Sloop John B

The Beach Boys have a song called Sloop John B. As best I can tell, it’s about a sailing trip gone bad. Not Gilligan’s Island bad but bad. I think Charles Manson was somehow involved.

Shortly after graduating from high school, my life was that song. I spent a week on a cruise. But this was no giant cruise ship that we were on. It was a tiny boat. As the week went on, that boat got small and smaller.

More than a few times on that trip I sang the words to Sloop John B to myself.

“Why don’t they let me go home?

This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”

Our captain spent the week in his bathing suit. By bathing suit, I mean bikini. His first mate was a Russian who liked to drink. It was my first time out on the open seas and my life was in the hands of a partially clothed man and his drunken assistant.

On one of our stops, a few people went into a casino. One guy got really drunk and the captain tried to have the alcohol beaten out of him. Another guy, the Russian first mate to be exact, got really drunk and lost all of the money that he was saving for a trip back to Russia. I can still remember him riding around in circles on a bicycle mumbling his miseries in Russian.

We had responsibilities on this tiny boat. One night, it was my responsibility to drive the boat. The partially clothed captain’s instructions were simple.

“Don’t worry about looking out the window. Watch the screen and make sure the red dot doesn’t hit the yellow dot.”

And off he went.

I was scared to death.

That night, surrounded by a dark sky and an even darker ocean, the world seemed to be really big and really small at the same time. I had never even thought about being a boat man but that night made it clear that it wasn’t my calling. I hated the pressure and the responsibility. When my shift was over, for once, I was really happy to see our partially clothed captain.

My lesson had been learned.

I was a better passenger than a pilot.

But I still forget that lesson a lot. If I had to honestly read Psalm 23, there are plenty of times when I would say, “I am my own shepherd because I don’t trust the real shepherd.”

And then the Real Shepherd reminds me that I make a better sheep than I do a shepherd.

I’m a control freak. I don’t really care about controlling what other people say or do. I’m more concerned with controlling the future. I want to ensure that things go well for my family and my church. I want good health for me and the ones I love. While there are certainly things that can be done to make those things more likely, there are no guarantees.

Things happen.

Sometimes really bad things happen.

And that scares me.

Handing over control of the ship really scares me.

That’s because I’m prone to forget the character of the Captain. He’s nothing like the one I had on that boat all of those years ago. This Captain is faithful and true and all-powerful.

And loving.

He never promised that the ride would always be smooth but he did promise to deliver us safely home.

Two big reasons for the anxieties we face are our constant effort to sit in the Captain’s seat and the ease with which we forget how good and loving that Captain is.

Christian, stop fighting for that seat.

Instead, sit back and trust that the Captain is good, that he is in control and that he loves you.

The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. Zephaniah 3:17 (ESV)

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Cootie Catcher

My son climbed into the truck and told me to name a color.

I said red.

Then he asked me for a number.

I said eight.

Apparently I gave the right answers because he told me that I was going to be a millionaire.

At school he had made what he called a fortune teller. A generation or two ago it was called a cootie catcher. You’ve probably seen one of these before. It’s made out of a piece of notebook paper and it fits over your hand sort of like a puppet. Written on the outside are numbers and colors that correspond with something about your future.

After I got over the initial thrill of knowing that I would be a millionaire when I grow up, something else amazed me.

Kids today can access a world of information on a phone. If they want to know how many touchdowns Matt Ryan has thrown this year, it’s just a few clicks away. They can watch entire television shows and download albums on their phones. But they still like to play the same paper game their grandparents played way back in another world. Score one for the simpler things.

But simpler things have a way of becoming complex things. In the second grade, you dream about the car you’ll drive and the house you’ll live in. In your thirties, when you get the car and the house, you long for the good old days when those things were just dreams rather than bills to be paid. Sometimes, the life we dream of isn’t as peaceful as we thought it would be when we were holding a cootie catcher in our hand.

Forget about the nice car. Is there a cootie catcher that promises us peace in the future?

