Month: June 2020

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The Secret of Joyful Prayer

If you were surveyed about your prayer life, would you characterize it as:

A. Boring, mundane
B. Mechanical, draining
C. Joyful, energizing

Does A, B, or C most characterize your time with God?  Now realistically everyone must work at prayer to a certain extent.  There is a real enemy who does not want you talking to the Father.  Nobody who truly prays doubts the existence of the devil!  But what if we could understand the secret of praying joyfully?

Truth be known, so many of the activities we participate in to celebrate our faith are done mechanically, without much conscious thought or effort, and are often without much joy.   Worship is sometimes automatic and perfunctory.  Our spiritual reading is often haphazard.

But sadly, our prayer life is often among those activities.  Jesus chastised the three men who were closest to Him in His incarnation by asking, “Could you not watch with Me one hour?”

It may well be we are just doing it wrong.  The disciples asked Jesus in Luke 11, “Lord teach us to pray.”  Sometimes a person will say, “I tried praying. but God didn’t give me what I asked for.”  Well maybe He did not if your prayers included:

 “Help me win the lottery”

 “Please bring my cheating boyfriend back to me”

 “Help me lose weight while I eat whatever I want and never exercise”

 “Bless me now, even though I’ve been ignoring you for years”

 “Make me smart enough to pass the test I didn’t study for”

Why didn’t God answer our prayer?  Maybe what we wanted was not God’s will.  James wrote, “You ask, and receive not because you ask amiss that you may consume it on your lust.”

And maybe it was just dumb.  Now I’ve said many times in a lecture to seminary students, there are no dumb questions.  But there sure are some dumb prayers!  (See the list above)

Maybe if we prayed liked Jesus taught us:

That the Father’s Name would be hallowed

That His Kingdom would come…it is more important than yours

That His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven…and in me

That He would give us what we need for the day

That we would be forgivers of those who sin against us

That we/our family would be delivered from the enemy’s snare

That His kingdom would be our first priority now and forever.

If these prayers that Jesus taught us were the central content of our praying, then prayer would begin to make sense…and even be joyful! We try to turn our prayer life into a thing that enriches us…not as a means of truly hearing from God and aligning with His will.

A Model of Joyful Prayer

Paul gives us a model of praying joyfully.  Now that is not to say that sometimes our prayer life isn’t marked with tears of sorrow at times or even by the pain of grief or guilt and shame over our sins.  We will at times agonize in intercession.  And the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was heard through His “loud cries and tears.” (Heb 5:7)

But communion with our Heavenly Father can be marked with a sense of joy regardless of circumstances.  Jesus said, “My joy I leave with you.”  Let’s remind ourselves again that Paul wrote this letter from a prison cell awaiting execution!

Prayer should dry our tears, ease the heartache of grief and loss, and eliminate the shame and guilty stain of sin.  When this happens, joy remains.  But how do we pray with joy when it seems nothing is joyful around us?

Paul could pray with joy, first, because

He knew he was not alone (vv. 3-5)

When Paul prayed, he carried the grateful memories of the congregation that gathered in Philippi…a congregation that was marked by their love for Paul and their faithfulness to pray for him.

He offered his prayer “with thanksgiving,” which is a key to joyful praying. His joy came from their fellowship (partnership) in the Gospel with him.

It’s an incredible thing to have people praying for you.  A friend shared a dream he had about me a while back.  In the dream, he saw me standing in the pulpit, and then kneeling weeping under some burden.  During the dream, the church came around me, laying their hands on me.

I truly believe and will continue believing that I am continuing in ministry because of the prayers of God’s people.  The grace of God holds me fast…but their hands and prayers for me keep me moving forward.

Fellowship brings joy, and healing, and recovery.  We are not to try do this thing alone, though some of us try really hard to do that.

The joy comes along as a contagious experience of fellowship.  Paul could pray with joy, further, because he had

He had a confidence in God’s faithfulness (vv. 6-7)

Not only did Paul experience joy because he knew he was not alone, but also because he prayed with confidence knowing that, no matter what happened in his life or in theirs, God was working.  We all understand that God’s working does not mean we are going to see everything go our way, or always experience sunshine and pleasant circumstances.

Remember that the greatest work of God we have seen is His work of atonement at the cross and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  “For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame.” (Hebrews 12:2). It was hardly a happy time for the Lord.

