Blog

In Memoriam: Robert "Bob" Fenn

From a very simple beginning in 1954, amazing things happened when God called a man named Robert Godfrey Fenn, to organize a simple conference to learn more about men and women understanding their faith and finding places of ministry…

I first learned about Lay Renewal when a man named Joe Schluchter came to a church where I was serving as a Youth Director. I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but I began to see how God could be at work in what we were doing. But honestly, I had no idea Joe was from Lay Renewal. Nothing about that event had been about the ministry. It was all about God and His plan for our specific church.

Not long after that, I felt it was time to leave seminary and pursue other work. Tom and Ruth Donner approached me with Trulah Monroe (people I knew from church) and asked if I wanted to interview for a position running the Resource Center bookstore. I knew two things: I needed a job and I liked to eat.

That day, almost 23 years ago, I learned the saying, “God loves you and Bob Fenn has a plan for your life.

The interview was, well, odd. I had my suit and my resume. I had rehearsed questions and answers in my mind. Those things seemed insignificant. What mattered? Bob wanted to tell me how, if I was called to serve through Lay Renewal, I could serve God by using my gifts and talents through the ministry. It wasn’t how qualified I was. It was whether or not God had called me there. I went home and told Diana, my bride, how excited I was! We prayed and God opened the door.   

As I look back, the list of the things I learned from Bob, this mighty man of God, is long. To be honest, I was not very smart. Granted, I knew stuff, but I just wasn’t that smart. Over those next several years, Bob taught me as only a man who is seeking to follow God’s heart can teach and disciple a very immature person. Want to hear some stories?

One day, a truck pulled up and dropped off a pallet of books. I immediately ran back to start unloading it. I was a guy in my late 20s and this was the job for me! Imagine my shock as Bob and his beautiful wife, Delores, told me they would do it. They were both in their 70s. Delores was a very petite woman. I thought, “Are you kidding me?” But, as I observed this dynamic duo, I saw love and grace at work. They worked as one to demolish box after box after box. As I learned over the years, they weren’t perfect, but they were amazing as a couple bonded in Christ and marriage.

And then there was the day I learned that Bob’s desk was made of a door. Not “made” of a door – like someone had cut up pieces artistically and reshaped them as a door. His desk was literally a door on top of a couple of small filing cabinets. There were options but he was simply practical. He needed a workspace – not a fancy desk. The door was available and Viola!

Bob had an incredible gift of encouragement. I came to him one day with a crazy plan to pick up and “180” the counter in the Resource Center. I wanted to create a more inviting entry. On paper, the exact specifics were a bit, well, fuzzy. However, I could see it all in my head and, when I told Bob that I knew that it would work, he told me to go for it. It worked beautifully! (Thank you, Lord!)

LRM stocked Christian books in a secular business on what is called a “racking” program. One day, I remarked how some of the books were “bubble gum” (meaning in a rather derogatory way that they were good for a few sweet minutes of chewing, but then totally lacking anything that lasts). However, Bob gently reminded me that there was always “the right book, at the right time, for the right person”. While he probably should have rebuked my judgmental attitude, he instead reminded me of grace.

And, speaking of those Christian book racks, in yet another refirement (in his 70s), Bob took on the job of caring for those racks himself. He would drive (60+ miles depending on the location) to the thirteen different stores, check inventory, pull old products, and put in new ones. He did this until the chain sold in 1999. He re-fired again in yet another role at LRM with a Turn-Around Church program.  Finally, at 78, he and Delores moved back to Dallas.

Over the years, I tried to call him regularly. He was one of the few people I called when I was asked by a church in St Louis to begin serving bi-vocationally. Honestly, I was hoping he would tell me no. As Executive Director of Lay Renewal, I thought I had no place in pastoral ministry. (You know, the whole “lay”, non-ordained thing!) And yet, his “YES!” was crystal clear. He told me I would learn so much that I could then use in the churches we were serving. I’m still not sure I believed him at the time, but his prognostication has proven so unbelievably accurate. One pastor told me, “It’s easier to talk because you are one of us.” (And I also love the church family I am so blessed to serve!)

The frequency of those calls to Bob decreased over the years, but I still did my best to stay in touch. Last year, on a trip to Houston, I was able to connect through Dallas. I left the airport and drove over to have lunch and catch up. It was a good visit, but I could tell that he was getting tired. Some of our conversation began to repeat. It was challenging, even when we spoke last month, to understand that my mentor, a spiritual father, was struggling so much…

Even in those struggles, I could always hear the smile in his voice. He provided encouragement and a calling to persevere. He continued to ask probing questions and share blessings: Have you tried this? Good idea. Have you tried that? That’s wonderful! Do you still talk to…?

I can still hear the sound of his voice exhorting me to push forward. To keep seeking God’s direction. To be bold and courageous. To keep following the Spirit’s prompting. To keep sharing the beautiful, wonderful, inexplicable – and yet mysteriously simple – Gospel to anyone who will listen.

Over two decades later, I still look back and wonder why he was willing to take a chance on me. I still wonder why he put up with my goofy ideas to move things, invite authors in, to take a risk on a conference, to talk to the GM at a radio station about a program, to not kick me to the curb if an idea flopped, to give me encouragement to try another ridiculous, outlandish, and crazy thing…

<<sigh>>

I’ve written only about how God worked through Bob in my life. Perhaps that is selfish, but as I try to celebrate his Home-going balanced with my personal loss, that’s my focus. I want you to know the heart, soul, and passion of this great man of God as I knew him. I want you to love him too – even if you never met him.

There is so much more that could be shared about Bob and Delores’ family. They were blessed with FIVE daughters and many grandchildren.

There is so much more that could be shared about those they connected with over the years. At the first book conference I attended with Bob, I was in a bit of awe as I heard story after story of things he had done and people with whom he had connected. And yet, he never said anything to brag. It was just a collection of ways God was at work.

There is so much more that could be shared about the lives that he touched as he faithfully walked where God called him. I am frequently hearing from person after person after person who knew him, loved him, and were blessed by him. During a book conference one year, I met Geoff Moore. If you don’t recognize his name, he wrote many Christian songs – including the one that my wife and I danced to at our wedding. It was nice to meet him in person and even more of a blessing when he told me that he received Christ as a result of a lay renewal event. While he had not been there, the church had been so impacted and transformed that he went there and heard the Gospel.

Can you imagine the threads of connection? Can you imagine the grand tapestry of faith because one man answered the Call? Can you imagine how one changed life became dozens of changed lives? And how those dozens became hundreds? Then thousands? Then tens of thousands?

Bob Fenn was an incredible man of God whose legacy will continue. He wasn’t flashy or fancy. He wasn’t in it for “Bob Fenn”. He simply wanted to see God glorified.

He will be greatly missed. But his legacy will live on as long as more men and women continue to answer the Call to step forward in faith. I don’t think Bob would have wanted anything more.

Robert Godfrey Fenn – January 23, 1926 – March 21, 2019

Bob Fenn  .jpg

A 17-mile distance of 343 miles...

What if I told you that two churches were 17 miles apart? If we held a meeting between those two churches, it would take roughly 15-20 minutes to go from one to the other, right?

Nope.

If you drove, it would take 343 miles to make the commute. These two churches, located in Alaska, are best traveled to by water or air.

For me, that is a pretty solid illustration of a dilemma we often see in churches. Two people, sitting only a few pews apart, are radically separated by other obstacles. One of those may be a pain from years past. Another might be a perceived slight from only a week ago. Yet one more is due only to a passing glance – received as something greater. And then they both wonder why the church is stuck and their own spiritual growth is lacking…

How often is a “God-movement” RIGHT THERE and yet so far away?

The LRM team has been working to expand our connections with churches, pastors, and leaders around the country. We’ve begun to work cooperatively with an organization in Colorado that assists churches with communication and outreach. Our goal is simple: TO SERVE MORE CHURCHES! But there is a problem…

--- Complacency ---

I get it. I really do. I think a good (but not perfect) synonym for complacency is comfort. If it is hot, we seek to cool off. If it is cold, we seek warmth. If we are hungry, we seek food. If we are sad, we seek happiness. On and on it goes as we seek to move away from the negative to the positive. But…

The problem comes up when we seek to LIVE in the “comfort”. The problem comes up when we seek to exist where things are simple, and nice, and peaceful, and don’t cause any disturbance to our bubble. And that’s where comfort takes a horribly wretched turn into complacency.

Take my first example of the churches in Alaska. Imagine you love your car and it is your favorite way to travel. You like the seat warmer and the stereo system. It’s so nice to be in the familiar. (Because I drive more than 20,000 miles per year, I absolutely know what that is like!) However, if I want to go back and forth in one day, it wouldn’t make any sense to insist on driving, would it?

Does it make any sense to sit in anger and stare at the back of someone else’s head?

Does it make any sense to let a disagreement from years past to continue to choke out growth?

Does it make any sense to lose a Biblically-solid and compassionate pastor because you like your pew?

So, here’s my point. For 65 years, LRM has been serving churches in the Process of Renewal. We have been seeking to partner in ministry as men and women are renewed through the Power of the Holy Spirit to not only receive the gift of grace but to then go forward and serve as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. We’re not stopping!

As I was in Oklahoma last month, I spoke with pastors and leaders to encourage them to truly seek renewal. As I went to North Carolina next, I did the same thing with a local church family. We had team members – faithful responding servants from CA, NJ, NC, OH, PA, SC, and GA – likewise making that challenge to seek more of the Abundant Life Jesus offers.

--- Complacency is NOT an option! ---

The reality of walking with Christ is simple. Believe in faith. Live in faith. Don’t let the little (or seemingly big) things distract. Just press forward and let the Holy Spirit work through you.

Yours in Christ,

Marty



From a Silent Beginning to a VERY Loud Call to Respond

Imagine for a moment that you had to write a recommendation letter for your child. Or your spouse. Or your best friend. To be clear, I don’t mean imagine writing it just so they can get the job (or whatever). That’s easy to write something that is both true and “well-spun”.

1998 baby boy

Way, way back when

Only imagining the future…

I had to write one recently for my son as he was applying for a college scholarship. Honestly, I’d never heard of this and I wasn’t sure where to begin. But, after a lot of thought and prayer, I did my best to present an honest and clear representation of the love, respect, and admiration I have for my son. (Yes, I should do one for my daughter too. Another day!)

But I was thinking of this as I was studying John the Baptist. His father, Zachariah, had to compose something for his son. If you’ve read the account in Luke 1, you know that when Zachariah was told of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, he laughed and doubted the angel. He was then struck mute as a consequence of doubting God.

For months, he was unable to speak. For months, he communicated only through gestures and a tablet. (Not the kind you think. “Apple” was a fruit back then – not a tech giant!) And when his son was born, he wrote, “His name shall be John”. He was then able to speak. Instead of launching into all of the stuff he’d kept pent up for so long, he burst out in a song of praise! His words included a bit of future-highlights of the life of his newborn son:

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1: 76-79

I know most parents hold pretty high expectations for their children, but WOW!

So, what was John like?

We don’t know about his childhood years. When we meet him, he seems like a bit of a crazy-man. He’s wearing clothing made out of camel hair and has a leather belt. His regular diet consists of locusts and honey. He doesn’t hang out in the Temple area. Instead, he preaches by the Jordan River and baptizes people who repent.

(If you flip on the television on a Sunday morning and watch one of the preachers, can you imagine any of them doing that?)

Now, if you read my last post, you probably can guess that I’m going to say that there was a point to this. And you are correct.

If we rewind (which gives us both culture and context), we need to head back to around 175 BC in Greece. The king, Antiochus IV, wanted to conquer Egypt. To do so, he wanted to calm things down and bring people together. But, in bringing people together, he wanted to erase who they were. The process was called “Hellenization”, meaning to make people Greek.

A key target of this was the Jewish people. As we know, the Diaspora, or the Scattering, was done when the Jewish people were taken captive by Babylon. That resulted in God’s people being all over the place – including Egypt. Regardless, the center of Judaism was Jerusalem. It’s kind of like the fact that there are baseball fans all over the globe, but Baseball Heaven is right here in St. Louis.

Antiochus’ plan was to replace the high priest in Jerusalem with someone who was loyal to him. Even though this may not sound like a big deal, from Scripture, it’s easy to see why this might be a problem. God had given very clear instructions on who could be the high priest. While the first step in the lineage was to be from the tribe of Levi, God had then given different roles for the family. High priests could only come from the line of Zadok. He was a son of Eleazer, who was a son of Aaron, the brother of Moses.

Antiochus put a man named Joshua in place as the high priest. If you want to know whether or not Joshua followed Antiochus or not, it’s worth noting that the first thing Joshua did was change his name to Jason, a Greek name.

Lots of things happened in the years that followed, including a shift of power from Greece to Rome, but to jump to the time of Jesus, the high priest was appointed by Herod. [He was from the line of Esau, the brother of Jacob. Jacob’s line was the one from whom the twelve tribes came – included the tribe of Levi (priests) and Judah (the prophesied line of the Messiah)].

OK – Seriously. Why does any of that matter?

I’m glad you asked. Clothing can communicate a message. For example, last year, First Lady, Melania Trump wore a jacket that said, “I really don’t care. Do you?” Immediately, the press went crazy. What does it mean? What is she saying? And, regardless of whether or not they were right, answers were flying around.

Matthew’s Gospel has a very specific reason for mentioning clothing:

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. Matthew 3:4

John the Baptist was making a clear statement with what he wore and what he ate. [If you want to, check out 2nd Kings 1. The king of Israel, Ahaziah, fell and was injured. He sent some of his men to visit the prophets of Baal. As they were traveling, they met Elijah, the true prophet of God, who was wearing (insert drum roll) a garment of hair with a leather belt.]

Do you see? It’s not just a strange sense of fashion. John had a purpose. Elijah had spoken to a very corrupt nation and king. Turn around and follow God. Repent and stop sinning. John’s message was the same. I’m here, just like Elijah, to call you to repent. Knock off the sin and turn back to God. And guess what? The Messiah is coming!

And don’t forget the food. Elijah trusted in God to supply his food. John did the same. While John could have indulged in food from the Temple, he knew that corruption abounded there. From the priesthood to the junk happening in John 2, the food was NOT proper to eat. As unappealing as it might be, Leviticus 11: 20-23 tells us that locusts are considered ok to eat.

John came for a clear and specific reason. Remember? Even his dad realized this and sang a song about it! ;)

Matthew, writing this Gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wants to let his Jewish readers know all of the prophecies that had been fulfilled at the time of Christ. We read in the Gospel:

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Matthew 3: 1-3

Let’s hit a quick summary review.

·      The current church leadership and the Temple had been corrupted.

·      John came to call people to repent. He physically demonstrated repentance and following God.

·      The call to response was then up to the hearers.

So…

What are you going to do?

I realize we live 2,000 years later, but the Message hasn’t changed.

Follow God.

He loves you. He knows you won’t do it perfectly. And He still loves you.

The plain and simple truth is this: Sin has consequences. If you don’t like the word “sin”, then let me say it this way: Doing stupid things will have consequences. [If I speed in front of a police officer, I shouldn’t be shocked if I get a ticket.]

God is omniscient (all-knowing, all-seeing). He knows the stupid things you do. He knows you deserve the consequences.

And yet…

He loves you.

Jesus, God the Son, loves you. He gave His life for you. He took care of the punishment that we justly deserved.

That’s pretty cool.

The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, loves you. He lives in you now – to offer comfort, support, encouragement, and strength. 

So, rewind back to the beginning. What if you asked someone to write a letter of recommendation for you? Don’t think about what it would say. Think about what you would WANT it to say.

What can you do today so that, when that letter is written, it truly reflects who you want to be?

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Help me not lose hope... Please...

WP_20190124_15_38_09_Pro (2).jpg

Hope is a fragile thing

What can you do?

If I asked you to tell me a few significant events that happened in the 1860s, I imagine you might start with the Civil War. You might mention a few other things as well, but I doubt something like the Boshin War would spring to mind. Like me, your response would be: “What is the Boshin War?” (For the record, it was the time when the shoguns in Japan lost power and the Samurai class almost disappeared.)

The difference between the two is perspective.

If you are Japanese and living in Japan, you study “your own” history. That time period was extremely significant for the Japanese culture – as was the Civil War for our own Nation.

I mention these things because, to be honest, I’m starting to lose a little hope.

The United States has been in a partial government shut down for far too long. Rather than seeking to meet and find a solution, it’s turned into a “nah nah” type of battle with BOTH sides thumbing their noses.

Then, during this time, a photo surfaced of a young man “smirking” in the face of a Native American. Rather than seeking to know what happened, it became an extremely false narrative of distortion and twisted reality.

A video was shared with me that presented a bigger picture of the incident. When I saw others continuing to put forward the picture and false narrative, I attempted to engage in three conversations about it – asking people to use caution because of the potential of far reaching ramifications impacting so many.

The first person watched the other information and removed the post. The second person said they would explore it more. The last person (and others who chimed in) said no. I was a bit shocked by responses in the last group who went so far as to accuse of racism because of the hat worn by the young man and even tell me that everyone needs to learn something about interacting. (NOTE: Irony define: refuse to discuss something and then say that people need to learn how to interact…)

While I am smart enough to solve all of the world’s problems, I know my solutions would never be accepted. So, in that light, I’m going to ask us all to consider something completely different.

What’s up with Herod, Cleopatra, and a toddler?

Two thousand years ago, Herod, the leader of Judea, and Cleopatra, the co-regent of Egypt, got along. Then they didn’t. Then they sort-of did. But in that back-and-forth, the bottom-line was that they would have their own areas. Herod controlled what we call Israel and Cleopatra had Egypt. (Yes, I’m jumping over a LOT of detail.)

In light of that, there existed a “safe-zone” in Egypt if someone, say a father, mother, and toddle, needed to get out of danger. Say some evil guy (Herod) wanted to kill any boy two or under, and say some not-so-evil guy (Joseph) was told in a dream to take his wife and Child (Mary and Jesus) to safety, well, they would go to the safe zone.

And then, say the evil guy (Herod) died, and say the not-so-evil guy didn’t quite feel safe enough to go back to one place (Bethlehem) but instead chose to go to another place (Nazareth), well, would that mean anything?

I’d encourage you to read through Matthew 2:13-23 for the full narrative, but I would like to invite you to consider a few simple things that I think will help us all.

First and foremost, God is sovereign. Now, what does that mean?

Simply put, God is the King. He is the ultimate authority over time and space. He is in control.

To be clear, God, in His sovereignty and love, has chosen to give us free will. What does that mean?

HE LETS US SCREW THINGS UP!

If that is a bit too blunt for you, I’m sorry. But it’s true. He has chosen to allow us to sin, to make mistakes, to do the wrong thing.

That said, He also has chosen to bring good out of our free will.

Take the example of Herod. This guy was evil. He was twisted and sick and demented. He was also intelligent and powerful. As all of those things mixed together, he killed his mom, wife, three oldest sons, etc. This guy had serious issues. Come on! He ordered the slaughter of all the boys two and under in an entire area because he was afraid of a toddler!

And yet, God had known before the creation of time what Herod would do.

·        Hosea 11:1 told us that the Messiah would return from Egypt.

·        Jeremiah 31:15 told us that there would be a cause for great weeping in the region Herod ordered the slaughter.

·        Isaiah 11:1 told us that the Messiah would come out of Nazareth (branch).

Why didn’t God stop him? Why didn’t God stop Herod from being born?

That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works…

We should be grateful.

Are you shocked by that? Do you think I’m wrong? Do you think I’m crazy?

Let’s do what some call the “Flip Test”.

If you sin, if you make a mistake, if you do something wrong, then what should God do? Should God eliminate you? Or should God have never let you be born?

Before you counter with “well, I’m not as bad as Herod”, stop. Sin is sin is sin. Wrong is wrong is wrong.

Some applauded when a certain legislature approved abortions in the third trimester. For decades, the reality is clear. In the third trimester, a baby could be born prematurely and survive. There has been NO doubt that he or she is alive.

But now it’s okay to murder that living child…

And people applauded.

This is why I’m starting to lose a little hope.

It’s considered acceptable to take one photo and use it to ruin a teenager’s life, the family’s life, the school’s reputation…

It’s considered acceptable to call someone a racist because we don’t like the hat they are wearing.

It’s considered acceptable to murder an innocent, helpless, undeniable life.

But I still think we should be grateful that God allows us to have free will. In His amazing love and deep, deep compassion, He allows us to have the ability to be stupid. We can screw things up and the world doesn’t end.

He can then take our “wrongness” and bring good out of it.

This is why I keep reminding myself I CANNOT lose hope.

God knew the depths of my sin. He knew the depths of despair that my sin – and the sins of everyone one else – would cause. And so, God (that’s the Triune God) decided to allow silly humans to give it a shot. We could try to follow the Law (Pentateuch) perfectly. If (WHEN!) we failed, we could offer a sacrifice. And another. And another. And another…

And then, we have Jesus.

Jesus came to live the life we could not live and give the sacrifice we could not give. In so doing, he restored our relationship that was broken by sin. He reconciled us to God the Father as we were now washed whiter than snow.

