There I was in another funeral home with another friend grieving over the death of a family member. There was no warning. She died suddenly, leaving behind a husband, young children, family and friends. I gave him a hug and told him how sorry I was, but it felt so inadequate. I felt helpless. Nothing I could do would take away the deep sorrow he felt at such a devastating loss.

It’s a painful experience being separated from those we love. There’s a feeling that it just isn’t right, that this is not the way it should be. I cannot help but think if this is how God felt when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden after they sinned? In Genesis 3:22-23, God sends them out of the garden and separates them from the tree of life. From that moment on, death becomes a part of life.

It is that thought of separation that has often had me wondering what made Jesus weep in John 11:35. Was it his full divinity weeping over the separation of humans from God or was it his full humanity weeping over the loss of his dear friend Lazarus? Either way, moments later Jesus points us to our true hope when he commands, “Lazarus, come out (John 11:43-44)!” John then tells us that Lazarus emerged from the tomb.

In the midst of our grief, we can find hope that resurrection awaits those who believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. As Jesus told Martha, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe (John 11:40, NLT)?” In that hope we can give praise for Jesus’ death and resurrection that has given us the hope of eternal life. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting (1 Corinthians 15:55, NLT)?”

#ThrowbackThursday — This post originally published May 12, 2011.

For as long as I have been a Christian I have sought to have a heart after God. I have questioned God about many things in my life including many traumatic events, but I have never questioned my belief in God. But last week a fellow believer posed a question to me that I have wrestled with since then: “Do you believe God is who he says he is; do you believe his promises?” She was encouraging me to let go of all my efforts, my own ideas of serving God, and to rest in him. She described it as a funnel where I keep running around the outside trying to do things on my own. Then she asked me, “What happens if you stop running?” I looked at her and said, “I fall into the dark hole at the bottom of the funnel, the unknown.” She nodded, “Exactly.”
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She pinpointed my greatest fear — the fear of the unknown. What I viewed as efforts to serve God were more driven by not wanting to fall into the unknown; of not wanting to fall completely into the hands of God. “Do you trust God to take care of the things you are trying to fix on your own?” I hesitated to answer. The revelation that I did not completely trust God brought tears to my eyes. I thought I was totally devoted to God, to following Christ Jesus, but her words revealed I was still clinging to the sides of the funnel with my own selfish motives and my works.
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She went on to explain that falling into the unknown, falling into the hands of God, releases us to let his Spirit work fully within us. Our efforts become a response to God’s call, a nudging of the Spirit. A heart after God is the first step, but God calls us to a deeper relationship with him. He asks us to trust him and his ways even when they don’t make sense. “Just be still,” she advised me. “He is calling you to still waters, a place of rest.” It is a place where you can hear God’s call.
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Running around the funnel on my own is tiring. Resting by still waters sounded attractive, but was it enough for me to stop running around the funnel? My fear of falling into the unknown still caused me to cling to the edge of the funnel. Even though I know God is there at the bottom with open hands to catch me, I can’t seem to let go. I feel God’s tug on my life, yet I still keep running around the funnel, too scared to fall into his hands.
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This seems like a crisis of faith I am in. Will I let go of my own efforts and fall into a deeper relationship with the God of the universe who is patiently waiting for me; am I willing to die to self so I can fully live for Christ? It is not so much a question of belief, but a question of if I will give all I am to follow God even if I don’t know where he is leading me? Can I really let go of my efforts to control my life and let the hand of God guide me?
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The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. – Gen. 12:1 (NIV)
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Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. – Matt. 16:24 (NIV)
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Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. – Matt. 4:19-20 (NIV)

On a recent tour of a factory, I watched with interest a robot painting automotive parts. Without fail, it painted the entire part with a flawless performance that resulted in a perfect coating of color. Once it finished that part, it moved on to the next one, going through the exact same motions without missing beat.

It struck me as I watched the giant robot swaying back and forth that sometimes I act like a robot in my Christian walk. If I am not careful, I can get so caught up in the routine of reading the Bible, praying or even the act of worship that I find myself just going through the motions. On the surface it appears I am following Jesus, but my heart is not in it.

Psalm 51:16 in The Message tells us, “Going through the motions doesn’t please you; a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.” It’s a good reminder that in the midst of our brokenness, when we humble ourselves before God, we find ourselves ready to worship from deep within our heart.

