One Word for 2020

Several years back, my friend Andrew Forrest introduced me to the idea of choosing “one word” as a theme for the New Year. It has been a powerful spiritual practice for me ever since, and I recommend it to anyone who struggles with traditional resolutions. In past years I’ve chosen words like move, joy, trust, and surrender.

As I’ve thought and prayed about my word for 2020, I’ve been drawn to a passage in scripture that speaks to my soul.

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

John 15:5-11 ESV

In this passage, Jesus tells his followers that the only way to bear fruit that lasts begins with abiding in him. Apart from abiding, we accomplish nothing of lasting value. Apart from abiding and obeying, we will not live a life filled with the joy of Christ. The foundation of a faithful and fruitful life is abiding in the love of Jesus.

My word of the year for 2020 is “abide.” I want everything I do as a disciple of Jesus to come from a place of abiding and obedience. For me, this means two important things.

First, it means prioritizing time in God’s presence. Even as a pastor, it is tempting and easy to prioritize productivity. Like anyone else, we are tempted to focus on the many things that need to be done. We end up, like Martha in Luke 10:38-42, being so determined to do all the things that need to be done that we miss out on God’s presence. In those moments, we hear the words of Jesus, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” (vv. 41-42 NKJV) For me, this means taking time at the beginning of each day to read the Bible and pray. It also means intentionally spending extended time in prayer to seek the presence of God. Without abiding in God’s loving presence, nothing we do or accomplish will last.

Next, this means understanding the Kingdom’s order for effort and grace. A wise pastor once said that grace means that as Christians we work from love, not for love. In our world, we often work to prove ourselves. We work to show everyone how valuable we are and how productive we can be.

In the world of God’s Kingdom, our value is based on the deep and abiding love of God who sent his Son, Jesus Christ to save us and restore us. We receive this love as a pure and unearned gift. That is grace. All of our efforts for the Lord are not to earn His love or favor. Instead, our efforts flow from abiding in His love and favor!

While abide is my “one word” for 2020, it will likely not be yours. I believe as you pray over the next day or two, God will share a word to guide and direct your life and faith for the year ahead. What is your word for 2020?


A Flat Tire and God’s Provision

I was almost finished with my seminary education, and I had worked through most of the process preparing to be commissioned and licensed for ministry. All that remained in the process at that point was a final interview with the primary board responsible for ordination within my denomination. My family and I lived in Wilmore, Kentucky at the time, so I had to fly back to Oklahoma city for this interview.

I had scheduled plenty of time to get my rental car and make it to the interview with time to spare, but flights are never predictable. Our flight was running late, and by the time I arrived in OKC, I had just enough time to get my rental car and drive to the church where interviews were being held.

Just a few miles north of the airport, I heard a pop and the tell-tale sound of a tire that went flatter than a pancake. This was before everyone had a smartphone, so I wasn’t able to call and let the board know I would be late. A million thoughts went through my mind, but the first was that I needed to get off the road and find a safe place to deal with the problem.

Taking the logical approach and pulling off into a business to the right didn’t seem right, so I kept driving a couple hundred yards and then turned left across two lanes of traffic into a nondescript building with no signs indicating what it was used for. I hoped to walk in and find a phone book and use their phone to call for help.

The lady at the front desk looked surprised when I asked for the rental car company’s phone number. She laughed and said, “you don’t know where you are, do you?” Of course, I did not. She said, “this just so happens to be the regional repair center for several rental car companies here in Oklahoma City. Don’t worry sir, we’ll just get you a new car in a few minutes and you’ll be on your way.”

I couldn’t believe it. In my mind, I had already failed my interview and would soon be calling my wife to tell her about the whole ordeal. Instead, I just so happened to have taken an illogical turn into the perfect place for God to meet my need at that moment. I was in a car and on my way in plenty of time to make the interview!

I don’t know what you’re facing today. I don’t know what your urgent “flat tire” situation might be. But I do know this. Sometimes, in the middle of these moments of confusion and fear, you’ll take a turn that doesn’t seem to make sense. And it is often in those moments that God leads you to the perfect place to receive an amazing dose of His provision and grace.

