Betty

James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”  
I have asked God for many things in prayer, but none more frequently or fervently than I have asked Him for wisdom.  Wisdom is the ability to apply truth to a situation.  Wisdom helps you discern the variables and make the best choice.  Wisdom is a telescope on consequences.  
The ways God has answered my request for wisdom have been various.  Sometimes it has come with insight, sometimes through careful study.  There are many times in which I can honestly say that even though I was the one speaking, wisdom has come in such an unusual way that it was almost as if I were a spectator to my own words.  It was as if I were hearing things come out of my mouth that did not originate in my thoughts.  Most of the time that sort of thing will get you into trouble.  With wisdom it borders on miraculous.
Sometimes wisdom walks through the door.  Her name was Betty.  At the time I was about 25 and 2 years into pastoring a church that was beginning to show signs of growth.  At the same time I was too proud to admit and too naive to know that I was in over my head.  There was no way we would accomplish what was about to come without some real guidance. 
Our part-time secretary had just resigned to take another job.  Enter Betty – walking wisdom for the proud and naive.
I was working on my mid-twenties.  Betty was working on her mid-sixties.  We didn’t hire a secretary.  We hired my nanny.
Betty had served as the church secretary of a small Nazarene congregation for several years.  I am not up on Nazarene church polity, but as Betty explained it, when the pastor was out, the chain of command eventually made its way to the church secretary.  If there was no one else to take the reigns, the secretary would perform all pastoral duties including filling the pulpit.  I can’t remember exactly how she explained it, but for quite some time there was no pastor for their church; so there was Betty.  This essentially meant that I had just hired a secretary that had more pastoral experience than me.
Betty had also worked for a highly successful business man.  She would tell me often, “I made him a millionaire, God sent me here to make a great man out of you.”  I believed her.
There were times that I wondered if she was working for me or if I was working for her.  It didn’t matter.  She was my wisdom.  She was an Indiana native, and I can never duplicate it, but she had a way of saying my name that made it seem longer than a two syllable word with the emphasis on the “i.”  If she was working with me she called me “Brother Br-i-an.”  If she was speaking for me she would call me “Pastor Br-i-an.”  If she was about to tell me something she would point her finger at me and call me, “Now Br-i-an.”  There were times I believed that my first name was “Now.”
When she called me “Now” that meant it was time to sit and listen to wisdom.  Dejected, discouraged, enraged, or confused; Betty always knew the words to say that helped me think before I made a big mistake.  She never made demands on any action I had to take; but with her words she constrained me to Christ in every thought.  In a lot of ways, she saved me.
Rooted in the Nazarene tradition she valued holiness.  It was her sincere goal to be perfect for Christ.  If I have ever known a Puritan in the modern era, it was probably Betty.  She had an immense knowledge of the Word of God.  She spent hours with the Lord everyday.  She would never hesitate to tell you, not what she would want in a situation, but what the Lord would want.  There was never a doubt in my mind, Betty knew the Lord.
Watching her relationship with Christ makes it more ironic that I baptized her.  Coming from the Nazarene church she had never been baptized by immersion.  When she and her husband Paul joined our church, without hesitation they gave themselves to baptism by immersion.  The day I baptized her I felt like John the Baptist baptizing Jesus; unworthy. 
I may have immersed her in water, but for the next 3 or 4 years Betty immersed me in prayer, discipleship, and a relationship with Christ that inspired my life.  As a pastor it is easy to get so busy, so overloaded, so constrained for time that you become burdened by the task rather than burdened for the Lord.  Betty helped me to find wisdom in the way I work.  She helped me to understand that my work for the Lord was born from my walk with the Lord.  She came to the office everyday with the fresh fruit of her time spent with God.  I am deeply grateful for her example to me in this.   
Even though it was her title, I never thought of Betty as the church secretary.  She was a competent counselor.  She was a tenacious prayer warrior.  She was a grand theologian.  She was a capable teacher.  She was a tireless worker.  She was a vanguard for me, a watchman who could warn and protect me from trouble long before it arrived.  There are so many situations Betty helped steer me through that could have been otherwise disastrous.  
And these are the things I saw her do.  There is probably a volume to be written of things she did for me and for others of which we will never know. 
The season Betty and I served together at Lantana Road Baptist Church was a time of exponential growth.  I can say without hesitation, that I believe one of the reasons God blessed the church as He did was because of His servant Betty.  He blessed her and we benefited because of it.
Last week Betty passed away suddenly. The moment I heard she had passed I knew I had lost one of my greatest prayer warriors.  I know without fail that Betty never stopped praying for me.  I also know, that even though I am now 41 and 13 yeas removed from my pastorate at Lantana Road, that she continued to take responsibility for me until her final day.  Despite the fact I had left her more than a decade before, I know Betty never left me.  She kept me before the Lord.   
Sometimes wisdom enters the mind.  Sometimes it walks through the door.  

3 People That Keep Me Up at Night – #2 The Cynic

The critic is easy enough to recognize, but what about the cynic?  Who is he?
Put simply, the cynic believes he has a better grasp on reality than you.  He never gets it wrong, but you always do.  He will not help, but he is first in line to point out your mistakes.  He will vote “No” and tell everyone why, but he offers no alternatives.  Deep into the night, you see his face and you hear his voice rehearse his favorite lines, “I knew it.”  ”I told you so.”  
Cynics are chronic side-liners with a clever excuse.  He is justifiably jaded and you can’t possibly understand how he feels or comprehend what he knows. 
I think Chicago Journalist Syndey J. Harris’ description of a cynic states it best, “A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past; he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.” —Sydney J. Harris, On the Contrary
So how are we to deal with the cynic so we can get some sleep?
Don’t swallow the nocebo.  You’ve heard of a placebo, but have you ever heard of a nocebo?  Didn’t think so.
Lissa Rankin M.D., in an article published at phsychologytoday.com, reports that negative beliefs can harm your health.  As powerful as the positive suggestion of the placebo is the negative suggestion of the nocebo.
Patients given placebos, but believing they are taking the real medications, have actually seen ulcers heal, drops in blood pressure, and warts disappear.  Even men who “believe” they are taking Rogain, but are actually taking sugar pills, begin to regrow hair.  
Give me some of that! 
The cynic is the street dealer of the nocebo.  The nocebo is the negative side of the power of suggestion and can be as harmful as a placebo is helpful.  
The Bible is way ahead of the studies.  Over 3000 years ago, Solomon reported, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones (Prov. 17:22).” If the nocebo effect is real, all the more reason why you can’t allow the cynic to become the dominant voice in your head – or you will lay awake at night.  
Paul understood the power of positive belief, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8).”  
You will never sleep if the cynic’s voice becomes your bedtime song.  Test his lyrics – is it true?  Is it honorable?  Is it just?  Is it pure?  If not – take no thought of it.    
Consider what he says, not the way he says it.  For some reason the cynic’s spirit is crushed.  Try to dismiss the spirit of the cynic, but don’t be so prideful to think that nothing can be learned from him.  His information may be helpful.  It is his attitude that is not.  
Often cynics develop out of bitterness from the disappointment of a past mistake.  There may have been a time in which he was very eager, extremely hopeful – but failed to meet expectations.  Again, apply Paul’s series of questions from Phil. 4:8 – Is it true?  Is it honorable?  Is it . . . ?  I despise the cynic’s whine, but I may be able to learn from his experiences.   
Remember, it’s not about you.  The goal of the cynic is to do to your soul what has been done to his – crush it.  Again, discard his attitude.  His pessimistic sense of reality is a defense mechanism.  If the cynic can give you every reason “it won’t work” he doesn’t have to get involved and relive the hurt.  This being the case – try not to take his attitude personally.  His cynicism is not ultimately about you, it is something in him.    
The cynic points out every reason it won’t work.  It gets in your head.  Negativity doesn’t require a megaphone, your brain will provide the amplification.  The good news is, our faith requires us to be more hopeful than perfect.  Yet, when Eeyore begins to give counsel, you lay awake at night dejected that not everyone is as excited about the task as you seem to be.  Don’t back down from your assignment, vision, or involvement. 
The cynic is petrified by his realism.  Don’t be blinded by your idealism.  The cynic’s pessimistic realism is misguided in thinking that because the world is not right, he does not have to be involved.  You may be tempted to think that because not everyone is excited about the possibilities as you that the whole thing is doomed to fail.  Really?
So there’s someone out there who doesn’t think it will work.  If you’re totally deflated by that reality, the cynic is not your problem.  You’ve got self-righteous, idealism issues!
The cynic may be a well placed thorn of grace.  Your idea may be great, but if it is absent of humility and dependence, it needs deflating.  The cynic is a master of sucking the air out of a moment.  Your sleepless night may be a blessing in disguise, pray to God for help.
Every task we accomplish requires some degree of redemption.  So someone disagrees.  You don’t have all the answers.  It may not all go according to plan.  The cynic sings – so what.  Whatever we do, we don’t want to join the cynic’s “premature disappointment with the future.”  Press on.  See what happens and how God works. 
The lens of the gospel calls for us to understand that we live in a  world that is disappointing.  Not every idea will work, in every situation, at every time.  There have been times in my ministry when I felt like writing a book entitled 50 Great Ideas that Didn’t Work in My Church, But are Sure to Work Awesomely in Yours.
 The cynic allows his disappointment to embitter him.  The realism the gospel calls us to helps us to see that our set-backs can become set-ups.  
There is always something to be learned in Christ.  We guard ourselves from the cynical soul as we realize that ultimately everything comes back to Him – bitter disappointment, triumph, tragedy, victory.  Christ makes everything count.   
In speaking of his past accomplishments and his defeats, Paul realized that in all things there is ultimately only one goal – to know Christ and His resurrection.  Paul had enough intelligence mingled with enough disappointment that he could have easily embraced cynicism.  Yet he chose to remain hopeful by bringing all things to Christ.  He said:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Philippians 3:12-16 ESV)
The gospel informs us that to become as distrustful as the cynic is extremely distasteful.  It is also dishonest.  Yes, we may be disappointed.  We may fall flat on our face.  But it’s worth the risk.  Why?  Because Christ makes all things new.  We have reason for hope.  
Get some sleep.