Usually, when we hear about someone being at peace, it means that they’re dead. “Billy lived a hard life, especially there at the end, but he’s at peace now.” It doesn’t have to be that way. While we will never know a perfect life on this side of eternity, we can know peace. Peace among the dreams that never came true. Peace among the dreams that did come true but turned out to not to be so dreamy. In the thick of anxiety and fear, the Bible offers us hope.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131:2 (ESV)

In the heat of your stress and anxiety, it is possible to know peace. It is possible to silence the unnecessary noise around you and to rest in Jesus like a child in his mother’s lap. David Powlison says, “Most of the noise in our souls is generated by our attempts to control the uncontrollable.” It’s as if we’ve grown to believe that the cootie catcher really works, that we really are in control of our future. We aren’t. Failure to recognize this is the root cause of much of our anxiety. That’s why David wrote, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me (Psalm 131:1).

The future is too great for us.

But it’s not too great for the One to whom we belong.

David’s peace was not like the so-called inner peace that people talk about these days. You know, the kind that makes us feel better about ourselves but never really goes beyond ourselves. Real peace is shared peace.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore. Psalm 131:3 (ESV)

We live in a world where most people are being driven crazy by the noise of what they cannot control. It could be that your greatest testimony is living out the peace you have from being content in the God who controls all things.

In the town where I live, there used to be a guy whose job it was to stand out in front of the pizza place and try to get the attention of the people who drove by. Stand isn’t the best word to describe what this guy did. He danced. He danced like it was his goal in life to get people to stop at that place and buy a pizza. I don’t even like the restaurant he worked for but sometimes I would think to myself, “Well, if he feels that strongly about it, maybe I should try a few slices.”

He was the exact opposite of the guy who works for the place that sells Halloween costumes in October and does taxes in March. You know the place and you know this guy. He’s always dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, leaning on a sign that says, “We’ll do your taxes” while texting. That’s it. No dancing. Just texting. I hate to be so judgmental but I don’t want my financial future in that guy’s hands.

You are that guy. Or the pizza guy.

Whatever it is that you put your hope in, that’s what you advertise to a hopeless world.

If your hope is ultimately in your ability to control the future, you have nothing to offer a hopeless world.

But if you are trusting in the Sovereign God who has calmed and quieted your soul, even when everything else in your life is falling apart, the world stops and takes notice.

Is God Really In Control?

A while back I was having a theological conversation with someone. They were taking issue with my belief in the sovereignty of God, that is, the belief that God is in control of all things at all times. The person’s main concern was that if all Christians believed that God was in control of all things, none of them would do missions.

I thought about that on Wednesday night while I sat and heard a woman telling a story of the sovereignty of God. She and her husband and their five children packed up everything and left behind the comforts of Georgia for the challenges of Romania. For eleven years now the family has been working to break down barriers or racism, rescue women who are or otherwise might be caught in the sex trafficking industry, pulling children out of orphanages and giving them a better home, providing an education and yes, evangelizing the lost.

This family’s belief in the sovereignty of God didn’t keep them from the mission God had for them. It fueled their mission.

Christians like to say that God is in control but I wonder how many of us really believe that. Sure, we can say that he is in control on a random Tuesday morning. But what about on a Wednesday morning when a tornado hits? Or when there’s a bad phone call from your brother? Or when it feels like you can’t possibly go any further? Is God still in control then?

The Bible answers that question with a resounding yes.

I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the LORD, who does all these things. Isaiah 45:7 (ESV)

This would be quite scary were it not for God’s goodness. Hitler had a pretty good measure of control over Germany. An abusive husband can control his wife. But neither Hitler or the abusive husband are good.

It does us no good to speak of the sovereignty of God if we do not also speak of the goodness of God.

 

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!
Serve the LORD with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the LORD, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100:1-5 (ESV)

So the sovereignty of God is not intended to free us from the mandate to make disciples of all nations or from any other more specific mission God may have for us. But there are a few things that the sovereignty of God, when understood in union with the goodness of God, will free us from.

