The Hedge Test

Published on June 18, 2011 by CT in Blog, Stories

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It has been said that the true character of a man is what he does when no one else is looking.  I might amend that to say:  the true character of a man is what his heart is inclined to do, and what he does, when no one is looking.

I realized this yesterday as I was helping my mother-in-law trim her hedge.  I’ve never trimmed a hedge before, but it didn’t look all that hard, so I volunteered.  And it wasn’t hard in a mountain-climbing, desert-crossing kind of way, but it wasn’t something I’d typically do on a relaxing vacation either.

Using old-school hedge shears and a small platform ladder, I took to the top and the side of this long, overgrown hedge, and over the course of the next hour or so, I made good progress in the 90 degree heat.  I wanted to do a good job, doing my work with excellence, making a good impression on the in-laws, and doing my work for the glory of God.  So I took special care to round the top corners and get clean lines along the sides, you know, making the hedge look like it belonged with the best of hedges.

But before long, I realized I needed to go around to the neighbor’s side of the hedge to complete the project.  And there is where I found a test of my character, waiting in the shade of cascading fruit trees.  Sure, this side of the hedge needed trimming as well, but it was the neighbor’s side after all, so my in-laws wouldn’t really see it.  And the hedge was mostly hidden from view by the trees, so maybe the neighbors wouldn’t really see it either.  So I thought about skimping on the work, offering a few token cuts with the shears on a side no one would notice.

But that’s when the refrain echoed in my mindthe true test of a man’s character… I realized that if I really meant to work for the glory of God, to cut this hedge for His glory, as it if were His hedge I was trimming (which it was after all), then it meant doing all of the work as if all of it could be seen.

Jeremiah tells us that our God, “who judges righteously…tests the heart and the mind” (Jeremiah 11:20).  Jesus tells us that “I am he who searches mind and heart” (Revelation 2:23), and that “nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Luke 12:2).

I decided to cut the entire hedge as if it were God’s, and I’m grateful to Him for testing and revealing the hidden things in my heart.  My prayer for all of us is that He would continue to test us, and change us, and shape our hearts and minds and hands so that all the things we do will be for His glory alone, and that our character, as we’re being conformed to the image of Christ, would be sharpened by the shears of His Spirit, so we might be presented to Him as perfect and holy.

Question:  What is one of your stories of character-testing?

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When Narnia Awoke In My Backyard

Published on February 2, 2011 by CT in Blog, Stories

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I’m really writing this post to tell you one truth I discovered about God today. But I’m going to tell you a story first.

Last week, our skies brought six inches of snow to our rooftops and yards and trees.  It’s been great.  I love the snow.  And the snow has stayed, although it’s moved from a soft blanket of powder to an rigid ledge of ice in recent days.  But today, the skies opened once more, this time with rain, and the snow began to melt from the trees and the ground.

I decided to take a walk through the woods this afternoon, after the rain had gone, and I came upon the intermittent stream that runs through our property.  For days now it has been silent with still, icy strains, but today, quiet melodies of laughter rose from its wet banks.

I felt as if I were in Narnia, when Aslan came and broke the spell of the White Witch, and spring covered the cold, white winter with the warmth of joyful greens.  I walked along the water’s trail, ducking under tree branches and side-stepping fallen logs.  My little dog, Bear, was hopping around the edges of the stream, dipping her toes into the cool water and barking at the small waterfalls that spilled over sticks and leaves.  Water dripped from tall, green trees.  The sunlight broke through branches and needles in a mosaic of light.

My heart filled with great joy, and I began praising God.  Who am I to live this beautiful kind of life, a life where I can know my Creator and be loved by Him?  Who am I to behold such wondrous beauty in a world He meant for our joy?  Who am I to get to live in this place, with this wife, with this daughter, with this family, with these friends?

And then these words came from the lips of my heartGod, I love your gifts.  They are so good and precious.  But even more, I love you apart from your gifts.

This is a truth I want to live out more fully. It means seeing God’s gifts as for my good, whether those be gifts of blessing or gifts of loss.  It means rejoicing in those gifts, because God means for us to find great pleasure in them.  And it means always treasuring the Giver above the gift, because He is our greatest pleasure.

I’m reminded of a heart-stopping, mind-bending question from God Is The Gospel.  John Piper asks, “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauty you ever saw….could you be satisfied…if Christ was not there?”

May it be so in my life and yours, that we could answer no in a real and heartfelt way.  May we find pleasure in the thousands of gifts of blessing and loss in our own lives.  And may we find our greatest joy, not in His gifts, but in Him.

Question:  Do you find that you primarily love God, or His gifts?

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The Greatest of Feats

Published on October 6, 2010 by CT in Blog, Stories

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The UPS man has been coming to our door a good deal lately. I’m not sure why.  Perhaps we’ve been ordering more than usual during this season as we prepare for our first home.  Perhaps there has just been a confluence of gifts from friends and family as we prepare for our first child.  Whatever the reason, it seems he’s here on almost a daily basis.