3 People That Keep Me Up At Night – #1 The Critic

I am not a sound sleeper.  Maybe you, are like me in that when you wake up in the middle of the night it is often with a negative thought.  2:00 a.m., an idea that didn’t work.  2:45, an improvement in a process I can’t seem to make.  The 4:00 a.m. wake up call is from a comment that someone made weeks ago continuously reverberates in my brain.  
If we want to be effective in any venue of life, there are two things we must do: 1) deal with people, and 2) get some sleep.  
This week I want to write about three people who keep me up at night and how the Bible informs us to deal with them.  The three that interrupt my sleep most often are: 
1)The critic  
2) The cynic
3) The whiner
Let’s talk first about the critic.
Criticism is not necessarily a bad thing.  As a matter of fact, I would say that we need to invite some critics into our lives.  Proverbs 13:18 says, “Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored.”  Think about it, the Bible’s Book of Proverbs is regarded as inspired wisdom from God, and it is.  However, if you take time to read it, you will realize, it is a very critical observation of people and life.  
If you hear only praise, you have no friends.  We all need a few wise sages, invited critics, who are not there to tear us down, but to teach us truth, even when it hurts.  
Consider every critique.  Over the years there have been some people who have said some mean things to me and about me.  It is interesting how the human mind has the capacity to remember every one.  
What they said hurt, but it also helped!  Helped?  How can someone bent on tearing you down in criticism be a help?  As difficult as it may be, you must somehow set aside their attempt to damage you, discern it, and discard it.  But listen to what they say.  There is something in their criticism that presents an opportunity to learn.
You may find that you do not deserve their criticism, but you may have neglected to do something wise that invited it.  There is wisdom in learning how to navigate that path so you don’t repeat the same mistake.  Listening to the boo birds sing their song may not be pleasant, but it can be strategic.  I have found that even my critics that carry the most malice, to some degree, they also offer a degree of truth.  The malicious critic’s heart and tactics are all wrong, but their words may indeed expose that there is something in me that needs redeemed.  There may have been something I did to cause damage by going too fast, pushing too hard, or perhaps by neglecting the relational equity necessary for healthy leadership.  
I have learned some great lessons in leadership by taking notes from my critics and then taking them to the Lord.  Criticism is painfully humiliating.  The critics goal is to shamefully humble you before them.  But the demeanor of our soul is to be righteously humble before the Lord.  At the very least the critic reminds me, I need the Lord.  The Lord can work wonders with a damaged, criticized heart that is humble.
Paul says it like this in the opening verses of Philippians 2, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus . . .”  
Maturity demands that we apply the mind of Christ even to our criticism.  The phrase, “If there is any . . .” gives us hope that even in the most negative statements there may be something salvageable.  
Consider the critic.  Who are they?  What are they up to?  I said that you need invited critics in your life.  But how can you tell the difference between the critic who wants to help you and the one who wants to hurt you?  One word.  Look for LOVE.
I will have a hard time listening to you and you will have a hard time listening to me if there is a lack of love.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.”
Critics who lack love are clangers.  They are irritating noise.  
But be careful, all of us need to heed this.  Sometimes you are the critic.  You think you can speak truth into a situation.  You think you see danger lurking around the corner.  You believe you have a God inspired idea that could bring an amazing amount of efficiency to the process.  You think you have a better idea.  Maybe so, but if you don’t have love you are just a clanger.
People who lack love will criticize you for several reasons.  They may resent your success.  They may be insecure.  Sometimes your critics are trying to inflate themselves by deflating you.
