Archives for the month of: March, 2014

The Passion of a Story

He brought the stories and the history to life. He told me things I didn’t know and brought new meaning to details I knew, but hadn’t thought were significant. People and stories of the Bible that I only understood on the black and white pages of my Bible became real, 3-D, live action adventure stories. His great love for his country and his deep knowledge and understanding of its past and present led me to see what he sees and begin to love what he loves. I am only one face out of thousands of tourists that he introduced to his country, but for me, he is the face of Israel.

Ezra Eini was a soldier in the Six Day War. He and his wife raised their three boys (one of whom was killed by terrorists) in a nation constantly threatened by violence, and he has dedicated his life to teaching about the place and the people that God chose for himself. His passion for his country, his knowledge and his professionalism, mixed with humor and genuine compassion, make him the ideal ambassador to introduce people like me to his culture and country. I am forever changed by what I saw and learned, and I have encouraged everyone I know to go and experience what I experienced.

His calling is as a guide and teacher for tourists in the country of Israel. He stripped away the façade built by the American media and helped us see Israel as it actually is. But it occurs to me that every Christian has the same calling he does. Ecc 3:11 says that “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” God wants to be known and loved by his people, and our first priority is to be in relationship with him. But because he loves all of us, we are required to be guides and teachers for God to those who don’t yet know him. During the course of my life, I have learned things about God that others need to know. After years of study, I understand things about his word and the stories contained in scripture that have given me hope and understanding and peace. Those stories have given me the courage to trust God as they did, and now I have some stories of my own.

God recorded his word as our Bible, but he didn’t intend for us to just know its stories. He wants each of us to come to understand his love for us as demonstrated in those stories, and trust him enough to have our own stories with him. True change doesn’t occur by accumulating facts. I could have read a book on Israel and learned a lot. But experiencing it, learning about it through the heart of one who loves it, made it significant to me, helped me learn to love it as well. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said, “Go and make disciples.” (Matt 28:19) He didn’t say “Go give information”; making disciples involves relationship and change in perspective and expectation.

God calls each of us to be his ambassadors. We’re not all preachers or teachers, but once we have a story of how God has worked in our lives, he requires that we share it so others can see him, can know his power, and can learn to love what he loves. He has “set eternity in our hearts” because he wants us to find comfort and delight in what he has planned for us, regardless of the circumstances we face this day.

May your love for God and your story of his love for you be the means by which God introduces himself to someone you know. May your love for your Savior and Lord lead others to see him as he is, and may your passion and your story inspire others to trust and obey and more deeply love the God who loved them first.

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The Power of a question

What is my prognosis? Do you swear to tell the whole truth? Will you marry me? Will you step out of the car please? Are you ready to sign on the bottom line? Are you sure you won’t change your mind?

In those moments, answers really matter. Our answers can have a long lasting effect. Things change after those questions are asked, no matter what our response is. Some questions are inconsequential, but others make all the difference.

There are all kinds of questions, but the kind that lead to learning and change are personal. You don’t question a crowd to get their answer….you question a crowd to get them to agree with you. “Who’s number one?” “Who’s with me?” Rhetorical questions don’t require an answer at all. Some questions have a yes or no answer; some require explanation. Sometimes we hide a yes or no answer behind an explanation designed to defend bad behavior. Leading questions can force us to give an answer we don’t like. Good teachers know that the right question can set learning in motion or lead to a conclusion.

We can dodge questions, avoid questions, ignore questions, or attempt to change the subject. But all of us come to a point in our lives when we have to determine answers for ourselves. Sometimes we have to answer by taking responsibility for our past actions or take a stand that is often unpopular. Sometimes our answers force us to choose to change. We may be at a “fork in the road”, we may find ourselves somewhere we didn’t intend to go, but we will eventually be forced to question ourselves and determine our priorities.

The kinds of questions we ask vary with the depth of relationship. We don’t ask deep, personal questions of strangers or even new acquaintances. The questions that probe our vulnerable places are only safe and appropriate with those we know well. I may ask a stranger for information like the time or directions, but I only ask opinions of those I know well enough to respect.

God knows us better than we know ourselves, and when he asks us a question, he waits for our answer. God may be a stranger to us, but we are never a stranger to God. God doesn’t ask these questions because he needs information. He already knows the answers. His questions are designed to help us sort through the rationalization and façade that we create and see the actual truth about our past choices and future options. God asked Adam, “What have you done?” God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” God asked Moses, “What is in your hand?” God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” God asked Solomon, “What do you want?” Jesus asked the disciples, “Why are you so afraid?” Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” and “Do you love me?”

God recorded those questions in the Bible so that we could learn from the wisdom and mistakes of those who have struggled with the same questions he still asks us. All of his questions were asked of weak or disobedient people. Some of those questions were answered in fear; some in awe, some in an earnest desire for a deeper obedience and awareness of God’s presence. These questions may not have originally been posed to us, but I believe our spiritual maturity eventually requires that we answer them. God loves us unconditionally, but he holds us accountable for our answers and our choices. What will you do about your sin? How can you better care for those around you? What will you do with the blessings and talents God has given you? What difference are you making where you are right now? What do you actually want from God? How will you respond to the fact that he is God and you are not? Why are you so afraid? Do you love God, or do you just want to avoid being punished?

When we study these questions in the Bible, we see that the answers to these questions became defining moments and turning points. God’s goal is for that turn to be in the right direction. Adam’s answer earned him a new wardrobe and address. Cain’s refusal to answer did not fool God. Moses’ response gave him a new job. Elijah never actually answered his question, but it caused him to remember that the God who had protected him in the past would continue to do the same, and he gained the courage to return to his calling. Solomon’s answer showed that he recognized his dependence on God’s guidance to rule the people of Israel. The moment God posed the question to them, their lives changed. Their answers forced them to acknowledge God for who he was, or led them to a place where they saw that God will not be trifled with or lied to.

Going deeper in any relationship is often predicated on facing the tough questions. I encourage you to allow God, who already knows the truth and who loves you unconditionally, to ask you the hard questions that will help you understand yourself and him.

Complete Trust

Complete trust is rare. Somehow, between childhood and adulthood, we equate less trust with more wisdom. The toddler who jumped from the edge of the pool into his parents’ arms with full conviction that he would be caught becomes skeptical of his parents’ advice by the time he’s a teenager. The young adult who believes she has the power to become anything she wants begins to doubt her capabilities when they are tested by a world that doesn’t have her best interest at heart.

We’ve been betrayed by people who don’t love us, and hurt by those who want to use us for their own gain. We’ve trusted bad advice and shallow perspective and ended up wounded by betrayal and consequences that leave literal and invisible scars. We decide that we can’t trust others, so we begin to trust only ourselves.

This is where the gap between heaven and earth is most stark. The Bible is full of stories where God said “Trust me”. The hero of great battles was asked to conquer a fortified city armed only with trumpets and a cheering squad. A prostitute put her life in the hands of spies who came to destroy her city. (Joshua 2) The farmer who hid from his enemies was asked to lead a few untrained soldiers into battle against a huge, well equipped army. (Judges 6) Nehemiah, a wine taster in the palace of Persia, was asked to construct a wall around the ruined city of Jerusalem under the eyes of men who did not want him to succeed. Elijah set up a competition between Yahweh and Baal, knowing that those who served the loser would die. Each of them chose to trust God, and each of them saw the power of God in their own lives and over their enemies.

God wants us to learn to trust him, and he is patient with us in that process. The best view we have of God is when we chose to believe and obey his power, even when we can’t see a happy ending. The Hebrews who were pinned down between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army saw that God could be trusted to save them. Daniel defied the orders of the Babylonian king learned that God has complete power over our enemies. On Easter morning Christ appeared to heartbroken, confused disciples and showed them that not even death was a threat to them anymore.

How many parents beg their children to trust their love and advice, knowing that the choices their children are making are not going to end well? How many of my “scars” came from trusting the wrong source? How much pain and disappointment could we avoid if we trusted God, rather than the narrow, shallow, self serving advice of those who want power or another book sold?

I want to see God as he is in my world, but that requires that I trust him. Sin is nearly always the easy choice, and trust always looks risky. God does not change. He is the same today as he was in the Old Testament. There are situations in my life right now that I don’t like, that are painful for me to endure. I can try to manipulate them using my limited perspective and feeble efforts, or I can trust the one who says, “Follow Me”, the one who has proved himself faithful over and over, in history and in my life. Only then will I have a front row seat to see heaven invade earth, to bring my good and his glory.

