Mystery Rental

Don’t you hate it when you’re walking across a giant parking lot and suddenly realize you have no idea what your rental car looks like?

Or does that just happen to me?

Ironically enough, I was just listening to a story on the radio about the world memory champion who secured his second straight title by quickly memorizing two shuffled decks of cards. I was trying to decide how many cards I could memorize just flipping through a deck. (Three, maybe?) Perhaps if I had been paying more attention to the vehicle I was piloting than an imaginary deck of cards, I would not have found myself in this predicament a few hours later.

Fortunately, God had the foresight to have someone invent the key fob, which also doubles as an “Are you my rental car?” emergency button. (Really? My car is red? I could have sworn it was black.)

Not all challenges in life are quite so easily remedied, but no matter what the situation is, we do always have a panic button at our disposal. We can call to God and he will respond to our cries for help any time of the day or night. Even though it sometimes feels like we are hopelessly lost, and don’t even know what we’re looking for, He will guide us to the right spot. We just need to keep asking. Keep pushing the button. Keep searching.

I call out to the Lord, and He answers me from his holy mountain (Psalm 3:4).

God’s Letter to Me

I wrote a similar idea on the new resources page, but I keep thinking about it.  And thinking for me is one step short of writing.  Which brings me here.  (Lucky you.) 

One of the habits I try to uphold is to read something Christian every night before I go to bed: the Bible, a devotional, an apologetic or theological book, a Christian biography.  Some nights I read chapters; some nights, a single verse.  It’s a habit I highly recommend.  But it is also a habit I have to be careful of.  Because sometimes I can spend too many nights reading the biographies and devotionals and apologetics, and not enough nights reading the Bible. 

Christian reading is good.  It gives me different perspectives and causes me to think about scripture passages in ways I might not otherwise think of them.  It is also inspiring to read about the lives and struggles and triumphs of some of the leaders of our faith.  But I need to always remember that none of this is a substitute for actually reading the Bible.  Reading only Christian books would be a bit like talking to someone about a mutual friend when there is a letter from that friend sitting unopened on my table.  Why on earth would I do that?  Letters are meant to be read.  And re-read.  (And in this day of electronic communication, probably framed and hung on the wall to be gazed upon with awe.) 

The Bible is God’s letter to me – and to you.  Hearing second-hand perspectives from others can be helpful, but it should never stop us from reading what God has to say directly to us.  We should never leave God’s letter sitting unopened and gathering dust. 

Take some time today to read what He has to say to you.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Cracking, Part II

Click to read Part I.

It paints an interesting word picture to think of ourselves as shells of dust with the Spirit of God shining through the cracks.  But what does this actually mean?  What does this look like in the tangible?

As I think about this image, I think about Paul, who suffered a great deal during his ministry.  2 Corinthians 11 lists some of the afflictions he faced: beatings, stoning, imprisonment, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, pressures from the church, constant threat of danger and death.  If anyone had a reason to feel as though he were “cracking up,” Paul certainly did.  And yet he says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness… For Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:10).

How is this possible?  What does he mean, “When I am weak, then I am strong?”

The answer, of course, is that the weakness Paul experiences in his mortal body is an opportunity for the spirit of God to shine through.  Paul tells how he pleaded three times with God to take away a particular affliction.  But God answered: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8).

God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.  As long as we (wrongly) think we can handle something ourselves, we will distance ourselves from God and rely on our own fallible thoughts and feelings and actions.   It is in our weaknesses that we go scurrying back to God.  It is when our bodies are in pain, our minds are in turmoil, our situations look bleak – it is when we look in the mirror and realize how utterly weak we are – that is when we relinquish control and let God work in our lives.

Perhaps it is something we are afraid of that God pushes us to face.  Perhaps it is an overwhelming schedule that forces us to draw on reserves we did not know we had.  Perhaps it is the start of something new and we’re not sure what the next step is supposed to be or even what exactly the itinerary is that we have just signed up for.  As we admit – to ourselves and to others – that we are afraid and overwhelmed and uncertain, we are showing the cracks in our human shell.  And when we still manage to keep going despite these things, there is no other explanation except that God has taken over.  That his power is shining through our weaknesses.  Under our shattered surface there is an inhuman core of strength that can only come from God.