Your critic may be deflecting a glaring lack in their own life by trying to turn all of the negative attention toward you.  Sadly, for some, negativity is their native tongue.  
Whatever the reason, ask God to help you discern the person.  We need the Spirit’s help to consider the source.  What they may be saying about you really says a lot about them.
When this is the case, I have to remind myself.  I don’t want to be where they are.  In this case it is not wise to fight fire with fire.  Rather, douse it with love.
Love causes us to seek a place of sympathy.  The Headmaster of Christian Heritage School in Dalton, GA, Gerald Porter, says, “Get behind their eyes.”  There is a great deal of wisdom in that statement. 
Getting behind their eyes will help you do what Proverbs 15:1-2 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.”  
Getting behind their eyes will also help you with Proverbs 26:20 which says, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
Responding to your critics with love will help remove a log from the fire.  Yet, one of the reasons we lay awake at night contemplating the statements of the critic is because we are looking to fire back a rebuttal.  Do we really need more fire?  The right response is one born out of love.    
Sometimes, you need to foster a tone of thanks, “Thank you for sharing your concerns with me.  I’ll think about it.”
Sometimes you need to use a word of sympathy, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Whatever you say, saying it with love will go a long way.
The Bible gives us great guidance to consider about the critic.  We may never quiet him or her, but we must somehow get some sleep.  Allow these parting thoughts gleaned from the counsel of Scripture to ease your mind.  When it comes to criticism:
It isn’t all true.
It isn’t all about you.
Consider the source.
Salvage what you can.
Learn something.
Leverage love.
Walk in wisdom.

Get some sleep!  

Pipes – Restoring Restricted Affection

We bought a home last July that we absolutely love, but there is one thing about it that I have grown to ardently hate, pipes.  Four times in less than a year we have had a total drainage lock-down.  Some might attribute our demise to great cereal, but I am telling you, the problem is bad pipes.  

Everything is going great, flowing freely.   There is little to no thought of the importance of what is taking place below the floor until I hear that dreaded gurgle.  The gurgle is the final warning that what is supposed to be leaving your home is about to reverse and make a nasty return.  This may be TMI territory, but you need to know.  It stinks. 

I have seen the same thing happen to marriages, friendships, businesses, churches, and teams.  Things are going great, flowing freely, and then there is a gurgle followed by a sudden reversal of progress that brings with it an unwelcome stench.  What was once going good is now markedly bad.

Paul had a series of communications with a gifted church that started well but had long since gurgled, reversed, and now sat in a stagnant stench.  There was definite tension in their relationship.  So he writes:

“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open.  You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections.  In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.”  2 Corinthians 6:11-13

Do you see the problem?  Restricted affections.  The heart must be widened for things to flow freely again.  There was a clog in the pipes.  As I said before.  This could apply to organizational pipes, relational pipes, marital pipes, ecclesiastical (church) pipes . . . whatever the situation the remedy is the same.

Locate the problem.  

By trial and error we finally located the source of our issue.  The entire system failed at one joint.  Instead of a Y that would cooperate with gravity, the brilliant plumber who did the original work on the house decided that a T would work.  Let me tell you, T’s do not work well with gravity.  I have learned that all that happens within a T joint is horrible things we should not mention.

In our culture we are conditioned that when you hear the gurgle in the relationship, marriage, church, business, etc. the problem is solved by pointing a finger.  Blame does little to unclog restricted affections, but humility will go a long way.

