Faith and Common Sense

(This is a somewhat revised post originally published in November 2019. I kind of like this one, and thought it was worth revisiting. I hope you enjoy it too.)

Faith in antagonism to common sense is fanaticism, and common sense in antagonism to faith is rationalism. The life of faith brings the two into right relation.” (Oswald Chambers)

This is worth a thought or two, and even better, an application to the lives we live.

Having been a Christ-follower for 36 years, I’ve been involved with many communities and churches. I’ve led worship and/or taught and/or counseled God’s people in multiple settings. The Lord has enabled me to navigate in Baptist, Anglican, Pentecostal, Vineyard, non-denominational, and a variety of charismatic streams of doctrine and practice, including a cult or two. I also spent 3 years studying in an evangelical seminary where I had wrestling matches at times with my classmates and professors about how to properly handle Scripture and how to lead in Christian discipleship.

All this exposure to diverse viewpoints within the church have required that I attend to Oswald’s wisdom stated above. Early on, most of those who had known me well before my conversion thought I had become a fanatical Christian. I went from being a hippie intellectual to suddenly subletting my cozy co-op apartment in New York City and venturing into the unknown as an evangelist. I wound up in west Texas of all places!

There was little of common sense involved in my decisions back then. I was in a wild romance with Jesus and it didn’t matter if it made sense to anyone. But because of my fanatical zeal, I wasn’t as effective a messenger of the gospel as I might have been. Ordinary people just trying to survive probably found me immature and off-putting, and I don’t blame them.

Then I began to pursue the appropriate developmental goals of people in their twenties. I found a husband. We had babies. We bought houses. We worked, we played, we worshiped, and we struggled at times, like most people do, with keeping it all going in the right direction. My husband and I became thoroughly responsible, reliable, sensible people.

I went to school to become a licensed counselor, and as the Lord would have it, I attended a very secular, clinical program. This turned out to be of great benefit to me, because at every turn I tested the theories and practices I was being taught against the revelations of the word of God. I kept a lot of stuff and discarded a lot of stuff from the realm of psychology and counseling. What remained after that reinforced a passionate and common-sense approach to the life of faith.

Faith is not simply mental assent to a particular set of ideas. Neither is it an other-worldly floating above the very real difficulties of being a human.

Faith is a way of life that allows for sublime mountaintop experiences and mundane everyday tests. It is the rebar that undergirds the road on which we travel. The life of faith is a life of experiencing the peace and joy of Jesus in all circumstances, especially in our suffering. It works just as well on cloudy days, rainy days, sunny days. It keeps us steady in the storm.

The steadiness provided by this “right relation” between faith and common sense is greatly needed in our chaotic contemporary life. We need people around who can think and feel deeply at the same time.  I love the fact that I can be a fool for Christ and at the same time offer wisdom to others in their confusion or despair.

I’m by no means a rationalist. I don’t dare dismiss the supernatural in favor of science, and there is no good rationale for doing so. God doesn’t need my permission to perform miracles all around me. Please do, Lord.

But I also live in a place called reality, where people sin and suffer, use and abuse, divorce and die too soon, and I am called to minister to them where and how they are. Someone must remind them of the enduring hope that we share.  Someone must clearly articulate the standard for disciples to live by and exhort and comfort when they fall short of it, which we all do. Sometimes I am the one who needs that exhortation and comfort, and I turn to trusted friends at those times.

All the while Jesus keeps calling us to him with great gentleness and love:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-29)

Doesn’t it make perfect sense to follow that call?

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Staying Connected

I love being a musician and worship leader. I love playing my guitar before the Lord, because I know that the sound it produces when I play changes atmospheres. And in that changed atmosphere, I see the Lord touch peoples’ hearts.

Many guitar players are gifted with technology, but all the pedals and wires, switches and inputs and outputs—not my thing. Cables especially; I’m always tripping over them or getting tangled up in them.  When I led worship up in Ohio, before leaving the platform after a practice or service, I would wait for my husband to come and make sure I was untangled enough to safely walk away.

For this reason, I always appreciate those who have a gift for running sound and making sure equipment is working as it should and helping the musicians flow in their anointings.

This morning, as I was setting up and plugging in, getting ready to run through our songs for the service, I hit a snag. The tuner wouldn’t give me a reading and my in-ear monitors weren’t feeding me my guitar sound. But I could hear my voice in my vocal microphone.

The worship pastor and sound man and I looked at the monitor panel, the sound board, and the guitar settings and didn’t see anything out of place. And then, we saw that my input cable was not completely connected to the pedal board that was connected to the system.

