God’s Best Plan and Our Stumbling (lack of) Strategy

I’ve been in three pre-strategy meetings in the last two weeks. I have another before the actual strategy meeting this weekend. While I’m looking forward to next year (It’s December 2020.), it all seems a bit much.

A business strategy or even a personal plan is something we must hold loosely–something to keep us going in the right direction, not keep us on a single, exclusive track. Strategy rarely accounts for a pandemic…or personnel/family changes…or cultural shifts…or, perhaps most importantly, human error.

When I look back over Acts, it’s clear Paul’s strategy was not about where he would go or what he would do or how long he would stay. Did Paul even have a strategy? I don’t think so. Paul “hung his hat” on his mission statement and played everything else “fast and loose.”

Paul summed up his mission statement in Romans 15:

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.  –Romans 15:20

Along the way, however, he made some mistakes…some things we can be sure were not part of the plan. But God used him anyway. In fact, God even used his mistakes—his non-strategic moves–to further the expansion of the Kingdom.

Paul Disagreed with his Partner (Acts 15: 36-41)

When Paul and Barnabas returned to First Church Antioch after the Jerusalem council, Judas and Silas (both prophets) accompanied them. “Some time later” (Acts 15:36), Paul wanted to visit all the places they had established groups of believers on their first journey. Barnabas thought they should give John Mark another chance to assist them even though he had left them early into the first journey. Paul absolutely refused.

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Acts 15:39

How embarrassing! How unchristlike! As church leaders, how did their disagreement affect the church in Antioch? We don’t know, but it can’t have been good.

We would never build dissention into our annual strategy, but God used it. This division doubled the missionary force out of First Antioch (from two to four).

Paul Lost His Patience (Acts 16:16-24)

In Philippi, Paul’s group started a new church in Lydia’s house. There was a woman in town who had an evil spirit. She started following them every day, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (Acts 16:17). Seems like a good thing, doesn’t it: some free publicity? Well, it got on Paul’s nerves. One day, he “became so annoyed” (Acts 16:18) that he cast out the spirit.

  • He didn’t do it for God’s glory.
  • He didn’t do it because he wanted to free the woman.
  • He didn’t do it because he wanted to gain a hearing among the influential people in the city.

He lost his patience. As a result, Paul and Silas were stripped and beaten, thrown into prison, and put in stocks (Acts 16:22-23). (I hope Paul apologized to Silas while they were sitting there in prison.)

We would never advise losing our patience as a strategic move, but God used it to save the jailer and his family (Acts 16:29-33), probably doubling the size of the church in Philippi.

Paul Yielded to Peer Pressure (Acts 21:17-26)

When Paul visited Jerusalem after the third missionary journey, he found many new believers among the Jews. He also found rumors which had been circulating about his teachings. Thing is, the rumors were true. Paul taught that Christ-followers lived under a new covenant, that circumcision was merely an outward rite (1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 2:3) and that dietary restrictions were moot (Romans 14:6, 1 Corinthians 10:25). While Paul directed most of his teaching toward Gentiles, He never said Jewish believers shouldn’t follow Old Testament law, but he also didn’t say they must continue to follow the old laws.

Now back in the heart of Judaism, Paul let the church leaders convince him to participate in a religious ritual that would show Jewish believers he was still Jewish and imply that Jewish believers should continue adherence to the Law. Why? The church leaders said,

Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.”  –Acts 21:24

Did Paul “live in obedience to the law” when he was travelling around the known world? He knew the law better than anyone, yet I can find no proof he always observed Pharisaic restrictions/rituals. Now back in Jerusalem, would it not have been better for Paul to dialogue with Jewish leaders regarding expectations for all Christians? Didn’t his participation increase the divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians at a time when they needed to unite? And by the way, what did Paul’s companion, Trophimus the Ephesian (v. 29) think of this action?

I think Paul missed an opportunity here. We would never plan to misrepresent ourselves or the Gospel, but God used it. Paul’s appearance in the temple to set a plan in motion that sent Paul to Rome at the expense of the Roman Empire (Acts 21:27-30). This plan made room for Paul to write several books of the Bible and witness to many people at the heart of a pagan system.

Conclusion

We can write beautiful, God-centered, ambitious strategies, but more than likely, we will fail to follow them. If it’s not human failure, it’ll be a pandemic, a change in our family situation, or something else. However, God will not let our strategy flubs derail His perfect will. So as we go into end-of-year strategizing/planning, let’s hold our plans loosely and show ourselves some grace when we inevitably fail. We know God will be showing us plenty of grace!

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.  –Proverbs 19:21

Strategy: have it but don’t hold it too tightly. Things are gonna fall apart, usually due to our own failures. But we can count on God to redirect our path when strategy goes askew. My #NewYearPlan is #NotAboutMe.

What’s your experience with “strategy”? I love it but I always find it lacking. Please share your thoughts in the comment below. I’ll respond to each one.

For Further Reading

I took this week to work on some material for my parenting blog, Intentional Parenting. Click over there to read 3 Things the Sunrise Teaches Us About God. In these ‘Everyday Theology’ posts, I provide starting points for theological conversations with our children, but you’ll find something interesting as an adult, too.

If you’re deep into Advent, you might instead read through my series on Isaiah 9:6. I learned so much when I studied this passage and wrote these posts a couple of years ago!

I’m looking forward to sharing with you again next week, and I hope the quietness of this unusual holiday season is a blessing rather than a burden for you. Personally, I’m enjoying the slower pace and fewer demands.

Weak-Faithed Fears

When was your faith first challenged?

For me, it was my freshman year in college, when I first met people who openly opposed Christianity. Before that, my faith was safe and easy, but when my new peers boldly questioned my beliefs, I stumbled, fearful and shocked. For a while, I was afraid to talk about faith issues, but eventually, those early experiences served to strengthen and confirm my faith in Jesus.

Now, in my 40s, I occasionally meet a believer who fearfully grasps his small beliefs and lashes out at anyone who challenges those beliefs. No offense, but faith can’t grow when we hold it so tightly, and it seems a miserable existence next to the broad confidence available to all who believe.

Paul saw this contrast when he finally made it to Rome.

Acts 28:17-31.

Around AD59 or 60, the Jews in Jerusalem wanted to get rid of Paul as quickly as they could. Some even vowed to kill him (Acts 23:12). But when he arrived in Rome, the Jews there wanted to hear about Jesus and this new sect called “The Way.” Why the contrast? What’s the difference between these two groups of Jews?

I posit that the Jews in Rome had stronger faith than those in Jerusalem. Why? Because they had been challenged and questioned.

Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.Philippians 2:12b

These Jews in Rome were confronted with other faith systems daily. They had to dig into their own beliefs and really know what was true. They had to make daily choices about following the guidelines of their faith. Some even defended Judaism in public forums.

Jews in Jerusalem, however, were surrounded by other Jews. They had gotten complacent, allowing their faith to be more of a national identity than a life-informing, daily influence. The faith of Jerusalem Jews was weak—not their knowledge but the actual working out of their faith in daily life. They knew more than anyone, but they hadn’t tested all that knowledge. As a result, they were afraid of conflict, afraid of things changing, afraid of trying something new. Isn’t that why they killed Jesus? Because he was trying to do something new.

You know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  –James 1:3-4

Spiritual maturity is the result of testing, and confrontations with those who believe differently is one form of testing.

I’m reminded of modern discussions about social media “bubbles” in which we’re only seeing and interacting with people who already think like us. A recent Washington Post op-ed suggested social media algorithms generate an “echo chamber” for the user in which we only see posts with which we agree (reference). How can our faith be tested in such an environment? (Also see my previous post, Lean In, Listen, and Learn.)