Instead of immediately pointing the finger of blame toward the Corinthians, Paul humbly checked himself to see if there were restricted affections in him.  If you read the preceding paragraph (2 Cor. 6:1-10), you will see that Paul examined several points of accountability – his joints if you will!  He examined his record of service to Christ, his maturity, his purity, his preaching, his attitude, and his character.  You get a sense that if there was cause for blame, he would gladly accept it, but he stood before them blameless.  “Our heart is wide open.”  No restrictions or clogs of which to speak.

Perhaps you are attending a church that when you first began, the preaching was amazing and the music stirring.  But now it is little more than ho-hum.  The characters are all the same.  What has changed?  Before you point a finger at the preacher or a leader, first examine yourself.  Check the essential joints; prayer, Bible reading, curiosity, preparation, discipline.  Be careful to point a finger at others when in reality you are the clog.  Be humble.

Humility goes a long way when it is necessary to deliver a hard word.  “You are restricted in your own affections.”  Clog located.  Now we can go to work.

Use the clean-outs.

Through our trial I have learned that in drainage systems there are several strategically placed clean-outs.  I believe clean-outs are a plumbers way of leaving you little clues that certain areas of your home could become problematic.  “Here is a clean-out beneath your children’s bathroom.  It is here so that you can more conveniently retrieve GI Joe after he has been flushed.” Hint. Hint. 

Let me give you more wisdom about clean-outs.  Once you unscrew them, you will learn that there is nothing clean about clean-outs.  If the clean-out is above you, whatever is ready to be cleaned out, will immediately be upon you – and you will not be clean.  I’m telling you this from experience. 

God has provided the soul with clean-outs.  It is called repentance and confession.  Nasty as it is.  Unclean as it may sound.  Confession is essential for cleansing and healing restricted affection.  

Call for help.

I am an only child – male version.  I am the T joint of stubborn stupidity.  I determined that I, who had 0 plumbing experience, and a stellar track record of failed home improvement blunders, could somehow fix our issue.  Think long and hard about this train of reasoning and see if you can discern the fallacy.  A preacher would fix the plumber’s mistake.  

So I fixed it.  The end result was three cut pipes, PVC and water all over the floor.  It only took me five hours to completely destroy my home, my marriage, and any respect my children had for me.  Added to the emotional turmoil I caused came the even better news that no one could use the bathroom, shower, or use a sink for the rest of the weekend.  Its Saturday!  But Monday’s comin’ – until then, there are no plumbers, only wet, very aggravated and defeated preachers.

On Monday I called a wonderful man in our church that my wife had counseled me to call when the project began.  He came and fixed what I had taken 5 hours to destroy in what seemed like 15 minutes. 

There is a plumbing facility on I-59 south in Trussville, AL that has the perfect marketing slogan.  John’s Plumbing – “We repair what your husband fixed.”  I now know exactly what that means.  It means, call for help.  

When you try to do things on your own, it usually ends up a greater mess.  God designed us for community, not self-sufficiency.  Criticism at a distance seems much easier than confrontation at close range, but in the end, when done rightly leaves far less mess.  Pointing out clogs is less of a hassle than dealing with them.  And to deal with them, most of the time you will need some help.  Trust me, before you go cutting pipe, make the call.  It will cost you less in the end.

Widening the openings of the heart is hard work, especially when there are clogged, hurt feelings and affections.  Seek counsel.  Don’t be afraid of the difficult conversations.  When the hard work is done and things begging flowing freely again the stench almost immediately disappears.  The hope of the gospel is that we are left with a productive and effective way toward reconciliation.  Make the call before you make the mess.  

Making Sense of the Storm

Yesterday was the 3 year anniversary of a life changing day for me, my family, and for almost everyone in the community where I lived at the time.  Ironically, tonight we are preparing for a new set of storms.  I felt compelled to re-post this article today that I posted orignially on April 29, 2011.  I hope you find it helpful.

_____________________

On Wednesday afternoon our youth pastor and I took a generator to the home of a family in our church that had been hit by a tornado that morning.  They were scrambling to try repair their home to the point that it would be secure.  We all knew there were more storms coming and they would be worse.  I am not a carpenter.  In moments of urgent carpentry all I am is in the way.  When I go on a missions trip my job is to carry stuff in Jesus’ name.  So we did not stay long and I was home by early afternoon settling in for a long night of wild weatherman radar watching. 

Some people may think tower-cams are cool, I think they are nearly useless.  Anytime there is a storm we get a tower-cam image of a sleepy wet town.  Most of the time you can see little to nothing because the camera is drenched and shaking.  The weather man then discloses what the rest of us didn’t know, that it is windy and raining in Podunk.  Wednesday was different.  On the Tuscaloosa tower-cam entered a dark cloud that reached to the ground.  As it got closer you could tell it was circulating.  In a few moments it revealed itself to be a perfectly formed tornado, grey and sinister.  My wife and I watched in stunned shock knowing that property was being destroyed, lives were changing, people were dying.  As the camera panned to include a shot of Bryant Denny Stadium with a massive tornado in the background the screen went green; disconnect.  I have lived in Alabama long enough to know how these storms track.  I looked at my wife and said, “That thing is headed straight for us.” 

Within the hour we were hunkered down in the basement.  My daughters were crying.  We were praying knowing full well that the words, “It is all going to be O.K.” may not be within the realm of possibility.  I have seen hundreds of disasters on television.  Never have I had one headed for me.  The awful part of it all was that there was no evacuation, nowhere to go, there was no escape.  All you could do is wait and wonder if this would be the last time you would know your home as it is.  You wondered if you may be hurt or if you may die.  I tried to convey none of these ideas to my family, but I didn’t have to.  Though we didn’t verbalize what we felt each of us were easy enough to read.  We prayed and prayed and prayed.  I tweeted, “Praying for all our people.  Serious situation here.  May God be merciful to us.”  After the obvious questions we were left with only one, “Would God answer our prayers?” 

The tornado that destroyed Tuscaloosa and West Jefferson County tracked 180 miles across Alabama.  We live in a span of about the only 30 miles in which it did not touch down.  As it passed our home the air was still, then green, then violent, then black as night, then light as day.  For about 30 minutes before and after it passed roof shingles, sheet metal, splintered wood, insulation, and paper fell from the sky.  My wife found a $6,000 check in our driveway.  The moment was surreal.  I had no doubt that God had done something for us, but as I picked up the pieces of other people’s lives raining down on my yard I wondered, “What had God done for them?”

I know thousands of people across that 180 mile stretch of death prayed as hard as we did and believed just as much as we did.  Some of them are dead.  Some of them lost everything.  Some of them, like us, rejoiced that we were spared.  Situations like this foster questions from both believers and skeptics.  My wife heard a woman on the radio crying asking why God didn’t answer the prayers of the people who died?  As she ripped through her list of questions she rattled off, “Did they not have enough faith?”  Some people call tornados an act of God.  Insurance companies do.  Some people see them as so random and unforgiving that they conclude there cannot possibly be a God. 

How do we make sense of a storm?

For some it may be way too early to read this.  For others it may be too late.  Yet I write this so that you may “Feel my Faith” and perhaps to help those of you who find this on time to sort through what you feel, and perhaps find some Biblical basis for it all.  If the Bible promised us what many preachers have tried, that if you have enough faith, do right, and believe God then all things will be wonderful – then Wednesday would have made me an atheist.  Yet the Bible is more honest about life and its storms than many Bible Belt preachers have been over the last few decades.  The Bible is full of storms and God.  In fact, Jesus used the illustration of a devastating storm as the concluding illustration of what many regard to be His most famous teaching, The Sermon on the Mount. 

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”  Matthew 7:24-27

The Bible is honest enough to tell us that there will be storms and we are candidates to be materially devastated no matter what we believe or how much or how little faith we have.  In 180 miles atheists, agnostics, preachers, babies, mothers, Christians, and otherwise all died in the storm.  We live in a world that was devastated by sin long before it was devastated by storms.  These moments are a part of our story.  Because we live so small we fail to realize there is evil everyday.  There are pockets of the world in which people are swept away by the hundreds and we simply sleep, or watch football, or eat burgers.  It could be argued that our daily indifference is evil.  At the very least storms reveal to us that we are unaware and bank too much on what is totally insecure.  Jesus interprets the true power of the storm.  Storms have nothing to do with what buildings are made of.  We have yet to build one strong enough to withstand the storm.  Storms are about what we are made of.  Storms make us question what we believe.  That is what we are doing.  Storms are also a litmus test to tell us whether what we believe is strong enough to help us make sense of reality and survive.

