Beloved Interruptions

Below is the manuscript of a narrative sermon that I delivered for my Expository Preaching class with Dr. Ken Durham last semester.

It had been a rough couple of days for Jesus when the curtain opens on our story, filled with roadblocks and unexpected frustrations. He had just calmed a storm on Lake Galilee that threatened to capsize his boat, driven out a legion of demons, and then been driven out himself by the townspeople. I don’t know what he felt as he crossed the lake once more. But I can imagine that he keenly felt the sting of rejection, the frustration of dismissal, the exhaustion of unceasing demands.  The lake was his only respite, a quiet place in the midst of chaos and people clamoring for his attention.

By the time the boat reached land, the crowd had already begun to gather.  As Jesus steps out of the boat, there falling at his feet is Jairus the synagogue ruler, pleading with him. “My little daughter is dying. Come touch her so she will be healed and live.” So Jesus goes with him.

But as they make their way through the crowd, Jairus turns and sees that Jesus has stopped.  He’s looking around him while a thin woman hangs back at the edge of the crowd. Jairus opens his mouth to speak, to remind Jesus of the urgency of his mission, but Jesus speaks first. “Who touched me?”

She had been sick as long as Jairus’ daughter had been alive. Twelve years of diagnoses and attempted remedies.  Twelve years of uncleanness and isolation.  Twelve years of daring to hope, only to be disappointed, penniless, and left alone again, the bleeding growing steadily worse.  Jesus was her last chance, and suddenly the one she knew she’d been waiting for. And so she found herself pushing through the crowd as he passed.  “If I could just touch his cloak…” His back was to her as she pushed her way to the edge of the crowd and reached out.

Her fingers closed around a handful of fabric, and her body’s response was immediate. She felt it, and she knew. One touch had done what no doctor could do. She was healed. There would be no more suffering.  But as she tries to shrink away and disappear into the crowd, she is arrested by Jesus’ question. “Who touched me?”

I can imagine the momentary relief she felt when Jesus’ disciples answered him incredulously. “Who touched you? Like…everyone. You’re in the middle of a huge crowd. What do you mean, who touched you?” Maybe he would agree with them. Maybe he would shrug and be on his way. Maybe he wouldn’t notice her at all.

Yet he ignores the disciples, scanning the crowd. “Who touched me?” He asks again, but there is no accusation or anger in his voice. In fact, it sounds strangely like an invitation.

The noise of the crowd, the puzzlement of the disciples, the impatience of Jairus, all fade away into the background, and all she can hear is her heart thumping in her chest.  The invitation is only for one. Jesus is calling her.

She steps forward – and although all eyes are fixed on her, the only ones she sees are those of her Savior. She falls at his feet. Hopeful. Afraid. Embarrassed. Amazed. And gloriously whole.

And in a torrent of words, she tells the whole story to Jesus. Not just about the touch. Not just about the healing. She tells him everything. All of the pain. All of the brokenness. All of the rejection and loneliness she had experienced over the past twelve years. But it doesn’t matter that everyone is watching. It doesn’t matter what they think.

Because Jesus listens. He waits. It’s like a shaken snowglobe has settled around the central figures, leaving a sense of deep stillness. Time has stopped for Jesus too, and all that matters is this moment. This story. This woman. She finishes her confession and waits for him to speak.

When he does, it’s almost like the sound of rain on a tin roof, or a fire crackling in the hearth, to one who has been away from home for far too long. “Daughter. Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace, and be freed from your suffering.”

But the world’s brokenness always seems to invade our perfect, still moments in the presence of Jesus. And this time, when Jesus had barely finished speaking, the sacred was shattered by the abrupt arrival of Jairus’ messenger and the abrasiveness of his news.  “Your daughter is dead. Stop bothering the Teacher.”

Yet hasn’t Jesus made it clear by now that he isn’t bothered by interruptions? “Don’t be afraid,” he tells Jairus. “Just believe.”

And the woman he called daughter stands and watches as he walks away. But the story doesn’t end here. Jesus has another daughter to save. He enters her house, where mourners are wailing. He enters her room, where her body lies motionless on her bed. And as Jairus watches in amazement, Jesus grasps the cold hand of a little dead girl and says, “Get up.” And when the Lord of the universe commands life, life answers.

Two people came to Jesus that day looking for healing.

And that day, two daughters were given new life.

This story paints an incredible portrait of what happens when God interacts with humanity. It doesn’t always work out perfectly. To us, it may seem like the timing isn’t right. It’s awkward and messy. Stories are supposed to be eloquent. Interruptions are jarring and disconcerting.

