Serious Joy

Famous author, G.K. Chesterton, once likened the Christian faith to an island standing alone in the sea. The island was as a plateau, a flat top surrounded on all sides by sheer cliffs; there was no place at which the island gradually went to the sea. And all around the perimeter of the flat top was a great stone wall – cold, hard stone. Inside this wall was a great field in which the children would run and play and enjoy all the pleasures therein. They had no fear of falling into the sea because of that stone wall.

He went on to describe that there are doctrines of the faith that many people lament because they seem cold and hard – why couldn’t they be more pleasant? Well, as the wall on the island kept the children from fear of falling into the sea, so many of these seemingly unpleasant doctrines of the faith are meant not to hinder our joy, but rather to enhance it. For if there was no wall the children would fear to play too intensely for fear of the cliffs, but because of the protection of the wall their play was all the more hearty. Likewise, if we refuse to accept some of the harder truths of God we find ourselves in one of two places. We will either fail to embrace life fully for fear of the fall, or we will find ourselves lost at sea.

One last problem we face is that we focus on the wall instead of the great field and all the delights therein. We complain saying, “Why can’t we go over the wall, I want to know what’s on the other side.” And we begin to believe that God is limitting our joy and our lives. Our first parents were likewise convinced and we know the outcome of that story. Yet the same temptation faces us each day. We have to chose, will we walk within God’s plan and directives or will we seek our own way, thinking that we know better how to achieve our own happiness?

If we will not submit to the graver matters of life and establish for ourselves those deep matters we will not be able to wholly embrace those surface level things of life. Many try to merely focus on the pleasures of life and find that they feel empty and purposeless. Still others dwell at the wall either in reverence or defiance and live their lives in severity. But I have found that if we let God establish His wall in our lives, we can then run and play and enjoy all the pleasures of earth without fear of doing wrong or being harmed and without getting lost in all the changing waves of our own whimsical desires. So again, if we will deal with the serious matters of life, we are then free to wholly embrace joy – serious joy.

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Lacking Holiday Spirit?

I’ve heard so many people this Christmas season confess that they really just don’t care about Christmas this year. As I was getting ready for today I realized my own spirits had been dampened. I totally understand the struggle to be excited this year.

With all that has happened in this past year the loss of loved ones, social/political instability, terrorism, and so on, it’s no wonder people are having a hard time getting in the “holiday spirit”. But, this really isn’t a new struggle. It’s no secret that Christmas time for many is the worst and most lonely time of the year. Those without family or friends or money to spend for the holidays struggle to find that elusive holiday cheer.

The truth is, the same was true for the nation of Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth. The people of Israel, the chosen people of God, had been conquered and ruled by foreign powers. Within the framework set up by the Romans there was a constant struggle for power; rulers were usurped time and again. The leaders schemed and killed for their own gain and cared nothing for justice and the needs of the people. There were uprisings from among the people as they rebelled against their Roman overlords. Skirmishes were a common occurrence throughout the land – and they rarely ended well for the Jews. The religious leaders weren’t much help either. Those who supposedly knew the most about Jehovah not only followed the practices of the political leaders, but they made their oppression worse by making the people feel as though their suffering was not because of injustice in the land, but because of their own sinful and ungodly living. They placed a huge spiritual burden on the common-folk who were already so heavily oppressed. And what’s worst of all is God himself had not spoken to the people of Israel for four hundred years! No prophetic message of any kind to guide or encourage the people.

Things were bleak to say these least. The times were uncertain and the people were weary, frightened, and discouraged. Sounding familiar? It was in this context that Jesus came. It was when the world needed a savior most that Jesus came.

Great was the joy of the few people who knew what had happened that night; not because they were without fear or loss or uncertainty, but because they were full of them! Their joy happened in the midst of fear and uncertainty, because the Savior had arrived! It was those who were comfortable who feared at the coming of Jesus. But the oppressed finally had hope!

So, during this advent season, if you find yourself not all that excited about lights and presents and feasts because of the current state of this world, then rejoice because you’re in good company! If our hope for happiness is in lights and festivities, no wonder we find it hard to find joy; but, if we know of the Savior who has come in order to renew this broken world then we have reason to rejoice!

