Wisdom from the Wilderness

March 25, 2020

Do you feel like you may be in the wilderness right now? Quarantines; viruses; isolation; uncertainty–all combined can certainly make us feel like we are on a wilderness wandering.

Of course, there was a group in history that actually was stuck in the wlderness. Scripture uses it as a watershed event–a crucial part of the biblical narrative and not just for Israel. Numerous wilderness lessons abound. Perhaps now is a perfect time to revisit some of them.

  • The Call to Trust is Primary. From the start with their backs to the Red Sea, God called Israel to explicitly trust in him. Theirs was a journey to establish the kind of trust that would accomplish the task of nation-building. Israel was never more Israel when they actually processed, understood and acted in faith on this. Often though, they did not exhibit this kind of trust and suffered as a result. But God delivered them and delivered on his promises anyway. The call to trust is still primary. Christ’s ministry only reinforced this need (John 14:1). If we can learn to fully embrace trust then we can largely eliminate worry, doubt and everything else that robs us of the joy of God’s promises. Especially now–let’s trust God with all we are.
  • God is Always Near. Israel had God in their sights–literally–both day and night (Exodus 13:21). They experienced Sinai first-hand. They witnessed Moses’s makeover after being with God. God was near. They saw it and felt it. We are equally assured that God is an “ever present help in our time of need’ (Psalm 46:1). The apostle Paul told a group of skeptics, that he is not far from any of us (Acts 17:27). This is why we can trust! Even if we are isolated in quarantine, we are never alone. Just as he saw Israel through, he will see us through as well.
  • Always Push Toward the Promise. The wilderness was merely a temporary challenge. The Promise Land made every one of those challenges worth it. Some in Israel lost sight of this promise; lacked trust; forgot that God was near; grew faithless and stopped pushing toward that promise. This is one reason we know their story–why it is embedded in biblical narrative–so we can learn better. No matter what comes let’s “press on toward the goal” to borrow Paul’s phrase (Philippians 3:14). Let’s never allow whatever wilderness we face to defeat trust in us. We have our own promised place to realize (John 14 again).

No one wants to feel lost in a barren wilderness or face uncertain times, dealing with an unknown virus. If there is anything we can gain from the wilderness story, it is that no matter what looms ahead of us–it must be engaged with a ferocious sense of faith and trust. God will see us through.


Meet The Preacher

November 6, 2019

You may know us, but then again you may not. Preachers have a way of hiding behind the pulpit. We can easily be stereotyped. Through experience we often learn to become very guarded and protective of our hearts and homes. Paradoxically though we often feel obligated to give even more of ourselves into our ministry. We come in all shapes, sizes and giftedness–and you may be surprised to learn:

  • The church is our life. For better or worse it is difficult for this not to be true. We pour all of ourselves into our ministry in the church. Preaching is not simply a vocation–it is essentially our identity. As a result the church becomes our life. We become consumed with its health and growth. Remember that old joke about preachers only working four hours a week? We may force a smile as it is told, but trust me we are not laughing. Actually–honestly most of us would consider it condescending. This is also why we tend to take it personally when someone leaves our church. We process it as a rejection of us and our ministry efforts within the church. No, that is not a healthy approach or necessarily an accurate assessment, but one almost impossible to avoid. This also explains the tortured look on your preacher’s face when he hears that you decided to go to the lake/ball game/whatever rather than attend the big, special, highly promoted Sunday at church. He has spent weeks planning that Sunday. Hours spent in prayer. His hope is that Sunday will spark a spiritual renewal in someone. It is a huge deal to him and for it to be so easily dismissed by others is disappointing. I am not saying it is fair to hold everyone to our expectations–just explaining who we are. The best way I can describe how the church becomes our life is a quote attributed to Cecil May, Jr. (as told by his son Cecil III). Someone once commented to Cecil, Jr., “I wish I had a job that I never had to clock into.” Cecil, Jr. replied, “I wish I had a job I could clock out of.” I do not make this point as either complaint or as some outstanding virtue–only as informative. To understand your preacher, understand that the church is his life (his family certainly knows it).
  • We are an insecure bunch. This is a layered discussion. The first layer is within us. I think God calls some of the most naturally insecure folks to preach. It could be his way of demonstrating his strength within our weak vessels (see 2 Corinthians 12:10). Of course, we have a job in which it is difficult to quantify results. We work with volunteers with varying commitment levels–some of whom occasionally find it necessary to remind us of our insecurities. We wonder regularly if our preaching is connecting and effective. Then there is the church layer. Most churches encourage and support their preachers well, but some don’t. Almost every preacher I know has a horror story or three about mistreatment by good brothers and sisters. Financially, churches as-a-whole do better than previous generations. Yet the overwhelming majority of preachers continue to not have the benefits that those hiring them take for granted–health insurance, retirement, etc. All of this breeds insecurity. I was once told (by someone not a preacher) that this is the way it is supposed to be; that preachers are supposed to live off the gospel. While I do not disagree that we are to walk by faith, I am not sure how an atmosphere of insecurity is helpful or healthy for any preacher or any church.
  • We may resist close friendships. I mentioned that we are good at hiding behind pulpits, which can be challenging in making long-term, close connections. There are reasons behind this, of course. First we fight against stereotyping. Often people have fairly strong preconceptions about preachers–making various assumptions about us because we preach. Once at a church workday, a church member expressed surprise that I could use a hammer. Such stereotyping can prevent folks from ever getting beyond that in order to develop a deeper relationship outside of the church walls. Another factor here is betrayal–having trusted someone with intimate information or personal challenges only to have that information shared and even used against us. It does happen. Preachers can be extremely vulnerable within certain church settings. There is no such thing as tenure (part of the overall insecurities) and especially if a preacher has been burned, it can be a challenge to be open to close friendships within the congregation. This is not always the case, of course, but there is a reason that for many preachers–their best friends are other preachers. So if you have ever wondered why your preacher may resist developing a deeper friendship with you–it likely has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with some past unpleasant experience.
  • We can be our own worst enemies. I like to say that preachers are people too. We deal with the same temptations, tendencies, and trepidations as everyone else. We make mistakes–plenty of them. Ego can get in our way and we can lose perspective along with the ability to listen to sound advice. We can hurt and betray others. We can develop bitterness and cynicism. Our preaching can become imbalanced with agendas other than “Christ and him crucified” creeping in. All of this is on us and we have to be vigilant in protecting ourselves against such. Most of us understand this and strive to not disqualify ourselves (see 1 Corinthians 9:27) or our ministry through harmful behavior and lazy preaching. It is also a matter of maturity. Just like others in their professions, we learn as we grow with sometimes-painful lessons being the best schoolteacher. Looking back in my ministry I have been my own worst enemy on numerous occasions, which makes me even more overwhelmingly grateful for good churches and godly elders who were more than patient with me.

The Bible describes the feet of those who proclaim God’s message as “beautiful” (Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:15). I am not sure how many of us who preach see ourselves that way. We get the thought, but we also live with ourselves and are more than acquainted with our failures and weaknesses. But we would not have it any other way. Preaching–well that is just who we are.


Out of Job’s Ashes

March 8, 2018

job-suffering

The Old Testament book of Job is somewhat of a mystery. It includes quite the unique story told in an unusual way compared to the rest Scripture. In it Job is both the protagonist and antagonist as the center of the story and of the storm surrounding him. It is rich in dialogue—between God and Satan; between Job and his friends; and between God and Job. The focus is about human suffering and why God allows it, yet a definitive answer to this dilemma is never offered. In the end it is about trust—as in—will God be trusted above and beyond the suffering with all of the accompanying questions. There is much to unpack in Job’s story and indeed out of his ashes there are numerous life lessons to learn.

The Prologue (1-2)

The book begins by firmly establishing Job as a righteous man—a guy who did everything right by his family, his friends, his community, strangers, and by God. Even though Job was not a Hebrew, he worshipped their God. He was from the “land of Uz,” which remains a rather mysterious place—no one is exactly sure of its location. The historical context of the book also remains unknown, with best guesses placing it at some point before Moses. Who recorded this story also is a mystery. What we do know is that Job was a good man—about the best around in his day.

Satan took notice of that. In a fascinating snapshot of the supernatural, we eavesdrop in a conversation between God and Satan. God asks Satan, who was apparently roaming the earth in search of people to take down into his sinful web, what he thinks of Job and his righteous conduct. Satan doesn’t think much of it and does what he does best–accuse. Job is too protected by God, so a bargain of sorts is agreed upon. God takes down some protective hedges and Satan gets a shot at Job, but at first not personally. He can only attack him around the edges—and he does it very well. Yet Job stays strong and true to God. Then a second bargain is struck. Satan can harm Job physically, but only to a point. Job’s life is to be spared. This almost surreal situation (to us anyway) sets up the rest of the book. Satan hit Job hard. First his property, security, and serenity—then his body and his health.  It rocks Job to his core. Job cannot understand why he is suffering so. For him it made no sense. He was a godly man yet all hell (almost literally) had broken loose upon him. Why? This “why” discussion takes up most the book. It remains ever present as we face suffering of our own. This is also why this book remains so compelling—and so challenging.

The Dialogues (3-41)

Job’s despair was shocking to his friends. When they came to his aid, they barely recognized him—sitting in ashes, rejected by his wife and with only a broken piece of pottery to ease his suffering. How was this the same man whom they had known—a man renown for his righteousness, justice and goodness? Obviously something had gone terribly wrong, so Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite, and Elihu the Buzite determined to figure it all out. Just why was Job suffering so? This is at the heart of their prolonged conversations.

To understand these exchanges it is important to understand the assumption they were all (including Job) working from—a common assumption that continues to this day. That is—how everything in the universe operates according to a strict principle of justice. From their perspective, if you were about righteousness, you would be rewarded. If evil—then the proper punishment would follow (see 4:8-9; 34:11; 36:11-12). Under this assumption, Job was apparently not the man everyone thought him to be.

So, his friends set about to probe into his life, to expose his sin, and thus to help him accept it, repent of it, and escape his ashes. But Job insisted he had not sinned—that he was innocent (9:21). No way, according to Job, had he done anything anywhere to deserve the horror he was living. He could not process this being about the justice of God because he had done nothing to warrant it. In addition to his physical distress, this was ripping at his very soul. Eventually in these discussions and in his frustration he turns on God—accusing him of inflicting this pain for no cause (16:9; 27:2,8). He is confused and just trying to make sense of it all.

At this point in the story the last friend, Elihu, speaks up. He thinks Job is mistaken in accusing God and interprets suffering somewhat differently. He suggests it may a punishment not for sins committed but rather as a warning against committing future sins.

The point of all of this dialogue? Each segment represents an element of man’s wisdom in trying to come to grips with human suffering. Who among us has not asked why innocent people suffer? Who among us has not wrestled with the apparent injustice of it? The dialogues were their way of wrestling.

Then God enters the dialogue. In what may be the most amazing part of Job’s amazing story—God speaks up and answers Job, but not exactly how Job expected. Job’s perspective of how God operates in the world centered upon himself. From that limited viewpoint Job accused God of not holding up his end of the bargain. In answering, God opened up Job’s eyes to a universe much, much larger than his own circumstance. As God spoke about creation, about taking care of the natural order, about how things operated from his perspective, Job quickly realized he was out way of his league and repents. His accusations against God were unwarranted. He simply could not know enough to make such claims against God.

So why all the suffering? Even in all of the discussion, no clear answer is provided. God does seem to use two of his more impressive creations, though, to provide some direction. He speaks of the behemoth and the leviathan—two large creatures known to Job and his contemporaries. Using them to illustrate, he pictures creation as both ordered but also dangerous; the world as having justice, but not having perfection. Thus, the suffering—it is a part of this imperfect world.

