Give Thanks

On Thursday of this week, here in the U.S. (where I live), we will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. This got me thinking about the idea of giving thanks and a posture of gratitude. Unfortunately, like so many traditions and bedrock ideas upon which this country was built, the notion of really being thankful to God is being eroded by the harsh wind of “change for the sake of changing” that is blowing across our nation.

As I’m sure most of us know, the tradition of observing Thanksgiving with an aumtum feast dates back to the time of the Pilgrims, even before this country was formed. It was a celebration of God’s blessings, and gratitude for helping them endure the worst of conditions. It was also a way to thank their Native American friends for their help and for sharing their farming ingeniuity. But it didn’t really gain traction as a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln was president:

President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, calling on the American people to also, “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience .. fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation..

Wikipedia, “Thanksgiving (United States)”

Anyway, it’s because of all these thoughts that I felt led to write about giving thanks today.

God blessed us with the free will to focus our minds on whatever we want. For this reason, it’s up to us to select our state of mind. If I choose to focus on negative things–all the terrible things going on in the world or evidence that our country is falling apart or all the things I don’t have–I will naturally cultivate and maintain a very negative mindset. You can’t bury garbage in your yard and expect a rose garden to appear.

On the other hand, because I have instead chosen to focus on positive things, the many blessings God has given me–that I’m married to the love of my life, my redemption because of God’s love for me, the love of my family, my health, or even my job–I have developed a very positive mindset. I’m an eternal optimist, and I like to think I have a sunny disposition, both of which result from the fact that I make an effort to focus on the positive aspects of any given situation.

And really, this is the beginning of gratitude.

In the parable of the vineyard workers, Jesus taught his disciples (and us, two thousand years later) to be grateful for their salvation and not ruin it with thoughts or statements like, “Hey, why does that guy get into heaven when he has only been a follower of Christ for one hour??” (see Matthew 20:1-16.) He taught them and us to be thankful to be part of God’s non-earthly kingdom instead of focusing on the spirit-crushing opression of the Jews by the Roman empire.

But here’s the thing: we don’t need to limit our gratitude to the “big” blessings like salvation, health, or family. In fact, the way to start turning your outlook from sour to sweet, to develop you gratitude muscle, is to recognize and give thanks for smaller blessings. Most likely, you are surrounded by them, if only you have eyes to see them. Maybe it’s a warm and excited greeting from your dog, acting as though they haven’t seen you in years. It could be golden rays of sunshine bursting their way into a cloudy day. Or perhaps it’s a neighbor sharing a “hello” and a smile as you walk through the neighborhood. A blooming flower. Autumn leaves. Moonlight sparkling on a fresh blanket of snow. The possibilities are endless.

Once you start recognizing the smaller blessings, you should thank God for them, no matter how crappy the world seems to be or how challenging your life circumstances are. This is the beginning of your journey toward contentment, on the narrow path of humble gratitude. This is how you choose happiness.

We have a sign in our kitchen that says that: “Choose happiness”. I asked my son once if he believes that’s a choice you can make, and he said he didn’t think so. He is away from the faith right now, so I can see why he thinks that way. I pray for him each day, along with my younger daughter (who’s also a prodigal), that they will realize that this is a choice you can make. Humble gratitude towards our Creator is the path you can take that leads to contentment, fulfillment, happiness. Even joy. It’s the path to peace that surpasses all understanding.

Borrowed from YouVersion

One last thing before I wrap up. If you look at verse 4 of Psalm 100, the language talks about entering past God’s gates. This makes me think that we might need a key in order to pass through the gates. And what is that key? Thanksgiving! Similarly, we enter into his courts using praise.

And why should we do this? Because the Lord is good and his love endures forwever. This is the greatest blessing of all, and the best reason to give thanks.

Borrowed from YouVersion
(and yes, I realize that it is for the same verse as above, but I really like the background scenery of this one!)

With that, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving full of many blessings and the associated gratitude!

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Basking in the Warmth and Safety of Your “Old Dog Spot”

Let me start today by listing two seemingly insignificant and unrelated facts:

  1. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, in my family, we’ve generally had at least a couple of dogs as part of our family.
  2. Also, since I live in Colorado, we’ve reached the time of year when the likelihood of seeing cold or otherwise unpleasant weather increases significantly.

If you’ll indulge me for a few moments, I’ll make the connection between these two factoids.

Just recently, a day came along that was very windy, and that wind smuggled in frigid temperatures with it. Since I try not to let the weather keep me from my daily walk, I bundled up and braved the elements for a brisk and quite chilly journey.

When I returned home, as I was thawing out, I noticed that one of my dogs had found a small patch of carpet near my desk that was awash in radiant sunlight. She was sound asleep, blissfully unaware of the raging wind racing past the window not more than a few yards away from her. In the warmth and safety of her “old dog spot” (as my wife and I have come to refer to such havens), she dreamed her doggy dreams, probably chasing the rabbits I never let her chase around our neighborhood. Probably catching one, too.

Here’s why I bring this up: just like our dogs have all had a knack for finding their “old dog spot” to enjoy a nap unconcerned by what’s happening around them, so should we have a place of warmth and safety, a shelter from whatever storms are raging in our lives. As followers of Christ, we should listen to his thoughts on this:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Matthew 7:24-27 (NIV)

Adding to that, thinking about the small patch of carpet that’s radiant in the sunlight reminds me of the opening verses of John’s Gospel, particularly these words:

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:4-5 (NIV)

Jesus is the bedrock upon which we should build the foundation of our lives. If we do that–and I mean live it, day after day–we will find ourselves basking in the safety and warmth of his light no matter what is happening in the world around us. This is how we are to find the peace he offers us, the peace that is totally baffling to all who are not yet followers of Christ, and even to some who are.

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Christmas is Coming, but Christ is Already Here

I know it’s a wee bit early for a blog about Christmas, but this one isn’t really about that. It’s about hope. Yes, I know that one of the Advent candles symbolizes hope, and really, the entire Christmas season is about hoping for God to come and help us clean up the mess we’ve made of this world.

But again, since it’s a little early to talk about Christmas and Advent, let me focus on this passage written by the author of the letter to the Hebrews:

…we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.

Hebrews 6:18b-20a (NIV)

Here is one reason why I felt like it’s an appropriate time for an article about hope: here in the U.S., we have the mid-term elections coming up on Tuesday. Don’t worry, though, this is not going to be a political rant. My prayer is that I am able, through my meager offering here, to shine the spotlight on what should be our deepest source of hope: Jesus.

Several years ago, there were bumper stickers with a candidate’s likeness on them next to the word “Hope”. There was even something resembling a halo behind his head. It was troubling and saddening because nobody should place that much hope in anyone besides Jesus. Why? Because they will let you down. And also, it was comical to see a halo drawn behind anybody’s head (I would say, “especially a politician’s head”, but that would probably seem too much like a political rant!).

It makes sense to hope that your candidates will get elected and to hope that they will make things in our country better. It may make even more sense to hope that the election is fair and honest, that it helps restore our trust in the process, and that there is no violence associated with it.

Depending on which candidates win, things in our country could get a little better or a little worse, depending on your point of view. It could certainly impact our day-to-day lives.

But here’s the thing: none of the candidates can impact our eternity. Only Jesus can do that.

And nobody can take that away from us, the assurance of our eternity.

One hundred years from now, what happens today, tomorrow, or Tuesday won’t matter to us. What will matter to us is that Jesus–our only true source of hope–has entered the inner sanctuary on our behalf. He has exchanged his righteousness for our brokenness, his purity for our sin. That is what will matter.

Don’t get me wrong–I know life can be hard. I know politicians have some power to make them harder or better. But in the long run, the really long run, it won’t matter. What will matter is that we have put our hope in Jesus.

