stories, lessons, and a lot of nonsense

Growing Deeper is Risky

On Sunday, Pastor Dave encouraged us to commit to growing deeper and going higher in our walks with God.  Many of us posted that we would commit to doing so in 2017, and I think that is exciting!  Hopefully you have been finding ways to stay faithful to that commitment.  If you’re already letting it slip, don’t hang your head and give up.  Just start today!

Something that was on my mind Sunday morning and that I’ve thought about quite a bit since is how risky growing deeper can be.  Sometimes we think about growing deeper in our walks with God and following His lead like a dreamy dystopia.  Everything will be bright and sunny as we stroll down easy street.  And why shouldn’t it be?  After all, we’re on a journey with God.  But the goodness in a journey isn’t dictated by the roads travelled but the company with which you travel.  When we follow God, He may take us down dark, scary paths.  The roads will wind and bump and be treacherous, but it’s a good journey, because we’re with God. The Bible never makes any illusion to the contrary.  God never promises an easy walk, a sunny, beautiful path, or a lack of danger.  What He does promise is His presence.

When God was instructing Joshua to take the Promise Land, He never said there wouldn’t be dangers. He did tell him not to be afraid, though, because God would be with him.  Joshua 1:8-9 says, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

It started with Joshua walking with and following after God.  He was to be in the Word of God, reading it, and meditating on it.  He was to be following it, and after God’s will for his life.  And what does God say?  Be strong and courageous.  Don’t be afraid, don’t be troubled.  Why does God have to tell him that? Because if Joshua was to look around at the circumstances God was leading Him into and surveying the danger, it would have been natural to be afraid.  If God was leading him down a brightly lit path, free of danger, there would be no need to be courageous. But God does not always lead us down such paths, so He must remind us to be courageous and not be afraid.

But how do we do that when fear comes so easily?  Well, have you ever walked a child through an area with frightening images or surroundings before?  I have.  Do you know what I tell my sons to do?  Just look at me.  Don’t look at this or that, don’t look around.  Just keep your eyes on me.  And it works!  By focusing on my face, they see someone who loves them, someone they trust, and they do not have a chance to focus on what scares them.  God gives us the same instruction.  Keep our eyes on Him.  After talking about all the dangers and disasters that befell people of faith in Hebrews 11, we’re told that we’re also to run our race, but we’re told to keep our eyes on Jesus.  We don’t look at what happened to those great people of faith, we don’t look at what could happen to us.  No, we look to Jesus.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

(Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV)

Grow deeper.  Go higher.  But keep your eyes on Jesus.  Draw your courage and strength from His presence as you go.

This is Jaxon, my two and a half year old son. Jax wants nothing more than to play with the ornaments at the top of the tree. After all, Sarah put the Hulk and Iron Man ornaments up there, out of his reach. They got moved, because they are Jakob’s, they are breakable, and Jaxon is at the stage in life where every toy in his left hand fights the toy in his right hand. Getting his hands on them would make him happy for about a minute, but they would break, he’d probably get glass in his hands, and Jakob would certainly cry. It’s just not a good idea. As his dad, I want to give him what he wants, but until he is mature enough to want things that are good for him, I’ll wait. I can’t give him the things that he wants that will inevitably hurt him.  I will give him what is best for him, so when the time comes that he wants what is best for him, I’ll give him what he wants.

This is the way it is with God, our Father.  Some would teach you that if you obey God, give to the church, follow Him, etc, God will give you what you want.  After all, the Bible says, “…He will give you the desires of your heart.”  The only thing worse than pulling a verse out of its context to make your point is pulling half a verse out of the context of the whole verse to make your point.  But people do it.  The whole verse, Psalm 37:4, is an if/then formula.  God will give you the desires of your heart if…  Here’s the context (Psalm 37:3-5 NLT):

3 Trust in the Lord and do good.
Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. 4 Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you your heart’s desires. 5 Commit everything you do to the Lord.
Trust him, and he will help you.