The Bible is honest about the reality of storms.  We live in a sin scarred world.  The Bible is also honest in telling us that none of us have ever suffered from the evil in this planet like God has.  God lost His Son in an incredibly unjust storm.  The storm of the crucifixion had nothing to do with weather, but people.  The wrath of man that Jesus suffered was unpredictable, unrelenting, and unforgiving.  Yet in the midst of the storm, He forgave us (Luke 23:34).  That moment changed everything for us.  Then the meaning of that moment was secured when Jesus rose from the dead.  The honesty of the Bible is that everything about this life and the planet that hosts us has gone wrong due to sin.  There will be storms.  The honesty of the gospel is that there is coming a day when everything will be made right in Jesus.  When this happens, there will never be another storm.  The hope of the gospel is that everything we experience in this life is temporary.  Storms prove that the size of your home is inconsequential.  Yet, the decisions we make, the way we respond, the things we believe are eternally consequential.  The gospel gives us hope that there is eternal life; immune from pandemic, safe from the storm, victorious over death, Hell, and the grave.  What was taken from us on Wednesday, in Christ, can be returned, raised, and redeemed.  If we die in Him, we will live again. 

What did God do for us in the storm?  There is no accurate way to use the storm to prove or honestly question whether there is a God, though many will try.  The crucifixion settled the question of theodicy.  We constantly resurrect it.  The news media will continue to flash before us the death toll.  Has anyone taken the time to count the miracles?  Those stories will emerge, but will they be reported?  Yet none of this will help us make sense of the storm.  We will never be able to adequately calculate the ways of God.  So how do we make sense of this?  We realize that sin has devastated the world.  The storm is only symptomatic of a greater problem.  As long as this world continues as it is, we will rebuild, and other storms will come and destroy what we have done.  We will never engineer something eternal and we will never become immortal.  Storms are not about stuff, storms are about people.  They reveal whether we believe in something strong enough to endure, that give us hope beyond the grave, that places our values in something greater than things that can be easily blown away.  Storms teach us that ultimately nothing in this life is secure.

So I stood there praying, looking at my family, wondering if this would be the last time I would see them on this side of the storm.  When I saw the tornado hit Tuscaloosa I knew that no matter who I was, or how I prayed, the reality was that I too was a candidate to suffer great loss.  In that moment all I had was the gospel.  I knew that if we lost everything, our home, our church building . . . that everything would be fine.  I knew that if I lost my family, I would be devastated, but they would be fine.  I knew that if I died, they would be devastated, but they would know that I was fine.  Whether we lived or died, with our lives hanging in the balance we too could say with confidence as Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).”  That is how we made sense of the storm and will continue to do so. 

May the people of God rise up and help one another recover and to make sense of the storm.  And may the days ahead be filled with love, recovery, healing, and the gospel.

A Leader to Take You Back

Where you are headed? If you continue with your current set of habits, routines, and attitudes where will you be next year, in five years, in ten years?  What are your goals, ambitions, dreams?  If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.

