Band of Brothers

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Random guitar riffs, bass runs, and drum licks echo throughout the large room in a cacophony of band noise. Occasionally John will kick off a pattern on the drums, Luke will pick it up on his bass, and they’ll run with it for a few bars, but for the most part it’s all random bits left-over from everyone’s former band days, none of it in the same key or rhythm. (Since I’m the odd man out as far as having no former band days, I’ll occasionally throw a little Beethoven piano sonata into the mix, just to add to the joyful noise.)

Six of us—Kenny, Kurtis, Mark, Luke, John (all we need is a Matthew) and I, the “Band of Brothers”—rehearse every Tuesday night in the same room where we’ll be leading in worship the following night for the Wingman men’s Bible study. Once sound levels are finally set and everyone settles down to practice, we do the most important thing we can do to ensure a good rehearsal…

“Let’s pray it up.”

And now for the rest of the story…

Walking on Bare Concrete

From “The Lizard Lounge” Series on Clay

Summer is back with a vengeance — so is the need to recover from the lazy non-summer months (which in Florida, are few) and tackle long-procrastinated-on home improvement projects here at the “Lizard Lounge.” (If you’re new to “Clay,” take a second and follow that link to find out where that name came from. You can also click here for the whole series.) And whether I’m having a DIY moment inside or outside, I have a lot of time to talk to or (even better) listen to the Lord. Invariably, by the time I put down the shovel, the paint brush, or the watering hose, I have an idea for a blog post.

Below is the first one for this season. Who knew my earthly home could teach me so much about the journey toward my heavenly one…?

• • •

Time has a way of getting away from me. (Hold that thought for a moment…more to come…)

The past few weeks I’ve been making final preparations for the book I’m writing. To date, I’ve made umpteen editing passes through my manuscript. I’ve also allowed 3 times that many days to go by without writing something new for Clay. (I’m not sure what 3 x umpteen equals. A scad? An oodle? A triscuit?)

Those famous, fortunate, and affluent authors who can hand a raw book manuscript over to a publishing company and then head to the beach while waiting for a formatted proof copy to come back ready for corrections and final approval don’t know what they’re missing. Or maybe they do; maybe that’s the reason they’re at the beach: they’re celebrating all that free time under their beach umbrella, waiting for their next cold beverage to arrive. The self-publishing rest of us are forced to do our own formatting and spell-checking and reading and re-reading and re-re-reading of our fledgling books while chained to a computer wishing we’d had the foresight to buy stock in Microsoft Word back when it was affordable.

In the end, though, it’s been worth every keystroke, as I’m happy with the progress on my book manuscript. I do feel bad that I put all blog activity on hold, though. My poor Facebook followers were subjected to republished versions of former posts while waiting for something new to come out. As I hadn’t sent out one of my “A new article on Clay” emails in a “triscuit,” one of my subscribers asked me if I had dropped him from the distribution list. Another friended me on Facebook just to make sure I was still alive.

Like I said, time has a way of getting away from me.

And now for the rest of the story…

Power-aid (re-publish)

This is a re-publish of a post I wrote a year or so ago. (You’ll notice it’s a tad out of date, as I’ve since rejoined the Facebook crowd and even have my own page.)

I promise I’m working on a new post, but recently the Lord used two of my dearest friends to communicate some fresh encouragement and validation that writing the book I talk about below—and am still struggling with finishing—is definitely His will.

I wish I could say I’ve conquered all the stuff I talk about below, but… I can’t. If the Lord lays it on your heart, I would appreciate your praying for me to tap into the power the Holy Spirit makes available to us to conquer my fears.

• • •

God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. 2 Timothy 1:7 NIV

I’m finally doing it—I’m writing a book. (Cue the choir for the “Hallelujah Chorus.”) It will be a self-published paperback called “I Am the Clay” and will be a compilation of some of the things I’ve written for this blog adapted into book format. (There will also be a Kindle version.) But since I wrote them originally—or rather, God used or inspired or directed me to write them—it’s pretty much the same thing.

A real book—who’d a thought? (Some of you did—thank you for your ongoing encouragement.)

Not to dampen the “woo-hoo” moment of announcing a book-in-progress or anything (or muffle that choir), but let me linger here a moment so that I don’t blithely skip over the part about God using / inspiring / directing me to write.

And now for the rest of the story…

The *squish* wasn’t the end

From “The Lizard Lounge” Series on Clay

Below is the final installment in “The Lizard Lounge Series on Clay,” at least for this season. Quite a summer… Here is a link to the whole series, if you’re just tuning in. (And here’s a link that explains the whole “Lizard Lounge” bit.)

Who knew my earthly home could teach me so much about the journey toward my heavenly one…?

• • •

I love summer in Florida. Sunshine and beaches and the smell of orange blossoms. (And tourists who need to stay out of the sun and off the beaches.) This past summer I had planned to while away the days watering my bell peppers and tomatoes, lazing on the front porch reading, and collecting rocks for my dry creek bed. However, in Jeremiah 29:11 the Lord says:

I know the plans I have for you…

…and none of those plans included tomatoes, lazing, or collecting rocks.