Typically, I have been a little embarrassed to see him.  Our dog, Bear, usually goes nuts when someone knocks on the door.  We’ve been training her to be calm, but Yorkiepoos vibrate like hummingbird wings unless it’s mid-morning or late evening.  So I would be working in the kitchen, perhaps on the phone, when the knock came.  I would have a phone on one shoulder, a barking tornado at my ankle, and I would be trying to crack the door open far enough to get the package through the door but narrow enough to keep out a small dog’s head.  I’m sure our delivery man sees all kinds on his routes, but I’m embarrassed just the same.

So it was our good fortune yesterday to see the big, brown truck parked outside our building as we walked down to our car.  Anna wondered aloud whether her latest package had come, and I asked her if she’d like me to check.  Before she said yes, I saw the UPS driver point at me and nod.  I thought he might have just told someone, “There’s this guy with this little yipping dog with a pink collar who jumps eight feet in the air when I knock,” and then saw me, and pointed.  But he was simply letting me know he had a package for us.

I was impressed by his memory, that he could associate my face with our apartment number.  So I walked up to him, introduced myself, and asked him his name.  He told me, we shook hands, I took the package, and thanked him again as I walked back to our car.  I had a moment’s pause to consider why the hand of Providence had moved in this way, and I wouldn’t know for another day.

This morning, another knock came at the door.  I opened the door to find my new friend, holding still another package in his hand.  I signed for the package and thanked him by name.  He left, calling me by name as well.  We were like old friends.

At the time, I had been reading A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, which incidentally is a really beautiful book, and I had been moved by some of the inspirational passages in the story.  As I went back into my house and resumed my reading, I felt a small prompting from God to give this man a copy of Crave.  I already feel a little awkward when people ask me about the book, because I haven’t yet learned to give God all the glory for this gift, so I felt even more awkward bringing the book up in conversation with him.  But I was in the mood to be inspired, and I wanted to be obedient, so I took one of the last copies I had been saving and vanished out the front door, hoping to find the UPS truck still below.

I should add at this point that I also hoped the truck wouldn’t be there.  It seems just as well to act in obedience with the hope that I won’t actually have to follow through. But the truck was still in the parking lot, in front of the building to my right.  So I took the long slow walk down the stairs, with a new copy of this book swinging in my hand, wondering what I would say.  What I did say is not that important, and he took the book, thanking me with a look that intimated gratitude for a gesture outside his routine.  But what I found even more important were the emotion I felt and the thought I had as I walked back upstairs.

As I climbed the first flight of stairs, I held a moment of self-congratulatory applause within my soul.  I had been obedient to God, and I had done something a little strange in extending myself to a stranger in this way, so I felt I deserved a little credit for my action.  But by the second flight of stairs, I had this thought, which I soon recorded in my journal:  “God, it is no great feat that I give to a man a Christian book or a word from the gospel, but it is the greatest of feats that you may do in a man with a book or through the gospel.”

This was a humbling thought, but an exhilarating one all the same.  What reason have I to boast in myself if my actions, however hard they may seem, are truly no great feats?  The greatest of feats is not a mountain climbed, or a company conquered, or a nation ruled, or a stone lifted.  The greatest of feats is the changing of a sinner’s heart, the regeneration of a person’s soul.  I cannot save a man’s soul.  I cannot give my life as payment in his place.  I cannot give him my righteousness.

But Jesus can do this, and has done this, for all who believe.  I pray my new friend will believe one day, that perhaps what he may read will spurn him to hear and respond to the gospel, that he will find so much more of God in the process, and that what C.S. Lewis wrote about Vanauken would be true about this man:  “I think you are in the meshes of the net!  The Holy Spirit is after you.  I doubt if you’re get away!”

In all this, I rest in the knowledge that the greatest of feats has been accomplished, and that the fruit of the Son’s obedience continues to have effect in this sinner’s life and the lives of sinners all around the world.  We are called to a noble, great, and dangerous work—following this crucified Savior—but we need not summon our own courage and strength to get it done.  He is sufficient, and we are all safely in the meshes of the net, being chased, and now led, by His Holy Spirit, and are forever His.

Question:  What feats have you been tempted to claim credit for?

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Spiritual Botany

Published on September 7, 2010 by CT in Blog, Stories

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I attended a dying church this past Sunday.  My father was asked to preach at their service, and I decided to come hear the old man address this country church.  I knew it was a small church, but I was surprised to walk in and see about 15 people singing from the bright red hymnals in their hands.

A man in a gray suit greeted me at the door with a smile.  He said, “Are you new here?”  I thought to myself, “You know all 15 people here, right?”  But he was just being kind, and I was not, so I told him “yes,” took a bulletin, and walked in the room.

The rows of chairs were bundled into three sections.  To my right, on row 3, sat two women in their late 70s, one of whom would drift in and out of sleep throughout the service.  No one sat to my left.  In the center section, another 10 or so people were scattered among the seats.  The worship leader sat by himself on stage in front of a synthesizer.

As the service went on, I began to wonder why these people were there.  They were of very different ages, the youngest being in her early 30s and the oldest being in his 80s.  They were of different races, and they seemed to be of different backgrounds and social status.  They seemed to know each other; during the announcements, several of them talked about upcoming events with each other and the leader on stage.  But they also didn’t sit together, and I couldn’t help but wonder what draws them back week after week.

