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On Influence, Inferiority & The Goodness of a Well-timed Word

Encouragement is the oxygen of the soul.

George M. Adams

Do you know the joy of a well-timed word? The sweetness of an apt reply?

Those sort of words met me this morning. Some timely words caught me by surprise before I even left my bed. But before I share those words, I’ll quick explain the season.

We’ll make it short and start last night. I spent a good part of the night in fighting the sulks. The triggers were clear: low blood sugar, the time of month, and a visit with a friend enrolled in a degree program in which I’d love to be.

Even though that credential could open more ministry doors and lend influence and credibility to current ministry, for now that door is closed.  This opportunity is not knocking. But hearing the joy behind my friend’s open door at once exposed an old idol and scraped up feelings of inferiority.

Inferiority. Influence. Idol?

My idols are familiar to me. I’m on to my influence idol.

Influence in itself isn’t bad.  In fact, we should seek to have influence, provided it’s focused on making God in Christ- not ourselves- look grand. Jesus explained influence like this: “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Influence is light. Christian influence is living  in ways that reflect God’s glory and have a positive effect on the character of those around us. We’re mirrors and our words and our blogs and our giving and good works can help others worship God.

I like to be influential. I like to know I’m building the kingdom of heaven and making God look good. But influence turns idol when craving it means I’m ungrateful for the gifts he’s given and discontent with my lot in life- which God alone holds. (See Psalm 16)-

Good Thing Or Ultimate Thing?

There is a holy ambition. Romans 2:7 is about “seeking glory, honor and immortality.” A while back, I shared 9 Quotes For Glory-Seekers and #3 was an oldie-but-goodie from Matthew Henry:

There is a holy ambition which is at the bottom of all practical religion. This is seeking the kingdom of God, looking in our desires and aims as high as heaven, and resolved to take up with nothing short of it. Those that seek for the vain glory and honor of this world…are disappointed, but those that seek for immortal glory and honor shall have them.” (Commentary on Romans 2:7)

For the record, the things we turn to idols aren’t necessarily in and of themselves bad things. They can, and usually are good things: food, children, nature, influence. Good things.

But, like Tim Keller says, idolatry is turning a good thing into an ultimate thing.

We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.

And so my influence idol was exposed. I know: UG-LY.

Wield Faith’s Weapon

But God’s grace teaches me. So I wielded the weapons, preached truth to myself and did the next thing. 

Translated: I unloaded the dishwasher, wrote out a birthday card, chopped some kohlrabi and snipped yellow wax beans, all the while reminding myself to give thanks and DIGLI.

I reminded myself that God arranges the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Corinthians 12:18) and that He scatters grace and mercy as he wishes on whom he wills. That God loves inequality and dispenses his gifts and open doors as he wishes and that it’s for me not to envy and wallow in inferiority, but give thanks and keep on.

Because gratitude drives out self-pity and thanks trump grumps.

Friday was my early morning, the only day woke at 6:00. So I got into bed, set the alarm, and-with a mix of success and lingering sulks- I turned out the light.

How The Well-Timed Word Came

Beep-beep-beep-beep. I hit the button and let the radio talk. Here’s what I heard:

Hi, I’m Joni Eareckson Tada with a funny story.

Not long ago at a conference, I was introduced as “Dr. Joni Tada.” When I wheeled up to speak, I confessed to the audience, I said: “Friends, I may have been given a couple of honorary doctorates from seminaries, but hey, look, I’m only a high school graduate. I’ve never even been to Bible College!” Most in the audience looked a little surprised, and there was a time that fact used to embarrass me, I wouldn’t have told anybody that I had no real scholastic degrees. If a person’s wisdom and expertise were measured by their M.Div.’s or their PhD’s or even their bachelor degrees, my goodness, then I’m not competent to speak alongside Christian leaders who have actually earned those degrees…

Did Joni see last night? It was as if she was sitting beside my bed, speaking straight to me. As if she knew comparison and inferiority and envy were on the march to cripple me.  Because I didn’t have the right degree.

The Word from Joni, and God

Then Joni told how someone had shared timely words from 2 Corinthians 3:5-6:

Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

The 4- minute spot continued. By now I was on the edge of my bed lacing my running shoes, letting these delightful, timely words land.

No, I haven’t spent 4 years in Bible school. But I have spent over 50 years in a wheelchair, most of those years studying the same books and scholars as my friends who graduated from The Masters University or Wheaton College…Look, I’m just a quadriplegic! But that’s just it! God delights in teaching us powerful lessons through our weaknesses and limitations…

Plus, it’s my weaknesses that keep pointing me to the source of all authority and ability, God and God alone. Praise the Lord; He is the one who makes us competent as ambassadors of the new covenant! God takes our inadequacies and, as we lean on him and learn from the trials he sends, he makes us competent.