What occurred to me in that moment was a concept I learned called Occam’s Razor. Occam was a philosopher and theologian known for the brilliant idea that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Or at least, it should be considered, and not eliminated just because it seems too simple.

The answer in this case was simple: I wasn’t getting any power because I was not properly connected to the source. The analogy to spiritual power is pretty obvious.

If there is no connection at all, there is no power at all. That’s clear. Without the infilling of the Holy Spirit that connects us to the source of all truth, wisdom, and goodness, however we might try to make an impact on the spiritual realm, we can’t do it. Jesus said that if we are not integrally attached to him, “abiding in the vine,” we can do nothing (Jn 15). We can do nothing in his name that is, or for his kingdom. The stuff that matters the most.

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ (John 3:5).

We don’t have access to spiritual power until we become born again of the Spirit.

We can also be connected in part, but not as completely as we need to be, like I was this morning. The tuner was receiving a signal, but it was garbled, and the tuner became confused and unstable. I could hear only part of the mix.

If we are not careful, we can find ourselves with one ear tuned to the good news of the Lord and the other ear tuned to the endless flow of bad news from the world. It can become difficult and confusing to discern the truth, and without the truth, we can’t operate in full spiritual power. We must worship him “in Spirit AND in truth” (Jn. 4:24), and to do this we must remove the impediments to our solid, reliable connection with him.

I’m glad we were able to quickly solve our little technical glitch and get on with the ministry. Often in the spiritual realm, it is also a simple answer:

My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, I will seek.
(Ps. 27:8)

Let’s stay firmly connected to him this week, my friends.

Discipline: Confession of a Recovering Tostitos Addict

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11)

My latest big adventure is my new job as an online substance abuse disorder counselor. There’s so much to learn, but I love to study, so it’s all good.

I will be conducting three-hour recovery groups, so part of my training is to sit in on groups facilitated by other counselors and learn from them. On Monday night, I sat in on a group led by my friend Leanette. There were five clients.

The second half of these group sessions is educational, and Leanette’s topic on Monday was “Addiction 101.” She played an excellent video about anhedonia and how it can lead to relapse, and we had some great discussion about it.

A bit of explanation in case you’re not familiar with the term anhedonia. You may recognize the word hedonism, which comes from the same root word. A hedonist is someone who runs after pleasure as his main purpose in life. Anhedonia, therefore, is the inability to experience pleasure, or a loss of interest in things that normally would interest an individual.

Addicts are hedonists in a sense, because they are obsessed with the next high, whether it is to seek pleasure or avoid pain. Addictions result from the brain’s adaptation to the presence of a drug that artificially elevates the brain chemicals that bring a sense of wellbeing and reward. Over time, the brain stops producing those chemicals, and if the addict doesn’t keep using the drug, he will experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Consider also that some addicts live secretive, criminal lifestyles that are quite intense, exciting and dangerous. That produces a need for continued adrenaline-producing activities for the person to feel normal.

Most people in recovery would tell you that recovery from addiction is not fun, exciting, or glamorous. Yes, it has many rewards, but in the initial phases, it may feel like all of the motivation to pursue other activities that formerly brought pleasure just drains away. The simplest way to describe it is, “blah.” So, while the addict is withdrawing physically from the drug, and prone to depressive symptoms anyway, he or she may also experience anhedonia. Both the physical high and the psychological excitement are gone.

 At this point the person may think, “If this is what sobriety is going to feel like forever, I can’t do it.” This triggers them to use the drug or alcohol again. This is relapse, and it is an incredibly common experience in recovery.

It is especially important, then, for addicts to begin engaging in safe, sober activities that kickstart the brain to start producing those lovely endorphins again. They might have to “fake it ‘til they make it,” but they have to start somewhere. Attend a meeting, take a walk, throw a ball, get a dog, meet some sober friends for dinner.

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This whole topic, and the ensuing discussion in group, made me reflect on my own experiences with anhedonia. I haven’t experienced it chronically, and I am not a recovering addict, so if you are, please don’t think I am minimizing your struggle in any way. This was just a recent experience that came to mind, and it helped me connect with the more serious process that happens when an addict is struggling to stay clean and sober.

Last Saturday, I was home alone, resting and reading on the couch. I had the impulse to munch on some Tostitos. I know from lots of experience that once I start dipping into that bag, I’m hooked. I know that if I want to have some Tostitos, I need to get a small bowl out of the cabinet, fill it with Tostitos, and put the bag away.

But I didn’t do it this time because I wanted to indulge myself. I wanted my own little hedonistic salty-crunchy party.

My plan for that afternoon was to write. I’m working on several writing projects concurrent to starting this new job, so I have to intentionally schedule time for writing, or it doesn’t happen. This is a discipline I work to maintain, because living a disciplined life is of high priority for me as a woman of God.

So as I was overindulging on chips and lying like a slug on the couch, I started feeling grosser and grosser, and increasingly disappointed with myself. I had felt that “blah” feeling, and had gone to food to try to feel better. I realize now that my compulsive snacking had been driven by a bout with anhedonia.

Eventually, I forced myself to move. I got up. I put the Tostitos away. I asked myself what I needed to do to change my emotional state. It’s not complicated. I had to get my behind off of that couch and do something different.

The answer was, I needed to write. But I needed to go to another place, a different environment (with no Tostitos handy). So, I took my laptop up to the club in our neighborhood and sat on the balcony overlooking the lake.

I sipped on a cold drink and gazed out at the beauty and my pleasure receptors started firing. There was a rising “yes” in my spirit.

I fired up the laptop and typed a sentence, and then another. And two hours later, I had several pages of writing on the screen. It didn’t have to be the most brilliant words in the world. It just had to fulfill my intentions for the day. I could now end my day with a feeling of satisfaction that no quantity of chips could ever provide. And I decided to forgive myself for my Tostito relapse.

You may ask what this has to do with Scripture coming to life. I’m not sure.

But what comes to mind is the whole biblical idea that discipline is its own reward. When we move against laziness, selfishness, apathy, gluttony, and addictive behavior—which is admittedly hard work—we often find contentedness and peace waiting on the other side.

Maybe it doesn’t make sense to go after contentedness and peace when the flesh is craving excitement and self-indulgence. But I think this is another shift the brain makes after we practice sober disciplines for a while.

Our appetites change. We desire real relationships, real conversations, authentic experiences of joy and communion. We’re no longer satisfied with the world’s high. We crave a higher high. A God-shaped high.

Then, when anhedonia hits—and it does hit us all sometimes, addicts and non-addicts alike—we don’t panic about it. We remember that we know how to find center again. We know that feelings come and go, and they may provide important information, but they don’t have to be the basis of our behavior or choices.

We learn how to find our joy in the originator of joy. We remember to seek out others on the journey who let us be ourselves without judgment. We embrace discipline as a gift. We surrender the flesh hour by hour, day by day, so that the Spirit can take the lead.

Whose Fool are You?

The reading plan I’ve settled into for the year has me alternating between Old and New Testaments throughout the week, and presently I am in Job and 1 Corinthians. Last week I wrote about Job, and honestly, I was left with more questions than answers. I’m sure I’ll have another go at that book before I’m done with it.

But what I’m noticing this week is the parallel between Job’s message and Paul’s message to the Corinthians about what it means to be wise unto godliness or foolish unto futility and destruction.

John Wimber and Brother Andrew both famously posed this wonderful question (I’m not sure who said it first): “I am a fool for Christ…whose fool are you?”

This quote means a lot to me because I grew up in a family that elevated pursuit of knowledge to a position of highest value. It has always been a given that I would be a lifelong learner, seeking intellectual command of whatever domains were of greatest interest to me and benefit to those around me. I was taught that this would lead to a good life.

This was a great way to start out, actually. I’m glad God gave me a curious mind, and that I had parents who, without his conscious spiritual influence, spurred me on to become intellectually accomplished. But as I became immersed in study of the Bible in my twenties, I discovered that all the learning in the world, about the world, would not necessarily make me wise.

The Apostle Paul, who was quite a learned man, a teacher of Jewish law and member of the religious ruling class, admonished the Corinthian Christians with these words:

“The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.As the Scriptures say, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.’So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish.Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:18=21). 

When I came into faith as a young adult, my family had no frame of reference to understand the transformation they were observing in me. They thought I had gone off the rails because I had arrived at the conclusion that the Bible truly is the inspired word of God, and that it was able to make me “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). I had started to embody this passage. To my family, I had embraced a path of foolishness.

Paul goes on,

 “But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength” (v.24-25). Beautifully stated, Paul.

Job, in what is believed to be the oldest book in the Bible, agrees with Paul. As he cries out in complaint and lament to the God in his affliction, he repeatedly circles back to God’s wisdom and sovereignty in his life. When his wife tells him to “curse God and die,” he rebukes her, saying: “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10).

