The Journey Matters (Psalm 37:5)

“Commit your way to the Lord” –Ps 37:5

Commitment is hard.

From taking the first step in a new resolution, to sticking it out when distractions arise, to continuing your commitment when it becomes boring or repetitive—commitment can test our heart, mind, and body. This verse offers us a promise—that if we trust in the Lord, he will act. But this comes after we take the first step, and commit.  

Commitment
Image: Memphis CVB (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

Now, committing anything to the Lord may sound intimidating, but God never asks the impossible of us. The Lord doesn’t ask us to promise success or commit our glowing achievements to Him. No, to “commit your way” means to commit your life’s journey. To give the long, winding, and possibly confusing road of your life to God. To “commit your way” is to give your whole self, your way of being—whatever unique personality traits, way of going about life, and human gifts you have. God cares about the process, not just the results. He promises that if we trust Him with that process—the way of our lives—He will act.

What’s the one area of your life that’s hardest to let God in on?

It could be money, school or work, relationships, your family, or even your doubt in God’s existence—whatever it is, “commit your way” to God, even if you don’t know the outcome, and trust that God will lovingly accompany you wherever your road takes you.  

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Use Words (Psalm 91:2)

“Say to the Lord…” –Psalm 91:2

Inside the Old Fort
Image: Ken and Nyetta (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Seems simple, right? “Say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.”

Of course many of us often think of God as a protector—a “refuge and fortress.”

Yet, living this out isn’t so simple. Here’s why: in order for God to really be my refuge and fortress, I must humble myself enough to allow God to take on this role in my life. God can’t be my refuge unless I cooperate with Him, and seek Him for cover and guidance. God can’t be my “fortress” building, unless I’m humble enough to enter through the door for protection. It takes action to turn to God as a refuge or fortress. Trust goes beyond the occasional passing thought.

The Psalmist writes, “Say to the Lord.”

Did you catch that? We’re supposed to talk to God directly in prayer and tell God that we trust in Him, that we want Him to be our refuge and fortress against the storms life brings upon us.

Take up the challenge of this verse today.

Say to the Lord, “you are my refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.” Then pour out your heart to the Lord about all of the things you need refuge and protection from, all the things that are hard for you to trust in Him for.

And then listen. By doing this you’re building a relationship with God—a sure sign of your trust in Him!

Jesus, How Long Are You Going to Keep Us In Suspense?!? (John 10:22-30)

Imagine you’re sitting on an outer porch of the Jerusalem Temple during the time of Jesus. You’re at one end of a massive stone structure, as large as six football fields. And, you’re on a height, nearly ten stories up in the air. Just sitting and watching as the religious come to mark the eight-day feast of the Dedication of this very temple.

You’re sitting at the edge of a particular porch named for Solomon, famous for his wisdom–a place where people would come to teach and discuss the Torah. Jesus, the teacher and miracle-worker so many have been talking about over the past year walks in. Immediately people gather around him to ask him a question, now that he’s putting himself out there to teach in such a place.

You overhear them ask Jesus, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?”…”tell us plainly” (John 10:24).

And you think, yes, I want to know too. Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense…guessing, wondering, and having doubts about….”

  • what you’re doing in my life?
  • why it (whatever “it” is) is so hard?
  • why are there people who suffer so much? and what I’m supposed to do to help? or why I can’t seem to do anything to help?
  • why I’m hurting?
IMG_4798
Image: Dannielle Blumenthal (Flickr) CC-BY-2.0

Many, if not most, of us have questions that we feel like we’re waiting on God to answer. And, if you’re anything like me, you just wish that God would make it plain, and quickly!  at that. Make it clear. Give me the sign that explains everything, so that I can be at peace, knowing how it all works out.

To my fill-in-the-blank question, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me waiting on ____________?” Jesus’ answer is nothing and everything, all at the same time.

Speaking of those who believe, Jesus says:

My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-30)

There are three promises here for those who believe Jesus is the Savior:

  1. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

    Notice that this isn’t a statement of causality, but of apparent fact. And “hear” is a continuing present tense. Even when we feel like we’re in suspense, stuck wondering. In the same ten minutes of prayer, I can start off venting, in sadness or frustration, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense?!?” and still hear God, sense God guiding me in other aspects of my life. In this promise, I don’t receive an answer to the question “how long will you keep me waiting?” but I receive a promise that I’m still going to be one of God’s “sheep,” while I’m in suspense. I’ll not be abandoned, forgotten, ignored, put in a corner, or left-behind. God will be speaking to me, guiding me–even as I wait.

