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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

I know…the church isn’t a building.  I know…God doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. (Acts 17)  I know, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit through the new covenant.  But I want to take issue with the over-compensatory swing away from the “building” or the “house of the Lord”.

David loved to go to the place of worship.  And when I say place I mean a literal location with a building hosting a gathering of worshippers.  He loved the house of the Lord!  In fact, in one Psalm he said, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’”.  He loved going to the building where everyone convened to sing songs, pray prayers, offer sacrifices and sit under the spoken law of God.  He looked forward to that time spent in that place.  He loved “going to church”, so to speak, even though I know it’s a cardinal sin to speak of church as a place these days.  I get it.

But for a moment, let David’s zeal for the house--the actual locale where God was worshipped by the masses of Israel--sink into your system.  Even in the New Testament when Jesus was on the scene, he felt a passion for the temple, the synagogue.  So much so that when it was being abused as a house of profit instead of prayer, he went off, turning tables and whipping money-changers cleansing the temple with fiery words of warning: “This house shall be called a house of prayer and you are making it a den of thievery!”  The disciples saw and heard his passion for the purity of this place remembering the words of Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume him”.  David wrote this, Jesus embodied this, the disciples took note of it and wrote it down as inspired Scripture.  The house of God was a big deal.

Even in the early church we see in Acts that believers spent “everyday in the temple courts” and “house to house”…again, it wasn’t an either/or…”both places have a place”.  The scenery has changed, but the basic principle is the same…do you love going to a actual place and worshipping God with other people?  Do you love the house of the Lord?  Does zeal for that house consume you because you care about pure worship (I’m not speaking of just music) coming from purified worshippers?  Does you heart beat with the Psalmist when he says he was glad when people said, “It’s time to go to the house of God”!?  Have you backed into the ditch on the other side of the road dismissing the need for collective gatherings replacing it with a modern movement of “God-gadabouts”, a transient scattered mess of “Jesus-gypsies”.  Suffice it to say, there’s still a “place for a place”, and this music/poet David loved the house of God so much so that he imagined that “there would be a there up there” when the next life picked up where this life left off.  He longed for and loved the house of the Lord so much, he wanted there to be one forever.

He couldn’t imagine the afterlife without a gathering of worshippers in the “house of the Lord”.  This was his final wish.  This was his everlasting imagination. 

We know that we are the temple of God now, but this shouldn’t diminish our passion to get with others to celebrate the presence of God.  In our effort to be expansive in our thinking, let us not forget the merit and meaning of gathering in a place and experiencing “the person of God in a place of God” with others who see that it’s more than an individualized, homogenized relationship with God; it’s about a bunch of people hungry for God’s house convening there to make much of Him.  When it’s done right, it will make you want to gather like this forever and ever. 

In Revelation John talks about looking forward to the “dwelling of God come down to be among men”.   Since the Spirit dwells within men already, he is clearly talking about dwelling in terms of God’s home or residence being made manifest in our midst.  He can’t wait for Heaven because it is in every way a house and in every way a home.  Maybe this is why New and Old Testament prophets and priests and kings and apostles spoke of this place with such affection, because it wasn’t the limitation of God’s presence to a particular plot of land acreage or building square footage, it was the opportunity to assemble in one place, one space, to seek and savor God’s presence.

What a great place to land this popular psalm.  Heaven.

Never have I longed for heaven’s habitat more as my heart and body ages.  The past two years I have felt my heart and my flesh yearning for the shores of that great land welcoming it, like the ancients, from a distance.  Like the psalmist my heart says with increased knowing and ardent feeling, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand days elsewhere.”  My blood is stirred for that place of rest.
I lean toward it even now as I conclude this cursory study of this beautiful piece of sacred script, the 23rd Psalm. 

I look forward to going and gathering this weekend with the church in the church building.  I really do love it and I’m glad God’s not going to do away with it in the great by and by.

“I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”…and ever…and ever…etc.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”

Legacy is important to me.  What is following me around while I’m alive and what trails behind me when I pass away is something I think about often. 

But I can’t talk about this passage as a participator until I first talk about it as a benefactor.  Here’s what I mean.

When I take a moment to look behind me, I’m blown away at the sheer goodness God has shown me over the years.  My life has been so good!  The family I was born into, the nation that I live in, the one city that I grew up in, the one school I went to from K-12, the siblings I have (1 brother and 2 sisters) that are all in ministry to this day, a Dad and Mom that have stayed together and raised us to be selfless servants of others, the provision of God in times of poverty growing up, the opportunity to live right on Lake Ontario and take in the most gorgeous sunsets on a weekly basis, the opportunity I was given at an early age to accept Christ as my Savior, the formative years of my life being trained to love God and love others, the protection of God in my adolescence when it would have been easy to fall to temptation, the abilities God gave me athletically to excel in sports, the great job at a fruit farm I started when I was 12 and worked at until I was 20, the home we grew up on in the country where I could enjoy the wonder of the woods, the blessing of never going without food and having a mom that could cook the backside off a steer.

Going to college and meeting a nucleus of friends that shaped my confidence in Christ, finding the girl of my dreams two months into my freshman year and marrying her 4 years later, graduating with a 4-year bachelors’ degree at college with very little debt because of gifts and grants that seemed to be unfairly dished out to me when others all around me seemed equally needy and qualified, being chosen to give my kidney to my younger sister after I graduated college…a kidney that is still working inside her almost 16 years later, being hired as a youth pastor right after my honeymoon and finding a loving community of faith in Bellefontaine to cut my teeth in ministry, having great friends in that church that shaped my longings and passions, moving to Michigan and joining a church plant in Lowell called Impact where I met an amazing band of Christ-followers to challenge me in the next leg of my spiritual journey…oh, I could go on and on, trust me.

