When love is difficult

February: the month of love. Well, that and Black History Month…and the celebration of a couple of presidents’ birthdays… and of course Groundhog Day…. Ok, so it’s not really the month of love… but that’s the theme of all the greeting cards at Target so we’re sticking with it.

But what if thoughts of Valentine’s Day cards, celebrations, and even hard, chalk-like candy inscribed with likely semi-toxic red ink doesn’t inspire you to love?

For all the display of romantic red hearts, February is often a month where we’re reminded that the ability to love is sometimes difficult. Worse than that, in February we’re often smacked in the face with the reality that we’re not as loving as we should be. And we know we should be more loving.

Husbands know they should be more loving of their wives, and vice versa. Parents know they should be more loving of their kids. Kids (I think) know they should be more loving of each another. But what if you can’t? What if you and they just don’t have it? And what if you can’t even fake it? Because, let’s be honest, sometimes you just don’t want to fake it.

What if you’re there? In the month of February. Is it even possible to become more loving?

The short answer— no, no it’s not. At least not on your own in an authentic and long-term way.

Because, as Warren Wiersbe points out, “love is not something we work up; it is something that God does in us and through us.” Love for one another only grows “when we permit God to perform His ‘good work’ in us.”

Romans 5:5 tells us that, “God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.” In 1 John 4:19 we read, “We love because [God] first loved us.” And in Galatians 5:22 we see that, “the fruit of the Spirit is love…”

What does all this tell us? Real love, the kind of love we desire, dream about, and even long to give away, is only from God. When you and I feel unable to love it’s because at that moment we are not filled with the love of God. We’re empty.

Speaking of marriage, Timothy Keller puts it this way, “You can only afford to be generous if you actually have some money in the bank to give. In the same way, if your only source of love and meaning is your spouse, then anytime he or she fails you, it will not just cause grief but a psychological cataclysm. If, however, you know something of the work of the Spirit in your life, you have enough love ‘in the bank’ to be generous to your spouse even when you are not getting much affection or kindness at the moment.”

Love between human beings is great. But Keller’s point is that our greater need is the love of God. God’s love sustains us when human love fails us. God’s love enables us to carry out acts of love to others even when others are not carrying out acts of love toward us.

So this February, before you try to be romantic with your spouse, before you try harder to love your kids, go to God and let him fill your love bank. Receive the love of your Heavenly Father. Take some time to reflect on all the ways God has shown his love to you. Let God pour out his love into your heart.

If we are willing to come to God and receive his love first, then maybe, just maybe, this February really will turn out to be a month of love.

 

How to make 2017 a better year

“2016 has been the worst year ever,” a friend posted on Facebook.

I personally think that’s a little extreme,…2016 may have had its ups and downs, but worst year ever?

Have they seen all the other years?

I kid. I kid.

As parents, we know what it is like to see the year turn from good to bad, even to “the worst year ever.” School doesn’t go how you or your child thought it would go. Your child’s team doesn’t do as well as she wanted. There’s unexpected injuries, sicknesses, relationship problems, drama of all kinds, and a never-ending list of things that can frustrate your family’s year.

As we step into 2017 you may wonder, is it even possible to have a good year?

I think it is.

If we fill our year with good things.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)

Did Jesus just call us evil?

Yes. Yes, he did.

But that’s not his main point. His main point is, even if evil parents (like you and me) know how to give our children good gifts, how much more able is our perfect heavenly Father to give good gifts to his children. Which means, if you and I want good things for our families from God our Father, all we have to do is ask.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, “I have asked. And nothing happened.”

Yeah, I’ve been there. It stinks.

But in that stinky disposition I’ve found it helpful to ask God another question, “What do you (God) consider a good gift?” Because, let’s face it, God may be giving us good gifts, but we just don’t recognize them.

So what does God consider a good gift?

Not surprisingly, Himself.

We see this in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus says the same thing (likely to a different audience) as he did in the Gospel of Matthew, but this time there is a slight difference.

Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

Did you catch it?

In Luke, Jesus said, the good gift the Father will give to his children who ask, is the Holy Spirit. Why is that a good thing?

The Apostle Paul tells us, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 3:22-23)

Imagine 2017 being a year where your family is filled with more love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more goodness, more faithfulness, more gentleness, and more self- control.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a pretty good year to me. And all we have to do is ask.

2017 will be filled with up and downs for our families but it doesn’t have to be the worst year ever.

Parents, ask your heavenly Father to give you and your family good gifts. No matter the time or the situation. No matter the drama at home, at work, or at school. Just ask.

