Grief Experienced

I had never experienced grief like that before.  Sure, I’ve been sad, but this was different.  This was a heart-wrenching grief that shook my core.  It was a wail in the spirit at a great loss.  It came in waves unexpected.  You see, last December my father passed away, and while it was not totally unexpected – he was 91 – it was still a shock.  I wept.  And now, so many months later, the grief now turned to sadness still overtakes me when I am least expecting it.

The day of the memorial service was a cloudy day with a light sprinkling rain.  As we left the church service and were heading to the graveside, some of the clouds parted slightly and the sun shone through for a few moments.  Perhaps a heavenly salute, perhaps just a coincidence, but in either case I thought about the grief our Heavenly Father experienced when He saw His Son dead.  It darkened the sky.  It shook the earth.  It convulsed the universe.  I can understand a little of that now.  And yes, even though He knew that Jesus would rise again, it doesn’t take away from the grief of the moment.  I knew that even as I wept for my father, Dad was experiencing joy unspeakable.  It didn’t help me at that moment.  The grief is still real and very present.

Wouldn’t it be interesting on this Good Friday to pause for a moment and simply acknowledge the Father’s experience on this day, His grief?  Perhaps we can just sit with Him and say, “I understand… a little,” and grieve together even while we look forward to resurrection.  He did that for me.

Out-Of-The-Box Praying

I started reading through the book of Acts again.  I wanted to get a glimpse again of dynamic faith in action.  It seems the disciples, apostles, deacons and all the believers had such a simple faith that God would just show up in mighty ways – and He DID!  But even with all the miracles they saw, sometimes they just could not see beyond what was “reasonable” to them.  Their prayers were limited by their expectations of what God could do.  Here is a great example from chapter 12.

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.  Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands…  When he realized this [that the angel had freed him from prison], he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer.  Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. (Acts 12:1-7,12-16)

So Peter is in prison waiting to be executed and the church is praying fervently for his release.  Then God answers their prayers – but not in the way they expected.  You see, I don’t think any one of those Christians was asking that God would send an angel to open the prison doors.  That wasn’t really reasonable.  Much more likely is that they were praying that God would “move on Herod’s heart to release Peter.” Now that would be a much more likely and expected way for God to answer their prayers.  So out-of-box was the angel scenario that when Peter did show up at the prayer meeting they dismissed the news as simply “Peter’s angel.”  These folks could more easily believe in an apparition than in an angelic visitation!  Sure they prayed and they prayed earnestly, but it seems they were praying within their experience of what God could or would do.

So I started thinking, are my prayers limited by my expectations of what God would do?  When I pray, am I also telling God HOW to answer my prayers?  Sure, He’s all powerful, but He also needs to be practical and sensible, doesn’t He?  I am very much afraid that my prayer life is “In-The-Box” praying.  I want to change that.  I want to start praying that God would do wonderful, unexpected, outside-the-box things.  I want think big and prayer bigger and see Him do bigger still.  If nothing is impossible with God, then I want to pray for the impossible.  How about you?  Will you join me in Out-Of-The-Box praying and then we’ll be able tell our own versions of the angel scenario story?

The Living God

My wife and I visited Nashville, Tennessee this summer.  At the end of our week there we visited one of the local attractions.  In Nashville there is a full size replica of the Parthenon – the classical Greek temple of Athena in Athens.  Apparently this replica was built to celebrate a Tennessee centennial celebration in the late 1890’s.  This replica Parthenon was truly imposing and impressive.  It was beautiful.  Inside the Parthenon was a forty foot statue of the goddess Athena arrayed in her armor with sword and shield beside her and the goddess Nike ready to crown her with victory.  Athena’s bright blue eyes stared out into her temple.  As I walked around this temple and gazed at Athena, I asked her some questions.  I asked her if she saw me.  I asked her if she had anything to say to me.  She didn’t say anything.  She didn’t look at me.  She just kept staring outward.  There was no life in her eyes.  She was, after all, just a statue.

This experience in the replica Parthenon was even more striking because of what we had experienced during the prior week.  You see, we were in Nashville for a conference hosted by Global Awakening.  It was a week of inspiring worship, challenging teachings and encouraging prayer times.  But more than that, throughout the week I heard God speak to me.  He spoke intimately, personally and deeply.  He touched wounded places and brought healing.  He affirmed who I was.  He knew me by name and He saw me.  I experienced the LIVING God!

