Troubled Waters

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I Had another day filled with problems. You too? Welcome to being alive. No one wants to have problems, but they are unavoidable. Some problems are bigger than others and some people claim that the size of your problems is comparable to the size of your sin. I don’t believe that, but I’ve for sure heard a sermon or two that sounded like if you just live for Jesus your life will be problem free.

“God’s ultimate goal is to protect us from problems.” #notintheBible

Psalm 46:1-3 (NLT) God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! 

Wait a second. If my life is going to be problem free what do I need a place of refuge for? I don’t need a place of protection without problems. I appreciate the promise of strength and I love that God’s always ready to help, but… what’s with this “times of trouble” thing? I’m not feeling that one.

We often want the promises with none of the provisions.

I don’t see anywhere in scripture where God promises a problem-free life. I see plenty of proof for a presence filled life.

It is not God’s wish to spare us life’s trials, but rather to be present with us as we endure them. How wonderful it would be to never have any struggle, but how much more wonderful is it to know that in the midst of any circumstance we can know that He is with us. It requires us to breathe and remember who He is. To relinquish control and be still knowing He is God.

Psalm 46:10 (NLT) “Be still, and know that I am God!

You might be facing the biggest storm of your life right now. I want you to know that you’re not forgotten, God is with you even now. He knows what He is doing. I can’t tell you why you are going through this, but I trust God enough to know that He loves you and though we can’t see it yet, there is purpose even in the storm. Everything God allows has a purpose.

That statement bothers me a little bit. When we’re in the midst of such pain we may see His purpose through the lens of our pain rather than the lens of His love. It’s easy to fixate on the painful moments and forget the joyful ones. In the busyness and pain of stormy seasons, we all tend to forget some of the most important truths about who God is.  I want to encourage you to take a moment and breathe in deep. Remember the goodness of God. Remember the love of God.

What is it that you need to be reminded of? Whatever it is in the quiet of the moment simply say that word. Breathe in deep and remind yourself of the truth. Perhaps it’s that you are loved. Say it out loud, “I’m loved.” Possibly you need to remember His peace. Breathe in deep and then say it out loud. “Peace.”

Repeat it until it gets down inside your soul.

Do not let the problems of life prevent you from remembering the presence of God. He does not abandon us during hard times. He is ever present in our time of need. You will make it through this. I know that it is hard to see past the storm of the day, but it won’t last forever. It may seem impossible to keep moving forward, but God will not let this storm destroy you.

Breathe.

Be still.

Know.

He is God and He is still in control.

He may not have spared you from this storm, but He will keep you through.

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So What If I’m Flawed?

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I could make a list of all the things I don’t like about myself. All my flaws, mistakes, things I wish I could change. I bet I could fill page after page with self-doubt and negativity. We often don’t venture to write these things down, but sometimes our mind is an endless vacuum of self-awareness. We also tend to view ourselves through a lens of emotion (positive or negative) rather than reality.

In Judges chapter six we meet Gideon who also seems to be self-aware of his own limitations. The whole nation is hiding from the Midianites and an Angel appears to Gideon and instructs him to go and rescue his nation. “I’m sending you!”

Gideon is not convinced. He argues that his clan is the weakest and among his family, he is the least! I can’t tell you if this is his reality or not, but regardless this is how Gideon saw himself.

Flawed.

Not Equipped.

Not Qualified.

Have you ever felt that way? I know I have. At times it has been true and at other times my perceived flaw was really my faulty perception. What matters is not our flaws, real or otherwise. What matters is the Lord’s response to our flaws.

Judges 6:16 (NLT) The Lord said to him, “I will be with you…”

When God is with us, our own inadequacies melt away. When we remember that we have the Spirit of God living within us it should change our perspective. It doesn’t matter how inadequate we might feel, our hope is not in ourselves. Our hope is in God.

This reveals the significance of worship in our daily lives. When I take time in the morning to worship the Lord, I am taking the focus off of my own flaws and instead magnifying the strength of the Lord. It does me no good to focus on my own limitations. When I shift my focus to the great power of God, that power is unleashed in my life. Daily I must shift my focus away from my own weakness in order to fully realize God’s strength.

I hope you find courage today. You are not your flaws. You are not your mistakes. You are not your inadequacies. You are not your insecurities. Rather, you are loved by God. Chosen by God. Fully accepted by God. So much so that His presence indwells within you.  No matter where we go, or what we are going through, the Lord is with us.

Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT) …God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?”

Our confidence is not in ourselves but in the presence of the Lord.

