The Couch

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

Matthew 24:35

This week we moved. We didn’t go far, just down the road a few miles. We moved from a townhouse that we’ve been in for 14 years to a single family home. We are grateful for what God has provided for us, but moving does funny things to you.

It’s been hard to let go of the old house. My wife and I tend to hold on to things. We first moved into the townhouse when we got back from our honeymoon. So our old house was the place where all the early marriage memories happened. It’s where we brought home each of our three kids from the hospital. Their first rooms, first beds, first steps…first everything happened in that house.

We had a backyard, side yard, living room and basement full of memories. Each bedroom had story after story of their life embedded into it. These are things that were hard to leave behind.

One of the hardest things to let go of surprised us all. It was the couch. We had this couch for 14 years. It was so stained and broken that we didn’t move it to the new house. When it was time to take it to the dump, our 8-year-old son jumped on it, held on tight, started crying, and told us not to take it. It was hard to watch.

So many individual and family memories happened on that couch. It’s where we had all our movie nights as a family. It’s where my wife nursed all our kids. It’s where she spent most mornings with the Lord. It’s where she and I counseled nearly 50 couples in premarital counseling. It’s where we relaxed at the end of each day and watched a show on TV.

That couch was saturated with life moments. It was saturated with the presence of the Lord. Yes, it was also saturated with odd smells and years of stains. It was full of what made up our life for the last 14 years.

I was the one to take it to the dump. I was the one to take it out of the back of the trailer and throw it over the edge into the refuse pile. I couldn’t have predicted how difficult that would be. All of that life, all of those moments, now seemingly in a pile of garbage. It seemed like the couch deserved more than that for all it had given us. I got choked up seeing it there.

Driving away from the garbage dump in tears, I tried to process things with the Lord. He reminded me that the couch was just wood, fabric and stuffing. It was a cheap couch from Value City Furniture. Most people don’t keep couches that long. But then the Lord gave me the word “embodied.”

By itself, the couch is just cheap materials. But it had been “filled with the Spirit” in a way. It had been filled with the spirit of our family, all our memories, and the presence of the Lord. Like the difference between the Jewish Law and Jesus. One is just a set of rules to obey and the other is a person to follow. The gospel of Jesus was always meant to be embodied, filled, full.

Over the years that couch, and our old house, became more than the sum of its parts. It became more than just cheap material. It became filled. It became full. It became embodied. Disembodied things are easy to throw away. Things that are full of the Spirit are hard to let go of.

God reminded me that what I threw away at the dump was just the material, not the memories. Like at a funeral, the corpse in the casket is just the skin and bones of the person but not the actual person. The spirit and soul of a person has left the body behind and gone on to be with the Lord, soon to receive a resurrected body.

God reminded me that I had to let go of the cheap material, but I didn’t have to let go of the moments, the memories, the presence. But who would have thought that all of this would have happened over a couch? It’s funny how connected we get to things that are saturated with Life.

As I looked around at the other items being thrown in the refuse pile, it was a good reminder. All of this is temporary. All the things we accumulate will end up here one day. Do we really want to give our life to accumulating things that are so easily thrown away, so easily taken away? Do we really want to spend our whole life accumulating things we can’t take with us into eternity? Or do we want to give our lives to something more lasting, more eternal, something that can’t ever be thrown away or taken from us?

Do not love the world or anything in the world…For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

1 John 2:15-17

Worship Now

The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed,
    a stronghold in times of trouble.
Those who know your name trust in you,
    for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.

Sing the praises of the Lord, enthroned in Zion;
    proclaim among the nations what he has done.

Psalm 9:9-11

Now’s the time to worship Him. Now’s the time to lift up the name of Jesus and praise Him. Now’s the time glorify God for His goodness and grace. Don’t wait until this pandemic is over. Don’t wait until the economy fixes itself. Don’t wait until everyone is healthy and all the hard times have passed.

We have an opportunity to do something now that we cannot do in heaven. In eternity we will not be able to worship the Lord in the midst of hardship and pain. There will be no hardship and pain. In heaven we will not be able to lift up the name of Jesus in the midst of uncertainty and struggle. There will be no uncertainty and struggle.

Right now is when we get to glorify the name of Jesus regardless of our circumstances. Right now is when we get to declare the goodness of God in the face of all the hardship we face. Right now is our chance. Don’t let it pass!

Now is the time to declare our trust in God. Now is the time to declare that He is worthy of our lives no matter what. Now is the time to sing our lungs out about how amazing God is, slow to anger and abounding in love. Let’s not wait for things to return to normal before we lift up His name!

And I’m not just talking about gatherings on Sunday mornings. Yes, we will gather again eventually. But let’s not wait for that. Right now, in our alone time with the Lord, let’s exalt the name of Jesus. Let’s renew our worship of the Only One who is worthy. Let’s sing our song to Him in the secret place as a congregation of one to an audience of One.

We have an opportunity to do now what we won’t be able to do for eternity. We get to worship Him in the midst of this trial. Let’s not miss this opportunity. This kind of opportunity doesn’t come around very often. Let’s make sure we take advantage of it!

Worship now Church!

Prayer of Jabez – Revisited

Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.” Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.

1 Chronicles 4:9-10

In the early 2000s, the “prayer of Jabez” caught on like wildfire throughout the American Christian community. The prayer comes from an obscure scripture passage buried in a section of 1 Chronicles that lists descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel.

For years you could find people asking God in prayer to bless them, enlarge their territory, and keep them from harm (Remember that?). And while there is nothing wrong with praying for these things, it often had a prosperity gospel ring to it that was unhealthy. People kind of forgot the first line of the passage that talked about Jabez being more honorable than his brothers. They also tended to skip over the pain of Jabez’s birth.

I honestly hadn’t thought about the prayer of Jabez for two decades, that is, until the Lord spoke to me about it in the car the other day. Seriously.

I was listening to the local Christian radio station (95.1 Shine-Fm) which was doing a fundraiser. The radio DJ thanked a grandmother who gave $30 a month to the radio station for each grandchild. ($30 a month is the financial contribution that makes you a financial partner with the radio station).

What was extraordinary about this woman was that she didn’t just give $30 a month so that her grandkids would have a Christian radio station to listened to. She gave $30 a month FOR EACH GRANDCHILD. When each kid was born, she added a new financial partnership. So, since her 5th grandchild was just born, she was increasing her giving again.

Do the math. $30 a month X 5 grandkids = $150 a month…every month…just so she could ensure a Christian radio station would be available for her grandkids when they got older. I was really amazed and delighted by this woman’s generosity when I heard the story. That’s when the Holy Spirit whispered* to me, “That is what ‘enlarge my territory‘ means.” Wow! I wasn’t expecting that!

First, I couldn’t believe God was reaching back two decades and bringing the prayer of Jabez to mind again. But the Holy Spirit was giving me a new perspective on it. Enlarging our territory doesn’t just mean greater blessing (having 5 grandkids) it means greater responsibility, greater sacrifice, greater giving ($30 a month for each one).

Then I heard* the Holy Spirit say, “This is what ‘stretch out your tents‘ means.” I knew that phrase was from a passage of scripture but I couldn’t remember it, so I had to look that one up.

“Enlarge the place of your tent,
    stretch your tent curtains wide,
    do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
    strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread out to the right and to the left;
    your descendants will dispossess nations
    and settle in their desolate cities.

Isaiah 54:2-3

The expansion of influence, blessing, and territory means the expansion of generosity, sacrifice and taking responsibility for what is now under your “tent.”

So when we pray, “Lord, expand my territory” or “Lord, stretch out my tents” do we understand what we are really praying? Are we sure we want to pray that? God is happy to answer our prayer, but will we be happy with Him answering our prayer? It will mean no longer listening to the radio station for free. And it will mean not just donating $30 a month but $150 a month. It means taking responsibility for things that become our new territory.

So often we have no idea what we’re praying for. Thank the Lord He doesn’t always give us what we ask for. Yet, with this new insight, I do believe God wants us to pray the prayer of Jabez and the words of Isaiah 54:2. We just need to be prepared for what His answer will mean for our lives.

[*when I reference hearing the Holy Spirit whisper or speak to me, I don’t mean an audible voice. It is often a thought or picture that passes through my mind that doesn’t come from me. It often comes out of the blue with an idea that is surprising or unsuspecting. Some Christians call it the “still, small voice” of the Lord similar to what Elijah experienced on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:12).]

Maryland By The Numbers

Get wisdom, get understanding;
    do not forget my words or turn away from them.
Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you;
    love her, and she will watch over you.
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom.
    Though it cost all you have, get understanding.

Proverbs 4:5-7

As we all process how to respond to the coronavirus and the reopening of our states, we all need an extra dose of wisdom. This is especially true for those of us leading organizations, businesses and churches. One way to avoid living in fear is to look at the actual numbers instead of the media putting their spin on the numbers. No one reads a boring headline, so nearly all news spins data in the most inflammatory and fear-filled way possible. Their income depends on it.

Different states are experiencing different realities. New York and New Jersey are by far experiencing something different than the rest of the country. This is why when we look at numbers, we should look at local numbers, not national ones.

So here are some of the numbers for Maryland. I think after seeing these, you’ll be encouraged. Fear is a liar, and fear has been lying to most of us about the risks and dangers of this virus. If you want to look at them for yourself, find them here.

The total population of Maryland is about 6 million people. We’ve only had about 41,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus. I believe that in time we’ll discover that many more people had this virus and just didn’t have very bad symptoms so they were never recorded in the numbers. But for now, we’ll work with “confirmed cases.” Even still, these numbers mean that 0.7% of Marylanders have been confirmed as having the virus.

Let that microscopic number sink in. The numbers in Maryland are astronomically low.

So, of the 0.7% of Marylanders that have been confirmed as having the virus, who has died from it?

In the 0-9 years old category, no one has died from it. In the 10-19 years old category, one has died from it. Again, let that sink in. For school-aged kids who actually got the virus, almost no child in Maryland died from it. Are we still not going to reopen schools in the fall?

Parents, you can all take a deep breath. The chances of any child dying from this virus is astronomically low. They are more likely to die as they walk to school, ride in the car, or ride the bus–all things that you never think twice about.

Of the 20-29 year olds that got the virus, 0.18% died from it. That means 99.82% of twenty-year olds in Maryland who got the virus recovered just fine. Are we still closing colleges for this in the fall? Again, they are more likely to die in the car on the way to college than from coronavirus.

These numbers continue to stay ridiculously low in the next two age groups. For the 30-39 year olds who got the virus in Maryland, 0.3% died from it. For the 40-49 year olds who got the virus in Maryland, 0.7% died from it. The chances of you dying in a car accident are somewhere around 0.9%, yet we drive everyday.

If you are under 50, are not immunocompromised, and are still freaking out about dying from COVID-19, you are not understanding the facts. You are living in fear. Part of you living in wisdom is knowing the facts. In Maryland, 96% of the deaths from coronavirus were people 50 and above.

For those 50-59 years of age in Maryland who got coronavirus, 2% died from it. That means if you are 50 to 59 and get the virus you have a 98% chance of recovering. You’re still way more likely to die from cancer or heart disease. We aren’t really in the danger zone until we get above 60. In Maryland, 89% of the deaths from coronavirus were of people 60 and up.

For those 60-69 years of age in Maryland who got coronavirus, 6% died from it. The decade of our 60s is a time of increased risk for nearly all diseases. This virus is no different. But even if you get it, you have a 94% chance of recovering from it.

For those 70-79 years of age in Maryland who got coronavirus, 15% died from it. So your chances of getting the virus and recovering from it are 85%. Most people in their 70s would love those kinds of percentages for nearly every other disease they face, like cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc.

As we would expect, the 80+ demographic is most at risk. Again, this is true for every disease and every condition that exists. The 80+ folks have already gone past life expectancy numbers and are vulnerable to this disease. In Maryland, of those who got coronavirus, 30% died from it. So if they get it, they have a 70% chance of surviving it.