  2. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”

    Blessed John Henry Newman explained that “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” Be honest with God. If you need to come to the Lord in prayer ten times a day to say, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense about ________?” it’s okay. Those questions of prayer aren’t going to take you out of Jesus’ hand. Maybe Jesus gives us eternal life because in earthly time it indeed would take an eternity to answer all of our questions of longing, suffering, and frustration. Know that no matter how long–weeks, months, years, decades–you say to Jesus in honesty, “how long are you going to keep me in suspense?”–Jesus will not let you, his precious and beloved “sheep” perish. Waiting is not the same as perishing.

  3. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.”

    A final reiteration of the three promises that are truly one. God the Father, the Creator of the universe is “greater than all,” over all things. Even outside of time. What we are in suspense about, God our Loving Father is not only aware of, but preparing us for. He’s speaking to us, guiding us through other people, through the words of Scripture, through the counsel of others…so that when the answer to our question, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense?” comes–we’ll be ready.

As we listen to these promises, they are clear. Jesus has told us the biggest, most cosmic truths, plainly. But the details? Well, those are another story. As long as we’re human, I think the aspects of suspense, of wondering and guessing, are always going to captivate us. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Share it with Jesus. Be honest about what’s keeping you in suspense. Yet never lose sight of the big picture–of the promises made good through the Cross–these promises will last through eternity, where we’ll never be waiting again!

He Knows You! (Ps 139:1-16)

“you understand my thoughts from afar” –Psalm 139:2

The idea that God is omniscient (aka all-knowing) has existed throughout human history, across all different types of religious belief systems. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the real sticking question is this—what does an all-knowing God know about me?

God doesn’t simply know that we exist and then take off, only to be concerned about us again when our earthly life ends. Not at all. God knows us in the deepest, most profound sense. Better than we know ourselves at times! God is with us in every moment—from when we were unformed in the womb to this very day. God doesn’t just know our words and thoughts in a literal sense, but truly understands them. God understands the complexities and contradictions that each of us carries. God knows each of us at our best, and at our worst—and stays with us, regardless.

No matter what your current situation in life is, you can be certain that God knows you, understands you, and loves you enough to remain with you through anything life brings. The question is, what is your response? Do you share your real self with God? Or, do you try and hide the messy, confusing, troubling parts of your life?

Hiding
Image: Sandor Weisz (Flickr) CC BY-NC 2.0

Turn to Him in prayer in today.

God already knows you and is ready to start a new relationship (or re-start an old one) with you, right now.

How Do You Feel About Having Your Sins Forgiven?

As today’s First Reading (1 John 1:8-10) reminds us:

If we say, “We are without sin,”
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just
and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.
If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar,
and his word is not in us.

We can intellectually accept Jesus’ forgiveness of one’s sins as true, a fact, a reality. But, how to you really feel about it, personally. That Jesus forgives your sins. 

During his earthly ministry, Jesus posed this question to Simon, a Pharisee, in the midst of a symposium-style dinner discussion:

“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker graciously canceled both debts. Which of the two men will love the banker more?” (Lk 7:41-42*)

What’s the answer? Obviously the man who owed the larger sum of money.

But in Jesus’ 1st century Palestine and our modern American culture, which man would typically be considered the “good” one?

Most of us would have to admit it’s the man with less debt. The one who merely owed 50 silver pieces. He might be able to pay that off. He’s more responsible. More self-reliant. He’s not too bad.

So why is he the example of being “wrong” in the story?

Jesus’ point must not be about personal finances, but about love and gratitude in our relationship with Him. Let’s enter back into the story of the banker and the two men in debt. Imagine you’re the man who owed 500 silver coins–and had it forgiven. How would you feel?

What’s the immediate human reaction to that kind of free, gracious generosity?

It’s a mix of emotions: “Wow.” “You didn’t have to!” Feeling unworthy of such a gift. Maybe even feeling worse that you could never repay this person. Maybe feeling ashamed that it came to this point.

And it’s the same way with Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness of our own sins. There’s no way we could “earn” our way out of the wrong we do as human beings. We can’t pay it off.

The question is, how do we relate to Jesus who gives us an enormous (worth more than any earthly sum of money!) free gift of forgiveness? Is our response that joyful, grateful love for someone who gives us an incomprehensible, amazing gift?

Or, is our response something else–thinking we owe Jesus back, imagining that Jesus dislikes us for having gotten into debt in the first place, assuming we can do it ourselves and pull ourselves up by our own “bootstraps” of personal piety, wondering if this forgiveness is “for real” and “for keeps,” or if there are hidden strings attached.

We’re not saved by our own good works. We are saved for good works. Those good works flow from the love and gratitude we feel toward Jesus in our relationship with Him. We joyfully desire to extend that love to every person around us. Not because we think we “have” to in order to make up that debt or prevent Jesus from having to be like the banker in the story and forgive our debts to begin with, but because it overflows–we can’t contain that joyful love.

And this is precisely the context in which Jesus gave this example. There was someone who couldn’t contain the love she knew because Jesus had freely forgiven her. This someone was a woman, a poor woman from the city whom everyone knew was a sinner, someone who certainly didn’t have any of the external acts of religious piety. She hadn’t been someone known for “good” behavior.

Yet at some point before this dinner, she encountered Jesus and received forgiveness from her sins (i.e. Lk 5:30-32). She is living in a state of forgiveness that overflows into love and gratitude that simply looks ridiculous to those who haven’t experienced it. Just imagine…a poor woman entering a banquet dinner-panel discussion of men of the religious elite. Instead of staying on the side, like she was supposed to, she starts to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, and even kisses his feet. This is overflowing, joyful love and gratitude! (to say the least!)

As Christians, we’re like that man with a debt of 500 silver coins. We’re like this woman bathing Jesus’ feet. We’ve received a forgiveness we could never earn and are now living in that forgiveness, that salvation that is and continues to bring peace (Lk 7:50).

But what if that’s not you? If you feel a bit awkward about it. Like a man who owed only 50 silver coins and maybe didn’t really need that banker to forgive his debt. Consider what’s holding you back. What’s the barrier?

It’s okay to be honest with Jesus. Open your heart to him. And when we think about this woman who loved so extravagantly, it might have taken some time. Her forgiveness could have come days, weeks, or even months before this dinner. What’s most important is that her open, free, honest love does come, and brings her closer to–not farther away–from Jesus.

 

Wipe our Debt
Image: Flickr “Image Money” CC SA 2.0

 

translation: The Message + my own translation edits

a version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

The Last Moment Before the Next

From the final Gospel of Advent*

“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us” (Lk 1:78)

And isn’t that how God always happens.

Breaking upon us.
Surprising us.
Seemingly not there, and then suddenly there.
There like never before.
There all along.

We see the dawn coming. We know the dawn comes. And yet, to experience it takes one’s breath away.

Thank you, God, for those divine shocks.
Thank you for the Dawn from on High.
Let that Dayspring break upon us.

itw0034s
Donald Jackson. Luke Frontispiece: The Birth of Christ (Lk 2:1-20)

 

*yes, missing in action this year due to Dec 24th falling on a Sunday

Ministry Troubles and Jonah

That feeling of dread, regret, or resignation. Not wanting to step into the office. Wishing you’d never taken that new diocesan position. Wanting this year of RCIA to be over because you don’t even want to see your volunteer team. What does it mean when ministry becomes the setting for feelings of desolation? Where is God leading me in times when problems seem overwhelming and suffering seems far from redemptive

Job often comes to mind as a Biblical portrait of suffering and persistence. Yet, Job’s situation is very different from most of ours in specific ministry settings. See, God puts Job through a trial of extreme crises in faith and life–questions of survival of everything  and everyone Job knows and loves. Job does nothing to bring this on himself. For many in ministry (whether paid, volunteer, ordained, or non-ordained) our particular way of living out the call to missionary discipleship is something we’ve discerned and chosen. Something we’ve stepped out to do.

This brings us to a different Old Testament character, Jonah. Jonah is a missionary prophet. He’s actively stepping out to do God’s work. While Jonah does face a crisis, it’s not one of basic human needs and longings, but of if he’s going to listen to God’s words for him and how Jonah should fulfill the call God has placed in his life.

When we think, maybe I’m just not where God called me to be, we’re in a place to enter into Jonah’s story more deeply, to see where we might persevere or change in order to serve God in the way He desires of us.

Diving into the Bible, we meet Jonah with the narrator’s declaration, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah” (Jonah 1:1). Notice the passiveness of Jonah. His patient, receptive posture. Jonah was listening. And we find out in verse 2, that he hears God’s communication clearly. Jonah’s not acting on divine silence, nor guessing in absence of communication or answered prayer.

