Monday, April 23, 2012

What Jesus prays for us

When Eliza won’t share her bike with her sister, I pray. I don’t pray that Psalter will get a newer bike or that Eliza will be nice. I pray that Eliza will have a heart that is generous.

When Jacob cries because he’s losing at Madden on the Wii, I don’t pray that he would become good at video games. I pray that he would not find his identity in wins or losses.

When Psalter is a tornado in our home, leaving messes everywhere, I don’t pray that she will be neater. I pray that we will help learn to be responsible and to care for others by picking up her things.

It is easy for me as a father to pray for the underlying heart behind my children’s problems or behaviors. They would probably like to see the problem fixed or for it just to go away, but that’s not what they really need. There is a deeper work that needs to happen in order to shape them for a lifetime.

This week in church, one of the verses we looked at was Hebrews 7:25, which says, “Therefore [Jesus] is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” And I began to wonder, “What is Jesus praying for me? What does it mean that He is praying for me?”

I think that His prayers for me (and for you) are much like mine for my children – I think I know what I need, I think I know what my problem is, but He sees the deeper need. He addresses the root that drives the behavior that I might be changed for life.

It would be amazing to hear those prayers sometime.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Poem on a spring day

The greens of spring are exploding in St. Francis’s woods, bright and vibrant, shouting, “Life!”

The day is cool, but not cold. Warm, but not hot. I f I could bottle it and save it, I would.

Thank You for a gentle creek, for birds and bugs and bees             and squirrels. I sit and know that You are near. Tears of joy and worship. Grateful.

W0rds are not enough, only incomplete phrases that are the hallmark of poetry, thoughts and impressions and colors and feelings. Rest and joy flood out order and structure.

Birds bring me to tears – their song didn’t have to be pleasant to our ears, yet their voice brings glory to God and joy to us. Call after different call, different tones and timbres, unconcerned about their future, simply living as they were created to live. Their being brings glory to God.

You can taste the goodness of God, feel it all around. Pure blues, daring greens, life springing up all around. Bless the Lord, o my soul. Drink in His beauty and rejoice in the Love that would give us a day like this.

These are days where I want to roll around in the ferns an in the creek, to absorb these woods. What more can Heaven have in store? What beauties are there beyond my imagination, colors I’ve never seen, perfect rest, uninterrupted presence of God? These woods are just a glimpse.

God’s faithfulness is not up for grabs

Psalm 89 speaks of God’s faithfulness over and over – 9 times to be exact – in the midst of tremendous struggles. And it struck me that God’s faithfulness should not, cannot, be up for grabs for me. I can’t praise God for His faithfulness only when He comes through in the way that I want Him to. For example, we are raising over $500,000 for Hope Academy, a private Christian school for at risk kids. We believe that we will open in the fall of this year, but if the money doesn’t come by then, is God not faithful? Of course He is. “God is faithful” must be my posture no matter the circumstances or the context.

It can be really hard to see God’s faithfulness when I look at the brokenness of the world. But eyes of faith trust in God’s character in the midst of confusing and heartbreaking events.

In addition to speaking of God’s faithfulness, Psalm 89 really wrestles with wondering if God’s faithfulness was a mirage. All of God’s promises seem to be broken, and then you get to the last line. “Praise be to the Lord forever. Amen and Amen!” If you read the whole Psalm, it seems like an unlikely ending.

I loved what the New Bible Commentary had to say about this. “When God’s promises seem to have failed (Psalm 89:3-45), then affirm them in joyful song (Psalm 89:1-2) and bring all the grief of unfulfilled promises to God in prayer (Psalm 89:46-50).”

God’s faithfulness must be my starting place, even as I pour our my heart to Him.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Am I Harrison Barnes or Just an Impatient Gardener? (2)

Another analogy has been coming to mind as I’ve thought about my fears and inadequacies at work. It’s garden time, and this year I’ve undertaken planting a garden again. The reason that I have a garden is to get vegetables; its not to have the experience of gardening. I don’t enjoy tilling, weeding, planting, watering, learning about which plants to rotate in, which plants to plant near each other, soil pH, etc. It’s not the process of getting my hands dirty that I love – it’s getting to eat fruit that grew in my own yard.

As I’ve been doing all of these things that I don’t enjoy (planting, tilling, etc.), I have realized that I garden in a hurry. I just want to be done with the boring prep work and get to the fruit.

Well,  as I sat in my garden this weekend, I realized that when it comes to ministry, I am often the same way. What I really want is to see fruit in people’s lives, that their hearts are changed, that their actions line up with the Kingdom, that they begin to run after Jesus full throttle. So I’m just gunning for fruit without wanting to wade through the hard work of weeds and rocks and digging and waiting and watering and waiting. Fruit is the goal, but there are things that might need to be done along the way to get us there, and there can be joy in the process.

I think that a lack of fruit (that I can see) makes me fear that I am Harrison Barnes. But I believe that it’s closer to the truth that I am simply an impatient gardener who has forgotten the freedom of Mark 4:26-27. These verses tell the story of a gardener who planted a seed and whether he watched it all day or goes to sleep, it grew in its own time, though he didn’t understand how.

There is freedom in knowing that the results aren’t mine, only the planting. Only God makes a seed grow, and we don’t know how, and that’s good news. And my best cooperation with Him is to follow His directions in preparing the soil, caring for the planting area, and then simply waiting for the Spirit to work.

I believe God has gifted me with skills to be an effective pastor. The trick is putting those skills into His hands, trusting Him to do the work, and not measuring my success by numbers or the speed with which fruit comes. The trick is applying the right answer from yesterday’s blog post, letting the truth of the Gospel infuse and lead my skills. I cannot make anything grow, I cannot make anyone care, and the Kingdom of God is not resting on my shoulders. It’s His to grow, His to build, and I am called to simply offer my all to His use.

I hope that Harrison recovers the belief that he seems to have lost.

I hope that I will believe in the right One and learn how to be a gardener that embraces the process, not just the fruit.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Am I Harrison Barnes or Just an Impatient Gardener? (1)

In recent weeks I’ve had a crisis of faith. Not faith in God or what I believe about Him, but more faith in myself and what I am capable of doing in my work at the church. As I have wrestled with this, I sometimes worry that I am a pastoral Harrison Barnes. Let me explain.

Harrison Barnes came in as one of the most hyped high school players in history, a pre-season All-American before he’d set foot on campus. He had the physical skills, the work ethic, and the demeanor to be a star. But it took over 2/3 of the season (and the promotion of Kendall Marshall to starting point guard) for him to blossom as a freshman. So naturally, expectations were sky high for his sophomore year at UNC.

It’s hard to call someone who averaged over 17 points per game and was a second-team All-American a disappointment, but in some senses, this season Barnes was just that. In big moments, when his team needed him, he disappeared, either by not stepping up or by overstepping up. He would either not take a shot, or he would overshoot and try to do more than he needed to. And as I watched him play, I couldn’t help but notice a guy who had physical skills but something seemed to be “off” in his heart. It was like he was trying to believe that he could be the big time player everyone said he was, but deep down, he just didn’t have it. And when Kendall Marshall got hurt, it exposed Barnes’ weaknesses.

So where does this tie in with me? I have a very good friend who is my champion, my Barnabas, in my work at church. He believes that I have skills to lead, that I am a gifted leader and equipper, that I invest in people and see change in their lives. I have had excellent training by InterVarsity and by my church and by my college degree.

Yet as I look at my life and ministry in certain areas, doubt has crept in because I don’t see people’s lives being changed. I wonder if I am really as effective as I might appear to be on the outside, and I wonder if a closer look might reveal way more weaknesses than were thought to be there. My fear is that, like Harrison when Kendall went down, I will be exposed and I will not live up to the expectations that I have for myself and that others have for me.

* Note: I know the right answers here. I know that nothing I do is up to me, that anything good that I do is by Christ in and through me, that it’s not up to me to produce results. For me, that is not the question I am wrestling with in this post… or is it? Stay tuned.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Live with the Freedom of a Millionaire on Thousands Less

So if someone wants to be radically generous, to give more and more of their finances away for God’s purposes, what things have to happen? You have to have freedom and wiggle room in your budget; you have to have discretionary, unspoken-for income that you can give away. I asked my friend from yesterday’s post how he and his wife have positioned themselves to be generous; what choices had they made? Here’s what he said:

1) Housing: Thinking in terms of how much space, etc. you need to meet your day-to-day needs rather than focusing on how much the bank says you can afford.

