Thursday, December 15, 2011

Strength for the Weary

Tonight marks the end of my busiest stretch of ministry each year. We opened our men’s shelter on December 1st, welcoming 12 men to our church each night. Last Saturday we had our annual Glenwood Family Ministries banquet for the children and their families (over 200 people), and tonight we had our annual Community Christmas Banquet for our Wednesday Community Fellowship guests (we served close to 350 people). In the midst of that I’ve also preached 3 times in the past 7 weeks, had ongoing involvement with Glenwood Family Ministries on the board and in tutoring, and had regular work appointments and family responsibilities.

Last night I got home at 10:30 from a board meeting, and I had nothing left. Empty. Done. And I knew that I had not been spending time with Jesus like I should over the past few weeks (busyness will do that to me sometimes) and the banquet was looming. It made me sad that I wasn’t excited for the banquet, that I just wanted it to be done, and I asked God to change my heart.

God in His goodness brought a Scripture to mind that really turned the tables for me – 1 Samuel 30:6 “And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in soul, each for his sons and daughters. But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.” (ESV)

David strengthened himself in the Lord his God. At my point of weariness, with a lack of joy over the upcoming banquet, all I wanted to do was go to bed, but the Spirit reminded me that real rest and strength and refreshment come from Him. And so I spent an hour in the Word, praying, journaling, asking God to give me strength, joy, and love that I just didn’t have.

This morning when I woke up, I had energy, I had life, and I had hope. I had a hunger for the Word while I ate my breakfast, and all day I have anticipated, not dreaded, the Community Christmas Banquet. I can’t explain the power of that verse and how it called me to find strength in the Unseen Source,  and I can’t praise God enough for how He met me, carried me, and even empowered me to preach a living word tonight at the banquet.

Maybe you’re wiped out, too. Strengthen yourself in the Lord, your God, and watch what happens. He is mighty and He lives in you, and we cannot exhaust His strength.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Whole Lotta’ Giving Goin’ On!

(this is an excerpt from a sermon I preached this past week at Grace. Click here to listen)

There were SO MANY things being given during the first Christmas. God gives revelation and favor to Mary, Mary and Joseph give their trust and obedience to God. God gives words of hope to Elizabeth and Zechariah, they give God praise and joy. Elizabeth gives Mary a place to stay and encourages her on her lonely journey to come. Joseph gives Mary his faithfulness even when it seems unfounded. God gives His son to the world in order that they might have peace with Him. The angles give God glory and praise. God gives Simeon and Anna the joy of seeing their savior, whom they’ve waited for years to see. They give God their testimony of His faithfulness, sharing with all who would listen. Mary is given treasure for her heart. There is only one material gift giving time recorded, and that gift is given to Jesus, provision in a foreign land for a poor family who are soon to flee Herod’s killing spree.

No, the gospel accounts of Christmas are FULL of giving, But what we see in the Gospels is that the gifts that are given contrast the way we give today, the way we spend today. Gifts are given vertically (from God to man and man to God) and relationally  (people sharing their hearts, lives and joys, rather than horizontally and materially). We tend to give gifts to one another and the gifts that we give are gifts of things, stuff. What the people spent on the first Christmas was their hearts, their praise, their lives because God had interrupted and they received it with joy.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Learning to See the Big Picture

A single mom with three children and a two-week old grandbaby in the house came to see me recently. She was two months behind on rent and certain to face eviction. She had no job, no income, and nothing in the hopper on the jobs front. Understandably, all she was concerned about was getting her rent paid.

But our commitment at Grace and in Glenwood Family Ministries is to give greater help than mere band-aids. Paying her rent would ease the pressure for a moment, but then what? We had met a week prior, and I had given her a list of things to do, 3/4 of which were “big picture” items dealing with finding work, spiritual health, and giving back to the community. She returned having focused only on the 1/4 of finding someone to pay her rent and had come up empty even on that.

I found myself very frustrated with her. By ignoring the other parts of the list, she was no closer to long-term health than she was before, and now I felt pressured to help with this short-term need AND with the long-term aid as well. She had been a Certified Nursing Assistant and needed to renew her license by taking a class. The class and rent together would cost over $700, not a small chunk of change.

But we have been involved with her and her children for over 8 years, and I got the sense, through wise counsel, that we needed to help both with the short and long-term issues, and so I told her we were going to pay for both.

She began to weep and sob with thanks and relief, and part of me hated that I hadn’t just done this a week ago when we had first met, sparing her the worry that she had been through. I said to her, “There’s a bigger picture to your life.You are more than just your immediate physical needs.”

She looked at me through her tears and said, “Am I? AM I? Every day is such a struggle, and I can’t see beyond what needs to happen right now. I can’t see anything BUT needs.”

I think it was a “light bulb moment” for us both. She realized that she needed more help than simply rent payment. I realized that  the poor aren’t choosing to ignore the big picture – many times they have no idea that it exists. My role in helping them, truly helping, is handling the short-term need which can free them to see the long-term goal.

I had her spend some time thinking about different areas of her life, where she wanted to go and how she would get there. I learned she dreamed of opening her own restaurant someday. And I think that she felt truly cared for, truly helped. She started CNA  classes last week and attended a church near her home. She called to volunteer with our tutoring program. She was taking steps towards seeing the big picture. This is part of  how we break cycles in families,  changing generations.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Power of Staying Put

The text came in the middle of a Wednesday night meeting.

“Marshall, can you call me? Steve* is here and needs a place to stay by Friday.”

Diane and I hadn’t seen Steve in at least 4 years; he had bounced in and out of our tutoring program in its early years, and like many of the kids that we have worked with, he drifted out of our lives. He was always a polite, friendly kid, and now he was back, 22 years old, homeless, jobless, and the father of an infant daughter in another state. I talked with him briefly on the phone, told him to stay put (Diane was fixing him some dinner), and was soon home hearing his story.

After telling me all that had happened, he said, “I knew that if I came to y’all’s house I could find some good people who could help me.” That’s a good reputation to have, I think, for my family to be known as good people who are willing to help. Steve knew that even after years gone by, he could come to our home and be received with love and care.

To me, that’s the power of staying put when working with the urban poor. This is a transient population, people moving from house to house, chased by bills and job loss and just being stuck in generational poverty. We can’t chase every kid, every family, but we can make it easy for us to be found. Even as Glenwood changes around us, there’s great value of staying anchored on the corner of Silver Avenue.

* name has been changed

Epilogue: Steve stayed with us for two nights, and then a friend was able to get him placed in a home for young men until January, giving him time to find a job and find a new place to stay.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Gentleness, Humility, and Rest

The other night Diane was  sharing about a painful time in one of her friendships and my heart was so sad for her. But instead of simply being sad, I became angry. Angry that someone was hurting my wife, albeit unintentionally, and from my anger  came justification and self-righteousness. I began to point out the things that were wrong with this person, things that were not based on truth but on my own suppositions and pain. And at the end of that conversation, I didn’t feel any better. I felt right – justified – in my anger, but I  didn’t feel free. I felt burdened, heavy, out of sync.

Yesterday at church God led me to pray and repent of that. He reminded me that He had not called me to judge or speak envious words but rather words that blessed and built up others. And then this morning He brought to mind Matthew 11:28-30, especially, “Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

If there was anyone who had the right to be righteous, anyone who had the right to judge, it was Jesus. If there was anyone who could trumpet His own goodness and win the comparison game every time, it was Jesus. And yet the way of Christ is to be gentle and humble in heart. And I noted that this gentleness and humility was given as an antidote to weariness and being burdened.

It’s hard work justifying myself. It’s hard work being envious and self-righteous. And it’s counter to the Spirit of Christ that lives in me, and so when I insist in getting my own way and in handling my pain myself, the result is a weary burden.

