The Mistakes of 2021

Failure.  It’s instinctive to handle it poorly.  Because of that, it’s impossible to see 2022 as a clean slate if I’m not at peace with my yesterdays.

What are the wrong ways to handle failure?  There are at least two.

1. Underestimate it.

When I do, I fail to see it as God sees it.  I minimize the size of it.  I re-shape it to reduce it to something trivial when, in fact, it probably wasn’t.  I might believe it to be such a small offense that I don’t need to confess it and ask for God’s forgiveness. At best, I ask for it casually like it’s no big deal.

When God’s Spirit convicts me, I am defensive.  I remind Him that everyone has weaknesses.  Perhaps I did it in secret and it was a sin of the heart.  I reason that no one got hurt but I fail to see that the one who was offended was the only One who matters.  I sinned against God. Fragile egos defend themselves.  I fear I can’t survive the knowledge of my own depravity. Underestimating failures causes me to live with a calloused heart. I am not experienced by others as someone humble and gracious.

2.  Overestimate it.

I fail to understand grace and believe my failure to be unforgiveable. I must first wallow in guilt, prove myself to be better than that, and convince God that I am sorry enough. My sin looms large and God’s mercy appears to be small.

My only experience with failures and forgiveness comes through the film of earthly relationships. Unfortunately, some people refuse to forgive. They are prone to forever remind me of my failures. I wear them like scarlet letters. I fear that God will do what my human counterparts have done. I make sure to punish myself with condemning messages before God has a chance to. Though I say I believe that He has put my sins behind his back, never to take them out again to accuse me, my heart tells on me as I fixate on my guilt.

Overestimating my failures feels like a holy response. It is anything but. It is a denial of God’s mercy. It is a denial of the purpose of the cross. It’s choosing to live in unbelief regarding everything Jesus promised when He died for my sins as if He was the One who committed them.

God’s mercies are new every morning.  This confession is one of the pillars of our faith.  This truth can be embraced before we sin.  It can be embraced again while we grieve our sin.  And finally, it is passionately embraced as we lift our gaze from the dust to look to God for new tomorrows.

The righteous may fall seven times but still get up. Proverbs 24:16

Hiding The Light Of The World

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. Luke 2:46-47

Was it difficult for Joseph and Mary to give Jesus a normal upbringing? Was he just one of the villager’s children? Scripture doesn’t say but as Michael Card encourages believers to read the Word with their God-given imaginations, we can wonder. In this one account from Luke, Jesus goes to the temple when He is twelve, asks a few questions, offers some insights in response, and the scholars are amazed.

How do you hide the Light of the world in a dark and oppressive Roman society? In Nazareth, there very well could have been stories among the villagers about Jesus. Though His first public miracle was at the wedding at Cana, did things happen earlier that could only have been explained by the word ‘miracle’? We’re not told but I find it interesting that Mary turned to Jesus at the wedding and casually asked if He would do something about the fact that the wine had run out.

This child, Jesus, was also divine. He was also the One who spoke the world into existence. How could His words have been common, even as One Incarnate? As He saw the broken world around Him, wouldn’t He have addressed it on more than one occasion? Surely He would have seen parents, brothers, and extended family members get sick. Surely there would have been demonic manifestations near Him in everyday life. I wonder if the presence of God, resident in Christ, caused cataclysmic reactions at various points in His childhood. It could be that God Himself veiled the eyes of those around the Christ child to protect His identity until it was time for Him to begin His ministry. But surely something extraordinary happened in the temple when Jesus was twelve. This we know ~ His divinity was on display that day.

What does all of this mean for us? When God gives a gift, there is no indication that it should be used indiscriminately. When God entrusts His disciple with spiritual abilities, they should remain inoperative until God says it’s time to use them. Thirty years of age is a long time for Jesus to wait to be released into public ministry. In God’s wisdom, there were thirty years of preparation for three years of ministry.

You and I may be aware of spiritual gifts that lie in waiting. We strain to exercise them and second-guess God’s wisdom of how long we must wait for the door of our calling to be opened. Could it be that God raises up a disciple for forty-five or fifty years before commissioning him/her to realize their usefulness? Could there be a lifetime of preparation for a few short years of ministry?  Could destiny follow decades of obscurity? In God’s economy, yes. John the Baptist was a flash of Light but never, according to Jesus, did anyone burn brighter.