What these numbers mean to me is that for everyone under 60 years old, we need to stop living in fear. Your kids will be fine. You will be fine. Doomsday predictions are nonsense. The chances of you dying from this virus are incredibly low.

The point for those of us under 60 is not to try to avoid getting the virus. The point now is trying not to spread it to our more vulnerable populations. We need to stop thinking, “How can I avoid getting the virus?” Living through the lens of this question will unnecessarily paralyze your life. Instead, we need to be mindful of not spreading it to older populations and at-risk populations. But herd immunity is our friend, whether that comes from a vaccine or from getting the virus through contact. We all need anti-bodies to this thing and we need them yesterday.

I completely understand the fear of spreading it to loved ones as my parents are in the 70-79 category. We need restrictions in place to reduce the spread of this virus to our older populations. But we cannot keep living in fear of this virus. Know the numbers in your state. Know the numbers in your county. Stop listening to numbers that are dramatically skewed by New York and New Jersey. Stop feeding your fears with news that gets more clicks and more money the more fear they foster.

False Accusations

Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.”

But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.

Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written: “It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.”

I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”

Nehemiah 6:2-8

Nehemiah’s enemies were trying to disrupt his leadership and his ability to complete the mission for which he was sent. They try to distract him with multiple invitations to “talk.” They know if they can sap his energy and patience with endless conversation, he won’t be able to complete the wall in Jerusalem. They also wanted to get him isolated so that they could harm him.

But Nehemiah doesn’t fall for it. So after four rejected invitations, Nehemiah’s enemies resort to a typical tactic that we see used over and over against leaders trying to accomplish God’s mission. Sanballat starts with, “It is reported…” This is typical. Anonymous accusations are a classic tool of the enemy against leaders. Today it sounds like this, “Some people are saying…” They don’t want to be named. They don’t want to be held accountable for their false accusations. They just want to spread damaging rumors.

Then notice the second common strategy against leaders who are busy doing God’s work. The accusation itself is that Nehemiah’s leadership is all about an attempt to exalt himself. Whenever someone is leading something new, this accusation will always come. If the opposition can’t discredit the actual actions of a leader, they will try to discredit the motives. They’ll make false claims about “hidden, selfish motives” as a way to put the leader on the defensive. Against Nehemiah they claimed he was about to set himself up as king. They were claiming that his great leadership and the rebuilding of Jerusalem was really just about Nehemiah’s ego and selfish ambition.

The people of God did the same thing to Moses and Aaron when they were leading them out of Egypt and through the desert. Notice how “reasonable” their attack against Moses and Aaron seem.

They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”

Numbers 16:3

The Lord is the one who called Moses and Aaron to be leaders of the people of God. But Korah and some of the other Levites didn’t want to follow their leadership. So they accuse Moses and Aaron of setting themselves above everyone else. Notice how Moses responds.

Moses also said to Korah, “Now listen, you Levites! Isn’t it enoughfor you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the Lord’s tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them? He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too. It is against the Lord that you and all your followers have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?”

Numbers 16:8-11

In other words, Korah wasn’t rebelling against Moses and Aaron; he was rebelling against the Lord. It was the Lord who set Moses and Aaron apart. It was the Lord who called them to lead. It was the Lord’s doing. To reject the Lord’s call on a person’s life and claim that it is arrogance, selfishness ambition, or a personal agenda isn’t just an attack on that person, it’s an attack on the Lord’s work in their life. It’s an accusation against the Lord. And if you keep reading Numbers 16 and 17, things don’t turn out so well for Korah. God gets rid of the rebellious group of Levites and confirms the calling of Aaron through supernatural displays of His power.

We need to be very careful about accusations we make against leaders, especially leaders in the church. The anti-authority milieu of our culture loves to rail against leaders in every level of society. And often, leaders give us every reason to rail against them. But in the church we need a different heart posture toward leaders. The apostle Paul’s advice to Timothy was this:

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching… Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.

1 Timothy 5:17-19

When leaders are in the wrong, they need to be called out and held accountable by the other leaders of the church. We’ve seen too much abuse of power in the church that was left unaddressed. But we can’t let this lead us into an error on the other side of the continuum. If someone is being called into leadership, we need to honor that calling. Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward”(Matthew 10:41).