But it is God’s energizing at work in us that brings to completion what He began at the moment of salvation.  If you can look back at a time in your life when you can say, “I know God brought that about…I know it is God Who saves me and that is not something I can do for myself…;” if you have that moment to remember then know this:  God has never, is not now, nor will ever give up on you.  He will never throw up his hands and say, “this one’s too tough…I’m gonna bail out.”  God does not give up on what He starts.  This looks forward to Phil 2:12-13 which says,

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Our salvation, in Christ, is secure.  I hear people sometimes say, “I’d be a Christian, but I couldn’t live the life.”  Or, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t hold out.”  “I’d quit and then be a hypocrite.”

Well, you can’t live the life.  Christ -in- you lives out the life He wants you to live through the presence of His Spirit.  And you won’t hold out. Not in your own strength.  You are held in His hand, and Jesus said, “No man can take them out of My hand.”  You are not holding on to God.  You’re not that tough.  He is holding on to YOU!  That is our confidence, and our security.  He Who began the work will be faithful to complete it.

In Romans 8, we read of the ultimate plan that God has for our lives in Christ:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

God’s plan…God’s will for your life is that, through every experience and circumstance, you are being sharpened and shaped to be more, think more, and act more like Jesus.

A sculptor chips away everything that does not look like the image he or she is seeking to bring to the shapeless and formless rock.  The Divine Sculptor is doing the same in us as He “chips away” everything in us that does not look like Jesus.

This is exactly what happens in the process of sanctification.  The Divine “sculptor” hammers away at all those dimensions of our life that keep Jesus from shining through!    In the hard and the good times, God is at work.  Nothing stops His Divine progress in our lives.

He had an abiding affection (v. 8)

This affection for the Philippians, which interestingly could also mean “you have me in your hearts” can literally be translated “I have a heartache for you.”  Have you ever cared so much about someone that it hurts?  We hear songs that talk about that, and usually they are sung when the two lovers are apart.

The Motown hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was written to describe the power of love drawing two lovers together, no matter the obstacles.   When you really love someone, it can physically hurt to be away from them.

That is what Paul is talking about as he prays for them…this is a unique love that bound them together around their partnership in seeing the Gospel of Christ go forward.  But his heart was aching because of his separation from them.  He genuinely loved these people, and that reminder of his love brought joy in a prison cell.

He had an overflowing love (vv. 9-11)

Someone has said that love is like a river.  Rivers can bring life.  I grew up around the banks of the Ohio River.  This river that I played in, drove over, and gazed into thousands of times in my life brought commerce, and recreation, and beauty and life.  But a river that floods over its banks does not bring life.  It brings chaos and death.

The same river decimated my hometown more than once.    Love is like a river that “abounds” and flows.  It brings life to the creatures within it and the cities that are built near it.

But Christian love, like a river, needs to stay in its banks.  If there are no boundaries, and it loves everything indiscriminately …it will even love things it should not love.  And clearly, there are things we should not love as Christians. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world…” the Apostle John tells us.  Christian love is discriminating…distinctive…discerning.  It loves and approves “that which is best/excellent.”  It does not love unwisely.

I hear a lot of people say, “being a Christian just means you’re supposed to love, right?”  Yes, but love what?  What are the “banks” of love?  Love needs to be guided by “knowledge” and discernment and result in “the fruit of righteousness” or else it indiscriminately picks up garbage and pollution. We are to be “pure” (our inner world) …below the surface where few if any people see…and “blameless” (our outer behavior) that we might be fruitful in our faith.  The same river that brought life and beauty to many people through the years, today is polluted and filled with garbage.  You can still catch fish in it…but a wise person will not eat them!

The end is nearer than we think

The world is headed for the day of Christ.  He is coming.  Being ready does not mean simply BELIEVING that…being ready means “bearing the fruit of righteousness” that will TRULY bring joy to our lives and glory to God as we wait for His appearing.

And folks, I’m not trying to be apocalyptic here, but things are not getting better and better in the world, are they?  We are seeing things that we never thought we’d see…and the world just seems like it is on the verge of exploding into chaos.  Jesus predicted that His appearing would come after the birth pains of tribulation…the baby normally does not come out on the mother’s first contraction.

But we need to heed the wakeup call and hear the reminder on occasion that it won’t be long before Christ appears…and we need to be ready now.

Learning to pray with joy is one thing we can do as we anticipate Jesus’ coming back again.  But let’s also remember that this prayer that Paul prayed can become a model for your prayer life as well.

What if, in all the places Paul uses the word “you” in the prayer, you insert your spouse’s name?  Your children’s names?  As we personalize this prayer, we begin to see another level of it’s value.

Joyful praying is a possibility for all of us.  The next time you pray, pray expecting

Don’t Miss The Joy! Chapter 3

Chapter 3

 Finding Joy When Happiness Won’t Come

THE JOYFUL LETTER

Philippians is one of the most-quoted, most familiar books in the New Testament.  More verses in Philippians have ended up on coffee mugs, T-shirts, Facebook memes, and Christian art plaques than any other Biblical book.