Maybe you’re experiencing a relationship that is going bad or has already ended. Maybe you’ve had a family member receive a terrible diagnosis, or you’re facing the fear of receiving one yourself. Maybe your business or work situation has gone as flat as the tire on my rental car. As you look for a safe place to pull off, you may instead be feeling a nudge to turn into a place that doesn’t make sense.

For instance, it could be that turning to a church is the last thing you’d consider for facing a situation like those I described. Or maybe talking to a trusted counselor, pastor, or friend about the situations you’re dealing with makes no logical sense in your mind. But it just might be that turning in a way that seems unnatural to you could be just the way God wants to meet you and provide grace for your need. God still leads. God still guides. And God wants to pour His love into your heart and life today.

Upgrade from the Kids’ Table

Today, many of us will be gathering with family around tables for a Christmas feast. Graduating from the kids’ table to sit with the grownups is a rite of passage in most families. The adults get to gather around a nice oak dining room table, and the kids sit at an old card table on the back porch. There’s always that moment when you feel like you’re too old to sit at the kids’ table, and you start begging your parents to graduate to the dining room.

Then there are those times when the adult table fills up too quickly and one of the last adults getting food ends up slumped over the card table with their knees sticking up into the table. Looking at these scenes in many families, you can tell a lot about someone’s identity from where they sit. For years in my wife’s family, my father-in-law has sat at one end of the table and my mother-in-law sits at the other end. The rest of us sit in the middle where we are busy passing food back and forth throughout the meal.

Even in most living rooms, you’ll find mom’s favorite chair, dad’s chair, and all the open seating for those of lesser status! Or maybe you’ve waited to get on an airplane lately. Business class, select class, preferred, priority, and then cattle call. You can tell a lot about someone’s identity from where they are seated.

Believe it or not, the Bible ties together identity and seating as well. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints,  and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)

Paul prays for people to know two things. First, “the wealth of his glorious inheritance,” and second, the “immeasurable greatness of his power.” Once our eyes are open to these two realities, we see the reality of where Christ is seated, “ He exercised this power in Christ by raising Him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens—  far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he subjected everything under his feet and appointed him as head over everything for the church,  which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.”(Ephesians 1:20-23) Here we see Christ is raised and seated at the right hand of God the Father. As a result, he is given all power and authority and dominion. No one has a higher title than Jesus. No one has more power than Jesus. No one has more authority than Jesus.

As Ephesians continues, we discover our identity before we have a relationship with Christ. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Apart from a relationship with Jesus, we are dead in sins and trespasses. We follow the ways of the world, and we are led by a spirit of disobedience rather than God’s Holy Spirit. However, out of God’s amazing grace, we are saved, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!” (Ephesians 2:4)

Without the grace of God, we are easily led astray by every whim and desire of our hearts. Paul says we are headed for wrath. John Stott describes God’s wrath as, “neither an impersonal process of cause and effect (as some scholars have tried to argue), nor a passionate, arbitrary or vindictive outburst of temper, but His holy and uncompromising antagonism to evil, with which He refuses to negotiate.” God moves to destroy the evil that is destroying us.

But God is rich in mercy and through his great love, he makes us alive with Christ, saves us by his grace, and gives us “upgraded seating.” “He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, so that  in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6-7) 

We are not just saved by God, but elevated. As Christians, we are seated at the big table. We are seated at the best possible table with an all-access pass to the presence of Jesus Christ. This is a table spread out with immeasurable riches. Out of this upgraded seating, we have a number of benefits.

First, we realize our proximity to Jesus. Hebrews 4:12 affirms this as well, “Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.” Jesus is with us and we are with him, no matter what situation we face in our life.

Next, wherever we are currently seated in this world, we gain the perspective of eternally upgraded seating. When we realize we are seated in heavenly places with Jesus Christ, the other places we are seated matter far less. We often get caught up in “if only” thinking. If only I had a better job. If only my marriage were more like so-and-so’s marriage (I hate to break it to you, but so-and-so still leaves their toothbrush on the counter). If only my kids were like their kids. If only we could go on vacations all the time like everyone I see on Facebook. If only I had their circumstances, and on and on.

Recognizing you are a child of the king, seated with Christ in heavenly places changes all of this. I can have the best seat in the world or the worst seat, but the spiritual reality is that I am seated with Christ and have access to the King. This King hears my prayers, knows my name, and holds my life in the palm of his hand.

