A Fig Newton Christian – it’s what Jesus wants

Ooey, gooey, rich and chewy inside
Rich and golden, tender, flaky outside
Put the inside in the outside
Is it good?
Darn tootin’
It’s the big, fig newton.

fig newtonsIf you remember the commercial and the tune, there is a good chance that song will stay with you. If you keep reading, the song maybe become a reminder of life as a follower of Jesus. That remains to be seen.

Here’s the point – the outside of the Fig Newton is good, but it’s main purpose is not simply to be good. It’s main purpose is to hold the deliciousness of the fig filling so that you have a way to eat that sweet gooeyness. It’s the inside that matters the most, but if the outside isn’t up to decent standards, then the inside won’t really matter.

So it is in life. We spend a lot of time working on the outside wrapper of life. We find ways to excel at our jobs. We get our kids involved in activities where they can succeed. We spend time working on our skills and taking our children to special mentoring and coaching events to help them get better. And none of that is a bad thing.

But if the outside of the Fig Newton is really good and the inside isn’t really given as much thought, then the cookie just won’t be good. The same is true in life. Unless we find ways to connect our Spirit to the one who can make our life sweet and flavorful, then life will never be what we hope for. If we tend only to the outside things of life and not the inner spiritual things of life, then we’ll miss out.

Jesus saw religious people of his day spending more time worried about their outward appearance – they made sure everything they did was seen by others as righteous and good. They gave to their church, they went to worship, they took part in daily prayers. Jesus said they were spending too much time washing the outside of the cup and not paying attention to the inside. If Fig Newtons had been around back then, I’m thinking Jesus would have used that as his example. But that may be just me.

These days people in our churches aren’t as focused on religious practices (i.e., prayer, worship, reading and study of the Bible, service to others, etc.) as they are on cultural practices of activity overload. People are caught up in being involved in many things – caught up in the outside wrappings of life. Church attendance is dropping all around our country. The inner life, the spiritual connection with God, is less important these days. There is more value placed on having an activity that pleases me and my family than on time spent pleasing God and enjoying the blessing of God.

I get that. I still struggle with it myself. But really, the Fig Newton is really about the fig. Don’t let the Newton part get all the attention.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

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Frozen by Fear

blueholeIt wasn’t like cliff-diving in Jamaica or Australia on some ledge hundreds of feet in the air, but it might as well have been the tallest cliff in the world from where I stood. Where did I stand, you ask? Well, on the top of the highest cliff on the north side of “Blue Hole” – a local recreation/swimming area in my hometown. I had been up there several times and stood looking over the edge. I wanted to experience the jump, but I was paralyzed by my fear. I was frozen in place.

I’ve learned that fear has that effect on me sometimes. When fear begins to creep into my psyche and my spirit I often find myself locked up. It’s not my feet or my arms that don’t work, it’s my brain. I get seized up like a motor that threw a rod, like a teenage boy trying for the very first time to ask out a girl. I know I need to think something, but the gears don’t seem to move.

Fear can do that. It can cause us to get frozen in our tracks. It can paralyze our brain functions and hinder our ability to move forward. It’s not a fun place to be.

There was one day when Jesus encountered a man who was stuck inside a body that wouldn’t function. He was physically paralyzed. The man was brought to Jesus by some friends. They actually opened up the roof and lowered him down to where Jesus was. Jesus looked at the man. Then he looked up to see his friends staring down through the newly opened hole in the roof. Looking back at the man he said – “Your sins are forgiven.” Now, this caused a stir among the Jewish people – only God can forgive sins, they said. Jesus replied, “So, would it be easier for me to just say get up and walk?” And so he did that, and the man got up and walked.

The story is much about who Jesus is, but it is also about that man. Much speculation has gone into trying to figure out his real issue. I don’t have a definitive answer for you on that. What I do have is my own experience of being paralyzed by fear – and sometimes the fear that comes from not living the way God wants me to live. There are times in my life when I find myself in that man’s place.

So, what is it I want from Jesus in those moments? Honestly, it would be nice if he said, “Get up and walk,” and I could and I would. I would like it if God just cleared the cobwebs, gave me a push in the right direction and showed me what to do.

