6 Things I Love About Joseph

James Tissot, The Jewish Museum, New York (SA, Wikimedia Commons)

James Tissot, The Jewish Museum, New York       (SA, Wikimedia Commons/PD)

Joseph’s story is my favorite in the Bible. I’ve read Genesis 37-50 numerous times. Not only is the account fascinating, but it’s also insightful. I learn much from Joseph’s life, and I want to share some of those points with you now. Continue reading

Faith in Clutch Moments

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it…But even if he does not…we will not serve your gods.”

A few months into my work at a fast food restaurant, I sauntered in for my evening shift. The place was quiet and the manager stood at the register and greeted me as I entered the service area.

“Mike, you missed all the fun last night.”

“Oh, really,” I replied.

“We got robbed last night,” he said.

“Yeah, right.” I passed it off as a joke, but he was serious.

This store was two years old and sat on a state highway in a suburban area. Still, that meant little in the scenario he proceeded to explain. My co-worker Richard who first encountered the robber relayed the following account.

Beginning his nightly breakdown and cleaning routine at 9 p.m., an hour before closing, with no customers in the store, a man entered, drew a gun three inches to his face, and ordered him and all other staff to the back. There he made them lie in the floor on their stomachs in an enclosed area while he and the shift manager went to the safe. He left with $1,500 without harming anyone.

Alarmed by the details, I felt sorry for the people who had experienced the ordeal, some of whom were traumatized. It scared me to think of the outcome being any different. The robber was never caught.

Just, Why?

Obviously, I’m grateful I hadn’t been working. Would the situation have been worse if another set of people were present?

Why does God allow such things? Why doesn’t he clearly intervene in crisis…manifest in some way? It’s his world, after all. I think of super-scale natural disasters and heinous moral evils—where is God? These are tough questions to which there are no answers and the Bible offers none.

One of my favorite pastors whimsically asks, “If God is so powerful and good, why doesn’t he just erase the Devil?” I think we all can agree.

Playing with Fire

The topic makes me consider Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who boldly confronted evil in their uniquely dicey situation. For it’s one thing for misfortune and tragedy to strike and overcome you; it’s another thing to have a choice in your fate, which can be much more difficult. “God, I’ll trust you”—because I have no other choice is easier than “God, I’ll trust you”—when I do.

Yet the ‘Hebrew Boys’’ resolve convinces me that questioning, the struggle to understand why, is limited to its ability to make us feel our experience and to induce personal growth and, hopefully, deep faith in God. And that role should not be underestimated. Deep inquiry can even provoke change; however, it just won’t ever halt wickedness. Nebuchadnezzar will have his way.

So evil in the world will continue, yet God remains sovereign and providentially good to humankind. On that basis alone he is to be trusted. God rescues all, the believer and non-believer. I’m so thankful he protected my co-workers. And although only he can fully explain why, I doubt those answers outweigh our rest in his abiding care for us. We wouldn’t understand if he did explain.

In the end, why questions must give way to how questions that confront us about our response. Otherwise, we won’t emerge from fear or pain to wholesome life. Circumstances often don’t change but we must.

{Too, let us praise God for all the ways he does deliver that we never see! There could be far more hardship in the world.}

Showing Grace to Ourselves

POINT MADE ALREADY, YOU SAID? (LOL) CC BY-NC, guccio@文房具社, Flickr

POINT MADE ALREADY, YOU SAID? (Ha!)
CC BY-NC, guccio@文房具社, Flickr

Many people are their own toughest critic. I am. But what’s unhealthy is treating oneself with disdain, and that has been a problem for me at times. I will speak to myself with severe contempt at my stupidity or failure or some other thing.

It wasn’t until the Lord, in his gentle way, checked me one day about it.

What he is teaching me is to not treat myself the way I would never treat another person. Get that: God instructs us to do to others as we would have them do to us, yet I was doing to myself as I would never do to others or allow them to do to me.

I could hear the Spirit within—“Stop saying that.” Then, one day the message became clear: You are a recipient of the grace of God; it dishonors him for you to dishonor yourself. Christ paid too high a price for my well-being for me to side with the Evil One in my attitude about myself.

YOU are Important to God

We are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27), or with the same care we show for our own bodies and concerns. The scriptures assume our individual welfare prior to our interaction with others, which is only natural. Paul says, “No one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body” (Eph. 5:29).

Look at common clichés: “Take care of home first” and “Health is wealth”—because if I’m in poor health, or die…

Hear Paul again: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:12-14).

So the Lord says to me and us all, why is this any different for you…by you? Cast away fear, regret, worry, and other negative emotions by remembering that you belong to God and are in the grip of his perfect plan for you. He’ll help you sort out the kinks.

