Tag Archives: Worship

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.

Living by Bread Alone

Humans are hungry creatures. There is, of course, the most basic and necessary hunger for food. After all we need to survive, yet there are so many other things we hunger for – companionship, recognition, love, fame, wealth, significance, acceptance.   You can probably name any human endeavor and I am sure someone hungers for it. Some of these, to be sure, are natural and good to hunger for, but sometimes those natural desires turn ugly and we become captive to that hunger leading to brokenness and destruction. Hunger is a powerful motivator, but when satisfying that hunger becomes the focus of our lives we begin to lose perspective on the things in life that are truly important.

Believe it or not Jesus dealt with this very thing – needing to keep the proper perspective on life when a very basic hunger threatened to side track Him.  We read about it in the Gospel of Matthew.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ “ (Matthew 4:1-4)

So Jesus had already spent 40 days fasting then became hungry. (I probably would have been hungry at the end of day one). And the devil made his pitch, “turn these stones to bread, you know YOU can!” The devil was trying to get Jesus to focus on satisfying His immediate need. He was trying to get Jesus to focus on His own resources to satisfy His need. He was trying to get Jesus to redefine what is important in life – the here and now. But is that what life is really about? Is it only about feeding our hungers?

Jesus answers with a resounding, NO! Jesus says that there is more to life than bread. There is more to life than the physical needs of our bodies or even the hunger in our broken souls. Jesus says that life is bigger than that. There is a greater hunger – a spiritual hunger – that humans need filled; a hunger that can only be satisfied by God. Listen again to what He says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word…of God.” Putting it differently Jesus says Man shall live by every word of God.  If you want to live fully, to be wholly alive as you were meant to be, then you need a connection to the Father.

The devil makes the same pitch to us today. He tries to define for us what is important. Why not spend our resources to fulfil our wants? Why not spend our days on satisfying self? Why not focus on ME, right now? Nothing else is more important, right? And he tries to blind us to our need for God because he knows that that is where we truly find our satisfaction, where real life starts.

“…every word that comes from the mouth of God” doesn’t just mean reading the Bible, but it means maintaining a dynamic, present-moment relationship with our Father. A relationship in which His words become life-giving, nurturing and heartening; a relationship in which we hear His words of affirmation, wisdom, acceptance and love; a relationship in which we hear and stand on the promises He has made. Every word! Every moment! That is how life was meant to be lived. That is what He wants for us and has possible for us through Christ – a life that is more than bread alone.

Critical Mass Prayer

In physics, critical mass refers to the minimum amount of material needed to start and maintain a nuclear reaction. In general, it also refers to the minimum amount of “something” – people, money, petitions – to gain momentum and achieve a desired effect. In other words, if I gather enough “somethings” then I can accomplish what I need.

This is perfectly illustrated in the Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears A Who. Horton the elephant, with his big ears can hear the tiny Whos that live on a speck of dust, but no one else hears them and they think Horton is crazy. In order to make themselves be heard, the Whos start making as much noise and shouting as possible, but they are not heard until the tiniest baby Who lets out a small “Yap.” That Yap when added to all the other noise is just enough – critical mass – to break into Horton’s world and be heard. Horton was right! The Who world does exist!

It seems to me that Christians sometimes treat prayer in the same way. I need to generate a critical mass of people praying before God hears and responds to my prayer request. It is not enough for me to pray individually, but I need a bunch of people. It’s as if we don’t think God will take us seriously until we meet this elusive critical mass of prayer.

But clearly, this not Biblically correct. The Bible is full of stories of individual men and women who prayed by themselves and God answered them. We are even encouraged to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). So why do we think that we need to marshal more and more prayer support to get the answers we want or need? Why do we ask others to pray for us? Why do we send our prayer requests in to a prayer chain or intercessor group?