Thankfully God deals gently with me when I walk in this sin of self-righteousness, and as I receive that gentle word, I am able to pass that on to others. I can be comfortable with sadness and do what Matthew 11:28 tells me – Come to Jesus. And He will be my rest.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Mile in His Shoes

A homeless friend of mine is getting some much needed help for a few months, and before he left town, he asked me to go and get his things from the job site.

After a 45-minute wait, I was loaded up with all of my friend’s worldly possessions and walking back from UNCG to the church. The pack was bulky and probably thirty pounds, plus he had a smaller bag, a garbage bag with some dirty clothes, and his hard hat and vest.

All he had in the world fit on my back and in my arms. And pretty soon, it got heavy. The pack straps bit into my shoulders and my neck muscles knotted up. I wanted to shift the things in my arms but both hands were full. And it was a long mile back to the church (if it was even a mile).

As I carried his things (quite an interesting load for a guy in a polo and loafers to be carrying), I had a taste of what his every day was like. I imagined walking home at the end of a long day of construction, passing by hundreds of college students and campus staff, and going to a camp in the woods (or a lean-to in an alley) to “rest” for the coming day. I was struck by the resilience and courage it must take to keep your head up, keep working, to simply survive on the streets.

God has grown my respect for the men and women who come to our church on Wednesday nights. Sure, many of them have struggles and addictions, but who doesn’t? And yet despite lives that are filled with opportunities for hopelessness and self-destruction, most manage to come to our church with a smile, with thanks in their heart for the meal, and to keep moving towards the coming day.

Walking a mile in my friends shoes continued to open my heart to God’s work among the forgotten that we see everyday.

What a Difference Ten Years Makes!

My favorite GUPY Bible study, perhaps, was on Jeremiah 29:1-14, where we talk about being Owners and not Renters. Many Christians know Jeremiah 29:11 by heart (for I know the plans I have for you…), but most don’t realize it was spoken to a people in exile, in a foreign land, who were being encouraged by God to seek the good of a city that was utterly opposed to Him and His people.

As we read and study the passage during GUPY, we talk about how God was urging His people to be Owners in that city, to be there for the long haul (70 years), not having a Renter mindset of just passing through. We talk about Jeremiah 29:8, where God tells His people to have His dreams and plans, not their own, and we talk about living counter to the American dreams of prosperity and comfort. It’s always a challenging passage for the students and sets a good tone for our summer.

What has really brought me joy in recent years is to see that the things God asks of His displaced people (Israel) are things that have happened in Glenwood in the past 10 years since Diane and I displaced ourselves here. We have built houses (bought a house, and there are now 4 more intentional home-owners in our Glenwood group); we have planted gardens (in our own yards and the Glenwood Garden); we have had children and seen other families join us; and we have increased in number (there are now 9 intentional households connected to our church or spun off from GUPY’s past in Glenwood). God has brought His promises for blessing and change to life.

And I think it has been encouraging for GUPY’s through the years to know that God has good plans for His people, plans to prosper and not harm, and that prosperity can look different in a poor-er neighborhood. Prosperity in community and relationship; prosperity in learning to pray in response to need; prosperity of hope.

As we wrapped up GUPY this summer, I was excited to see that GUPY’s from 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2011 now make their home here in Glenwood. I am excited to know that 56 students have spent their summer in our home and with our community, pouring into Glenwood kids and their families, and even my own kids. I love how the kids in our tutoring program watched eagerly for the GUPY’s to be walking the neighborhood on their first day here. And I can see how GUPY’s have advanced the work of Glenwood Family Ministries by being examples of Christ and of young men and women who are in college, working towards a degree.

As we think back to 10 years of living here, we’ve seen a tutoring program grow from 4 students in our living room, one day a week, to over 50 students overtaking Grace Community Church three days a week, cared for by over 100 volunteers. And that tutoring program is now a part of a non-profit and has its own full-time staff.

In the past month, three loooong time addicts from Glenwood have come to get help with rehab from drugs and alcohol.

And my family and I feel rooted, anchored, and at home at the corner of Silver and Haywood.

On 9-24-01, I wrote: I will be free. We will be a part of this neighborhood. We will love and eventually we will be loved. I will walk in the power and freedom of Christ. You are my hope, O Lord, and you are our protector.

And God has brought it to pass.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Different 9-11 Remembrance

I wanted to write this post a couple of weeks ago, but as I watched and remembered all that our nation went through on 9-11-01, I just couldn’t share my story. But 9-11-01 was a tremendously significant day for me and Diane. That was the day that we closed on our home on Silver Avenue and moved into Glenwood.

In the midst of the world falling apart, we were unloading our possessions into a home with smoke-stained walls, metal cabinets, a plexiglass window with bars on it for our front door, and an unfinished basement that would have to be gutted of studs, brick, and dirt before it could be made into something livable. And I was terrified.

I remember wedging a 2x4 between the front door and the hallway wall, and going to be that night feeling such despair that Diane and I had signed a mortgage on a house built in 1908, now settled on a street with multiple crack houses.

We’ve come so far in 10 years, and I took time the week of 9-11-11 to look back at my old journal from those first months. Below is some of what I found (and don’t worry, there’s a much happier post to come after this one).

9-8-01 – Lord, we want to have a loving ministry there in that neighborhood; give us the courage and the conviction to step out in faith and in love. Show us where you want us to go.

9-17-01 – All I want to do is run. I am here in the middle of all the things I fear. I am afraid to walk Joe (my dog) around the block. Afraid to leave the front door open. Afraid to look at somebody wrong. I feel white and vulnerable right now. My yard is nasty. My house is in disarray from the move. We are $70,000 in debt. I am not courageous. I am scared. You tell me to be strong and courageous, but I’m not.

What have I done here? It was kind of romantic when this was an idea. Reality is not. Lord, I need you to change my heart from fear to faithfulness, to want to be here. Change my heart. Give me a love and burden for this neighborhood and an ability to love the people here.

9-24-01 – It’s been interesting that we’ve been ignored more here by our neighbors than in our old neighborhood. There was no “welcome wagon” on Pamlico or Whilden Place and it didn’t bother me. The folks we met there were the ones that we initiated with. Here the indifference is the same, but I tell my self it’s because people here don’t like us.

I will be free. We will be a part of this neighborhood. We will love and eventually we will be loved. I will walk in the power and freedom of Christ. You are my hope, O Lord, and you are our protector.

10-31-01 As I walked the neighborhood today I felt a mixture of loneliness, despair, and sadness. I see these kids and the obstacles they face, how so many of them are already hardened and angry. I see their parents, some of whom are open and some who seem angry or mistrustful of us. I thank you for this fear and confusion because they lead me back to trusting in you more and more. When I fear, it reminds me of the One who is my hope.

11-20-01 Lord, I feel overwhelmed by the construction project in the basement – I can’t even build a sawhorse!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

A haze floated out of Glenwood and traveled down Tate Street to UNCG today as the first vacant home in Glenwood was burned in preparation for UNCG’s expansion. Some of the homes are being  burned rather than simply demolished so that Greensboro fire fighters can train and be better prepared for their work, and that’s a good thing. And I understand that this UNCG expansion has been coming for a long time and that in general, this is the best option for development in Glenwood.

But I’m still sad. It’s hard to see a home on fire, to smell the smoke and to realize that everything is changing. I didn’t ever know people who lived in this first home to be taken down. It used to be a place called “The Lighthouse,” a rehab center (though I can imagine that trying to rehab from drugs in Glenwood could be an exercise in futility). But it was still a home. People lived there, had memories there. The neighborhood that I have devoted 10 years of my life to is rapidly changing. And as it burned, I noticed some of the poor of our neighborhood watching and Iwas sad at how little choice or say they have in the sweeping changes that are coming.IMAG0339



One person who read some of my concerns on facebook mistook my concern and sadness to be that the poor would not have housing options, as rent in Glenwood will inevitably go up in the coming years. But that was not my sadness. The poor are part of the fabric of this community for me. They are the reason I moved here and they have been used by God to teach me so much. I don’t want them to have to move from Glenwood and all that it offers.IMAG0351

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A Blazing God Consciousness

My Psalms Monk and I have been journeying through Book II (Psalms 42-72) since February, following the psalmist on a journey from a life of barrenness to one that is defined by the King. In Psalms 60-62, the psalmist (who is also our shepherd) has been teaching about a growing awareness of God, a growing God-consciousness. And then I read this Richard Foster quote in The Contented Soul by Lisa McMinn: “We are catapulted into something infinitely larger and more real than our petty existence {when we live with God in view}. A blazing God-consciousness frees us from self-consciousness. It is freedom, it is joy, it is life.”

It seems that so many of my struggles in life are tied to a too-small view of God. I begin to believe that my struggles and battles are my own to figure out, my longings are my own to fulfill, and God is either an accessory to getting what I want or He is absent, uninvolved with my life.

Which brings us to Psalm 60 (you might want to open your Bible to follow along). The historical context is 2 Samuel 8:1-14, in which David is winning victory after victory (verse 14 says, “And the Lord gave David victory wherever he went). So one would ask, why does he complain about feeling rejected by God in this Psalm (verses 1-3)? Jim (my psalms monk) supposes that David is just weary from fighting battle after battle and so he is crying out to God.

So on the heels of that complain, verse 4 says that God has unfurled His banner against their bow. Some commentators take that to mean bow as in “the front of a ship.” Some take it to mean bow as in “bow and arrow.” Either way, God’s banner is in the thick of the battle, within bowshot of the enemy or right at the front, leading the way. A banner in battle is a sign of the King’s presence, a sign that this is His army and His battle.

What does that banner say? There are 2 places that God uses His Banner in the OT. Songs of Songs 2:4 – His banner over me is love. Exodus 17:8-16, especially verses 15 and 16, where God give victory in response to Moses’ prayer. His banner is victory.

Back to Psalm 60 – in verse 5 David prays (like Moses did in Ex 17) and God answers in verses 6-8, saying He will triumph (word used twice) over all the areas of the world. In short – God wins.

So in verse 9, David says he is going to go against a FORTIFIED city (a tough battle) because God is with him – without God he cannot do it. David has moved from a place of complaining about his battles to going and engaging the enemy! And in the end, David has victory. He wins because God wins.

Sooooooo….. what the heck does this have to do with today?

Often times our lives feel much like Psalms 42-44 (start of Book II) – weary, thirsty, sucking dust (Ps 42:2, Ps 44:25). We are tired from the fight, and still each day there is another battle.

This Psalm says that right in the front of the battle, in the thick of the fight, God unfurls His banner, the banner of the King. And when you see that banner, it tells you three things: God is, God loves, and God wins. He is present, He is loving, and in the end, He will triumph.

For you and I to remember this truth each day, in the midst of our battles, can be very reassuring. The King is with me – I am not alone. The King loves me – no matter what I do or don’t do. The King wins – victory is certain and is the Lord’s.

Look for the banner – it takes eyes of faith, but it’s there. A growing God-consciousness is freedom, it is joy, it is life.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

King and Father

As I was reading the Beatitudes in Matthew today, it struck me the interplay between God being our King and God being our Father. From Matthew 5:1 to 5:42, Jesus talks about the Kingdom 6 times, mentioning God as Father only once. But in 5:42-7:27, He speaks of God as Father 14 times and the Kingdom only twice.

Sometimes its tempting to build our theology on one aspect of God or another – we can get heavily focused on the Kingdom of God and think about how we are involved in advancing that Kingdom and living under His reign. Or we can get heavily focused on God being our Heavenly father and think about how we can develop an intimate relationship with Him, knowing His love.

But as usual, Jesus’ teaching is more balanced than one or the other, and instead brings a both/and. God is my King and commands my allegiance, calling the shots of my life. But He’s also my Father who loves me and who knows me and cares for me. God is my Father who formed and created me, who gives me rest for my soul. But He’s also my King who has authority to lead me and to author my destiny.

The King is my Father and my Father is the King. Both/and.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

A Presence Empowered Imperative

Diane and I were recently spending time with two friends, and one of them was really wrestling with how his life and his theology didn’t always line up. He knows very clearly the imperatives of the Bible, the things that God tells us to do – pray without ceasing, love your neighbor, take every thought captive, etc. But so often for him the focus  or object of his faith becomes his efforts to correctly apply the truth and do the right thing.

Thankfully I know something about that struggle, living in that tension many days, and God has been teaching me recently a new way of seeing His commands.

Philippians 4:6-7  is a familiar imperative to many Christians – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition let your requests be known to God, and the peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The imperatives are “do not worry” and “pray about all things.” If you do those things, the passage says, you will have peace from God. And so my tendency is to take every worry and try hard to stop worrying about it and just pray it away, pray until it no longer worries me.

But what I had been missing for a long time is Philippians 4:4-5. “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say it again, rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”

The Lord is near. My hope in worry, my hope in any of my prayers, hinges on the truth that the Lord is near. The reality of God’s presence is more true and more powerful than any of my fears, sins, or worries. Knowing that the Lord is near, rejoicing in that, enables and empowers me to not be anxious, because I know Who is with me. It enables and empowers me to pray because I know Who is hearing my cries. The presence of God frees me to embrace His imperatives, which leads me to His peace.

And so I urged my friend to let “the Lord is near” be the defining thought for him in his struggles; to not focus on what he has done poorly or could do better, but to let the presence of God in him and with him draw him to an obedience that comes from faith (Romans 1:5, ESV). A presence empowered imperative. Rejoice!The Lord is near.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Battle of Faith

I’ve never been in a war zone. I have cousin who has served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small group member who is overseas right now, a father who served on the DMZ in Korea. I imagine that when someone signs up for the military, there is an awareness that war is possible for them, that one day they will be in a battle, but knowing that and having it become a reality are different things. And I can imagine that there are some men and women who, on the eve of battle, say, “You know, I didn’t sign up for this. I don’t want to be in a battle.” But the reality is, they did sign up for it and they are in the battle, and their option now is to fight.

I think that spiritually I feel much the same way. When I signed up as a follower of Jesus, I realized in theory that my life was not my own, that I belonged to God and was to live for His purposes. But I also imagined that this meant a life of peace and safety. Instead, what I am realizing is that I have signed on in a battle, and the closer I grow to Christ, the more I realize what is raging.

It’s not by accident that Paul writes about the armor of God. There is a spiritual battle going on that I am largely blind to, and as a leader in the church, I believe that I am under fiercer scrutiny, being drawn closer to the front lines. And there are days when I say, “You know, I didn’t sign up for this. I don’t want to be in a battle.” But the reality is, I did sign up for it. I transferred my allegiance from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light; I have a King, and while my King is good and loving, He has enemies. And so do His followers.

Was it for nothing that Jesus said, “If they hated me, will they not also hate you?” Was it for nothing that Jesus invited His disciples to  take up their cross daily and follow Him?

Many Christians in America don’t sense the battle because we’re not a threat to the enemy. When we live complacent spiritual lives (which I am prone to do), there’s no need for a counterattack. But when we advance God’s Kingdom, living for our King and not for our own lives, we will see and feel it.

What’s so great about that joining the battle? Why not just take the assurance of salvation and try and be as comfortable as possible this side of heaven? For me, when I think about it, I think of movies and stories that stir my soul. The Lord of the Rings is an enduring classic because so many of us resonate with the ordinariness of hobbits who do extraordinary things. I love when Frodo says, “I wish the ring had never come to me.” Yet he is counseled by Gandalf to find hope in the battle. And so Frodo does, bolstered by community, fighting with what he has, not what he doesn’t. Caught up in a greater story is what we are created for, but there is no greater story without risk, no victory without battle. Too many people miss the adventure and settle for what’s safe, not what’s best.

I’m in. I don’t always want to be “in.” I’m tempted to run. But having other in the battle with me makes it all the more worth it. And even more, the Word of God strengthen, sustains and emboldens me. Stay in the battle and move forward.

Monday, August 15, 2011

No Trust in Mountains

When I head up Highway 421 towards Boone, there’s a point where the hills get green and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains come into view. As I hit that point, something in my soul begins to settle, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be than in the NC hills. Every part of me wants to absorb the mountains – I love to stand in the creeks and let the water run over my feet and to put my hands in and pick up smooth rocks; I pause on trails to feel the soft moss on fallen logs; I breathe deeply, smelling the fresh air; I take in the shadows and the greens and the splashes of color from wildflowers. Whether I am walking a trail or sitting in a meadow, my soul is both more awake and more at rest in the mountains.

Last week my family and I received the gift of being able to stay at a home in Blowing Rock, and not just any home – a home with every possible comfort, with a beautiful view off the back deck, and, best of all, a home that was given freely, not just  the fact that we didn’t have to pay for it but also in the sense that the owners gave it with a generous, gracious spirit that enabled us to truly feel at home, not worrying about if we were going to mess things up. I left my laptop in Greensboro, and I was able to spend long days with my family, to connect with the Lord in the cool evenings on the porch, to walk and run the trails and begin to share my love of nature with my children.

Needless to say, driving home was hard. Diane and I knew what was waiting for us – a sick friend in her last days of life; back-to-school preparations and the inevitable adjustment period that comes with school’s start; jobs that we each enjoy yet demand a lot from us; less time together and with our kids. It was hard to not long for the mountains and the week that we’d had.

But yesterday morning at church, in the midst of my sadness and longing for the hills, we sang a song based on Psalm 121. “I lift my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” Ps 121:1-2

I realized that it could be easy to put my hope in the mountains, in their refreshment and rest, but really, without Christ, they are just big rocks covered with trees. My rest is not in the mountains but in God who made them, and God’s rest and presence is just as much available to me here in Greensboro as it is in Boone. Remembering that and setting my heart and hope on that truth is harder here. There are more things to distract from that truth. But I believe that our vacation gave me the opportunity to reset and refocus so that I could come home and depend anew on God.

Psalm 62:1 says, “Truly my soul finds rest in God alone,”,  a truth statement. I experienced that truth in the mountains. Now at home, I am learning to live in Psalm 62:5 which says, “Yes, my soul, find rest in God,” commanding my soul to live in truth. And God, my help and my maker, is helping me along that path of rest and hope in the midst of work and life.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A rhythm of life

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength,but you would have none of it.  16You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’ Therefore you will flee! You said, ‘We will ride off on swift horses.’ Therefore your pursuers will be swift!

Isaiah 30:15-16, TNIV

Retraining ourselves to hear God requires time and stillness and attentiveness, but our lives demand time, action, and attentiveness. For many, the call of work and family, church and  friends, seems to be unending, and it even seems very “spiritual” or good to always have our days filled with these things.

The problem with that is the “good thing” of rest never seems to elbow its way onto our schedule. People’s needs, car and home maintenance, opportunities to volunteer all seem more important than quiet. And so we, like the Israelites in Isaiah 30, find ourselves always riding away from the strength and salvation that God offers.

Because time for quiet and stillness doesn’t clamor for our attention, we have to prioritize it, schedule it, like an appointment that we simply cannot cancel. Every day cannot be spent meditating by a creek; every week cannot be a vacation at the beach. But there is a need for regular rhythms of renewal, and when I neglect those, my running is more and more in vain. There are daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly rhythms, and as I prioritize them, I find that I am refreshed and ready for the tasks of life, expected and unexpected alike.

Rhythms of exercise – I need to run or play hard at least three times a week.

Rhythms of retreat – one morning a week, I need to have extended time of reading, prayer (listening) and Scripture study. One day a month, I need to spend 5-7 hours in reading, prayer and Scripture, usually at a retreat center or out in a wooded park in Greensboro. Once a month I need to meet with my spiritual director.

Rhythms of daily grace – each day I need to orient myself to the truth of who God is and my position in Him and in His story. This means I spend time in Scripture and in prayer and in quiet.

Rhythms of family and marriage – each week I need time with my children, playing and being intentional about hanging out with them. Each month I need a one-to-one time with each child. Every 6 months, our family needs to take some sort of vacation. Every two weeks (at least) I need to take my wife out on a date. Every three to four months, I need to arrange a night or two away with my wife.

Rhythms of play – it’s OK for me to play disc golf, watch sports with friends, practice my banjo. Play is good for my soul, and I need to make time for it each week.

It can be hard to put these ideas into practice, and we have not failed if we let them get pushed aside. When we find that we have gotten off course, we simply pick ourselves up, dust off our planner, and try again to schedule in the rhythms of life that restore our soul.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Drinking buddies

My IV staff worker, Dean Mille, used to encourage us to have spiritual “drinking buddies", men and women who mentor us through their books and their walk with the Lord. We may not always have an actual person to disciple us in Christ, but there are many wise saints who have gone before us and left their wisdom in books and sermons. In the arena of learning to listen to God, retraining ourselves to hear Him, I would recommend three people to you.

My main two mentors are Eugene Peterson and Andrew Murray. The book Abide in Christ has been a tool of transformation in my life for over 10 years now. It contains 31 reflections on trusting in Jesus as our life, rooted and abiding in Him.

Eugene Peterson has mentored me in being a pastor as much as anyone through his books like Under the Unpredictable Plant, Run With the Horses, and The Contemplative Pastor. I have recently been re-reading Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, which is based on the life of David. This book is an excellent primer in learning to listen to God, to train our ears in hearing his voice in every aspect of our lives.

And I would highly recommend the book Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. It’s written as though Jesus were speaking to you, and it simply calls you to greater levels of trust and assurance that Christ is in control of each moment, each day. There are 365 short readings, and it’s an excellent reminder each day to trust God with all your heart and all your life.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wisdom from my wife

God has really blessed me in recent conversations with Diane. The other night I was talking with her about my discontent with our “stuff.” I wish we had more money, more freedom to do some things that we’d like to do, and I know I’ve not chosen a profession that is going to get us to financial security very quickly. And I also am confronted each day with how rich we are just by seeing our lives compared to our neighbors. So the longing and even envy is in me, as is shame for even wanting more.

God has given me a wife that is content with little. She buys clothes at yard sales, doesn’t really set her eyes on things in stores, and is content with what God has given us. She listened to me sympathetically, and then said, “I just keep thinking that we are here on earth for such a short time. Concerning myself with stuff just seems like a waste of time, when I could be focused on God and His Kingdom. I;m really happy with all He has given us.” She didn’t say it in a tone of rebuke or correction – it was her honest heart, and it spoke volumes to me

Another time I asked her what God was teaching her, and she was sharing that He had been giving her a thankful heart (which I think also connects to being content), and she said, “I’ve found that thankfulness doesn’t leave room for me to be afraid.” When I asked her to explain, she shared how having a thankful heart, and being intentionally thankful to God throughout the day, puts her fears and worries in perspective. In the context of God’s goodness to her, worries and fears pale, crowded out of her heart by an awareness of the Lord.

Thank you God for a wise and loving wife.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cleaning out the wax

My junior year of college I could not hear out of one of my ears, so  I went to student health. As they flushed my ear with water, out came a giant ball of greenish-yellow wax, and in flooded all the sounds that I had been missing. My hearing was so acute that I could not eat in the cafeteria that day; I heard every single noise, every conversation. Removing the blockage allowed me to hear more clearly.

If busyness and lies block us from hearing God, stillness and truth flush our spiritual ears out and open our them to the flood of grace that He wants to speak. On the same day that I made my list of “Things That Motivate Me to Be Busy” I made another list, a list of truths that I want to live by.

