My word for 2021

Habakkuk 1-3

Wait. Not exactly the word I expected for 2021, but that’s the one that stuck. Some people might say it was a word from the Lord, but I won’t be so bold as to claim to hear God in such specific terms. Still, this is the word that came to mind over and over as I pondered my focus for 2021. Two passages of scripture also circled in my head: sections from Habakkuk 2 and Jeremiah 33.

I read Habakkuk back in January, well before 2020 turned the world upside down. At that point, I considered his cry of “How long” from a theoretical perspective on the evil and injustice of humans. I could not have foreseen that “how long” would be the cry of so many people across the globe. Habakkuk prophesied in an evil age, one in which violence, poverty, devastation, and strife ruled, while the Law was ignored and justice never upheld. The Lord told him, ” Watch! Be horrified! Be frightened speechless! For I am accomplishing a work in your days — you would not believe it even if you were told!” (Habakkuk 1:5). Jeremiah heard the same word: “Call to me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). Those unbelievable “great and mighty things” included the total destruction of Judah at the hands of the Chaldeans because the sins of God’s people had reached a point of utter wickedness. Zephaniah also preached against the rebellious and defiled people who refused to obey the Lord and did “violence to the Law” (Zephaniah 3). Even before 2020, there were people crying out to God, “how long?” How long will bitterness and injustice rule even in our churches? How long will people flout God’s command to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength while loving each other? (Matthew 22:35-40). I wrote in my journal on January 17, 2020:

How long? The question of the ages, it would seem. Evil still runs rampant in the world. War, slavery, and violence are as much a part of this time as in any other…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth. Pay attention. To say God works in mysterious ways is an understatement. However, He know what is happening, and He will judge the wicked even if we don’t. However, because His ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8-9), how He works may not make sense to our limited minds. Here [Habakkuk 1], God uses the Chaldeans, who were know for witchcraft, astrology, and worship of Marduk to punish the wicked in Israel and Judah…How long? Until the people repent and a leader comes forth to honor God.

And here we are, nearly a year later. The world has suffered a deadly pandemic, drought, horrific natural disasters in the forms of fire, earthquake, and flood, economic catastrophes, and human suffering on a massive scale. The US has endured riots, protests, division, hatred, contentiousness, and violence, not to mention an election that pleased nobody. The economy suffered as businesses either shuttered or pivoted to “contactless” commerce. People argued over wearing masks of all things: protection or liberty. Physical distancing drove families. Work and school and church moved to online platforms. (Oh, to have bought stock in Zoom back in February.) Hugs and handshakes became elbow bumps. The virus that upended everything created chaos by its sheer inconsistency: most people recovered quickly, but some endured long term effects, and many died. Will a vaccine help? Maybe. Hopefully. But the damage to the psyche of the world is done.

And yet, after all these things, we still wait for the return of the good times. Back to “normal.” When we can attend church services and have school in classrooms and travel freely. But if we just return to the way things were, what have we learned? Have we made changes in justice? Are we better, kinder people? Do the good guys in white hats come out ahead? I submit, we have not made changes and we are not better people. The white hats are more than fifty shades of gray. And, with Habakkuk we might ask, why do the wicked seem to prevail, even after all the events of 2020? Evidently, there’s still a lesson to be learned.

I spent a fair amount of time in 2020 studying the minor prophets and considering the “day of the Lord.” Joel wrote that “the day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” (Joel 2). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that the day would come like a “thief in the night” but before that time, people would be talking about world peace and security (1 Thessalonians 5). After 2020, not much is certain, but no one is claiming this as a time of peace and security. I think the Lord does have a word for us, the same word he gave to Habakkuk: “Write down the vision…so that one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hurries toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it delays, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay long” (Habakkuk 2:2-3). This year has been a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus called times like these the “beginnings of the birth pains” (Matthew 24). Habakkuk saw that things were going to get far worse before they got better; we must understand the same thing.