Things like fear and anxiety.

It’s interesting to hear how people talk about the upcoming presidential election in the United States. Here’s a basic summary of one point I hear frequently.

“Well, neither one of the candidates are any good but we need to vote for ______________ because at least God can work through that one.”

But God can’t work through the other one? Read the Bible. It’s one big, long story of God working through tyrants to accomplish his perfect will for the good of his imperfect people. Or, to put it another way, the Bible is an account of God’s complete control over all things. That doesn’t mean that we have to support tyranny or some supposed lighter version of it. It just means that we don’t need to be afraid when it comes knocking on our door.

God’s sovereignty and God’s goodness work together to free us from the constant hand wringing that so many have given in to.

God was good and he was in control when he created the heavens and the earth.

God was good and he was in control when Jesus was crucified.

God was good and he was in control on the day that I was saved.

God was good and he was in control on the day that my parents divorced and on the day that my mother got sick and on the day that she died.

When we have our presidential election, God will still be good and he will still be in control, no matter who wins.

And, whether God calls you to Romania or to stay in the states to make disciples, he will still be good and he will still be in control.

Because God is both good and sovereign, we can trust that when bad things happen, God will eventually, some way and some how, work them for our good. We don’t need to know all of the details. When tragedy strikes, the world is better off without us trying to excuse God, speak where he has not spoken or explain away his sovereignty.

We say something much more powerful when we simply trust God and worship him.

He really is in control.

He really is good.

And that frees us to obey him boldly and worship him gladly.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36 (ESV)

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Back To School Fears

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This is a weird time of year. Some people are really happy. Others are bordering on depression.

School is starting back.

My wife loves school. She works at one. I think that secretly she wants to live inside of one.

I’m the opposite. I can’t prove it but I think that my blood pressure used to go up about 20 every morning when I walked through those double doors and into my school building. I’m all for education. It’s just that some of the most difficult moments of my life were spent in school buildings.

I shouldn’t say difficult. It’s not like I had to bust rocks. I just had to find x. And let’s be honest, what’s the difference really? I’m kidding, teachers! Sort of.

If you’re a lover of all things school, congratulations. Your Super Bowl is coming up. And while you are certainly free to continue reading, this post isn’t for you.

This post is for the students, teachers and parents who are on the verge of worrying a hole into their stomach because of what is waiting for them in just a few days. This if for the tragically average student. I’m writing this for the teacher who fights back tears whenever she thinks of all the fun she had with her family this summer while wishing that that season could somehow swallow up the other three. This is for the parent who is really nervous about loosening the grip on her child even more as another school year brings her baby one step closer to adulthood. This one goes out to the home school parents that are already overwhelmed before the year even starts.

Right now, you probably feel sort of like that lion-hunting dentist that everyone is mad at. Your time to come out of hiding is approaching. And you know that it’s not going to be pretty.

Take heart.

If you are a Christian, you are never alone.

Here are a few things to remember.

1. Trust Jesus when you are scared. 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7 (ESV)

Fear can consume you or it can be your friend. It consumes you when you believe its lies that the future really is hopeless. It is your friend when it is nothing more than a gentle reminder to pray to the One who is in control and taking care of you. This is best done through prayer.

Be honest in your prayers.

Tell your Father what scares you.

And then remember what Jesus is doing. He is protecting you by standing guard at your heart and mind.

2. Trust Jesus when you don’t understand what to do next, 

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. James 1:5-8 (ESV)

There’s nothing like school to remind you that you’re not as smart and independent as you think you are. There are tests that seem designed for failure. And not just the written ones that students take with number 2 pencils. Parents and teachers face their share of difficult exams too. Instead of coming on white sheets of paper, these exams come at surprising moments in the speed of life.

Your lack of understanding can lead you to apathy, despair and depression. Or it can lead you to your Father in Heaven.