This church may or may not be dying.  But I was more struck by the metaphor to our own lives of faith.  Our faith is a growing one, where God is continually conforming us into the image of His Son.  And if we are to be growing kinds of people, then we need to understand a few things about our spiritual botany:

  1. God gives the growth.  Someone once planted the gospel seed in our life, and someone else watered, but God is the one who gives the growth.  We can, and should, plead with Him to grant us the grace each day to grow, but we must continue to put our faith in a God who is accomplishing the good work He started in each of us.
  2. Ritual can destroy growth.  Gardeners will tell us that the ground must be tilled at times, and replanted at times, and laid bare at times.  Planting and watering in the same way over and over may work for a while, but it will eventually destroy the ground.  Sometimes, dying churches slowly fade away because they cling to their rituals rather than Jesus.  And sometimes, dying souls slowly fade away because they cling to their rituals rather than Jesus.
  3. Isolation inhibits growth.  We are like plants that wither alone but flourish together.  The Christian life was never meant to be lived in isolation; we are a body that works together under the head of Christ.  If our experience at church is limited to coming and sitting and never engaging with the body around us, we will likely wither over time.

May we be a people who understand the botany of our souls, who look to the creator and giver of spiritual nourishment, so that we might grow up into Him, bearing much fruit for His glory and our joy.

Question:  Where is God growing you at this moment?

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Board Games Make Me Sin

Published on May 3, 2010 by CT in Blog, Stories

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This past weekend was my wife’s birthday.  Her favorite kind of birthday party is one in which she hosts her friends, so that’s what we did on Saturday.  We held the party at my brother’s house, and Anna cooked her amazing enchiladas, and many of our friends, mostly married couples, came over to celebrate.

Christian, married couples play games; I think that’s part of being married.  I think these games must be social lubricant for a bunch of couples that don’t go out and party anymore.  We brought Apples to Apples and Taboo, and both saw a little action.  Apples to Apples is essentially an individual game, and for Taboo, we went guys vs. girls.

Everyone had a good time, and the night ended well, with my brother emerging as the victor in A2A and the girls triumphing in Taboo.  But it was interesting to notice the hearts on display throughout the night:  Lying, cheating, accusing, over-competitiveness, self-justifying, holding grudges, incredulity, boasting.  And that was just me.  The list makes it sounds much worse than it seemed.  Most of these were masked in laughter or sarcasm and seemed harmless at the time.

Here’s what the people in the room may have seen from me that night:

  • Playfully making a case to bend the rules in my favor but not others
  • Mock indignation told through jokes
  • A friendly sense of competition

Here’s what God saw in my heart:

  • Hypocrisy
  • Pride
  • Desire to exalt myself

We know that the inward workings of the heart are the source for the outward workings of our bodies.  Or to say this another way:  our motives drive our actions.  When we sin, we often focus on the external sin itself rather than considering the heart motive that led us into sin.  We see the fruit, whether good or bad, without considering the root.  But we’re blind to these motives and impotent at uprooting the dead roots on our own.

Fortunately, God does see and God does show.  “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).  His word pierces and discerns and reveals the thoughts and intentions of the heart that we would never see.  Our only chance to sever the root of sin is to see our hearts as God sees them and put our faith in His power to destroy the evil He reveals.

This is not a passive action; the writer to the Hebrews says we should “strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11), which is consistent with “work[ing] out our salvation (Philippians 2:12).  And putting our faith in God is active as well.  But Paul gives us the key to actively persevering in righteousness:  “…for it is God who works in you” (Philippians 2:13).

So games are mirrors for our hearts, as are relationships, as are many other things in our lives.  But the best mirror is the word of God which penetrates the impenetrable, making known to us what is seen by the God who sees all things, so we can repent and He can purify a heart that is already free from condemnation but one which needs regular cleansing.

Ultimately, we’re not quitting games; there’s nothing wrong with the games themselves.  But next time, I will put my faith in a God who will reveal the thoughts and intentions of my heart so that they, and my actions, might honor Him.

Question:  What sins do you see surfacing when you compete?

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God Spoke To Me This Very Morning

Published on March 29, 2010 by CT in Blog, Stories

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Do you believe God can speak to you today—actually speak directly to you? I have a lot of questions for God, and I’ve been waiting to hear from Him for a while now, so I have had my doubts.  There’s even some deeper theology in this question in whether or not the canon of Scripture, which is closed, sufficiently speaks for God today.

You may have had a similar experience of wanting to hear from God, or wanting to know God’s will for your life in a certain situations, all the while experiencing the loneliness and doubt of His great silence.

I think I would have said that God has spoken to me before; in fact, I’ve written about the time I felt as if God called my cell phone at 4:30am and another time when I felt as if He woke me up in the middle of the night because He had a job for me to do.  But I also had some doubts about those experiences, wondering if I was reading too much into what might have been simple coincidences.

God spoke to John Piper on March 19, 2007.  Piper wrote about this experience two days later, and I just read through it a few weeks ago.  His testimony has been ringing in my head since I first read it—the reason being that I have been waiting to hear from God for years, and I figured if He’s speaking to Piper and others, then why not me?

Then came this morning.  God spoke to me—clearly, unequivocally, personally—and I want to share the story with you.