And now for the rest of the story…

Free

Maybe you’re someone who reads “clay” regularly, or maybe one of those regular readers forwarded a link to this particular page to you for some reason. Whatever the reason, I’m just glad you’re reading. And not because my blog stats will register another tick mark on the “Today’s Views” graph but because I believe everything happens for a reason.

You see, I’m a Christian; a follower of Jesus Christ. And as a Christian, it’s pretty much a given that I believe in God. And in the time since I’ve been a Christian (which isn’t that long, actually), I’ve experienced first-hand that God is no light-weight when it comes to being able to do anything – even being able to direct someone to a blog post on how to become a Christian (the point of this post, just so you know).

So, yea – I believe you’re here for a reason.

My goal here is to tell you what being a Christian is all about without using a lot of unfamiliar words and phrases that Christians typically like to bandy about when we get together. I confess that some of the other stuff on this blog is full of “Christian-ese,” but this piece is meant to be much more plain and simple.

But in order to keep it simple and to the point, I need to ask you to agree to accept some basics up front. Actual proofs for these things have been the topics of entire books – multi-volume books – written by scholars and theologians with way more credentials than some guy with a blog; but this will go much quicker with less head scratching if we agree to agree that, for example…

There is a God

After all, you can become a Christian without knowing who Moses was or the names of all the apostles (I still get stuck on a few of them myself) but we need to agree that God is real – and that He’s nothing like you and me. (If you knew me, you would breathe a sigh of relief at that.)

No doubt you believe that all people deserve the same rights and opportunities, that we’re all created equal. And that’s true. But God isn’t the same kind of person we are. He’s not equal to us: He’s infinitely more than any of us could ever be. He’s holy, meaning He is pure good; there is nothing bad in Him. He’s perfect. He never makes mistakes. (Even creating mosquitoes.)

If one of us said, “I’m worthy of your praise – worship me” that would be the height of arrogance, because none of us is worthy of anyone else’s worship. God is, though, so He can say that. That doesn’t make Him arrogant – just truthful. He knows who He is and is honest about it.

Think of it this way: Suppose you were in a room with nothing but newborn babies; just you and a room full of day-old infants. You could say without any sort of conceit that your math skills are infinitely superior to anyone else’s in that room (even if you need a calculator to add 2+2). Each of those babies has great worth as a person; it’s just that, in the area of mathematics, they can’t hold a candle to you – not by a long shot. If you said, “I rock at math compared to everyone else in this room,” no one would think you are just being full of yourself.

That’s God. Think of us as the newborns and Him as the one who created math. He loves us and ascribes great value to each of us, but He’s never going to say, “I’m OK – but I’m no better than you guys.” He can’t, because that wouldn’t be true; He never lies or even fudges the truth a little. He knows who He is, because He knows everything.

Not only does He know everything, He can do anything. In fact…

God created us

…so it’s His prerogative to choose how things will be. (But because He’s perfect, those choices are perfect, too.) He gave Adam and Eve, the original people He created, a beautiful place to live and everything they needed. But He gave them the freedom to make choices, too – and they chose to defy Him, to deliberately disobey the one thing He told them not to do. No doubt you know the story. Eating that fruit when He told them not to may seem like a small thing, but to a perfect, holy being like God, it went against everything He was.

If, as a child, you ate a cookie one of your parents specifically told you not to eat, there might be some sort of punishment, but – because your parents are just people like you – that offense wouldn’t be worthy of death. A smack on the bottom or a time out – definitely. But not the death penalty.

But because it was God that Adam and Eve defied – perfect, holy, way-superior-to-mankind God – that offense took on a whole new meaning. It became a sin, an act of breaking God’s law. And because He is perfect and superior to us in a way we can’t even imagine, He couldn’t just overlook it and give Adam and Eve a time out. Breaking God’s law is an act that’s worthy of the worst punishment – death.

As a result…

We (the human race) brought sin and death into the world

When Adam and Eve defied God, something in them changed. And that change affected them and all of their descendants – which includes all of us. No longer were they perfect and innocent; no longer were they free from the cares of the world. The sin they committed separated them from God; the same God they knew intimately; the perfect, holy God who walked with them in that paradise He created for them.

It separated us from Him, too. Because we’re descendants of Adam and Eve, that separation is part of who we are as human beings. Although there isn’t a physical “sin” gene, our alienation from God is definitely a reality as far as our spiritual genetic makeup goes. You may be a good person and give to charity and drive the speed limit and treat all people and animals with kindness, but none of those things will cancel out the built-in sinfulness that keeps us from God and the good things He has for us.

But God loves us and is patient with our humanity; and because of His patience and because He loved Adam and Eve, He let their death sentence be carried out over the course of the rest of their lives, growing older until they finally died. They had to give up that beautiful place and struggle the rest of their lives for food and shelter and all the things God had previously provided for them. The same goes for us.