When you find yourself in a situation where you do not know what to do, and you will, ask God to show you. God never promised to give you all of the answers on a test or to fill you in on all of the things the kids are doing while you’re not looking. He has promised something better. He has promised to give you his wisdom. Just ask in faith. You’ll be glad that you did.

3. Remember why you are here.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)

Your main, Divine objective is not an A in math. It is to glorify God.

You can get an A in math or raise an honor roll student or win teacher of the year and still miss the point. You were put here to glorify Jesus Christ.

Yes, it is possible to do well in school without glorifying Jesus.

However, it is impossible to fully glorify Jesus if you’re cheating, complaining or being lazy.

Maybe God didn’t design you to be scientist. That’s okay. But he did design you to glorify him. So, for the sake of Jesus Christ, do your best.

It’s Thursday.

But Monday is coming.

And this is a Monday that is perhaps more dreaded than any other.

Don’t let it be that way. Instead, know that you are not walking through those double doors and down those hallways alone.

The Sovereign Creator of the universe is with you.

And he has promised to see you through until the end.

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Time Tells A Story

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A kid my age wasn’t supposed to like that sort of thing. I was captivated. I couldn’t help it.

My grandfather was a storyteller. He could tell a story better than anyone I’ve ever heard. On Sunday afternoons, after eating the massive lunch that my grandmother had prepared, we would all find a chair and listen to the master do his work.

He told stories about haints. A haint, in case you’re not from the south, is a ghost. I used to think that there was no such thing as haints but I’ve visited a few churches that cause me to have my doubts. His haint stories were the perfect balance of scary and funny.

He told stories about his time fighting in the South Pacific during the second World War. There were friends who died just after finding out that they’d be going home soon. There were crazy soldiers walking around with the ears of the men they had killed. There were enemy soldiers who came way too close to putting an end to my grandfather and his stories. Again, there was balance. These stories were part patriotic masterpieces and part horror. There was no humor.

And he told stories about quitting school as a kid to take care of his family after his father died. In spite of the hardships, these stories made us laugh. No matter how often we heard them.

The stories all had one thing in common. Each one highlighted the faithfulness of God. My grandfather was no theologian but, in his own way, he was doing more than just telling stories. He was preaching sermons. His sermons told of a God who is trustworthy. Even while bullets are flying in the South Pacific. Even when fathers die. And even when something called a haint appears to be walking in the middle of the road.

When the stories ended, my mom, my sister and I climbed back into our wood paneled station wagon for the hour long trip up Interstate 75 back to our south Atlanta home. Mom drove, my sister sat up front and I was always in the very back, where the party is.

My grandparents hated that. They would always remind us of some kid they saw on the news who had to have his spleen removed because he was riding in the back of a station wagon when it wrecked. As we drove off, the look of worry on their faces made it seem like they were shipping us off to the South Pacific to fight another war.

After being taken care of in a war, provided for through childhood and comforted from supposed southern ghosts, my grandparents were still consumed with worry.

This is exactly how worry works for all of us.

Time tells a story. The past, if we take the time to notice, always tells the truth. It tells of a faithful God who rules over all things for the ultimate good of his people. But the present can be a liar. Much like the diet that always begins tomorrow, the present sometimes tells us that the unraveling will begin tomorrow. Sure, maybe God was in control yesterday but tomorrow will be a different story. You will be on your own. You are in trouble.

Jesus speaks a word of truth to counteract the lies the present likes to tell us about the future.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:34 (ESV)

For a minute, that doesn’t look too comforting. It sort of reads like Jesus is saying, “Why are you worried about tomorrow? Worry about today. That’s where the real trouble is.”

Thankfully, he’s not saying that.

Each day has sufficient trouble. But that’s not all that it has. Read what Jesus told a suffering Paul about sufficiency.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Corinthians 12:9 (ESV)

The present likes to tell you a story about troubles coming in the future. That part isn’t a lie. You will have troubles in the future. But it’s only a half truth. Along with those troubles, God will give you grace. His grace. Sufficient grace. And it will be enough.