Here’s a little context first.  My wife and I recently moved to Northern Virginia to be near family and discover our mission in this region.  We have also been making plans to build our first home on a large conservancy lot in the area, a lot that happens to be next door to where my brother and parents will be building their homes.  This may all sound great, and it is, but I’ve been wrestling with these plans for a year and a half now.

I have been budgeting and saving for a house since I was 12 years old.  My wife and I have also committed to try to give generously to God and live debt-free in the process, even for a house.  But we’re now finally in a position to be able to buy a home.  We’ve seen God lead us to move clear across the country when we didn’t expect to do so.  We’ve also been gifted the land for the home, which is one of the reasons our plan is even possible.  My occupation has uniquely allowed us to be in a position to make these plans a reality.  So there are all sorts of good reasons for us to look at this situation and say that God’s hand has been guiding it.

But to be honest, I’ve been struggling with it.  I tend to equate spirituality with poverty or generosity, such that giving is always necessarily better than saving or spending.  I acknowledge God owns all we have, and that He can direct us to use His money as He sees fit, and that He can bless good stewards both spiritually and materially, and that He means for us to use what He’s given us to meet the needs of our families and the needs of others, but I just couldn’t believe God would want us to drop the amount of cash needed to build a home in this area of the country.

I’ve even wondered if God was giving me the opportunity to build this house, or to not build this house, and the former was good while the latter was better.  I imagined coming before God in eternity and discovering that I could have summoned my own courage to go against the conventional wisdom, to ignore the circumstances in our life, to go against the counsel of my wife and my parents, and to make a decision to be sacrificial in spite of it all.  And this was my greatest fear—that I would let the chance to do something great for God slip by.

I recently had another conversation with my parents about all of this, and I found myself struggling with these thoughts more deeply.  So last night, just before I fell asleep, I begged Jesus:  Please tell me what you want us to do with this house.

All this brings us back to this morning, when my phone rang at 3:30am.  I woke up disoriented, finally reaching for the phone but answering it too late.  My first thought was to wonder if God was trying to get my attention.  So I sat up for a moment, looked down at my phone, and wondered who it was that had called.

That’s when I heard God’s voice.  Not audibly.  But clearly.  “If my people humble themselves and pray…”

That’s all God said to me.  It was clear and crisp, as if the breaking sunlight at dawn could speak.  It sounded out of still darkness, and I felt as if these words were familiar.  I suspected it was a passage from Scripture, but I didn’t know where to find it or what the context was.  I thought about these words for a moment—perhaps God meant for me to pray.  I know I have been avoiding any meaningful sort of prayer for over a year now, so I thought God was encouraging me to pray more.  I considered getting up to go pray in the other room, but then the skeptic within me awoke.

I glanced back at my phone, wondering who might have been calling, and redialed the number.  It was Delta Airlines.  So I checked my flight status and found out my morning flight was going to be delayed.  There it was—a completely rational explanation.  I thought I was overanalyzing this whole God-speaking-to-me thing, and I realized I could lay back down and perhaps pray quietly to myself while I went back to sleep.

But the moment my head hit the pillow and my eyelids shut, the phone rang again.  I accepted the hint this time to get my lazy body out of bed.  So I got up quietly, grabbed my Bible, sat on the couch, and tried to find out whether or not the thought that came to mind was actually from Scripture.

That’s when I came across 2 Chronicles 7.

Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land…For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there…“But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight… (vss. 12a, 14, 16, 19, 20a)

These words were alive.  “I have heard your prayer.”  “I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there.”  They leapt off the page and went deep within my spirit to awaken a sense of wonder.  I wasn’t aware of time passing; only joy.  The God of the Bible, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of David and Solomon, the God of Peter, and John, and Paul, this same God was answering my prayer, and He was speaking His word to do it.  I’ve always heard the word is alive, but I can now testify that this is true.  Gloriously true!

But there was a sense of fear in the midst of the joy.  “If you turn aside and forsake my commandments, I will pluck you from the land I have given you.”  God was telling me in no uncertain terms:  I have chosen this house, but do not turn aside from me.  Never, Lord; may it never be so!  But far greater men have failed to keep these sorts of vows to God, so who am I to consider myself worthy to remain faithful?

I know God speaks to us today.  I feel silly even making a big deal out of this, because buying a house is a small matter in His great story, but this was an issue deep within my spirit that He needed to address.  I also understand the need for contextual interpretation, and you may want to point out that 2 Chronicles is talking about the temple of the living God, not a house in Northern Virginia, and that the temple of the living God today is actually the believer, not a house in Northern Virginia.  Some may even want to say that even Satan has used Scripture to speak to God’s people.  But context is primarily concerned with interpretation, not illumination, and Satan used Scripture in opposition to God’s word, not to encourage faithfulness.

I suspect God communicates extra-Biblically as well, but I now know the primacy He has placed on his written word.  The Bible is not simply a book anymore—like all the others on my shelf—something that is worth reading at times.  It is God’s book, and He means to speak to us, truly speak to us, through it.

I figure if God and I are now talking, then I’m going to get all my questions answered.  But I suspect this will not be the case, and that a time will soon come where I feel God is silent and distant once more.  But I hope to look at this passage that will go on my wall and remember that God still does speak today—personally, vividly—through His word, and that I can go there to meet with Him whenever I want.