“For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

“He Who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.”

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”

“I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.”

“That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering.”

“This one thing I do, I press forward to the high calling of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!”

“Do not be anxious for anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…and the peace of God….”

This is the only one of Paul’s letters in the New Testament that is not corrective in nature or dealing with some divisive issue.  It is a joyful letter.  Obviously, we can see that Paul had a deep affection for this little church.  Part of his purpose was to thank them for a sacrificial gift they had given Paul while he was in prison.

THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS

Have you ever found yourself saying it?  “I’ll be joyful when I finally get a decent job!”  “I’ll be joyful when my husband (or wife) starts loving me like they should.”  “I’ll be joyful when this illness is finally cured.”  “I’ll be joyful when I’ve paid of all my credit cards.”

We’ve all done it.  We mistakenly think that joy can only be ours when our circumstances agree.  And we make a mistake that many make.

Joy is not the same as happiness.  Happiness is a pleasant thing. Don’t get me wrong.  I am as much into happiness as the next guy.  But I know a secret.  I know that joy can come even when happiness will not.

Happiness is one of those words we have hung onto from the old English language.  Now not that we do not speak English today (although I have a British friend who would disagree).  But we have moved past a lot of words that occupied our language for hundreds of years.

Happiness is from the old English word “happenstance.”  “Happenstance” is an acknowledgement of the chance that things just happen and hopefully they are good things.  So, our “happenstance” are our circumstances that “happen” to us.

Happiness, therefore, simply came to mean having pleasant circumstances occur in our lives.  It is our “chance,” our “lucky stars” that we have to thank for those.

Joy is more robust than that.  It does not fade away in the face of hard circumstances or unpleasant days.  It endures despite them.  The lie the enemy would have us believe is that joy cannot come to us unless our “happenstance” is positive.   In other words, it is the lie that joy and happiness are not different.

Nothing is further from the truth.  We see joy coming in some of the most difficult and painful circumstances.  It is a supernatural gift and does not blow away with the winds of adversity.  Paul’s joyful attitude we see on display in his Letter to the Philippians is evidence of this.

Worldwide, people say the number one thing they are searching for is happiness.  In the three-hundred-year storied history of Yale University, the most popular class they ever offered was on “How to Find Happiness!”   And if you Google “happy hour,” you will find over two billion five hundred and eighty thousand options.

We are assured in our founding documents as a nation that “all men are created equal, and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Well, we are sure pursuing it, but few are finding it.

Magazine covers promise us everything from happiness with amazing weight loss to financial happiness to happiness in remodeling your house.  But they are empty promises.  Happiness is circumstantial.  Circumstances change.

My circumstances are very good at the moment.  As I was working on this chapter, my granddarlin’ McCail showed up to visit.  She brought along her little tablet and sat right down at the table beside me to “work” with Poppy.  Grandfather heaven!

But my joy is not dependent on all my circumstances aligning, though they’re really good at the moment!  But I want to talk to you about how to find something that remains even when your circumstances change.  Some of you might say,

“I was happy but then my job was eliminated”

“I was happy but then I was diagnosed with cancer.”

“I was happy but then my wife left me.”

In other words, life has kicked the happiness right out of some of us!

So, let’s stay focused on finding joy.  “Weeping endures for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Despite weeping, and loss, and illness, and loneliness, we can know JOY that the world cannot give us, and, as an old song says, “the world can’t take away.”  And neither can your circumstances.

Joyful Christians are contagious Christians.  You will spread this “virus” of joy if you have it.  There is nothing more inconsistent than a person sharing Jesus and looking like they just gargled apple cider vinegar.  Get joy and then give it away!  The Bible tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit.  If we are short of joy, we are not connected to the source which is the Holy Spirit indwelling those who believe.

JOY IN SPITE OF OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

So, can we know joy when our circumstances aren’t cooperating?  When they may be anything but good?  When our prospects are not promising, and our future is foreboding?

Well Paul had it.  Paul knew joy despite the worst of external conditions.  Imprisoned for preaching the Gospel, Paul wrote one of the most joyful and encouraging letters in the New Testament while in jail.

It is an amazing thing how joy can buoy our spirits when everything in our life is trying to push us down.  Let’s summarize:

Paul had been falsely imprisoned

He was being held on “death row” awaiting sentencing

He never knew if each meal; each sunrise was his last

He didn’t know if he would ever be free again.

He lived each day connected by a short chain to a Roman guard.

And yet, in spite of these circumstances, Paul had an unquenchable joy. Something like that can only be attributed to a supernatural source.  Not “happenstance.”

Throughout the four chapters that make up Philippians, we will encounter the source of Paul’s joy and how he lived it out.  And the best news is the joy of the Lord that Paul knew is not out of anyone’s reach who knows the joy giver of Paul’s life:

The Lord Jesus Christ.

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 2

Chapter Two

The Joy of Unlikely Relationships

There are few things in life that can bring us more joy, and almost at the same time more pain that relationships.  If you ask most people who seem to be happy or joyful for the reason, they will almost always tell you something about a relationship.

At the same time, if you find someone who is long-faced and looks miserable, and you ask them the reason for their sorrow, they too will almost always mention something about a relationship.  Maybe it is a relationship gone bad or is undergoing stress, or perhaps they have lost someone close to them or they are lonely.  But it all goes back to a conversation about relationship.

By the same token, the church is made up entirely of relationships.  Good ones, bad ones, or people looking for one.  Ideally these begin and are rooted in a relationship with the Savior.  But sometimes they are not.

It is by means of relationships that much pain and grief is experienced among Christians, along with immeasurable joy if we are open to it.  But sometimes we are not.

THE PROBLEM OF ALONENESS

Being alone was never God’s intention for any of us.  Our God, in Trinitarian array, exists in an eternal relationship: a “joyful dance” as someone called it.  A joyful interaction of the Three-yet-One we know as the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It was always God’s intent that those He created in His image (“let us make man in OUR image”) join in that endless, eternal, and joyful dance.  God is a generous God.  He wanted to share part of Who He is with us.

And so, when He drew us up from the dirt of Eden’s garden and breathed spirit life in us, He said “it is good.”  It is good that we are in His image.  It is good that we are like Him.  It is good that we can relate to Him as our Creator.

But later in the Creation account in Genesis, He said “It is NOT good that the man should be alone.” This state of aloneness is unnatural to our God-stamped natures.  It hurts to be alone.

When a captor wishes to break the mind and will of a stubborn prisoner, the prisoner is placed in solitary confinement.  Left there sometimes for weeks or months on end, the human mind begins to melt down.  The will begins to sag under the weight of isolation.

We are not created to be alone.  “I will make a companion suitable for him,” God said.  And so, Eve entered the picture, taken from Adam’s side.  Like him, but different.  Equal to him, but submissive.  Invaluable to him, but not ruling him.  

The pair shared everything.  Work. Procreating: childbearing and child-rearing.  Ruling the world for a time, having dominion over everything.  The Bible describes their joyful condition as “The man and his wife were both naked but not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)

THE JOYFUL DANCE OF INTIMACY

Pastor and author John Ortberg wrote a book recently entitled, I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me.  The book is an exploration of human intimacy.  One counselor refers to intimacy as “into-me-you-see.” 

The pursuit of intimacy is a joyful pursuit.  It calls us out when we would rather hide because of shame and our sinfulness.  It stabilizes us when we feel bad about ourselves.  It does not leave us alone, even when we deserve and want to be isolated.

But intimacy as an expression of human relationship is not the experience of “becoming like” the other.  It is the experience of “become one” with them.  Those are two different experiences.

The first, “becoming like,” is the experience of conformity.  Some dysfunctional religious groups and dystopian societies are experiments in conformity.  I often will tell a pre-married couple in counseling that if both of them are the same, one of them is unnecessary.  Conformity is not the goal.  Conformity can be enforced, but it is not natural.

The goal is not uniformity.  The goal is oneness.  It is not the weaker clinging to the stronger in fear.  That is unhealthy attachment.  It is “two-becoming-one” that is expressed in marriage.  

The joy of seeing “two-become-one” over the course of a long and healthy marriage is a marvel that deserves to be called miraculous.  We do not see it often enough.

Sometimes marriages are abandoned because getting to that oneness is not automatic.  It’s laborious.  It’s hard work.  Sometimes one will not be willing to pay the hard price of dying to self so the relationship can become what it was intended to be.  Yet they fail to realize that, even though the relationship is painful, tearing it apart is still tearing flesh apart.  “What God has joined together, let not man tear apart.”

THE JOYFUL BODY

It has ever been God’s intent that His church, His body, His bride on earth know the oneness that is known in Heaven.  Marriages in Christ express a visible picture of God’s intention for all believers and for all the redeemed to have with Him.

No one was more aware of that intent than Paul.  It was his desire to present the churches he was planting as a “spotless bride” to His Lord.  He was jealous to protect and keep them pure until the wedding day, as the best man would be responsible for doing.

He fought as a warrior for joy to be found and known among the gathered but dissimilar believers that made up the first New Testament congregations.  But it was a battle where victory was never fully realized while he was on earth.  

God’s intention is for the relationships we experience in the church to bring us joy.  Too often these relationships end in pain, and heartache, and disappointment and can even become abusive.  The same author who wrote I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me also wrote another book on relationships called Everybody’s Normal till You Get to Know Them.

We are not normal.  Peter refers to God’s people as “peculiar” people.  Now I know the theological thought behind that has to do with our being unique, and distinct and set apart.  But we all know folks in the church who are, well, peculiar in other ways.  

Churches are not joyful because everyone’s walking in lock step with each other.  We do not have to be the same.  Churches that grow around affinity demographics (same age, same social and religious backgrounds, same musical tastes) create an artificial sense of unity that is not a reflection of the New Testament church.

A.W. Tozer suggested that coming to unity would be like tuning one hundred pianos to the same tuning fork.  They would automatically be in tune with each other if tuned to the same pitch, but not if the tuner sought to tune each individual instrument to the one beside it.  

The church that Paul was seeking to build crashed together different nationalities, different language systems, different cultures, different religious backgrounds.  They had to become one through abandoning prejudices, overcoming religious one-upmanship, and burying long years of inborn hatred.  Their unity came because they were “attuned” to the same Person:  The Lord Jesus Christ.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.  (Ephesians 2:13-14)

It is only through the blood Christ; a radical focus on Christ and His Kingdom that different races, different cultures, different religious backgrounds, and assumptions about life can be in unity.  We cannot do this by our best efforts.  Only God can accomplish it.  

But when it does happen there is unbelievable joy!  There is a depth of richness in a relationship that could only have happened because of Jesus.  There is a joyous wonder in a friendship, a fellowship, or a marriage that is Christ saturated and Spirit-formed.  

A married couple truly attain oneness in the same way.  When we focus on our own needs and concerns to the exclusion of the other, we are in constant friction and conflict.  When we try to “tune” ourselves to the other person but not to Christ, unity is missed.  But when we agree that Christ is more than our needs, and greater than our personal wants, we find ourselves automatically attuned to each other as a result.

THE UNLIKELY CONGREGATION

Acts 16 tells us that the first person Paul preached to in Macedonia was not the man he had dreamed about.  It was actually an Asian woman named Lydia, who dealt in purple cloth.  She was a fashion mogul.  She was wealthy; she was not from Philippi, but she owned a home there, as well in her home in Thyatira.  So, here’s this lady, houses in two cities, wealthy and bright, and the Bible also adds she was “a worshiper of God.”  Her foundation had been laid in Old Testament Scripture, and her heart was ready to hear the Gospel.  When Paul arrived, she received Jesus and was baptized, along with her family.

Next, we meet a person on the opposite end of the social spectrum.  She was a slave girl.  Not only was she physically possessed by men, but she was also possessed by a “python spirit;” she had the power of divination, a demonic gift that her owners exploited.  She followed Paul and Silas and Timothy around yelling out “these men are the servants of the most High God” until Paul could handle it no more.  He cast out the demon, and she became a believer.  She was the second member of the Philippian church.

The third person was equally unlikely as the first two.  The jailer, a former Roman soldier, had been given the responsibility of keeping Paul and Silas in custody.  He threw them into the inner dungeon, a dark, damp, place and “placed their feet in stocks.”  This, by the way, was a means of torture, not just securing them.  It was an interrogation technique to place prisoner’s feet and legs in distorted positions causing cramps and sometimes paralysis.  

But at midnight, the Bible informs us, Paul and Silas began singing praise through their pain.  By the way, that is a characteristic of joy.  Joy isn’t having all of your circumstances line up just the way you’d like.  It transcends them.  But as they sang, “the place began to shake,” and the jail doors flew open.  When the guard saw all the doors unlocked, he drew his sword to kill himself for failing to do his duty.  Paul stopped him.  “We are all here” he said.  And the jailer fell at Paul and Silas’ feet, saying, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

The jailer… blue collar… like a retired Marine… and his family became part of the church at Philippi.  The most unlikely group of people possible came to be in the same house group and made up the first church on the European continent!

This brings us to a problem we face.  Do you know how easy it is to build a church where everyone is the same age, the same nationality, the same race, from the same background?  Sociologists call this “the principle of homogeneity.”  Like attracts like.  Most churches are that.  Caucasian churches attract Caucasian people.  African American churches attract people of color; Filipino churches attract Filipino… Baptist churches attract…well you get the picture.