What is it I usually get from God in those moments? “Your sins are forgiven” or “Fear not, I am with you.” More than just thawing out my frozen gray matter, God looks to address the deeper issue. It may be that I am not living the way God wants. Often times I’m just giving into the fear (which you could argue IS my sin – a lack of trust in God).

What I want would seem to me to be the easier answer – just lay out the path for me and give me a push in that direction. It’s like being on the top of that cliff and having a friend give you a gentle push. You have little choice at that point but to make your way to the water.

What God seems to want is not what seems easy to me. God wants me to trust him more. God wants me to take a deep breath, believe he is in control and begin to figure out which way I need to go. That’s what ultimately happened for me on that cliff. I took the step all on my own. I didn’t let fear drive my decision. It was a great adventure – and I did it on my own.

I am discovering that trusting God is not “doing it on my own.” But, it is also not just letting God force me or push me into something. I have discovered that when I do not give into fear and instead I trust God, then I experience a great adventure WITH God. We become partners. And God also sends others to be with me – we become a team, a spiritual force working to make the Kingdom of God a greater reality in this world.

Stepping off that cliff wasn’t easy.  Following God’s call isn’t always easy, either.  But in both cases, I found myself stronger for having made the step and for having followed His call.  I have discovered that my fear is not stronger than faith – even when I think fear just might be more powerful, it is not!  I hope you will know this truth as well.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Does God laugh?

It was the question of a young boy to his grandmother – “Does God laugh?” It’s a good question. His grandmother rightly replied, “certainly God laughs.” And the young boy proceeded to tell God some jokes and asked if his grandmother thought God laughed at each one.

As I heard this tale I was reminded of pictures I have seen of Jesus laughing, or at least smiling really big. I looked up “laughing Jesus” on Google and I found this artistic rendering of Jesus with a little child:

liftingchild

It’s a great picture and I think a valid rendering of what Jesus might look like in such a situation – not the exact “look” of Jesus, but the expression certainly.

I like this picture because it shows the emotion of joy in such a profoundly simple way. Laughter is joy expressed with great bravado and volume, is it not? Surely God knows joy like this.

I also have to believe God laughs because there is much to laugh at as he watches us. Oh, there is much to cry about as well, but God tells us that joy is part of life even as suffering is. So, when God sees me trying to take on a big task that only He could truly handle, I begin to wonder if it doesn’t look like a little one putting on an adult’s pair of shoes and trying to walk, or a child grabbing up adult-sized tools and trying to do the work they have seen their parents doing.

If it does look like that, then surely God laughs. It’s not a demeaning “laugh-at-you” kind of laugh, it’s a “you-are-just-too-much” kind of laugh. And I’m okay with that. It tells me God knows I mean well, that I’m trying. I may not get it right, I may take on more than makes sense, but it’s only because I have seen what God can do and I want to be part of what my heavenly Father is doing.

So, as you go about your day there may be times when God looks out at you, throws His head back, and lets out a mighty laugh. But remember, it’s just your Father who admires your effort, who loves your sense of humor, who applauds your performance – because He loves you like His own. And that’s because you are.

Let’s make it our challenge today. Let’s see if we can make God laugh. That little boy I mentioned, I have no doubt he did.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

In This Together

Rocks were flying, men were moving at a rapid pace and words were being said that I cannot repeat here. Okay, I can’t repeat the words because they were speaking Spanish of which I know very little and therefore I have no idea what they were saying. This all took place in a village outside of Living+Water+Nicaragua-2312-2807663323-OLeon, Nicaragua where I was serving on a Living Water International well-drilling team. The men in the story were loading rocks inside the form that would hold the concrete that would serve as the base of the pump for the well.

The village is called “Veintiocho de Mayo” and it’s not much to look at. The homes are rudimentary and made with corrugated metal and plastic sheeting. The people are beautiful and some of the best I have met in any country. What struck me most was the way they worked together to make this water well happen. They seem to have a great camaraderie as a community. And that may be because it’s necessary. They don’t have Living+Water+Nicaragua-2074-2807629205-Omuch and the life they live depends on having the support of one another.