Maybe when we experience desolation in our ministry, it’s because we never heard the word of the Lord as Jonah did. Maybe our good intentions were charitable, but not what God willed for us, personally. 

But Jonah, he’s not falling into that trap in his ministry. He hears God, yet he decides to resist. He “made ready” for a new, impromptu plan of “fleeing” away from the city and ministry God had called him to (1:3-4). Jonah is being reactive; there’s seemingly no purpose to his actions other than trying to be “away from the Lord.”

Jonah takes flight on a boat and a storm comes. In this dangerous situation, the boat’s captain comes to Jonah (1:6). Jonah’s qualities and calling in ministry can’t be ignored–even if he’s choosing to turn away from what God has equipped and called him to. Jonah is immediately aware of what he has done  (1:12). And this isn’t shocking–remember, Jonah heard God, Jonah knew what God wanted of him. Jonah acknowledges what he has done, how he fled from God’s true desire for him. Oh how we yearn for this clarity ourselves in problematic ministry situations! In times of desolation, we can say “yes, Lord–I’m ready to repent,” yet not have the slightest idea what God had wanted us to be doing in the first place.

How does God respond to Jonah?  He sends “a great fish to swallow Jonah” (2:1). This is active voice, God is acting directly in Jonah’s life, creating a space for temporary hardship, challenge, and (if Jonah’s anything like us moderns!) forced introspection (I mean, it’s not like there was reading material in the fish’s internal organs). Early allegorical interpretations of this passage suggested that this time of darkness and testing represented Israel’s exile. Later, Christian allegorical interpretations (spurred by the Gospels themselves, i.e.  Matt 12:38–42 and 16:1–4) offer Jesus’ three days in the tomb as a parallel. Yet, the original sense of the passage in and of itself–without any allegory–is very relevant to each of us when we experience problems in ministry. As Walter Brueggemann writes:

It is enough to see the ‘fish’ as a vehicle whereby Jonah is put deeply at risk to the power of chaos (the sea), and is rescued by the power of the Creator (who presides over chaos) through the creature, the fish. Thus the rescue of Jonah is also a demonstration of the power of the Creator who will not have the mission of the prophet thwarted (Introduction to the Old Testament, 231).

The second time God speaks to Jonah, he listens. He acts “in accord” with God, not fighting, going against the grain, or avoiding what he heard from the Lord (3:1). God’s will is done, God’s heart is full as His mercy is extended to the people of Ninevah who turn to the Lord. Jonah has had “success” in his ministry, but still he is not where God wants him to be in his heart and soul. We can find ourselves in these places too–doing the successful thing in ministry, even seeing fruit, yet not truly living the life God has called us to. There’s external fruit, yes–praise the Lord!–but still not the interior conversion God desires of us.

Merzouga, Morocco, 19:26
Flickr: Christiaan Tribert, CC-BY-NC-2.0

The Lord teaches Jonah this in the final chapter of the book. Here we find Jonah outside the city of Ninevah, sulking about how he knew all along of God’s merciful character, and it was that knowledge that drove him to flee, so that he’d avoid this “awful” predicament he’s in right now. The narrator hints that Jonah is still holding out some “hope” that the mercy extended by God to Ninevah might change, as Jonah builds a dwelling to “to see what would happen to the city” (4:5). As one might guess, it’s pretty hot and sunny out in the desert, so Jonah’s quite happy about a nice shady gourd plant that grows up by his new home (4:6). But then God takes the plant away, and Jonah finally gets it. It’s not about him. It’s not about us when it comes to ministry.

We need to discern and listen where is it God is calling us to, and what it is God wants us to do. We can grow attached to a certain vision of how, when, and where will will serve–but ultimately it’s all a gift from God. A particular ministry or belief isn’t ours to cling to any more than the gourd tree was Jonah’s “possession” when God shows us otherwise. God’s concern is far broader than ours! And, even if we don’t fully understand it in every moment, God’s gracious love for all includes each of us. Always. In every moment.

In the end, through Jonah we see that God’s will is not simply what’s convenient for us, or what we already happen to believe (or want to believe) about the mission field around it. God’s will for us might include people we’ve never thought of before. God’s will might be something more precise or focused than what we currently dream of. Each of us can only know when we begin as Jonah did: hearing the word of the Lord.