Comfort on a Plane

I’m on my way to Thailand for this big international conference. I flew out of St. Louis to Chicago. While I was at O’Hare international airport there were so many people from so many different cultures. Having spent time abroad I thought I would feel fine in such a context because I always had before. However, I find that I am not comfortable, I’m a little anxious and stressed. As I was pondering why this might be I realized that my time overseas had actually solidified my love for my own culture and home. Growing up I had always wanted to travel especially in Asia. Now having done it. I just want to be home. It seems so weird to say it but that’s how I feel. It feels weird because I used to relish living outside of my comfort zone, but now not so much. I guess having my own family has domesticated me. Anyway, the point is I’m out of my comfort zone right now.

I’m now on a flight to Seoul, South Korea. I was placed next to this young Korean family, a man and his wife with their child, whom I would say is around 1-year-old. Watching this family interact has completely settled me. The mother and father are in love with this kid – they absolutely adore her. And the child is very playful and laughs and carries on like my own children did at her age and like I’m sure this next child my wife and are having will. Seeing this family brought me great comfort by reassuring me that no matter what culture I’m in people can be kind and good and that life can be beautiful. I can imagine them getting back to wherever it is they live and feeling the same relief and comfort that I felt when I got home and will feel when this trip is over, and I can’t help but be happy for them and pray that they will walk in that happiness all the days of their life.

I feel a lot better about this trip now.

What Kills a Vision?

Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast of restraint.” This is my heart’s cry as a minister, but experience has taught me more to that verse. It is simply this: “People perish without vision; visions perish without planning; and planning perishes without action.”

Creation’s Cry

As I look out upon the beauty of this world I feel a longing.
As a child this longing was beautiful to me, beautiful and mysterious. I sought to feel it as often as I could, but age has turned beauty to pain.
I realize now what it is I feel. As I look out I ask, “Where are You?” I see your hand in everything, but where are You, God?
Even as I look inside I see the same – evidence of Your touch and a Deposit of Your likeness, but I cannot say with wholeness, “Ah! Here You are!”
This longing is not, as some might say, a desire to be more “at one with nature”; for I have discovered that nature and I are already one in this way – we desperately miss you. I have discovered that the longing I feel is not only in me, but it is in nature as well. Yes, we could be more at peace with each other, but we have seen – it is proven – that this cannot be without You.
Therefore, the whole of Creation and I cry out like the prophets of old saying, “Let the earth be filled with knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea!”
I have discovered that this longing is a cry, not only in my own heart, but in everything – water, earth, sky, and all therein. This cry is the longing we all feel when we spend time in nature, which is why, I believe, many of us avoid doing so. We deafen our senses with concrete, progress, and thrills in order to try and drown out the emptiness we feel and Creation so attests to. But I have felt it, the song of Creation, and it is beautiful and mournful and I am “at one” with this song. I feel within the depths of my own heart the cry of every created thing and we cry out together – come Lord Jesus, come! Let Your home be with us and ours with You and may we never be without Your presence again.

Logical Passion

“It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.”
-Proverbs 19:2

When I was in high school I read a saying in one of my books which read, “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reigns.” I remember scoffing at it thinking, “Reason gets in the way of passion, we can rationalize our passion right away.” It’s now ten years later and I realize – that’s the point! Oh the silly, foolish, and downright crazy things I did in the name of faith, that were really only done in passion. And believe me, there’s a difference.

The problem is many don’t realize that there is a difference, I didn’t. And when we can’t differentiate between passion and faith we become fanatics, which, as I have said before, is the worst form of religion. The reason it’s so terrible is because it’s like a built in peer-pressure system. Let me give an example: As I said in my blog, “The Agenda”, I came to a place in my spiritual journey that I was constantly uneasy because I went through life thinking that I needed to be constantly preaching the gospel to someone. This is how it would play out: I would see someone and wonder, “Do they know Jesus?” Passion would then kick in and say, “If you don’t know, you should find out.” Which meant that I would have to approach a complete stranger and try to find out if they believed in Jesus. I would rationalize, “I don’t know them, they’re probably busy, that’s a deep conversation for a stranger to just walk up and start, I need to get to work” or any number of things. Passion speaks up again, “Don’t reason your way out of this, you need to do this.” And because I thought living passionately meant to be undaunted by reason and even common sense, I would give in.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reach out to strangers. There are examples in Scripture and in present day of the Holy Spirit directing someone to help or talk to a stranger that really opened the door for them to hear the gospel. The deciding factor should be: was it the Holy Spirit that led me to do this or was it my being overzealous? In most cases for me, it was overzealousness. Did your parents ever say something along the lines of: “You don’t have to say everything you think.”? Well, mine certainly did and I see that same principle when it comes to walking by faith. We need to be open and willing to do whatever the Lord calls us to do; however, we don’t have to do something just because we’re willing to do it. Just because it entered our minds, doesn’t mean it’s from the Lord and we should do it. But passion, untempered by reason, will lead us to believe we should do a great many things that the Lord has not really told us to do.

This is not a new struggle for Christians, but we are in need of constant reminder of it. Like most issues concerning truth, people swing to one end of the spectrum or the other. There are those, that walk in untempered passion believing that reason waters down passion and hinders us from fully loving Christ. Then there are those who see the foolishness done by the former and refuse to give in to any hype. They’re all logic. Which wouldn’t be so bad except possessing only logic keeps us from imagining, from vision, and from risk, and we can never see the Kingdom come without these.

In his book, “Orthodoxy”, G.K. Chesterton says that the point is not to maintain a perfect balance of one thing or another – in this case, passion and logic. Rather than trying to juggle the right amount of one thing and another, we should simply be full of both. So, we shouldn’t have the right amount of logic and the right amount of passion trying not to tip the scales in one direction or the other. Besides, who’s to say what the balanced formula is? Instead, we should be fully passionate and fully logical; hence, logical passion. Or I suppose the reverse is true – passionate logic. If we can learn to walk in both, we will find that they actually fuel each other, rather than quench each other. It has been my experience that passion does not fuel more passion. If we keep fueling passion with more passion, in time, it will lead to disillusionment, which quickly kills passion. Therefore, passion feeding on itself eventually dies.

Passion needs logic to keep burning. We need reasons to stay passionate more than just for the sake of being passionate. Truth fuels passion. The “cold, hard facts” actually drive us to greater passion. The fact that human trafficking exists in the world fuels me to passionately seek justice. The fact that prejudice exists in the world fuels me to passionately seek peace. The fact that there are people groping for the hope that I know is found in Christ, fuels me to passionately make that hope known in word and deed.

In conclusion, whatever end of the spectrum you are on, don’t seek to swing to the middle, your momentum will just take you to the other extreme. Drop the pendulum altogether and simply embrace both passion and reason as a united whole.

The Miracle of Community

The thing about miracles is that we can’t control them. I believe in them, I’ve seen them, but I can’t say that I’ve ever controlled when they took place. I’ve prayed for one person and they got well, I’ve prayed for another and they didn’t recover. Was it a lack of faith, the sovereignty of God, punishment for sin, or just the way of this broken world? People offer all these reasons and more. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I see a miracle at work in the midst of these doubtful times. I see the miracle of community. I would like to use an illustration from my wife’s childhood to explain.

When my wife was a child she had a brother who contracted spinal meningitis at only 7 weeks old. From then until the day he died, at the age of six, Sean was in need of 24/7 care. The care he received was more than medical. People would come by regularly to pray for him and encourage the family in some way. “The house was always full of people” my wife would tell me. The suffering experienced by her family resulted in a non-stop display of faithful love and community to this family for six years! The community that existed around, and because of, Sean brought joy in spite of sorrow and comfort in troubling times. It made this overwhelming burden possible to bear.

There were some, however, that made the burden heavier, those who said, “You don’t have enough faith.” What good is that to a family in desperate search of God’s intervention. All a statement like that really does is make things harder. In fact, it does the opposite of what those who say such things hope for. It causes people to look at themselves rather than God. I think if you want to increase someone’s faith you should magnify God, who He is and what He’s capable of, not belittle the faith of those hanging on with what faith they have. Besides, the truth is that in this present age we will experience death. All the Apostles, who did amazing miracles, died. Lazarus, who was raised from the dead, died again later on in life. We can’t hold off death forever, until that day when Christ tramples death underfoot once and for all.

