Unbalanced

towel & bowlWe are now eight days into January 2019, and the freshness of the new year is already wearing off for some who are struggling to keep their newly minted resolutions untarnished by neglect . If you’re already there, take heart! I’m just getting started hashing out my resolutions and goals for 2019, so you’re way ahead of me! Hashing out seems like an unusual way to describe the setting of admirable new goals. It’s a messy, hard-work word, nothing like the shiny, idealistic goal-setting I’ve done in the past. Honestly, for the last few years, I’ve just carried over my resolution from year to year and set new small-step goals to achieve my ultimate goal: balance. Year after year I go at it from a different angle, with a new plan and fresh energy. Year after year I never get there. And year after year I feel defeated. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein comes to mind, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” That’s an uncomfortably accurate description of my past resolutions. It’s time to reconsider my goal. Why do I want balance in my life?  What is it about the idea of balance that is so appealing? Is it the culture’s call for balance? After all, magazines, blogs, self-help books, and podcasts tout balance in all things. Is it my pride calling for the display of something admirable in my life? The answers to those questions remain elusive, though in some measure I should probably answer “yes” to the last two. But there is another question I cannot answer with a confident “yes.”

I have begun to wonder whether true balance is even the ideal in a Christian’s life. Does God command balance in the lives of Jesus’ followers? I have yet to find any such reference in the Bible. A quick internet search turns up numerous articles from Christian authors and publications recommending balance. But after reading them, they really seem to be encouraging a life sold-out to God, cultivating a sound mind by knowing Scripture, and taking care of our God-given responsibilities. Maybe it’s just semantics, but that sounds to me more like surrender and obedience than balance.

Balance would feel like a wonderfully secure spot for me: ordered, predictable, stress-free, and manageable. I think I would be pretty happy with myself if I ever achieved it because it’s an illusion of control. And boy, do I like control. However, to maintain said “balance” would require some rigidity and diligence. I am certainly capable of rigidity – it goes hand-in-hand with control. But how can I say, “Yes, Lord,” to God’s interruptions in my life if my focus is on maintaining the static state of balance?

A number of years ago, I heard a pastor say, in reference to the prompting of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-7), “You haven’t lived until you have lived at the mercy of the Wind.” That stuck with me. I am learning, slowly, to be intentional with my time and energy yet alert and ready to respond to the wind of the Spirit of God. I can’t do that and maintain “balance.” I’d rather be moved by the Spirit, available to be led and used for the purposes of God. Not flighty or drifting, but responsive to His leading, praying for discernment to recognize His call, and a willing heart to say, “Yes, Lord,” when He interrupts my plans.

As I pray and plan for this new year, the idea of balance won’t be my target. I will not retool and make another run at achieving the dubious trophy of balance. The resolutions that come to mind are not achievements but character qualities: humble, obedient, intentional, mindful, available, and servant. I want to be obedient to God’s commands with a humble heart, seeking His glory, not my own. Such a goal will require intentional and sometimes hard choices about how I spend my time, my energy, and my influence. Regular evaluation and accountability are good ways to stay mindful about my goals and make needed course-corrections. And then there is that ‘available’ word. The one that puts self to death. The one that says, “Not my plans, Lord, but Yours.” The word that upsets balance for sold-out. That word needs to go on my bathroom mirror, I think. Because available is a serving word. Available implies being prepared for action at any time. Available means being ready to put my plans and desires aside when the Spirit of God calls. Available will be costly. But I am, after all, His servant. So with Mary, I say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your Word.”

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Just For The Joy Of It

pexels-photo-66100.jpegDo you appreciate encouragement? Isn’t it nice to hear words of thanks and know you have made a difference in someone’s life? Does positive feedback give you an added boost of energy to continue in the task at hand? Are those silly questions? Of course they are, because appreciation and encouragement are universally positive. Gratefulness and encouragement are both common themes in the Bible, and should be significant qualities in the life of a Christian.

