Monday, October 24, 2016


Some nights, particularly when life is a bit heavier than usual, it's easy to lie awake in bed and think, "Lord, if only I had some assurance of your presence. If only I knew that it was you." And like generations of God's people before us, we lie awake praying for some sign, some indication that God is who He says He is. 

And then, by some grace, that sign comes. That really cool, completely undeniable, we'd-laugh-if-we-weren't-so-scared-by-it sign that is undoubtedly God responding to our feeble humanity. Our spirit settles, just a bit, and for a few minutes, we rest in knowing that God is good. 

And then, we ask Him for another sign. 

That was really cool, God. But if it was really You, You could do it again.

I don't know what it is about us. I don't know what it is that makes it so hard for us to believe, even when the evidence is right there. Even when we get the big, ostentatious, clear sign that we've asked for, the very one. 

But we're not alone. This need for constant reassurance, this searching for another sign, has been the testimony of God's people from the beginning.

Remember the story of Gideon?

God found Gideon hiding in a winepress, beating wheat. (And that's a good lesson in and of itself, but alas, for another day.) In their first encounter, Gideon asks God simply to wait. To stay there until the man can prepare a good meal for Him, some kind of offering to honor the moment. God waits, then cooks and consumes the offering Himself. But even this is not enough to prove to Gideon that this is the Lord who visits him. When God asks the 'mighty warrior' to do a hard thing - to lead God's people into battle - Gideon asks for a very specific sign:

If this piece of wool, which I place on the floor, is covered with dew in the morning, though the rest of the ground is dry, then I will know that You are God and this is real.

The next morning, there he has it - wet wool, dry ground, firm proof of the Lord's presence. After all, there is no other legitimate way to explain what has happened here. And it is exactly what the chosen man has asked for. The Scriptures say that not only was the wool wet, but it was sopping wet (God always goes above and beyond); Gideon squeezed and entire bowl full of water out of the wool. 

And then he turned back to his God and said, That was really cool. But if it was really You.... And he asks for another sign. Not just another sign, but the exact opposite one. If tomorrow morning, the wool is dry and the ground is wet, well, then, I'll know that You really are God.

You have to think God is just shaking His head at this point. You have to wonder if God's questioning whether this was the guy to pick after all, this 'mighty warrior' hiding in a winepress. This guy who has just seen one miracle and yet demands another. This man who has already seen two great acts of the Lord (if you count the consumption by fire of Gideon's first offering) and yet still needs, for whatever reason, a third. 

Why is it so hard for us to believe that God is God? Why is it so hard for us to believe that God is good? Why is it so hard for us to believe that God has not only chosen us, but chooses us, and that the imagination that He has for our life is real? 

I don't think there's anything wrong with our longing for God to show Himself, with our hope that He will demonstrate His holiness and His goodness and His promise in some tangible way. But what if one night, and one morning, was all it took?

What if one bowl of water was enough?

What kind of people would we be, what kind of amazing things would God be doing in our midst, if we could just say, That was really cool, God. Really cool. I'm going. 

No buts. I'm going. No ifs. I'm going. No what-ifs. Let's do this.

I'm going.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Good Life

Let me ask you something: how's your life?

Most of us, when asked this question, consider it for a moment and then decide that our life is pretty good. We've got a pretty good house, a pretty good job, a pretty good car, pretty good kids, a pretty good church.... Our lives are pretty good. We are living the good life. 

But then, something happens that makes our pretty good life look a little less pretty. 

What that something is is different for everybody, and it changes often, according to what out pretty good lives demand of us. All of a sudden, all the little cracks and creaks in our house start to show. We see all the things that we probably ought to fix, that we used to think gave our house charm, but they're really just disasters waiting to happen. We start to feel the quiet discontent lurking beneath our job satisfaction, wishing we'd spoken up a long time ago about all the little things that have since become the big things that make Friday, not Monday, the best day of the week. We start to see all the little rust spots showing up on our 'pretty good' car, hear all the little rattles that used to be drowned out by the radio or the wind. We see our children's hearts aching, asking questions we've never heard, and we see how just the small little things they do are cries that while they're still pretty good kids, they're not okay. They're struggling. We look around our church and see the ways that we are failing one another, feel the ways that our church has failed us. We see our shallow teachings or our empty relationships or the politics that seem to always pull someone in and always leave someone out (and far too often, that someone left out is Jesus). 

All of a sudden, our pretty good life is kind of ugly. 

And we're all just hoping no one notices.

