Peter’s Bad Aim

Peter was a fisherman, not a swordsman. I’m sure Malchus, servant of the High Priest, was glad about that fact when Peter’s sword swung toward his head. Or maybe later, when his ear was healed, and he’d had time to think about it, he realized Peter probably wasn’t actually aiming for his ear.

John 18:1-14. Continue reading

Joseph: The Cost of Obedience

How long did it take Joseph to fall asleep that night, after he decided to divorce Mary? I imagine his conscience was clear, but I wonder if his heart still hesitated. Then, in the middle of the night, an angel came, saying, “Don’t do what you were planning to do. Do the exact opposite instead” (my paraphrase). Continue reading

Fishers of Men: The Story Behind the Story

We open the New Testament and start reading in Matthew. Okay, we skip the geneaology (but we shouldn’t!) After everything surrounding Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1-2), He’s suddenly a grown-up, and His cousin John is out in the wilderness preaching (Matthew 3). Jesus gets baptized by John, then He’s tested by Satan. Right after the testing, he starts preaching, and then, toward the end of Matthew 4, Jesus calls Simon (a.k.a. Peter), Andrew, James, and John to leave their fishing nets and follow Him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Pastors love this story. It looks like these two sets of brothers meet Jesus and just turn their lives upside down without a second thought, walking away like something from the Pied Piper. But that’s not the case. In fact, they had known Jesus for at least a few months. They had already seen Him in action and even talked to Him. Walk through this with me… Continue reading

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!

Good Intentions Gone Awry

Have you ever had something completely blow up in your face when you thought it was going to be awesome? Have you ever tried really hard to do the right thing but it turned out to be the completely wrong-as-possible thing to do? The kind soul will tell you afterward, “Well, it’s the thought that counts,” but you know you’ve caused embarrassment—maybe even pain—completely without intending it.

road in Greece

I used to comfort myself when this happened to me by quoting 1 Samuel 16:7 in which God tells Samuel, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” If God could see my heart, and he knew that I meant well, then that should be enough.

Shouldn’t it?

Were my “good intentions” not enough to please God?

Even if I totally “screwed up,” hurt people’s feelings, or damaged God’s reputation, it was okay as long as “my heart was in the right place,” right? Well…

A couple of good-looking kings

In 1 Samuel 9, God chose a king for the Israelites based on appearances. He was tall, good looking, stately, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel (1 Samuel 9:2). If wars were fought as beauty pageants, Saul would have conquered all Israel’s foes! But Saul turned out to have some heart problems, not because of cholesterol but because of covering up his disobedience.

So God sent Samuel to anoint a second king for Israel. Samuel leaned toward a young man who looked a lot like Saul, but God stayed his hand. They went through all the sons of Jesse until they came to the youngest. David was young and probably stinky from tending the sheep, but he had a fine appearance and handsome features (1 Samuel 16:12).

God does care about the external…
just not in the way we think of externals.

Wait. Really? He was good-looking too? I wanted him to be kinda ugly so God could make His point more clearly: that He doesn’t care about appearances. But God does care about the external…just not in the way we think of externals.

The main difference between Saul and David was the condition of their hearts. God knew that David’s heart was pure where Saul’s was not and never had been. David will end up doing far worse things than sparing some tasty-looking sheep and cattle from complete annihilation (1 Samuel 15:14). Umm, remember Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11)? Yeah. But David repents. In his heart, he wants to please God while Saul never gets past pleasing himself. That’s the difference.

Good motives aren’t enough

Back to my question. If my heart is in the right place, that’s all that matters, right? I mean, David had good motives and Saul had bad motives. David was forgiven and Saul was rejected.

Well, it’s not that simple. Motives are extremely important. (I wrote a whole blog post about them.) Charles Spurgeon said this:

“It is not enough to do the correct thing; it must be done in a right spirit, and with a pure motive. A good action is not wholly good unless it be done for the glory of God, and because of the greatness and goodness of his holy name.” –Charles Spurgeon

But “outward appearance”—the part that people see—also counts for something. God didn’t say, “Looks aren’t important.” In fact, He thought it important for us to know that both kings were attractive. He simply reminded Samuel that He could see more than the outward appearance. (I’m resisting the urge to go off on a tangent about judging people right now.)

For us today, it’s not about being tall or having a “fine appearance”–thank goodness! It’s about living out the Christ-life attractively. Our actions matter because they affect other people and impact God’s reputation. It plays out like this:

  • Do the wrong thing for the wrong reason: If you’re the kind of person who has read this far, you probably don’t spend much time in this category.
  • Do the right thing for the wrong reason: This is what Spurgeon was talking about. It’s not enough. Motives count to God.
  • Do the wrong thing for the right reason: Well, you had good intentions, but because people see what we do and how we act, this is insufficient.
  • Do the right thing for the right reason: This is obedience. Yes, we truly do walk a narrow road.