We now have the Holy Spirit – present in us each and every moment of every day. We have a Comforter, and Encourager, a Guide.

I’ll be honest.

I don’t care what your hat says. I don’t care where you stand, how you smile, how you talk.

I care about you.

I want to know that you know Jesus. I want to know that you are living a life that is different. Not perfectly! Just different. Just one that is seeking to honor God with what you say and do. When you fall down (and you will), allow the Spirit to pick you back up.

So, let’s talk. Over coffee. Over the internet. Over the phone. Wherever. Whenever.

Life is precious. Let’s try to make it matter for good.

Yours in Christ,

Marty

The Worth-Ship Paradox and Our Own Awareness

WP_20190116_14_07_56_Pro.jpg

“We Three Kings”

What’s wrong with it?

Music is powerful. It can make us weep at the depth and richness of its beauty and it can make us rejoice in exuberant dance. A carefully written and orchestrated song can inspire, teach, and move us to action. Or, it can make us think or do the wrong thing. Please allow me to explain…

First of all, the song in question is NOT exactly wrong. It’s just the first line. (I’ll toss out several things, but feel free to skip to the Gospel text below to move along if you wish.) The only part we might specifically cite is “Kings” which was more of a translation issue. Likely, they were not kings but rather magi and an assortment of astrologers, enchanters, and other people desiring to see the fulfillment of a prophecy. There were probably a lot of soldiers as well. (Traveling a distance with gold necessitated having protection.) [NOTE: if you wonder about all of this, Daniel is a good Book to read. His God-appointed influence over the Babylonians / the East was astounding! Imagine the scene as he taught Numbers 24:17 and the excitement it built.]

And, to be fair, it’s not the writer’s (John Hopkins) fault that we read “Three” as only three and make them figurines that we put around the creche. There were three gifts and at least three presenters, but he doesn’t say ‘only’ three. (J Warner Wallace covers this concept extremely well in his book Cold Case Christianity in which he describes the accounts of witnesses. Different testimonies do not mean someone is lying. It simply means that they had different perspectives.) And, 100+ years ago, “from Orient” was an appropriate term to use for “the East”.

ALL THAT SAID, let’s jump to a truly beautiful aspect of the song as well as the gifts the visitors present. To set up the foundation, Matthew’s Gospel states:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2: 3-11 (Micah 5: 2-4)

Let’s look at these gifts, the amazing accuracy of the song, and why it all matters:

Gold is a gift for kings. Hopkins’ song: “Gold I bring to crown him again, King forever, ceasing never, Over us all to reign” describes it perfectly. The gift of gold was perfect for the King of kings and Lord of lords.

The second gift was frankincense. The song states: “Incense owns a Deity nigh. Prayer and praising, all men raising, Worship Him, God on high.” The verse doesn’t necessarily connect unless we know one thing – frankincense is a type of incense - and then do another thing – rewind to Exodus 30. As we interpret Scripture with Scripture, we can read about incense being offered on the altar of God. Check this out:

Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for the generations to come. Do not offer on this altar any other incense or any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it. … Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord. Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people. Exodus 30: 7-9, 34-38 (emphasis added)

Isn’t that kind of cool? Frankincense is the only incense that could be offered on the altar of God. If you mixed up this particular formula and used it for any other reason was grounds to be cut off from God’s people.

The last gift is highlighted in the fourth verse of Hopkins’ hymn. Myrrh – “its bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering gloom – sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb. The hymn is very poetic in “life of gather gloom” – which is what you see around death. Myrrh was used for embalming a body. Draw your own conclusions as to why the magi would have brought this gift to a toddler and his family…

So, even though I’m not a big fan of the words “three” or “Orient” in the song, the rest of it is pretty on point.

And speaking of “on point”, we need to recognize what else the magi did and why WORSHIP MATTERS:

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2: 11

Worship is, literally, WORTH-ship. You are giving value or worth to someone or something. The magi bowed down, an act of humility, and worshipped this small child FIRST. And then, in giving value to Him, they gave gold to the king, frankincense – an incense reserved for God, and myrrh, a perfume that was used at death.

These magi, or wise men, had been given insight generations prior. And one of the amazing and astounding things to me was that they handed down these teachings to generation after generation. Look for the signs. When you see the signs, the Messiah will be born. Go and worship Him.

NOW COMES THE REAL QUESTION FOR YOU AND FOR ME…

Who else had been given those SAME signs? God’s Chosen People. The Scriptures were given to them by God through Moses. They could also see the same stars in the night sky that the magicians, enchanters, and astrologers could see

From the beginning, God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. He is demonstrating His love, His grace, His mercy, and everything else about His beautiful, wonderful, and amazing character. God the Son chose to come to this earth, to be born as a man, to live a sinless life, and to die for our sins. God the Holy Spirit is now present in our lives and with us each and every moment of every day. He is here to comfort, encourage, and guide us.

Here’s the thing. There are signs from God all around us. Yes, I’m talking about the obvious signs in the beauty of Creation. But I’m also talking about the living and active Word of God. I’m talking about how plain and simple the Scriptures truly are IF we are willing to stop, read, study, meditate, and allow the Holy Spirit to use our minds and hearts to draw closer to God.

And then, we have to respond.

Will we, like the magi and those with them, bow down and worship? Will we give to God the worship (literally - the worth-ship) He truly deserves?

It’s not (thank goodness!) about what we bring. Yes, the gifts of the magi were awesome and wonderful, but the WORSHIP was much, much, much more important. We will never be good enough, right enough, or perfect enough to bow down. We can’t wait until we get this in order or that in order.

It’s all about our willingness:

To bow down

To worship

To surrender.

What will you do today?

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Four Women, a Calendar, and a BIG "WHY?"

When I asked my 17-year old daughter to tell me the worst thing her older brother had ever done to her, she declined to answer. It’s not that the two of them have not sparred over the years. I simply think that (overall) they have had a positive relationship. Honestly, I kind of feel the same way about the relationship I had with my older brother. I remember the times he beat me up (as boys do), but I also remember the times he stood strong against others who threatened me.

Families are a fascinating thing. I’ve seen siblings mercilessly tease one another but when an “outsider” joins in, they immediately turn into staunch defenders. Things that are joked about between family members are completely off limits to anyone who does not have the same lineage.

In studying Matthew 1 and the genealogical record of Jesus, there are a few “family” things that jump out to me as the New Year dawns. I have to wonder how the ‘rest of the family’ felt about the names that the Apostle included…

For example, if you were going to list a woman while giving the paternal line, Ruth would be a safe one to sneak in there. As we read her story in the Scriptures, we see a woman who loved and cared for her mother-in-law (Naomi). Ruth was willing to go out and glean in the fields with the other poor. It’s (sort-of) easy to overlook the fact that she was a Moabitess as we consider her true character.

But Tamar? She was chosen by Judah from the women of Canaan. She then disguised herself as a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law. While we might try to neglect those facts and focus on the reasons why, it’s still a bit “icky” in our modern culture.

But Rahab? True. She did hide the spies and assist them in sneaking out of Jericho, but come on. She was not temporarily disguising herself as a prostitute. She was one. She was well known in the City as a woman of ill-repute. While listing Salmon was “fine”, sharing his wife’s name in such an important listing was, well, befuddling.

And then, the coup-de-gras – the reference that seems the least desirable to include… Well, let’s get around it by not naming her but simple calling her “the wife of Uriah”. Maybe that will make people forget the great sin of King David. Maybe that will make them forget about his lustful act with Bathsheba and then the subsequent arranged murder of Uriah (one of his very special ‘mighty men’!).

Why, oh why, Matthew, did you have to include three of those women?

Before you give me the “Bible answer” (he was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), I’d like to toss out a couple of possible simple truths…

1.    The Bible is extremely pro-women. I know some choose not to read Scriptures this way, but I find God’s love for both men and women to be deep, rich, and powerful. From Miriam, Moses’ sister, who lead the other women in song and praise to Deborah, a Judge, women are key. We see passages like Deborah challenging Barak to step up and lead the army but then the honor went to Jael, who ultimately killed General Sisera after the battle. And consider a woman like Abigail, the wife of Nabal, who stopped David from acting in anger. So even before we arrive at the New Testament and see women like Eunice, Lois, Priscilla, and Lydia, the foundation is well-established.

2.    We must also note that three of these women were foreign women. Tamar and Rahab were both Canaanites. Ruth was from Moab. (Bathsheba married Uriah, who was a foreigner, but she was an Israelite.) This matters because Matthew reminds his readers that God’s love and grace extend outside of the Jewish race.  He clearly has an open door for those who were NOT biologically Jewish.

3.    And lastly, I think we need to recognize a key beautiful and powerful lesson that we can draw from these women being included. God’s grace is more powerful than any sin. We have a human tendency to ‘rank’ sin. (“I may have cheated on my taxes, but at least I never murdered anyone.”) But God, in His great compassion and mercy, chooses to offer love and forgiveness to those who would repent of their sins and receive Christ.

As we read the genealogical record of Jesus, we can see a very diverse listing of both men and women. Even as we see many names that we recognize and possibly some that we don’t, we can be assured that the prophecies concerning the lineage of the Messiah came true. Matthew’s purpose is achieved in offering this proof.

But I do believe it goes beyond a “simple listing”. This is where I believe we get to see the true Power of his writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As we recognize the names and remember the sins (Abraham lied; Jacob was a deceiver; etc.), we should also take that special blessing to pause and recognize the power of the inclusion of four women. It should make us recognize the expansiveness of God’s grace. It should remind us that just as God offered forgiveness to David for his wretched sins, so too was that grace extended to Bathsheba for any of her sins.

So, as you hang a new calendar on the wall for this New Year dawning, I hope you will also stop to recognize the blessings of everyone and everything that brought you to this particular point and time. Recognize how God is at work in your own life as well as those who have come before. And then, as you keep pressing forward, remember to extend a bit of His love and grace to those around you.

Perhaps God might have a plan in place for your life that is going to have an impact a generation or two down the road!

Yours in Christ,
Marty

Hope begins in the first 39 'episodes'

When I’m watching a show that begins in the middle or at the end, there is sort of a strange sense of relief when you get to the point where you started. That moment that drew you in finally arrives and you finally get to stop wondering why the car blew up, or why someone was shot, or why that person was crying, or whatever. Things that were jumbled around now make sense.

This Christmas Season, as I have been reflecting in the Gospel of Matthew, that illustration came to mind. Why?

The previous 39 Books.

Starting in Genesis, we have the beginnings of a picture that continues to unfold. We see beauty marred by sin. We see a man (a people, really) given a Promise. We see splashes of darkness as Abraham lies, Sarah laughs, and a seemingly endless parade of people leave God’s path to pursue their own.