To sum up…

A real, perfect, holy God created the human race to have an intimate relationship with Him. (Be sure you understand that: God is not sitting way up there somewhere uninterested in us or our lives. His intention for us has always been to have a relationship with Him – to once again walk with us in a beautiful place He created just for us.) But because of Adam and Eve’s defiance and disobedience to Him, they and we and everything else God created are cursed with an innate sin nature; destined to be prisoners to our sinfulness; doomed to live and die without ever fully knowing Him.

One more thing: death does not mean we just fade into oblivion – it means we have to face the never-ending punishment we deserve because of our human nature. Maybe that doesn’t sound fair, but remember – God is holy and perfect. He can’t look the other way or wink at our sinfulness. He can accept nothing less than perfection.

Which makes the situation seem hopeless, because we can’t be perfect. I can’t, you can’t – no one can. We don’t have it in us.

But if we’re to keep from having to pay that debt we owe God ourselves (which we can’t, except with our lives) and suffering that never-ending punishment, someone has to die in our place who can pay for everything we’ve done…someone perfect.

The good news is someone has…someone perfect.

Which brings me to our final basic fact to accept…

Jesus is the answer

Everybody knows about the baby Jesus: we see Him lying in a feed trough in the manger scene in front of the church at Christmas surrounded by plastic wise men or played by someone’s baby brother (or sister) at the church Christmas play. But the Jesus depicted there grew up; and when He did, He was perfect and sinless – which means there was much more to Him than just being human. This is hard to explain but Jesus was God in human form; God who came to earth as the man Jesus. Again, multiple volumes have been written explaining that, but the best way I can say it is that Jesus was totally God and totally human.

So since God was perfect, Jesus was, too. He wasn’t just a good man – although, because He was God, He was good. He wasn’t just a great prophet or teacher – although He was great. He wasn’t just another religious figure like Krishna or Buddha or Mohammed or Joseph Smith or anyone else who ever lived. He wasn’t just anything.

What He was was God – God in the form of a flesh and blood man. And because He was totally human, He was an acceptable substitute to die in our place, freeing us from the debt we owe God, the debt we could never pay on our own. Because He was totally God, He was perfect and could satisfy the high cost God required for payment because of our sinful nature.

The death He died on our behalf was in the form of an excruciatingly horrible execution; He could have prevented it but He didn’t. It was what He came to earth to do, what God sent Him here to do. He knew what He was doing and He did it gladly: He was dying to free a world full of sinners from never-ending punishment.

Personally, I can’t imagine that. If someone told me I had to choose between dying myself or letting someone in my family die, I would gladly do it. But if they told me I had to choose between dying myself or letting some guy who had murdered a bunch of children die, I’m not sure I could. He committed those horrible acts; let him die for them.

I’m glad that’s not how Jesus felt. In spite of all the bad there is in the human race (and you know there are some bad people out there), He loved us; God loved us – loves us. He gladly died for all the murderers, pedophiles, and terrorists. He gladly died for all the drug dealers, televangelists who cheat the elderly out of their life savings, and lying politicians. He gladly died for all the people who give to charity and drive the speed limit and treat all people and animals with kindness. Somewhere in that range, you and I fall – and He gladly died for us, too.

When Jesus died, He made it possible for us to be saved from eternal punishment. But He also made it possible for us to start rekindling that intimate relationship with God that was lost long ago. When I became a Christian, I was just focused on not dying and going to hell. I never imagined that, even more wonderful, I would also have the chance to talk to God and feel His presence in my life. That part is amazing… Plus, I will get to do it forever.

So how do I know this…?

The Bible Tells Me So

You need to know that these aren’t just my ideas – I got all this from the Bible. And even though the Bible is written by a bunch of dead Jewish guys, these aren’t their ideas, either. They got everything they wrote from God Himself. If you’re going to believe He exists and that He can do anything, then it shouldn’t be too hard to believe that He inspired real people to write down what He wanted the world to know about Him and what He’s done to save us from ourselves.

I haven’t quoted anything from the Bible up to this point, but it’s time to let God speak for Himself. Here are some of the things He said and inspired others to say, all written in a pretty easy to understand way using contemporary language (No “thees” and “thous” and “hasts” and “haths”):

Are human beings really the reason there is sin and death in the world?

Death came into the world because of what one man (Adam) did. (1 Corinthians 15:21, The Living Bible)

I’m not that bad a person (at least not as bad as some) – isn’t being as good as I can be enough?

We’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners…and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us. (Romans 3:23, The Message)

But I don’t deserve to die for that.

Everyone dies because all of us are related to Adam, being members of his sinful race. (1 Corinthians 15: 22, The Living Bible)

So what’s the answer?

God showed his great love for us by sending Christ [Jesus] to die for us while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:8, The Living Bible)

Is Jesus really the answer to our dilemma? Is there another way?

