Is God Your ‘One Thing’?

Here is an excerpt from “Prayer: Experiencing God,” a sermon on Psalm 27:4 that I preached on December 28, 2014. You can listen to the whole thing here.

You might remember the scene from Disney’s Aladdin, in the cave, when the Genie comes out of the lamp and he sings, “You ain’t never had a friend like me!” Why? Because he grants Aladdin 3 wishes!

But David [here in Ps. 27] wants not mainly what God can give him; but God himself. Prayer is so many things—and it is good to ask him for things; please hear me on that. But if you had to ask me in one sentence what prayer is fundamentally, it’s this: prayer is primarily experiencing God himself.

We often treat prayer more like requesting a genie than relating to God. Don’t you find yourself often defaulting to asking God for things—health, money, success, someone else’s salvation, maturity for your children, understanding and wisdom for a situation. Like Aladdin, we come to God like a genie only making requests.

This isn’t a modern problem for our consumeristic society. It’s been this way for thousands of years. In the fifth century, St. Augustine wrote a letter to a Roman noblewoman named Proba. In that letter, Augustine guides Proba (and us) to understand two things: 1) what kind of person we must be if we are to pray and 2) what we must pray for.

What Kind of Person You Must Be
Augustine said that when we pray we must recognize that we are desolate in this world. In other words, no matter how great our lives are here on earth, we can never find true life in temporal things: security, wealth, health, power, etc. Augustine says that we have “disordered loves.” As sinners, we love things first that should be second, third, fourth, or one-hundred and fourth on our love list. We desire success, prosperity, security, love, approval or something else above God. How do we know if this is the case? If we love professional or personal prosperity, we may cry out to God for help when prosperity is threatened or when there is an opportunity for gain. But if we don’t achieve the level of prosperity we want, our prayers will not bring joy and comfort and healing. We won’t experience God as our true prosperity. We won’t believe that we have enough with God alone. Our prayers will only bring anxiety and despair.

What You Should Pray For
Augustine goes on. Once we recognize that we are desolate, Augustine tells Proba to “Pray for a happy life” which means: you get what you want and you don’t get what you don’t want. This sounds a lot like making God a genie, but it’s not.

He says that if someone gets something they want (health or a good job, for example), this person may not have a happy life. Why? Augustine says, ”They have—it is true—something which is quite becoming to desire; but if they have not other things which are greater, better, and more full both of utility and beauty, they are still far short of possessing a happy life” (Letter 130, paragraph 11).

What Augustine means is that if we spend our lives only pursuing temporal things, we’re wasting our life. His conclusion is to go to our passage, Psalm 27:4, and he says, “We love God, therefore, for what He is in Himself” (Letter 130, paragraph 14). If you want happiness, you must get God himself. You may get everything on your laundry list and you may think you are experiencing God, but if you don’t have God as your “one thing,” you won’t have a happy life. You won’t even have a true prayer life.

Ultimately, this psalm is showing us that if you have God—even if you have everything you could want or if you have no wealth or status in the whole world—you have enough. David doesn’t ask God for things. Can you say with David like he does in another place, Psalm 73:25-26, “Whom have I have in heaven but you, and there is nothing on earth that I desire beside you? My flesh and my heart my fail, but you are the strength of my heart and my portion forever”?

Tax Collectors, Zealots, and Jesus

I have heard from people twice my age that this is the most politically divided the United States has ever been in their lifetime. I believe it. There are probably lots of reasons for this outside of actual issues. Media outlets like CNN and Fox and social media push the envelope in an unprecedented way. Whatever the reason, this nation is divided. Yet division is one thing. In a free nation, division, or I should say difference is welcome and necessary. Intense animosity for the opponent, is altogether another. The beauty of this country is that you are free to disagree with any one of my views and not be imprisoned or executed for it. The tragedy of this country is that you are also free to call me a bigot, narrow-minded, or hateful for disagreeing with your view. That’s where we find ourselves today.

In the Church, however, the story is quite different. Jesus brings a diverse multitude of people into his new people, a new nation. Not a geopolitical nation with physical borders. But a spiritual nation united over time and despite any differences in skin color, language, nationality, and yes, even political opinion. In the Church, Jesus unites what was divided. In the Church, Jesus creates a community of love, grace, and humility.

When Jesus was on the earth, he chose twelve men to follow him around and learn from him. Every one of those men (including Judas who betrayed him) are unique and integral to the gospel story. But two men whom Jesus chose especially stand out in light of our current political climate: Matthew and Simon (not Peter).

Matthew, a Jew, was a tax collector (Matt. 10:3), a Roman government employee. An IRS collection agent, if you will. But a corrupt one. Tax collectors not only demanded you give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but that you also give to Matthew what is Matthew’s. He stole from people. Tax collectors were hated by the general Jewish population.

