Gratitude

Gratitude banner.jpg

Among the pantheon of American holidays, Thanksgiving is the one holiday that has most resisted becoming secularized or diluted. What lies at the heart of the holiday is a fellowship meal: sitting around a table with family and friends to focus on our blessings.

Robert Roberts reminds us that gratitude is first and foremost a matter of perspective – it’s a unique way of looking at the world around us. So, let me describe what that means. You should know, gratitude always involves three factors. 

First, there is a…

1.) Benefit: Good things are coming my way 

The word benefit derives from the old Latin word “bene” which means "good." So, in order for me to be grateful, I must first receive something that I perceive as being good for me to receive. The Bible has a lot to say about this. Look at Psalm 103…

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things. Psalm 103.1-5

Our lives are filled with incredible benefits – good things from God. Honestly, we're blind to them most of the time. We take them for granted. We don’t notice them or even appreciate them until they’re gone. Gratitude requires that we open our eyes to see what we’ve been missing.

Sidney Greenberg tells us that when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and went missing for more than two years, more people came to stare at the blank space in the museum where the painting used to hang than had gone to look at that masterpiece in the 12 years prior it had hung there unmolested. That in itself says a lot about our tendency to overlook precious things while we have them.

But let just one of those precious things be taken from our lives and we become painfully aware of the "blank space" on the wall. The truth is the walls of our lives are crowded with Mona Lisas. But we’re not noticing them. We take them for granted. Be grateful that you have them now because you might not have them forever. Or as someone else has said, “Love what you have before life teaches you to love what you lost.”

The second factor of gratitude is a... 

2.) Benefactor: One Who wills the good

So, in order to be grateful, you must not only believe that benefits are coming your way, but also know that they not coming by accident – that they actually come from Somebody. Someone is producing these good things.

The Bible reminds us that each and every one of us has a Great Benefactor. James says it like this… 

Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. James 1.17

James tells us a good God exists and the good things that come our way come directly from His generous hand. Anything and everything you call good is from your Father in Heaven. As the saying goes, “God is good all the time – All the time God is good.”

So there has to be a benefit. There has to be a benefactor BUT there also has to be a…

3.) Beneficiary: One who receives the good

That's you! You and I are the beneficiary of the benefits (the good things) that come from a good God in Heaven Who has our best interests at heart. Beneficiaries believe they are receiving something they did not earn or deserve. In other words, they’re humble. The single most important thing a beneficiary does is express their gratitude.

Now get this. Your job is not to try to make yourself feel grateful. Gratitude is the byproduct of a spiritual reality. As I steep myself in God reality, I find myself expressing gratitude even for things I don’t understand and people I find hard to love and situations I find difficult to accept. 

Not because in and of themselves that any of those things are good, but that a good God Who loves me and is at work in my life has promised to take ALL THINGS in my life and work them to my good. That’s what this promise is all about.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8.28

The truth is, if I wait for perfect people and perfect circumstances to be grateful, I’m going to wait forever. One rabbi said that we have to learn to say a benediction at all times because, if not, we’re in danger of being thankful only when good things come our way. The problem with only being thankful when good things happen, then our threshold for gratitude gets higher and higher and eventually we become ungrateful people. Being transformed by God means learning to see ways in which God is at work, even in bad situations. 

A lot of times I've gone through something hard, painful, bad, and the whole time I was wishing I didn't have to go through it. But now I look back on it and say, "O God, I'm so incredibly grateful I didn't miss that. Even though I wouldn’t have wished it on my worst enemy, God what You did IN IT and THROUGH IT and IN ME is priceless beyond belief. So, for the good and the bad and all the stuff in between, we give thanks to the One Who loves us incredibly and works ALL things to our benefit. Happy Thanksgiving!

Coming Home

Coming Home Blog.jpg

While I was in prayer this past Saturday, God really laid on my heart this idea of coming home. I was thinking about an experience I had with my friend, Pastor Milton Doyle. A few years back, Milton accompanied me on a trip to Katito, Kenya. It was his first trip ever to Africa.