I am accepted in the Beloved.

I have been given all that I need for life and godliness in Christ.

My main job is to remain in Jesus and trust Him for fruit.

I am no one's savior or only hope.

My standing with God is tied to Christ's perfect performance.

I can be content in all things through Christ.

My passions are important, good, and part of God's workmanship in me.

I am not a slave to my emotions. I am led by the Spirit of God.

Apart from Jesus, I can do nothing. In Him I will bear much fruit.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

I am loved by God.

I am loved by others for reasons other than my performance.

I am not defined by my failures, and Failure is not my name or identity.

God is. God loves. God wins.

I desire to be a pastor shaped by prayer and the Spirit, not by needs.

These are not truths I invented or ideas that I made up. They are rooted in Scripture, in God’s very words to me (and to us). And while the lies that motivate me often feel more real than these truths, and while they usually scream louder for my attention, the truths above do not change. There is rest, salvation, and strength in knowing them, in believing them over and above my feelings.

Do you have core truths to counter the lies that clog your hearing? Do you know them, rehearse them, repeat them? And is there space for these truths to take deep root in your soul? If not, they will quickly be crowded out and shouted down.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The world is alive

Cardinal and mockingbird, chipmunk and squirrel, butterfly and beetle, dogwood and fern.

Streams of water, cool of the shade. The world is alive. God’s creation.

Living things, plants and animals, rooted in the reality of God, uncluttered by sin, unworried by the world.

Things doing what they were made to do, living a life of unconscious trust while the world zooms all around.

Reminders of God’s life and presence, just off Friendly Avenue.

What keeps me deaf?

If hearing God involves stillness, silence, and listening, my life normally affords little opportunity for me to hear from Him. I recently spent a day in prayer and quiet, trying to figure out why my soul was in such disrepair. Why was I so busy, tired, and angry, overwhelmed with good things to do?

And I came up with this list of “Things That Drive Me to be Busy”:

I am significant because of what I do

I am a failure because I do not get each choice and decision "right" each day

I am necessary in God's Kingdom

God withholds His love from me based on my behavior

"No" said to me is rejection. "No" may make you like me less if I say it to you.

There is no plan B after me. It's all up to me.

I must win, I must be right.

If I don't do what you want/expect me to do, I have let you down.

Others' love for me is tenuous and uncertain.

If I didn't do so much, I would not be as loved/valuable.

I must get it right, no matter what "it" is.

Identity = Performance

I want to be included, significant, and I will attend/go just so I get invited next time.

As you can see, this list is a pretty good recipe for doing good things and living a life pleasing others. It also looks like a life that would be pleasing to God. But for me it is a recipe for soul disaster.

A life motivated by other’s opinions and expectations, motivated by fear, is not really life at all.

I’m not sure what drives you. Your issue might be apathy or it might be living a life that just pleases you, not caring what God thinks. Either way, I bet you’ve got a list that drives you. And in time, by God’s grace, that list will be insufficient to keep your head above water.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Learning to hear again

“My question is, how do we retrain ourselves to hear God? I've been taking up all of my prayer with my words that I no longer know how to hear God.”

This question is on the lips of many of us who long to know God and to hear Him, yet lose Him in the midst of the world and our own thoughts and ideas and problems.

I think that the answer to my friend’s question is very simple, yet profoundly difficult in practice.  We retrain ourselves to hear God by listening.

But why is it so hard to do? Isaiah 30:15 sums up the problem fairly well. “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.”

We would “have none of it” because we secretly believe that we are better equipped to handle and manage our lives (and the lives of others) than God is. And we also don’t want to have to face the question, “What if we take time to be quiet and listen and we don’t hear anything?”

An important part of stilling our souls is identifying what drives our busyness and our wordiness. What fears cause us to be in constant motion or to lapse into apathetic non-communication with God? What misplaced hopes cause us to believe that talking to God about our problems is more important and necessary than listening? When we identify these, we can confess them to God, renounce them (repent), and claim the truth of who we truly are and who God truly is.

Last week I wanted to go and pray for some people in my church, leaders under my care. But when I got to my place of prayer, going through a list of people didn’t seem like the thing to do. And so I sat quietly, listening, being with God, and seeking to simply abide in His presence. Honestly, it seemed like a waste. It seemed that I wasn’t praying my pastoral prayers. But I cannot lead people where I am not going myself. I cannot teach people a  God-centered, God-infused life if I myself am a functional atheist, and if praying through a list of people becomes more about my fears and less about my faith, I am operating with a very small (non-existent?) view of God.

I was reminded of being out for a walk in the woods and hearing something nearby. If you want to hear it again, you don’t keep crunching in the leaves. You stop. Your listen. You cup your hands to your ears and look intently all around, hardly daring to breath.

Retraining ourselves to hear God requires stopping, stillness, and listening, which are three things that are in short supply in our world and in even in a typical Sunday church service. To retrain ourselves in hearing God requires carving out space for that to happen, saying “no” to the internal and external demands to satisfy our own desires, and saying yes to things like Sabbath and Scripture and silence.

And it is a retraining. Stillness is countercultural for us. It takes time to grow our attentiveness to the Spirit. But there is great reward when we do.

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Be still and believe.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Simplicity of language

Eugene Peterson continues to mentor me in what it means to have a living, breathing relationship with the Lord in the mix and muddle of everyday life (and consequently how to pastor fellow Believers in doing the same).

One way that he has really been messing with me lately is in the area of prayer. In some ways, I feel like I am re-learning how to pray, realizing that my language in prayer has drifted from what prayer was designed to be.

In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson talks about 3 levels of language – level 1 is relational, the language of parent to infant, communicating love and emotion without words even being necessary. It is the language of lovers and poets. level 2 is informational, naming the things of the world and learning what stuff means, how it works. level 3 is motivational, using words to get people to do what we want them to do.

Much of our language use is on level 2 and 3. We want to know lots of things, and we want to know how to get people to see things our way or do things our way. We spend a lot of time telling others about things or receiving info from them, a lot of time persuading and being persuaded.

This language usage seeps into our life with God, too. Over time, we equate spiritual growth with knowing more about God and being able to pray in such a way that it motivates God to do what we want Him to do. Often times when I talk with people about God, I am teaching them information about Him or the Christian life or I am motivating them to do something. Being a pastor can sometimes be equated with having answers, having something to say.

But, Peterson argues, that prayer is level 1 language, and he believes that most Christians don’t know how to pray. Prayer is being with God and experiencing His love, His presence, His power, without gathering information. It’s relating to Him in intimacy, irrespective of our actions. God is. We are His. We rest.

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve been aware of how many sermonettes I insert into my prayers, wasting words telling God things that are really meant for the ears of those praying with me. I’ve been aware of how many times I start praying without knowing what I should say, praying out of tune with the Spirit and simply in tune with my own desires and needs.

Praying at a level 1 involves much listening and less self-assurance that I even have a clue what to pray for others. As I listen to God, for what He is praying and saying about a situation, sometimes I all I have to pray is one word. “Rest.” “Comfort.” “Truth.” Sometimes I have nothing to say, and I can feel awkward, knowing that those I am praying with are, like me, used to filling our prayer time with words.

Prayer is much more of a responding language than an initiating language, hearing from God and then speaking back to Him. Sure, there is room for me to simply cry out and pour out my heart to Him. But I think that Christian culture has drifted too far into the realm of, “God’s your buddy so He just wants to listen to all your problems,” without the necessary counterbalance of, “God is Your good Father and Your Lord – listen to Him and let your problems be awash with His words and His presence.”

I’m discovering that my role as a pastor, even more than informing and motivating, is to teach people to pray and know the language of intimacy with God. God is. We are His. We rest in Him.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Snickbuzzards, Toothy Cows, and the Fierce Fangs of Dang–Summer Reading at its Best!

