Month: March 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Bigger or Better

Bigger or better. You might have heard of the game. Start with a penny and walk up to random people asking them, “Do you have something bigger or better than this penny?” I last played this game in Washington D.C. for a conference. Our group ended up with a mobile phone from a kiosk by the end of the game. Did the phone work? Now that’s another story.

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The game shocked me, because people seemed more willing to give then I ever expected. Yes, we received our fair share of blank stares and rejections. Most people looked for an opportunity to provide us with something bigger or better. They would search for items as if they participated in the game also.

Life can look like a game of bigger or better. Certain moments bring us to the question of exchange the current for the new.

Jesus throughout the Gospels asks the question of bigger or better? The disciples leave their fishing nets to follow Him. Matthew leaves taxes. John 4 records the woman at the well and Jesus wants to give her living water so she can never thirst again.

Even going back to the Old Testament, Joseph in Genesis experiences the divine game of bigger or better. The pain in his life becomes the means of God saving his family. It leads him to say, “What was meant for evil, God meant for good.”

Part of following Christ may mean a game of a bigger or better. He asks us to exchange the current reality for a future in trusting Him. This is the God who says He exchanges beauty for ashes, strength for fear, and gladness for mourning. Bigger or better follows this pattern in our spiritual life; how we trust Christ today can grow even greater tomorrow.

You might be in the midst of season where Christ is asking you the question of bigger or better? Closed doors might mean an unexpected detour. Your routine receives a disruption. Living a “new normal” becomes an all too familiar “new normal.” These invitations remind us that Christ captains our lives and will guide us in the right direction. 

So today, Christ might ask you to make an exchange; bigger or better? It may not seem like this at the moment, but it may open you up to totally new opportunity, perspective or friendship you never thought would come.

How is Christ playing bigger or better in your life today?

Photo credit to Jessie Schnall, you can see more of her work at Portraits by Jessie.

Write It Down

In a scene from The OfficeMichael Scott stands in front of a classroom. The unpredictable and hilarious branch manager of Dunder Mifflin Paper company of Scranton, PA stops and points his finger. He adamantly says to the class, “Write this down. Paper is here to stay…” The camera moves towards the students. You can hear them clicking the keys of their laptops.

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Walk into a Barnes and Noble and notice the journal section of the store. Paper and pens never looked so trendy. Yet, we spend most of our days tied to a computer or scanning a smart phone. We type haphazardly with spell check automatically fixing errors. Something happens when our fingers clutch a pen and hear the strokes of the ink hitting the page. Even with the mistakes or crossed out words, we can go back to see exactly what we felt as we wrote.

Physical pages express permanence. Maybe you’re like me with a mind running a thousand miles per hour. Thoughts can remain trapped in our heads. Positively, we dream, ponder and count our blessings to never record them. Negatively, we mull over the hurt, pain, bitterness and anger without letting them come to the surface.

Writing gives our thoughts a place. This single act invites us to locate the activity of our souls. Sometimes we talk in circles and other times our minds wander. Paper allows the content of our mind to have a destination. Also, we need reminders like notebooks taking us back to the moments we penned the words.

This practice calls us to pay attention to the work of God’s grace in us. You might want grab a notebook and pen or just a piece of paper and a pencil. Take time throughout to the day to stop and write:

The moment your hurts disorient your thoughts; direct them to a place and write it down.

When you gain insight or clarity; write it down.

You get distracted by the thoughts of the wonderful people in your life; write it down. 

Taking the time to learn from your mistakes; write it down.

What you hope and dream for the future; write it down.

The prayer to become more like Christ; write it down.

What will you write down today?

Photo credit to Jessie Schnall, you can see more of her work at Portraits by Jessie.

Ready to Hear

Voices can become familiar. We can articulate a wise, practical and truthful insight to a person. The words move beyond mere clichés or thoughtless one liners. They bring perspective or even provide an application action to the conversation. Yet, the person may not buy into our advice in the moment.

A week later the same person comes to us. They say, “I was talking to (fill in with a name) and they said the exact thing I needed to hear…” As you begin to listen to them, they communicate exactly what you shared with them. Perhaps, this instance is less about content or our role in a person’s life and more about timing. 

How do I know this? Because I can see myself on both sides of this dialogue and you might also. It takes time for us to receive wisdom. We internalize and debate with ourselves. We play out the scenarios of our struggles and challenges. Wouldn’t this be true for others receiving words from us? Just like us, they process and contextualize what they have heard.

Proverbs 25:11-13 communicates about these instances in this manner:

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.
Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest is a faithful messenger to those who send him; he refreshes the soul of his masters. 

The question from this passages is, “Are you ready to hear?” 

We are invited to lower our defense shields and not tune out a familiar voice. Conversely, we can measure our words for the right timing to others. God prepares us to hear. He fashions the circumstances of life, the repeated feedback from others, messages and readings to direct us. Wisdom both listens and waits for the right circumstances to speak into another’s life. 

Today marks the beginning of the week. Let’s reflect on these thoughts:
Are we using wisdom for the timing of our words to others?
Are we ready to hear what others have to say to us?
Are we stepping back to discern how God might be speaking to us?

Photo credit to Jessie Schnall, you can see more of her work at Portraits by Jessie.

The Art of Encouragement

“Bless their heart…” I learned the meaning of this adage while living in Springfield, MO. It describes how a well-intentioned person attempts a good deed while failing at the execution. Think of the husband who buys a trash compacter for an anniversary present. A child hands you a half-eaten lollipop in hopes of sharing. You can probably identify your own experiences of well-intentioned deeds gone wrong.

 

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Encouragement can fall into the category of, “Bless their heart.” People will say things like hang in there, it will get better or there is light at the end of the tunnel. Though these words come from a motivation to help, they do not always come at the right moment. People quote Bible verses with the same idea. Not to negate the truth of Scripture, but often the best encouragement comes when we live these verses out. 

I Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” These words come from the Apostle Paul to a group of people in need of remembering God’s work in their lives. The Bible commands us to encourage. So the question for us, how can we encourage others in a helpful manner?

Here are a few insights to consider in our attempt to encourage each other:

1. Start with listening.

People desire a space to be heard. Often, we can immediately begin give advice without actually understanding what the other person faces. In many cases, listening might be the greatest gift you can give a person. Let the person talk. People who feel heard also have the opportunity to release the weight of their thoughts.

2. Include, Include, Include.

I know some of the greatest encouragement I received came from invitations. People with struggles may need to simply be around others. Have them over for dinner. Watch the game with them. Encouragement does not always mean actually talking about the issue. It may mean creating spaces of joy. When you invite someone, you say to them, “We would like you here.”

3. Write Cards or Letters.

Companies still write greeting cards. Call it nostalgia, but people save these cards. Your written word can have far more permanence than spoken word. This act communicates that you are thinking of others.

4. Provide helpful resources.

Share books. Email links to podcasts. Print out articles. Sometimes receiving resources like these provides a different perspective. This also invites a new conversation.

Now you share, what are ways you receive encouragement? 

Photo credit to Jessie Schnall, you can see more of her work at Portraits by Jessie.

 

Daily Provision and the Long Haul

Life fluctuates. We experience the heights of elation in contentment, joy and success. On the other hand, we know the feelings of pain, resentment, confusion and restlessness. These moments can switch on a dime, when we least expect it. Part of life is learning to navigate the highs and lows; neither resigning to the worst or entitling ourselves to the best.

 

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The book of Genesis follows the life of Abraham. This man experienced the fluctuations of life. His story begins with God asking him to go to an unknown land with no apparent direction. Throughout each episode of his life, we can see a gracious God interacting with him. Genesis 21 records the long awaited moment; Isaac is born. God keeps His promise to start a nation more numerous than the “stars in the sky…”

Normal. The moment when things work together. Our hope for no longer having the tests, detours or challenges. Can you imagine what Abraham thinks? Time to ride off into the sunset. 90 years of waiting has come to a close. As many of us love spontaneity, we desire normal. God has intervened and we can track His hand in our lives. Our lives begin to make sense.