Gardens

Yesterday was the first day of spring. Lines are beginning to form at plant nurseries and gardening supply stores. Just as New Year’s encourages us to make resolutions for good change in our lives, spring usually brings good intentions of thicker, greener grass, well trimmed bushes, and more color and variety in the flowers of our yards.

But just like resolutions, those goals are not easily met or a onetime decision. We have to be persistent and intentional about what we plant, how we nurture its growth, and how we protect it from things that threaten its survival. Gardens do not happen by accident. They are intentionally planted by someone who owns them and takes responsibility for them. Gardens are not self-sustaining; they must be tended by someone who makes them prosperous and abundant. They require just the right amount of food, water and sunshine. They are susceptible to bugs, weeds, diseases and pests. With the right care, gardens will never stop yielding fruit, but that care often requires pruning and fertilization.

The success of the garden is often dependent on the knowledge of the gardener. He must understand, not just the plant, but the seed, the soil, the bugs and pests, diseases and fungi that might threaten the plants and the fruit. Gardeners have total control over the location of the garden and the vines and the branches and plants that live there; the only power these have over the gardener is whether or not they bring him pleasure. Anything he believes impedes the crop of his garden, he will uproot or destroy. He must know exactly when to plant and harvest and how to weed and prune in order to assure a healthy abundant crop. He does whatever is necessary to produce healthy plants so that those healthy plants can produce abundant fruit.

Why is it that we have to work so hard to keep plants healthy, but weeds seem to thrive on neglect? No one plants crab grass or dandelions, yet suburban homeowners have to intentionally nurture their grass and diligently battle the weeds that threaten it. Desired crops seem to need constant attention and care and supplements, while weeds seem to grow strong and tall and reproduce under conditions that can kill what is intentionally planted.

What is true of plants is also true of each of us. I have never really tried to plant weeds in my life. I have never intentionally nurtured sin and helped it to grow; I just didn’t eradicate it before it exerted its influence over me. I didn’t study temper tantrums techniques to make sure I was able to throw one well. I have never had to make a conscious decision to be angry with someone. Never have I struggled to be proud when I so wanted to be humble. We don’t have to teach selfishness or disobedience to our children. Why is it that bad language comes to mind so much more quickly than kind words? Why does spreading gossip make us feel superior? These weeds are not things we necessarily seek, but they can become habits that take root in our hearts. These are traits that thrive on neglect; the more we neglect them, the more deeply rooted they become. Just as a beautiful green lawn requires special attention for the good grass and intentional destruction of the weeds, so it is with God’s word in our hearts. The weeds of this world will choke out the power of God’s words in our hearts if we are not attentive to both.

Grubs, gophers, caterpillars, locusts, moles, rabbits and deer are all well known threats to gardeners. That same dirt that contains the life of the seed will also either feed or starve the weeds and pests that threaten it. These pests feed on the plant and destroy it in the process. Sometimes pests kill the plant; sometimes they eat the leaves and or blooms and fruit of the plant. Either way, the plant does not thrive and produce. Just as moles or caterpillars or grubs attack a plant, killing its roots or stripping its leaves or blooms, Satan has dedicated himself to destroying God’s relationship with his children. He is the Father of Lies (John 8:44) and a deceiver (II John 1:7). He will inflate or destroy our self worth, or bombard us with worry and frustration and fear that will separate us from God if we allow it to. Satan doesn’t play fair. He will attack us in the most painful, tender places of our hearts, and he glories in our fall. He has no power over God, so he attacks those that God loves. His goal for our lives is our humiliation and shame and destruction. He may work through other people to hurt us, he may use situations to tempt us, he may attack us directly, but our obedience to God will protect us and bring us victory, no matter the circumstances. If Satan can’t destroy us completely, he will happily settle for destroying our ability to bear fruit.

To help us understand the character of God, Jesus described him as a gardener (John 15:1). God intentionally plants opportunities in our lives so that we can become more healthy and more holy, bearing spiritual fruit that he requires. He separates us from “weeds” that inhibit our spiritual growth. He adds things to our lives that will deepen our relationship with him. He protects us from evil that threatens to destroy us. He knows that seeds do not become harvest overnight, and he is patient with us as we grow into the people he created us to be.

A gardener is judged by the appearance and harvest of his garden. This day, may you trust the one who knows your future. May you obey his plan and seek his protection in a world that threatens your righteousness, and may you bloom and bear fruit in such a way that brings him pleasure and glory.