This is why Paul instructed the church at Corinth not to worry so much about what happened in their daily struggles:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV)

Remember that. No matter what happens, let’s fix our eyes not on what we see and hear, but on what we can’t see. What we see on the evening news will eventually blow away in the winds of time, like autumn leaves. What we can’t see, what we put our ultimate hope in–that’s what will last. That’s what will bring peace, wholeness, and joy. That’s what will usher us into heaven.

P.S. No matter what happens, no matter which candidates win, we should pray for them and all of the leaders of our nation, state, and city, even if we didn’t vote for them. This is the instruction Paul gave to Timothy, his son in the faith, and also to all of us:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 

1 Timothy 2:1-2 (NIV)
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Daily Grace-Drops

Earlier this year, my wife and I journeyed to Montana to check another item off our bucket list: hike in Glacier National Park. Several of the hikes ventured to spectacular waterfalls. Standing near them, basking in their striking beauty and awesome power, I was refreshed by mist and occasional drops of water. It occurred to me that the fine mist and drops from the waterfall were enjoyable, but if I were to enter into the full scope of the waterfall, it would overwhelm me, probably to the point where it would be fatal.

Virginia Falls in Glacier National Park, Montana. The spots all over the picture are water drops on my camera lens!

I think that’s how it is with God’s grace and mercy.

One thing I thank God for almost daily is that I am floating in an ocean of his grace and awash in rivers of his grace. That is the cumulative effect of walking with God for over 40 years. But how has he shared that grace and mercy with me? Daily. One grace-drop at a time. Otherwise, if he were to cover me with a lifetime of mercy and grace at one time, that would overwhelm me.

Some days I can barely grapple with the grace he has shown me that day–that no matter how rotten my thoughts or deeds were, he welcomes me back when I come crawling to him, begging yet again for forgiveness.

There are several great pictures of God giving us what we need in small doses, day by day. Jesus taught us to ask for our bread–our sustenance–not for a lifetime, not annually, monthly, or even weekly. Daily. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

When the Israelites were wandering through the desert for 40 years (due mainly to their own brokenness), God provided manna for them to survive on. How often did he give this to them? Daily (with the exception of the Sabbath).

There’s also this beautiful passage in the middle of Lamentations, which generally is not a happy book (in case you can’t tell from the title!):

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:21-23 (NIV, emphasis added)

There it is again: God’s compassions are new every morning.

Why is it that the Bible emphasizes relating with God within the confines of 24-hour increments?

I don’t know all the reasons why, but at least one that I can think of is this: because he wants a relationship with us.

Anyone who believes that God is distant–maybe a deity who created the universe but then left it alone to ultimately crash and burn–has not read the New Testament. They have not watched Jesus in action. They have missed the fact that everything Jesus achieved in his 3-year earthly ministry–and has continued to achieve to this day–was done through relationship. This is the Son of God showing us God’s heart for us.

In addition to his love for us, I think there’s another reason why God wants to be in relationship with us: to keep us close to him.

God knows us because he made us. He knows our human nature. When we feel like we are all set, that we have what we need, we have a tendency to forget about God. Our human nature, probably with assistance from the evil one guides us down the path of believing that we did this, that we achieved this sufficiency all on our own.

He does not want us to think like that, because the slope is a slippery one, and it leads straight to bad places. It leads to separation from God, which is the definition of hell.

On the other hand, if he gives us our blessings daily, we are more likely to remember that he is the source of those blessings. We are more likely to express gratitude to the Giver of those blessings.

This is not because he is on some kind of power trip. It’s because he wants to relate with us daily. He wants us to talk to him like we would a friend. He wants us to share with him what’s troubling us so he can carry those burdens for us, or at least with us. He wants us to thank him for our blessings so he can celebrate them with us.

How could it be any better than the Creator of the universe wanting to walk with us through our daily lives like a best friend, sprinkling grace-drops on us as we go?

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What If God Seems Absent?

