Lion at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Overcoming trouble

Life can really suck sometimes. And there is this troublesome expectation in the Christian community that even if life sucks, we need to be happy about it. So no one feels free to be “not okay” around other believers. We all put on masks. We all say that we’re fine. We all fake happiness and peace and general okayness because if we’re aren’t happy or at peace or generally okay, we must be bad Christians.
But that’s not the case. Sometimes life really does suck. Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes dreams fall apart. And when bad things happen, it’s not bad to grieve for a while. It’s not wrong to be sad.
I’m not really sure why the church got the concept that we have to be okay all the time. Maybe it’s pride. Maybe it’s selfishness. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding of Scripture. I don’t know. But there is evidence in Scripture that Jesus grieved. Jesus felt. He experienced sadness, and He never hesitated to cry when He was mourning.
So if Jesus can do it, why can’t we?
I’m thinking of the time He raised Lazarus from the dead. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible. “Jesus wept.” I can’t give you the reference, but it’s there. Jesus arrived, found Lazarus dead, and cried because He was sad. Now . . . why He was sad is a different story altogether. But that’s not what I was going to talk about this morning. Although, I do want to focus in on what Jesus did. He wept. And then He got busy. He didn’t stand still. He didn’t stay put. He took time to grieve, but He didn’t stay in a dark well of grief. He got up, and He moved on.
That’s hard to do. When you’re grieving, it’s so much easier to stay where you are. It’s miserable, but it feels like it would take too much effort to keep moving. It feels like you have shoes made out of cement. But the longer you mourn, the darker your life will get.  And it’s hard to see the truth when you’re existing in the darkness of your grief.
And the truth is that the world is full of troubles. The world is full of problems. The world is full of reasons for grief and mourning. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do or where you came from or why you’re sad. Everyone has something in their life that can leave them stranded in dark well of depression.
But Jesus said something in John 16:33 that I think is imperative to remember, especially if you’re grieving today.
Lion at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Lion at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS


33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”
The world sucks. It’s full of darkness and sadness and trouble, and it’s been that way since our first parents sold us out. And as long as we live here, we’re going to have hard times. Economically. Financially. Troubles in family. Troubles at work. Troubles at church. Troubles in general.
But take heart.
What does that even mean? That’s one of those figures of speech that always appears in Medieval movies when the brave knights are trying to cheer frightened villagers up. But what does it mean? Well, I checked the Amplified Version, and fortunately it had a little bit more explanation:
“but be of good cheer [take courage; be confident, certain, undaunted]!”
That’s what it means. Be confident, certain and undaunted.
You’re going to have trouble in this world but be confident, certain and undaunted. . . . about what?
Jesus said He has overcome the world. And the Amplified Version continues, “I have deprived it of power to harm you and have conquered it for you.”
Jesus has conquered the world. We live in a world full of darkness and shadow, but Jesus is stronger than darkness and shadow. He’s stronger than our troubles. He stronger than the things that make us sad. And He has taken the power of those things away.
The only way the grief and darkness and trouble of this world have power over us is if we give them power back to control our lives.
We have a choice. We don’t have to be controlled by our grief or by the hard times that this world seems to thrive on.
It’s not wrong to grieve. It’s not wrong to mourn. But in the midst of those necessary emotional releases, don’t build your house there. Don’t root yourself there. Because if you give those things power in your life, you will live in darkness. And nothing grows well in darkness.
So if you’re sad today, mourn. Grieve. Take a moment to understand that you’re not a bad Christian because you feel sad.
But don’t stay there.
Get up. Take heart. Because grief and mourning have no power over you.

Worrying about life at 88 miles per hour

The future is easy to worry about because we have no control over it. Even if we think we have control, we don’t really. We can convince ourselves that we can alter it with hard work or good opportunities, but no matter how you look at it, you can’t control every aspect. 

Wooden bridge at Glen Eyrie

Wooden bridge at Glen Eyrie - Colorado Springs, CO

I have always loved the Back to the Future movies. Marty McFly and Doc Brown and the legendary DeLorean are tons of fun. I love the whole trilogy, and I love how the things they do in the first movie negatively affect the world in the second and third movies. And when they try to fix what they did wrong, they make it worse.