In his New Testament letters, the apostle Paul frequently urges his readers to encourage one another, and in Hebrews 3 he even adds “daily” to his instruction to encourage other believers. The church would benefit greatly from more gratefulness and encouragement. I know I can do more to encourage others, such as writing letters to thank those who have helped shape my faith and my walk with Christ.

Recently, I was blessed to receive such encouragement. It came in the form of a message from a younger woman who had been a faithful member of a Bible study group I help lead. Now on the women’s Bible study leadership team in a church plant, she is unable to attend our weekly Bible study. She thanked me and wanted me to know that, “Your investment in my heart is now being poured into a new group of young mothers.” Wow! I was (and still am) so excited to see discipleship in action, exactly as the church is supposed to function! How thrilling to see God at work through this godly younger woman. How delightful to be part of that work. It makes me want to roll up my sleeves, study my heart out, and go explore God’s Word with these faithful women. What a recharge! Who knows what may come of it?

Then another thought followed. What if NOTHING came of it? What if there were no grateful updates, no new leaders launched, no visible results? Would I be so excited to study God’s Word, prepare lessons, be at the church every Wednesday morning? Could I see myself doing the same thing year after year without encouragement until God redirected me? Could I approach each study session with equal enthusiasm? Or would I eventually suffer discouragement and burnout? And maybe even drop out? Such a thought is sobering, because I know how easy it is for me to become discouraged over slow growth or no growth in people I am pouring into.

So what’s the answer? Focus. The object of my eyes determines the state of my heart, regardless of circumstances. If I am focused on results, I have set myself up to be discouraged. Serving the god of results is a sure path to burnout. But if I am not focused on results, what is to be my motivation? Who is crazy enough to work hard for no visible results? I’ll tell you who. It is those who know the living God as Father. It is those who serve Him simply for the joy of obedience to Him. There can be no higher motivation than to return the love of our gracious, merciful, loving, heavenly Father by obeying His commands.

Obedience is an overarching Biblical theme from Genesis to Revelation. In the New International Version, “obey” is used 143 times, and “obedience” 34 times. That doesn’t include all the biblical synonyms for obedience such as do, walk, follow, heed, keep, fulfill, or observe! That’s a lot of obedience! Scripture shows us obedience comes with blessing (James 1:25; Luke 11:28; John 14:23) and disobedience comes with cursing (Deut. 11:26, and the entire Jewish history found in Kings and Chronicles). But the threat of dire consequences does not bring about heartfelt obedience. No, it is love that moves a heart to obey. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15 ). Even Jesus said His obedience showed the world that He loved the Father (John 14:31). A heart moved by gratitude and love finds joy in obeying the object of its affection.

In 2 Chronicles 29 and 30, under the leadership of King Hezekiah, the Jewish kingdom of Judah finds great joy in heartfelt obedience to God. Immediately upon taking the throne, twenty-five-year-old Hezekiah led the nation to return to faithful obedience to the Lord their God after years of apostasy. He opened the long-shut temple doors, and repaired them. He gathered the priests and the Levites and instructed them to first consecrate themselves, and then to set to work purifying the temple. In just sixteen days, the work was completed. Early the next morning, Hezekiah gathered the city officials and went up to the temple to offer sacrifices to God according to the Law of Moses. As offerings were being made, cymbals, harps, lyres, trumpets, and voices filled the air with praise to the Lord God. The king and his officials, the priests, the Levites, and everyone present knelt before the Lord in worship. Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced at what God had brought about for His people, because it was done so quickly (2 Chron. 29:36). Then Hezekiah issued an invitation to all of Judah and Israel to come to the temple in Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover as the Lord had commanded. Scripture tells us a very large number of people came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread and Passover. All the preparation, sacrifices, and travel to Jerusalem had been a lot of work and expense. But after the prescribed seven days of offerings, celebration, and praise to God, the people weren’t ready to stop. So they decided to celebrate for seven more days! Obedience had brought long-lost joy to Judah and to those who had come from Israel. “There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the days of Solomon son of David king of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem. The priests and the Levites stood to bless the people, and God heard them, for their prayer reached heaven, his holy dwelling place” (2 Chronicles 30: 26-27). God’s people found great joy in simple obedience. Not in promises of what the results might be, but in faithful execution of the Lord’s commands. Their obedience was its own encouragement.