I firmly believe that what we think upon we give power in our lives. When we think upon our embarrassing moments, our shortcomings or personality quirks we diminish our confidence and effectiveness to love the world. However, when we remember God’s presence everything changes. When we begin to worship Him, dwell upon God rather than ourselves, we begin to feed our Spirit and activate His power in our lives.

I want to challenge you. Take some time today to acknowledge God’s continued work in your life. Remember His presence and thank Him for always being with you. When we make this a daily habit, it changes our lives.

Not What I Wanted (Part Three)

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If you haven’t, please check out part one and part two.

Sharing our faith is not what it used to be. Not that it was ever easy, however, the challenges we face today in communicating the message of Jesus are greater than they were in previous generations. As a culture, our collective knowledge of Christianity is rapidly diminishing. The effort of bringing someone to a place where they can make a decision for Christ runs deeper than a single service or conversation. It takes a concentrated effort to get past the offended climate of today’s culture. The result? 47% of Christian millennials think evangelism is wrong (according to Barna).

We all have people in our lives that don’t know Jesus, but we often aren’t willing to take on the responsibility of sharing God’s love and truth with them. Perhaps it’s not even something you’ve thought about.

Jonah thought about it. He thought a lot about the people of Nineveh and sharing God’s message with them. It’s not what he wanted, but after scarcely avoiding death and a renewed determination to obey the Lord he walked into the capital of Assyria and proclaimed the message the Lord gave.

“You guys are super sinful and in forty days God’s gonna destroy your city. You all dead Suckers.” *drops mic* Exit stage left. No altar call. Just the harsh reality of the consequences of sin.

It turns out the people of Nineveh didn’t need the altar call. They responded immediately with repentance and mourning. The king even called for the whole city to fast for the duration of the forty days. God responds to their humility and willingness to turn from their sins the same way He responds to us. Mercy. God decided not to destroy the city.

Jonah looks at God’s outpouring of mercy and proclaims, “THIS IS NOT WHAT I WANTED!”

Jonah is angry! He tells God that this is the very reason he didn’t want to come here in the first place. He KNEW God was merciful and would spare the city if they repented and Jonah wanted to see them burn! He basically said, “if you’re not gonna destroy the city, then kill me now,” marched off and waited to see what God would do.

This is like a reverse prayer.

Imagine a preacher giving an altar call in front of 120,000 people and they all respond with a desire to get their life right with God and preacher gets mad about it. I struggle to put myself in Jonah’s shoes on such a large scale. It sounds a bit absurd.

Next, in Jonah chapter 4 is this weird part where God gives Jonah this plant to provide shelter and protect him from the sun. The next day God sends a worm to kill it. Jonah is again, “angry enough to die!”

God then makes sure Jonah understands the issue. Jonah cares passionately about the destruction of the plant, but cares little about the destruction of 120,000 people. Again, that sounds absurd. Jonah is putting his own personal comfort far above the eternal destination of a whole city. Jonah cares more about his comfort than souls. His preferences are more important the people in Nineveh.

This is the heart of this series. Let’s prioritize people over our preferences. Serving God is not about always getting our way, pursuing our own personal peace, comfort, and satisfaction. I believe we have a God given mission and assignment. We have the purpose of loving people with the love of Jesus. We have the purpose of showing people the truth of Jesus and leading them into freedom.

When we take the entirety of our world this seems almost an impossible task, however, salvation is not a numbers game. It’s personal. You likely aren’t assigned to the whole planet, but God has most certainly placed people in your life to purposefully pursue. Perhaps some people immediately come to your mind, perhaps not.

Either way, the starting point is the same. We have to genuinely be concerned for their eternity. It matters if my neighbors end up in Heaven or Hell. This should move our souls and stir us to action.

Many times it doesn’t.

My challenge is simply this: PRAY. Ask God to move your soul with compassion for the lost. Ask God to give you a burden for your neighbors, friends, and family. We need to feel the weight, the significance of the task at hand. We can’t pray effectively for our neighbors until we feel the urgency and importance of our assignment so pray and ask God to give you a burden, then pray for your friends as you would pray for your very soul.

What happens next, may not be exactly what you wanted. It likely will take longer than you had hoped. Endure. Work hard to build a relationship with them and take advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate God’s love and compassion for them.

After all, God was not made to serve us, rather us to serve God. On the day I stand before God, I hope as we look back on my life that I worked hard to fulfill His purposes and not my own. Certainly, I don’t want to stand before the Almighty staring at missed opportunities and proclaim, “but God, that’s not what I wanted.”

Not What I Wanted (Part Two)

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If you didn’t catch part one you can read it here.

