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Posts Tagged ‘God’s priorities’

istock_000008220916medium1Although my family didn’t attend church while I was growing up, we did have one tradition that echoed our protestant heritage. Every Sunday dinner, we said grace. It was a prayer that many of you will recognize: “For what we’re about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful”. In my young mind, I thought that somehow, reciting these words – hands folded, eyes closed – was a necessary accompaniment to roast beef and yorkshire pudding. It was a special meal, true enough, and we ate it at the dining room table instead of in the kitchen, using the good china and silverware. It never crossed my mind to consider why we didn’t ask God to make us truly thankful for dinner the rest of the week.

Now that I’ve grown up and have had the life-altering experience of falling in love with Jesus, these early memories are especially precious to me. I love to imagine that although I had no real idea what I was praying or to whom, God was smiling down on the scene in our dining room each Sunday. He knew that one day I would know Him well. He knew that as I surrendered my life to Him, I would be thankful in ways that would’ve been incomprehensible to me not long ago.

If you think about the words of that prayer, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. It’s easy to say, “for what we’re about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful” when you’re anticipating something good, delicious or desirable. But can we pray the same words when what we’re about to receive is unclear or frightening? We think we know what will happen tomorrow – we make plans, expect certain things to happen in a certain way. When things don’t go as we had hoped, it can be pretty unsettling. We may even feel annoyed with God. “Lord, don’t You love me? Then why don’t You (fill in the blank)?” Can we trust Him enough to surrender our plans, fears and doubts, and let Him use the hard, barren seasons of life to change us? Can we accept the words of Romans 8:28, “and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose”, when the things He is working in and through are deeply painful?

Maybe the issue here is really about control. Who is in control in my life? Am I ‘god’, or is God in charge? Do I trust Him to order my steps, not just in words, but in how I react when I don’t get my own way, when I don’t understand what’s happening and I wonder where He is? Our life on earth is a tiny blip on the radar screen of eternity. This is where we learn to trust God, to love and give and serve with gratitude for the life He has given us. It’s the training ground for our real life, which begins after we die.

Lord, make us truly thankful in every circumstance. Help us to understand the inexpressible magnitude of Your love for us, a love that always has our best interests at heart. That doesn’t mean our lives will be free of pain and suffering. What it does mean is that You will be with us in every trial, every dark hour, and that You really do work all things for the good of those who love You and are called according to Your purpose – Your purpose, not ours. As much as we might like to think that His purpose revolves around our comfort and well being, God’s perspective is quite different. He sees the big picture in a way we can’t possibly comprehend. He is much more concerned with our growth and transformation than He is with giving us everything we want in this life.

Have you recently received something in your life that is unwelcome – bad news, sickness, the loss of a job, a broken relationship? One of the keys to getting through life’s hard times is to keep your focus on God. A favourite scripture of mine is Hebrews 12:2 – “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus was in very nature God, but He humbled himself, coming to earth as a human being. He understands our weakness; the Bible describes Him as “a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering”. As He approached Calvary, the scriptures say, “and being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly…Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42,44)

Jesus knew that His submission to God’s will was necessary to fulfill a larger plan. If you find yourself in a dark valley, facing a cup you don’t want to drink, pray for deliverance, but even more, pray for endurance. God will carry us through life’s valleys if we continue to trust in His goodness. When we view challenging circumstances this way, we can find real comfort in the words Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

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istock_000005464814xsmallI remember my first love. I remember the ones after my first love, but not as vividly, as beautifully, as gut-wrenchingly. I was 18 and she was 16. Yes, I said “she”, because at that time I was exclusively attracted to women. My encounter with Jesus was still in the distant future. We met one summer at a camp where we were both working. Tess was animated, beautiful, smart, and she loved to laugh. She “made the first move”, and I was instantly smitten. I had never been with anyone before, male or female, and the desire in my heart to love and be loved was strong. I really didn’t know how strong it was until Tess came along. I could think of nothing and no one else. We continued to see each other in the city after summer ended. I lived to talk to her on the phone, to see her, to be with her. All the classic hallmarks of a “first love” were there. When she broke up with me I was completely shattered. My world literally fell apart.

