Seeing is Believing

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

“Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” ― Paul Tillich

Another wonderful sermon on Sunday. We were reminded about “Doubting Thomas” who had to see in order to believe.

Faith and doubt is difficult to write about. We all believe right up until we start to doubt. Our doubts can  help us to keep a check on our faith, never taking it for granted. You can imagine the theological discussions that Thomas must have had with his fellow disciples after he declared he’d have to see to believe.   

“If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”― Frederick Buechner

Our doubts center on how far we should wade in. How much are we willing to risk by stepping out and living parts of our life according to our beliefs. Doubt describes this tension between risk and trust.

Poor Saint Thomas. More like all the rest of us than perhaps any other disciple. At least during this event. He had been left out of the visitation of the Risen Christ, off doing something else and had missed the glorious moment. What must he have been thinking, what could have been more important? He’d been left out of the big adventure and must have felt lonely, angry and/or even discouraged.

Maybe we spend too much time being miserable about our past mistakes. Future hopes and dreams can dull the here and now. We miss so many chances because we’re not living in the present. Thomas was literally absent. So to can we be absent from our faith and miss the very presence of Christ.

Sometimes God will come and get right in your face. Jesus certainly did that with Thomas.

 “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!” – John 20:27

Thomas paid attention to his encounter and it changed his life forever. He was ready to believe.

“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed. – John 20:28

I’m afraid that I’ve too often been looking in the wrong direction. Too often filled up with myself. Thomas put all that aside and reached out with faith and grabbed a hold of his Savior. What about you? Are you always ready to believe?

The Christian faith is a lot like that encounter Thomas had with Jesus. It’s very “hands-on.” You can’t coast along on the faith of someone else. You can’t sit in the pew for too long and hope to make it when that 800 year flood hits. You have to get up and wade into your belief.

Thomas was challenged to stick his fingers into the very side of the Risen Christ. What must he have thought as Jesus looked him in the eye and grabbed his hand? If you are going to follow Christ, you are going to have to take some risks and even get uncomfortable. Where are those boundaries in your life?

Thomas had to see with his own eyes. He had heard the words of faith for for three years. Now it was time to put it into real practice. He just didn’t realize the time was now. Everything was moving so fast. Walking in faith is often like that, it can sneak up and suddenly challenge us to get out of the boat and step into the storm.

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” – John 20:29

Are you becoming one of the blessed?

There’s nothing wrong with doubts. Jesus didn’t reject Doubting Thomas, he made a special visit to assure him. God isn’t mad because we don’t believe enough, he’s instead offering so much more, encouraging us to believe more and more each day.

For we live by believing and not by seeing. – 2 Corinthians 5:7

It all makes me wonder, why am I not demonstrating my faith so that others have something more to see? What might walking and talking my faith produce?

  1. It would increase my own eternal health. Each time I take a step of faith, I confront my own doubts. I reassert in my heart and mind why belief is so crucial.  Putting faith into practice confronts my own weakness and lethargy of spirit.
  2. Instead of blending in all the time I could provide an alternative. I can live my life as an example to the unbelieving elements of my culture. My life choices can serve as a beacon.
  3. My walk of faith can inspire the faith of others. There are people in my path who need to be encouraged to live a life of faith. I can be like Thomas to those around me and demonstrate doubts converted into undying faith.

 

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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The Days of Our Lives

“The only journey is the one within.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke

The next year has arrived. This is when people typically think about making new choices and changes. It’s an annual place marker that reminds everyone to take stock of things and perhaps make some course adjustments.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language 
And next year’s words await another voice.” 
― T.S. Eliot

I recently read a devotional that grabbed my attention as I thought about making resolutions for another new year. Here is a sentence that struck me between the eyes.

“The battle is lost or won in the secret places of the will before God, never first in the external world. The Spirit of God apprehends me and I am obliged to get alone with God and fight the battle out before Him.” – My Utmost for His Highest Devotional

It’s not really a matter of repairing my outer life. Making changes in my life is really a matter of facing up to God. We fool ourselves by thinking that we can just make an adjustment here or there – stop eating cheese or be nice or even go to church more often.

Where is God interested in taking you this next year? He’s not going to do it without first having a long sit down conversation – maybe even several. You can’t waste another year putting God on hold.

What are the broken places in your life that need to be repaired? Which habits need to be faced? In which direction should your life be heading? God is ready to keep transforming your life. He is ready to resolve things. He is able to take you through the storm that’s here today.

God always has something bigger and better to resolve in my life than I would ever have thought possible. I tend to settle too often for the here and now. He always wants to transform my fears and failures into something I never dreamed possible.

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Philippians 1:6

 

What about this year facing your own big obstacles? What about joining forces with God to bring about some eternal changes in your world?

“If you are a Christian, you are not a citizen of this world trying to get to heaven; you are a citizen of heaven making your way through this world. ” ― Vance Havner

Favorite Words from 2017

Here are some of the words of wisdom that helped me get through 2017. Maybe something here will help you in 2018.

God does not give us overcoming life – He gives us life as we overcome. – My Utmost for His Highest Devotional

We don’t follow him to be loved, we are loved so we follow him. – Neil Anderson

There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth. – Charles Dickins

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. – Proverbs 19:21

Mostly it is the loss which teaches us about the worth of things. – Arthur Schopenhauer

The Lord’s mercy often rides to the door of our hearts on the black horse of affliction. Jesus uses the whole range of our experiences to wean us from earth and woo us to heaven. – Charles Spurgeon

We are weak and do not know how to pray, so the Spirit steps in and articulates prayers for us with groaning too profound for words. – Romans 8:26

Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. Faith is the belief that God will do what is right. – Max Lucado

Suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were – Paul Tillich

The Golden Rule for understanding in spiritual matters is not intellect, but obedience. – Oswald Chambers

A religion without mystery must be a religion  without God. – Jeremy Taylor

The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved – loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves. – Victor Hugo

Most of us are not spiritually coherent because we are more concerned about being coherent externally. – My Utmost for His Highest Devotional

Sometimes the Lord rides out the storm with us and other times He calms the restless sea around us. Most of all, He calms the storm inside us in our deepest inner soul. – Lloyd John Ogilvie

The very best and highest attainment in this life is to remain still and let God act and speak in you. – Meister Eckhart

For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, “Do not fear, I will help you.” – Isaiah 41:13

Anyone who has ever known Him has known Him better in the dark than anywhere else because it is in the dark where he seems to visit most often. – Frederick Buechner

So when the troubles begin, don’t be afraid. Look up – raise your head high, because the truth is that your liberation is fast approaching. – Luke 21:28

If the Spirit of God detects anything in you that is wrong, He does not ask you to put it right; He asks you to accept the light and He will put it right. – My Utmost for His Highest Devotional

People who are crucified with Christ have three distinct marks: (1) they are facing in only one direction, (2) they can never turn back, (3) they no longer have plans of their own. – A. W. Tozer

Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to God’s love and the future to God’s providence. – St. Augustine

What is it to serve God and to do His will? Nothing else than to show mercy to our neighbor. For it is our neighbor who needs our service; God in heaven needs it not. – Martin Luther

When you have nothing left but God, then for the first time you become aware that God is enough. – Maude Royden

We must alter our lives in order to alter our hearts, for it is impossible to live one way and pray another. – William Law

I have held many things in my hands, and have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess. – Martin Luther

God is never too late, nor too early, but just in time. – R. T. Kendall

Are the things you are living for worth Christ dying for? – Leonard Ravenhill

I call you friends because everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you. – John 15:15

I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense to me. – Matt Groening

You can’t depend upon your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. – Mark Twain

Christians must learn again what Christians have always known – how to live without immediate hopes in the world. – T. R. Milford

I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once. – Thomas Wolfe

Nothing under God’s control is ever out of control. – Charles Swindoll

God is not interested in our spiritual life. He is interested in our life. – John Ortberg

 

 

 

 

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” ― J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan)

Over the past several years it seems like our decorating style has gone to the birds. We got a new couch a year ago and picked out a fabric with giant birds all over it. I didn’t have to work hard at all to sell it to my wife. I think because it had a black background. Her favorite TV decorating show has a “everything is black” theme to it. We just re-wallpapered in the kitchen and breakfast area. A very busy and colorful bird pattern. Guaranteed to make you car-sick if you’re not careful.