Oh, the mystery of Your ways. For every place that I wait for You, I submit to Your wisdom and timetable. Amen

Save

Encouragement Skill #12

REMEMBER THE ORPHAN’S POSTURE

Imagine yourself receiving this news. The paperwork for the child your family has been waiting to adopt from overseas is finally finished.  Your new son is from war-torn Sudan.  He lost both his parents in the relentless bombing and desperately needs a new home as soon as possible.  Elated, you fly to the country and make plans to visit the orphanage where he has been living for the past year.  You have brought a couple of presents to give to him and you stop to pick up some balloons that morning to commemorate this wonderful occasion.  When you arrive, the director of the orphanage takes you aside.  “You will have to re-think the way you are going to greet him,” she says.  “All he has seen are the ravages of war.  He trusts no one and rarely comes out of the corner of his room.”

This is the posture of the orphan.  Withdrawn, suspicious, distant.  How will you adapt your plan to meet him?  You will pray a lot.  You will hold back the balloons, maybe even the gifts initially.  You will slower your pace, call his name softly, kneel down to eye level.  You will try to encourage a moment of eye contact so he can see the love in your eyes.  You will pray for God to give you some kind of tender gesture to build a thread of credibility.  You know it’s going to be a slow process.  Much time will pass before you will have a child who knows how to receive love. Normal life is quite far off.

Why do I have you imagine this scene?  Because many of us will be called upon to care for someone severely wounded and/or in a condition where they can’t speak.  For some, their life-story has been such that they feel they are only safe if they stay away from people.  They have been tucked away behind a wall of mis-trust.  Or, others are in ICU, in and out of a coma, on life support, and can’t speak.  They may look at you now and then but there are no words.  How comfortable will you be in their presence?  The learned ways you use to reach everyone else will not be effective for this person. Cards, flowers, or a phone call will not do it.

It’s time to re-assess.  Coming to sit with them, praying their story, respecting their fear and being willing to make slow progress, these are some of the things required.  God will help you customize efforts to win trust and impact their heart.  He knows how they are made, knows their story, and He is the only One who knows perfectly how to build a bridge. He excels with non-verbals.  “I’ll pour robust well-being into her like a river.  You’ll nurse at her breasts, nestle in her bosom, and be bounced on her knees.  As a mother comforts her child, so I’ll comfort you.”  Isaiah 66:12-13  These are all gestures that don’t require talking.  Nestling, bouncing, nursing, comforting.  There are times when words aren’t enough but God is not limited in love language.  Nor are we.  Though we may be initially uncomfortable, love carries us through the discomfort.  God will show us how to do what so few are willing to do.

Some of your most powerful miracles with people didn’t involve words.  Breathing on your disciples, urging Elisha to lay on the dead child of the Shunamite woman.  I am willing to reach out and be unconventional for the sake of someone who needs You.  Use me, Lord.  Amen

Encouragement Skill #9

ASK GOOD QUESTIONS

“Where are you?”  It was the first question posed in the history of our world.  God was the one was doing the asking.  While a question is usually asked for the purpose of finding an answer, it was not true in this case.  God sees all things and knows all things.  He knew right where Adam and Eve were but perhaps they needed to admit they were hiding and why.  God continued to ask questions on and off throughout the Old Testament.  Seventy questions were posed to Job alone; heart wrenching questions that, in the end, brought perspective to his despair.

When Jesus lived here, He asked over three hundred questions but when others inquired of Him, He only answered a handful because a good number of questions were traps.  Jesus’ asked someone a question for the purpose of self-revelation.  There was something a person needed to discover about themselves by digging deeply.

Jesus asked Philip, while they looked out over a hillside dotted with hungry people, “Where are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?”  Would Philip answer with a statement of faith?  “There’s no food here but that’s not a challenge for You, Lord!”  Instead, he felt the stress of a problem too big to be humanly solved. Faith was absent.  I also remember Jesus asking the cripple at the Pool of Siloam, “Do you want to be well?”  To him, it must have sounded like a foolish question but it was one that reverberated with meaning in depths of his soul.  Was he really ready to have his identity changed?  Did he want to relate to others as someone independent rather than needy?  Was he ready to give up the attention he was accustomed to?

When I am hurting, it’s easy to get stuck in my own head.  The events of my life swirl round and round and hold me captive.  “Are you having a good day today?” is unhelpful for it invites a one-word answer and does nothing to help me find any relief.  I may need to talk but have no idea where to start.  Most of the time, people are shy of someone who hurts.  The darkness is intimidating and they feel the pressure of thinking they have to have answers.  The real gift is expressing a love that is interested enough to ask the question.  It’s often the only time someone who is afflicted is invited to say what desperately needs to be said, to admit what they have borne alone, and to reveal what has tormented them but has never before found words.