But…

In each point of darkness, there is always that faint glimmer of light. We see how sin is redeemed and the consistent Promise of Hope is carefully detailed within the growing landscape of life.

The story continues to grow and develop around that Promise. We see it. We know it is coming. We’ve tasted enough to know the ravenous hunger that is rumbling through every fiber of our being. And then we get to the page in the Script that I wish didn’t exist. You know. The one that says “New Testament”.

I wish it wasn’t there because the entire Book (all 66 books) doesn’t need an interruption – a separation that in some way implies that it isn’t connected. Without the first 39, the next 27 are not the same.

Seriously.

When is the last time you picked up a book and started more than halfway through it?

We need these 39 to make any sense of the next 27. When we begin Matthew, we have the “14s”.

·       14 generations from Abraham to David.

·       14 generations from David to the Exile.

·       14 generations from the Exile to the Promise fulfilled.

It all makes sense.

We aren’t the Jewish readers to whom Matthew was originally writing, but IF we have read those first 39, we are able to be blessed with a basic understanding of just how amazing that quote from the Prophet Isaiah is:

 “The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). Matthew 1: 23

In faith, we believe the Promises.

Mary, the virgin, was with child through the Holy Spirit. The supernatural conception points us to a birth that is not the ‘normal’ birth. It tells us that the Immanuel is more than a man. It reveals to us that Jesus is also God.

The greater context of Isaiah calls us to follow chapter 7 into chapter 9 where we read even more of the prophecies of the Messiah. In chapter 9, we read words that Matthew will quote later in chapter 4 of the Gospel – the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. We read:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

In some churches, the tradition of Advent is recognized. The first Sunday is a Sunday of Hope. For years, God’s people had looked forward in HOPE to the restoration of their relationship with God. Not everyone had the right expectation.

Based on their histories, many expected a physical king who would rescue them from the Romans or anyone else in power over them. They wanted a Moses. They wanted a Joshua to lead them against their enemies so they could reclaim the Promised Land. They wanted a Samson or a David or someone like their previous leaders.

Isn’t it wonderful that they (WE!) got something better.

The Messiah, the Rescuer, the Restorer, the Promise was “Immanuel” or God-with-us. The Messiah wasn’t like a Moses who could “only” escort them out of their physical slavery. The Messiah IS the one who brings reconciliation by releasing us from spiritual slavery and washing away sins.

Please don’t gloss over that.

The birth of Jesus that we recognize this Season is what opened the Door to eternity.

Whatever you are going through right now, remember the promise of HOPE. Look forward to what God will do today, tomorrow, and forever.

God always keeps His promises.

From the beginning, even as we broke the beautiful, wonderful, incredible relationship, God promised to redeem us. As the Story then unfolded, He proved to us that we couldn’t do it but He loved us anyway. Jesus would do it for us.

That’s something to celebrate this Season AND beyond!

Merry Christmas to you and yours from everyone in the Lay Renewal family!

Separating Iris Bulbs (or untying the knots...)

While I enjoy working outside in the yard, I confess I usually have no idea what I’m doing. I pick up little things here and there, but most of those come AFTER the fact – like that little fact about iris bulbs.

Without telling the long version of the story, suffice it to say that I recently decided to remove a 20-year old garden. At the front of it, were the iris bulbs. When Diana and I planted these, we did not realize that every 3-4 years, you should separate bulbs. As a result, the area was essentially a blanket of connected bulbs and roots so intertwined that it was nearly impossible to divide. And, like many things in life, that started my thinking and praying.

As I sought to make sense of the mess, I couldn’t help but ponder the Church.

Reflect back for a moment on your own church’s history. Do you know its roots? Do you know how it began – whether it was a few years ago or long before you were born? Do you know when it started growing? Do you know the signs of beauty that began to pop up here and there as God moved? Those are positive memories!

Do you also know a time when it became, perhaps a bit too overgrown? To be clear, I don’t mean that in an overly negative way. “Growth” is not in and of itself a bad thing. But there are bad types of growth. Many churches have continuously added program upon program. Nothing stopped. They just kept piling on more and more. Then, a decade or so later, they realized that not everything fit within the mission and vision of what God was calling them to do. They needed to do a bit of “separating”.

But then, the leaders learned that not everyone wanted to see that happen…

Even though the healthy thing to do – for even greater future beauty and growth – is to carefully work through things to sift and separate, there is resistance. Someone’s “special bulb” is not one they are willing to let go. Because of the meaning it had “back then”, it “must” stay. (This is the way we’ve always done it… plus I remember when…)

Think for a moment of those times in Scripture when Jesus said, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Jesus wasn’t calling people to a new Law but to a deeper understanding of faith. It went beyond the Law’s rules and regulations to a deeper understanding of a Savior filled with grace and truth. He was calling them to freedom from the Law’s ceremonial requirements and offering a relationship-based invitation to become new creations.

Now I have a request for you, our faithful supporters, team members, friends, and family. This is not the first time I’ve asked this and I’m sure that it will not be the last either.

WOULD YOU PLEASE PRAY INTENTIONALLY FOR THE MINISTRY?

The requests for information and events continue to come in. However, the registrations have stalled. We have received very specific date requests and confirmed the ability to meet those times. Nevertheless, we are still waiting for church leaders to make that last step and actually register. We need to see registrations!

When we are able to partner with a church, God continues to do great things through His servants. I have no doubt that we have great things in store as the Holy Spirit moves and we continue to walk in faith. But the walls of the enemy need to be broken down so we can press forward in the Light of Christ.

PLEASE CONTINUE YOUR PRAYERS AND SUPPORT AS WE PURSUE GOD’S DIRECTION!

The Pursuit for Deeper Faith

For some time, I’ve been working with a church in a relatively “non-exciting” way: through reviewing and consulting on survey data. I said “non-exciting” only because processing and statistics isn’t exactly glamourous. HOWEVER – the Process of Renewal on which this church is embarking IS exciting!

I’d like to share a bit with you about another recent LRM event – a Catalyst weekend. Although the church was initially considering a Celebration weekend, there were a few signs that it might not be able to be what the pastor and leaders were prayerfully seeking to achieve. Therefore, after more prayer, they determined to hold a Catalyst first.

The Catalyst is much simpler to facilitate. There are three options: David, Moses, or Ruth. A 30-Day pre-event devotional guide is used to both prepare hearts and minds as well as develop interest in the event. Instead of preparing required aspects of the Celebration like housing, transportation, and more, the church only needs to have housing for two leaders and arrange for two church dinners (and even those can be flexible!). The only “mandatory” that is consistent between the two is the prayer vigil.

In many respects, it was just like a Celebration. We had a Friday late-afternoon team meeting. During it, we reviewed guidelines for discussion groups and talked about sharing testimonies. The difference was that instead of having visiting team members, the church members served in those roles – both experienced as well as first-time group leaders. We also equipped them to share 9-sentence faith stories.

The church then gathered for dinner and fellowship before we began the general session. We dove into the Word and walked our way through the Story of God’s rescue of His children through Moses. We then shared faith stories – usually in 9-sentences but some felt led to share a bit more (PRAISE GOD!). We then dispersed into small discussion groups. When those completed, we gathered together once again for review and celebration. The other times [Saturday morning and Saturday night (with a bridge to God’s rescue of His children through Christ)] finally wrapped up with a special time of shared prayer. On Sunday morning, we gathered for a unified worship service.   

The prayer for AFTER these weekends is simple: continue. We pray that the sharing of stories will continue. We pray that the relationships and group conversations will continue. We pray that ALL God has done will continue.

And, I’m not changing direction, but have you ever noticed the way in which the Apostle Paul interrupts himself in the Letter to the Ephesians? In the middle of his missive, he stops and PRAYS!

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3: 14-19

While it may seem random to us, we know that Paul, writing through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is moved to pray before he begins to give practical instructions for the Church. In that same respect, I lift up each church with whom we are given the honor of serving. LRM is dropped into the middle of all that is happening. As the church then moves forward, we pray that they can continue to take steps forward to deeper faith and outreach. But, because just like the Apostle we are no longer there, we must pray for these things to continue (and for the NEXT event!).

So, would you please continue with us? Will you continue in prayer and support for DEEPER? In whatever way we are able to serve a particular church, may God continue to move them towards His purposes and will!

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Heroes without Capes - #Suffering

We all have heroes, don’t we? From comic books to cartoons to the wave of movies that continue to bring in millions of dollars at the box office, the desire to have people who can go above and beyond to defeat enemies and rescue us from danger is a common theme.

Now, all heroes may not wear capes, do they? I would guess that you have some heroes in your life. If you think about your family, you may have someone who, even if they couldn’t fly, seemed to be able to do incredible things. They knew you and were always there to do or say the right thing.

Or maybe it was a friend. Someone who was always there for you. Someone who did those extra things that were always able to give you a smile or lift of encouragement. Someone who was a calming presence no matter what chaos was around.

Or maybe you have someone that you have never met. It might be an athlete or businessperson or maybe even just someone you read about. Their life has impressed you and you want to do things or be like them in some way.

The more I study the book of Job, the more I’d like to meet him. While he is not perfect, he is certainly impressive. And as I hear his story and reflect on his response, I’m encouraged. Day after day as he went through this terrible struggle, he responded in faith. When his wife told him to curse God and die, Job trusted. And – before you judge his wife – remember that all of these things were happening to her too. She also lost 7 sons and 3 daughters – I can’t imagine.

But Job also had to stand up and be faithful as these three friends came to him to offer comfort and sympathy. We don’t know a lot of details about the lives of these three men, but those verses in chapter two tell us that they came together in agreement. Word was getting around. When they heard what was happening, somehow they communicated with one another. Then they joined together to travel and offer words of comfort and blessing to their friend. Seven days and nights, they wept and grieved with Job. And then – and remember this – Job spoke first. In the depths of his grief, pain, and sorrow, he began to speak and then they responded.

Each one speaks more than once. Eliphaz and Bildad have three speeches recorded. Zophar has only two. If I am honest with myself, I can see a bit of myself in each person. If I am sitting down with someone – or if I am reflecting on what is going on in my own life – I want to see what I or that other person did wrong. Why is this happening? Is the suffering a ramification of some sin? Or is God trying to teach me or them something? Is God trying to use whatever is happening to draw me or that person closer to him or her?

Remember: I am not God. You are not either. Therefore, neither you nor I know all of the answers. All I can do is speak to what the Word says and how the Holy Spirit is drawing me to understand Him better.

Here is an honest truth. I do believe that God uses circumstances in our lives to bring us closer to Him. It’s hard to imagine, but I know that in many of my own struggles, I’ve found no other choice but to seek God. From the depths of pain, I can only look up and trust. Even if no answer is ever clear, I know that He is sovereign.

