There is a word in Greek (thaumazō) that Luke used to describe what happened when human beings witnessed the power and glory of God. It is alternatingly translated as “to wonder, to be astonished, to be amazed, to marvel, and to be surprised”. It is the response of the people of Bethlehem after hearing the shepherds declare the birth of the Savior and the disciples after Jesus calmed the wind and the waves. It is how multiple people reacted to the miraculous acts of the Lord and how Peter felt when he saw the empty tomb. Throughout the Gospels, men and women come face-to-face with the words and works of God and are amazed.
This experience of occasional astonishment is, in my opinion, a stark contrast to those who attend our twenty first century worship services. When was the last time you wondered at the meaning of the words found in the Scriptures or were surprised by the works of the Holy Spirit in our midst? When was the last time God broke through the mundane and you marveled at the world around you? In our day and age, our impressions of life on earth is more like that of the author of Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. Where has all the wonder gone?
I believe we get from life and from others what we expect from life and from others. Beyond “glass-half-full/glass-half-empty” biases, we see what we want to see. We are not surprised by God, either through His miraculous works or His marvelous words, because we do not think we will be. Babies are born and all but the immediate family shrugs. Healing comes to those who are sick and most of us yawn. Accidents are avoided by random delays and we are oblivious. Then we consider the biological functions necessary for sustaining life and the explosive power of the combustion engine, it is amazing that we “live and move and have our being”.
…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. Luke 2:18
In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this?” Luke 8:25b
…and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. Luke 24:12b
Last weekend, with its reminders of the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus, ought to pique our interest in the amazing. Easter is a lasting witness to the wonderful and marvelous works and words of God. It reminds us that while His claims may sound fantastic (i.e. based on fantasy), to our amazement they have all been proven true. This week, in communities of faith gathered in worship and in places of solitude intended for reflection, we allowed ourselves to be amazed, if only for a moment. I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to look for the surprising every Sunday morning, or every morning for that matter.
I pray that this week you hear something amazing, see something wonderful and sense something marvelous. Let me know when you do.
Today is Good Friday, the day in which the Church remembers and reflects upon the death of Jesus. Each year, I focus on one of the gospels as they relate the events of Palm Sunday through Easter. This year I have been reading through Luke’s account of the Lord’s final days and am struck by what the good doctor states is Jesus’ final utterance (and arguably His “famous last words”): “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In saying this, He is quoting from Psalm 31:5 and restating the assurances that David made of God about a thousand years before the cross.
From the context of Psalm 31:5, I do not believe this is a simple statement of resignation, as if Jesus is saying, “I give up”. Rather, it is a statement of confidence in the Father. Psalm 31 tells us that David saw his strength as coming from the knowledge that God is his refuge, deliverance, rescue, rock and redemption. It is in light of all this that David places all that he was, every aspect of himself beyond his physical existence, in the hands of God. Similarly, this is the same confidence that Jesus expresses from the cross.
This phrase is akin to the words that Jesus spoke in the garden a few hours earlier, “… not My will, but Yours be done.” It conveys the confidence that Jesus had in knowing that the plans of God and the guiding hand of God can be trusted. As the agony of the cross began to overwhelm the limits of His human body, Jesus doesn’t give up, but rather gives over control of His existence to the only one who can perfectly accomplish God’s will, the Father himself. And He is faithful, releasing Jesus from His mortal coil and redeeming us, lost sinners, from the power of death and sin.
Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. Psalm 31:5
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46
I pray that I’d have the confidence that David expressed or that Jesus exhibited. Sadly, I often see the opposite dynamic at work: when the going gets tough, I want to take matters into my own hands. Instead of committing my spirit into God’s hands, I futilely attempt to handle my trials and troubles myself. Instead of acting like David (who just prior to committing his spirit to God asks Him to “keep me free from the trap that is set for me”), I am more likely to stumble into danger by relying on my own sense of direction. How much pain could be avoided if I committed my spirit to His hands.
It is hard to see the empty tomb when we are enduring what, for us, seems to be the cross. It is at those times that we need to trust the hand of God, which comforted the Lord, rolled away the stone and raised the Savior. It is also the hand that can comfort, strengthen and save us.
I am praying that you have a blessed Good Friday and a Happy Easter.