[Jesus said] “I am the Way… No one can get to the Father [God] except by means of me.” (John 14:6, The Living Bible)

Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one [the name of Jesus]. (Acts 4:12, The Message)

Why would God do this for us?

This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. [God referred to Jesus as His son.] And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted… (John 3:16-18, The Message)

Powerful words…words of hope…

So… Do you feel something tugging at you right now? Something like a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach? An emptiness, a feeling that there is so much more to life than what you thought you knew? Not sure you want to believe it but afraid not to?

Don’t ignore that feeling – that’s God speaking to you. That’s what it felt like to me in the days before I finally stopped trying to hide from God’s truth and surrendered my life to Him.

If this is all new to you, or you’ve heard it before and just never taken it seriously, take it seriously – right now.

Now is the right time to listen, the day to be helped. Don’t put it off… (2 Corinthians 6:2, The Message)

If everything I’ve written here is true – and I’m convinced without any doubt it is (plus, if you’re thinking – even a little – that it might be true, then you’re convinced, too) – then where does that put you?

What if you were to die before the end of the day? What would you face next – eternal punishment or eternal life and happiness?

There’s an answer to all those questions. Just like John said above, God sent Jesus “to put the world right again” – one person at a time.

Becoming a Christian, a follower of Jesus, means you understand that nothing you could ever do will be good enough to meet God’s high standards. You could build a church and give all your money to charity and memorize the Bible, but that wouldn’t make any difference. The only thing that will make a difference is accepting and trusting that Jesus is the only way to God and, ultimately, to an amazing life in Heaven, just like He said.

And the best thing of all? It’s yours for the asking, a free gift from Jesus to you. Do you want that? Do you want to respond to that tugging you feel? Do you want to surrender control of your life to a good and perfect God? Do you want what He wants for you and not what you want?

The choice is yours. Choosing Jesus will make you truly free, free from sin. Choosing otherwise will leave you right where you are: a prisoner of sin. Choosing otherwise long enough will leave you with no hope but to face death and punishment.

If you want the freedom Jesus offers, then just ask God for it. That’s where prayer comes in. Prayer is how we talk to God. There are no magic words or phrases you have to say – just talk to God like you would a good friend.

If you’ve never really prayed before or need someone to get you started, here are some thoughts you can put in your own words:

  • I understand that I’m a sinner – I accept the fact that it’s a part of my human nature.
  • I know there is nothing I can do by myself to change that.
  • I’m sorry for the things I’ve done that were anything but Christ-like. Please forgive me for those.
  • I want to let go of any control I may think I have over my life and turn it over to you.
  • I want the free gift of salvation that Jesus made available to me when He gave His perfect, sinless life.
  • I trust in the fact that Jesus is the only way to you and to heaven.
  • I want to be a follower of Jesus Christ – a Christian.
  • I want to be free from a life of sin. Please help me.

God will hear you – I promise. So does He:

 Everyone who calls, “Help, God!” gets help. (Romans 10:13, The Message)

What’s Next?

If you’ve asked God to forgive you, surrendered your life to Him, and trusted His freely-given gift of salvation because of Jesus’ equally freely given life, then that’s what’s happened: He’s forgiven you, agreed to be in control of your life, and saved you from eternal punishment. Now life really begins!

When someone becomes a Christian, he becomes a brand new person inside. He is not the same anymore. A new life has begun! (2 Corinthians 5:17, The Living Bible)

Here are some things I found worked well for me:

Tell someone what just happened to you

…Preferably another Christian. (Another Christian – do you like the sound of that?) Someone who has experienced salvation will understand and be able to celebrate what’s happened to you. If you don’t know any Christians (or even if you do)…

Ask God to help you find a Bible-believing and -teaching church

Church is not just about sitting in a service and listening to someone preach (although now that you’re a Christian, you’ll listen to what the pastor says in a totally new way): it’s about being a part of a group of people who can encourage you and help you while you grow in this new-found faith. Don’t go it alone – listening to preaching on TV or the internet is fine if you can’t get to a church or just want to hear someone teach in addition to your own pastor, but it’s not a substitute for being with other Christians; it’s not what God had in mind.

Be baptized

Your new church will be able to take care of that. Think of it as making your “splash” as a Christian.

Get a Bible and read it

Find a translation that you can understand. Websites like Bible Gateway will let you read single Bible verses or entire chapters in dozens of translations in over 50 languages. Read a verse like Romans 5:1 (even better, read the whole chapter) in several translations and see which one God speaks to you through. I’ve included verses here from The Living Bible (TLB) and The Message (MSG), but I usually read the New International Version (NIV). My pastor preaches from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). I have an excellent Bible study guide based on the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). All of these versions are different, but all are good options.

Google “bible study guides” and follow some of the links to online programs for reading the Bible. Or just start with the book of John, who was a follower and close friend of Jesus. The story he tells is a beautiful presentation of Jesus’ life, the good news He brought us, and the gift He gave us through His death.