Yes, a theme is definitely appearing in our house everywhere you look. All because something bigger has happened several years ago – we’re just documenting it in our living space.

About five years ago I was in the middle of a terrible dark time that I experienced almost every day. It felt as if I was on a runaway ride that I couldn’t control. Like shooting down the rapids in an inner tube. Other people were making decisions about me and my future. Things were not proceeding the way I had always thought they would or had planned. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.

Sleepless nights, worrying and being angry were getting me nowhere just deeper into a hole. I knew I couldn’t control what other people were doing. While my life headed off in directions I had never anticipated I just stood there in disbelief. I was shell-shocked for several years. When would this end?

[Little did I know that cancer was right around the corner ready to strike us and wage a terrible war we still fight every day.]

Then I remembered – was prodded to remember – that Jesus told his followers to stop worrying about their lives. He directed their attention to the birds. God takes care of them, won’t he also take care of you – He loves you so much more!

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” – Matthew 6:25-27

Of course I had read this scripture many times before. But as is often the case, this time it became a handle to hang on to. Then a series of events – signs, if you will, started over approximately two years. These experiences served to encourage and communicate to me that God is present and very much interested in my survival and transformation.

“I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” ― William Sloane Coffin Jr.

The tribulations only got worse! But I began to calm down. I was consistently reminded of the truth of God’s presence and care for me.

Well, what happened?

I began to see birds in all sorts of locations and (most importantly) at significant times. I didn’t look for them (as Jesus had instructed, they would just show up at just in time.)

  • Right in the middle of an important decision about two people – there are two birds on the window sill.
  • Rushing out of the house overflowing with anxiety – confronted by a mockingbird at the frontdoor who will not move out of the way.
  • There was a bird who would perch on the corner of my neighbors roof day after day and sing at me when I came and went. He wasn’t there at other times, no one else ever saw him. For about a week or so I felt like he was there to meet me (and remind me).
  • Then there’s the little brown bird who would spend the night in the wreath on the front door and sneak into the house when we came home – never happened before, never since – but he came into the house several times (spent the night once) and reminded us how near is God.

There were all sorts of small and subtle encounters that kept me aware that I was not going to go through this terrible time alone.

Maybe when I was too near stumbling and fumbling my faith, God drew near and reminded me of what was always true?

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6

I teach a course that helps students to understand some of the reasons why people have these kinds of experiences. Often our thinking and perception of the world around us is distorted. We can sometimes experience:

  • Confirmation bias – a kind of selective thinking that happens when we only notice those things that tend to be consistent with our current beliefs – we also fail to notice things that contradict these same beliefs.
  • Pareidolia – seeing significance in random and meaningless phenomenon

Even knowing that these biases in thinking often occur, I am convinced that what has happened to me was not caused by my own crooked thinking. I think I needed some help and there it was.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” ― John Berger

God has promised to be present with us, especially during terrible times. This fact is not dependent upon how we feel or how firm we believe. He has promised it, this makes it true.

Sometimes, because of God’s grace and nothing else, he makes his presence known. He has certainly put reminders in our path every day Jesus said to look at the birds – a sight we all see and maybe never notice.

When you open your eyes of faith and practice looking for the truth, there’s no telling what you might see.

Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.” ― J.I. Packer

What Has Come to Your Life?

It’s Advent Season

Advent means coming – the coming of the Messiah, the long awaited one.

There’s always something coming around the bend, isn’t there?

  • Your annual scourge of the flu
  • A job transition
  • New neighbors next door
  • A new and revolutionary software upgrade
  • An 800 year flood

As you reflect on this past year, what came into your life? What welcome events made your year that much better? Which disasters appeared over your horizon?