Anyway, as I thought all of this over I realized that my wife and her family received something greater than a miracle – they received community. Through this experience, people were brought together and God was glorified. He was glorified because his people came together in love and bore one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). He was glorified because prayer was answered. Not the prayers of my wife’s family, but the prayer of Jesus when he prayed that we would be one (John 17).

I believe my in-laws, who at that time were new Christians, were taught the most important truth about the Kingdom – love. This came at a crucial time in the development of their faith. Perhaps they could have learned how to have faith that could move mountains, but they would have missed the greater truth: “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love I am nothing.” They learned how to persist in faith in spite of not seeing their prayers answered the way they wanted, they learned how to journey with others through suffering, and to this day, they remain examples of compassion, steadfastness, and community. These are what Jesus desires more than miracles and displays of power.

Jesus confirms this when one day the disciples came back from their ministry assignments rejoicing that the demons submitted to them. Jesus responded by saying, “Do not rejoice because the demons submit to you, rather, rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” In other words, don’t rejoice that you have power, rejoice that you are part of the heavenly community. That is not to say there is no power, but that there is something greater than power. For the power to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and so forth, is only available to us because we belong to the heavenly community, remove the power and the community still exists, but if you remove the community, everything else goes with it.

I am now to a place in life where I get to experience the same thing. My parents recently revealed to us, children, that my Dad’s cancer has become more aggressive. So much so, that the doctors have given him a 25% chance of living beyond two years. We have been praying for his healing since we found out about the cancer, and yet here we are. But this reality of community is the one good thing I find in all of this. For my brothers and I, along with our families, have been spread out across the globe and yet on hearing this news we have all decided to leave our respective areas of service to move back home to be with Dad. It’s been a long time since we were all within close proximity of each other for more than a week. But when hardship arose, I witnessed love bring us together again showing that, in spite of distance, our community remains intact.

Honestly, I’m still expecting my Dad to be healed and to live to a ripe, old age. In the mean time I’m looking forward to sweet times spent with my family and friends back home. I’m also looking forward to the way Jesus will build our community for the sake of His name and our own good. “Let your Kingdom come!”

Where I Found God

Every evening as I lay my children to sleep I pray over them. On this particular evening my spirit felt over-full. Too many thoughts, too many desires, and a few frustrations. I started to pray but it felt shallow and empty. I began to search my heart, “Where are you God?” I thought. I couldn’t seem to find that restful sense of His presence. I tried to just pray through it but felt I was going nowhere. So I quit trying, not in a despairing sort of way, but because I know that when I get too overloaded I just need to stop and let God reveal Himself. The moment that I stopped I looked down at my hand, I was gently rubbing it back and forth over my daughter’s back, just as my Mom used to do to me. At that moment I felt God’s presence return. It was there, in gentle, loving interaction with my child that I found the Lord. I had searched so hard in my spirit, but all along He was there in my hand and in my little girl. Peace came back over me and words were no longer necessary, for everything I would have asked for in prayer was already in place. My children were safe and secure, they were healthy and happy, and according to the presence I felt at that moment, I knew that the Lord was already with them, keeping watch over them as they slept. All that was really left to say was, “Thank you.”