Here comes the “but”…

As much as I wish it didn’t happen, if I am being honest, I must confess that I find myself at times reverting to Zophar’s response.

To put it simply, his response is: Stop sinning and do something.

Yet if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then you will lift up your face without shame; you will stand firm and without fear. You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by. Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like morning.  Job 11: 13-17

To paraphrase: Hey Job, your heart isn’t right. Put away your sin. Be perfect. Lift up your face to God and all will be well. Life will be brighter than the noonday sun.

Doesn’t that sound great?

But let me put a slightly different spin on it. Should we think of it this way? I can’t help but think that this has something to do with the idea of service – and not in a good way. What do I mean?

Make a bargain with God. Get better so that things will go better. Make a deal with God so that things will work out. God, if you will fix this, then I will do that. If you will heal me or heal this other person, then I will do that. If you will make this situation or that situation work out, then I will do this for the rest of my life.

I was speaking with my dad one day and I don’t know how we got on this subject, but we were discussing faith and he brought up a time when he was in the service. He spent almost 20 years in the Air Force and flew in planes in Vietnam. He wasn’t the pilot, but they would take planes and swoop down over enemy lines and take pictures. As you can imagine, they were shot at – a LOT.

On one flight, they were shot down. As he was calling in for a rescue, with lots of enemies all around, he began to make promises to God. “God, if you get me out of this, I will…” Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

Are any of us not guilty of doing the same thing?

Now, it may not have been during these exact circumstances, but haven’t we all made a promise or tried to bargain with God in some way?

I don’t want to be too hard on anyone this morning, so I’ll just continue to pick on myself. When my parents first separated, I wondered what I could do to fix it. When I began living in Central America and things weren’t going as I thought they should, I wondered what I could do to make it right. When people around me have gotten sick or in trouble or struggled, I came back to asking God for bargains. I may not have always called them that, but I confess that I put them out there.

There are two simple problems with that approach. First, if things do go better, we conveniently forget our promises. Second, if things do NOT get better, we can blame God for not doing what we wanted. Regardless of whether or not God might be a little smarter than we are (He is); regardless of whether or not God chose to work in a supernatural way; regardless of anything and everything, we forget those simple words that were included in the way Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy will be done”. We continuously want it to be “my will be done”.

Here’s a simple reality. Job had done nothing wrong to cause the present situation. His three friends, who went there to provide sympathy & comfort, didn’t provide those things. They began to try to fix Job’s problems. They began to act in God’s role.

And it’s incredible to read through Zophar’s second speech. He has no sympathy for Job and puts him in with those he calls the “wicked and the godless”.

Though he flees from an iron weapon, a bronze-tipped arrow pierces him. He pulls it out of his back, the gleaming point out of his liver. Terrors will come over him; total darkness lies in wait for his treasures. A fire unfanned will consume him and devour what is left in his tent. The heavens will expose his guilt; the earth will rise up against him. A flood will carry off his house, rushing waters on the day of God's wrath. Such is the fate God allots the wicked, the heritage appointed for them by God. Job 20: 24-29

I don’t know about you, but if these were my comforters, I would go back inside my house. I’d go into our closet and close the door. I’d curl up into a ball in the darkness and I wouldn’t come out.

Let me share a few closing thoughts with you that I think are a much better option. I think there are some ways that we can actually provide service in the midst of suffering so that Christ is truly revealed through it.

And it is important to make that connection to suffering. In Isaiah 53, we read of Jesus being the “Suffering Servant”.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. Isaiah 53:4-7

First of all, if you are going through suffering, please serve by enduring it.

What does that mean?

If you endure something, that means you push forward through it. I am NOT telling you it will be easy. I’m not telling you that you have to be silent and can’t share with others. I’m not telling you it will be quick. I’m simply telling you to find a way to trust God. Find a way to dive deeper into His Word and connection with Him so that you can enjoy the great blessing of love and fellowship with Him. The more we can reflect a Christ-like attitude, the more others can be drawn to Him through us.

Jesus endured pain we can’t imagine and He did it out of love. He did it so that we could be restored in our relationship with the Father. Sin was conquered and, when we receive Him as our Savior, our eternity is secured.

Second, if you have an Eliphaz, or a Bildad, or a Zophar around, please serve by ejecting from them.

What does that mean?

My dad has ejected from three planes. Two were in combat and one was flying over a field. That third time, he was in a plane and suddenly it started shaking – very violently. He called out to the pilot and there was no response. He followed the procedures you were supposed to follow, but as the plane continued to shake and the pilot didn’t respond, he did the final step – he ejected. He got out of the plane and away from the problem.

If you have an Eliphaz, or a Bildad, or a Zophar, then eject. That does NOT mean you have to go away from that person, but stop listening to things that are going to pull you down rather than build you up. When Simon Peter told Jesus that He would not suffer and die, how did Jesus reply? “Get thee behind me, satan!” Jesus then told all the disciples that they would have to take up their crosses DAILY. Let me put this simply. Smile back. Love them back. But don’t get sucked into the muck and the mire. Life is too short. Don’t accept more pain.

And lastly, if you know someone going through suffering, do NOT, I repeat, DO NOT be an Eliphaz, or a Bildad, or a Zophar. You can sit with them. You can cry with them. You can love them. But please serve by easing up.

We all will experience some form of pain or struggle in life. This is a fallen world. We sin and people around us sin. Things happen as a result. As things happen to you or to others, try to be a blessing. Try to find a way to reflect grace rather than gloom.

Yes, there are times we need to speak the truth in love. I’ve had to do it with people that legitimately were going through things that were the result of their own making. And while I ABSOLUTELY know that I did not do it perfectly, I pray that I am doing a better and better job of it every day.

And I also want YOU to know that I see so many of you doing this as well. Honestly, many of you do a much better job of it than I will ever do. Many of you are the “super heroes” I see in life. I know many of you are enduring stuff that I don’t think I could. You are being the light and love of Christ to others.

Continue to press forward in faith. Strive to have more of Christ reflected through you every day. Whether it is a person on the street or a person you meet from across the globe, may we be messengers of grace and truth.

How will the Church survive? Through Deeper Faith

From time to time, I work with a church on LRM survey data. While pouring over data and statistics is not an “exciting” way to serve, it is still a privilege to be able to study the health of a particular Body of Christ and consider possible options for getting stronger.

A recent phone consultation itself was interesting. There are details I cannot share, but the conversation was good and the leaders asked many questions that were focused on spiritual growth and outreach. And, to me, that is what it is ALL about. The ABC’s (Attendance, Building, and Cash) are barometers of health, but NOT the goal.

The heart of Lay Renewal continues to be focused on serving the Church as it renews, motivates, and equips men and women for ministry. We believe in the Power of the Holy Spirit working through God’s living and active Word so that people are strengthened in their faith and walking forward to share the Gospel Message of salvation through Christ alone. The world may focus on “bigger is better” but we know that DEEPER is best!

Consider for a moment what happened in China in early September. Christianity Today and other news sources have reported increasing hostile persecution. For example, on September 5th, police raided a church and burned Bibles, furniture, and crosses. On the 9th, the government shut down the largest church in Beijing. Why? They refused to have cameras installed that would allow services to be monitored. China is also considering a series of rules and restrictions for the Internet that would block faith forums, streaming services and more.

How can the Church in China survive? Through deeper faith.

Voice of the Martyrs shares the stories of persecution in Nigeria. Pastor Silas was attacked and killed by Fulani herdsmen. Pastor Vincent was also killed when the church he served was attacked. The wife of Pastor Jacob and six church members were killed during a church attack. There are now over 7,500 people living in refugee camps.

How will the Church in Nigeria survive? Through deeper faith.

The examples of persecution and suffering around the globe are shocking and tragic. And yet, as some churches focus on the ABC’s, the true mission of the Church is found in striving to fulfill the Great Commission. The true mission is found as we go deeper into relationship with God and love others more deeply through His strength!

So, why is the definition of the word “persnickety” at the top of this letter?

When we work with a church in the Process of Renewal, the survey portion can be a risky time. It requires looking inwardly to see how the church family is growing spiritually and reaching out to impact the community. It requires the leadership spending some time examining how they are serving and supporting through their roles. There can be some incredibly convicting information produced before, during, and after this step. Truthfully, some people can be rather persnickety as they attempt to ignore crucial information and push the trivial to the top.

BUT…

The blessings come when churches are honestly willing to assess how God is calling them to deeper faith. The blessings come when churches are committed to considering what they have done, what they are doing, and what God is calling them to do in the future. And the blessings aren’t found in the ABC’s. The blessings are found in deeper faith – renewed men and women who are seeking to do more for Christ and Kingdom!

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Suffering and (God's) Silence - More reflections inspired by one of Job's friend...

In the book, Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey tells the story of a man named Richard. He’d met him years ago and they had developed a friendship and working relationship. One day, as Richard’s book on Job was about to be published, he asked to meet with Philip. Richard then told him that he no longer believed in God.

It was a bit of a surprising conversation, but Richard told the story without a lot of the blanks that he’d left incomplete before. He had been drawn to God when searching for ways to keep his parents from divorcing. He’d had a lot of questions but those were set aside by people who told him to simply “trust God”. While that is good advice, the lack of answers only made him struggle more.

Now, for Yancey, these questions weren’t as much of a problem. If you don’t recognize his name, his books have sold over 14 million copies. Titles like What’s So Amazing About Grace and The Jesus I Never Knew have won awards and books like The Problem of Pain and A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith are almost painfully honest in the questions that are presented. 

As Yancey continued to speak with Richard, one of the questions that he shared with him that he had struggled with was simple: “Is God silent?

I will come back to that later, but I want to look at Job first. As we look in the Word and at our theme, we need to make sure that we are addressing the specifics of Who is being called “silent” and why it matters when we are suffering.

At the end of chapter 7, we read Job’s words:

If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more. Job 7: 20-21

Job doesn’t know why he is suffering. He is crying out to God and asking why. He is asking what he did wrong. He is wondering why God is silent. Why isn’t He answering? Then, as we turn to chapter 8, we hear from Job’s second friend, Bildad. We don’t really know anything about Bildad. As I read through his words – ignoring the text but reading them for their beauty – he sounds like a poet. Picture this:

What he trusts in is fragile; what he relies on is a spider's web. He leans on his web, but it gives way; he clings to it, but it does not hold. Job 8: 14-15

I love that imagery! Even so, Bildad isn’t very nice. His first speech begins:

Then Bildad the Shuhite replied: "How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind.” Job 8: 1-2

Bildad doesn’t know or doesn’t care why Job’s words are not being answered. Imagine if your “friend” told you, after you’d lost 10 children and just about all of your worldly possessions that your words are a “blustering wind”. I’d be very upset! But Bildad tells Job that God’s silence is not something he needs to worry about.

Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin. But if you will look to God and plead with the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your rightful place. Job 8: 3-6

In Bildad’s opinion, God’s silence shouldn’t be the focus. Job should focus on what he, Job, did wrong. Bildad blames the death of all of Job’s children on something that they had done wrong. Their deaths were the just penalty. Job’s punishment must therefore be happening because he did something wrong too. 

But Bildad begins with one false assumption and then lumps another on top of it.

My reflections in Job were inspired in part by a book called The Fellowship of the Suffering. In it, Dave Ripper and Paul Borthwick phrase Bildad’s thoughts this way:  

Who does Job think he is to expect an explanation from the God of the universe? While Bildad rightly magnifies God in his exhortation, he wrongly minimizes the people of God made in His image, by surmising God doesn’t have time for them. Even though some of what Bildad communicates has theological truth behind it, the cruelly impersonal way he shares this message chokes out any of the life found within it.”   Fellowship of the Suffering p 22

Bildad is right that God does NOT pervert justice. That is not in God’s character and God does not do things that are outside of His character.

But Bildad persists in blaming all of this calamity on Job. Again, with beautiful words that completely lack any heart or compassion, he throws stones at Job.

The lamp of the wicked is snuffed out; the flame of his fire stops burning. The light in his tent becomes dark; the lamp beside him goes out. The vigor of his step is weakened; his own schemes throw him down. His feet thrust him into a net and he wanders into its mesh. A trap seizes him by the heel; a snare holds him fast. A noose is hidden for him on the ground; a trap lies in his path. Job 18: 5-10

If you think that is bad, Bildad’s third speech contains a pretty hefty slam against Job. Thankfully, it is very brief:

Dominion and awe belong to God; he establishes order in the heights of heaven. Can his forces be numbered? Upon whom does his light not rise? How then can a man be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less man, who is but a maggot — a son of man, who is only a worm!"  Job 25: 2-6

Has anyone ever heard the expression, “With friends like these…”?

When people are throwing stones at you, the normal responses are defense or to throw stones right back at them. I’m guilty of doing that far too many times. I’m trying to change. I’m trying to absorb what people tell me and prayerfully consider any truth that might be in it. But it’s hard.

It was hard for Job too. You can tell from his words that he’s hurt and upset. That said, I love one of his responses:

If it is true that I have gone astray, my error remains my concern alone. Job 19:4

Think about a simple question: Have you ever offered someone solutions to whatever problem they put before you?

Now, have you ever learned that the person really didn’t want solutions? All they wanted was understanding.

In Fellowship of the Suffering, Dave and Paul state that very simply:

“What Job needs isn’t solution but understanding.” Fellowship of the Suffering p 22

What Job – and probably each one of us – needed was not a bunch of answers. We usually know the answer. When we are suffering, we just need someone to listen. We need someone to tell us that it is going to be ok. We need someone to love us.

And let’s come back to the big question: Is God silent?

In Disappointment with God, Yancey shares his own question and the path that God took him on to find an answer. In Exodus, we read example after example of God speaking. When Moses met with God, the Israelites were afraid. They asked Moses to speak with God for them.

Beyond that direct conversation, the Israelites had a lot of ways that God revealed Himself and the direction to them. If you remember, as God was leading them through the wilderness, He gave them a pillar of fire at night and a column of smoke by day. It’s kind of like checking the weather by stepping outside. Is it hot? Yep. Does God want us to move today? Nope. The cloud isn’t moving.

God also gave them something called the Urim and Thummim that the priests used. They developed 613 laws to guide their behavior. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. God was very, very clear!

And yet, when we read Numbers, we see how people refuse to listen. The 12 explorers went into the Promised Land and came back with incredible reports of a land flowing with milk and honey. However, 10 of them also said the people were too scary. If they went in, they would be defeated. In spite of Joshua and Caleb trying to tell them to trust God, the people rebelled.

Then, when Moses told them the ramifications of their actions would be to spend the next 40 years in the wilderness, they rebelled again. They decided they’d rather go forward than walk in the wilderness and die. In Number 14, Moses tried to tell them to stop, but they would not listen.

Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!” But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the Lord, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.” Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them… Numbers 14: 40-45

I found Yancey’s conclusion to be true, but also kind of upsetting. Yancey said:

I had second thoughts about crystal-clear guidance. It may serve some purpose… but it does not seem to encourage spiritual development. In fact, for the Israelites, it nearly eliminated the need for faith at all; clear guidance sucked away freedom, making every choice a matter of obedience rather than faith. p 46

Let’s think about what this means. What happens if you know, beyond every shadow of a doubt, what you are supposed to do, BUT you don’t like what you are supposed to do? What do you do?

The Israelites knew what they were supposed to do. God told them through Moses, through the Law, through the signs in the sky, through everything EXACTLY what they were supposed to do.

And they rebelled.

What’s my point?

This is a hard conclusion, but I believe it. God is NEVER silent.

Let me say that again: God is NEVER silent.

God has given us the answer – Trust Him. Trust that we are forgiven through Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross. Trust the Holy Spirit Who is present in us to give us guidance, encouragement, and peace. Trust God.

God is never silent.

We are the ones who don’t listen. To quote something else Yancey said, “The Israelites give ample proof that signs may only addict us to signs, not to God.” In other words, they had clear direction. They just didn’t listen.

If you are struggling, it’s ok. It really, truly is ok. It’s ok to ask questions and to wonder what is going on. It’s ok to ask for God to show you an answer.

But you can’t just ask. You have to listen. As God tells you – through His Word, through the Holy Spirit, or through whatever means He presents – you have to listen.

If the answer is clear, praise God and walk with Him. If the answer is not clear, do what Job did – trust God. Granted, Job wrestled and struggled and fought, but in the end, he trusted God.

We have to do the same thing.

Your "truth"? Your friend's "truth"? Does suffering come after sin? #Questions

If you want to make my blood boil, tell me about “your truth”.

Seriously, try to tell me how something is true for you but it may or may not be true for someone else.

Granted, I understand the concept of perspective. For example, the Gospel accounts of Resurrection morning (Easter) list different accounts. However, while that may seem to question the veracity, I believe it only affirms the Story. We have different perspectives highlighting what was pertinent to the respective author. There aren’t different “truths” but rather different points of view, or perspectives.

In the conversations that we read in Job, we have different perspectives on God. There is only ONE God. There is only one Truth about Him. However, as these four (and eventually five) men wrestle back and forth, their perspectives on Who God is vary.

Let’s begin with Eliphaz.

He’s from Teman. It’s a city in the region of Edom (south of the Dead Sea) which was named after Esau (see Genesis 25 ff.). Those details aside, we simply don’t know anything else.

Job is the one who speaks first. After the seven days / nights, he begins by cursing the day of his birth. He calls down curse after curse after curse. He wonders why he was born at all and why he is still alive. He wonders Why, o why, will death not come?

Wow.

Have you ever been there?

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by struggles that you just wanted to quit? Maybe curl up in a ball and hide? Wave the white flag and surrender?

I have.

To be clear, I’m not talking about suicide. I can’t say I have never thought of it, but even the smallest thought left quickly. Why? Suicide does nothing. The person may feel “free”, but the suffering of everyone else continues. I can’t share the stories I know from others because those aren’t my stories. (Even the ways in which my life has been personally touched by suicide involve the stories that are more heavily felt by others.)

But what I am trying to share is the point of being crushed by circumstances so much that you don’t know what else to do. I know what depression is because I’ve been there. I know what emotional pain is because I’ve been there. I know what it is like to crawl into bed and never want to get out.

And to wonder how much longer it can go on…

I believe Eliphaz had the best of intentions. It’s offensive to think otherwise. [How many of you would be willing to go seven days and seven nights sitting with another person in the depths of his or her grief?] And so, as he began to respond to Job, I think he did it with kindness.

Then Eliphaz the Temanite replied: “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? But who can keep from speaking? Think how you have instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands. Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees.” Job 4: 1-4

Look at it this way. There is the sense of a plea: “Don’t be impatient with me. I have to share.” And then he calls for Job to remember the times in which he, Job, has spoken with others. “You’ve instructed. You’ve strengthened feeble hands and weak knees. You’ve supported those who are stumbling.” Don’t you have the sense that Eliphaz is almost begging Job to listen?

Eliphaz’s next few words hurt. And then they sting. And then they irritate. And then they make me want to say “Them’s fightin’ words!

But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you, and you are dismayed. Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope? Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. At the breath of God they perish; at the blast of his anger they are no more. Job 4: 5-9

It sounds sort-of ok at first. Perhaps a gentle reminder? We don’t know Eliphaz’s heart to know whether the “piety and confidence / blameless ways and hope” are intended to turn his eyes back to God. Maybe there is back-handed love in reminding Job that the innocent do not perish and the upright aren’t destroyed? (I say back-handed because Job would most likely have immediately thought of his children who perished.)

But then the stinger breaks skin as Eliphaz continues with “As I have observed…

In Eliphaz’s worldview, suffering is a result of sin. Job must have done something wrong or else he would not be going through what he is going through right now. Seven dead sons and three dead daughters. His animals and servants all dead. This is not normal so, Job, what did you do?

Eliphaz then justifies his words by claiming to have a secret vision from God.

A word was secretly brought to me, my ears caught a whisper of it. Amid disquieting dreams in the night, when deep sleep falls on people… Job 4: 12-13

In words that make me think of sitting around a campfire while someone tells ghost stories, Eliphaz goes on to describe how his hair stood up when a spirit glided past him. “Fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake.” Spooky stuff!

Granted, in this “secret vision” he shares, there was some truth. We cannot be more righteous than God. We should not place our hope in our own abilities and good works. That’s all truth. That is something that we should all believe. God is perfect and we are not.

But some truth doesn’t equal all truth.

If I tell you that I can count to ten and then say: “one, three, five, two, eleven, eight, nine, four, thirteen, six, seven, ten”, have I really counted to ten? I’ve included all of the numbers you need, but I also added in two extras. I also didn’t have the numbers in the right order. So, while you may say that I have successfully counted to ten, I haven’t really, have I?

Eliphaz’s overall theme is wrong. God is not a cosmic hammer-swinger. He’s not waiting to smite us for a misstep (sin). And, if you continue to Job 15 and read his second speech, you see it doesn’t get any better. To summarize: If you are bad, bad things happen. If you are good, good things happen. In the third speech (Job 22), Eliphaz states how Job was really not the greatest man in all the east (which we read in the very beginning of the book). He accuses Job of withholding food and water from those in need; taking clothing from those who had nothing; being cruel to widows and orphans. All of the things that we thought Job had done right, Eliphaz now says Job did wrong.

