Sunday, March 31, 2013

Transformation (Scripture Notes: Psalm 30)

“Sing to the Lord, all you godly ones! Praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime! Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.” 
-Psalm 30:4-5 (NLT)

I find it refreshing to know that, while God has a time for everything, He gives little of it to anger and weeping. Rather, He dwells on the good: favor and joy. Favor for a lifetime and joy in the morning.

Notice that He doesn't promise to shelter us from His anger or from the weeping that this world brings, but He does bring favor and joy that far outlast the time spent in anger or weeping. And not only that, but He transforms us by the bad into something good. His anger becomes the action that leads to Him disciplining us because He loves us. Our weeping and mourning become joyful dancing.

Why does He do this?

So that, out of our great thankfulness, we will finally see a bigger piece of His great love for us.

vs. 11-12
“You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bloom Where Planted (A Reflective Entry on Nehemiah 05)

I was driving a friend to dinner one night and happened to have a conversation with her over the phrase “bloom where you are planted”.  You may have grown up with the phrase, like I did, but she is from a different country and was unfamiliar with the phrase. 

“Bloom where you are planted. Basically, it means to grow wherever God puts you. You know, like a flower blooms in the soil.”

Then, my friend made a very valid statement, “But sometimes, the flower dies.”

Ah, yes.  Sometimes the flower dies.  Sometimes the plant withers and the heart breaks.  Sometimes the dream is turned to dust.  Sometimes the walls are destroyed.  Let me be a little vulnerable here: sometimes I don’t bloom.  Sometimes my dreams are crushed and sometimes my walls are destroyed.  Sometimes, all the work of my lifetime that I have put into a task or a project is looked over and I’m left wondering, “What is left?

Well, a fragment.  Fragments are left.  Nehemiah’s city was fragmented.  And what did he do with the vision God placed in his heart?  Nehemiah led his fellow countrymen (and women!) into a strategic plan to rebuild what was fragmented.  The key to their success was to take what was in front of them and build it up based on the threats that were specific to their part of the wall.  Each person was responsible for a little part, and their little part, in turn, helped fortify the whole city.

God has a vision for rebuilding us, too.  When you or I find ourselves left with pieces of a fragmented dream, or even a reality that went badly wrong, God will step in to redeem these fragmented pieces and build something even greater out of them, if we let Him

Garden of Gethsemane, Israel
May 2012
You see, sometimes the flower dies, but sometimes it only dies for a season.  Sometimes it just needs to be replanted into richer soil (like when you lose a job and are relocated), fertilized with the right nutrients (like when you become sick and have to cleanse your body of the sickness), watered (like when you are simply drained from life and need to take time to rest and recuperate), or placed in the right light (like when you have a bad day that helps you see a different perspective). 

Chapter 3 of Nehemiah shows us that God’s plan for our success involves not just where we’re at, but it is also about taking advantage of the other resources He has given us in this place.  Also, we learn that no success is found alone – there are always people surrounding us and God directing us.  As in blooming, I may be the best gardener ever, but God alone sees that the seed opens and life comes forth.

Blooming is not easy.  Blooming requires lots of growth, lots of change, lots of waiting, and lots of weather changes.  But this process also develops strength and beauty that cannot be found in a closed seed sitting in soil. 

Dare to pick up the pieces of what is left.  Dare to go to God with a fragment and work with Him as He rebuilds what has been broken and lost in your life.  Dare to bloom where you have been planted.

Questions for Reflection
  • What things in your life have been shattered (seemingly) beyond repair?
  • Can you see where God has had a divine purpose in allowing these things to happen?
  • How might God use your broken walls to draw people closer together? How might God use your broken walls to draw people to Him?  What makes the difference in bringing people together and bringing people to Him?
  • Are you willing to let God restore what has been lost in your life?
  • What is holding you back from daring to live a life of Christ-honoring influence in the place God has planted you?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Scripture Notes: Psalm 34 (Benefit of the Broken Heart)

“The Lord hears His people when they call to Him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” -Psalm 34:17-18 (NLT)

There have been times of deep brokenness in my life that have led me to seek Scripture for a taste of hope. Psalm 34 gives lots of hope for a hurting person. I ran across this chapter in my Bible and saw a note from a few years ago I had written in the margin…

I have been rescued and restored so many times. I am a testimony to the Lord’s constant presence. So is the heartache a bad thing, really? Would I have known the Lord with this depth without a broken heart?
The broken heart is worth it for that depth.

That old phrase “whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger” rings true here in the context of God’s response to the calamity. If He has called us to a challenge, He either has already equipped us or will equip us soon to get through that challenge. From my own experience, every time we face these broken places in our lives by clinging to God and finding shelter in His presence, we know Him deeper.

Consider this: how well do you know a person’s clothing?  You see them from far off and they have on a blue shirt, but the closer you get, you see the blue shirt is actually a white shirt with blue pinstripes. Upon closer inspection, you see that the pinstripes aren't even solid lines, but rather, broken stitches in a line.

This is how it is with God.

We see Him better when we get closer to Him. And sometimes, getting closer only happens when we are clinging desperately to Him for help, guidance, or strength in our broken state.

The broken heart is worth it for that.

From my friends at Second Chance Upscale Resale

Friday, March 15, 2013

Solid Ground amidst a Shifting World (A Reflective Entry on Nehemiah 04)


Wait wait wait wait wait…..!  Ugh!

Many of us struggled with this part of Lesson 04 of the Nehemiah study.  We share a passion to see things done effectively and efficiently in our world while still keeping a perspective of how things are affecting those around us.  But to tell us to wait?  Haven’t we waited long enough? 

Often, I find myself in the same boat as these amazing women: filled with a vision of destiny and yet so very limited by my “here and now” circumstances.  You may liken it to a paraplegic who was once an amazing athlete or a person in the throes of the aging cycle who used to be so independent.  Waiting can feel like a trap.  And acting on a whim can feel like the solution. 

But a whim fails.  Sure, sometimes you pull it off without a hitch and internally wonder “how on earth did I make that happen??” Most times, though, the whim is an immature response to our fear of the wait. 

What a great encouragement Nehemiah’s example was, then!  He waited in prayer before he spoke to the king, he waited in inspection of the city’s status, and he waited in sharing the king’s approval of his mission (Nehemiah 2:20).  Likewise, we can have freedom from lies that tell us we have to rush forward when we remember that restraint is not a bad thing.  Waiting helps us to see a different perspective while God works out the details. 
  • Details like officers and horsemen to protect you.  Nehemiah did not ask for them, but the King provided them anyways.  Earlier, Ezra needed them as well, but was ashamed to ask for them (See Ezra 8:22).  Despite Ezra’s shame and Nehemiah’s lack of shame, God provided.  God does not need us to come to Him with all our shame, but He does not turn away from us when we bring it to Him either.  In both circumstances, He provides exactly what we need.  And so we can confidently wait on Him. 
  • Details like opposition that is already in place.  Nehemiah likely knew of Ezra’s opposition when he tried to rebuild the wall years earlier, but he had no way of knowing what was to come.  Sanballat and Tobiah proved to be deeply threatened by Nehemiah’s attempts to rebuild the wall.  Nehemiah needed the confidence that God had sent him, not the king.  As the footnotes in my Bible read, “Knowing that God is behind your task is the best incentive to move ahead in the face of opposition.” Certainly Nehemiah’s preparation for this task showed that God was behind Him.  God will show us too, when we seek Him.  And we can confidently wait on Him for this also.

Sanballat and Tobiah were city officials, probably similar to mayors or governors as we know leadership today.  If the city was rebuilt, Sanballat and Tobiah would receive less money in taxes, which would be reason enough to be threatened by the welfare of the city and its people.  Even more threatening was the knowledge that the rebuilding of Jerusalem threatened their entire position of power.  Think about it – would you be more threatened by a decrease in pay or a possibility your job was going to be eliminated? 

Their response makes sense from a worldly perspective.  In order to survive in our world, we often find this threat creeping into our lives.  It may come in the form of competition in our workplace, jealousy in a circle of friends, or a broken economy.  Why?  Because the root of the problem is not work, not jealousy, and not opportunity! The root of our entire issue with waiting is security

We desperately want something true and solid to stand on in life, so we look to jobs, property, relationships, or wealth.  Every single time we are disappointed in the long run.  Everything we use to try and stand on aside from God’s truth fails us.  And I would challenge you with this today: it was made to do so!  Do you get that?  Our world was designed to collapse so that we would land on the one thing that does not shift for all eternity: God.  (See Hebrews 12:27)

All this from learning about Nehemiah’s wisdom in waiting… wow!  It’s hard to imagine how nearly 2,500 years ago there was a man living in a world so dramatically different than ours, and yet we can relate so intensely to his story!  That’s the thing: it’s not about Nehemiah’s story.  It’s about God’s thread through history.  He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and His truth applies to every generation.  Including ours! 

Jerusalem at Sunrise, May 2012

Questions for Reflection
  • Nehemiah’s waiting makes me wonder: what caused him to wait?  What life experiences caused him to stop and consider things before he acted on them? What life experiences have charged you to wait before you act on, or react to, something?
  • What things do you find yourself turning to when life gets tough?  Does this thing have a possibility of failing you?  How would you react if even that one thing crumbled?
  • What are some active ways you can choose to wait on God and seek Him for your confidence instead of other forms of pseudo-security?
  • Do you get annoyed or frustrated when you see insecurity in others?  Take time to pray for the people you know who are struggling with a very obvious form of insecurity. 
  • What vision have you had for your life that you are still waiting on God for?  Has He given you any direction to act on that vision?  Do you ever fear acting on something God tells you to act on for fear of not being able to tell what the result will be?  Pray for God to give you confidence to step out when He gives you a vision.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

God Knows Your Need

I needed an escape.  

I needed to feel the wind in my hair and feel free from the stress of the world.  Just for an afternoon.  Just for a little while.  I just needed an escape.

So I grabbed my headphones (after a frustratingly long search), hopped on my bike, and headed out for an adventure.  I had some ideas of where I could go but I just knew I needed to ride.  I planned to bike to a friend’s house and just decompress there for a few minutes.  I didn't hear back from my friend in time to make the turn to her house, though, so I sat at the intersection for a moment, trying to decide on my course of action. 

I could take the risky road – the one I hadn't biked before – and see what new places I could find.  Or, I could turn around and go back from the direction I came.  I needed an escape.  Adventure. I took the new road.

In my defense, I have driven this road often, but I had never biked this road.  I could tell you major landmarks, but I could not tell you details about the shops that lined it or the sights that surrounded it.  I needed to see a different perspective.  While praying for protection and direction, I was also praying for God to speak to my soul this day.  Lord, I desperately need You right now to show me things I would not normally see.

Butterflies and wildflowers lined my trail - there were so many
butterflies that I was afraid I was going to run over them as I
breezed past them! But what a beautiful sight - the fluttering
white all around me!  
That day, I had the best bike ride I have had in a long time.  I took the time to get off my bike and bend down close to the flowers, to notice the little details of the path, to explore shops and diners I had never known were so close to home.  I found a park! I drank a fruit smoothie.  I took pictures of the water. I joked with the fishermen on the bridge.  This was “me”.  This is me. 

Most importantly from that day, God whispered into my heart lifeThis was the "life" I needed to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.

Let’s face it: there are some people in life that speak to you in a way that nobody else can.  These people know how to speak love and truth to you, and you can receive it knowing you’re safe with them.  Their words may sting but they do not cut.  Their presence may compel, but it does not overwhelm. 

This is how God spoke to me that day: 
as the One who knows me. 
My stresses.
My heartache.
My joy and delight.
My questions.
My dreams.
My need.
God knows what I need.  God knows what you need.  I was desperate enough to run away with Him to a place where He could speak to me.  And He did.  He glided with me down a path of a thousand butterflies, all the while orchestrating that a beautiful song of life would be playing in my ears. 

Are you desperate enough to push away the things that are holding you back and to run away with Him like you might a lover?  Are you that desperate?  Because He can speak life to you in that desperation.  Run to Him.  Run with Him.  Look for the butterflies on your path and listen to His promises that He sings over you.  

He knows your need.

"For I am about to do something new.  See, I have already begun!   Do you not see it?  I will make a pathway through the wilderness.  I will create rivers in the dry wasteland."
-Isaiah 43:19 (NLT)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Scripture Notes: Mark 12 (Equal Sacrifice)

“Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.

Looking south on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
These gates are the gates which people would have come and left through
when they visited the iconic city of Jerusalem to bring their
offering to the Temple.
Photo taken May 2012

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.’” -Mark 12:41-44 (NLT)

Many people get frustrated with the topic of “giving” in the church.  Understandably, to a degree, as it has been manipulated at times.  Even so, something that has been manipulated is not necessarily a wrong thing.

As human beings, we delight in a sense of security — having something to do, something to hold, something to call our own.  But is this Biblical?  I know of no Scripture telling us that it is wrong to have security.  However, if our security lies in anything but the sacrifice of Jesus, we have no real security at all!  Think about it — land and homes can be destroyed, friends and family have a free will that allows them to disrespect and disown us, currency burns and melts, and retirement funds can vaporize with a computer crashing or data erasing.  In a breath, everything we “own,” everything we “have,” can disappear.