My wife, Jeanine, has been spending the last 10 days with family in Baltimore. In her absence, I have come to realize all the details of life that need to be tended to in order for the house to run smoothly: the alarm clock needs to be heeded, lest the children are late for school; the calendar needs to be checked daily, lest we miss out on an important event; laundry, cleaning and showers need to be regularly performed, lest we begin to reek. I am blessed that a number of women from the church provided ample meals for us to enjoy and that the boys – ages 22, 16 and 9 – were able to care for one another when necessary. That being said, I am so glad that Jeanine is coming home tomorrow.
These last ten days have given me a new appreciation for single parents, especially at Christmas. I have the privilege of knowing that soon my better half will return and help with the meals, the mornings and the mess – many don’t have such reinforcements coming. There are single moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas and aunts or uncles that must balance work and home, shopping for Christmas trees and paying electric bills, checking homework and Christmas lists. They must do it all, with little or no help. My heart goes out to those who “go it alone”.
Many of us are blessed with what our culture calls a ‘support system”. Some find support through family and others find it through friends; some support comes through the church and some comes through agencies. Our support systems are what carries us when we cannot seem to manage alone. These are the people who come into our lives who, sometimes publicly and some anonymously, and encourage or console, equip or supply us in our time of need. I praise God for all those who support those I love and I pray God gives strength to those who have inadequate support.
It seems to me that Mary and Joseph could have used a support system. They were called to go through so much alone: angels visited each of them solitarily, telling them that God would enable them to endure great challenges; they were forced by the government to travel miles from home at the time of their child’s birth and were met with indifference when arriving to Bethlehem; soon after delivering the promised child, they were commanded to leave everything and move to a foreign country; and eventually Mary is forced to “go it alone” after the passing of her husband some time after Jesus turned twelve.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19
As we celebrate Christmas, enjoying time with family and friends, remember those who have little or no support system. Talk to the single mother you know from work and offer to watch the kids so she can finish her shopping. Text that single dad you know from school pick-up and encourage him to keep up the good work. Drop by the house of the single grandmother in your neighborhood and deliver a gift card for the local fast food restaurant. Support those who have no support; give them something wonderful to ponder this Christmas.
For three years my family lived above a lovely couple, Vin and Anna. For three years I worried about the noise and disturbances that six pairs of feet can make. For three years I asked my children to stop stomping up and down the stairs and jumping around the living room. For three years I was anxious about the impact that we were having on those who lived around us, thinking that we were too loud, too disruptive or too rambunctious for condo living. As it turns out, for three years I had nothing to worry about.
As it turns out, we were not too disruptive, too loud or too rambunctious. My wife, Jeanine, ran into Anna at the grocery store the other day and eventually the conversation turned to the new owners of our prior residence. Anna related that the only time she heard us was when the family went down the stairs in the morning. Anna added that we were at our loudest on Sunday morning when we all went to church (the silver lining to that comment for me was that she knew we went to church as a family every Sunday; the silver lining to that comment for her was that she knew we had gone to church and she knew she would have serene sleep for the next three hours). So, I worried about something that was not an issue – Anna told Jeanine that she missed hearing the kids.
Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
Maybe it is not concerns over excessive noise from the family’s footfalls on the neighbors ceiling, but I’m sure it is something. We all worry. Some worry about health issues and others worry about finances. Some worry about what the future holds and others worry about what could be revealed about our past. Some worry about their kids and others worry about their parents (and some worry about both). At some point, our thoughts get the better of us all and we become anxious over some aspect of life that is beyond our ability to control. The Bible says worry is not the answer.
Throughout the Scripture we are given narratives which prove that the antidote to worry is trust in the Almighty. Abraham didn’t worry about his son’s future and instead trusted that the Lord would provide a lamb. David didn’t worry about his ability to complete the task and instead trusted in the Lord to defeat Goliath. Three Israelite boys didn’t worry about dying in the fiery furnace and instead trusted in the Lord to deliver them. Jesus reminded us that we ought not worry about what we would eat or what we’d wear and instead trust that His Father would supply what we lack. And if these accounts are not sufficient, read about Noah, Moses, Elijah, Peter and Paul. Don’t worry, believe.
I realize that all this is easier (for me, at least) to say than to do. But I am going to trust God to provide, defeat, deliver and supply. I am going to follow His leading in communicating my fears and frustrations with Him and with others. I am going to let Him handle the details while I simply focus on Him. And I do my best to refrain from making faces or erupting emotionally when my 8-year-old is clomping down the hallway. Lord, help my unbelief!