We need to remember that a calling to step into a greater anointing and a greater leadership role in the Kingdom is a call downward. It’s a call to servanthood. It’s a call to die to self and an invitation to go lower. Stepping into leadership in the Kingdom is not an elevation of self but a sacrifice of self. It’s a call to carry more weight and more responsibility.

The foundation of a building is the lowest place and the place that has to hold the most weight. That’s why Paul told the Ephesians that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). The apostolic and prophetic roles are the foundation of the Church because they must go lower. They must support everyone else. They must hold the most weight. They must be solid and level or the whole church could topple over. And they must be willing to endure, more than others, the false accusation of selfish ambition and self-promotion.

Shaking

Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”

Nehemiah 5:12-13

Nehemiah not only returned to Jerusalem and orchestrated the rebuilding of the walls, but he also protected the people–both physically and financially–in the midst of their work. The workers were afraid that their enemies would attack while they worked so Nehemiah organized a system whereby they would be physically guarded and protected. The workers were also financially burdened because of the taxes and interest that previous leaders had exacted from them. So, Nehemiah made the nobles of the region promise to stop collecting interest on their loans during this season of rebuilding.

After the nobles and priests made their promise, Nehemiah did a prophetic act signifying judgment against them if they didn’t stick to their promise. He shook out the folds of his robe and pronounced a shaking on anyone not keeping their word. Jesus’s disciples did a similar prophetic act of shaking when they left a town that rejected them and the message of the Kingdom.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 

But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. 

Matthew 10:14 & Acts 13:50-51

Throughout the Bible, this idea of shaking was used as both judgment and refining. The idea is that God would allow a metaphorical earthquake to impact a person or the whole people of God. Things were shaken. Yet, those things with firm foundations were left standing, and things that were sinful or selfish fell to the ground.

This is why over and over again in the Psalms we read things like, “Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken“(Psalm 62:2). This is why Jesus told the parable of the person who build their house on the rock instead of the sand. When the storms came, only one was left standing (Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:46-49).

Shaking is also something the Lord uses to sift a person’s life.

“For I will give the command,
    and I will shake the people of Israel
    among all the nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
    and not a pebble will reach the ground.

Amos 9:9

The prophet Amos was prophesying of a time the Lord would shake the people of Israel so that the dead things would fall away and only the healthy things would remain. Jesus told Peter this same thing would happen to Peter and the disciples.

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Luke 22:31-32

For those who have put their trust in the Lord, a season of shaking becomes a time of refinement. For those who have put their trust in other things, a season of shaking becomes a time that reveals the emptiness and powerlessness of the things they’ve put their trust in. It becomes a both a time of judgment against false gods and an invitation to repentance.

If you haven’t noticed, there is a shaking happening right now, both in society and in the church. As a society we are being sifted. As a church we are being refined. Our false gods are being exposed and judged for the empty and powerless things that they are. May we build our life on the rock and on nothing else. And may everything else fall to the ground.

The Hand of God

And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.

Nehemiah 2:8

Both Ezra and Nehemiah use the same phrase to describe what enabled them to return from exile and rebuild the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem. They both gave credit to “the gracious hand of God” on them.

Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him…Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.

Ezra 7:6-9

What is interesting about this phrase is that in other parts of the Bible, when the hand of the Lord is on a person or a people, it’s not a good thing. When the hand of the Lord was upon the enemies of Israel, it always meant judgment and disaster for them. An example of this is when the ark of the covenant was stolen and taken into Philistine territory. Everywhere it went, the hand of the Lord was upon it and that wasn’t a good thing for the Philistines.

The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors. When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.” 

1 Samuel 5:6-7

So let’s put all of this together. Grace is not just forgiveness and mercy; it is the supernatural enablement of God. God’s grace enables us to do what we otherwise could not do on our own. When we are in covenant relationship to God and His hand is upon us, it means that a special grace is upon us. It means His favor is upon us. The practical results of God’s hand being upon us means that breakthrough happens, doors open, things accelerate, and incredible opportunities arise.