And that is the difference between a beautiful, plaster-cast goddess and The Lord Almighty.  So maybe folks today aren’t worshiping Athena, but many, many people turn to the idols of this world – the shiny things, the causes, the power or fame, the possessions – for comfort, meaning or comfort.  “Does anyone SEE ME?” they cry out.  “Does anyone know ME?”  That is what we want, to count.  And yet just like that lifeless statue of Athena in Nashville, these idols are just as dead, lifeless and impotent.

The living God knows us.  He said to Israel and He says to us today, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine (Isa 43:1).  He also says,” Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you (Jer 1:5).

So instead of pursuing the Athena’s of this world – the unmoving, unresponsive, unseeing idols – remember that there is a real, living God poised to respond to your deepest cry.  One who can speak into the secret places of your life to bring comfort and wholeness.  One who knows you by name.

So as beautiful the replica Parthenon is, I would much rather spend time in the temple of the Living God and have a conversation with Him.

Dealing with Despair

Humans are generally terrible at dealing with difficulties, adversity, sorrow, trials or illness. We tend to whine, mope and feel sorry for ourselves when things don’t seem to be going our way. But God understands and He has placed in Scripture a fail-safe way for us to transcend difficult circumstances, rise above the adversity and refocus on what is truly important. He doesn’t ask us to grit our teeth and go on. He doesn’t ask us to pull ourselves up. He doesn’t even ask us to put on a smile and pretend it doesn’t hurt. In Psalm 13: 1-6, He gives us a template for dealing with difficult times.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?    How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Like David, we are an impatient people! We could endure almost anything if we knew how long it would last, but not knowing the future leads us into despair and our entire perspective on life goes dark.

We accuse God of forgetting us. He doesn’t, of course, but it feels to us like he does. We accuse God of turning His back to us. “He has abandoned me (and we add the melodramatic) – FOREVER!” “Where are You?” we cry. So we “take counsel” in our souls. In other words, we get inside our own heads, park there and go around and round and round which only leads to more depression and anxiety. We are convinced that we have been left on our own and we start to try to figure out our own solutions.

But David knows better, even though he feels alone and abandoned he reaches out to the God he knows is there and the turnaround begins.  David starts to realize that He needs God’s wisdom and perspective. He understands that “taking counsel with himself”, staying inside his own head, will never get him out of his doldrums. He understands that without God’s insight, without God showing up, he will likely just give up either emotionally, physically or spiritually.

Here is where David shows us how to win the victory over despair. “But” is a powerful word. It is a declaration that we will not be held captive by our situation; a declaration that we are choosing a different reality, that we will not be defined by our circumstances. David makes the declaration that he will ground his life, not on his own feelings or self-counsel, but on the foundational, unmovable truths of God’s character. “But I have trusted in your steadfast love.”

This is God’s basic character – Love. I can trust that God will always be true to Himself in His dealings with me. I can expect that God will continue to act according to His Love towards me expressed in Christ Jesus. Trust is a choice, a deposit of faith into the treasury of God’s love. The present circumstances do not change who God is nor do they block the eternal flow of His love, mercy, goodness, compassion, patience toward me. I can bank on that.

And while trust is a function of the mind, rejoicing is an act of the heart. Rejoicing isn’t about being happy. It isn’t putting a good face on and going around saying “Praise the Lord.” Rejoicing is grounding our heart, our deep down core, firmly on God’s present and future deliverance. Not only can we be sure and rejoice in our eventual heavenly home, but we can know that God will not abandon us to the present troubles – He rescues us here and now.

When our focus is on God’s eternal Love and his saving work, we can’t help but express that outwardly through our mouths or body. Our whole being rises up and overflows in worship to Him. Some of might even sing out loud. We remember how He has dealt with us. We look at our lives and see His hand guiding our moments. We recognize that what we thought were seemingly insignificant moments or random happenings were actually His acting to bring us closer to Him.

And we are breathless, humbled and joyful.

This Psalm reflects the arc that our life takes as we live our lives through any troubles. We move from complaining and despair, to crying to God in prayer for help, to a reaffirmation of our relationship with the Father; a relationship not based on trusting our own strength or wisdom, not based on our own goodness or righteousness but a relationship wholly grounded on His love and grace. As we move through the difficulties of life, if we will remember to Trust, Rejoice and Sing, we will be able to say with absolute confidence: It is well with my soul.