As a white man, I can’t fully step into my brother’s shoes nor his experience of returning to the continent from which his ancestors originated. Knowing that years ago, his people were forcefully removed from the continent and brought to America against their will and now returning after years in diaspora, is something I imagine would be quite overwhelming.

I think the highlight of that trip for me was something that happened at a gift shop outside the Maasai Mara. A Maasai woman approached my friend, took him by the hand, looked into his eyes and said, “Welcome home!” To witness this genuine display of welcome, to see my brother received by his long lost sister, is just something that even I cannot adequately express in words. It was just awesome to be there in that moment.

In just a couple of weeks, I will be in the city of my ancestors. Brenda and I have been saving airline miles forever in order to take a trip to Ireland and Scotland. Back in the 1400’s, my ancestors left Cork, Ireland for the new world. I can’t tell you why they immigrated, whether it was famine, persecution or economic opportunity. But I know that it takes great courage to leave everything you’ve ever known in order to step into the great unknown. Most times, it’s pain - the hardship - that people are enduring that finally becomes the great impetus for a major migration like the one they took.

I do know our family name remains strong in Cork. I have family there - family many generations removed - that don’t know me nor do I know them. But they are my people. I find myself wondering, will I see people who look like me? Will there be obvious family traits after all these years? Will they share my values? Will they see me as one of their own?

Quite honestly, I’ve never thought of myself as belonging to a people, having a tribe or being from a particular place. That is until recently when my wife decided to gift me a DNA test to determine my ancestry. 100% European was the result with the dominant people group being Irish. Of course, it makes sense now that I know about my own lineage and the fact that my mother’s family hailed from Cork.

I don’t know quite what to expect on this trek to my place of origin. I know that God has arranged (because I certainly didn’t make our travel arrangements with this in mind) that I will be in Cork with my mother on the same day. It will be the first and only time we have ever been in the city where her parents, many generations removed, once lived. I suspect God is up to something with this serendipitous arrangement but I don’t know what.

I sincerely doubt that I will receive the greeting my friend did in Africa. It might well be that in their eyes, I will be just another American tourist. I really don’t know what I might learn or experience. But I’m very interested in knowing what it is about this place - this people - that still remains in me as residual of generations that formed their identity in being Irish.

But what all this really did for me was get me thinking about the truth that there’s a part of us all that longs for home – that place where we belong – that place where we are known, loved and welcomed.

There is an ache in our soul for Eden – a faint memory in our collective unconscious – that there once was a place where we all belonged. It was a very special place where we were known fully and loved completely. It was a place where we walked with God in an unhindered way. It was a place where our most treasured relationships flourished.

And since the day our original ancestors left that place, in the words of Crosby, Stills and Nash, our lives have been a constant struggle to “…get ourselves back to the garden.” We ache for that place of belonging again. This longing never goes away nor is it diminished with the passage of time. In fact, if anything, it only gets stronger.

In their book, The Sacred Romance, Brent Curtis and John Eldredge write, “In all our hearts lies a longing for a Sacred Romance. It will not go away in spite of our efforts over the years to anesthetize or ignore its song, or attach it to a single person or endeavor. It is a Romance couched in mystery and set deeply within us. It cannot be categorized into propositional truths or fully known.”

Philosophers call this romance, this heart yearning set within us, the longing for transcendence; the desire to be part of something larger than ourselves, to be part of something out of the ordinary that is good.

The Bible says it like this in Ecclesiastes 3.11, “God has set eternity in our hearts, without which no one would seek God.”

Quite simply, you and I were made to long for home. We often transpose this desire onto places in our heart; where we grew up, our grandparent’s farm or our country of origin. But the desire is greater than that. These places fall short of our deepest longings. It’s only through the rosy glasses of nostalgia that these places take on the surreal quality of perfection. There are good memories, for sure – special moments that we will treasure forever – but beneath the glow of faded memories, there is a reality that argues against perfection.

We were made to hunger for more than a place where we once lived. God is forever calling us back to Himself – to find our home in His heart – to know that what Eden had is still available with Him. We can be fully known and completely loved. We can walk with Him every day. We can begin to experience relationships as He intended.