When we have questions for God, may we find ourselves on our knees, patiently asking Him for answers, buried deep within His word, where His Spirit will reveal to us the deep things of God—deep things that will speak of His character and nature and great love for us, but also deep things that sometimes answer the small, silly questions that grip us so tightly.

Question:  Do you believe God still speaks today?

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“Wait a minute,” you might be saying.  I thought I just read this post.  Actually, you read that post.

My wife, Anna, went on a Women’s Retreat this weekend with our church, and before she left, she asked me to return a half gallon of milk she bought last week.  She said that she had purchased the milk before realizing it was set to expire the following day.  She called the store to see if she could make an exchange, and they said that would be fine.

So I went to the store on Sunday afternoon to make the exchange.  I explained the situation to the woman at the Customer Service counter, and she told me to go ahead and pick out a new carton.  After asking for directions, I headed back to the dairy section.  But when I picked up the replacement carton and checked the expiration date, I noticed it was the same as the one I was returning:  4/4/10.

I realized that 4/4/10 was not last week.  You might have realized it too.  That’s basically a month from now.  At that point, I wasn’t sure if I even knew how to read expiration dates correctly, so I turned the carton over and looked for anything else that looked like a date.  But 4/4/10 was the only date I could find.

I then realized that Anna had made her purchase on 3/3/10, so I suspected she just made an oversight on the date, focusing on the day rather than the month.  I can’t blame her—I do this kind of thing all the time.

But then I thought:  “The woman in Customer Service has already said I can make the exchange.  And the milk has been sitting in the car for 3 days, so it’s definitely bad now.  Maybe I can just make the swap anyway.”  And I almost walked out of the store.  But then the Spirit spoke to me once more:  “How much did you say your integrity was worth?”

I quickly came to my spiritual senses.  Of course I couldn’t make this swap.  It wasn’t the store’s fault that the milk was bad now—it was mine for leaving in the car for 3 days.  And if my integrity was worth more than $2.25, it was certainly worth more than $3.76.

All this reminded me of something C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before.  And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature; either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself…Each of us at each moment is progressing to one state or the other.

I was amazed by the fact that my decision last week to pay for the train ticket instead of getting away with not paying had not left a deep enough impression on me to make me a person of integrity.  In other words, I wasn’t fixed.  Here I was again, facing the same moral dilemma, and my instincts were towards evil.  But I did notice on this second occasion that it was easier to make the right choice; I had already practiced last week.

I suppose there’s a certain amount of spiritual inertia present in our daily walks with God.  The more quickly we submit to the Spirit’s leading in our life, the easier it becomes to continue walking with Him.  But every step we take off the path, going deeper and deeper into the mire, the harder it becomes to turn back.

God grant us the mercy and favor to continue making small, right choices each day, to become more and more of a heavenly creature, so that when He asks us to make a big, right choice, we find it to be one of the easiest decisions of all.

Question:  Do you find obedience gets easier each time you obey, and vice-versa?

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I Almost Sold My Integrity for $2.25

Published on March 5, 2010 by CT in Blog, Stories

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Thursday, late afternoon.

Downtown Minneapolis.

Nichollet Avenue and 5th.

Lite-Rail Station.

Clear sky, cold air.

Credit card in hand.

Ticket machine.

Credit card doesn’t work.

Thinking the machine is broken.

Step back.

Woman buys a ticket.

Man buys a ticket.

Train arrives.

Credit card back in wallet.

Board the train.

Sit and work.

Bag falls over as the train lurches.

Setting sunlight streams in the windows.

Exit the train.

Check my pockets for wallet and phone.

Up the escalator.

Another ticket machine.

Walk past.

Spirit speaks.

Pause and consider.

Walk back.

Buy ticket.

Toss it into the trash.

Walk away.

Question:  How much is your integrity worth?

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He Didn’t Even Notice

Published on February 1, 2010 by CT in Blog, Stories

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This is Part 3 of the Unseen Fruit of Obedience Series (Part 1:  “Go Tell Him I Love Him;” Part 2: “Unseen Fruit of Obedience”).

We had a pretty big snowstorm in Northern Virginia recently.  By pretty big, I mean 4 more inches than I ever experienced when I lived in Los Angeles.  Any of you in colder climates probably scoff at rookie drivers like me that are affected by a light dusting like this.  But it seemed to me that my car was buried under an avalanche.

I’ve never actually cleared off a car completely covered by snow.  Crazy, right?  But Anna and I needed to get to church the next day, so I headed outside to get the car ready.  While I was there, I noticed something strange:  It wasn’t just our car that was covered in snow—it was every car in the parking lot.  Imagine that.

That’s when I heard the still, small voice that often comes to me when I’ve been focusing on myself so much.  God said, “Why don’t you clear off some other cars too?”  “Why?” I asked.  “Maybe they won’t need to drive anytime soon.  And it’s still snowing for crying out loud.”