Typically, we would put interruptions in the awkward category and brush them aside to get to the main point. But what’s interesting here is that the chiastic structure of this story points us to the middle, actually points us to the interruption. The seeming inconvenience becomes the focal point of this story, just as it became the focal point of Jesus’ attention.

Henri Nouwen writes of a meaningful conversation with a Notre Dame professor in which the professor mused, “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.” I would venture to say that perhaps Jesus saw it the same way. That interruptions didn’t distract from his ministry, because they were his ministry. Because we are his ministry.

I remember the night, when I was about six or seven, that it occurred to me that because the world is so full of people, there are bound to be times when there are multiple people praying at once – maybe even in different languages.  I wondered how God was able to hear them all at the same time, and if he got distracted by interruptions.  And to be honest, that question has never truly gone away. When we are in our darkest moments of pain, I think it still surfaces for many of us. Does God see my tears? Can he hear me right now? Does one person’s pain even matter when there is so much suffering in the world? I’ve often felt, as the Tenth Avenue North song says, like “one tear in the driving rain, one voice in a sea of pain.”

But to Jesus, no interruption is an inconvenience. Every time someone reaches out for his cloak, he will look for them until they are found, listen until their story is told, and love them with a love that claims them and declares them valuable. To Jesus, every interruption is a son or a daughter.

He wants you to encounter him. So seek him out.  Whether it’s doubt you’ve been afraid to acknowledge, pain you don’t know how to express, or the childish excitement of a spring day – your faith to reach out is the interruption Jesus is waiting for. So reach out, and interrupt boldly. No matter when you come, no matter what your story, he claims you as his own.

“Son…daughter…your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

10 Quotes that Changed My Life in 2013

Words are powerful. Sometimes, people say things that sear themselves into your memory, for good or ill. You’ll never forget where you were when they were spoken, or how they made you feel, and you’re a changed person because the depth that they conveyed introduced you to a reality you hadn’t seen before. 2013 was a year of significant growth for me, and I am indebted to those who have shaped me along the way. So without further ado, here are the 10 quotes (and one picture) that changed my life.

“Things will never go back to normal. You’re changed because of the people you’ve met and the things you’ve experienced. There’s a new normal that incorporates all of that and how it’s shaped the way you look at life.”

Specifically, this quote was about the difficulty of moving on with life after a life-changing mission trip. As obvious as it may sound, this was so freeing as I realized I didn’t have to ‘move on’ – that is, I didn’t have to choose between two realities. I could embrace the new and let it make the rest of my life even more amazing. And so far, it has.

“You may not have heard this a lot growing up, but you’re gifted to preach. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.”

If I could point to one life-changing moment in 2013, this is probably it. I can still point to the specific table in Starbucks where I was sitting when these words made my heart skip a beat. Until March of this year, I had never really given much thought to public speaking.  Ironic, then, that it has somehow become one of my most apparent ministry gifts. My knees were shaking as I walked to the podium that Sunday in March – bad combination with six-inch heels – and saw 600 faces looking back at me. And then I found my voice. Sometimes it takes other people to discern a calling for you, and without one man’s faith in my ability, I never would have thought of myself as (what?!) a preacher. To those who have supported, encouraged, and affirmed me along the way – you’ve changed my life.

“We need more people like you in the churches of Christ.”

Me? Church of Christ? I spent the first 3 years of college becoming convinced that those two didn’t fit together. But a fellow misfit — an abstract, artsy youth minister in a tradition of intellectuals who nevertheless believed in belonging — thought differently, offered me a job, and supported me through the growing pains of discovering a unity that transcends uniformity.

“It’s so obvious that God had a purpose in bringing you here.”

We all have those times when we wonder if we’ve actually made a difference – especially when we feel more like we’ve made a mess of things. But God brings beauty from the broken. I was sitting on a wooden bench with my aunt watching an incredible sunset over the water when she spoke these words. Yet, even more affirming than the words themselves may have been the tears that gave voice to my own depth of emotion.

“Find a husband to share life with, because even an independent girl like you will get lonely trying to go it alone. Don’t be in a rush — slow down and enjoy life. When you have a decision to make, ask yourself 2 things: Is it best for you, and will it hurt other people? God’s picked me up and dusted off my britches after too many selfish mistakes. And go out and look at the stars on clear nights, and see which ones are looking back at you.”

This is advice from an 88-year-old WWII veteran who joined the Navy at 15, fought as second loader at Iwo Jima, and came back and started a successful business without a high school education. I figured it would be wise to pay attention.