We may not feel strong.  We may not think strong. That’s okay.  The fact that we are still going, way out beyond what we feel and think we can go, is the very proof that we are relying on God.  The miracle is not that we are strong, but that God is strong in us.

I love a quote from Cindy Davis who wrote: “The most amazing thing about a miracle is that it can’t happen until all else has failed.  That’s God’s favorite time to work.”

In some of my darkest times, this thought was a comfort to me: all hope is never lost.  By its very definition, every other possibility has to be eliminated before a miracle can occur. As you scratch out solution after solution, you are coming closer to God.  As it seems in the natural world that you have long since passed the point of despairing, you are getting closer to God.  God’s power is shown most perfectly when we are weakest, when 100% of the credit goes to Him, when we look and see no other answer: just God.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8)

Click to jump to Cracking, Part III.

Rotten Bananas

My apartment currently smells like bananas.  This is because I have a banana languishing on my counter encased in an increasingly brown skin.  It has passed the point where I actually want to eat it, but it is not quite so far gone as to be demoted to the compost bin.  What it really needs is for someone to turn it into banana bread.  And by someone, of course, I mean me.

And therein lays the problem.

Because turning a banana into banana bread is not like Jesus turning water into wine (John 2).  Making banana bread actually takes… work.  Not that I’m particular averse to work.  It’s just that sometimes, like right now, I’d rather be lazy.  But while pondering this rather forlorn looking banana, I came to think about one translation of Paul’s note to the Romans:  “All things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). 

Paul didn’t say, “All good things will be handed on a silver platter to those who love God.”  He said: “All things will work.”

So here’s a pleasant thought for a Monday morning: life takes work.  Whatever kind of week you’re staring into, buckle down and get to it.  Because sometimes good things come… not to those who wait, but to those who work

After all, those who work get banana bread.  Those who wait just get rotten bananas.

We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Cracking, Part I

Have you ever had one of those days where you think: “If one more thing goes wrong, I am going to crack!!”  As in, “The weight of this stressful old world is weighing me down so badly that I can literally feel myself starting to crack up and fall apart!  Arrggghhh!”

I certainly have.  Sometimes I have a whole season of them, which always makes me think of the quote: “I try to take one day at a time, but lately several have attacked me at once.”

During these times, I have a particular image that comes to mind of a person literally drying up and cracking into dust that blows away.  “Dear God!” I say.  “Help me!”  And sometimes that’s all I can say: “Dear God!”

But here’s the thing about cracking.  It’s not fun, but it is sometimes necessary. 

Take, for example, a baby bird trying to get out of its egg.  The egg has to crack.  Rather violently, too.  And that’s exactly what cracking up feels like.  Like a sharp little beak that is incessantly pecking away.  Peck.  Peck.  Crack. Peck, peck, peck…

Granted, we are not an egg, and we do not have a baby bird inside who is trying to get out.  But as Christians, we do have something else inside: the Spirit of God.  And God did not give us His Holy Spirit to keep it bottled up inside for our own use.  He said, very clearly, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

God gives us his Holy Spirit so that we can share it with others.  And sometimes, the best way for the Holy Spirit to shine is for us to get out of the way.  Our mortal self is, after all, nothing but a shell of dust.  If it was just us, the stresses of this world literally would dry us up and blow us away.  But thank God it is NOT just us.  The more cracks we have on the surface, the more God’s presence becomes apparent.  Sometimes these cracks are little, uncomfortable things that make us reach for God’s hand.  Sometimes they are giant cracks where it feels like we have been shoved off a cliff screaming “Dear God, catch me!”  But the purpose is always the same: God’s light bursting forth as a witness to his presence and his power.

As we come into the Easter season, it is pleasant to think of cute little chicks with fluffy yellow feathers, but we should not forget the process that allowed them to be born.  And on Easter morning as we reflect upon our own rebirth in Christ, we should not forget the process that allowed us to be reborn.  Even our most stressful season is nothing compared to the apprehension Jesus endured in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Here is the picture of a man who is cracking up, whose stress is causing him to sweat drops of blood and who is pleading with God the Father to take this task away.  Yet he still manages to say, “nevertheless, not my will but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).  And in the end, it was through the cracking of His body that the Spirit of God shone through to offer salvation to the world.