His response was familiar:  “Why don’t you clear off some other cars too.”  So I did.  I started clearing the car at the end of the lot, slowly working my way back up the line of car that were all buried under this avalanche.  I imagined one of the car owners seeing me from his porch and coming out to ask why I was clearing his car.  And I would say, “Because I love Jesus, and you should too.”  And he would say, “OK.”  And it would be great.

After 13 cars, my arm was pretty tired, and I thought it was pointless because the snow was still falling.  And no one had actually seen me clearing these cars, so it wasn’t like this was actually bearing any tangible  fruit.  So I quit and headed back inside.

The next morning, I awoke to the same still, small voice:  “Why don’t you clear off some more cars.”  What?  Not again. I rattled off the same list of excuses but eventually threw on my warm clothes and headed downstairs.  The snow had stopped falling, and the sky was filled with the brilliance of the sun.  Each car sat ready for my brush and my broom.

After the fourth car, I saw a guy walking out into the parking lotHere he comes, I thought.  This was going to be the “OK” guy.  But he walked past me and unlocked the door of a car a few rows back.  I recognized this car—I had cleared it the night before.  There it sat, with the windshield and windows essentially clear.  But he got in, started the car, and pulled out of his space.

He didn’t even notice! He just hopped right in and drove off.  How inconsiderate!  I didn’t even get to share the gospel with him, and even worse, I didn’t get the credit for what I had done.  So I asked God what was going on, and he reminded me of what He’s been trying to teach me about obedience.

We’ve been taking a look at what happens when we obey God and see no immediate payoff.  Is there redeeming value in obedience for obedience’s sake?  Or should we just trust that God is doing a thousand things in and through our obedience that we may not see?  And we’ve seen that God is in the business of producing fruit through our obedience, whether we always see that fruit or not.

What I also realized that morning was that love means putting someone else first even when no one is looking.   But that’s nothing new; I have heard this hundreds of times.  But what God also showed me was that love also means putting someone else first even when they don’t even know they’re being loved.  Or to put it another way—when they don’t know they even need to be loved in that way.

This has implications for every relationship in my life.  I prefer to serve people in love when they notice and serve me back.  But it’s another thing entirely to love and serve people that don’t notice and don’t even know they’re being loved and served.

God reminded me that He “shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Before God saved me, I didn’t notice the ways in which He loved me.  And I didn’t know I needed His love in that way.  But Christ died for me, even while I was still a sinner.  And He died for me, now justified, and being sanctified, while still a sinner.

So glory be to God who loves us when we don’t notice and loves us when we don’t know we need it.  And may we be the kind of people who love others in this way.

Question:  Have you ever had the chance to love someone who didn’t know they needed it?

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I Hate To Read…Well, Then, Here’s A Book

Published on January 25, 2010 by CT in Blog, Stories

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I am a man of habit. If I could eat the same thing every day for the rest of my life, I probably would.  In fact, in some ways, I do.  Which is why I have become a regular at this one Subway over the past few months.

I travel each week for work, and the company I’m consulting for right now is in the great state of Connecticut.  And nearly every night after work, I stop by the local Subway on my way back to the hotel.  There seem to be two primary crews I see while I’m there—one is fairly button-downed and business-like, and the other, while still professional, is much more casual in their interactions with customers.

It’s this latter crew I’ve gotten to know a little bit over time.  There’s one young man in college and another girl who’s finishing her senior year of high school, and they both seem to have a good time while they’re at work.  This Subway is giving away free books as part of a state-wide literacy program—you buy a sandwich and get a book—which works out great because I love books.  I think it’s supposed to be a child-literacy program, but many of the books have been there for weeks, so I just keep digging through their box of books each night I go there.

Two weeks ago, I asked this girl if she ever took any of these books.  She said, “No way.  I hate to read.”  As I am a brand-new author, that caught my attention.  “What do you mean you hate to read?  Books are great.  I actually just wrote a book.”  “Really?” she asked.  “What about?”  “Well, it’s a book about my Christian faith.  It’s actually pretty fun.  If I bring you a copy, will you read it?”  “Sure,” she said.

So I’m giving her a book this week.  And my hope and prayer is that it will introduce her to a God she may not know.

This post is a request for you to pray for this girl—that God would open her heart to the truth of His gospel and that she would see Jesus as the greatest satisfaction to her every need.  Please pray, and share, and tweet, and do anything you can to gather a community of people who will pray her into the Kingdom.

I’ll keep you posted.  After all, I have a feeling I’m going to be eating there a lot.

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Unseen Fruit of Obedience

Published on January 18, 2010 by CT in Blog, Stories

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This is Part 2 of the Unseen Fruit of Obedience Series (Part 1 was titled “Go Tell Him I Love Him”)

I woke up as the hurricane struck right outside my window. It was 4am, and the wind howled like a pack of a thousand wolves.  I was awake almost instantly, wondering if the walls would hold or if they would give way to the ferocity outside my window.

I guess I should clarify.  It wasn’t hurricane season, and I was in my bed in Northern Virginia, and we don’t get hurricanes here at all.  So I guess it wasn’t really a hurricane.  But it was the hurricane equivalent for a land-locked area in the dead of winter.  I suppose I could just call it strong wind.

So there I was, with the strong wind threatening to knock down our walls, and I found myself in one of those situations where I felt like God was speaking to me.  The previous night, my mom and Anna and I had gone to see The Blind Side, the story of a wealthy, white family taking in a young, black man who was in need.  It was a beautiful story; when we left the theater, both Anna and I were on the lookout for someone to adopt—we were that moved.  So at 4am, it seemed as if God was asking me to get up, get in the car, and go for a drive.

I’m overly sensitive to prayer right now.  I’ve been reading Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, in which he talks about the spiritual disciplines with a depth I do not know, and I’m thinking he’s either on to something with this book or he’s a nutter.  I lay there in bed, with an image of the little neighborhood market from the previous story in my mind.  I decided to just go for it, believing God was capable of sending me back to bed if He wanted.

As I left our apartment complex, I began thinking I might be crazy.  What was I doing out here?  It’s 4am; nobody’s awake but me.  But I drove anyway, got to the market, and found no one.  I walked around the entire building—still no one.  So I got back in the car.  Another store in the area came to mind, so I drove there.  Still no one.

I began thinking this was all a mistake, that I’m hearing things in my head that aren’t from God.  I began to question whether or not I could even hear from Him at all.  I suppose crazy people don’t get up at 4am to go look for someone to take in or share the gospel with, so maybe that means God was in this after all, but then again, maybe they do.

I don’t want to have an Unseen Fruit of Obedience series.  In one sense, obedience with no visible payoff tends to cast doubt in my mind the next time I think I hear a command to obey.  But in another sense, I feel a peace that God is working in my life and that He’s doing a thousand things I cannot see.  My job is to keep obeying.

This story actually ended with disobedience.  As I drove back to my house, I went by the neighborhood market once more, and I saw a Papa John’s delivery truck in the parking lot, and it seemed God told me to go over and ask the delivery man if there was some reason God would have sent me to him that night.  After 10 minutes of sitting there, I bailed.

Maybe things would have been different if I obeyed.  Maybe not.  But I learned two things that night.  First, God has compassion for those in need.  The blistering winds that night made me think of all the people in our city and in the world who need a place to stay, and I feel impotent to help them, but I don’t want to ignore the question I posed to God as I sat in my car:  “What can I do?”  Second, God produces fruit I sometimes cannot see when I obey.  How do I know this?  I don’t—but I believe it all the same.  “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

I want to abide in Christ, so that I might bear much fruit for His glory and my joy, whether it’s fruit I get to taste and see or it’s fruit that God is producing in ways I’ll never know about.  God grant me the grace to live this kind of life, even if it’s at 4am.

Question:  How do you react when you obey God and see no immediate payoff?

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Go Tell Him I Love Him

Published on December 6, 2009 by CT in Blog, Stories

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Go Tell Him I Love Him

This is Part 1 of the Unseen Fruit of Obedience Series (Part 2: “Unseen Fruit of Obedience;” Part 3: “He Didn’t Even Notice“).

“Go tell him I love him.”

That’s what I think God said to me in my car yesterday afternoon.  I was on the way home from some filming, and the city was blanketed with the first snow of the year, which is just about the best thing ever for a guy who has lived in LA for the last 9 years.  I normally would throw on the radio to pass the time, but on this afternoon, I drove in silence, marveling at the wonder of snow, and creation, and God.

I was exhausted, and within sight of my home, when I drove past the little neighborhood market.  Light gray surrounded the building, as sky and ground all met together in the off-whiteness of the snow.  The store was lit, a small burst of warmth in a cold winter scene.  Neon shone forth from the windows in the bright words of “Beer” and “Wine.”

I was so excited to nearly be home; I couldn’t wait to get into a warm home with warm food.  And just as I passed this market, glancing over at the neon signs and the man behind them, that’s when God’s still small voice came to me:  “Go tell him I love him.”

I’ve heard this voice before.  In fact, I’ve been hearing God’s promptings for months now, and I’ve been ignoring them.  I’ve also been rationalizing them, asking myself questions about why God would ask me to approach random strangers, and was it actually God speaking to me in the first place, or could it be my own flesh or Satan trying to prompt me to share the gospel with someone, knowing I wouldn’t do it and then feel guilty about it.

For some reason, I stopped this time, and I drove back into the parking lot, got out of my car, and walked inside.  I approached the man behind the counter.

“Hi, how are you doing?” I said.

“Fine,” he replied as he smiled.

I went on:  “This may sound a little strange, but I was just driving by, and I was praying, and I think God told me to come tell you that He loves you.”

He looked confused.  “What?”

So I repeated the same story, ending with “and I think God told me to come tell you that He loves you.”

He still looked confused.  “I don’t know what you’re saying to me.”

“God?” I asked, thinking I could start more slowly.

“No,” he said.

I waited, trying to figure out if there was any way to move on from “God…no.”  Nothing came to me.  “Alriiiight, well have a good day!” was my final statement as I turned on my heel to head out the door.

This week we’ve been exploring what happens when we’re silent before God, giving Him room to share in the conversation instead of simply talking at Him in prayer.  On this afternoon, I don’t know what God was doing, if anything, with that man.  It wasn’t quite the fruit I would have expected His Spirit to work in that conversation

But there was finally some budding once more on the branch of my faith.  It seems the Spirit has been inviting me to abide in the Vine once more, and I’ve been unwilling to come close for a long time.  So it feels good to hear God’s voice again and actually respond to Him.  And maybe I need to spend some more time in the silence.