When Paul arrived in Rome, the Jews weren’t afraid to sit down and talk with him, to hear his story and draw their own conclusions (Acts 28:21-22). Paul couldn’t have asked for more.

Like everywhere he went, however, not all the Jews who listened to Paul became believers (Acts 28:24). That’s okay. Some did.

Another benefit of their strong faith was that the group could manage disagreement. If the people in a church or small group have no practice discussing/defending their faith, they won’t know how to handle internal dissent when it arises…and it will arise. A bunch of believers who have rooted their faith in the Word and tested it in the world will persevere through an internal conflict much better than their weak-faithed counterparts.

Friends, be like the Roman Jews: unafraid to hear a challenge or consider a different point of view. When your faith is strong, you can take challenges from outside and disputes from within. Nothing will destroy your faith!

Our faith is strengthened by challenges. There’s no need to be afraid of someone who thinks/believes differently. Don’t isolate yourself for fear of losing your faith! Any #confrontation is #NotAboutMe.

Have you had your faith challenged? How did you feel and how did you respond? I hope you did better than I that first time. Please let us know in the comments below. Thanks.

In Case of A Storm

There have been more tropical storms/hurricanes in 2020 than in any other year since the weather service began recording them. I don’t know about you, but the political and social upheaval in the United States right now (the week of national elections) also feels like a major storm. Businesses in large cities boarded up their windows in anticipation of rioting following the election, just like they would for a physical storm.

Hurricane Harvey stalled out over the Texas Gulf Coast for five days in 2017, producing catastrophic flooding after winds so strong they broke the recording devices (reference). Thousands of people lost their homes, and as many as eighty-eight fatalities are attributed to the storm (reference). Harvey became a named storm on August 17th in the Gulf of Mexico and died out on August 30th along the coast of Florida. That’s 13 days.

Nor’easters along the east coast of the United States often cause gale-force winds, rough seas, snowstorms, and sometimes flooding (reference). They are as serious and scary as hurricanes, they just don’t get names. A Nor’easter was responsible for the Blizzard of ’93 which shut down most of the eastern United States. The United States nor’easter season has just begun, and considering how 2020 is going, I’m more than a little concerned!

The Mediterranean Sea gets Northeasters (just add the ‘th’ back in). When Paul was on his way to Rome as a prisoner, a Northeaster came across the sea and lasted more than fourteen days! That’s longer than Hurricane Harvey. While we can’t estimate overall losses of property or life, we know from Luke’s account in Acts 27-28 that Paul’s ship was destroyed but no one on the ship lost their life.

With a record-setting hurricane season here in the US, political vitriol, and social unrest of historic proportions, what can we do? Toward the end of Paul’s ordeal with the Northeaster, he spoke to the 275 people on the boat with him, and he modeled three things they should do in case of a storm. Their storm was physical/environmental, but the same principles apply when the storm is social, political, emotional, or relational.

3 Things to Do In A Storm

Acts 27:27-38.

1. Take care of yourself.

“For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive.”  –Acts 27:33-34a

It’s easy to get distracted, to let stress dictate our health decisions, but our bodies need food and water, oxygen, and rest. Especially in the midst of a figurative storm, we must take care of ourselves. Make time to prioritize healthy foods, some exercise, and a regular sleep schedule. Go drink a glass of water right now. Go ahead; I’ll wait. When you are physically healthy, you’re better prepared to face the storm brewing around you and to hear the Holy Spirit directing you through it.

2. Give thanks.

After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all.  –Acts 27:35

Need I remind you of this verse as well?

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  –1 Thessalonians 5:18

Gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving. We can find something for which to give thanks today, regardless of our circumstances. We don’t have to thank God for the storm, but we can always thank Him for His provision (such as the bread Paul ate), His sustaining power, His previous blessings, or at least the knowledge that He already knows the outcome or already has a solution laid out for the present storm.