Do you remember your first love? I think we all have a story something like mine. If you grew up in a Christian family, you may even have married your first love. Either way, there’s no forgetting the excitement, the hunger and the passion of your first romance.

I remember when I fell in love with Jesus, too. I was completely smitten. I couldn’t get enough of Him. The joy, the peace, the euphoria of His presence and His love made for a powerful, beautiful, almost sacred mix of emotions. My main desire was to spend time with Him and to read the Bible. I remember praying when I hardly understood what that meant. A friend of mine explained that praying was basically talking to Jesus. I talked to Him all the time. Sometimes He seemed so near that I was sure He was sitting beside me on the bed. The first year after I gave my heart to the Lord was in many ways the time when I felt closest to Him. I wasn’t going to church, but I read the bible voraciously, I talked to Jesus – I woke up every day excited about our deepening relationship.

The sense of euphoria and excitement that I had in my early walk with Jesus hasn’t been matched since then, and I have often wondered why. It could simply be that my relationship with Him has matured. I know He’s in it for the long haul, and so am I. Or maybe it’s similar to the process of weaning a baby, learning to walk by faith, not by sight. After all, if you give a baby everything they want every time they cry, they’ll never grow up. But I think there might be another explanation as well: In our culture, “Christianity” and “churchianity” are two different things, but they often get confused. Even in evangelical churches where a personal relationship with Christ is emphasized, it’s easy to get focused on church activities, on “doing” rather than “being”. I suppose the story of Mary and Martha is in the Bible for a reason. Martha was so busy doing things for God that she lost her focus on God. Jesus said Mary had made the better choice by sitting at His feet, listening to Him.

Obviously if we spent all our time sitting at Jesus’ feet and never “did” anything, the gospel wouldn’t have spread across the world like it has. It’s clear that Jesus told His disciples, and us by extension, to do many things – to go into all the world, to preach the gospel, to love one another, to pray, to care for orphans and widows. But I can’t overcome this strange feeling that a lot of what goes on at church isn’t about Jesus, it’s about tradition, it’s about church. I think maybe we’ve moved away from the simplicity of the gospel and made following Jesus into something more complicated than it is.

I know that some of you will not care for what I’m saying here. I happen to believe that asking questions is a good thing. Why do we do things the way we do them at church? I read a book this summer that really opened my eyes on this subject, Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, it is a fascinating book. I have no desire to “bash” institutional Christianity, but history tells us that in the past 2000 years, the church has undergone many seasons of reformation and it will probably continue to do so.

One aspect of institutional Christianity that I think is particularly damaging to the overall health of the Body is the professionalization of ministry. I don’t see this modeled in the early years of the church. It seems to me that it results in two things: first, money being poured into salaries and infrastructure that could be spent elsewhere (missions and outreach, for example); and second, the false notion that only “professionals” can be in ministry, leaving the majority of the Body passively watching from the sidelines, their natural and spiritual gifts undeveloped and unused.

In my first year after giving my heart and life to Jesus, I came to know Him intimately through reading the Bible, talking to Him and hearing His voice through the Holy Spirit. When I began to attend church, I learned all the rules and customs that we associate with Sunday services – how to greet people, how to dress and act, when to sit, when to stand, when to give your tithes & how much to give, when to clap and when not to, how to worship (I went to churches of various denominations in the first few years, so this was a real learning curve!) – and of course I came into contact with fellow Christians, which was a good thing, for the most part. I fully believe that we need each other and that God molds us in and through relationships. It’s not the meeting together part of church that concerns me; it’s how we meet and what we claim our gatherings are. If we call something a “worship service”, we’d better be sure we’re worshiping Jesus, not something or someone else – including ourselves.

