Hang in There!

It took years.  A lot of years.  I wish I could tell you we were patient and joyful throughout that long period.  The ride was an emotional rollercoaster with more than its fair share of hopes dashed, plans scuttled and doubts expressed.  We almost gave up.  The pain and the stress of it all were more than we could bear.

Then the day finally came.  We prepared her bedroom, slathering on layers of pink paint and hanging dresses in the closet.  Her name was Lily.

Then we got matched.  Surprise!  Our daughter was a boy.  (Pink is easier to paint over than it seems.)

Austin is the perfect match for us, and we for him.  It is as if we share DNA.  He is our son.  It all happened at just the right time, in God’s time.  Had it been any other way, things could have been a disaster.  We couldn’t see it at the time.  All we could see was our heart for a child, the desire to be parents and the anguish of disappointment.

I’m reminded of something David wrote, as he was facing warfare and an enemy he thought was overwhelming: “But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.”  My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!  Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your steadfast love!” (Psalm 31:14-16, ESV).  David knew a thing or two about waiting in anguish.  The psalms bear this out in amazing clarity.  David was waiting for God.  He was anguished.  He was frightened. 

But he was faithful.  He never gave up on God.  Even more importantly, God never gave up on David.  The faithfulness of our Lord never ceases to amaze me. 

My point is simply this: hang in there.  Whatever you are waiting on God for, hang in there.  What he has for you may not look anything like what you are anticipating.  But His will is infinitely better than ours.  Whatever you are waiting for, look to God.  Keep your focus on Him.  He will not let you down. 

Do you not know?
   Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
   the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
   and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
   and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
   and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
   will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
   they will run and not grow weary,
   they will walk and not be faint. – Isaiah 40:28-31 (ESV)

Hang in there!  Wait for the Lord.  All good things come from Him in His good time.

Just Call Me Coho

Every fall, the Coho and Chinook salmon travel up the Grand River to spawn. And, every fall, my dad and his best friend Charlie would make the long trek to the Sixth Street Dam in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, to join the throng of anglers, each trying catch of few of these salmon.

Thinking back, I feel a little sorry for the fish. Some made it to the fish ladders and safely beyond the dam to their destination upriver. But, for those who didn’t… as the old saying goes, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Or, rather, hooking them.

All these poor salmon were doing were trying to fulfill their mission in life: the annual migration they were designed to make. Yet here, halfway into their momentous yearly trip, was a huge barrier. And a bunch of fishermen awaiting them, eager to take advantage of their plight. How frustrating it must have been to be one of the salmon that just couldn’t find its way to the ladders.

There are days when we feel like one of those salmon. We’re just trying to do what we feel God has called us to do, trying to get to our destination, trying to find the ladder.

Sometimes we hit a barrier.

Sometimes our attention is turned by the shiny jig and hook.

Sometimes we get reeled in and filleted.

If this is you today, take heart. You aren’t swimming upstream alone. You have a whole school of fish travelling with you. Most importantly, we have God with us. Remember, Jesus promised: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29, ESV).

Can’t find the ladder to safety ahd deliverance? You just might be looking in the wrong direction. Look to Jesus and swim easier.

You’re a Mess!

At least that’s what the enemy wants us to think.  The pastor made a good point this past Sunday, and it is worth remembering: The devil hates you.  He is a “thief (who) comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10, NIV).  He is our “enemy (who) prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, NIV).  He is a “murderer” and the “father of lies” (John 8:44).

He’s cunning and crafty.  This is why Peter warns us to “humble (ourselves) before God,” rid ourselves of anxiety and “be alert and sober minded” (1 Peter 5:5-8, NIV).  Sin has us in such a mess that we don’t even know what we should pray.  Have you ever felt like that?  That feeling that life is so hard, so rough, so messed up, and you are hurting so bad that you can’t even put your feelings in words. 

But, for believers in Christ, there is great news.  You don’t have to buy into the lie.  You really aren’t a mess anymore.  Life is not defined by circumstances or past mistakes or sins.  And don’t let the devil tell you otherwise.  You are a child of God.  The enemy may want to steal your life, but fear not, because Christ came “that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10, NIV). 

God’s got your back.  We may not know exactly what God wants us to pray, but that’s ok.  “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.  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 8:26-28, NIV).

