What if my testimony is boring?

I’m a preacher’s kid and proud of it. I was in church a few days after being born, gave my life to Jesus on my 8th birthday, was always active in youth group and other church activities; when it came time to go to college, I set off to Great Lakes Christian College to become a pastor. It was there I began to encounter a much broader community of Christians than I ever had before.

One guy had been healed of a brain tumor. One girl was recuperating from drugs; another guy came to Jesus after a failed suicide attempt. Another went from having his mind and body thrashed by drugs to becoming one of the most hardworking Hebrew and Greek students at the school. Each of their stories and testimonies left listeners desiring to know God better and in awe of who God was and what He could do in the lives of those who came to Him.

But listening to their testimonies also created or exposed an insecurity in me, an idea that my testimony was generally boring; having grown up in church all my life, never getting in with the bad crowd or doing bad things, and just being a generally nice boy, I felt my story was too boring or simple to be a blessing to those listening. This insecurity also seemed justified when I began noticing that churches and ministries never had a believer share their testimony with an audience unless it was impressive. Realizing my story didn’t have this inspirational “wow” factor, I just felt insignificant. On one occasion, when everyone in a group was asked to give their testimony, I vaguely exaggerated a detail to make my story seem a little bit cooler or significant; it wasn’t.

But that all changed one night in a guy’s meeting where we took turns each week giving our testimony. I just told my story as it was, straightforward and simple. Per the custom, the other guys prayed over me when I was finished; when a close friend and brother prayed, his words reached deep into my heart. He said “Thank You, Father, for saving Jon from what could have been.”

I have never looked down on my story since.

A year later I was working at a youth camp and got to share this lesson with a young camper who was experiencing that same challenge. On the last night of camp, he blessed us all with his simple and significant story.

Ascertaining your own value and significance is difficult to discern at times because it takes time to dig through layers of insecurity or other value systems we interact with each day, but if we can get to the heart of the matter, what it often comes down to is the simple truth that you are loved. I know that phrase gets tossed out there tiredly these days, but that’s likely a reflection of how many of us are in need of its reality. We are not loved because we are valuable; we are valuable because God loves us. Our lives, identities, and potential are something of a self-portrait of who He is; it is in the appreciation of that portrait we discover the significant story we have to tell.

Are you able to see yourself as God sees you? Are you letting that reality shape yours? If you know the tale you’ve got to tell, don’t keep it to yourself.

Testify!

The voice of Saruman and the laughter of God

I went for a long walk the other day, partly for the exercise, but also because my prayers are more fluent when I’m walking.  I was feeling distressed, struggling with doubt and confusion.  While walking I prayed “Lord, I need you to cut through this fog.”

I then remembered my favorite moment from “The Lord of the Rings” book series.  In “The Two Towers”, the army of the traitorous white wizard Saruman is defeated and his own powers are waning.  The true white wizard Gandalf, Théoden, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli—leaders and warriors of Middle-Earth—approach Saruman’s great tower doors to finally manage him.  The doors open, Saruman appears, and he then attempts one last act of trickery.

He speaks to them sweetly of how his presumed injustices have been misunderstood, misconstrued, how Gandalf was meddling in their affairs, how peace was yet possible with his assistance.  As he slowly and craftily speaks, things seem less clear to many listening.  Perhaps Saruman’s atrocities were justifiable; possibly their war against Sauron was petty.  Maybe Gandalf had been manipulating them all along for his own ends.  The moment is treacherous and their minds are shadowed.

“Then Gandalf laughed.  The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.”

Clouded and confused with sinister suspicions they knew not how to resist, the mirthy laughter of their powerful friend was all it took to remind the fellowship of what was real and true.  In the moments that followed, Saruman learns his bewitching voice has lost its harnessing power and he is no longer master of others, nor of himself.  Leaving him to his tragedy, the band of warriors depart his door to continue their mission to save Middle-Earth.

I remember tearing up the first time I read that chapter.  It resonated with my faith; I felt protected.  My heart glowed again recalling the scene while walking and praying for God’s hopeful clarity.

When King Saul haunted David’s steps, hunting him all the way to his home to kill him, David prayed for God’s deliverance from the unleashed dogs who voraciously hounded him.  Trying to clear from his mind their menacing arrogance, David prays “But You, O LORD, laugh at them; You scoff at all the nations.”

While Israel’s monarch breathes out violence, David turns his hope to Israel’s true King, whose sovereign designs hilariously overrule Saul’s petty plans.  We also can prayerfully perceive that hope.  When you feel darkness encroaching with devilish intent, it can help your heart to hope “He who is enthroned in the heavens laughs”.