I want to obey and serve my Lord just for the joy that comes from obedience. Christ has set me free to obey. He set me free from the bondage of sin to be able to say, “Yes, Lord” to whatever He asks. Just to live in obedience is it’s own joyful reward, to be pleasing to God, simply available for Him to use me, whether to bring results in the lives of others, or only in my own life. It would be an added bonus to hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” In our feedback-centric culture, I need to remember that “well-done” does not imply “highly productive” or “well-received.” It just means I did exactly what my Father asked with a happy heart and left the results up to Him.

Yes, I do appreciate the gratefulness and update from my Bible study friend. It IS a recharge to be able to see the results of service to the Lord. But I pray, in the presence of gratitude and encouragement, no matter how much or how little, that my motivation, my hope, my joy, will never be transferred from obedience to results.

What Shall We Sing?

This post was prompted by an article by Joshua Dunn, titled Shake It Off? Secular Songs on Sunday Morning, and posted on http://desiringgod.org/. I reposted the article on Facebook and a sweet Christian friend offered some thoughts on why she feels secular music in the Church is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe it is important to consider the position of those with whom we don’t agree, whether in the Church or the non-Christian community, so I have been chewing on the issue and seeking the Lord. Ultimately, the goal on both sides of the issue should be to arrive at a Biblically supportable conclusion that glorifies God. Please do not hear me say this post is God’s response to my questions, and that this is an oracle from God. These are only my thoughts after considering the issue and spending some time in prayer. I won’t copy my friend’s post here, but will mention a couple of the common arguments given in support of secular music in worship services before responding to the issue at hand.

One argument in support of the use of secular music in worship services is that these songs deal with real life, the pain and heartache of life on earth, and therefore make a good jumping off point from which to point people to the answer found in Scripture, Jesus Christ. Along the same lines, art, in this case music, used to express the thoughts and emotions of humanity, shouldn’t be categorized as secular or Christian, but rather, received as valid expressions of the human condition, whether beautiful or dark. Since secular music can also be followed with messages about the truth of Christ’s ability to heal those hurts expressed in the music, why should we exclude it from worship services?

Proponents of secular music in worship services also argue that familiar secular music may also help unbelievers, “seekers” if you will, connect to the message and the people around them, enabling them to feel more comfortable in an environment that seems foreign. After all, we’re just reaching out and trying to make them feel welcome so we can set the stage for a conversation about Jesus Christ. There’s no harm in that, right? If we consider the issue carefully we will see that there is harm being done. The “seeker friendly” approach to worship services is weakening the Church, making her ineffective at the very task we are trying to accomplish with this approach. Let’s consider just a few of the problems.

The catch in this dilemma lies in the purpose of a worship service. Our worship is to be so God-focused that He is glorified and blessed by our worship and we are changed by His presence and His Word as we worship. No secular music will ever accomplish either of those goals. Gatherings of the Church are to purify and equip the Church to do the work of the ministry (which includes reaching unbelievers with the gospel of Jesus Christ). Unbelievers are always welcome to join us, but their presence should not cause us to alter the way we approach God. It is imperative that the Church stay true to the purpose of a worship service or we are wasting everyone’s time while we deceive ourselves about what we are accomplishing. The purpose of the gathering of the Church is not to present art in order to help us connect with our feelings. The purpose of the gathering of the Church is not to attract unbelievers. The purpose of the gathering of the Church is to build, purify, and keep the Body of Christ oriented toward God. It is a regular re-calibration of our minds and hearts, and an offering of ourselves to God. Worship services are for believers in Jesus Christ. If we stray from our purpose, we lose our direction, and end up creating our own new purpose for our gatherings as the Church. As Voddie Baucham says, “If you don’t know the purpose of a thing, you will probably misuse it.”

The Body of Christ should certainly make an effort to connect with the needs and feelings of those outside the Church who come through our doors, but that does not necessitate that secular music be brought into the worship services. There are volumes upon volumes of hymns, choruses, and contemporary Christian songs that address the pain of life on earth and also direct our hearts to the only God who can heal us. Would it not be better to send unbelieving visitors out the doors of the church building with theologically sound songs of the faith ringing in their ears than to send them out humming the secular (and may I add, hopeless) songs we have promoted in our worship services? What a gift to give people songs that address not only the hardships of life, but also the glorious hope we have in Christ! Please, Church, don’t pass up this opportunity!

Unbelievers should always be welcome when the Church gathers. But it is our difference from the culture, not our sameness that will give them pause. It is our difference as a result of God’s saving and sanctifying work that is attractive. Seeker-focused churches are so bent on being acceptable to the culture, they no longer look different from the culture. Why would unbelievers be drawn to something that looks no different from the world with which they are disenchanted? God is perfectly capable of drawing in unbelievers to gatherings of the Church and keeping them there as long as He desires. We don’t need to divert from our purpose or pollute our worship to get them there. “Seeker friendly” worship services have become a cheap substitute for Church members knowing God’s Word well enough and loving others well enough to spend time and effort to connect with them and share the gospel with them. Evangelism is primarily to be carried out by the Body of Christ in our daily lives – outside the church building. But in our busy, distracted, and biblically illiterate church culture, it is so much easier to just bring them to a “seeker friendly” service. However, a “seeker friendly” style service hijacks the purpose and the focus of a worship service, making it ineffective for its God-given purpose and intended outcome.  My friend Mike Curry addresses the confusion when he says, “The great commission is go and tell, not come and see!”

And finally, there is a strong trend in churches, and among church staff in particular, to look cool and to present cool, flashy “worship” services. As this trend has ramped up, song lyrics have drifted further and further from Biblical truth and sermon content has become shallow. Biblical teaching has become elementary, and appallingly brief. Congregations are fed milk week after week, year after year. The vast majority of the people in the pews have never graduated from Christianity 101. While we water down the content of worship music and teaching for seekers, we are starving the Church. Equally egregious is the fact that those churches are not doing justice to unbelievers who walk through their doors needing to see and experience the holiness of God, not the “relevance” of the church to the culture.

Reading Acts 5, we see that life within the Body of Christ was not seeker-focused in the first century of the Church. How might seekers have responded to the public accountability required of Ananias and Sapphira that ultimately cost them their lives? Even the Church sat up and took notice at this severe and very public church discipline carried out by God Himself. John MacArthur, in his commentary on Acts, calls it a “solemn purging.” Verse 11 says “great fear came over the whole Church and over all who heard of these things.”  Verse 13 tells us that “the rest,” (a reference to unbelievers) were afraid to associate with the Apostles (and I think we can safely add, with the Church). The NIV says, “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.” And yet, in verse 14 we see that God constantly added more and more new believers to the Church. Luke’s use of the term “multitudes” implies there were too many new converts to keep count! How is it possible that multitudes were added to the Church when unbelievers didn’t even dare to associate with the Church? Because it is God who does the drawing and the adding, not man. God doesn’t need us to be “seeker-friendly”, He wants us to be set apart, pure, and holy, a reflection of Himself. That is what attracts seekers. And God will still do the adding.

Rebuilding Again

 

An aha moment, a revelation, an epiphany, call it what you will, I had one today. It began with a rather mundane, and somewhat discouraging event, one that would not normally be something worth writing about. But since it concluded in an encouraging perspective on the Christian’s never-ending battle with sin, it merits sharing.