In Paul’s case, God sent an angel to promise everyone’s safety (Acts 17:23-24). We may not get the angel appearing in the night like that, but we have the promises of Scripture and the reassurances of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

Thank Him for His provision, His promises, and His plan.

Why is giving thanks so important? Because it reminds us of God’s economy: that He’s in charge, that He supplies, and that He cares. Thankfulness puts us back in right thinking toward God. (You might even call it thinkfulness. Just an idea.)

3. Have confidence in God’s control.

“Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.”  –Acts 27:34b

Granted, Paul had the aforementioned angel.

Granted, we may lose more than a few hairs…or gain a few more gray ones (like I have) during the storm. God doesn’t promise us freedom from baldness, but confidence in God’s sovereignty is ours to be had. Recall all the times He saved His people, such as the Red Sea (Exodus 14) or this very story! In the next chapter, Paul gets bitten by a venomous snake and still survives (Acts 28:3-6). Or recall a time He helped you through a different storm.

We have to think big-picture. You and I have eternal life. At the risk of sounding fatalistic, we will go to Heaven when God decides we go to Heaven. We will live under the political system God has already decided to put in place. God will meet our needs—or not (like Job)—in a way that brings Him glory.

We’ve made it through eight months of pandemic and almost as many months of social unrest. Even if election indecision lasts fourteen days (like Paul’s Northeaster), even if you’re looking at four years (or four more years) of the president you don’t want, we can do this!

So friends, follow Paul’s advice:

Take care of yourself. Give thanks. Stay confident in God’s control.

We’re living through a storm of epic proportions, and it’s called 2020. How can we deal with it? The same way Paul dealt with a Northeaster that could have killed everyone on his ship. My plans #incaseofastorm are #NotAboutMe.

What spiritual practice or Bible passage has helped you weather the storm that is 2020? Give us your best advice in the comments below. Thanks!

PS–I love it when the Holy Spirit ties all sorts of threads together. Check out one or all of these:

Also, if you haven’t really listened to the lyrics in this song recently, take three minutes to watch the lyrics video for Casting Crowns’ Praise You In This Storm

A Real Halloween Fright

Here’s a little Fifth Friday Flash Fiction fun for everyone. Meet Aubrey and Zadie in an earlier story over on Intentional Parenting: How to Hug a Lightning Bolt.

“Ouch!”

“What now?”

“I stubbed my toe on that big gravel!” Zadie limped to exaggerate the effect, her princess-fairy-assassin costume becoming even more Frankenstein-like.

“Well, maybe if you hadn’t worn that big mask, you could see better.” Aubrey sighed in the classic big-sister way. “Come on.”

Zadie hung back near the road, her feet scuffing through the orange leaves. Half-way up the walk, Aubrey turned. “What’s wrong now?”

“I don’t think Mr. Jennings likes me.”

“Then it’s good you’re wearing a Halloween costume, Zadie. He won’t recognize you.”

Zadie knocked once on the storm door, turned, and hopped off the stoop. “He’s not home. Let’s go.”

“Wait. His lights are on. His decorations are out. Give him a minute. He’s probably slow.” Aubrey knocked more firmly. After twenty seconds, she opened the storm door and knocked on the solid, wooden door. It swung open a couple of inches.

She pushed in a bit more. “Hello? Mr. Jennings? Are you here? Trick or treat?” An upturned bucket of Halloween candy slid behind the door. A pair of feet stuck out of a lit room at the end of the hall.

Aubrey glanced back at Zadie. “Either this is an elaborate Halloween trick or something’s wrong. Come on, Zee.” Zadie grabbed her big sister’s hand as they stepped through the door. Aubrey strengthened her voice, “Mr. Jennings? Are you all right?”

Was that a groan?

Hand in hand, the girls crept down the dark hallway. A black cat crossed from one doorway to another in front of them. Zadie squeezed Aubrey’s hand even tighter and glanced at her sister. Aubrey was holding her breath, too!

