Three days into 2017, are your New Years resolutions still intact? I’m not one for making such resolutions, but I do strive (however feebly) to live by the Scriptures every day of my life. The very end of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives us some good things to shoot for as believers in Jesus in 2017 (and beyond, should the Lord tarry). His last three statements (prior to the “amen”) are powerful:
- “Our Lord, come!”
- “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.”
- “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus.”
If we could wrap all of that into one resolution for the new year, it would look something like this: Long for the Lord’s return while living in the light of His grace and loving one another.
Can you imagine how transformed the Church of Jesus Christ would be if our lives were so defined? Can you imagine the focus we would have? Can you imagine the trivial things that might fall by the wayside in our lives as the things that really matter rise to the forefront? Can you imagine the impact we might make for Christ?
I am going to be very transparent here, not in a passive-aggressive attempt to gain anybody’s sympathy but in the hopes that someone might be helped by my experience.
I have this calling from God to preach His Word. He brought the calling to me so strongly one night that I had to fall on my face and surrender. That moment was phenomenal, but the calling has been difficult for me over the years. I have always been a self-doubter, and I struggle with the idea that I could ever do anything that really matters. Don’t get me wrong; I envision myself in more great moments than Walter Mitty, but when it comes to reality, I am more like Winnie the Pooh’s pal, Eeyore.
And so, all these years later, I find myself at the stage of life where it seems most pastors who have pastored as long as I have pastor churches of at least an average size. I, though, pastor a little church that not many people attend. The people who do attend are dear to me, and I love being their pastor. But honestly, we could all fit into two or three of the church’s pews. I sometimes wonder if we will ever be even an average sized church. But visitors are rare, and even my friends and family in the area choose to worship elsewhere. This leads me into periodic moments of confusion, wondering if anyone likes me, and sometimes questioning whether I heard my calling correctly. (Like I said, just being transparent). Those moments can become quite dark and debilitating. However, no sooner do I question the call than the Lord reminds me of the night I fell face down in surrender to Him, and I am reminded that I do not deserve to pastor even one person. And so I press on, doing the only thing on this planet that I want to do and that which gives me joy like nothing else, even though I have questions that remain unanswered.
But that’s how we shine the light of Christ; we press on in faith. Whether you’re a pastor or a plumber, a missionary or a manager, pressing on with Christ is no big deal if everything is lining up nicely for you. Even as I type this, thoughts of confusion begin to swirl in my head. “Why, Lord? I’m faithful to teach Your Word. I’m not asking for a mega-church. Maybe 150 or 200 people. Even just 5 or 10 new families would make a huge difference. Is that asking too much? Am I doing something wrong? Did I mishear the call to preach all those years ago? Etc.”
My fear is that a lot of the people I hear about who are walking away from ministry (and even from the Lord) might be doing it because of questions like that. The confusion I have expressed is about ministry, but maybe someone is confused over other matters in their walk with the Lord and is growing tired of asking the “Why, Lord” questions and is on the verge of throwing in the towel on ministry or faith. If that’s you, I hope you hang in there. It really is worth it, and there are eternal benefits to doing so. Your questions may not ever be answered. Mine, either. We may be in the company of those mentioned in Hebrews 11:32-40, who suffered and pressed on and endured much more than we may ever endure, all to reach the ends of their lives without tangibly receiving what they were pressing on toward. But it was never the Lord’s plan to fulfill in their earthly lifetimes the promise they pursued. Their involvement with the promise was as links in the chain that would one day lead to the promise’s fulfillment. Eternity will show that their faithfulness was worth the cost and that God did keep His promises.
And so it is for us. Eternity will show that pressing on through the waiting and the disappointment and the confusion was more than worth it. Such will be the case for you and for me if we press on in faith, faithful to our calling, no matter its difficulties or the fact that it bears no resemblance to what we had expected when we began the journey. Over time, we learn that the Lord knows just what He is doing. And the end of the journey–in the presence of the Lord where we will know as we are known–will tell the true tale of what the Lord was doing through us.