Christmas is now here, arriving as it always does – too soon but also full of just the right hidden messages that we needed to hear every day of our lives. The Good News of Christmas, the advent it introduces every year, causes us to stop, if we have the courage, and think about the things that mean the most to us, and maybe what we ought to do about it.

“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

An advent of some sort or another is always appearing. This year, remember that nothing is going to arrive in your life that will surprise God or that can overwhelm his presence and power.

Even before the Good News was proclaimed in Bethlehem, God had promised his constant presence and protection.

“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.”  – Isaiah 43:1-2

God has not changed and his promise remains.

What has arrived in your life this past year? Perhaps it was something really big that disrupted everything you thought was so certain. Maybe your life was right on its normal track but when you think about it, it’s really going nowhere.

We celebrate the advent of the Messiah at Christmas, as a reminder that our lives in Christ are no longer the same and that nothing will ever arrive to put our lives out of his order. Christ is now with us. No matter what else arrives in the years to come, Christ will always be here with us. We celebrate this reality every Christmas.

“And I will be with you, day after day, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20 (The Voice)

“Because He has raised Jesus the Anointed from death, through His great mercy we have been reborn into a living hope…” – I Peter 1:3 (The Voice)

Christmas is the advent of every single day of hope that you and I have been living ever since. Be reminded this year that this hope is real because we live it out in front of the whole world each day (the good, the bad and and the ugly days). Jesus arrival, life, death and resurrection means that we can walk confidently in hope every single day.  It arrived and never left.

“The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic, it was not a place of myths allegorised or dissected or explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true.”  ― G.K. Chesterton

It’s Complicated

“Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.” ― Martin Luther

These days people are asking me how I’m doing. More than usual. My wife is fighting cancer. This has become a long term struggle with many soldiers helping us in each and every skirmish.

I’m not sure what to say when asked how I’m doing. Sometimes people really want to get an update. Sometimes this question is just an expression of compassion and support as we pass along the way. Still, other times I’m asked by folks who aren’t getting a clear picture from me and are trying to imagine themselves in my shoes. What’s it really like?

Sometimes people just don’t ask. Maybe it’s just too overwhelming for others. Maybe there just aren’t any words.

Typically I’m responding without thinking too much. My response depends upon my mood, my schedule, my need at the moment to let it all out.

How AM I doing? Well, it’s complicated…

I’m feeling scared

The world I live in is mostly filled with a lot of certainty. Watching my wife manage an ever changing daily battle with stage four cancer (that’s now in her brain) and all the medication side-effects brings a daily dose of uncertainty into my (our) life. Mostly we have routines and rituals that make life so comfortable. When the journey heads into the unknown, fear begins to howl in the background.

“Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps even depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has.” ― Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I’m feeling full of hope

Not a single day passes that I don’t experience encouragement of some sort. It is all around me (us). It comes in all the expected places, the emails, notes, hugs. But is also appears out of nowhere. Strangers who lift so much of the burden and never even realize it. All sorts of little “coincidences” seem to appear right and left. I don’t go very far without sensing and knowing the presence of God. My faith has found a resting place. Despite what has happened so far, the core of my belief is not moved. These beliefs are ever more resolved as I am pulled into the deep end.

“It’s amazing how many coincidences occur when one begins to pray.”  – Bill Hybels

I’m too busy to think about it

Life has gotten very fast for a number of reasons. Fighting cancer is a whole other career to add to what’s already on our plates. It’s easy to get behind with one important part of life while trying to manage a whole new chapter.

It’s too easy to slip into the fast lane and wake up three counties later, unconscious of so much that always matters.

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” ― T. S. Eliot

I’m uncertain about what the future holds

Our mode of thought has been to just think about today. Even though there are always future plans of some sort that are a normal part of life, we are trying to readjust and live more in the moment – hang on to this day. When I do think about the future; retirement, grandchildren, remaking the house, who am I going to give all my junk to? Sometimes it can be frightening – going from theory to practice. It’s sweet to quote the proverb about numbering your days, but actually doing it is a whole other matter. Living like there’s no tomorrow makes one take today that much more seriously.

