Momma red panda at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Say thanks before the joy fades

When you talk to God and ask Him for things, do you ever really expect a response? I mean, seriously, do you honestly expect Him to reply to you? Maybe not in an audible voice but in some way that you can’t deny it’s Him?

Momma red panda at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Momma red panda at the Sedgwick County Zoo – Wichita, KS

Today’s verse is Psalm 28:7.

The Lord is my strength and shield.
    I trust him with all my heart.
He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy.
    I burst out in songs of thanksgiving.

When God has answered prayers for me recently, He’s done it in a specific way that tells me and shows me exactly who He is. And in the last month, even though it’s been difficult, I can tell you that I have greater trust in Him than I ever have.

And I can identify with David in this when he wrote, “He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy.”

Has that ever happened to you?

It’s like a camera flash when you realize exactly what’s happening, when exactly what you asked for occurs. Warm and blinding but then kind of leaves you with a tingly feeling. Maybe that’s just me. For me, it takes a few moments to get over the actual shock of it but then, I can’t stop grinning. Or crying. Or both. Because knowing that God hears you and understanding that God hears you are two very separate concepts.

God, the inventor of the sunrise, the shaper of the universe, the genius behind the duck-billed platypus, listens to our requests and many times answers. And He doesn’t just answer; many times, He answers personally. It’s like getting the perfect Christmas gift from someone who knows you better than you know yourself.

I’ve got the joy part down. What I sometimes forget is the thanksgiving part. Sometimes it’s hard for me to move past the shock that He actually answered. Other times, I move on from the shock straight into action, like the nine lepers Christ healed who didn’t come back to say thank you (Luke 17:11-19). And I need to be like the one who came back and thanked Him.

Joy is great. And understanding the concept of Someone like God paying attention to our requests is beyond awesome. But let’s not take it for granted. We need to make sure He knows that we’re thankful.

So tell Him. Like you’re talking to a friend on the phone. My new car God provided me with has integrated Bluetooth so I can talk on the car’s connection, but I’m sure it looks like I’m nuts. But that’s sort of what it’s like, talking to God (not that you’re nuts; but that you’re just talking).

Tell Him what you’re thankful for. He wants to hear. Yes, He knows if you’re thankful, but something happens when you tell people you’re thankful. It’s a humility thing. It deepens your relationship because you’re admitting that someone else did something for you that you might not have done for yourself.

So tell Him. He’s waiting to hear from you. Don’t let that joy you felt when you realized the answer came from Him fade away. Do it now.

Rooster strutting at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Man up

Sometimes the Bible shocks me with its bluntness, and then I remember how hard-headed I am and wonder that Scripture is polite at all. Because it’s usually directness that gets through to me.

Rooster strutting at the Sedgwick County Zoo – Wichita, KS

Today’s verses are 1 Corinthians 16:13-14.

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love.

Short, choppy statements are how God, through the pen of Paul, chooses to end His first epistle to the Church at Corinth. If you read 1 Corinthians, I’m not sure if there’s a more direct and to-the-point Book out there, especially not in dealing with the things that were going on in the Church.

As I was reading over these verses this morning, they just got me thinking about what exactly God was trying to communicate to these people. I’m sure they were good people, but they had really gotten off on a bad road, and they were dragging others down with them. I got to thinking that these verses represent a process, a method of thinking and response.

Be on guard. If you’re going to make it as a Christ-follower in our culture, you can’t shut your brain off. Our culture is full of messages that sound like good ideas but are contrary to what Scripture says. And if you’re not paying attention, you’ll sign your name to the wrong contract. Granted, that decision won’t remove you from God’s house, but it could make life very difficult. So we have to keep our eyes open. And when you start watching and listening and really paying attention, you’ll see the errors. You’ll see the parts of our culture that run against the grain of what God says is best. And when you encounter the chance to make a choice, you proceed to the next step.

Stand firm. Our culture rewards mediocrity and compromise. Backing down when it comes to faith-based beliefs is considered politically correct. But if something is right, it’s right. And if you are on guard when it comes to living in the world, you’re going to encounter a lot of resistance because this world isn’t our home. Life here isn’t supposed to be easy for us. And the world hated Jesus, who came before we did, so why should they treat us any differently? And that’s why you need the next step.