I’ve been given no less than five cars in the last 15 years, one of them was a brand new 2008 Impala that I found in my driveway when I got home from church 4 years ago.  It had 8 miles on it!  I’ve often opened the mailbox to find an envelope filled with cash or a check coming just in the nick of time to meet an overwhelming need.  I have had opportunities to speak in front of thousands and thousands of people sharing my stories and motivating them with the compelling person and cause of Christ, I am actually paid to serve Jesus in the world…a privilege that is matchless bringing me joy that is boundless.  And I get to live this life with a beautiful wife and three lovely daughters the Lord has entrusted to us.  Even thinking about their births gets me choked up because we almost lost our youngest since she was born very premature, but God sheltered us from the storm and poured out his goodness and mercy on us by the bucket-loads.  Not only am I blessed with 3 charming little girls, but God has recently opened the door for us to adopt two young boys under 3 years old from Ethiopia by the names of Joshua and Caleb.  We would have never been able to afford it had we not been tipped off to a business man in Texas that offers one grant a year to a family who is wanting to adopt.  After Heidi filled out an application for the grant, they not only gave us the finances to adopt one, but told us that if we wanted to adopt two, they would pay for a second adoption as well.  Blessing upon blessing, heaped one upon the other like bails of hay in burgeoning barn.  Counting the blessings is impossible; I haven’t the room to recount the goodness and mercy that has followed me all the days of my life.

I am truly a benefactor.

But I also look at this passage and I see an opportunity to make a decision about what I want left in in my life's wake.  I can walk around and kick up the dust of discouragement and negativity really easily.  Wherever I go gloom and doom could follow my every footprint leaving a stained imprint on people’s souls.  My mom always used to say whenever we went to someone’s house, “Leave the place better than you found it”.  I’ve never forgotten that.  It seems like that phrase applies perfectly to the homestretch of this Psalm 23 passage. 

When you live, may it be mercy that you’re known for.  Forgiveness.  Second chances.  Grace to the ones you meet.  When you live, may it be goodness that motivates your every move, not pride or vain glory or selfish ambitions.  No, let your live be honest to goodness through and through.  When you walk out of a room may the aroma of goodness linger in your absence, mercy hovering in the air like the smell of fresh baked bread.  It’s possible to live in such a way that goodness and mercy are following you like the shadow of Peter healing people as he passed them by.
Goodness and mercy heal people.

And whether you know it or not, if you turned around and looked for it you’d see that there hasn’t been a day of your life that mercy and goodness haven’t been tracking you.  And these beautiful sightings are signs pointing us to the life we really, really want reminding us to give as we’ve received.

Where would I be without God’s goodness and mercy following my every step?
What kind of legacy could I leave if goodness and mercy flowed with my every step?

“Surely goodness and mercy have followed me.”

Sunday, August 26, 2012

“Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over.”

It’s something special when someone celebrates your life.  I’m not speaking of flattery or glad-handing or brown-nosing.  I’m talking about someone who walks with you through thick and thin and anoints you on occasion with honor.


Anointing someone basically meant you were bestowing him or her with favor or crowning him or her with honor.  And for the recipient, it was a moment of sitting there and letting someone else tell you your worth, not you running around trying to prove it.  In my opinion, it would be as awkward as it was awesome.  I’m not good with letting others pour their love, honor, gratefulness, appreciation, affirmation, and favor onto/into me.  It’s almost strange when someone takes more than a moment to stop and celebrate your life with meaningful specifics, not superficial generalities.

But man, does our heart crave that kind of feedback, that kind of intimate prophecy.

The Shepherd pours it on at times.  There is a time for His rod to correct you and redirect you, but there is also a time where he speaks over you the oil of a Father’s blessing.  He tells you who you are.  He shows you the blessing you’ve been and the blessings that are all around you.  He showers you with words you’ve been dying to hear from someone.  He doesn’t make it up like someone speaking fabricated nonsense at a selfish person’s funeral.  No, the Shepherd draws from years of watching you, tending to your needs, noting your patterns, seeing your values, catching your character, picking up on unique attributes, reading your mood swings, and knowing your next move before you make it.  When he anoints you with oil, it’s not a shot in the arm to keep you going or a shot in the dark to temporarily make you feel special.  The oil of his anointing means something because is comes from a deep knowing.

And after he pours his love all over you and shows you all that you truly are and all that you truly possess in Him, the cup of your heart can’t contain the inlet of encouragement and it spills over the brim.  Tell me that isn’t the best feeling in the world, living with a full cup of happy gratitude instead of an empty cup of crappy attitude.

And here’s the thing, we all have so much to be thankful for.  We just need to be reminded on occasion.  We need to be reminding each other of the goodness that surrounds us and dwells within us.  We forget.  We simply lose sight of what’s true in the grind of gutting it out every day.  This anointing is essential to living with a full cup.

And though we can be used of God to be his instrument of anointing, most often we must get this directly from the Shepherd.  We must be near him, close enough to hear his voice, his words.  That is why reading the Bible isn’t just “devotions”, it’s “anointing”.  The more infrequently you interact with God’s Word, the dryer and dryer your cup gets, because the cup is filled from the oil cascading down from the head to the heart to the hand.  He keeps pouring anointing on your head until your cup is full and begins to overflow.

And when you begin to overflow, only then can you truly be a consistent blessing to others.  It’s hard to “be a blessing” when you are functioning out of an empty reservoir of strength and when you’re faking an anointing.  There is no spiritual abuse that compares to someone living out of a fake anointing.  It’s one of the saddest things to witness in all of Christianity.

