Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Power of Hunger

One of my favorite characters in the Old Testament is a guy named Daniel. What I appreciate so much about Daniel is the way in which he pursued God when he faced something oppressive. When Daniel was being groomed to be a Babylonian leader, he was given the best food and wine from the king’s table—but he refused to eat it. Instead, he committed to consume just vegetables and water to show that God was the one who would sustain him. Later in his life, Daniel gave up rich foods in a time of mourning as he prepared to convey a difficult message to the king. When Daniel pursued God, he often fasted. He gave up something tangible to gain something spiritual.

Today, we call this a Daniel Fast. Fasting is giving up something valuable or routine in your live in order to help you pursue God most earnestly. In March, I gave it a try. I had been wrestling with some issues in my life in which I just couldn’t find peace and clarity. I needed to make some hard decisions that had some deep emotional underpinnings. Peace and clarity were evading these decisions. So, I decided to fast to pursue God in this area. I gave up meat, bread, pop, dairy products, and sugared products for fruit, veggies, grains, and water. Here’s what happened to me.

Week One:
My body resisted this as if fruits and veggies were poison. I got headaches, I was always hungry and was in the bathroom constantly. I was grumpy and I complained a lot. I did pray more but my prayers were self-centered. I was going through a detoxification: detoxing from sugar, caffeine, wheat, dairy, and other things my body craved. I was also detoxing from a bitter and unforgiving heart. I felt frail and weak.

Week Two:
In the second week, something new began to happen. I found rhythm in this fast. Instead of resenting apples, bananas, and spinach, I began to enjoy them. Their flavors burst as I realized that these foods were sustaining me. Instead of fighting in prayer, I submitted, I listened, and I forgave. I prayed for others more than I cried out for myself.

Week Three:
Though my situation had not been resolved, in the third week I rediscovered peace. I was able to function without inner tension over the situation. Then, it ended. I broke the fast. I enjoyed steak, bread, beverages other than water, and brownies with ice cream. I ate them slowly and gratefully. It never tasted better as I celebrated God’s goodness.

So, what does this have to do with the cross? Why write about Daniel when our attention is focused on Jesus’ final days? As I read through Matthew’s account of Jesus’ final days on earth, there seems to be a thread of frailty running through the text. As Jesus enters the garden to pray, he is in emotional turmoil. Blood drips from his skin like sweat as he wrestles with the will of the Father. He knows the pain of crucifixion is coming. He feels the loneliness of impending betrayal, denial, and desertion from his followers. Jesus seems frail in this moment. And, the disciples are weak as well. As Jesus agonizes in prayer, the disciples can’t stay awake. As Jesus is betrayed and arrested, those most committed to him scatter in fear and confusion.

In a sense, everyone in the story is sacrificing. Jesus will give up his will to align with the Father’s plan for mankind. He’ll give up his physical health to be beaten beyond recognition and to be executed in a horrific manner. He’ll give up his holiness and glory to take on the weight of the sin of billions of human beings. Even the disciples, in their frailty, are sacrificing. They are giving up their friend and mentor so Jesus could give himself for others. In their confused state, they are giving up their dream of Jesus being the next Moses to deliver them from the oppressive hand of the Romans. They are frail. They are weak. They are confused. They look helpless in this moment. But, the story doesn’t end there. In a matter of weeks, these frail, confused followers will become bold, confident, God-filled leaders who will change the world with the Good News about Jesus. Confusion turns to clarity. Frailty becomes strength.

One of the points of fasting is to create a hunger or craving. Fasting will demonstrate your frailty as it did mine. But, that seems to be okay with God. In our weakness, he becomes strong. He has a way of turning your frailty into his strength in you. Consider giving up something this Easter season. Create a hunger. Pursue God in your weakness. Expect to experience God in a fresh way.

Friday, March 25, 2011


“I don’t think we should date anymore,” she said. “We should just be friends.”