The Other Eleven

Some stories in the Bible are so familiar that it is easy just to skim over them and not really think that there is much else to learn. For me, one of those stories is when Peter walks on water. It is found in the Gospel of Matthew:

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. (Matthew 14:22-32)

 So picture this scene in your mind. The disciples are in a boat struggling with a storm that came up suddenly. Then, out of the crashing waves and foamy sea, a figure appears, coming towards them. Any reasonable person would do what the disciples did – panic! Clearly this is some sort of supernatural entity, a ghost, in other words. What else could it be? Real people do not just walk on water. So they scream, call Jesus a ghost and cower in fear.

Most sermons that I’ve heard on this passage focus on Peter. Peter gets out of the boat!  Peter walks on water. Peter starts to sink. Jesus rescues Peter. Peter, Peter, Peter, blah, blah, blah. Let me just say that I am NOT Peter. I am still in the boat with the other eleven watching Peter’s adventure. I can imagine the thoughts and feelings running through their minds. “I’m not going out there! Maybe I should have? Is Jesus going to be mad at me, disappointed with me for not stepping out? I should have recognized Him? How could I not have recognized Him? What kind of idiot am I? What kind of disciple am I? I’m a failure. I missed a chance to show Jesus my faith in Him.” On and on it goes believing they’d “missed it.”

And yet we do the same thing. We are so quick to beat ourselves up when we think we don’t have enough faith, or we aren’t “doing enough” for Jesus. We so easily disqualify ourselves and we throw up our hands and give up. Well here’s the rest of the story. After Peter and Jesus get into the boat, those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matt 14:33). The other eleven worshiped Him. They made Him the focus of their hearts and minds and did not wallow in self-pity. They recognized who He was and responded appropriately.

And let me remind you of one other thing. The other eleven in that boat were still sent out by Jesus to preach the Kingdom. The other eleven saw the resurrected Christ. The other eleven received the power of the Holy Spirit. The other eleven went out from Jerusalem and changed the world. They didn’t miss anything.

So, I want to encourage you today as you read this. If you are thinking that you’ve missed “God’s plan for your life.” (Play dramatic music here). If you think your faith isn’t strong enough or you’re too afraid or you can’t see how God could ever use you, remember that regardless of our weaknesses, our screw-ups, our lack of faith, Jesus is still the Son of God. That never changes. Just worship Him. He still loves you very much and hasn’t given up on you. You and the other eleven are in the same boat.

On Being the Lost Sheep

For some reason the Pharisees liked to hang out with Jesus and criticize everything He did. You would think after a while they would just learn to ignore Him. But they didn’t and Jesus took every opportunity to try to set them straight. This is the situation we read about in Luke 15:1-7. The Pharisees are complaining that Jesus hangs out with folks they considered “sinners.” Certainly these were people no self-respecting rabbi would associate with. So Jesus tells a parable that demonstrates His heart toward those very sinners – the lost sheep. But understand that the “lost” in this parable are still Jews. They are still covenant people. Jesus is not talking about Gentiles or unbelievers. He is talking to us – his people – and He is revealing His heart towards us when we get lost too.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

 First of all, notice that the entire flock has 100 sheep and the lost one belongs to that flock. It is not an outsider. It is one of the hundred! And even though this sheep may stray, it is not kicked out of the flock. It is not rejected. When He calls us to salvation and we respond in faith, we are counted among His flock. This means that we always belong to Christ. To me this is greatly encouraging – I know that I will always be His. It gives me great peace and comfort that once I am His, He will never kick me out of “His flock.” It establishes a relationship with Him that is stable not fearful.

But see also that it is possible, even within that stable relationship, even being part of the 100, to stray, to sin, to lose our way in being the kind of sheep He wants us to be. Being lost, sinning, in whatever form this may take – big or small, once or many times – does not automatically mean we are no longer His sheep. We may feel unworthy or condemned or ashamed, but that is us projecting those feeling unto God. That is not His heart toward us. I know that He does not reject me simply by looking at the shepherd’s response to the lost sheep – He goes looking for it! Jesus initiates the search. The individual was important. He didn’t content himself with just keeping the 99 and forgetting the one. No, Jesus perseveres in the search for the lost sheep. And He doesn’t give up until He finds it. Understand that Jesus will never give up on you! No matter how far you think you’ve strayed. How much you think you’ve disappointed Him. How ashamed or guilt-ridden you are.  He does not give up until He finds you wherever you are.

Not only does He search for us, when He finds us He then carries us back to the flock – back home to be with Him again. The sheep is lost and does not know how to come back. It would be lost forever if not for the shepherd’s action. Jesus carries the sheep back. The sheep is helpless to come back to the fold by its own power. We kid ourselves if we think we have the power within ourselves to “get our act together” or to “clean ourselves up.” We think we can do it ourselves and find our own way back to the fold. The only thing we can do by ourselves is get ourselves lost. We need Jesus by the work of the Holy Spirit to show us the way back and carry us there. Again, this is terribly encouraging to me! Not only does He search and find me but He also restores me. It is His work from beginning to end.