Finally, we are called to embrace the power and potential of walking as sons and daughters of the King. We have the power to shift the spiritual atmosphere of our neighborhoods and communities. We are commissioned as Christ’s representatives in the world. We can stop denying the potential we have to bring healing, grace, and transformation to whatever environment we find ourselves in.

When my wife and I were getting off our plane on our honeymoon, someone heard that we just got married. They said, “why didn’t you tell the airline?? They often will upgrade newlyweds free of charge to first-class!” We didn’t realize our identity carried more benefits than we had taken advantage of that day. This doesn’t have to be you. There are several tables. Which one do you want to be seated at? The table in the world: dead in sins and trespasses, following the ways of the world, dominated by your own will and inclinations? The table of self: saved from hell, but focused on yourself? Or the table of Christ: seated with him in heavenly places.

It is time to leave the kids’ table. It is time to recognize our true identity and boldly approach the Father who has not only saved us, but lifted us up with Christ and seated us at a table filled with mercy, grace, and power.

Obedience to a Whisper

As I walked into the first church I served as a pastor, I wandered through an old office located just behind the sanctuary. Years before, the heavy stained glass windows had been replaced with large clear panes of glass. These windows invited those inside to look out at the surrounding community. When I looked out the window, I saw a series of small wooden homes near the church. A few of these homes were obviously older. Some hadn’t been cared for in years, and most had a dilapidated car or two in their gravel driveways.

One of these homes stared me in the face every time I walked from our parsonage across the street to my office, which was next door to the church. When the weather was nice, the family who lived there could often be found sitting on the porch. I would feel the tug of the Holy Spirit saying, “how can you preach and not reach out to the people I’ve placed directly in your line of sight day after day?” Finally, I stepped out of my comfort zone and into obedience. I walked the few steps next door, introduced myself as the pastor of the church, and engaged in small talk before telling them they’d be welcome to join us in worship anytime. I learned this was a rental property, and later found out that the people who lived there shifted almost seasonally. This family moved not long after.

One night as we slept, some bored teenager decided it would be a good idea to spray paint our sidewalk with a few choice words. Of course, it wasn’t long before I was kneeling alongside a friend from the congregation who doubled as our treasurer, mission director, and pianist. As we cleaned the graffiti off the sidewalk, a little boy who had just moved into the house next door came and stood beside us. He asked, “who owns this church?” We both laughed as I said, “well, nobody really. It belongs to God.” He said, “oh no, that’s not right. Somebody owns it. Every building is owned by somebody.” I tried to find an analogy and pointed to the high school across the street and said, “it’s like the school. Who do you think owns the school?” to which he replied, “the principal owns the school!” My friend pointed at me and said, “then I guess he owns this church!”

It wasn’t long after this conversation that the kid began attending on Sunday mornings. It was fascinating to see how a young man who’d never stepped foot in a church experienced everything in worship on a Sunday morning. I looked out during the sermon one day, and he had his feet propped up on the pew in front of him. One day as we made time for the congregation to greet and shake hands, a watchful member noticed he’d made his way to the front where our traditional church had candles burning on the altar. He was moving his hand quickly back and forth over the flame! To our church’s credit, people didn’t get worked up and gently helped him understand what to do and when.

My wife worked for a local dentist with a generous soul. He told her that he enjoyed giving out bikes to kids at Christmas, and she immediately thought of our new young friend. I walked back to the house next door and knocked on the door. The boy lived with his grandmother and she came to the door. I reintroduced myself and asked her how she was and told her how much we enjoyed having her grandson at church. Then I asked her if she had any plans for Christmas. She began to choke up a bit and told me that she was raising him and a granddaughter and it wasn’t going to be a year she could afford much for them.

I proceeded to tell her about how a local dentist, who wanted no credit, would be willing to buy both of her grandkids a bike and that I would place them in her storage shed a few days before Christmas. She immediately began to cry, thanking me for this blessing. But I knew. It had nothing to do with me. It started first when the Spirit nudged me and invited me to reach out to the house next door. Every tale of grace and blessing starts with obedience to a whisper

God’s Grace in Jackson Creek

As a child, my bedroom overlooked Jackson Creek. On rainy days it would overflow its banks and, at least in my childhood imagination, it would look like the epic floods of Noah. During the summer, it was the perfect place to wade, catch crawdads, and find a swimming hole or two that were just deep enough to find relief from the scorching Oklahoma summer sun.