He promises to give you a very good gift, his Holy Spirit. And a year filled with the Holy Spirit is a year filled with many good things.

Blessings,

One of the best gifts for children

When I was young I wanted to learn one skill—wiggling my ears.

My dad could do it. In fact, he enjoyed teaching others to do it too. He once taught every boy in my Cub Scout Den to do it—that is, every boy except me.

It wasn’t his fault, he tried. He instructed me the same way he did everyone else. Physically, I just couldn’t do it.

Thankfully, wiggling my ears turned out not to be an important skill for life. But of course, some skills are very important.

As a parent, we have the very difficult job of determining what skills are the most important to pass on to our children.

And often it’s not easy to choose.

What skills will help them to cope with pain and loss? What skills will help them succeed at school, or work, or just life? What skills will help them with relationships? What skills will prepare them for life as an adult in this crazy and broken world?

But what if it didn’t have to be this way?

What if, there is an easier way? What if, instead of stressing about all the skills we could or should teach our kids, God wants us to simply focus on teaching our children just one very important skill?

In the Bible one skill stands out above the rest:

“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:18-20)

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect… for obedience to Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:1-2)

Did you notice a theme?

From God’s point of view, the most important skill any person could learn is to obey God. This is our “whole duty”.

But of course, we can’t obey someone we can’t hear. So unless we can also hear from God we’ll never be able to obey him. So the most important skill turns out to actually be two skills- the ability to hear God and the ability to obey God.

Hear. And obey. That is it.

Now, take a moment and think about how learning these skills would change your children’s life.

Just think for a moment about all the “big” decisions your children will make throughout life. Decisions like: What sport or club should I join? What classes should I take? Should I go to college? Where should I go to college? What job should I pursue? Should I date so and so? Should I marry so and so?  Or even just what should I wear today?

Now think about how much easier all these (and many more) “big” decisions become if our children know how to hear and obey God.

No more worrying about what activity or class they’re in, or what college they did or did not attend. No more worrying about what relationship did or did not work out, or what job they did or did not get. No more worrying about even what they did or did not wear today.

Rather, despite limitations or challenging life circumstances, they could know the peace of walking in and resting in God’s perfect will. They could experience the joy of knowing that they are right where God wants them to be.

Think about that for a moment.

Think about what a gift that would be for your children.

Do you want to give your children that gift?

If so, then take the first step by simply praying.

Pray and ask God to first give you the desire to hear and obey him.

Then, pray and ask God to help you show your children what he is showing you.

God will answer your prayers. He loves you. He loves your children.

And God knows, one of the very best gifts he could give you and your children, is the skill of learning to hear and obey his will.

Christmas Doubt

My older sister wanted to go to college out of state. We grew up in a small town in California. So she decided to go to college in New York City. It was as far out of state as she could get—both physically and metaphorically.

She wanted to see the world from a different perspective. And she did. As I remember it, this became clear one Christmas break when she announced that she was no longer a Christian.

It’s not an unfamiliar story to many parents.

Your son or daughter may or may not be in college. But at some point, your child (young or old) will question and maybe even walk away from the Christian faith.

A recent study by the Fuller Youth Institute found that “seventy percent of students…reported having doubts in high school about what they believed about God and the Christian faith.”  Often these times of doubt come during the Christmas season. Because it’s a natural time of year to reflect on whether or not the Christmas story and all it implies is really true.

How can parents respond?

Here are three simple responses that will help you help your children as they work through doubts and unbelief:

  1. Give your child time and space to share their doubts

Don’t respond first with arguments. Instead, listen to your child’s doubts. Ask them what led them to their doubt? Praise them for thinking seriously about matters of faith. Allow them to critique, challenge, and even deny their faith. Don’t critique their critiquing. Instead, ask questions that seek to understand where they are coming from. And keep the dialogue going.

  1. Expose them to other Christian viewpoints

Often when your child questions Christianity, he or she is really just questioning their understanding of Christianity. New York City pastor, Timothy Keller, is famous for saying to young skeptics, “Describe the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe that God either.” He then encourages skeptics to expand their understanding of Christianity by learning about how other Christians around the world understand and worship God, deal with suffering, and live the Christian life. As a parent, one of the best things you can do for your child is expose them to the breadth of Christian thought and practice throughout history and around the world.

  1. Remember this may be just a season

Don’t blow them off assuming this “phase” will pass. But don’t freak out assuming this “phase” is permanent. Remember God is bigger than our doubts. He’s not scared or offended by them. God is still at work in your child’s life, even if you or your child can’t see it. If you prayerfully pursue the above two actions it will only be a matter of time before you see what God is up to in the life of your child.

My older sister is actually proof that God is faithful even in the midst of doubt. Today, she loves Jesus, is committed to the church, and is married to an Anglican priest!

Hopefully, your Christmas season won’t involve any denials of faith. But if it does, see the moment as a door for opportunities. An opportunity to listen to your child’s story. An opportunity to expose your child to other Christian stories. And an opportunity to trust God that your child is still a part of His story.

Changing Our Christmas Message

It’s December. The month where we as Christians proclaim our sacred message of…outrage. Wait what!?  Yep, you read that right. Outrage.

Outrage, because some people won’t say, “Merry Christmas”. Instead, they’ll say “Happy Holidays” or (God-forbid) nothing at all. Outrage, because some people won’t even write out the word “CHRISTmas” but instead will use the dreaded substitute, “X-mas”. Outrage, because a secular company like Starbucks won’t even use Christian language or symbols on their cups. Oh the humanity!

What could be worse than living in a world where non-Christians don’t respect Christian traditions? How about a world where our message of outrage is the very thing keeping Hell-bound souls from hearing about Christ?

That would be worse.

So this December let’s stop the outrage. Let’s not fall into the Devil’s trap. Let’s not do anything that will take away from the beauty, the goodness, and the truth of the Christmas message. Let’s not do it.

We can, and should be, Christians who still say, “Merry Christmas” to others. Even if others won’t say it to us.

But let us also be Christians who listen to the Holy Spirit. Let us also be Christians who use our words and actions to reflect Jesus. Let us also be Christians who spread a message of hope (rather than outrage).

What might this look like?

In their own words, here’s how the Holy Spirit recently led three members of Fellowship to embody and spread a different message this season:

Carmen said: I was driving to Wendy’s for lunch and I passed the line of people waiting in camping chairs outside of Active Faith. My heart beat a little faster and the Holy Spirit said, “You should get something for them too.” So I added 10 cheeseburgers to my order and handed them out before continuing on my way.

Ben said: I was given by God an opportunity to share with a coworker about the importance of memorizing and meditating on Scripture, because good works can only be accomplished if I put good words into my mind.  What we put into us is what will come out.  This stuck with him.  He started asking more questions, because I explained how the Bible is divinely inspired, and is the best presentation of the one true God that I can examine for myself routinely.  He asked about justice and goodness, turning the other cheek, and why Jesus’ death was any different from other people who have been crucified.  I am sure that this was orchestrated by God, and that God can use this conversation to steer my friend’s life toward Him.  Amen!

Meredith said: I felt like God was calling me to reach out more to the moms of my daughters’ best friends. One thing led to another over the course of a couple of days, and now we’re all getting together at one of Cindi Jackson’s “Paint and Patter” classes for a girls night out. I’m looking forward to seeing where God takes me with this and how these relationships can strengthen and grow.

So how might the Holy Spirit want to lead you?

If we’re willing to give up our “right” to be outraged, I believe we can expect the Holy Spirit to lead us.

He’ll lead us to be Christ to others.

He’ll lead us to share Christ with others.

He’ll lead us to partake in and present the greatest message of all- the Good News of Jesus Christ.

This December, will you allow Him to lead you?

Today I am grateful for the Holy Spirit

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)

 

Today I am grateful for the Holy Spirit.

I am grateful the Holy Spirit lives in me.

I am grateful that as a child of God I can trust the Holy Spirit to lead me.

 

I don’t have to have this world figured out.

I don’t have to know how the future will turn out.

I don’t have to navigate this life on my own.

 

I have a Leader.

I have a Guide.

I have God inside me.

 

All I need to do is sit with him.

All I need to do is rest in him.

All I need to do is be still before him.

 

All I need to do is listen to him.

All I need to do is delight in him.

All I need to do is trust him.

 

All I have to do is give myself over to him.

All I need to do is follow him.

 

I don’t have to know what lies ahead.

I know where the Spirit of God will lead me.

He will lead me to my Savior Jesus Christ.

He will lead me to the love of God my Abba Father.

He will lead me to the Grace of God.

He will lead me to do the works of God.

 

He will lead me to acts of repentance, acts of reconciliation, acts of forgiveness, acts of compassion, acts of service, acts of proclamation, acts of peacemaking, acts of power, and ultimately acts of love.

I don’t need to know where I am going.

I just need to know the One who is leading me.

 

Thank God, for the Spirit of God!

Thank you, Holy Spirit for making your home in me.