As long as we live on earth, we’re going to mess up—sometimes royally. But like David, those failures must be followed by repentance and a plea for forgiveness, not a cover-up, like Saul. If I “screw up” or hurt someone, even if my motives were as pure as possible, I can’t just wash my hands of it with an “Oh, I meant well.” I have to correct it with the other people involved and try to learn from it personally. Take comfort in the fact that we are still being made holy (Hebrews 10:14). We can expect those times of failure to become fewer as we mature in Christ.

So how do we fix it?

My common sense told me
I was right, but it was wrong.

My problem back there at the beginning was that I didn’t listen to the Holy Spirit. My common sense, which is not omniscient, told me I was right, but my common sense was wrong. As I learn to heed His leading, my intentions join my actions in bringing Him glory.

And also, I experience a lot less embarrassment.

“God sees the heart” is not an ‘out’ for good intentions gone awry. #NotAboutMe #motives (click to tweet)

What about you? What well-known Bible verse have you misappropriated? OR How does this verse in 1 Samuel affect your life? Let’s start a conversation!


3 Lessons from My Empty Wallet

Let me say first that we are not impoverished. I’ve seen poverty; it doesn’t look like my life. We have enough money to pay the bills and purchase food. We have enough money to give our children a weekly allowance and buy the occasional pizza. So, no, we’re not destitute. Also, I realize that many people live in much direr straights than ours, and I am not making light of that.

These days, we have to say ‘no’
much more often than we say ‘yes.’

Maybe I should put it like this: At this ‘season’ of our lives, we don’t have extra money. We don’t pay for any television service; we can’t go to the beach or get pedicures, and we earnestly pray that our cars keep running because major repairs would be a real problem. When it comes to things that cost money, we have to say ‘no’ much more often than we say ‘yes.’

This hasn’t always been the case for us. As God led us into the circumstances that created this situation, I began to look for what we might learn through this sort-of trial. (It’s not a real trial in the Biblical sense…more like a period of testing.) So far, I’ve discovered three things.

Faith and Wealth Are Often Inversely Proportional

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  -James 2:5

It’s easier for poor people to trust God. When you have money, you need to work really hard to stay dependent on Jesus rather than depending on your finances. When you don’t have money, you’ve no choice but to trust Him for your daily needs, which increases your faith. It’s uncommon sense: being poor makes you rich.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Like the Hebrew people in the wilderness gathered just enough manna for that day, He models praying for just enough to meet one’s needs on this day. It’s hard to pray those words with authenticity when you could buy a loaf of bread using your pocket change.

Less money ⇒ more faith.
More money ⇒ less faith.

So riches and faith are often inversely proportional. Yes, there are incredibly faithful wealthy people. I’m just saying that it’s much harder for them to remain in that state of dependence on God. For me, this lack of wealth has given me so many opportunities to trust Him and therefore, to glorify Him as He met our needs every time!

(There’s an implicit reference here to Matthew 5:3, where Jesus says the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom of heaven. I don’t have the space to dig into it here, but go for it, if you’re interested.)

Self-Discipline in One Area Affects Other Areas

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  -Matthew 16:24

I’ve never been very good at telling myself ‘no.’ Indulgences such as another piece of chocolate or a new pair of shoes or ten more minutes in a novel are natural to me. (I don’t think I’m alone in this.) And fasting? Just the thought of it makes my stomach growl. But in the last two years, I’ve said no to Starbucks, to movie dates, to new clothes, to nice furniture, to weekend getaways, etc. Having done all that, I find it easier to turn off the TV, to choose a special offering over ice cream, and yes, I’ve even fasted—twice!

Because I have been compelled to discipline my spending habits, spiritual disciplines have become more accessible. I’m as surprised by this as anyone.

Contentment Doesn’t Depend on Circumstances

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.  –Philippians 4:12-13

There is much in American
life that I don’t need.

Have you ever noticed this before?!? Paul’s power statement that athletes tattoo on their arms and body builders quote in their gyms…it’s actually about contentment! (Context is supremely important.) In the last two years, I have learned that there is much I don’t need. I am not hurt by saying ‘no’ to this or that fun purchase. I’ve actually become more content as I bought less stuff and spent less on entertainment.

If someone handed me a new couch or a trip to the beach, I wouldn’t refuse them. After all, I’m not trying to be ascetic, nor am I testing out a vow of poverty. The simple fact is, I no longer feel like I need those things to be satisfied with my life…or even to be comfortable.

Don’t pat me on the back just yet. I’m still working on all this, and God challenges my pride/humility ratio daily when it comes to finances. I really have a hard time saying, “We can’t afford that.” I feel like I’ve learned enough, however, to pass some of it on to you. I pray that you are encouraged and challenged.

 Becoming more content with less money: 3 Lessons from My Empty Wallet (click to tweet)

For further study: I Timothy 6:3-10, 17-19. Increased faithfulness doesn’t guarantee increased finances. Also Matthew 6:19-21.

What has God taught you about wealth, finances, money, etc.? What verses did He use? How did your life change as a result? We would all like to hear about you, so leave a comment below!