“I don’t know.”
While I hate to admit it, I am occasionally required to utter the above response. When terminal illness or unjust treatment invades the lives of those around me, I am asked questions that have no simple answer:
- ‘Why did God allow (name) to have cancer?’
- ‘Why didn’t God protect me from the man who (committed a crime)?’
- ‘Where was God when my (spouse) cheated on me?’
These questions are rarely stated but frequently felt by those who have been hurt by society, sin and circumstance. They want to know why prayers are not answered, why bad things happen to good people and why they must suffer.
“I don’t know.”
Because I am a professional with a graduate degree, there is some information that I can share with those who question me about God’s role and/or absence in our personal tragedies. In my mind, I consider the role of sin: this is not the perfect world God created, but a corrupted shell of Eden ravage by sin and its consequences; much of the evil we experience is not a product of God ignoring us but us ignoring God. In my mind, I consider how harsh that sounds and how life cannot be boiled down to simplistic soundbites. While sin is a factor, its introduction to the conversation often leads to other questions like, ‘Why me and not someone more horrible than me?’ In my mind, I think these things.
“I don’t know.”
Because I am a member of the clergy, there is some counsel I can offer to those who struggle with the unfair aspects of life. I think to myself that those who face adversity typically take it personally. I will hear first person pronouns – me, my, mine – when those around me question the purposes of God. I want to share that other circumstances in life have equipped them for the circumstances they are presently facing and that God has prepared them to persevere. But I know, as well, that these thoughts, if voiced, ring hollow when rebutted by questions like, ‘Why didn’t God stop this thing from happening?’ In my mind, I want to tell people to not take it personally.
“I don’t know.”
Because I am a fellow struggler in these areas, with a number of my own unanswered questions, I sometimes think about asking a few questions to those who wonder why: Is it possible that some unknown and yet unrevealed good is going to come from all this? Is it possible that you are being trained in sorrow so that you can strengthen someone else in the future? Is there any blessing, however small, that you could focus on instead your turmoil? But, even as I think of these questions, my own response is, ‘Yes, but why me? Why not someone else?’ In my mind, I’d want to think that there is a purpose in my pain.
I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, “My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?” Daniel 12:8 (NIV)
I have no good answer to some of life’s questions. I am incapable of comprehending, let alone resolving, the intricacies of personal suffering. I must admit that I don’t know the answer to the question of why. But I do know and am comforted by the knowledge that God knows. Sometimes it is enough (and maybe sometimes it is all we have) to say that I know God and so I can trust Him with knowing why.
“I don’t know.”
I have written before that when my family is on vacation we make it a practice to visit a church wherever our plans take us (it is a good opportunity for me to hear a sermon and for us to see how others worship). This past Sunday was no exception. I have to admit that the style and substance of the service was not my cup of tea – the time of praise was too long for my liking and the sermon was less about the scripture and more about the speaker – but I did learn at least one thing: the kingdom of God is made up of a vast variety of people, most of whom are not like me.
While I like the style or our home church, I realized as I stood there singing on Sunday that most of the brothers and sisters in the faith that were gathered around me would not fully enjoy the worship at Calvary. I assume they would feel that our singing was too brief to be effective, our message was not as easily applicable and our spiritual fervor was not as expressive. God has truly blessed His people by developing each local body of Christ with great diversity and uniqueness. Because we as individuals are all different, it makes sense that every church is different, too.
Every fellowship of believers differs in many ways, depending upon the preferences and proclivities of those in attendance. Yet, despite these differences, there are important similarities, described in such verses as this:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)
All churches ought to be a gathering of people who express love, service, fellowship and encouragement. While we may not perform all these practices in similar ways, we can all prepare for Heaven by engaging in them together.
We gather together for corporate worship to express love – for God and for one another through times of praise or prayer, whether it take six minutes or sixty. We gather together for corporate worship to provoke service – expressing gratitude for God’s blessing by giving our time, talents and treasures to benefit others in response to God’s grace. We gather together for corporate worship to share in fellowship – meeting together and sharing life together, mourning with those who mourn and rejoicing with those who rejoice. We gather together to express encouragement – sharing the hope and truth of God’s word as we anticipate the return of our Savior. That is why, even though it was not what I would choose to consistently participate in, I was glad to gather with the saints last Sunday.
