The Gift of Faith

I want to share a story with you. It’s a story about the gift of faith. Not my faith, or my wife’s faith, but the gift of faith in the life of a complete stranger to us named Jose. His gift of faith did exactly what it was supposed to do: it encouraged and built up the faith of others around him.

Before I explain, it might be best to understand some background by reading a post I wrote back in 2014. After you read that, you will see where this journey started and how our great God brought us to where we are today.

Okay so back to it.

It was another Friday call. This time it was in the morning and Michelle and I were both home. Our social worker said there was a little baby girl, just two weeks old and born six weeks premature, waiting for us to pick her up from the NICU. The circumstances of her placement into foster care were almost identical to our “little bird” a year earlier. We both hesitated for a moment, recalling our previous heartbreak and feeling a thousand different emotions at once, but then we enthusiastically asked, “Where do we pick her up?”

After giving us the details, our social worker told us that the baby didn’t have a name and that we should choose a name on the way to the hospital. What?! We hadn’t even thought of girl names. We both discussed it as we scrambled to get everything we needed into the car and then on our way to the gas station. While sitting there waiting for a pump to open up, we both agreed that we loved the name Mariah. So, that was it. Just like that we had a name for our baby. Such a surreal experience.

We finally got to the hospital, and after figuring out where the NICU was, we met Mariah’s social worker and then walked in to see her. I still tear up when thinking about how small and beautiful she was. At 4 ½ pounds, she was a tiny, perfect little baby. Michelle was extra careful when changing her preemie onesie and diaper. As we were about to leave, the nurses gathered around us and all said how much they would miss her and that she was such a good baby. They gave us a bunch of little “extras” to make sure her first few days with us were set. (NICU nurses are a special group of people!)

Getting her situated in the car, I remember the straps of the car seat covering her entire body. It took me three hours to get home because of LA traffic and my decision to stay in the slow lane the entire way. We brought her into the house and both sat in amazement of how our lives just changed, again.

December 4th, 2015. What a day that was.

Fast-forward a month or so. Our incredible neighbors across the street called and asked if they could stop by with a gift for Mariah. When they arrived, they gave us a gift bag of very nice clothes for her. Then they set a Wal-Mart bag in front of us. They said, “This is another gift, but it comes with a story.” Michelle and I said, “Okay, what’s the story.” It went something like this:

“Well, we know you guys have been trying to adopt for a few years. So, we shared that with our family so they would be able to pray for you. Our brother-in-law Jose has been praying consistently for you guys to adopt for a while now.”

Wow! We had never met this guy, and he was praying for us. We didn’t know what to think yet, but we thought it was very kind of him.

They continued, “We just visited Jose at his home. He was recently in a bad car accident, which was not his fault, but tragically someone died. He was pretty banged up and just got out of the hospital. We went to see how he was doing and cheer him up with your news. When we told him that you guys had been placed with another baby, he was amazed. He asked his son to go out to his (smashed) truck and get the Wal-Mart bag from behind the seat. Then he said, ‘I have a gift for them.’”

How did he have a gift for us? They had just told him that we got Mariah. He had no way of knowing that.

Hmmm.

He said to my neighbors, “Do you remember the last time I came to your house? Well, before I walked in, I looked across the street, stretched out my hands and prayed for Jeff and Michelle. I asked God again to give them a child. But this time I felt God gave me an answer. It was like He said, ‘I already have.’ So, a couple days later I bought this gift and I’ve kept it since then. I didn’t give it to them because I thought they would think I was crazy.”

Whoa! Maybe he was right?

Inside the Wal-Mart bag was a Lion King blanket. Jose said he wasn’t sure if it would be a boy or a girl so he chose something neutral. Also in the bag was the receipt with the date: November 23, 2015. This was BEFORE we got Mariah on December 4th. That really confirmed for us that God was at work in all of this.

But the story doesn’t end there.

About a month or two later, I saw Jose across the street at my neighbors’ house and invited him over to meet Mariah and tell us his experience firsthand. He came over and shared the same story and offered some encouraging words.

He said, “Jeff, Michelle, there may be people in this process that tell you that the baby is going to go back to her parents, or somewhere else. Don’t believe them. God has given you this child.”

Even though we knew from experience that a lot could happen between that point and adoption, we felt that God was using Jose to speak to us.