Simon, also a Jew, was called “the Zealot” (Matt. 10:4)—a fanatical, anti-Rome activist. He was perhaps a violent protestor, militantly opposed to big government. Zealots concealed and carried. They snarled at centurions and were always ready for a brawl. The freedom of Judea was worth it.

Can you imagine having these two men in your small group…this year?

Jesus didn’t accidentally include these two extreme political opposites in his discipleship group. He knew what he was doing. Jesus knew that in his new community, starting with this small band, he would display for the world that allegiance to him and his mission superseded and overshadowed all other allegiances and missions, political or otherwise.

In the community of Jesus, tax collectors and zealots come together in miraculous unity. Only God could do this. Here, tax collectors and zealots learn to appreciate each other’s views, experiences, and passions. Here, they seek to do each other good, not evil. Here, they fight for each other, not against each other. Here, they humble themselves and build each other up. Here, they learn that if you love father or mother or Red or Blue more than him, you are not worthy of him (see Matt. 10:39).

So the Matthews and the Simons are united, but not uniform, of course—they don’t agree on every single issue. Matthew might keep his job and pension. Simon might keep his sword (with a permit, of course). However, their views will, by God’s grace over time, be put in perspective and become balanced. Christ’s glory, not political ideology, becomes supreme. The spread of the gospel becomes their joint venture. Their views are put in check to Jesus’ word and where there is error in one or both views, repentance and conforming to Jesus is required. Where Jesus is silent, there is room for respectful debate, gracious compromise, and the pursuit of just practice for the common good.

The world sees this and shakes its head in disbelief. But this is the way of Jesus. He simultaneously offends and comforts the conservatives and the liberals, calling them to himself. It’s as if he’s saying, Where is your ultimate allegiance? Who is your true love? I am your king. Come find in me what you have always been looking for. 

Psalm 46:10 Is Not About Your Quiet Time

Be still, and know that I am God (Ps. 46:10). This is a verse precious to many Christians. It’s a verse that has been used to call Christians to silence, stillness, contemplation, and rest in the midst of a busy world where things tend to move very quickly. I have heard some interpret this verse as if God is saying to me personally, “Little Christian, take rest in me. Just calm down. Have a time of solitude. Quiet your soul. Listen to my voice.”

Those are good things. Biblical things. Necessary things.  There are psalms that call us to these things. Psalm 23:1-2; 25:1; 131:2, are just a few, for example.

But Psalm 46:10 is not one of them. Not at all.

God’s command to “be still” means something like “to leave off” or, as we might say in today’s terminology, “Knock it off!” It’s also plural. Our southern friends might say, “Y’all knock it off!” Now, who is the “you all”? The nations who are raging and the kingdoms that are tottering (v. 6). The rest of v. 10 confirms this: “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” Like in Psalm 2, the charge is leveled against those political players conspiring against God and his Anointed (the Messiah) for universal supremacy.

Psalm 46:10, therefore, should sound more like this: “Nations! Kings! Presidents! Prime ministers! Dictators! Shut your mouths! Cease fighting!  Stop it! Stop playing king of the hill. I am the King, dwelling on Zion my holy hill. I will be exalted over you. Do you think your pitiful geographic dominion is so special? Do you think you are ultimate? I will break your bows and spears and crush your tanks and nuclear weapons. I will be exalted.”

God’s people sang this psalm to declare, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (vv. 7, 11). Though the global circumstances seemed dire and kingdoms fought for dominance (see vv. 1-2), they would trust not in earthly might but the mighty hand of their Deliverer who indeed would reign on the earth (cf. Ps. 33:17; 96:13).

For us today, on the other side of history, we can endure the degradation in the world, the raging and plotting and tottering of earthly kingdoms because we know God’s true King, Jesus, whose reign will never end. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord of all. At the end of the Bible, we get a glimpse of the end of history. There and then, all the peoples will exult in the Lord Jesus, singing his praise. “Worthy are you…for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation and you have made them a kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9, 10). The saints—we—will sing to Jesus and reign with Jesus not because he flexed his political muscles to be king of the hill, but because he surrendered and obeyed the will of his Father, humbling himself to the point of death on a cross up on a hill called Calvary, redeeming all who take refuge in him.

When you see Psalm 46:10 this way, it gets your eyes off of you (and your quiet times) and puts them squarely on Jesus and his global supremacy as King of all kings. The King is with us. The King is our fortress.

Nations, stop! Attention! Bow before your true King and glorify him!

 

 

We Are Going to Be Foster Parents

Six years ago this spring I interviewed to be a child protective services investigator for the State of Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. I knew next-to-nothing about the job or the field. It had only been three months since I entered the child welfare world, working for a private human services agency tracking youth on house arrest and supervising visits with parents and children who had been removed from the home. In God’s wisdom, however, I got the job.