What God has in store for us makes our best days on Earth look like terrible hardship. Let me close with these words of Paul to the Corinthians, “Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.”  2 Corinthians 5.3-5 (The Message)

The Worship of Preference

Blog The Worship of Preference.jpg

Jaroslav Pelikan, a church historian, has written, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

There is nothing wrong with tradition. Tradition in its best sense is tied to all of our brothers and sisters who have come before us. It’s their legacy bequeathed to us. But traditionalism is to receive their legacy and not build upon it. In effect, to become a stagnant, dead faith, tied to the past with no meaningful pursuit of God’s continued touch, inspiration and movement in the present.

One example of this is our worship preferences. Those who are convinced that their taste in worship style is the one and only style approved by God, will often say, “We need to do songs that are more worshipful.” So I ask, “What does that mean?”

Typically, the answer is “slower, softer and quieter.” I get that. That’s your preference but don’t call your preference more worshipful. Or are you saying that David was not being more worshipful when the Bible says “he danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Samuel 6.14)? In fact, David had made such a scene with all his worshipful leaping and dancing, that Michal, the daughter of Saul despised him. She rebuked David, telling him how undignified and how unworshipful his frenzied dancing was.

David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD's people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD.  I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor" (2 Samuel 6.21).

David in essence says, “What you consider undignified for worship, I do not. And I’m going to celebrate and have a good time in the presence of God. Who cares if I look stupid to you. Who cares that I’m not doing it the way you want it done. I’m not doing this for you. I do this for God.”

Tradition is not a bad thing. Traditionalism is. Traditionalism insists that God can’t inspire new songs, new musical styles, new art and communication tools or expressive forms of dance - that God is tied to what He did in the past, and in particular, my past, and only those things that flood my heart with feelings of nostalgia qualify as worship.

That’s not worship. At least it’s not worship of God. It’s worship of the self. Paul wrote in the book of Romans, “Focusing on yourself is the opposite of focusing on God” Romans 8.7 (The Message). When worship is self-centered, it becomes a consumer product. 

Frequently churches like Springcreek are criticized for precisely that reason. Because the church has drums, guitars and multimedia, we’re accused of pandering to consumerism. What I want you to know, it’s not the style of music that dictates consumerism. It’s the attitude of the heart. More often than not, the people that make these accusations are often the ones most guilty of consumerism.

Consumerism means to focus on the self, the needs of the self and the experiences of the self. When the focus of worship is how it makes me feel versus what we are actually doing in worship – we’ve lost the point. We’ve become worship consumers. While feeling good may be a by-product of worship, that is not the intent – what that really amounts to is worshipping experience. Worship, unlike most of the other things we do in life, is not supposed to be focused on us!

Worship is all about ascribing unsurpassable worth to God. Celebrating the “WOW!” of His love for me, His goodness and His kindness. Don’t worship your experience. Worship God and you’ll have a full experience.

There was a church some years back, that went through an experience like this.  They realized that some of the things they thought were helping them have a fuller experience of God were actually hindering them. It began to dawn on them that they’d lost something. That maybe, their focus had turned too much on themselves and their experience instead of what they were supposed to be doing in worship.

Now, don’t get me wrong, everything looked great. They had wonderful musicians, a great sound system and they were singing lots of new songs. But they started to notice that once the people would enter in, they would wait to see what the band was like, how good the sound was, or whether they were personally “into” the songs chosen before engaging.

The pastor picked up on the problem and took a pretty drastic course of action. He decided they would strip everything away for a while, just to see where the people’s hearts were. The pastor stood up and said, ‘When you come through the doors of the church on Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?’

During this time of struggle, the worship pastor, Matt Redman wrote this song…

“When the music fades,

All is stripped away,

And I simply come;

Longing just to bring something that’s of worth

That will bless Your heart.

I’ll bring You more than a song,

For a song in itself

Is not what You have required.

You search much deeper within

Through the way things appear;

You’re looking into my heart.

I’m coming back to the heart of worship,

And it’s all about You,

All about You, Jesus.

I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it,

When it’s all about You,

All about You, Jesus.”