Why? Why the suffering? Why the certainty of eventual destruction? Because humans are desperately wicked by nature. Because, until people see themselves as they truly are, they will not see their desperate need for a Savior. We are stubborn, we humans. We want to be the masters of our souls, but we cannot be holy. And the Lord will do whatever it takes to make us see that, without Jesus, our souls are doomed. C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that God shouts to us in our pain (Lewis 1940, 2001). Joel foresaw a time when God will light up the sky with fire while turning the moon into blood. At the same time, young people will have visions and the old will dream of God’s wrath, judgement, and salvation (Joel 2). There will come a time when everyone will choose for themselves: worship the self or call on the Lord. Moderation, fence-sitting, cultural “churchianity”- these will be abolished and the lines of demarcation will be clearly drawn.

God has not destined us for that wrath. He sent Jesus, the Incarnation of Himself, for our salvation. When we call on His name, we are eternally His, no matter what happens on this earth (1 Thessalonians 5; Romans 5). The question we must address today is the same one Habakkuk faced: how do we respond to the certainty of hard times ahead?

With joy. We choose joy in the God of our salvation. We choose joy because He made a way of escape; these light and momentary struggles are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us on that day (Romans 8). And for now, we wait in anticipation.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—  but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Additional reference

Lewis, C.S. (2001) The problem of pain. Harper. Original publication 1940.

Love, Joy, Reason

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

The caption in my Bible for these 16 verses is “Final instructions and benediction.” I don’t think it is a good caption, considering the depth of what Paul wrote. Fortunately, the captions are not part of the Word, but were added by editors, supposedly to make reading easier. Sometimes they can be helpful, but sometimes they don’t make sense.

There is so much packed into these verses. It’s a description of how to live out our faith on multiple fronts. I see three broad categories: act in love, choose joy, and use your mind.

Acting in love takes many forms. First, humility by respecting those who are called to teach us. Then, living at peace with each other – even when we guide each other into godliness. There is no place for disparaging judgment in the family of faith, only patient restoration done in and through relationships.

Choosing joy is a recurring theme in Scripture. Here, Paul says we should rejoice ALWAYS. Even when we don’t feel like it. We are to pray continually with gratitude for EVERY circumstance. That is so hard! It certainly doesn’t come naturally to me, but there it is: gratitude and joy are not feelings, but choices made when we converse with the Father.

God made us senescent, thinking, reasoning beings. We are not animals that act on instinct, nor are we to be gullible followers of any person who uses Christian jargon for selfish gain. Paul is clear: test everything. That means using the brain that sets us apart from the animals to think, question, challenge, and search out the Word, keeping what is true and turning away from that which is not. If someone teaches that what we do influences our salvation, it is evil. Only God can make us holy and that happens when we know Him with our minds, as well as hearts, souls, and strengths.

Paul saves the best for the end: He who calls you is faithful and He will do it [He will set apart and make holy those who follow Him]. Knowing that my salvation is in Jesus and my sanctification is the work of the God of peace Himself means I am free to act in love, choose joy, and use my mind.

More and more

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

The Thessalonians acted on their beliefs, even though they didn’t know as much as Paul would have liked them to know. He told them that they had been taught by God to love one another, and he encouraged them to not only continue in their love, but to increase it, loving each other more and more. The holy love they lived out was part of their journey to sanctification.

We can never love too much on our journey to being sanctified in Christ. Paul defined the process of becoming set apart and made holy as being continual; we never stop becoming the name He gave us when we first believed this side of heaven.

We can never be too loving, too pure, too kind, too compassionate, too forgiving, or too holy. The will of God for believers is for us to work hard, live without creating drama, and love each other more and more. Our reputations verify and validate our testimony.

Loving God fully shows itself in loving others authentically. When we love and live in Jesus, we will do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly more and more (Micah 6:8). 

How to make your pastor happy.

1 Thessalonians 3.

The culture of Thessalonica did not make it easy for new believers to grow in faith. It was hostile to Paul and anyone associated with him because what he taught challenged the way of tolerance for worshiping whatever god people wanted to worship.

Paul got run out of town before he could establish leaders and teachers, so he worried about the young church and prayed for it with longing and trepidation for what the culture might to to it.

He finally sent Timothy to check on them, and learned that they were not only standing strong against the culture, but they were living out their faith with love for each other. They were eager for Paul to return and continue to teach them.