Even though we lived in the country, we had a few neighbors with kids around my age, and we would spend hours playing in and around Jackson Creek. One day, my neighbor Kyle and I were swimming in the creek, and somehow our conversation turned to faith. Unexpectedly, Kyle asked me if I would baptize him. Even though I attended church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, I felt immensely unqualified for what he was asking me to do. I told him I didn’t think I was supposed to do that. 

Even though we were both still in grade school, I had talked to Kyle about Jesus. We’d be in the middle of a fierce G.I. Joe battle and I would abruptly stop and ask, “are you saved?” He must have known the right answer to change the subject, because he would say something like, “yeah, I guess,” and we’d go right back to playing our game. I’d breathe a huge sigh of relief because I had no idea what to say next. Once again, standing there in the creek, I had no idea how to respond!

Little did I know that Kyle, even as someone who rarely if ever entered the doors of the church, recognized something that God had placed in my identity before I was even aware of it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned how to account for this reality.

God’s Holy Spirit is not just active in the lives of those who have already entered into saving faith in Jesus Christ. God’s Holy Spirit is living and active, pursuing all men and women, in order to bring each of us into a relationship with Him. Scripture tells us, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men…” 1 John 4:19 shows us, “We love Him because He first loved us.” And Romans 2:4b shows us, “God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.”

Without the grace of the Holy Spirit, active in our lives even before we realize it, we would never have the potential to turn to God, love Him, and experience the life-changing love that saves us from sin and death. The Holy Spirit was already active in my neighbor creating a hunger in him for the things of God, such as baptism. Because of the reality of the Spirit’s presence working to pursue him, I believe he even sensed something of God’s call on my life long before I was aware of it. 

Looking back, I know I was just a child, so I’m not hard on myself for not knowing how to respond. However, I wish I had known how to translate that conversation into a deeper encounter with the Lord. In these situations now, I realize that the burden is on God, rather than my own knowledge. While knowledge matters, it is far more important to discern how God is working in a spiritual conversation and to find simple ways to point them to Jesus. 

Maybe you will find yourself in a similar situation with someone like my old neighbor. First, be open to finding people who are hungry for God in the most unexpected places – maybe even chest-deep in a creek behind your house. You are likely around people who are spiritually hungry all the time. Ask the Lord to open your eyes to this hunger and He will.

Second, take comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit is at work in people long before you enter the picture. Because of this truth, you can have confidence that you don’t have to be the smartest or most experienced Christian to point that person to Jesus. One of the best things to do is to help them recognize that even their curiosity or hunger is from the Lord.

Next, pray and ask the Lord what the appropriate next step might be. Sometimes God will give you a word to share or the perfect question to ask. If you’re at a complete loss for words, it might be as simple as saying, “I am so happy you’re really seeking God. Can I take you to a friend who might be better able to answer your questions?”

Finally, rest assured, we follow the One, “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). God is more than capable of leading and guiding you as you offer his deep and abiding love to those hungry for an encounter with Him! 

Prayers Bold Enough to Go Unanswered

After church, our men and women would linger in the parking lot while the kids played in the lawn next to the white-framed building where we gathered for worship. One Sunday after church, I remember very clearly a group of men gathering and talking as they looked at Buffalo Mountain, which was located about half a mile north of our church building. Screen Shot 2019-12-07 at 9.58.07 AM

One of the men shook his head in wonder and said, “Can you believe it? If we had faith the size of a mustard seed we could move that mountain.” We had just heard a sermon referencing Matthew 17:20 in the service which had just dismissed. I remember the sense of wonder and amazement in the man’s voice even to this day.

Years later, in seminary, I was introduced to “more sophisticated” readings of Scripture. And since that parking lot experience, I have heard a variety of theories about what Jesus meant when he said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” However, none of those theories contain the awe and wonder of a handful of men and women in a gravel parking lot trying to enlarge their faith to embrace the vibrant expectancy of Scripture.