Later, he scolds one of his friends, …True wisdom and power are found in God; counsel and understanding are his. Yes, strength and wisdom are his; deceivers and deceived are both in his power. He leads counselors away, stripped of good judgment; wise judges become fools” (Job 12:13-17).

How are we to understand this distinction between God’s wisdom and human wisdom? And how do we grapple with this idea that we must become foolish enough to believe the preaching of the word, and wise enough to surrender our lives to God?

Jesus helps us here, when he tells us that “the foolish person builds his house on sand” (Mt. 7:26) and “a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth and not have a rich relationship with God” (Luke 12:21). He contrasts this with the wise person who listens to and follows his teaching, building his house on solid rock. It seems evident to me that he is saying that we can have all the worlds’ wealth and knowledge, but if we ignore God’s wisdom and his ways, we will ultimately be judged as fools.

Walking with the Lord requires humility and surrender.

It isn’t wrong to go to school and learn about science, or literature, or mathematics, or any of the “ologies” of the academic realm. Lord knows, I’ve done it plenty. But while we are gathering knowledge, we must keep in mind the true source of wisdom, which is different from knowledge.

True wisdom comes from above, and this wisdom is “pure…peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere” (James 3:17). True wisdom leads to love, and love keeps us from being puffed up with pride (1 Cor. 8:1).

As believers, we are wise when we direct our time, our talents, our money, and our affections toward pursuits that matter to God. We pursue godliness. We pursue radical love and mercy. We pursue the wisdom of his word.

I know I’ve quoted a boatload of Scripture in this blog, but what can I say? I can’t express myself better than Holy Spirit does. So, I’ll end with yet more Scripture, a passage I requested to be read as part of my ordination ceremony. I wanted it to be publicly noted that my ministry would be devoted to seeking God’s priorities above my own, and his wisdom instead of the world’s wisdom.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you.Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:26-29).

Amen!

Validation

I’ve been reading Job recently, and I’ve become a big fan of this book!

I’m impressed with Job’s incredibly bold lament and complaint toward God. The poetry is incredible, but it truly fits in the category of wisdom literature. Such deep spiritual counsel straight from the mind of God.

One thing that stands out of course is the reminder of how NOT to minister to a friend who is stricken with tragedy and loss. It should be included on reading lists for counseling programs as an example of the WRONG approach to grief counseling.

The three friends who came to console Job in his devastation spoke as though they had been appointed to speak for God and set Job straight about how things really are. In the end, we realize that Job received God’s healing, affirmation, and blessing directly from God, and not through the ministry of these “miserable comforters” (Job 16:1).

What Job ultimately received was validation by God. As Job cursed the day he was born, and pled for God to give him a break, he needed someone, whether God himself, or the believers in his midst, to validate his deep suffering and confusion. Not to argue with him about it.

Validation is defined as “the act of confirming something as true or correct;” or, “the act of affirming a person, or their ideas, feelings, actions, etc., as acceptable and worthy.”

When someone feels angry and forsaken, we must let him or her express these feelings without judgment, criticism, or correction. Feelings are feelings. They just are. We don’t attempt to argue with them. We listen and validate. This is what restores and helps and promotes their receiving the goodness of God.

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The best usage of this concept in the New Testament comes from Jesus Christ. Jesus, like Job, faced unjust, untrue, and hostile opposition to his message and his very identity. When challenged about his authority as the Son of God, he told the religious leaders,

“If I were to testify on my own behalf, my testimony would not be valid. But someone else is also testifying about me, and I assure you that everything he says about me is true” (John 5:31-32).

He refers in part to John the Baptist, a primary source witness who validated Jesus at every turn, especially when he told his disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:35). John’s whole purpose was to prepare the way for Jesus by affirming Jesus as “acceptable and worthy” of following.

Jesus also pointed to his own teachings and miracles as validation that the Father had sent him into the world. He declared that he only did the things that God does, thereby confirming that God’s power was present and real in him, and his teachings were always true and correct (Jn. 5:36).

Thirdly, Jesus plainly stated, “The Father who sent me has testified about me himself” (Jn. 5:37).

Where and when did the Father testify about him? Pick any book in the Old Testament, and you’ll find frequent validation of the coming Messiah. You’ll find it in Moses, and David, and Elijah, and Jeremiah, and Malachi, and dozens of other witnesses as the Spirit inspired them to write the Father’s true feelings and intentions toward his only begotten Son. They hadn’t met him, but they knew him prophetically, and validated his coming kingdom.

When the Pharisees insisted, “You are making those claims about yourself…such testimony is not valid,” Jesus was not intimidated. He replied,

These claims are valid even though I make them about myself. For I know where I came from and where I am going…You judge me by human standards, but I do not judge anyone. And if I did, my judgment would be correct in every respect because I am not alone. The Father who sent me is with me. Your own law says that if two people agree about something, their witness is accepted as fact.I am one witness, and my Father who sent me is the other” (Jn 8:13-18).

God and Jesus make a majority, always. God’s position trumps every other position, however gifted the orator stating an opposing position. He declares who we are, and what his intentions are toward us.

Back to Job, who affirms this!

If someone wanted to take God to court, would it be possible to answer him even once in a thousand times? For God is so wise and so mighty. Who has ever challenged him successfully?…God is not a mortal like me, so I cannot argue with him or take him to trial. If only there were a mediator who could bring us together…”(Job 9:3-4,32).*

Job recognized his friends’ theological arguments and accusations for what they were—cruel, self-serving, self-righteous. They not only invalidated Job’s feelings about his tragedy, they invalidated God’s sovereignty and his compassion for Job, a man he called “the finest man in all the earth…blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.”

It’s fascinating to me how honest Job is with the Lord, even to the point of exhaustion. I picture him falling in a heap and sighing, “I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers? I will cover my mouth with my hand. I have said too much already. I have nothing more to say” (Job 40:3-5).

God’s response?  “When Job prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes. In fact, the Lord gave him twice as much as before!…So the Lord blessed Job in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning” (Job 42: 10,12). God knows the end from the beginning.

It is foolish and wrong to harshly judge someone whom God has declared righteous. Including Job, and Jesus, and you and me. We are validated by God’s word about us, even if no one on earth is available to validate us.

So when we are called to the side of those who are rejoicing, we validate them by rejoicing with them. When they are grieving, we validate them by grieving with them.

We honor God by acting like him in those circumstances, asking him to bring his truth to bear. And we hold our tongues unless we are sure we have a word that will help and not harm.

*There is a mediator, Job, there is…you just hadn’t met him yet!

Fighting Futility with Hope

Danger! These are days when even the most stalwart of souls could fall into the grip of futility. We’re shut up, and we’re shut down. We’ve been lied to so much that there are few people out there we dare to believe.

Our heroes have all been found out. They are men and women no better than us, and they have failed us. This hit me hard last week when I heard about yet another man of God whom I’ve followed and greatly respected had been sexually abusing and exploiting women for years.

The resulting frustration can fuel addictions, depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicidal despair if we let it. It is rooted in a sense of futility, which is defined as “pointlessness or uselessness.”

Solomon’s word in Ecclesiastes is sometimes translated vanity, or more poetically, a “chasing after the wind.” There is a sense right now that whatever we might try to do to effect change–whether in our personal lives, our political milieu, or our spiritual vocation—it probably won’t amount to much.

I love how these homely looking cacti stand unashamed before the barren wilderness.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes came to believe this. He tried it all, in search of enlightenment, or meaning, or peace. He went the route of wisdom and found futility. He followed his pleasures and found futility. He sought wealth and found futility. He tried working his way to happiness and found—futility.

Sometimes it seems everything has been tried and done, and tried and done again, over and over, century after century. Has the human race progressed? We wonder.

But the answer is not in finding a new way. The answer is in remembering that we need, and wise people know this. Our technology and scientific advancement can’t save us from futility. Only the Savior can.

We need saving as much as the wanderers of the ancient world. As much as the cathedral builders of the 11th century. As much as the star-gazers of the 16th.  As much as the tribalists of Africa, the pantheists of Asia, the atheists of Europe.

I’m not writing this to be a downer. I’m really not. I believe that when we acknowledge that we can’t find the sense of purpose our hearts long for without connecting ourselves with a loving, saving God, we can find comfort and encouragement.

It’s not up to us to do all of the work to create meaning; God in Christ has provided us with a remedy for futility.

David cried out,

“Remember how short my time is; For what futility have You created all the children of men?What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his life from the power of the grave?” (Ps 89:47-48). We all know the answer to these rhetorical questions, and to Job’s, when in his great suffering shouted to the heavens,

“Is there not a time of hard service for man on earth? Are not his days also like the days of a hired man?
Like a servant who earnestly desires the shade, And like a hired man who eagerly looks for his wages, So I have been allotted months of futility, and wearisome nights have been appointed to me.When I lie down, I say, ‘When shall I arise, And the night be ended?’ For I have had my fill of tossing till dawn’”
(Job 7:1-4).

Paul the Apostle also recognized that in the absence of the Savior’s saving grace, humans are lost in the “futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Eph. 4:17-18).

So, in our struggle against futility that plagues the soul, what is the remedy?

Here it is:

The entire universe is standing on tiptoe, yearning to see the unveiling of God’s glorious sons and daughters! For against its will the universe itself has had to endure the empty futility resulting from the consequences of human sin. But now, with eager expectation, all creation longs for freedom from its slavery to decay and to experience with us the wonderful freedom coming to God’s children” (Rom. 8:19-21,TPT).

I love the Passion Translation rendering, “standing on tiptoe.” A universe that has been perverted by brokenness and chaos, purposeless and pain, now can glimpse the beginnings of new light, and an end to “empty futility.” There is a “wonderful freedom” coming! There is hope, and the hope is tied into the redemption of “God’s glorious sons and daughters.”

Even the rocks and trees, animals, birds, and fish, the water, the air, the stars—everything is waiting in breathless anticipation for the full revelation of Christ and his army of followers. We carry within us by faith the seed of hope in the kingdom to come, the kingdom of heaven.

So be of good cheer child of God! What you are sowing, you shall reap. Stay faithful with every gift and calling the Father has placed in you. It is God who brings the increase, in his own way, and in his own time.

This is our hope, and hope is how we fight futility and find meaning in our days.

“Buts” and “Ands”

So often in ministry and counseling work I encounter people who are plagued by “buts.”

“I’d like to get out and meet some new people, but….

“I’d like to go back to church but….”

“I’d like to tell my husband/wife/mom/dad/son/daughter, etc. how I really feel, but….

“I’d like to quit this bad habit, but….”

“I’d like to change jobs, but….”

And many more examples that touch on different aspects of their lives and well-being.

What follows the “but” is often a statement of fear, doubt, or unbelief, such as, “I’m afraid I’ll be rejected…I’m afraid they won’t understand…I’m afraid of how I’ll cope…I’m afraid I’ll never be able to find a better job…”

Or worse, it is a statement of shame and self-loathing, such as, “I know no one would want to be with me…I’m too messed up to dare get around a bunch of Christians…I’m worthless…It’s hopeless…”

“But” is a necessary word in our vocabulary. It is a way of expressing a contrast or qualifying a statement. BUT, it can also be a dangerous word. It can shut down growth. It can keep people stuck in depression and loneliness and defeat.

Sometimes I recognize that someone is “butting” themselves to death because I am feeling frustrated. I’m trying to help them find solutions, and everything that we discuss has an obstacle, a “but” that rules it out as a possibility. I’m aware of the “but” syndrome by my own frustration in trying to be helpful!

I’ve found a way of working through this that comes as a revelation to people when I suggest it. It is to replace their “but” with “and.”

Check out what a difference this makes:

“I’d like to get out and meet some new people, and I acknowledge that this is hard for me.”

Self-acceptance instead of fear of rejection.

“I’d like to go back to church, and I need to find a community where I will be welcomed as I am.”

A positive goal instead of religious self-condemnation.

I’d like to tell______ how I feel, and I need to learn how to express myself more honestly.”

A move toward assertiveness instead of passivity and co-dependency.

I’d like to change jobs, and I’d better get started looking because it might take time and effort to find it.

                               Optimism and determination instead of pessimism and defeatism.

Scripture actually contains lots of “buts.”  Do a search and you’ll generate hundreds of instances.  God contrasts himself with his creation, his ways with the double-minded ways of humanity, his goodness and light with wickedness and darkness. “But” is incredibly useful for that.

We celebrate the places in Scripture and in our lives when God intervenes with a “but God, …” This is where God takes our impossibilities and makes them possibilities, only through his love and power.

Here’s a favorite one of these. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…(Eph. 2:4-5).

“But God” is the best kind of “But” statement!

“But” also plays an important part in Scriptural admonishments, such as, “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do…but when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…” (Matt. 6:2-3). Or “…Do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph.5:17).

Of course, we must take heed to these instructions that include a but. 

But, as illustrated above, in our personal lives but can be grossly and destructively overused.

Is it possible that we can be guided by Scripture toward some ands that might allow us to be more positive and fruitful? Try on a few:

When wondering how our needs will be met:

And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).

When afraid because things are not looking so good:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).

When discouraged because the world seems hopelessly lost:

 The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore, let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light (Rom. 13:12).

And, there are many more. As we live our lives and search the Scriptures, maybe the best route is to notice both the buts and the ands, because we need them both. And, we can ask the Holy Spirit’s help to keep them in balance.