Be courageous. Pay attention to what’s happening so you know when you need to stand up for what you believe and when that time comes, even though you’re scared, do it anyway. I’m a people pleaser, so this one is difficult for me. I don’t want people to dislike me. I want everyone to think well of me. But every Christ follower is rapidly approaching a time when we will need to stand up and be counted, and I’m of the opinion that it takes more courage to keep standing than it does to stand up in the first place. And that’s why you need the next step.

Be strong (or, according to the Amplified Version, “Be men.”) In the Message, it paraphrases this as “be resolute.” Basically, as I read it, it means to be unyielding. Don’t waver. Don’t be wishy-washy. Once you make up your mind to follow Christ, do it. Don’t falter. Don’t hesitate. Don’t second guess. If you know it’s in the Bible and you know it’s what God has called you to do, do it. Man up. Or Woman up, as my Pastor says. This quality isn’t exclusive to one gender or another; it’s a choice. True strength isn’t thought of well in our world because true strength is humility, kindness and morality. True strength is treated as weakness in our world, but that’s because the world mixes everything up. And we need to remember that. People who don’t follow Christ have been brought up in a culture that defies God’s existence, and that is absolutely their prerogative. It’s not our job to be their Holy Spirit. That’s between them and God, but if we take the world’s version of strength and attack them with Scripture, that’s not a good representation of who God is. God never forces Himself on anyone; so why are we forcing Him on people who’ve already chosen not to follow? Instead of berating, instead of protesting, instead of ranting and raving about the injustices of our world, proceed to the next step.

Do everything with love. Want to make a difference to people? Love them. Be thoughtful. Be considerate. Be genuine. Be interested in their lives. If you’ve tried to introduce them to Christ and they’re not interested, fine. But that doesn’t mean you can’t show them who Christ is in every conversation you have. Live your life in a way that demonstrates who God is, and if they want to know, they’ll ask.

This is how God through Paul chose to end the first letter to the Church of Corinth, that was so screwed up they didn’t know which end was up. And something sank in, because the second letter to them shows how much they changed.

The Church in America is a lot like the Church of Corinth. We’re letting things in our doors that have no business playing a role in the leadership of the Church. Selfishness. Pride. Gluttony. And we need to start paying attention and addressing these issues, or it won’t be long and we’ll be in the same boat as the Church of Corinth (if we aren’t there already).

[Note: I’m talking about the state of the Church in general and not my church. My church is pretty awesome, and I’m SO thankful!]

But if we’re going to make a difference, we can’t chill on the sidelines. We can’t agree with everyone, and we can’t make everyone happy. So pay attention. Don’t waver. And choose to act even when you’re scared. Man up.

Frog on a log at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Circumstances

November 2012 may go down in my personal history as the suckiest month ever. Seriously. Between car wrecks, damaging storms, deaths in the family and now allergic reactions that send me to the emergency room at Midnight … I can’t even guess what’s coming next and I don’t want to.

But no matter how many ridiculously frustrating and sad things happen in life, there’s one thing I’m trying to remember.

Frog on a log at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Frog on a log at the Sedgwick County Zoo – Wichita, KS

Today’s verse is 1 Thessalonians 5:18.

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.

Our circumstances shouldn’t dictate our perspective. Just because we are currently going through difficult times doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us or that He is punishing us for something. It just means that the world isn’t perfect. And it means that we aren’t perfect yet either. Or that we still have a lot to learn about living.

And personally, I think hard times are a good reminder for us that this life isn’t all there is.

There are a couple of verses in Scripture that talk about how to respond to difficult times. The passage escapes me, but there is a verse that says to rejoice in difficult times. But rejoicing in difficulty is different than being thankful in it.

Rejoicing means that you can still be positive even when you’re going through uncomfortable or unpleasant situations. But being thankful? Being thankful for adversity is hard. You have to step back and look at all the troubles in your life and turn to God and thank Him for it. That’s what being thankful in difficulty looks like, and I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been doing too well at that.

How am I supposed to thank Him for letting me have a car wreck that I caused? How am I supposed to thank Him for letting a crazy wind storm tear up my property? How am I supposed to thank Him for my Great Aunt’s death, for my swollen up eyeball, for my stressful work situation? Am I really supposed to thank Him for all of that?

Yes.

Granted, I don’t have to. He doesn’t force us to do anything, and gratitude is something you can’t fake. Not to God.

But so much depends on your perspective. If you can take the difficult situations in your life and be thankful to God for them and be specific when you thank Him for them, know what happens? You look at those circumstances differently.