I don’t think anyone who truly loves the Lord and wants to glorify Him with their life will find my words offensive. We should continually examine our hearts to make sure we’re seeking to do God’s will, to the best of our ability, with the right motives. Read the words that Jesus spoke to the church at Ephesus in the book of Revelation:

“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”

The Christians in first century Ephesus were doing all the right things, but they seem to have lost sight of why they were doing them and for whom. Does this sound familiar at all? I may be an exceptional case, but I often question what motivates me to do “good” things. I’d like to believe that everything I do is done in the service of God, to bring Him glory, to “be Jesus” to a dying world. I think the truth is that we all have mixed motives, whether we realize it or not.

When my life on earth is over and I stand before Jesus, I hope to hear Him say, “well done, good and faithful servant”. The last thing I want is for Jesus to tell me that I missed the mark, I was so busy doing “good deeds” that I lost my connection with Him. Without Him we can do nothing, at least nothing of eternal value. If Jesus visited your church next Sunday, would He say, “well done”, or would He say, “I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love”?

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istock_000007202737xsmall1Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to play and sing some of my songs at a ladies’ ministry event at church. Music has been my passion for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of hearing a Burt Bacharach song, “This Guy’s In Love”, on the car radio while out shopping with my mom. What I remember was how it made me feel – the emotion that welled up in my five-year-old heart was powerful, and I’ve never forgotten that feeling.

When I was about nine, mom “forced me” to take piano lessons. I laugh as I type these words, because the story has become part of our family lore. I was a tomboy, and to me, playing piano was a very “girly” thing, so I didn’t want anything to do with it. I guess mom, in her wisdom and foresight, knew that being able to play the piano and read music was a good thing, so she devised a plan. My passion at that point was hockey and I played in a girls’ league. Mom said, “if you want to play hockey, you have to take piano lessons!” So I did. I am eternally grateful to her!

In my teen years I began to play the guitar. I guess in some ways I was trying to forge my own path, to differentiate myself from what I thought mom wanted for me. Playing guitar struck me as being decidedly more “cool” than playing piano. For one thing, most rock stars played guitar. Before long I set my sights on becoming a rock star. Music was the one thing in life that I really loved doing, so this seemed like a reasonable goal to me. My parents were naturally horrified. They wanted their children to attend university and have stable, middle-class careers – and I don’t blame them now. I can completely understand. The trouble was, I felt like a square peg being forced into a round hole. My passion, the thing that made my heart beat, was music – playing, singing, songwriting.

I think you could argue that frequently, people who are drawn to performing are unconsciously trying to meet a need for acceptance, approval, and love. I know this was true in my case. Insecurity was a big part of what drove me to pursue rock stardom. At a very basic level, I was hungering for love and acceptance. This can create big problems, because audiences don’t always respond positively to what you’re doing. It’s almost like giving someone your heart and having them crush it underfoot. Through my teens and twenties I pursued my goal, playing in a variety of bands on the “Queen St. West” circuit in Toronto. I even had my own band at one point. In the late 1980’s I became disillusioned and decided pursue a “real” career. I never did become a rock star.

I brought my dreams of rock stardom with me when I became a follower of Christ in 1995. I don’t mean that I tried to become a Christian rock star, but I had no other way to “frame” music, and I came to Jesus in my broken state – insecure, unsure of who I was, hungry for love – not even sure what “love” meant. My pursuit of love and acceptance was tightly bound up with music and performance. I “got” the concept that our gifts are from God and we are to use them to bring Him glory, but intellectual understanding wasn’t what I needed. What I needed was heart surgery. The cure for my broken, desperate heart could never be found in the approval of others. Even if my pursuit of stardom all those years ago had been successful, it wouldn’t have made any difference. The more I looked to God for my sense of value and worth, the more sure of this I became.