A good question is not one that can be answered with a simple yes or a no.  It is one that opens the soul.  i.e. How are you handling this?  What’s the most difficult part of this journey?   Most of us want, and need, to tell a part of our story to someone who loves us, someone safe and wise.  Our experience is that few either care enough to ask or are not equipped with enough experience to know that heartfelt questions can be so extremely helpful.

Lord, help me discern the questions you might ask that would bring relief and spiritual breakthroughs.  I am your servant. Amen

Really Reaching Those Who Hurt

Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road?   Luke 24:32

I know how I feel when the Spirit of God speaks to me.  It’s especially meaningful when I need Him the most.   It’s wonderful, it’s convicting, it even causes me to ache for my future home with Jesus. I bet I feel like the group Luke describes.  They were walking down the road; Jesus showed up and began to share with them.  They didn’t recognize Him until afterward when they reviewed how they had felt when He spoke to them.  They described the experience like this ~’Did our hearts not burn within us as He talked?.’

What is it your hurting friend needs most? I often struggle to know how to reach out, having exhausted all my creativity to make a dent in their place of pain.  But really, what they need is a word, a touch, from Jesus.  When we speak, or sit beside them, or send a card, or extend meaningful touches, we should leave them feeling that something sacred occurred.  The memory of us being there should be akin to feeling that their ‘heart burned within them.’

This series will explore twelve creative ways to extend encouragement. Each suggestion helps lay a groundwork for God to show up.  So, who is it for whom your heart aches?  Who is it that has drained you of internal resources?  Who is it that is no longer affected by anything you do or say and you wonder what you should do next?  There are things we can do and there are things we can say.  Gestures will only make a spiritual impact if the Spirit has fueled them.  Over the next two weeks, I’ll be offering one suggestion a day.  Think of it.  That person you care about, the one who has shut himself or herself away into a place that is hard to reach, they just might feel Jesus’ touch.

Twelve encouragement skills can be perceived as twelve formulas.  Know that they are not and I need to qualify something. You and I can’t give away what we first don’t posses for ourselves!  If I don’t work out my own theology of pain and God’s sovereignty, I will not be able to provide the deep soul care others need despite my best efforts.  My words will ring hollow and they will be able to see through me.  Credibility builds a successful bridge.

Someone who knows Jesus well can say just a few words and I’m changed.  Someone who has not been with Jesus in a long time, and exerts effort from their own heart, can say a hundred words and fail to move me.  I received a note some time back from someone I hadn’t seen in a while.  The note simply said, “He has heard your cry.”  This note came on a day when I had asked the Lord if He was listening.  I was discouraged, weary in prayer, so for this note to arrive meant a lot to me.  The one who wrote it was undoubtedly nudged by God to write just one sentence.  She was obedient.  Five words, Spirit-driven, gave me my breakthrough.

Prepare our ears, then our hands, to do Your work of compassion.  Amen

Why Can’t I See Him?

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. Matthew 5:8

Purity and defilement are polar opposites. A pure heart sees God. A defiled heart does not. A pure heart has a cleansed conscience. A defiled heart has a seared one.

Can I achieve purity of heart with mere mental discipline? Not remotely. Some would say to just ‘think on the things’ that Paul advocates in Philippians. But those mental gymnastics don’t make me pure. Though they might help me stay pure in heart, purity is the gift God gives to me upon confession of sin.  A defiled heart is one that is deceived. To the degree that I have a history of unconfessed sin, I can be sure that deception has a hold on me and has rendered me partially blind. Christ won’t be someone I treasure because my vision is impaired.

When mentoring women, I take them through a life inventory. I explain that past sins, not yet confessed, bear consequences of spiritual blindness. Unholy spiritual legacies from family bloodlines will also pass on deception. Let me speak from personal experience. My father, and his parents, belonged to the Masonic Lodge. When he asked to be released from his vows, he initiated a freedom for my sister and me. If he had stayed in the Lodge, he would have passed on spiritual blindness since the belief system of the Lodge is rooted in Eastern religion. Our family did some significant spiritual work to fully renounce the ties of our ancestors. Just as they took vows, one at a time, they needed to be renounced one at a time. Some vague general prayer didn’t really hit the mark.

Paul addressed this subject another way. “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” Titus 1:15   My rudder, resident in my conscience, is corrupted by unbelief.

If I want to see God and remain pure in heart, I need to be tough on sin. I aim to be a sin-killer. Otherwise, I risk wearing foggy eyeglasses when I behold the face of God.

Bad eyesight can creep up on me. Expose my sin before it metastasizes. I want to see You in all of Your glory. Amen