 

Every Question Is A Personal Question

The other week a student at SLHS asked me a question that comes up a lot in evangelism: what about the person that never had the chance to hear about Jesus? How can God send that person to Hell?

Now, like I said, this question comes up a lot, so I went into one of my typical answers. I talked about God’s sovereignty over all creation, and how all people have been given the ability to see that God exists and respond. And then how God, before he created anything, knew that if he gave all people free will some of those people would never in any possible scenario receive his free offer of grace. Therefore when he did create them he was free to put them in places where they would never hear about Jesus.

I think that is where I lost him. Actually, I know that is where I lost him because he said out loud, “That’s BS!” (Except he didn’t use the abbreviation). No, it’s not BS— it’s Christian philosophy at its best. Nevertheless, that didn’t really matter.

So I said to him with a laugh, “So you’re not convinced?”

And this is where the conversation took a turn. As we continued to talk he mentioned that all of his family is Buddhist. Ah, now things made sense. He wasn’t just asking some abstract philosophical question, he was asking a very personal question. He wanted to know if his family, who in his mind had never heard about Jesus, was going to Hell. That is a very different kind of question.

The mistake I made is a mistake that is often easy to make when talking to people about matters of faith. It is easy to talk about and respond to matters of salvation in the abstract. It is easy to do because often the person asking the question poses the question in this way as a means to protect him or herself.

But what I had forgotten that day is there are no purely abstract philosophical questions when it comes to matters of salvation. Every question asked is a personal question because the answer will always affect the questioner in a personal way. It may affect how they think about their own eternity, or it may affect how they think about eternity for others—but in both cases, the answer matters to them. If it didn’t they would not have asked the question.

When the student asked the question, I should have responded in a more personal way. Here are some examples of what I could have said.

  • “Wow that’s a really great question. It sounds like you are concerned about God’s fairness. If God is fair, how do you think God views you?”
  • Or “Wow that’s a great question. What led you to think about that question?”
  • Or “Honestly, I’m not 100% sure, but if you really want to know, I’d be happy to get back to you with an answer. But what about you? It seems God is wanting to tell you about Jesus. Do you know what Jesus has done for you?”

I’m grateful that God is bigger than my mistakes and missed opportunities. But hopefully this article will help you and me to remember whenever someone asks us a question about salvation, that question is always a personal question. So we need to pray (sometimes in the moment) and ask God to show us how to respond with a personal, not just philosophical, answer.

Parenting With Less Frustration

I’m sure it is just the age and stage our family is in…hopefully…but often parenting feels a little frustrating.

The other night we were trying to have family devotions. But then someone was mad that they did not have an opportunity to read the Bible passage. (Yeah you read that right. Our kids get upset when they aren’t allowed to read the Bible…good grief.) Then someone else realized that they weren’t sitting where they wanted to sit. They now wanted to sit in a spot on the couch that was already occupied. And they were going to do whatever it took to take that spot. Needless to say between one’s feelings of injustice about not having the opportunity to read and the other one’s lust for a particular seat on the couch, chaos ensued.

I recently came across a new book by Paul David Tripp entitled Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family. To be honest, at first I was skeptical of this book. It sounded a little too much like a here-are-more-things-you’re-not-doing-right-as-a-parent, so-do-these things-and-your-life-will-be-better kind of book. But I received a free copy of the book so I could provide a review and I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I am really enjoying this book.

Tripp points out that one of the reasons I—and every other parent on the planet—experience frustrations is because our kids are sinners. It’s true. And what is worse, you and I are sinners too. What?! I know it’s hard to hear. But this little bit of information, which we conveniently tend to forget, has huge implications. Specifically, Tripp argues that due to our own sin we, on our own, are incapable of changing our sinful kids, or creating a perfect (sin-free) living environment. So what’s the solution?

Tripp’s encouragement to parents is as follows:

Here is the single redemptive reality, right here, right now, that makes parenting possible: God in you! You read that right. The apostle Paul says that you don’t really understand who you are and what you’ve been given until you understand this amazing thing: that God knew that our calling would be so huge and our weakness so deep that the only thing that would help us was himself. So in an act of incredible grace, he has unbuttoned us and gotten inside of us. Now think about this as a parent. This God who has the ability to do things that are way beyond your ability to conceive, who has perfect wisdom and unlimited strength, right now lives inside of you.

In other words, God is not calling us to do more to change our kids. Rather God, by his grace, has given himself to us so that we, as parents, can rely on him and allow him to work through us to reveal himself to our children. The rest of the book explains what this looks like. I highly recommend reading it.