Yesterday morning when I played my songs at church, I felt so thankful for the opportunity to share what God has given me. Without His intervention in my life, I would never even have been there. I sat on the stage with my guitar, closed my eyes, and sang to and about my beautiful Jesus. It wasn’t a perfect “performance”; I was nervous; I’m not a professional worship leader or a trained public speaker – but somehow the Lord took my imperfect offering and used it to bless the women there. I think that’s the essence of how God accomplishes His goals and plans. He prompts us to “step out of the boat” when we feel unsure, when we don’t have it all together, when we know we’re going to fall flat on our faces if He doesn’t show up – and He works through our weakness. That’s why God said to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Even though it’s nice to be praised and appreciated by others for our talents, the issue of motivation is key. If my aim yesterday was to build myself up, to impress everyone with my music so that they’d compliment me, to make me feel “okay” about myself, that would’ve been sort of like an addict looking for their next “fix” – not that another hit of approval would make any difference in that case. If my aim was to share with others what God has given to me in order to bless them and bring Him glory, then I’m on the right track. I am learning more and more that it’s God’s approval I need. I’m learning, with His help, to live before an audience of One.

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There are certain themes that I return to again and again on my journey. One that figures prominently for me is a deep-seated sense of being on the outside looking in, of being different, of not belonging – and the conviction, deep in my heart, that I never will. This type of self-perception is extremely tenacious, rooted in life experiences and my reaction to them that probably precedes my ability to remember.

On one hand, I really want to belong, and some of my behaviour is no doubt unconsciously driven by this desire. On the other, being an “outsider” isn’t all bad. It fosters a perspective that can be very helpful in relating to people who don’t know Jesus – the type of people who would never walk through the doors of a church because they feel like misfits.

I emailed a friend last night and asked her to keep praying for me. Those familiar voices were invading my thoughts again, the inner voice of a little girl who grew up feeling different and ashamed – “you will never fit in, you’ll always be on the outside looking in”. As I reflect on all of this today, I’m actually thanking God for my uniqueness. What needs to go is the shame. I get a lot of encouragement from thinking about Jesus. He didn’t fit in. The religious authorities rejected him completely, to the point of a mock trial that ended in his crucifixion outside the city walls. Jesus invested himself mainly in sinners, losers and outsiders.

It’s so easy to become complacent as a Christian, especially in our part of the world. I suppose you could say that many people who attend church regularly do so because they want the comfort of belonging. But church was never meant to be inwardly focused. We may draw comfort from journeying together with shared beliefs and values, but if the main point of our existence isn’t outreach, something’s wrong.

I was reading an excellent blog, Bridging The Gap, which contains a quote from Jean Vanier:

“When religion closes people up in their own particular group, it puts belonging to the group, and its success and growth, above love and vulnerability towards others; it no longer nourishes and opens the heart. When this happens, religion becomes an ideology, that is to say, a series of ideas that we impose on ourselves, as well as on others; it closes us up behind walls. When religion helps us to open our hearts in love and compassion to those who are not of our faith so as to help them to find the source of freedom within their own hearts and to grow in compassion and love of others, then this religion is a source of life”

Help us all, Lord, to have your priorities as we gather together in your name – not so much to focus on our own needs, but to venture outside the city walls and extend your love to outsiders.

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It’s easy to say all sorts of charitable sounding things about “having a heart for the lost” or “reaching out to broken people with God’s love”, but when it comes right down to the actual doing, we often fall short – I know I do. So instead of trying to talk ourselves into being soul-winners, having another sermon/pep rally on the subject, why don’t we ask God to give us His heart for people? I’ve been a Christian for quite a while now, but I still find my flesh is mainly concerned with its own comfort. It’s dying a slow death! God can do on the inside of us what we can never accomplish through our own efforts. So I’m gonna start praying for God to change my heart so that His priorities are my priorities in life. Could be an interesting experiment! Think on it for a minute. Would we be flying through our day at a manic pace if we had God’s priorities? Or would we be mainly focused on spending time with the people we encounter? I think one of the most radical things you can do in this day & age is to give someone your full attention and listen to them! God help me. I can’t get over the number of people who are surprised when you treat them with kindness. It’s so simple, but you have to be intentional about it. 

Anyway, God is the gardener of our hearts. I pray that whatever season your heart is in, you’ll be willing to let Him plant His priorities in you, so that you can bear greater and more excellent fruit. And I pray the same for myself.

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