Wouldn’t it be great to live with a spirit that when asked, “How are you?” could say, “My cup overflows” and really mean it.

I so long for God’s anointing so that I don’t have to “make up a full cup”.  The only think you’re full of when you do that is crap.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…"

Living with tension.  No matter what you’ve been taught, most of the time you don’t settle a matter once and for all, whatever the matter is.  “What’s the matter?”  That’s just it; the matter isn’t always easy to figure out and work through.  Even if you’re a great leader and discerner of spirits, you don’t just move from trouble-shooting to problem-solving to vision-casting to team-building. 

Conflict resolution is a term thrown around quite a bit and it can be misleading to think that every relational squabble can remedied with a perfect solution leading to an final resolution.  I’m not saying it isn’t worth pursuing, I’m just trying to keep it real…many times, you will have to live with things staying at least a little wrinkled relationally.  Just saying.

There are beautiful moments when two parties who are at odds submit in humble self-awareness to truth, but more often than not, people are content to stay comfortably mounted on the stallion of their “humble” opinion.   This leads to tension and you have to learn to live in/with tension to some degree or you will be torn asunder.

To make a long story short…you will have enemies.

That’s what I love about God in this text.  He is neither an optimist (there is no conflict) nor a pessimist (there is only conflict)…He is a realist (while conflict is sitting in the room, let’s eat a feast in front of it).  That’s brilliant.  No denial or running from reality.  Just a staggering realization that it’s possible to have God throw a party right in the presence of your greatest nightmare.  He doesn’t promise freedom from the fist of opposition, but freedom in the midst of opposition. 

This is a paradigm shift we’re talking about here.

Who is one of the greatest energy-draining people in your life?  He doesn’t say that he will take away the drainer; he prepares a table and tries to give you energy in front of that sucker.

Who is one of the biggest distractions to you having a quality of life?  He doesn’t eliminate the distraction; he tries to out-distract you with goodness right in the presence of the badness.

What steals your joy?  What ruins your day?  What grates you and gnaws on your last nerve?  Who is this disturber of the peace?  Name him, her or it.  It’s not unbiblical to have an enemy or two.  They are lurking around any life that is amounting to something or going somewhere.

And somehow, God doesn’t remove them from our life, but prepares a feast right in front of them, inviting us to the table to chow down in their very presence. 

Life isn’t the absence of conflict, or enemies, or tension.  Life is found when we can recognize the goodness God is dishing up, pull ourselves up to the table, and eat our hearts out while our enemy is sitting in the corner across the room giving us the stink-eye.

God is always offering us a spread in the middle of the madmen, the question is whether we’ll pull up to the table or miss the meal.

I’m so grateful God is a realist.  

Saturday, August 18, 2012

“Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

This thought is not comforting until you grow older and realize that God can be two completely opposite things without compromising or contradicting himself. 

I have traveled through seasons where I am drawn to the beauty and love and grace of God saying with the Psalmist “one thing I ask and that will I seek, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord…”.  These glorious attributes of God have served to heal me and bring a balance to my harsh perspective on God.
But we all know that God and his attributes aren’t about “one thing” though that single-minded vision is needed at times. 

We like boiling stuff down to one thing.  We really love boiling God down to one thing, too.
You talk to some people and they are about God’s love.  Others are about God’s Spirit.  Some are all about God’s wrath in war, while others tend to prefer God’s peaceful nature.  Some tune in when you start talking about God’s compassion, but tune out when you start talking about God’s commands.  Some would rather not read about the Old Testament God and are just fine concentrating on the New Testament God.  The polarities are endless.

But in this passage, both the rod and staff bring comfort even when it’s not comfortable.

The rod of the Shepherd was used to discipline the sheep in order to protect them from harm.  The shepherd never inflicts pain to harm, but to protect.  He knows that chastening is a loving act.  The rod would often have a blunt end and would be used to strike a sheep when it was wandering.  We’re use to the term “a stay sheep” when we’re talking of someone who has left the fold or the flock.  When a sheep left the flock (fold), it was in imminent danger, so the shepherd would train the sheep by occasionally striking it when it wasn’t heeding the guidance of the shepherd.  (some stories are told of shepherd actually breaking a lambs leg and then carrying it to teach it to listen) It was either experience a little pain now and live, or no pain now and die.  In the moment, it just looks cruel and heartless on the part of the shepherd, but it’s really a side of love we don’t honor so much in our cushy and mushy culture of ‘no spanking’ and ‘sitting on the naughty mat’ and ‘time outs’…anything to avoid the rod…that’s abuse.

But the rod is just as God-like as the staff.

The staff of the Shepherd is much more popular.  It’s in about every Jesus-picture where the sheep metaphor is being depicted.  The Shepherd’s crook is used to pull a lamb from danger, to nudge them and guide them on paths, and as I read today when I was studying this, to scratch that hard-to-reach itch that the sheep couldn’t get to on its own.  It was a walking stick for the shepherd, something to lean on for leverage.  It was an instrument of protection and peace, comfort and even caressing.  We love the staff of God because it signifies grace, compassion, protection, provision and affection. 

It takes quite a heart of maturity to speak of both of these objects as necessary and comfort-producing.  Another word for comfort is security, like a child who draws closer to a parent when he or she senses the love that accompanies both forms.  When you get older you realize that love is both discipline and tenderness.  Fear and friendship.  His voice comes in a whisper and a thunder.  He is still just as much God when you’re under his rod of wrath as when you are under his staff of peace.  He is the same Shepherd with the same heart for you.

I’m not going to lie; the rod is hard to handle sometimes.  Affliction doesn’t feel good.  Tension in a relationship rots.  Losing your job bites.  Getting that dreaded diagnosis isn’t something you’d wish on your worst enemy.  Pain is something we try to avoid at all costs, but sometimes God wants us to feel pain in order to mature.  When you avoid pain, you are also avoiding growth.  You see, pain is the #1 teacher of “self-awareness”.  And there is no one who is in more peril than the chronically “self-aware”-impaired.  So what will it be?  Pain or Peril?

God is the God of the “Rod and Staff”.  If you want the God of one or the other, you don’t want the God of the Bible.

Friday, August 17, 2012

“I will fear no evil, for thou art will me.”

Fear is the peanut gallery in your head heckling you when you balk and momentarily second-guess yourself.  It points its finger at you and whispers to itself under its own breath just loud enough for you to hear, but just soft enough to make it hard for you to understand exactly what is being said.  Fear smirks when you make a decision like it knows something you don’t and coughs a couple times to let you know it takes issue with your decision.  Everything inside of you turns toward the cough.  Once fear gets your attention, it starts muttering something to itself again mostly because it rarely has anything to actually say. 

Fear might seem like a little blowfly that keeps bouncing around in your head slamming into mirrors and windowpanes, but it isn’t as stupid and clumsy as it puts on.  It fakes ignorance so you ignore it and let it take up more real estate in between your ears and underneath your sternum.  The more space you give it, the more blowflies it reproduces or simply invites over for a “conspiracy theory” convention.  Before you know it blowflies are bouncing off everything and they get loud as they dive-bomb your every idle thought like kamikaze killers.  You come to find out that these aren’t stupid blowflies at all; they are intelligent special ops that used the “stupid suit” to slip past your defenses and get on the inside.  

When I was growing up, I wasn’t a fearful kid.  I was daring and defied all voices of doubt, every lie of insecurity and anxiety.  I put myself in harm’s way and cheated death for kicks.  I challenged myself to do things that were scary for others just for the rush of danger.  But I learned, this is not the “fear factors” that are most debilitating.  Dare devil stunts and death defying antics are child’s play compared to the fears I nursed when “I became a man and put away childish things”.

As I grew (and grow older) fear has grown older and wiser right along with me.  It has stalked me and studied me all my life.  It has come to see my impenetrable places and my vulnerable places.  Where I once thought myself above the anxieties so common to man, I now feel the pangs of paranoia heating up my blood stream and chasing my racing heart.  Fight or flight instincts over things that may or may not even be real inside my crowded head.  Panic attacks over imminent disaster or impending doom that may or may not be connected to reality.  Anxiety that can’t be traced to a source, but coils around me like a boa constrictor choking out my joy and my ability to see the good that is 2 feet in front of my face.  So to put it bluntly, fear is not longer someone else’s unfortunate problem that they could get over if they trusted God like I do…no, no…fear is near, fear is here, even as I type this out.

But I would be amiss if I didn’t turn my heart back to the Shepherd, for he is the protagonist of this story, this psalm.  This passage talks about being “fearless” not because you tell yourself in the mirror everyday: “I’m confident, I’m handsome and dagnabbit people like me”.  It has nothing to do with the power of positive thinking, or purchasing the newest book suggested by Oprah that gets you in touch with the hero inside yourself…nope.  The key to overcoming fear is to know that the Shepherd is with you and that he is bigger than your fear. 

When you get in a pinch or a bind, he doesn’t ditch you and leave you Shepherdless, he walks through the darkness with you, he sleeps with your stress along side you, he carries your burdens as a loyal yokefellow.  You cannot overcome fear…you can only overcome fear in Christ.  You cannot stare down stress and outlast it, you can only find relief in Christ.  The presence of fear never goes away, it is always walking along side you reminding you of your incompetence and failures and shortcomings and incapability.  The thing that you have to do with fear is to acknowledge that what it is saying is actually true, if God were not present.  We already know from John 15 that without him we can do nothing. 

Just tell fear that though you have every reason to doubt yourself and shrivel into the fetal position because of your insufficiency…you already know that…it isn’t telling you something that you don’t already know.  But assure fear that your trust and your identity and your competency comes from God, not yourself.  Tell your fear that you don’t have to lay in bed counting sheep, that's the Shepherd’s job.  All you have to do is lie in bed and know the Shepherd is right there with you.  He’s not at the end of the valley/tunnel cheering you on to get to the finish line, he’s not on the mountain waiting for you to have another momentary mountaintop experience with him, he’s not standing back where the valley started with his arms crossed wondering why you left him in the dust…not this Shepherd.  Where is he? 

“Thou art WITH me.” 

He is with you.  No matter what you’re in the middle of, he is with you.  If you are crying, he is crying with you.  And if you are crumbling, he is picking up every last piece of you and holding you together in the very moment when you feel like he couldn’t be further away.  He is with you.  He is with me.  Immanuel.

A great way to use fear to your advantage is to finish every sentence it tells you with: “I know that already, but you see, I’m not doing this alone. God is with me.”  Fear starts to get the picture that its whispers of condemnation only turn into your reminder of God’s presence and power.  Then, and only then, do fears begin to fade.

“I will not fear, for thou art with me.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…"

There is no way to avoid the valley.  Try as you may to anticipate the pitfalls, they will befall you.  In some ways, the more aware I am of what I’m trying to avoid the swifter my pilgrimage to that very place.  Funny how that happens.

Green pastures and still waters are beautiful respites along the way.  We can race by them at 65mph or stop with God and smell the roses.  He makes us lie down and takes us to restful rivers of refreshment.  But this passage would be a lie if it didn’t speak of the valley.  That’s why the text changes gears with the word: “Yea”.

Yea means a couple things: “Yes” and “Also” or “As well”.  It’s like the author is acknowledging another side to the story that makes the green, greener and the still, stiller.  Unless there is a backdrop of bad days, a good day doesn’t mean anything.  What is truly good unless it rises up in the face and out of a place of ‘not so good’?  What is pure but that it hasn’t endured the fires of refinement?  Who listens to one who hasn’t persevered in every season of life emerging a “seasoned” sage?  It is the valley that tests the testimony and sheds light on every lie.  The valley will come; it must come.

And when the valley comes there is no way around it, you must “walk through” it.  No reservoir of memorized Scripture will make it seem less valley-like.  No moral life will grant you immunity from the dark shadow cast over and about you.  No amount of theological preparation can ultimately prepare you for the darkness that will creep into your soul and the believability of that “dark speech” whispering death into your ebbing life.  Some have called it the “dark night of the soul”, this Psalmist calls it the ‘valley of the shadow’.  Try as you may to evade this path, you will walk through a valley some time or another and it will snap your fancies in half like a brittle twig.

Yea, verily, truly…

It might be something that happens to you, or to someone you love.  It might be someone who stabs you from behind and disembowels you one hurtful word after another.  It might be a stout heart being ripped from your chest one failed attempt after another, one disappointment stacked upon another, one rejection piled on another.

Sometimes it’s just unbearable pressure.   You feel decay in your bones and dread in the watches of the night as you tackle impossible odds each day.  You used to wake with a bounce in your step, but now you roll out of bed and limp to the lavatory.  You look at yourself in the mirror and you meet your own eyes, sunken into your sockets, darkened with the shadows of death.  The hallowed intimacy you once felt with the Almighty is now a hollowed heart of holes.

Where did the Shepherd go?  Did he lead me here?  Did I stray from the path of righteousness?  I hear the howl of every wolf, where is his voice?  Where did I go wrong?  Am I being punished for some iniquity that required such harsh judgment as this?  Have you left me here to die in this deathly hollow, this shadow cast long and wide about me? 

“Why haste thou forsaken me?”

The valley is vicious.   It has eaten many alive.  It has caused saints to recant.  It has turned many a pilgrim back toward his former life of inconsequential bliss.  It has challenged airtight systematic theologies.  It has humbled the most pompous pope or pastor.  It laughs at easy answers that have always sufficed.  It asks you questions that surface disowned doubts and desires that you thought were long gone and you were long over .  It takes you to your knees and forces the wrestler in you to hit the mat with God.  And like Jacob we fight until we overcome and are overcome all at once.  You don’t get through the valley without a bout of some sort. 

A bout with depression.  A bout with anger.  A bout with lust.  A bout with pride.  A bout with fear.  A bout with worry.  A bout with disappointment.  A bout with plans and ideas.  A bout with Satan.  A bout with God.  A bout with self.

For anyone who has yet to contend for their faith in the valley of the shadow, they haven’t had their so-called faith tested yet.  It is merely a set of tidy ideas groomed in a boot camp of rubber bullets and army-affectations.  It is only when you’re in the war that you come to know whether you’re a warrior.  And I would contend (especially in America), that you only know you’re a Christian when you see how you walk “through a valley”.  Many never make it through, for the valley exposes the vacuum or the veritas. 

Yea, you are either going into a valley, currently in a valley, or coming out of a valley.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

There are two concurrent realities that when divorced from each other disallow a person from living in reality.

Reality #1: Life’s not about me, it’s all about God.
Reality #2: Life’s also about me, it’s not all about God.

Let me explain, because this could get heretical in a hurry.

First regarding reality #1: This is an inarguable truth.  The Scriptures make it clear that “from God, and through God, and to God are all things, to him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Romans 11).  Amen is another word for “case closed”.  Through him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17).   We were created “by Him and for Him” and he  “holds all things together” (Col. 1).  I could go on and on, trust me.  The case for God’s glory needs neither jury nor judge.  There is indisputable evidence throughout the sacred text for the sufficiency, supremacy, and sovereignty of God. 

That is why this text says “he leads us…for His name’s sake”.  No matter what we do or he does, it’s about his name for his sake.  That’s not for sale; that’s not up for grabs.

It could be easy in this passage to get really used to God being about us.  He’s taking care of us, speaking to our wants, coddling and cuddling us back to health, nursing our “inner child”.  Entitlement can naturally set in as our expectations of his “doing stuff for us” becomes the modus operandi. 

So let me be clear about Reality #1…God does stuff for us for His name’s sake.  Ultimately, it’s all about his glory is what I’m getting at. 

But you’ve heard that before to the point where you begin to wonder about the point.  So let me talk about the other side for a moment…

Regarding reality #2: This is self-evident truth.  The Scriptures are clear that we possess a free will and it does no good to “pass the buck” of responsibility for righteousness onto God like we have nothing to do with it. (I’m not speaking of the imputed righteousness of God through the atonement of Christ, I’m speaking of acts of volition to choose good or evil each moment of our everyday lives) God’s glory doesn’t exclude the importance of our story.  In this sense, it’s not all about God doing things to us or for us.  We do things to ourselves and for ourselves (God won’t be credited with or discredited by those personal decisions) and are accountable to realize the weight of our lives stamped with the image of God. 