Eliphaz’s bottom-line: Job sins and Job is punished.

Honestly, there are days when I wish Eliphaz was right.

If he was correct, then I could do some good things and I would feel better. I could tell a friend that the reason he went through job struggles is because he was sinning. If he stopped whatever that particular sin was, the punishment would stop. I could tell friends that all they needed to do to fix financial struggles was to be better.

Poof. Be good and life is good. That would be easier.

But here is the problem. Suffering is not the result of sin. To be clear, it can be. If I decide to rob a bank, get arrested, and thrown in prison, I will suffer. That suffering is a direct result of my sin. If I am in a bank and it is robbed and the robber shoots me, the pain I feel is the direct result of the bank robber’s sin.

There is a difference between the punishments for sin and consequences of sin. While I don’t want to leave the conversation hanging, I do want to take a break now. Email me your thoughts (or corrections to my thinking!) or comment if you wish.

Yours in Christ,

Marty

I have ALL of the answers! Sit down and let me tell you what they are... #Suffering

I mentally wrestle with the idea of freedom and choices quite a bit. The idea that people intentionally choose harmful things is difficult for me. I won’t share the reasons why because I don’t want to share stories that are not my own. However, from people who choose to stand on street corners to those who steal billions of dollars, I fight the idea of “free will” that allows people to choose things that will cause them or others harm.

I’ve been to Central America several times in the past thirty years. The most recent came as I visited the Micah Project in Honduras. (My last time there was 2014.) This particular mission began 20 years ago when God put it on the heart of Michael Miller to reach out to young men (and women) on the streets of Tegucigalpa.

One of the challenges of meeting with these street-connected kids is to wonder why they won’t choose a better option. If you could choose between living on the street and sleeping on a piece of cardboard or living in a home with food and a comfortable bed, which would you choose? If you could choose between begging and scrounging for food or having a full plate, which would you choose? If you could learn to read and receive an education, wouldn’t you choose that option?

And yet…

Job was offered a suggestion by his wife: “Curse God and die.” It’s easy to see why Job chose to decline this suggestion. But then three friends appeared with suggestions of their own…

Before we get to those suggestions, let’s ask who were these three friends? (We’ll get to mystery guest number four later. Was he already there? Did he arrive later? Hmmm…)  

We don’t know a lot about any of them. 2: 11 tells us that they heard about all the troubles, set out from their homes, and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. Beyond that and the places of their origination, we know nothing.

I am astounded at what they did when they arrived.

Nothing.

For seven days and seven nights, they did nothing.

They didn’t talk.

They didn’t try to do anything.

They did nothing.

Nothing.

Take a moment to put on your sandals and consider different points of view. If you were Job, would you have wanted them to do anything? If you were Eliphaz, or Bildad, or Zophar, what would you have wanted to do? If you were Job’s wife, perhaps observing, what would you have wanted to do?

Remember something important: The Bible was written by real people, living in real places, at real times. If you struggle to use your informed imagination and put your sandals on, think about your own life.

In your own struggles, in your own times of pain, in your own hurt and sorrow, what have you wanted? Did you want a person to “fix” everything? Did you want someone to tell you what you should have done or should not have done?

We will get to the actual conversations that ensued after Job began speaking, but for now, consider not what you want but what you want to be. What kind of friend, brother, sister, employee, employer, spouse, or neighbor do you want to be?

All who know me know I am far from perfect. I can always be better. And this is one of those things I so desperately want to be better at and to more faithfully practice.

Let’s burrow down to the bottom-line: Be present.

That’s it. Don’t worry about giving answers. Don’t worry about saying the right (or wrong) thing. Don’t stress. Don’t fret. Don’t be anxious. Don’t try to give suggestions, improvements, corrections or anything else.

Simply be present.

Be with others. Love them. If someone is hurting, hurt with them. If someone is joyous, celebrate with them. If someone is grieving, grieve with them. If someone is excited, share that excitement.

We’ll explore the conversation next, but let’s keep it simple for now. Be.

Hercules and the Hydra - or - What is your line?

I admit that I like the way Philip Yancey describes suffering and the problem of pain in his book, Where is God When it Hurts. He compares it to Hercules battling against the Hydra. When one head is chopped off, another two or three seem to come up in its place.

Shingles seemed to be bad. Very bad. The rash and pain were extreme. But then, to have that go away but then to have the “invisible pain” continue seemed cruel. I would NOT want to have the visible rash continue, but at least people knew something was wrong. 

But that all seems so trivial in light of God’s Word.

Take Job as an example. His suffering was extremely public. Considered the greatest man in all the east, the news of his losses would have traveled quickly. 1,000 oxen and 500 donkeys carried off by the Sabeans. 7,000 sheep gone from the “fire from the sky”. 3,000 camels taken by the Chaldeans. All of the servants (except three who were messengers) died. And then, the house where his children (seven sons and three daughters) were feasting collapsed and all of them died.

How did he respond?

Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised. Job 1: 21

Over the years, I have experienced a few challenges with jobs, relationships, and even my children. But nothing – NOTHING – could ever come close to what Job experienced. And, I think everyone who knows me knows this: my response wasn’t the same either…

And so, I had my sandals on as I tried to imagine what happened to Job next. The Bible tells us that Job had painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head (2: 7). The Bible is not a medical journal, but I couldn’t help but think of shingles when I read that verse.

Then how did Job respond to this new level of physical pain and agony? He said:

Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? Job 2: 10b

Some might argue that this is a variation of fatalism – a belief that what’s going to happen is going to happen – but I think it’s better defined as extreme faith.

If you’d like a definition, I’d define extreme faith as “regular” faith that can move mountains (Mark 11:23). This has nothing to do with the twisted teaching that is prosperity gospel (which is no Gospel at all). This has everything to do with a person’s willingness and desire to go boldly as the Holy Spirit is leading.

While I could walk down this road with you for a bit, I want to keep focused on the idea of perseverance through suffering. Therefore, in that journey, I’ll come back in a few days as we continue to walk with Job and three of his friends.

For now…

What would it take for you to stop praising? Is there a “trouble” that, if it came upon you, would cause you to run from God rather than to Him?

While that may seem like a scary question to contemplate, it might be worth it as you are seeking a stronger faith in your own walk. Allow the Spirit to speak into your heart and encourage you to go deeper and grow stronger.

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Pain. Suffering. Honesty. Hope.

The worst suffering in the whole world is my own suffering… Paul Borthwick

As some of my friends and family around the globe know, in January of 2017, I came down with shingles along my trigeminal nerve. The left side of my face was covered in a rash from my jaw line up into my hairline. The pain was incredible. While there were a number of factors, the bottom-line that resulted was a damaged nerve with pain that has persisted 24/7.

Thankfully, the level of pain has not been at the same extreme point.

The pain begins at the same origin point (center left bottom tooth) and can run all the way up to about the top of my head. I can have a ringing in my ear, a feeling of “itchiness”, and other random ‘what the heck was that’ moments that happen anywhere in that impacted zone.

I can deal with that whatnot. The frustrations that also join the party are actually a bit more annoying. I can’t chew on the left side of my face. I shouldn’t chew things like chips or other crunchy items. (I really can’t chew on the right for long without the pain increasing.) I can’t hold the phone on the left side of my face, sleep on the left side of my face (without an odd form of propping I figured out), or shave without a lot of jolting, shock-like pain.

Beyond those annoyances, there is one thing that befuddles, perplexes, and frankly, agonizes my heart, my mind, my emotions… WHY? 

My calling (ministry) involves talking. I teach. I preach. I counsel and encourage pastors and lay leaders. There are days when my speech is impacted as the swelling on the inside makes me a bit “slurry”. Other days, I have trouble with conversations because it starts to hurt after the start-stop nature of dialogue. Since a big part of the ministries I serve require speaking, it’s frustrating.

Honestly, that is probably the most challenging part. I need to be on the phone. I need to be visiting people. I need to be out and about, having conversations, and doing what I’ve been called to do. And yet, I’m hindered. And it hurts.

All of that said, there are still a lot of GOOD things. For example, most people have no idea that I’m in pain 24 X 7. (I’m happy about that because I don’t want to look like I feel!) Or, if I am careful about what I order, they don’t know that I can’t chew well. It may look a little odd if I order a sandwich and have to cut it up, but maybe I’m just strange. (Think Seinfeld + Snickers bar.)

Now that I have said all of the previous thoughts, what then is the conclusion of the matter? The Teacher at the end of Ecclesiastes summarized it by saying “Fear God and keep His commandments.” That seems like a pretty good conclusion to me also. To be clear, that does NOT mean I think I’m being punished. It simply means this: GOD IS SOVEREIGN. I trust Him and I choose to walk in faith. If that means I walk forward for the rest of my life with this, so be it. If it means I am healed tomorrow, so be it.

I’m not being naïve. I’m not choosing to put some form of fatalistic hope in an unseen deity. I’m simply trusting my Heavenly Father. I’m a little child choosing to step off the edge of the pool – knowing that my Father is right there, arms open, and ready to catch me.

I also know that I will fail. There will be days when I try to say a word, and my mouth won’t twist the right way and let it come out. There are days I might give in and have a moment of grief, or anger, or crawl under my desk. But I pray that those moments will be fewer and fewer as I trust more and more.

The quote above comes from a book called The Fellowship of the Suffering. The preface begins with a question:

What causes you to suffer?

And I think of my wife who had a tumor in her spine but overcame it through God’s grace. I think of my son who deals daily with Tourette but has overcome challenge after challenge in God’s grace. I think of my tough-as-nails and pretty as a princess daughter who battles mighty dragons but continues to overcome in God’s grace.

Whatever that cause might be, Father is right there for you too. He loves you. If you have received the gift of saving grace given through the death of Christ on the cross, then you know that Love in a profound and powerful way. And you should also know that the Father will never leave nor forsake you. Your ability to overcome in God’s grace is exceedingly, abundantly powerful.

I’m going to share a few thoughts in the days ahead based out of the Book of Job. If you aren’t familiar with this Book of the Bible, it tells of a man who enduring incredible physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. While he suffered, he continued to recognize that God was present. Even in the depths of his agony and frustration, he sought help from his God.

And so, as I end this testimony, I hope you will join me in walking forward, trusting God. If I can pray for you, please let me know. I appreciate your prayers for me and for my patient and loving family. I appreciate your prayers for Lay Renewal as we seek to continue to serve the Church. There is no hurdle that is too great if God is for us. In that fact, I rejoice!