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The Day the King Cried

Only twice in Scripture do we see Jesus cry. The first time, He weeps with Mary over the death of her brother, Lazarus (found exclusively in John 11). The second time, He weeps over the city of Jerusalem. I wrote extensively about the first occasion in my Bible study. We will consider the second occasion today, as part of Holy Week and the coming of Easter.

Luke 19:41-44.

Jesus parades toward Jerusalem on a donkey, riding along a road covered with palm fronds and people’s clothes. At some point—and only Luke records this—He begins to cry. Was he still riding down the road on the donkey? Or had they taken a break in which he looked over the city from atop a hill? Continue reading

The Right Place at the Right Time: Philip, part 2

Philip crossed an ethnic barrier into Samaria, then came back into his “passport country” in order to reach a tourist from yet another people group. Does that seem strange to you? Sometimes obedience doesn’t square with common sense. I call it uncommon sense. But let’s keep going…

Through the Desert

It has been hours, maybe even overnight, since Philip left the northern city of Samaria. No cellphones, so he can’t call his associate pastor to check on church affairs. He can’t even let his family know he made it safely through Jerusalem, a city he previously fled because of persecution. Continue reading

Faith is in the Gap*

You rush to the end of the line for the biggest roller coaster at the amusement park, elbowing your way in front of another pair of riders because getting behind those two additional people might possibly cause you to wait an extra ninety seconds when you finally reach the other end of the line. You look up: “Two-hour wait from this point.” One hundred and twenty minutes is a long time to compel your mind to focus on something—anything—other than this death-defying machine that will hurl you through space with your bare feet dangling below…then above…then beside you. You make friendly conversation with the people behind you and try to pretend that you didn’t accost them just so you could cut those seconds off your wait time.

That fluttering in your stomach
is not from lack of food…

After the interminable two hours leaves you with tired feet, back pain (if you’re over forty, like me), and a growling stomach, you finally arrive at the front gates. Brief images of Churchill Downs flash through your mind…or is it the cattle chutes at a slaughterhouse? You realize the fluttering in your stomach is not from lack of food. You irrationally forget that at least four million people were in front of you in that line and not one of them is now dead. Your hands grip the cow-herding bars. Your tongue stutters and you try to laugh it off. You put on your brave face because everyone around you already remembered to do that, and you don’t want to be the odd-man-out.

07-27 roller coaster (2)
(c) Carole Sparks Six Flags over Georgia

Even as you kick off your flip-flops, you know there is still time to back out. How can you be sure the mechanism will support you? Why should you trust the engineers and mechanics who built this contraption? What if your safety harness unlatches mid-barrel roll?  There’s the exit gate; you see it at the end of the platform. Shoes in one hand, cell phone in the other, you hesitate as you reach toward the cubbyhole. All the friendly encouragement in the world could not boost your confidence at this moment.

That is doubt—pure doubt in which you question the sanity not only of yourself but of those around you and those in authority over you. You mentally test the waters of justification and consider the ramifications of walking away even while you empty your hands and turn toward certain death . . . at least it feels like it.

Taking a deep breath, you step across that gap, an empty space between solid ground and steel girders. The seat grabs you, and before you realize what has happened, the safety harness is locked, the minimum-wage college-age ride attendant has “inspected” your latch (yeah, right), and you are moving.

You had to leave your justifications
and ramifications in that cubbyhole
with your spare change.

Now doubt has a new face. You are committed and your doubts, while still relevant, cannot affect your actions. Well, you could scream, but nothing would really change. You had to leave your justifications and ramifications in that cubbyhole with your spare change. The click-click-click of the up-hill climb sounds like a time bomb, and in the momentary hesitation at the top, you feel certain that you are facing death. You sit very still because any sudden movement will surely knock the entire chain of seats off the rail. Stopping the engines and returning to the platform is not an option.

Ninety seconds later, smile plastered to your face (along with a couple of small bugs), you coast back into the platform and tell the next row of risk-takers, “You’re gonna love it!”

Risk-taking always
involves doubt.

Risk-taking always involves doubt. That’s what makes it risky. The real choice was a simple one: Do you step across that open-air gap into the seat or do you walk away and never know, tattooing the doubts onto your soul forever? The act of faith transpired in that gap.

That sounds a little intense for an amusement park, I know.

Risk and doubt are just as much a part of the Christ-life as they are a day at the park…except the stakes are much greater. We’re talking about eternity here. Just like with the roller coaster, there is only one way to remove the doubts: experience. And the only way to get the experience is to commit despite the doubts. When you choose to follow Christ, you step across a gap into a new world of risk and adventure. Your doubts don’t simply vanish, but as you gain experience, they become calculable risks. And just like with the roller coaster, you are actually safe whether you recognize it or not.

Risk and doubt are as much a part of the Christ-life as they are a day at the park…except the stakes are greater. (click to tweet)

Do you like roller coasters? I love them and hate them, yet I continue to get in line. How does this imagery help you face the inevitable risks of the Christ-life? Please share with all of us in the comments below!

*not The Gap®, the clothing store