I don’t think the purpose of corporate prayer is about convincing God that we are really, really serious, or because we are too insignificant individually to be heard. I think the point of corporate prayer is to spread the fame of the Lord as far and as wide as possible. Let me explain. The more people are praying, the more people will see (or hear about) the answered prayer and the more praise God will get. His fame as a good and faithful Father will spread – as it should. Sure, WE benefit from an answer to prayer, but He receives the glory and worship He deserves. Look at how Psalm 145 puts it:

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.

One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness. They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. (Psalm 145:1-7)

People will be talking to each other and to other generations about the works to God and He will be greatly praised.

So go ahead and enter your secret prayer room to pray to your Father in secret but when you are done get on the phone, text, social media and enlist an army of prayer supporters so that you can all speak of His wondrous works and awesome deeds. And generate a critical mass of praise!

I Don’t Want a Plastic Jesus – reprise

This a re-post from 2012 but I think it is still relevent

Its Christmas time again and you know what that means? It means it’s time to climb into our attics or rummage in the garage for our plastic Jesus to put in the nativity scene. I especially like the ones that you can put a light inside and make him glow. Now before you call me a Scrooge, let me just say that I can appreciate the spirit of the season and the meaning of the manger scenes, but there is a subtle danger in these plastic displays. Let me explain.

Think about what we are doing here. We have a plastic casting of a baby which we deem to represent Jesus. But this plastic Jesus is totally dependent on us to show up. He can only come out of his box when we want him to. We hose him off, plant him in a plastic crib and light him up. Then at the end of the season, we wrap him up in bubble wrap and put him away for another year. And my guess is that most people don’t think about him again for that year. This plastic Jesus makes no demands on our lives. He doesn’t challenge us. He doesn’t convict us. He doesn’t speak to those areas of our lives that need to change. At the same time, this plastic Jesus doesn’t forgive sin. He doesn’t offer rest. He doesn’t heal. He doesn’t bring joy, comfort or peace. Plastic Jesus just lays there surrounded by plastic people making no impact in our lives. He is tame… and quite frankly, useless.

I don’t want a plastic Jesus. The Jesus I know is independent of me. He acts as He wills, whenever He wants. He shows up in my life in the most unexpected places and times. And while that may be inconvenient at times, it is terribly rewarding when I pay attention. I do not control this Jesus. Hopefully, He has total control of my life. At least that is what I am striving for. Plastic Jesus just lays there.

The Jesus I know speaks into my life. He doesn’t leave me alone or to my own devices because He cares enough about me to want better for me. This Jesus does demand, convict and forgive. The Jesus I know is someone I can go to when the world has beaten me up and I am weary. The Jesus I know is someone I can talk to, cry to and worship. He is someone I can depend on when others have let me down. He is someone who can give me hope, joy, comfort, peace, rest, direction, wisdom, support. This Jesus is someone I can worship. I mean really look to beyond anything the world can offer. Plastic Jesus just lays there.

So, I’m not saying not to put up our Christmas lawn ornaments – or maybe I am, but either way please look beyond the hollow plastic baby and recognize the true and living Lord. This Christmas bow down in reverence.

What’s Your Name?

It has always been fascinating to me how we humans name everything around us! We name our children (then give them nicknames too), our pets, our cars, our houses, our streets, our buildings, our parks… We also name animals, rocks, trees, grasses, food, on and on. We name everything we lay our eyes on or build with our hands. And it’s no wonder, right after God told Adam to subdue the earth, He gave him the task of naming animals. I think our need to give everything in our lives names springs from our God-given mandate to subdue and have “dominion” over creation. In other words, naming things is our way of exercising control and owning the things named. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just how we were created to be. But we took it too far.

When Moses first encounters God at the burning bush, he hears God tell him that he will deliver his people from slavery, but Moses’ first question is, “What is your name? Who should I tell the people who sent me?” You see growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses knew gods with god-names like Osiris, Thoth, Horus or Ra. The gods had names that the Egyptians had given them and by naming their gods, humans were able to exercise some control over them. By naming our gods, we could define who they were, what they were like and what their limitations were. We made our gods to our standards and so could have dominion over them. But God’s answer to Moses in that encounter was not to give Moses a name, but simply to declare His existence. When God said, “I AM WHO I AM,” He wasn’t naming Himself, he was stating His presence. And throughout Scripture, He always reveals Himself in terms of His presence in our lives or relationship to us, never as just a name. (We kid ourselves if we think that Jehovah is His real name).

I think He has done this for a very simple and specific reason. He bypasses our naming convention because He will not let Himself be controlled or defined by us. He will never be under our dominion, so there is a never a “name” WE can give Him. We will always have to rely on His self-revelation to us. Even Jesus, when he appeared in the flesh, was not named by His human parents, but by the revelation of God the Father. He was given a name that revealed His purpose in His presence on Earth – to save His people.

What all this means is that we will never be able to put Him in our box of what a “proper” god should do and be. He will always be separate, sovereign and self-sufficient. We will only begin to understand Him as we understand His relationship to us. He can never be too familiar or casual because we will never truly know His name. We will only know that is still “I AM.” I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Evidence in the Cloud

The stories of Elijah the prophet are some of my favorite Old Testament stories. There is one in particular that has had a significant impact on me lately. While I won’t copy the entire section here (it spans several chapters), you can read it in 1 Kings 17-18. Here is the basic story line. God tells Elijah that there will be a drought in Israel and Elijah relays the message to the evil king Ahab. Three years later, God tells Elijah that the drought will soon be over and that he should tell King Ahab. Here is the key passage:

After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth…” And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees.  And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. (1 Kings 18:1, 41-46)

To me the story gets exciting because of what Elijah did after declaring the end of the drought. Elijah didn’t just passively sit back and accept God’s word. No! He actively went looking for God’s fulfillment of His word. You see, even though Elijah already knew what God was doing he still took action – He looked for it. He humbled himself, bowed down, prayed, worshiped and looked for God’s to act. Elijah was both patient and tenacious. As far as Elijah was concerned God said it, it must be true, therefore he will wait in expectation. That is key! It wasn’t wishful thinking or “claiming” the rain. It was simply a matter of taking God at His word.

Elijah knew that God acts at the perfect time and Elijah (or his servant) had to go look for the answer seven times before he got his answer. He didn’t go look once or pray once and then said, “Oh well, maybe I was wrong.’ He continued to look.   In Scripture, the number seven represents perfection or completion. The fact that Elijah had to wait seven times simply shows us that God acts, not on our schedule or timeline but at the RIGHT time.

So after seven times, Elijah’s his servant sees a small cloud on the horizon 10-15 mile away and he reports that to the prophet. That is all the evidence Elijah needs. God is faithful to His promises – the rain is coming – it’s time to RUN! Elijah did need a full blown storm, the evidence in the cloud was enough for him to know that God is trustworthy. His faith was in God’s character, not on what he sees with his eyes. Elijah only sees a cloud but he acts consistently with the evidence he sees of God moving to fulfill His promise. I wonder how many of us would have seen the small cloud and thought (or said) to ourselves, “That’s it, Lord! That’s all I get.” And walk away disappointed. Instead Elijah sees the cloud and rejoices.

Here’s what impressed me in this story. God reveals His heart and will to us. He declares His promises and His intent. We already know what He wants to do and is going to do. It’s all over the Scriptures. Yet we still need to act. We need to be looking and actively waiting, patient and tenacious, knowing that God will indeed fulfill His promises, knowing that He will act at the perfect time and that He is not letting us down when He doesn’t act according to our schedule.

I want to recognize the evidence of His movement; the “cloud the size of a man’s hand.” It may not look like a big thunderstorm. It may not be or start out as the next “great thing.” But whatever it looks like, you can be sure that God is behind it and it will grow to accomplish his will. So let’s be looking for the evidence in the cloud and when we see it rejoice and embrace it fully.