Running from “How,” Resting in “What”

“And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”” (Luke 1:18, ESV)

The angel Gabriel came to Zechariah from the “presence of God” specifically to share an astounding thing the Lord was about to do in the priest’s life. The Word the angel brought (the “what”) was stunning: a son for this old husband and wife—yet not just a son, a great prophet who would be the forerunner of Messiah. Though his conception and birth, shame and disgrace would be wiped away. Through his life, a people would be prepared for Jesus!

Zechariah’s “what” was amazing! Who of us gets a “what” like his? The Almighty had chosen this humble and upright man for an honor and blessing unrivaled in hundreds of years. That’s quite a “what!”

As glorious as that interaction began between Gabriel and Zechariah, the conversation “went south” shortly thereafter. The questions racing through the priest’s heart and mind spilled out of his mouth: “How?” Zechariah’s insistence on understanding “how” eclipsed his faith and momentarily stole away the glory of the “what.” 

Gratefully, the angel’s “correction,” though significant, was temporary. Zechariah had nine months to think about how lips are made to thank and worship the Giver of miraculous “whats” and not for questioning His ability to deliver.  

Our “how” can be the enemy of the “what” God desires to do in and through us.

The Lord isn’t dependent on our understanding of His plans for them to be fulfilled. Rather, He’s most looking for a humble “yes” in response to what He’s declared. 

Truthfully, would we be able to understand or appreciate the details of His plan if He was to reveal them? I suspect that giving us a little of the “how” would only instigate more questions and fuel greater skepticism!

Admittedly, the promise Gabriel gave Zechariah seemed far-fetched in the natural. I mention this not to make excuses for Zechariah, but to point out the contrast: How many of us have heard the Lord speak, on much lesser items, but still cannot avoid the “how” trap? 

When we pray, are we content to wait and see how the Lord works? Or, do we need to “mentally manage” His progress? Is His promise enough? Can we trust His word and wait quietly with thanks and praise on our lips, or not?

I struggle in this area…badly. Though I try to spin my “need to know” as something spiritually positive, the truth is actually not pretty. My lust for “how” is born of a lack of trust. Yet, when I humbly accept the Lord’s plans, timing, and outcomes, I move from the unsettled and insecure realm of “how” to the peace and joy that flow by embracing His “what” without conditions.

What are you restless about? Where are you wanting details you don’t need? How are you acting like Zechariah? 

Take a moment today with me and quietly pray: “Father, I choose to trust You. Though I can’t see the “how,” I decide to hold onto the “what” You’ve given. What’s more, I draw close to You, the Giver of promises and the Answerer of prayers. You’re enough. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

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A Prayer for Fruitfulness

“And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9, ESV)

Dear Father,

I know You’ve drawn my mind and heart to this passage—for my own situation, but also for many of my friends.  I am grateful that as a “tree” in your “vineyard” I am in no danger of being cut down and removed from Your Presence!  Sons (and daughters) remain such even when their fruit is lacking.

At the same time, it is clearly a great desire of Your heart for me to be fruitful, abundantly so.  I confess that the fruit of my life is not abundant.  I need Your son, the Gardener, to work in my life again.  I admit I need Him to bring His tools and supplies to work on my soil.

Though it’s not purposeful, I can so easily become hard and unyielding.  As ground walked on by many feet, my heart can be like a road where no amount of rich fertilizer could penetrate and restore.  Father, I need the shovel, hoe, and rake first.  I thank you your cultivation is done in kindness and intentionality.  Thank you that Jesus does not “wound my soul soil” without an eye toward future healing and growth.  Though the digging process may be painful, I invite You to come and work.  Leave no area untouched by Your prodding for I trust You more than I fear the process.

Once You’ve begun to recondition my soil, please bring whatever nutrients are needed.  I confess; I’m terrible at knowing what would be best for preparing my life for more fruitfulness.  Left to myself I tend to seek things that others applaud and that appear helpful, but often don’t substantially change the quality of the ground in my life.  As the One who made me, bring the right circumstances, the new insights, and the fresh revelation that will spur new growth.  Teach me Your ways; expand my heart to love more deeply and my mind to think more broadly.  Regardless of how the nutrients “smell,” I invite you to work them into my broken-up life.  Because I trust You, I am joyful as I anticipate Your loving attention.