Genesis 22 seems to come out of nowhere. Perhaps, we have become to familiar with this story. Just like in real life, we want to jump to the end without actually feeling the gravity Abraham’s situation. God asks Abraham to give  his one and only son, Isaac. Haven’t we been there? The moment life becomes normal, it seems God takes the carpet right under us. Suddenly, we experience another test. Questions of doubt enamor our souls. Why in the world would God call us to this?  The story ends with God stopping Abraham and providing a ram for a sacrifice. Along with Abraham, we can see God comes through.

I wrestled with this text in preparation for a class learning how to study the Bible. A text like this challenges our perspective. What does it really mean to have faith in God? Can we trust Him? John Walton, writer of the NIV Application Commentary for Genesisprovides a powerful insight for this passage:

 

Like the stock market, our lives have long-term prospects as well as daily fluctuations. In Genesis 21, God as El Olam, the Enduring God, was seen connected to the long haul. In Genesis 22, God as Yahweh Yireh, the Superintendent God, is seen as being concerned with the daily fluctuations of life and the needs that result. Abraham has to come to know God in both roles, as do we. (pg. 520)

 

In our lives of fluctuation, we find a God who both daily provides and sees the long haul. Puritans from the 16th and 17th centuries called this providence. God watches over each detail for our lives in the day to day while also planning for the long haul. The seasons of fluctuations can change us. They invite us to have a new perspective on following God. He may not direct us to the best circumstances, but He has directed us to know Him. The lows become a point where we experience His daily provisions of grace and one day look back to see His work in our lives. High points bring us to see His daily grace and realize how He has been guiding our lives. 

May we gain the perspective of the God who concerns Himself with the daily provisions and the long haul of our lives. I have been finding in my life, that God is far closer than I imagined. Often, I reference Philip Yancey’s quote from Disappointed with God“Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.”

Photo credit to Jessie Schnall, you can see more of her work at Portraits by Jessie.

Photo credited to Jessie Schnall of Portraits by Jessie.

We want to tell a good story today, dear Lord. We want to write a new line in a chapter in this life of ours. A dramatic flair, a triumphant conclusion, a love song, a twist or turn.
You, God, continue to author the greatest story ever told – and you have placed within us a writer’s heart. Today, help us tell and be a good story. Amen.

(A prayer from the March 15th entry of the President’s Devotional by Joshua Dubois)

5 Ideas for a Book Discussion

Frequently, I get asked, “What book would you recommend for a group discussion?”

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Photo credit to Jessie Schnall at Portraits by Jessie.

Planning a discussion involves understanding the dynamics of the group. How much time can the group give to reading? What topic would be most helpful to each person? Where might this group move to next? The following books, I recommend for their wide appeal and ability to generate meaningful conversations for the committed follower of Jesus, Christians in a season of doubt, skeptic and seeker:

61gc7dYUCSL1. Barna Frames (Various Authors, Edited by David Kinnaman & Roxanne Stone)

Barna Frames includes nine books (referred to as frames) less than one hundred pages on topics ranging from violence, adoption, multi-careering, changing attitudes about church, and digital over-connectedness. Choose one fitting your group or I would encourage you to read all nine. The frames include statistics and infographs.  Authors such as Bob Goff, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, David H. Kim, and Jedd Medefind further explore the topics with their expertise. You may also want to take advantage of the group discussion guides.

 

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2. Chasing Francis (Ian Morgan Cron)

Ian Morgan Cron masterfully weaves conversations about theology, doubt, and spiritual formation within narrative. Chasing Francis explores a journey of faith through the perspective of character, Pastor Chase Falson. His story moves him from pastoring a mega-church in Connecticut to following the steps of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy. My wife, Robyn, and I have thoroughly enjoyed this book together. The back of the book also includes a study guide for each chapter.

 

eat_this_book3. Eat This Book (Eugene Peterson)

The question of reading Scripture may not always be why but how? Eugene Peterson quintessential understanding of reading the Bible says, “Readers become what they read.” Eat This Book delves into understanding the congruent story of Scripture. This book invites readers to see both the art and science interpreting Scripture; providing a perspective on how to read the Bible for formation in Christ’s image. A group could highly benefit from this book by then transitioning into studying the Bible together.

 

imgres4. Ragamuffin Gospel (Brennan Manning)

A book written on grace from the perspective of a prodigal priest; Brennan Manning communicates grace to the weary and self defeating soul. Throughout Ragamuffin Gospelyou can sense an author with an understanding of the reader. If you and your group have lost touch of hope or find yourself in pessimism over the Christian faith, then this book could refresh you from grace as a theological term to an experience. Included is a spiritual retreat. This group discussion could lead to gaining a renewed perspective on following Jesus. 

the-cure5. The Cure (John Lynch, Bruce McNicol, Bill Thrall)

Last summer, we discussed this book on family vacation. The authors of The Cure invite conversation by providing narrative about meeting with Christ and then a response concerning our understanding of the Christian life. This small 120 page book calls people beyond an inauthentic, cynical, and comparing understanding of Christianity to explore what it means to live our lives authentically with God and others. For more details regarding this resource you will want to see the True Faced Website.

Now it’s your turn. What books/resources would you recommend for a group discussion?

 

Closer Than You Think

Chapel ran from 10:00-11:00 a.m. five days a week. It was October 2008 at Valley Forge Christian College. I found myself contemplating graduation. Asking the same questions most every senior asks; Am I headed in the right direction? What am I going to do for the rest of my life? What does the next chapter entail?

Z_3fs657-3zPoo1LYdktH-DDf1mt9VqcTCfVQMZdkLs,TdsAAsGJa_3h2GSMxBo8bLvyo-kDpwrl2211kYMYr4Y,967KnJUMn55FyPb9fEVP0GBovG1WlnuyERHnTWPAlX0Do you ever have an internal conversation like this? You debate with yourself about all the fear, anxiety, and doubt surfacing from the soul. Sometimes the questions haunt us more than the truth we know to believe. If a person shared the same thoughts from their own internal conversation, then we could easily encourage or answer the question. Yet, our answers for others do not always calm our conversations of the soul.

The worship leader sang “Enough” by Chris Tomlin. My head fell into my hands. I started to play out the scenarios for the future. When we plan our scenarios, we either paint the bleakest picture or the extreme best case possibility. Rarely does this practice underscore reality. In the midst of this tumultuous dialogue, a question arose to the conversation. What might God say to you right now? 

A question like this causes a person to stop. Perhaps, you like me wonder where God is in the first place. We walk through life experiencing the detours and delays. Plans get thwarted. Disappointment seems to become the norm. We want believe in His grace, wisdom and sovereignty. We believe while also wanting Christ to help our unbelief. 

I attempted to listen as my mind wandered listening to the worship leader. For just a moment, I began to confront the fear, doubt, and anxiety within my soul. Another question emerged; What if God is closer than you think? These internal conversations can expose the lies and enlighten the truth. The Gospel communicates to us the good news of God near to us. Christ, who not only walks with us, but has the credentials of humanity. A Savior that is closer than we could ever imagine.

Chapel closed. Since October 2008, I have learned to come back to the question, What if God is closer than you think? As you begin this week and the internal conversations emerge from your soul, this question can redefine your perspective.

Starting this Monday morning of work with tons of projects and pressure…
What if God is closer than you think?

Facing the future full of unknowns coupled with anxiety…
What if God is closer than you think?

Feeling stuck within the mundane and ordinary of life…
What if God is closer than you think?

And with all the doubt, pain, and struggle of being a human arising from your souls…
What if God is closer than you think?

Today, let us respond to our questions with questions. May we live with reality knowing the Savior is present with us. What questions have assisted you in your journey of following Christ? 

Photo credit to Jessie Schnall, you can see more of her work at Portraits by Jessie.

Thomas Merton wrote No Man is an Island over forty years ago. His reflections on the human search for meaning, community and relationship with God remains relevant to the 21st century.

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One of the most challenging passages for me came from his discussion about sincerity. Sincerity links to the Gospel, because we are learning to see ourselves through the lens of God’s grace. Merton remarks the following:

The whole question of sincerity, then, is basically a question of love and fear. The man who is selfish, narrow, who loves little and fears much that he will not be loved, can never be deeply sincere, even though he may sometimes have a character that seems to be frank on the surface. In his depths he will always be involved in duplicity. He will deceive himself in his best and most serious intentions. Nothing he says or feels about love, whether human or divine, can safely be believed, until his love be purged at least of its basest and most unreasonable fears.

But the man who is not afraid to admit everything that he sees wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings, can begin to be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence, not in his illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God. (pg. 204)

May we learn to see ourselves and others in light of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. In this reality we can experience true sincerity in community.

Photo credit to Jessie Schnall, you can see more of her work at Portraits by Jessie.

How a long distance relationship changed the way I communicated with friends

One seat remained opened for breakfast. A conversation started and a week later a Facebook friend request was sent. Not necessarily the components of a chick flick, but this how I met my best friend and wife, Robyn. Two coffee dates, Facebook messages, exchange of phone numbers and the purchase of an iPhone for FaceTime later; a year of a long distance relationship began.
Jessie Schnall

Bob Goff shares a powerful story in Love Does on friendship. During his high school years, he attempted to take a journey to find himself. A youth leader ends up joining him for this trip of self-discovery. The leader repeatedly tells Bob, “I’m with you.” You can imagine the implication of those words and the actions behind them.

A long distance relationship not only changed the way I communicated with Robyn, but also the way I communicated with friends. The people we truly value and appreciate – living near or far – are worth the effort to stay in touch. Friendship at any level is a series of actions and expressions which lead people to believe you are with them.

Here are a few insights on communicating with friends that I learned from a long distance relationship:

1. Make the first move.

We often wait for the other person to make the first contact: email, phone call, text message. Long distance taught me again and again to not make assumptions. When in doubt of who should contact whom, that would be a good time to take an initiative. There is wisdom in waiting because of extreme circumstance. I think all of us appreciate a person who contact us. If that is true for us, then it might be true for our closest friends.

2. Old school is new school.

Cards and letters may mean more today than ever. Not just just Christmas or thank you cards, but those pieces of contacts that come out of the blue. This might be nostalgic, but I still have the written pieces of communication from Robyn and other people. Instantaneous does not always equate to more meaningful. You have more power in the pen than you may realize.

3. Dare to commit.

All of us to some degree have busy lives. Yet, the friendships that mean the most to us have come by investing time and energy. Do people know who you really are? Long distance meant many nights on FaceTime. Sometimes it mean saying “no” so I could say “yes” to this friendship. Living in community with the right people gives us perspective; a gift, God uses to sharpen each of us. As Dr. Robert Rhoden said, “The people who know you the best should believe in you the most.” It’s not only making the time for people, but making the time for the right people.

4. Provide room for grace within the personality of your friends.

Some of us like contact and respond immediately. Others of us tend to take time to contact or respond. There were times when I needed to learn to wait and remember people need grace in the midst of the circumstances of their daily lives. It may also mean taking the time to respond a little sooner. Extending grace may take many forms in friendship, but this extension can communicate a deeper level of acceptance. At the root of this point is the serious question, “How can I approach friendship the way Jesus would?”

In a culture that can feel disconnected from authentic community, providing friendship with the “I’m with you” clause opens people to the reality of the Gospel. A long distance relationship taught me about pursuing friendship. What lessons are you learning on friendship in this season of your life?

Photo credit to Jessie Schnall, you can see more of her work at Portraits by Jessie.

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