With Nebraska DHHS, I investigated child abuse and neglect allegations. When I tell people this, most of them cringe, close their eyes, stay silent, or say, “Man, that must have been hard.” It was. I was exposed to seeing, hearing, and reading things no one should ever have to see, hear, or read. Most days, my work was not newsworthy. But sometimes—to often, of course—my work was heartbreaking, whether it was my case or a co-workers.

I couldn’t see what God was doing then. I was a newly married man without kids and quite clueless as to what Carly’s and my life and ministry together would look like. At the time, I knew I wanted to be a pastor. Now that I am a pastor, I realize that in the short time I was a CPS investigator God was preparing me (and my wife) for a significant step of obedience we need, and want, to take.

Before that job, my heart was like a frozen piece of meat when it came to the well-being of children and families. It’s not that I intentionally frozen my heart. I was oblivious. But through my job with the State of Nebraska, and being involved with TRAC, a camp ministry for foster kids, God was thawing and tenderizing my heart. He opened both of our eyes to see the plight of orphans—children who either have been abandoned by their parents or who have functionally been abandoned by them.

Over the past few years, God has increasingly burdened our hearts to care for children, either through fostering, adoption or both. It pains us to say, “We will when we are older!” as if the obstacles now are somehow greater than what will face us then.

If we want to live our lives for the glory of Jesus, then there is no sense waiting. We can, and should, be concerned about not wasting our future. But what about now wasting our lives right now? This has led us to pursue foster parent licensing in the State of New York. We are in the midst of training right now and hope to be licensed later this summer.

This is risky. Why would we do something like this? Because it is imitating what God has done for us. Because of sin, we came into this world spiritually fatherless. We were orphans. And yet, by the grace of God through the work of his Son Jesus, we have been adopted into his family. He became our Father. He took care for us when no one else would.

In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:5).

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal. 4:4-5).

We are risking much. But Jesus didn’t merely risk his life. He actually gave it up, for us, that we might become children of God.

Now, as Christians, we are called to tangibly display this spiritual reality by caring for orphans, abuse and neglected children, and widows. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from them world” (James 1:25).

The early church understood this. They distinguished themselves from the world in several ways, most notably in their sexual chastity, caring for the sick, and caring for orphans as well as other vulnerable people in society.  Listen to two early accounts written about the community of believers:

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty (Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6, c. AD 110).

Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another; and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother” (Apology of Aristides the Philosopher 15, c. A.D. 125

Friends, this is our heritage. Carly and I alone can’t do everything. And neither can you. I do not believe all Christians should be foster parents or adopt. But we can all do something. Recent data shows there are only 400,000 kids in foster care. I say “only” because the number of Christians (even churches!) in this country dwarfs that. The Church could single-handedly end the foster care system as we know it without everyone needing to foster or adopt. Might the gospel spread and awaken the hearts of many if the church testified to the grace of God in this way?

I’ll be writing about our journey on this blog and Carly will on hers. When you read this or visit our blogs or think of us, would you pray for the child(ren) we’ll care for, their parents, and for us to be a tangible expression of God’s adopting love through the gospel? We would greatly appreciate it.

Shower Heads, Formula, and Radiators: A Story of God’s Grace

Last year, we bought a new shower head. A nice one. A big one. A powerful one. It was a Groupon special. It was a “deal,” meaning we got what we paid for. It started to crack after six months. I don’t know if you know anything about shower heads, but that shouldn’t happen. I started looking for a new one. They aren’t cheap. Makes sense—we do shower everyday. While I didn’t want to fork out $100, we had the money. it wasn’t a problem. I just had to pick one out.

About this same time, we got a letter and package from National Grid—our electric and gas company. Last summer, we upgraded our furnace and AC to high-efficiency. Electric and gas companies love this and often provide a rebate for upgrading. We got a $420 rebate. The letter and package that followed months later were a “thank you” for upgrading and participating in the rebate program. (I thought the rebate was thank-you enough.) I opened up the package. Do you know what was inside the box? A shower head and a couple sink aerators. I smiled. “You gave us a shower head,” I thought silently to God. No one else was around. Carly was upstairs feeding Titus. I went to Titus’s room, looked at Carly and held out the shower head. “What’s that?” she said. “It’s a shower head. From National Grid.”

“Jesus gave us a shower head!” Carly said joyfully. Yes, he did.

