Sometimes I hear God best in surprises. Seemingly unrelated circumstances suddenly unite, and their merger stirs something in my heart. Like a succession of waves on a beach, one last surge dissolves my sandcastles.
This last month I talked with:
A despairing man whose ministry seems stagnant, and all his work seem fruitless;
Another man who keeps a tally in the front of his Bible of all the souls he helped save;
A group of friends who mused on our all-absorbing attraction to superhero movies;
Each discussion hinted at some deep longing for significance, expressed in meaningful ministry, “souls I helped save,” or that desire to be superhero (ish) ourselves. Wanting a life that matters doesn’t contradict Scripture. We are made in God’s image, and he is the God of all glory.
And yet. Last week I read about the baptism of Jesus. A voice from heaven cries, “You are my beloved Son; I delight in you.” My first response (and probably my second and third) was: “That’s exactly what I want, to hear the Father say to me, ‘Well done. I am pleased with you.’”
Then a thought flashed through my mind: Is it possible to have as much joy when the Father affirms Jesus as I would have if He so affirmed me? Can I simply take joy in the joy of Jesus?
A pastor-friend of mine once went through a series of disappointments. His favor with his followers faltered, his once fruitful ministry began to fail, and many of his former friends became his biggest opponents. And that was before events really got bad.
My friend was well known. If I told you his name, you’d probably recognize it. And his meteoric fall from favor was not due to any moral scandal on his part. Yet rejection and controversy, like circumstantial evidence against him, attacked from every side:
He began with a big splash and became famous in a few short months;
His fame attracted detractors, and major church leaders spoke against him;
His followers, who used to think he walked on water, began to drift away;
I recently feel a need for action, practically (selling our house, helping a ministry I support, promoting my book) and humanly (a friend in divorce proceedings and other friends with health or financial woes). A season of doing has descended on me.
But where should I best invest myself?
There is no shortage of advice. Recently, resources I used to like for their insights have transformed themselves into Giant-Task-Lists. Books, blogs, and conversations bombard me with action-items, strategies, and plans:
Last May, an author sent me 26 emails (twenty-six!!) urging me to sign up for his “Three Principles for Successfully Building a Tribe.”
A friend told me of his Four-Step action plan to make a church more mission minded.
A house-stager made a Two-Page list of exactly what to do to make our house “Pop.”
And in one week, a blogger I used to like offered: (a) Six Steps to Becoming Happy, (b) Five Keys for Achievement, (c) Seven Steps to Getting Unstuck, and (d) Eight Secrets to Escape Exhaustion. (My escape from exhaustion began when I quit reading his blog).
Despite the verbal bombardment of tips and techniques for doing, God has also been speaking in a quieter voice, with a single thought that seems more invitational than edict. It’s this:
The Life of God begins to work in me at the moment of my inability.
I reached my fitness high water mark at the age of twenty-four. I ran thirty miles a week, sweated three hundred pushups a day, and I brawled each week in the local boxing club.
Used with permission: www.judophotos.com
In the midst of my peak physical prowess (never mind its short duration), I met a man with a black belt in Judo. He was forty-ish, chubby, and he wheezed as he walked. I think his exercise routine consisted of lifting large bottles of beer rather than heavy barbells.
He was the first black belt of any kind I had ever met. He intrigued me. Could this chubby, middle-aged man really beat me in a friendly fight? The fool inside me challenged him to hand-to-hand combat.
Not since infancy have I spend so much time on the ground. The lawn and I became intimate allies. I huffed, puffed, wheezed, and groaned (and maybe cursed, but it’s still all a blur) as he repeatedly—and effortlessly—tossed me to the ground.
It didn’t matter what punch I threw. Each jab, hook, and uppercut finished with me staring at the sky, gasping for air, and wondering what had happened.
When I was a teenager, family and friends used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Now they just ask me when I will grow up). I always wanted to be a missionary.
Immediately after college I began mission work in Europe. But one day, during a “normal” (that is, non-exciting) prayer time, I heard God speak two words: “Not now.” I sensed him say that if I did mission work “now” I would be creating an Ishmael not an Isaac; I would be birthing mission service out of my natural flesh and not out of God’s spiritual promise.
The sense was puzzling (I was serving God in the mission, wasn’t I?), but it was also compelling; so I left the mission field and entered the business world at the ripe old age of twenty-five. I eventually became an executive and owner of a software company.
Twenty-five years later, in another non-exciting prayer time, I sensed God say, “Now is the time.” I asked friends for discernment, and together we agreed that God was calling me away from my job. But none of us knew what God was calling me to.
That was why eight years ago, January 1st, 2008, I woke up with no job, no client calls, no meetings, no paycheck, and no clue about what I should do with my life. When people asked me what I do, I always answered,
Last spring I attended a wedding and heard an impressive pastor preach a stirring sermon on a powerful passage called The Kenosis (or The Emptying).
It’s my favorite passage on humility:
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)
The pastor urged the couple to be humble, to think first of the other person, and to give the remote to their spouse. He said humility is one virtue all religions agree on:
Confucius said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues,” and the Quran says, “The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility.”
He claimed to offer the key to marital bliss found in the gospels. He said the entirety of the good news can be summed up on one simple sentence: Be ye humble as Jesus was humble.
But equating the gospel with our humility is confusing cause and effect. The fruit of the gospel is humility, but chasing humility to find the gospel is squeezing bad news from the good news. We’re trying to get wine from a rock.
When I was ten years old, bell-bottoms flooded the fashion world like a tsunami. They were everywhere, but my mother wouldn’t let me wear them. Her lame excuse was something like, “You shouldn’t be a slave to fads.” (I think she just disliked them.)
Children always tell their parents that they are the only kid at school without an “X”: a cell phone, an iPad, or a personal condo in the Cayman Islands. Well, I checked. I was literally the only kid in my class without bell-bottoms, except for the one girl who wore a dress.
One day an older boy at school stopped me and asked why I wasn’t wearing bells. To a ten-year old boy, the only thing worse than being wretchedly uncool was to miserably admit, “My mom said I can’t.” So I just stood there, head down, conflicted and dejected.
As the older boy stared at me, wonder washed over his face, and he exclaimed, I know what you’re doing, you’re sticking it to the man, aren’t you? You’re sticking it to the man!
I had no idea what “sticking it to the man” meant, but I sensed a ray of sunshine pierce my storm. Not wanting to lie, I simply smiled. Sort of knowingly.
Three or four years later, bell-bottoms had the fashion-appeal of last week’s lukewarm latte.