So, the title of this post is tongue in cheek, but I suspect any pastor would be excited to teach a congregation like the Thessalonians. They heard the Word, responded in faith, and then lived out what they believed in spite of a culture that despised them.

As a teacher, I understand why Paul was so excited to return and continue teaching. It is fun to teach people who want to learn, and joy comes when students actually practice what they’ve been taught.

Many pastors face congregations that are apathetic or demanding or in church for the social hour. That has to be discouraging and demoralizing. However, an enthusiastic congregation that is excited to hear the Word and then live it out must be invigorating for the preachers.

Paul ends this chapter with a benediction that would be a powerful prayer for churches today: May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another…so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father.

Be who you say you are

1 Thessalonians 2

Paul made clear in this chapter that the gospel is entrusted to us, not for our reputations, but for His glory and pleasure. Entrusting the most important news ever to fallible, mistake-prone people delights the Father; almost like handing down a family heirloom from one generation to another. Treating the gospel as a trust from the Father has ramifications in our current culture. Those who offer lip service to Christians for personal gain are not doing the work of Jesus, and in fact, are part of the reason so many in Western culture revile the Church, Christianity, and anything related to Jesus.

When people treat the gospel as a trust, rather than a get-out-of-hell-free card or a way to influence others, they act out what they believe. It’s not hard to pick out the people who use the name of Jesus for personal gain. It happens in politics, advertising, on social media, and in some churches. These people talk about faith, but their actions reveal they don’t know what the gospel means. They often speak words of flattery as a pretext for greed, and whether they are greedy for acclaim, influence, or material gain, they do more harm than good. Paul wrote to Timothy in another letter,

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.

( 1 Timothy 1:5-7).

We must be careful to speak clearly the work of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. We ought to speak boldly, and at the same time work out what we believe and know to be accurate. This requires that we be always learning more. No one can ever claim to know everything they need to know about the word of God. God tests the hearts of those who claim to speak of Him.

One key to keeping accurate and accountable is by being in community and forming relationships with other believers. When we share ourselves, we learn from each other. God gives each of us a gift, a perspective, and a story. These three things become foundational to sharing life together with other believers. Paul said that he, along with Silvanus and Timothy, shared their own selves with the people in Thessalonica. God created humans for relationship both with Him and with each other. When we live in community, we can avoid the traps of false teaching by being authentic, honest, and humble. Those traits, then, give us credibility when we share the gospel with others.

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy held jobs that allowed them to support themselves so they would not be a drain on the resources of the local church or the people to whom they were ministering. Their motives were clear: they remained holy, righteous, and blameless in all their actions in Thessalonica. They took nothing from the people, but gave of themselves. They demonstrated the work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope so that the church had a model for Christian living. And when the church responded by following that model, Paul knew that they had embraced the gospel with which they were now entrusted.

Speaking the gospel must be backed up with actions and integrity. Explanation of the gospel must be paired with demonstration of how to live it out. Because Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy lived and spoke with integrity, they had the credibility to exhort, encourage, and charge others to walk in a manner worthy of God. If we practice the same level of integrity, we are working out the word of God at work in us. We are able then to form relationships outside the church that honor the Father above anything or anyone else. Through those relationships, we draw people to Jesus in ways that idle words for self-glorification never will. We become faithful and active caretakers of the gospel entrusted to us.

Steadfastness of hope

1 Thessalonians 1:3 (part 3).

There is so much packed into this one verse! I may use these short devotions as an outline for something longer eventually!

Steadfastness of hope is one I struggle with, particularly with the little things, like where I will work next year. I get discouraged when I see so few opportunities closer to home. I love my work in Las Vegas, which makes it even more challenging to persevere in hope for something in the South. However, I remind myself that this is just a blip in the whole of my life and God has the eternal view. He will provide on His timetable.

To be steadfast in hope is to know that our salvation through Jesus is not a ticket to a trouble free life. It means we continue our work in spite of our feeling like we can’t catch a break. It means we rely on the Father to meet our needs even when we can’t see how or when. To be steadfast is to be persistent in our love for one another, even when people are being unlovable. Hope is knowing that God takes the long view of our lives while we get tangled in the moment.