Question:  what have you heard when you have been silent before God?

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The Orphan on the Jetliner

Published on October 6, 2009 by CT in Blog, Stories

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The Orphan on the Jetliner

I am about to trade places on an airplane with the girl in the middle seat.  If you must know, I actually do have a preference:  window seat, right side of the airplane.  Exit seats and bulkhead seats are nice, and first class is even nicer.  But I don’t mind the back of the airplane so long as I sit beside the right window.

I like to prop my right leg up on the back of the armrest right in front of me.  Doing so is comfortable, and it makes my back feel better on long flights.  However, I do run into problems sometimes, because occasionally the guy in front of me actually wants to use his armrest.  And my foot is sitting right there.  Which can be awkward.

For the most part, though, I have had a great deal of satisfaction with my seat preference.  Even when the right side, window seat is unavailable, I can usually swing a left side window or even an aisle.  They don’t allow me the same foot-propping flexibility as the right side, window seat, but they are satisfactory nonetheless.

However, after thirty-one years of flying, hundreds if not thousands of flights, I have never once, not once, requested a middle seat.

Middle seats are the orphan children of the world.  Most people would rather not deal with them at all, and many feel it is far better to ignore them.  Being with one gives people this really uncomfortable feeling, as if they don’t really know what to do or say.  People make jokes about them.  They talk about them at parties, laughing at them over crumbs from a lemon tart and a bottle of Pinot.  The bottom line is that nobody likes a middle seat.

And there is good reason for it.  People don’t follow rules of good conduct when it comes to middle seats.  Assume you are sitting on the left side of the airplane with two other people.  You would think that the three of you would develop your own unwritten standards of conduct—say, Lean Left or Lean Out.  Mr. A by the window uses the left armrest, Ms. C by the aisle uses the left armrest, leaving the left armrest open for Mr. B in the middle.  Similarly, Mr. A leans left, Ms. C leans right, leaving both armrests open for Mr. B.

But this never happens, does it? The outer seat occupants always occupy the inside armrests, leaving the passengers in the middle to pin their elbows against their sides.  What is interesting about this phenomenon is that it is not done out of ignorance.  Most passengers have experienced the horrors of middle seats, so you would think that people in general would be sympathetic to this predicament, showing compassion and grace upon their unfortunate neighbor whenever the opportunity presented itself.  Sadly, it quickly becomes a case of every man, and every armrest, for himself.

Like most people, I have occupied my fair share of middle seats. I have never been very happy about it.  I try not to make a fuss, and I pretend like everything is fine, but what I am really thinking about is all of the people who are taking up the seats along the right side of the aircraft, wasting their God-given foot propping opportunities.

So why am I about to ask this girl, and plead if I must, if I can trade her my beloved window seat for her middle seat?

I am trying to figure out what it means to love with the kind of love that Jesus talked about.  The kind of love that is a sacrificial love.  If I hate the middle seat, then I am guessing that she does too, and if I were sitting in the middle seat, then I would want to move, so I am guessing she does too.  If she is at least as important to me as I am, then I would be showing her love by giving her what she cannot gain on her own, which sounds a lot like grace.

It occurs to me that giving up my seat for the purpose of trying to love without an agenda means I have an agenda.  I realize that I am not there yet, and that I may never really get there, but I figured that I might as well try in the meantime.

Middle seats, then, are no longer something I avoid.  Now they give me the chance to love an orphan, or as much of an orphan as I can find on an airplane.  I know there are real orphans in this world, and God means for us to care for them, but this is a small step is opening my eyes to a world that is full of people who need to be loved.  I wish I could feed every hungry mouth in the world, but in the meantime, I want to consider everyone I meet as more important than myself, and simply do to them whatever I would have them do to me.

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Jonah and That Fish

Published on October 4, 2009 by CT in Blog, Stories

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Jonah and That Fish

I was talking with a guy behind the counter at a surf shop in Hermosa Beach one Sunday morning after church, and he asked me about the difference between the church that was across the street and the one that was further down the block.  I told him how they were similar and how they were different, and we ended up in a conversation about God.  He said he wasn’t sure if he believed in God or not, that he was kind of spiritual but didn’t like organized religion, which basically meant he wanted to sleep with his girlfriend and party that weekend.  At one point in the conversation, he asked me about Jonah and the whale.  “What do you mean Jonah got swallowed by a fish?” he said.

“Don’t have a problem with God because of Jonah and the whale,” I said.  “Start with God.  The Bible said God has always existed.  And then He spoke the universe into existence and made everything.  And that’s how all of this came to be.  Or take Jesus.  The Bible said He is God and has always been God, and He was sent to become a man, and was born as a helpless infant to poor parents in a tiny town in a conquered country, and he lived a sinless life, and was crucified for our sins, and rose from the grave, and ascended back into heaven, where He exists in a glorified body, reigning over the universe, ready to come back again one day.  Start with those things, and ask yourself if you believe them, because if you do, you’ll have no issue with Jonah and the whale.”

“I see your point,” he said.

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