They peeked around the corner into the lit room. Mr. Jennings lay face down, his cane stretched out like an hour hand at eleven o’clock on the 70s-era linoleum floor. Aubrey bent down and shook his shoulder. “Mr. Jennings? Are you okay?”

No answer. Aubrey pulled out her phone and dialed 9-1-1. When she ran to the front door to find the street address, Zadie leaned near Mr. Jennings ear. “I’m sorry you don’t like me,” she half-whispered. “Please don’t die.”

Mr. Jennings eyelids fluttered. He groaned then raised his hand a few inches off the floor and shakily pointed toward the kitchen table. A row of four orange containers sat near the center. “Your medicine? Is that what you need?” Zadie spoke to herself as much as him. She ran to the table and grabbed all four containers. “Which one? All of them? Oh, I don’t know what to do!” She twisted back and forth, her assassin cape slapping the floor every time.

She grabbed all four containers and sat them in a row on the floor, yelling, “Mr. Jennings! Show me which one!” His eyes opened long enough to register the containers, then he knocked over the second one. “Is that the one, Mr. Jennings?” She tried to read the label: “Nitro…nitro-glik-eron. Is that the one, Mr. Jennings? Do you need nitroglycerin?” Zadie was still yelling.

That’s the biggest word I ever read, Zadie thought, and I probably didn’t say it right. Mr. Jennings tapped the floor twice with his forefinger. “It says you should take two. Is that right?” Mr. Jennings tapped twice again.

She wrenched the bottle open before she realized it didn’t have a child safety cap. Half the pills fell onto the floor. She picked up two, blew them off, and stretched them toward Mr. Jennings. He did nothing. “You can’t get them, can you? Okay, I’m going to put them in your mouth.” Zadie grimaced and reached toward the old man’s lips. Thankfully, he opened his mouth enough for her to stuff in one pill then the other. “You’re gonna have to swallow, Mr. Jennings. I can’t do that for you!”

At that moment, Aubrey stepped back into the room with a gasp. “What are you doing?!?”

“He needed his medicine! He told me!” Aubrey’s eyes were filled with panic, but tears puddled in Zadie’s eyes.

“How’d he tell you? Never mind, here comes the ambulance.” Aubrey ran back down the hall. Zadie froze, looking from Mr. Jennings to the door and back.

The EMTs marched into the kitchen full of authority and loaded with equipment:

“What happened?”
“What did you do?”
“What did he take?”
“How many pills?”
“Where did you find him?”
“How long has he been like this?”

Now the tears were flowing freely, and the only thing Zadie could say was, “Two pills. I gave him two pills.” She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her princess-fairy-assassin costume before she remembered she would get in trouble for that.

———-

Zadie’s mom shook her awake early the next morning. “C’mon, Zadie. We’re going out for pancakes, but we have a stop to make first.”

Zadie had only been to the hospital once before. The long halls and mechanical noises quieted her always-full mind. Somehow, her mother knew where to go, and they pushed open a certain hospital room door. Mr. Jennings raised his head and weakly waved them in.

“You’re Zadie, right?”

“Yes, s-sir. I’m sorry we came in your house last night.”

He harumphed. “Sorry? Little girl, you saved my life!”

“What? I thought I messed up. I spilled your pills on the floor and I gave you two of them and the medics were scary and asked me lots of questions and I didn’t know what to say and my sister…” Her words trailed off as Mr. Jennings held his palm toward her like a crossing guard indicating ‘stop.’

“Zadie, it’s no wonder I didn’t talk last night. You won’t let a person get a word in edge-wise.” His eyes were laughing.

Zadie giggled. “That’s what Aubrey, my sister, that’s what she says.”

“I want you to know two things, little missy. And I asked your mama to bring you over here so I could tell you both. First, you saved my life, and I thank you for it. I was trying to get to those pills when I fell and bonked my noggin. If you hadn’t done what you did, we would have had a much more frightful Halloween.” He raised his eyebrows.