But whether you think of the future like the one immortalized in the Back to the Future movies or if you think of it more like a winding path up the side of a mountain that you can’t see the end of, one thing is certain: it’s not something we’re supposed to meddle with.

And that makes us worry about it.

At their heart and soul, people are control freaks. Some people are worse than others, but I’ve never met another human being who didn’t want some kind of control over his or her life, no matter how much they might have denied it. And I don’t know why that is.

I’m speaking from experience because I’m the worst control freak you’ll meet. I want to know everything. I want to know who is doing what. I want to know who is going where. I want to know what is happening today, tomorrow, next week, next month. Shoot, when I found out how much vacation I was going to have in 2012, I wanted to sit down and plan out every day off in 2012 for the whole year.

Don’t get me wrong. Planning is good. It’s a good idea to have a contingency. It’s a good idea to be prepared. But we also need to be flexible. We need to realize that there’s a bigger story going on around us and sometimes our plans need to change because of it.

Today’s passage is John 14:1-3 and it’s Jesus talking:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.

I can only imagine how tired Jesus had to get of telling the disciples to trust him, to not worry. I guess I shouldn’t pick on the disciples because Jesus does that to me all the time too.  Jesus said this to the disciples at the Last Supper, the last meal He ate with them before He went to the cross. The disciples were all upset and worried because Jesus had told them that He was leaving. The disciples, of course, worried about the future. Because they couldn’t see God (they thought). And they couldn’t understand Jesus (because they weren’t listening). And they wanted things to happen the way they wanted it to happen (sound familiar?).

I’m so much like the disciples all the time it astounds me. I share bits and pieces of their flaws, from the doubt to the impulsiveness to the skepticism.

The issue here comes down to trust.

I trust my ability to drive. So I drive over 100 miles a day.

I trust my ability to cook. So I eat the food I make.

I trust my ability to write. So I blog and write short stories and novels and articles about plumbing installations.

I trust. So I act.

So do I trust Jesus? Do I trust that He is who He said? Do I trust that He’s going to do what He promised?

So if I trust Him — if I really honestly trust Him — I need to act on that trust. I need to live by that trust. I need to demonstrate in my actions and in my thoughts and in my life that I really believe the things that Jesus has said. And that means not worrying about the future.

Jesus said He has the future worked out. He’s preparing a place for us and one day He’s going to come back and get us. I trust that. So I’m happy to stick around here doing what I can until He comes back. But I also trust that He hasn’t left me here with nothing to do, because He also told me He has a reason for everything He does.

Sunset on the wheat field

Unforced rhythms of grace

Do you ever get bogged down with work? Boy, I do. And most of it is self-imposed. I have a list of things I need to accomplish because if I don’t complete them, I won’t be able to view myself as a worthwhile person. But my value isn’t dependant on how much I accomplish in my life. That’s hard for me to wrap my head around, but it’s the truth.
Granted, understanding that my value isn’t based on my accomplishments doesn’t mean that I can just stop working. But it does mean that I don’t have to do things all by myself anymore.  And it means that there has to be a balance between laziness and the performance-driven mentality of the overworked. But what is it?
I live in a rural area, and there is always so much to do to keep the house up, to keep the orchard alive, to keep the outbuildings standing. I also work full time as a copywriter and web guru for a global corporation. I also am in the middle of writing three novels and a short story a month in pursuit of having a job where I can work from home so I’ll have time to take care of my house and keep the orchard alive and the outbuildings standing. And on top of all that, I’m involved in my church, in the technical ministry and in the drama ministry. And I also try to have a life, keeping up with friends, with a book club, with family.
I’m not a Type A person. But I’m beginning to think that I live like one, flitting from one thing to the next, so busy and so overwhelmed with life and living that I’m little more than a zombie. So when I read today’s verse, it resonated with me.
Sunset on the wheat field

Sunset on the wheat field, Haven, KS

Matthew 11:28-30

28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
That’s a pretty major claim. Notice that it isn’t really physical rest that Jesus is offering here, though. See that? This is soul rest.
And there’s a lot of other cultural statements in this verse that we could take hours to dissect. There’s so much more being said here than what is obvious. But this morning I’m going to focus on the obvious.
Everyone needs rest. We weren’t created to run 100 miles per hour all day every day. We need a Sabbath. And we need time for people, but if you’re the sort of person who never stops serving people, you need to get away from them.
This is the same passage in the Message.
28-30“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
What are the unforced rhythms of grace? What does that mean? It’s very poetic, but how is it applicable?
It’s living by grace. It’s believing that God has covered all your actions with Christ’s blood so there’s nothing you can do that will ruin His plan — there’s nothing you can’t no do either. It’s not trusting your accomplishments to make you worthwhile. And when you live by grace, nothing is obligatory. Service isn’t mandatory. Worship isn’t something you just do on Sunday mornings. And loving God becomes natural, just like breathing.
We aren’t supposed to run ourselves into the ground. We weren’t designed for that.
And this is the lesson I need to learn for 2012. I’m tired. I’m worn out. Not on religion, necessarily. I don’t really have religion, so I don’t get burned out on it. But I am burned out on everything else.
The key is keeping company with Christ. Oftentimes, I neglect Him for other friends or other duties or other plans. I know He’s always there, but I rarely take the time to actually sit and talk to Him. No wonder I’m exhausted. I need Him to teach me how to live, how to work, how to walk.
So that’s one my other goals for 2012, getting to know Christ better and learning to live by grace and not just by faith.
Sunrise behind the clouds at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

When a good question becomes a time waster

As 2011 comes to a close, it’s natural to look forward to the new year. People will be making resolutions, mainly revolving around losing weight. Some people will make resolutions to work harder to finish something they started years ago or to start something completely new. And that’s good. We all need goals and dreams, though many folks won’t follow through no matter how good intentioned they are.

But as another year winds down, I think we should take the time to look backward instead of forward.

Looking backward isn’t always productive because it depends on your perspective. And generally speaking, I don’t recommend looking backward at all. Because it’s easy to get caught in the regret trap, where you can see now the things you wish you would have done or how you wish you would have done something differently. But you can’t change the past, and regret is a useless thing to feel for a long period of time.

But there is one reason we need to look back, and David stated it quite well in today’s passage, Psalm 103:1-2.

1 Let all that I am praise the Lord;
      with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
 2 Let all that I am praise the Lord;
      may I never forget the good things he does for me.

People are forgetful creatures. We do great when everything is going well, but when something goes wrong and we lose the security we think we had, we blame God. Or we get angry at God. Or we become convinced that God no longer cares about us. Or we give up on God, believing that He must not want the best for us after all. Or that He doesn’t exist.

Okay. Well. Stop.

Because when everything was going fine and all was right in the world, God was good. Only when life takes a turn for the worst do people start feeling abandoned and like God doesn’t care. And once you go down that road — the path of blaming God for the perceived injustices in your life — people don’t seem to be able to drag themselves out of it. And I think it’s less of a God issue and more of a person issue.

Because we think we know better than God.

I know I do. Deep down inside myself, my first inclination when things go wrong is to sink into depression and self-pity and complain about why God lets bad things happen to me. But oftentimes our first inclination isn’t the right inclination. And the moment I start feeling that way, I try to stop. Not because it’s wrong, though.

It’s not wrong to question God. It’s not wrong to wonder why. It’s not wrong to seek an explanation. But those responses waste time. And time is something we don’t have a lot of. And when I look back over my life, I see many examples of times that I knew God was telling me to do something and I waited around demanding a clearer sign. Or I waited to act because I wanted Him to confirm the things I thought He wanted me to do. Or I waited because I wanted to understand why He was testing me. And when I look back on my responses to His calling, I am appalled at the amount of time I wasted.

Not saying that God didn’t eventually use me to accomplish great things. But it took me a long time to get my feet moving. And in the time it took me to get moving, I could have accomplished so much more.

But regretting the things I didn’t do or didn’t finish or didn’t notice is a waste of what time I have now. Because I can’t change it. All I can do is vow not to let those things slip by again. I can promise God that I won’t drag my feet when He tells me to do something, no matter how crazy it sounds. And that when He lets difficult things come into my life, that I won’t question.

I understand that I can question, but I’m going to. Because the sooner I get through the testing, the sooner I can learn what He needs me to learn and move on to the next thing. And then when I look back on my life, I will see that I didn’t waste time trying to understand what God was doing. I just did it. And that way, I won’t forget.