Finally, as You work, grant me grace to embrace Your timing.  Your best work is done slowly and deeply.  Strip me of the expectation that true transformation and great fruitfulness will occur overnight.  In truth, time is a silent friend in this process.  I would rather submit to Your pace and experience Your results than push ahead and be shortchanged.  I wait for rich, new fruit to grow.  I choose to trust for You alone are perfectly trustworthy.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Broken Yet Hopeful

Do you know anyone who’s going through incredible difficulty, right now?  Because of what they’re facing, these friends or family members have both lost hope and the ability to imagine a life that is blessed and free.

This is exactly where the people of Israel found themselves at the beginning of the book of Exodus.  Even after hearing about the great deliverance God was about to execute on their behalf, Israel was down—way down—and unable to trust the future would be any different from the past.

Here’s a great summary from Exodus 6: “Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.” (v.9, ESV)  Moses came with a message of deliverance, but because of two factors, a “broken spirit” and “harsh slavery,” the people would not listen.

Notice the two-pronged torment.  Their “broken spirit” was an internal condition and their “harsh slavery” was an external reality.  They were crushed inside; and, their outside circumstances reinforced the devastation they felt.

In truth, the broken spirit is the bigger of the two problems.  Not to diminish the excruciating pain of slavery, (most of us have no way to grasp how dehumanizing this would have been,) but the bigger issue is at the heart level.  It always is.  If Israel’s spirit had not been splintered, the cruelty of their forced labor could have seemed temporary instead of permanent.

We’ve all noticed how good news—even a tiny amount—in the midst of horrible circumstances can drastically change one’s outlook.  The problem is that a broken spirit deafens us to the hope God offers whether we’re suffering from the harshness of the whip (like Israel) or the harshness of loneliness, loss, and rejection.  Brokenness blinds.

How do we see what God is up to when were broken and oppressed?  How do we catch a vision for a different kind of life when we’ve been bullied into believing we’ll always be captives?  These kinds of situations defy the “4 Easy Steps” or “3 Quick Keys” type answers.

Rather than trying to escape the realities of “spirit brokenness,” our best course of action is to invite the “Promiser of a different future” into the “desperateness of the present hurt.”  Instead of seeking to escape by our own strength or resigning ourselves to what feels “unchangeable,” might we not present our brokenness to God and ask Him to abide with us until His timing for deliverance is right?

Exodus 2:24 speaks of God’s attention.  The text says He “heard” Israel’s groaning.  Verse 25 further records “God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (ESV)  Let this sink in: God heard, God saw, and God knew what was happening to His own.

His awareness of us, our friends, and our plights is the same!  He hears, sees, and knows our broken places!

If we will invite God into what feels hopeless, our healing will begin.  A whole spirit so often precedes a transformed situation.  Lives change from the inside out; and, the inside changes when we invite the God of all wisdom and miracles to come in!

Think about your friend—the one who’s really getting hammered by life or by the enemy.  Our prayers and words are most helpful when we remind them to remember God hears, sees, and knows.  We help facilitate their healing when we encourage them to invite the One who is Light into their darkness.  He does His best spiritual surgery in the dark.

(And by the way, you’re allowed to stay with them, too.  Don’t rush off.  Sit down and wait for their deliverance…with them.  Your companionship also ushers in hope!)

Stirred by the Unknown

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1, ESV)

Hello Friends!  I can’t read this passage and not be stirred.  God tells Abraham, (still called “Abram” at this point,) to do something completely unsettling.  The Lord effectively says to Abraham: “Leave everything familiar—the people you’ve known—the things which anchor your life and make you feel secure…and step out to a destination I’ll explain later.”

Can you imagine?

Put yourself in his place.  Of course, we desire to be obedient sons or daughters, so we’d like to believe we’d say, “Sure, Lord.  When do we leave?”  In reality though, most our minds work in such a way that our first response would be something more like: “You’ve got to be kidding!  This command doesn’t make sense, Lord!”

That’s the issue isn’t it?

Most of us (self-included) are willing to trust and obey to the extent which God’s commands and directives make sense to us.  Our faith walks are pleasant, uneventful journeys until His instructions seem confusing and de-stabilizing to our passion for predictability.  (In truth, the depth of our trust and the length of our obedience is often revealed when our minds can’t conceive what God’s up to!)

This is the place Abraham found himself…with one important caveat found in the next verse.  “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (12:2)

Take a moment and re-read those words.  The Lord is planning to do great things through Abraham, and more importantly, God’s desire was to make him to “be a blessing.”  That’s the phrase that touches my heart more than any other.