The chaos is still there. But the frustrations are a little less…at least a little less in those times I remember Tripp’s parental wisdom. In those times I’m reminded to focus less on what I can do to make my kids or my situation better. But instead to ask God, what do you want to do with my kids and how do you want to make this situation better?

 

Finding Freedom In This Election

I love the Psalms.

Monday morning I opened my ESV app to read a morning Psalm. The text, Psalm 1:

1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

With the previous night’s presidential debate still in my head I couldn’t help but think about politics as I read the text. Like you, this election I’ve struggled to know how to vote. But here, it seemed God had made His vote pretty clear:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

Easier said than done in a political season where “wicked,” “sinner,” and “scoffer” apply to both major party candidates.

Yet, verses two, three, and six stood out.

In verse two we see the “blessed man” is the one whose “delight is in the Law of the Lord.” In verse three, it is this man, who, like a tree, “yields its fruit in its season” and, “In all that he does, he prospers.” And in verse six, we’re told it is this man who is the one the “Lord knows” [literally– the one the Lord watches over with care].

The Lord was reminding me that I am free. Specifically, I (and all His people) am free from the shackles of our current political system.

Free, because the Lord’s blessings for His people are not based on our politics. His blessings are not contingent on what political party wins. Nor are his blessings dependent on what policies are made law. His blessings do not even hinge on who is appointed to the Supreme Court.

No, the Lord is sovereign over all of that. At any moment the Lord could change any policy, any appointment, and any presidency. And though he often works through people to do His will, He is certainly not calling us to “walk with the wicked” to do so. Certainly the Lord is not saying through this Psalm, “Blessed is the man who walks not [with] the wicked…unless it helps him politically.”

Therefore you and I are free. We are free to look for and vote for the “righteous” person whoever that might be… third party, write-in, or otherwise. We are also free to vote for no one if no “righteous” person can be found. Sure, it’s not what our political parties want, nor what our culture wants. But the Lord’s blessings are not dependent on what is pleasing to our political parties or our culture.

The Lord blesses the one who delights in Him.

For the Lord is the one who will prosper His people. The Lord is the one who will care for His people. And ultimately the Lord is the one who will save His people.

Therefore, blessed are the people who delight in the Lord!

 

May you and I delight in the Lord. May we be free from walking with the wicked. May we trust in the care of the Lord. And may we vote trusting that the Lord is sovereign over all, and that His blessings are not given to those who “win” but to those who delight themselves in Him.

 

Overcoming Election Anxieties

It’s very easy to say, Jesus is Lord. It’s not easy to live like Jesus is Lord.

Watching the presidential debate the other night reminded me of this. After it was over I felt anxious. And when I woke up the next morning I still felt residual anxiety.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

My feelings of anxiety were not bad in and of themselves, but they did point to something bad. Like a flashing “Check Engine” light in my car, these feelings signaled that something within me was broken and in need of repair.

That broken-something was my lost vision of Jesus. Specifically, that broken-something was my lost vision of Jesus as Lord.  I had lost sight of who Jesus really is.  And as a result, I was no longer living as if Jesus really is Lord.

The remedy was the God-breathed words of Psalm 97:

The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
Fire goes before him
and burns up his adversaries all around.

His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.

The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
and all the peoples see his glory
.
All worshipers of images are put to shame,
who make their boast in worthless idols;
worship him, all you gods!

Zion hears and is glad,
and the daughters of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O Lord.

For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods
.

O you who love the Lord, hate evil!
He preserves the lives of his saints;
    he delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
Light is sown for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name!

 

These divine words filled my heart and mind with a fresh vision of Jesus as Lord. That Jesus reigns. That his reign is built on righteousness and justice. That Jesus is exalted above all. That he preserves my life and is able to deliver me from the wicked. That because of all these things, I can “rejoice in the Lord” and “give thanks to his holy name.”

With fresh vision came fresh healing. As I reflected on the psalm my attention was taken away from the frustrations of the election and instead was transfixed on the goodness of Jesus. As a result, my feelings of anxiety faded away. I was left, like the people of Zion, feeling “glad.” I was now living like Jesus really is Lord.

If this election season has you feeling anxious, maybe it’s because your “Check Engine” light is flashing. Maybe something within you is broken. Maybe you too have lost sight of Jesus as Lord. Maybe you’re not living as if Jesus really is Lord.

If so, let Jesus heal you.

Come to God’s Word. Reflect on the words of Psalm 97. Then, take a moment to rejoice and to give thanks that Jesus is still the Lord. I promise you’ll feel better… I sure did.