When we start talking like “It’s all about God” or “All I need is God” or “It’s not about me.”…I would wonder if God is like, “Hold the phone just a sec.  If you’re speaking about me getting my glory, then carry on.  But if you’re talking about me living your life for you and you abdicating your responsibility to pick carefully your paths of righteousness that I lead you to, that’s not about me.  That’s about you.  Thus, it isn’t all about me…it’s about you, too. And furthermore, if all you needed were me, I wouldn’t have said (before sin) it’s not good for man to be alone while I was standing right there next to him.  You need more than me, and I created you that way and I’m ok with that.  It’s not all about me, that’s why I work in cooperation with humans to bring about redemption in the world.”

Sometimes I think people just think “God’s gonna do it” or “it’s already taken care of” like acknowledging God’s will somehow means diminishing your own.  The shepherd makes you lie down, but you have to sleep.  He can lead you to still water, but you have to drink.  He can guide you toward paths of righteousness, but you have to walk in them.  The Shepherd isn’t going to do it for you even though it’s all for His name’s sake.  Your will and God’s will somehow mesh your story and God’s glory.  This is reality.

Believing either reality exclusively puts you in a diluted place at best, a delusional place at worst.
It’s about you and it’s about God in relationship.  God is not going to live your story and you are not going to get His glory.  But somehow when both wills are acknowledged in their proper place, we see the kingdom unfold and the gospel unfurl.

It’s about loving God for Pete’s sake, and loving Pete for God’s sake.  Both/and, not either/or.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"He restoreth my soul..."

We feed our stomachs when hungry.  We hydrate our bodies when thirsty.  We shower when dirty.  We clip our nails. We fill our lungs with the oxygen they die for.  We find a bathroom when we need to rid our body of toxic waste. (Did you know you could die if you don’t poop…it’s called fecal hoarding and this condition most often leads to tragedy when someone holds #2 in on a camping trip one day too long).  All humor aside, we take care of our bodies almost instinctively and yet our souls sustain neglect and abuse that would get a parent thrown in jail.

The New Testament warns against “losing heart”, a phrase I find quite poignant.  My mind’s eye pictures a leaking heart that gets holes poked in it along the way.  In time, if those holes aren’t patched up and repaired, you go from losing heart to a lost heart.   This might be new news for you, but your heart/soul has to be cared for.  Someone has to look after it and tend it or it will die.

One of the responsibilities of a good shepherd is to make sure the green grass and the still water actually serves to restore the leaky soul.  I think everyone has a leaky soul that needs filling and fueling to stay healthy. 

This is where life can get the best of you.  Most people don’t care about your soul.  They might care about your life, but what that means most of the time is they care about what they see you doing.  The going's on. They ask odd things like "How's it going?" Our culture has even adopted the nonsensical phrase: “How are you doing?”  Without over-thinking this question, allow me to take it to the woodshed for a moment. 

If we weren’t so conditioned to understand this question as a greeting with no strings attached, it would be confusing phraseology.  If you were thinking grammatically, you would answer that question with a question: “How am I doing what?”  Because the word “how” and “doing” aren’t related unless you’re talking about putting together a dollhouse for you daughter using an instruction manual on Christmas day.   The phrase actually should be something like: “How is your being?” and the other one should replace the word “how” with “what”: “What are you doing?”  Doing and Going and Being are very confused in our culture and it leads to one thing: Un-restored Souls.

Getting your soul restored is every bit as important as air, water and food.  When you live day after day with a soul that is not interacted with and respected and listened to and treated with honor, you die.  It’s a slower death than a physical heart attack, but no less actual. 

The purpose of the Shepherd making sure you get your sleep and live with a sense of calm in the storm is to bring restoration to your soul.  You might not even care much about the condition of your soul, but I assure you, God does.  He cares about the buried content inside the sunken ship of our hearts.  And he will dive deep to recover the treasure therein.

Our shepherd isn’t messing around.  He’s as serious as a heart attack.

Monday, August 13, 2012

"He leadeth me beside the still waters..."

There is a great deal of talk about being a leader these days.  Conferences, books, and a general pressure to perform great feats of strength abound.  It’s funny how Jesus didn’t have much to say about “being a leader”.

He spent much more time talking about how to be a good follower and a good servant.  Probably because he knew that the “leadership” position wasn’t on the kingdom job-posting corkboard.  That slot was filled…he was the leader.  He would do the leading.

I know that we still need good leaders, but the best leaders are great followers, great servants.  They let God shepherd them and we know from John 10 that the best sheep know the Shepherd’s voice, they’ve learned how to hear his voice in the midst of white noise.  The difference between God’s voice and a god’s noise couldn’t be more distinct.  When the sheep hear that voice, they follow the voice no matter what it’s saying or where it’s leading.  Following that voice is more important than leading.  All leading, if there is such a thing, comes directly from our listening to the Leader’s voice.

Sheep aren’t leaders.  There isn’t an Alpha sheep to my knowledge.  We are trained to look for the Queen bee or the dominant male, the type A personality or the one who commands respect and attracts followers with flamboyance and charisma.  This doesn’t fit the sheep metaphor “whatsoever”.  They are dependant on the shepherd.  They actually are quite helpless without their leader. 

So many want to be leaders, so few long to be followers.

And in this passage the leader is guiding us along side the peaceful brook.  He desires to get us to a place of peace.  A place of refreshment. 

Have you ever been beside a gentle stream, a rippling riverbed?  I don’t know if there is a sweeter spot among sweet spots for me.  It might be just me, but I might as well have an IV drip of hydration to my parched soul.  It serves to massage knotted muscles and sooth strained tendons.  And I’m being for real…it’s every bit as therapeutic as going to a counselor or taking meds.  Actually, before meds there were “still waters” and the more you walked beside them, the more calm seeped into your soul. 