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A picture is worth a thousand words, right? This picture will always stay with me. Pope Francis looks at a crowd and sees individuals whose pain is very real. Learn to truly see people, and truly love them.

“Take pain and doubt with you as your companions. Say to them, ‘You can come with me if you want, but we’re moving forward.'”

Reid Hillin, Woodmont Hills college minister. He claims to have paraphrased this from another source, but either way, it’s a powerful concept. Let pain shape you and change you, but never control you. Life doesn’t have to be put on hold while you try to figure things out – live wholeheartedly, if imperfectly.

“I see people. They look like trees walking around.”

Mark 8:24. This is a text that I preached on for my Communicating the Gospel class, and this unlikely quote from my good friend Second Touch Blind Guy has changed the way I look at those around me. Do I see others imperfectly, distorted through the lens of my prejudices and cultural biases? Or do I love and appreciate their uniqueness and individuality?

“You know what disgusts me the most about Christianity? Grace.”

This was a little unexpected – and a lot thought-provoking. People have all sorts of pet evangelism methods – as if one size fits all! “Just tell people they’re going to hell without the grace of God!” Well, it changes things up a little when grace itself is the barrier to belief. Maybe evangelism – which simply means sharing good news, and is not at all synonymous with ‘conversion’ – is more about listening and understanding than it is about shoving a pre-packaged philosophy down someone’s throat and expecting them to think the same way you do.

“It would be difficult being with you, but it would be worth it.”

You asked me when I started to change my mind about you. And although I told you I couldn’t pinpoint a specific moment, this might be the closest one. As I recall, you also said that you read my blog posts hoping for a shout-out. Here it is, and I hope you’re reading, because this is about as close as I get to PDA. Thank you for loving me for who I am.

I’ve heard the first part of this quote more times than I can count, but never amended by the second half. It can be difficult for feminists such as myself to find a man who accepts the fact that we will never be domesticated creatures, yet still has his own clearly defined sense of self. These words prove that you are both. They reflect honesty and careful evaluation of the cost as well as a deep appreciation for the return. Although they might not be considered super romantic by some standards, they were to me.

“I love you.”

To anyone who has said this to me over the past year, it never gets old. These words are always life-giving and sustaining, and I could never have made it this far without the genuine love and support of so many people. May this new year be filled with abundant blessings, and may you find beauty in pain as well as joy, in failures as well as successes. Continue to love well, and change the world around you. I love you all.

Published in: on January 1, 2014 at 6:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Part of the Journey

Desert-Tracks

I’ll be the first to admit that I am often unsure of where I am going in my spiritual journey. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m wandering around in darkness, hands outstretched, feeling for something tangible. Sometimes standing in a lonely room, blindfolded, just waiting for a nudge. Sometimes hearing a voice from somewhere beyond and running toward it, stumbling, bruising myself on random shadow-covered objects but embracing the obstacles that guide me to Him.

I know everyone has those times. But geez, I feel like it’s happening to me all the time! Am I normal? As soon as I’ve recovered my equilibrium, God reveals something else that sends me off into a crazy tailspin. Part of this is that I question. A lot.

And doubt. A lot.

But I’ve also learned to trust. A lot.

And, paradoxically, to trust in the midst of doubt and uncertainty.

I used to hate this about myself. I wondered why I was always going through these crazy cycles. I get tired sometimes. I just want to rest. I feel like my lungs never completely fill up before the next wave of uncomfortable revelation breaks over my head. And I used to panic and hold my breath, hoping I could pretend I wasn’t being swept out to sea. But when I was submerged in the unknown long enough that I gave up and took a breath, expecting to drown, I found that the enormity of God fills my lungs and sustains me. It’s okay to breathe in the realm of spiritual uncertainty.

Journal excerpt from June 2013:

I want so badly to surrender everything to Christ and to stay in that place of passionate abandonment. My heart cannot cry loud enough for a life that pours out everything. But I’ve been so confused that I’ve become apathetic, unable to find the joy of complete certainty in my Savior. My Bible has been closed and put away, my prayers infrequent and empty. I think I’ve been afraid of what He’ll show me. But today I cracked open the door for Him to speak to me, and in rushed His demanding love like a tidal wave, like a battering ram. He’s calling me again — up and out. It’s time to go; I can’t stay here anymore. I don’t know where I’m going, but it’s time to start following again in faith. Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders. I want to come to You on the water, the things of the world blocked out by the blinders of my love for You.

