God and Waiting…

Several years back our family vacation to Maine provided one of those unique opportunities to learn the fine art of waiting. With young kids we figured we could make the trip from Jersey to Maine in several days. Here is what we pictured: Arriving leisurely at the hotel in the afternoon, swimming with the kids, and a casual breakfast the next morning. Here is what we didn’t picture: Stop and go traffic on I-95 the entire length of the Eastern Seaboard, arriving at our hotel at 10:00 PM, and several very tired kids. You guessed it: The first picture was a fairy-tale, the second one reality!

Our first night’s stop was at Plymouth. The next day we met seasoned actors who portrayed for us the first pilgrims. I was stuck again by their peacefulness. Here I had just traveled more land miles in one day, than most of them would travel in a lifetime. Yet the early pilgrims were satisfied to put in a full-days work, get a good night’s rest, fear God, and read their Scriptures. (It caused me to wonder how I was doing on those last two items in our two-day scramble to Maine). It also caused me to think about vacations for all of us. Sometimes we are in such a hurry: We don’t want to miss one moment in the mountains, or one-second in the surf.

Have we given adequate time to renew our soul in the Scriptures, or sufficient time to let our heart dwell upon fearing God?  Could that be the reason the pilgrims seemed to live peaceful lives, and we struggle to even have a peaceful vacation?

Isaiah said: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31). So this season learn a lesson from the pilgrims: fear God, and spend some time in the Scriptures, it might even make your waiting worth your while.

God is not in a hurry…

Have you ever noticed that God is not in a hurry? Admittedly, often we are. Getting kids ready for school, rush hour traffic, and spilled coffee often have us scrambling to make up lost time. But not God. Simply put, He may take 40 days or 40 years. In God’s timetable there are no rush orders.

Take Moses for instance. Few Old Testament saints measure up to this man. He scores well in  character, leadership, and humility. In a very real way, God and he were on a first name basis. And yet, even Moses didn’t get there overnight. 

Early in his life he tried to free the Hebrews in a hurry.  He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. He was looking to speed up God’s timetable of alleviating the persecution of the Jews. He was a born leader and anxious to get to it. But God wasn’t in a hurry. In fact he had him spend the next 40 years of his life in the desert leading sheep. At the end of that time, God felt he was ready to lead the  Jews.

God took time with Moses, and He will take time with us. He needed to remove the arrogant leadership style that Moses had picked up in  Pharaoh’s household. So for forty years Moses served as a shepherd.

During that time he learned the ways of the desert. He would spend another forty years of his life there, but leading people not sheep. Two million to be exact! So God took time  to teach him the ways of the desert.

But God also taught him the ways of humility. To go from growing up in Pharaoh’s household to the nomadic lifestyle of a shepherd didn’t look like a brilliant career move! But God needed Moses’ humility more than He needed his ability. God was more interested in Moses’ development than in his immediate  accomplishment.

Which brings to mind an interesting thought: Perhaps the reason God isn’t in a hurry is because we are. And character traits like humility will always take time to develop.

Courage in the Face of Storms

There is a simple prayer uttered by the early disciples of Christ in Acts chapter 4.  In the face of threats from the religious bureaucracy of the day they prayed to the Lord for courage. In their words, “grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word” (Acts 4:29). Remarkably, in spite of the persecution that ensued, God honored that request.  What you discover is a group of men who preached the gospel about Jesus Christ in spite of the outcome.

While at the temple they were found to be preaching the message of salvation through Jesus and they were thrown in prison (Acts 5:17).

 Unbeknownst to the jealous religious leaders, and the jail-keepers that night an angel let them out of prison. The next morning when the leaders went to the prison to bring them to trial, they opened the door and found they weren’t there! But these prisoners didn’t simply evaporate. While the high priest wandered how he could find them, a messenger brought him word that they were back telling the truth about Jesus in the temple (Acts 5:25) – the very place where they had been arrested the first time. When confronted and asked to stop preaching the message about Jesus, Peter responded, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

 This time before their release they were beaten (Acts 5:40). That would seem to be a fairly effective deterrent for most of us. If when we proclaimed a message we were beaten for it, we might have a tendency to speak with greater political correctness the next time around. However, this group had a different perspective. Know where they went upon their release? Right back to the temple, and there they “didn’t cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42). What a great example these disciples provide us with.  The Gospel of Jesus was something worth being courageous about.

Unanswered Prayer

Few things can frustrate the Christian like unanswered prayer.When God doesn’t appear to answer our requests we may find that doubt is not far behind.  We may doubt the reality of our relationship with Him. We may doubt His ability to hear us. We may doubt His ability to do anything about our requests.

We must remember when God doesn’t appear to answer our prayers it need not cause such doubting.  The Bible reminds us that sometimes are prayers are not answered because we ask with the wrong intentions. James, the brother of Jesus, has written, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.”

We must also remember God’s answer may not come in the way we expect or they way we desire. Evangelist Billy Graham has written, “God is true to His Word and   answers   all   sincere prayers offered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. His answer may be yes, or it may be no, or it may be ‘Wait.’ If it is no or ‘Wait,’ we cannot say that God has not answered our prayer. It simply means that the answer is different than what we expected.”

Although God’s answers may not be what we expected we generally can see God’s purpose when we look in hindsight .I know I have personally given God thanks that He has not answered some of my prayers in the way I had wished. C.S. Lewis once said, “If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where would I be now?”

However, we must never doubt God’s goodness when we don’t find the answers to our prayers we expected. It is as one writer has put it, “When He grants our prayers, it is because He loves us. When He does not, it is also because He loves us.” Well said. God’s love is revealed both through His “yes” and His “no.”

Hiding or Confessing Sin?

There is a word that is small, but in spite of its size it has left a significant impact. It has disrupted nations, families, marriages, and one’s relationship with God. It is discussed in nearly every form of religion, but in no other sacred book is the word treated as thoroughly as it is in the Bible. The word? Sin. Just three little letters, but its impact has touched every human being’s life. It means to violate a law of God, and that violation was so horrific that it caused the death of Christ to restore us to God. Remarkably people have always responded to sin the same way, which is to cover or hide it. The Biblical record shows this. Upon committing the first sin, Adam and Eve hid themselves from God even though they didn’t know why they were doing it  (Gen. 3:8). Upon taking spoil from a battle that he wasn’t supposed to Achan hid the gold and silver under his tent. Having committed adultery with his neighbor’s wife King David devised an elaborate scheme that included the killing of her husband in an attempt to keep his sin hidden. Yet, in every one of these attempts to cover a sin, God revealed it.

David understood that when he recorded in Psalm 32, “when I kept silent my bones grew old.” In fact David only thought he had hidden his sin. God revealed it to the entire nation. That is where David learned a vital lesson about sin. When we cover it God reveals it, but when we reveal it God covers it. He opens Psalm 32 this way, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Remarkably, when David confessed his sin to the Lord he found forgiveness! God wishes for us to deal with our sin through humility and confession. But often our pride is what stubbornly refuses to admit our guilt, and instead attempts to hide the sin. If that has been the pattern of your life please know God longs to bring forgiveness. And He is so serious about that that He may reveal your sin, just so that you would admit your need.

Facing Your Giants

There are a hosts of  Old Testament characters that we would do well to get to know. Caleb is one of them.  His story is told in Numbers 14 and Joshua 14. In the first account you find him with the 12 Israelite spies checking out the promised land.  You may remember that all 12 spies agreed the land was beautiful, but 10 the spies said the present occupants of the land were too big. Only Joshua and Caleb thought that they should take the land, and their reason was significant. They acknowledged that the Anakim people were giants, but they felt that their God was more powerful than the Anakim people. God had promised them that land. That’s why we call it the promised land. Therefore, God must want them to proceed.  God did want them to proceed, but the fear in the hearts of the 10 spies was passed on to the Israelites in their Promised land report, and the people refused to go.  To which God said, “Because of your lack of faith, the adult generation will die in the wilderness, except Joshua and Caleb, because they believed.” For 40 years the Israelites wondered in the wilderness while Moses did their funerals.

