Q & A with John the Baptist

Sometimes I wish we still wrote pamphlets with incredibly long titles.* If so, this post/pamphlet would be: “’Who are You, Then?’ and Other Questions Asked of John the Baptist Which He Probably Also Asked Himself,” or “Two Sides to the Conversation: John the Baptist’s Exchange with the Religious Leaders” or “The Confluence of Identity and Faith, as Presented in John the Baptist’s Exchange with the Temple Delegation.” Actually, those sound like master’s thesis titles, and I promise this is not a thesis!

We’ll just stick with “Q & A.” Continue reading

Abraham: Obedience Over Outcome

We’re wired to make plans, to expect results, to accomplish goals. (I think it’s a Western thing, actually.) Our wiring makes it difficult for us to obey God.

God says, “Jump.” We say, “How far?”

God says, “Go.” We say, “Where?”

God says, “Be still.” We say, “Why?”

In every command from Him, there’s an unspoken affirmation: “Trust Me.” But we don’t trust.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us of a guy named Abraham (Hebrews 11:8-19). Maybe you’ve heard of him? Continue reading

The Season of Our Discontent

This month on PastorsWives.com, I talk about a challenging time in our ministry lives when God was preparing something new but we had to wait on it. There were some restless nights.

It starts like this…

Sometimes an indefinable restlessness comes upon a Christ-follower…a dissatisfaction with life even though nothing has changed. We’ve learned to call it holy discontent.

When God called us to move to a difficult, distant location, we hung contentment on the wall like a plaque. We memorized Philippians 4:11, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” and we determined to choose contentment regardless of what happened. Because really, contentment (the flipside of gratefulness) is a choice. Will I focus on the difficulties, troubles, and inconveniences in my life, or will I focus on God’s blessings?

Continue reading

Jesus Peeled Off Labels

The Calling of Levi (part I)

Bonnie and Clyde, peas and carrots, Smith and Wesson. Some things just go together. The phrases come out more like one word than three: peas-and-carrots. I do it to my kids, running their names together into one long, slurred, barely distinguishable word. But when they hear it, they know I’m talking to them!

Tax collectors and sinners. It’s probably not a common pairing for you, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, the two were synonymous. They belonged together, and the phrase was best said with a slight sneer (something of the Snape variety, for any Harry Potter fans). If you chose to become a tax collector, you were kicked out of the synagogue, ostracized in your community, and equated with pagans. You were a traitor, and that was the worst kind of sinner.

Of Levi (a.k.a. Matthew), the tax collector-cum-apostle, we have no back story. What made him choose Rome over Jerusalem? I want the story to be a like a Dickens novel where there was some family crisis and he had no choice. But maybe he wasn’t all that religious anyway, or he was from another part of the country, so no big deal to lose his ties to the community. Maybe he was just greedy. Tax collectors could make a lot of money, especially the unscrupulous ones.

Jesus was already
looking into Levi’s heart.

While we’re asking questions to which we don’t have answers… Did Levi remember the first time Jesus walked by, tossing his coins into the basket? I imagine Jesus was alone that first time. Then the next time, a few people were with him, then more and more followers until the group got so big it clogged up the traffic flow and people in the rear started complaining. I imagine Jesus looked Levi in the eye every single time he passed. I imagine he began to smile at Levi—something no proper Jew would ever do.

Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32.

One day, Levi was working in his tax booth outside Capernaum, as usual. He didn’t witness the healing of a crippled man after some friends lowered him through the roof. He didn’t know about the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees who witnessed that healing (Matthew 9:1-8). He was just minding his own business, trying to make a little money.

The crowd around Jesus was unmistakable as it approached his booth. He straightened up a little, checked his change drawer, and started plotting a way to carry all those coins home safely. As it happens, he wouldn’t carry even one coin home that day!

Jesus walked up to Levi, looked him in the eye, and said two simple words: “Follow me” (Mark 2:14). Oh, to hear the monologue in Levi’s mind at that moment! Surely, he hesitated for a second, surprised, just taking in the situation…or maybe weighing the cost of obedience.

Have you been there? Have you understood Jesus’ call and made that split-second decision that changed your life? Have you traded being an outcast for being part of His inner circle?

And then, to hear the thoughts in the mind of Peter or John, guys who never missed a Saturday at the synagogue, who grudgingly paid the tolls, and who tried to avoid anything even vaguely resembling “tax collectors and sinners.” They were among the first Jesus called, and they would have never guessed He would invite someone like Levi! That’s just not the way things were done. Were they shocked? Maybe a little embarrassed?

Jesus didn’t see the label.
Jesus saw the person.

But Jesus didn’t see the label, glued on by cultural pressure and religious obligation. Jesus saw the person. Jesus cut through all the red tape, all the layers of Pharisaical self-righteousness, all the ties to Rome. He saw a man who longed to follow Him, to be accepted, to be included. He saw a man who didn’t need someone to remind him of his failings or to supply him with a list of wrongs. He saw a man who was ready to believe.

Levi didn’t protest. He simply stood up, and he followed Jesus down the road.

What happened to the toll booth? Was there a back-up collector there to take over? Did people just plow through without paying? Neither Levi nor Jesus seemed to care, so I guess we shouldn’t either.

Labels. I couldn’t see the potatoes inside because of the big label on the bag. When I opened the bag at home, half of them were rotten!

Labels. Is it ironic to write about a guy named Levi, when Levi-Strauss is one of the most prominent clothing labels in the country?

Labels obscure so much
of who we really are.

Labels. We all wear the social kind. It seems impossible to function in our society without them. And yet, like the label on the bag of potatoes, they obscure so much of who we really are. Hopefully, that hidden part isn’t rotten, but you get my point. Jesus didn’t let labels influence his estimation of a person. It takes some major intentionality, but we’re called to do the same.

We’ll keep going on this story next week.

Jesus is still peeling back the labels on people, revealing their hearts. (click to tweet)

What label do you enjoy? What label do you hate? What label on other people blinds you to their true nature? I hope this post has given you something to think about. If you would like to leave a comment, I would appreciate it!

Paul’s Inauspicious Beginning

We all know the dramatic story of Saul’s conversation on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and how he went from persecuting Christians to being principal among them and, most would say, the first cross-cultural missionary. No doubt, his calling was clear and certain.

Paul didn’t tell any
of the leading Christians
for a long time.

But here’s something really interesting. Paul talks about it in Galatians 1. He describes his conversion and what a complete change it made in him. Immediately, he began sharing with anyone who would listen in the Damascus synagogues, causing a major uproar! But even though his conversion was so phenomenal and he knew he was called to reach the Gentiles, he didn’t tell any of the leading Christians for a long time. In fact, after a few days in Damascus, he went away from the seat of Christianity (Acts 9:19-22, Galatians 1:11-17). Doesn’t that seem backward to you? Shouldn’t he go tell the leadership team in Jerusalem? Shouldn’t he start right away? But look at the next few verses:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. … Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. -Galatians 1:18-19, 21-22

I bet you’ve never heard a sermon preached from these verses. I haven’t. But there’s some real wisdom here for those of us called to something public. I’m talking to you, writers and speakers!

Three Years

Three years he remained anonymous. God called him to share Christ with the Gentiles—a totally new thing—but Paul waited three years. Jesus Himself (!!) appeared to Saul/Paul after His ascension, and yet Paul didn’t write a book, hire an agent, or start a speaking tour. He didn’t even start building a platform. (My writer friends will understand that one.) He went off by himself. So maybe he needed a little space to digest what happened on the way to Damascus and to reflect on this radical new perspective. Or maybe he realized the wounds he had previously inflicted on Christians were just too fresh. We don’t actually know why Paul went away or what he did for those three years, but I think he sought solitude because there was so much he had to unlearn from his days as a Pharisee. He knew he wasn’t spiritually mature enough to lead anything.

Get Acquainted

Finally, Paul thought himself ready to begin his ministry. So he printed some business cards, then he scheduled a social media blast and recruited a street team. He worked his connections to get a speaking engagement in a mid-size auditorium. Wait, what? He didn’t do any of that. He quietly entered Jerusalem and tried to connect with a disciple or two, but they were still afraid, even after three years! Finally, Barnabas convinced Peter to meet Paul, and Paul stayed with him for a couple of weeks. Peter was an experienced preacher and minister, a man who knew Jesus personally and who understood what “go ye therefore” (Matthew 28:19 KJV) really meant. In other words, Paul found a mentor.

Saw None of the Others

During those fifteen days with Cephas/Peter, Paul shared his faith all over Jerusalem, but he never met any of the other original disciples (Acts 9:28, Galatians 1:19). He wasn’t interested in networking with people who would further his career. In fact, I bet the only reason he saw James was because James just dropped by Peter’s house one day while Paul was there.

Personally Unknown

After those fifteen precious days with Peter, Paul went home to Tarsus. (Galatians says the more general Syria and Cilicia, but Acts 9:30 specifies Tarsus.) Jesus knew a prophet is never honored in his own country (John 4:44); it’s almost a proverb. On top of that, Paul didn’t know any of the believers in that region (Galatians 1:22). It wasn’t a logical destination for him. And yet, God began to give him an audience there—in an unlikely place at an unlikely time.

To summarize (in present tense), Jesus gives Paul an assignment. Three years later, he gets a couple of introductions, frightens a bunch of believers, then goes where no one knows him. He is not famous or popular. Not an auspicious beginning to such a profound calling.

I wonder if Paul expected more. I wonder if he was frustrated with the length of time in Arabia and the lack of recognition in Judea. I would have been. Would you?

Sometimes we have to
“grow into” our calling.
(click to tweet)

What’s my point? Calling and the ministry it produces may not be consecutive. Sometimes we have to “grow into” our calling.

More than ten years ago, I first understood God calling me to speak and write, but at the same time, He showed me I had too much pride and too little wisdom. I doubled Paul’s three-year absence, leaving more than six years before I even began blogging. The lesson we have from Paul, which is the lesson I’m still trying to learn, is to be patient. That means…

  • Not to force the ministry, like Paul waited those three years.
  • To keep working even while we’re learning, like Paul shared in Jerusalem.
  • To find a mentor, like Paul found Peter.
  • To know some people aren’t going to “get it,” like believers were frightened by Paul.
  • To take the less-prestigious, less-popular roles and wait on God, like Paul went to Tarsus.

Personally, that means I’m trying to be satisfied with my platform, with the reach of my Twitter feed, with the many (that is, all) influential people who still don’t know me. I’ll take the opportunity in front of me even when it doesn’t seem promising. And I’ll try not to scare too many people in the process.

Paul didn’t become the best-known Christian EVER over night. Likewise, our calling takes time. (click to tweet)

How’s your calling coming along? Are you frustrated by a lack of progress? How does Paul’s example help you be patient? Write me a note in the comments so I know I’m not alone on this!

Hosea: Obedience before Prominence

When you think of seminary, you probably think of clean-cut guys with starched shirts and a penchant for substitute swear words. These are the men God calls into church leadership…at least according to our stereotypes.

This is why I love the minor prophets of the Old Testament. These individuals, specially called by God to be His spokespeople, don’t fit our stereotypes. Yeah, it’s the rebel in me. There’s Amos, a farmer who insisted he wasn’t even an apprentice prophet. There’s Jonah, who straight-up rejected the calling to be a prophet. And there’s Hosea, who married a promiscuous woman. Let’s talk about Hosea and Gomer for a few minutes. (I wanted to title this post “The Seminarian and the Sl*t,” but I just couldn’t publish such a crass word in the title.)

Hosea 1:1-3.

Hosea was a single guy when the word of the Lord first came to him, and my study notes say he prophesied for something like thirty-eight years, so he must have been fairly young when he first heard from God. Not everyone got such personal attention from God during those days. This was a pretty big deal. We don’t know whether he was pleased or petrified to receive “a word,” but I bet he wasn’t very happy with that first command!

Hosea probably had a picture
in his mind of the ideal wife…

I can imagine marriage was already on his mind. Almost everyone got married in those days—sooner rather than later. When he realized God was calling him, perhaps he imagined the ideal woman to accompany him on this mission to speak for God. (I know I’m reading a lot of modern-day culture into this, but stick with me. There’s a point.) She would have been young, faithful, pure…a companion to make him look good and help him fulfill his duties…a Proverbs 31 woman back when that was a new concept.

But no.

God’s first words for Hosea aren’t a message of castigation, a call to repentance, or a scourging of idol worshippers. They’re not even for anyone else to hear. In a very personal command, God tells Hosea to go marry a woman who had already “been around the block,” who had a reputation for immorality and probably for cheating on one man with another. Not an honorable woman. Not the makings of an ideal ministry leader’s wife. I wonder what Hosea’s mother thought.

For six years, God was
shaping Hosea’s family life
…and Hosea’s heart.

It wasn’t enough just to marry her, just to go through the symbolism of the ceremony. No; he had to make love to her and get her pregnant three times. Assuming Gomer got pregnant right away, and they had a baby every two years, that’s six years. Six years with no big messages from God. Sure, God told him what to name the children and why, but Hosea didn’t get the classic, stand-on-the-steps-and-pronounce-judgement type of prophecies during that time. Those came later. For six years, God was shaping Hosea’s family life…and Hosea’s heart.

Hosea would later become well known in Israel, but before he could be prominent, he had to be obedient. He had to forsake common sense and well-intentioned plans for the uncommon sense of God’s plan. (This uncommon sense is rather a theme of mine.)

If you’ve read Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers (which I highly recommend, by the way!), or even if you haven’t, you can imagine a young pastor marching into the seedy part of town, getting down on one knee, and asking a scantily-clad woman of questionable reputation to take the diamond ring in his hand and marry him. Sounds crazy!

His experience gave Hosea
the education to speak
with God’s heart.

Yet this was the experience Hosea needed in order to be an effective prophet, ridiculous as it sounded to everyone around him. He knew heartbreak when Gomer left him and shame when people talked about her “taking up with” someone else. He watched his children suffer in their mother’s absence. Now imagine how he cried as he pleaded with Israel to come back to God. The experience (Hosea 1-3) gave Hosea the education to speak with God’s heart, to know what God went through—if on a much smaller scale—when Israel wandered from her Bridegroom.

I write today to anyone who’s ever felt delayed after knowing God called you to something. There’s an experience—probably an off-the-wall, unpredictable experience (or three)—that you need in order to really do what you’ve been called to do. Instead of resisting it, instead of questioning the common sense of it, instead of rushing into the calling, let Him lead you through the intervening experience. It is actually part of the calling, just not the part you expected. Let His uncommon sense prevail. He can use your life so much more fully in the aftermath.

Hosea’s obedience probably looked crazy to everyone else. Yep; sometimes that happens. #NotAboutMe #UncommonSense (click to tweet)

Know what I’m talking about? Have you felt called only to be delayed (from your perspective)? What strikes you about this idea? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Two Questions about Your Calling

The Apostle John makes it clear in His gospel that Jesus was concerned about two things: God’s glory and the circumstances of those around Him. When we consider Calling (i.e. that thing God has specially designated for a person to do) Jesus’ concerns focus us on two questions. Let’s take a look…

John 18:2-9. (I really tried to move out of Gethsemane, but there’s just so much!)

It was late at night…Passover night. A crowd of armed, antagonistic men stood opposite Jesus as He asked them a simple question…a question that didn’t need asking. Everyone knew why they were there; surely everyone recognized Jesus, yet He said, “Who is it you want?” (18:4).