This morning, I decided today was the day to test my ankle. Today marks six weeks since ankle surgery, and I’m anxious to get it rehabilitated. My hope was that the ankle is healed enough to go beyond the gentle stretching, massage, and ice therapy I’ve been doing for several weeks and might be ready for a little more strenuous exercise in a controlled situation. So I got on my rowing machine and gave the ankle a gentle three-minute workout. Getting off the machine, I thought, “Wow, three whole minutes. Even if the ankle tolerates this well, (the next twenty-four hours will tell!) it’s going to take a while to build back up to my normal rowing time. And even longer to rebuild strength and flexibility in the ankle. Sigh. Rebuilding again.” You see, this is the eighth surgery on this ankle, the eighth time I’ve started over, the eighth season of rebuilding. It seems as soon as the ankle is pain-free, strong enough for moderate activity, and not interfering with daily life, something goes wrong and I’m back in surgery and starting over. Discouragement was lurking in my thoughts. It was time for some truth-telling here. Time to remind myself of what I know, of the truth that encourages and keeps me persevering and hopeful during times of rebuilding. Time to dwell on truth that evokes the gratefulness that will banish discouragement and quash self-pity.

So I reviewed the facts in my mind. Thirty years ago, prosthetic ankle joints didn’t even exist, and I am so thankful to have been accepted into the clinical trial that provided mine thirteen years ago. Without it, I would barely be able to walk by now. The Lord has blessed me with an incredible pioneering surgeon who is highly skilled, internationally acclaimed, and really cares about his patients.  My husband has become a selfless pro at caring for me through surgeries and sometimes long periods of inability to walk during recovery. He never complains. Our family has been supportive and helpful through round after round of incapacitated Mom, and always with cheerfulness. The body of Christ has come alongside us and helped in a myriad of ways by praying, bringing meals, cleaning, making the six-hour post-op trips to Dallas with me, and providing companionship during long weeks of restricted mobility. I know each surgery is correcting a problem, and I’ll be better in the long run. The downtime and rehabilitation is worth the reward of a season of improved function and reduced pain. That’s a mountain of blessing to be grateful for, and a strong antidote to discouragement.

As I countered discouragement with truth this morning, and adjusted my attitude toward rebuilding the ankle, the Aha! struck.  I realized that this process of rebuilding an ankle is not unlike the spiritual reconstruction God does in His children. Jeremiah 31:28 describes the tearing down and rebuilding of Israel, “As I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD. Israel’s gracious God was speaking of wounding to heal, of tearing down to rebuild something better. God had broken down the cities of His people, Israel, due to their sin. He had plucked them up and sent them into captivity in Babylon. Physical disaster had followed their sinful spiritual disaster. Pain and discouragement had been Israel’s familiar companions in Babylon. But then God spoke of bringing them back to their land, of healing their wounds, restoring their spiritual health, rebuilding their nation, and renewing their hope and their joy. Ultimately this prophecy would find its complete fulfillment in the New Covenant, inaugurated by their long-awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ. But for a time, Israel had been brought to repentance. The nation was ready to be rebuilt, replanted, and restored. And God would send the prophet Nehemiah to lead the rebuilding and to speak truth into their discouragement during the arduous task.

Our gracious heavenly Father not only performs spiritual surgery on an entire nation, He is Jehovah Rapha, The LORD Who Heals each one of His children of our sinfulness. The cutting out process is undoubtedly uncomfortable, but when we submit ourselves to the loving ministrations of the Great Physician, we can be confident that His work of reconstruction will yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). I had the opportunity to undergo such spiritual surgery a few months ago. The problem was a past pattern of sin that the Lord had dealt with years ago: worship of the opinions of man. I was so thankful He had freed me from this bondage, and for many years it wasn’t a problem, but now it was back. How appalling to see it resurface! I was so dismayed and discouraged, “Lord, here I am again, dealing with the same old sin that I thought was gone. I’m so sorry. Whatever will You do with me? I feel like a hopeless case.” It was time for some truth-telling, and a review of God’s Word. Our tender healer Father doesn’t see one of His children as a hopeless case, because He has the power to change us, to sanctify us. Sanctification means to be set apart from the world, reserved for God’s purposes, and in order to do that, the Lord must rebuild us. It is a process of tearing down our old thinking and behavior patterns, constructing new thinking and a new way of living, and letting us concentrate on that for a season.  Later, there will be other issues in our lives that God will address as He sanctifies us, and we will go through the cycle again. Discipline, spiritual surgery, is a normal, expected, and good thing in the life of a Christian. Proverbs 3:11-12 tells us that discipline, or chastening, by the Lord proves His love and acceptance of us as His child, for He disciplines us as a father disciplines a child he delights in. We also learn from these verses how we are to respond to His chastening. We are not to rebel against God by rejecting, despising, or refusing His discipline. Nor are we to respond with the opposite extreme of sickening dread, loathing, or grief. In Hebrews 12:5-6, the author quotes Proverbs 3:11-12, and describes this response as “losing heart.” He goes on to explain that every true child of God receives His discipline, and we should submit to it because it is for our good, that we may share in God’s holiness. Though it seems painful at the time, God’s discipline produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:5-13). So we are not to be discouraged when we feel like we’re back to a spiritual square one. Sanctification involves tearing down in order to rebuild, and it’s a welcome process, a blessing in the life of a Christian. Chastening reminds me that I am truly the daughter of God, a sister of Christ, and dearly loved. It reminds me that my Father is working to develop holiness, righteousness, and peace in me. That, too, is a mountain of blessing to be grateful for, and a strong antidote to discouragement.