God will give you the desires of your heart when you delight in Him.  Delighting in Him means delighting in His character, in His ways, in His blessings, and in His plans.  If my delight is in God and His plan for my life, then I will delight in what He gives me, regardless of what it is.  God does not conform what He wants and knowsnis best for me based on my desires. When I delight in Him, the desires of my heart are transformed to what He wants and knows is best for me.

God loves us, wants what is best for us, and wants to give us the desires of our hearts.  He will wait until we delight in Him, mature in our faith, and desire His plan for us to do so.

God cared for me

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The youth group did a fall retreat at Bair Lake Bible Camp, from November 18-20.  It was a great weekend. We had a lot of fun, and we studied the Bible together.  One thing people who do not teach may not know is that when you prepare to teach from the Bible, you learn a lot, and sometimes what you are getting ready to teach may be more for you than the people you are going to be teaching. I have experienced this multiple times, and it happened again on Saturday. On Saturday morning, I taught from 1 Peter 5:6-9, which says:

6 So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. 7 Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. 8 Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. 9 Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your family of believers all over the world is going through the same kind of suffering you are.

I learned all of these verses separately as a kid, but I learned them separately (read: out of context).  I have discovered in my adult life that many of the one-off verses I learned growing up do not actually mean (or fully mean) what I was told they meant, which is revealed by the full context in which they were said. This was another example.  I learned verse 6 talks about humbling yourself, verse 7 talks about casting your cares and concerns on God, and verses 8-9 talk about being watchful for the enemy who can and will take you down given the chance.  I learned three separate thoughts, not interconnected at all.  But they are interconnected, because two of the thoughts hinge upon the first.  It’s impossible to live out verses 7-9 without living out verse 6.  They are connected.  It’s why they were written by Peter together.

It is difficult to cast your cares on God the way Peter is speaking.  It is for me, anyway.  Instead, I tend to hold onto worry, and I plot how I can fix the situation.  How can I make this right again?  In humility, the Christian is called to turn that worry over to God and trust that He cares for you.  There are things that only He can change, so we must humbly turn them over to Him, and then trust His plan.  There’s also humility in being watchful, knowing that you are susceptible to sin. But that’s not the verse I got to put into practice.  I just wanted to point it out, because context is key in studying the Bible.  Without it, you’re just reading.

Fast forward to Saturday evening.  It was 11:20 PM, and I was talking to Sarah on the phone before heading back to the cabin. In that conversation, I found out my dog had run away that evening.  There hadn’t been any sign of her for hours.  It was cold, it had been snowing and/or raining much of the day, it was windy, and our little Florida dog was lost somewhere.  And I wasn’t there to do anything about it.  What did I do?  I immediately began to worry.  I talked to my youth leaders and let them know I had to go home for a bit, but I would be back before morning.  And I got in a van and left, believing that if anyone could bring our dog home, it would be me.  After all, I’m her favorite person, and even though she hadn’t responded to Sarah, Jakob, and Jaxon’s calls, surely she would respond to me.

As I drove up 131, I began to pray.  As I prayed, my own words about 1 Peter 5:6-9 came back to me.  Was I going to try to handle this on my own, because I’m the fixer, or was I going to turn this over to God and acknowledge His supremacy in this situation?  I told God that I realized I wasn’t going to find her on my own, if at all.  I knew I needed Him.  If Jay was coming home, God was going to have to bring her home to us.  And like any good Christian, I reminded God of His ability.  “You brought all those animals to Noah.  You can bring my dog home!”  I’m sure He was impressed with my grasp of the Old Testament and His power.  Even though I had come to the conclusion that only God was going to be able to bring our dog home and had acknowledged His control of the situation, I continued home.  I wanted to comfort Sarah and the boys, who were upset.  I went to the door a few times and called for the dog, I drove around the block slowly with my windows down, calling for her, and I prayed that God would bring her to me.  I ended up sleeping on the couch for two hours and headed back to camp.  I was resolved that if Jay was coming home, God was bringing her, and if she wasn’t, that was God’s plan, and I was going to accept it.