Finally, with only Joshua and Caleb as the senior partners, the Israelite’s entered the Promised Land. As was promised by the spies 40 years earlier, the people were big. But as was promised by the two believing spies — their God was bigger! Rivers stopped flowing for them to pass, walls fell down when they marched around them. God’s strategies proved victorious again and again.

And when they completed the taking of the land, and they begin to divide the land, guess whose name appears again? That’s right, Caleb. This time the passage is Joshua 14. As an 85 year old man, he wants the  land where the Anakim dwell! 

Time had not erased his desire to believe God’s promises, and actively place his faith in them.

Thanksgiving and Suffering

I grew up in a church in rural Indiana. As a child I remember the uniqueness of the Sunday night before Thanksgiving. I remember that it was one of the few services that the pastor didn’t preach. Instead I vaguely remember two microphones down front, and that people would just get up and share what they were thankful for. I confess that as 7 year old I didn’t remember the content, but I did remember the experience.

A few years ago, prior to Thanksgiving, we placed two microphones down front and invited people to share what they were thankful for. I confess I was unprepared for the one element that so many of the testimonies had in common . . . suffering. Amazing isn’t it, that the people who have suffered the most seem to be the ones who are most thankful. In a country that seems to have a mission of removing all pain and suffering I found it remarkable that the people who had treaded some really dark times were the ones who were thankful.

The Puritans understood this best 400 years ago. Many of their prayers were recorded in a book entitled: The Valley of Vision.  They understood what many have failed to realize. That although most people thought that it was the mountain-top experiences that made life rewarding, for them it was the valleys. It was in the valleys of their life that they gave thanks.

 My only explanation for that from the Scriptures is that God wired us for dependence on Him. On the moutain-tops we fail to remember that vital lesson, and often we act independently. But in the valleys we say with the Apostle Paul, “we were burdened excessively beyond strength . . .in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (II Cor. 1:8-9). Perhaps that’s why those believers who have known great suffering are also those who are most apt to thank the Lord. It is in their darkest hour that Jesus shines most brightly.

Survival or Servival?

Occasionally I like to make up words. Perhaps you do too. The nice thing about making up words is you can also make up their definitions. Take the words survival or servival – What’s the difference? Aside from the fact that I made up the second word, they are diametrically opposed. Survival is where most of us live. Our lives are packed with obligations. Getting from school to dinner with lessons and practices in between has filled our lives. Survival is when the calendar is primary. It means we’re in a hurry. We would spend more time talking to our neighbors or our friends, but we just don’t have time. We’re too busy surviving. The spirit of survival means we’re always putting off what’s really important.

Servival is about serving. The preciousness of others is primary, not our schedule.  Like the Good Samaritan of Luke 10, “hurting people” interrupt and take precedent over our calendars and schedules.

I have a friend who ministered in the cold, barren countryside of Russia. I once saw a video of him digging a well in the dead of winter with nothing more than an ice pick. Sounds like he should have been concentrating on survival, but instead his focus was servival.  He was there to serve others. He took time to share the gospel with the residents of Siberia – herders of reindeer. For years they had worshipped and sacrificed to their “reindeer gods.”

He would tell them that Jesus was born, lived and died, and rose again for them. He recounted that often they would weep uncontrollably at the concept of such love. My friend would take time to minister the love of God to their hurting souls. He wasn’t just surviving, he was serviving.

How about if we put people ahead of our schedules? If we found out that our schedules didn’t allow it, maybe we would just change our schedules. Jesus didn’t come simply to survive. The Gospel of Mark captured it this way. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Jesus was a servivar.

Thanksgiving that Isn’t Circumstantial

I recognize life has grown increasingly difficult for many of us. Perhaps you are among those who enter this season without a job. You may be wondering where your next meal is coming from. Maybe it’s your health that’s uncertain. While you feel OK the doctor is telling you that’s not what the tests say.

I’ve been thinking that this season I want my Thanksgiving to be more theological than circumstantial. I mean by that, I want the Lord to be the reason I’m thankful, not what’s going on around me. Few passages of Scripture communicate that as clearly as the 100th Psalm, and few lives exemplify this as well as those first pilgrims.

Psalm 100
1Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!
2Serve the Lord with gladness;
    Come before His presence with singing.
3Know that the Lord, He is God;
     It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
     We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
4     Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
     And into His courts with praise.
     Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.
5     For the Lord is good;
     His mercy is everlasting,
     And His truth endures to all generations.

The most well-known Thanksgiving is of the Mayflower’s Pilgrims who set ground at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating and by fall they had lost 46 of the original 102. The harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one and the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast. After counting all their blessings and giving thanks to God, the Pilgrims, Chief Massasoit and 90 Indians joined in a three-day Thanksgiving feast…

This Thanksgiving before your bow heads to say thanks, consider letting those around your table fill in the blank: “My God is _________.” In this way your Thanksgiving time becomes less about your circumstances and more about God’s faithfulness.

The Scripture’s Effect on the Mind

Twenty years ago a deeply troubled young man stepped into my office.  He was accompanied by a friend for the sake of encouragement. Together they began to pour out his sad story. When he was in 8th grade he became a victim of sexual abuse at the hand of high school teen. As he had entered high school he struggled with depression, attempted to take his own life, and was hospitalized. He had carried the dark secret alone. Neither parents, nor counselors knew his past.

Now, seven years later his anxiety was all-consuming.  His struggle with fear and worry had even crept into his sleeping hours, revealing itself through nightmares of the teen who had abused him.

I was fresh out of seminary, with limited experience in the ministry. As I reached for my Bible I remember praying to the Lord for guidance. I knew I was in way over my head.

I asked the young man what he was thinking about before he fell asleep. He acknowledged his painful past consumed his thoughts. He said tearfully, “I’m just praying to God that the nightmares won’t come back.”

“I understand you’re praying, but what are you thinking about.”

 “The nightmares” he said, “I don’t know how to stop.”

 Together we opened up our Bibles to Philippians 4:8 and we read,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [emphasis added] (Phil. 4:8)

“Your challenge,” I said, “Will be to develop a plan where you think on the things that are in that list.” Together we read  the promise that came next,

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you [emphasis added] (Phil. 4:9).

 “Memorizing is only the first part” then I added, “You’re actually going to have to do it.”

“Do what?” he said.

 “Think on these things,” I replied.

Together we drew an octagon. He wrote each of the 8 qualities found in verse  on the outside boarders of the sign. Inside the sign we wrote the words “Stop! Think on these things.”  On a separate piece of paper he wrote each quality as the heading for a list. The 8 lists would be comprised of  anything he could think of that was “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.”

One week later he returned to my office with his friend. The two sat down. I began the conversation “ How’s that Bible verse I asked you to memorize?”

His friend smiled, and shook his head as if he knew something I did not.

“Why the smile?” I asked.

 “Did you want him to tell it to you, forwards or backwards?” he replied.

 “Let’s start with forwards.” I said. The young man quoted the verse word perfect one word after the other.

 “Can  you really quote the verse backwards?” I asked incredulously.

 Phrase by phrase he gave the verse backwards. He didn’t miss a beat.

 “That’s pretty amazing” I said. “So how are the nightmares?

 He looked me in the eyes, shrugged his shoulders, and smiled.

 “What nightmares?”