God’s Promises: Worry or Wait?

**A weekly look at the promises of God**

Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” ~ Matthew 6:25-26

I am terrible at this. Absolutely awful. I cannot tell you exactly when it started for me, but I am sure it became magnified when I began earning money. Money was the ticket. When I was no more than seven years old I began to bother my mother for baseball cards when we went to the pharmacy. I distinctly remember the price of a pack rising from 35 cents to 50 cents, but it had already been established that it would be worth it.
When I began gainful employment in high school, my money went toward purchasing the clothes that I wanted to wear. The money also went toward the purchase of food that I wanted to buy when our athletic team traveled to games. When a car became mine to use, money allowed me to go where I wanted to go. I cannot recall using money to meet any needs, merely my wants. That practice, in hindsight, began to grow into a sneaky lie: I was providing.
By my third year in college I was living off-campus and seeking employment that would allow me to contribute to rent, food, utilities, gas, and – of course – my wants. After all, you cannot date someone and spend all of your money on needs, right? The lie, as they say, snowballed after college. At that point I was preparing for marriage, a new place to live, and many other…needs?
After a while the dividing line, if there ever was one between my wants and needs, became hazy to the point of no recognition. Wants are needs and needs are needs. It became very easy for me to store up, much like the Israelites in the desert. “Just in case,” I believed, I should set something aside. But, more importantly, I should accumulate more stuff. That was what money gave me the freedom – no – the right to do.
The text above does not give a direct promise, but there is an implied promise of God within the command not to worry: God’s got this.
A few verses later Jesus comes closer to spelling out the promise when he questions our flawed thinking, asking the rhetorical question of whether or not God will “much more clothe” us. Well, of course God will do that. In the account of Creation, God clearly delineates the importance of Adam and Eve. They were made in God’s image as are we. We are given everything that God has made and yet, like our first parents, we think it is not enough. Not only was the first sin an act of direct disobedience, but it was an act of asserting independence: “Thanks, God, but I got this.”
How often do we do that now? How about “daily” as an answer? And that would not be often enough to describe all of us. We misinterpret a command to exercise dominion by changing the word to “domination.” “Accumulation” would also fit the bill. But that is not the goal, it never was. There is a point made by Jesus – familiar to us – at the end of the above passage:
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
That is your focus. That is your priority. That is your call. Seek – actively look for and pursue – his kingdom. God’s kingdom. What Jesus is pointing out to us is the very simple truth that we cannot see God’s kingdom when we are so busy building ours. Simple. If I stack up bricks all around me, how can I see anything else?
You, like me, don’t need all that you have. You probably don’t even want all that you have. So why is it there?
Let us throw off everything that hinders and…run…the race marked out before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) We don’t run well when we look behind us. We don’t run well when we glance off to the side. We don’t run well when we stop to pick up more stuff. No, we run well when we look straight ahead and trust that the One who began with us will also give us all that we need to finish.
Earlier this year I flopped down on my bed, resigned to have a conversation with God. I began in prayer almost flippantly, “Ok, God, what do you want to tell me?”
I love you.
“That’s it?!”
Isn’t that enough?
End of conversation.
God is always enough.
That is his promise.

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Our Virtual god: It’s Not All Equal