I was distracted that next morning, and I was running on only a few hours of sleep.  I was worried about Jay, in the sense that I love her and didn’t want any harm to come to her, but I wasn’t worried about how I was going to find her.  That was in God’s hands. But God comforted me through the words of one of my friends and youth leaders, which helped me get through the morning.  On the way home from camp, a lady called Sarah.  She got her number off of our dog’s tags.  She had her.  She was okay.  That alone was a miracle.  Our dog was abused before we got her, so she’s terrified of strangers.  She’s also small and fast.  Catching her is not an easy task.  This lady’s teenage daughter caught her, though (go, teenagers!).  But no one was home, she was mildly afraid of my 7-pound dog, and she didn’t want to keep her too long.  So I swung by home with a van full of teenagers to get her.  That’s us in the picture above.

I’m glad I taught on 1 Peter 5:6-9 that morning.  I’m glad that God reminded me of His words and my own statements on those words.  I’m glad God comforted me.  But most of all, I’m glad that God cares about me, and so He cares about what is important to me, and I can trust Him with whatever worries me.

a father’s love

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Jakob and I attended the Western Michigan game on Saturday.  Sarah’s a Bronco now, so Jakob’s a pretty big WMU fan now and wanted to be there.  It was a nice day.  It was sunny for the first half, a little windy, and in the low-mid 50’s.  Jakob was comfortable in his hoodie and hat until about halftime, as the Sun shifted behind the stadium.  Now it was just in the 50’s and a little windy; it was no longer sunny where we sat.  He got cold quickly, because he doesn’t tolerate colder weather much.  I looked over at him at the beginning of the third quarter, and he was shivering, arms pulled inside his hoodie, and the neck up over his mouth.  I asked if he was okay and if he wanted to stay at the game, and he said that he did, but he was too cold.  He thought he might have to leave, even though he didn’t want to leave yet.  So I did what I would naturally do as his dad: I took off my zip hoodie, put it on him, and sat there in a thin t-shirt.  And I was cold.  My arms were red and goose-bumped, and despite my best efforts, I shivered occasionally.  He stared at me for a minute and asked, “Dad, why did you give me your sweatshirt if you’re going to be cold?”  And I told him: “Because I love you, and I’d rather take care of you.”

A while later, I overheard a conversation a couple rows back from a couple of other guys.  One said, “That is so stupid.”  The other guy didn’t know what was stupid and asked for clarification.  He clarified that my giving my kid my hoodie was stupid, because I would freeze in a t-shirt (I doubt anyone has ever frozen to death at 18 degrees above freezing, though), and it didn’t teach my son anything.  He supposed my son would learn a better lesson if I let him be cold.  He would learn to layer up better for football games.  I didn’t turn around and respond, though at least a small part of me wanted to respond.  Had I responded, I would have told him the lesson my son did learn, had learned, and would continue to learn: I love him, and his well-being is more important than my comfort.  That’s the more important lesson.  He can learn to layer up for football games on his own.  I’d rather he learn my love for him from me.  I’d rather he learn what it means to be loved by his father and how to love as a father for the future.  And I’d rather he learn in small part the nature of God the Father’s love through his relationship with me.

We talked about that last lesson on our long walk back to the car.  Thankfully, as he warmed up from walking, he thought maybe I’d like my hoodie back (I really did!).  But I explained to him that a father’s love not earned; it is freely given first.  He didn’t deserve my hoodie.  He should have listened to Sarah and wore more and warmer clothes.  But I gave it to him anyway out of my love for him.  I extended grace to him, and he appreciated me. This is how God, our Father, deals with us.  We do not deserve His favor.  We do not deserve and could not ever earn His love.  He doesn’t love us, because we love Him.  As Pastor Dave taught on Sunday morning, God extended His love to us not when we loved Him, but while we were in direct opposition to Him. When God sent Christ to die for us – when He made that choice to give us the greatest gift – we were not deserving.  It was solely out of His love, and His love is sacrificial.  And then in response to His gracious, merciful, sacrificial love, we choose to love Him in return.  We love Him, because He loved us.

1 John 4:10-19 says:

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.

It’s not that we loved Him.  it’s not that we deserved His love.  He loved us.  We love Him, too.

stepping out in faith

I’m reading through the book of Joshua right now, and even though I’ve read that book many times, I feel like I either notice new things for the first time, or at least I’m focusing on things for the first time.  This time through, Joshua 3 has really stood out to me.  In Joshua 3, the people of Israel are heading to the Promise Land, and God instructs them to camp near the Jordan River.  God tells the people to be ready, because He was going to show Himself in a mighty way.

God tells the people that God is going to part the Jordan River, so they can cross it safely as they enter the Promise Land.  The people are told that as soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant come to rest (or stand still) in the river, God would part it.  So the people got ready, watched, and waited.  But there were men who did not wait.  There were men whose faith was required before God was going to move.  The people watching could have been wishy-washy about the situation.  They could have had a “wait and see” approach to the promise.  Maybe God would part the river, maybe He wouldn’t.  There was little investment for them.

The men carrying the Ark of the Covenant had to be fully invested.  They had to step into the river.  Joshua 3:15 notes that the river was overflowing its banks (the river in spring time was significantly deeper, faster flowing, and more treacherous than the rest of the year, due to rain and melting snow).  Stepping in was a big deal.  If God didn’t act in the way He said He would act, they very well could have been swept away by the current and drowned.  But they believed God, knowing Who He was, knowing His character, and knowing His faithfulness, so they stepped out.  And in His character, God protected them, provided for them, and allowed them to cross.

Sometimes God does ask us to step out in faith, and the step He asks us to take is treacherous.  It can be a dangerous step that requires complete faith, knowing that if God doesn’t show up, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.  This is the type of faith God wants from us, and sometimes He will call us to act upon it.  Faith that He will do what only He can do.  Faith to do what we cannot do without His intervention.  If God calls on you to take such  step, would you make that step?  Would you step into the river, knowing it will overpower you unless God intervenes?  I hope that I would.

the opposite of full life

We recently had our 25th anniversary service here at KCC, which was a fun time.  The music was great, seeing videos from people whose lives have been impacted by KCC over the years was encouraging, and I found the teaching to be inspiring.  Pastor Dave spoke about the church’s vision: that we be a body of believers experiencing full life in Christ.  Now, I’ve heard this before.  As a staff member, I’m certain I’ve heard it more than anyone reading this.  So how could something I’ve heard before inspire me again and again?  Well, I’m not living a full life in Christ in all areas of my life yet.  I’m striving for it, but I’m not there yet.  I didn’t have to think long and hard about what to write on my paper when asked what areas you I knew I most needed growth in, because I’m already aware and working on them.  I need to pursue a full life in Christ as much as the next guy.

Anyway, Pastor Dave is speaking on the vision of the church, so naturally he puts up John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal, to kill, and destroy, but I (Jesus) have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”  I really can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that verse, but if you go here, you know it’s someone close to 1,000,000 times.  Right?  We’ve done whole series on full life in Christ, and while looking at different parts of full life and how we can live that out, we always come back and reference this verse.  I know this verse.  I did not look it up.  I just typed it.  It’s ingrained in my heart and mind. And yet, as God often does with passages we’ve read several times, He brought something new to my mind.

We often look at the Full Life side of this verse, as we should.  But God impressed on me, as I listened to Pastor Dave read the verse, that I need to also pay attention to that first part of the verse.  There are two opposite options here: full life in Christ, or death, theft, and/or destruction from the thief, the enemy.  And I pondered that the rest of the day, and well into the week.  And I came to an important conclusion.