Spending time among the people of Veintiocho de Mayo was inspiring and it made me realize how problematic it is to be self-sufficient. Here in the U.S. we admire the “self-made man” (or woman). We take pride in being able to make it on our own, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But, I begin to wonder if that attitude isn’t detrimental to our overall well-being and health as people. Certainly as followers of Jesus we know that being united together as “the body of Christ” is an essential part of our calling. And yet, how often do we fail to live as a true community of love and grace and interdependence? And when I say “we” I mean “me” – and possibly you, but definitely me.

I’m not sure if God needs to bring my life to a greater sense of poverty in order for me to learn this lesson. My hope is that He does not. However, if that’s what it takes for me to connect better with others and to live more interdependently, well then, I guess God has to do what God has to do. But, maybe, if I begin to live more and more with the idea that we are “in this together” maybe that will give God room to change my life. It’s at least a good place to start.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

“Do-over” or “Big push”

Well, it’s football season again and a blog post like this was inevitable for me. I love watching football (and from her Facebook post, my wife is entertained by watching ME as I watch football). It is, therefore, a natural progression for me to equate my own life situations to said game. ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Today I’m talking about 3rd down and the decisions we face – BUT DON’T STOP READING YET! It really is something I think we can all relate to.

Here’s what I mean from a life perspective. There are times when we hit a wall or come to place where we can just get bogged down. It might be an ongoing issue in our family or in our relationships. It might be struggles at work or even in the church. The question is, what do we do in those moments? What’s the best thing to do – do we push ahead with a final burst of energy? Or, do we reset, step back and start over?

In football terms it’s the issue of a 3rd down play (you only get 4 tries to make 10 yards, so on 3rd down you have one more try to make it to the ‘line’ that gives you a new set of downs – 4 more).  So, if the football team has 3rd down and 3 yards to go they have a choice to make. They can “go for it” and try to bring forth a great burst of energy, or, they can punt the ball sending it down field and hope for a new chance to begin again later. It’s the choice between a “big push” and a “do-over.”

I find myself facing similar decisions in life. The reality is that sometimes life gets tough and things begin to stack up against you. There’s turmoil and things aren’t really moving forward well. In those cases we end up with two choices – either reach down deep and come up with a burst of energy that helps us break through the wall, or back up, reset our thinking and try going a new direction.

You can actually find both examples in Scripture. For the “big push” look to the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). The Israelites and Philistines are at a standstill. The people of God can’t seem to get past this “problem” until David comes with a great burst of energy and an even greater burst of faith. He helps break through the obstacle. For the “do-over” you could turn to Matthew 10:5-14. Jesus sends out his disciples and tells them that it’s okay to “shake the dust off your feet and move on” when you can’t make any headway with the people you encounter. He doesn’t tell them to try harder, he just says, “move on and keep going.”

So, Pastor Mike, what do you suggest I do if I’m facing 3rd and a long 3 right now (i.e., you’re up against a real challenge)? Well, honestly, I don’t know. You and God will have to work through that. It’s one of those times when you may need to call a time out and confer with the coach. It may be one of those times when you need to spend time with God in prayer and listening.

The point I want to make right now is this – either way is biblical. Whichever way you prayerfully choose to go, God goes with you. Sure, there my be some Monday morning quarterbacks who would second guess you, but your heavenly coach will back you 100%. Have no fear. Make your move. God will get you through it. I am willing to bet you might even win the game.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

When the trail gets rocky… and steep

It started out as a nice cool morning walking through trees, hiking past the river. It was invigorating and scenic. My son, Andrew, and I had traveled east several hundred miles to camp for a few days in the friends walking 2mountains of North Carolina. It was a good choice and that first hour of hiking was the affirmation of our good decision making.

And then, an hour or so into the hike things began to change. We were still having a good time. We were still walking through the trees. The river, however, was far below us as we were now on a steep incline making our way up the mountain. There was less dirt on the path and more rocks. Finding our footing took more intentionality. Taking a deep breath took a bit more effort as well – not so much because of the altitude, but because of the energy we were having to exert. People from Houston are not used to such climbs – unless they work in an office building and regularly take the stairs! It was still a good hike, but we no longer were able to just take in the sights and sounds. Our focus was directed toward the hike itself more than the landscape.

I discover that life gets like that sometimes. For a while we move along at a good pace. The air feels fresh, our energy is good, life feels at peace. Then, somewhere along the way, things change. The road gets a bit steeper – the burdens get heavier and the to-do lists get longer. We no longer seem to enjoy the life we’re living. Our focus is now on putting one foot in front of the other. Our focus is on getting at least one or two tasks finished before we must go to bed and get some sleep so we can make it through another jam-packed day. The daily grind requires so much just to keep moving forward that we have no time to enjoy the life we live.

What I learned on the mountain I need to put into practice. I learned that in order to enjoy the scenery and in order to take in all there was to experience along the way I had to slow down and even stop for a bit. Sure, I had to do some of that just to catch my breath, but I also chose to stop along the way to take some pictures, to look at the trees, to watch a young doe making her way through the underbrush. Then, after a bit of looking around, we would get back to making our way up the mountain. It made the journey just as enjoyable as the accomplishment of reaching our destination.

Seems to me that’s what Sabbath is meant to be. Sunday, our Christian Sabbath, has often been for me a day of duty. It has been for me, in much of my life, a day where I MUST go to church. I always thought it was good, but it was a task I must accomplish. It has often been for me that Sunday and church was my destination. What I am learning more and more is that Sabbath is not the destination – it is the stop along the way. Sabbath, Sunday, is the time in life when we have the chance to stop and look around at what God is doing. Sabbath is the time when we can take a break from all the focused concentration of getting things done and instead we can take time to just enjoy looking at the life we have.

It seems Jesus was right (go figure!) when he said this:

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”
(Mark 2:27 NET)

I realize it’s Monday, but let’s make a plan now for this coming Sunday. Let’s decide to enjoy the gift of Sabbath. Let’s decide to take a break, look around, enjoy the scenery, and regain the joy of the journey. That’s my plan this week. You?

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Gratitude fosters trust

word cloud thanks romans 8In some earlier blog posts I have readily confessed to my inability to trust God – not always, but often enough. Recently, God, through others, revealed to me something that now seems quite obvious. Simply put, I learned that gratitude fosters trust.

Here’s the dilemma I have faced. Our church has had to face some big challenges lately. A tough summer of spotty attendance, which leads to challenges of tight finances, both of which lead to a pastor struggling to lead while leaning into the challenge. It’s true. I have been having a rough bout lately. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud on my blog, but that’s what I do. I figure truth is truth.

Now, I think from God’s perspective the problem is not the attendance or the money. In regard to God’s concern for me, the problem is my lack of trust in Him. While God is all for His leaders working to make things move in positive directions, the internal posture of those leaders is God’s greater concern (and I would say rightly so). God has to be wondering why a man (me) who claims to believe in Romans 8:28 would have such difficulty trusting. In Romans 8:28 Paul writes this:

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

You see, I have claimed that verse. I believe in that verse. But at the same time, I don’t always live into that verse.

That began to change recently. A person I consider a spiritual mentor and friend gave me another verse:

…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
(1 Thessalonians 5:18 NRSV)

Give thanks in ALL circumstances. We’re instructed to do this not because we can find reason to be thankful. We’re just instructed to give thanks. And as I lived into this verse and I began to give thanks to God in ALL situations and in ALL challenges and in ALL joys, I began to live into the truth of Romans 8:28. I found myself believing that no matter what was before me, God would work for my good and the good of his ultimate will in this world.

It doesn’t mean good things are bound to happen right away. God’s work could take a long time – after all, a thousands years are like a day to Him. I just found myself trusting God more no matter what. I discovered that gratitude fosters trust. The more I give thanks in all circumstances, the more I trust God with those circumstances. And, ironically, that frees me to work harder and better to change those circumstances. It seems that the more I trust the more the Holy Spirit can move in me and around me. 

The lesson I learned is that a verse from the Bible that seems like a crazy call to be obediently thankful in times when I don’t feel thankful is actually a key to unlocking the prison of self-pity, self-doubt, and fuzzy thinking. And that was a lesson worth learning.

So my encouragement to you, my friends, is simply this – give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus, and in doing so you will be able to claim fully the promise that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. It is a lesson that will serve you well all the days of your life.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike