paths of progress

jotyfsflky4-simson-petrol.jpgI was honored to have the opportunity to share a guest post at Satisfied by Grace today. This blog belongs to a wonderful friend of mine, and I would encourage you to check out her writing!

From time to time, we inevitably look at our lives and question whether we’re getting where we want to go. That is certainly a discouraging feeling since we spend so much time trying to get things done, meet our goals, and progress – whatever that means for each person.

If things are feeling difficult, and you can’t sense whether you’re making progress, remember that our senses cannot always be trusted. We need to base our lives on something stronger than mere feelings. Consider instead how God’s Word presents the reality that every single person is progressing down a path in life—even the ones who don’t feel like they are getting anywhere….

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truth for your hard times

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Where do you go when you’re facing your hardest times?

I’ve been noticing a trend lately: when people are in a difficult trial, compassion and truth are often pitted against one another. Perhaps you’ve noticed this, too, depicted in media and hinted at in well-meant advice. Either we sympathize with with a hurting person, or we preach truth at them as if we’ve never felt a pain ourselves.

What choice do we have for hard times? Compassion and love or sterile, heartless truth are the options they give us. Which one do you want?

This choice we’re apparently forced into frustrates me badly. Are truth and compassion choices to take or leave: options, but you can only choose one? How can we do without both?

I love that the Apostle Paul said “weep with those who weep.” Paul understood sympathy and compassion much better than the large majority of the world. I believe he was a master of compassion because of the huge quantity of trials he experienced. Paul would have no problem weeping alongside a hurting soul because he understood pain so deeply. This is what people naturally want in their hard times.

But you will also find Paul and the other Apostles speaking truth- particularly in the moments where even Christian society sometimes nearly labels truth as off-limits. When an individual was being persecuted for Christ, the Apostles spoke truth to them. When death visited a family, the Apostles wrote encouragement through the truth. Is someone tempted to turn from Christ? The truth written by the Apostles is urgently needed. Are you despairing of life itself? So did Paul, and he realized then that what he needed was truth. (2 Cor. 1:9)

Does truth seem hard and cold to you especially in the moments of utter pain? What good is the Bible if it cannot encompass your pain, if it’s truth is too lofty for the moments when your heart is breaking?

What if, after Adam and Eve sinned, God had not promised a Savior while giving the curses? That promise based on the foreknowledge of God was truth. It was also compassion to the highest degree. Imagine if, in that darkest moment for humankind, we had been left without a promised Savior. What if God had only looked sympathetically at Adam and Eve and told them he was sorry their lives would be painful. Every life would be drastically different; yet, so often, this is what people suppose they want: sympathy but not truth. 

Are you facing difficulties you cannot make sense of? These are moments when you desperately need truth. Run to it. God’s truth is not sterile and heartless; it is compassionate and comforting.  The truth of Scripture is laced with love- fountains of life flowing from a God who understands pain, sorrow, and longing far more deeply than a finite human ever can. Truth is what God expects His children will believe, appreciate, and rely on during their hardest times. 

how about a ‘thank you’?

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When I met a well-known preacher at a conference just several weeks before turning twenty-one, he asked me if I was fifteen. That certainly was not exactly what a hoping-to-sound-mature twenty year old was looking for. In the end it didn’t matter because my point in meeting him was not to talk about my age but rather to say thank you for Biblical preaching and the influence it has left on my life.

That sort of thing can feel awkward: waiting through a long line, having just a moment to say something hopefully meaningful- even though you’re only another person taking time and saying what everyone else is also saying. But if nothing else the experience is meaningful to us because we want- and ought- to thank the people who have a special influence on our lives.  I’m glad I’ve had opportunity to thank a few preachers who have influenced me from afar by their sound teaching. It was worth it to sacrifice time and expense for those opportunities.

Thanksgiving, however, is not only for significant days or rare opportunities but best exists in our practical daily contexts. Like this one: Do you thank your pastors?

The ones who keep watch on our spiritual well-being, expend hours upon hours to ground us in God’s Word, and labor under the care of the church sadly are often the ones left un-thanked.

I think it’s important  we make an effort to make sure that isn’t the case in our churches. Wherever God has put you, please, thank your pastors! Remind them their work is not in vain in the Lord and that you personally are being strengthened by the effort they are selflessly giving.