For about six years of my life, I acted in community theater productions. In the first year of that experience, I landed the role of Officer Krupke in a production of my favorite play, “West Side Story.” I was thrilled to be part of telling that story and listening to Leonard Bernstein’s amazing music as I sat in the wings when not on stage. Ah yes, that music.
Krupke makes his initial appearance in the story during the musical “Prologue.” A street fight has broken out between the Jets and the Sharks, and at a certain point in the music, Krupke rushes on stage, blowing his whistle, followed by Lt. Shrank, and they break up the fight. The entry and blowing of the whistle have to be precise. There is a brief pause in the score where the whistle is to blow, followed by the orchestra playing its final measure or two. Therefore, Krupke has to blow his whistle at exactly the right time, which means he also has to enter at exactly the right time. The problem I had with this precision requirement was that the music at that moment in the score is all over the place. It’s hard to pick out a discernible melody, from which you can find a cue, upon which you know to blow the whistle. And I was having a terrible time trying to get it right (which greatly humbled me because I usually have a good ear for music).
One night, during a performance, I was waiting in the wings with Shrank, listening for my cue. Shrank actually knew the cue better than I did, and on that night, when I mistakenly thought I had heard it and headed for the stage, in character, whistle in mouth, ready to blow, I heard the actor playing Shrank whisper-yell “No!” But it was too late. I was already in the sight of the audience. I had a fraction of a second to decide that turning back at that point would look like a huge and obvious mistake, so I pressed on. I would have to improvise until the cue came up in the music and I could blow my whistle and break up the fight.
The problem was, though, I couldn’t think of a single thing to do once out I was out there in the midst of the two gangs at war with one another. And to make matters worse, I had gone out a full minute early. So for 60 seconds, I stood there, baton in hand, whistle in mouth, frozen behind the action. And if you’ve ever been in such a situation on stage, in front of an audience (and there were a few hundred there!), you know that one minute feels like about fifteen minutes. It was horrible – my most embarrassing moment on stage by far.
The next day, I went to Borders and found myself praising God that they actually had on hand, in the store, CDs of the original Broadway soundtrack to “West Side Story.” I bought one, took it home, popped it into a CD player, and played the “Prologue” until I heard the whistle blow. I then backed it up a few seconds and listened again. Over and over, I backed it up and re-listened. I must have done that fifty times. By the time I was done, I knew that cue cold. And at that night’s performance, I was right on time, as I would be for every performance thereafter.
Out of curiosity, just before writing this, I put on the “Prologue” to see if I could still hear the cue. It’s been about eight years, and that cue sticks out to me like a sore thumb. If I ever play Krupke again, I will be right on time with my entry and whistle.
As I was reliving that incident in my mind this morning, it got me thinking about how important it is to get the Word of God into our hearts and minds. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” What this is saying is that, when we take the Word of God into our hearts again and again and again – in other words, we make a regular practice of ingesting the Bible – its truths will speak to us during those crossroad moments when we decide how we will act or speak or think. The more we take it in, the more we will hear its cues – KNOW its cues – and we will be better adept at being where we need to be, when we need to be there, in our walks with God.
This Scripture ingestion can take the form of memorizing Bible verses, which is usually the way I hear Psalm 119:11 applied, but it also involves just reading the Bible regularly – daily, even. Sometimes, people try to read the Bible and then stop because they don’t understand it. Just keep on reading. Ask God to make it clear to you. The more you read it and put it into practice, the more you will understand about your own human condition and about God. In fact, in time, you will begin to think biblically, sometimes without even realizing you’re doing it. The Word will become to you what that musical cue became to me when I listened to it over and over and over again. It will guide you as you walk with God.
This world sometimes seems like it’s spinning out of control. From those times when we access our bank accounts and discover there is so much less in them than we had thought, to those times when we turn on the news and hear reports of unspeakable violence, to everything in between, I find myself sighing and massaging my own forehead, eyes closed and feeling the weight of it all. And then comes a thought brought on by the beauty of a song: faithful still. “You are faithful still,” the singer sings. Indeed, He is.
Scriptural truths come to mind. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful,” Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:13). To the young disciple, Paul also wrote, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that He is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12). God is neither surprised by nor worried about the events of this world. He is on the throne, and my life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).