Then I took the blanket and the receipt from the Wal-Mart bag. (We kept it in the bag until Mariah was adopted). I looked at the receipt and I curiously asked Jose, “Did you buy this gift on the same day that God answered your prayer?” He said, “No, I bought it a couple days after that.” I pressed a little further. “So, it was two days before you purchased this then?” “Yes. I remember it was a Saturday because we had church the next day. Then I went to purchase the blanket on Monday.”

Again, I had to clarify, “The receipt says you bought the blanket on November 23rd, so you are saying on the 21st is when your prayer was answered?” He said, “Yes, that was the day.”

I said to him, “November 21st is Mariah’s birthday.”

We all sat there stunned. Jose could not believe it. Michelle and I were floored that God was so specific in His answer. We still often feel the emotion of that day.

God is so good!

When Jose left, Michelle and I were greatly encouraged in our faith. We decided to keep this story to ourselves until Mariah was adopted. It was something that kept us going when we faced the inevitable challenges of foster-adoption.

On July 13, 2017, a judge very formally announced: “Henceforth, this child shall be known as Mariah Leigh Carver.” We wept tears of great joy while Mariah sat in my lap and played with crayons. Later, we gathered around our table for a meal with friends and family and gratefully shared this amazing story of God’s faithfulness, and the simple but powerful gift of faith He had given Jose.

5 Reasons to Know Your Spiritual Gifts

Sometimes I get asked why I have spent so much of my ministry encouraging people to discover and use their spiritual gifts.  It seems like such a small topic within the great scope of the Christian faith.  And it’s true, it does seem that way.  But I want to offer you a few simple reasons for individuals and church leaders as to why this particular subject is so important for the church.

1.   Spiritual gifts are gifts from God Himself

This may sound fairly obvious, but it is an important point to make.  The Bible says that every Christian is given a spiritual gift, distributed by the Holy Spirit according to His will (1 Corinthians 12:11).  If we fail or refuse to discover what gifts we have, we essentially reject them and all the blessings and work God has for us in them.  As leaders we are to help those in our care “open” these gifts in appreciation for what God has given and in anticipation of what He has in store for us.

2.  We are commanded to use our gifts

When God gives gifts, He expects us to receive them, open them up and use them (1 Peter 4:10).  He does nothing flippantly or without purpose.  From eternity past He has had a plan and a design, and we are all a part of it.  As such we are never to neglect the gifts we have, but instead we are to stir them up and grow in them (1 Timothy 4:14-15).  Like the Apostle Paul in this passage, all leaders are to exhort and encourage believers to serve in their gifts in obedience to the calling which God has placed on their life.  We are to encourage believers in their gifts to set examples for others in the church and to be a blessing to them at the same time.

3.  Our gifts help us fulfill the Greatest Commandment

The greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.  The second is like it: to love our neighbor as ourselves.  (Mark 12:29-31)  When we serve God, His people and the lost, we are in fact loving God and our neighbors.  Faith is always connected to obedience and when we, by faith, act in obedience to serve God and our neighbor, we demonstrate our love for both.   Love is not a mere feeling, it is an action and is best expressed when we exercise our gifts in service to God and others.  James said faith without works is dead.  The same could be said about love. (James 2:14-17)

4.  Our gifts help us fulfill the Great Commission

Of course they do!  Without apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11), how could the church have been established?  How could we ever reach the lost and make disciples?  How could we baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and how could we teach them all that Jesus has commanded?  Without those with the gift of mercy we would never reach some people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Without the givers how many ministries or missions would go unfunded?  Believer, without you what goes undone in your church?  The mission statement of every church should simply be Matthew 28:18-20 or a close paraphrase of the Great Commission.  This is why the church exists and a large part of why spiritual gifts exist in the church.  Leaders, can we expect our churches to function and fulfill our highest calling without knowing how people are gifted and then encouraging them to serve in the proper ministries?

5.  Our gifts build up the body of Christ and glorify God

We need each other.  Plain and simple this is how God has designed His church.  This is how Jesus is building His church.  This is why the Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people in the church.  God has put us all together to allow us to bless each other, build each other up, challenge each other, love each other and thus glorify God in heaven.  Jesus wants His bride to be ready when He returns for her.  To use another picture from Scripture, He wants His body to be fully mature and built up in love.  Ephesians 4:11-16 gives us this perfect picture of the church working together in the purpose of Christ.  Peter also exhorts us in 1 Peter 4:10-11 to use our gifts in service to one another, as stewards of God’s grace, in HIS power, so that in all things God will be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Of course there are more than just 5 reasons to know our spiritual gifts, but hopefully this list will get you thinking about their importance in your own life and in the life of the church.