I remember when I first signed up for facebook – yes, it was that monumental. I had not participated in MySpace and I didn’t really understand what we now freely call “social networks.” I blame my sister for the fact that I participate. She was studying in Scotland and living with a family there, so she often was not available by phone. My mother mentioned that my sister was also using email less because “she’s using facebook.”
With a reluctant sigh, I signed on for something that I deemed a trend. I became a facebook user and found my sister. Apparently facebook was created by the manufacturer of Pringles because it did not stop at just one connection. More than a decade removed from high school and my home town, and nearly a decade removed from college, I became overjoyed at finding a new connection to old friends. I remember being fascinated at the possibility of chatting with friends around the world. For a historical perspective, email became popular when I was in college and our first idea was to send messages to people who lived in the same dorm. We’ve come a long way, baby. Or have we?
After finding connections with almost every name that I could remember (and a few who I couldn’t), I began to notice a dissatisfaction. I had, perhaps incorrectly, expected that having these connections would reinvigorate friendships of years gone by. Not so much. Although it was good to find out what certain people were doing after years of not knowing, their lives were not changing significantly on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Neither was mine. Friends from school were all reaching the same point in life: family, career, stability. And that family and that career required attention. Connecting on facebook did not restore a friendship to the same level as it had been when both parties were single and had nothing more to worry about than whether or not to study for a history test.
Fundamentally we recognize that. Although facebook makes no distinction between friends (unless you bother to categorize them for yourself), we would not say that we have the same connection to all of them. We might even call that impossible. Your pastor is not connected in the same way as your brother, and your close friend is not the same as your coworker who felt obliged to “friend” you.
However, even though we recognize that there are very real differences in our friendships with others, we’re slowly slipping to a point where distinctions are more difficult to distinguish.
When we interact virtually, we have to assign the value to the interaction. Or, as often happens, we simply treat it as information, holding no different value whatsoever. Allow me to use Yahoo, a popular search engine, to illustrate. If I go to their website right now, I can find top stories such as “Message for Pumpkin Thief” (in which a mother posted a note with profanity on her porch) next to an article noting “Japan Returns Chinese Threat.” In terms of space devoted to the information, two countries using phrases like “act of war” is just as important as a clever mother’s curse. What is wrong with this picture?
Everything.
It’s not all equal; it never has been. But we are so connected to information, and so accustomed to processing data without value, that we can grow more animated about a protest over a jury’s verdict in Florida than the fact that young men in our own cities are being killed without anyone ever being convicted. We would rather virtually join someone else’s cause than fight for our own. The connection, or perceived connection, is often all that we want.
Remember the first connection? No, not the one where I found my sister in cyberspace, but the one where God created Adam and then Eve. Remember that? Or was that the first time you thought of God today? I’ll jump to the front of the confession line and admit that I have had days where I have noticed more in my news feed than I’ve noticed God’s presence. The God we believe is omnipresent – always with us through the presence of the Holy Spirit – is often just one more possible connection we can access for information.
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for The Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6
That God. Not the God you “like” on facebook in order to get a blessing. Not the post you share to virtually prove that you are unashamed. The God who is with you right now. The one who holds your very life in his hands. The one who has dried every tear and comforted every loss. The one who loves you so much that he sent his son to die for you and your sins. The one who resurrected his son in order to give you life.
It is not all equal. Words and actions hold different weight depending on the nature of the relationship. So I ask you, have you noticed the weight of God’s words lately, or do they show up like a post that you can like or ignore. Pumpkins and war are not the same. Our connections to our friends are not all the same. What have you done with your connection to God?

The Reason Behind 10,000 Reasons: In the Moment

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. ~ Psalm 19:1

Especially in this past week, but always at this time of year, I am awestruck at the beauty of trees. Green leaves attempt to hold firm against an onslaught of bright reds, soft oranges, brilliant yellows, and the deep, nearly purple, leaves. Even on cloudy days the trees stand out in their brilliance, not needing the light of the sun to show off just how beautiful they are. There have been countless times when I have thought to grab my camera in order to take a picture of just how beautiful these trees truly are. The only thing stopping me is that I know better.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. ~ Psalm 19:2

My mother gave me my own camera when I was eleven or twelve years old. Before the progression to digital point-push-erase picture-taking, I had to make sure that each picture counted. The scene and subjects were carefully selected. The content mattered. I submitted photographs along with drawings to our local county fair, and I began to look to capture moments at an early age.

More than two decades later, having lived all of my life in Michigan, I have not lost my fascination with the changing of leaves in autumn. I would rather be outside at this time of year than in the summer months because I simply cannot get enough of the color, the ever-changing work of a true Artist.

There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. ~ Psalm 19: 3, 4a

My sense of wonder for our seasons was renewed earlier this year when our mission group presented a slide show of Michigan-specific photographs to students in Honduras. The photographs showed children playing in leaf piles, forests ablaze in autumn colors, skiers shredding the slopes and much more. Almost every picture created an audible response from the students. One or two students began giving an audible “Wow,” and very soon the entire student body declared “Wow!” as each picture changed.

Wow, indeed.

In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. ~ Psalm 19:4b, 5

Reflect for a moment on the words of the psalmist that you have read up to this point. I assure you that the person who put those words into recorded history had no digital camera and was not posting photos for the rest of the world to “like.” No, the psalmist could only look and become so filled up with wonder that the words spilled forth in praise.

As recently as last year I took photos of the autumn colors. Every time that I look back on them, I wonder why I took the picture. The photo does it no justice. I have considered investing in a better camera, but I know it will not be the same as walking through a street or trail lined in color. Our technology today strives to make visual representations as lifelike as possible. We all know better. We know that the photo is not the same.