For us, who still operate at times under the same assumption as Job and his friends that answer may seem to fall short, but Job was satisfied. The epilogue of the story (chapter 42) reveals that not only did Job recover, but ended up far more blessed than before.

Trust is the Takeaway

This is the point of Job’s story. It is not to answer the problem of human suffering; it is to trust explicitly in God throughout human suffering. Even though rebuked by his friends, Job did the right thing—he took his doubts, hurts, and questions directly to God. Suffering is a byproduct of our broken world. Satan orchestrates it—just as with Job. God’s answer to this dilemma is not to eradicate it, but to send this only son to enter it—to suffer just like us so that we can eventually escape it. In the meantime—trust! Trust in the infinite wisdom and justice of God. One day it will overcome and all suffering will cease. This may not fit into all of our assumptions, but like Job we are so limited in our ability to understand. So, we cling hard to him who does understand and trust him regardless of what other voices may be saying.

That at times will not be easy, but in the end well worth it (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Out of Job’s ashes comes a perspective that can see beyond the moment trusting God through it.

 


Money and Me

July 12, 2017

Worried About Money

So I am enjoying a kind of preaching sabbatical due to different circumstances intersecting (regular Sunday off, preaching intern, mission trip), which provides me a rare opportunity to plan my next sermons over a longer period. All year my preaching focus has been themed around “seeking first the kingdom of God”–obviously from Christ’s incredible Sermon on the Mount. During the summer I have narrowed that focus to what I call “kingdom values.” Next up my plan leads me to address the use of and attitudes toward money in the kingdom (so Levy be warned!) It will not be a “sermon on giving” (or as the classic Marvin Phillip’s line goes–a “sermon on the amount”), but rather what Christ taught about money and possessions along with how they are best used in his kingdom.

As I have been reading and ruminating over this, it has caused within me a growing tension. It has resulted in me coming face-to-face with and acknowledging my own weaknesses and failings in this regard.

It can be rather convenient for preachers to pick out our texts, work our sermon plans, and have a go at the church without ever allowing the message to become deeply personal. After all, we have to move from one sermon to the next fairly quickly. Sermons are our products. We have to produce one weekly, which often does not allow time for self-reflection. Due to the accidental sabbatical I am enjoying self-reflection opportunities right now–and it is working me over.

I admit to always having a struggle with money. I grew up with very little of it and have never managed to accumulate a great deal of it. Overspending, though, has never been much of a problem. I hate debt even though I have never been totally free from it. I don’t sense within me the love of money that is rooted in all kinds of evil. I don’t have any great internal problems or hesitancy with contributing.

It is just this–I worry too much about it.

Interestingly enough this has only increased within me as I have gotten older. It has compounded due to having younger children. I now find myself on occasion being fearful about the future–will I have enough to help them through college? What will happen if I am not able to keep working? Are we sure we have enough money to cover all our responsibilities? Some of this may seem like typical concerns. Some of it quite honestly is just an irrational lack of faith. But it is the tune Satan keeps playing for me in the recesses of my mind.

Let me make this clear however–it does not come from a kingdom perspective at all.

In fact, Christ teaches exactly the opposite. Don’t worry. Seek first the kingdom and God will provide. Prioritize your money and resources from a kingdom perspective and be set free from our consumer driven social conditioning. I know this. My wife, Terri, reminds me of this quite frequently. God has always had our back, so why worry now? But I still do. Therefore the tension mounting within me.

I confess this here for a few reasons. First, confession really is a balm for the soul. It puts your struggle out there, forcing you to deal with it differently than if it is kept hidden. Second, preaching about money sometimes can be a tricky proposition. I want Levy to know that I am first preaching to myself. That my agenda is not just to challenge others to live out the kingdom values, but also to embrace them more fully myself. And third–to seek prayers from others on behalf of my struggle.

I must overcome Satan’s song with the beautiful words of Jesus:

So do not worry, saying “What shall we eat?” or”What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. –Matthew 6:32-34

Money and me have always had a complicated relationship. More than anything I want that relationship to be better defined and prioritized God’s way. I want to be set free of the tyranny of worry and fear.