More: The Golden Rule and Who Is My Neighbor?

The Deceit of Riches

CC BY, MS Images

CC BY, MS Images

Have we not all at some point envied wealthy persons, their lives or possessions? I know I have. Everyone desires a comfortable life, and the more comfort always seems the better.

Now it doesn’t take a change in status to be comfortable. People who, in the eyes of the government, live at the poverty level can and do live comfortably because how one manages their income matters greatly. Unfortunately, poverty stigmatizes people as lacking restraint, but that’s not necessarily true.

The bottom line about true wealth and poverty has nothing to do with dollars and cents. Instead, it has everything to do with inner happiness.

Dangerous Idealism

Humans have a tendency to romanticize wealth. And let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with being rich. The scripture nowhere condemns it. Everyone has a responsibility to work and wealth is a possibility for all.

I must be careful here lest I paint a stereotype about wealthy people; and I do not wish to spurn them or their wealth. But I do intend to express how often erroneous is our conjecture about riches and rich people.

If only at the nether reaches of our minds, we sometimes think people with lots of money…

  • Need nothing
  • Experience no hardship
  • Possess the power to do as they please
  • Deserve recognition and honor
  • Know more than less wealthy individuals
  • Are people of integrity

That is how television often portrays the wealthy—right before you see that they deal with the same life issues common folk deal with. And you notice how their wealth and power influences their choices and decisions, not unlike how poverty affects the choices and decisions of others. The test of struggle is to survive its dearth; however, the test of prosperity is to survive its flood.

Asaph’s Portrait

America has increasingly become a society of people chasing after riches. But many people are only discovering disappointment when they find them. It’s not because they don’t enjoy the many ways money makes their lives easier; instead, it’s because they realize how it makes their lives harder.

I can never escape Asaph on this topic. He paints a lucid picture of impious wealthy people who do not realize the toll they’ve allowed their wealth to take on their hearts.

“For they seem to live carefree lives, free of suffering; their bodies are strong and healthy.  They don’t know trouble as we do; they are not plagued with problems as the rest of us are.  They’ve got pearls of pride strung around their necks; they clothe their bodies with violence. They have so much more than enough. Their eyes bulge because they are so fat with possessions. They have more than their hearts could have ever imagined. There is nothing sacred, and no one is safe. Vicious sarcasm drips from their lips; they bully and threaten to crush their enemies. They even mock God as if He were not above; their arrogant tongues boast throughout the earth; they feel invincible” (Psalm 73:4-9, VOICE).

Asaph describes people who having trusted their wealth don’t notice the side effects of doing so. They never realized how their privilege allowed all their desires and inhibitions to surface and take control of their lives. (Again, I do not generalize.)

What we often don’t see with these folk are the effects of vice on their hearts. Plastered smiles and a pompous glow only go so far before the pain of inner distress and sadness causes you to buckle.

You may have heard the stories of those who evangelize or make prayer visits to astute communities; they sound much like the stories told of those on the other side of the tracks, sometimes worse. We don’t readily assume that wealthy people are hungry, violently abused, bound in addiction, drowning in debt, or suicidal, yet many live this way behind closed doors.

Getting Free

Sometimes it’s real tough for these people to find freedom because they can get buried beneath the trappings of their lifestyle. Issues of pride, image, reputation, dignity, etc., keep their problems shut out of view and keep them away from help, which only allows trouble and vice to run rampant.

Folk with lesser wealth often have less of their life invested in their reputation to allow such a thing to threaten their well-being.

Perhaps too some wealthy people don’t know how to call for help. They’ve always been in a position of control and security, the ones making decisions and helping everyone else never expecting that they would ever need rescuing. That role reversal must surely be difficult.

All Things are Possible

After the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus, the Lord twice exclaims to the disciples how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. It doesn’t mean that they won’t or that it’s impossible; if you will, this was Jesus telling them, “I’m just saying…”

He’s really pointing to those weeds he speaks of in his parable of the sower. They represent all the fineries, gaieties, and pleasures of life but leave one bereft of spiritual wealth, stymied in his spiritual efforts and bankrupt in the life to come.

But a powerful truth he speaks next—“With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). For all of us the leap from folly to faith is impossible without God. But hopefully you didn’t miss what was so plain to Jesus and remarkable that we don’t see: just how burdensome wealth can be on the soul, the one place that never factors into our dreams of being rich.

Yet God, he says, can give even the wealthy the grace to make the leap into kingdom life.