Over the years, I’ve made the conscious decision that when I err, I’m going to err on the side of expectancy. I’m going to err on the side of taking Scripture to heart, even when my personal experience has yet to match the expectations or experiences revealed in the Bible. Some will scoff and call me a biblical fundamentalist or literalist. I’ll take those labels, in spite of their inaccuracy, in exchange for living with the expansive hope formed by taking Scripture to heart. I’ll take that every day of the week over sterile objectivity. I’d rather approach God’s word with awe and wonder than to approach it like a freshman biology student approaching a frog with a microscope and scalpel.

When we approach scripture with our hearts wide open, and an active expectancy, we are more likely to experience the reality described in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, states, “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” There is a simplicity in believing that when Jesus says we must forgive our enemies, that’s what he means. There is a simplicity in believing that when Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” that the man’s ankles inexplicably strengthened and straightened and he leapt to his feet, “walking, and jumping and praising God!”

Early on in my ministry, I went to the house of a family where the husband had just been diagnosed with a serious illness. The wife asked me to pray, and I prayed the perfectly sterile prayer of a newly minted pastor. I asked God to “be with them” and “bless them” and a number of things that would be true whether or not I had actually prayed. After I finished, the wife said, “but we wanted you to pray that he’d be healed!” I was struck to the heart. I realized that the low expectations of my prayer were grounded in my fear of how I would look if the prayer didn’t happen just as I’d hoped. At that moment, I decided that I would choose to pray with boldness, trusting that God is big enough to handle the disappointment if things don’t turn out exactly as I pray.

Unsurprisingly, for those of us who stubbornly believe the Bible is true, prayers for healing often lead to healing. Prayers for provision and transformation often lead to those very things.  If I had any advice to offer myself as a young pastor when it comes to prayer, it would be this: cast off your fear. Take God at his word. Pray prayers bold enough they could go unanswered!

Appointments Made by God

Ministry has a way of interrupting our tidy schedules. It never fails to amaze me how many of Jesus’s opportunities to demonstrate his identity and the kingdom of God happened at unscheduled times. As Jesus taught in a crowded home, some intrepid men lowered their paralyzed friend through the roof and interrupted Jesus’s teaching. Instead of being caught off guard, Jesus used this opportunity to heal the paralytic and teach a powerful lesson about his authority as the Son of Man (Luke 5:17-26). 

As Jesus stood beside the sea of Galilee, surrounded by a crowd of people, Jairus threw himself at his feet and begged him to come and heal his daughter. Even as Jesus walked to Jairus’s house, he encountered yet another person desperate for healing, and he cleansed this woman of a discharge of blood that had lasted twelve years (Mark 5:21-34).

All too often, we decry the lack of an orderly schedule in our lives as pastors and Christian leaders. However, I am convinced this can often be a sort of godly serendipity, led by the Holy Spirit, to put us exactly where we need to be at a time that makes perfect Kingdom sense.

Early in my ministry, I struggled to figure out what to do and when to do it. There were endless tasks that were never completed. In this chaotic season, I learned an important lesson about attention and obedience to the Holy Spirit.

One morning as I planned my day, a family became lodged in my mind. This couple helped each week in worship. The wife played the piano and her husband led our singing. They were not emotionally needy and required little attention. And yet, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. Finally, I stubbornly began to see that this might be from the Lord, so I called the wife to see if I could come by their house to visit. She sounded surprisingly excited, and I made my way over.

As I entered the door, she and her husband treated me like royalty. They ushered me to the kitchen table. They had made coffee and had snacks sitting out. At the same time, there was an atmosphere in their emotions and home that I couldn’t quite understand.

Across the table, the wife choked back tears as she asked, “how did you know?” I was mystified. “What do you mean?” She continued, “well, we assumed someone told you,” as she began to share the story of how this was one of the most difficult days of the year for them. You see, 20-something years earlier to the day, their son had been tragically killed by a baseball in a little league game. My heart broke. But I also realized something powerful. Even though I had no idea, God knew. As I shared this with them, the peace of Christ settled into the room.

I will never forget the lesson I learned that day. We have no way of knowing what is going on in the lives of the people we are sent to love, lead, and serve. But God does. Only by listening to the whisper of His voice will we be able to manifest His loving presence in their lives. Only by obedience to the Holy Spirit will we be able to minister in the midst of interruptions and chaos.