Encouragement

Withholding Good

The Bible is pretty clear about God’s intent that we help others. For instance, Proverbs 3:28-29 says:

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to act.
Do not say to your neighbor,
“Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
when you already have it with you.

Likewise, James 4:17 admonishes, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

But for whom? For whom are we to do good? The verse above references a “neighbor.” And like the Pharisee, who—trying to justify himself—asked of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”, we also tend to draw boundary lines on our goodness. But Jesus’ answer doesn’t allow for these artificial boundaries. Instead, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, wherein

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” (Luke 10:30-35).

Through this parable, Jesus taught the lesson that neighbors are not just those closest to us, but also strangers, and even enemies. And in Deuteronomy 10:18-19, we see that we are to “love those who are foreigners,” just as God himself “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” I don’t recall whether I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. There is a Mennonite saying that goes like this: “If I have two coats and my brother has none, then I am stealing from my brother.” This tracks with James’ instruction to the Jewish believers of his day (2:14-17):

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Paul echoed this by instructing us to “share with the Lord’s people who are in need” (Romans 12:13). So then, from whom may we withhold good? Enemies? Strangers? Foreigners? Friends? Family? I’ll let Jesus answer for us (Matthew 25:41-45):

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not invite me in,
I needed clothes and you did not clothe me,
I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these,
you did not do for me.’

The least of these…who in your life, your path, your sphere of influence, is the least of these?

Lord, may we find them, and do the good we ought.

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153

John 21: 6-11

“He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’
When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish….
153, but even with so many the net was not torn.”

The story of Jesus’ breakfast with the disciples is one of my favorites—so many little gems in the passage. But yesterday, when I listened to Tara-Leigh Cobble comment on the story, I found another one. Of course, I’ve heard plenty of teaching on the 153 fish the disciples caught. It provides detail where no one else would bother—it doesn’t seem to matter, it doesn’t serve any common symbolic purpose (it isn’t 40 or 7, for instance). It *seems* random, until it doesn’t. You see, this may not be simply an effort to show that the story really happened, or that God cares about even the most minute details—though these interpretations also serve us well. No, it turns out that, according to some scholars, the 153 fish may represent the totality of fish types available at the time.

And if we recall, these guys are supposed to be fishing for men. But without Jesus to accompany them, they’ve gone back to what they knew before. It sounds to me like Jesus is trying to tell them, “You’re not done yet…you need to take the Gospel to ALL the earth, ALL people groups. I’ve got work for you to do.” Then Jesus doubled down by calling Peter in particular to more, when He asked Peter three times, “Do you [agape] love me?” Peter, in a moment of insecurity, tells Jesus that, no, he doesn’t love Jesus with the sacrificial love that is agape. That had become evident on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Instead, he espouses the brotherly [phileo] love he feels for Jesus, a love he could commit to. “Isn’t that enough?” is the implied question in his voice. But Jesus says, “No, it’s not. I have more in store for you” (again, I’m paraphrasing). Yes, more—more for the one who swore he would never deny Christ, only to do it three times before sunup. More for the hot-headed guy who chopped a soldier’s ear off in haste and anger. More for the guy who took his eyes off of Jesus on the water, and trembled in fear at the storm Jesus calmed.

I think there’s a message here for all of us. God has more for us, more for you—despite your failures, betrayals, insecurities…God’s not done using you. Don’t let Satan use your past to disqualify you from the calling God has placed on your life. Live into it. Go out and catch your 153 fish.

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Expecting

I’ve been in church all my life, and have been a Christian for almost that long, but a few months ago, I began reading through the entire Bible for the very first time. One theme I’ve noticed so far is that the Bible is FULL of waiting.

  • Abraham waited 25 years for God to fulfill His promise of a son (Genesis 15-21).
  • Noah waited some 60-70 years for God to bring the promised flood (Genesis 6-7).
  • Joseph waited 22 years for his dreams to come true (Genesis 37-45).
  • Israel waited 430 years for God to deliver them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:40).
  • Caleb waited 45 years to be given the land God had promised him as an inheritance for his faithfulness (Joshua 14:6-15).

