A Serving of Happiness–Anytime. Anywhere.

dr-seuss-clipart-dr-seuss-clip-art-green-eggs-and-ham-picture-1I would eat them in a boat. And I would eat them with a goat. And I will eat them in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car and in a tree. They are so good, so good, you see! And I will eat them in a box. And I will eat them with a fox. And I will eat them in a house. And I will eat them with a mouse. And I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE! I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!

This quote above is the last four pages of Dr. Seuss’ book, Green Eggs and Ham. You’ve probably read it to someone at some time in your life, or had someone read it to you. Perhaps you remember the story. Sam-I-am is trying really hard–and failing, as it first appears–to get his friend to try a new dish colored the appetizing shade of green. His friend refuses. After the car and the train and the boat along with all the passengers riding these vehicles crash into the water, the doubting friend finally takes a risk on the green eggs and ham.  He decided that he actually likes them. In fact, he’s willing to eat them anytime, anywhere, in all conditions of weather, and in any company.

He reminds me of myself in relation to–not the choice to try a new food–but happiness. Things happen that can sour our outlook on life. We can’t be happy in the rain or in the dark or when we’re up a tree. We can’t find happiness anywhere.

But then God comes along. Maybe in the form of an annoying friend trying to get us to try something new. Or maybe during our journey down a long tunnel in which we can’t see the light at the other end. God might find us on that day when we’re dangling from that spindly little branch after we’ve gone way out on a limb, either because of our own fault or because life seemed to force us there.

He offers us a platter on which to feast–happiness. In whatever situation we find ourselves, this delicacy may look distasteful at first. But when everything crashes and we have nothing to lose, we give it a try only to find out that happiness is a little easier to swallow than we first thought. We polish off the entire helping and ask for seconds. And then the next time we find ourselves in these difficult circumstances, happiness is a bit more savory than it was before.

So, thank you, Dr. Seuss, for teaching me. I can imagine that when he wrote this children’s book, he probably wasn’t thinking in deep, theological concepts. Either way, there is a message here. In fact, if I were to rewrite the end of Sam-I-am’s story, I would say it something like this:

I can be happy in a boat. And I can be happy with a goat. And I can be happy in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car and in a tree. It feels so good, so good, you see! And I will be happy in a box. And I will be happy with a fox. And I will be happy in a house. And I will be happy with a mouse. And I will be happy here and there. Say! I can be happy ANYWHERE! I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!

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God’s Heart Shines Through

Scripture

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:4-6 (NRSV)

Recently, a colleague asked me, “Why the gospels? If you had to say anything to promote trust in the message of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection, what would you say?”

I found this to be a rather intriguing question–one I wanted to explore further. These are my thoughts in answer to my friend’s searching.

An obvious point is the fact that the gospels provide a window into the steadfast (patient), encouraging heart of God. He is the one who comforts in times of grief, protects in danger, and offers strength, rest, and assurance in the face of fear. His own Word is the vehicle through which he reaches out to us with these truths.

Whenever we’ve witnessed or experienced for ourselves this gracious heart of God, we can’t help but respond. These verses in Romans 15 tell how God speaks to us through his word found in the gospels and gives direction on the best response.

The first way we encounter God’s heart in the gospels is through instruction. For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction (verse 4). The ministry of Jesus portrayed in the gospels brings to life in a personal, direct way the teachings and truths of the Old Testament. When we see Jesus in action, we begin to trust the heart of God. Over time, our despair in our sinful condition gives way to hope as we respond to his gift of salvation. This is the purpose as stated in the rest of verse 4. By steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.

The second way we learn about God’s heart in the gospels is through His patient encouragement. Paul uses these words in verse 4 to describe God’s word. He uses them again in verse 5 to describe God himself. Steadfast. Encouraging. This fatherly love draws a response from us of harmony. We share what we receive. We give away what we’ve become. Patience. Encouragement. The community of believers gains the same value in our eyes that it holds in God’s. All people are welcome. Everyone has a place in the kingdom.

According to Romans 15, the last way God reveals himself to us is through his glory. Jesus paid the sacrifice. He died so that we might live. This glory is seen when we work to stay in accordance with Jesus Christ. A glowing, unique sort of glory is cast when God’s people live in unity, agreeing with each other, and loving one another with the same love that flows from God’s own heart.

 

Celebration in Gratitude

thankyou

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. Luke 17:15-16

According to Adele Ahlberg Calhoun in her book, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, gratitude is a loving and thankful response toward God for his presence with us and within this world (p. 29).