Why did they fall back
when Jesus identified Himself?

When Jesus acknowledged His identity a moment later, they didn’t rush to grab Him. Instead, they drew back and fell to the ground (18:6). Isn’t that funny? (Not “haha” funny, but weird funny.) Jesus didn’t have lightning streaming from his fingers. He didn’t shout in an otherworldly voice. He didn’t suddenly enlarge and turn green like the Hulk. He simply said, “I am he.” I imagine He said it matter-of-factly, calmly but not quietly. Was it the power of His “I am”? Was it somehow a recognition of His innocence? Was it fear?

That falling down reaction must have amused Him. He tried again with His question. They answered again. He affirmed His identity again, but this time He adds a little something (18:8). In a way, He bargains with them. If this were a Western, He would have said, “You have what yer lookin’ for. Now let the rest of these men go. There’s no bounty on their heads.”

In the next verse, John tells us that Jesus’ mentioned the disciples because of an earlier (John 6:39) prophetic prayer.

This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”John 18:9

It was also because He loved them, and He knew it wasn’t their time to die just yet.

What concerned Jesus
in those moments?

Here we see Jesus at perhaps the most crucial moment in human history—His own personal crisis of belief, where they could have started fighting (Peter, we know, did start fighting [John 18:10-11]) but He obediently, even docilely, submitted to arrest.

What concerned Him here?

  • It wasn’t His social media status.
  • It wasn’t His reputation.
  • It wasn’t His future or His past.
  • It wasn’t His actual guilt or innocence.

Jesus was concerned with (1) fulfilling prophecy and (2) safeguarding those He loved.

Or take a look at John 19:25-27.

On the verge of death, hanging from a cross, Jesus didn’t discuss theology, argue against capital punishment, or spout some apologetics toward the bystanders. Instead, He used His precious, labored breath for something more personal. He ensured His mother’s future well being.

Jesus wasn’t worried about Himself. He took care of this one He loved.

Jesus prioritized His Father’s
glory and His followers’ good.
#NotAboutMe #faith (click to tweet)

I haven’t searched through all the gospels for all the examples. (This is a blog post, not a book–although it’s getting almost long enough.) but there seems to be a pattern emerging here. Jesus wasn’t interested in His own comfort or justification. He paid way more attention to His Father’s glory and to the circumstances of those around Him.

What’s that mean for us? Well…

People (including me) talk a lot about calling. We pursue God’s calling in our own lives and sometimes express His calling in the lives of others. Nothing wrong with that. But if you’re wondering whether this thing right now is your calling, apply this test to it:

  1. Does it glorify God? Not just tangentially, but predominantly.
  2. Does it show compassion for others? That might look like hands-on helping (e.g. teachers) or it might be more distant, but the thing is others-centered, not you-centered.

I applied this test to my calling to write. Writing makes me feel good, and I think God has given me a bit of talent for it. But enjoying something, even being talented at it, aren’t clear indicators of a calling. It might just be a hobby.

I can tell you that God meets me in the writing. Every. Single. Week. Without fail. My number-one purpose in writing is to glorify God. It has been since day-1. Not day-1 of kindergarten, when I started learning to write, but day-1 of writing for an audience according to His leadership in my life. There have been tears of gratitude and joy, hands raised in praise (yes, sitting alone at my desk), and this increasing awe at what He gives me. So yes, it glorifies God—at least in my heart.

Secondly, I write to help you. I’m concerned about the people who read my blog, and I truly want you to grow in your relationship with Christ. It’s not serving meals to homeless people, but even though I say ‘I’ a lot, these paragraphs and poems are for you.

Use Jesus’ example to ask 2 questions about your calling. My #calling is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

What about you? Have you identified a calling in your life? (If you’re not worried about such things, I hope I haven’t started something.) How did you know it was a calling from God? Do these questions help you verify your calling? Please share!