In this world, we can try to rely on our own strength.  We can try to patch the cracks and hold everything together.  But God doesn’t want a perfect shell, and He will keep pecking away, trying to shine through.  He uses imperfect people by allowing his Spirit to shine through our cracks.  He pushes us out of our comfort zone so that we rely on Him.  He uses our weaknesses to demonstrate His strength.  Sometimes, in fact, the cracks we are trying so hard to glue together are supposed to be there.  Sometimes the cracks are how we see the very presence of God. 

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. (Romans 8:11)

Click to jump to Cracking, Part II.

Welcome, Friends!

Here’s a quick snippet about how this blog started. 

I began writing monthly articles for my church newsletter in December 2009.  (Wow, time flies.)  The archive of these articles appears below this post.  Even though they all say they were posted in March 2012, they were actually written over a two year period.  This is why you’ll occasionally see references to things like Christmas, which I do recognize does not occur in March! 

I do not anticipate ever again having this many posts in a given month , though I DO hope to write more than monthly.  Perhaps multiple articles, perhaps a mixture of these articles and other random posts.  I really don’t have a plan apart from my monthly church deadline.  This should not come as a surprise if you (a) know me or (b) have read my “Planning” post.

Thanks to those who have been pushing me to do this.  We’ll see where it goes…

I Am

Sometimes I have trouble believing in God.

It can happen suddenly, in one of those horrendous moments that leave me questioning: if God is in control of everything, then why did he let this happen?  If he is a loving and personal God, then how could he let this happen? 

But more often than not, for me, unbelief doesn’t come that way.  It doesn’t come to the front door and stand and fight like a man; it comes like a thief.  It robs me: slowly, precisely, and carefully.  It plants the seed of doubt and nurtures it.  It spreads, like a crack in the sidewalk that freezes and thaws and spreads imperceptibly wider.  Then I suddenly look up and see only a dark and frozen expanse.  And wonder: is God really there?

If I step back and look at these moments in my life, it comes as no surprise that they most often follow on the heels of those times when I have slipped in my personal time with God and in my fellowship with other believers.  Disbelief is strongest when I’ve worked through a Sunday service, collapsed into bed after a one-sentence prayer, or gone too long without pondering God’s Word.  Jesus tells us that where two or more are gathered in His name, He is there among us (Matthew 18:20).  But if I do not gather to see Him, I begin to doubt He is there. 

I read once that if you don’t feel as close to God as you once were, make no mistake about which one of you moved.  I am living proof of that.  Jesus has told us He will be with us always – always! – even unto the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  But it is not enough for Him to simply be there.  I have to look for Him.  I have to talk to Him.  As with any of my human relationships, my relationship with God will only grow stronger if we spend time together.

Sometimes there are dry spells where I just don’t feel God’s presence.  I think then of Madeleine L’Engle who wrote: “Love is not an emotion; it is a policy.”  God’s loving presence is not something we have to feel to believe.  And just because I do not feel his presence, does not mean He isn’t there.  Despite what some “build-your-own-reality” proponents may teach, God does not need me to believe in Him in order for Him to exist.  At the end of the day, either the God of the Bible exists, or He does not.  Nothing I can do or say will change this.  If there is not a God, I cannot create Him.  And if there is a God, I cannot uncreate Him.

This fact is strangely liberating to me.  Regardless of the answer, I find it comforting just knowing that at life’s core there is this element of absolute truth.  Relativism is so popular in our culture that I begin at times to actually believe that truth is relative, that religious ideas are cultural and personal but never factual, that good and evil are “all relative.”  But no matter how confused and doubt-driven my thoughts become, when I peel them back and look underneath, I always come back to this unwavering fact: Either God exists, or He does not.  My beliefs will impact my relationship with God, but they can never impact the existence of God.  To think otherwise is to give myself some power on the level of God himself, something the devil loves to lure us toward. “You shall be as Gods,” He told Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:5).  “God is only in your imagination,” he tells us today.  “You can create or destroy Him at will.”

But of course, we can’t really.  Because either God exists, or He does not.  All we can do is ask: “God, do you exist?”  And either there will be no answer…

Or there will be Someone who says: “I AM.”  (Listen.)

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’… This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation” (Exodus 3:14-15).  


Every time I eat a banana, I think of my dog. 

This isn’t quite as strange as it sounds, really.  My dog loves bananas, and I always give her the bottom tip when I’m eating one.  This habit formed so automatically that I don’t even realize I am doing it until I am someplace without my dog.  Then I suddenly find myself with a piece of banana between my fingers and no place to put it.

Associations are funny like that, seemingly coming out of nowhere to remind us of something completely unrelated.  But even when they seem to form without our knowledge, we ultimately do have the choice where we direct our minds.  Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that every morning you have the choice of waking up and saying “Good morning, God!” or “Good God, morning!”

I have a friend whose infant daughter used to wake up so joyfully that she would clap her hands as she awoke.  We discussed at length whether she was so joyful that she clapped her hands, or whether clapping her hands made her joyful.  In the end, I decided to put the association to the test.  The next morning, once my alarm drilled into my consciousness, I pulled my hands from beneath the covers and clapped.  This did not fill me with immense joy.  However, a few minutes later as I stumbled out the door for our morning walk, I spotted a dollar lying in the parking lot.  No kidding!  Perhaps I was onto something with this clapping thing.

The next morning, as soon as my alarm buzzed, I yanked my hands over my head and clapped vigorously.  That morning on our walk I nearly got struck by lightning from a storm that came up out of nowhere.  After that, I stopped clapping. 

Apparently some associations need to be handled carefully, but God tells us there are some associations that truly can fill us with joy.  The Bible is full of them.  I think of the psalmist who says “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).  Have you ever seen a sunset, a sweeping horizon, or one of those brilliant blue skies that makes you actually pause and stare?  This is what the psalmist was talking about: awe at our surroundings that bring to mind the awesome wonders of our God.

Or there’s Paul who wrote to the Philippians (1:3), “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.”  Have you ever felt like that?  A phone call from a close friend.  A chance encounter with an acquaintance that cheered your day.  Have you ever thanked God for the love he shows you through the family and friends surrounding you?

Or maybe you feel the opposite of God’s love: empty, fearful, in pain, lonely.  Like the psalmist you cry out “My soul is downcast within me…”  But notice his next words: “therefore I will remember you…” (Psalm 42:6).  Even during those times when a dark blanket seems to surround us, that very darkness can remind us of God.

There are all kinds of associations around us. Some are positive (my dog is cute and fuzzy).  Some are negative (for years I couldn’t eat bananas because they reminded me of this nasty banana-flavored medicine I used to take).  Some are just plain strange (have you ever had the urge to clap with joy when your alarm goes off?)  But the most important associations are those that point to God’s presence.  It could be anything from a banana to a lightning storm.  It could be something that forms in a moment of spontaneous awe or something you have to consciously use to remind yourself of God’s presence.  But it is there.  Look around you.  Listen.  There is something or someone – or maybe nothing at all – right there to remind you.  Because even when you don’t see Him directly, God is near.  And that’s an association worth knowing.

I will remember the deeds of the Lord…I will meditate on all your works… (Psalm 77:11-12)


I recently volunteered at a canine obedience trial.  Some dogs and handlers make it look so easy!  They move around the ring at the judge’s command, the dog’s head never moving more than an inch from the handler’s side.  And yet, the biggest test of obedience often comes not during the intricate heelwork, but during a seemingly simple part of the trial.  For three minutes, all the dog has to do is sit… while the handlers walk out of the ring and out of sight. 

As the handlers leave the ring, some dogs sit stoically without a glance to the left or right (impressive!).  But, there are always those dogs whose expressions grow concerned.  You can almost see the little thought bubbles forming above their heads.  “Did she tell me to stay?  I wonder if she really meant that?  She’s not even looking!  Surely it’s okay if I just lie down?”  They shift, they crane their heads around to see the point where their handler went out of sight, and sometimes, they slide down into a more comfortable position…and are disqualified.

How like these dogs we are when it comes to doing our Handler’s bidding!  Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), we listen to that little voice that begins to question.  “He didn’t really say that, did He?” Did God really say you must not eat fruit from any tree in the garden?

The question is followed shortly by reassessment.  Just like the thought bubble forming above those canine’s heads, we begin to think that what God said doesn’t really jive with what we’re seeing.  And based on what we’re seeing, we begin to put words in God’s mouth.  What He probably really meant was…  When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye… 

Which leads us to the action.  We decide to test it ourselves, just like those pups going from a sit into a down. That isn’t being willfully disobedient, is it?  She took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 

But no matter how we reason, no matter how much we think God may not be watching, disobedience has a consequence: “Disqualified!”  So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

It is disappointing for handlers to return to the ring and see their dogs in the wrong position.  No matter how perfectly they had executed all the other exercises, this one test of obedience and endurance is enough to send them out of the ring empty handed.  How much greater disappointment must our God feel in us!  Dog and handler lose a ribbon and points toward a title, but we lose fellowship with our God.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25).

God calls us to obedience to his Word and to his command.  The more we question and the more we begin to rely on our own judgment to make a decision, the more we will slide down into a more comfortable position…and be disqualified. Thanks be to God we have a Savior who has invited us back into the ring!  It is through our faith in Christ that God looks not upon our disqualifications, but upon Christ’s qualifications.  We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), but by staying an inch away from His side, we can execute even the most intricate patterns of obedience.  And during those times when we look but cannot seem to see Him, it is through adherence to His commands that we will remain in the exact right place.

Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).

Laptop Lessons

Someone once said you never know that God is all you need until God is all you have.  I tested this theory recently during a business trip to Moscow.   When I stepped off the plane, I was dragging my suitcase in one hand and clutching the business card of someone I had never met in the other.  I couldn’t speak a single word of Russian or read a single Cyrillic letter.  I just kept thinking: it’s just me, and God, and the Russian Federation. 

Then on day 5, I almost had my laptop stolen.  I was headed into a metro station on my way back from a presentation.  They had my bag unzipped and their hand in the bag.  Of course, I felt absolutely nothing.  Luckily, one of the Russian co-presenters was with me and saw it.  She physically shoved them away along with a barrage of Russian I probably don’t want to know the translation of.  Thank God she was with me.  If she hadn’t seen them, I never would have known it happened until I looked down and realized my laptop was gone.

Shortly after it happened, I kicked myself for not paying more attention. I always carry that bag to my front in the city, but I had let it slide down to my side.  I was busy talking to the ones I was travelling with, and not paying enough attention to everyone else around us.  We were speaking English, so we looked like easy targets.  I should have been more careful.

The incident was a good reminder, and I was more conscious of how I carried that bag for the rest of the trip.  But, the experience also left me with another realization.  No matter how much you try to keep your guard up, there will always be those few seconds that you slip.  You release your hold, you glance away, you listen to something else…. We are not omniscient beings.  Studies of the human brain have shown that it is not physically possible for us to focus on more than one thing at a time.  Even when we think we are multitasking, we are not.  It takes us fractions of a second to move from one stimulus to another.  As much as we try to look out for ourselves, there are moments when we fail.  Fortunately for me that day, I had someone else looking where I was not.

That night in my hotel room I received an email from a friend reminding me that people were praying for my safe trip.  I read the words of the short prayer, and the last line nearly took my breath away: “Let her know that You are the one protecting her for Your glory!  Amen.”

It was as though God were sending me a reminder, in case I had missed the point earlier.  He was there, watching out for me, even in moments when I was not able to watch out for myself.  Indeed, as David wrote in Psalm 138:7, though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.  God knew where I was, even half a world away, and He sent me a friend when I needed the help – someone who I had never met before but to whom I now owe a debt of gratitude.

I am returning from my travels at the start of the Advent season, and I am thankful for so many things: the experience, the prayers, the strangers who became my friends in just a few short days.  And the lesson of the nearly-stolen laptop, that I think is perhaps quite appropriate for the start of the holiday season.  This is a busy time of year – as busy as a Moscow metro station – and there are many different things vying for our attention.  No matter how hard we try, we cannot truly pay attention to everything. We cannot do it all, be it all, see it all, have it all.  We are designed to focus on only one thing at a time.

But when we focus on the right thing, One is all we need. 

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).