With the heart of a pastor I write that I hope that everyone reading these words has a spiritual home that enables you to express your love for God, your service for others, your fellowship with the faithful and your encouragement in the Bible’s truth. If that home is not Calvary, perhaps one day while vacationing our paths will cross and we can worship together.
According to Albert Einstein, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” We all can remember times when insignificant details accumulate to significantly shape our lives. Coincidence often takes part in how we meet our soulmates, determine our vocations and develop our strengths. When it is looked at objectively, so much of each our lives are built on coincidences. Few of us who are married first laid eyes on our future spouse with the expectation of nuptials. Few of us had a detailed plan for our career and then worked the plan. Objectively, we should agree that the world is too random to assume that most of the major developments in life are left to chance. Objectively, it makes more sense that there is someone who has a plan for us, whether he wants to remain anonymous or not.
This truth became clear to me once again as I studied the second chapter of Ruth last week. In two places, the author makes the point, with cultural wordplay that God’s plan is so coincidental that it cannot be random. First, the author writes:
“So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek.” Ruth 2:3 (NIV)
Then, one verse later, the author writes:
“Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The LORD be with you!” “The LORD bless you!” they answered.” Ruth 2:4 (NIV)
So Ruth just happened to stumble into a relative’s field at just the same time that this relative, Boaz, returns to check on that same field. Objectively, it seems too specific to be random.
Objectively, it seems more rational, and more honest, to acknowledge that the God who designed the orbit of planets, who placed every star in the sky and who builds and topples nations directs the path of each and every person in all creation, including the big pictures and small details of our personal histories. Since this is true, we ought to appreciate those big pictures that provide clarity as well as those small details that regularly go unnoticed. And since so much of our lives are shaped by the accumulation of individually insignificant events, it is in our best interest to occasionally take notice of the ‘coincidences’ that guide our lives.
Maybe God is guiding you when you see an old friend in a hotel lobby while you are on vacation so that you renew a relationship, so that you have that contact when a better job is available at that friend’s company. Perhaps He is guiding you through an article you read in a waiting room, then a conversation over the phone and then a relative’s diagnosis so that you make an appointment for that cancer screening and you avoid having to endure treatments. Then again, maybe He is guiding you to move so that your travel pattern to work is changed so that you share a smile with a kid who, unbeknownst to you, is going through a tough time at home and needed someone to give him hope. God is in it all.
Thank God that He is Lord of the details of life, whether He chooses to reveal His hand or not.
About a month ago I received a belated fiftieth birthday present: a prescription for an ACE inhibitor (Lisinopril) for hypertension/high blood pressure. Because of this daily reminder of bodily deterioration, I have had to establish a new routine – every morning I take my pill before I do anything else. By maintaining this pattern, I don’t give a second thought to whether or not I have already taken it (although there are times that I still think I might have forgotten to take it, only to be reassured that I must have taken it at the start of my day). It is this type of personal discipline that will improve my overall well-being.
Now, if only I could maintain some discipline in other areas of life. How much better would my well-being be if I simply had the discipline to eat less at mealtimes and much less at other times? How much better would my day be if I added one hundred steps or a few flights of stairs to my daily exercise regimen? How much better would my health be if I committed to reducing stress and increasing my sleep? My hesitation arises from the knowledge that any beneficial discipline will require an amount of denial and denying myself is frequently painful.
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 (NIV)
The writer of Hebrews expresses the positive benefits of discipline – the production of righteousness and peace – and I have to wonder if a few extra bites, a few more snacks, a few quicker trips, a few more minutes of vacuous television is worth what is being forfeited. Just as I take something to control my blood pressure (and, I hope, extend my life expectancy to see my eight-year old’s wife and children), I need to practice other disciplines to procure an opportunity to live strongly as a good steward of the physical body I have been given by God.
And why stop at God’s gift of my physical health? What about my relational health, my intellectual health and my spiritual health? There are disciplines I ought to incorporate for my relational well-being (such as holding my tongue more frequently than I am now), my intellectual well-being (like reading something from a dead author instead of watching television) and my spiritual well-being (maybe spending an hour in silence instead of being surrounded by technology). Perhaps there is wisdom in the words attributed to a number of great thinkers:
“Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”
If I believe that the practice of discipline will produce righteousness and peace (and I do), and if I can develop the pattern of thinking about these promises instead of the initial pain (and I can), perhaps I will begin communicating these promises and living better to the point in my life where I am no longer thinking about what I have surrendered. Then all that initial pain will give way to pleasure as I am afforded opportunity to spontaneously do things I would not have had the ability to do had I forgone the discipline in the first place.