My professor Dr. Lavender is an incredible man. In addition to the fact that he was born and raised in Italy, built a model space shuttle in his basement, once ran 100 miles in a day, and has the beautiful gift of sarcasm, he is the biggest spiritual role model in my life. For one thing, I feel like he can handle my crazy thoughts — and for another, God uses his calm and gentle reminders of the Story to bring me back down to earth, to ground me, more than anything else. Last week I was in his office talking about some of my latest inconvenient questions. In the course of the conversation, he made this statement: “Most Christians tend to be satisfied with what they’ve always known.”

And in five words I blurted out my entire life story: “I have never been satisfied.”

He smiled a little. “I don’t think you ever will be.”

I pondered this somewhat horrifying, somewhat exciting, thought for a moment, and he continued: “This prophetic calling you have from God — this restlessness, this searching — will be something that He uses to draw people into the bigger story, into His Kingdom on earth.”

If this is a prophetic calling — being yanked out of your comfy chair and then being called to yank others up as well — no wonder the prophets were pretty miserable. Yet there is a sort of untamed beauty in it too. And maybe that’s why, over the past couple of years, I’ve developed such a love for Old Testament prophets such as Hosea and Habakkuk. Prophets can be perceived as obnoxious and rude, but they only speak from their own brokenness. Hosea was doomed to constantly pursue the love of an unfaithful whore — probably not his idea of a super cool calling. Habakkuk asked for deliverance and God was like, “Tell everybody that a foreign nation is going to come destroy you.” He had his own struggle to cope with this unwanted reality, but in the end, he was still able to say, “Though there are no sheep in the pens and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). He and Hosea learned to breathe underwater, learned to rest in the tension of doubt and spiritual longing.

And while I can only hope to attain a sliver of the incredible faith that they had, I too am a spiritual nomad, a theological wanderer. I am always on the move, unable to stay in one place too long. But I’ve learned that the in-between times are not true crises. They’re only part of the journey.

The first few times I was uprooted, it was disconcerting and painful. There was a lot of kicking and screaming involved. “I don’t like this! I don’t have time for this! I don’t want to want what You want! I want You to be who I always thought You were!” But I feel as though I am beginning to find my rhythm in the lack thereof, and learning to embrace the wilderness with a sigh of, “Hello wilderness, old friend, what devastating and beautiful truth will you teach me this season?” Faith wouldn’t be faith if it wasn’t a stretch, if it didn’t routinely push us out of our comfort zone, if it didn’t call us to that which we cannot see or understand.

So, resigned, my prayer has lately become something along these lines:

God, reveal to me as much of Yourself as I can handle in my present weakness…and increase my capacity for more.

Faith and Worry

This kid has a theological pet peeve.

Actually, I have more like a million.  But tonight I will bring one of them to your attention.  Typically, I can’t handle cute Christianese phrases.  I shudder every time I pass a church sign that says “Seven days without prayer makes one weak.”  It’s like fingernails on a chalk board.  Homonyms are tacky.  Rhymes are possibly even worse.  And there is little to no theological depth behind any of these little maxims.

As such, one of my least favorite phrases is “Too blessed to be stressed.”  Even worse is its evil cousin, “Too anointed to be disappointed.”  Three-syllable rhymes are even more unacceptable than one-syllable rhymes, and the theology here is crushingly bad.  There’s no other word for it.  Just bad.

For one thing, it’s horrendously smug.  When you paste on a self-satisfied smile and tell a struggling person, “I’m too blessed to be stressed!”, it sends the following message: I am a super-Christian. You are ungrateful and have no faith.

Disappointment in this life is a very real obstacle, regardless of how “anointed” you may be.  But when you say that you’re above stress and worry because you have superior faith in Jesus, it makes a very normal person feel very alone in their struggles.  Now in addition to the cloud of worry hanging over their head, which is probably very legitimate and justifiable, they have a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach and the nagging thought, “I’m not a real Christian.”

When we don’t allow people to feel their feelings, we lose a vital sense of transparency — and thus, community.  Honest communication shuts down, and we get the fake little plastic smiles as we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to make ourselves super-Christians — happy little robots who are too anointed to be disappointed.  And somewhere in the midst of all this pretending, we lose the entire point of the gospel.

You see, Jesus didn’t come so that we would never experience these negative emotions, but so that we would have hope in the midst of them.

I have heard people before use Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25-34 as a strict command, as if a dark and angry Jesus is towering over us gravely shaking his finger in our faces and saying ominously, “Stop worrying! That’s what the pagans do.”  I have heard people reason, “Worry signifies a lack of faith…worry is a sin!”