(much of this blog post was taken from my book “He Wants You to Know” – available at barnesandnoble.com or amazon.com)

Educated or Changed?

I can’t really call it a vacation. We walked many miles every day. We got up early and were held to a strict schedule. There were days we stood in the rain and slogged through puddles. Other days we were too cold or too hot. I’ve learned less in an entire semester college course than I learned last week. A wise, passionate man lectured, answered countless questions, and shared his passion for his country with people who wanted to learn. Last week I walked through the streets and stories of the Promised Land. The land God gave to Abraham, the place he brought the Hebrews back to from Egypt, the cities and villages and mountainsides where Jesus walked and taught and healed became mine. The history of their battles and miracles, their stories of victory and devastation came to life as I lost a part of my heart to the place God gave to his people.

I’ve been to places where I learned new things or gained better understanding of the history I knew before I got there. But this tiny country is different. I was educated by an incredibly patient teacher with a seemingly endless supply of facts who brought the stories of the Bible to life and gave me new insight into details that I didn’t know were significant.

I recently published a book “He Wants You to Know” about the metaphors God uses to describe himself in the Bible. But, while seeing the country of Israel, God showed me a new metaphor. Israel’s enemies are powerful and close in proximity to every part of the country. Some of the incredible sites of that country were built by evil kings, some by those seeking to honor God. Some of the ruins and archeological digs we saw were destroyed by battle or earthquake or were just abandoned and lost in time. These places are being unearthed by historians and archeologists who are painstakingly scraping away the layers of dirt and debris to find the truth about life in that place. Sometimes new cities were built on the foundations of old ones. Sometimes those ruins were buried and lost to history until recently. Sometimes the new construction was designed to honor God; sometimes it just served new purposes and ignored the past significance.

My life is a lot like that. I live in a fallen world where evil is powerful and a constant threat. My present is intrinsically intertwined with my past. The things and events that I have buried are still a part of who I have become. I face choices about what I will build on the ruins of my failures and whether or not my victories lead me to honor God or give me foolish confidence to trust my own plans for my future. God can bring new life and meaning to old events and stories that will change my old foundations into new construction. God doesn’t just rescue us from our sin; he redeems our past and uses its rubble to build something new and stronger.

An education is an incredible tool, but if it is limited to just accumulating information, it will not change us. God never intended for us to just be educated by the Bible. He wants us to be changed by it. This incredible love story between the God of the universe and the ever so unworthy people he chose as his own is not just about people in history; it is about you. I was incredibly privileged to see the places and learn new facts about the land God promised to his people. But I was permanently changed when God met me at the western wall of the Temple. The God who builds and rebuilds with the treasure and rubble of our lives reminded me that he is God and I am not. He overwhelmed me with a palpable sense of his presence, and a peace that his plans will not be thwarted by evil.

For a moment, the God of the universe met me in time and space. He has a habit of doing that with his people. Some in the Bible left that presence with a glow or a limp or a new name. I left with new peace and humility and hope. I got an incredible education during the ten days I was in Israel, but it didn’t just add information to my teaching arsenal; it changed me. He never called us to be smarter; he calls us to be holy. May what I do and say each day bring my good and his glory. And may my past and present lead me to an eternity with the God who continually finds ways to dwell with those who love him.

II Chron 7:15-16 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.

Anticipation

We anticipate big events in life. A wedding. The birth of a baby. Holidays. The first day of school. Graduation. A new job. A new home. Retirement.

I’m looking forward to a big event. I don’t know exactly what it will be like and I will be WAY out of my comfort zone, but I can’t wait. I’ve marked time during the last few months with this event in mind. I’ve talked to others who have experienced it. They declare that words will not contain it and that I will be permanently changed by it.

Whether or not it exceeds my expectations, my anticipation of it has brought me excitement and joy. I think God delights in our joyful anticipation. Sometimes we go through the motions of doing what we’ve always done, paying lip service to hope, but not really expecting change. When is the last time you anticipated God interrupting your schedule? Walking through the gates of heaven? Seeing the face of Christ for the first time?