Make appreciation a frequent thing. Can a single thank you  cover for every single week your pastors shepherd and teach? Much less than one lone thank you is sufficient for every meal your mom ever cooks you.  Thanking your pastor every week would be wonderful!

Don’t worry about overthinking what you’re trying to say. It doesn’t need to sound eloquent, and sometimes the desire to be totally put together will hinder us from actually saying anything. Thank you is about expressing appreciation, so if you have appreciation just go ahead and express it- even if it doesn’t come out sounding just the way you wish it would.

Talk about their ministry with them. The sermons they preached or the exhortations they shared are certainly on their minds- and they will hope it’s on your mind too. Let them know what resonated with you or share further thoughts that come to mind. Gratitude isn’t about fulfilling an obligation (though we have one)- more importantly it’s genuinely expressing our heartfelt thanks.

Of course, the best way to show our appreciation of our pastors is not simply by thanking them, but ingesting and living out the truth they bring to us. That said, while the living may seem like a nice excuse not to have to say thanks, it’s only an excuse. I was happy after getting to meet a preacher who had helped my life from afar. Just think about how much more joyful it is to have opportunity to thank the men who teach us God’s Word week in and week out!

As an added bonus, it will certainly bring more joy to their responsibility when they know their labors are helpful to and appreciated by their congregation.

happily being with christians

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Earlier this year, I wrote about selfish fellowship– interaction that is merely looking out for one’s own best interest under the guise of actually caring for others. I had been around other Christians and it had discouraged me.  But now, after an incredibly refreshing weekend of fellowship with saints, it seemed fitting to again revisit the topic of fellowship- focusing on the positive side of it this time.

In all the effort of pressing forward in the Christian life there is a calm and quiet sweetness in fellowship. When fellowship was no longer about meeting a lot of people and all about talking to other Christians, it wasn’t hard. We bowed our heads together in prayer and spoke with the Lord about the burdens that weigh us down. We asked for the grace and strength we need to keep going. We want to finish this race well!  We sat around a campfire discussing the state of our hearts in light of the goodness of God. Fellowship doesn’t all have to be looking for really deep conversations; it can be peaceful and quiet.

Let your fellowship serve others and it will certainly serve you. This seems to be the idea the Apostle Paul had when he wrote to the Roman church: “I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.” This is primarily what I needed to learn about fellowship when I found myself discouraged: seek fellowship for the sake of others.

Fellowship is necessary. It magnifies the Lord as we experience the unity and holiness He bought for us. Fellowship also gives us encouragement to keep from growing weary in doing good. Every day in the Christian life is one of pressing on, taking heed that we do not drift, and God knew we would need encouragement along the way. God wants us to fellowship. God made fellowship. The dear Christians I see multiple times weekly, the local church, exist in my life because God made us need each other. It’s not “I have to go to church” but “I get to be with Christians!” We don’t  fellowship just because we feel like it (and then stop when we don’t feel like it anymore) but because God necessitated that privilege in our lives.

Of course, we can’t always be around all the Christians we meet. Some of us had to say “goodbye until we meet again,” and others I see all the time in the local church. Either way, through the grace of God we will all spend an eternity together. This time we wondered together over heaven and eternity, and one day we’ll actually be there.

Man may be born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward, but there is a rich sweetness in sharing fellowship along the way- through the church, through dear Christian friends we just met, and maybe through sitting at a campfire watching those sparks fly. Because of Christ, we also get to be with Christians- what a happy thing!

there’s nothing like a morning

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Morning is a beautiful time of day. The sun pushes through the nighttime sky, rising in a brilliant array of colors. The world seems to wake up slowly and quietly- just the way it should- and with a surprising freshness.

In spite of all this, rising early is difficult for some people. Personally I’ve declared, “I’m not a morning person” more times than I can count, but something seemed amiss with this saying. I didn’t want to get up early; but when it came down to it, I needed to.  I need to seek God in the morning. While there are many reasons for rising early, these three consistently motivate me toward making the most of each morning.

I need an anchor for the unpredictable

When a new day begins, we never know how it will turn out. Every single day contains surprises that couldn’t have been expected the night before, ranging from good to bad, insignificant to huge. Sometimes it’s our own mindset or feelings that change the tone of the day- other times it’s the people we interact with or situations completely outside our control. The amount of variables contained in a single day are innumerable.