I thoroughly enjoy experiences where I felt like I’ve encountered the Living God. I’m blessed to feel this way after many of the worship services at my church (New Life Church). You may also have experienced such feelings at a Christian camp or conference, while on a pilgrimage, or resulting from coming in contact with inspired artwork.

But what happens when you do these things and still feel empty, like you’ve missed encountering God? Worse, what does it mean when we go for long stretches of time without feeling God’s presence?

How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?

Psalms 89:46 (NIV)

This little verse in the 89th Psalm makes it clear that we humans have been dealing with apparent absences of our Creator for a very long time. It’s also evident that you’re not alone if you’ve ever wondered where God was when you needed Him, when you or someone you loved was hurting.

How are we to reconcile the potential contradiction between biblical promises that God will never leave us nor forsake us (see Deuteronomy 31:6 and Hebrews 13:5 for examples) and admissions that God seems to hide himself, like the one we see in Psalms 89? And what are we supposed to do when we are enduring a day or week or season of life during which God seems to be absent?

Here are some thoughts, my meager offering, especially given that whole books have been written about this, but I am trying to cover it in a brief blog post.

Take Comfort

Whenever something unpleasant happens to me, I find comfort in learning that my experience is not unique. For one thing, I can try to learn from others’ experiences how they were able to get through the situation.

In this case, there is very good company on this journey through times of feeling abandoned by God. One relatively recent example of this is Mother Teresa. This saintly woman is well known for her decades of selfless service to the poorest of the poor in India. What may not be as well known, though, is that she had a crisis of faith that also lasted decades, which resulted from her feeling that God had abandoned her. In a letter that she had sent to her pastor and spiritual guide, Michael van der Peet, for example, she said:

“Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me–The silence and the emptiness is so great–that I look and do not see,–Listen and do not hear.”

Mother Teresa, September 1979 (as posted in Time Magazine’s site by David van Biema on August 23, 2007)

Even Jesus experienced God’s absence. I have heard pastors say that the worst thing for Jesus about the whole horrendous crucifixion order was his separation from God, as he exclaimed from the cross:

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”(which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus, in Mark 15:34 (NIV)

Remember That Regardless of How You Feel, God Has Promised Not to Abandon You

In times when it feels like God has abandoned you, it may help to remember his promises that he would never leave you nor forsake you. Of course, those promises may feel empty when you’re wondering where God is, so here’s a little story that may help.

My wife and I spent the weekend visiting our daughter and son-in-law our new grandson, who was born in August. I know we also experienced this when this same daughter was herself an infant, but it was even more evident as an observing grandparent than it was as a parent.

Anyway, our grandson has quite the appetite. In fact, he can go from being happy and smiley to very “hangry” (hungry + angry) in an instant. When that happened, my wife or I would get to hold the mad little man while his mom and dad hurried off to the kitchen to arrange for a bottle to feed him. We would try to console him, telling him that his dire situation would soon be resolved. Of course, he wasn’t having any of that. He would scream his head off, wondering why his mom and dad had abandoned him in his time of need. It was tragically adorable.

Here’s the thing: his mom and dad always worked diligently on his behalf to produce an outcome that was probably better than he was able to imagine. But while they were doing that, since they were in another room and out of his view, he seemed to think that they had abandoned him when he needed them most.

But had they actually abandoned him? Of course not.

I think that next time I feel like God has abandoned me, I’m going to try to picture my grandson’s cute little face turning bright red from his urgent screaming and wonder to myself if that’s what I look like to God.

Remember That God May Be Maturing Your Faith

Along the same lines as the story about my daughter and her family, it’s worth noting that while she exhibited the same behavior as her new little baby when she was his age, she doesn’t act like that anymore. Why is that? Well, as part of the process of teaching her and helping her to grow up, my wife and I gradually let her go longer and longer before meeting her needs. This helped her to learn that we would meet her needs, but not always in the timing that she expected–and not always in the way that she expected. The fact that she is not still eating out of a baby bottle is evidence that one day, when she cried because she was hungry, we addressed her need with baby food instead of milk–something quite unexpected indeed (and she let it dribble down her chin as her way of telling us it wasn’t the milk she had been expecting).