This was the first time I heard those horrible words. It didn’t matter that I was 16 years old. It didn’t matter that she was right. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have any business dating each other. It didn’t matter that our little high school romance was only a month old. It didn’t matter how gently she said these words. I had been rejected and it hurt. It was the worst pain possible to endure. Could anything hurt more? Yep!

As I was driving through town a few days after this devastating breakup, I saw something that would fracture my young heart even more. It was just a glimpse of something that horrified me. Approaching me in the oncoming lane of the main street in my small town was a very recognizable car. It belonged to one of the toughest kids in our school. He was a wrestler. He was tough. And, he could be mean. There was not a locker room fight he had lost. He was the type of kid you typically tried to avoid eye contact with. But, as his car past mine, I starred. My jaw dropped to my lap when I saw in the seat next to him… my girlfriend (former girlfriend). And she wasn’t just in the passenger seat; she was snuggled tight in the middle seat. It was amazing what that one glimpse did to me in that moment. My heart raced. My face flushed. I was fortunate to have stayed on the road as my mind became wildly distracted. The pain of the rejection had just descended to the pain of betrayal. The harsh reality hit me—she had broken up with me to be with him.

Why has the memory of the pain of that moment stayed with me for 30 years? It seems like this would be something I’d forget. My life has turned out wonderful. I’ll celebrate 24 years of marriage this May and I hope for at least that many more years of marriage. The joy I have with Janice, my wife, has so out-shadowed the pain of that silly high school romance; but, I still remember how it felt to be betrayed.

One of the most important elements of any relationship is trust. We are built to trust. God created us to trust. However, when trust is broken through betrayal, the heart experiences damage. We either heal from our wounds and begin to trust again, or we work harder to protect ourselves from ever experiencing that kind of pain again. It’s a decision we all have to make after experiencing betrayal. Do we become vulnerable to pain again by trusting, or do we wall ourselves off from others to limit opportunities for getting burned?

As you approach the story of the cross this week, don’t forget that before Jesus endured the pain of the nails in his hands, he endured the pain of the betrayal. Someone he trusted, someone he loved, turned on him. It’s easy to see Judas as a villain in the story but remember, Jesus chose Judas to follow him. Jesus gave him everything he had to offer but Judas chose to sell him out for silver. The emotional pain of betrayal was felt by God’s son.

Have you lost trust in someone? Has someone broken your heart? Have you been betrayed? Let these words comfort you today. Your pain is shared by God, himself.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4.14-16

Friday, March 11, 2011

Baseball and Baptism

When Steven left practice that day, the thoughts that occupied his mind where generating very deep emotion. They were thoughts that led him to a heartfelt prayer. They were thoughts that led him to weep in the privacy of his truck. In contrast, as I walked home from baseball practice that evening, I’m sure my thoughts were still on baseball or my hopes for supper.

Steven and I were both coaches in the local youth baseball league. We coached different teams, different age groups, on different fields. But with equipment bags over our shoulders and buckets of baseballs in our hands, our paths crossed. Our friendship had been forged from church and baseball, so these types of interactions were common. We’d chat about our players, our practice routines, or the bad umping we experienced the night before. That night’s chat was no different until the end. As Steven turned to walk to his truck, he said, “Hey, I just want you to know that I signed up to get baptized at church.” “Wow, that’s awesome!” I replied. “What’s leading you to this?” He paused with a deep breath and then said fairly quietly, “I just want to be washed clean.” Caught off guard and probably distracted with hunger pangs and thoughts of baseball drills, I said something in response. Honestly, I have no memory of what I said. Steven nodded, said good night, and wandered to his truck. I crossed the street and walked home not thinking much more about our conversation.

Weeks later, I stood in the back of the auditorium watching Steven’s baptism and as he told his story, I learned something new. Apparently, what I said to him that night triggered a very profound event in his life. As he stood in the baptismal tub, he told the story of our conversation. When he told me he wanted to be clean, I shared with him that if he had given his life to Jesus, that if he had received Jesus’ wonderful gift of salvation, he was already clean. Baptism is the outward expression of the cleansing that has happened inside. Steven continued to share that the truth of that statement rocked him to his core. He climbed in his truck and wept because of this new realization of God’s forgiveness. Steven fully gave his life to Christ in that moment. He, for the first time, experienced himself as spiritually clean.