When I encounter a trial, I won’t just sit and ask why; I’ll go through it. I won’t lose time that could have been spent doing something else. I won’t ask why so many times that I forget why I’m experiencing the trial to begin with. And then I will be able to point back to the time when I learned something from the troubles in my life. They won’t just be passing woes that I experience over and over again, pinning me down in a black hole I can’t climb out of. The struggles in my life will have meaning because I know I’m going to learn something — and I know that God is going to keep working even if I can’t see him. 

That’s my hope for 2012. 2011 has been a hard year. I can’t say it’s been the hardest, and I can’t say that I’ve struggled more than other people. Because I have a job and I have a family and I have friends and I have a car and I have a church and I have a house and I have food. So that probably puts me in the top one percentile of the world as far as wealth and provision and comfort.

But I do have a bad memory. And I often forget how faithful He is to me. And I want that to change. May I never get so bogged down in the trials of the present that I forget what He did for me yesterday or what He promised to do for me tomorrow.

Life after realizing your dream

Everyone has dreams. Some of our dreams are more difficult to accomplish than others, but everyone has something they want to see happen in their lives. Maybe it’s a kid growing up. Maybe it’s having kids to begin with. Maybe it’s getting married. Maybe it has nothing to do with relationships and is all about success in business or a business-related subject. No matter what our goal is, everyone has them, but the fact is that not everyone will see their dreams come true. That’s just the way life works sometimes.

But for some people, we will see our dreams become reality. But what happens after that?

Today’s passage is Luke 2:28-32.

28Simeon was there. He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace,
      as you have promised.
 30 I have seen your salvation,
    31 which you have prepared for all people.
 32 He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
      and he is the glory of your people Israel!”Okay. We need to back up. Because this passage starting in verse 28 makes precious little sense until you understand who Simeon is. Let’s start in verse 25 and read through 27 for the background. 25 At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him 26 and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, Simeon was there.

So this is Simeon. He’s a man in Jerusalem, not necessarily a priest. I can’t remember. But either way, the Bible says the Holy Spirit was on him. God had revealed to this man, Simeon, that he would see the Messiah before he died.

Put yourself in Simeon’s shoes for a while. I don’t know how old he was. He might have been ancient. He might have been middle aged. But he was “eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel.” This was his dream. Simeon dreamed that God would rescue his people.

He’d been living for this dream for a long time. Remember, at this time, Israel was in captivity to Rome. They had been in captivity for hundreds and hundreds of years. And God had been silent for 500 of those years.

So what do you think Simeon felt when he saw Jesus?

I have a lot of dreams personally, but only a few really major ones. And I remember when one of them came true. I remember the shock. I had been living for that moment for nearly my whole conscious life and when it happened, I almost didn’t believe it. But when I realized that it really had happened, I just started crying.

Isn’t that a strange way to react?

Dreams are tricky things. Because they can help us stay on target. They can help us stay focused on a specific goal. But what happens after they come true?

What happened to Simeon after he saw the Messiah? Well, I don’t know. There’s nothing else about him after this. Maybe he died.

But when we achieve a dream, many people stop trying. They see that they’ve done what they’d set out to do, and then they just coast through the rest of their life. And I don’t want to be like that.

Personally, I think that all of our dreams are connected. And when you achieve one, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve achieved everything. All of us are part of one big story, after all. And when we achieve one goal, it affects the people around us. One dream opens the door to a bigger dream. So there’s really no point in stopping or letting down or giving up. There’s still more to do. There’s always more to do.

You see, I don’t know what Simeon did after he saw the Messiah, but I know how his dream affected someone close to him. Because there was a woman in the temple the same day Simeon was. Her name was Ana, and this is what the Bible has to say about her:

36 Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old. Her husband died when they had been married only seven years. 37 Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four.[c] She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer. 38 She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God. She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.

The end of Simeon’s dream became the beginning of someone else’s. Ana went out and told people that the Messiah had come.

And I guess that’s my point today. Dreams don’t really end. And even after you see your dream realized, that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop dreaming. And besides, you have no idea how big your dream might get. Just because you’ve seen part of it accomplished doesn’t mean it’s achieved as much as it can.

So if you have a dream, and you’ve seen it come true, don’t stop pursuing it. And if you have a dream and you’re still waiting (and waiting and waiting and waiting), don’t give up.