 

To learn more about spiritual gifts, I have created a 7-week Bible study DVD series called Gifted by Grace: An Intruduction to The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts available at SpiritualGiftsTest.com.

 

Leaders, if you are serious about assessing and helping your church members grow in their gifts, check out our Spiritual Gifts Profiler here.  This is an amazing tool to help you get started.

 

Thanks for reading.  There’s more to come!

8 Ways To Be A Better Volunteer

So the new year is well on its way.  How are your resolutions going?  Ooh is it too soon?  Ask you in a week when you try again?  Okay maybe I’ll do that.

Many people start off the new year with personal and often, may I say, self-centered resolutions.  It usually begins with an internal diagnosis of our lives in which we realize the truth that we all somehow are falling short in our responsibilities to ourselves.  We then submit to a ridiculous amount of self-imposed pressure to fix 35 years of bad habits in a week.  Then we fail, landing in miserable miserableness.  For me, it looks like that 300 miles I am supposed to run this year may not work out.  It is day 21 and I have run 2.  At that rate I might make it to 35 miles.  That would still be good, right?  “Aim for the stars and land among the clouds,” they say.  From my experience it is more like “aim for the track and land on the couch.”  With pizza.  And cookies.  Man a cookie sounds good right now.

We all know it is important to take care of ourselves.  But we shouldn’t stop there.  I’m sure many of you thought of serving your fellow human beings this year and I commend you for that.  For years I have been a volunteer and overseen volunteers in church.  In that time I have made many, many mistakes.  I’ve also witnessed others struggle and end up burning out.  I don’t want those experiences to be yours, so here are eight things I learned the hard way that you can use in your service of others.  I promise they will make you a better volunteer.

Note: Most of this is relates to serving in the church, but the principles apply to all volunteers.

Start

Sometimes when we decide to volunteer or serve in some meaningful way, we have trouble getting started.  Maybe it’s because you are trying to answer the question, “who do I help?” or “how do I help?” The answer is easy: find the needs and fill them.  Be observant.  Do you notice the nursery workers after church with unusual stains on their clothing or offensive smells coming off of them?  Is there chaos in the youth room because the one “adult” there is fighting the students over the video game controller?  Does your pastor have dark circles under his eyes because he had to get up at dawn to get the church “ready for service?”  Are your church restrooms filthy?  See?  There are plenty of ways to serve!

Now you might say, “Well that’s not my idea of a good time.”  True.  And I could drop a Jesus bomb on you right now but I won’t.  However, volunteering is an unglamorous thing.  There is no glory in it (here and now) and that’s okay.  If that’s not okay with you, then please don’t start.

You might also say, “I want to serve in my spiritual gifts.”  Great!  But before you do that, you should be able to demonstrate that you are a servant and a servant doesn’t always choose how he or she will serve.  In fact, I am of the opinion that no pastor should enter the pulpit who isn’t first willing to clean the toilets.  Plungers before preaching I say. 

Your spiritual gifts are important, but don’t let them limit how or where you serve.  Only moving vehicles can be steered.  Get started and see where God steers you from there.

Do not overcommit yourself

This is a big one.  Once you start serving in the church what happens is your name is put on “the list.”  This isn’t an official list, but you are now a part of the 20%.  It is generally stated that 20% of people do 80% of the serving in the church.  Of course this means 80% are attenders only.  So once you are on “the list” you will be asked to do more and more.  Take it as a compliment, but don’t let serving overtake you to the point you become bitter or resentful.  Give of yourself cheerfully and generously, but not out of compulsion.

Don’t hold back from what God has asked you to do, but don’t overcommit from feelings of guilt or the need to be needed.  The sovereign plan of God will not be thwarted if you don’t do that one extra thing.

Be on time

We all have that one person in our lives that we consistently lie to.  We tell them the birthday party starts at 12:30 when it actually starts at 2:00 just so they will be there on time.  Don’t make people lie to you.  It’s a simple thing really.  If you commit to being somewhere, then be there on time.  Others are counting on you to bear the burden of this important work along with them, and that work begins at a certain time.