Except for the gift of salvation.

  • Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provided the home for us that will never be destroyed.
  • Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provided a family for us that will never fall apart, that stretches throughout the earth and intertwines with generations past and to come.
  • Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provided us with access to the hand of God, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and so much more.
  • Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provided an investment for us that out-spans retirement funds, trust funds, inheritance, estate, and income taxes.

Jesus provided it all for us.  Does it not make sense that we would take what little we have and invest in this plan?  The plan of salvation?  The way of the cross?

Yet, even with this justification, there is so much more to giving than just discussing material wealth.  As the widow understood, true wealth is seeded in the heart of sacrifice.  She gave what she had, though she had very little.  Jesus’ words about material wealth have so much less to do with letting go of material wealth than they have to do with having a heart of contented sacrifice.

A pastor I know coordinates hundreds of volunteers for a program that would be much less effective without their time serving.  His leadership plan includes this challenge: it’s not that you give equal time, but that you give equal sacrifice to the program.  One person may be able to give up more time a week than another, but there’s no comparison on our end.  Your sacrifice and your gift is a heart issue that is between you and God.

If you’re feeling pressured by the topic of giving, go to God.  Honestly ask Him for clarity in your own heart and mind regarding your perspective on sacrifice, and be willing to make changes in your attitude if necessary.

He has so much more to offer us, but we have to be continually willing to let go of things we hold onto so tightly so that He can replace them with even greater blessings.

Don’t be afraid of giving; instead, discover what you can give away so that you can keep receiving the abundance of what He has for you, starting with Jesus.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Not-So-Secret Agents (A Reflective Entry on Nehemiah 03)

In accounting, we have a theory called "Agency Theory".  This theory is related to the legal term "Agent", which basically means "representative".  In Agency Theory, specifically, you have two parties: a principal and an agent.  The principal grants the agent the right to make decisions and perform actions on their behalf.  Like any other mutual relationship, the fact that you have two human beings with their own mind, will, and emotions, can cause conflicts.  Agency theory sets up guidelines on how to deal with these conflicts.  

It's not hard to see where thinkers in the past came up with this idea.   After all, when we are working with God to make His plans happen, we are agents of Him.  His Word, the Bible, is our guidelines on how to deal with conflict when we want to do something that may not align with His plan.  (See this idea here.)

Where we see an agency in Nehemiah
This week, we learned how God-centered prayer (communication) produces God-centered plans (action), and that God-centered plans succeed. Nehemiah gave us an example in this passage of how he was granted rights to make decisions and start a movement toward rebuilding the walls of his ancestor's city.  God was his principal, and Nehemiah was the agent.  But there is another principal in this story.  Rather, a psudo-principal.  King Artaxerxes played this role.  WorkTalk is an international workplace consulting website that I believe explains this relationship best:  
Don’t miss the symmetry here – every day Nehemiah went to work, the King also trusted his life into his hands – perhaps three times per day. The King had the power of life and death over all his subjects, but Nehemiah held the King’s life in his cup all the time. (WorkTalk)
Wow!  Talk about an agency.  There was a mutual dependence on each other to protect and look out for the well being of each other.  With this relationship, it seems hard to understand how Nehemiah could have any failure with his request.  However, the King was human too, and was subject to emotions and bad decision making just like any one of us. Nehemiah knew this and took time to plan and prepare for the possibility that the King would grant his request.

Sometimes, when an agent is representing a principal, they have to make decisions on how to act without consulting with the principal in real-time.  This is why there is such an emphasis on a good relationship.  This is also the situation Nehemiah found himself in when the King abruptly asks "What do you want?".  He has little time to consult his real Principal (God), and so offers up a quick prayer.  Nehemiah acted with tact and laid out his plans.  Wesley's Explanatory Notes tells us that the fact that the queen was present may have been to Nehemiah's advantage.  According to the commentary, " commonly, the kings of Persia dined alone, and perhaps because the queen expressed some kindness to him, [this] promoted his request."

Trista noted two very important things about the King's relationship with Nehemiah:
  • The King may have been more compliant because of the Persian government's way of quickly adopting the customs, religions, and economies of a conquered nation.
  • Clean running water wasn't as prevalent as it is today, and probably was not something that the King drank as frequently as we drink water.  This being the case, the King would have needed a pretty constant cup-bearer by his side.  This may not always have been Nehemiah, as a king could have more than one cup-bearer  but it stands to reason that Nehemiah was not just present only at meal times.