It was a cool concept.  It made sense to me.  I eagerly jumped on the bandwagon and quickly agreed, “Yeah! Worry is a sin!”  Whenever I worried, I would slap myself around a little bit and anxiously repent, “God! I’m sorry! I’ll do better!”  And I would shove the worry into a closet and slam the door and paste on a fake smile, hoping that all that worry wouldn’t build up and come bursting out in a panic attack.  What kind of witness would that be?  What would that say about my faith?  I would be an ungrateful, un-anointed un-Christian, that’s what.

But then one day I saw Jesus’ words in a new light.  I saw a gentle, loving Jesus stooping down and tenderly cupping my face in his hand, saying in a soft voice, “Don’t worry, beloved.  I have it taken care of.”

At this point in my life, I truly do not believe that faith and worry stand in opposition to one another.  Rather, I see worry as a chance to exercise faith.  I do not believe stress to be a sin.  If you’re insistent on viewing it in a negative light, you could see it as a temptation.  But instead, I choose to see it as an opportunity: not to shove it in a closet or pretend it isn’t there, not to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be a super-Christian, but to snuggle into the arms of the Savior and childishly, trustingly tell Him that you need help.

I’ve mentioned in another post, Dear Grace, that sin is less about doing something wrong than it is about a state of separation from God.  I’m open to correction, but this is the way I see it.  Jesus didn’t die because you parked illegally in a handicapped spot; He died to bridge the gap between God and humanity, to draw you back to Himself.  Following this logic, I would consider it more destructive to our relationship with God to pretend we’re fine when we’re not, than to allow ourselves to struggle.

The point of the gospel isn’t to ignore our brokenness; the point is to address it.  Salvation isn’t about denying our humanity; it’s about surrendering it to Jesus.  Don’t put Jesus off until you’ve got your act together; your messed-up-ness is the entire reason you need Him.

Don’t put contempt or condemnation behind words that are meant to be comforting and reassuring.  You don’t have to shoulder the burden with all the bravado of Superman.  There’s another way:

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Falling into the Reach of Glorious Grace

What a wordy title.

Well, I’ve always had trouble with the concept of falling of love, maybe because I’m such a perfectionist.  There’s a part of me that can’t take that deliberate step off the cliff to trust someone with my heart and let them love me, because then I have no control over what they love about me.  There’s a fear that they might love an imperfect part of me that I’m uncomfortable with anyone seeing.  A part of me that I myself do not love.  If someone loves me for something other than my accomplishments — my proof of value — the ways I have tried to make myself lovable — I’m not really sure why they love me at all.  And it’s uncomfortable not to be able to calculate my value or define what I’m worth to them.  If I don’t know why they love me, I have no control over it.  They could stop tomorrow, and I wouldn’t know why.  My whole life, I’ve tried to prove myself to people who already love me unconditionally, and it robs me of the joy and fulfillment that comes with being loved and loving them in return.

A while back, I let someone hold my hand for the first time in nearly two years.  It alarmed me at first.  There was some subconscious horror rising up in me that desperately wanted to voice the anxiety in my heart: “Why are you holding my hand?! I’ve never done anything for you, you know none of the things about me that I consider even mildly impressive, and you can’t hold my hand because I can’t handle you caring about me more than my accomplishments.”  It was such a ridiculous thought, and fortunately I didn’t voice it.  Instead, I made the deliberate effort to relinquish a little bit of control…and held his hand a bit tighter because I could either hold onto the unknown and hope it would catch me, or I could run away from it.

I think grace is the same way.  The risk of grace is not something we can carefully calculate.  Like love, grace is something we have to fall for.

And for us perfectionists, that can get a bit dicey.  We hold onto our accomplishments like a security blanket.  We like the thought of grace, so long as it supplements our works rather than replaces them.

Except…it doesn’t work that way.

Grace and self-sufficiency cannot coexist in ANY amount.  If you base 1% of your salvation on works, it’s 100% based on works.  If you haven’t taken that step of faith off the edge of the cliff, grace hasn’t caught you at all.  Grace is a gift that only the surrendered can experience in all its beauty.

There are at least two super uncomfortable parables about grace in the Bible.  The first is that really obnoxious story of the man who pays the same wage to the workers who worked 12 hours and the ones who worked 1 hour.  It’s uncomfortable because most of us identify with the offended characters.  Everything in us balks at the seeming injustice because it doesn’t fit into our worldview. Yeah — welcome to Jesus’ parables.  Perhaps this is one of the few that actually retains its rhetorical impact for modern readers.  Kingdom values are upside down and offensive to the proud.  The reason this parable irritates us is because a lot of us think we’re the 12-hour workers.  We’ve gone to church our whole lives, know the books of the Bible by heart, go on mission trips, and pray every day.  And we don’t get any more grace than the hopeless sinner who disgusts us? It’s not fair.

The other parable is that of the prodigal son.  It’s all too easy to see things from the older brother’s point of view: “I worked for you all these years, and you never even gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours who has squandered your wealth with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”  And we’re like, “Yeah, where’s the justice in that?”  Because we’ve been working all this time, but it seems an awful lot like drudgery when we see the rescued sinner rejoicing, and we wonder what he has to be so happy about.  If he gets off the hook, what have we been working for all this time?  That question, of course, leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: perhaps, all this time, we have been working for the wrong things.

No matter how hard we work, we will never be worthy of grace.  Paul says that our salvation is by grace, not by works, so that no one can boast.  Dear ones, God is not impressed by your talents; He’s the One that created them.  I can just see Him shaking His head and laughing as we eagerly say, “See what I’ve done!” and hold up empty hands.  For us 12-hour workers and older brothers, it’s time to face the painful reality that we have done nothing to earn His love.

It’s a frightening thing to take a step off the cliff and fall for grace.  But when you do, you’ll find a heavy weight lifted from your shoulders.  If nothing you do can earn you grace, nothing you do can take you beyond its reach.

As inconceivable as it may seem to us, God wants to hold our hand.  He wants us to grasp His tightly and trust Him when we have nothing else to hold onto.  He’s waiting there to catch us…if we’ll only fall.

resurrection

Awake, Christian — see the light of coming dawn and rise up from death.

Christ didn’t leave His tomb for you to stay in yours; the stone has been rolled away and every chain is broken.

Jesus Christ has defeated death and sits in power at the right hand of God Almighty.

The same strength which raised Him to life is at work in you.

How can you rejoice on Easter morning if you haven’t been set free?

This is a truth that cannot be half-heartedly believed.  This is a truth that must be lived.

If it matters that Jesus didn’t stay dead, let it make a difference in you.

Rise up, Christian.

Resurrection is waiting.

Published in: on March 30, 2013 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Faithless Prayer

“In the morning, Lord, You hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before You and wait in expectation.” –Psalm 5:3.

This verse evokes a concept of childlike faith that seems so foreign to us realists.  How can we give God our requests and wait in expectation?  Doesn’t that just set us up for disappointment?

So often we think that way, but if we request of God something we believe is too big for Him and continue to worry, what is the purpose of prayer?

In Acts 12, while Peter is in prison and awaiting trial for his faith, his friends are gathered together praying for Him.  God answers their prayers; He sends an angel to miraculously rescue Peter.  The chains fall off his wrists, the iron gates are opened, the guards are struck dumb, and an angel leads Peter out.  Once out of prison, Peter makes his way to where his prayer warriors are gathered in a house.  When he knocks on the door, a servant girls opens it, only to close it promptly in his face, not daring to believe it could possibly be him.  The others in the house show the same level of disbelief, telling the servant girl she is out of her mind, and explaining away this phenomenon by assuming that Peter has been martyred and his angel has come to visit them.

Think about it: they’re trying so hard not to believe their prayer has been answered, that they have to come up with an even more ridiculous theory to explain Peter’s appearance!  Why?  Were they so afraid of hoping, that they had to explain away God’s power when it was staring them in the face?  Had they really spent all that time praying without believing?

Obviously, God can still move in response to faithless prayer, so be careful what you pray, or He just might come through when you least expect it…maybe even if you don’t want it.

But at the same time, how often do we lay our requests before God, only to pick them back up again and carry the weight of our concerns with us because it seems impossible that He would actually move on our behalf?  What kind of prayer is that?

It’s fruitless prayer, that’s what.  It’s faithless prayer.  It’s “heaping up empty phrases” (Matthew 6:7).

If we pray without believing that God is big enough to respond, perhaps we need to reevaluate why we’re praying, or who we’re even praying to.  If it’s the God who parted the Red Sea, who made fire fall from heaven, who made the deaf hear and the blind see and the lame walk, the God who created the universe and raised Jesus Christ from the dead, stop this half-hearted, weak-willed nonsense and believe that He can still move mountains.

Published in: on February 25, 2013 at 11:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Claim the Promise

God made an incredible promise to His people Israel: He would lead them to a land they would call their own.  After 400 years of slavery, it was nearly unfathomable, especially when they saw how beautiful the land of Canaan really was.  In fact, it was so hard to believe that they…didn’t believe it.

Craig Bartholomew sums up what happens in his book The Drama of Scripture: “They say that the land is wonderfully fertile and would make a fine homeland for Israel, but its people are powerful and their cities well-fortified.  The reported strength of the enemy engenders fear, and the Israelites’ faith in the Lord collapses.  They become depressed and disgruntled, complaining that God has brought them this far only to kill them.”

They forfeited their right to claim the promise simply because they believed it was too good to be true.  How sad is that?  And how often do we do the same thing?

“I’m not worthy of love.”

“It won’t last.”

“God would never bless me that much.”

“This is impossible. Even for God.”  (Yes, I have actually thought this.  Not in so many words, perhaps, and not without realizing its stupidity immediately afterwards, but my disbelief and self-deprecating thoughts definitely convey this.)

First, nothing is impossible for God.  Nothing.  Second, while I don’t intend to portray the gospel as materialistic, God does love to bless His people who are surrendered to Him.  When you can finally open your clenched fists, He will fill them.  In fact, the only place in Scripture where God invites us to test Him is in Malachi 3:10 — “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse…test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  I love the imagery in this verse, as if I’m a small child looking up in wonder and amazement as a pinata breaks open and candy rains down.

sorry, couldn't help throwing a little humor in there!

sorry, couldn’t help throwing a little humor in there!

At least, that’s what I felt like this past week as God poured down blessing after blessing until I was overwhelmed.  He is so full of goodness that is just waiting to rain down on His children who will receive it.  In Psalm 37:4 the Bible says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”  This verse is often misinterpreted and overused, but that doesn’t mean it should be discounted entirely.  It doesn’t mean you will get a new car, or a fabulous body without dieting.  But God knows the deepest longings of our heart, and He wants to be the One to fulfill them in His time and in His way, if we will trust Him.

Abraham and Sarah believed it was impossible for them to have a child, so they eventually gave up waiting on God and tried to do things their way.  God hadn’t forgotten His promise; He was just waiting to prove His ability to overcome all odds and display His sovereignty.  God loves to bless radically to show off.  Every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17), and He will display His glory by the supernatural way He cares for His children.

If God has spoken to you, if God has given to you, stop doubting and believe.  Claim the promise, child of God; nothing is impossible for Him.

If He has called you to Africa, He will provide for you to go.

If He has given you a gift for writing, He’s big enough to publish your book.

If He has given you the desire for marriage, not only can He make it happen, He can provide someone who is perfect for you even beyond your wildest dreams.

As my dear friend and pastor’s wife Sarah Berger recently told me (listen to her life story, and you’ll realize she knows what she’s talking about), “God isn’t just good.  He’s better than you can even imagine.

When God speaks to you a promise that seems too good to be true, don’t let fear make you faithless.  He is big enough.

lake

 

Published in: on February 18, 2013 at 12:17 am  Comments (2)  
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Dear Grace: On Wrestling With God

There is nothing more intimidating than being asked a deep theological question by a 13-year-old who looks up to you.  But there is also nothing I love more.  Sometimes I flounder a bit, and sometimes I have to admit that I don’t have all the answers.

Tonight, in the middle of a crowded and noisy restaurant with the youth band playing Christmas carols, struggling to be heard over the noise, Grace asked me one of these questions.

“I just learned the story of Jacob wrestling with God.  Was that…okay? I mean, is that a sin?”

Instead of answering, I simply asked Grace this question: “Have you ever wrestled with God?”

She thought about this for a moment. “You mean mentally? Yeah…yeah, I have.”

“Do you think that was a sin?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure,” she answered. “If it is, I guess I’ve sinned a lot.”

“Do you remember from the story what Jacob said to God?  Why he wrestled with Him?” I asked. “He said he wouldn’t let go until God blessed him.  Sometimes we have to doubt before we can believe, and sometimes we have to wrestle with God before we can receive blessing.”

She considered this. “I feel like the concept of doubt has been showing up in my life a lot lately,” she responded. “My mom and I were talking about it the other day, and now you just mentioned it.”

I shrugged. “We all go through doubt.  Some of the greatest people of the faith are the ones who have wrestled with the hard questions. Try reading through the Psalms and see if David didn’t do some of his own wrestling with God.”

Long after the Christmas party was over that night, I continued to think about her question.  Is it a sin to wrestle with God?  I pretty much told her no, but do I act like that’s true?  I’ve done a lot of hiding the past week because I’m afraid to voice some of my frustrations.  So my Bible has sat in my backpack for a few days, sadly neglected, because I can’t seem to read it while ignoring the elephant in the room.  So Grace’s question made me do a lot of thinking.  And praying.  And wrestling.

So, Grace, if you ever get a chance to read this, here’s my answer.