“And the second?” Zadie interjected.

“Just give an old man a minute!” Zadie pursed her lips the way her first-grade teacher had taught her when it wasn’t her turn to speak.

Mr. Jennings took a few more breaths. “Alright. I’m ready. The second thing is that I never didn’t like you. The fact is, you remind me of my own daughter about forty years ago. She and her mama died when she was just a little older than you are now, so seeing you makes me hurt something awful.”

For once in her life, Zadie had no words.

“But I’ve decided it’s worth it. I want you to come over any time, play in my yard, and eat apples off the tree in the back. When I get outta her, I’m even gonna see what I can do about replacing the tire swing we used to have on that oak tree in the front.”

Zadie’s mom touched her back, the universal parental prompt to say “thank you,” and Zadie did.

Here’s a #FifthFriday #FlashFiction not-so-frightful story about 2 sisters who are as different as their names: Aubrey and Zadie. Something light to end the month. Enjoy!

Did you share a harrowing experience with a sibling when you were younger? What happened? How did it work out? I’d love to read your TRUE story in the comments below!

4 Pleas for Church Leaders

It’s good to be back, friends! I’m still working on the project I started during my blogging break. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

When we left Paul, back in Do the Work Well, he was sitting with the elders of the church in Ephesus, urgently encouraging them because he knew he would never see them again (Acts 20). This chapter seems like Paul’s version of Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17).

Paul’s boat was about to leave, so he had to talk quickly and directly. The beginning and end of his conversation could have been for any believers in Ephesus and beyond. But tucked into the middle of this passage, Paul gives some very personal, prophetic advice to those specific leaders who sat before him. The principles, however, apply to leaders in local churches across time and around the world, from preschool Sunday School teachers to lead pastors of megachurches. These principles are more fundamental than leadership styles or personal preferences. They get down to essentials. Let’s take a look.

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Nameless–no, Unnamed–Series Conclusion

We can only define them by their malady (or friend’s malady) and location: The Deaf Man in Decapolis, 4 Friends on the Roof. Or sometimes by their profession or nationality: Centurion in Capernaum, Syro-Phonecian Woman in Tyre. The one thing we never know is their names.

I mislabeled this blog series when I started. These people aren’t nameless. They had given names and family relationship names like mother, husband, or cousin. They were people, just like me and you. In fact, Jesus may have called many of them by their names. But we don’t know those names. So they’re not “nameless.” They are “unnamed” or “anonymous.” Maybe I’ll go back and correct all the posts at some point.

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The Preposition of Presence

It’s the small words that get me: the sight words we learned in first grade. Sure, I can talk about predestination, sanctification, eschatology, and all the rest, but the simple words are the ones that often bring me to my knees or cause my hands to raise in praise.

Recently, one word keeps rising to the surface, like blueberries in milk. The word is with. I’m calling it “the preposition of presence.” From Genesis to Revelation, the Story of God is about presence: His presence with His people and our presence with Him.

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Nameless: Sabbath Healings

If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!  –Matthew 12:11-12

The Gospels record seven times Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath. In every situation, we don’t know the person’s name! (One was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, so we know a bit more about her, but still no name.) We can only define these people by their malady and their location. I’ve listed all seven passages at the bottom, but let’s take a few minutes to look with more detail at three of these people.

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Do the Work Well

Paul was near the end of his third journey, and he wanted to arrive in Jerusalem before Pentecost. He knew a stopover in Ephesus would delay him for days, but he also knew, without a doubt, this trip was his last time to pass that way. So Paul asked the Ephesian church leaders to meet him in Miletus, about 35 miles south of Ephesus (Acts 20:16-17 and note), where he could encourage them once more.

Acts 20:17-22.

When the Ephesian elders arrived in Miletus, Paul sat them down for a talk. I wouldn’t really call it a conversation, more of a speech or lecture, but in a few sentences, he summarized his approach to ministry. It’s a pattern that still applies today.

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