That car wreck becomes an opportunity to be a better driver and share the story of God’s grace with people. The wind storm that ripped up my property provided a chance for me to get to know my neighbor better. My Great Aunt’s death reminded me of how precious family is and how short life can be. And my swollen up eyeball? … Well … that was a good learning experience of how I shouldn’t ever rub my eye. Ever. … No, it was a good opportunity for me and God to have a serious talk about trusting Him.

Circumstances are temporary. They’re like life. They never stop changing. They’re like the weather in Kansas; if you don’t like it, wait a while and it will change. So if you base your perspective on your circumstances, you’ll be as volatile as the wind. But if you base your perspective and your joy and your gratitude on God and on His Word, even when your life turns upside down, your focus will remain steady.

So when the difficult times come, and they will come (in droves often), don’t get discouraged. Just recognize them for what they are: a chance to grow.

Pacing bear at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Strong

I think of myself as a strong person. I’m independent and self-reliant, almost to a fault, and I hate asking for help. The way I look at it, if it’s something I have to ask help in completing, maybe it’s something I don’t need to worry about doing. Many times, I’d rather not do it if I can’t do it alone.

But that’s a silly, prideful way to live because nobody is really strong enough to make it through life alone. The older I get, the more I begin to understand exactly what it costs to be that strong, and the more I learn that I really don’t understand strength at all.

Pacing bear at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Pacing bear at the Sedgwick County Zoo – Wichita, KS

Today’s verse is 1 Chronicles 16:11.

Search for the Lord and for his strength;
    continually seek him.

I blogged on this verse earlier this year, focusing on how it says we’re supposed to seek God. Continually. But this morning, something else stood out to me that I hadn’t really seen before.

This verse is nestled in a song David sang as his armies were in the process of moving the Ark of the Covenant (the symbol of God’s presence on Earth in the Old Testament) back to Jerusalem. He sang this as they reached the city, if I have my timeline right. It’s a long song, and you can find it in 1 Chronicles 16.

This statement is in between lyrics about praising God for what He’s done and remembering the greatness of His deeds. But what struck me this morning wasn’t the bit about continually seeking God. That’s important because it’s easy for us to lose focus. What hit me as I read this verse today was the statement that we need to be searching for the Lord and for His strength.

Really?

It’s not surprising to me that we need to search for God’s strength, I guess. I’m not strong enough to make it alone; I get that. But what does God’s strength look like? Have you ever wondered? Ask yourself what that means.

God’s strength.

Strength has many definitions and connotations. There are many different kinds of strength, and I think we need to be clear about which one God is talking about.

Are we talking about the strength to create a universe out of nothing? Are we talking about the strength to part the Red Sea and leave it gaping open long enough for millions of people to cross over on dry land? Are we talking about the strength to stop the sun in the sky?

God did all of those things for the Israelites, and all of those things demonstrate that God is very strong. But is that the strength we’re supposed to search for? I don’t think so. Because that kind of strength is unattainable for us. I don’t think God would tell us to seek something if it were something we could never achieve.

So what kind of strength does God possess that we can achieve? What kind of strength can we learn from Him? Well, this is my personal opinion, but it makes sense to me.

It takes more strength to be patient and to wait for God to answer a prayer than it does to get up and try to do it myself. Action is easy; waiting is difficult.

I think it takes more strength to love people truly than it does to ignore them. Indifference is easy; love is difficult.

I think it takes more strength to get up the second time I’ve fallen down than it does to stand up before I fall the first time. The first try is easy; the second and third tries are difficult.

Real strength is facing those difficult moments in life without hesitation because it’s what God has called us to do, because it’s the right thing to do. That is the kind of strength God has, and that is the kind of strength He wants us to seek.

God is patient, especially with us. God loves, even when it hurts Him. God never gives up on us, even when we give Him every reason in the book to turn away and never look back. And it takes a strength far beyond the physical to do all of that. So maybe we can’t physically have the strength of God, but we can mimic His strength in the way we live and in the way we treat each other.

What does it mean to seek His strength? Well, as much as I hate to admit it, just like in Wal-Mart or Sears, the best way to find something you’re looking for is to ask for directions. So ask Him for it. Life isn’t one big scavenger hunt with God giggling about our failures from the sky. It’s more like a treasure hunt, and He’s waiting for us to ask Him for the map.

Wheat ready for harvest at sunset - Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving 2012, and we all have a lot to be thankful for. I was thinking about trying to make a list, but I have too much to write down. When I sit down to think about it, I’m overwhelmed with all the amazing things God has done for me and for my family and for the people I love.