If you think reading about someone else’s real-life Christian experience would be helpful, then you’re in the right place. I’ve been a Christian since June 17, 2010, so this blog is pretty much a history of my time as a follower of Jesus. Click on the link at the top of this page that says “This is My Story” to learn about the days leading up to my own encounter with Jesus.

Pray – a lot

Paul, another follower of Jesus, wrote:

Always keep on praying. (1 Thessalonians 5:17, The Living Bible)

Ask God every day to guide you in your new life. Again, there are no magic words; just talk to Him. He doesn’t care if you use good grammar or if you admit that you have no idea what you’re doing. If you listen to Him as much as you talk to Him, you will begin to get a clear picture of the direction He wants you to go.

I can attest to the beauty of prayer, because I pray – a lot. In fact, I’m praying for you even as I write this; I don’t know you, but I’m praying for you. I want you to have what I have, to find what I found – and more.

Finally…

You’re free

If the Son [Jesus] sets you free, you are free through and through. (John 8:36, The Message)

Trust in God and His goodness

Open your eyes and see how good God is. (Psalm 34:8, The Message)

God is on your side – always

I won’t give up on you; I won’t leave you. (Joshua 1:5, The Message)

And He never will. May God bless you.

It just keeps going and going and going…

I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. Psalm 52:8

Devotees of Apple products are a smug lot. (Apple devotees reading this just said, smugly, “Yea we are!”) However, some of my best friends are Apple users, so what’s a guy to do? (Other than a lot of eye-rolling.)

I’ve never owned an iPod or an iPhone or used an Apple computer with any success. I tried to use my friend George’s Mac a couple of times but all the buttons I needed to click were in the wrong place and I spent half the time yelling to him in the next room, “What happens if I click this little red thingy?” It was a lovely machine with the processor and hard drive all built into the monitor (which was as big as a truck windshield) but the learning curve was just too steep for a long-time and impatient PC guy.

In the spirit of full disclosure, however, I must confess – I do have an iPad, my only Apple product.

Although I vowed not to succumb to the siren song of Apple Inc. with their be-all, end-all technology and bank-account-draining tech trinkets, a co-worker, who was dashed against the Apple rocks long ago, bought the latest generation iPad and sold me his first generation one for a mere pittance. (The first app I downloaded was a Bible app; I feel that justified the purchase…)

It’s a handy little machine and makes me feel all Star Trek-y. (It’s just like the ubiquitous Star Trek PADD – Personal Access Display Device – that no self-respecting 24th century starship captain would be caught dead without.) In addition to about 50 Bible translations, I have apps for reading eBooks, playing games, checking my credit card and bank accounts, posting information here on “clay” – pretty much everything I can do with a computer, except I can do it while getting my oil changed or shopping for groceries.

Each newer version of the iPad that’s been introduced has upped the ante with more power, less weight, a higher resolution screen, a camera, more bling, and a higher price tag, but I’m happy with my basic model; it does everything I want it to do.

Well, sort of.

Apple Inc. has just released the newest version of its operating system for all of its various hand-held iDevices – except ones as old as mine. Sadly, my trusty iPad is no longer compatible with the latest and greatest Apple has to offer. Of course, I can still use all the apps I currently have (New York Times Crossword Puzzles – woo-hoo!), but many of the cool new apps being introduced will only work with the new operating system.

Bummer.

I absolutely get the financial aspects of a company upgrading and creating new technology – at some point, you have to quit manufacturing parts for the Model T and move on. I just trusted that I would be able to use my comparatively heavy, first-generation iPad for, you know, ever and ever.

The Random House dictionary defines the word “ever” as “continuously” or “at all times.” Based on either of those definitions, there was no way my iPad was going to keep going and going and going for ever and ever. It was bound to become obsolete before my first starship flight.

Actually, there’s not much we can trust for ever and ever without fail:

  • The sturdiest, most well-built things wear out.
  • People let us down or – worse – die.
  • VHS tapes become obsolete.
  • Even the polar icecaps melt.

However, there is one thing we can trust in “continuously” and “at all times;” David wrote about it in Psalm 52:8:

I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.

Or, to use our Random House definition:

I trust in God’s unfailing love “continuously” and “at all times”.

God’s love for us will never:

  • Wear out
  • Let us down
  • Become obsolete
  • Change
  • Waver
  • Break
  • Crumble
  • Need repair
  • Melt
  • Die

God’s love is a constant, consistent, dependable, unchangeable, unwaverable, unbreakable, unmeltable, everlasting reality.

I love to sing songs about God’s love and proclaim that God is love; however, let a few monkey wrenches get thrown into my normally well-oiled, smooth-operating daily life – like lately, for example – and it’s like all memory of His love for me gets tossed in the garbage disposal. With work stuff and car repair stuff and just stuff in general taking center stage the past few weeks, I’ve stressed and whined and been absolutely self-possessed with anxiety and worry.

Egoism at its worst. Not pretty.