We’re not supposed to doubt! We’re good Christians and always say the right thing. Growing up, I certainly felt like I couldn’t express my doubts or fears. When I was a teenager I wrote the words, “If I said what I want to say, you’d comfort me with religious cliches and then write me off as another lost cause.” I knew that if I expressed my doubts that I would be told, “just have more faith”  or “trust God.” That’s not bad advice necessarily, however, we need to know that it’s ok to doubt.

Jonah’s decision to run from God’s plan put him into another situation that surely wasn’t what he wanted. In the middle of the ocean, the violence of the storm threatened to tear the ship apart. This wasn’t your Sunday afternoon rain shower. This was an act of God. Jonah told his traveling companions that this storm was his fault and that if they wanted to live he would have to be thrown overboard.

I don’t know if the storm stopped right away, or if it raged on, but either way, Jonah would be stranded in the middle of the ocean.

Jonah was a dead man.

He had run from the Lord. Surely death was what he deserved.

Still, he cried out the Lord for help. The Lord heard his cries and rescued him. It was the way he was rescued though that gives me pause. God sent a great fish to swallow him. That’s one way to keep the ocean from becoming his grave. I don’t know how Jonah felt at that moment. Perhaps he felt grateful. I know inside that fish he repented and decided to obey the Lord. All I can say is that I would have some questions. I’m not convinced that becoming fish food is better than dying at the hands of the storm. I would struggle to see God’s providence in this situation.

I would have some doubts.

Doubt is something we all deal with. We doubt if God hears us. We doubt if people will accept us as we are. We doubt our abilities, talents, and intelligence. When it comes to God what is it that causes us to doubt and what do we do with it?

Let me say this: when we doubt we are in good company. John the Baptist doubted in Luke chapter seven. That’s crazy to me, this is John the Baptist! He recognized who Jesus was while still in the womb. He jumped for joy at the presence of infant Jesus inside Mary when she came to visit Elizabeth. John spent months preaching and preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus. However, when he found himself sitting in a prison cell he questioned, “Is Jesus the Messiah, or should we be looking for someone else.”

After Jesus died, many of his disciples had completely lost hope. They had believed He was the Messiah, but now in the shadow of doubt they felt abandoned. They had given up. Some of them were even ready to move on with their lives.

In 1 Kings Elijah finds himself in the valley of doubt and depression. Fresh off his victory at Mt Carmel where God had done some miraculous signs Elijah had been threatened by the queen and suddenly out of nowhere he was just done. He had no hope left. He was ready to die.

Doubt can happen when we least expect it. Sometimes it comes because things just don’t go how we expected. Sometimes it comes because life is just more challenging than we had imagined. Then comes the mind games. “If you were really a Christain you wouldn’t feel this way, you wouldn’t have these thoughts.”

Again I must say that it is ok to doubt. Doubting is not some big bad demon that must be slain, although it must be contended with. It’s what we do when faced with doubt that determines the outcome. Doubt can be a force that can drive us deeper into faith. How could one even have faith if at first there was no doubt?

Faith can be hard to gauge because we base it on our own experiences and outcomes. If things are working out, we feel like we have a lot of faith. While at other times things seem bleak, we are full of doubt and feel faithless. However, that doesn’t mean we lack faith. Our faith is not be based on what we see, feel or on our circumstances. Our faith is in God and who we know Him to be, based on scripture and through our relationship with Him. We know He loves us. We know He provides for us— faith says even though I may not see that provision right at this moment, I KNOW God is faithful and will provide!

Faith is to trust God, even in the midst of our doubts.

If you have doubts, don’t despair. Don’t ignore them. Bring them to the surface and own them. Pray about them. Wrestle with them. In all of those stories above, God never got upset or disappointed by their doubts. He answered each of them based on what they needed in that moment. We can be afraid to bring our doubts to God, but He is bigger than our doubts.

We may feel like because of our doubts we are undeserving, but one of my favorite parts of the story of Jonah is that he cried out to God and the Lord rescued him. He hadn’t done anything to redeem himself. He didn’t deserve it. God simply rescued him.

It was there in the belly of doubt that Jonah found faith.

I believe we must engage our own doubt before we can engage a world in disbelief.

Look for the final part of “NOT WHAT I WANTED” next Monday.

Not What I Wanted (Part One)

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We sometimes have these thoughts: “If I follow God, everything will work out exactly as I want. I will always be happy. Things are just easier with Jesus.”