We walk this world for such a brief time; is anything more satisfying, more rewarding, or more God-honoring than to “be a blessing” to people?  I don’t believe so.  Being a conduit of God’s favor is the place where peace, joy, and fulfillment are birthed in us.  Blessing through us yields blessing in us!

It’s the combination of the two verses that makes this whole scenario work.  The point isn’t “Abe, take a giant leap into the wild blue!” OR “Abe, you will get to be a blessing!”  Instead, God says: “Start walking to an unknown geography AND you’ll become a source of blessing to unknown multitudes!”  God reveals a glorious destination, but not the turn-by-turn directions.

Passages like this one, should stir our hearts.  Spiritually, we are Abraham’s decedents.  We are a people walking by faith.  God still calls his children to lives that include the unknowns of risk for a promises of reward.

As we begin a new year, I don’t know what’s stirring in your heart, but I pray you’re feeling what I am: a fresh wind blowing!  What’s coming next?  Where will the Lord tell us to go?  What direction is He whispering to our souls?  How will we travel and whom will we bless?

This is what I know: the promise of being a blessing will eventually make the mystery of the trip worth it all.  The discomfort of walking without details will one day be lost in the wonder of being an instrument of grace in the hands of the Lord.  The arrival will justify the journey!  Start walking!

Don’t Stop Praying…

These are sobering times.  With massive wildfires out west, historic hurricanes in Texas / the Caribbean / eventually Florida, and a huge earthquake off the coast of Mexico, we are living in days of great uncertainty.  So much is happening so quickly; it’s hard to process it all.

In the natural, nothing good comes of such devastation.  Homes are lost, businesses washed or burned away, infrastructure damaged, and most of all, precious lives slip into eternity.  If we’re paying attention, it’s impossible not to be shaken. Yet in the unseen, God, the consummate and ultimate Redeemer, is working.  And He’s working through prayer.

Over the last weeks, I’ve been drawn to new places in prayer.  I’ve been compelled to pray with a passion and earnestness that eludes when things “seem okay.”  Tragedy, loss, and pain have a way of stirring God’s children to intercede.  Other priorities lose importance as seeking God’s intervention becomes paramount.

We’ve been given a privilege of inestimable value: we can directly communicate with the God who understands exactly what is happening on this planet and why.  I, an average, middle-aged man in West Virginia, have the honor of approaching my Father and asking him to help, redeem, and restore.  It’s beyond comprehension—not just because I can, but because my petitions actually move His hand!

There is no joy in the natural disasters befalling our world.  Further, there is nothing God-blessed or God-willed in the many humanitarian crises, unending wars, or constant threats of terror.  All these cause nothing but pain; yet, I am grateful that with each awful event, the people of God are spurred to pray, stirred to cry out for help, and welcomed into His Presence.  We are invited to boldly enter a throne room of unreasonable, yet certain, hope.

Don’t doubt it: God hears us and is moving.  He will bring beauty from ashes.  He will replace mourning with joy.  He will melt hearts and draw the lost to Himself.  He will…as we pray.

Stop worrying, stop predicting, stop lamenting, stop judging, and stop griping, but please, don’t stop praying.  Don’t stop asking for hurricanes to calm, flood waters to recede, and rain showers to pour out on wildfires.

Let the loss we see lead us to His heart.  God is good and will bring good.  Pray.

The Condition of My Cup

“You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Mathew 23:25b, NIV)

It’s ever a challenge to attend faithfully to the inside of my “cup.”  Managing the impressions and images I project is my “default mode.”  It’s far too easy to ignore the excruciating work of attending to the cleanliness of my soul.  Not that I have power within myself to be pure–I am a slave to a relentless tendency toward compromise and complacency.  The ever-present task I face is to faithfully recognize my inclination toward avoidance and denial about the condition of the “cup.”

I must have fresh grace and new mercies to live in fully in the light.  These only come by humbly exposing the depths of my heart to the God who created me.  I have to cooperate with His Spirit.  I’m struck by the irony: the Father sees everything but won’t roll up His sleeves to wash my “cup and dish” until I admit I’m dirty and ask to be placed in His holy sink.

The real danger in this journey of being a “pharisee in recovery” isn’t the amount of work that must still be done in me; it’s rather the challenge to defeat the ever-present temptation to act as if “clean outsides” equate to “pure insides.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  How many times have I whispered in the secrecy of my own mind, “It’s no one’s business what’s happening inside of me”?  Such a lie!  Truthfully, as God’s son and part of His family, it is the business of every single Christ-follower with whom I have relationship and who looks to me as a man of integrity.  I am not my own; I am both a child of the Father and the brother of thousands.