The Christian’s source of hope is never the absence of trouble. Rather, it is the presence of Jesus in the trouble.

If you listen carefully to the stories of your past, no matter how tragic they may be, you will be reminded of Jesus’ presence and the sufficient grace that comes along with it.

There is plenty to worry about. But Christian, there is no need to worry. That’s because the Author of your story is in complete control.

 

And he loves you.

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Which Will It Be?

There are two options before you today. Fear and faith. Which will it be?

Fear is always looking ahead, worrying about what might happen. Faith enjoys the grace that God has given for today.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:34 (ESV)

Fear tells you that you are on your own. That no one is in your corner. Faith says that you are lovingly held together by the One who holds all things together.

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Matthew 6:26 (ESV)

Fear is an atheist. He tells you that there is no God. Faith reminds you that God graciously provides you with what you need and mercifully withholds what you don’t need.

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” Matthew 6:31-32 (ESV)

Fear convinces you that your wants are all that matters. Therefore, when those wants don’t come through for you, your world falls apart. Faith preaches a sermon about what really matters.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33 (ESV)

Fear drains you of all strength and courage. Faith gives strength and courage that are rooted in the presence of God.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 (ESV)

Fear robs you of joy, especially when your circumstances aren’t what you would like them to be. Faith produces a joy that no circumstance, no matter how horrific, can infect.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Philippians 4:4 (ESV)

Fear pushes you away from others. Faith motivates you to take every concern to your Father.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Philippians 4:6 (ESV)

Fear leaves you open to attack and on edge that the next catastrophe will be the one that finally does you in. Faith opens your eyes to the One who stands guard at you heart and mind.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7 (ESV)

Fear says that the end is near and it’s not going to be pretty. Faith says that the end is near and it will be better than you could possibly imagine.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4 (ESV)

What To Remember The Next Time You’re Too Afraid To Follow Through With Obeying Jesus

You’re not alone.

To one degree or another, we’ve all been afraid to do what Jesus says, even when we know he’s right. It can be hard to direct a conversation toward the gospel without committing the classic Jesus Juke or just seeming insincere. It’s even harder to live out your faith in Christ when such a lifestyle is deemed intolerant or on the wrong side of history.

Many before you have experienced the same anxiety. But they obeyed anyway. We would all do well to follow their examples.

Ananias is a good man to start with.

God appeared to him in a vision and said just one word.

“Ananias.”

The man’s response was a classic biblical one. It sort of reminds you of Isaiah (Isaiah 6).

“Here I am, Lord.”

Before knowing what the Lord wanted to say, Ananias made his availability known. “I’m yours Lord. Right here. Whatever you say.”

You can’t help but wonder if Ananias questioned his initial response after considering the danger involved in obeying God’s command.

And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” Acts 9:11-12 (ESV)

Ananias’ response was another classic biblical one. Only this one was more like Jonah.

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” Acts 9:13-14 (ESV)

To put all of this into perspective, imagine God coming to you and telling you to go meet and pray over the terrorist a few blocks away who wanted you thrown into jail for worshiping Jesus. Suddenly, Jonah doesn’t look like such a bad guy.

Ananias’ fear came as no surprise to God. Nothing ever does. But God doesn’t respond the way that we would if we were trying to convince someone to carry out a dangerous order.

He never said, “Nothing bad will ever happen to you. You’re a King’s kid!”

In fact, the Lord’s words don’t seem very comforting at all.

Basically he says, “Go anyway” (Acts 9:15-16).

At first glance, one might think that God is being cruel or indifferent. But some of Christ’s last words before leaving earth help us to see that the opposite is true.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Matthew 28:18 (ESV)

Do  you remember Ananias’ initial complaint in verse 14?

“God, I can’t do that. This guy has authority to throw me into jail.”

In his Great Commission, Jesus reminds us who really has the authority. It’s not any set of chief priests. It’s not The Supreme Court, President Obama or Mitch McConnell. It’s not your boss. It’s not you and it’s not the person you fear most.