So, how does this happen? How does a simple conversation turn into something so spiritually profound and life changing? Was it because my evangelistic radar was fully in tune to the situation and needs of my friend? No, not in this moment, I regret. Is it because I have reached such a level of spiritual maturity that wisdom just spews from my lips in a subconscious manner? Not even close! So, what happens in moments like these? Here’s my theory:

God knew Steven’s heart, his desires, his struggles, and his questions. He was pursuing a spiritually whole Steven and loved him enough to fill in the gaps in his heart and mind. The Holy Spirit was working on Steven that night and for some reason, the Spirit wanted me to participate in his pursuit of Steven. The words I used with Steven that night were not my own—they couldn’t have been—they were planted in my mind by God. I believe I have no memory of this so I would not be tempted to take credit for God’s work. Pretty cool how God uses things like baseball, friendships, and simple conversations to lead his people to himself. You see, God didn’t need me in his pursuit of Steven. He wanted to me to experience this with him. His was not only a gift to Steven, but a gift to me. I got to reflect the deep heart of Christ to Steven. How cool is that?

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Remarkable Response

I saw my dad cry only a handful of times in his life. I was 19 years old when I first saw tears in his eyes. He had just resigned from the country church I had grown up in. For 14 years, he had served this church; and over this time it had more than doubled in size, a new building was built, and it became a positive light in this rural community. Now, his time was done. But it wasn’t by his choice. His resignation was being pressured by a few church leaders. You see, dad was approaching his 70th birthday and there was a movement within the church board to find a younger man to pastor the church. Dad wasn’t ready to go. He wasn’t feeling called to move. He still had life, vision, and something to teach this church. But, the pressure was too much and he resigned. The tears flowed from this emotional rock of a man. He was hurt.

As a college student, I listened to my parents wrestle with their pain and disappointment with their new situation. When I asked for details, they deflected any discussion that would cast a dark cloud over those who caused this transition. Instead, they spoke of trusting God. They spoke of God providing a new calling and new place of ministry for them. And, God did. Dad and mom moved on to a part-time ministry where they could use their gifts and wisdom in the lives of others. They stayed there for 18 years. Dad finally stopped taking a pay check from a church at the age of 88. Some call that retirement.

Five years ago this week, my mom passed away. This was the second time I saw tears in my dad’s eyes. Her funeral was beautiful and a wonderful celebration of her life and ministry. During the visitation, a man entered the room and made his way to my dad. I recognized him and wondered how this conversation was going to go. This man was one of the church elders most aggressive in forcing dad’s resignation. Perhaps he was just expressing his sympathy, but the conversation appeared to be more substantive. The conversation ended and within minutes the man made his way over to me. He and I had a long history. His son was a good friend of mine growing up and he, himself, was one of my youth leaders. I had some incredibly fond memories of him but I knew about the tension he had created in my parents’ lives. His words to me were something like this, “Phil, I want you to know that I’m very sorry for how I treated your dad. I don’t know if you know but I was one of the board members insisting that your dad leave. That was wrong. He was the best pastor I’ve ever had.” Tears filled his worried eyes as I told him that dad had forgiven him years ago and that I had never heard dad speak ill of him. This seemed to be a powerful moment in this man’s spiritual journey. A huge weight that he’d been carrying was taken off his back.

My dad passed away this past year at the age of 95 and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on his life. Why was his life so successful? Why did he experience such longevity in ministry? Here are a few of my thoughts:

• Dad was able to forgive—sometimes years before an apology came
• He didn’t let mistreatment and disappointment slow his trust in God and pursuit of people
• He fought off bitterness in life like it was a plague

Perhaps, how we handle mistreatment and disappointment is important to God. He loves it when our responses to these types of things are different or counter-cultural.