Blessing

Yokes and Vineyards

Matthew 20:10-12

“Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”

Matthew 11:28-30

“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.”

I think we’ve been missing something—we as followers of Christ, I mean. This is evident in our responses when we read the parable of the workers in the vineyard. If you’re anything like me, you get a little indignant when you read that those lazy bums who worked less than an hour received the same wage as those who’d put in a full day’s work. It sets off our injustice alarms immediately.

And even when we take this parable out of the context of manual labor and put it into the context of the kingdom of God (which is the context within which Jesus presented it), we get annoyed and a little bit envious. After all, why should these “deathbed conversions” count for as much as our entire lives of service and sacrifice for the kingdom?

Well, the other day, I realized how backward this is, especially if we consider it in light of Jesus’s words in Matthew 11:28-30. When he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light and that he will give us rest for our souls, those sound like good things. So what if following Jesus and learning to be more and more like him is a privilege, rather than a burden? If we think of it that way, we all of a sudden have a sense of compassion for those who arrive late to the party, who do not have the same opportunities that we’ve had—to work alongside Jesus, to see him work amazing miracles, to communicate with him through prayer, to develop friendships that we never would have otherwise, to receive the blessing of giving, and on and on.

So why do we always turn our discipleship into a burden? Why is our response one of “Woe is me,” rather than one of gratitude and humility? Why do we minimize the honor that it is to follow and serve Jesus? I for one want to embrace every opportunity that I have to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world. And I hope you do, too. God, help us see the privilege that it is to follow you and to do your kingdom work. And help us welcome as many to that work as we can, no matter when they show up.

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The Greater Blessing

Hebrews 12:1-2a

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,
let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
And let us run
 with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus,
the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

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If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you may recall how I feel about blessings and what it means to be blessed. Awhile back, our pastor described blessings in terms of a nearness to God. So it isn’t the material things (money, houses, cars) or even the nonmaterial things (health, longevity, family) that we so often ask God for that offer the greatest blessings. Rather, it is those things that draw us closer to Him, that force us to place our trust more firmly in Him, and that help us to fall ever more in love with Him.

I recently posed an argument that opportunities to become more like Christ would also fall under this definition of blessing, and I still believe that’s true. However, over the last week or so, God has begun to change my heart about what that Christ-like transformation might look like—namely, it will look different for each one of us.

Of course, we are seeking a likeness to the same Jesus, who is as unchanging as God the Father Himself. But that Jesus is made up of many more characteristics than one. And we each excel at Christ-likeness in some areas, and struggle in others. And God wants us to grow closer to Him along all of those dimensions. And that growth may look different for you than it does for me—in fact, it almost assuredly will!

So, perhaps God will grow my patience, while He grows your joy. Or my gentleness and your love. Or my self-control and your peace. These exercises will require different actions from each of us. God has convicted me to recognize that my way is not the only way, or the right way, or the only right way. It isn’t even necessarily the better way. Instead, each of us will find the greater blessing when we openly accept God’s invitation to draw most near to Him. It will come when we allow God to stretch us beyond our current strengths, and to grow us in our areas of weakness.

I pray that we would each be open to God’s leading and instruction: that we would read the Word with intention and conviction, taking from it the hard as well as the easy truths; that we would seek and discern wise counsel from among the many voices swirling around us; and that we would trust and follow the Holy Spirit. Godspeed as you seek the greater blessing!

#Blessed

Job 1:21

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

It occurred to me this past week that my next blog entry would be my 100th since launching my blog in May of 2014. And it seemed fitting that I post it on my birthday, so I figured, 37 is as good a time as any for a mid-life reflection. Although I must say, even at the ‘half-way’ point, I feel like I’ve lived quite a full life—full of experiences, emotions, friendships, and memories. Some bad, some good, some both.