“You are faithful still,” the singer continues. And anxiety melts into peace.
This morning, I was walking nonchalantly along our front walkway when my foot hit a patch of ice, and down I went. It was only the second time in the 28 years that I’ve lived above the Mason-Dixon line that I have fallen from slipping on ice.
Because this morning’s fall (Did I mention that it was only my second one in 28 years?) landed me in the very deep snow just off the sidewalk, with my feet still on the ice, getting up from that fall was a challenge. I reminded myself of Randy, the little brother in “A Christmas Story,” who goes down in his bulky coat and struggles to get back up. I could hear Ralphie saying, “Mark lay there like a slug; it was his only defense.”
In retrospect, I’m reminded of how we believers can easily slip and fall into sin if we fail to walk carefully in our spiritual walks. In Ephesians 5:15-16, Paul, after telling us to walk as children of light and to take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, tells us to look carefully how we walk, not as unwise, but as wise. In other words, walk carefully. Peter echoes this idea when he says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith…” (1 Peter 5:8-9a).
If we do not take care how we walk – if we are not on our guard – we can become susceptible to a spiritual fall into sin. And like a roaring lion springing from the dense jungle – or like an unseen patch of ice – it can seem to come out of nowhere. It doesn’t matter how infrequently we may have slipped up and gone down in the past; that patch of ice sits there today and is just waiting for a careless foot to slip on it.
As I mentioned, getting up from the snow on my own was difficult, and for a moment I wondered if I would be down for awhile. When we sin, there is one way to get back on our feet and back into a walk with Christ, and that is to confess our sin to God (1 John 1:9). The sin has already been paid for by Christ on the cross, but it can keep us down in a joyless, ineffective place if we fail to own up to it before God. We need to call it what it is: sin. Our pride sometimes wants to explain sin away – to give God all the “good” reasons we have for doing what did (e.g., “Did you see what that guy did to me???”). But sin is sin and needs to be confessed as such lest we find ourselves continuing to slip and slide on the snow and ice as we spew out our self-justifications.
Once we are back up and walking on, we may discover firsthand the truth that falls often have consequences. Getting back on our feet doesn’t always take those consequences away. As I type this, I have a slight muscle pain over the left side of my rib cage from the twisting action that was involved in my trying not to go down. I also had to deal with burning cold on my right hand for awhile from the time that hand spent in the snow as I tried to push myself back up. Spiritual falls have consequences, too. Our sin may have been paid for by Christ, and we may have confessed it to God, but there may still be consequences to what we have done. We must face those humbly in the strength of the Lord, walking on with Him, and taking careful steps as we move forward. We will find that, whatever the consequences may be, God has not abandoned us, and He has “grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). And many times we will find that He cleans up an awful lot of the messes we make. Hopefully, we will learn some lessons and will walk on with care.
Today, I had to the privilege of visiting a woman who is dying of cancer. She is not an elderly woman; in fact, she’s middle aged. She does not fear death, for she knows without a doubt that her eternity is secure in Christ and that she will be with him when she passes from this life. At the same time, she would love to remain in this life for the sake of her family.
While I was impressed by her strong faith and the certainty it has given her for her eternal future, I was even more blessed by another aspect of her faith: namely, the spiritual growth she is experiencing through her ordeal. Here is a woman who no longer eats solid food, who is exhausted by more than ten minutes of conversation, and for whom the simple act of shifting her position on the sofa brings excruciating pain. Much of her life is shutting down, but her spiritual life continues to grow like a weed. She spoke of how she is learning to submit to the sovereignty of God as she has prayed for healing and has not received it. She spoke of things she is learning about God and hopes to learn in the future, even as her future appears to be very limited. The doctors tell her that she is nearing death; nevertheless, she continues to grow in grace and in the knowledge of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). When the Lord does call her home, she will cross the finish line at a full sprint.
We will all one day face the end of our lives on this earth, and for many of us, our ends will come in a manner similar to this woman’s in that our bodies will shut down gradually. But one thing we can all learn from the shining testimony of this dear saint is that, regardless of what happens to our physical bodies, spiritually we need never stop growing.