Why can't we just be honest about our lives? Why can't we just live the lives we really have instead of pretending that they're all "pretty good"? Let's pull up to our broken churches in our beat-up old cars, rust spots showing their age. Let's wear the same clothes we wore yesterday because we haven't had time to do the laundry yet. Let's invite people over to our houses and not worry about whether they see where the porch floor is starting to warp or the ceiling is starting to crack or that spot on the carpet that we never could quite get out completely. Let's introduce them to our children and get to know theirs, and let's let our kids play together, knowing they're all a little weird. (And that's okay - they're kids. They are supposed to be kind of weird.) Let's be honest about Fridays...and about Mondays...and about jobs that don't fulfill us any more. Let's stop pretending our lives are "pretty good" and embrace all the ugly that's around us.

Because when our lives aren't so good after all, when they're just...real, then God gets to be the one that's good. He gets to be real, too.

That's what happens, isn't it? Our pretty good lives are going along with our pretty good God, and then when things start to go awry, the first thing we do is blame God for our lives no longer being pretty. But they haven't been pretty for a long time; we were just unwilling to notice it.

When we're honest about our lives, when we live into our stories as they age and fall apart and come together in new ways and start to show their messes, then whatever good we've God. It's really all because of Him. Our lives, our messy, broken, messed-up lives, are good because they've got a good God in them. And when things start to go awry, our good God only gets greater. 

That's how life is supposed to work.

So look around you. Really look. Notice all the rough spots. Notice all the rust. Notice all the little cracks and creaks and dents and dings. Notice all the ache and all the worry and all the trouble. Notice it all. And let me ask you: how's your life? 

Okay, but how's your God?

Thursday, October 20, 2016


One of the best pieces of advice that I've ever heard came from a worship pastor. He said that someone once told him to "sing in his own voice."

I think that's what Timothy was up against when Paul wrote him this letter of encouragement.

It's so easy when you're trying to learn how to do something new or when you're trying to learn how to do something better to look at the people who are already doing it and doing it well and to try to figure out how to do what they're doing in the way that they're doing. We see this very clearly in singing - who among us picks a song at a karaoke and doesn't try to sound like the person who originally did it? Who among us hasn't dreamt ourselves Bette Midler or Whitney Houston or Josh Groban in the shower? It's only natural.

So it's not much of a stretch to think that Timothy may have dreamt himself Paul. It's only natural.

But here's the thing: when we sing in someone else's voice, when we minister in someone else's heart, when we work with someone else's hands, we can only ever do what we're doing well. 

Wait a minute. Isn't "well" a good thing? Shouldn't we strive to do things well? 

I guess. Think about it, though. When someone steps down from the stage where they have sung in not their own voice, what do you say to them? Nice job. You sing very well. You nailed your Mick Jagger impression. Good work. Way to go. 

All good, affirming responses. All the very thing we think we're going for in life. 

But what about when someone steps up and sings in their own voice? Think about people like Susan Boyle. Or the 12-year-olds who sing opera. Or any number of persons on The Voice or America's Got Talent. When they sing in their own voice, we don't say the same things we say after a good night of karaoke. No, we say something even better:

That. was. beautiful.


That's what happens when we sing in our own voice. That's what happens when we minister from our own heart. That's what happens when we work with our own hands. Something beautiful. 

That's what Paul was trying to caution Timothy against - against having a ministry that was good, but not beautiful. That's what we all need to caution ourselves against - against having ministries, or even living lives, that are good, but not beautiful. They're only beautiful when they are distinctly ours. They're only ours when we sing in our own voice.

Those few words that I once overheard my worship pastor cite as the best advice he ever received have become, for me, the best advice I've ever received. Sing in your own voice. Or in Paul's words, You got this. 

It's beautiful. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Not Paul

Part of Timothy's trouble was that he was young - not young in sense of age, necessarily, but young in the ministry. The people in his flock likely knew that this was the first time Timothy had tended sheep on his own.

But part of Timothy's trouble, too, I think, is that he wasn't Paul.

I don't mean this in a disparaging way. I am by no means saying that Timothy was a less competent minister than Paul or that he somehow had less authority to be in the position that he was in or anything like that. What I am saying is that I firmly believe the little church that came into being under Paul's tutelage that was now under Timothy's teaching held him to a certain standard he was forever unable to meet.

And I say that because it's the same standard we all run into in various ways.