When you are clouded with the disorienting and disrupting fog of fear, doubt, confusion, and chaos, may hope help you hear your Father’s mirthy, deep bellied and boisterous laughter.  It will echo through the valleys, dispel the daze, and light up the dark.  May it awaken you to what is real and grant you sight in light of what is true, that your Father is protecting you.

Celebrate the Mothers, but what about the Others?

Mother’s Day is this Sunday.  Now you know.  Our churches usually celebrate in similar ways; sometimes we organize a Mother’s Day breakfast or hand out flowers to the mothers.  You know how it goes.  But this morning I overheard a conversation in passing that was concerned for the other women who desperately desire to be mothers, but, for various reasons, are not.  One person commented that in his congregation there were some mothers whose children had died and some women who could not conceive.  That was all I heard before I had to leave, but the conversation stuck with me.

Yes, what about the women in those situations?

As far as Mother’s Day services and activities go, I’m sure each careful congregation will consider their own context and hopefully make the most thoughtful decision they can.  But as a pastor, I wondered how I would try to speak to the hearts of ladies in such situations.  What can one say to those whose gift of motherhood has been painfully pried away by a child’s death, or those who continually see the gift of motherhood as an unreachable tease?  Two characters in Scripture came to my mind, whose stories may help navigate such pain.

Naomi had it hard.  First, her family moved away to a foreign land because of a famine at home in Judah.  Then her husband and provider died.  Her two sons married foreign women, but then her sons died.  Widowed and childless, Naomi was left to fend, not just for herself, but for her two daughters-in-law, who she instructed to leave her, “for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the LORD has gone forth against me.”

She decided to return to Judah, to try and get in on some of the LORD’s recent provision upon the land.  When she returned to Bethlehem, the old wives club there greeted her with surprise, but she told them “Do not call me Naomi (pleasant); call me Mara (bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.  I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.  Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?”

Whatever pleasant person Naomi might have been when she left Judah was no longer the case.  Life (and God she figured) had left her battered and broken, an empty shell of a now bitter woman.  But despite her woeful circumstances, there was a silver lining: one of her daughters-in-law had returned with her; despite Naomi’s protests, Ruth was adamantly devoted to her.  She dedicated herself to Naomi and her God, attended her, and scavenged for food in the fields for them both.  If you’ve read the whole story, you know the silver lining of Ruth rose into a full-fledged shining sun.  The field owner, Boaz, turned out to be a relative of Naomi’s who married Ruth and redeemed Naomi’s husband’s family line and inheritance.  Ruth eventually bore a son and Naomi became his grandmother and nurse.  What did the old wives club say to her then?  “Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel.  May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”

I can’t imagine the pain and loss Naomi and others like her have had to endure.  No words can soothe such sorrow.  But I have experienced friendship in painful moments.  Ruth choosing to be there for Naomi made all the difference and became the opening through which God worked his redemptive and refreshing blessing into Naomi’s life.  With a little devotion and time, friends can become like family.

If you are a mother who has endured Naomi’s pain, I hope you have a friend or a few to be with; to talk with, laugh with, cry with, scream with, pray with.  If you do not, please remember Naomi and Ruth also started off as strange foreigners to each other.  Start looking within your congregation; just a thought if you don’t know or trust them: sometimes the trust comes later.

And if you, dear reader, are in a congregation with women who have endured Naomi’s bitter pain, I hereby make you responsible for being a “Ruth”, a Christian brother or sister who becomes a silver lining; one whose love reveals and displays God’s love at work.  It could be coffee, it could be dinner, it could be a fun night out for her, but what it definitely will be is a refreshing redemptive love poured into a dry soul.

In “Shadowlands”, a film about the relationship between C.S. Lewis and his terminally ill wife, she prepares him for her impending death by saying “The happiness now is a part of the pain then.”  I would gently suggest that, in your moments of grief and pain, let your mind wander to the moments of joy and happiness you shared with your children, and let those joyful memories be a guiding light that leads you to gratitude for having been able to experience and embody such love; perhaps such memories can eventually strengthen you to again share your love with those around you.  Grace, peace, and power of Christ to you.

Now what about the wives who have tried so hard to have kids but have been unable to?

Hannah knew their pain.  Her husband had two wives; though he loved her more, she was barren.  And the other wife who already had children would occasionally irritate her, possibly with a verbal jab alluding to her “cursed situation”.  As time continued, Hannah’s bitterness burned and imbued her soul.  What Hannah chose to do with her bitterness, however, is exemplary.  While everyone worshipped the LORD together and celebrated at a yearly feast, Hannah’s bitterness reached its climax.  She rose up out of her sorrow, went to the LORD’s tabernacle, and poured her bitterness out to the LORD: “O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head.”