Succumbing to temptation is a bigger deal than we tell ourselves when faced with it.  I should probably say than the enemy tells us when tempting us, because the lies are from him.  But we listen, and we repeat the lies to ourselves, so either phrase is fine.  When faced with temptation, we might reconcile it with not being a big deal, it’s only once, wonder what the harm will be, and who it could hurt if no one even knows about it.  We make it out to be a decision without consequences, and since it’s what we want, we do tend to succumb to it.  But the truth is, temptation is presented by the enemy, by the thief.  What’s he trying to do?  Kill you, steal something from you, and/or destroy you.  Sounds pretty serious.

So I took this conclusion and thought about something I had preached about recently, which is being equipped with the Word of God to ward off spiritual attacks from the enemy (from Ephesians 6).  I mentioned that it’s important to memorize Scripture, especially as it pertains to the areas we are most tempted, so that when we are tempted, we can deflect it with the truth of the Word of God.  I believe that.  But maybe you don’t know where to start, or maybe you have too many avenues of temptation you’re fighting off to memorize that much Scripture that quickly.  I don’t know.  But you can start here. Memorize John 10:10 if you haven’t already, and when you are tempted, throw that one back at the enemy.

Rebuke the enemy when you’re tempted.  “I know you’re trying to kill me, steal from me, and destroy me, and I won’t have it.  I want to experience life to the full in Christ!”  I’ve been exercising this the last couple of weeks when I’ve been tempted in different areas.  And then I take time to talk to God about it, and then I wonder what area of my full life is the enemy after?  Is he trying to steal something specific from me or destroy a particular area of my life? Is what he’s tempting me with worth that particular cost?  The answer has been no every time. Most importantly for me, drawing a contrast between what’s being offered and what I have and can have in Christ helped me shrug off the repeat temptations when they come back around.  I already know what the cost will be, I know what he wants to do in my life, and I’m just not willing to give up a full life in Christ – in my relationship with Him, in my marriage, in my family, in my friendships, etc – for a quick fix that’ll leave me worse off.

Choose to overcome temptation for the sake of full life.

no leftovers

Growing up, the worst thing I could hear about dinner was that we were having leftovers.  I know some people love leftovers, but I am not one of those people.  The only time I really enjoy them is post Thanksgiving, and even then, there’s about a one-day window for me.  After that, I just don’t want it.  I’m not even good about eating food I bring home from a restaurant, because it’s never going to be as good as it used to be.  It’ll be second rate at best.

You certainly wouldn’t want to eat leftovers for a special occasion, though some people do eat their wedding cake on their first anniversary (I did not, because I don’t even like fresh cake).  Sarah and I recently celebrated our 15th anniversary, and though we had food leftover in the refrigerator, we did not eat it.  We were on vacation with our sons, so we didn’t go sit down at a romantic dinner, but we did go celebrate (vacationing was part of that, in fact).  We did not spend the day in silence, either.  We spoke to each other throughout the day, we told each other that we love each other, we expressed how happy we were to be married to each other, and so on.  Though we’ve said it all in the past, we continued to say it, because it remains true, active, and central to our lives.

Sadly, many Christians treat God to leftovers and settle for past expressions of love for Him.  I’m included in that.  I certainly have done that and do that from time to time.  I don’t give Him my very best everyday, and sometimes the stories of my relationship with Him are past dated and stale, because I have nothing new to say.  What I find is that when I a not actively investing in my relationship with Him, I still have stories to tell, but I have nothing new to say.  I can always point back to last month, last year, some great time in my past when I’ve experienced Him.  Of course, I can, because He is faithful, and His mercies are new every morning.  And I do not think it’s wrong to speak to God’s faithfulness and presence over time; on the contrary, I think it’s good to recount how God has blessed us throughout our lives.  But we should never be content in our spiritual life based on how we had experienced Him, how we had served Him, how we had sought Him.  We should not be content with giving or receiving leftovers, when there is more to be given, more to be received, and more of Him to be experienced.  Philippians 3:13-16 says:

“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”

Let’s not hang our hats on what we’ve already done and already attained, but at the same time, we should hold onto the truth of what we have attained while we continue to press on in our walk with Christ.  Don’t settle for leftovers.  Keep pressing on, keep growing, keep seeking to experience full life in Christ, in every area of your life.