I Don’t Have a Home

Wisdom worth sharing from a young friend.

sarjohnsonblog

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve said “I’m going home” and then had to further clarify where I’m going. I use “home” to describe a number of different places: My parents’ house in Fort Wayne, my house at school in Bloomington, Acacia 4 at the ‘Buni in Kitale; Kenya, the two-story burnt orange house with the pool in the backyard in Sabadell; Spain, the girl’s home run by nuns in Abancay; Peru.

It has come to the point where “home” is somewhat of an obsolete term for me. When I use it, no one knows where I’m actually referring to. It always requires further clarification.

And it hurts my mom’s feelings sometimes. Especially when I refer to my house in Bloomington as home. She so desperately wants my home to be with her, always. And while my home is with her in Fort Wayne, it’s a number…

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When Christmas Gets Squeezed

Christmas 2016 was looking like one of those years. I’ve had them more times than I care to remember, and I really thought I was beyond them. Beyond the stress of insufficient time to accomplish the mile-long task list in the run-up to Christmas Day. Beyond last-minute shopping in picked-over stores. Beyond eleventh-hour dithering about what to feed our family when they all gathered to celebrate Christmas in our home. Beyond late night gift wrapping sessions that left me with aching shoulders and promises to myself that next year would be different. Next year, I would have preparations finished before Thanksgiving so I could relax and enjoy a meaningful, unhurried Christmas season.

But I was wrong. I wasn’t beyond any of that, and the circumstances were completely out of my control. It was November 29, 2016, not one preparation had been made, and all our adult kids and grandkids would be in our home on December 3rd to celebrate Christmas, exchange gifts with each other, and enjoy just being together (a rare treat since one has been living in south Florida). I was so far behind, there wasn’t anything I could do to get everything done and have a relaxed, peaceful, Christ-focused Christmas season. After all, there was the tree to put up and decorate, the wreath for the front door, and little Christmasy touches to arrange in the rest of the house. Meals and snacks to plan, and gifts to purchase and wrap. Oh, and did I mention that we moved two months ago? And downsized? And still have half our belongings in boxes in the garage? And had to find sheets and blankets for guest beds? And one bedroom still needed a bed frame and bedding in a size I didn’t have? And the house hadn’t been cleaned in a month because we were focused on unpacking from our own move and helping our daughter and son-in-law move from Miami to the Midwest on a three week notice? And all this with the constant pain of an ankle that needs yet another surgery.

There’s more, but I’ll spare you the details. You get the picture. This was shaping up to be the least prepared, most stressful Christmas in thirty-five years of marriage. It was overwhelming, and I was near melt-down. Slipping through my fingers was the time I craved to sit at the feet of my Lord and marvel at His coming. To savor the wonder of God Himself, wrapped in human form, humbly housed in a stable, helpless and poor, coming to earth to become one of us. And all because He loves us. What an incredible God we have, and we have the whole month of December set aside to ponder His inconceivable gift of love, His Son, Jesus Christ.

Unless, of course, your world has been turned topsy-turvy and you’re a disorganized mess. Once again, I was going to miss Christmas. Oh, not the actual day, but the season of quiet, honed-in reflection that wakens hearts to the reason for the celebration. With all the preparations to be made, there wouldn’t be enough time for that. Christmas would come and go in the midst of frenetic activity and leave me feeling empty. Christmas was getting squeezed. Again. Something had to give, but what? What could I delete from my to-do list in order to make room for time with Christ this Christmas season? Not gifts for family. Maybe a tree? Decorations? Special baked treats? What would Christmas be without those? If I had to choose only one thing to have at Christmas what would it be? The answer seemed easy, Jesus, of course! But I had never thought about actually celebrating Christmas without anything but Jesus. Could I do it? Could I truly enjoy a Christmas without a tree and decorations, food and festivities? It seemed so forlorn, but then again, peaceful. Lacking, but full. Different, but right. When the thought first came, I felt a little sorry for myself. What a sad, bleak Christmas that would be. But what is the lack of a tree and shiny ornaments compared to the gift of a Savior and time to spend with Him? Would I really rather have the trappings of the celebration than the Christ we celebrate? Could I joyfully choose to spend my widow’s mite of discretionary time all on my Lord? Is there anything or anyone more worthy? My mind turned the corner. An unadorned Christmas might be a really good opportunity to put into practice what I say I believe, that Christmas is nothing without Jesus. That we need to choose carefully what we allow in our Christmas celebration, lest we find ourselves swept along in the torrent of Christ-less festivities that threatens to drown out the true meaning of Christmas. That Christ alone is enough in any circumstance, including a Christmas devoid of decorations and culinary delights. The mere possibility of a season of quiet contemplation flooded in like warm sunshine, bringing immediate relief. Yes, I was willing to forego decorations for fellowship with my Savior. If I had to choose, I would choose Jesus. And peace.

And it was a good weekend. There were no decorations, no special foods. We ate sandwiches for lunch and ordered pizza for dinner. The kids exchanged gifts and played with the little ones and enjoyed each other. Armed with coats, gloves, and umbrellas, we braved a light rain to watch the Civil War reenactment on the battlefield across the road from our home. We warmed up with hot chocolate, coffee, and laughter. And not once during the weekend did I notice the lack of Christmas décor. What I did notice was the lack of stress. Instead of empty, I was content.

Have I given up all hope of a decorated home and a warm batch of molasses cookies this year? Not on your life. But if homemade cookies and a bedecked tree happen, it will be because the Lord made provision, not because I prioritized a pretty home over a season of worshiping Him. I will seek first the kingdom of God, and let Him decorate the season as He sees fit. After all, the most beautiful adornments of Christmas are hearts contented with the peace, joy, and love of our Savior.

 

But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.(Matthew 6:33)

The Election Diversion

With less than 24 hours left until our nation elects a new president, there is much talk of election weariness. And no wonder, not only are we media-saturated, but our media is saturated with partisan bickering, accusations, and unthinkable rudeness. Statesmanship seems to have disappeared from the planet in the nastiest campaign season anyone can remember. More disturbing than the focus of American politics, however, is the focus of the American church, because the church is focused on politics. We seem to think our fate hangs in the balance of the presidential election of 2016, and our righteousness will be determined by how we cast our vote. Based on the number of diatribes on all forms of media, expounding why Christians must or mustn’t vote for a particular candidate, we seem to think we can determine our future by preserving our rights and controlling our circumstances. The church seems to have forgotten that God alone is the sovereign ruler of our times and circumstances, that we have surrendered our rights to Him, and now our responsibility is to trust and glorify Him in whatever circumstance He chooses for us. We are so bent on avoiding persecution and suffering that our hand-wringing rhetoric belies our declarations of faith in a loving, trustworthy, Almighty God.

Sadly, there is more to lose from a wrong perspective of suffering than our witness to the watching world. While we are working feverishly to protect our rights and reputations, influence our friends’ votes, get the “right” candidates in office, and control our uncertain future, we are failing to prepare for the one thing we know our future holds: suffering. Jesus was very clear in John 15 when He told His disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” And again in the next chapter, Jesus warns of the need for patient endurance in suffering, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Please do not interpret that to mean we shouldn’t discuss the issues, pray earnestly for God’s hand to be at work in our nation, and vote. Those aren’t just rights they are privileges, given by God, and should be stewarded with the utmost care. What I am saying is that elections and issues should not distract us from being prepared to suffer, and to suffer well. What does it mean to suffer well? Let’s look at some inspiring heroes of the Scriptures.

Jesus told the apostles that they would have opportunities to share the gospel with governors and kings, and their entrance into the halls of government would be by arrest and flogging. He reassured them that when they were arrested, they had no cause to worry about what they would say because they would be given the words to say when the time came, it would not be the apostles speaking, but the Holy Spirit speaking through them. Stop right there. Worry about what to say? Really? My ears would not have heard anything Jesus said after the word ‘flogged’. What I was going to say would be the furthest thing from my mind if I had just been informed that I was going to be flogged. But Jesus completely bypassed the issue of flogging and how much pain they would have to endure, because the main point was the opportunity to preach the gospel. Persecution and suffering don’t even get a mention. They’re just useful tools to get an audience.

Paul’s request for prayer from the believers in Ephesus never mentions relief from suffering. Instead, Paul asks for fearlessness and words from God that he may make known the gospel (Eph. 6:19-20). In his letter to the Philippian church Paul seeks to reassure his friends that though he is under house arrest in Rome, he is rejoicing because his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ. The entire palace guard has heard of Paul’s faith, and in spite of the obvious dangers of preaching Christ, other believers have become emboldened to fearlessly speak the Word of God. Paul seems to have no concern about his fate, only that he not fail to preach Christ with courage. Paul is also concerned for the well-being of the church. He does not once express hope that they will not suffer, rather his primary concern is how his beloved friends conduct themselves when suffering comes. He encourages them not to fear those who oppose them, but keep their focus on God’s saving hand. Paul wants them to imitate the humility of Christ in suffering while complaining about nothing, putting no confidence in human ability but looking forward to the resurrection of those who belong to Jesus Christ. He tells them they will find peace by fixing their thoughts on the truth of God, and sets the example of contentment in any and every situation.

That message is as shockingly counter-cultural, and contrary to human nature today as it was in Paul’s day. But by now, it shouldn’t be. At least not in the Church. We have had two thousand years to read, study, and digest the riches of God’s Word, and its inspiring accounts of those who were gladly willing to suffer for the advancement of the gospel and the glory of the God they so dearly loved. We have access to the biographies of countless saints who have gone before us, declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ while being tortured and martyred. The American Church should, by now, have a solid understanding of suffering to the glory of God, but we don’t.

What kind of response do you think you might receive from your Christian friends if you responded to their difficult circumstances with a promise that you would pray for them to suffer well? That’s not how we pray in America! We want suffering to end now, and that is the outcome for which we ask our friends to pray. The Church in America has such a reputation for praying to escape persecution, that our persecuted brothers and sisters in other countries sometimes fear asking Americans to pray for them. If they do ask, it is with the request that we please not pray that God would stop the persecution, but instead ask that He would give them faith, boldness, and courage to be His witnesses in the persecution. Their perspective is that the persecution is working perfectly to display the joy and peace and grace of Christ’s followers, to the glory of God. They just want to display Christ more clearly, pray for that.

The persecuted church today is gracefully following in the footsteps of the Apostles, who “went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame [and flogging!] for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42). No fear, just trust in their Lord. Are you, am I ready to gracefully join them when the opportunity comes? Let’s back up several paces from the large-looming spectacle of our national elections, and consider our lives in the canvass of the even larger picture of redemption and restoration that God is now creating through His bride, the Church. I have been convicted to do less fretting and more preparing, both for myself and those to whom I have the responsibility of guiding, teaching, and shepherding. I have some work to do, and I pray you will do the same, because the opportunity to suffer for our Lord is coming sooner than we think.