I trust that you pray for the lost. The next time you do, say a prayer for those who are wealthy. Pray that they be good managers, even stewards, of their wealth. Pray that God would rebuke the Evil One who desires to drag their souls to hell. Pray that they will know the rich love of Jesus, that God would dispel all religious exoticism and foolish revelry so they would know Truth.

God loves the wealthy.

Other reads: 2014 Gates Annual Letter; Why Do the Wicked Prosper and The Perils of Covetousness

Simply the Bee’s Knees!

CC BY NC-ND, Roger Smith, Flickr

CC BY NC-ND, Roger Smith, Flickr

This summer I cleared away years of brush in my sister’s backyard. It was good physical work and there were many lessons I learned about myself and God. From this time I want to share with you a special moment that encouraged me.

The yard is large and forested and gently slopes toward a dry creek bed. After cutting my way to the very back, working along the bank, I encountered a thriving underground yellow jacket nest in the side of the hill, which concerned me. I have heard stories of adults and children being severely injured and killed by the wasps as a result of ground vibrations unnerving the colony. I was working with a garden rake and a heavy cutter mattock razing everything above- and belowground.

Being slightly perfectionist with my work, the nest complicated things. I wanted the entire hill cleared just like the rest I had done. I got close and took a long look: the wasps busily entered and exited the burrow at several openings paying me little attention.

Later, still tinkering around the nest, I sensed that I had crossed the line and provoked them. Their behavior changed and a few started flying at me, pelleting my clothing. I was in work gear, so I knew I couldn’t be stung. But one wily little feller surprised me, managing to get beneath my glove and sting me on the bottom of my wrist. It was my fault, although he had to die for it.

I had spent too much time on the nest. Since it was near quitting time, I let the sting be the last word on the matter. I’d deal with it the next day.

I went out the next morning and immediately checked the nest. To my astonishment, an animal had come along sometime in the interim and bored out the entire colony! Nothing was left of it. A few wasps would come around looking for it, but there was only a hole there now.

I couldn’t believe it. I had no doubt that it was a gift from the Lord. He knew how concerned I was about it and providentially sent that animal along to do its natural thing to help me out.

It is little things like this that reassure me of the Lord’s great care for us and regard to answer before we’ve called for help.

On Thankfulness

CC BY-NC-ND, Summers, Foter

CC BY-NC-ND, Summers, Foter

“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.” ~ Cicero

A thankful person appreciates another for a benefit shown to them: a gift, a kind gesture, a selfless act. Thanksgiving is clearly the hallmark holiday to demonstrate and reflect on this virtue. Thankfulness, or gratitude, is largely associated with religion, although some people steer clear of deep spiritual beliefs. Christians honor God for his providence, and the American holiday began grounded in a tradition of thankfulness to God.

Moreover, thankfulness is humanizing to the heart. How often do we get caught up in the rigmarole of life trying to make things happen, trying to make something of ourselves, only to lose feeling and connectedness with all that should make sense and wholesomely gratify us. Gratitude, sharp as a knife, cuts through all the fluff and excess and allows us to notice just how substantive and appreciable are the basic elements of our lives.

Morning by Morning

But more than this, I think our aspiration in continuing to recognize Thanksgiving is indeed to connect spiritually with a higher essence or God from whom we might derive our well-being. Certainly Christians celebrate the goodness and faithfulness of God. How marvelous is that first stanza of the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”:

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.

The verse celebrates a theological attribute of God: his constancy. You may know it by the term immutability; it means that the attributes of God’s nature and disposition are unchanging toward us. And surely beyond all the things we could think to be thankful for, we appreciate him foremost for being the very ground on which we stand.

Thank Goodness?

Gratitude is personal and requires another person. I cannot be thankful to my car…for making the long trip or not conking out. Instead, I can be thankful (to one) for my car. Further, no one gets to hold gratitude in their hearts; it must be demonstrated…released. The first line above states this—“A thankful person appreciates another for some benefit shown to them.” There is transaction; orientation is present and always toward the other. Thankfulness, by its very nature, acknowledges the aid of someone and maybe even one’s dependence on them.

My conjecture is that most people get it right. In the spiritual way, even non-Christians will gladly acknowledge God’s goodness and activity in their lives, although they don’t serve him. They’ll give props to the “Big Guy” or thank “the Man upstairs.” People of other theistic religions thank their gods just the same.

But I wonder about some.

Could I ever be grateful to the universe? Does that even make sense? Or worse, to oneself or humanity, in a spiritually essential way? I think everyone has an innate, spiritual need to show gratitude, but many have lost their bearings. The human soul derives no transcendent significance, potential, or aid from an empty space or a fallen humanity; instead, it is sourced in God himself.