Some really good conversation was sparked by the quote that Nehemiah was wise in knowing how to "get the king's sympathy" before he presented his request.  This choice of words almost implies that Nehemiah was manipulative.  The historian Herodotus tells us that the Persians buried their fathers, and thus the appeal to the King was not to be misunderstood as manipulative, but it was personal. 

If I am speaking to a child, I may not effectively teach them about an economy by talking economics.  Rather, I would need to talk to them about addition and subtraction with use of toys or treats.  When communicating, our choice of subject matter depends on the audience, not just on the jargon of the subject.  Nehemiah was speaking on a subject the King understood; not to deceive, but to inform.   The King would understand that a city where Nehemiah's father's were buried was sacred, as this was the Persian custom as well.

Just like any situation we deal with, our words can be manipulative or we can stick to the truth.  Nehemiah showed he was not trying to be manipulative by the very fact that he answered the King honestly.  This sad countenance was punishable by death!  His honesty with the King, and the King's acceptance of Nehemiah as a confidant, not just a servant, showed the great respect the King had for him.  Nehemiah had proven himself through years of service: he demonstrated respect to the King, and the King was being respectful back to Nehemiah. However, the King still had the choice to sentence Nehemiah to death because of his countenance.  I like how this commentary puts it: "Nehemiah understood it was not his place to change the king’s heart. He prayed and left it up to the LORD, instead of dropping hints and trying to manipulate the situation. Then one day, four months later, the king’s heart was different. Are we making the mistake of trying to change someone else’s heart, instead of leaving it up to the LORD to do it?" 

Four months is a short time to pray for something.  Trista reminded us of this truth.  Historically, people would pray for years for an answer before God answered their prayers. Sometimes this is true for us as well. While Nehemiah prayed for only four months, generations before him had been praying for Israel's deliverance.  In the context of King Artaxerxes, four months was a relatively short time for a heart to be changed.  As much as we want to be molded into righteousness, even Christians have a hard time with heart-change.  This is our human condition, and why we are constantly depending on God for His power to change our hearts.

Why the Letters were Important
Nehemiah knew this same King had ordered earlier to not allow Jews back into Jerusalem to rebuild the city.  Ezra 4 (read it HERE - it really helps understand the severity of the situation!) explains this situation to us, and we see in verse 21 where it records the King's command to have the work stopped except at his express command. This is why Nehemiah needed the letters! It wasn't just to let him through the route to get to Jerusalem, it was his proof to any opposition that he was authorized to do the work.  It was his Agent's orders.  

Why the date given was important
Pastor David Guzik shares a neat relationship with the date quoted in Nehemiah and earlier Bible prophecy 
The date is also important, because it establishes the date given to restore Jerusalem and its walls. Daniel 9:25 says that exactly 173,880 days from this day - which was March 14, 445 B.C. - Messiah the prince would be presented to Israel. Sir Robert Anderson, the eminent British astronomer and mathematician, makes a strong case that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy exactly, to the day, entering Jerusalem on April 6, 32 A.D., precisely 173,880 days from Nehemiah 2:1.
The account of Nehemiah in this week's study kept bringing us back to the truth that we are all agents of Christ to see His kingdom established here on earth.  Our work and our efforts are not thwarted  by corrupt leaders or bad economic situations, because even our leaders are set in place by God (Daniel 2:20-23).  On the same note, we serve those in authority out of respect for God (Colossians 3:23). Our attitudes at work, toward our parents, pastors, community or government leaders are all truly our attitudes toward God.  (Gulp)  Yep.  It's a tough pill to swallow, but it's truth.  And truth always fertilizes the soil of our hearts to grow new, incredible things.  

Questions for Reflection
  • What decisions have you made in haste that were good ideas, but should have been restrained because the timing was off?
  • Nehemiah prayed and prepared fervently for four months.  What thing have you been praying and preparing for - for a long time - that you're still praying and preparing for?  
  • Can you recall a time when you made a successful appeal to someone in authority over you? Did you give yourself credit for being persuasive or for making a good case for what you wanted? Did you see God at work in your situation? (From
  • What dream have you had in the past that you have literally burned or buried in your heart?  Was it a God-dream? If so, what would it take to resurrect that dream?