If it seems to you that your current state of affairs are going nowhere I want to ask you a critical question that may enlighten you to the cause of your circumstances.  Who is your leader?  
We need people of progress to influence our lives.  We need people in our lives who are where we want to be.  We need voices that help keep us on course, introduce us to new ideas, press us into greater possibilities.  The problem with a life that is going nowhere is that at some point a critical mistake was made.  We chose a leader to take us back.
In Numbers 13 Israel stood on the border of the Promised Land.  They sent spies to scout out the land and found that it was just as God had promised.  Even though the land was fruitful it was also full of opposition.  Their fear magnified the challenge and a land that was full of milk and honey became a land that would devour them (13:32).  Fear has a way of making us feel very small (13:33).  
Full of discouragement, the people wanted to choose a leader who would take them back to Egypt (13:4).  This was a critical mistake.  The people never moved forward.  They never even made it back.  Instead they marched themselves to death in the middle of nowhere. 
A leader who will take you back will listen to you.  He will not challenge you to face your fears.  He will not rock the boat.  A leader who will take you back wants you to be happy.  They are willing to stop and rethink everything just because you are upset.  They will never ask you to do more than you feel comfortable doing.  A leader to take you back will allow you to vote on vision.  If these agreeable souls are the people who influence your life, I know where you are going.  You are going nowhere.
I have had some incredible leaders in my life to whom I owe a great deal.  You may be surprised that I found every one of them to be incredibly irritating at critical moments of my journey.  They wouldn’t listen to me.  I didn’t have a vote.  They were not concerned with how I felt.  They didn’t ask for my input.  Looking back; I was afraid, compromising, comfortable, skeptical, critical – looking for an easier way.  I’m glad they didn’t ask!  I would have voted to go back.
The more I read the more I realize that some of the greatest decisions made in human history came from leaders who were under  great deal of pressure to go back.  Thankfully, “back” is not somewhere they were willing to go.  Most of the time they came across as arrogant, condescending, even uncaring.  Yet what it was really all about is that great leaders don’t allow fear to have a vote.  
We make a huge mistake when we turn away from people who won’t listen to us.  We need someone to get in our grill and show us how to move forward.  Don’t surround yourself with people who will always sympathize with you.  Invite someone who is where you want to be to come into your life and irritate you, to make you mad, to punch you in the gut from time to time.  Perhaps we need less friends and more people willing to drag us up a rock laden hill kicking and screaming.
One of my favorite scenes from The Cosby Show was one where Theo thought he was giving a great, well reasoned speech to his father Dr. Huxtable (played by Bill Cosby).  Theo’s passion made it seem as if he had trumped his dad and that for the moment the child had greater wisdom than the father.  The speech ended and the “live studio audience” even seemed to applaud (if the applause was in fact real).  Cosby played the moment perfectly, standing there in still silence.  When the applause subsided Cosby gave the scene yet another pause as if he was going to stand down to the boy.  Dr. Huxtable then retorted to the son, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”  That’s the kind of influencers we need in our lives.  People who can discern the difference in emotion and truth.  We need people who aren’t afraid to look us in the face and tell us, “That’s stupid!”
Find someone who has done great things for God, who doesn’t care what you think, or feel, or fear – and follow them – and love them for it!  These are the people who will move you forward.   

Harvest Hope

There is a pattern characteristic to many Psalms.  The Psalmist voices a prayer or a concern as in Psalm 43, “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against ungodly people . . .”  There is an expression of frustration and confusion as God does not seem to act quickly enough, “For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me?”  Even though He is discouraged, the Psalmist makes a request of God knowing full well what God can do, “Send our your light and your truth; let them lead me.”  The writer then ends the Psalm with a note of hope that encourages him in the trial, “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

During the good seasons of our lives it is important to harvest hope.

It is not difficult to call life to a halt and wrestle with God when we do not like the current circumstances.  When we need vindication.  When we need defense.  When we are falsely accused or people have faulty perceptions of who we are.  When our accounts are low.  When health fails . . .we know exactly how darkness feels.  We are well acquainted with these seasons and we feel incredibly free to go to God with the solemn prayer, “WHAT’S THE DEAL?”

God pauses.  Nothing is said in return.  The dark season continues.  Why, God?

Unfortunately for us the Psalmist never figures out why God pauses, but he does something that is critically important to our faithfulness.  The Psalmist pulls from harvested hope.  Even though life is difficult, he always has a memory of something he has held onto that encourages his faithfulness.  In Psalm 43 his harvested hope appears in verse 4, “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.”  Because he has experienced God’s blessings in the past he can pray with confidence, “Send our your light . . .let them bring me to your holy hill.”  He has been there before.  He harvested the experience and so now even in discouragement and frustration he is able to pray with confidence and stay faithful.

When life is good, harvest hope.  Can it.  Preserve it.  Put it on the shelf.  Save it for later!

Acquaint yourself well with the blessings of God.  Praise Him for what He has done for you.  PULL OUT YOUR LYRE (or your banjo, the latest Passion CD, an old Petra album, whichever is convenient) AND PLAY BABY PLAY!  Harvest a song.  Harvest a feeling.  Harvest a memory.  Harvest TRUTH!  Memorize a verse.  You will need it.  Discouraging times will come again and inexplicably God will pause even though we  fervently pray.  Yet you can remain faithful because you can sustain yourself from harvested hope, knowing what God has done, He will do again.

Harvest hope.