Worship is all about Him! It doesn’t matter to me whether our style is traditional, contemporary, rap or reggae. What matters to me (and should to each and everyone of us) is whether we are ascribing indescribable worth to the One Whom we have gathered to celebrate. It’s not about me. It’s all about You, Jesus!

Sacred Rhythm

Sacred Rhythm

Right after we had moved into our building on Belt Line Road, I was feeling pretty worn out. I don’t know if it was burnout or something more akin to post-partum depression. After working so hard to get the building completed, it felt like I had just given birth (my apologies to all you who have actually given birth and understand how overly dramatic that statement is). But now that that huge project was completed, I was experiencing a major low. I felt depleted, discouraged and in desperate need of some time away.  

Very graciously, God worked it out for me to go with Lee Jarrell to Colorado for a week. I went to the mountains with some pretty high hopes. I figured since God had made all the details fall into place so easily for this trip, then surely, God was going to meet with me in a really significant way. I took a journal filled with about six pages of questions and issues with which I was struggling. I felt certain God would give me the clarity I was craving. 

So I went expecting some life-changing answer to prayer but the only message I got from God was disappointing to say the least. The one thing I heard from God was a single word, “Wait.” And I thought, “That’s it, God? I traveled all this way. Dropped everything I was doing. I came focused, Bible in hand, journal full of stuff, ready to listen and this is what You tell me? You could’ve told me that back in Dallas.” Frankly, I didn’t understand.

It wasn’t until one afternoon when Lee and I were talking that what God was saying truly crystalized. Lee shared with me a verse from the prophet Isaiah. Here’s what it says…

For since the world began no one has seen or heard of such a God as ours, Who works for those who wait for Him!    Isaiah 64.4 (Living Bible)

Then Lee said, “There are two kinds of believers in the world. Those who believe God works for those who wait for Him and those who believe God works for those who work for Him.

His words were like an arrow to my heart. While I would certainly say I believed the first statement, I hated to admit that I lived as if the second one were true. God was indicting me on the fact that I didn’t do near enough waiting. Working hard and long is something that comes naturally, but waiting, not so much. I lived like someone who believed that God works for those who work for Him. It’s no wonder God had a single word message for me - “WAIT.”

Now think about how you actually live – not what you say you believe. Whether you’re talking about ministry or on the job, many of us plunge headlong into stuff and try to do it all by ourselves. Then when that doesn’t work, we ask for help.  Finally (and only after everything else we’ve tried fails) we pray. 

That order (and it was most definitely mine for years) is - Do it yourself, seek help if it doesn’t work, and when all else fails, pray - that is the complete opposite of the way Jesus lived.

What God was telling me was that I had lost the sacred rhythm of life - that there is a way to do life than doesn’t destroy our souls, leave us depleted, empty or burned out. There is a rhythm to how we serve Christ and how we grow as a believer for which there is no other substitute. 

God’s answer to our overcrowded lives is discipline. The words disciple and discipline are intertwined. Because once you’ve made the choice to say, "Yes, I want to follow Jesus and be His disciple," then, the next question is, "What disciplines will help me remain faithful to that choice?" If we want to be a disciple of Jesus, you have to live a disciplined life.

Now by discipline, I’m not talking about control. There are a lot of Christians who totally misunderstand and pervert the disciplines. They think of them as ways to gain control over their life. But that’s importing a very secular understanding of discipline onto the Bible and it is not what God means at all. In the spiritual world, the word discipline means “the effort to create some space in which God can act.” It was Henri Nouwen who said,  “[Discipline is] the effort to create some space in which God can act. Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up.”

Discipline creates space in my life where I am not occupied and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create space in which something can happen that you didn't plan on or count on. No Christian grows without this kind of discipline.

You and I can't make ourselves grow. The only thing we can do is put ourselves in a place where God can grow us and change us. That's what the spiritual disciplines are intended to do – to create the space where God can do His work. It’s God's job to grow us. It's our job to open ourselves up to that by giving Him the space He needs.

So God calls His disciples to a life of discipline. Three of which I want to talk to you about right now; to be alone with Him, connected in community and engaged in ministry. We find all three of these spiritual disciplines at work in the life of Jesus in a single passage from the Bible…

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.  When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.  He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.  Luke 6.12-19

This was Christ’s sacred rhythm. It’s the way He lived. Jesus first spent time alone with God. Then He gathered His disciples around Him in community. In the afternoon, He went out to preach and heal the sick.

Do you notice the order? From solitude (time alone with God) to community (vital relationships) to ministry (our experiences in God’s work for the sake of others). The order is solitude, community, then ministry.

You cannot reverse it and get the same results; ministry – community – solitude. That will never work. Which is precisely what I was attempting to do. I would engage in the work. When I failed, I sought help from others. If everything else went wrong, then and only then would I pray. I was living life backwards. It’s a sure recipe for a brown out in your soul and burn out in your work.

Another way of describing these three movements of our soul are communion, community and co-working or our desert, our group and our project. That is, we need time alone for prayer and reflection; we need a community to belong to and find our identity within; and we need meaningful work from God.  

This is a recipe for a robust spirituality. Let’s face it, none of us gets to live life divorced from work, parenting, bills, problems and just life in general. We seek God in solitude so that we can sustain His presence even in the midst of the demands of real life. This kind of spirituality doesn’t wilt in the face of overwhelming need. It sustained Jesus and it can and will sustain us, too.

Jesus needs you. He needs you to work with Him to bring God’s message of love and reconciliation to others. God claims you, communes with and works through you. Doing life God’s way is the only way to live! Begin with Him, find your place in the community and engage in the thing He has uniquely called and equipped you to do.

“Spiritual formation is the process of Christ being formed in us for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, and for the sake of others.”                                – Ruth Haley Barton

Winning at Losing

Compulsive overeaters have a unique challenge unlike other addictions. For example, an alcoholic is told, “You have a ferocious tiger - a wild beast that wants to destroy you. You’ve got to cage it up and never let it out again.”

The compulsive overeater is told, “You have a ferocious tiger - a wild beast that wants to destroy you. You’ve got to cage it up then take it out for a walk three times a day.” Unlike other addictions, complete abstinence from food is impossible. Disordered eating has to replaced by a normal and healthy relationship with food.

Let me confess, I have struggled with compulsive overeating my entire life. Apart from 13 years ago, when I got down to a healthy body weight for the first time in my life, I have been obese all of my life.

After achieving that goal, I managed to maintain a healthy relationship with food and my body for several years. I felt better than I had in decades. When my weight first started to inch back up, the compliments still kept rolling in. People had said I looked too skinny at 185 pounds. I accepted their verdict. I wasn’t worried about the weight gain.

But it was when I began training and running in marathons that my healthy routines were most interrupted. Up to that point, I had had a fairly predictable exercise regimen. I would go to the gym 5 to 6 times a week and do cardio for an hour. I consistently burnt off roughly the same amount of calories every day. But when I started running (especially longer distances like 9-15 miles), I would expend a great deal of energy and burn off even more calories. I had to consume more food on running days because I needed it. But before long, I was eating like everyday was running day.

In addition to interrupting a discipline of daily exercise that had served me well, I fell back into old patterns of self-neglect. Lots of travel and little rest, coupled with a lot of unhealthy eating made me balloon back up very near the heaviest weight I had ever been.

A couple of months ago, I began seriously considering weight loss surgery. I was feeling desperate – terribly desperate. I felt completely powerless. I lacked even the most basic motivation to address my eating and excess weight. Yet, all the excess weight was causing me problems. Everything is more difficult when you are heavy. International travel is uncomfortable. Energy to play with the grand-baby or to go to the park or even to take a walk is more limited. Health issues begin to multiply. Something had to be done. I was at the end of my rope.

Brenda was supportive and concerned. So I began the process in earnest. I was evaluated at a surgical center - completed a ton of paperwork, had a stress test on my heart, did all the blood workup. The next requirement was a nutritional class.

I was told, things would have to change after surgery. No more soft drinks after surgery (the carbonation can expand the stomach). Supplements would be required for the rest of my life since the surgery can compromise the body’s ability to absorb things like calcium and iron. Healthy eating was also a must – consuming only lean meats, cutting back on consumption of carbs and sugar as well as portion control. So I figured, “If I have to do this anyway, I might as well get started.” At least that way, I’d be used to it by the time surgery was completed. But that’s when the unexpected happened.

My body began responding wonderfully to this new eating plan. Frequent headaches disappeared. I was having more energy. Other body aches and pains went away AND the thing I least expected – weight started to drop off.

Facing the possibility of surgery and the reality of what I would have to do post-surgery was exactly the thing I needed to get me back on track. I have elected to not do the surgery. 

Normally, I would wait before even writing a blog like this (given my track record and abysmal past failures, it would be my way of saving face should I fail). But the truth is, whether I succeed or fail at losing weight doesn’t matter near as much as the decision to take better care of myself.

I am losing. But I’m not talking about weight. I am losing a lifestyle that has not been working for me. I am losing self-reliance and asking my wife for her help. I am losing dieting since what I’m engaged in is a new way of living and being in the world.

Do I have fears? You bet. I know I am always only one choice away from going back to the way things were. I totally relate to addicts because I am one.

But most of all I know, when I feel like a failure, that doesn’t impact the way God sees me. God has this amazing ability to see sin, not excuse it, but love anyway. He hangs out with the failed, the desperate and the most defeated.

If you beat yourself up all the time, saying to yourself things you would never say to another soul, then you have a grace deficiency. If you think you’re so bad off no one can love you, you have a grace deficiency. If you judge yourself based solely on your appearance, you have a grace deficiency. Thankfully, this misery-inducing disease has a cure! God’s extravagant grace is what heals it.

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over). He’s all I’ve got left.”  Lamentations 3.22-24 (The Message)

Are We Living Our Lives in Christ?

Are We Living Our Lives in Christ?

Love is not rude…                              1 Corinthians 13.5 (NCV)

Paul teaches us in this passage that love is not rude. If we forget what the New Testament is all about – our new life in Christ – we easily misinterpret this teaching to be some sort of new ethical injunction. Often Christians read this verse as saying, “Thou shalt not be rude.”  

So in sincere obedience we set about doing our best to avoid being rude. As long as we’re not being rude, we’ll tend to feel good about ourselves and invariably we’ll feel bad about ourselves when we are rude. We’ll also notice rude behavior in others and judge them accordingly just as we judge ourselves.

But we’ve missed the point entirely. Paul’s point is not that we should try hard to avoid rudeness. Instead Paul is insisting that we must live our lives in love. Simply put, if you are living out of the love of God, you won’t be rude. 

What I’m saying is 1 Corinthians 13 is not some sort of new to do list or the ten commandments of love. Instead Paul was describing what life is like in Christ - what it means to live your life in love. His purpose was not to get us to ACT different. His purpose was to help us BE different. 

In telling us love is not rude, what Paul was actually doing was giving us a red flag to help us notice when we are acting out of love and when we’re not. He’s telling us what evidence to look for in those who are participating in the life and love of Jesus. Because a person who is living out the love of God in their life will not be rude.

Similarly, when Paul told the Galatians that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, he was not trying to tell us to try to act more loving, joyful or peaceful. If we could simply will these things into existence, they wouldn’t be the fruit of the Spirit. Paul was encouraging us to live in the Spirit and not the flesh. The manifestation of our life of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

 

The Most Misused Verse in the Bible

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”                       Jeremiah 29.11

This verse doesn’t mean what most people think it means. The reason it takes on this “everything is great and only getting better” feel is because we read it thinking only of ourselves and our needs and what we want to hear. But we’re not thinking about who it was written to, what it was really about or what it meant to them.

So let me give you some backstory to this verse. Jeremiah was a prophet courageously speaking the message God had given him about impending judgment on the people of God. The people refused to listen. As a result the Babylonians entered Jerusalem, captured the inhabitants and burned the city to the ground. 

Then another prophet by the name of Hananiah came along. Hananiah made a bold promise, “God is going to restore Israel in two years. Everything will be better and back to normal in just two short years.”

It was a lie - an empty promise. But it sure sounded good. The truth is, God had no plans to make everything better in two years. Speaking through Jeremiah, God says to Hananiah, “You’ve made these people trust in a lie.”

It was against this backdrop of false promises about prosperity in the immediate future that the promise of Jeremiah 29.11 is made. The people carried away into captivity will be in exile for 70 years. Most all of them will die in Babylon. And even when release eventually does happen, many will remain in Babylon and never see home again.

So just before Jeremiah makes this promise, he tells the people what God desires for them to do…

This is what the LORD Almighty…says… “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.”                 Jeremiah 29.4-6

In other words, "You are going to be in Babylon for a very long time so you might as well get used to it and make the best of the situation.” He then added…

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.    Jeremiah 29.7

Pray for their enemy? Pray for the prosperity of Babylon? God knew that during their time away, how they would fair would be tied to how the Empire that surrounded them faired. If things went well for Babylon, His people, though removed from their land, would prosper, too. By the way, this is precisely why Daniel and Nehemiah both gained such favor in exile. They looked for ways to seek and promote the welfare of the city.

This is when we read Jeremiah 29.11, I know the plans I have for you to prosper you, we assume God is going to work out everything for me in the immediate future in ways that make sense to me. We will be going home soon. These problems will be a distant memory.

But we have to be careful to avoid assuming that every promise in the Bible is about me. This verse was not written to a me but to a we. It’s not a promise by God to prosper the individuals in the audience but to prosper the community over the course of history. God did have a plan for them as a people - one that would unfold over time. But that generation would not see the ultimate unfolding happen in their lifetime.

The Bible is an amazing book – a treasure trove of truth that has the power to change your life. But it’s first and foremost REAL. It always addresses life as it actually is not as we hoped it would be.

The truth of Jeremiah 29.11 is way more comforting and practical than pretending that God always promises everyone will get a quick turn around or an easy path through life. God is always at work in every circumstance and He will provide for us no matter what the difficulty. 

It’s like the Biblical definition of the word “hope.” Hope in the Bible is not a wish. It’s a certainty. But the certainty is not that my circumstances will be favorable or turn out as I expect. Hope is the confidence that God is intimately involved in our future no matter what happens. It's not a wish that things will turn out well. But the certainty that God does all things well.

 

In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 25, Jesus said…

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Matthew 25.35-36

The implications of what Jesus said are profound. In essence, he says, “Wherever you find human need, you will find Me.” Because He said, “I was hungry you fed ME. I was sick and you visited ME, I was in Prison, you came to see ME.” Each condition Christ names is a condition of desperate need. So Jesus tells us, “I take up residence in the desperate.”

We forget this. We forget that the situations that seem most bereft of God are precisely the places where you will always find Him. Where the need is deepest, Jesus is already there.

Now think about this truth in light of how we do church. I imagine all of us have enjoyed great times of worship. In our songs, we cry out, “Jesus, come be with me!” And He does. He shows up. Scripture informs us that God inhabits the praise of His people (Psalm 22.3). It’s truly wonderful to be among God’s people and feel the presence of Christ in worship.

At other times, like when we’re in crisis, we fall to our knees and cry out, “Jesus, come be with me! I’m hurting. I’m desperate. I don’t know what to do.” Once again, we can count on Christ to show up. He meets us in our desperation. He is close to the brokenhearted and near to all who are touched by grief (Psalm 34.18). That’s His promise. We can count on His presence.

But if Matthew 25 means anything at all, it means I never have to wonder where Jesus is. I never have to be without His presence. If I want to find Jesus, I can always find Him in human need. He is always with the desperately poor, the hungry, the prisoner and the refugee. You can find Jesus in Soweto, in the favelas of Brazil and the refugee camps of Syria. And in all those places and many more, Jesus is crying out to His church, “Church, come be with Me!”

This is the call of the gospel. This is the cry of our Savior. He is in every orphan child. You can find Him in every hungry belly and every desperate situation. We want Him to be with us but He wants us so desperately to be with Him!

About 10 years ago, I came to the stunning realization that the way I had built my church had led to us being cut off from the living presence of Christ in the world’s most vulnerable people. This was unacceptable. The Church is called to be with Jesus where He is. We have decided to join Him in the margins and we are profoundly blessed because of it. God is still calling to His church, “Come be with Me.”