When God sets us apart for a particular calling or mission and we decide to obey–despite the hardship–God will often place His hand upon us. His special grace and favor isn’t just about His love for us, but it is also about accomplishing the mission for which He has sent us.

Yet, if we live separated from God, the same hand of God upon us is terrifying. It’s like the Holy Spirit and the covenant relationship are the support structure that allow God’s hand upon us to be a good thing. But if the Spirit isn’t present, if the covenant relationship isn’t there, the weightiness of the hand of the Lord could crush us. Instead of the intense presence of the Lord feeling like love, peace and joy, the intense presence of the Lord feels like fear because of our unresolved sin.

To use a different word picture, the Lord is a consuming fire. For those in relationship to God through Jesus, the fire of the Lord is a refining fire and empowering fire. But to those who remain at a distance from God, that same fire feels like painful judgement. God’s fire is the same. God’s hand is the same. God doesn’t change. But our experience of Him changes based on our relationship to Him.

As followers of Jesus, when the gracious hand of God is on us, I believe we are accompanied on our mission by the angel of breakthrough assigned to bring breakthrough to whatever obstacle may arise before us. When the gracious hand of God is on us, His favor rests on us. The impossible suddenly becomes possible.

The Harvest

Where there are no oxen, the feeding trough is clean,
but an abundant harvest is produced by strong oxen.

Proverbs 14:4 (New English Translation)

This proverb describes in a picture a move of the Holy Spirit. Whenever God moves powerfully in a church through the Holy Spirit, things will get a little messy. If we want to control everything and keep it tidy and clean, we will likely have to ask the Holy Spirit to leave. But if we want a genuine move of God in our midst, we should be prepared to have a mess on our hands. We will have to clean the barn occasionally.

But the reverse is also mentioned in this proverb. When we allow the Holy Spirit to move, despite the mess, there will be an abundant harvest. His works are greater than what we can do on our own. His power is greater than ours. His ability to transform and ignite people far surpasses what our church programs can do.

Yet, feeding oxen is not only messy but it can be costly. Every farmer knows you must pay the price to feed the oxen so that an even greater harvest can be produced through the power of the oxen. Allowing the Holy Spirit to move in our midst will be costly. It require dying to self on many different levels. It will require personal sacrifice and corporate devotion. It will require a surrender of our norms and traditions. It will require getting over ourselves and not being so easily offended by things we don’t understand. Most of all, it will demand that we break from our addiction to control everything.

Our Sunday services will have to cease to be so tightly controlled. Our small groups and prayer times will have to open up to the move of the Spirit and not be quenched by our pre-arranged agenda. Most Christians are willing to give up time, energy, and money for the sake of the Kingdom but few are willing to give up their addiction to control.

Addiction to control looks like having to know 1) exactly what is going to happen, 2) exactly how long it will take, and 3) exactly who will be doing what. If not knowing these things causes such anxiety that you start to feel suffocated with a tightness in your chest–if not knowing these things makes you feel trapped–you might be addicted to control. When we demand that we have control in every environment of the church, we are essentially telling the Holy Spirit that He is not welcome. He is not welcome to do something outside of our scheduled plan.

Most churches have fallen in love with a clean feeding trough and a barn that smells like Pine-Sol. But the harvest is meager and we wonder why.

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Matthew 9:35-38

Opposition

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build…” 

Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes, they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem.

Ezra 4:1-2, 4-6

A large group of the people of God returned from exile to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the Temple. They were released to do so by an order from the king of Persia, King Cyrus. This was all orchestrated by the Lord.

…in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia…

Ezra 1:1

But once they started making sacrifices to the Lord and rebuilding the Temple, opposition came. Whenever we are called by God to accomplish His plans, there will be opposition. This is especially true when we are building something new or rebuilding something that should have always been. And notice the strategies of the opposition. Opposition to the Lord’s work usually goes through these same stages.

First, there’s the attempt to join the work in order to derail the work. This “friendly” and soft approach is often how opposition first arrives on the scene. If we invite the wrong people to give their input into the work we know we are called to do, it will get side-tracked, watered down, and compromised.