Don’t be so needy

Good job.  Thank you.  Okay that should be enough to last you another year or two.  I get that we all want to be appreciated and those in leadership need to do a better job of expressing appreciation to volunteers.  Often leaders are bombarded with so much to do and so much responsibility that they either forget to say thank you, or they just don’t have the energy or motivation to do it on a regular basis.  Please don’t hold it against them.  They are fallible and weak just like everyone else.  And the truth is, they probably receive little to no affirmation from anyone for what they do.  Sure, they might get paid to be in ministry (probably peanuts), but they don’t do it for the money.  They do it to satisfy God’s calling on their lives.  They want to please One.  As long as they know that He is pleased, that is motivation enough to continue in the good works He has prepared for them to do.

As a volunteer, your attitude should be the same.  In fact, you should probably do more to appreciate the leaders who oversee your work.  They love you and care for you and I am sure it would go a long way with them.  And it would set an example for them without expecting anything in return.

Be self-motivated

I’ve got an 11 pound chihuahua named Charlie (he actually has over a hundred nicknames but this is the one his mother gave him).  He is really light on his feet and very athletic even though he is over 12 years old, but when he gets tired he is like a limp noodle.  He becomes dead weight and when I pick him up its like he is 25 pounds.  Fortunately I am very, very strong and can lift over 25 pounds (tickets to the gun show anyone?).  We all know it is harder to move dead weight.  Remember the movie Weekend at Bernie’s?  That’s what if feels like when volunteers are not self-motivated.IMG_0435

Don’t be dead weight.  Look for opportunities to get ahead of the game.  Anticipate your leader’s next move and be ready when he or she makes it.  Bring new ideas to the table and be ready to implement them yourself.  Don’t wait to be told to do something.  Learn what needs to be done and quietly do it.  Your leaders and your team will be inspired by this well-oiled machine you are helping create.

Motivate others

Maybe you are not the leader of a ministry.  Maybe you are not in a position of authority.  Don’t let that stop you from inspiring others.  Even those in the lowest of positions can inspire growth and change in those around them.  Be a cheerleader, an encourager, a lifter of spirits.  Build people up with your words and actions.  Help others see the importance of the work you are all doing and those you are serving.  Help them to see the greatness of Jesus in whose Name you are serving.

People forget why ministry happens.  They forget that ministry exists to glorify God, make Him known, and see Him rule as Lord over all.  “Thy kingdom come” is what we pray for.  Don’t let the big things get lost in the mundane tasks of ministry.  Be the one who reminds everyone else why we do what we do.

Stick around

This is hard for even pastors to do.  There are good reasons to leave a church or ministry, and there are not so good reasons.  TGC has an excellent article on this subject, but for the most part you should stick around.  Longevity brings a sense of stability not only for yourself, but for those you serve.  It demonstrates your commitment to them, to your leaders and to The Lord.

It is difficult for ministries to come by volunteers who will be around long-term.  Things are always changing in ministry and in people’s lives.  We live in a culture that devalues commitment.  We want to keep our options open at all times.  Families “church-shop” every Sunday but never find what they are looking for.  They don’t stick around long enough to connect to the community and establish relationships and roots.  It’s sad really.

Don’t be those people.  Be someone others can count on; someone they can set their clocks to because of your reliability.  The church needs more people like that, and it is greatly satisfying to be that person.

Let love be your motivation

Christians can sometimes lose sight of their motivation for serving others.  They might think it earns them gold stars in heaven, or even that it will help them get there.  This is a terrible (and damnable) heresy!  Christians do not work for our salvation.  We work because of it, or in response to it.  We were saved by grace and are now able to do what God has created us to do and walk in the work He has prepared for us to walk in (Ephesians 2:8-10).  Our motivation to serve is the love we have for God because of His grace toward us, and the love we have for our neighbors because they were created in God’s own image.

Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40).  He knew that serving and doing good deeds (good deed doers?) out of obligation was not something that would last.  And obligation is for the most part a terrible motive in and of itself.  God wants us to cultivate love in our hearts and it starts with His love for us.  1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.”  Isn’t that true?  We love because He loved us.  Love started in heaven and poured down on God’s creation.  In response, we love each other and God.  Love comes from heaven and returns to heaven.  It’s awesome when you see this in real life, and even awesomer (okay, more awesome) when you experience it on a regular basis.  So let love be your motivation and nothing else.