But here’s the thing – I think that maybe those wrenches were allowed by God. While He might not have been the one doing the tossing, He certainly didn’t stop the tossee. (Ooh – spellcheck does not like the word “tossee”) And, while God is quick to tell me that His ways are not my ways (Isaiah 55:8) and that I can’t always know what He’s thinking (Romans 11:34), I can certainly take a stab at guessing why He allowed these things to happen: He knew I needed a lesson – another one – in trust.

Recently, I found myself falling back into old, pre-salvation patterns of behavior – letting my pride and self-sufficiency take over, trying to manage everything under my own power. And when I got too focused on trying to handle my stuff all by myself, God let a little rain fall so I would be reminded who my umbrella is.

I got kind of soaked there for a while. My Prayer Time (capital “P,” capital “T”) was one long to-do list for God: “Please help my car stop dying on me so I can get to work and finish this hard project on time that I’m struggling with and let this weird looking spot on my back be nothing but a weird looking spot and…” on and on.

When He finally broke through my little self-centered, quivering, stressed-out voice with His own comforting, still, small voice, I heard Him say (in that way that I know He’s speaking to me), “I can do that. And while we’re at it, how about you also learn to trust that I love you no matter what?”

Ouch. But He didn’t stop there. (He almost never does.)

“Do you think this is really about your stuff? Hardly; it’s more about your reaction to your stuff – more precisely, about trusting that I love you no matter what and that, even when stuff comes your way, I’m in the stuff, too. It’s about – and here’s a novel concept – you trusting that even if things are happening that are out of your control, they’re not out of mine; that I’m in control of everything – even your stuff.”

I was kind of surprised He used the word “stuff” so much…

And through all this, He also kept sending me back to the verse from Isaiah 41:10 that I had used several times recently to encourage friends who were going through their own challenges:

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

(No fair using my own encouragement verse against me…)

Of course, it’s not like He promised there would never be a time when I would struggle to keep all the plates spinning. In John 16:33 Jesus said, plainly:

“In this world you will have trouble.”

Just so you know, I’m aware that those things I was dealing with were minor in the grand scheme of things. A little car trouble is nothing compared to Christians throughout the world fearing for their lives because of their faith. And dealing with work challenges is trivial compared to worrying where one’s next meal is coming from. And that weird looking spot on my back? It was just a weird looking spot – it could have been cancer.

If the car and work and dermatological stuff had been a pop quiz, God would have written on my test paper in red before handing it back: “If you can’t trust me to be your umbrella in a little rain shower, how are you going to trust me when the real storm comes?”

In looking around at the world we live in, I’m afraid that storm is coming – and I want to get an “A” on that test (or at least a B+). Which shouldn’t be hard, since God has already given me the answers:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

That’s all I need to know.

So even though things and people – even my own best efforts – will eventually fail me, there is one thing I know from experience I can trust in continuously and at all times: God’s unfailing love.

Now – New York Times crossword puzzle, anyone…?

Dear Carmen

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5

Dear Carmen –

You may not remember me – after all, I was just one of five American guys who built your new home in Guatemala recently – but I remember you; in particular, I remember your smile.

I remember because I never saw you without it. When you met us there on the side of the mountain that morning and told us “Si” we were building “su casa” – your house – there it was; the whole time you and little Jenny sat and watched us digging and measuring and sawing, there it was; when you loaned us a hammer when ours broke, when I saw you at church across the mountain, when we came for your house dedication service the morning before we left (and borrowed your hammer again) – there it was.

It was a pretty smile, a friendly smile. It was more than that, though. I mean, your smile was definitely pretty and friendly, but it was also… What’s the word I’m looking for? Radiant, maybe? There was a sense of peace to it, a feeling of contentment. Which, from the start, had me a little puzzled.

How to put this…

We were building you a basic 12′ x 12′ house out of wooden posts and corrugated tin with no electricity or running water on a flat spot dug out of the side of the mountain. I’m pleased with the fact that Eddie, Perry, Paul, Cliff and I made it solid and plumb and square but, when we finished, it was still just a 12′ x 12′ house built out of wooden posts and tin. Under the circumstances, your peaceful, contented smile had a sort of “what’s wrong with this picture?” feeling to it. But, in spite of a situation that to some would seem hopeless, you seemed anything but.

Maybe the Nueva Versión Internacional Biblia we gave you at your house dedication service can shed some luz. (One good thing about the Biblia – it’s full of luz.)

In Hebreos 13:5, the author writes:

Manténganse libres del amor al dinero, y conténtense con lo que tienen, porque Dios ha dicho: “Nunca te dejaré; jamás te abandonaré.”

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

You told the seminary student who spoke at the dedication service that you were a Christian – that made me muy feliz. I was so glad to learn that, because that means that Dios promise in Hebreos 13:5 is obviously the secret to that peaceful and contented smile. And even though you seem to have very little materially, you actually have la perla de gran precio – the pearl of great price – that Jesus taught about.