My character remains in question if I live without choosing to reveal the content of my cup to both my Father and to my brothers and sisters.  My need for mercy is beyond comprehension; yet, with joy I understand the supply is inexhaustible.

Please pray for me even as I pray for us all.  The need in our world today is for the pure in heart to see God and to reveal Him to others.  In my deepest heart, I want to be pure–inside and out.

“May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23, NIV)

What I learned from Jim

Today is Saturday, December 3rd.  On December 4th, I’ll be attending a “Farewell Party” for one of my closest friends, Jim Maynard.  He’s moving away from where we both live, Charles Town, West Virginia, and relocating to a new community, Tallmadge, Ohio.  Jim is embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, leaving to assume the pastorate of his first church.

I’ve known Jim for about 10 years.  When we initially met, he had not yet come to faith and I was a young pastor leading a four year-old church plant.  Shortly after our first interaction, Jim met Jesus and his life began to change—drastically.  In those early days, we became close friends.

To try and summarize the last 10 years in a short blog is not possible.  We’ve shared so many experiences, laughed to the point of tears, suffered through some deep heartaches together, and even had our fair share of disagreements and confrontations.  Yet through it all, Jim has been as close as a brother.  I wouldn’t trade one day of our time living life and serving God together.  I could not have asked for a better friend and co-laborer in ministry.

As a means of tribute to Jim and as a point of encouragement for others, I want to share a short list of things I’ve learned through watching my friend’s life.

First, Jim reminds me that salvation is the greatest miracle of all.  No doubt, all of us are stunned and elated when we see God’s healing and delivering power; we quickly give praise to the Lord.  Yet, a life transformed by mercy and forgiveness is like a watching a miracle that starts and never stops.

Well past the age when most people become Christ-followers, Jim trusted Jesus in his mid-forties.  Despite a lifetime of ingrained habits and broken patterns of thinking, Jim brought his heart to God and submitted to the real and difficult work of yielding fully to the Spirit.  The guy has been, and continues to be, a “walking miracle.”  In the truest sense of the Scripture, Jim became a “new creation in Christ.”  Literally, he is transformed—a different person than He used to be!  Jim’s salvation reminds me that God’s grace not only moves us into a fruitful, peace-filled futures, but also redefines and repurposes the darkness of our pasts.

My friendship with Jim also reenforced that most basic of Christian truths we hear taught and retaught: that time in God’s Word will mature and develop us into people who look like Jesus.  From the beginning of his journey with the Lord, Jim has been a student of the Word.  Though he started with virtually no background or foundation in the Scriptures, he “ate this book” on a scale that moved his understanding from “novice” to “skilled handler” in years—not decades.  He dared to expose his life to a steady diet of truth and the affects were profound.

Jim’s journey with the Lord also demonstrates to me the amazing power of genuine, spiritually-vital relationships.  By his own admission, he “didn’t do friendships.”  Yet over the course of his first 10 years with Christ, Jim has not only learned to let people get close to him—he also became one who truly loves others.  Because a small band of brothers invested in Jim, he has become one who invests in others…constantly.  I recently heard him say, “People.  Ministry is all about the people.”  (I say, “Yes and amen!”)

Though I didn’t think much about it during our ministry life together, (Jim was my assistant for more than half the time I’ve known him,) I learned much from his example.  In particular, I now appreciate how the Lord gave me a “front row seat” to watch how to serve from the “second chair” with grace, loyalty, and faithfulness.  When we worked together I deeply appreciated his service to me and the church we led, but now that my assignment has me ministering as an assistant, I’m regularly humbled as I recall the way Jim did so with great integrity and care.  In this, I could not have asked for a better model to emulate.

When done well, discipleship in Jesus’ church should always bring us to places where those we love best are moved from us to new harvest fields.  While in a sense heartbreaking, in other ways “moving on to follow the leading of the Lord” is the greatest affirmation we can experience in leadership.  When one moves from Disciple, to Disciple-Maker, to Shepherd, it is only fitting that the Good Shepherd would send His readied servant to a new flock.  It’s bittersweet, but mostly sweet.

In 3 John 4, the apostle writes, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”  As a pastor, it’s hard to argue with John’s assertion, but I would add an extra thought: “My second greatest joy is to see those I’ve helped lead trust the Lord enough to do whatever He says and to go wherever He commands.”

That’s what my friend is doing.  May the Father find all His children doing just the same.