Secondly, there is an attempt to discourage through fear. This next wave of opposition is a series of people who are “concerned” about where this might lead. Fear is the main theme. Worst case scenario after worst case scenario gets listed as reasons why the work should stop. The attempt is to spread fear in such a way that people start getting discouraged and want to bail out.

If those two tactics don’t work, the next strategy of opposition intensifies into manipulation and accusation. The opposition starts recruiting people to their side with various forms of emotional bribery, manipulation, and false accusations about the ones leading the work of the Lord. (We read about how Absalom did this to King David in 2 Samuel 15:1-12). Lies about the leaders and character assassinations are the bread and butter of this stage of opposition.

Finally, if none of this stops the work of the Lord, the next move is making threats, including the threat of physical violence (see Nehemiah 4:11). While these threats are often empty, they can still cause a lot of pain and a lot of division.

For those who are called to step out in faith to accomplish a work of God, opposition will come. And the enemy isn’t creative enough to change his tactics. It usually looks something like the above strategies. The hard part is that many times this kind of opposition will come from people close to us. So it’s important that we face this opposition with love and grace for those who come against what God is doing. They think they are being helpful and wise even as they fight against what God is clearly doing.

I am reminded of times where I was the one pushing against and opposing a work of God. I thought I was being righteous and theologically sound. I thought I was in the right. I thought I was doing the right thing and warning against disaster. I didn’t realize until years later that I was actually fighting a work of the Lord. I didn’t realize until years later that I was the opposition; I was a puppet of the enemy. And when I came to realize my folly, I spent months in repentance for it. It was painful to realize how wrong I was. It was painful to come to an awareness of my own false accusations against those leaders God was using to lead a work of the Lord.

So when we do face opposition, we need to show grace. We need to show love. But we shouldn’t let opposition discourage us or stop us from what we’ve been called to do. God has called us to accomplish His work. It’s not our plan; it’s His plan. And we shouldn’t stop for any reason.

Un-productivity

God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.

He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.

2 Chronicles 36:17-21

In my daily devotional reading of scripture, I got to the end of 2 Kings with a deep sadness in my heart. God’s people rebelled against Him, and they lost everything as Babylon conquered them and exiled them. Rebellion and sin without repentance always leads to a tragic story. I flipped to the end of 2 Chronicles to read that writer’s version of the same story. That’s when I noticed a line that feels very familiar to what we are living through right now.

In the midst of a horrific moment in history for the people of God–the Temple burned down, the sacred items stolen, the people being enslaved and exiled, Jerusalem destroyed, the leaders killed–God mentions one bright spot, “The land enjoyed its sabbath rests…” Notice it’s plural.

In the covenant that God made with His people, giving work a rest and giving the land a rest was part of the deal. Every seven days the people were to rest from work and every seven years the land was to rest from productivity. Amid all of their rebellion, the people of God certainly weren’t following this command.

‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you…

Leviticus 25:2-6

The Lord was using a tragic situation to catch up on all the rest the land should have had but didn’t. So instead of giving the land rest once every seven years, the land got 70 years of rest all at once. Seventy times seven is 490 years worth of sabbath rests for the land. That many years reaches all the way back to the time of King David.

And what does 70 times 7 remind you of in the New Testament?

Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

Matthew 18:21-22 NASB

Seventy times seven is all about forgiveness. For the people of God in exile, God was taking a terrible situation and using it to restore the land and bring rest to the productivity of the soil. He was also using the situation to restore the people’s hearts back to faithfulness and bring rest to their wayward souls. Within 70 years, the people would return to the land and return to their covenant with the Lord. The restoration of the land itself was a sign of God’s limitless forgiveness.

So, what is God bringing rest to right now? Is He allowing the earth to rest? Is He challenging our addiction to productivity and using this terrible situation to restore all the sabbath rests we should have been taking? Is He inviting us into His limitless forgiveness?

Maybe hyper-productivity isn’t what God ever wanted for us. Maybe fruitfulness is what He wanted, which includes regular cycles of rest and the embrace of intentionally unproductive days.