Well, there’s eight things.  Can you think of any others?  What are some that you need to work on?  Let me know in the comments below.

6 Days a Daddy

It was a Friday afternoon.  I was driving home from work when I got a call.  I got THE call.  I usually don’t pick up while I’m driving but the name of our social worker was plastered across my phone.  It was difficult to curb my excitement as well as the turning in the pit of my stomach.  We had been through this before and it had ended in disappointment.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello?

Patty: Hi Jeff it’s Patty.  How are you?

Me: Good and you?

Patty: What are you guys doing tonight?

Me: Normal stuff.  We’re going on a date.

Patty: Well, it may be the best date of your life…

She then told me of a 3-day-old baby boy who was just brought into foster care and was waiting for us to pick him up.  We had been matched with him, but she was waiting for more information from his social worker and would call me back.  So I waited.  I fought the urge to call Michelle for almost an hour.  Finally, I couldn’t hold it in any longer and called her at work.  My words were cautious but hopeful and I promised to call again as soon as I heard back.

So I waited some more.

Another 45 minutes went by and my phone rang again.  “Okay it’s a go!”  I got all the details and called Michelle again at work.  She promptly quit her job. (Of course they were fully aware months in advance that this could happen.)  On the way we stopped and bought a car seat for the little guy.  We had no clue which one to buy, and the sales gal at Baby’s R Us was probably still in high school and definitely not a mother.  So we just picked up the best one we could afford, unboxed it in the parking lot and took 20 minutes figuring out how to strap it in the car.  Then we continued our adventure.

We made it to the hospital and found our way to the nursery.  When we got there a nurse was holding in her arms a little baby boy.  He was beautiful.  We both cried.  And smiled.  And were generally in awe and disbelief.  We realized we were unprepared for this experience, and it was better than we could have imagined.

After demonstrating that we knew how to strap the little guy into his car seat, (actually we had no clue so the nurse coached us) we were off to our home with a baby boy.  Crazy crazy crazy.  Did they just give us a baby?  We were instant parents.  It’s true that you drive slower and more cautious with “precious cargo” in the back seat.

My mother-in-law met us at home and helped us get everything in order to take care of this new member of our family.  The first night we just stared at him and marveled at God’s grace.  We had never been happier.

The next 5 days were as close to perfect as you could get.  We got into a routine and found even the most disgusting things didn’t bother us.  Some of you know what I’m talking about.  We were just happy to have this beautiful baby in our home.  We nicknamed him “Baby Bird” or “Little Bird” because he would open his mouth and look up at us like a baby bird when he was hungry.  (We didn’t feed him worms I promise.)  He was an excellent baby.  Even his crying was sweet and innocent.  I know I sound like I am romanticizing a bit, but he really was a great little guy.

One thing the social worker did tell us was that there would be a court hearing on Wednesday to review his case.  We had very little information, just that the mother was a drug abuser and the father was not in the picture.  Little Bird had been exposed to drugs but did not have any withdrawal symptoms.  He was in perfect health as far as the doctors were concerned.  So Wednesday rolled around and we waited for the call to let us know what the situation would be moving forward.  We weren’t prepared to hear the news we received.

Apparently, dad unexpectedly showed up at the court hearing.  The court ordered a quick background check on him and decided that if he was able to take care of the baby, we would have to give him back the next day.  We were blindsided.  It was devastating.  I still have no words to fully describe how we felt.

Looking back we should have asked more questions of the social workers.

Of course, we knew the risks when we picked him up at the hospital, and in the back of our minds we were aware that this could happen.  It still took us by surprise.  And it hurt.  Not only us, but our family as well.  They were all thrilled that we were finally parents and they were grandparents, uncles, and cousins.  Telling them the news was one of those things I don’t want to have to do again.  You almost feel guilty dragging your family through this kind of situation because they didn’t sign up for it.

Thursday morning we got the call that we would indeed have to give Little Bird up that afternoon.  Our friends and family dropped everything and gathered at our home.  I’ll never forget that day and how hard it was, but also the amount of love and support that surrounded us.

About an hour before the social worker came to pick him up, we had everyone leave so we could spend some time alone with him.  We cried together, but we also gave thanks to God that we had him for those six days.  When she arrived, we brought him out and I made sure he was strapped into her car seat correctly.  We both kissed him goodbye.  Then she drove away.

We’ve had a few months now to reflect on this experience and there are some things that it taught us.

We have amazing friends and family.  Many people will celebrate the blessings in your life, but there are usually only a few who will weep with you in your darkest hours.  There were special people who came and wept with us or just sat in silent support.  We have people who love us deeply and we are so very grateful for them.

We realize too that we were given a gift for those six days.  We were able to experience everything from the hospital forward, which is unusual for foster parents.  And we got to see what kind of parents we are.  I know that my wife is an amazing mom.  Motherhood is built into her and it is a wonderful thing to behold.  I have never seen my wife so beautiful as when she was taking care of that little baby boy.

We also learned much about our God.  This was a Gospel experience to us.  For six days we “adopted” a helpless beautiful little baby boy.  It is ridiculous how quickly and how deeply we fell in love with him.  It made no sense that we would love him like that, but we did.  (And really we still do).  God loves us adopted sons and daughters with a perfect and eternal love, and we got a glimpse of that.  He sees us as His own just like we saw Baby Bird as our own.

We also got a glimpse of loss.  We have friends who have lost a biological child to illness, so we definitely don’t equate our situation with that kind of loss.  I think The Lord knows what we can handle and is gracious to us.  This was all we could handle for sure, but He let us experience the loss.  He knows that kind of loss.  He knew that experiencing that loss would give us a clearer picture of His love for us and the extent to which He was willing to go to bring us back to Himself.  It may sound strange, but experiencing that loss has brought us closer to our God.  We have just a bit more understanding of who He is, and that has the effect of redeeming some of the pain.

The Lord is the only one who can redeem our pain.  Thankfully He does.

We were reminded that we are not in control.  He is.  All we can do is pray that Little Bird’s dad is a good guy with a good family who will love him and guide him in the right way.  But we aren’t certain that will happen.  What we know is that God is good and His love surpasses ours.  So we simply trust Him.

At this point we are waiting for another child to bring into our home and love.  We still want to adopt, and Lord willing it will happen soon.  Until then we will wait and pray and put our faith in Him and His timing.

 

The Myth of ‘Death With Dignity’

Cancer sucks.

I’ve never met anyone who disagrees with that statement.  It is a brutal disease whatever form it takes and its goal is simply to devour and destroy.

Most of us know someone who has been afflicted with some type of cancer, if not ourselves, and we have witnessed the realities of what it can do.  The suffering that it often brings, physical, emotional, and even spiritual, is unmatched by most other illnesses.  It can steal the life out of a person even before they take their final breath.

A diagnosis of terminal cancer has to be one of the most terrifying things to hear from a doctor.  Brittany Maynard received that diagnosis early this year.  Hers was stage IV glioblastoma multiforme, an extremely aggressive brain cancer, and ultimately she was given just 6 months to live.  After speaking with her doctors and experts on the course this disease would take to end her life, she “quickly decided that death with dignity was the best option for me and my family.” (CNN, emphasis mine)

She and her husband moved to Oregon where the law allows for assisted suicide.  She also set the date of her death: November 1, 2014.  As the time approached there were rumors that she had reconsidered the date, saying that she still felt good and had “enough joy” to continue living.  Sadly however, reports came in yesterday that Brittany had indeed taken her own life.

Much has been spoken and written about Brittany and her final choice recently.  Many gave her and her family simple encouragement in a tremendously difficult time.  Some have been harsh and uncaring, even when speaking some truth.  And still others have been disconcertingly zealous and supportive to a degree that is cause for genuine concern.

We live in a death-crazed society in one sense, and in another we are fearful of its weight and imminence.  We love blood and guts in our movies and video games, but we only allow the pixelated reality of it on the nightly news.  I’m not saying we need to see it every day to understand it and treat it as it should be treated, but we do need to see it and face it to understand what it is not.

 

Death is not dignified.

 

Death is nothing of the sort.  We try to package it in dignity it to make it palatable or somehow acceptable to us in the scope of our existence, but in truth it is an incomparably terrible event which we will all experience sooner or later.  We euphemize the euthanized saying they “passed away on their own terms and died with dignity.”  Deep down we know this is a load of crap and still we ignore it or at least “try not to think about it” until it is too late.  None of us chooses death which is why it cannot be dignified.  We can hasten it but we can never escape it.

Death is real and there is a reason for it.  A theological-relational reason for it.  In short, it is the result of our rebellion and sin toward the Creator God.  Death exists because sin exists.  In each of us sin has made its home and because of that we will all one day die.  Death is what we have earned for our hatred of God.  It is earned and is always deserved.  (If this seems harsh and unfair, it is not.  Harsh and unfair is how we have treated the One who loves us and gave us life.  Harsh and unfair is how we live our lives, in selfishness and pride in the face of God.)

The most prominent death ever to occur was that of Jesus Christ.  Even His death was not dignified.  He was unfairly convicted, spit upon, beaten, brutally tortured and crucified as crowds of people passed by “wagging their heads” and mocking him.  On the cross, the wrath of the Father was poured out on Jesus.  Instead of perfect communion and love, there was only punishment for the sins of mankind. The Bible says that the sinless Jesus was made to “be sin” and was punished in our place.  Jesus even cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

In Hebrews 12:2 it says that Jesus despised the shame of the cross (again, no dignity in death), yet “for the joy set before him” he endured it.  That joy is his restored glory and fellowship with the Father in heaven.  Part of that glory is the magnified grace that will be displayed for all eternity in the saints who will join him in heaven.

What that means is that even though you will not die with dignity, if you die knowing Jesus you will have life again.  Jesus endured the cross for you and for me.  He gave up all of his dignity so that we might live with him for eternity in heaven.  This truth is something we all should consider in light of our impending expiration date:  In God’s economy, humility and repentance trump dignity, and faith in the Son of God trumps death.

Growing People

The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.

Raised BedsGardening is a hobby I started a few years back when a desire to grow wine grapes sparked a more broad endeavor.  I built three 4’X7′ raised beds which grew to six the following year, and will soon turn into nine.  I use raised beds because the soil where we live is littered with rocks.  We call them Cucamonga Potatoes because they pretty much grow here.  If you shovel 6″ down and do not harvest an unbakable (definitely not a word) potato, you can assume either the previous owner of your home slavishly sifted through that patch of dirt for their own gardening adventures, or you are digging in what was previously a sparkling blue pool later filled in with good clean dirt.  These are the facts.6boxes

In my short time as an aspiring (sub)urban farmer, yes that’s a thing, I have found the above proverb to be consistently true.  I’ve spent hours and hours planning, building, preparing, amending, planting, watering, pruning, and of course weeding in my garden. Since the fall of man, this amount of toil and effort is necessary in order to see any amount of success or fruit.  Thank you Adam.

My shadow is an important element in my garden.  Vegetables grow best with constant care and attention.  It’s the same with people.

 

I know, what a cliché analogy.  Please forgive me.

 

But we learn best with pictures, and in my experience people are a lot like fruit… or vegetables.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am commanded to grow people, or make disciples as the Bible says.  Making disciples really is a lot like caring for a garden.  Generally speaking, more time spent with a disciple leads to more growth in the disciple.  Time together is more important than how much you know or the quality of your plan or resources.

Making disciples involves teaching believers to observe all that Jesus has commanded. (Matthew 28:18-20)  Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  We can conclude that ultimately the goal of all disciple-makers is to aid believers in loving God and loving their neighbors, while doing the same ourselves.  Essentially we are called to be growing people, who help people grow.

 

This takes relationship and trust and time.  It takes your shadow in their life.

 

In our busy culture, time is not an easy thing to give up.  We tend to schedule every minute of our days.  In doing that we essentially schedule out the influence of the Holy Spirit who would use us to make a significant impact for the Kingdom of God.  This quenching of the Spirit is something we want to avoid at all costs.  So what can we do?  Here are three simple things:

  • Take an eraser to your schedule.  Clear out some time to allow God to use you.
  • Look at your current relationships and pray about who you can help grow in their love for God and their neighbors.
  • Make a phone call and, if they are willing, set a regular coffee or lunch appointment with them.

Another quick piece of advice, don’t just start with a Bible study.  Instead concentrate on developing your relationship with them and setting goals together for spiritual growth.  This is an important time for evaluation and planning that we should never neglect.

 

Well there’s much more to disciple-making, but I don’t want to use all of my gardening analogies and puns in one post.  Lettuce save some for another time.