Dear Grace,

It’s okay to wrestle with God.  Don’t be afraid of messing up by wrestling with Him.  Sin is a far deeper problem than just messing up, than thinking or saying or doing the wrong thing.  Sin is disconnectedness from God.  Sometimes we have such a tiny view of sin that we think it’s something we do, something that we think we can manage or fix, but we can’t.  The very second that humanity chose to turn away from God, we lost the beautiful intimacy with Him that we were meant to have.  Sin at its core is just the gap between us and God.  So sometimes I think we try to pretend that we have a relationship with God by doing everything right, but pretending can’t bridge the gap.  We don’t want to get into fights with Him because that must mean we don’t love Him, but that’s not the way real relationships work.  Real relationships don’t pretend like there aren’t problems or miscommunications; they work through them. They wrestle with them.

You see, sin is anything that keeps us away from God.  And if you wrestle with God, you’re closer to Him than you’ve ever been.  You’re making physical contact, skin on skin, looking Him right in the eye, saying that you’re not letting go until He blesses you.  When you grapple with the God of the Universe, you’re being more open and transparent and vulnerable than ever before.

But if you leave your Bible in your backpack and hide because you’re ashamed of your feelings, the gap just got that much wider.  God bridged that gap by sending Jesus to experience life the same way we do.  He understands our feelings.  And He’s big enough to handle our questions.

So I think it was okay that Jacob wrestled with God.  And I think it’s okay if you do too.

Love,

Lauren.

The Girl in the Mirror

26790_379253246924_2837817_nSometimes I look at the picture of this little girl and think about her future.  Don’t her eyes just melt your heart?  What wouldn’t you do for that little shy smile?  I watched her grow up, so I know her story.  She’s had a good life, and she’s done well for herself, but it hasn’t always been easy for her.  You know how it is:  She grows up and realizes the world isn’t quite what she thought it was.  And looking at her picture sometimes, I want to keep her in her safe little world of innocence, keep her from the pain of disillusionment.

Because I feel helpless knowing that she will one day feel the pain of a broken heart.  That she will make wrong choices that will lead down questionable paths and end in disappointment.  I cringe knowing that one day, like so many other girls, she will take a knife to that soft, perfect skin just to watch the blood trickle down.  Looking into those warm and trusting eyes, it tears me apart knowing that they will lose their sparkle one day — that they will have seen too much of the world to shine with naive expectation.

One day she will begin to question everything she ever believed in:  Santa Claus.  Prince Charming.  God.  Herself.

This little girl doesn’t know what it’s like to feel alone.  But one day, she will.  I look in her wide-eyed, innocent face and see her future, and I desperately want to shield her, to protect her, to tell her that there is an easier way.

But as I reach out my hand, I see that I am simply grasping at a mirror.  And as I look deeply into the eyes of the woman I have become, I see that there wasn’t a better way.  I took exactly the road I had to take to end up where I am, right now, standing here gazing at my reflection and looking back on the life I’ve lived.

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I had to make stupid choices to gain wisdom.  I had to be influenced and controlled before I could discover who I really was, and I had to hate myself before I knew what it meant to love myself.  I had to doubt before I could believe, I had to be broken so that I could be made whole, and I had to experience the imprisonment of shame before I could truly raise my hands to God in freedom and victory.  I had to live the life I’ve lived, every step of the way.  I always did what I felt I had to do to get by, so I really couldn’t have made any other choices.

And realizing this, I realize that, as much as I may want it to be, my job is not to keep other girls from the same struggles I went through.  I see the same look of excitement and wonder in their eyes, and I want to.  Oh God, I want to.

Others, I see the dullness and numbness beginning to replace the sparkle as they learn how broken the world really is and how ugly life can be, and I want to heal them.  Oh God, I want to.

But I can’t — it’s not my life to live.  And I’m learning that as desperately as I want to keep them from experiencing pain, I have to love them enough to let them figure it out on their own.

I know that some of them will starve themselves to find acceptance.  Some of them will cut themselves to feel again.   Some will compromise themselves for affirmation.  Some will experience loss and abandonment and depression.  And the thought of it breaks my heart.

But…

The best I can do is to equip them to live faithfully, to make the most of their lives, to find their own healing.  The best I can do is walk alongside them on their journey and share the little I know about life.  To let them make mistakes and to cry with them when they’re broken.  To pray them through as they sort out who they are and why they’re here.  To teach them enough of the Story so that they can faithfully improvise no matter what stage they’re on or what costume they’re wearing.  And to be a faithful audience to the story they write.

This is my ministry.

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