2) Cars: Buying reliable used cars that will last years and years and paying for them in cash (or with a big down payment and quickly paying off any loan)

3) Motive test: Trying to filter decisions through the lens of what a given purchase would provide.  There are a lot of things we buy that we don't absolutely need but that make our often super-busy lifestyles more manageable -- for instance, we buy baby food instead of making our own, we recently bought a new computer, we hire people to mow our lawn during particularly busy times, etc.  We try to challenge each other, however, if we think that a purchase might be driven in part by a desire to impress others. 

4) Keeping a goal in sight: Saving money just for the sake of saving money doesn't work well (for me, at least).  Knowing that managing our expenses specifically provides freedom to follow God's leading in our career path provides a much more meaningful incentive.

5) The last one's not anything we intentionally set out to do -- but at least half of our close friends happen to be pastors or teachers or work at nonprofits, so instead of feeling pressure to keep up with our friends' spending we often find ourselves trying to be sensitive to others who are living on tighter budgets as we make plans.

Positioning ourselves to live generously takes intentionality, making choices that are Kingdom driven, not desire-driven. It takes clear vision. It is helped by a community of like-minded friends. And the Bible teaches us in 2 Corinthians 8:7 that giving is empowered by God’s Spirit – it is a grace given to us by God, if we would simply receive it.

My friend put into words what Diane and I have been practicing for most of our marriage, and I can agree with him that these things work.

So what if you’re in over your heard right now? Start thinking of ways to downsize. Can you sell your car and buy one with cash or one that you can pay off quickly? Can you tear up your credit cards and attack your debt so that it’s gone, freeing up money to be given? Can you downsize your home, reducing your mortgage and energy consumption? Can you choose to eat out two or three times less per month in order to give more away? Can you commit to waiting 24 hrs before making an “impulse” buy when the Groupon hits your inbox?

There is so much joy in living generously for the Kingdom, in getting free from the hold of “stuff.” May Christ’s followers lead in this new way and trust God to bring joy as we do!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Mega Millions Not Needed for Mega Generosity

Over and over when people talk about winning the lottery, they insist that they will give a lot of it to  charity. But I think that how we deal with the smaller amounts of money that God gives us is a great indicator of what we would do with lots of it. If we’re not being generous now, what makes us think that when we hit the jackpot, our hearts would immediately change? Jesus said that our faithfulness with small things has an impact on whether we will be trusted with bigger things.

It seems that many of us think that generosity is something that  can happen only once we have enough, that generosity comes out of excess.

Sadly most Americans are too in debt to have any excess once the bills are paid. The statistics on charitable giving by Americans are appalling when you consider our wealth as a nation, especially when you look at giving by Christians, which doesn’t exceed 3% on average.

As I look at missionaries waiting for funds to go on the field or non-profits struggling for funds to do good work or churches that are behind budget, I wonder, “Where are the people who are willing to be radically generous? Why are God’s people not giving more and more away?” Thankfully God showed me two this week who are doing just that.

A couple came to us this week and pledged the largest single gift to our new school, Hope Academy, that we have yet received. And what was amazing about their gift is that, while they most certainly earn more than me and Diane, they are not what our culture would consider “rich.” Yet they have strategically lived their lives in such a way as to have as much of their income free to be used by God for the Kingdom.

The husband said to me, “When I am sitting at my desk in the office, I want to know that my work matters. I want to know that even as I work for this company, I am working for the Kingdom of God. Giving generously enables me to have that perspective.”

Oh that more and more of us would have that heart! That we would see our talents and occupations and incomes as being means by which the Kingdom can grow and be furthered rather than means to satisfy our hearts’ desires. That Christians would choose smaller houses, older cars, later-model TV’s, simpler vacations in order that our abundant resources would be freed up for God’s work. Many Christians long to give more but their financial obligations (debt) prohibit them from doing so.

We need a revolution, a breaking free from our culture of consuming, and the only thing powerful enough to break that hold is a fresh vision of the Kingdom of God, a vision that is worth any and every sacrifice we can make.

How can we begin to reorder our lives practically to be radically generous? Stay tuned for the next post.