I am convinced that part of the fascination (and obsession) with social media is our futile attempt to capture the moment. We want to capture what we are experiencing and share it with others. It is our attempt to make our moments have value. What we have missed is that the moments have the most value when we are most present in it.

Noticing moments of gratitude and recording them is one step in the process of connecting to our Creator. Yet it is only a step. Much like committing a keyboard’s setup to muscle memory, we need the practice. I could record a moment of gratitude for the autumn colors. I can find Scripture that supports my gratitude for what I am seeing. I could take a photo of the colors and share it with others in an attempt to add the value of others to my moment. But true gratitude comes when I see the beauty, I am in awe of the mystery, and give thanks to the Creator of what I am seeing. Gratitude comes when I remain fully in the moment.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. ~ Psalm 19:14

Red Letters: Did Jesus Really Say That?

In the past several years there has been a growing movement of Christians who take on social matters with a Biblical lens. Pushing back against a trend among believers to avoid matters of politics and social justice, Christ followers began to look with a renewed lens. They have come to be known by many as “Red Letter Christians,” followers of Christ who form their responses according to the words of Christ – the letters found in red in many Bibles.

This is not a new approach, of course. But, with ever-changing social issues and cultural complexities, it is good to return to the One who stepped into our world from a heavenly home. Talk about a culture shock. We know that Jesus did not distance himself from the problems of the day, nor did he take a “no comment” approach. Jesus spent time with those who were sick and culturally outcast, he overturned tables within religious institutions, and he addressed the matter of taxation (several times).

Noting my own growing interest in cultural matters as well as the failure of many church bodies to address them, I would like to devote one post each week to the red letters. I picked up in my reading with the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). This parable falls in the middle of a lengthy discourse recorded by Matthew. It falls soon before the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, and much of the discourse is identified as pointing to the end times.

In this parable, Jesus notes that ten virgins waited for the bridegroom. This reference points toward the coming of Christ. As we understand it, we see it as the return of Christ. Five of the virgins were prepared with enough oil for their lamps, but the other five were not. There were no street lamps, no flashlights and no cell phones to light the way. If you had enough oil, you could keep your lamp burning through the night.

All of them fell asleep while waiting. All of them heard the call at midnight that the bridegroom had arrived. Only five of them were ready. Those who were unprepared asked for oil from those who were ready. The response to their request was “No.”

In the study Bible where I read this parable, I find this note: “When Christ returns, preparedness cannot be shared or transferred.” I cannot find any room to argue that. What my father and mother believe cannot speak for me on that day. What my pastor or neighbor believes cannot be my ticket. Nor will my faith speak for my children. There are no coattails on the path to eternity. While most may accept the position that each person will account for their own actions, I find another note more unsettling.

The analogy of oil for lamps as used by Jesus comes with another note in the study Bible: “Torches required large amounts of oil in order to keep burning, and the oil had to be replenished about every 15 minutes.” That’s a lot of preparation! In that regard, I would have to admit to falling asleep and being unprepared in this sense: I do not do a faith check that often.

I do not believe in salvation by works; we can read that we are saved “by grace…through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). But we can also read that our faith, without action, is dead (James 2:17). So what does that mean for us? How can we be prepared?

I believe that a verse in I Peter 4 points us in the direction of our answer: “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – ” (verse 3a). We cannot sleep on our faith. We cannot become complacent and carry on in our old ways. We cannot subscribe to “cheap grace” by sitting in our sin.

He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy. ~ Proverbs 28:13

He who does not come prepared for the bridegroom will find the door shut. We don’t like to think about that. We like our loving Jesus, our loving God. But we cannot miss the fact that we serve a just God and a living Jesus. We do not know when Christ returns, but we do know we must be ready.

The enemy whispers the same version of the same lie over and over again: “Did God really say…?” In order to know how to combat the lie, we should make sure that we know what God really says.

I was thinking about the note on the 15 minutes. I quickly wanted to brush off what I was thinking: “No one should have to do a ‘faith check,’ a ‘readiness check’ every 15 minutes. That’s silly.” Then I thought about this: if my child was ill and needed a dose of medicine every 15 minutes in order to live, would I ever miss one?

We must be aware. We have spent “enough time” in our life doing as we pleased. We must make sure that we now spend time doing as we’re commanded. Be ready.