But the story gets even better. When Jesus searches for us and finds us and restores us, He is not upset, peeved or annoyed. No, He rejoices. It gives Him great joy to have us with Him again. Why? Because a sinner has repented and been restored. Yes, the sheep needs to repent, but repentance is simply asking Jesus, our shepherd, to carry us back. It is not feeling sorry. It is not vowing never to stray again. It is not pulling ourselves out of whatever situation we’ve gotten ourselves into. Repentance is admitting that we are lost and we are not strong enough to find our way back. And when we do, not only is He happy but heaven breaks out into a party – noise makers and all!

This story, this parable, is simply a way for Jesus to let you know how precious and important you are to Him. You are His and will always be His. And even when you are not perfect – especially when you are not perfect – you can know that He has not and will not reject you.  Ask Him to carry you back. There is a party in heaven waiting to happen.

A Husband’s Prayer Life

We men would like to think that our prayers are heard by God and that He will answer them. We would like to think that our prayers are effective and unhindered. But would it surprise you to learn that Scripture specifically tells men – husbands in particular – that the effectiveness of our prayer life is directly tied to the way in which we treat our wives? It’s true. Read this:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)

So if God made this important enough to include in the Scriptures, we should probably take some time to understand it. Let me go through it phrase by phrase.

“Live with your wives in an understanding way”

It is not enough to co-habitat the same space. It is not enough to simply take up space in our houses. We need to be physically and emotionally present. Not smothering or underfoot, but available and engaged. Our wives need to know that we are in this life together with her, and in an “understanding way”. “Understanding” means we take the time to know what makes our wives tick. We take the time and make the effort to know the core of who this woman is. What is she passionate about? What is her biggest fear? What is her favorite movie or restaurant? All the big and little things that make her…”her.” And while it may sound daunting, it isn’t. It simply takes the time to be engaged in her life. I will guarantee the effort is worth it and what you learn may surprise you.

“Showing honor to the woman”

Here is where things really get serious, so let me bring in a parallel passage from Ephesians.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:25-27)

 Here is the greatest challenge to us husbands – Love as Christ loved! How did He love? By sacrificing Himself for her. By doing whatever He had to in order to ensure that she (The Church) might become what she was intendant to become. That is what Paul is calling husbands to do, seek for and work for the splendor of your wife.

Paul continues,

In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself (Eph 5:28-33)

 So it goes even deeper. The word “wife” in this passage is actually “the feminine.” It harkens back to the Garden when Adam called Eve “wo-man.” Adam was actually honoring Eve as part of himself. When we honor our wives as a part of us, we are honoring God’s creative purpose in creating woman from us and then giving her back to us to complete us.

“as the weaker vessel”

I don’t think this means our wives are dumber, inferior, less important or subordinate. To me it means that we must look to see how we can protect her physically, emotionally and spiritually. This is not condescending but a way in which we show her respect, honor. It doesn’t mean she IS weaker, only that we must honor her as weaker.

“since they are heirs with you of the grace of life”

We honor our wives because God honored her with salvation, with His blood. She has the same access to the Father in prayer and righteousness. She has the same calling to proclaim Christ and His saving work. She has the same in-filling of the Holy Spirit to operate in Kingdom power. As a joint-heir of salvation, I value and seek out my wife’s contribution to our joint life in Christ. If she is worthy of so great a sacrifice as Christ’s death, then surely I can honor her and sacrifice a little of my life for her also. This is what Christ did for the Church.

“so that your prayers may not be hindered “

Understand that God is making the effectiveness of our prayer life – and our relationship with Him – contingent on how we treat our wives! That is how important God thinks this is! Why? It doesn’t seem hardly fair! Here is why I think God has linked the two.  Our wives are mirrors of our soul. They have a way of revealing who we are – if we are wise enough to look and listen. If we are arrogant, selfish, prideful, angry men, it will come out in the way we treat our wives. Our hearts are laid bare. How can that kind of man hope to offer pure and righteous prayers to our God? – NOT going to happen.

So men consider it God’s grace and goodness to us to give us a woman who can thus make us better men, wiser men and more godly men as we learn to love as Christ loved and make our prayer life a powerhouse in Kingdom effectiveness.