A journey back four years...

When we transitioned to a new website platform, the old blog failed to transfer. The two most clicked on posts were rather personal ones. One had to do with my testimony in relationship to my son and his journey with Tourette. The other focused on the death of my brother. When he died at the too-young age of 45, it was rough on all of us...

I'm reposting what I wrote at that time at the request of a few people. (Thankfully, our wonderful web person was able to go back and find the scattered dust trails of what remained and pieced it together again. She has my gratitude!) Without further explanation, let's rewind to 12/24/2013:

When I was a child, I found the bumper sticker philosophy of “Life’s a b*tch, then you die” to be incredibly funny. I was a child.

Having served bi-vocationally the past four years (and in “professional” ministry for almost 20), the complete stupidity of that statement now amazes me. I have been honored to be with many families during the time in which a loved one took their last breath.

Whether that person was a teenager or someone several years past retirement…

Whether that person was dying from a terminal disease or it was sudden…

Whether a multitude of family members were gathered or just a few…
…it is never easy.

Yesterday, as my father and I sat at my 45 year-old brother’s bedside, a multitude of thoughts continued to race through my head. I shared memories of our childhood. (I even shared a few stories my father had never heard. Oops! My brother and I did some VERY dumb things!) My dad shared memories and stories of times he and my brother had worked together on construction projects. Joys and sorrows, we filled hour after hour with the trivial and the triumphant.

Are there regrets? That’s a silly question. Of course there are regrets. Anyone who claims that they have no regrets in life is lying. Life is not perfect and no one is immune from making mistakes.

But regrets do not have to be anchors. As the Psalmist said, Wash away all my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin. Wash me and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness. Let the crushed bones rejoice. (from Psalm 51)

What do we do with those things we wish had been different? What do we do with those regrets? Regrets are lessons. Instead of saying, “I wish I had…” we need to say “NOW I will…”

Instead of saying, I wish I had spent more time with him, we need to say, NOW I will spend more time with…

Instead of saying, I wish I had said…, we NEED TO SAY IT.

Instead of saying, I wish I had done…, we need to DO IT.

It was an honor to sit with my brother as he drew his last breath. I read Psalm 23 and prayed with him. Minutes later, he left this earth – free from suffering and pain.

He leaves behind a family and friends that loved him – imperfections and all. I am amazed at my sister-in-law. She’s a momma-bear with a ferocity and strength greater than my own. His eldest son is demonstrating a maturity and character that makes me proud. I look at Miss Em and see such a wonderful young lady of wisdom and grace. I look forward to seeing how his youngest will grow.

You see, life on this earth is not about the past. It is about the present and the future. What can you do now? What can you do tomorrow? Therein lies your next step. How will you take it?

My trust and faith is in my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. His strength is greater than mine. The Peace He gives surpasses understanding. The joy I have in my relationship with Him is what makes me complete. I choose to strive to continue to live my life, stumbling forward, and seeking to reflect Him as best as this weak vessel can.

And I look forward to the Reunion. I look forward to the Celebration that awaits. Until then, stay out of my room, big brother. You never let me in yours!

Rest in Peace – Joseph Kent Guise:

November 22, 1968 – December 23, 2013
 

No one ever said LOVE is easy. But maybe it is?

As I am blessed to travel to different churches, I am able to see and hear how believers act towards one another and towards the communities in which God has placed them. There are vibrant and active churches extending the hand of grace as well as those that, well, don’t.

Whatever end of the spectrum your church might be on, let’s consider what God’s Word tells us.

As we scroll through the pages of the Old Testament, we see a multitude of examples of the love of God. At times, it is evidenced through God Himself. He leads His children through the Promised Land with a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire (Exodus 13). He stops the flood waters of the Jordan (Joshua 3). He sends rescuer upon rescuer upon rescuer as His people cry out to Him for deliverance (Judges). 

We also see examples of people reflecting God’s love to others. Moses did it when he prayed for mercy (Numbers 11). Deborah called for Barak to step forward in faith to deliver God’s children (Judges 4). Nathan, although fearful, approached King David to challenge the sin in his life (2nd Samuel 12).

But there is an example of God’s love that is exemplified through a woman that we should NOT have expected. That example is seen through Ruth.

As a reminder of her story, she is a Moabite woman who married the son of Naomi and Elimelek. When her father-in-law and her two brothers-in-law died, she began the journey back to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. However, at some point in the journey, Naomi changed her mind and told them to return to their families in Moab. While Orpah turned back, Ruth said:

Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” Ruth 1:16-17

This is a powerful and beautiful example of the Hebrew word “Hesed”. This word is translated in a variety of ways. From the idea of “lovingkindness” to “mercy” or “compassion”, it is a word that expands the idea of God’s covenantal love.

God made a covenant with His children that calls us to, in the most basic of terms, love Him and love others. This idea is truly incredible as we see it bursting forth in the New Testament in the person of Jesus. Our Savior left the splendors of heaven to be born of a virgin, to live a sinless life, and to give His life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

What is our required work in this covenant? (I mean, shouldn’t there be something we have to do in an agreement of this sort?)

No, our work is nothing. Step 1: We receive Christ and the gift of grace not on our own merit but completely through what He did.

That said, our response is important. We can respond by doing “step 2”, which is loving our neighbors. The one who doesn’t keep his yard cut and house maintained. The one who doesn’t smell as clean as we wish. The one who doesn’t dress well, speak well, or even smile at us.

We are called to love our neighbor and even to pray for those who persecute us. If we don’t like it, we can choose to reject His words. We can choose to hate. We can choose to be cruel. We can neglect compassion and the weightier matters of the law (justice, mercy, faithfulness – Matthew 23:23). We can do this by clinging to legalistic righteousness.

Should we make that choice, we should definitely be careful. Why? Because Jesus pronounced “woe” unto those who refuse to love. Granted, He wasn’t saying that it was wrong to call for obedience and for sin to end. However, when following the Law, we should be careful that we do not do so in a way that neglects to reflect the love we have received.

If you have received the gift of grace in hesed love, know that you did not deserve it. But God loved you. Jesus died for you. Your life should demonstrate that which you have received.

Love just might be a lot easier than you thought…

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Gravity. Reality. An anniversary still worth celebrating.

In my mind, I can still recall that exact moment of shock when the reality of gravity became clear.

The green of the water tower in front of me…

The rope in my hands…

The flash of the side of the tower as I fell…

The feeling of striking the ground…

The snapping sound…

The pain as I lay on the ground…

One year ago yesterday, I was brought out of the operating room. I had a five inch scar on the back of my leg and a three inch scar on the inside by my ankle. Inside my leg were also three plates and a large quantity of pins to keep the broken tibia, fibula, etc. in place.

There was never a moment of “why me” over those weeks and months. Even as a few set-backs came, I knew that God always has a plan and a purpose.

Where does confidence come from? From where do I – and where do we – receive the ability to press forward? After injury, after accident, after failure, after problem upon problem upon problem, how do we really get the strength to get up and go?

The “easy” answer is faith. But what is faith? We could define faith by calling it trust. Some people put their trust in the government to find a solution to life’s demands. Someone else might call it loyalty or fidelity to someone or something. We might put our loyalty in a team or a particular player.

Personally, while those might be valid definitions in some respects, I prefer a different one. Faith is the belief in things that are unseen. Faith is an assurance of things that are hoped for but beyond our immediate vision. Not only is that definition found in God’s Word (Hebrews 11:1), it’s proven to be an ultimate Rock for me in my life. No matter what might be happening, I trust that God is always there, working and moving in ways unseen.

So…  How?

How do we obtain more of this “faith” in our lives? How do we develop an ever-increasing belief as well as the ability to walk in it – no matter how challenging the particular circumstances might be? The source, the well, the deeper place from which we can draw hope and trust, is, as you might expect me to say, in Christ. 

How did you react to what I just wrote?

I ask you to reflect on that question for just a moment. Take a moment to read backwards. Reflect on your own belief, your hope, your trust, your faith.

How strong is it? 

I’ll be honest. When I feel that it is strong, then I doubt. Then I struggle. Then I wonder.

And then, when I feel weak, I feel the strength of CHRIST filling me. 

There is a big difference between the moments of strength and weakness in our lives. I am convinced that it is in those moments of our greatest strength that we might as well give up. Why? Because our strength is ultimately going to fail. But, it is in the moment when we realize that we are weak, when we are helpless, when we are floundering and failing, it is that exact moment when we have our greatest opportunity for achievement. 

Why? 

Because it is no longer “us”… It isn’t about what I / we can do. We MUST turn to One who is greater, stronger, and more powerful. 

And that’s why faith in Christ is so important. The Apostle Paul realized this essential fact for his own life. As he wrote to the church in Corinth (2nd Corinthians 12:7-10), he had struggled, wrestled and called out for healing. Jesus said “no”. 

Not maybe. Not wait a little. Clearly, simply and directly, Jesus said no.

If that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, remember who Paul was. He’d been racing to imprison or kill Christians. He’d been struck blind and called by Jesus to be an Apostle. He’d been persecuted, shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and much more for his faith. If there was anyone who “deserved” to be healed, wouldn’t you think that it would have been him? 

And yet, Jesus said no.

In that point of weakness, the Apostle spoke a clear Truth: “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Please understand. Even as I prepare myself to write what I am about to write, I feel silly. I don’t want you to think that I’m claiming to have anything even remotely close to his faith. Again, those moments when I put myself up, I get knocked down. However, when I realize my weakness, when I trust in Christ, when I choose to run with Him rather than on my own, I see Strength. Not mine. His.

And so, as I draw what was supposed to be a quick thought to a lengthy end, that is where I would like to point you – to Christ. To His Presence. To His Strength. 

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve seen my quotes recently from a man named Chad Robichaux. After serving as a Force Recon Marine, Police Officer, DOD Contractor in the Middle East, and a ranked MMA fighter, he was at his end. His marriage was almost over and he was contemplating suicide. However, his wife asked him a simple question: Since he’d never given up on anything in his life, why was he now willing to give up on their marriage. That question so impacted Chad that he began meeting with a pastor from her church. And then, he began to not only say that Jesus was his Savior, he began to live with Jesus as his Lord. (Read his full story in An Unfair Advantage.) He now strives to help other veterans through a process of finding hope and healing. 

In his book, he states something I found rather challenging. Chad shares: (with one minor tweak by me):

As life goes by, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what a good person is – yet it becomes increasingly more important to be that person.

Let me encourage you to take up that challenge. Strive to BE the person God is calling you to be. Be a person of faith. Be a person of integrity. And, perhaps the most challenging, be a person of weakness – as you find STRENGTH in Christ.

Yours in Christ,

Marty