God wants us to desire what he has planned for us – whether that is tomorrow or eternity. He introduced himself to Moses with an incomplete sentence – “I Am”. Christ commands his disciples to “follow me”. “I am” what? Follow you where? There is anticipation built into those that is absolutely intentional on God’s part. He wants us to choose him and love him….just like he has chosen and loved us. He joyfully anticipates the “prodigal” coming home. All of heaven celebrates when the “lost sheep” is found. He is coming back to take us to the home he has prepared for us. He wants us to joyfully anticipate what he has planned for us.

Isaiah 65:18 Look ahead with joy. Anticipate what I’m creating. (The Message Paraphrase)

Leftovers

Nearly everything tastes better the first time it is served. Creative cooks can sometimes disguise leftovers and make them seem new. I am not one of those cooks. Too often my leftovers outlive their life in small Tupperware dishes in that get shoved to the back of the refrigerator until all hope is lost. My intentions are good, but the follow through is complicated. I end up with all kinds of mismatched food that doesn’t fit together to form a real meal. Too often it is wasted and ends up in the trash.

There are so many things competing for my attention and time and effort that are immediately in my path. There seems to be no end of things that need to be put away or cleaned or “handled”. And when I come to the end of my time or my energy, unseen things have been left undone. My day too often ends with loose ends and good intentions that got shoved to the back of my schedule and are never fulfilled or accomplished.

Too often we treat God just like that. The tyranny of our schedule or the immediate demands for our attention and action crowd him out. He requires that our offerings to him be our “first fruits”. He wants us to “seek first” his presence and kingdom; only then will all other blessings be added to us. Jesus summed up all the laws with only two: the first was to Love God. If we wait to spend our “leftover” time each day with him, we too often find that we bury him behind the tangible demands of our day. He ends up somewhere near the back of our priorities, even when he began at the front of our good intentions.

God will bless and multiply whatever we bring to him. When we begin by offering God our best, he will abundantly bless the time and energy and money and effort that we give him. Bowing to the immediate demands on our time and energy and giving God only what we have left over seems so much easier in the moment, but we end up stressed and drained and empty. God will fill whatever we offer to him, but the tiny “Tupperware” size portion that is left over after the world is finished with us will not leave us filled.

May we begin each day by offering him our all and our best, and may we spend our days aware of his presence and filled with his power.

Matt 6:33 Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

What have you lost?

I have lost keys, money, and sun glasses. I have lost track of time and lost patience. I have lost my footing, my temper, my self-control, and countless pounds (all I which I have managed to find again!). Our teeth, hair, memory, and independence can be lost to injury, age, or dementia. We can lose loved ones in death, and we can lose ourselves in pleasure or pain. We can lose our courage, our joy, our faith or our hope when we lose our perspective. We can be lost at sea because we have lost our way. There are lost cities, lost causes, and lost opportunities. I have heard that man is the only creature that runs faster when he’s lost. Being lost is scary. Being found means that you are back where you belong.

The English language doesn’t differentiate between the different kinds of “lost”. Some things are lost because of inattention. Some are lost because they are willingly left them behind. Some are lost because they are not a priority. Any loss will leave a void that will either be intentionally or unconsciously filled.

There is loss in the Bible as well. Adam and Eve lost relationship with God and an Eden address because they intentionally chose to disobey. Joseph lost his freedom. Saul’s father lost his donkeys. Enemies of God’s people lost confidence when they saw the power of the Hebrew God. Jesus told parables about lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons. Satan lost his citizenship in heaven because of his pride. His goal for your life is that you lose heaven like he did.

Jesus understands loss. He intentionally abandoned heaven to be born as a baby on earth. He wept at Lazarus’ grave and at the sight of the city that would take his life. He willingly lost his life because he believed our salvation was worth it. He described himself as a shepherd seeking the lost, and he told of the joy in heaven when the “lost” are “found”.

Some things we’ve lost need to be relegated to our past and stop influencing our present. Others need to be redeemed and restored. God’s perspective can help us know the difference. Too many Christians lose their passion for God because they substitute service and obligation and ritual for relationship. Sometimes we need to find our way again; sometimes we need to stop running and allow ourselves to be caught up in the love of the God who seeks us. God specializes in lost causes. He has spent all of history seeking his people so that he could save them from being lost. May this day find you intentionally seeking the presence and perspective of God. May you lose yourself in a glimpse of his unconditional love for you, and may you find that no matter what you have lost, God is all that you need.

Luke 19:10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.