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Following

The quiet, passionate insistence of his ‘Follow me” is spoken to those with every power wide awake. If we let the Spirit of God bring us face to face with God, we too shall hear something akin to what Isaiah heard, the still small voice of God, and in perfect freedom will say, ‘Here am I; send me.” (Oswald Chambers).

The first direct encounter Jesus had with his disciples, and one of the last ones, both involved large catches of fish. The message Jesus left them, in both instances, was “Follow me…”

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Jesus had already become well known, as he walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Crowds pressed on him wherever he went. John the Baptist worked to prepare many people for the arrival of the Messiah, and some of those people recognized that Jesus of Nazareth was the One. The king had come and had begun to establish his kingdom.

Jesus was compassionate and willing to teach the crowds, those sheep without a shepherd. But he desired a small group of men who would join his ministry and walk with him day after day.

These would be the first disciples. He chose fishermen, tradesmen, and tax collectors. Not rabbis, scholars, or teachers.

“Come, follow me,” he said, “and I will send you out to fish for people” ((Mt. 4:19).  Leave your nets. Leave the family business. Leave all other priorities you’ve had. Sell everything and give it all to the poor. Let the dead bury their dead.  Just follow.

He didn’t tell them what to expect. He didn’t present an itinerary, a job description, or a benefits package. He didn’t hand them a contract to sign. They were to simply follow, no questions asked. They would learn as they went.

And learn they did. They learned to be followers, which is what disciples do. Disciples follow a teacher and his teaching, becoming wholly identified by it and with it.

When we follow a leader, we assume he is leading us somewhere. Where were the disciples following him to? Where was he headed as they followed?

Jesus was headed to his death, and then, to his resurrection. And he told his followers this: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Mt. 16:24; Mk. 8:34; Luke 9:23). Follow me into death and into resurrection life.

What a challenge! Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow, no questions asked. And if you’re not willing to do that, you’re not ready to be a disciple (Lk. 14:27).

If you want to minister to others, these are also the qualifications for leading and feeding his sheep. Loving him enough to be willing to abandon all and lead while following.

Jesus wasn’t fooling or playing. But he did make one pretty great promise in the deal:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Follow the light, he says. It doesn’t mean that you’ll always know what you’re doing or where he is leading you to, just that you won’t stumble in the darkness along the way.

Is that enough? Can we trust him to lead, even when we know he’s leading us toward death to our own wishes and ambitions? Death to all that we have counted on to make us feel safe? Death to the philosophies of the world that creep in to corrupt us?

And maybe even literal death for being a follower. Most of those first disciples, after spreading the gospel of Jesus far and wide, were martyred for doing so. Are we prepared for that?

As I tune into the news these days, even for a minute, I cringe and have to turn it off. Almost all of what is being said and done in the public realm, amidst the crowd, only distracts from my commitment to walking the path of discipleship.

Some people can be deeply involved in the kingdom, and deeply engaged in politics at the same time. I think I’ve done it at times, but I recognize that in this particular season, I can’t.

Attending to current events doesn’t help me in my following. I can’t risk taking my eyes off the feet of the one who walks just ahead of me, showing me the way. I suspect I’d quickly fall into a deep, dark ditch.

Lord, I’ll leave my nets. Without you, I fish all night and come up empty. With you, my nets burst with all that you provide, and I am satisfied.

Let me never stop following you.

The Puzzle

I came across this essay in my files that I wrote on a snowy February day in West Virginia in 2003, and thought it was a good week to share it.

I’ve always liked jigsaw puzzles, especially on snowed-in days like this one. I enjoy the relaxing and invigorating mental exercise they provide. It is prudent to remember, before I take one out of the closet, that once I have started working one, I am driven to finish it.

Even though I may be busy with other chores, every time I pass through the room where it lays, I will have to stop and find a piece or two. I must be willing to make a commitment of time, concentration, and space on the table for its completion.

Jigsaw puzzles remind me of the often puzzling experience of being a part of the body of Christ, and of serving and worshipping in a local church. We come together, week after week, each bringing our own small and unique piece of the picture.

We are drawn back, again and again, by some strange determination and fragile hope that if we keep showing up, keep working hard, keep studying at it, concentrating…if we want it badly enough, the puzzle will one day soon start to look like something that makes sense. Even when frustrated, discouraged and weary, disappointed with our seeming lack of progress, we are irresistibly drawn back to the table. We want to see the thing finished.

Our worship to God seems most of the time piecemeal and scattered. The individual pieces are painted in interesting colors and shapes, but in themselves they have no definition, no recognizable pattern. The random array of pieces seem to us to have no discernable order or beauty when compared with the vision of God we seek.

“Hear O ye people, the LORD is one”—complete in Himself, all One majestic Whole, clothed in a seamless garment of holiness, exalted, perfect; we can only stand in this Presence with speechless awe.

Yet here we come, trying this piece here and that piece there. Prayer, intercession, preaching, teaching, serving, singing, dancing, bowing, lifting hands, tears, laughter, sacrifice, holy romance, surrender, sanctification, and on and on in our religious endeavors.  

Once in a while we find a piece that fits and we shout, “Hallelujah!” (like a miner shouting “Eureka!”, striking gold after months of panning for it). We testify that for a moment, we have located God. We’ve come into contact, the pieces fit. God has heard and answered and has given us a moment of rest in him.

But the divine humor in this is that even when we experience fitting into the picture, we still can’t see the picture. We are not high enough above it. And even if we were, we might be surprised to find that the picture is not coherent, because it is not yet finished. Only God has the power to envision it done. He holds the box top.

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God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to finish the puzzle he’s designed. He wants us to keep coming back, making our feeble efforts toward a vision of him that our limited minds can comprehend. He enjoys our heartfelt songs, our fellowship, our acts of love and compassion. He is moved by them, perhaps in much the same way that we human parents are moved when watching our children perform in a pageant or school play. It is the very fact that the effort is so flawed, yet so sincere, that makes it so charming and endearing.

This puzzle we are working on is not an easy one. It is not the one we would have chosen from the shelf. The pieces are far too many and too small, the patterns far too complex, the level of difficulty deliberately beyond our aptitude on our own. There is mystery. We need help from the manufacturer.

We whine sometimes, “Can’t you at least show us how it will turn out?”

The only answer we receive is to look to the word pictures of one man who lived long ago, in a different time and culture. The only person who has ever been in God’s picture and above the picture at the same time. The biblical portrait of a perfect man keeps drawing us back with his loving encouragement. “Abide in me,” he says, “and I will abide in you. You will bear fruit, I promise. Our joy will be full!”

This piecing-together process of God’s great puzzle seems to us so painstaking and long, requiring every bit of strength we can bring to it. We have to keep paying attention.

And once the picture is complete, what is to become of it?

On this snowy day, once my scene of some houses on a hill with horses and cows feeding on the grass and birds and clouds floating by—is complete, what then?  I may admire it for a little while, feel some satisfaction, but before long it needs to be cleared away to make room for other things (like breakfast).

God, once his workmanship is complete, without spot, without blemish, without wrinkle—plans to sweep it up in himself! No longer itty-bitty pieces, but all of us made one with the perfect completeness of Almighty God.

In the end, there IS satisfaction for all. For us—blessed relief. For the Holy Spirit (who has been whispering clues as we worked away), the honor which is due him. For Jesus Christ, the privilege of putting in the glorious final piece, and for Father God, the joy of declaring, “Well done!”

Manifesto of the Moment

This is the moment for the followers of Jesus.

This is not the moment to shrink back in fear; it is the moment to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.

This is not the moment to deny that we know and love Jesus; it is the moment to represent him as ambassadors.

This is not the moment to play games with the truth; it is the moment to be unashamed of the gospel.

This is not the moment to be flavorless or hidden in the shadows; it is the moment to be salt and light.

This is not the moment to hold onto petty offenses; it is the moment turn our attention to worthier things.

This is not the moment to wallow in bitterness; it is the moment to forgive and be forgiven.

This is not the moment merely to please ourselves or serve our own interests; it is the moment to seek first the kingdom of Christ and his righteousness.

This is not the moment to turn away from those who are in need; it is the moment to show goodness and mercy in his name.

This is not the moment to give in to fear or mediocrity; it is the moment to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is not the moment to compromise our integrity; it is the moment to honor our commitments.

This is not the moment to be prideful or judgmental; it is the moment to show kindness to strangers, and to friends.

This is not the moment to get lost in worry; it is the moment to pray without ceasing.

This is not the moment to rely upon the doctrines of devils or men; it is the moment to return to God’s Word.

This is not the moment to be complacent about the lost; it is the moment to make disciples in all nations.

This is not the moment to slander God’s people; it is the moment to edify one another.  

This is not the moment to shrink back; it is the moment to show courage and faith.

This is not the moment to dwell in successes or failures of the past; it is the moment to reach for the prize that lies ahead.

This is not the moment to hold anything back; it is the moment to love God with everything we are.  

This is the moment.

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