Fear and Faith

In downtown Seattle, just a couple blocks from Pike Place Market and the rest of the seawater-smelling tourist destinations, there’s a store called Columbia. Towering plate glass windows are set in the faux lodge exterior and long banners proclaim sale percentages; 12-foot adventurers forever pose in the most exciting moments of white water journeys and snowcapped summits. I’ve walked in before, to find the familiar clothing racks of all the other downtown stores, the main differences being the prices of their jackets and the slough of “heat technologies” advertised on every tag. If I were to buy one of those jackets, I could put it on, walk back onto the streets of downtown Seattle, and it would doubtless keep me warm. Yet, that’s not all it was made for. It was made for a blizzard, and for all the cold and confusion, I’m sure that a blizzard would be where I’d finally discover this jacket’s real utility and delight. After a few such encounters, that jacket would likely become a dear friend of synthetic fabrics when I opened the closet each morning.

Faith is a blessing in the streets of the city, but it’s a gift and a shield for more than that. I’m learning that in times of fear, we discover the true utility and delight of faith. I commend Philippians 1–Paul’s declaration of faith and faithfulness in the midst of prison, suffering, and immanent death–to every high school freshman who will consider it; the passage deeply changed me as a 14-year-old. Yet, I also commend it to pastors, professors, VPs of sales, because perhaps you’re actually afraid. You may have read of faith before, you may have even received and practiced it to the extent that you were able, but have you taken up faith for today? Have you considered faith for the things you’re afraid of in your church, your job, your home?

Last night, Annie and I were talking about the future. She told me that she was sure that God would work things out. “What do you mean?” I asked. “What do you mean by ‘work things out?'”

“I believe He’ll help me find meaningful work,” Annie replied.

I thought about that for a few moments and considered how to respond.

“Why?” I finally asked. “Why do you think He will provide that? When I say that God will work things out, I just mean that He will work things out for us to survive.” The cynical side of my worried that she would respond, There’s no proof we’ll survive either; God’s people starve all over the world.

To my surprise, Annie went the opposite direction. “I believe He’ll give me meaningful work because He is faithful and He wants the best for us. He might not give me the work I want, it might be hard, but whatever He gives us it will be for our good.”

The good He intends for us may be the opposite of what I currently want, but today, faith in His goodness means pushing back against that fear that distrusts His plan. I’m thankful for this conversation with Annie, because it is a reminder to trust God in a way that goes beyond logic and the apparent. I’m afraid these days, and I need God’s people around me, my wife in particular, to remind me what faith is and what it might look like in December 2012. At 14, I intellectually wrestled with hypothetical death; this morning, I’m struggling with the real possibility of run-of-the-mill debt. Perhaps this is a smaller concern than the persecution I see in Philippians, but it’s manifested itself in my heart in a much bigger way than my fears have before. I’m showing my hand here–I am yet to shed the cowardice that comes with a charmed life–but I am not the point. The point is, the God in whom we put our faith will be faithful in this and so much more. Only in times of fear can God teach us that we have nothing to fear. His perfect love casts fear out.

Today is a day for faith. You may not always feel like your faith has grown over the months and years, but as you look forward at the rest of 12/13/12, will you make space for your faith to grow in the circumstances God has placed you in?

Does Mary do a Touchdown Dance?

I still remember blocking Steve’s spike in the final round of the volleyball tournament at our youth group summer camp. He had been the pastor of our group for seven years several years prior, had raised children, and was attending as our speaker for the week. Yet, in that moment of athletic glory, my 17-year-old soul found itself rocketed to yet-unknown bastions of satisfaction. I’d blocked Steve. I’m sure I went to sleep that night smiling.

It’s sad that I still remember that. It’s sad how proud I was of myself. Mary carried the Christ to term and what was her response?

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 

47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 

48  for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. 

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 

49  for he who is mighty has done great things for me, 

and holy is his name. 

50  And his mercy is for those who fear him 

from generation to generation. 

51  He has shown strength with his arm; 

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 

52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones 

and exalted those of humble estate; 

53  he has filled the hungry with good things, 

and the rich he has sent away empty. 

54  He has helped his servant Israel, 

in remembrance of his mercy, 

55  as he spoke to our fathers, 

to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” 

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. 

She starts by saying how good God has been to her and continues by forgetting herself completely. Now, it’s nice of NFL players to point a finger up to God, but what’s really going on their hearts? Honestly, what’s going on in my heart when I come down from a clear, emotive, verbose sermon? I’m usually proud of myself.

Yet, how gracious is our God? How good has He been to us? How good is He without even considering His action toward us in particular?

Oh, that my soul would magnify the Lord. My heart is going to need some rewiring, some reprogramming, some regeneration for this, but even that, the Lord will provide. God, clean us up, not that we would walk away independent, but that we would more clearly reflect your glory.

Don’t Be Too Proud to Exclaim

From working with high school students, I’ve learned that it’s rare to find a set of teenage siblings who are audibly proud of their parents. Put to it, many likely are, but usually competition between them drowns out any parental adoration. It would be a striking thing if a family were different. It would be a striking thing if our family, the household of God, were different. Look at the way Elizabeth responds to Mary:

Luke 1:39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Now, to tell you the truth it’s unclear to me how the Holy Spirit is working in Elizabeth. Does he “take her over” in a way as unique as He helps her conceive John? Does the Spirit fill and influence her in the same way He fills and influences me? Either way, she responds by His power and we can trust that what she says to Mary is an accurate reflection of how God wants His children to respond to His gifts.

