I cheated today. It is with shame and humility that I write this confession. During my quiet time today I cheated and read tomorrow's reading from the Psalms. Scandalous, I know. But I couldn't help myself. Which, interestingly, was the same excuse I gave to Mrs. Jury in sixth grade when she caught me cheating on a reading test.
The first two verses from tomorrow's reading in Psalm 127 go as follows:
Unless the Lord builds a house,
the work of the builders is wasted.
Unless the Lord protects a city,
guarding it with sentries will do no good.
It is useless for you to work so hard
from early morning until late at night,
anxiously working for food to eat;
for God gives rest to his loved ones. [NLT]
Several years ago my father-in-law and I started Catalyst Ministry founded strongly in a belief born from this passage. Often we find ourselves dreaming about what may be on the horizon for our community, families and ministry. Whenever one of us approaches the other with a new potential vision to chase after, we have learned to ask a simple question: "how much time have you prayed about this?" It is easy for a dreamer to dream. It is easy for a visionary to see visions. And it is easy for a salesman to solicit a buyer. In our culture we over value the dreamer and under value the developer. We worship the entrepreneur and ignore, even mock the farmer. Yet without the farmer, with the discipline to daily work at the obvious tasks before them, the entrepreneur would not eat. And it is the entrepreneur, with dreams and schemes, who envisions new machinery, tools and techniques to help produce more abundant harvests.
Neal (my father-in-law) and I hold each other to task about our prayer life because we have experienced that God Himself is both the Entrepreneur and the Farmer. He is a visionary leader and a disciplined worker. So within Catalyst we have a simple saying: "We won't chase on earth what has not first been birthed in Heaven."
In a culture that idolizes the new it is tempting to chase the next shiny thing. But if that shiny vision has not first been born within the throne room of God Himself then we will ultimately do nothing but exhaust ourselves, our resources, our family and our community as we try to birth it here on earth.
And this truth begs this question: how do you know? How do you know if what you are chasing (family, career, ministry, friendships, community, schooling, etc.) comes directly from God Himself? Over the next few weeks we will take some time to delve into this question: "What does the voice of God sound like?" in hopes of helping to clarify what God may be speaking to you and I from His throne room.
"People who are more obedient to the general word of God are more prepared to recognize and be obedient to the specific words from God." -Paul Maconochie
God has already spoken in powerful ways. His word is potent and prolific. It is sharper than any double edged sword. Yet I know my temptation is to whine and bemoan that I have not heard a new and deeper word from God. Why should God speak a new and deeper word to me when I have not been obedient to the words already spoken?
What if God is bigger, stronger and more capable than I realize?
Do I live like it?
What if I did live like it?
What would that look like?
Who would that impact?
What would change in my life? Around my life?
What is the first step towards experiencing such a life?
My wife and I have 3 kids; all boys. Our youngest (age 3) is potty training. It is not going so well. While he is highly intelligent and grasps all the concepts he is choosing to not poop in the potty. Straight forward. Plain and simple. He is choosing not to. Over the weekend he chose to do it in our basement on the carpet. Then step in it. Then walk around. On the carpet. And on the couch cushions. Earlier tonight my wife and other boys had to play "find the pooh" in the bedrooms. I think we found it all. Hopefully.
When we ask Jude (our youngest) the intricacies of potty training he can give you all the right answers. He will gladly offer up what one should and should not do. He can tell you what actions will earn a reward and what actions will bring frustration and disappointment. Yet he is not ready to fully choose the former.
Jesus tells a story in Matthew 21 of two sons: both are asked by their father to go do some yard work. The older initially says no, then changes his mind. The younger says yes, but never follows through. Few things are more frustrating than dealing with an individual who says 'yes' with their mouth and 'no' with their actions.
As I sit in my recliner watching my Cleveland Indians' post season hopes slip away (THAT WAS STRIKE THREE, UMP!!!!) I cannot help but ask, "where have I said 'yes' with my lips but 'no' with my actions? Where am I not following through with what my Father is inviting me into?"
The worst part? As a father myself I only want the best for my children. My 3 year old will have a healthier life if he chooses discipline in this area of his life. God is a father. Jesus calls him our father. As a father he wants what is best for me, his child. Am I choosing to follow through? Am I choosing to say yes with my actions? Where am I not? More importantly, why am I not?
Had one of the fellas in a coaching huddle I lead make an interesting observation today: "Do I allow opportunities for God to show up?"
In a hyper-individualistic and entrepreneurial culture where those who pioneer and trail blaze ALONE are raised up as celebrities do I ALLOW God to be God? Or have I so structured my life, so controlled and crafted my livelihood that God is not given a chance to be God? And then I do what: cry afoul and yell at him for his absence and apparent lack of participation/interest in my life which leads to chasing the next 'experiencing him' moment (just need that next good book, conference, video series, small group, church service, sermon, worship song/experience, etc.). Maybe he is just siting on the sidelines, right where I have pushed him.