As I think back on the past year, it’s been pretty good. I’ve been blessed, but not just in the material and superficial ways that we often use that word to convey. I’ve learned that it isn’t material abundance or a lack of adversity that measures blessing, but rather a nearness to God that can come from joy and pain, and the intermingling of the two. The contentment I feel now stands in stark contrast to my birthday reflections of a few years back, when I’d had a somewhat bittersweet year. My dog (read best friend) of almost seven years had passed away, I’d had a pretty rough pregnancy and delivery with Laredo, and I was regularly plagued by an ongoing chemical imbalance that left me in frequent despair. Worse still, I had no one nearby to enter into that suffering with me—no one to understand or empathize with me, or to offer comfort.

Time and distance, though, have helped me see that—even then—I could have received the blessing of God’s presence. I could have drawn nearer to Him and used my suffering for good. I could have borne witness to a faith that I still clung to, however precariously. I sang the Matt Redman lyrics in church on Sunday:

Blessed Be Your name
When I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness

On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

And I prayed that they would ring true in my heart, but the struggle continued. I’ve since learned the extraordinary power of gratitude (in the big and little things), and I’ve learned to trust and rest in God’s goodness (no matter the circumstances). And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the contribution of some great prescription drugs—in some ways, I can truly say that I love science.

I don’t know if this coming year is going to bring more of the relatively smooth sailing that has graced the past twelve months, or if it will resemble the more tumultuous year I had a few back. For all I know, it may hold something entirely new—and scarier than ever. But my prayer is that whatever this year brings, I will embrace it, and continue to affirm that I am still blessed.

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Littler Minutes

Last night, just before a had fallen asleep—and only seconds after Chris had drifted off—came the familiar sound of one Laredo Jade, whimpering from her bedroom, “Mommy…Mommy.” I went to her and asked her what she needed. “I just need you to hold me,” she answered as she wrapped her arms tightly around my neck and rested her head on my shoulder. Usually she demands that I hold her while I’m standing up, but last night, she agreed that we could lay on the couch together. After shifting around a bit, she got comfortable laying on my chest (and tummy and legs, because let’s face it, at her age she takes up quite a bit more space). Then she fell asleep, and then I fell asleep. But before I did, I thought back to a post I’d written in June of 2014, entitled, “Little Minutes.”

——

Psalm 39:4-5

“LORD, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days;
Let me know how transient I am. Behold, you have made my days as handbreadths,
And my lifetime as nothing in your sight; Surely every man at his best is a mere breath. Selah.”

As I was lying in the hotel bed with Tijge, he took my hand and held it as he drifted off to sleep. I was reminded of a habit that we had briefly gotten into a few weeks before. He would lay down and go to sleep, only to wake up at around midnight—at which point, he would sweetly ask, “You want to lay by me a little minutes?” Of course I do. Well, invariably, I would fall asleep and end up spending the rest of the night with him.

At one point, Chris expressed concern that this might get to be too much of a habit. Probably, I reasoned inwardly, but then I thought about the day that would no doubt come—sooner rather than later—when I would no longer be able to comfort him; when I wouldn’t be “cool” enough to be seen with, let alone to lay or snuggle with. And then I will miss these nights, and I won’t remember the midnight wake-up call, or his tossing and turning, or my stiff back and neck. I will only, and very fondly, remember those few extra minutes with him each night.

Little minutes, indeed.

——

Yep, that’s still about right. Different day. Different kid. Same stiff neck. Same little minutes…except they keep getting littler every day.

 

Privileges, Rights, & Rejection

It occurs to me lately that many of us have been taking certain privileges for granted, among them the freedoms of speech, expression, religion, and due process. I can hear you cursing at me through your computer screen: “Those are not privileges, they are God-given RIGHTS!” Says who? Says a bunch of guys who have since fallen into relative disrepute on the grounds of their past sins and grievances. Their humanity and frailty have been revealed to us over time, and yet we still cling to their assertion that we have certain inalienable rights, as humans.

But if this were true, people wouldn’t be slaughtered every day for their nationalities, they wouldn’t be executed for their faiths, they wouldn’t be imprisoned for their beliefs. Throughout our country’s history, we—at least some of us—have enjoyed privileges that have not been and are still not enjoyed by our fellow human beings. And still, we feel that we inherently deserve them, that we have somehow earned them. However, if you think back, you can probably identify times when you have felt deprived of those privileges. Maybe you were reprimanded at work because of something you said. Maybe you were ridiculed by your friends because of something you believed. Maybe you were cast out by your family for your stance on a controversial issue. Maybe you felt that the only acceptable response for those around you is silence. Maybe you felt there was not a soul on earth with whom you could be truly honest. These may have been one-time events, or they may plague you to this day. But in those instances, I think most of us feel persecuted or rejected, deprived of our ‘rights’.

But listen to what Jesus says in Luke 6: 22 and 26:

22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man….

26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Our pastor recently described blessing as a nearness to God; it’s based on spiritual proximity rather than tangible or material gifts. I’ve found that, when I feel betrayed by a confidante, or as though I need to censor my words, thoughts, or actions, I have the great privilege of boldly approaching the throne of grace. And God will welcome me there, He will listen to my pleas, He will justly decide my case. It reminds me of the other night, when our son Tijge came home with an open sore on his hand—one full of dirt and germs and badly needing to be cleaned. After I cleaned it, he hit me several times. I very intentionally allowed him to do so, without scolding or punishing him. Instead, I held him close to me and tried my best to comfort him. Why? Because that’s the way God treats us. The consummate potter, He knows that to mold us into the people He intends for us to be, He must draw us close to Himself and not push us away. We need to know that, in His arms, we will find a safe place to air our grievances, disappointments, fears, and failures. And that is exactly what He offers. May you find that peace and comfort in His arms, today and every day, and may God richly bless you.

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Hunger

Luke 6:21a

“Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.”

We are currently in the season of the beatitudes. It seems that pastors, speakers, writers, and church leaders of all kinds and denominations have received the divine memo that states, “Thou shalt teach from the Sermon on the Mount.” In faithfulness to this command, our church is in the midst of a sermon series called, “#Blessed.” And this past week, our pastor spoke on the hunger that Luke describes in Chapter 6 as a blessing.

He talked about just how much our current culture differs from that of the people to whom Jesus was speaking on that day. Specifically, the crowd was full of marginalized, poor, hungry, and sick people. In fact, up to 90% of that population would face the threat of starvation on a regular basis. In contrast, most of us do not allow ourselves to feel hunger even momentarily. We fill our stomachs the moment a craving or twinge of hunger hits us—if not before. Am I right? And why do we do this? I would argue that it’s largely because we can. Most of the time, we have the ability to instantly satisfy our basic material desires, and then some. And as we learned on Sunday, physical gratification can actually lead to a lack of satisfaction and a “need” or “craving” for even more physical gratification.

It is through this vicious cycle that our own bodies can become the instrument, source, and vessel for many sins. Well, no one wants that, so of course I took seriously the closing challenge that we sit with our cravings and let them pass. But whenever I did refuse to give in to a craving, I found myself waiting anxiously for God to swoop in and satisfy that craving Himself—and feeling a sense of righteous indignation when He did not. But do you know what I realized? Those people on the mount, they didn’t leave that day with their stomachs full. And they continued to face abject poverty and material hunger, probably for the remainder of their days on earth. So why, then, would I expect God to satisfy my every desire of the flesh?

Oh, He does satisfy, don’t get me wrong. But perhaps He does so by showing us that the things we are craving aren’t the things that we’re meant to be craving. Perhaps He shows us that life will not come to a screaming halt just because we sense the emptiness of an unmet need or desire. Perhaps we realize that He ultimately is enough. Perhaps at those times when we fail, and give in to those cravings, we realize that they don’t bring satisfaction after all. Perhaps we realize that our true hunger is one that this world can’t satisfy.

And when I reflect on any one of these truths, I truly do feel #blessed. How about you?

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