In the face of an enemy who prowls like a roaring lion, it is imperative to stand firm; and yet it can be difficult with so much unpredictability.  “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.” That is the kind of anchor I need, the truth necessary to unshakably stand through life’s hardest or best days.

I need to realign my heart towards God’s Will

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'” (James 4:13-15)

Lord willing is ingrained in our vocabulary, but how often into our living? Time seeking God in the morning is the perfect situation to prepare myself to say and live Lord willing. Before I even have plans, before I’m met with the surprises of the day, the morning gives me opportunity to submit myself again to God, realigning my desires to long for His will.

I need to be satisfied in God 

Not only am I physically hungry in the mornings but my soul is hungry.  From the moment we wake up in the morning, we’re going to start satisfying ourselves with something. Maybe it’s quiet moments in bed, maybe it’s the social media feed, breakfast, family, or so many other things. Not a single one of those can truly satisfy a hungry soul, but so often they temptingly convince that they can.

Before there is the chance for anything else to satisfy my hunger, the best choice I can make is to go to God equipped with His promises:”Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

Here’s the simple, plainest truth of it: I need God before and much more than anything else. The morning is perfect for living that out.

Granted, I still like my mornings to start slow, aided by an alarm ringing “Be Still My Soul,” a steaming cup of coffee, and quiet solitude. But for this “non-morning-person,” the morning is an incredibly edifying, refreshing time of day.

 

selfish fellowship

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Early spring each year finds me traveling south to enjoy the Texas sunshine with other Christians. There’s Bible preaching and earnest prayer meetings, plus lots and lots of fellowship time. It’s a special time, and each year I find myself more blessed by what is taking place.

There is one difficulty, however, that meets me at that special place- fellowship does not feel like it comes naturally. The thing that ought to be an immense encouragement, being surrounded by so many Christians, has a way of quickly morphing into a discouragement that threatens to spoil the time for me.

How does everyone else connect so easily with other people? How come other people have deep, meaningful conversations, and I’m just standing here alone? 

When took a moment to step back and I evaluate my reasons for feeling discouraged, I found each of them could be traced back to selfishness. Of all the things someone could do, fellowship is probably one of the most selfless looking things, but I learned this year that there is a way to seek selfish fellowship.

Selfish fellowship comes with preconceived notions about what is satisfactory and fulfilling. When I cut short a conversation with one person because of a desire to talk with someone else instead, that is selfish fellowship. When I make a choice not to engage on a deeper level because I don’t think it will end up being encouraging to me, that is selfish fellowship. When I refuse to begin a conversation because it makes me feel uncomfortable to get out of my comfort zone, that is seeking selfish fellowship. When I become discontent by comparing the fellowship I am having with the fellowship that others are having, this is seeking selfish fellowship.  Selfish fellowship is concerned only with what makes me feel good and look good. (And, quite obviously, this is not real fellowship.)

Thankfully, the Word of God has wisdom that speaks directly to people like me who are convicted about seeking selfish fellowship:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5 ESV)

Simply and succinctly, there is one answer to selfish fellowship: live with the mind of Christ. If Jesus had lived seeking what satisfied and fulfilled him, what a state we would be in now! But instead, He lived with a deep, honest, selfless humility towards all those whom He interacted with, blessing people and pointing them to God.

Undoubtedly there are times when we need encouragement ourselves. The beautiful thing about God’s plan for Christians is that through encouraging others we ourselves are encouraged. Sometimes we may need to seek the Lord to send us someone who can build us up in our particularly struggling state. But our own feelings should never be an excuse to forgo opportunities to bless the people of God through fellowship or an excuse to use fellowship selfishly.

When we find ourselves around other Christians the desire in the forefront of our minds should be to bless them. How can I build this person up in Christ? Does someone need a listening earlet me be that for them! Does someone need encouragement to press onLord, give me the words to say! Where can I be a friend to someone who needs a friend?