All this heavy thinking has made me hungry…but I can wait until mealtime.
I was clicking through pictures on our home computer the other day. The memories of the milestones of the last eight years came flooding back as I scrolled from picture to picture. The images contained in these files include Josh’s first days, David’s Cub Scout flag ceremony, Bekah’s theatrical debut, and Jonny’s twentieth birthday. There were pictures of the children playing in the snow and gathering around the tree at Christmas. There were vacation photos and candid moments that have been digitized and cataloged. Whether it is a box of old photographs, files on a laptop or an app on a smartphone, viewing pictures of loved ones enjoying life is a wonderful blessing.
As I looked at these pictures, I could, at the same time, see the little faces of my children and recognize the people they have become. In those digital images I could see the same expressions made eight years ago that I see today; sure, the faces were a bit rounder and the features were quite a bit smaller. It is remarkable to see, literally and figuratively, how much my children have matured. The kids have grown so much, and I have all the pictures to prove it!
“And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Luke 2:52
As a pastor, it would be great to have the ability to photograph someone’s spiritual development like we can physical development. Imagine if we could capture the milestones of character with the intention of looking back, at a later date, at our progress. We could remember when we took our first steps toward honor or honesty, or received a gift of compassion or calmness. What a blessing it would be to scroll through a few files on a computer and recognize how much we’ve grown in spiritual maturity and biblical wisdom.
Until some group of geniuses at some biotech startup can develop an instrument that can scan the soul, we need the church. The church is the place where we allow a chosen few to know us deep enough to notice the subtle and substantial changes in our temperament and offer solicited advice on how to keep up the good work of character development. The church is the place where we allow our lives to be measured by the objective standard of biblical truth surrounded by sympathetic strugglers who are also working on their scriptural integrity. The church is the place where we can take all of our first steps in a safe place.
Despite the fact that there was snow in the air last weekend around here, this is the season for growth. It is a good time to get out and get active. It is also a good time to invest in inner growth. It would be a good time to pick up a good book, write down your thoughts, sit in the sunshine in silence and go to church. Don’t let the flowers and the grass be the only thing that shows evidence of new life – cultivate the garden of your soul.
The older I get, the more impatient I have become. At times I think, and also at times I have been told, that I have no patience (which dictionary.com defines as “the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like). My ability to tolerate tardiness has been diminishing. My ability to stand in line is mostly non-existent. My ability to suffer fools is sorely lacking. This is a problem, because the fruit of the Spirt, the evidences that one is walking in flash and not flesh, includes patience. Christians, by nature, are blessed by God with patience, and yet I cannot seem to endure the simplest inconveniences of life.
The problem of impatience is not the petty annoyances like waiting for the utility company to fix a problem with my service or for the cashier to end her collegial conversation to ring up my purchase. The problem of impatience is the bigger issue of control of my time. Impatience reveals that we expect to be the trackers of our time; we want to be the masters of our minutes, the owners of our hours and the director of our days. We want to be in control of our lives. We want to be…but we are not.
Patience comes through our trust that God is in control. God knows the times that try our patience – the infernal moments at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the unending conversations with the opinionated uninformed and the sleepless nights after the interview or appointment – and God has some purpose in all of them. When we have the faith sufficient to follow God’s schedule, we will enjoy patience. There are more than a dozen references in the scriptures commanding us to ‘wait for the Lord’. The blessing of patience is found when we allow ourselves to remain where God wants us to be for as long as God determines.
…but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31 (ESV)
The remarkable dynamic regarding patience is that it is a gift that keeps giving. God the Spirit endows people of faith with the character of patience, the ability to wait, and then that ability to wait endows those same people of faith with unlimited strength (as we soar to the highest of heights, run without weariness and walk without weakness). Patient endurance prepares us for future productivity. Not only does God grant His children the character of long-suffering but also the stamina to accomplish God’s will when it is God’s time to do so.
The fear I have in addressing my lack of patience, and seeking to live in obedience by exercising the spiritual fruit of patience, is that my life will be filled with opportunities to express patience. I trust that God knows more than I do and that He will, as I wait, enable me to fly, run and walk without limitation. Perhaps there are even things I could do while I sit in the ‘waiting room’ – read, relate or rest – so that I can be ready when the time is right. I guess I will just have to wait and see.