spiritually and remove the cancerous anger or replace the longsuffering “ligament.” Instead we train our heart to worship Christ (not “getting my way”) as our greatest treasure. We train our heart to “Count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). We train our heart to share honestly with our brothers and sisters in Christ and to receive their encouragement and prayer or even rebuke.

Sinful anger is not overcome by directly trying not to get angry. (I could tell you firsthand how effective that is!) No, sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my heart of worship increases through training. Sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my confidence in God’s goodness grows through training. And sinful anger is overcome indirectly as its power is diffused in grace-filled community through training.

Training is not aimed at producing change, but at opening our hearts to the change that God alone can produce.

Hurry Kills Love

We are immersed in a culture that places a premium value on efficiency and speed–after all, “Time is money.” But what we often fail to realize is the immense toll on our relationships that stems from our frenetic, hurried pace. Jesus’ life modeled for us a pace that was not dictated by hurry, where the value of relationships superseded the value of efficiency.

Making space for the inefficiency of relating deeply with God and people is a goal I am both continually striving after and continually struggling with. The following quotes have been–and continue to be–a source of challenge and encouragement in that process. So don’t rush through them and immediately jump to the next thing on your task list, but linger long enough to allow the truth of them to sink into your heart. Better yet, print them out and go find a quiet corner where you can be alone and unhurried with God as you read and consider how He would have you respond.

Dr. Richard Swenson, in his book The Overload Syndrome: Virtually all of our relationships are damaged by hurry. Many families are being starved to death by velocity. Our children lie wounded on the ground, run over by our high-speed good intentions. God, I suspect, doesn’t fit any better into our breakneck schedules than our children do. We walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, and then announce, “Sorry, I’ve got to run.”

Jesus never seemed in a hurry. Time urgency was not only absent from His life, it was conspicuously absent. Creating a margin—that space between our load and our limits—is perhaps one of the best ways to allow Christlike spontaneity and interruptibility back into our lives. Margin blunts hurry and allows us to focus on the divine appointments God sends our way.         [pg 125 & 132]

 

Paul Miller, in his excellent book A Praying Life: Theoretically, Jesus could have concentrated on his Father while he healed people. He could have used his deity to protect himself from the slowness and inefficiency of life. When the bleeding woman interrupts him on the way to Jairus’s house, Jesus could have healed her without stopping to connect with her as a person (see Luke 8:40-48). But he doesn’t. When he rejects Satan’s temptation to turn the stone into bread, he rejects efficiency and chooses love (see Matthew 4:1-4).

Jesus’ example teaches us that prayer is about relationship. When he prays, he is not performing a duty; he is getting close to his Father. Any relationship, if it is going to grow, needs private space, time together without an agenda, where you can get to know each other. This creates an environment where closeness can happen, where we can begin to understand each other’s hearts.

You don’t create intimacy; you make room for it. This is true whether you are talking about your spouse, your friend, or God. You need space to be together. Efficiency, multitasking, and busyness all kill intimacy. In short, you can’t get to know God on the fly.      [pg 46-47]

 

John Ortberg, in The Life You’ve Always Wanted: We must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. This does not mean we will never be busy. Jesus often had much to do, but he never did it in a way that severed the life-giving connection between him and his Father. He never did it in a way that interfered with his ability to give love when love was called for. He observed a regular practice of withdrawing from activity for the sake of solitude and prayer. Jesus was often busy, but never hurried.   Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.

The most serious sign of hurry sickness is a diminished capacity to love. Love and hurry are fundamentally incompatible. Love always takes time, and time is one thing hurried people don’t have.

It is because it kills love that hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life. Hurry lies behind much of the anger and frustration of modern life. Hurry prevents us from receiving love from the Father or giving it to his children.      [pg 79, 81, 83]

May God grant us the grace to set aside our hurried hearts in order love well, like He does.

 

Everyday OTS

Instead of the typical Vacation Bible School (VBS) that most churches do (usually consisting of 5 weekday morning sessions), our church does a 3-day, 2-night Vacation Bible Camp (in which the kids and staff camp out for a little over 48 hours). The kids love it, but it’s a whole lot of work for all the volunteers! This year my older son served on the “work crew,” which was a team of 10 high-schoolers who set up tents, cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes, and generally served as the go-fers for the camp. My son (and the rest of the team) worked really hard, with great attitudes–I was super proud of them!

But I was even more pleased when the day after camp, while my son was still very tired, he walked in to the kitchen, saw the sink full of dirty dishes, and immediately stepped up and washed them all. No one asked him to do it, and no one praised him for doing it–he just did it.

Some opportunities to serve (OTS) are big and visible and short-lived, such as serving on the work crew for Vacation Bible Camp. In one sense, that kind of OTS is easy because there is immediate payoff in the kudos that it (rightfully!) procures. Other kinds of OTS are small and seemingly invisible and ongoing, such as washing dishes at home. Though the work itself may be exactly the same (they washed dishes at camp too), the fact that it’s everyday and unending and probably doesn’t garner any praise, makes it much harder to do with a joyful attitude. And I’m not just speaking about my son here!

In Jesus’ parable of the talents (in Matthew 25), the Divine commendation to the faithful servants is: “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” It did not matter how much each servant had started with or how much they had gained–what made them “good and faithful servants” was that they had invested and used the little that they had been given. Immediately after this parable, Jesus gives His well-known challenge that what Christians do for “the least of these,” Jesus sees as being done for Him directly. But in what Jesus says there, the righteous who give food and drink and welcome and clothes to Jesus (through doing it for unknown needy ones) don’t even know that they have done that. They are simply going about their everyday lives in kindness and generosity and love. It is an everyday OTS, not a one-time big event. They are being faithful in the little things, serving in the little ways, trusting that their heavenly Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward them (Matthew 6:4).

So I hope that we who call ourselves Christians will not only do the big OTS events, but will also faithfully invest in the small, unseen OTS of our everyday lives. Don’t get me wrong–serving at Vacation Bible Camp (or School, as the case may be) is a very valuable investment of time and talent, so do it, and do it joyfully! But don’t stop there and rest on your laurels, but look for the dishes that need to be washed or the disabled daughter who needs a smile or the stressed-out coworker who could use some help. It’s in those little, unseen OTS that we unknowingly serve our Savior and point others to Him.