Now you may think, ‘who am I that anyone should listen to me? Why should anyone care what I have to say?’ Oh friend, don’t fool yourself; in Christ, you are completely competent. 

That was the how the well-timed word came to me, On the only day last week I woke to the radio, after the only night I had a fight like that, here was Joni, giving an apt answer, the perfect truth to address my immediate need. Here was Joni, speaking a timely word to me.

And friends, degree or no degree or three degrees, be encouraged to know: Your competence comes from God. 

But more, I hope that in every good and well-timed word, you hear a loving Lord.

A man has joy in an apt answer,
And how delightful is a timely word!

Proverbs 15:23

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Saints in the Land?

As for the saints who are in the land, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.
Psalm 16:3

What delights your soul? Is it the saints you know? Do you even know any saints? And, if you do, do they make you glad?

Or does this sound like silly talk? Like such words about saints could only come from a  super-spiritual poet living long ago in a faraway land?

(Saint) Friends Who Stick Closer Than Brothers

It’s not silly talk. It’s real and daily- this saints-are-so-lovely talk. I know this because in the last week I’ve had- not one, not two, not three- but four different friends tell me, as it were, that sometimes blood isn’t thicker.  That it depends on whose blood; specifically, if it’s saints’ blood.

All four confided to me big hurts inflicted by blood. A sister whose words are sword thrusts, a brother whose whose aloofness wounds, another brother whose lifestyle choices take him to a distant land (my friend misses him), and a father who waited until my friend was 42  to tell her, “I love you.” 

All four also shared how a Christian friend- a saint- had helped them through. How, for example, when a blood-brother wound was raw, my friend texted a saint-friend to pray and then her friend not only prayed but showed up 30 minutes later to whisk my friend away to a happier place. 

Christian friends may be more loyal than an  unbelieving brother. Since brotherhood is one of the tightest relationships we know, a  friend who sticks closer than a brother is a life-giving gift, indeed. (David and Jonathan’s friendship is a great biblical example of this type of closer-than-a-brother friendship.)

Proverbs 18:4 says, There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. And if the friendship is between saints, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that water’s sometimes thicker.

Just who are these saints?

Saints literally means, “holy ones.”

But if the term’s still a bit murky, don’t worry. You’re not alone. One source says the word “saints” has almost completely lost its original meaning,

[T]hat is, of being set aside for the exclusive ownership and use of the Triune God. Very few people in the Christian Church today would consider themselves to be “saints”…Unfortunately the original meaning of the word “saints” has largely fallen into disuse.

But if the term’s still a little fuzzy, a quick survey of Scripture makes it clear: saints are simply believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. And all believers are called saints, even when their character is “dubiously holy.”

Paul uses the term “saints” – the plural- to refer to a group of Christians about 40 times. In fact, Paul addresses almost all of his letters to “the saints” in that particular place. (See 2 Thess. 1:10, 1 Cor. 1:2, Romans 1:7, Eph. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:2.) Only once does Paul refer to a solo “saint.” That’s at the end of Philippians where he writes, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus.”

So saints are not a special class of Christian. They are all those called by God’s grace and sanctified by His Spirit. Saints are in Christ Jesus.

Saints-R-Us. Saints are believers. Saints are “just” Christians, running the race by grace through faith, in Christ Jesus.

Saints-R-Us

Still, we’re prone to put people like Mother Teresa and Apostle Paul on pedestals and think they’re super-human. We ought not.

C.H. Spurgeon explains, 

Their holiness is attainable even by us. We are “called to be saints” by that same voice which constrained them to their high vocation…They lived with Jesus, they lived for Jesus, therefore they grew like Jesus. Let us live by the same Spirit as they did, “looking unto Jesus,” and our saintship will soon be apparent.

I crossed paths with some saints last week. Their names were Holly and Hannah, Jim and Jen, Christin and Cindy and Shari and Stan. They live with Jesus, they live for Jesus, therefore they are growing like Jesus. 

The saints in my land are doing this. They are growing more like Jesus.

They’re growing to:

Saints in my land are growing thicker skins and softer hearts. They set their hearts to seek God.

That’s why the saints in my land make me glad. Saints remind me of Jesus. 

Those nearest him are nearest one another.

Believers like this are closer to us in our thoughts and affections than even our non-believing families. That’s the oneness of the body of Christ. That’s the intimate, eternal relationship that we have with the saints.

That’s why the Psalmist cannot help but say, “As for the saints who are in the land, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.”

Or as S. L. Johnson said, God’s the center. Those that are nearest him are nearest to one another.  Saints take joy in saints.

David did this too. He took delight in the saints he knew. “I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me,”  (101:6), he said. And “I am a companion of all who fear you,” (Psalm 119:63). The saints were David’s delight.

Saints make saints glad.

Do the saints make you glad?

David says that there’s one type of person who gets him stoked and fired-up and makes him really, really glad. It’s saints. It’s the holy ones who treasure God.

So I repeat, do the saints make you glad? Do you cherish God’s people?  And do you delight in them or merely endure them?

If your honest answer is merely endure, I have two questions for you.  They’re from this sermon by Pastor John Piper.

  1. Do you know any Christians?  I mean radical people who lay down their lives for Jesus because Jesus means everything to them and they are servants of the world and God has broken them free from their love affair with the world and their ego and power and comfort.
  2. Why would it be that you, a professing Christian, would find more joy in people who find no joy in what is your primary joy?

Hard hitting, those. But it makes sense: If we treasure God, we treasure those who treasure God.

These are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.

The “Sweetness of the Saints” Test

Piper explains how this can be,

When it comes to people, he says, the ones who give him pleasure are godly people. “As for the saints in the land (the holy ones, godly ones — the ones who treasure God and live for God), they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” All his delight, his joy, his pleasure. He doesn’t mean that he has delight in God’s people instead of God or above God. He means that godless people don’t give him delight in their godless ways; only the godly do. What delights him about people is how they treasure God and exalt God. This is the sweetness of his relationships.

Saints are sweet to us because God is sweet to them. That’s why this saint stuff matters. Because it is one way we can measure our relationship to the Lord. It’s a simple test, really. James Boice explains, “Those who love the Lord will love the company of those who also love him.”

So  I’ll ask again: Do you love other Christians? Do you cherish the people of God and seek to be near those who treasure your Lord?

Do you delight in the saints in the land?

The new men are already here, dotting the earth- recognisable if you know what to look for. They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people’ which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but they need you less. (We must get over wanting to be NEEDED: in some goodish people, specially women, that is the hardest of all temptations to resist.) They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from. When you have recognised one of them, you will recognise the next one much more easily. And I strongly suspect that they recognise one another immediately and infallibly, across every barrier of colour, sex, class, age, and even of creeds. In that way, to become holy is rather like joining a secret society. To put it at the very lowest, it must be great fun.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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Freedom and Love and Raspberries Aren’t Free

Some say love is spelled T-I-M-E. I say it’s spelled R-A-S-P-B-E-R-R-I-E-S and it’s measured in mosquito bites and thornbush scratches.

It’s funny how they grow together- isn’t it? – the mosquitos and the berries, the stinging and the sweet, the bramble and the rose.

And picking that bucket of raspberries tonight- with mosquitoes buzzing and sweat dripping and thorns scratching and practically hyperventilating as I blew the pesky critters off my nose- reminded me of a fabled 50 year-old tale.

A tale without which there might not be me.

Once Upon A Time…

A fair maiden named Darlene met a strapping young man named Mitchell on the high school debate bus.  At once Mitchell knew he’d found his mate. It took the cheery, sunshine Darlene just a little longer.

Soon high school let out for the summer. And you know how the field looks different come summer.

Mitchell must have know too, about teenage summers and how other fellas work the fields. So one July day a lot like today, along came young Mitchell.

But Mitchell was wise. He wasn’t empty-handed when he came courting fair Darlene.

Oh no. Mitchell came bearing the crown jewel of summer treasures. For it, the smitten young man had endured fierce summer sun, fought many a thorn and nearly been borne by mosquitoes.

Mitchell was so taken with Darlene that those hours in the bramble seemed like seconds at the junior prom. Such was Mitchell’s love for the sunny and smiling Darlene.

The Cost of Love

So now, with the fields ripening fast in the middle of a Mukwonago summer, along came Mitchell, bearing the costliest of gifts for his princess Darlene.

When came the knock, Darlene opened the door. She saw Mitchell’s scratches and welts and his strong juice-stained, thorn-scratched hands.

Then those bright hazel eyes locked on the pail. Oh, that pail!- glistening on top, laden with the finest of July. 

And with just one look at the amethyst gems in that brimming-full pail, Mitchell and Darlene’s deal was sealed.

Mom and Dad have been married 48 years this July 17th.

Freedom and Love and Raspberries Aren’t Free

All that to say on this raspberry picking day after the Fourth of July, freedom’s not free. Our founders pledged their lives, their fortune and their sacred honor when they declared us free. Brave men and women give their lives to preserve our liberty. And it’s effortful, still, holding freedom up with virtuous, tolerant lives.