Elizabeth isn’t competing with Mary. “Of course,” you may reply, “why would they compete about babies given from God?” For the same reason that we compete over the gifts that God has given us: money, talent, relationships, opportunities. Elizabeth, the older relative, carrying a child of unquestioned legitimacy, respected in the community, exclaims that she is blessed that Mary would even visit her.

Don’t wait for a virgin birth to stand in awe of God’s generosity around us. Don’t wait for the supernatural to marvel at His grace to involve you in it. What have you or I done to be faithful, to be fruitful, to be alive? We’ve done nothing; we simply have an  amazing Heavenly Father.

Exclaim today. Exclaim like Elizabeth. It is no concern to her whether anyone notices how much God is blessing the world through her. Instead, she declares praise to God and lavishes encouragement on Mary (who’s had a tough go of it in her gossip-laden hometown), without self-regard. In your sphere, are there brothers or sisters in Christ who you often compete with? Consider the ways that God is blessing the world through them and how you can respond with the Elizabeth’s humility.

Omnipotence

Omnipotence

A wispy dandelion seed aloft,
Two twirls, a dip, and rising up again,
Now tossed in tempest–at dawn laid down soft’
There placed by hands Divine. The same the rain
And currents writhing, tides, they smother coasts,
While lumb’ring waves of atoms trek
Across the blue. The deeps boast
In vain. Almighty moves them all. A speck
Afloat upon the pet, the sea’s wee flea.
And piloting the pest, a man alone.
The rudder snaps and suddenly he sees
The might of God far dwarfs what has been shown.
No good has come apart from Him and hence
We think in awe on His omnipotence.

Letting Go of Needing to Know

It’s hard for Mary to process God’s favor toward her.

“God favors you!”

Troubled feeling.

“Don’t be troubled! You’re going to bear a child! The Messiah!”

“How can I bear a child?”

Read through the story and see how she responds to each of these first two proclamations (notice, it’s not the angels appearance that troubles her):

Luke 1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. 

Finally, notice her third response. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

Despite the fact that God’s news all works out to be good news, I always want to know more.

“God loves you.”

Strange combination of doubt and boredom.

“He has a good plan for you.”

“How can He have a good plan for me?”

Yet, at some point in this process or assurance and direction, God’s worked in my heart enough to learn that I am His servant and His will for me is good. I want to know the details. I want to know who will give me perfect advice, how we’re going to afford what’s next, and what the dress code it, but sometimes all God clarifies for me is His own power, goodness, and wisdom.

You know what? God’s power, goodness, and wisdom are enough for me to go. That’s enough for me to say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to his word.”

Righteous People with a “Boring Testimony”

How often have I heard students say that their testimony is “boring”? Yesterday I read Kim’s story, recorded by Justin Holcomb, of being rescued from the sex trade, reconnected with Jesus, and brought into a new chapter of healing and helping others. What a beautiful testimony; praise God and tell the good news! However, her unexpected, suspenseful, and dramatic story–be it all the more edifying of a story because of those things–does not mean my story needs to be any of those things. Consider the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth:

Luke 1: Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. 

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” 

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” 

Zechariah and Elizabeth were from religious families. They grew up going to God’s house. They knew the commandments and statues of the Lord. They had “boring” testimonies. By this point, they were probably in the Saturday School for senior citizens and didn’t make it on a lot of promotional materials. Yet, they are the first characters we read about in Luke’s gospel account and we are quickly told: they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.

After pausing for a moment and considering the beauty of this eulogy, notice three things about this faithful couple:

  1. They were entirely in God’s plan. You are entirely in God’s plan. If you look ahead to Luke 1:58, you’ll see their neighbors and relatives rejoicing with them upon the birth of their son John. The unexpected nature of his arrival sets the stage for his ministry, a ministry of getting people’s attention. You may wish you could trade circumstances with someone else, but Romans 8:28 promises that God is working all of these things for your good.
  2. They felt like second-class people. This particular stigma has changed over the years, but Elizabeth’s gratitude in 1:25 is for God’s removal of her reproach. She felt like the people around her scoffed at her for her childlessness. Whether that particular prospect is daunting to you or not, you know what it feels like to be self-conscious in the others’ presence. Perhaps you haven’t been put into a hard life, but you have been put into a hard world. Knowing that God’s plan is for your deliverance as much as for Elizabeth’s, you can fearlessly draw near to those who bear reproach and bring a message of hope and love. It may not be long before others misunderstand and scoff at your too, but God sees and take away your reproach in the end.
  3. Zechariah and Elizabeth play their own role in the bigger story of Luke’s gospel. You need to play your own role in the bigger story of God’s world. If a Zechariah-type were to walk up to the pulpit and share his testimony on Sunday morning, it probably wouldn’t rend hearts with the same conviction and grief as if Kim were to do the same. Yet, God made Zechariah how He made him, where He made him. In fact, he is uniquely equipped to help others understand God’s Word or bring sacrifices on behalf of the people. With the right combination of self-awareness and repentance from sin, you need to be becoming the person God has made you to be.

We make far too many assumptions. When it comes to people who grew up religious, we either look at them and assume that they continue along as who they’ve always been, or we see it in ourselves and we assume that since we’ve been around church so long, this is all there is. Stop. Examine your heart. Consider God’s commandments and commission. Repent. Forge ahead, that it might be said of you and your household, they were righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord.