Canvas, Week One

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We began a Sunday message series called “Canvas: How to Forgive When You Just Can’t Forget” to start 2018.  Since there was a technical problem with recording the first message, I am providing this manuscript for anyone interested.  (Learn more about our church here.)  Feel free to comment or ask questions in the comment section below.

Canvas, Week One: If it hurts, it needs to heal.

It’s nice to be back with you.  We were away last Sunday, of course, and you probably don’t want to know where we were or what the weather was like.  OK, we were in Florida for the holiday weekend and had the best week of weather there during the worst week of weather here in Maine.  We stayed with my in-laws and had a great time.

But not everything went perfectly well.  There was one occasion in particular that I wish I could redo.  Some of you may know that my in-laws recently purchased a big fifth wheel camper; you may have seen it up here in town a few months ago.  It’s a really big camper and so it needs a really big truck to pull it.  So they bought a big pick-up truck, the kind with dual rear wheels.  Before we left on our trip, we talked about whether or not to rent a car but decided that the two cars at my in-laws’ house would be enough for us all to get around.

This meant that I had to drive the big, wide pick-up with dual real wheels.  And I did.  We went shopping one night, and I drove the big truck to an outlet mall no problem.  But the next day, we decided to go to a favorite restaurant and I needed to drive again.  My in-laws left before us in their other car and we piled into the truck.  And that is when it happened: I pulled out of their driveway, but didn’t turn wide enough, and I clipped their metal mailbox.  I didn’t feel it or hear it; my brother-in-law was watching and told me.  At first I couldn’t believe it, so I got out to look.  And sure enough, there was a big tan stripe carved into the side of this fairly new black truck.

So now I had to think about telling my father in-law that I put a “racing stripe” on his new truck.  We strategized about the best way to tell him.  We considered just heading to the airport and flying home early.  I thought about pulling back into the driveway to put a matching stripe on the other side to claim it was there all along.  I didn’t really want to have that conversation, but I had to do it.  And I think that any one of us would rather be the one to grant forgiveness in a situation like that, rather than the one to ask for it.  We would rather be the forgiver than the confessor.  I certainly rather would be.

And yet forgiveness is actually harder than confession, isn’t it?  When I needed to confess something, it was a finite moment.  I told the truth, apologized, and offered to pay for whatever repairs would cost.  That was it.  Done.  But forgiveness isn’t over in a moment.  Forgiveness is a process, and sometimes that process doesn’t end.  We have to choose to forgive over and over after the offense.  It’s hard, and it hurts.  Forgiveness is adds pain on top of the pain of the offense.

Thankfully, the scriptures speak to these situations – and Jesus spoke specifically in Matthew 18:15-35.  This passage will serve as the main passage for our Canvas series, but we won’t necessarily read the entire portion every week.  Today, we’re going to focus on verses 15-20:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (ESV)

Today we’re going to focus on one principle distilled from this passage: If it hurts, it needs to heal.  I have three reasons why:

First, if it hurts it needs to heal because unhealed hurt does damage.  It’s true that we should overlook offenses whenever possible.  Proverbs 19:11 says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” (ESV) So we should overlook an offense when we can; this is to our advantage.  However, we should be aware that the enemy of our soul will use this against us when the hurt is too great.  We sometimes believe the lie that our pain is a petty concern, and we are petty to be concerned with it.  We may even believe a “christianized” version of it: Jesus suffered worse, so I must be a whiner.  Or perhaps we misunderstand the Bible and think, “If God forgives then forgets, so must I – and if I can’t forget then the problem is mine.”  This isn’t true.  Yes, Jesus suffered in extraordinary fashion so that no matter what we go through we can find fellowship with Him in our suffering.  But that doesn’t mean we aren’t suffering.  That doesn’t mean our pain is petty.  That doesn’t mean if we remember being hurt then we are refusing to forgive.

How can we know that the hurt is too great to overlook an offense?  A ministry called Relational Wisdom 360 (formerly Peacemakers Ministries) offers four dimensions to forgiveness on their website (https://rw360.org/four-promises-of-forgiveness/).  I have taken those dimensions and turned them into diagnostic questions:

  • Are you dwelling on the incident or offense? (It consumes your thoughts or attention.)
  • Are you bringing it up to use against the offender? (Hello, married people.)
  • Are you talking about it to others inappropriately? (Gossip is a symptom.)
  • Does the incident or offense hinder the relationship? (The elephant in the room.)

Now, that last question raises the issue of abuse or cyclical behavior patterns.  I want you to know that we’re going to talk more about this in the series later on.  There is a time to establish safe boundaries for forgiveness, and ongoing mistreatment stands in the way of forgiveness.  But those questions help us understand when an offense can’t be overlooked.

And suppressing or misdirecting the hurt only does damage.  You’ve seen what happens when paint brushes aren’t cleaned between colors.  The colors bleed together and you wind up with a sickly greenish brown color.  What would happen if an artist didn’t clean the brush between colors?  No color would retain its vibrancy.  But, something else happens too.  The overall picture would get darker and darker and darker.  And that’s what happens to our view of life.  Unresolved pain colors the way we see the world and the people in it.  Suppression leads to depression.  Misdirection causes relationship misdiagnosis, as we let pain from one relationship impact another.  Pain hurts for a reason.  Don’t ignore it.  If it hurts, it needs to heal because unhealed hurt does damage.

That’s the first reason.  Here’s the second: If it hurts, it needs to heal because forgiveness is vital spiritual business.  Notice how the process in Matthew 18:15-20 begins with acknowledgement of sin.  Forgiveness is spiritual business because we identify sin according to God’s definition.  The process also prioritizes relationship over the offense.  Among believers in the Gospel, this is actually a family matter: it’s a brother or a sister.  This is so important, that Jesus instructed us to basically “drop” our worship to pursue forgiveness in Matthew 5:23-24.

Well, what if the offender isn’t a fellow believer?  The process can be adapted; it can’t be followed because going to the church isn’t an option (at least not a helpful one).  But attempting to solve the matter one-on-one and then bringing in a third party if needed will show how you prioritize the relationship; this is wisdom and a powerful part of our witness.

The Matthew 18 process also invited God and His people into the process.  It is vital spiritual business because it is part of discipleship in the local church.  And the outcome of the process will reveal spiritual realities.  We go as far as needed for reconciliation.  If we win the offender over because we acknowledge sin, prioritize the relationship and use the discipleship resources of the church if needed then a fellow believer is revealed and we rejoice.  But if the offender refuses to listen even to the final stage of the process, we are left unsure of the validity of that person’s faith.  The outcome of the process has valid spiritual significance.  And what is decided by God’s people on earth has significance in heaven; God is at work in this process.

When we begin this process, we need to understand the nature of the offense in order to understand the kind of work God is doing.  To better understand the nature of the offense, four contextual questions are helpful:

  • Who is the offender?
  • Whom was the offense against?
  • What was the offense (sin, not sin, etc.)?
  • When/where/how/why of the situation?

(Questions derived from The Peacemaking Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict by Alfred J. Poirier, Baker Books, 2006.)  We can push several situations through these questions to see how different situations present differences in the seriousness of an offense and, therefore, how a different outcome would be needed.

A new coworker wrongly criticizes your work.  Perhaps this is worth overlooking.  The offender is new, there isn’t much trust (yet) and criticism isn’t necessarily a wrong even when incorrect.  But consider the differences in the situation if the coworker is a subordinate…or a supervisor…or conducts the criticism publicly.  You can see the dynamics changing with each change I mentioned.

Your elementary age child calls you a name s/he heard at school.  The offender is young, perhaps acting his or her age.  S/he may not know what the word even means.  On the other hand, maybe this isn’t the first time you’ve had to correct this behavior.  Let’s hope it’s in the privacy of your home, because a public situation would change things.  A parent would need to know the child and details well enough to know how to approach and correct.

A family member has a very tough day and snaps at you.  Perhaps you can overlook this.  Everyone gets grumpy sometimes, especially when sick or after a tough day.  But a spouse committing this offense is different that a child or teenager against a parent.  And what was said is significant too.  Some lines should not be crossed regardless of a difficult day.

Things are getting more complicated now.  Your best friend spreads a vicious rumor about you after a breakup.  That’s probably not going to be overlooked; it can’t.  Lying is especially hurtful.  It’s someone you trusted and you are especially vulnerable at the time of offense.  It’s easy to see why forgiveness is a process and how details matter in a situation like this.

One more: I tried to think of the most horrible and difficult situation possible.  I’m not mentioning this one because I want to make us uncomfortable or because I want to remind anyone of something horrible that may have happened.  What about the extreme hurt of sexual abuse of a child by a family member?  That’s a terrible situation and terribly wrong and painful.  The injured is a child, vulnerable and powerless. The offender is someone who is trusted, perhaps with authority over the child.  The offense is a violation in a deeply personal and vulnerable part of identity; a part that a child may not even have much awareness about.  And that violation can have damaging effects that must be overcome for the rest of the offended person’s life.  And often this sin happens in a home; what was supposed to be a place of protection for the child is transformed into a place that insulates the wrong from others’ detection.  It’s a deep and multi-level wrong with profound damage against someone.  Likely, any process of forgiveness is going to require the help of a professional counselor and take time.

So you see how understanding the nature of the offense matters.  Understanding the nature of the offense helps us understand the nature of the pain it causes.  And understanding then nature of the pain will help us better understand the kind of healing work God is doing in us and around us.  It’s like a painting: it’s more than just color on paper or canvas.  It is that, but it’s also more.  It creates a picture that communicates a message or invites the viewer into a world that it creates.  Forgiveness is that way, too.  It is about the details and about the particulars of an offense, but all that serves a bigger picture about what God is doing.  Don’t just react to the colors: look at how God is at work.  If it hurts, it needs to heal because unhealed hurt does damage and because forgiveness is vital spiritual business.

That leads us to the third reason naturally.  If it hurts, it needs to heal because God is present in the middle of your pain.  We see in this passage that things happening on earth correspond to things happening in heaven.  It means that the presence of God is not passive.  He is at work.  He knows your pain, extends fellowship in your suffering, grieves with you over your losses, takes the shame of your situation on the cross, and invites you to know Him more deeply than ever before.

Remember, believer in Jesus, that you have been bought with a price and sealed under a tremendous promise.  Romans 8:28-32 tells us:

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,[h] for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 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. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be[i] against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Do you realize that only the wounded are given the opportunity to forgive?  Think about that.  Only those who are hurting are given the call to take steps toward forgiveness.  God is doing something in the heart of those who hurt, and we need to trust Him.

On one level, we are an artist at work.  We are making decisions and creating the life we live one stroke at a time.  But at another level, we are a masterpiece being made.  God is at work on us.  The master’s hand is on ours, so we take bold and confident strokes toward forgiveness.  If it hurts, it needs to heal because unhealed hurt does damage, because forgiveness is vital spiritual business, and because God is present in the middle of your pain.

Recently, a painting was discovered at an estate in Scotland.  It was thought to be the work of Innocenzo Fancucci da Imola and valued at $2600.  The painting caught the eye of art expert Dr. Benor Grosvenor during the filming of a BBC television series while he was looking at other artwork.  The expert suspected and later confirmed it was an original painting by Renaissance artist Raphael.  It is now valued at $26 million.  The difference?  It was the work of a master.  (“Painting Valued at $26 Turns Out to Be a Raphael Masterpiece Worth $26 Million,” Huffington Post, 10-03-16)

Your $2600 or even $26 conflict becomes a $26 million masterpiece with God’s hands on it.  Let Him work on you.  If it hurts, it needs to heal.  Let him make you into a masterpiece as you trust Him by taking steps toward forgiveness.

We have provided a series guide with the Canvas message series.  It is for you to use as you wish.  It’s yours.  If you’re not sure how to use today’s space, I have a suggestion: list the hurts, the ones that can’t be overlooked.  Go through those four diagnostic questions and list the people or situations that need your forgiveness.  If you aren’t comfortable writing a name or a situation detail, use a code word or symbol.  It’s up to you.  But let that list of hurts become a prayer list as you begin to trust God and take steps toward forgiveness.  Our live event (http://bible.com/events/336570) will be up all week in case you want to come back to what we’ve covered.  We’ll be praying for you and we hope to see you soon!

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Maine State Senate Opening Prayer

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I had the opportunity again to open the Maine State Senate in prayer.  My prayer this time was based on Luke 20:25, “He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”  The first part of the prayer focuses on faithful government service (i.e. giving to Caesar), while the second part focuses on the whole person (i.e. giving to God) and especially life outside of the Senate chamber.  My wife, Jen, joined me this year and we very much enjoyed our visit.

Maine State Senate Prayer 2017
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Rev. Larry J. Lakey

Good morning, please bow with me in prayer.

Dear Heavenly Father,

You are perfectly gracious and You give us every good thing to enjoy.  Thank You for this day, and for the opportunity to work and serve the people of this great state.  Thank You for the men and women who serve in this Senate body.  Help them to serve well in their trusted roles.  May they serve selflessly, pursuing the common good over and above their own interests.  Grant them an exemplary standing in abiding the law.  Help them to navigate difficult issues and situations that might endanger their integrity, and protect them against false accusation.  Give them an unusual ability to listen to each other, to highly regard the perspectives of those with whom they disagree.  May they see the worth You have invested in every person made in Your Image.  Grant them patience and a gracious spirit when working as colleagues.  Give them uncommon wisdom, clarity of thought, and the perseverance needed to work creatively toward effective solutions for complex problems.  Make their work productive and fruitful for the good of those whom they serve.  Grant them the good reputation that is earned by those who steward well this authority and this great responsibility.

Father, I also pray that you would bless each one of them in a very personal way.  May their lives outside of government work be rich and satisfying.  Grant not only the ability to work well, but the peace and rest needed when the work day is done.  Bless them in their relationships with family; may they find joy in knowing and loving others, as well as in being known and loved by others.  Give them transparency and intimacy with those who care for them most.  Protect them from those who would merely use them for political influence.  Bring genuine friendships into their lives, and trusted companions with whom to share all of the good things You give.  Grant them the perspective needed to make wise investments in relationships that far outlast the duration of their public service.  I pray that their lives outside this chamber would be just as rich and full as their collaborative work here together could possibly be.

May the great State of Maine thrive because of those who serve in this Senate.

I pray this in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Maine Senate Opening Reflection & Prayer

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I once again had the opportunity to open the Maine Senate in prayer.  This time, I brought one of my daughters with me and shared a brief reflection based upon an experience my family has recently had.  It was a unique occasion for me to talk from a very public platform about what God has been doing in my life:

Maine Senate Opening Reflection and Prayer
May 20, 2015
Rev. Larry J. Lakey
Winslow Baptist Church

Good morning and thank you for the invitation and privilege to open today’s session in prayer. Before I pray, I’d like to share some thoughts based on some recent experiences my family and I have had together.

Exactly three weeks ago today, my wife and I became licensed for foster and adoptive care in the State of Maine.   Of course, this sort of licensing is not an overnight process. The desire to help provide a home for children in need began building in us years ago. Along the way, there were documents and disclosures and inspections and seminars and interviews and approvals. And we also talked to other foster and adoptive parents, those who were further ahead on a journey similar to the one we would begin. We listened to their stories: stories about completing the licensing process, about getting their homes ready, and about finally receiving that first phone call for a child to be placed with their family. We would listen, ask questions, and wonder when our phone call would come – what that day would be like for us. We didn’t need to wait long; the day our license was finalized, our phone call came.

My purpose in telling you about my family’s experience is not to highlight the need for foster and adoptive parenting in the State, nor to bring your attention to any issues as legislators. There are others far better qualified than me to do that. I am sharing this story with you in order to bring you into my moment of decision three weeks ago today, the moment when that phone call came. It came sooner than we expected and, to be forthright, at a highly inconvenient time: Our schedule was full, our energy level was low, and our refrigerator was empty. We certainly didn’t feel ready. But the call came because the need was there. It was an emergency placement; children needed a place to stay within a few hours. My wife received the call first and then spoke with me. We agreed to talk again after a few minutes of gathering our thoughts, a task that proved much more difficult than I had anticipated. My thoughts and emotions were in a whirlwind, and I searched for some degree of clarity under pressure. I prayed that I might somehow boil this decision down to its essence – down to a single principle or question that would help guide whatever choice I should make. The question that came to my mind was surprisingly simple and essential. It was this: If not me, then who? If I was not to act in this moment, who would? If I would not provide a home, where would these children go? Would I stand by, motionless and silent while this need was left unmet? If not me, then who?

That single question helped guide my decision in a moment of need. All of the preparation and anticipation only mattered if, in that moment, I chose to do the one thing that I knew I must do. The opportunity was before me and it would pass me by if I failed to act. So we said, “Yes” and for three weeks now, my family has hosted two young children in our home. We have loved them, protected them, and provided for them as our own. We have been challenged, stretched, and humbled in unforgettable ways. We will never be the same, and I believe we have changed for the better.

I know that the honorable men and women in this body are working hard to make our great State better. I know that your work is difficult, complex, and timely. And I know that you work under tremendous pressure. My hope is that today, as you face the important business before you, this same question might help guide your decisions. Is there work that you must do because the opportunity will pass you by if you fail to act? Is there a decision that you must make because it is yours alone to make? Is there a timely issue – or perhaps a set of issues – for which the pertinent question is, “If not you, then who?”

I respectfully invite you to join me in prayer:

Heavenly Father, thank You for this day You have given us. Thank you for the men and women in this Senate whom You given as leaders and legislators for the State of Maine. Thank you for the difficult, complex, and timely work that is before them. Please guide them in their decisions: Provide the questions that must be answered to help bring clarity to actions they must take. Give them unity, give them wisdom, give them resolve to do the things that they alone must do. And bless them, I pray, as they serve in this capacity. May they be challenged, stretched, and humbled in their work so that they may serve well.

I pray this in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

What has God been doing in your life that you need to share so others may hear and be encouraged?

Maine State Senate Opening Prayer

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Today I opened the Maine State Senate in prayer.  It was a great experience.  I am grateful for the opportunity and want to share with you the text of my prayer as read this morning and recorded in official minutes.  Oh, that this prayer would be answered!

State Senate Opening Prayer
March 25, 2014
Rev. Larry J. Lakey

Good morning and thank you for the invitation and privilege to open today’s session. I respectfully ask that you would stand and join me in prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father,

Thank you for the religious liberty that has been secured in our nation as a basic human freedom.  Please bless this Senate for recognizing and exercising this liberty today. May human freedom flourish as this practice of prayer is continued. 

Our thoughts are first with those who are suffering today. Please be with those who are grieving following tragedy.  Bring comfort to those in need today.

We confess that our nation has been deeply divided.  Discourse in the civic arena is often angry and contentious.  Trust in elected officials is low.  We no longer assume the best of each other or portray each other in the best way possible.  This same division is visible at times in the political discourse of our own state. Forgive us for this. Help these elected representatives to lead the way forward and out of bitter division.  Let their respect for each other and collegial manner set an example for others.

Please give them patience to listen.  Help each member of this assembly to realize that no one person or one party has all the answers to the important questions, or solutions for the difficult problems that we face.  Only you, Father, see all and know all.  By your grace, give them insight and understanding.

Please give them honesty to speak truth to each other and to the world. Protect them from the temptation to oversimplify or exaggerate or tell only part of the story. Only you, Father, dwell in perfect truth.  Help them to see, to know, and to speak the truth.

Please give them the unity to act.  Help them to find common ground today where there seemed to be none before. Bless them with creative solutions.  Only you, Father, can do the impossible.  Help them to know which steps of action to take and how to build a necessary consensus to do good.

Please give them humility to serve.  Remind them of their place in your grand scheme. Protect each from thinking too highly of herself or himself.  Only you, Father, have demonstrated perfect humility in the Gospel. Help their actions to benefit those whom they serve in these elected offices.

May today, gracious Father, be a day of great accomplishment. No authority exists that has not been granted by you.  Throughout history, not all have been good stewards of this authority. Help this assembly, help each member here today, to faithfully administer this stewardship for the common good, and for the prosperity of every citizen in the Great State of Maine.

I pray this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

Thank you and may God bless you in every way.

Tell me what you think: If you had the chance to open a government assembly in prayer, how would you pray?

Joy: Advent, Week Three

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Since we cancelled Sunday’s worship gathering due to a snowstorm, I am offering a version of my planned message here.  We are celebrating the Advent season and I am sad that we missed being together to focus on Joy.  But thanks to the Internet, you can read through some teaching on joy and even participate in this week’s live we event.  You’ll find the scriptures I reference and ways to interact about with your own thoughts too.  You can access our live web event (until 12/21) here: http://bible.com/e/1DU7.

What is joy?

In the last few years, our family has added a tradition to the list of Christmas celebrations.  It’s called “Elf on the Shelf” and it works like this; a little elf doll made of felt and stuffing, with a slightly mischievous smile, migrates around your home to various observation points.  His job is to report back to Santa Claus the naughtiness or niceness of family members.  Of course, this is neither creepy nor matching the legal definition for stalking in 35 states; it’s a beloved holiday tradition!

Elf seems to have become increasingly popular in the last year or two.  You may have seen little outfits available in the stores or Pinterest posts online with creative ideas.  Facebook friends share photos of the mischief that little Elf creates, which also serve as seed ideas for other elf wrangling parents.  In other words, Elf doesn’t usually stay on the shelf!

In our home, Elf sometimes finds a creative pose but sometimes…he forgets to move.  It’s sad really.  But sometimes Elf finds a comfy spot and decides to stay there until we remem he decides to move on.  This isn’t a new phenomenon in our home; once in a while the tooth fairy experiences “high winds en route” and is delayed for a day (or three).  Our kids enjoy the Elf on the shelf tradition, and it’s fun when they discover a new Elf observation position.

Last week, though, we witnessed something strange that seemed to make Elf on the Shelf a little less special to us.  We saw a TV commercial where young kids were shown – via alleged home video footage – hysterically screaming with excitement upon finding little Elf in their home.  Kids can usually smell a fake a country mile away, and my kids cried foul at the commercial.  Sure Elf is fun to find and they have every right to expect regular Elf migration in our home, but there is NO WAY any kid would get that excited when they find him.  At least my kids never have, and to them it smells like foreign factory-manufactured joy.

In particular, TV commercials pushing products to desperate-for-something-new-but-not-digital parents and grandparents tend to go a little overboard.  Kids are shown squealing with delight, “Thank you, Grandma!” over not-available-in-stores-so-call-now foreign factory-manufactured junk as my own kids only stare at the TV in disbelieving horror.  “No way would kids say that,” they say.

Now, I have nothing against buying your grandkids stuff from TV offers or elves on shelves or capitalism or kids squealing with delight.  In fact, I have no gift buying or Christmas tradition advice to offer you.  It’s just that I know how much parents and grandparents love to hear that response from children and I resent when commercialism uses that genuine desire to make a buck on something.  It’s not fair.

And it’s not true.  Stuff doesn’t bring happiness that lasts.  Sure, it’s great when a gift is well-received or a surprise elicits a delightful squeal.  I’m all for that!  Gift-giving is a form of art, I think.  But let’s not pretend that giving or receiving stuff brings lasting happiness.

Joy is prolonged wonder.

True happiness that lasts is what the Bible calls “joy.”  What causes joy?  Well, imagine the wonder of Christmas in the heart of a child, only it lasts and lasts.  Does that sound too good to be true?  Well, it’s both possible and impossible.  Just look at Luke 1:26-45 when Mary received the news from the angel Gabriel that she was a vital part of God’s redemptive plan.  Why was Mary blessed?  Because she believed in God’s promises.  Mary, along with all of Israel, waited expectantly for God to send a redeemer king for His people.  Imagine the wonder that Mary and the others were filled with as God’s miracles were seen firsthand:  Even a baby in the womb leaped for joy!  Apart from believing God, all of these events were just plain strange.  But looking through the eyes of faith the fulfillment of God’s plan brings blessing; a joy-producing wonder that lasts.

I was mildly amused when I read about a recent article in Popular Science magazine titled, “Could a Virgin Birth Even Happen?”  The article explained how virgin birth was impossible because of the complexities of cell division, chromosomes, and DNA.  But that’s the whole point!  I agree with Derek Rishmawy that “We already know it’s generally biologically impossible – that’s precisely why we make a big deal about it.”  It’s not that Christians believe virgin birth isn’t impossible.  It’s just that we worship a God who does the impossible because nothing is impossible for Him.

So in attempting to disprove a major tenet of Christian belief, the article only highlights what Christians actually believe: That God promised a virgin birth as a sign.  He promised the impossible, and then…it happened!  God’s promises always come true and it produces lasting wonder in our hearts.   So we experience joy as God keeps His promises.

But does this kind of joy really last?  Is it really more powerful than any of the bad things that life brings?  What about tough times?  What about when it seems like God isn’t keeping His promises?

Joy is not dependent on circumstances.

Joy runs deeper than happiness caused by good times or things.  It’s not that the good times and good things are bad; they are indeed good and we should receive all good things with gratitude as God’s gifts.  But if happiness is grounded in anything changeable, it’s going to change.  Joy is more resilient than that.

We all go through difficult times, and those times test our resolve.  The writer in Hebrews 12:1-11 compares life to a race.  Life has a set path and it requires endurance.  It is difficult and requires discipline.  But, like all forms of discipline, we naturally resist.  And that only makes the race more difficult to run.  No one is spared the pain that a broken world causes – and sometimes the pain is even caused by us.  We try to good, but we’re not as good as wish we were and trying wears us out.  That’s why Jesus came; to run the perfect race because we cannot.  He ran His race path all the way to the cross.  He suffered and died and secured victory, so don’t lose heart!  Keep running and keep running well.  Victory is assured.

If Jesus finished the race perfectly, then why do we face difficulty?  Has God forgotten about us?  Is he withholding joy from us?  No!  Joy isn’t bound to circumstances, so joy can be experienced in difficult circumstances.  In fact, the promise of God is that He will treat us as sons and daughters because of Jesus.  So, believing in God’s promises means trusting that difficult times does not negate His promise to love us.  In Christ, difficulty is used for our good – building up our endurance as we run the race path – so that we run well and finish well.  We experience joy as we trust God through difficulty.

I sometimes wonder just how many “church people” understand this.  We too easily despair when difficulty comes our way.  Instead, we should see it as a promise being fulfilled and an opportunity to grow.  Of course, this requires believing God’s promises are true.  But when we do, joy blossoms despite the circumstance and that is when we realize God is doing the impossible again.  Only this time, it’s the impossible happening in us.

This past January, I was invited to watch the New England Patriots football team host a playoff game in Foxboro, MA.  It was a great game for two reasons: First, the home team one; second, it was warmer than expected.  January in Massachusetts can be very cold and four hours sitting outside can be a test of endurance.  But the temperature was in the fifties, so the game environment was more than bearable.  But then came the drive home, at night, back to Maine.  The warm area hung over just-recently-frozen ground and produced fog for the final two hours of the drive.  It was tough going.  Actually, it was exhausting.  I used as much concentration as my tired mind could produce to focus on the fog-covered road as we drove.  I needed to drive at reasonably fast highway speed in order to make the trip last no longer than necessary.  At the same time, high speed reduces reaction time and I feared seeing a deer or moose appear on the road in front of us.  Driving through fog is difficult, especially when there may be obstacles in the way.

When we race along life’s path without trusting in God’s promises, it’s like driving blind in the fog.  It’s exhausting and we can’t see the destination.  Perhaps this is what robs so many people of the joy that trusting in Christ should bring.  Believing in God’s promises opens our eyes in faith to what He is doing.  But focusing on the circumstances will keep us in the fog; we only see what is directly in front of us.  The destination isn’t what is immediately around us anyway.

So what is joy?

Joy comes from trusting in God’s promises despite our circumstances.  So it can’t come from the things we give or receive, from other people, or from everything going our way.  In fact, it is often experienced most powerfully despite nothing going our way at all.  This Christmas, remember that this is why Jesus came.  No so that we can get – or even give – what will make us happy.  Instead, He offers us a lasting happiness that will keep the wonder of Christmas alive in our hearts all year every year.  That is real joy.

Have you experienced joy despite your circumstances?  Tell us about it in a comment below…

For Alice Lakey

My grandmother was called home to be with her Lord on Thursday.  Since I can’t be present at the funeral service today, I’ve asked for this to be read aloud:

Today, I honor the godly grandmother that I was blessed to know.  In 2 Timothy 1:5, the apostle Paul writes, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.”  Paul expresses gratitude for the heritage of faith that Timothy received; a heritage passed down from his godly grandmother.  In a similar way, I have received a heritage of faith passed down from my grandmother, who remained steadfast in her heart for the Lord Jesus Christ.

I remember her love of life.  What a delight it was to see her eyes twinkle as she would laugh!  I must confess that I often tried to say something funny just to make her laugh.  Her love for life’s good times was fueled by her love for others, especially her family.

I am grateful for the gentle kindness that my grandmother showed to others.  Just as she gently held many babies over the years in the hospital maternity ward, her caring hands held me as an infant and held my children too.  Over the years, her gentle spirit never faded.  I’ve met many other people who harbor resentment or display a harsh spirit as a result of life’s difficulties.  But my grandmother did not respond this way; her concern for others seemed only to deepen as she weathered the storms of life.

Through many ups and downs, trials and triumphs, victories and disappointments, her faith endured.  The most visible evidence of this was seen during the most difficult season of my life.  During nearly two decades of heartache as my father turned from the Lord, my grandmother persisted in prayer.  She also persisted in love and in kindness.  While many prayed for my father, for family members, and for me during those years, the prayer of my grieving grandmother is something that I will always hold most dear.  Her trust in the Lord, offered from a broken heart, was the sweet fragrance of worship.

Among her answered prayers are that my brother and I have remained followers of Jesus.  Rather than harboring bitterness and allowing resentment to rule over us, our grief has been turned to gratitude and our pain has become blessing as God faithfully worked even these things together for our good.  I am sure that not all of her prayers were answered in the exact way she asked, but her persevering faith endured as God’s faithfulness over time came into view.

My prayer is that I will pass on this heritage of faith to others, especially to my own children and grandchildren.  Her example of love, kindness, and persevering prayer is one that I will always remember and strive to emulate.  I am grateful to have known her in this life, and grateful for the hope to be reunited with her again in the presence of our Lord Jesus one day.

Warrior Class #4

On Saturday mornings, men in our church gather for “The Warrior Class.” It’s a simple breakfast, simple (one principle) lesson, and simple mini-group discussion. If you missed this week’s lesson, or want to revisit the principle again, here’s what we covered:

Principle: A godly warrior fights alongside brothers-in-arms.

Passages: 1 Samuel 18:1-5, 19:4-7, 20:16-17 & 23, 20:41-42, 2 Samuel 1:25b-27 

Knowing: Warrior brothers share in need, defend each other from evil, honor their word.

Do I have men in my life that I completely trust?  Who?

What fears need to be conquered for me to trust other warrior brothers?

Believing: I cannot make it alone; the Gospel proves this and enables this.

Do I believe that I need godly men in my life?  Why or why not?

What does Jesus’ death and resurrection means for our relationships with each other?

Doing: Warrior brotherhood is based on love; we put each other before ourselves.

In what ways do I share what other warrior brothers need?  In what ways do they share with me?

What is one thing I can immediately do to build trust with another warrior brother in life?

Bonus: Read and discuss the verses below.

Proverbs 18:24

Proverbs 17:17

Proverbs 27:17

Ephesians 2:11-22

Each week we report back with success stories from applying the lessons. Feel free to comment below, too.