 

Waiting for Super(wo)man: Being Single

We often define key moments of our life as the “big” events. Big events are things like graduations, a wedding, a funeral, a birth, a hiring. Certainly events like those are memorable and play a big part in the shape and direction of our life. What is often unnoticed, however, are the small moments that bring us to the big ones. Small moments are every bit as important in defining the contour of our lives.
A few years ago I was attending a surprise birthday party for a friend of mine. Shortly after we had surprised her, I received a text message from another friend of mine. In the text, my friend indicated that her father figure had suffered a severe stroke and his future was suddenly uncertain. Just that fast her life had changed. One phone call had rocked her world, and one text message to me had put a damper of reality on my celebratory mood. My suddenly distraught friend was also a friend to the friend celebrating a birthday, but I chose not to pass along the information. My friend should be able to celebrate her birthday.
Little moments.
I can point to a little moment that led to one of my big moments. I was working an event on the college campus where I attended, an all-day workshop that needed my presence to help direct guests in the right direction. It wasn’t as exciting or action-packed as working some of the concerts that came on campus, but it provided some needed spending money nonetheless. During a lull in the morning, I stooped down to pick up a brochure. The brochure provided information on summer employment at a youth camp, an area of work that had recently caught my interest. As I picked it up, a person behind me commented, “That’s a good place to work.”
Unbeknownst to me, the director of the camp was watching me and was looking for counselors to work with the youth who would attend. I followed up, interviewed, and was hired. Another hire for the summer happened to be a mentee of the Camp Director, and would become my wife a little over three years later. I often wonder how life would be different for me had I not picked up that shift on a Saturday morning. Yes, I was interested in working at a summer camp, but I had never heard of this camp before. Would I have met the person who became my wife?
I don’t think so.
Little moments.
In the seven years of being divorced, I have often been stuck looking for “big” moments. Perhaps I expected the clouds to part, the sun to shine down in a laser beam, and the birds to start singing “This is the one.” That has not happened. When you focus too much on the big moments, you never allow yourself to be in the moment. The moment that you are in is all that you have, so why not be in it?
That is my challenge back to me and for you, whether you find yourself to be single or not. Be in the moment. You will never find another “big” moment if you do not first embrace all of the little ones that fill each and every day. Let the little moments lead you and the big moments will appear sooner than your realize.

I’ll Race Ya! Part I

One week ago I completed a workshop. I, along with 40 others, gave up 2.5 days to dig into and discuss the topic of racism. I must be honest: I was not looking forward to it. First of all, it is hardly a topic to be excited about. Secondly, that much sitting and talking did not appeal to me. But truthfully, when I dig down, I was a white person thinking, “This again?”
Three times in my life (once in college and twice in the workplace) I have attended a course titled “The Institutes for Healing Racism.” I have worked in diverse workplaces and serve in a diverse church body. My children are biracial. It’s not that it’s not important to me, but I foolishly assumed that I would have nothing to gain. Again, as I expose my foolish thinking, I felt that I was a white person who “got it” already.
I’m so glad that I was wrong. The truth is that my white privilege affords me the opportunity to not give regular attention to this topic. I live in a diverse area and am hardly sheltered from the struggle, but let’s face it – I’m white. How often do I really have to think about it? One of the leaders of the workshop, on the third day, began a monologue by saying “I’m a racist child of God.” She did not say it to be flip nor was she indicating that is all of who she is. In fact, she is very active in the fight against racism. Yet she acknowledges what she has done and has been in her life because of her failure to look through that lens.
She made another comment that I needed to hear. She said, “You cannot be a non-racist. Either you are a racist or an anti-racist.” That struck home with me. Those are exactly the kind of divisive words that make us uncomfortable. We do not want to be “for” or “against;” others may not like that. Isn’t it easier to be tolerant? Can’t we just be accepting and, therefore, be accepted for our lukewarm approach?
I choose that word intentionally. If we look through Scripture, we quickly notice the language of “for” or “against.” In Luke 9:50, Jesus said, “Do not stop him…for whoever is not against you is for you.” Jesus was correcting his followers who had stopped someone from driving out demons. Their reason for doing so? “He is not one of us.” (Luke 9:49b) Interesting. Isn’t that the very mindset at the root of racism: us versus them?
It is. And we, as Christ-followers, would do well to be on the side that is against racism. That is, after all, the winning side. You cannot, as I had allowed myself to think, fall into the camp of being a “non-racist.” I don’t know what that looks like for you. I simply want to bring it to your attention. For me, I want to make this a weekly topic of conversation. I need to keep it at the forefront.
It’s not hard to find. Unfortunately it can also be easy to ignore. But let me remind you that it is also to spit out lukewarm water.
Be hot or be cold.
Here are some news stories from today that you can chew on in order to consider the way that racism still plays out today.
http://espn.go.com/racing/nascar/truck/story/_/id/9883258/darrell-wallace-jr-becomes-first-black-driver-win-nascar-race-1963
http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/9883705/lavelle-e-neal-first-black-writer-named-head-baseball-writers-association-america
http://news.yahoo.com/sharpton-threatens-store-boycott-over-171249957.html
http://tv.yahoo.com/news/julianne-hough-apologizes-wearing-blackface-part-halloween-costume-195604282.html