But the “picture” that presents is not the Gospel.  Now hear me carefully.  The most joyful and powerful testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not churches that all see things the same way, want things the same way, or think about life in the same way.

We have to get over thinking that the church is supposed to be made up of people who all see things exactly the same.  Maybe (to quote the book title) “I would like you better if you were more like me.” But the reality is we’re different.

Let me just get you to imagine an experiment.  What if I came to your church and told the people, “I’m going to make a cup of coffee right here that will make every person in the building who likes coffee happy?”

After you’d finished laughing, you would say “that’s impossible!”  What would such a cup of coffee taste like?  You like your coffee bold and black, caffeinated or decaffeinated or frothy with cream, or sweetened with Splenda or sugar or honey, or hot or iced?  It would be humanly impossible!

So, if we can’t even all get along on how we like our coffee, then how on this earth are we going to build a fellowship of believers who are all going to get exactly what they want?  It’s impossible to come to consensus on some things.  

Yet the church survives, and even thrives on our differences.  It’s not being different that kills churches and congregations—it’s the demand of a few to have their own way.  It’s the expectation that things should always go the way they want them.  

The picture of heaven is “every kindred, every tongue, every race,” together.  Ever think about that?  You will be the same race in heaven that you are on earth?  Different races are not a mistake, and not a curse.  There is no preferred race of people.  They are an indication of God the artist’s love of variety!  

And He wants His church to reflect that tapestry and variety and that glory on earth!  Now I’ll be candid here.

It would be a lot easier to pastor the church I serve if we all were from the same generation, saw things the same way, wanted the same things, liked the same music, and had the same background.  We’d get along great!  And that’s how some larger churches grow.  Some churches are begun with the intention of catering to ONE group of people.  Just run the rest of them off.  Again, much easier.  

A year or so back we commissioned a survey of our community, and the group studied the “psycho-social and religious” profile of our church field.  Would you like to know what they discovered just in our immediate church field?

Fifty percent of the people wanted a church building that looked like a church building.

Fifty percent of the people preferred a building for worship that didn’t resemble a church building.

Fifty percent preferred music that sounded like they believed church music” should sound.

Fifty percent preferred music that was contemporary and didn’t resemble traditional music in any way.

Fifty percent wanted a church where people dressed up on Sunday.

Fifty percent wanted a church where people preferred casual dress for Sunday.

The truth?  Representatives of both groups attend worship at our church!  Every week.  We shouldn’t get along.  At all.  But we do because it’s not us trying to match people to their preferences.  As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be unified.  

My understanding of the New Testament shows churches that do the hard work of tearing down walls between people, forgiving, and messing up and forgiving again.  (Ephesians 2:14-22). That takes the grace of God to work.  And it does.

THE JOY OF AN UNLIKELY CHURCH

For most of the ways we evaluate church success, Philippi scored zero.  The people were not similar in any way, except each of them had met Jesus Christ personally and believed in Him and were focused on Him.

But when Paul and Silas left Philippi the next day after their release from prison, that was the church they left behind.  We remember the words of our Lord in Matthew 16 that remind us

I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. 

Jesus built His church in Philippi.  He chose the materials; He put the “stones” of the temple in place.  He set them in Lydia’s house as their physical location.  He added more “stones” as they shared the Gospel with family and friends in their network.  

And from there, these different individuals with their diverse social and economic backgrounds became the unlikely relationships that gave Paul encouragement, support, and the will to press on more times than they would ever know.  They were the church.

And, these unlikely people brought him much, much joy!  As we open the Letter to the Philippians, we find ourselves benefiting from that same encouragement.  

Don’t Miss the Joy! Intro & Chapter 1

Introduction

I missed Philippi by 25 miles.  By plane and by bus, I had already traveled over 5500 miles to arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria. From the Sofia International Airport, I traveled several hundred more miles by van and bus through small Balkan villages and mountainous passes and armed guards at checkpoints.

And finally, my bus arrived…in Thessaloniki.  I offered my most diplomatic American voice and questioned the driver: “I thought we were going to Philippi?”

He said, “Thessaloniki better.  Shops better.  Food better.  Philippi just ruins.”  I slumped back in my seat.  It was apparent my travel companions were more interested in acquiring lovely souvenirs from Thessaloniki tourist spots than seeing one of the most incredible and intact archaeological digs on the route of Paul’s journeys.

“Paul also went to Thessaloniki,” the driver offered me helpfully.  “I know, I know.”  And so, Thessaloniki it was.  Philippi, just a scant forty-minute drive to the north, eluded me.  I found out later the driver did not know HOW to get to Philippi, but he failed to mention that fact.

So there I was, stuck in Thessaloniki.  It was drizzling chilly rain, but it was actually a beautiful seacoast city.  Sadly, not the one I wanted to see.  And so I sulked.  And I missed the joy available in the moment.

We do that all the time, don’t we?  When we don’t get our way, on our timeline, in just the manner we saw it playing out in our heads.  And so we pout like children.  How many times has it happened to you?

I’m beginning my thoughts on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus outbreak.  We are now told that the peak of infections in Florida will arrive within ten days from this writing: maybe sooner.  I just had a church member reach out to me who leads a nursing home facility to my south. She was asking me to pray for her staff.  The next day the National Guard was arriving to test all of them after a patient and one of the nurses tested positive for Covid-19.

It’s hard to find the joy sometimes.  Life bumps into us in unlikely and unexpected ways.  And we miss the joy…maybe by a few feet or maybe by 25 miles.  But somehow it escapes us, and it is difficult to find it once it’s gone.

My prayer is this book will remind you to look for the joy in unlikely places.   Joy is not awarded to the ones who “try” the hardest to get it and hang on to it.  It is not a wage given to a worker, and it is not on loan.  Joy is a gift given us by Jesus: “My joy I give to you.”  And as we abide in Him, we can embrace it.

We just have to recognize it, and then accept that sometimes joy comes wrapped in unexpected and sometimes even unpleasant circumstances.  Sometimes it comes by means of unexpected people.  And sometimes it comes in situations that only God, through the eyes of the Spirit, can enable us to see.

But I am deeply convinced that God does not want us to miss it.  It may not come in the timing we thought, by the people we thought, or even through the circumstances we thought. It may surprise us if it comes wrapped in disappointment, or tears, or heartache or confusion.

Joy could have met me in Thessaloniki.  But that was not where I’d planned to meet it.  I missed it by 25 miles.

Don’t miss the joy.  Even when the gift comes wrapped in the unexpected!


Chapter One

Finding Joy in Times of Confusion

“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.”  (Acts 16:6)

Paul and company weighed anchor and set sail full of confidence.  It was a confidence born of God’s call.  A confidence affirmed by God’s people.  They set sail to parts unknown, determined to bring the Gospel to lands and people where it had never been preached.

The apostle “born out of time” (his description) was leading the missionary venture after he and his friend Barnabas parted ways.  They were bravely following the bold vision and clarity offered by their influential leader.

Those were the days before electronic navigation and GPS systems.  Sailors traveled by locating the stars and heavenly bodies.  They relied on wind and currents that a skilled mariner could mostly predict.

But it was not maps and navigation they lacked.  They were waiting for the clear and affirming voice of the Spirit of God, which Paul had learned to recognize and rely on, to direct them.

And all they heard were “no’s.”

And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.  (Acts 16:7)

The Book of Acts, penned by the physician-historian Luke, tells us that one-by-one Paul’s efforts fell apart.   Asia was a no-go.  The Holy Spirit had “forbidden” them to go.  Then, they attempted to enter Bithynia, but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”  Sometimes our best-laid plans seem to end just like that.

 

CUE:  CONFUSION

We lay our lives out: school, career, marriage, children, home purchase, then retirement. While some may not be nearly so structured, all of us have a kind of built-in expectation of how things will be.

By the way, let me say quickly that there is nothing wrong with planning.  The Book of Proverbs, for one reference, affirms careful planning:

“Commit your work to the Lord, and your plan will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)

“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”  (Proverbs 16:9)

“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”  (Pr 16:21)

That is just a sampling of one chapter.  There is no caution about planning in the Bible as long as we understand that God has a right to overrule our plans to establish His own.  Sometimes we get it wrong.

And sometimes our plans do not take the Lord into account at all.  It is continually surprising to me how many young people raised in churches and coming from families of faith never truly seek the Lord about what He wants them to do with college.

We take one of the most important (and expensive) decisions we have ever made and just “wing it.”  I wonder how different things would be if we simply asked, “Lord, which school do you want me to attend?  Which major?  Which professors and classes do you want to use to shape my mind and thinking?”

And then we scratch our heads and wonder why college is such a frustrating and sometimes futile experience.  Did you ask God to “establish your plans” as you filled out applications?

Or how about the new job offer you’ve received?  Yes, it will mean uprooting your family…again.  Yes, it will mean disrupting the routine of your family and tearing your household out of networks of community and friends.  But after all, God wants you to make more money, right?  Isn’t that all that matters? Is the Lord “establishing His plan” in your job?  If He says “no” will you do the same?