All authority has been given to Jesus. That means that any authority man has on earth is on loan from God. And just as surely as Jesus gives it to man, he can take it away.

Ananias obeyed Jesus, went to see Paul and prayed over him. But he did not pray over him as an enemy. No, Ananias prayed over him as a brother (9:17). Only the gospel, under the authority of Jesus Christ, can turn enemies into brothers. And typically, God uses small situations and seemingly obscure servants to do great things. Ananias didn’t get the amount of coverage in the Bible that Paul did. He wasn’t the Billy Graham of his time. But he was faithful. And that is enough.

Living for Jesus can be hard. The intimidation from others can be overwhelming. We can even be tempted to think that our little efforts aren’t making a difference. Watering down our faith or shutting down until Jesus returns can seem like the only reasonable options. That’s when it is important to remember something else.

Jesus is in charge.

Obeying him is often costly.

But there is no better place to be in life than in complete surrender to his perfect authority.

So just go anyway.

What If Your Fear Won’t Go Away?

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I was laying in the middle of the floor. Facedown. Scared to death. I was praying for God to take away my fear.

He said no.

And I’m glad.

I’ve got this thing about crowds. I’m not real comfortable in large crowds. Being a pastor, that’s sort of a problem. Well, unless you happen to be the pastor of Crazy Eddie and the Apostle Will’s Full Deliverance Fellowship and Snake Handling Emporium. In that case, you’ve got things other than crowds to worry about.

I get really nervous before I get up to preach on Sundays. And by before, I mean sometime around Monday afternoon. By Saturday, the worry gets pretty thick. On Sunday mornings it’s almost unbearable. So I’ve spent a lot of Sunday mornings, hours before anyone arrives, praying in our sanctuary. Facedown. Scared to death. Begging God to take away my fear.

It wasn’t an audible voice that told me no. It was the written word. God’s written word.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (ESV)

The fear that I was experiencing was a grace. It was a grace that was pointing me to the power of Christ.

I’m a pastor that’s not real comfortable in a crowd. It’s sort of like the tightrope walker who is afraid of heights. At first glance, it may seem like a mistake was made somewhere along the line. A deeper look reveals that God often puts his people in uncomfortable situations. Situations where we are forced to come face to face with our weaknesses. Situations where making it out alive on the other side can leave us with nothing to acknowledge but the all-sufficient grace of Jesus.

I know a lot of godly men and women. Most of them have one thing in common. Pressure. They aren’t the types who would say that their most stressful day was the time that they had to decide which major university to accept a full scholarship from. They are the types that had to see their mother laid out on a cold metal table because she had just tried to kill herself. They are the types who had to walk through cancer with their daughter. They are the types who are all too familiar with their weaknesses. And even more familiar with God’s grace and power.

Men and women of God grow out of the soil of discomfort.

A while back I overheard two guys talking. They were talking about fear. One of them finally reached a conclusion that, for some reason, changed their conversation to a whisper. Maybe they knew that I was listening. The man said something along these lines.

“I know that the Bible says that we shouldn’t fear. But I’ve got a job to do. A hard job. And fear just seems natural. It’s something that I can’t get rid of.”

I could relate. But I wanted to interrupt this man and tell him that God has done something better for me than taking away my fear. He is using it to remind me of this grace. A grace that is much stronger than the source of my fear.

“Fear not.” God says that a lot in the Bible. For a long time, I thought that he just meant that we needed to try harder to not fear. But that’s sort of like trying harder to not try so hard. It seems counterproductive.

It’s interesting what usually follows God’s command to fear not.

“I am with you.” Not, “I will take it away immediately.” Not, “I wouldn’t let anything difficult happen to you.”

Just, “I am with you.”

And that’s enough.

Fear can lead us to two things. It can cause us to dwell on what might happen and therefore control us, leaving us curled up in some corner afraid to take the next step. Or it can remind us of our shortcomings and the all-sufficient power of the God who is with us, leading us to a greater reliance upon him.