….and so many more.

As we enter the season of Advent, we also find ourselves in a season of waiting, expecting, anticipating…but all with an air of uncertainty. What does God have in store for us? When? How will we know? I suspect many face these same questions this Advent season. I keep going back to a recent Scripture reading that says,

Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled.”
– Joshua 21:45

And again,

“Now I [Joshua] am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed.
Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.” – Joshua 23:14

What are those promises? Well, among others (and in no particular order):

  • “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11
  • “He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
    – Philippians 1:6
  • “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.”
    – Philippians 4:19
  • “Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” – Psalm 37:4
  • “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28
  • “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6-8
  • “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
    in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” – Proverbs 3:5-6
  • “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39

So I pray these promises over all of us, this month and on into the new year. May we each rest in the knowledge that our God is a God who KEEPS his promises. Every. Last. One.

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Hard Pressed

2 Corinthians 4: 8-9

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 
persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

I’ll never forget when I first learned how to use color crayons. I was in junior high—7th grade, I believe. I know what you’re thinking, that this should be a kindergarten-level skill. And you would be correct, if I were referring to the neat and tidy, gentle, inside-the-lines kind of coloring that we tend to value so much. But in 7th grade art class, I learned how crayons were “meant” to be used. Our teacher knew that she would have an uphill battle trying to change the beliefs and behaviors that had been ingrained in us for some 12 years by that point. But she also knew from experience that there was good to come from all of this re-learning.

She taught us that we needed to press HARD on the crayons. What?! Wasn’t that wasting them? I mean, they would wear out so much faster. That is, if they didn’t break in half from the weight of the pressure. And why?! My coloring up until that point had already earned me high praise throughout my childhood. But I trusted my teacher, and I learned a technique that yielded absolutely beautiful results—vibrant, bold, attention-grabbing.

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I know that Paul wasn’t referring to crayons in his letter to the Corinthians. His analogy above relates more to an active-duty soldier, presumably in battle. Nevertheless, I believe this present analogy holds. The point is that what seems harsh and painful now may yield some great benefit later. Paul continues,

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away,
yet our inner self is being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that is far beyond comparison.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.
For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4: 16-18

Will we do this also? When we face challenges, hardships, and heartache. When we experience loss, grief, and sadness. Will we trust that our God will not allow us to be crushed or destroyed, that He will not forsake us, even during the most difficult or painful of times? I hope so—for the reward is great.

Dear Lord,

Please comfort those who are mourning, strengthen those who are weak, and work all things together in an intricate and vibrant work of art that declares, “His glory, my good.”

Amen.

 

His Glory Revealed

I don’t cry very often, thanks to some well-dosed antidepressants, but every now and then I still have my moments. What landed me in that place the other night might surprise you. I had been waiting for some medical test results, and I received them earlier in the day. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” is what the nurse said. This might be a relief to many patients, but to me it represented one more failed attempt at an answer—and with no answers looming on the horizon that I could see.

Chronic pain and illness—some treatable, some not; some diagnosable, some not—has been my plight for years, and it’s one I try to endure with some semblance of grace. But sometimes one more symptom to add to the bray just feels like more than I can handle. You know?

Well, I’ve allowed the Spirit to comfort me in the past through verses like these.

James 1:2-4:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10:

“…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Romans 8:18:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

But the other night, the passage that came and kept coming to my mind was John 9:1-3:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”

I guess the reason I’ve never connected this story with my own is that Jesus chose to heal this blind man. And if we look at God’s glory as healing, strictly speaking, then I guess it might never apply to me. But even when our paths and journeys differ, God’s glory can still be seen, can it not? Regardless of what we face, God can use our circumstances to reveal His heart.

  • It may look like renewed compassion and empathy for others who suffer.
  • It may look like the encouragement you share with and receive from others.
  • It may look like a strengthened faith in God’s sufficient grace.
  • It may look like God walking alongside you—carrying you when the road becomes too long.
  • It may look like you walking alongside a fellow sojourner—helping them to bear a burden that is too heavy for them to carry on their own.
  • It may look like peace that passes understanding, in spite of swirling turmoil.

I could go on, I’m sure, but I hope you get my point. Chronic pain and illness are my cross to bear (and that of many others), but your struggles (or your friend’s, or your neighbor’s, or your colleague’s, or your sister’s) may be very different. They may include losses, addictions, hurts, sins, you name it. But they are no less usable by God, for the display of His glory—if we will allow Him to use them.

Look for God in your circumstances—chances are, you’ll find Him.

Lenten Blossoms

The Choicest of Wines

John 2: 7-10

“Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.
He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said,

“Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine
after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

Don’t you just love how you can read a Bible story over and over, and still get something new out of it every time? I think we’ve all read John’s account of Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana. But recently, I read it again, and it meant something new to me. You see, the master of the banquet was right. The guests would have been perfectly content with a cheap wine. Jesus could have brought out the Franzia or the Boon’s Farm and it would have been fine.

But Jesus doesn’t do that, does he? He doesn’t give cheap gifts—ever. He doesn’t perform half-hearted miracles—ever. He gives only the best, because that’s what God does. Every. Single. Time. He outdoes himself, and never ceases to amaze his beloved children.

And even when things aren’t going the way we planned, even when we’ve run out of wine at the wedding, we can be confident that Jesus will step in and meet our needs in a way that only he can—in a way that will amaze us and everyone around us. Our job is to ask, and to ask believing that he will respond, and trusting that he will always respond with the very choicest of wines. Selah.

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Known

John 4:28-29

“Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people,
‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’”

You know something that doesn’t change about Jesus throughout the scriptures? The way He knows everyone He meets—inside and out. He knows the depths of their souls, the depths of their sin, and the depths of their needs. Each has a different story, but Jesus knows every detail. What I’ve found does change is the response of the known to the Knower, and to the being known. For some, it’s a source of comfort—for others, a source of shame.

Consider the woman at the well. After Jesus exposed her sins of adultery and promiscuity, she dropped everything and ran back to town to tell everyone. She was no longer ashamed of her sin. Instead, she was hopeful in the face of Christ’s forgiveness and was eager to share that Living Water with everyone she knew. She allowed her failures to become her testimony.

Similarly, recall the woman who in John 8 was brought before Jesus upon being caught in the act of adultery. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees had wanted to stone her, but had to retreat at Jesus’s command that he who was without sin must throw the first stone. When she looked up and saw that none of the religious leaders had condemned her, and when Jesus himself offered her mercy and forgiveness, there seemed to be a sense of gratitude and relief as Jesus told her to “go and sin no more.”

In contrast, though, reflect on Christ’s conversation with the rich young ruler, which is chronicled in all three synoptic gospels. In Mark 10:17-27, we see that, as Jesus

“was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”

It seems as though this young man was counting on Jesus NOT knowing him, not being able to see deep into his heart to identify his sin. So when he realized that the Messiah did know him, inside and out, it brought sadness, as opposed to comfort. And ultimately, rather than repent of his sins and accept Christ’s love and forgiveness, this young man walked away.

The Bible is full of people just like him, unwilling to give up their earthly treasures in exchange for eternal ones. But the Bible is also full of people who embraced Jesus and His intimate knowledge of their sin. And in so doing, they were able to accept with confidence the grace, mercy, and forgiveness He offered them. Our world today is full of both kinds of people, too. The question that you and I need to answer is, “Which kind of person will I be?”

Chosen

Ephesians 1:4 (NLT)

“Even before he made the world,
God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes.”

I hope you all will forgive me for digressing from my “Who I am” series for this week. But God spoke to me this week in an illustration that I want to share with you. You see, as I was walking home from dropping the kids off at school on Wednesday, I came across a random Chihuahua. He was in a yard that I didn’t recall him belonging to, and he started barking at me, and then he followed me briefly (and forgive me, the picture is a bit blurry–he wouldn’t stand still). He finally decided to stay where he was, but as often happens when I encounter a stray dog, I began to daydream. What if he followed me home? What if he refused to leave? What if he chose us to adopt him?

Now, you have to understand—and I mean no disrespect—but we are NOT Chihuahua people. We like BIG dogs: Bernese Mountain Dogs, Great Pyrenees, Newfoundlands, those sorts of dogs. But there’s something about the idea of a pet choosing you, isn’t there? About them adopting you, if you will. At least there is for me. So, I thought to myself that, if this dog indeed were to choose us, we might find ourselves inviting him into our lives and our home and becoming his forever family. We might.

There’s just something about being chosen. It’s like destiny, do you know what I mean? That’s one thing (among many) that I love SO much about God. He has chosen ME. He has chosen YOU. Psalm 11:3 says, “Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” There is such comfort in knowing this. The old hymn states, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” But I dare say, “Blessed assurance, I am HIS!” Know this assurance today, and rest in the peace that comes from being His chosen.

Who I Am–Part II

Philippians 2:15b
“…Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky…”

My second tattoo is a Chinese symbol for the word “shine.” It was inspired by Philippians 2:15 and was intended as a reminder to me that I should shine God’s love and character in the world around me. But truth be told, its location in the center of my upper back makes it something I seldom see. I wonder if that has anything to do with how frequently I seem to fail at this task. I so often feel dim when I observe my words, tone, thoughts, actions, and even feelings.

I have to confess that for these couple of days, I’ve felt overwhelmed with and defeated by my own shortcomings. My self-efficacy is practically non-existent at the moment. I feel as though everything I set out to do results in failure. In truth, it isn’t literally everything. But certainly, there are a lot of things that have revealed my weaknesses. Weaknesses, you say?

Well, thankfully, the Bible has a few things to say about weaknesses—a few encouraging things, for these moments when I feel discouraged.

  • “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Corinthians 27-29).
  • “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
  • “He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary” (Isaiah 50:4).

I don’t know about you, but even after a fairly tumultuous couple of days, I feel like I can sleep better tonight, resting in His strength. I hope you can, too!

Not for Naught

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If you know me very well, you know that I blame a lot of things on “the fall,” as in the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. That’s because, quite frankly, the fall has had a LOT of consequences for our lives, our society, and our world. And sometimes we face things that just plain don’t have any other explanation. Pain and suffering often seem to fall into that category. I’m not sure that it’s pain and suffering themselves that we dread so much. Instead, I think that one of our biggest fears is that our pain will somehow be wasted. The apostle Paul knew that better than anyone. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he wrote:

“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

Like Paul, I think that we long to identify a reason for the suffering we experience. We want to see it produce a testimony in our lives that others can see. We want it to display God’s glory. Some painful experiences seem to lend themselves better to these ends than others. But among those that don’t are chronic pain and illness. Incidentally, I learned just yesterday that September is Chronic Pain Awareness month. I’ll bet you didn’t know that either. It isn’t something that gets a lot of press. Why? Maybe it’s because many people who suffer from chronic pain and illness do so in relative silence and obscurity. Maybe it’s because these conditions often aren’t visible to the naked eye, and as such are in many ways forgettable.

Over the years, this has prompted me to wonder how God could possibly be glorified in this, how it could produce a testimony. Then I naturally conclude that my pain is pointless. But during a recent bout of self-pity, God interrupted me. Over several days, he brought to mind a number of friends and family members who are afflicted by chronic pain and illness. And I realized that, because of my own pain, I am in a unique (if unenviable) position to NOT forget those who might otherwise feel forgotten. Perhaps not the most exciting testimony, but likely a quite fulfilling ministry. After all, some 100,000 Americans experience chronic pain at any given time. It’s a fact of life in a fallen world. I’ve personally found that there is a good deal of peace in knowing that some good could come from my suffering, that it won’t be for naught. I hope that you will also find peace in that today. Whatever you may be going through, God has no intention of wasting your pain any more than he does mine.