Finding God In: Playoff Baseball

Outside of the fan bases in Boston and St. Louis, you may not realize that baseball is still being played. Yes, even in the month when the sun sets at dinner time and the occasional snow showers fly, teams are still fighting for the title of World Series champions. In the four-week quest for the title of champion, individual plays and players are placed in the spotlight like no other time of year.

Just last night, in the first game of the World Series, two such events came under scrutiny. In the first inning of the game, the umpire called a player out even though the ball had clearly been dropped. All of the umpires had to converge in order to correct the call before the excitable fans in Boston corrected them. After the game, several people who watched the game drew attention to the possibility of a foreign substance in the glove of the pitcher for Boston – a clear violation. Everything receives extra attention and it becomes time to be known as a hero or a scapegoat.

Just over two weeks ago there was a critical moment for a player named Juan Uribe. If you follow baseball as I do, you already know that name. But short of the die-hard fans, Uribe is relatively unknown. He’s made a fine career for himself by playing his role on several teams, but his career is altogether average by professional baseball standards. He’s never been the best player on his team and he’s never been asked to shoulder the weight of any team’s success. In the two seasons prior to this one, you could have fairly asserted that his career was coming to a close. He had enough experience to be valuable, but his production barely merited a place on the team.

His professional approach remained a credit to Uribe and helped to justify his position on the team. Playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Uribe took on a role of mentor to those who needed it and his production began to increase as well. However, there were several players in the lineup who drew much more attention, and rightly so. Thus it came as no surprise that Uribe, in a critical position of a playoff game, was asked to bunt. For those of you who are less familiar with baseball, Uribe was asked to sacrifice himself. He did not need to get a hit, he just needed to knock the ball a few feet in front of him to advance another runner. If he could do that much, someone else would pick up the critical piece of hitting the ball in order to bring the base runner home to score.

There was only one problem: Uribe was failing. Twice he bunted the ball into foul territory. If he continued this approach and fouled off the baseball again, he would be out and the base runner would not advance. He had four chances to make it work, but none of them had gone according to plan. Now what? Well, the smart play would be to allow Uribe the freedom to swing. The team could not risk the chance of Uribe recording an out attempting to bunt. He would have to swing.

He did.

Uribe sent the ball soaring into the outfield, over the fence not to be caught – a home run! Instead of sacrificing himself, Uribe had given his team the lead. The lead held up and the Los Angeles Dodgers advanced to the next round of the playoffs. Uribe was a hero in spite of his failed attempts, in spite of his past mistakes, and in spite of his previous anonymity.

As Christ followers, we are often content to bunt. We cloak ourselves in the mantle of humility and say, “Someone else will do it.” It’s not that we are not called to humility, but far too often we have simply relabeled our doubts as “humility.” We, like the pre-restored Peter, are caught up in our past failures and mistakes. Even as we, like Peter, have a conversation with the risen Christ, we wonder why he challenges our love for him.

Maybe it’s because he has bigger plans for us. The risen Christ told Peter that he would be the rock upon which Christ would build his church. Think about that. Jesus decided to take Peter, the Jesus-denying apostle, and make him the foundation for the church. Bear in mind that there had been no “church” before this. Jesus took off the bunt sign and was letting Peter swing.

2,000 years later, all over the world, the Church remains. I would like to encourage you to stop looking at your past failures. I would like to ask you to stop expecting someone else to do it. I would like to ask you to believe, even if it seems unlikely, that Christ has big plans for you in his Kingdom. The reason he may ask you about your love for him is not just to hear where you stand, but so that he can remind you where he stands.

He loves you, and he wants you to dare to be used.

Swing away.

http://espn.go.com/mlb/playoffs/2013/story/_/id/9789359/juan-uribe-home-run-propels-los-angeles-dodgers-nlcs