Gratitude is also a distinguishing mark of true faith. All of these men had a basic level of faith. They knew enough about Jesus to believe he possessed authority. Calling him Master seemed a natural way to get his attention. They’d heard enough about Jesus to believe he could do something about their condition.

And they were right. All of them were healed. Jesus honored their request for mercy. And yet, only the one man who returned to say thank you heard the words, “your faith has made you well.” Ten men. Ten expressions of faith. But only one experienced a full healing.

The other nine possessed just enough faith to get something in return. Their temporary faith lasted long enough to ask Jesus to do something for them. After it happened, they left not seeing any more reason to hang around.

This scene causes me to ask the sobering question–is it possible to experience healings and miracles and yet remain unmoved to a deeper faith in Christ?

If “yes” is a possible answer to this question, then we must find a way to open ourselves up to God.

The invitation embedded in this passage is to celebration. The grateful man down on his knees before Jesus shows us how to stay attentive to the work of God so that he can enter into our hearts and lives in new ways during our times of deepest need.

Our needs might run parallel to those of the ten lepers. Maybe we’re engaged in a struggle with sickness. Or perhaps we endure isolation and loneliness.We may have a hunger for relationship that continues to go unsatisfied.

What should we do? We attempt something that doesn’t feel natural or even make sense–at first. We fall on our knees and cry out, “thank you!” The celebration doesn’t have to arise over the pain or the hardship of the situation. Instead, it comes from the belief of who Jesus is. He is all powerful, compassionate, and ready to change your life.

The practice of thankfulness offers many benefits. First, it releases Jesus to work. Mark 6:5-6 mentions a time when Jesus was inhibited by lack of belief. “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” When we express thankfulness, we are also expressing trust in him. This gives Jesus space to work.

Thankfulness manages selfishness. When we turn our focus away from our own hurts, problems, and discouragements, and onto the one doing the giving, we become more aware of others and more willing to give.

Thankfulness places proper value on the giver. When we acknowledge that someone had to make an effort or pay a price for what we have received, we elevate them in their worth and value to us. A simple thank you says, “You are important. What you’ve done means a lot.”

Thankfulness leads us into relationship with Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit, we delight in God when we show him gratitude. The one healed leper who came back opened himself up to the life-long relationship with Jesus where he received the gift of eternal life. From that moment, he went on to delight in Jesus through all eternity.

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords. His love endures forever. Psalm 136:1-2

Where I Belong

mountain path

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. –Romans 14:7-8

I remember an old Three Stooges movie where they got lost somewhere in the mountains of Italy. They were pulling a crude wooden cart and needed to finish their trek to a town on the other side of the mountain. After a brief argument between them (involving some knocks on heads, pokes of eyes, and slaps of cheeks complete with all the sound effects), they come across a peasant working in his field. They ask him for directions. He looks east. He looks west. He points, stutters, looks south, and points again. Finally, scratching his head, he says, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Well spoken, Mr. Peasant. The trouble was, they had no other place to start from.

Just like me. Today. In my life. I want to get to Jesus. I want to discover just who it is he thinks I am. I want to find that road through the mountains that will lead me to freedom, peace, purpose, safety, and victory.

But, like poor Larry, Moe, and Curly, I’m starting out right here–stuck where I’m at confused, traveling in circles, and with my view of the ultimate destination blocked by the impassible and the immovable.

If I were talking to Mr. Peasant, I would have asked him, ‘So where do you suggest I start from?”

He probably wouldn’t have had an answer. Or, if he did, he may have doubted my ability to believe him or follow through. Weary travelers in the Three Stooges’ predicament don’t always convey a convince degree of wisdom.

How do we get there from here?

The amazing thing is, each of us has an internal compass. For those who belong to the Lord, this compass is already calibrated to point us in the right direction.

Maybe we don’t need to struggle as much searching for a place to belong because Jesus is already here. Instead of me trying to get to him, maybe he’s running to get to me.

Rather than trying to figure out where “due North” is, maybe I need to pause and rest so that Jesus can reach me. When he does, we journey on together.

What were to happen to those Stooges if, instead of asking for directions, they kept walking? With the power of the Lord within, even the smallest steps of faith count for something. Where there was no road through the mountains before, a new one gets created just by moving forward.

Instead of the path blocked by the impossible, that obstacle becomes a means of blessing. It holds surprises and helpful strategies that I wouldn’t have considered until viewing it up close.

