Urgency not Anger

Curt Harlow tells a powerful story.

Years ago, he made a quick stop at Walmart to buy some cat food for the feline at home. He had his eight-year-old (Jesse) and three-year-old (Maddy) in toe, and sent them up the cat food aisle while he made a brief detour to another aisle for something else he needed.

Front view of a Walmart supercentre store exterior sign logo Ontario Canada KATHY DEWITT. Image shot 05/2012. Exact date unknown.When Curt came around the corner there was Jesse holding the cat food (per the instructions), but no sign of Maddy. Every parent can imagine the heart-skip that happens. Where’s the three-year-old? Trying to maintain his composure Curt called out (loudly): “Maddy Harlow! Maddy Harlow!”

She was gone.

Fifteen minutes passed! With each passing minute, Curt had grown increasingly frantic. Store personnel were looking everywhere for Maddy. Finally, a store employee came walking towards Curt, holding the little girl’s hand. He had found her hiding behind ride-on mowers in the garden section.

Immediately, her brother Jesse ran to her and hugged her. Then Curt whisked her up and held her tightly.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“I was hiding,” she said.


“Because I didn’t go down the cat food aisle. I went to look at Barbie dolls and then I knew that you’d be angry. And I could hear your voice, but I was afraid!”

As Curt relayed the story to us, he concluded: “It’s easy to mistake urgency for anger!”

Perhaps that’s what happened in the Garden of Eden, as the Lord called out “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) and Adam and Eve hid themselves. Perhaps that’s what continues to happen all too often in our own lives.

Advent (this Christmas season) declares that Christ has come to us, seeking us. Sometimes we are plain lost. Other times we may be hiding, ashamed and afraid of the voice. But He comes to us with urgency, not anger. We may have strayed down the wrong aisle, and then felt we needed to hide behind the ride-ons, but the desire of the Father is simply to hold us and never lose us.

Historically, these early weeks of Advent (literally “the coming”) focus on the darkness of the world and our desperate need for a Savior. The dark places where we have fallen or hidden are never the places of freedom. If you feel gripped by guilt, shame, or fear, the message of Christmas is one of grace … and God’s relentless search for you.

Perhaps it’s time to step out from the garden section and back into the arms of the Father.

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To impact the world for the cause of Christ is to recognize the problem of brokenness, to develop deep theological convictions which become our moorings, and then to live a life of gracious activism by restoring broken walls and raising up age-old foundations. (Dr. Barry Corey in Christian Leadership Essentials: 262)

I read this recently, and it quickly settled like a burr under my saddle.

christian-leadership-essentialsOver-simplification usually hurts more than it helps, but I have seen the paralyzing and stultifying fruit of over-complication. On the one hand, some say that the Christian life is just a simple matter of following Jesus (as if there’s anything simple about it). On the other hand, others keep adding layer after weighty layer until the burden of faith stifles us.

Barry Corey, it seems to me, strikes a powerful path down the middle. He provides a profound approach to authentic discipleship. In three simple statements, he aligns us with the work, ministry, and heart of Christ in the world. Here’s his simple proposal:

First, recognition. Recognize the multiple ways in which people experience brokenness in the world. Until we open our eyes to see the depth of woundedness, pain, and suffering around us, we’ll see little need for Christ, grace, or Gospel.

Second, conviction. This conviction reflects more than a strong feeling that flows from a personal sense of justice or fairness. It wells up from the deep theological convictions (firmly grounded in Scripture) which moor our souls. It reflects an intimacy with the heart of God and the Word of God.

Third, activism. This involves the gracious (and oftentimes hazardous) work of rebuilding broken walls and raising up ancient foundations. It demands that we participate, not merely spectate. It calls us to engagement and drives us to redemptive and sacrificial service.

This model of Christian faith compels me. And all three elements must combine. If we embrace just one or two but not all three, we will surely undermine our impact for Christ. Consider this:

Recognition and conviction, without activism, leads to heartless passivity.

Conviction and activism, without recognition, leads to legalism.

Recognition and activism, without conviction, launches us into self-reliance and destructive subjectivism.

Dr. Corey’s quote might deserve a place on the cork-board or refrigerator. It certainly deserves our reflection and response.

Would friends or family use these three terms to describe our Christ-following lives?

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The Table

Meals together can produce some of our worst moments … and some of our greatest memories. Family tensions often arise at a meal-table, especially as we get older and our differences become greater. Conversations turn to politics, faith, and lifestyle choices, and it doesn’t always go well.

meal-tableMeal-tables sometimes accentuate competition. We subtly compete over who cooked the best dish, or who has the best story, or who has the greatest achievements.

But the meal-table can also be a place of remarkable grace, hope, and healing. As we listen to each other, pray with each other, and honor each other above ourselves, the meal-table becomes a particularly powerful setting.

In 2 Samuel 9, we read a beautiful story of a king, a cripple, and a table.

King David decides to honor his dear friend Jonathan (the son of Saul) who has died. He asks, “Is there not someone of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” David’s servant tells him that there is someone, one remaining family member, who is cripple in both feet. His name is Mephibosheth. And the king summons him.

Normally, a new king would eliminate or exile the family members of a former king. But in this instance, David resolves to “show the kindness of God” and that part of the story concludes with these touching words: “So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table as one of the king’s sons” (2 Samuel 9:11).

Another king reached out to all of humanity, crippled as we were (and are), to “show the kindness of God.” And on the night that He was betrayed, He took the bread and the cup and invited us to come perpetually to His table (the Lord’s Table) as His guests.

An eternal king, a world of cripples, and a table of perpetual grace.

We set this week apart for Thanksgiving here in the U.S. Will our tables be acrimonious or harmonious? Will they reflect gluttony or grace? Heartache or hope? Hostility or holiness? Fighting or faith?

The table becomes almost as central to Christianity as the cross (see also Revelation 3:20 and 19:5-9). May we “show the kindness of God” to each other and experience at our tables His generosity, His goodness, and His grace.

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Sacred Waiting (Special Offer)

Dear friends –

In 2009 I wrote a book titled Sacred Waiting: Waiting on God in a World That Waits for Nothing (Bethany House). The first half of the book looks at the lives of five key biblical figures and their experience of waiting on God. The second half of the book explores what we can learn about waiting on God through some of the Church’s core liturgical calendar (Advent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost).

sacred-waitingI’m happy to advise that for the next 5 days (until Nov 22) an e-copy of the book can be downloaded for $0.99 ! Just go to most major online vendors, including Amazon. You can get it here.

By the way, I’ve not written for Because of Grace for the past two months, in part because I’ve been partnering with some faculty here at William Jessup University to launch a new leadership blog titled On Ramp. If you are interested, you can find that blog at http://www.jessupleadership.com. I plan to return to this blog shortly!



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Behind our Words

Last week I was chatting with Dennis Nichols (our Lead Faculty for the Master of Arts in Leadership). He had bumped into a stranger in the hallway earlier that day. The stranger introduced himself and told Dennis that the course he took on campus with Dennis six years ago was the best course he ever took in college.
yellingWhat a lovely affirmation.
But Dennis had to candidly admit that he did not remember the stranger, that he only ever taught that course the one time, and that his only memory of the course was a confrontation where one student cussed out another in the middle of a class session. Ugly!!!
It turns out that the stranger was the very student on the receiving end of that verbal beating! He said to Dennis, “Yes, but we got through it, and there were things you said in that course that impacted me more deeply than you knew.”
It turns out that this former student has now returned to campus (after getting a Masters degree) and is teaching an English course as an adjunct for the University.
We’ve all had moments like this, when we assess an experience as average or worse. Yet, the Spirit has a way of touching lives beyond our words or efforts. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit between us.
We often assume that inspired speech (a key ministry of the Holy Spirit) means that we utter profound words with remarkable elocution and deep awareness of the wisdom. Inspiration surely means that we feel terrific; we feel inspired. But over and over again, the Spirit uses ordinary words, even weak words, to produce extraordinary outcomes.
A current student of mine shared his testimony of coming to Christ one Sunday night at a church service. He described the message as unmemorable and unremarkable, except that the Holy Spirit took him by the collar and turned his life upsidedown!
Do we live with such confidence and assurance? Do we speak with the quiet certainty that if we are as yielded as we can be to the leading of the Holy Spirit, that the words we speak (few and fumbling as they might be) can be instruments of hope and life in someone else’s life? Not because we are clever but because He is gracious!
Who knows what He might whisper to others — family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers — through our simple words this week?
Sometimes we bump into the stranger again later, even years later. Often we don’t.
Be encouraged. Behind our words works the One who created the world itself with a word. “Let there be….”
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Belief & Beliefs

Not everyone feels comfortable on bridges.

On the one hand, we can hold firm beliefs (even convictions) related to bridges. We believe that people are smart enough to build bridges that won’t collapse. We believe that engineers understand resonance, tensile strength and the nature of spans and arches. We believe that certain products resist warping, fraying, and breaking.

BridgeOn the other hand, those beliefs about bridges in general have to ultimately give way to a belief about a bridge in particular, or I will not step onto it. If I don’t trust the bridge before me, I’ll not step onto it or drive across it, no matter what beliefs I have about people and products.

So it is, of course, with Christ.

My church community ingrains in me a set of beliefs that I hold to be true about Him; fully human, fully divine, without sin, Son of God, and Savior. I believe Him to have died and been raised again from the dead. I believe that He performed miracles and atoned for our sin. I believe He has sat down at the right hand of God, and is coming again.

But at some point I must trust Him, not just affirm the statements about Him. Eternal life,a thriving life, comes not from propositions but from the Presence of a Person. I am most enriched not by what I know about Him but by what I experience with Him. My beliefs must merge into an authentic, driving, motivating, and life-guiding belief. My knowledge must result in trust.

Our beliefs about Christ may provide reason for believing Him, but trust is a separate and distinct act. I choose, I want, and I am willing to yield everything in my life and everything about my life to Him. And that can challenge us deeply in different seasons of our lives.

Beliefs help me fit into the Church community, but belief is the cornerstone of abundant living. Beliefs give me certainty, but belief gives me peace. Beliefs help me structure my thinking and make sense of the world, but belief transforms my choices and actions. I can hold my beliefs to myself, but belief requires a relationship. Belief is not something we talk about but something we live.

Hope is not the same as hopes. Prayer is not the same as prayers. And belief is not the same as beliefs.

What are we doing today that needs Jesus, depends on Jesus, and explicitly trusts Jesus? For all of our beliefs about Him, do we believe Him?

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Prayer & Prayers

Last week I mentioned a sharp distinction between hope and hopes. This week, an important line might also be drawn between prayer and prayers.

To quote David Steindl-Rast:

Sooner or later we discover that prayers are not always prayer. That is a pity. But the other half of that insight is that prayer often happens without prayers. And that should cheer us up. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between prayer and prayers. At least if we want to do what Scripture tells us to do and “pray continually” (Luke 18:1) we must distinguish praying from saying prayers. (Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer: 40-41)

WateringI have often defined prayer simply as “attentiveness to God.” It describes a posture of the heart, not simply words spoken by the lips. Some of us find our minds irretrievably distracted during set times for prayer (and prayers) only to find ourselves caught up in wonder and in the Presence of God while watering the garden or watching a child. This is the distinction that Steindl-Rast makes between prayer and prayers.

The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they are not necessarily the same.

Yet, many of us measure our piety by the minutes or hours “spent in prayer.” By that, we mean the time we spend working through lists of needs or talking to God. But “prayer without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5: 17) cannot be measured with a clock. It’s descriptive of a heart.

Our quiet moments before God and with God, silent and still, listening and waiting, enjoying and delighting, thoughtful and attentive…are prayer in every truest (and biblical) sense of the word.

Prayer is first and foremost a Presence word, not a ritual. How often have we bowed our heads and closed our eyes while others addressed God, with barely an awareness of either Him or the words until Amen gets pronounced? Then there are those moments when our souls are full and well (despite trials or suffering) because we are profoundly aware that we are not alone. Not a word has been spoken.

It’s harder to teach Presence. Yet, the church throughout history, in small pockets of faithful believers, has always urged Christ-followers to “practice the Presence of Christ.” This is the practice of prayer.

May you experience the best of prayer and prayers this week, not for the purpose of personal piety but because His Presence produces the profound peace for which our hearts truly yearn.

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