 

 


The Kingdom Difference

June 14, 2017

kingdomofgod

Recently while on vacation I met up with a good friend for lunch. As usual our discussion was wide ranging. Part of the conversation concerned how my 2017 preaching theme of seeking first God’s kingdom was transforming me—as well as my understanding of God’s kingdom—in profound and unexpected ways. The next day my friend texted me stating that he would enjoy a further conversation about this, specifically how this was personally affecting me.

I’ve ruminated over this a great deal in the few weeks since. Surprisingly I find it somewhat difficult to articulate it adequately. I have twice posted since about the impact the kingdom is making. It remains a journey for me—a process to grasp just how deep and wide the challenges of the kingdom are. Some of them I do not like. They make me uncomfortable and expose too many of my weaknesses.

But I am going to take a shot at it and attempt to explain what I am learning. To me the kingdom of God:

  • Is not about me. I really enjoy things being about me. I like to get my way. I dislike having to compromise. I generally believe that I have the best ideas and typically have a strong desire for events to turn out in my favor. But unfortunately this is not a kingdom focus—actually it is far from it. Read again the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)— Christ’s first public teaching about the kingdom and its values—and you will see it threaded throughout. Then later (Matthew 16:24-26) he makes it even clearer. There just is no self-focus in the kingdom and I haven’t figured out how to get around it—even though a large part of me wants to do so.
  • Is about submission. Here we go again. The kingdom is about me submitting my will to the Father’s. Christ himself emphasized this (in John’s gospel) and modeled it perfectly—in a way I cannot even imagine. In order to fully embrace God’s kingdom and thrive within it I have to give up. Period. My old self will has to die and be buried according to Paul in Romans 6:3-4. Out of that submission God will raise me up anew and begin his process of reshaping me for the kingdom. Nowhere, however, is there ever a claim that this would be easy. Worthwhile—definitely, but easy, no. I typically like easy.
  • Is others oriented. I guess at this point, this could go unsaid. I posted about the “least of these” kingdom focus earlier. They are the others.
  • Upends conventional wisdom. Starting with the idea of submitting and giving up, but going deeper. The poor, the mournful, the pure, the merciful, and even the persecuted—they are the blessed ones. Enemies? They are not to be hated and destroyed but to be loved (when was the last time I prayed for or had a loving spirit toward a terrorist? Yea. Tough.). Being first is not what matters—being last does. Have a lot of money, land and stuff? Maybe the best use of it is not to invest it to gain more stuff, but to diverse yourself of it and give it away (like many did in Acts). Someone strikes you, don’t strike back, but rather turn the other cheek. Put your swords away. Go the second mile. Those are the actions reflective of God’s kingdom. Its values indeed come from another place (John 18:36). All of this creates big-time tension within me. Can I–coming from the place of conventional wisdom–really put into practice these unconventional teachings?
  • Is all about trust. And this is where the true test for me comes. I can know all of the above in an academic, skim-the-Bible-kind of way, but do I trust God enough to personalize them and go all in? The trust-building promises are all there. Seek first and God’s got your back–no need to worry. Humble yourself and God will elevate you in his way. Give of yourselves and God will give back many times over in various ways. Be last and then become first in the kingdom. To actualize this I really have to let go of the control of my life and hand it over to God. Can I see past the short-term to grasp the endgame of God? Short-term none of this has any appeal to me. Long term? I must trust God explicitly. It is the only way to see the value of what he is asking. It is the only way to really make the kingdom become present and alive within me (Luke 17:20-21). This, as they say, has rocked my world.

This is where I am—venturing out in baby steps toward greater trust and in so doing finding God changing me; learning to view people, possessions, and priorities differently; all while being constantly confronted by the kingdom. Sometimes I manage to be selfless through it all, but sometimes I don’t. I suppose that why it is called seeking–it remains a process.

In the end it is all about God’s will. That is the kingdom difference. I find myself praying more like Jesus:

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.