For many of us, it’s beach time, and what better way to spend the day at the beach than by reading? (In between chasing your kids through the waves, reapplying sunscreen, looking for sea shells, and watching “big cable” if you only have “basic cable” at home, that is.)

May I commend to you a series of books that will warm your heart, enlarge your imagination, and thrill you with adventure, sacrificial love, and moments where you laugh out loud? The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson is just such a series, and it would be a shame if more people did not begin reading it. Immediately (if not sooner).

The saga begins with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, which introduces us to Janner, Tink, and Leeli Igiby, their pirate grandfather, Podo, and their amazing mother, Nia. The family lives in relative peace in the tiny town of Glipwood (except for the constant torment by the lizard-like Fangs of Dang who rule the town in the name of Gnag the Nameless). The peace is an uneasy one, though, as Janner’s heart senses that there is more to life, more to his story, than he is truly experiencing.

Fate interrupts and sends the entire Igiby family running for their lives from an entire army of Fangs (not to mention close encounters with toothy cows, horned hounds, and quill diggles), and each chapter seems to end on a cliff-hanger that will not let you stop reading.

Their story continues with North! Or Be Eaten, as the Igiby’s make their way to the Ice Prairies (where the cold prevents the Fang lizards from fighting). The children discover amazing things about themselves and their family, and begin their first steps towards living in the truth of who they really are. There is treachery, danger, and a Fork! Factory! that is a truly terrible place.

I had read Dark Sea and North! twice before reading them aloud with Eliza (my second-grader), and the third Wingfeather Saga installment arrived just a week ago. Normally, I would have gobbled up The Monster in the Hollows in a day or two (I had been waiting on this story for months, after all), but I wanted to experience the book and all its surprises at the same time as Eliza. So we are 1/3 of the way through, reading a few chapters at a time, the story still twisting, turning, and surprising. The Igiby’s are living in relative peace in the Green Hollows, and Peterson continues to widen the world of Aerwiar with vivid and distinct characters and people groups.

For children (and children at heart), the books offer much silliness and wonder and adventure.

For the wordsmith, the books have wonderful turns of phrase. (“Like the pluck of a stringed instrument, the first edge of the sun broke loose and poured light over the world.”)

For the spiritual, there are themes of  identity, courage, and faith which are strong without being overbearing.

The love and courage of the Igibys is beautiful to watch, even as they struggle at times to trust and forgive one another, and I heartily agree with Eliza, who upon hearing that the series would conclude with book four (The Warden and the Wolf King), wailed, “What! I thought he was going to write SEVEN books in the series.”

I have not tired of the first two books after three readings, and The Monster in the Hollows promises more of the same. If you are still reading this post, what are you waiting for? Go to the Rabbit Room and order the series (or Amazon for paperback or Kindle copies). Read them to yourselves and to your kids (or borrow a friend’s kids if you don’t have any).

May the Maker bless you as you read. As Oskar N. Reteep’s* tattoo says, “I like books.” And these are amazing.

*Oskar N. Reteep is a friend of the Igiby’s and the proprietor of Books and Crannies, and he is an appreciator of the neat, the strange and/or the yummy.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Serenity Now!

After my last post, my friend Mike Witt wrote, “If only "remaining/abiding" came easily and naturally instead of me TRYING so hard to remain. Any thoughts?” My first thought is, “Yes, I hear you and I have no idea either!”

But as I have prayed about this today, I am beginning to remember that remaining is an ongoing, regular process. It’s something that takes time to cultivate, and fruit does not appear overnight. Being at home all day with the kids has not necessarily been the most fun. We’ve played some games, read some books, and laughed together. But it’s also been noisy and a little bit less “controlled” than my work environment. And so as I tried to read and pray while Jacob bounced on the bed beside me, I decided, “The key is to abide, so I will just abide.” And I thought I could flip the abiding switch. Didn’t work.

It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where George’s dad thinks that he can obtain peace by screaming, “Serenity now!!” whenever he got stressed out.

The fruit of the Spirit is peace, true, but fruit takes time to be borne. The Spirit is not a source to be turned on and off when I need it, freeing me to live independently from God until life gets to be a little more than I can handle. The life that Jesus describes in John 15 is an ongoing abiding, a daily and hourly relationship of intimacy, of life focused on the Father and of relying on the complete provision of the Son. That life is available at all times, but is not cultivated in a mere moment.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Back to the Vine

I used to tell my UNCG students, “You never graduate from the gospel,” meaning that our need for Jesus never goes away. Our goal is not to need Him less but to depend on Him more. It seems that I cannot graduate from John 15, Jesus’ discourse on the vine and the branches.

After weeks (months) of drifting in busyness and being driven by the expectations of people and of myself, I’m getting sick tired of being sick and tired.

Needing an anchor for my soul, I’ve wandered back to familiar ground, the parable of the vine. God has been speaking to me in recent days, revealing the root of my busyness and burnout, which is a lack of intimacy with Him. Instead of seeking God’s face, I’ve been living by what seems best to me. The really tricky part is that usually “what seems best to me” are things that are really good and nice. Helping people, leading Bible studies, prayer. These are things that have an appearance of fruitfulness, and so they have become my focus, because I want a fruitful life.

So I was stopped short again today when I read John 15:5. “If you remain in me, you will bear much fruit.” The very thing I want – fruit - is a byproduct of the very thing I have rarely been doing – remaining. My life gets so focused on results, on fruit, on the end product, and the goal – fruit – becomes my focus, instead of the Lord. Remaining is so counterintuitive to me. It seems so wasteful to just “remain” and let God bring the fruit. There are so many things to do.

But what if they are not the things He wants me to do? Talk about wasting time!

It’s as thought God is saying, “Remain. Fruit will come. Don’t focus on fruit. Be still, remain, and listen. Trust. Let me produce in you what I want to produce, not what you  think I want or what you want or what others want. Remain. Fruit will come.”

And so I will. Like a branch in a vine. Focused on the Lord and trusting Him for the fruit. But I think resting and remaining will be hard work at first.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

OK, problem revealed… so what?

Burnout seems to start with me and with my own sin, honestly, the sin of thinking I am necessary. It seems that as I repent  of my sin (Psalm 51), the prescription for getting back on track is hidden within Psalm 50.

Sacrifice thank offerings.

Then obey. Then call on God. But first and foremost, honor God with thanks, because He is my Shepherd, the one who saves me and the one who saves those that I care about.

Having a thankful heart reorients me to who God is and who I am in Him. It’s hard to be self-righteous, proud of what I have done when God is the give-er of all that I have. It’s hard to maintain a frenetic pace of saving the world without taking rest when I remember that God alone can redeem (Psalm 49).

In Psalm 50, God basically says, “Your sacrifices are OK, but you wouldn’t have a cow to offer me if I didn’t give it to you. All of the world is mine, and I let you borrow it in order to bless me.” (verses 9-13)

The only thing that we can offer that is truly a sacrifice is our thanks, acknowledging God as our shepherd and provider. God gives us our strength, our finances, our time, the things that we might ordinarily offer to him. But He refuses to coopt our heart – He wants us to give that to Him freely.

Diagnosing the issue is one thing. But I honestly don’t know how to cultivate this thankful heart; too many “elder brother” years, I guess. However, I’ve learned enough to know that I need a shepherd, One to show me the way to thankfulness. I also know that fully repenting of my pride, of my “necessary-ness” will not happen overnight.

But here are steps that I am taking: Regular sabbath is part of repentance. Taking a monthly day away to be with the Lord (and having Diane do the same) is an act of repentance. Setting up a third cell-line so that I can be “off” from email and texts from church on Friday and Saturday, and be present to my kids, is an act of repentance. Practicing God’s presence each hour, remembering His primacy in my life is an act of repentance. Learning to say no (remembering my that I am not necessary), is an act of repentance.