Our spiritual freedom came at a high cost too. The cost of one perfect life. For Jesus, in love, gave his life to redeem us. His blood-stained, nail-pieced hands bought us out of sin’s bramble. A high price was paid to bring us to him.

So no, love is not without cost and freedom’s not free.

But neither is a bucket of black raspberries.

You are not your own, you were bought at a price.

Therefore honor God with your bodies. 

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

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“I Think it’s a Loop,” & 4 More Sage Summer Travel Tips

At the end of the Red Route, South Rim, Grand Canyon

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered;

an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”

G.K. Chesterton

Our nine-day. “Out West” adventure ended last week. Some of you have asked for highlights. There were many. Here are five.

1. Beware of “I think it’s a loop.”

Our hiking party on the descent, once we knew it was NOT a loop.

“Wow! This trail is pretty steep,” my niece exclaimed, a minute or two up the trail to Weeping Rock in Utah’s Zion National Park.

“I think it’s a loop,” I assured her as we rounded- or more accurately,  as we turned sharply to the left.  “The sign said the trail to Weeping Rock is only four-tenths of a mile. That’s nothing- a ten minute walk, maybe.” 

“Well, anyway, it’s a good thing we filled our bladders at the last stop,” one cousin added, between swigs from his Camelbak, “because this trail is making me thirsty.”

“Yup- out of one bladder right into the other,” another cousin quipped. 

We with any breath left chuckled. But our bladder banter betrayed us.

Because none of us was an actual-factual hiker.  I mean the kind who does this sort of switchback, steep drop off stuff.  A real hiker. Our knock-off Camelbaks had arrived mere days ago.

Not all those who wander are lost.

Still, here we all were- wandering up Zion National Park’s family-friendly, rated-easy trail to Weeping Rock.

“You sure this is the way to Weeping Rock?” my husband asked me, about ten minutes in.

“I don’t know if it is or is not,” Uncle John jumped in, “but I’m already crying.”

“I think it’s a loop,” I said again.

And we trudged on.

Someone mumbled something about a trail of tears. 

Then, where the trail was so narrow and the drop-off so sheer and my niece’s hand numb for how hard I was holding her- where we were hugging the rock- there came two hikers going down. 

“Hello!” I burst, “Can you tell us if we’re on the path to Weeping Rock?”

That bearded trekker grimaced first, then without a word, he grinned and turned. Our eyes tracked as he pointed down to a dark, little cave way off at the base of the cliff.  

That is Weeping Rock,” he said.

Tolkien was right, of course: Not all those who wander are lost. 

But this I know- those who slog along switchbacks seeking the easy, “family friendly,” route to Weeping Rock are. They are lost. 

We followed the bearded man down.

2. Listen to the rocks cry out.

The second highlight of the trip for me was listening to all those majestic rocks.  All the earth will shout his praise.

I heard the Grand Canyon sing praise- louder and louder as the day wore on and the sun colored those west faces magnificent.

And the Vermillion Cliffs chanted too, driving into southwestern Utah. By the time we reached Zion, I tell you,  the Patriarchs were tenors, belting out glory, Pavarotti. style.

“All the earth will worship You and sing praise to You. They will sing praise to Your name.” Selah Psalm 66:4

Bright Angel Trail, photo tweaks courtesy of David Haessig

I’ve written before about the glory of God in Creation, and how sunsets and canyons and mountains and rivers exist for Christ.

I can’t help but share this John Piper quote again:

Every honorable pleasure we have in the created world is designed by God to give us a faint taste of heaven and make us hunger for Christ. Every partial satisfaction in this life points to the perfect satisfaction in Jesus who made the world.

Creation talks– it sings and shouts- and we hear Creator God.

3. Road trip with friends (and bring your walkie-talkies).

For a full 24  hours after we got home my ears were ringing. I kept hearing “Roger” and “10-4” and “Breaker, breaker.”

I miss hearing the happy back and forth between the brothers-in-law, the “Hey’dja see those longhorn over there?” and “Woudnt’cha just like to see one of those boulders come rolling down?” and ” What song can you sing us, Big John?”

This trip we traveled with my in-laws and now I don’t ever want to road-trip alone. Joy shared is joy doubled.

Switching up the cousins each leg of the trip worked like a charm to ease any conflict and  breathe fresh fun into those 4,000 miles. 

And, trust me, it really helps when you’re eating leftovers out of the trunk for the fourth meal in a row in the parking lot of Wall Drug to have a unified front before a half dozen kids with their hearts set on Culver’s.

Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity…It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. Psalm 133:1, 3

4. A joyful heart is good medicine.

Joy is the serious business of heaven, I’ve heard.

But on earth, it seems it comes to us indirectly- not when we aim at it head on. At least that’s how it was out West. 

At Weeping Rock. Looking out.
Zion’s Weeping Rock, Takes 1-10
Zion’s Weeping Rock, Take 11.

Laughter comes at the strangest times.

Like, when after 14 hours on the road, our hotel landed on Pancake Boulevard. For some reason, we laughed until we cried.

Or when Curious George-like, my nine-year old niece snagged what she thought was her dad’s lost hat at a bus stop at Hopi Point. She was on her cheery way running it to him, when the hat’s frantic owner came crying after,

Hey, little girl! That’s my hat!” 

Or when we made it to Mt. Rushmore at twilight and raced up the Avenue of Flags to catch a glimpse. We’d read the stone faces would light up pronto! at 9. So up we dashed- cameras in hand and poised at 8:59, ready for the lights to shine.

Grand Canyon shuttle bus. Hat’s on.
Mt. Rushmore, tweaks by David Haessig

And we waited and watched. The four faces grew grayer and grayer. We heard singing and a poetic reading and a full-out, complete with flag-lowering,  patriotic show.

And while we were lost in wonder- or wondering- the lights flashed on.

Our cameras were in pockets.  And we laughed.

Or when we finally reached Weeping Rock and I marched up to a real professional-looking, photographer-man and asked if he’d take our picture and after 10 minutes and lots of contrast here and back-fill there, that crazy silhouette shot was the best we got.

And we laughed and we laughed and we laughed. We rejoiced greatly, we sons and daughters of Zion! 

 5. Rocky Mountain highs lead to low sea level lows.

At the  high points of our trip, and we probably averaged about 7,000 feet about sea level, a couple of quotes would rumble around in my head. my head. They’re the lines bolded below, from “The Place of Exaltation,” by Oswald Chambers. 

Glenwood Springs, CO

We have all experienced times of exaltation on the mountain, when we have seen things from God’s perspective and have wanted to stay there. But God will never allow us to stay there. The true test of our spiritual life is in exhibiting the power to descend from the mountain…

We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life— those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life, and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength.”

Monday morning came around and heaps of laundry and lost library books and, no joke, a flat tire too. After 9 days in the sun, for our first five days back on the plain it rained. Rain boots on the ground and bills to pay and a lawn to mow. We were made for the valley. 

The test of our spiritual life is not in going up the mountain or vacationing with gratitude and laughs. Those are easy.

The true test is in descending the mountain with grace.

Walk About Zion

Walking about Zion. tweaks by David Haessig
Glenwood Springs Pool

We walked about Zion. And hiked at Grand Canyon and stood in waist deep Oregon Trail wheel ruts. We bathed in Glenwood Spring’s giant hot pool and sat on a huge petrified rock called Old Faithful and looked straight into the granite faces of America’s greatest. We enjoyed every rock, every trail, every stop.

God gets glory when we enjoy his gifts, as his gifts.  I’ve written before about how we ought to look up the sunbeam and chase back to the source. How we ought to “enjoy everything in God and God in everything” and receive vacations like this as avenues to enjoy the never-shifting Giver of all good gifts

Our western adventure was prime-time for that. For putting this worldling in her place.

Old Faithful, at Petrified Forest, NM

The rocks restored my awe of the Creator. The rocks and rivers and cliffs and canyons shook me up. They reminded me that I- and the rocks and rivers and cliffs and canyons- all exist for God.

We need these gracious reminders.

Because, if you’re like me, you get into a groove- or a rut- and get too comfy in our bubbles. But then something shakes us and wakes us up to reality. He is God. We are dust.  He is a Rock eternal.  We are a disappearing mist. He gives living water. 

If we are Zion’s children, we are more than dust and mist. If we dwell in Zion, in Him, we are as unshakeable as God is.

Solid Joys and Lasting Treasure

Guernsey Ruts, Wyoming

This week I heard an old preacher quote the last verse of an old hymn called, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,”

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show:

Solid joys and lasting treasure,
  None but Zion’s children know.

Solid joys and lasting treasure are for Zion’s children. They were, and they are, ours.

So walk about Zion, go around her. But beware when you’re scaling a cliff switchback-style and your guide says, “I think it’s a loop.”

Especially when you think you’re on the way to Weeping Rock.

Walk about Zion, go around her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels, 
that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. 
He will guide us forever.

Psalm 48:12-14