I know I’m not alone in struggling to be steadfast in hope. I’m sure most of use want burning bushes or pillars of fire to guide our way forward in life. Disappointment and discouragement can make us question everything we do and think sometimes. It reminds me of Habakkuk saying, “How long?” I am confident in my heart that I am working out my salvation according to His plan for me, but sometimes I question that in my head. Fortunately, my head is also able to remember that God does have a plan and that I can be confident in that, even when I don’t know what it is.

Paul taught in his letter to the Romans the path to practicing steadfastness of hope (Romans 5:1-11):
1. Have peace; we are already justified by faith
2. Rejoice during hard times; joy is a choice
3. Grow in endurance; life is a marathon, not a sprint
4. Develop character; do justly, love mercy, walk humbly
5. Know God’s love is poured on us, even when we don’t feel it.
6. Do not be ashamed of your hope; people may criticize you for being persistent in declaring the gospel, but do it boldly anyway.
7. Remember whose you are!

To be steadfast is to be certain in our work, in our calling, in our salvation, and in our love for one another. Certainty is hard! But we are not alone in feeling uncertain. Name any of the saints of old and you’ll find moments of darkness and doubt. But they didn’t dwell on their feelings of discouragement, they chose determined joy. They joined Habakkuk declaring that the Lord in in His holy place. They imitated David in proclaiming that the Lord is a shield. Certainly we can remember that the Lord is our Shepherd and He cares for us, even though it is sometimes hard to do. We need to push through our frustrations, disappointments, and struggles with dogged determination, knowing that God sees us where we are and He is aware of our difficulties.

As for me right now, I know there will be a position for me next fall, but I want to know where. And wanting to know more makes me feel uncertain about my call and my work! It’s a cycle that keeps me in the Word and on my knees for sure.

What kinds of struggles do you have with being steadfast in hope?

Labor of love

1 Thessalonians 1:3

A labor of love is work done for the benefit of someone else, not for personal gain. Thus defined, the truest labor of love is Jesus’ atonement for us, taking the penalty of sin on our behalf. The Apostle John focused on the love of God, giving us John 3:16, probably the most well known verse in the Bible.

It seems reasonable, then, to go to the letters of John to see what a labor of love looks like for Jesus followers. Seven things stood out to me:

1. Keep your word (1 John 2:5)
2. Keep your focus upward (1 John 2:15-17)
3. Be bold in your faith (1 John 2:24)
4. Practice righteousness all the time (1 John 3:7-10. 2 John 6)
5. Care for the needy (1 John 3:17)
6. Keep away from idols (1 John 5:21)
7. Provide for teachers, preachers, ministers, and missionaries (3 John 5-8)

Can you imagine if all of us who claim Jesus as Lord practiced these demonstrations of love consistently? These seven things illustrate what a true labor of love looks like in the Church and between the people who call themselves Christians.

Work of faith

1 Thessalonians 1:3

After reading Joel about the Day of the Lord, I thought I would turn to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, a letter where he addressed the Day of the Lord 300 years after Joel did.

I didn’t get very far before I was struck by a new-to-me realization. In chapter 1, verse 3, Paul wrote about the work of faith, the labor of love, and the steadfastness of hope, traits the Thessalonian church demonstrated. Most people are familiar with faith, hope, and love from 1 Corinthians 13:13. But work, labor, and steadfastness? I hadn’t really put those together.
So, what is the work of faith? I skimmed through familiar passages of the New Testament and came up with 7 things. I know there are more, but 7 seemed a good place to start.

1. Influence others by telling your story (2 Corinthians 10)
2. Remember your salvation is in Christ alone (Galatians 2).
3. Share the gospel (Romans 10)
4. Protect your heart (Ephesians 6)
5. Keep striving (Philippians 3)
6. Take care of each other (James 2)
7. Train yourself for godliness (1 Timothy 4).

That’s quite a list and definitely a lot of work. But faith is intangible, and by doing this work, out faith will sustain us through the worst and best of times.