This post isn’t long today, mainly because I’ve got to get downstairs and start cooking. But I needed to focus first thing this morning, and nothing helps me get my perspective right better than a statement from David. Not a Psalm, but close enough to it.

Think on this for a little while before you eat, and I guarantee that it’ll give you a different perspective on your turkey and dressing.

Wheat ready for harvest at sunset - Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Wheat ready for harvest at sunset – Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s passage is 1 Chronicles 29:10-18.

 Then David praised the Lord in the presence of the whole assembly:

“O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, may you be praised forever and ever! Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. Everything in the heavens and on earth is yours, O Lord, and this is your kingdom. We adore you as the one who is over all things. Wealth and honor come from you alone, for you rule over everything. Power and might are in your hand, and at your discretion people are made great and given strength.

“O our God, we thank you and praise your glorious name! But who am I, and who are my people, that we could give anything to you? Everything we have has come from you, and we give you only what you first gave us! We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.

“O Lord our God, even this material we have gathered to build a Temple to honor your holy name comes from you! It all belongs to you! I know, my God, that you examine our hearts and rejoice when you find integrity there. You know I have done all this with good motives, and I have watched your people offer their gifts willingly and joyously.

“O Lord, the God of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, make your people always want to obey you. See to it that their love for you never changes.

Funny little Jungle House bird - Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Unmerited

I’ve been thinking about grace a lot in the last few weeks, ever since I had the wreck. I’ve been driving since I was fifteen; I’ve been driving by myself since I was sixteen. And the only wrecks I’ve ever had were caused by someone else. So this is a new experience for me: dealing with the guilt of being one who caused it. I’m just so thankful that no one was hurt; if someone had died or even been sent to the hospital, I don’t know how I could have lived with myself.

What continually amazed me that entire day was how kind everyone was. The officer who responded was outside her jurisdiction. The poor lady had just been going to buy turtlenecks, and she was closest. Turns out that the intersection of Central and Broadway is one of the ones everybody argues over as far as jurisdictional issues, and it might have taken longer to get someone else there otherwise. But she stopped. And she was wonderful. Not only efficient but funny. She stayed with us until everything was sorted out.

Then, the insurance people I dealt with were kind. Understanding. Reassuring. And insurance people don’t have to be that way. But mine were.

And the big kicker is that the local car dealership in my town was willing to let me borrow a new car off their lot to drive without rent until I bought another car. Granted, they knew I would be buying that car from them, but that still didn’t mean they had to let me borrow a car without charging me.

And my parents? They had the right to be angrier at me than anyone, but they weren’t. They both showed up, kept the situation light, and have been a constant source of support through the whole process.

I’d never experienced unmerited favor this way, where I had done something unforgivable and people were willing to let it go and be kind to me above and beyond what I deserved. At least, that’s what I thought at first … until I really thought about it. And in actuality, I experience this kind of unmerited favor on a daily basis.

Funny little Jungle House bird - Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Funny little Jungle House bird – Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Today’s verse is Romans 5:8.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.

Do we get that? I’m not sure I did. I mean, I believe it 100%. I believe Christ died for me. I believe He paid the price for my sins to allow me to have a one-on-one, face-to-face relationship with God Himself. I believe that God has adopted me into His family through Christ’s sacrifice.

But what this entire ordeal has taught me is that there’s a big difference between accepting Christ and accepting grace.

Maybe this isn’t a revolutionary concept to anyone else, but I’ve never had a moment in my life where I’ve screwed up so badly. I cheated on a test or two in high school. I lied some. I lost my temper, had rebellious thoughts, disobeyed. But not like this. And to come face to face with my own fallibility has thrown me for a loop, not that I thought I was the best person in the world but that I’d always been able to walk away from sin, generally speaking.

But this? This was my fault. And I can’t shift blame or point fingers anywhere else. It was my responsibility to be a good driver, and I was careless. And three people were inconvenienced because of it–one truck driver and two ladies in a Honda. Yeah, fortunately no one was hurt, but I’ve been on the receiving end of enough careless drivers to know the frustration and anger you go through.

What I had to learn to wrap my head around throughout that whole day was that, yes, I screwed up, but people still cared about me. I had done wrong, but that didn’t mean that people were going to drop me or shun me. I think what the whole ordeal has shown me is an actual physical, personal example of what Christ has done for me.