Would you speak of your own heart as “still waters” or “raging rivers”?  Do you ever wish someone would just lead you toward calm and calming waters?  When God leads us he first makes us lie down and sleep.  When we wake up, he gets us to a place of stillness quieting us, whispering “peace be still” to the tempest between our ears. 

I crave calm.  I’m starving for stillness.  I can’t move until I stop moving.

Movement is born out of stillness.

Friday, August 10, 2012

“He maketh me lie down in green pastures…”

I don’t sit still, even when I’m sitting.  My wife scolds me often about my involuntary leg-bouncing especially if it’s in a movie theater seat, pew or bench of some sort where other people feel the pulse of my every bounce.  Some would call it a nervous tick.  Others would peg it restless leg syndrome.  All I know is that even as I sit here and punch these keys, my right leg is shaking like a dog’s tail. 

I’m sure some psychiatrist could tell me where this comes from, but if I gave my uneducated opinion about myself, I would say that I have a hard time ceasing to move.  I’m driven.  I’m a go-getter.  I eat fast.  I read fast.  I just like to stay on the move, preferably faster movement if at all possible.
My mind doesn’t do well with laying down in green pastures I can tell you right now.  The minute I sit or lay down, my mind revs up like an engine at the tractor pulls, you know the ones with six engines and tail pipes with fire shootin’ out of ‘em?  Yeah, that’s my brain when I bed down at night.  So even when I “lie down” I can’t “power down”.  I’m finding more and more people are like this than I ever realized.

So when Psalm 23 moves from introducing me to my Shepherd and talks about him meeting me at the point of my “wants/desires”, it quickly moves to the Shepherds “to do list”.  Every shepherd has a daily routine with his sheep, and the first thing is to get those little suckers to rest.  You do know that your day actually starts with sleep, don’t you?  We typically think of sleep being at the end of a “long day” and when we’re done livin’ we tally up the hours to see how much time we have “left over” to get some shut-eye.  This is not how God wired the 24 hour day. 

You don’t believe me?  Look at Genesis (where it all began) and listen to how he summarizes his daily activities at the end of his busy day of “creating the universe”… “and the evening and the morning were the first day.”  “…and the evening and the morning were the second day.”  Interesting.  God goes from night to day, we go from day to night.  I think this is more than just coincidental.

Sleeping, resting, laying down, powering down…this is the first priority of a shepherd for his sheep because this is the beginning of a day and the beginning of a life.  If you don’t get those waddling clouds some sleep they get stupider than they already are.  Fatigue leads to disease, disorientation, and ultimately danger.  The flock has to rest well, so the shepherd finds them a bed of green grass (a soft mattress) to lay down their weary carcass for the night.  This is the key to a healthy herd collectively, and a healthy heart individually.

If you’re anything like me, sleep has not been emphasized as a spiritual issue.  In fact, if you tell someone you are “burning the wick on both ends” or you “woke up early to get to work” or you “pulled an all nighter” there is something inside of humanity that computes those statements as noble.  We tend to exalt people who can live without sleep.  It means they are busy.  And people in our culture that are busy, as we all know, are very important.  It’s easy to start drinking this purple Kool-Aid with everyone else to your soul’s detriment.

That is why a shepherd has to “make us lie down”.  He doesn’t give us the option.  He doesn’t leave it open for negotiation.  You “will lie down”…he will “make you”!  There is a reason for this emphatic language.  Lying down is about taking care of your insides.

The reason we stay on our feet and crank out product is because it garners the praise of the people who can only affirm the exterior, the outside picture.  But the shepherd cares about our interior life.  He cares about feeding our bodies and our souls.  That is why this verse eventually ends with the phrase “He restoreth my soul.”  That is his chief concern for you.  That is his chief concern for me.  Our souls.

I hate that my Shepherd has to “make me” do what I should be doing naturally, but I guess that’s why I need a shepherd.  We don’t always know how to tend ourselves or care for our “wants”.  In fact, we can be wanting something that’s just flat out soul-killing and our Pastor-God comes in and takes our legs out from under us, pins us to the green pasture with his staff and says: “Lay down”.  At first it seems like he’s ruining our life, but in time you come to realize that he’s actually preserving our life.  He knows the “evening to morning” pattern of the cosmos, he knows the sleep the soul needs to be restored.  He is not keeping us from something good, he keeping us from something bad.

It’s hard to trust him and just go lay down, cause I feel like something’s going to fall apart.  Really?  REALLY?  Do I really think I’m that important?  Oh man…now we’re onto something.  

I'll stop there for now...stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

I’m a pastor.  You may know this already but this word’s origin has nothing to do with church, praying, preaching and the like.  When something was pastoral, it never evoked pictures of pews and pulpits.  The word pastoral comes from background of farming, country land, tilling, gardening, and landscaping.  It spoke of taking care of livestock, raising crops, working the land, and managing the seasons of a farm.  Pastoral is synonymous with bucolic, idyllic, countryside, rural, and all things green.

You may notice that the word pasture comes from the same root word and when I think of pasture, I think of cow pies and cattle grazing chewing their cud out on a country hillside fenced in to keep them in and danger out.  A pastor was a shepherd.  So when people started hearing this term being thrown around for the leader of a church, visions of farming and farmland and farmhands and farm animals came to their mind.  A pastor would lead like a shepherd; he would take care of the sheep (people) under his care by taking them to places to feed, looking out for water holes to satiate their thirst, making a fold for them to sleep protected while he laid at the door with one eye open for predators.