For those who are dating, is God “establishing His purpose” in you as you seek a date, or a mate?  Is He guiding those you spend time with, as well as you, in the course of your lives?  Has He established His plan in your relationships?

God has an interest in our plans.  The American church has several favorite verses that end up, well, everywhere.  One such verse is Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.  Plans to give you a future and a hope.”

God is personally and deeply invested in us as His followers and children.  When we give ourselves to follow the Lamb of God into eternal life, God becomes deeply interested in using the life you have surrendered to Him.  He wishes to “establish His purpose” in us.

But when we follow our own wisdom, our own counsel, and our own instinct, we sometimes wind up in a cul-de-sac of confusion.  We cannot understand where God is.  Why didn’t He show up?

 

CLEARING THE FOG

I do not wish to imply that Paul had taken a wrong turn in Acts 16.  The men on that voyage did not embark with a clear destination in mind, except to go where the Gospel had not been proclaimed. They were simply willing to trust God wherever He led.  It is the truest example of discipleship, of trusting Jesus moment by moment in obedience wherever He leads us.

Their problem was discerning where that next step was to be!  They were listening to God.  They knew He wanted them in the ship they were in, and in the sea they were sailing.

But they could not discern clearly where He wanted them to drop anchor.  Asia?  Europe?  An island?  The mainland?  Where was God leading them to go and proclaim the Gospel?

Sometimes we reach those intersections in life where it is not clear what God is doing.  On several different occasions in my life, I have had to stop to discern the will and direction of God.  It’s not always a clear choice and option of “good” or “bad.”  Often, it is more “good, better, or best.”

Those are actually much harder choices.  None are terrible.  But one, you know in your heart, is optimal.  These times can become paralyzing if we let them.

When these moments occur, I know instinctively that I will have to make a decision without all the information I would like to have on hand.  At some point, maybe due to prompts and thoughts that I cannot objectively validate, I will take a step (maybe a leap?) of faith.

This can be particularly frustrating to your mate if you’re married.  They have questions.  They have concerns, and “a dog in the fight” too.  How do you know?  What is God saying to you?

Pam and I went through such a period as I was finishing my college degree and trying to begin the steps of moving to Louisville, Kentucky to enter the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Frankly, I had been in two years of non-stop classes, carrying heavy class loads including two years studying Greek, and I was just over it.

For almost three months, I floundered.  Her life was in the balance, too.  She needed to apply for jobs.  To complicate matters, a door had opened for me to go to Nashville and work with a friend who had done quite well for himself in the Gospel music industry.

One day while driving south on the Interstate near our home in Williamsburg, we passed a sign that summarized the dilemma.  The sign said “Louisville Nashville” and showed the interstate parting just ahead.

I had caused us to be adrift in a sea of uncertainty.  It seemed in the moments that followed a voice welled up inside me and said, “Make a choice.”  I knew if I had to decide in that moment, I needed to point my car toward Louisville.  And when I acknowledged that, I had peace.

I’m sure Paul fielded a few of those questions.  To Paul’s credit, he was not going through a “hunt and peck” or “trial and error” approach.  He was praying and waiting on the Lord.  And finally, the answer came.

 

WHEN GOD SPEAKS

God does speak.  Our God is not silent.  We are just hard of hearing sometimes.  Other times, God has shrouded what He is doing in mystery.  But sometimes God speaks in ways that are crystal clear.

So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him saying, `Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ (Acts 16:8-9)

On this occasion, God spoke to Paul through a vision.  This vision apparently came to Paul as he slept.  Paul awoke with the only confirmation he needed for their trip to continue.

And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:10)

Now some may object, “well that was how God did things in the Bible, but not today.”  There are many in unreached Muslim cultures and other people groups who would disagree with that assessment.

They still see visions today in some circumstances.  I have heard numerous testimonies claiming this, and people have come to faith with the help of these visions.

In a nation like ours where Bibles are plentiful and people are literate, visions and dreams may not happen quite as often.  Leaders will sometimes claim heaven-sent “visions” for their churches or ministries.

I do believe, however, that God gives us what I call “dreams and visions” when He is calling us to a new ministry or season of ministry.  While these are not visions that focus on a glimpse of the future, I believe God calls us to “daydream” and be preoccupied with the thing He is calling us to do next.

 

THE JOY OF MOVING FORWARD

Out of the season of waiting and drifting in uncertainty, the joyful travelers set sail for Macedonia.  You could almost hear the songs of praise being sung over the spray of salt water as they pointed the bow of their ship toward their destination.

There is always a joy within us as we know we are following the will of God, even when we have to seek for a season and travel through some period of confusion and uncertainty to find it.

But the joy makes the journey worth it!

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