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.”  – Psalm 90:12

I’m often around other people who don’t want to talk about our “situation.” I imagine that most people are uncomfortable talking about serious illness – what do you say? These days, so many have a lack of personal experience. Great health care and growing distance within families means that suffering and death are not experiences we learn to manage in the same ways our parents and grandparents did.

I’m angry

Let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t be mad every single day. If there was any sort of justice, I’d be the one hit by the dump truck of life, not her. Who knew that the uncertainties of life were going to come and trample in our yard? Living in a society that promotes and promises justice doesn’t  mean the experience is always assured. It’s a hope, not a certainty. Instead of trying to find justice in all of this, the best way to work through the weeds is to be truthful and admit these feelings, find people to talk it out with and pray without ceasing (in all honesty).

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” ― Mark Twain

I’m counting my blessings

Perspective helps with all sorts of situations. But how do you put cancer into perspective? There is always something to be thankful about. In each and every situation there is a way to find thanks. There is always another person near who needs to feel a little mercy and grace. Instead of anguish, there is thankfulness for so much more of life never taken for granted anymore.

“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” ― George Bernard Shaw

I’m buckled in for the roller coaster ride

When a life threatening illness strikes there is always a loss of control.  A feeling of “what’s next?” Living a life that’s not really mine, it belongs to a disease that’s taking control of more and more. Of course there is always this illusion that I was ever really in control of anything in the first place. The economy shifts, someone new comes into power or a hurricane appears on the horizon. Instead of looking for control or being heartbroken because of the loss, I’m learning how to just survive today. I used to have all sorts of big plans for the future. Maybe that was a mistake.

“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”  –  Epictetus

Well, how AM I doing? It’s still complicated…but I made it another day, and I tried to make it count.

 

O LOVE THAT WILT NOT LET ME GO – George Matheson

O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

 

 

A Greater Work

I tell you the truth: whoever believes in Me will be able to do what I have done, but they will do even greater things, because I will return to be with the Father.  – John 14:12 (The Voice)

I read a wonderful devotional in My Utmost for His Highest this week. What did Jesus mean when He told His disciples that they would do greater works than those they had eyewitnessed?  Does this mean His followers will be doing greater signs and wonders than raising the dead or calming the storming sea?

What if this promise is about prayer? My devotional reading taught that prayer does not prepare us for a greater work, it is the greater work.

He lives His resurrected life forever. From such a vantage, He is able to save those who approach God through Him for all time because He will forever live to be their advocate in the presence of God.  – Hebrews 7:24-25 (The Voice)

Jesus has returned to His Father and is now interceding for all of us as we approach God’s throne of grace. When we pray, we now have complete access to our Heavenly Father. This is a new condition that occurred only after Christ ascended. There are no more sacrifices to make in order to gain access to the holy presence of God. That has been done once and for all by Christ.

Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.  – Romans 8:34

But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous.  – 1 John 2:1

Our prayers are empowered because they have the Son of God personally taking them before God on our behalf. Our prayers have the potential for even more earth shaking consequences. The work of prayer is a greater work because we have Jesus Christ joining forces with us.

But that’s not all. When Jesus left the earth He promised His followers that he would not leave them alone.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. – John 14:16-17

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.  – John 14:26

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.  – Romans 8:26-27

When we pray, we do not pray alone. We pray in a spiritual partnership with the very Spirit of God. In every place of weakness, ignorance, frailty and fear, the Spirit of God intervenes and fills in all of the gaps. He makes our prayers perfect. He empowers our prayer life by guaranteeing its effectiveness. With this kind of promise, why aren’t you praying all of the time? Why are you worrying? Why are your friends and family burdened with so many cares?

So own up to your sins to one another and pray for one another. – James 5:16 (The Voice)

Did you ever consider that failing to pray for others might be a terrible sin? Who wouldn’t fall on their knees knowing that what we can accomplish in prayer would be even more powerful than the great miracles performed by Jesus himself?

“Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.” ― Oswald Chambers