Today, if you’re feeling accused – not the gentle nudge of conviction but the pounding hammer of accusation – don’t buy it.  You are not a mess – you are a blessed child of God.  Cast off the anxiety and embrace God’s promises.  You cannot sin so big, mess up so bad or run so far away that you are out of God’s reach.  If you need to confess your sins to God, then confess.  He knows them anyway, you know.  Confess, repent and move on.  Don’t let Satan steal your joy.  You are loved – even if you feel like a mess.

Knowing God

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
   and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
   and he will make straight your paths.” – Proverbs 3:5-6 (ESV)

For Christmas, my parents got me a copy of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God – a book I would heartily recommend to anybody seeking to deepen their study of God and His Word.  As I was reading this morning, I stopped to ponder a question he posses: why do I study the Bible?  And what do I intend to do with what I learn?  I must admit, there is a temptation for me to learn simply for the sake of feeling smarter.  But, really, where is the benefit in being a theological Cliff Claven?

Packer writes, “If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.  It will make us proud and conceited.”  I pray that is not me.  While the temptation exists, my reasons for studying theology is two-fold: one, to be equipped to be a better teacher of the Gospel, for I am very aware of the warning of James 3:1.  The other is to know God better.  Not simply to know Him, but to develop a deeper relationship with my Creator and Savior.

It is truly amazing that we are able to have a personal relationship with the One True God and Creator of All.  It’s why we do not worship idols made for God (well, we’re not supposed to anyway).  We do not need an idol representative of God.  We can approach God Himself, for He approaches us.  We can have a relationship with God.

We can have a relationship with GOD.  God.  Think about that for just a moment.  Anything that exists, has ever existed, or ever will exist is from God.  Every human being in history existed because of God.  Every planet is aligned where it is because of God.  Every snowflake owes its intricacy to God.  There is absolutely nothing created that does not owe its creation to the Lord God, Creator of all.

But, He didn’t just create it all and abandon creation.  God is our sustainer as well.  He is active in every aspect, no matter how big, no matter how detailed.  This God, whose immenseness is far beyond our grasp, whose magnitude (which, when pondered, is a sure cure for human ego), desires to have a relationship with us.

With me.

With you.

And relationships require trust.  In order to trust someone, you need to know them.  And how do we get to know God?  By studying His Word.

Today, I want to encourage you to develop the habit of prayerfully getting to know God a little better each day.  Spend five minutes in the Bible every day.  You will find that you crave that time, and five minutes will become ten, then twenty…. and you will notice your trust in God, your relationship with the Trinity, growing deeper ad strengthening daily.

Now… what are you waiting for??  Go grab that Bible and prayerfully get to know our Creator better!

A Simple Antidote for the Wintertime Blues

Winter days get me down.  It’s cold and nasty out.  The walls of our little townhouse start to close in.  Even the dog and cats are little crabbier during these cold winter evenings.  If I allow it, life can easily get me down this time of year.

What I have to do is remind myself of this simple fact:

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. “ – Psalm 118:24 (ESV)

Being self-absorbed in our troubles is a dangerous place to hang out.  Boredom doesn’t help.  But the truth of our situations is simply that, despite how we feel, no matter how things look, we have cause to celebrate.  And, if we look hard enough, we can see that our blessings truly outweigh the negative in our lives. 

I look across the room at my beautiful wife, smiling and lovely, who loves me and supports me and takes such good care of me.  I would not be the man I am were it not for her.  I love her so much.

I look on the floor of our living at my beautiful four-year-old son, chatting away with his mother as he busily tends to his train set.  I think of the difficulties we endured to get him, and the great blessing that he is, and the faithfulness and grace and mercy of our loving Heavenly Father who saw us through the process, and blessed us with Austin.  He is the light in his mother and I’s life.

I look at the walls and give thanks that I have walls, and heat, and all of the comforts we take for granted.  I am sure I wouldn’t have to drive very far to find someone who does not have the basics of a home, let alone all these creature comforts.

I look at my feet, wrapped in the Indianapolis Colts / IU blanket my mother made for me two Christmases ago, and I think of my family and how blessed I am to be so loved, and how much I love all of them.

I realize how blessed I am and am amazed because, as blessed as I am, all of this pales in comparison to the great gift of God through Jesus Christ.  I am saved, and bathed in love, grace and mercy because of God’s great love for me.  I can trust the Lord with my very life.  He will never fail.  He will never abandon me.  He is all we truly need, for all good things are through Him, our Heavenly Father.