That’s worth infinitely more than a fancy house or a wallet full of money. I know, because I’m a Christian, too, and I don’t have either of those either. Please know that I’m not comparing my situation to yours, although I think that maybe it’s all relative. Obviously God has blessed you just like He has blessed me – in different ways, but still according to His good and perfect will.

I have to tell you something, though: while I was there in Guatemala, I struggled with trusting God to keep this particular promise. I had kind of a “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you” test of faith.

It was my first mission trip and I really didn’t know what to expect, money-wise, so I didn’t bring a lot with me. I thought I had enough, but there was just so much need around me and so many opportunities to give that I wanted to be obedient to what I felt God was leading me to do and give as much as I could when the opportunity presented itself. Before I knew it I had three days left to go and all I had in my wallet was a Visa card and enough U.S. dollars to pay the toll between the airport and my house when I got back home. I didn’t have any more Guatemalan Quetzales and I didn’t see a single credit card-swipe terminal in all of Chimaltenango.

But, as you can testify, Carmen, God is faithful. He kept assuring me that He meant every word of Hebreos 13:5 – that He wouldn’t leave nor forsake me.

And He didn’t; He made sure I didn’t miss a meal:

  • Bro. Johnny loaned me a few Quetzales to tide me over, which I was actually able to use to feed someone else in the group who had also given all he had. The last night we were there, I had 40 Quetzales left and he had 5 – our bill was exactly 45 Quetzales.
  • Ellen unexpectedly bought several of us breakfast at the airport the day we left. (You remember her – she preached Tuesday night when I saw you at church. What a heart she has!)
  • Mark and Carolyn insisted on paying for my dinner in the Atlanta airport before my flight back home – again, unexpectedly, although by that time I knew what God was up to. I could have easily used my credit card, but that was just His way of using these dear new friends to drive the “Never will I forsake you” point home. (Always a lesson with God.)

I’m sure, considering your circumstances, my money woes while I was there seem blown way out of proportion; and I suppose you’re right. It certainly wouldn’t have killed me to miss a couple of meals. But that wasn’t God’s plan. His plan was to use me to testify to the richness of His blessing, the faithfulness of His promise, just like His plan for you. For me, it was a few meals; for you, it was a new place to live.

I may never see you again in this life to tell you how God used you to bless me; how He used our contrasting circumstances to remind me to, like you, trust that He will never forsake me. But I know I will see you again in a better place than the side of that mountain; a place with no need left unmet; a place where both of our little houses and empty wallets will be a distant memory.

And on that day I’ll get to see your peaceful, contented smile again; but better than that, I’ll get to see who you’re smiling at – Jesus.

I’ll be smiling at Him, too.

Until that day, Dios te bendiga, Carmen – may God bless you…

Lettuce, tomato, pickle, hold the pride

“You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” Matthew 25:21

I love my church and my pastor. (That’s apropos of nothing. Just sayin’…)

He’s been preaching a great sermon series about taking the words in red from Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7 – the words of Jesus – outside the church and putting them into practice. Along with each sermon, there is an assignment for the following week to help us do just that.

The first week’s assignment was to buy a $5 gift card to a restaurant (that doesn’t serve alcohol) and give it to someone. He didn’t put any stipulations on who we could give it to – the idea was to trust that God would provide that direction. From the outset, though, I felt my goal was going to be to give it to someone in need.

I had actually been thinking about keeping gift cards in my car to hand out, as I typically see people holding hand-lettered cardboard signs asking for help on my way home from work or on the drive between church and home. Besides the fact that I never have any cash, a restaurant gift card ensures that someone will at least get something to eat. And since I’m all about healthy eating, I decided Subway gift cards would be a good choice. Their sandwiches are filling and can be loaded with all sorts of healthy veggies. Plus, their restaurants are ubiquitous.

So at the beginning of the week I dropped by one of the many Subway locations I pass regularly and bought ten $5 gift cards. (I wasn’t trying to be an overachiever – that was the number God laid on my heart. It was pretty clear that He meant this to be an ongoing project and not just a one-time thing.)

Subway gift cards come in a bright yellow fold-over envelope with a blank line on which to write the amount and one on which to write who it’s from. I thought for a moment then wrote “Jesus” on the From line, hoping that the person who received it would get the reference rather than think that it was my name. (pronounced “Hay-zoos”…)

I also decided to insert some sort of gospel tract in the fold-over with each gift card. I rummaged around and found cards with a salvation message on them that were the perfect size to fit in the gift card envelope. I counted to make sure I had enough – there were exactly 10.

Excited at seeing what God was going to do, I put the stack of gift cards with gospel message inserts in the console of my car, asking the Lord to provide the opportunity for me to share with someone in need.

And I waited.

Every day during my Prayer Time (capital “P” capital “T”) I would remind the Lord that I was armed and ready to spread turkey or meatball sandwiches to the hungry and needy. However, the week passed and not a single opportunity presented itself. During the entire week I didn’t see anyone asking for help on the side of the road, at an intersection, in a parking lot – nothing. It’s like the needy all traded in their cardboard signs and went on a much needed vacation to Disney World. But I never doubted God would provide that opportunity.

And He did – and more – the following Sunday.

During the morning service, my pastor talked about all the emails he had received that week and the stories that had been shared from church members who had been blessed by passing out gift cards. Uncharacteristic of me, I didn’t get all anxious that God hadn’t given me the opportunity to receive a blessing so I could send an encouraging email to my pastor. Instead, I thanked Him for what He had done through our church and for what I knew He would do through me on His own time schedule.

Little did I know…

After the service I got in my car and, before pulling out of my parking space to head home, had a little Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know” moment, expectantly asking God to show me what to do. I reached into the console of my car and, not knowing why at the time, pulled out three gift cards.

My route home from church takes me through a pretty busy intersection where people with cardboard signs asking for help typically stand in the median between the east-bound and west-bound lanes; strategically, it’s a prime spot, as this puts them adjacent to a left-turn lane where cars generally have to stop. As I approached the traffic light, I saw a woman standing in the median across the intersection, hoping for help from drivers in the left-turn lane. To be able to hand her a gift card from my car window, though, I would need to be in the opposite lane heading the other way, so I decided to turn and circle through a large shopping center parking lot so I could get in the left-turn lane nearest her and hand her a card.

As I was turning into the parking lot, there sat an elderly woman in a wheel chair right next to the entrance holding a sign asking for help. Thanking God for His goodness and this second opportunity, I pulled into a nearby parking space, got out, and took her a gift card. She was really sweet. As I turned to go back to my car, I saw a man sitting nearby eating a sandwich. Although he, too, looked to be in need, it seemed like he was already set for food, so I got back in my car and backed out of the parking space.

In that way that I know when God is speaking to me, though, I knew I needed to give that man a gift card, too. I pulled back into the parking space, got out of the car, and did so. He smiled and thanked me.

I pulled out of the parking lot back onto the highway and into the appropriate left-turn lane, handing the first woman I had seen in the median a gift card out my car window. The traffic light turned green and I was on my way home.

Three gift cards; three different stories; three people in need directly in my path. In Matthew 25 Jesus says that doing things for those in need is the same as if we were doing them for Him:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…” (v. 35)

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?’” (v. 37)

“The king will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (v. 40)

God had provided in a great way.

I have to tell you, though, that this story doesn’t end the way I imagine you’re thinking it ended. Although that experience affected me in a powerful way (as I suspected it would), what I didn’t expect was the way I felt as I drove away from there.

I expected to feel really joyful and full of the warmth of human kindness, but that’s not what I felt – we’re supposed to help those in need as a regular part of being a Christian. Even if I had given all ten gift cards away, that would have been nothing to get all self-righteous about.

I expected to feel buoyed in spirit at seeing God at work – and He definitely was, but that’s not what I felt either.

What I felt was small for wanting to feel that way, selfish for thinking only about what was in it for me; I felt ashamed for just wanting to check the gift card project off my list, sorry that all I wanted was to get back to doing whatever it is I do.

None of that is what God has in mind for me; none of it is pleasing or honoring to Him; none if those things are evidence of someone who, more than anything, wants to be a good steward of the many blessings God heaps on him day after day after day.

It was obvious that the gift card project was about much more than providing a meal for those three people. It was a training exercise to see if I could be “faithful with a few things,” including the proper attitude in my heart, so God can “put me in charge of many things” without my prideful self getting in the way. Apparently I need more training – I couldn’t even give five bucks worth of sandwich to someone without waiting expectantly for a gold medal.

Whatever next step God is preparing me for in my walk with Him, I feel certain it’s going to take me outside the walls of the comfort zone I’ve carefully constructed over the years. Maybe I will continue to hand out gift cards; or maybe He will call me to do something that will require much more from me than that, something that will put me in situations where I won’t know how to respond, being forced to depend on Him in the moment for wisdom and strength and the words to say – words I can’t spend hours writing and editing in the comfort of home before clicking the “Publish” button.

I wish I could say that I’m ready, eagerly waiting on God to give me direction – but I can’t. In all honesty, I have to tell you that I’m having trouble surrendering myself to that idea. There’s an ongoing struggle between the side of me that wants what God wants for my life, no matter what that is, and the side that wants to just hang on to the status quo, sitting here writing in my blog about being a follower of Jesus without totally being one.

I also wish I could tell you that I’m pretty sure I know which side is going to win. I know which one I want to win. I want the side to win that trusts in God with no reservation and serves Him without hesitation. I want the Holy Spirit to whisper Paul’s words from Philippians 1:6 in my ear as encouragement:

He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Only time will tell.

Pray for me, will you?

Heavenly Father, when the time comes, please give me the courage to step up and do whatever You want me to do. And not just the courage to do it, but the courage to agree to do it in the first place; the courage to abandon myself to your will; and the courage to resign myself to the fact that I bring nothing to the table except my trust in you, my obedience, and whatever you’ve chosen to give me.

And help me to have faith that, along with your grace, those things are enough.

Amen.