Most mothers have children to hold up as the apple of their eye or center of their joy.  Since Hannah did not, she instead elevates the sovereign LORD and his glorious high honor as the centering focus of her heart.  Addressing the God of creation (hosts), she vows that if he gives her a child, she will make her child’s life all about God.

While she is praying, Eli the priest watches her, mistakenly thinking she’s drunk.  Not drunk, she explains her distressed situation and how she has been pouring her soul out to the LORD.  He told her to go in peace and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of Him.”

She returned to her tent, ate with her family, “and her face was no longer sad”.

What happens after is contextually pertinent to Hannah’s story, but the bitterness Hannah struggled with is universal—“Am I cursed?”  “Have I been abandoned?”

Hannah’s story shows us that, despite definite pain, God’s good, sovereign presence is also definite.  A heart focused on God’s glorious honor inserts into the pain a hope that sees beyond the pain; such sight is given to us when high honor is given to God.  Making God’s high honor our center of focus renews how we perceive ourselves, where we are in life, and how we can move forward.

I imagine not being able to have children (yet?) might feel like a piece of you is missing; a piece you may never actually get to include in the puzzle of your life.  I’m not sure what to say to that, but my mind returns to that last line in v18: “no longer sad”.  All things considered, isn’t that another significant piece of what we’re after?  Hannah found that piece of peace in God’s presence as she chose to honor him in her heart.  The child you’re hoping to have, I hope God allows you to have that child.  I also hope that as you seek and honor the LORD in your heart and everyday faithfulness, may the peace of his presence wrap around you like the warm blanket of a loving Father.

To you whose precious hearts ponder motherhood, grace and peace of Christ to you.

Guardian of Goodness in an Unsafe World | Matthew 2:13-14

Joseph, Mary, and toddler Jesus had just received a visit from some eastern astrologers hailing him as “king of the Jews”, expressing wonder and worship as they bowed down and brought him gifts.  It was a remarkable moment, probably giving everyone pause to ponder what God was doing behind the scenes.  But soon after they departed, Joseph had a dream in which an angel warned “Get up!  Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”

Awake and alert, Joseph gets up, readies Mary and the child, and flees to Egypt in the night as Herod’s rage violently descends upon male toddlers of Bethlehem.

It’s a quick story, but poignant.  Jesus’ birth narratives are often read with a “Silent Night” sense of peace and otherworldly wonder; so saturated with serene surreality, we can’t help but hope the story remains so forever.  But like Joseph’s startling dream, we are given a rude awakening here as a very real and actual danger is inserted into the story.

As discussed in the previous post, the incarnation of Jesus is incendiary.  As a toddler, Jesus was no threat, but as an idea, he ignites all manner of reactions in the human heart.  The idea of a new king on the block provoked Herod so sharply, he reacted with mass slaughter.

It’s a moment that adjusts our perceptions of what life with Jesus can be like.  The Jesus story is truly one of joy and peace, but it often plays out in settings of uncertainty, risk, danger, sorrow.

Though a saving story, his is not a safe story.  But it must be this way, for only in distressing settings can Jesus be contrastingly seen as the “Prince of Peace”.

What this new perception does is prevent us from elevating the way of Jesus to some fantastical journey lived for idealism or adventure.  It guards us against perceiving Christian spirituality as something lived out on some higher plane, far above the noise of everyday life.  Christianity must be lived out in the world as it actually is.  As seen in Herod “and all Jerusalem with him”, the way of Jesus is lived out in neighborhoods of apathy, hostility, chaos, uncertainty, suffering, sorrow.

But it is also lived out by neighbors of faith, hope, and love.  Again the text presents us with Joseph who embodies faith, hope, and love by throwing himself into his duty as husband and guardian, packing up his family, and getting them to safety, preserving for all humanity the hope who would save the world.  It’s not sexy work, but its goodness at work.

As I drove into town this morning, I heard a story on the radio of how local preachers were attempting to calm the rioters in Baltimore by linking arms and marching through streets covered with glass and debris, discouraging violence and calling for peace as they go.  I don’t know what became of their efforts, but I’m thankful efforts were made.

Whether in faraway lands or local neighborhoods, wherever injustice, anger, violence, and suffering are present, goodness needs witnesses—men and woman of faith, hope, and love who will step into the uncertainty or danger in order to preserve hope and heal the wounds human horror has waged upon human hearts.  Just as toddler Jesus needed Joseph, hope needs good guardians.

As one trying to walk the way of Jesus, you are one of those good guardians, preserving hope today in the hearts afraid of tomorrow.