Bringing God Our Emptiness

My leadership at my church feels fruitless and my last few sermons stank; in the first 34 weeks of this year, I published only 25 “weekly” articles; and all my service to a partner charity feels last minute, like I’m doing everything in the nick of time.

Recently, I spend less time with my wife than I want; my brother (who lives in Australia) is visiting for two months and I’ve only met with him once; I’m having far fewer one-on-one meetings to care for acquaintances; and I’m falling behind in paperwork, housework, and email.

Bilbo Baggins once reflected, “I feel like butter scraped over too much bread.”

My heart says, “Me too.” I have too much to do and too little time to do it. My activities suffer from inadequate attention because I’m off to the next thing, which I’ll also do badly because something else (or someone else) cries out for attention. This morning I read this old quote:

God created the world out of emptiness, and as long as we are empty, he can make something out of us.

God is calling me to embrace my emptiness.

The Humility of Our Mysterious Purpose

Two and a half years ago, my wife and I decided to sell our house. We followed commonsense wisdom: we decluttered closets, upgraded appliances, and replaced old wallpaper with fresh paint.

Then we put our beloved house on the market. And nada. Well, not quite nothing. We had multiple almost-buyers, couples who claimed they would make an offer by the weekend. But an obstacle always cropped up, a pregnancy, an illness, a job change, and a declined loan.

We were bewildered. The price was reasonable (based on comparable homes), the house was gorgeous (no bias on my part), and the Ann Arbor real-estate market had taken off like a ballistic missile (houses often received multiple offers the day they were listed).

Where was God in the seemingly senseless delay in selling our house?

Last week we finally got a good offer which we accepted. My immediate thought was: God must have waited for the perfect family to buy, or else God was waiting until the right home came on the market for my wife and me. This morning I read,

“Just as you cannot know how a spirit comes into the bones in the womb of a pregnant woman, so you cannot understand the work of the God who created all.” (Eccl. 11:5)

I thought: Is it possible for me to know even a fraction of the purposes of God?

Bulldozing Friendships

A couple years ago, I experienced a growing concern for a friend of mine. Something in his ministry approach seemed discordant with its purpose. I waited a few months before talking with him. (Who knows? Maybe my observations were wrong.) When a perfect example finally arose, I shared my unease.

But to say I “shared it” exaggerates my graciousness.

Instead, I bluntly confronted him. When he resisted, I pressed harder. Something inside me shouted “Stop!” while something else inside me desperately wanted to express my convictions, no matter the consequences.

I bulldozed aside objections, I plowed under every denial, and I railroaded home my points. And of course, the message was lost in its offensive delivery.

Two years later, I’m still working on repairing that relationship.

Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?

Heroes of the faith r1

Several years ago I met with a woman distraught over her son’s rejection of Christianity.

She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”

She wondered why he had rejected Christianity.

I wondered why it took him so long.

Selling Our Soul for a Bowl Full of Gruel

Last week I read an alarming passage in Hebrews: “See to it … that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.” I thought: Who would ever condemn in the same sentence both adultery and poor, hungry Esau?

Then I remembered a blogger I read. Last fall he urged followers to sign up for a goal-setting course called 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever. He shared his own goals for 2015, and I quote:

  1. Publish a bestselling book and sell at least 50,000 copies in the first year.
  2. Get a six-figure advance for my next book contract by the end of the year.
  3. Make a million dollars in revenue from my business.

If these were the goals of a secular entrepreneur, I’d merely pity him. But he’s a Christian writer. His perverted goals didn’t stop at numbers. He dug his grave deeper when he said,

Now, please hear my heart on this. All of the above is not about money. Money has never made me any happier. What has changed my happiness … is my belief in myself.

I suppose I still feel sorry for him. He’s a young man, unsure of how to handle success. He’s hungry for something—money or fame or self-esteem—but I pity him the way I pity Esau.

He’s selling his soul for a bowl full of gruel. Which God equates with adultery.

Invitations to Intimacy with God

Most Sundays after church, my father invited us kids to critique his sermon. He disliked “Atta-boys” and he loathed a “Nice job!” He loved to observe how we thought and what we saw.

He delighted—really delighted—when we said things like:

  • I think your illustration of the boy on a bike didn’t explain predestination well;
  • I wonder if your second point should have come first, and your third point eliminated;
  • I think the best part of your sermon was the final, “Amen.”

His partly wanted to ensure we listened to his sermons, sure; but even more, he genuinely wanted to engage with us at a heart level by hearing what we thought. Dad encouraged honesty and offered no repercussions when we criticized, disagreed, or misunderstood.

It was my dad’s way of inviting us up into his life.

Do We Practice Godless Faith?

I recently met an elder whose faith brought him great distress. Three years ago, his small but growing church received tithes that exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, for the first time ever. But this is the rest of the story.

After seeking God, the pastor, elders, and deacons collectively felt led to invest in their youth. In faith, they unanimously decided to increase their 2014 budget by thirty-five thousand dollars to hire a youth leader. But the next year’s donations only increased by a thousand.

The following year they again they sought God, and again in faith set a budget with the extra thirty-five thousand dollars. But giving increased by only two thousand. Last year, in faith they repeated the process, and last year’s offerings decreased by three thousand.

I met that elder a week after the board saw last year’s final numbers. He said, “I have never had so much faith in my life. The entire board had faith. Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move an entire mountain.”

“Well, we had faith the size of the Mt. Everest, and we couldn’t move a molehill.”