The apostle Paul expressed the idea of fellowship beautifully when he wrote to the believers at Rome:

For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Romans 1:11-12)

when HE has tried me

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The book of Job is striking in many ways. We find Job a righteous man, a conscientious parent, defender of the helpless, living an upright life before the Lord. A lot is revealed about Job’s life in retrospect, as he defends himself before his friends. He appears to have lived with a level of dedication to righteousness that is likely foreign to many. However, far from a rosy righteous life, the narrative of Job offers an account that is difficult beyond words. The book contains not only a story but a dramatic, climactic struggle.

When Job loses everything including his health, his words begin with simple trust despite the pressure from his own wife to “curse God and die.”

Enter Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, a distinguishable set of friends. Not content to sit back and let the awkward silence of pain eat everyone alive, they’re also not content to let Job vent his feelings while only offering sympathy. They have an opinion and are ready to express it, regardless of whether it may offend.

The drama plays out, Job defending his righteousness while the trio of friends insist on his sinfulness. There is also the young Elihu who does not speak until the others have finished. When he does, his words are full of passion and reverence for God, insisting that God and His ways are above those of men.

Finally, it is not man but God Himself who speaks:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding… Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it… Will you even put Me in the wrong? Will you condemn Me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like His?” 

Picture the terror and humility Job must have had when he finally spoke again:

“I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job experienced something that looks dramatically different from what we can fathom, but still there is a trace of familiarity. Job was tested, his faith put through a furnace of affliction; all Christians are likewise to be tested. Job’s testing was all encompassing–every aspect of his life was affected as he lost everything, and the agonizing torment of the trial did not let up until the ordeal was completed. Many times we are not engulfed in such hardship as Job endured, but this is the only difference.

My flesh does not relish the thought of trials, tests, or anything difficult. I am drawn to being comfortable, and the lives we have created for ourselves make this so easy. But if we would choose to do without trials, what are we choosing instead?

Trials are not easy, but they are good: beneficial, healthy, and right. Job acknowledged that before his testing, he knew of God, but afterwards he truly knew God. I cannot resent trials now and still assume that I will still grow and be prepared to meet the Lord.

The book of Job encourages me to take heart. What I face may not be anything like Job endured (though it could be), but the God who spoke to Job from the whirlwind is speaking now in The Word, with assurance that testing is His wise plan. God is doing all things well, growing, refining, and purifying our faith through difficulty. Look up. Walk through this testing now, even though it is painfully hard. There is breathtaking glory ahead through the cleansing, with the most tremendous Glory of all to be met in the process: God Himself.

But He knows the way that I take; when He has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
-Job 23:10

words on waiting

Of all the things that I could spend my time doing, waiting tends to be one of my least favorite options. As it seems, it’s also proven itself to be a consistent pattern in my life.

While walking through seasons of waiting, I’ve struggled many times, mostly because I want what I want when I want it, and so I’ve wasted countless opportunities to learn patience. But God, good as He is, continually brings me situations to learn what I haven’t grasped yet.

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There is no way to learn to wait patiently other than by waiting patiently. 

If there was a quick easy fix, there wouldn’t be patience, after all: that steady acceptance of delay without growing flustered or upset.

When God calls us to wait, He is giving us the opportunity to trust Him with one of our most valuables assets in life, our time. We don’t get to decide how much time we have, nor is there anything we can do to increase the allotted amount of life time that God has designated for us. Waiting on something questions whether I am willing to trust God with the use of my time. Sure, it feels more productive to me if I don’t have to wait. But then the question has to be asked: Which is more profitable: to get busy doing things right away (never having to wait) or growing as a person (becoming patient by waiting). If I want to be a patient person, I must wait. There isn’t any other way to learn.

Patience makes the heart grow stronger. 

I congratulated myself last week for going on a spur of the moment run. Granted it was only about five minutes, but who cares, since I ran just because I felt like it. (That hardly ever happens.) Everything that sounds inspiring about running is just hard and painful when I actually run. I’m weak and easily tire out, but I’ll never grow stronger by sitting in front of my laptop. Growing strong calls for runs that don’t feel in the least bit exhilarating and continuing on when I want nothing better than to give up.

Patience is the same way. It won’t feel great or look impressive, but it will make your heart stronger. It will intensify your trust in God, and as time goes by, you’ll learn to wait for longer periods without feeling so desperate and flustered.

God is working in seasons of waiting. 