What does all this have to do with finding identity in Christ? When we identify with someone, we associate with them. We become a part of their group or their movement. Identity gives us a sense of what is real. It gives us a sense of who we are. Identity helps us understand where we belong.

Did the Stooges belong in Italy? They certainly would’ve stood out in a crowd.

Did they belong on that road they though would take them over the mountain? Possibly.

Do I belong on this road I journey right here and now? The only way to find out is to remember who I belong to. My internal compass will naturally point me toward the One with whom I identify.

If I identify with Jesus and belong to him, then freedom, peace, purpose, safety, and victory are mine. If by consulting my internal compass I discover that I do not belong to Jesus, then it’s never too late to get off this road and choose a different one.

Jesus already knows the road he wants each of us to travel. H’s been watching and waiting for the moment when we realize where we belong. He accepts us when we choose him. Then we begin a relationship with him. Out of that relationship, he tells us who we are and how we fit into the story he’s written for each of our lives.

 

Walking on Water

stained glass

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. –Matthew 14:28-29

Sometimes I think we can be too hard on Peter. We remember the part of the story where he started to sink and forget about everything else that Peter did.

Peter and his friends were in a boat far out at sea during the night when they saw what looked to them like a ghost. They got scared, but Jesus called out to them, “Have no fear. It’s me.”

In a moment of courage, Peter told Jesus to command him to come to him on the water. Jesus extended the invitation. Peter got out of the boat…and started walking. The Bible says that Peter walked on the water and came toward Jesus. We can cheer for Peter at this point. He’s a champion. How many steps did he actually take? No one really knows. But regardless, he didn’t need to explore the entire Sea of Galilee. He only needed to close the distance that stretched between him and Jesus.

And he made it…almost. Sure, Peter got distracted by the strong wind, but this didn’t happen on his first step, or the second, or maybe even the third or fourth. By the time Peter started going down, he was within an arm’s reach of Jesus.

I wonder if the reprimand in verse 31 from Jesus, “you of little faith, why did you doubt,” isn’t a statement about Peter’s attempt to walk on the water, but rather about those last two or three steps he missed out on until he stood at the same place as Jesus.

Two more steps and he would have made it.

I’ve always wondered what happened after Jesus reached out to rescue Peter. Matthew doesn’t say Peter needed CPR to remove water from his lungs or that he slumped over the edge of the boat barely alive. I think Peter regained his footing on the water’s surface. A little wetter, maybe, but this time he made it. He stood at Jesus’ side.

Verse 32 says, “After they had gotten into the boat.” Maybe Peter required some assistance from Jesus to move from the water to the boat, but either way, he and Jesus made the move together. Jesus was at his side in case he took a tumble, but Matthew doesn’t mention a second sinking.

Peter’s story encourages me. His faith actually grew because of that moment of panic. How often do we feel like the words written in Psalm 69:1-2? “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” When the waters were coming up to Peter’s neck, Jesus took hold of him and helped him.

“It is I. Have no fear,” Jesus said earlier in the story. Winds and rough waters don’t change Jesus’ level of power. His presence upholds us and keeps us from drowning. Our faith in him conquers all fears.

boat on water

 

God as Reward

 

trophy

The Lord came to Abram in a vision. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” Genesis 15:1

I’ve read over this verse in Genesis dozens of times taking for granted the fact that God said it years ago to an old man in another country at another time with different things at stake. I didn’t think this verse had much to say to me.

Lately, the word reward caught my attention. God says to Abram that not only is he Abram’s reward, but a very great reward.

When I think of rewards, I picture a compensation for work. Something like a bonus for performing a service or a satisfying end to perhaps a long or even tiring endeavor. Like the Olympic runner who, at the end of a sprint completed after months of grueling training, stands on the podium with the medal.

A reward is the recognition of the successful completion of a challenge. It’s the prize as well as the honor to go with it. The reason we attempt to win the reward in the first place is because of the promise of enjoyment that follows. Rewards are earned to be enjoyed.

I’ve thought of God as Father, as Savior, as Shepherd, and on those occasions with I feel guilty about something, as Judge. But not so much as someone to enjoy.

And yet that is exactly who God wants to be to Abram. God doesn’t want Abram afraid of him and thus hesitant to go near him. God declares himself as Abram’s shield–as someone on Abram’s side, defending him in battle and covering him in danger.