Why shouldn’t we think this way? These ideas are heard often from pulpits, sometimes intentionally sometimes not. We love hearing encouraging words about the love, goodness, and provision of God. Don’t misunderstand, I believe in all of those things. I  believe Romans 8:28 when it says all things work together for good, I just don’t think we get to determine what “good” is.

At some point in our Christian walk, many of us come to a place where we look around at our circumstances, emotions, direction and think, “THIS IS NOT WHAT I WANTED.” That is certainly what happened to Jonah.

Jonah was a prophet. I don’t know if he liked being a prophet or not, but there must have been seasons where delivering messages on behalf of God was joyful. I imagine there were times when Jonah loved being a mouthpiece for the Most High. Then God gave Jonah a simple task, Go to Nineveh and let them know that because of their sin, God’s gonna destroy the city.

Nope. I can almost here Jonah’s cry, “This is not what I wanted.”

There are potentially many reasons Jonah might not have wanted to go to Nineveh. Yes, they were wicked, hence the forthcoming destruction, but I suspect the core reason revolved around their nationality. Ninevah was the capital of a nation called Assyria. They did this thing where they invaded Israel and took them into captivity. These guys basically came in and said, “You don’t live here anymore. You’re now our captives!”

Rude.

So now God wants Jonah to go and give THEM a Word of the Lord. No thank you. I didn’t sign up for this. They don’t deserve it. I’m out.

And so Jonah literally ran the opposite direction of Ninevah.

Ahh, direction.

Of course, we want to be led by God.

Proverbs 3:6 (NLT) Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.

We all pray for direction. In our heart, we do want to be in “His perfect will.”

However, too often what we mean by, “show me which path to take” is actually, “give me a high paying job, a beautiful wife, and help me to avoid problems.”

Amen.

So what do we do when where God is leading us, isn’t the perfect life we had imagined? What if instead of greater popularity God asks us to give up friends? What do we do if God asks us to lay down our dreams? What about when following God means embracing the pain in our lives instead of avoiding it?

Romans 8:35-37 (NLT)  Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

Too often this false expectation that we always get what we want leads us to a crisis of faith. The truth is we don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we have to make hard choices. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices. Surrender can’t begin until God requires something of us we don’t want to let go.

I recently had a conversation with some students, one of them said, “people today think that God is meant to serve us, rather than us to serve God.” Tragically this might be true. I don’t think many people would say outright that they believe that, but we can see that belief embedded in our thought process and revealed in our attitudes. It’s almost as if we approach God like a vending machine, handing out miracles and dreams. Yes, He’s a good Father, but a good Father knows when to withhold things that are not good for His children.

Yet, when God doesn’t provide what we want; when He doesn’t send us the direction we had expected it can really throw us for a loop. When what life gives us is not what we wanted it can easily send us into an experience where many of us have spent a lot of time, but rarely want to acknowledge.

Doubt.

Look for part two next Monday.

I Never Wanted To Get Caught

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It’s instinct. Hide your flaws. Cover up your sins. Protect your pride. There is something inside all of us that pushes blame away from ourselves. We see it in kids, who immediately deny doing something, they may not even understand why it was wrong, but something within them says, DENY IT.

Where does this come from?

We don’t want to get in trouble. We want people to look up to us and we are afraid if they see the real us, they will abandon us. We don’t want to be that vulnerable. Perhaps we’ve been hurt before.

I recently asked our junior highers, “Is it ever a good thing to get caught?” They almost all agreed, yes! I later asked them if it is ever bad to not get caught, and they were quick to give examples of how not getting caught can lead to continuing those actions later in life, which could have far more serious consequences than it would now. I think they’re pretty smart.

What are some things we choose to hide?

We hide our sins. We Certainly don’t want anyone knowing about those.

We hide our hurts. We can’t have people seeing us as damaged goods.

We hide our fears. No one wants to be seen as anything less than courageous.

We hide our doubts. After all, what kind of Christian has these kinds of doubts?

Regardless of what it is we are hiding, the best thing we can do is get it out into the open. I don’t mean post it on social media, or start telling anyone who will listen. Find someone trustworthy, who will stand by you no matter what. If you’re not sure you have anyone like that, talk to a pastor or leader in your church. Perhaps they can even help connect you to someone who is willing to listen. Maybe even consider seeing a counselor. Get it in the open, no matter what.

When we keep things hidden in the dark, we give them the power to remain in our lives.

I don’t mind if my room is messy, as long as the lights are off I will leave all my clothes on the floor. The moment I turn on the light something changes. I can’t stand to see my room all messed up! (I know my Mom is happy reading this.) When the mess is in the dark, it doesn’t matter. It only affects me if I happen to wander around and stumble into the mess. However, once the light is on, not only are the obstacles easier to avoid, they are easier to clean up.