Considering that God is patient and desires His people to be adorned with the same characteristic by His Spirit in our lives, when He calls us to wait for any reason, we can trust that He is working in our lives.

Have you ever looked back on a difficult situation and recognized in hindsight that God was trying to teach you something, but you were mostly missing the lesson? I’ve felt that sense of regret: “I wish I had been more thankful and eager to learn. That could have been such a growing time in my life!” I don’t want to miss the lessons of waiting. In fact, rather than praying for things to happen faster or for waiting to go away, instead I want to thank God for blessing me with a lesson in patience.

Waiting is built into life, so what should we do? Well, it’s pretty straightforward: wait. Don’t scheme and plan for a way to get out of that waiting. Don’t mope around or complain about it. Just wait, plain and simple, and thank God that you get to. The waiting will end, and your heart will be all the stronger for having endured patiently.

“Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.”  -Psalm 27:14

a quick word on technology

Cells phones and internet were just starting to be normal life when I was young, but by the time I become old enough to realize it, they were already popular. Before long, it seemed like everyone had a cell phone and then came smartphones.

When I spent a week alone at home this past summer, I found there seemed no reason that I couldn’t use my smartphone during dinner. I cooked a meal for myself, set a single place at the table, and sat down to eat. There was no conversation to keep my attention, so naturally I pulled my phone from my pocket. Any new emails? How about I read a few more pages from my latest Kindle book. It was fine, but it also felt wrong, and after a couple meals, I decided this wasn’t the way for things to work well.

Typically I say no phones during meals because it means being distracted from the people sitting beside us. That week I found that not using a smartphone during dinner isn’t just about interacting with the people–it’s more about living in the moment, devoting my full attention to whatever is happening in my life. I put down my smartphone, and enjoyed the taste of good food, the silence of a quiet house, and indulged in thinkingIt was quiet, beautiful, and real, and I enjoyed it all by myself.

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It took a long time to embrace this sort of private, intentional living, but it’s rewarding and energizing. There is beauty with seeing life through my own eyes not through the screen of a smartphone. There is depth and authenticity to having a conversation with friends, uninterrupted by the ding of a text message notification. There’s a pleasantness about enjoying a moment all alone and never saying a word about it to the rest of the world.

It’s exciting in a unique way to know I’m living in the moment, simply and intentionally loving the people around me. Sure, I may not remember the moment two weeks from now, but that’s okay (plus, that’s what journals are for). News is most fun when shared with friends personally, rather than updated for the world to see.

And yes, I’m saying this on my public blog because I’m not all down on technology. I’m thankful for the ability I now have to share thoughts in a bigger way and interact with people outside my home or city. I grow as a writer by the accountability that comes with publishing something for my readers weekly. But nothing’s better than letting the public, online world take a backseat to all the exciting things happening right in front of me in the lovely world God created.

nothing to prove

A new year almost always marks a time of reflection. For once, we can remember the things we just got through facing and dream all that we anticipate for the year ahead. It seems as if we can hardly help but make our plans and resolves, whether we face the year confidently or with a tremor in our step.  It’s a new year and obviously we will do better this time than we have before (in whatever it might be).

Shortly thereafter reality steps in: 2016 is just like 2015. (Except that now we need to spend five more seconds fumbling over the date every time.) This new year is not particularly profound, at least not more than the last one. I still cook and clean the house and sit at my laptop hoping that words will come out right and hold significance.Desk Unstyled

It’s the same thing every day, and that’s fine; but when I start planning for the new year, I begin to want something more. Somewhere inside I find I want to prove to others, or simply to myself, that I’m moving forward, going places.

Somehow those good New Year plans and resolves can spiral into personal motivation to prove myself. And when our God-given yearnings become material for our own self-promotion, there is a distinct problem.

God has proved His love to us already. Our call is to walk in what has been done by Christ. We are not trailblazers or capable professionals, able to do life on our own or expected to make a name for ourselves. We are loved by God, and that is enough.

So here’s to 2016 being different: Instead of proving our own significance, “prove” to a broken world the significance of Christ. Instead of looking to outward accomplishments as the measure of success, look to God and His hidden work in the heart. I want 2016 to be a year of being hidden. Hidden in Christ. Hidden in the prayer closet. Hidden from the praise of others because the desire to prove myself only proves one thing very clearly: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”