On Sunday mornings, I still show up several hours before anyone else so that I can pray. I still lay in the middle of the floor. Facedown. But I’ve stopped asking God to take away my fear. Instead I ask him to use that fear to point me to his strength and to remind me that he is with me.

And through the promises of his word, he always says yes.

Take It Easy, For His Name’s Sake

I spent a significant portion of my childhood in a death trap.

At least that’s what my grandparents had me to believe.

Our car was built in the 70s and like a lot of things that were built in the 70s, it was ugly. To begin with, it was a station wagon so it never really had a chance. There was wood paneling on the side, the tires didn’t match and the upholstery on the ceiling sagged down to our heads.

The only cool thing about our station wagon was the back. Not the back seat, the back. I called it the back-back. I’m sure it was intended for groceries but I used it for my own personal space during the hour long trip to and from my grandparents. No seats. No seat belts. Just wide open spaces. For my grandparents, seeing me back there was like seeing me walk a tight rope across the Grand Canyon with a rattlesnake in one hand and an open bottle of liquor in the other. They were terrified and they made sure to share their fears with me.

“Jason, you be careful back there. We saw on the news where a little boy was sitting back there and got thrown out into the ocean. Sharks are still eating his precious, innocent flesh.”

They had a way of making me think.

My grandparents were worriers and that gene got handed down to me.

In the fourth grade I was missing school from worrying myself sick. By the fifth grade I was seeing specialists who were examining my stomach for ulcers. As an adult, I still hate going to doctor’s offices and hospitals. A few years ago I went in for a check-up and found out that I had something called White Coat Syndrome because my blood pressure was somewhere around 762 over 2. The nurse told me that it was like that because I was scared. It made me wonder about how well I was representing Jesus, the One whom I claimed to trust.

We live in a scary world. Kids really do get thrown out of cars. And hospitals aren’t empty. We can try to avoid the scary things but sometimes our alternatives can be just as dangerous, or so we’re told. For proof, look no further than the food you eat.

A while back we were told that some foods were manufactured in a laboratory by evil scientists working for Cobra Commander. The news told us things like, “that bowl of chicken noodle soup could take up to 15 years off of your life.” Soup! Really? And I thought the back of our station wagon was dangerous.

So some people decided to go organic and traded in Campbell’s for homemade soup made with all-natural fur balls from the cat. And we felt better about ourselves. Until doctors told us that soup made from all-natural fur balls from the cat would make your children’s ears stop working and that their kids were 73 times more likely to be born with a hacking cough.

What’s healthy today is what the experts will declare toxic in another decade. For worriers, life is a lose-lose scenario where we’re all just waiting for our time to go. The Bible offers a better alternative. You might know it as the 23rd Psalm.

The 23rd Psalm is about Jesus, the Good Shepherd. One of the things that makes a shepherd a good one is his presence. Others who know much more about sheep than I do have said that the mere presence of an alert shepherd can work wonders on scared and confused sheep. One of the many things we can say about our Shepherd is that he is present.

It was his presence with men like Abraham, Moses and Joshua that became the basis for their courage. But he is not just present with them. We are told in Matthew 1:23 that the baby born to Mary would be called Immanuel. Matthew fills us in on what that name means.

“God with us.”

Not God with Abraham. Not God with Moses. Not God with Joshua. God with us.

It’s good to be an us.

And so it is that presence that gives David, the former shepherd boy, great confidence as he passes through the valley of the shadow of death. Through the valley of the shadow of death. That word through is an interesting one. David knew that commitment to his Lord did not give him a bypass around the valley of the shadow of death. But he also knew that it wasn’t his home. He was just passing through. Under the constant care and supervision of the Good Shepherd.

Our Shepherd carries us through the valley of the shadow of death but he leads us in paths of righteousness. But why? Remember, the 23rd Psalm isn’t primarily about us. It’s about Jesus.

“For his name’s sake.”

That is to say, for his glory.

Our reaction to difficult or frightening situations tells a story about our Shepherd. If we are consumed by fear and worry, we are lying about him. It’s as if we are telling the world that we have been abandoned and left for the wolves. But if we realize the comfort that is ours in the Shepherd, with rod and staff in his nail-pierced hands, we tell quite a different story.

Around the same age that I was riding around in that station wagon, my church had a seminar on rock music. Some evangelist came in and warned us about the dangers of Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. For the record, that’s when I became a fan of Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. “If they sounded that cool played backwards, they had to be good,” I reasoned to myself.

Anyway, one of the dangerous songs he warned us about was Take It Easy by the Eagles. Yeah, that one. His argument was that the song would lead people to be too laid back. As if Jesus said, “Come unto me and I will make you uptight.”

It would do us good to take it easy. I don’t mean sticking our heads in the sand while the world starves to death or retiring early and finishing life out in the mountains. But as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we should remember that we are not alone.

And so we should take it easy.

Not because The Eagles told us to.

But because our Shepherd is with us.

The Pains That Shape Us

My son looked at me with desperation in his eyes.

“I want someone to go with me.”

I told him no.

Slowly, his look of desperation changed to one of determination.

Minutes before this short conversation, while I was buying gas, my son asked me if we could go by Little Caesar’s for pizza.  I told him the same thing that every American dad says when his child asks him for pizza.

“We’ll see.”

We’ll see is another way of saying no without really saying no.  If it works properly, the child will forget his initial request while we’re busy seeing.

My son never forgets.

But this time I didn’t let it get to that.  I made up my mind that a little pizza for lunch wouldn’t hurt my boys.  When I pulled into the parking lot they asked me if I was lost.  Clearly, they took my we’ll see response to mean no.  I told them that we were having pizza for lunch.  They were ecstatic. But for my oldest, the joy wouldn’t last very long.

I gave him six dollars and told him to go in by himself and ask for the five dollar cheese pizza.  He had a look on his face like we were in Vietnam and I just asked him to go out on his own to find Charlie.

He finally got out and went to the door.  Seconds later, he came back.

“Dad.  They’re closed.”

“Try pulling on the door instead of pushing.”

He gets that from me.  We both attended Midvale School for the Gifted.

He went back and struggled to open the door just enough for his small frame to squeeze through, his fingers barely making it in before the door slammed shut.  He disappeared.

When he reappeared, there was no pizza.

And no six dollars.

“Dad.  They need 35 cents.”

Sales tax.

I grabbed some change and wrapped his tiny fingers around it.  He struggled through the door again and disappeared.  When I saw him again he had a big smile on his face and a medium pizza in his arms.

I told him that I was proud of him for being brave.  His smile got bigger.  And even bigger when he got home and sat in the floor with his brother to eat pizza.

At first, my son thought that I was being cruel.  He was scared to do something that he had never done before.  But when it was all over, he saw that my intentions were pure.  He saw that the fear of doing something alone, the weight of a heavy door and the confusion of counting money were all coming together for a greater purpose.  They were shaping him.  From a boy to a man.

Christians can count on hardships (John 16:33).  But they can also be assured that they do  not face those hardships alone.  Our Heavenly Father does not sit back, watching and hoping for our best, as we endure difficult situations.  In the person of Jesus Christ, he is with us (Romans 8:31-39).  Always (Matthew 28:20).

And we can also know that our hardships are not an end in themselves.  God, as only he knows and as he sees fit, is glorified through them.  That by itself may seem cruel.  God glorified by my pain?  But it doesn’t stop there.  God, as only he knows and as he sees fit, is using that pain for our ultimate good.

There will be times when the door won’t open and there’s no extra change.  Times when the fear seems overwhelming.  But through it all, there is a Father who is not just watching but who is with us, working for our ultimate good.

And when our job is complete he will still be there, ready to welcome us into his home.

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’”  (Matthew 25:23 (ESV)