So how can I create intentional space in my life for him to be more alive and present? In what way can I give him an opportunity, today, to allow him to be the creator of the universe? How am I being invited to surrender control? What am I being invited into that will allow him to reveal his true identity as creator but I have not gone because it will also reveal my true identity as created? What about for you?
I recently came across this photo and it reminded me of a time when my eldest son was almost 2 years old. At the time my wife, son and I were living in my in-laws basement (another story for another day). In late October Micah (my son) and I were taking the trash down to the end of the driveway. As I lugged the trashcan Micah played the role every one year old boy loves to play and went running ahead as fast as he could. I calmly reminded him that is was dark and hard to see the cracks and potential pitfalls. His response was pure innocence: he stopped. He stopped so fast I thought he ran into an unknown wall. With 3-4 quick steps I caught up to him and quietly stood by his side. Looking down I saw his giant deep blue eyes in a trance. Tracking the path of sight line I found myself staring into one of the largest harvest moons I had ever seen.
My in-laws live in a suburban cul-de-sac about 20 miles east of Cleveland, Ohio. A development built about 30 years ago their home is surrounded by mature maples and gorgeous oaks. The fall season in Northeast Ohio drips with colors as these trees begin stopping their photosynthesis process and sugars trapped in the leaves embrace sunlight and cool nights. Tree tops take on the flavor of a box of Trix Cereal. Green grass drowns in a sea of melted crayons. As I looked through this palette of textures, like a crowning jewel, the burnt orange harvest moon hung in the evening sky. It truly looked large enough to climb onto.
Micah, his eyes wide, full of the wonder of an unknown spectacle, broke his gaze and looked to me. "DADDY!!! THE MOON!!!" And then magic. "I'm gonna get it!" And he took off, sprinting as fast as his tiny skinny white legs could take him. He rounded the edge of the driveway, tiny sneakers slapping concrete, and took to the sidewalk. In that moment my heart burst. I wanted him, more than anything else in the world, to reach the moon. I wanted him to climb it, dance on its dry, dusty, pockmarked skin. I wanted him to lasso the moon.
"So don't be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom." Luke 12:32
I have had many conversation with folks that tend to follow this track: "Sure God is perfect. He is God! But no, I don't think He actually cares about me. I look in the world and there is no way I can think that. I simply do not think God is good. Yes He is perfect but no He is not good."
As a human I am deeply flawed. As a human father I am far from perfect. But if I, a human, flawed father want good things for my children then how much more does a Perfect Father? In that moment with Micah I wanted him to experience walking on the moon. I wanted him to experience the Kingdom. And it brought tears of joy and happiness to my heart. Jesus calls God our Father. He invites us to call Him Daddy (Matthew 6:9). And Jesus says that this perfect God is also a good Father.
We all tend to look at God and the notion of Him as a good Father through the lens of our own experiences. And because we are flawed humans surrounded by flawed humans our own experiences of 'father' are not always encouraging. Jesus however, invites into a new experience: a Perfect God who wants to be our Good Father.
I am not perfect but I want good things for my children. I anticipated loving my children when I dreamt of being a father. I never anticipated gaining a deeper understanding of a Perfect God who wants to be my Good Dad. Every time one of my three children call me daddy and run into my arms I think of my Good Dad in heaven. And every time I dream of lassoing a harvest moon I hear my Good Dad behind me, whispering through tears, "I want you to dance on its dry, dusty, pockmarked skin. I want you to lasso the moon."
When I was in middle school someone told me that it was impossible for a person to inhale 50 times without exhaling. Naturally, I spent the rest of the day trying to prove this little factoid wrong. After many, many failed attempts and some light-headed feelings, I gave up and accepted that it was not possible.
While reading today, I picked up another little nugget of info - the word inspiration means the act of breathing in! This may not be new information for you, but it set off all sorts of explosions in my head. The article I was reading talked about constantly searching for inspiration and never actually applying that inspiration to your life. It's like trying to take in 50 breaths without exhaling!
Job 33:4 “The Spirit of God has made me,
And the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
We breathe in the breath of God constantly, through His word, the people He puts us around, the experiences we have as we follow Him. How often do we exhale? How often do we share our lives, our wisdom, our experiences, with those around us? The inspiration that you draw in is meant to be let out, to be drawn in by someone else.
All of this helped me to realize that I've been selfish with my breath lately. I've been breathing in, but only letting out tiny breaths. I think it's mostly because I undervalue how my life, or anything I say really, could impact someone else. Following God has put me in some very interesting places, connected me with some really amazing people, and taught me many lessons that were not meant to be held in.
I shared a personal story during a teaching session, exhaling some of the meager wisdom I gleaned from a particularly poignant failure in my life. Weeks later someone was telling me how my story had been shared with him and what an impact it had in his life, rekindling feelings of hope as he was entering a new phase of life. It's inspirational to hear that something I shared was a help to someone else.
I was sharing all of this with Patrick today and he totally called me out on exhaling these ideas on here... I hope they inspire you to go breathe on somebody.
A few winters back the leadership team of the senior high group I was a part of began spending a Sunday a month serving at a local men's homeless shelter here in downtown Cleveland. Our vision with this activity was two-fold: create an environment for our students to share themselves and the gospel to others and bring the gospel into a dark place of our community.
During our first OUT Day at the shelter we saw a few issues and worked to correct them the following month: First, we served a meal in the cafeteria from behind the kitchen service window (think the serving window at your old middle school). This created an instant separation of ourselves to the pocket of people we felt called to invest in. Second, the meal itself was the standard fare the residents experienced every day. Wanting to offer something special we eventually switched to serving homemade cookies, allowing those who were already volunteering to continue serving the meal. Originally these cookies were store bought but the pre-packaged goodies felt calloused; almost lacking the depth of care for the residents we wanted to convey. And third, following the cookie distribution there was limited interaction with the residents.
Learning from our first experience, our second OUT Day looked very different: we setup tables in front of the kitchen serving window, actually in the cafeteria itself; we started asking for and baking our own cookies; and we brought decks of cards, chess and checker boards and sat down with the residents during the cookie distribution and after. The impact was immediate. Men were being engaged in conversation and prayer. It was fantastic.
The Sunday before Christmas that winter we setup shop with excitement as we had been present long enough to begin building relationships with both the staff and residents (they called us "the cookie people"). Starting at our normal 3 pm we setup and saw a line quickly form as the fellas began pushing as shoving to get first pick of the goodies. About 30 minutes into the afternoon I was in the dining area enjoying a good conversation and checking on our students when another leader grabbed my shoulder.
"Um... Need you in the kitchen. There is a very angry woman threatening to do nasty things to us." I walked through the swinging metal door to find a mass of red shirts. Turns out a local church had arrived to serve a Christmas dinner later that afternoon. And arrived they had! 25 men and women all clad in the same red t-shirts promoting their local congregation. And in the middle of the group was a visibly (and audibly) upset little old lady.
No sooner was I through the door than her eyes assaulted mine: "So this is your doing!" My buddy gently tapped my shoulder and whispered "Enjoy!" as he ducked out the door I just entered. Turns out this church has been serving dinner on the Sunday before Christmas for several years.
"Your cookies are going to ruin the meal we have been preparing for almost a week! This is Christmas!! These men need this meal! These men look forward to this meal every year! This is the one chance all year we work this hard to serve and you kids have ruined it!!"
***Side note: The men still ate their meal.***
As I endured her temper tantrum a few things struck me:
1. She didn't know any of the men's names.
2. This church family only worked hard at serving once a year?!
3. The residents look forward to EVERY meal.
4. There was a lot of red in that little kitchen.
5. I really wanted to punch my buddy in the throat.
What most struck me was the posture she and her church family were taking towards serving: they were Bringing Jesus into that place which meant they didn't need to Be Jesus in that place.
And here is the lesson the Spirit lead me too as I processed this event: If we choose to Bring Jesus then we can separate ourselves from what we are carrying (you carry a book bag, purse, books, etc., doesn't make you a book bag, purse, book etc.). We can hide behind the offering and believe that is enough. If we seek to Be Jesus then there is no possible separation. And here is the key:
We can Bring Jesus and not Be Jesus. We cannot Be Jesus and not Bring Jesus.
In Luke 12 Jesus offers a significant warning. I love how The Message translates this passage:
“You’ll protest, ‘But we’ve known you all our lives!’ only to be interrupted with his abrupt, ‘Your kind of knowing can hardly be called knowing. You don’t know the first thing about me.’"
There is an inherent danger in separating who we are from what we carry. This danger can not only create a wedge between us and the Father but also us and the mission our Father may be inviting us into. Of course we are called to Bring Jesus into the dark niches of our communities. But when we take the easy route of chosing to Bring Jesus without first chosing to Be Jesus we risk seeing the Kingdom opportunity blowup in our faces (Sceva's sons of Acts 19 come to mind).
I walked away from my conversation in the kitchen of the shelter shaking my head. Not so much towards the red clad folks from the local church (had some good conversation with a few members of the group) but at the recognition of how many times I had chosen to Bring Jesus rather than humbly Be Jesus. And how impossible it is to Be Jesus without fully submitting myself to the Holy Spirit and His guidance.
Just wanna share some of the ways the Father blessed us during 2012:
Lake Metropolitan Housing Authority [LMHA]
Summer Lunch Program (4 weeks)