In the same way, God does not want us to spend our entire Christian journey consuming milk from a baby bottle. He has innumerable ways of helping us grow, and one of those ways may be to appear absent from us for a time, teaching us to trust him and his promises–similar to what Paul says in his letter to the Romans:

Not only so, but let us also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. 

The Apostle Paul, in Romans 5:3-4 (NIV)

Go Looking for Him

God isn’t particularly hard to find, provided you are looking in the right places. This doesn’t necessarily mean church, since there’s nothing magical or mystical about it–we probably won’t encounter his presence every time we go there.

Well, where else can you find him?

Good question. The answers are as numerous as there are people on this planet–and even more than that. Each person may need to look in different places. In fact, each person may need to look in different places each time this happens to her or him! Hopefully this isn’t surprising, but our Creator is creative!

You may find God on a mountain hike or a stroll through the woods on a golden autumn afternoon. You may find him by gazing at the night sky, suddenly amazed by the magnitude of it all. You may hear him in the endless crashing of waves on the beach or the gentle lapping of the ripples against your boat. You may find him in the rain or brilliant sunshine.

Or you may find him wandering through the pages of his Word–after all, the Bible is his love letter to us. His voice gives life to the words and stories it contains. That’s how these passages speak to you in different ways each time you encounter them. And that’s why the Bible isn’t like any other book, where you should feel comfortable setting it aside because you’ve already read it. Or if you have done that, then maybe it’s time to pick it back up to see what you will find.

You should also be able to find him by connecting with other followers of Christ. We are, after all, called to be the body of Christ to one another. You never know when a godly friend will pass along an inspired word or vision to you–or when you might feel the brilliance and warmth of God’s smile shining through that of anyone you encounter.

Finally, Don’t Be Afraid–Trust Him

I know it can be frightening to feel like God has abandoned you. I mean, it can lead you to dark alley questions like, What if this whole God-thing was made up??

In the interest of brevity (since this seems to be running long, despite my best attempts at being brief), let me point out one of the last things the Apostle Paul said to his son in the faith, Timothy:

For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.

2 Timothy 1:7 (NET)

This means that if we’re feeling afraid, we should remember that this feeling did not come from God. It also means, that it’s possible (if not likely) that our feelings of fear and abandonment are coming from Satan, who would like nothing more than for us to believe the lies that he plants in our minds, like those dark alley questions. He wants us to not trust God. If we have to have faith in God, he wants to keep it at a low level of maturity, where we only believe God exists or trust him in the few moments when we can sense his presence.

I don’t know about you (well, I think I do!), but I would rather listen to words that were inspired by God than those hissed into our ears by the enemy. I would rather trust God than anyone else–even myself (although that’s harder than you’d like it would be!). I’d prefer to take comfort from a friend who gave his life to save mine:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Jesus, in John 14:1-3 (NIV)
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Reaping What You Sow

Fall is harvest season, so maybe that’s why it caught my attention when we read through Paul’s letter to the Galatians in the #Daily Audio Bible and encountered this verse:

Borrowed from YouVersion

Logically, this makes sense. Nobody would argue with the fact that if you plant corn in the spring, you will reap corn in the fall. If you plant beans, you won’t get cucumbers or pumpkins. You’ll get beans. Again, all very logical.

So it makes me wonder why we all, at times, plant garbage into our lives and then are surprised when we reap garbage. Even worse, sometimes we blame God when we reap the garbage we’ve planted. We shake our fists at him for not answering our prayers.

When it comes to living our everyday lives as followers of Christ, we have, throughout each day, many opportunities to choose whether to practice the presence of God or to act as though God is not present in our lives.

If we plant seeds of practicing God’s presence, we will reap his blessings. What does that look like? It looks like thanking him for the blessings he gives us every day. It looks like asking him to help us navigate a difficult situation. It looks like turning to him when fear bubbles up within you. It looks like immersing ourselves in his Word, expecting to hear from him.

This is easier said than done, I know. I mess this up as much as the next person. It’s all too easy to fall into our old patterns of behavior. Of course, the enemy knows this, so he sets those traps for us.

Thankfully, though, our God is patient with us. He waits for us to realize that we’ve screwed up (again) and to meander sheepishly back into his presence. With infinite lovingkindness, he welcomes us back. I am so thankful for that!

It’s worth noting that reaping God’s blessings does not mean we will always get our way or that our lives will be easy. God never promised that.

What he did promise is that our eternal destination was improved considerably and unalterably the moment we accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior. He also promised that all along the way to our heavenly home, he would help us deal with all the rotten things that can happen to us and those we love.

That’s the benefit of sowing the seeds of living into God’s presence. We receive the peace and comfort and strength we need to deal with life. If you sow any seeds other than that, you will find yourself harvesting a crop of weeds: fear, anxiety, anger, hatred, greed, strife, jealousy, selfishness, lust, violence. You know, all the stuff you see in the news.

What kind of crop would you like to reap in your life? Whatever it is, are we sowing the right kinds of seeds to get the crops we want?

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Imitation Jesuses

Paul calls us to imitate him imitating Jesus.

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

Paul the Apostle, in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV)

Worthwhile things are often imitated to make them more accessible to more people. For example, for something to be called “champagne”, it has to come from the Champagne region of France. But winemakers all around the world create sparkling wine to make it so more people can enjoy the taste and feel of champagne, and some of it is quite good. However, not all imitations are close to the quality of the thing they are imitating. For example, my grandmother used to make an imitation apple pie that actually contained no apples; instead, she used Ritz crackers instead of apples (I’m not making this up–I think she called it “mock apple pie”).

So, given that we are all called to be imitation Jesuses, what kind of imitations are we?

In our prouder moments, I suppose we would prefer to think of ourselves as being closer to the sparkling wine end of the spectrum than the Ritz cracker “apple” pie side of it. But in reality, we are probably more often like fake apple pies.

But hey, you may object, how in the world are we supposed to imitate Jesus? He had the unfair advantage of being God.

While that may be true, I also don’t think that Paul or Jesus meant for that to be an excuse for us not to try. God sent us his son not only to save us from our sins, but also to show us the way we are to behave–the way we are to interact with God and with each other.

So what does it mean to be an imitation Jesus? It means we are to strive to have the same sort of relationship with the Father that he had (and still has)–talk with him regularly, worship him, and immerse ourselves in his holy Scriptures (his love letter to us), to the point where we could quote them to Satan even on our worst days. It also means we are to relate to one another the way Jesus related to almost everyone he met (the exception being the religious people, who had traded in God’s extravagant love for a cheap imitation–a checklist of rules).

But I can’t possibly do that! you may object again.

You’re right, you can’t. And neither can I. At least, not on our own.

We can only do this with help from God. But guess what? Since God is calling us to imitate Jesus, I’ll bet he delights in answering our prayers when we are asking for the ability to behave like Jesus in any given situation!

But does that mean we will always do it? Of course not. I don’t know about you, but I often struggle to get myself out of the way. I know how I want to act. I’m usually confident I know how Jesus would want me to act. But then, for reasons I can’t explain, I don’t act that way.

It can be so frustrating and disappointing.

Fortunately, Paul (the same guy who told us to imitate him imitating Christ) also struggled with this, as he writes in his letter to the Romans:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 

Paul the Apostle, in Romans 7:15 (NIV)

So what are we “mock apple pie” imitation Jesuses supposed to do? How can this ever work?

Every time we fail, we are to sheepishly return to God. We are to admit to him that we really wanted to be like Jesus this time, but we failed again. We are to ask for and accept his forgiveness. And then we are to ask for him to help us next time, including help getting ourselves out of the way.

Little by little, he will chip and chisel away at the parts of us that get in the way. Gradually, he will replace the Ritz crackers with actual apples.

And along the way, we are to thank him for the oceans of grace in which we swim, for the rivers of mercy he sends washing over us.

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Masterpieces in the Making

This past week, in our journey through the Bible in one year, Brian Hardin and the Daily Audio Bible family passed through Ephesians chapter 2. A particular verse caught my attention:

Borrowed from YouVersion

I was pondering the idea of writing this week’s post based on that verse. Then in church this morning, the verse came up during the sermon, so I took that as God’s confirmation that I should write about it.

So, we are God’s masterpieces, His handiwork. I think there are a couple reasons why this verse caught my eye. First, whenever an artist creates a masterpiece he or she is generally proud of it. A masterpiece is something you would point to and proudly declare, “I created that!” This is important because we may have a tendency to focus on our failures when it comes to our relationship with God. But God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t focus on our failures–He fixes them. By the time He is finished with us, He will proudly declare “I created her!” or “I created him!”

Of course, that will be His declaration as we come into His presence in heaven. In the meantime, in the now and the not yet, God is still working on us. In one sense, we are already masterpieces–since we have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, we can “put on” Jesus and appear perfect before God. On the other hand, and in a contradiction I may never understand this side of heaven, God is not happy with us when we fall short. There is judgment, but thankfully, there is also grace and mercy, and forgiveness. This is the “not yet”–God isn’t finished with us yet.

So this was the second reason this verse got my attention. In today’s culture of instant gratification, we tend to run out of patience, with God and with ourselves. We want our mission in life to be accomplished over a weekend. We want to be the best at something right now, without putting in the work to get there. We want God to take away the thorn(s) in our flesh right now.

But masterpieces take time. Some believe it took Leonardo da Vinci four tries over 16 years to complete the Mona Lisa (some even say he never finished it, which was kind of my thought when I saw it, since it’s a lot less impressive than I expected). Beethoven worked on his Ninth Symphony for over 30 years.

Although I have never created a masterpiece, when I was working on the manuscripts I have written, when going back over them for self-editing, sometimes I would come across a paragraph I had created previously that would make me think, Ew, what was I thinking? So I would tweak it to make it better. For pieces that they worked on for so long, I can imagine da Vinci and Beethoven going back over something they had done before and thinking the same sort of thing (in their own languages, of course!). So they fixed those things, and in the end, they created brilliant works of art.

And so it is with God and us, as his masterpieces in the making. Sanctification–being made holy–is a process. He may see something in us that makes Him think, Ew, we need to fix that! And so He does, working in us to make those things better. We simply need to be patient with Him, and try to cooperate with Him as best we can. We need to listen to Him and follow His promptings. We should walk with our Gentle Shepherd and allow Him to guide us.

In the end, He will point to you and to me and proudly exclaim, “Look what I created!”

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Teach Us How To Pray

I was praying with a brother at a men’s group function at church this past week. He confessed to me afterward that he wasn’t quite sure how to pray. I’ve grappled with this in my journey, so I wanted to provide a few thoughts that I’ve gleaned from Scripture over the years.

First off, one of the most important things, is that prayer is meant to be a conversation between you and God. Jesus models this for us regularly. He talks to his Father as though He is right there–because He is. But He is “right there” for you and me, too.

Along those same lines, another observation is that no special language is required for something you say to God to be considered a prayer. Just tell Him whatever is on your mind. Talk to Him as you would a friend. This is what He wants for us, to be in a relationship with Him. I think we all have a human tendency to think that there is some magic formula to prayer, that if we ask for something in just the right way, God will grant us what we are asking for. But this makes God seem like nothing more than a cosmic slot machine–put your dollar words in and pull the lever, hoping that this time you’ll get lucky.

Well, what about the Lord’s Prayer? you may wonder. Isn’t that sort of a “magic formula?” No, it’s not. In Matthew’s recollection of Jesus teaching his disciples what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer, he noted that Jesus said, “This, then, is how you should pray.” (Matthew 6:9 (NIV), emphasis added). In other words, he lays out a structure for prayer. He is not giving us the exact words to say. He is pointing us that while God wants us to talk to Him like we would our dad, we must always remember to revere Him as well. He is reminding us that our dependence on God is a daily endeavor–not a “one and done” experience. He is helping us remember that the extent we forgive others is how we ourselves will be forgiven.

Something else I’ve learned about prayer from Jesus is that we are to be persistent about it–see Luke 18:1-8. There are still many mysteries about prayer, so I admit I don’t fully understand why He directs us in this way. One guess I have (this is not something from the Bible, only a guess on my part) is that God wants us to learn to depend on Him and to lean on Him daily–going back to the reminder in the Lord’s Prayer to give us our daily bread.

Another observation to close with: if you agree that prayer is meant to be a conversation between you and God, then part of your praying life should include listening as well since conversations are dialogues. This is admittedly another challenging aspect of prayer, and probably worthy of its own blog post. For now, let me say that the most common way I hear from God is through His Word. Sometimes it will be something I read in my daily Bible reading or hear in the Daily Audio Bible passages for the day. Other times, it may be one of my favorite verses popping into my mind.

In any case, what matters most about praying is that you do it. This is one of the most powerful weapons we have against the evil one. It brings us closer to God, and it calls His power into our lives. What could be better than that?

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I am a Child of God

<Author’s note: I reworded this to try to clarify my point>

Who am I?

Within my family, I have many titles: husband and father; son and brother before that. I love those roles. I am loved in them. In spite of that, sometimes I allow myself to believe lies fed straight to me by the evil one. I allow myself to believe perceptions that logically I know are not the truth. I have lost sleep over this at times, which is utter foolishness. From time to time, for example, I have given in to the lie that my family does not respect me. This is not the truth, but our enemy is a great deceiver. Love is messy, and family love is no exception. We can pick at each other, say things we don’t mean. We can believe things that are not true. These are all weapons of the evil one, whose goal it is to break what is beautiful and sacred.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Jesus, as recorded in John 10:10

On the other hand, at work, I have the titles of Vice President and Account Executive. There I am shown a tremendous amount of respect. But there, of course, I also do not experience the love that I feel within my family. So if I allowed myself to be defined by the high level of respect that I experience at work, that wouldn’t make sense because that’s not reality. That’s not the truth, either. I am very good at what I do, but I’m not perfect, I make mistakes. I am human. So if I were to start patting myself on the back because of my achievements at work or the respect I receive there, the evil one will surely find a way to use that against me–pride goes before the fall, and all that (a loose translation of Proverbs 16:8). I must always remember–and I remind myself daily–that God has given me all the abilities and opportunities that have carried me to these heights. I did not get here on my own–God made the way for me.

Anyway, as I was wrestling with all of this, I felt God put this song on my heart to answer my identity question: No Longer Slaves by Bethel Music. In particular, the lyrics that popped into my mind were these:

I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God

No Longer Slaves lyrics © Bethel Music Publishing, by Brian Johnson / Joel Case / Jonathan David Helser / Joel D Case

It was funny, too, because a really good friend of mine told me the next day that this song had been going through his mind as well. As I’ve mentioned before, I do not believe in coincidences with God. I think God was making sure I got the message. Or more likely, that we were both getting the message.

So that’s the title I need to focus on: Child of God. Of course, I am still a dad, husband, son, and brother, for all the glory and the grime of family life. And I’m still a VP and Account Executive. But above all that, I am a child of God. I’m no longer a slave to respect or performance. God loves me in spite of my worst days. Thanks to Jesus, He forgets all of my bad behavior as soon as I ask for forgiveness, and maybe even before that. More than anybody else in the world, God loves me for me. I can’t earn that, but neither can I screw it up.

Only God defines my identity. That is the good news, the best news. I am swimming in an ocean of grace–we all are, those of us who accept the title. I am a child of God.

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