Before I get into all the things a shepherd does in the forthcoming blog entries, I just want to acknowledge as a pastor that I have a Pastor, a Shepherd.  Often when you’re a pastor, you feel like no one is pastoring or shepherding you.  You are helping others ‘wants’, but can often be left wanting yourself.  In this passage, it’s clear that I have a Shepherd that knows my wants, my dreams, my desires.  I don’t have to want anymore.

He is looking out for me while I’m looking out for everyone else.  He is feeding me when I’m feeding everyone else.  He is noticing unmet needs and wants while I have my finger on the pulse of everyone else’s wants.  He is shepherding those hidden areas of longing, areas I’m even unaware of in my haste to take care of the flock under my care.  I am in his flock/church and He is my Shepherd/Pastor.

He is a good one, too.  When I stray from the path of righteousness, he uses his staff and rod to get me back on the path.  He often has to “make me like down” in green pastures, and if he doesn’t make me, I won’t often do it.  He leads me beside still waters, which is cool cause I’m used to choppy waters of relational conflict and internal emotional contradiction…stillness isn’t in my nature without a shepherd to take me there and make me lie down and be still.  I’m just saying I’m glad I have a shepherd to look out for me, cause I need looking out for just like the next guy.

Back to the idea of “not wanting” because of his watch-care.  I can’t begin to tell you how often this is the beginning of the end for a pastor in ministry.  When a leader in a church forgets his own heart as he looks after the hearts of the masses, detrimental things occur, dark things.  Life often becomes robotic and mechanic, lifeless and listless.  You know what it’s like to have a friend that asks you how you’re doing and when you give the token response of “good” says to you, “no, how are you really doing?”  Someone who cares about what’s under the hood.  Someone who sees you as more than a production cranking out product.  Someone who inquires of your deep heart uniquely inclined to explore the places of your hidden “want”.  We often see “want” as evil because it’s set up to fail.  “It’s not about your wants, it’s about your needs.”  Things spoken like this disown desire like it’s the original sin, but I think ‘want’ is very closely tied to ‘will’, and ‘will’ is what makes us human.  We have desires, we have ambitions, we have needs, we have longings.

There is a verse in the Bible that says, “Hope deferred makes the heart grow sick”.  Yeah, that’s what I’m stabbing at.  And the shepherd has a way of knowing the wants of his sheep (I love that the word sheep is plural and singular) and when you’re under his care, you have want of nothing.  He meets you at your want and starts to shepherd you right there.

So I’m a pastor/shepherd who has a Pastor/Shepherd, I’m in his flock.  He is looking after me and feeding me and nursing me back to health and making sure I get the care I need to be healthy.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

Monday, August 06, 2012

Adoption - Faith and Fear often carpool together.

At the outset, it’s always an adventure.  A mixture of romantic ideas and best-case scenarios brim over in your mind making the choice seemingly choose itself.  But the line between an adventure and a misadventure--between fortune and misfortune--is misleadingly narrow.

The kneejerk joy of hearing that adoption is just around the corner has simmered down to a more realistic and sustainable emotion of honor and responsibility.  The honor of being chosen by God to take on such a responsibility is sobering.  And the sober-mindedness is causing me to “consider the cost before building the tower” which is something Jesus would say when he saw people saying “yes to the dress” before they were “clued into the cost”. 

Consider the cost before building the tower.  Think ahead.

“Do you have the money for the materials?”
“Do you have the manpower to lift the load?”
“Do you have the wherewithal to withstand the risk?”
“Do you have the blueprints for the building?”
“Are you planning for rainy days and allowing for unforeseen variables?”
“Do you know where you’re getting the supplies for success?”
“Have you gotten several quotes to ensure you get the most realistic estimate?”
“Are you starting with the end in mind?”
“How prepared is the crew you’ll be working with?”
“Are you thinking superstructure and infrastructure?”
“Are you considering the finishing touches into your bottom line?”

Thankfully, a great many of these questions are answered by God’s Spirit along the way since He is the ever-present Foreman on the job site.  He will give us guidance along the way, but I’ve learned in the last 38 years that He also is expecting us to be in touch with our own brains and spirits.

Bottom line: These boys will require some project management.  And this is where the fear can set in.  Am I ready to be a father to insta-sons?  Am I prepared for the additional stress?  Am I equipped to lead a multi-ethnic family?  Am I willing to give over some of my wife’s attention and energy to these boys?  Will my daughters become peripheral?  Do I have a flexible plan that allows me to manage my time and energy between my marriage, my daughters, my sons, my ministry, my friends, and my God?  Will I be able to provide adequately for my families’ needs? 

What if they don’t learn English quickly?  How will I be able to communicate my love for them--especially the eldest--if they don’t understand what I’m saying?  How will they mesh into the chemistry of our home?  Will they bond with us?   How long will it take for them to feel at home in our home?  Will they be scared?  Will we know what to do when they aren’t connecting?

I wouldn’t have felt this a couple weeks ago like I do today, but this is truly a leap of faith.  It is “going” before “knowing”.  It is impossible to nail down every detail before “building these boys”, but it is possible to “consider the cost” before beginning the construction of their lives.  Right now, I’m wondering about how deep to dig for the footers, determining the foundation that will largely be unnoticed underground, backfilled with the dirt of world traveling, baby showers, and the initial excitement of their entry into our lives.  But when the dust settles and everyone goes back to the normalcy of their own lives, we will be left with a new normal built on a foundation of forethought…a consideration of the cost that has been setting/curing like cement cinderblocks below ground.  The fear is that this critical site work won’t be ready for the above ground “building of our boys”.   That is the fear.  That is my fear anyway.

But faith and fear often car pool together.