The Briefcase and the Shovel

It was a particularly hot August morning, the kind in which one can literally see steam rising from a jogger’s skin. Despite this, Michael Faeworth wore his normal work suit and set off from his condo at a brisk, happy trot. There was one oddity about the scene though. Mr. Faeworth had in one hand his briefcase, and in the other a shovel. People starred as he passed by for the shovel was old looking with a bit of rust. It certainly didn’t look like something he would normally posses. And, in fact, it wasn’t. Mr. Faeworth had borrowed the old shovel from the gardener who tended the landscaping around Mr. Faeworth’s office.
On his way to work, Michael Faeworth was certain to see two things. The first is a group of construction workers renovating old buildings into condos like his. The second is a homeless man who resides between the staircases between the bank and the library. The former always greeted Mr. Faeworth sarcastically, despising him for his comfortable desk job. The latter always confronted Mr. Faeworth with the same plea for assistance. Mr. Faeworth was a tender-hearted man who regretted both situations. To the first he always simply smiled and waved, and to the second he always kept some spare change in his shirt pocket which he quietly gave with a broad smile and sad eyes.
This morning, the construction workers took special care to poke fun at him for carrying the shovel. They said things like, “The broad end goes in the ground.” or “Careful you don’t blister.” One man even offered his gloves.
Mr. Faeworth, simply smiled and said, “Thanks for the tips,” as he prepared to hand a few bills over to the homeless man. As he was doing so, another construction worker came out of the building and noticed Mr. Faeworth and his shovel. The newcomer cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Do you know what to do with that thing?” Mr. Faeworth paused, looked at the shovel, looked at the workers, then finally at the homeless man. “What is your name sir?” Michael asked the man. “Brant,” the man replied, a little confused (for no one cared to ask before), “Howard Brant.” “Nice to meet you Mr. Brant. May I ask – do you know how to use this thing?” asked Mr. Faeworth as he lifted the shovel. “Yes sir.” replied Mr. Brant. Mr. Faeworth turned to the workers and asked, “Didn’t I hear you all bickering about who was going to dig the trench for the new power line?” Upon saying this, he turned and gave the shovel to the man named Brant and told him, “They pay diggers thirteen dollars per hour.”
Mr. Faeworth walked away leaving the the workers in shamed silence, since they had never thought to help the homeless man before. Mr. Brant was filled with gratitude but also felt a bit awkward knowing that his benefit was the workers insult. When Mr. Faeworth arrived at his office he was met by the gardener who had watched the whole transaction with the construction workers and Mr. Brant. The gardener said, “Those workers teased you for not knowing what to do with that shovel, but I’d say you knew exactly what to do with it.”
Mr. Faeworth just smiled. He was happy to have silenced the workers and more happy to have helped Mr. Brant. He took in the event for a moment until he heard the gardener say, “There’s only one problem though.” “Problem? What’s that?” asked Mr. Faeworth. The gardener replied with a sigh and a smile, “That was my shovel.”

Jesus Loves Me

“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus love me! The Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me He who died heaven’s gates to open wide.
He will wash away my sin. Let His little child come in.

Refrain

Jesus loves me, loves me still, though I’m very weak and ill.
From His shining throne on high, comes to watch me where I lie.

Refrain

Jesus loves me, He will stay close beside me all the way.
If I love Him when I die, He will take me home on high.

Refrain”

I kept hearing these words playing over and over in my head as I lay in bed staring out the window. I was sick, probably more sick than I realized at the time. It was 2006 and I was on my first trip to the Philippines. I’d been in the country for about three weeks when I started feeling this way. I can’t say for certain because I never had it confirmed, but I think I had Dengue fever. My temperature was a consistent 103 F, my head pounded with every beat of my heart, and I was so weak I could barely even sit up for more than five minutes at a time. I had been this way for three days when this song started playing in my head.

Since I could do nothing else, I just lay there listening to this song as if it were being sung to me by a voice not my own. As I listened I looked out on the jungle that surrounded our compound. It was evening and the setting sun shone through the palm trees, turning them a warm, comforting orange. Never before had a color made me feel so at ease. What was more was that song, I couldn’t stop it. It just played on, and as it did the words became more real to me than ever before – “They are weak, but He is strong… Jesus loves me loves me still, though I’m very weak and ill… Jesus loves me He will stay, close beside me all the way.” Despite my throbbing aching body, I was at peace. And oh what peace! At that particular moment I was almost certain I was going to die. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure if I was still alive. The peace was so great, Jesus so near, the light so brilliant, comforting, and warm, that I thought I might have already entered heaven.

Since, you are now reading this you can guess how the sickness ended – I lived! My fever broke and within two or three days, I was back to full health. Honestly, I was a little disappointed to not have gone to be with Jesus. However, because of that experience of feeling Jesus so near me when I thought I was facing death, I know (although I do too often forget) that Jesus is with me in every circumstance. He’s there singing over me. I now know indeed that… Jesus loves me.