And as I turn from self, I know I will see God. Seeing God will bring thankfulness. Then my obedience will flow from a heart that honors God. And I think joy in the margins will return.

Monday, March 14, 2011

So what’s all this got to do with burnout?

My family and I certainly don’t want for anything, but I would not say that we are rolling in the money. So I am not sure that trusting in my financial wealth is going to be my downfall.

But I do think that I can trust in my wealth of attaboys, my wealth of people liking me for doing the right thing. In the right circles, you can get a lot of props for being a pastor and living missionally in a run-down part of town, and I am often tempted to believe my own hype. I am tempted to believe that my obedience and my faith earns me favor with God and that favor should equal my getting all the trappings of the good life. I am tempted to believe that I deserve a break, that I deserve things more than others who do less for God.

And if I can’t have the stuff I want, then I can begin to live for the praise of others, doing the right thing, but beginning to think that I am making it all happen. Salvation and transformation becomes my job, and I become my own shepherd.

If my wealth and my worth are tied to my performance, there is little to no room for rest and Sabbath. Who can rest when there is so much work to be done, so much that God needs me to do?

I have been doing the right things. I have been offering the right sacrifices. I have been obedient. But thankfulness is far from me.

I have been obedient. I have been faithful. I have sacrificed for God. And yet other people get the blessings that I want? And yet my life feels so hard and frustrating? And yet I feel like nothing I do is ever enough? (see a theme here?)

Jealousy and criticism had become my companions, self-righteousness my comfort for the disappointment I have felt. And a lack of rest and Sabbath led to physical and spiritual exhaustion.

In many ways, I have believed that I am necessary, and if I am necessary, I have taken the Shepherd’s place.

And being the Shepherd in  charge is exhausting.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Psalm 51, Part 3

It’s interesting that David says, “Against you and you only have I sinned” (v. 4). Um, didn’t David sin against Bathsheba, Uriah, Joab, his people? Certainly, but the root of all that sin was a heart that trusted in itself instead of in God, a lack of thanks which led to disobedience which led to not calling on God.

He asks God to create a clean heart in him. What new heart does David need? A heart of thanks, a heart that esteems God as God, God as the King and shepherd of his life. This heart cannot be achieved through going through the religious motions. Psalm 51:16-17 says that God doesn’t delight in the sacrifices and burnt offerings that are divorced from a heart yielded to God and thankful to Him.

As I read these Psalms over the course of a day last week, the dots began to connect for me. Trust in myself leads me to exchange shepherds (Psalm 49). I can still go through religious motions, still look like my life is OK, but inside my heart’s orientation has been changed from one of thankful dependence to one of self-righteous independence (Psalm 50). Obedience divorced from thankfulness leads to anger and entitlement. It leads to jealousy over what others have that you deserve, and you begin to think about how you might make that happen for yourself (Psalm 51). A thankful heart honors God, places Him in His rightful place on the throne of our life. And the proper response to the realization of our sin is repentance and asking for the mercy of God to reorient our heart.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Psalm 51, Part 2

The Lord, however, does not approve of David’s sin, and he sends Nathan, the profit to confront David. After telling David a made-up story about a greedy landowner robbing from a poor peasant, inciting David’s anger at the injustice, Nathan unloads the punchline – You are that man! You are the greedy man who robbed from the poor!

And why did David sin like this? What was the root of his slip from blessed to blundering? A lack of thankfulness. Read what he says.

7This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. 9Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’ The Holy Bible : Today's New International Version. 2005 (2 Sa 12:7-10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Nathan recounts all that God had given David, blessing upon blessing with more to come. And yet it was not enough. David was not thankful. He had begun to believe his own press, to believe that he had earned his victories and his throne and the love of the people. A lack of thanks had led to trust in himself, which led to Death Shepherd leading the way in David’s life.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Psalm 51, Part 1

This psalm was written by David after his affair with Bathsheba (and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah), the low point of his life.

The backstory for this Psalm is in 2 Samuel 11, David at the height of his power. Everything he touched, he conquered. Everyone loved him; He was God’s king. And then the cheese starts to slide off his cracker. Verse 11:1 says that in the spring when kings would go out to war, David sent his troops out and stayed behind. Instead of trusting in God, walking in obedience, David has begun to trust in himself (Psalm 49). This trust in himself in terms of his kingly duties begins David’s exchange of shepherds. The man who wrote “the Lord is my shepherd” is now shepherding himself. So he see Bathsheba bathing, finds out she is married, and decides to sleep with her anyway. He’s the king, right? He’s in charge, he can do what he wants.

Then Bathsheba gets pregnant. Here is the perfect time for David to seek counsel, to seek the Lord, to stop being his own shepherd. But instead he persists in the self-trust of Psalm 49 and decides to "handle it” by trying first to deceive Uriah and then having him killed in the line of duty. And he tells his general Joab, who had Uriah killed, not to worry about it or feel guilty.

At this point, virtually no one in David’s kingdom knows anything about his sin. And for months, David might feel like he has gotten away with it. Bathsheba is pregnant, gives birth to a son, and David is going about his business, probably attending worship, and God has not called him to account. He’s living out Psalm 50:21 – he’s taking God’s silence over the course of 9 or 10 months as approval.

He’s about to find out that he is badly mistaken.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Psalm 50

In this Psalm, God is calling Israel to account for their sin, but it’s not for the sins that you might expect. In verse 7 He says that He will testify against His people, but then proceeds to tell them that the sacrifices that they have been bringing to Him were fine. “I bring no charge against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings.” They are doing the right things, practicing right religion.

So what does God tell them to do? Three things:

1) Sacrifice thank offerings 2) Fulfill your vows 3) Call on God.

Be thankful. Obey. Trust.

This is the hinge on which the psalm and God’s judgment swings, because He then addresses the wicked. Their problem? They are showing up to worship, reading their Bible verses, saying the right things. But their lives don’t match it. In short, they don’t practice what the preach (v. 16-20). The psalm ends with a key corrective to the wicked – thank offerings honor God.

Why is thanksgiving elevated above obedience in verses 14 and 15? Why are the wicked rebuked for their lack of thanks?

The answer lies back in Psalm 49. The problem in this psalm was trust in self, exchanging shepherds. Those who trust in themselves, in their own abilities, are going to lack a thankful heart. There’s no need to be thankful to God. They have produced the results. They have produced the wealth. God has become a means to an end – say a few verses, show up to service, and voila!

A thankful heart reveals that we understand who our provider is, who our shepherd is. A thankful heart drives obedience motivated by love. A thankful heart leads us to trust the Lord as we see Him as the source of all things. The wicked of Psalm 50 lack this heart.

The tricky part is that a thankful heart can only be seen by God.  So we can have a life built on trust in ourselves and still look pretty on the outside, deceiving ourselves and others.

In Psalm 50:21, God says, “When you did these things, I kept silent, you thought I was exactly like you.” See? Deceived. We get fooled into making God in our image. And before we know it, we are in over our head and way off track, which brings us to David’s life and Psalm 51.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Psalm 49

The Psalms are not just a random collection of poems, shuffled and thrown together by whim. There is purpose in their order, though discerning that is not as obvious as when reading a story a letter. The Psalms can actually build on one another, telling a story of a Godward life with all its ups and downs. Some psalms are more famous than others (think Psalm 23 and Psalm 51), and the rest just seem like random filler. But what if  told you that Psalms 49 and 50 are essential to a proper understanding of Psalm 51, which we tend to read on its own, out of context with the Psalms that precede it? Stick with me as we start in Psalm 49 and begin to unpack how these psalms speak to our lives (and even to my burnout).  (you may want to open it in your browser or read along in your Bible).

The overall theme of Psalm 49 is this: if you trust in yourself, you will come to ruin. So much ruin that you exchange the Lord as your shepherd for Death as your shepherd (v. 13-14). To trust in yourself means you try to save yourself; trust in your wealth means that you do not trust in God’s resources.

The problem is that no one can save themselves (or anyone else for that matter), no matter how hard we try. God alone can save, God alone redeems. How does this connect to Psalm 50? Stay tuned.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Where’s the joy?

I have felt burnt out over the past few months, overwhelmed by work, by home, by Glenwood, by things to do and things undone. I had also discovered too many “elder brother” thoughts lurking in my heart, jealous of others, feeling trapped by commitment and far from the pleasure of the Father’s heart. There has been little joy in the margins for me lately.

And I began to wonder if living in Glenwood had finally gotten the best of me, if leading GUPY and working for Grace was proving too much. Maybe the answer was moving out of Glenwood, living less missionally; it’s not the first time I have had that thought in the past 8 months.

But I am beginning to believe that the problem that I thought was the problem is not really my problem. Glenwood and GUPY have been taking the brunt of my anger, scapegoats for burnout, but I think the issue is deeper than geography. I think that I have developed a fairly marginless life, and therefore, the stresses of my neighborhood and loving the urban poor quickly zap the life from me.

I’m piecing the puzzle together, not only why I’ve ended up in this place but also a possible answer as to the way out.

Over the next few posts, I’d like to invite you on a journey through Psalms 49-51 and the life of David, looking for the answer to my weary heart and a possible key to fresh life and ministry. Maybe it will refresh you as well.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Key to the Psalm (and maybe life with God)

Life with God can seem very complicated. Indeed, a life of faith has never been accused of being easy and much of our world combats the reality of God.

But life with God can also be simple.

Psalm 89:15 says, “Blessed are those who learn to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, LORD.” My Psalms mentor, Jim, says that this verse boils the Christian life down into a simple form. Life with God must be one that acclaims Him, one that praises Him with applause and shouts of joy. We don’t start out wanting to do this – we begin life bent to sin, bent on ourselves, and so we must learn to acclaim God as God.

And life with God is one where we walk with Him, where our trust in His presence begins to define each and every moment.

In fact, the book of Psalms is a book which trains us to acclaim God, trains us to know His presence, and ends up in Psalm 150 with shouts of joy and praise, every breath celebrating the Person of God. Psalm 89:15 falls right in the middle of the Psalter (not in terms of chapters but in terms of total verses, it’s right around the center), and it could be seen as the keystone to the book and to a life lived with the Lord.

I’ve been trying to practice God’s presence by wearing a digital watch that beeps on the hour, and when it beeps, I pause to remember the Lord and His presence. Psalm 89:15 has become my refrain after that beep, that my life might be one that is learning to acclaim God and one that lives in the reality of His presence. At the end of my days, if my life lines up more and more with this verse, I think it will be very good indeed.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Not a Map or an App

In recent years Apple has coined the term “there’s an app for that,” and there seems to be a smartphone app for most any problem in life. Trying to follow Google Maps written directions recently, I was confused by “head Northeast on Such and Such Street.” Which way is Northeast? Within 30 seconds I had compass app on my Droid and Northeast was no longer a problem.

In his translation of Psalm 43:3, Eugene Peterson writes, “Give me your lantern and compass, give me a map so I can find my way to the sacred mountain, to the place of your presence.” In even more modern language, the psalmist is asking for an app to guide him into the presence of God. Clear directions, an easy-to-follow guide. A map and an app.

But my Psalms mentor, Jim, has wisely noted that God doesn’t do apps. His goal is not the quick fix or the easy understanding. He’d rather give us Himself than the Answer.

Not a map. Not an app. But a shepherd.

In the myriad of decisions and life stages and competing calls for our time and attention, we long for God to spell out what exactly we ought to do next. And He mostly gives us Himself. A shepherd who guides, who comforts, who calls us by name. And teaches us to learn His voice. There’s not an app for that. There’s not quick way to relationship, to trust, to knowing that God is INDEED my shepherd and that I shall not be in want.

As I ponder some major rumblings in my heart and significant life decisions, I’m learning to seek the presence and voice of God.

Not a map. Not an app. But a shepherd.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Learning to pray for my children

In December we went through a really hard time of Jacob waking up many times during the night saying he had a bad dream and wanting to get in bed with us. This pattern of waking up at 1, 3, and 5 was taking a toll on me and Diane, and finally I decided to begin praying over Jacob. The main motivation behind these prayers was because I wanted and needed sleep. I was pretty much begging God to keep him asleep so that I didn’t have to be tired all the time.

But as I prayed for him to sleep, God began to stir in me to pray about other things. Things like his heart to be stirred towards knowing the Lord; like his future wife; like his heart being freed from fear and awakened to adventure. And then I began going up to the loft and praying over each of my girls.

Because my desire for sleep was so desperate, I was praying over him every night, and thus praying over my girls every night as well. And in time, my prayers spent less and less time asking God for sleep and more time blessing my children and speaking truth over them and into their lives.

While slight sleep deprivation is very slight on the overall scale of suffering, God did use that discomfort to lead me to my knees and to teach me to pray for my children. And because the wakefulness did not go away after the first night of prayer (or the fifth), God developed a habit in me that has remained (more or less) even after Jacob has begun sleeping again, and therefore his wakefulness has been a great gift.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Freedom and Joy of Obedience

One staff member at our  church teases me a lot about my distaste for the word “obedience".” My perfectionistic side has long found that the concept of obedience brings up all sorts of “earning God’s love” theology in me, and I run from that. It’s not that I don’t want/need to obey, it’s that I have been in a season where grace was my primary lense of relating to God, because I had obeyed for so long out of fear.

Recently I was offered some tickets to see the UNC-Clemson game at the Dean Dome, and I had the chance to go with two of my favorite people in the world. Parking pass. Row-N. Lower level. Pregame meal in the Bowles Room.

The problem was I had a board meeting that night for Housing Greensboro, a non-profit which provides major and minor home repairs for low-income families. Having missed our November meeting and not meeting again until March, if I missed this meeting in January it would have put me out 6 months from attending a board meeting.

I knew that the right thing, the obedient thing, the God-honoring thing, was to stay and honor my commitment to the board. But there are few things I love more than lower level seats in the Dean Dome, and so the internal war was on. I tried every way that I could to justify going to the game. And all the while I knew that having to work so hard to justify my decision was simply pointing to the fact that something was amiss.

So I decided to stay, and not with a glad heart, I might add. But the morning of the meeting (and the game), I woke up with peace. I knew that I was honoring God, and there was deep joy in that knowledge. When I went to the board meeting, I went freely, not out of compulsion, and I found a renewed excitement about our mission. God was giving me joy and life, the very things I thought I was giving up by not going to the game.

God showed me the importance of obedience out of love for Him, and that the fruit of obedience is wholeness, life, and peace. I had to remind my flesh and my will that there are more important things in life than basketball and that my allegiance is to God first. Bringing my life and my will into alignment with God’s, which seemed like a constricting thing, actually brought great freedom. The freedom of obedience.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Kickstarting a vision

My friend Daniel senses a calling from God. Not to be a youth pastor or a missionary or a relief worker. He's called to make music that helps open people's eyes to God in a new way. Music that helps non-Christians rethink their assumptions about Christ, and music that makes challenges Christians to put their faith into meaningful action.

I had no idea that fulfilling this vision costs money. I thought CD's just showed up in the store by themselves, that record companies were just lining up to give people money to make music (well, not really, but you get my point). For my friend to record a CD and get it out to people costs over $7000 up front, and there are not many 25-year-olds who have that laying around.

So he's set up a site where you can see and hear his vision and help kickstart what God is doing in and through him. He's halfway toward his goal, and I wouldn't be writing about it here if I didn't believe in both his vision and his music; his first album was excellent. Take three minutes and go to his kickstarter page and watch his video explaining what he’s doing, and then consider helping him move forward in this vision.

click here to go to Daniel's kickstarter!