I can sit here and grumble about the cold, about my circumstances, about grievances or hurts or troubles or fears.  Or, I can look at the reality of my situation through the eyes of Truth:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Philippians 4:8 (ESV).


“And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed…’” – Matthew 5:2 (and the first word of 3) (ESV)

I am so excited!  This Saturday I will begin an earnest, long, deep study of the Sermon on the Mount.  I am gathering research material and preparing my heart to hear what God has to say in these three amazing chapters of Matthew.  The fact is that the core – the very heart and definition – of Christianity is contained in these passages.  I have always been intrigued by the structure of these chapters, how they build in blocks on one another (the Beatitudes forming a foundation to build upon).  I am quite eager to dig deeper.

Tonight, as I was reading John Wesley’s notes on the gospel of Matthew, something struck me.  He writes that “to bless men, to make men happy, was the great business for which our Lord came into the world” (Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, p.17).  In 1755, when Wesley wrote this, I’m not sure that happiness meant quite the same thing it does today, with our modern preoccupation with comfort. 

But Christ surely came to bless us with unspeakable joy and amazing grace and boundless love.  It is beautiful to find that Jesus began laying out the foundation of what it means to be a Christian by teaching us who is blessed (and, by implication, who is not – even though, by the world’s terms, it would appear Christ got it backwards).

Blessed indeed we all are who follow Jesus Christ.  Blessed in ways we cannot even imagine.  Blessed in ways the world cannot see.  Blessed in the truest sense of the word.

Sing to the LORD, all the earth!
   Tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
   his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised,
   and he is to be held in awe above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
   but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
   strength and joy are in his place. – 1 Chronicles 16:23-27 (ESV)

Hope Jesus is a Movie Buff

I am a movie buff.  I’ll sit on the edge of my seat, cheering for the good guy and glad to see the bad guy get what he deserves.

Then, reading my Bible later, it occurs to me: Jesus would be rooting for the bad guy.  Not for what the villain does, but for the human being.  God does not want to see sin win.  He wants to see man freed from sin.

Let’s be totally upfront here.  There are times when I am the villain.  One thoughtless word or selfish deed, and I become the bad guy.  I am so very thankful that Jesus isn’t watching, waiting for me to get my come-uppance. 

Wouldn’t it be great to watch a movie and see the bad guy get saved, repent and turn from his evil ways (as opposed to going down violently in a hail of gunfire)?  Imagine the money the studios would save on fake ammo, pyrotechnics and red-dyed corn syrup.

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2:1-4 (NIV)

Here… have some poison…

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:31-32 (ESV)

If I offered you a bowl full of poison and a spoon, would you sit down and eat it?  Of course not!!  But, consider this… every grudge we hold, every ounce of unforgiveness, every little drop of bitterness is poison.  It rots our souls and kills us spiritually. 

Here is the problem, at it’s heart.  We have a relationship with God because Jesus came to earth to act as the propitiation for our sins.  Propitiation is a big word – a legal term – that means, through the act of forgiveness performed by Jesus Christ on the cross for all of us, our status is changed from utterly guilty to innocent.  Not only forgiven, but cleansed.  Our record is expunged in God’s eyes.  The Lord holds no grudge, bears no memory of the wrongs each of His children has committed against Him.

When we refuse to forgive somebody, when we choose to bear a grudge, we are not walking in the light of Christ.  In fact, we are doing just the opposite.  We are choosing to walk away from Jesus.  Every act of revenge – even what we think is the smallest word of unkindness uttered about somebody we feel bitterness toward – takes us farther from God. 

Don’t think God takes (un)forgiveness this seriously?  Think again.  Think back to the Lord’s Prayer, which you have probably repeated, and truly think about this one line:

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).  (Or, if you’re more comfortable, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”)

Jesus goes on to explain, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15, ESV).  That’s pretty serious stuff.  That means our forgiveness hinges on whether we choose to begrudge others and harbor bitterness.  Is it worth it?

Unforgiveness does more harm to the one holding the grudge than the object of the anger.  It blocks us from giving and receiving love and grace. If we think about people we have known in our lives, who were the most miserable?  Those who couldn’t let go of the wrongs they felt had been committed against them.  Letting go can be tough.  But forgiveness isn’t merely a matter of passively saying, “OK, I forgive you.”  True forgiveness is a willful act of not only forgiving the debt, but forgetting that it is owed to you.  Forgiveness is choosing to put down the bitterness that poisons your spirit – indeed, your very being.

We are called to be “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:14, ESV).  This leaves no room for bitterness and unforgiveness.  Jesus equates hatred with murder – says they are one and the same.  In Christ, there is life.  If you are feeling unforgiveness toward anybody, go to the Lord.  Ask for strength and grace to help you through, and revel in the sweet release of forgiveness.  Feel love and mercy swell up in your soul and bask in the joy of the glory of the Lord!

Watch Out For That Car!

 “ ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.” – 1 Corinthians 6:12 (ESV).

“ ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.  Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 (ESV).

Grace frees us from the Law, but that doesn’t mean we are free to sin.  Grace frees us by changing our view from feeling compelled to follow the letter of the Law to wanting to love others and naturally following the Law thusly.  We are no longer motivated to simply avoid punishment.  Love now guides us to grace, because our minds and hearts are set on Jesus Christ and following the entirely selfless model He presented us. The Law (as laid out in the Old Testament) is a set of precepts designed to guide and teach us right from wrong.  Grace (as presented throughout the New Testament) is more a natural law – God’s non-legalistic way of doing things.

Not only that, but when we follow God’s precepts in love, we walk in wisdom.  Living a wisely-guided life benefits not only us, but others in our lives.  Wisdom and love equip us in our walk with Christ, enabling us to set a Godly example for others.

Look at it like this.  By law, pedestrians have the right-of-way.  However, one would not want to intentionally step out in front of a moving vehicle.  Why?  Even though it was permissible, walking into the path of a speeding car is definitely not “helpful” – to the pedestrian or the motorist.  The “natural law” of physics trumps the traffic regulations. 

By acting in wisdom and love, we put the betterment of others before ourselves.  It is important that we set the right example – for others and ourselves.  We never want to lead someone astray by our actions.  For example: you’re going out to eat with a friend.  You order a beer with your dinner.  Did you just sin by drinking one beer?  Not necessarily.  However, what effect is that one beverage having on your witness?  What if your friend interprets your actions as a green-light to overindulge?  It is far better to do without the indulgence that to risk leading someone to harm or offense.  Your witness as a Christian and your love walk are far more important.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” – 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 (ESV). 

Exercising our Faith

It is a telling moment, one I believe to be both literal and symbolic.  Such is the importance of the event that it is the one miracle all four gospel writers recorded.  And it speaks volumes about the ability of God working through our lives.  It is the miracle of the feeding of the five-thousand, recorded in Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15.

Applicable lessons abound from the passages, ripe for gleaning.  For the sake of brevity, I will pluck only one for now: if we only look to our abundance – our understanding, our gifts, our treasure – we will miss out on what God wants us to do in our lives.  We need to see things as Christ does: through eyes of faith.

Let’s assess the situation in Luke, the most succinct of these four passages.  The crowd had gathered, and Jesus had taught and healed them.  They marveled. 

And they lingered.

And they needed to be fed.

As if Christ wasn’t aware that these folks may need physical nourishment at the end of a long day, the disciples tell Jesus, “Send them away!”  (I’m always taken aback at the temerity the twelve disciples so often display.  But that’s another lesson…)

How does Jesus reply?  “You feed them.”  Eventually, “feeding” the flock would be there job anyway (read John 21:15-19, which is really still another lesson altogether, but…).  Their response was predictable: “You’ve got to be kidding, right?  Five loaves and two fishes for five-thousand people.  And not a supermarket in sight.  Anyone else see a problem here?”

Jesus saw no problem at all, because He saw with eyes of faith.  All the disciples were looking at was their ability.  They were limited by what they could logically see.  But Jesus wanted to stretch their faith.  He instructed the twelve, gave thanks to the Father, which always goes hand-in-glove with faith.  (See there?  Yet another lesson.)

Faith is a stretch.  But faith is exactly what God wants from us – expects from us.  If all we ever do is rely on ourselves to get things done, we are limited.  Crippled even.  Faith is like a muscle.  It requires exercise to grow strong, even just to maintain.  Left unworked, muscle begins to atrophy.  The same is true with faith.

What’s limiting you in doing what God wants you to do?  Do you believe He would expect something you and not equip you for the task at hand?  Step out in faith with gratitude for the wonderful work God has planned for you, not concerned about results or success, but joyful that the Lord is being glorified through your faithfulness.  And many more than you can imagine just might be fed from your hand.