Sorrythe universe and pantheistic determinism is not God; that’s foolishness. And the rest of us should readily admit that our rascal selves are a poor excuse for God!

But David gets it right when he declares of Jehovah, “Be thankful unto him, and bless his name” (Ps. 100:4). Our ultimate gratitude should always find its way back to God.

Speak Well of Him

I think the Thanksgiving season lends us Christians real help sharing our faith. Everyone experiences some good in their lives. The holiday makes it easier for us to talk about the good (and tough) things and appreciate the faithfulness of God.

Be mindful of what God has done in your life during your interactions this season—and beyond it because gratitude never ends. Just maybe God will use your testimony and perspectives to light a fire in someone’s heart.

His Need, Our Privilege

CC BY-NC, S.Kakos, Flickr

CC BY-NC, S.Kakos, Flickr

God inherently needs nothing and no one. Yet we would fling him beyond reach should we forget that he has done us a favor obligating himself to us. He “needs” us only because he desires us and requires himself to us.

Moreover, he has created a place for us in his plan.

He commands our worship because it benefits us and not because he lacks adoration. Ultimately, his purpose is accomplished with us and we get the joy.

Could he offer a better deal?

God shall forever be the Great Giver, limitless and generous. And I gladly resign myself to the honor of being needed by him.

Lectio Divina: Psalms 126

"Jews in Exile" by Eduard Bendemann Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne CC BY-NC, Magdeburg, Flickr

“Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne
CC BY-NC, Magdeburg, Flickr

Encouraging articles about persevering through tough times are plentiful; there is nothing wrong with them. But I want to share with you an inspiring coming-out scenario lifted directly from scripture. Since we all are in process and will encounter tough times, it would do us well to keep this text handy. It offers a glimpse of God’s rescue.

Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is one of 15 psalms (120-134) called “Songs of Degrees” or “Songs of Ascent.” Four of them are attributed to David (122, 124, 131, 133), one to Solomon (127), and the remainder have unknown authors.

The origin of the name—Degrees, Ascent—is uncertain. It is often thought that they were purposed for pilgrimages to Jerusalem or sung by the Hebrews upon their return from captivity. There is also the notion that there may be a thought progression in them. The truth, however, is that the categorization is not understood. The circumstances of their composition or the occasion for which they were used granted them a certain unity and distinction by the editor of Psalms. Still, the title would have been fully understood by Hebrew readers.

Psalm 126 is one of only two (the other: Ch. 122) that could possibly have anything to do with a Babylonian return; and it appears that the return of exiles may very well be the subject here. The psalm is a first-person testimony of exiles recalling their release from captivity.

VERSE 1(ESV)

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…”

Have you ever been in hardship so severe that it seemed that you would never get out of it? Pain and suffering has the tendency to make us feel isolated and locked in circumstance. Sometimes we forget faith and cast off hope (Isa. 49:15). But this verse reveals a God who always knows where we are and how to free us.

Some Bible versions are worded more aligned to the New King James (NKJV)—“When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion…”—the word “captivity” meaning “return,” referring to the captives themselves. The notion is the Lord’s deliverance and by not only bringing us out of misery, but also freeing everything connected to us. It is a recovery or recompense in ways we may have resolved would never happen.

You see, God has the power to free us, our goods, and our ability to prosper. He doesn’t just release the captives; he establishes them and gives them livelihood. “He will beautify the humble with salvation” (Ps. 149:4). The word “fortunes” used by some versions is good.

“…we were like those who dream.”

Our burdens were so monumental that, once delivered, we could hardly believe it. It was surreal. Too often we’ve watched news stories of a man wrongly imprisoned for 10, 15, 25 years, only to be set free immediately after conclusive evidence proved his innocence; certainly it takes time for him to understand his new reality.

It is the great disparity between our dire situation and unexpected relief that shocks the senses and may even cause us to fear that our new state isn’t lasting. For instance, people who have starved have to learn not to hide food when they finally have enough to eat. They fear that satisfaction won’t last and that they’ll starve again.

VERSE 2

“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…”

These people were exiles—prisoners—for years. Now they were free, and it came without expectation and with ecstatic joy. What we’re witnessing in these two verses is a reversal of what we understand of the Kubler-Ross model, or five stages of grief. The first two stages are denial and anger. Denial encompasses shock at a great sadness, just as shock and denial, seen here, was the initial response of the exiles’ great joy. Now, the shock wearing off, they cannot contain their giddiness.

They’re so full with excitement that all they can do is laugh with incredulity. I imagine it to be like a person on the verge of bankruptcy suddenly inheriting millions of dollars. The NKJV expresses the latter clause as “our tongue with singing.” Music often expresses what mere sentences cannot.

“…then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”

The “they” here are non-Israelites, or heathen (KJV), those that don’t know the Lord—they testify to his mighty deeds! It reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar, after seeing the fourth man in the fire, standing back in amazement and acknowledging the reality of the Hebrew God.

People around us often know details about our lives. It is not possible to hide everything about ourselves (and who really cares to expend a great deal of energy trying?) And non-Christian people on our jobs, in our social organizations, our peers and neighbors will see us, the Christians, go through trial. Some will mock for the seeming lack of regard our so-called God shows toward us. But we should be encouraged. Not only is pain working a reward within us and for us, it is also working toward a testimony of the greatness of God.

In the end God will prove himself and no one will be able to deny that it is his doing. Some struggles are so monumental that only God can change them, but we must be convinced—like the Hebrew boys—that God is able even if he doesn’t answer. He just might shock us all with his goodness!

And isn’t that the point? The glory of God is a testimony of his affection, that he is for us and his nature is goodness itself. He is eager to show us kindness.

VERSE 3

“The Lord has done great things for us!”

This is the reply of the Israelites—“Absolutely!” “Indeed!” And there’s also an element of “You cannot possibly understand.” We see people, perhaps smiling on the outside or getting on with their lives, but never have a clue about the depth of pain, lack, or suffering they’re dealing with. If they told us stories about the ins-and-outs of their daily lives…the number of jobs and the type of schedule they manage just to put food on their tables or the domino effect of trouble that fell upon them—we might be stunned.

So when God delivers people like this, we can rejoice with them; yet there is an intimacy about the whole thing that only they can share with their Deliverer. Only he knows how their hearts hurt, how situations tried their souls, the things they lost, and the lessons they learned.

“…we are glad.”

Our souls are satisfied. Others can be happy for us, but only we can be satisfied. If the Lord permits us to go through pain, he knew what the pain would accomplish. But when he brings us out, the true reward is not the mere reversal of fortune; instead it is the satisfaction of seeing the full scope of his purpose. It takes a really “seasoned saint” to acknowledge on the coming-out end, “It was good that I went through my affliction” (Isa. 53:10-12).  The experience may have been hell itself, but the work of God within us and through us makes it all worth it.

VERSE 4

“Restore our fortunes, O Lord…”

This verse implies that the restoration wasn’t complete and was most likely in progress. So the psalmist implores the Lord that full deliverance would be manifested. It very well could have been a prayer that all of his Israelite compatriots be freed from exile since we know that the exiles returned in stages over several years.

This is a good place for us to stop and ask the Lord to finish his work within us, using that great Pauline verse, Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Lord, we thank you that our lives are hidden in you. You have ordered our every step along this path of life. Where we must face trial, teach us patience and help us to trust your providence. You will deliver us; you will satisfy us. You will make your name great to all who see. Complete your work in us. Cause us to one day acknowledge that when you tested the good in us, it was a good thing indeed. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

“…like streams in the Negeb!”

Restore our fortunes like the dry desert streams that are restored and swollen by the autumn and winter rains.

VERSE 5

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”

Isn’t this wonderfully poetic? Agriculture is obviously a readily used illustration tool and a worthy one. But what I like about this verse is the oblivious thing happening with the subject. No one views suffering as valuable; pain is visceral—you feel it, spurn it, run away from it. God allows the yoke to come upon us and we ask why. It all seems so needless.

The psalmist images tears as seed. All of our misery is borne in our tears, yet our tears, in God’s eyes, are rudiments of renewal and reward. Suffering people might never be convinced that their grief is a spiritual act of sowing, but the scriptures assure us of this concept in many places.

God’s promise comes through resoundingly in this verse: “I will repay your trouble.” And to anyone experiencing hardship, you should know that God has not forgotten your pain. He has seen every tear you’ve cried. You’re gonna get through this. The harvest sprouting for you is going to make you shout with joy.

VERSE 6

“He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing…”

The concept continues. Picture that person ambling along dejected and softly weeping.

“…shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

I like the assurance of the NKJV here: “shall doubtless come again…” The allusion to the sower remains, but the reward is imaged here: a sheaf. A sheaf is a bundle of grain produced from a harvest.

Need I say more? The one who trod the earth lamenting his or her lack and loss and without a clue that their own tears were working toward the answer of their prayers will “doubtless come again” leaping and laughing and falling over in disbelief that the Lord has favored them with more than they could have ever imagined.

More: Lectio Divina: Psalm 130