God doesn’t want our mass-produced worship that merely goes through the motions of devotion to him. He wants humble worship that comes from our sincere love for him.  In Joshua 1:1, God tells Joshua as he takes over leadership of Israel following the death of Moses, “Give it everything you have, heart and soul.” (The Message) It’s the same way we should approach God with our worship — not with a programmed approach, but from deep within our heart and soul.

#ThrowbackThursday — This post originally published Jan. 27, 2011.

Throughout my Christian life I have taken multiple spiritual gifts inventories, personality tests and aptitude quizzes. They have been helpful to some extent in orienting me toward where I feel God is calling me to serve, yet I have often wondered about God calling me to serve in areas where I feel ill-equipped or where tests show I am not strong in that area. It made me wonder what a spiritual gifts inventory would have shown Gideon prior to God calling him to save Israel.

In Judges 6 we find Israel oppressed by the Midianites because Israel “did evil in the eyes of the Lord (6:1, NIV).” Verse 6 tells us that the “Midians so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.” Did God respond with a mighty army to save them; a legion of soldiers who scored high on warrior skills on a spiritual gifts inventory? Not exactly. He sent them Gideon.

Who was Gideon? The angel of the Lord calls him, “mighty warriorand tells him “the Lord is with you (6:12)” To which Gideon responded, that “if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us (6:13)?”
Gideon has doubt about God’s intent to save them and perhaps even more doubt about his ability to lead the charge against their oppressors. The Lord reassures Gideon he has the strength and that he is with him (6:14), yet Gideon still questions God’s judgement. Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family (6:15).”

Sometimes God calls us to do things where we feel unqualified and weak. We can think of others who would be far more qualified in our opinion. Yet God reassures us, as he did Gideon, “the Lord is with you (6:12); I will be with you (6:16).” The Lord who created us often knows us better than we know ourselves. He calls us to fulfill his purpose and asks us to trust him. God sees things in us that sometimes assessments and analysis do not uncover in us. We just need to have faith in God’s judgement of our abilities.

Even though Gideon has doubts, he goes on to accomplish great things for God and brings the freedom from oppression that the Israelites asked for from God — probably not in the way they expected. Read Judges 6:11 – 7:25 and see how God develops Gideon into the mighty warrior he did not see in himself when God first called him. May this passage reassure you that God is with you no matter what he calls you to do.

I sat at the stoplight watching cars pass through the busy intersection. That’s when I noticed the vacant church sitting at the corner with a large “For Sale” sign in front of it. I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to this congregation? What would cause people to vacate a church and leave it empty for another purpose? I wondered if their faith was real,  not only inside the church but inside the people.

It struck me how this empty church could easily be a symbol of our lives in Christ. Are we just going through the motions with a works-based faith or are we a sincere follower of Christ? As Matthew 6:22 says in The Message: “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!” Like that church, do we let the light of Christ light up our interior or are we more prone to board up the windows and not let Jesus Christ into our life?

If we are not careful, we will be so focused on leading a clean life and doing good that we miss the power of the Spirit to transform our life for Christ. In essence, our works create a vacant church that looks good on the outside, but is empty on the inside. Christ warned us about this condition in Matt 12:43-45: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation (NIV).”

Like the vacant church on the corner, an empty life has a For Sale sign on it. If every square foot is not filled with the Spirit of Christ, it becomes available for anyone or anything to fill it. The advice of Proverbs 4:23 is worth noting: “Keep vigilant watch over your heart; that’s where life starts. Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth; avoid careless banter, white lies, and gossip. Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all sideshow distractions. Watch your step, and the road will stretch out smooth before you. Look neither right nor left; leave evil in the dust (The Message).”

#ThrowbackThursday — This post originally published Jan. 14, 2011.

Fear is an interesting thing. It can create great stress in the midst of troubles and cause us to panic. Yet fear can also protect us from harm and create a proper respect for authority. In Mark 4:35-41 we have the familiar story about fear where the disciples are in the boat with Jesus when a “furious squall came up (verse 37).”

At the beginning of Mark 4 Jesus pushed off in a boat on a lake to address the crowds pressed against the shore. Here he taught the parable of the farmer sowing seed where he explained to his disciples in verse 17, “When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” He continued to teach and then by evening Jesus and his disciples pushed off in the boat to cross to the other side of the lake (verse 35-36).

Here are the disciples with the son of God sleeping in their boat. They’ve just listened to a full day of Jesus teaching to large crowds. Who wouldn’t think it should be smooth sailing ahead with Jesus along for the ride? But in an instant a storm popped up and nearly swamped the boat (verse 37). Their faith is tested and their first response is to accuse Jesus of not caring what happens to them. A moment later Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and the waves, then he rebuked his disciples: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith (verse 40)?”

Why are we so afraid of the people and forces of this world? So often we respond like the disciples in the midst of the storms that pop up in life by crying out to God to do something saying, “Don’t you care?” In the calm after the storm, when the disciples saw the power of God at work, then they had a fear of the Lord. “They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him (verse 41)!’”

I find it interesting how in this passage Jesus took the disciples from fear of the storm to being “terrified” of him. They acquired a proper reverence of God asking, “Who is this?” We should have the same awe and reverence of our Lord, placing our fear before the Lord Jesus and resting in him in the midst of the storms of life. Joshua 24:14 tells us, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness (NIV).”

For years I drove by the fast food restaurant on a busy corner in town. As time passed, a fresh coat of paint or a new sign would change its look, but inside you could tell it was the same old building. One day I noticed the words “Closed for Remodeling” on the lighted sign in front of the building. I chuckled as I wondered how they could possibly succeed in giving this old place a new look.

It shocked me the next day when I drove by and saw that the entire building was gone. Only the familiar “Closed for Remodeling” notice remained out front. It was readily apparent they were not interested in papering over the old condition of the building, but wanted to make a fresh start. In the weeks that followed, many that passed by that busy intersection took note of the emerging new restaurant.

It’s a good example of what can happen in our Christian life. Sometimes it seems easier to paint over lingering sin than to admit our struggles. We want others to see our fresh coat of Christian paint, but inside we still wrestle with the flesh of our old way of life. But as we grapple with these remnants of our former life, we should think of it “as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want (1 Peter 4:1-2 MSG).”

Pursuing what God wants means we have to tear down the walls that formed our old, worldly life. It’s a painful process that requires us to remove self-centered pieces that are more concerned about ourselves than following Jesus. Some of these bricks are so securely cemented into our old life that it takes a chisel to break them free. It’s part of the painful process of putting off “your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds (Ephesians 4:22 NIV).”

As we make a new life with Jesus, we replace the bricks of selfish desire with bricks focused on serving him. We build a new life in Christ that others take note of on the busy intersections of life. We become part of something bigger than ourselves: “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5 NIV).” You become part of God’s kingdom which will stand forever. “For in Scripture it says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame (1 Peter 2:6 NIV).’”

#ThrowbackThursday – This post originally published Sept. 3, 2010.

England 2012 Cross Web

I have journeyed through the deep, dark valley

Felt the pain, sorrow and trauma

Struggled to take each step forward

As I traveled that beaten down, rutted path

Occasionally I glanced up from far below

And noted a slim slit of light high above the canyon walls

Wandering in this deep pit of despair

I encountered many others trudging with heads down

Focused on the darkness and the worn path below

I tried to direct them to look up at the light

But they refused to listen, called me names

Attacked me with hateful words and foul language

Discouraged, I soon found myself with my head down

Feeling beaten, weak and tired I slumped on the path

I cried out to God for help, cried for what seemed like days

Then I heard someone walking by me

I couldn’t even lift my head to see who passed

I could hear their feet stop and step next to me

I felt a hand upon my slumped and weary shoulder

I tried to look up but could not muster the energy

“I will walk with you, help hold you up,” the person said

I felt two strong arms pull me to my feet

I looked forward at the deep, dark valley ahead

Too weak to take a step, this person nudged me forward

We journeyed for months along a winding path

Often barely able to see the light above

Eventually we emerged out of that deep, dark valley

Surrounded by daylight, we sat a moment on the edge

I could feel the light warm my chilled body

I peered over the edge and looked down at the valley

So dark and deep I could not see anyone in it

Then I looked up at my partner through this journey

I saw not one, but many faithful followers of Christ

Those obedient to His call, to answer my cries for help

Still weakened from my journey, I asked them, “Why?”

One of the faithful answered, “I once walked that valley;

I know the pain you felt, I know you needed help.”

I nodded and looked back down at the valley

I too now know the pain of that lonely journey

Perhaps with renewed strength I will return to the valley

To help others emerge from the realm of darkness

“Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” — Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV)

Praise be to the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege. In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight!” Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help.” — Psalm 31:21-22 (NIV)

A year after my father’s death, my family went through the remaining things that were part of his life on earth. Many of the items brought back memories of my father. I could look at an article of clothing and instantly remember him wearing it. I could pick up a tool and almost feel my father’s rugged hand in the worn grooves of the wood handle. To anyone else it was just stuff, but for me many of these things carried a strong identity to my father.

It made me wonder about what creates my identity in this world. What do people see when they look at me? Do they see in me what Paul describes in Ephesians 4:20 as “a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you (NIV).” Do they see the rugged grip of God the Father on my life, the evidence of His work, or do they look at me and see my identity associated with the stuff of this world?

If we are not careful, the world can steal our identity. It’s a constant struggle not to create an identity based on where you live, what you drive, where you work, what you wear or the position you hold. Jesus warned us in Matt. 6:19-20, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

In the end, everything we accumulate in this life will be left behind for others. What will people remember about your life? Will they see a strong identity with God the Father and eternal treasures or will they only see a bunch of stuff that built an earthly identity? “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life ( John 12:25).”

#ThrowbackThursday — This post originally published August 25, 2010

#WednesdayWalk Through the Bible — an exploration of what unknown people might have seen or felt when they witnessed the events in the Bible. This post is from the perspective of a family member in Rahab’s house based on Joshua 2:1-22 and 6:1-25.

I sat in the room with my parents, siblings, inlaws, nieces and nephews. We all barely fit in the small house situated along the outer wall of Jericho. I wondered why I had listened to Rahab. Honestly, what credibility does a prostitute have in knowing about spiritual matters? Yet she insisted we remain in her house if we wanted to survive the impending attack. When I asked her how she knew, she refused to explain as if to protect her source.

We were all scared, melting with fear at what seemed like an inevitable attack on our city. Years ago we heard how the God of the Israelites dried up the Red Sea for them to cross and drowned Pharaoh’s army. Recently word came that they totally destroyed Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan. Now they had crossed the Jordan and were at our doorstep.

I stared out the window and watched the scarlet cord blow in the breeze. I wondered who Rahab was signaling with this impromptu flag. I felt vulnerable looking out the window perched high on the wall as I watched the Israelites approach the city again with priests carrying a golden box and trumpets made of ram horns. Armed men in front and back of them escorted the procession of priests.

I checked the marks I made on the wall to keep track of each time they marched around the city. This would be the seventh time. I tired of this game they were playing with us. I was done hiding in this cramped house with my family so I made my way to the door. I reached for the latch, but a hand stopped me. I turned to see Rahab looking at me with an intense stare. She didn’t have to say a word. She told us when we first entered the house that we could not leave — that the door was all that stood between us and certain death. She told us the God of the Israelites is Lord God in heaven above and on the earth below.

I stood a moment at the door with my hand on the latch. All eyes in the room were upon me. No one said a word as we heard the priests blow the trumpets once again as they circled the wall. The city gates were shut tight, the wall that enclosed the city stood between us and the Israelite army. I thought about who I had more faith in, this God my sister the prostitute talked about or this fortress called Jericho where I lived most of my life.

Suddenly I heard shouting coming from the group of Israelites who were marching around the city. This startled everyone in the room. Several members of our family went to the window to see what was going on. Then I heard a rumbling sound, at first distant, then growing louder. Soon I felt the whole house shaking. Someone shouted, “The wall is crumbling! It’s coming down!” I panicked, “This house is part of the wall!” I reached for the door latch to flee the inevitable.

Rahab stopped me again and looked into my eyes. The sound of the crumbling wall was deafening. We could hear the shouts of the Israelite army entering the city. Judgement day was upon us. If Rahab said something to me, I could not hear it. I stared back at her and nodded. I had to trust; I had to have faith we would be saved from certain death.

Suddenly the door flung open. I turned to see two Israelite men standing in the doorway. “Rahab!” One said. “Have your family follow us.” We exited Rahab’s house and followed the men. As we climbed over the debris of the city wall I glanced back at the chaos, the screams of people and the rising flames. Tears filled my eyes as I realized how close I had come to being part of that death and destruction. We followed the two men to a place outside of their camp. In the distance we could see the dark smoke rising from our former life.

“Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,

and Jesse the father of King David.” Matt. 1:5-6 (NIV)

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