About ten years ago, I had just come to the place where I knew I wanted to pursue ministry. Except, there were some things in my life that I knew could destroy me if I didn’t do something to remove them. I didn’t really have anyone close to me that I felt comfortable talking to. So in a moment of absolute resolve, I sent an e-mail to my pastor. I knew I couldn’t wait to try and find the right time to talk to him or I’d never do it. I put it all out there in that e-mail.

It’s a scary thing to do, putting it all out there. We have a common fear that when it’s known we will receive judgment and ultimately rejection. Thankfully, that isn’t what happened. My pastor responded with love and understanding and began to work with me to develop an action plan to overcome.

It’s never easy to take that step into vulnerability. It’s never easy to be so fully exposed. However, we eventually have to ask this difficult question. Do I want to live with this forever? Am I ok if this thing gets worse? What kind of person am I really?

It’s time to turn on the lights.

I believe this is part of what it means to “live as people of light.” (Ephesians 5:8) Every part of our lives should be exposed, nothing hidden. Living in such a way ensures that anyone looking at your life can see the work God is doing within you. It doesn’t mean we are perfect or have no flaws, rather it allows people to see the divine in the midst of our humanity.

We are all imperfect people, chosen, accepted and loved by God. When we allow His light to permeate every part of our lives, we have nothing to fear. We can live life in peace and with confidence. I believe it is only when we fully embrace that light that we can begin to share it with others. It is only when we fully live in the light that Christ can be displayed through us.

Matthew 5:14-16 (NLT) “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.15 No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”

Unanswered Prayers

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God answers prayers. Of course, He does! This is why we bring our petitions to the Lord. Yes, through prayer we grow closer to the Lord, growing more intimate in our relationship with Him. But let’s be honest, there are times when our prayers seem to go unanswered. There is an unspoken expectation that God will answer our prayers, the way we want and when we want. We know He is a good God. He is a God of love. He is a God who knows how to give good gifts to His children. We know all of this. Still, most of us have little difficulty thinking back to a moment when our prayers went unanswered.

Dreams die. Friends and family remain unhealed. We still don’t know what direction to take. Depression lingers. Betrayal comes. Confusion refuses to loosen its grip on our mind. Doubts remain.

Can we trust God even when our prayers remain unanswered?

We want to say YES, but we don’t always FEEL like saying YES.

Once I prayed for six months for clear direction, never to find it. It wasn’t until I took action, stepped out into an uncertain future that I found the answer I’d been looking for.

Another time I spent three months praying about something and moving towards a dream I’d had only for it to all fall apart, despite what I thought God was speaking to me.

It’s so much easier when His voice is clear and His presence near, but that isn’t always the case.

I’m reminded of two sisters who were praying for their sick brother. They called out for Jesus to heal him and their prayers seemed to go unanswered. The story is found in John chapter 11. The sisters were Mary and Martha and their brother was Lazarus. Jesus received the message from the sisters to come at once, yet he delayed. He could have arrived before Lazarus died, but he didn’t.

Jesus chose to allow Lazarus to die.

We know this is a story of resurrection, but imagine how Mary and Martha must have felt during that time period. Jesus had let them down. They were hurt, in deep mourning. They weren’t given advance notice that resurrection was coming. That would have been much easier on them.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were given a list of explanations every time we felt God delaying? Every time things worked out against our expectations. We don’t have to question, because God just tells us plainly! If only that was how things worked!

I guess we wouldn’t have much need for faith if we never had doubt.

So what is my faith in? Is my faith in the answered prayer or is my faith in God, who may choose to give a clear answer or who may not? Another way to ask that question would be is Jesus really enough? That’s where my faith is. Jesus, who claimed to be God. Jesus, who said He was going to die and then be resurrected. Jesus who then did exactly what He said. Jesus, whose own brothers proclaimed, “He is God.”

Jesus is my confidence, whether my prayers are answered or not.

Jesus, who sees all things, past, present, and future.

Yes, we often forget how limited our view is. Our perspective is confined by our present circumstances, emotions, and knowledge. God does not hold such limitations.

This is why I often remind myself of the wisdom found in Proverbs three.

Proverbs 3:5 (NLT) Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.

I may lack understanding, my prayers may seem unanswered, but I am fully convinced that God is still God. When I lack answers, He does not. When I lack direction, He does not. When I am confused, He is not.

Regardless of what seems to be happening in life right now, God is still trustworthy.