Because Abram rested in God and trusted his protection, he receives as the reward God himself. This same invitation is made to us. “Don’t be afraid,” God says, “I want to be your shield and in the end your inexhaustible reward.”

How do we run the race, as the Apostle Paul says, in such a way as to get the prize? As I pondered this passage of Scripture, three thing things stood out to me.

The first way we can experience God as a satisfying reward is through worship of him. The regular  rhythm of  sitting in his presence, confessing sin, receiving forgiveness, singing his praises, and reading his Word opens us up. We become more surrendered to his work in our lives. Our hearts change until we give God all our devotion, all honor, and all glory.

Another way we experience God as a reward is in receiving his good gifts. God waits to be gracious to us. The Bible is filled with God’s longing to bless, to provide, to lead, and to show compassion. As we receive from God, gratitude takes root in our hearts. The more we receive from God, the more thankful we become. When we see God’s care for us, we can’t help but enjoy his goodness.

The third way we receive God as our reward is after death when we arrive in heaven. Our heavenly home will be the ultimate reward. God prepares a place for us to enjoy him for eternity. When the battles of this life have been fought, faith carries us on to the place of honor and perfect satisfaction that will never run out.

In telling Abram he is a very great reward, God expresses his enjoyment of Abram. The feeling is mutual. When we live a life of faith pleasing to the Lord, we become his enjoyment, too. Our lives made available to him as places to accomplish his work advances the kingdom. We are God’s workmanship. We are his vessels for bringing the message of hope to the world. When we partner with him in this mission, we become God’s reward.

Reward. Enjoyment. Honor. Eternal life. Each one is part of God’s perfect plan for us.

Hidden Corners of Glory

grapes

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2:11

This story of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana has always interested me. Mostly because of what the story says, but even more because of what is left unsaid. Each time I read it, I ask another question. My list has become quite long: How did Jesus know when the time was right to start doing miracles? How did the water turn into wine? Did Jesus pronounce a blessing over it, like the pastor at communion, or did he stir it? Maybe his shadow falling over the clear, deep pools of still water reflecting the evening sunlight was enough to change it. Or like the mud paste he used to heal the blind man, did he spit in it? Oh, goodness. If I was in the family hosting this party, trying to impress our friends and relatives, I would certainly hope not.

No one knows how the water actually changed into wine. Neither does anyone seem to know the names of the bridal couple or why Jesus responded to his mother the way he did.

The unspoken message in John 2 is about expectation. The wedding guests expected to drink their fill of wine at their host’s expense. Mary expected Jesus to heed her request to bring peace. Jesus expected to be able to wait a little longer until his glory became known. This clash of motives plays out in the humble home of a local village family. Money probably ran a little short for this middle class Galilean family, as it does for all of us from time to time. The guests kept on enjoying the feast, and the wine supply was starting to dwindle. Running out of wine at a Jewish wedding was the worst insult to both the host and the guests. The host would feel humiliation over his inability to provide adequately for the celebration. The guests would have felt disrespected. This outcome would have branded the wedding couple with a reputation they’d never live down. Lawsuits may even be brought against them.

Mary saw this situation brewing under the surface of the simple surroundings and the merrymaking. Something must be done, but what and by who? Seated across the banquet table from her was the only one she ever needed–her son, Jesus. I like to imagine that over the years, Mary probably witnessed Jesus settling disputes among his siblings, offering a solution, speaking comfort, making peace. She says to him, “They have no wine.”

Jesus puts her off with the statement, “My hour has not yet come.”

Mary seems to ignore him. In full confidence and faith, she turns to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.”

If I was Jesus, I would have rolled my eyes at my presumptuous mother. But since he is perfect and I am not, he probably handled the situation much better. Jesus gives instructions to fill the stone jars with water, draw some out, and take it to the master of the party. Somewhere between the words leaving Jesus’ mouth and the liquid reaching the master’s mouth, the water had changed into wine.

Jesus’ glory was revealed. In a common family living in an obscure town, glory shone. During a large, crowded celebration, glory sneaked in. While saving simple people from disaster, glory quietly spread in the form of kindness and understanding.

Like Mary’s life, the lives of this wedding couple, and the lives of the small town guests, our lives are filled with the simple, the common, the crowded, and sometimes, the disastrous. Jesus is present with the soothing word of comfort. He provides when our resources run out He makes peace in situations that seem to have no happy ending. This is when his glory shines. He reveals himself in subtle, miraculous ways that we would miss if it wasn’t for his glory shining on them.