Whether it's in a ministry or a non-ministerial job, we are often held to the example of the person who came before us. Particularly, it must be said, to the example of the things that people really liked about that person. And so much of this battle is fought in the intangibles that it can be extremely frustrating to even engage.

Timothy could have said the very same words that Paul said. He could have put the emphasis on the right syllables and followed the script to a T. He could have visited persons in their homes, shared meals with them, collected the same monies, delivered them to Jerusalem. He could have worn the same tunic as Paul, shown the same calloused hands of a craftsman, even cut his hair in the same style. And there would still be persons in his little church who would mutter under their breath, Well, he's no Paul.

Of course he's not Paul. He's Timothy.

But people get accustomed to the ways that they do things. They get used to one particular style over another. They get used to the way one person's heart infuses something with a particular meaning. They build their lives, at least whatever little part of it there is that surrounds this particular person, around the way that things are.

And sometimes, it doesn't matter what you do, how well you do it, or how meaningful your service is, there are going to be those who forever hold you to a standard you can never possibly meet. Because you are not the person who came before you; you are the one who comes after.

Does this diminish your ministry? No. But does it trouble your spirit? You bet. And that can be a serious threat to your ministry.

That's why I love what Paul says in his affirmation of Timothy. Don't let anyone look down on  you because you are young, but set an example.... In other words, again, You got this. You be you and let people see who you are. They'll hear what you're saying, eventually, but for now, let them see you. You've got nothing to hide. Just. Be. Timothy.

Just. be. you. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


In what is perhaps the most-quoted bit of pastoral advice ever recorded, Paul wrote to Timothy, Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young.

But there's young, and then there's young.

As children, we are a certain type of young, but that's not really what Paul's talking about here. In an authentic young, people don't tend to look down on us. Rather, they look at us with eyes sparkling with potential (in the best of worlds, and even in the worst of worlds, there always seems to be one or two of these amazing persons who see more than we ever thought we could be). But when we're really young, people tend to be more honest about who we are.

They know our naivete. They know our inexperience. They know that we are little works in progress, and they don't hold us accountable to standards that we cannot possibly meet. After all, we are young. This is the time to teach us.

And they do. To a certain degree, the world invests in us when we are young. In our formative years, people spend their precious time and energy trying to mold us into something great. Or at least, something good.

But as we age, we reach a certain point where we become young again, and this is the struggle that Timothy, and many of the rest of us, really have.

At the time Paul wrote these words, Timothy was no child. It's not like Timothy was an emerging leader in the First Church Youth Group. No, he was rather what we would call an "established" man, perhaps right on the edge (in our contemporary model) of deaconhood or eldership. The church was starting to look to him for some significant level of service, but it was becoming apparent that this particular teacher was a little green.

He just didn't have a lot of experience.

And in this way, he was young. He was new. He'd been traveling with Paul to some degree for a while, but this was his first real shot at doing it on his own. And Paul knew the hurdles that he would face.

People would look at him and see a man less wearied than the most-famous apostle. They would look at him and wonder about his resume. Paul could claim churches all over the region; Timothy could really only claim Paul. The new church was going to face issues; that's a given. There were going to be people who didn't truth in Timothy's leadership to see them through it. What Paul says here is, You got this. You know what you're doing. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

That's the fundamental difference between being young and being young. As children, the world seems ready to teach us. The world seems willing to lend a hand to show us what we need to do. We're given the grace to mess up a little bit as we find our way. But when we're young, the world is all-too-ready to condemn. All-too-ready to scorn. All-too-ready to tell us that we don't know what we're doing, that we're not qualified, and that we may actually be a burden to the whole enterprise.

It's this kind of attitude that we face in ministry, and for most of us, it comes as quite a shock.

Because we're used to being taught. We're used to being led. We're used to being shadows of a greater apostle. When we get our first chance, we're pretty sure we know what we're doing, but there are always going to be people who don't think we have a clue and who aren't willing to give us a chance. There are always going to be people who know this is our first time and who think we ought to magically move from no real experience to at least two or three good shots at it before we get our first chance. (Yes, I meant that exactly as it reads. No, it does not make sense.)

This is where they start to look down on us. Particularly if we also look youthful.

If you find yourself in this situation, you're not alone. In fact, you're in good company. I don't know anyone who has not gone through this period of transition, this time of being young - both in ministry and in secular occupations and social positions. At some point, we're all doing something we've never done before. At least, not on our own. Not with our own authority. And it's a learning curve, for sure.

But take to heart the words of Paul to his young Timothy. Because you got this. You know what you're doing. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.