When I screwed up (not even maliciously; more unwittingly than anything else), He loved me enough to sacrifice Himself so I could have life. And I didn’t deserve it. I couldn’t even pay for it. I couldn’t give Him anything in return, just tell Him that I’m sorry and trust that He was going to take care of it. And He did.

I think I had begun to take today’s verse for granted, kind of like I took my driving record for granted. I was a good driver. I hadn’t caused any wrecks ever, so why worry about running a red light? Surely that could never happen to someone like me. Kind of like my Christian walk. I’m a good person. I knew I couldn’t do anything to earn my salvation but I’d never done anything “bad enough” to cause me to question it. Not really.

Well … lesson learned. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to run a red light again any time soon because I’ll never forget what it felt like to see how kindly people were treating me when I absolutely didn’t deserve it. Just like Christ did.

Otter at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

The difference between distraction and importance

Have distractions ever caused you to be someone you’re not? Or to do something out of character? Recently, I experienced just that. Friday two weeks ago, I had a big day planned. I got off at Noon and headed for home. And the only explanation I can offer is that I was six steps ahead in my brain when I pulled out of the parking garage, and in my mind I was already on the highway. But you can’t drive like you’re on the highway when you’re navigating downtown Wichita at Noon.

I ran a red light at Central and Broadway. A 2010 Honda smacked into my passenger side and threw me into a big red Dodge Ram. No one was seriously injured (thank God), but my car–my awesome 2008 Malibu that had served me so well–was completely totaled.

I wasn’t texting or talking on the phone. I just had too much going on in my head. I just zoned out. And zoning out isn’t bad. Don’t misunderstand. Sometimes you need to zone out, but there are times when you can’t. There are times when you have to stay focused and on your game, and one of those times is when you’re driving in a city.

Distractions are everywhere. But it’s our choice to be distracted.

Otter at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Otter at the Sedgwick County Zoo – Wichita, KS

Today’s verses are Luke 10:38-42.

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

The story of Mary and Martha is one of those old Bible stories that is recounted in flannelgraph and puppet shows all the time, mainly because it’s so relevant to everyone. Even as adults, it’s a message we need.

Don’t get distracted. Even if it’s by something good.

You get that, right? Martha wasn’t overloaded doing bad things. She was making a big dinner for Jesus and His disciples. That’s not bad. That’s awesome! Remember, these guys left home. They left everything they had. Not a luxurious way to live. And I’m friends with enough guys to know that if they hit the road all together, they would rarely have home-cooked meals. They would eat out all the time. For Martha to sacrifice her time and her finances to provide a big home-cooked meal for thirteen hungry men is incredible.

And Jesus was grateful, I’m sure. But you have to get down to the heart of the issue here. Martha was a doer, a controller, a worker bee. She was probably Type A. On my writing blog, I did a series on character profiles based on a book called How Can I Get Through To You, and I’m pretty sure that Martha would classify as a Driver. And Martha had convinced herself that she needed to do something for Christ. She needed to make Him a meal.

Cool. That’s good of her. But Jesus hadn’t asked her to do that.

It’s never Jesus’ intention for us to run ourselves ragged. We weren’t designed to be in constant motion. We weren’t designed to fill up our brains with details and stress until it’s so full we can’t function properly. We weren’t designed to live that way.

God designed us to work, yes. And work is good for us. And serving is even better. But in Martha’s case, serving became extraneous. Her focus had become the work. Her perspective had shifted to herself, and she wasn’t serving so much anymore as she was just running around like a crazy person and hoping that Jesus would realize she thought she was doing it for Him.

I get that way. I think we all do. But the point today is that if we fill up our lives with distractions, even if they’re good distractions, they’re taking us away from a true relationship with God. If we’re so busy running around trying to accomplish things and be productive, we’re going to miss the opportunity to be still and listen.

God never told us to kill ourselves serving Him. He told us to be still and know Who He Is. Yes, we’re supposed to do the Word, but the Word is to listen. Yes, action is important and necessary, but the Bible is a book of balance.

Slow down. Focus. Eliminate distractions. Make priorities and keep them. Because the more extraneous details you get tangled up in, the better your chances are for missing the point completely. And not only will you miss the chance, you may end up doing something out of character. You may end up hurting someone.

God is a God of second chances, yes, and I’m thankful for that. I’m more thankful for that than I have ever been. And when we screw up, He’s there with forgiveness. But if you know the truth, why live like you don’t? If you know the difference between distraction and importance, why choose the one that will waste time?