I’m not the type who says that if you give to the Lord, he always “pays you back.” That’s not true. God calls us to give—money, time, energy, life—with no promise of an equal return this side of heaven. However, this shower head was a gracious sign that God would take care of us. It was as if he said, “I have provided financially for you to buy this. You could’ve gone to Home Depot. But I sent this to you to remind you that I’m a good Father and I’ll take care of you.” I thanked Jesus and forgot about it. Little did Carly and I know that a shower head would foreshadow God’s gracious provision.

About the time of the miraculous arrival of the shower head, Carly had been starting to eliminate certain foods from her diet as she nursed Titus. He had blood and mucus in his stools, symptoms of food protein intolerance. We didn’t know what was doing this to him, so Carly eliminated nearly every potential bothersome food. Eventually, her diet consisted of ground turkey, broccoli, and Cape Cod-brand potato chips. For every meal.

We came to the end of our rope. We needed to switch to formula. Unfortunately, the only formula that would help Titus was $45. A can. These are not big cans. They last for 3-4 days. I’ll do the math for you. That’s in the neighborhood of $500 per month with tax. That’s more money than everyone else in the house eats per month. We would need to do this for at least six months. Probably more. We were looking at $3,000+ on formula. It was overwhelming.

Thankfully, this is why we have health insurance. Other families have had this type of formula covered by insurance. Our pediatrician wrote a letter to our insurance company, informing them the formula is medically necessary. Our insurance denied coverage. We went to an allergist. Titus tested negative for allergies (food protein intolerance is different than an allergy). The allergist wrote a letter confirming the pediatrician’s recommendation.

We then started Titus on some formula we purchased ourselves—we were desperate for his intestines to heal, and for Carly to eat a balanced diet again. After one week on the formula, all his symptoms had vanished. The formula hit the reset button. We then went to a GI doctor. No imaging or colonoscopy necessary because Titus was healing up. So, the GI wrote a letter as the pediatrician and allergist did. Our insurance denied coverage again. We appealed. They denied, stating that this formula was not medically necessary despite the informed opinion of three medical professionals who had physically seen our child and were acquainted with his condition and improvement once he started on the formula.

A couple elders who knew of the situation wanted to help ease any financial burden we might face. Carly and I were ready to pay for this—it’s our responsibility as parents to provide food for our son. Yet, these two elders assured us that Titus’s food need would be met, somehow, by the church. “Even if you weren’t a pastor here, this is what we do,” one of them said. Our elders were ready to meet the need, both personally and with help from our church’s deacons’ fund. God had provided. Again. It was the shower head, magnified.

We started to receive checks from people and were scheduled to receive regular checks from the deacons’ fund. But we had sent an application to the formula manufacturer assistance program and were waiting to hear if we would qualify for financial help. On Good Friday, we found out we did. The manufacturer would cover 100% of Titus’s need. In fact, they would send us a few cans more per month than what we needed. God provided. Again.

We decided that the checks we had received should be returned. I talked to the couples who gave us money, and they happily refused to receive back their checks. Use it for something else, they said. This past Monday, the day after Easter, the radiator in my 2001 Honda CR-V cracked. The repair? $744. The amount of money provided in those checks? $700. God provided. Again.

Why are you anxious about shower heads? Rain falls on the streets to wash away the muck and mire. Don’t you think your Father cares much more for your body than the streets? Why are you anxious about car radiators? He gives the birds wings to fly and fish fins to swim. Don’t you think your Father knows you need to go here and there? Why are you anxious about formula? God provides even baby animals what they need to grow strong and healthy. Don’t you think he cares much more for you and your children? Life is more than meals and engine coolant and showers. But God knows you need these things. And he’s happy to provide them. Concern yourself with the things that are on God’s heart and he’ll take care of the things that are on yours.

My wife beautifully made this same connection on her blog. (I told Carly I was going to write this post, but she beat me to the writing punch!) I’ll make the same point she made. Why does God provide for us in these kinds of ways? To give us little tastes of his greater provision that his only Son was given up for us on the cross so that we might his children. Shower heads and formula are not the point. These are good, material gifts to point us to our supreme, spiritual need: God, himself.

At the same time, God is not a genie, and sometimes—for only reasons he knows—he doesn’t provide what we physically need. What about those times? Is he not as good as we thought? No. He is. In not providing, the reason is the same. He doesn’t provide materially to deepen our reliance on him as the best thing. He wants our hope and joy to rest in him, not other things. In those moments he’s asking us, “Am I not enough for you?” If God has provided eternal life for us through his Son, we can face anything because, ultimately, nothing can harm us. Therefore, in God’s giving and in his withholding, he is good to us and he is enough for us.

Whom, then, have we in heaven but Jesus? And there is nothing on earth we desire besides Jesus! Our shower heads, our radiators, our health, our food supply, our insurance, and even our flesh and bones may fail us, but God is the strength of our hearts and our inheritance forever. Him. Just him.