Thankfulness in All Circumstances

It’s that time of year again. If you’re on any social media you know exactly what I’m talking about. November 1 rolls around every year and suddenly it seems that you can’t go ten minutes without someone you know posting what they are thankful for. Most that do this post one thing a day for the 30 days of November. Before I go any further, if you participate in this exercise I want to make this very clear; I am not saying that there is anything wrong with it. I actually enjoy reading what people post.

And I get why this is always done in November. We have a holiday called “Thanksgiving” during this month. We set this month aside to try and remember what we are thankful for, and that is a very much needed reminder in this world. There is so much wrong in the world today that we sometimes forget what we do have to be thankful for.

What I want to encourage you with, however, is we need to focus on what we have to be thankful for a lot more often than just the month of November. Especially as Christ followers. There is so much for us to remember. There is so much to be thankful for. Even when things are not going exactly the way we want them to or the way we think they should.

Paul, when writing to the Thessalonian church, put it this way;

“16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)

In all circumstances. That seems really tough doesn’t it? Does that mean when a loved one is sick we should give thanks? What about when it’s a holiday and you’re not able to be with family? Or you’ve lost your job and you don’t know how you’re going to keep paying your bills? Or you just keep seeing more and more evidence that we live in a broken world? The answer is “YES!” In all circumstances. How do we do that?

The answer is right in front of us in the rest of what Paul has written here. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks…for this is God’s will for you. We are able to be thankful in all circumstance when we are able to focus on Jesus. By looking to Him in every situation, being in constant communication with Him (prayer), and realizing that if nothing else, we have Jesus Himself to be thankful for. Living as a Christ follower was never promised to be easy. Don’t ever make that mistake. But Christ did promise to always be with us. And He promised it would all be worth it in the end.

There is so much pain in this world. We live in a broken world because as human beings we have tried to do things on our own instead of looking to God. So here’s my challenge to you; Look for things to be thankful for all year long. There is nothing wrong with focusing on thankfulness during November, just don’t forget that we all have so much to be thankful for all year long. Even the trials and hard times that we face are things to be thankful for. I’ll leave you with this thought from James 1:

“2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

thoughts-from-a-crosseyed-jesus-freak

In the Big, In the Small, In All Things Be Thankful!

office couch

I know this is true for me, and I suspect it is true for most of you as well.  We lose sight of things from time to time.  It’s easy to do, but that doesn’t mean it is the best thing that we can do as well.  Recently I realized that I was losing sight of something that I should be holding on to.  Rather, I was focusing on something negative.  I was letting the things that I don’t like or disagree with, or things I wanted to complain about fill my thoughts most of the time.  I had forgotten to be thankful for the good things in my life.

And I have a lot of things to be thankful for.  It’s just sometimes so much easier to focus on the negative.  Because I am trying to stay away from those negative thoughts, I’m not going to list any of them in this post.  But I have found myself complaining a lot.  Not publicly.  Not to anyone other than my wife or close advisors.  Sometimes it’s just been complaining about things in my own head. 

So I have decided to start intentionally looking for and focusing on things that I have to be thankful about.  They should outweigh all of the negative things anyway.  But for some reason it is just so much easier to focus on the negative.  Maybe it’s just human nature. 

There is a thing that hapThe Beardpens every November, around Thanksgiving, that dominates social media.  And no, I’m not talking about “No Shave November”.  If you’ve seen a recent picture of me, you can see that I’m participating in that already.  Most people call it something like “30 days of thankfulness” or something along those lines.  They attempt to post things they are thankful for on social media each day of November. 

While I am not necessarily looking to post something every day for a certain number of days, I am going to start trying to focus on things to be thankful for.  I might even write a few posts from time to time about those things.  Again, it’s just about trying to be intentional about being thankful.  And as Christ followers, we have a lot of things to be thankful about.  Jesus has paid the price for our sins, a price that we could have never paid for our selves. 

James goes as far to say that we should even be thankful for our trials.  The word thankful isn’t there, but the idea it.  He says in James 1:2-3:

2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

Paul writes about thankfulness in a majority of his letters, but I chose two of Paul’s quotes to share with you today.  In his letter to the Ephesians he writes about always giving thanks to God for everything.  He echoes those thoughts in I Thessalonians as well.  Ephesians 5:15-20 and I Thessalonians 5:16-18 are recorded as follows:

Ephesians 5:15-20: 15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I Thessalonians 5:16-18: 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

As I said earlier, I have so many things to be thankful for.  We all do.  I could list a large number of things from my wife, to getting to help watch our little buddy Aaron that I’ve written about before, to my church and getting to preach God’s Word on a regular basis, the freedom we have to gather in worship, etc.  But today, what got me thinking about all of this and made me realize I need to focus on things I am thankful for, it was actually something a lot of us take for granted.  It’s actually a very small thing.

I’m thankful for a donated couch that I have in my office.  I was having a hard time concentrating on anything when I came back from lunch.  My head was pounding, I couldn’t focus, and because of all of that I was not going to be productive.  I could just sense that was going to be my afternoon.  So, I turned the lights off, stretched out, and took a short but refreshing nap.  I woke up ready to go.  I was focused again.  Most of my headache was gone, and I sat down and typed this post out in about 30 minutes. 

What are you thankful for today?

A couch is something that we take for granted.  But today, it was just what I needed to refocus and get something done on a day in which I would not have gotten anything else productive done.  So again, today I’m thankful for a donated couch that is in my office.  I’m thankful for the rest that it allowed me to get today, so I could get some more things done.  And I’m thankful that I am able to take time to do things like that to be able to continue working for the kingdom of God.  What are you thankful for today?

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Do You Trust God? (11-19)

Thanksgiving is upon us.  Where has this year gone?  It simply amazes me that we are just over a month away from ending the 2016 calendar year.  As we get into the Thanksgiving holiday, we are all reminded to take a step back and reflect on what we have to be thankful for.  And we have so much, even if life is not going exactly the way that we thought it would this year.

This has not been the most straight-forward of years for me.  There have been things that have happened along the way that I did not see coming.  Such is life, though.  It started off with my mom falling and shattering her shoulder in three places.  On top of that, she lives in East Tennessee, so I was not even able to be there to help her. 

My wife was working for a family here in town, and really enjoying her job.  The family, however, ended up moving out of state due to a job promotion, and due to some other unforeseen circumstances, she has not been able to find another job yet. 

Most recently, my wife’s grandmother was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer, and passed away so quickly that we were not able to make it to Ohio until two weeks after she passed away.  That does not even start to cover things not going the way we thought in regards to friends and church members that we know. 

I am sure you can relate, because life usually does not go the way we think it should or the way we want it to.  It just does not work that way.  So, what do we have to be thankful for?  For me, I have a job that I love, a family that loves me, good friends, and most importantly, Jesus who went to the cross to die for me, even when I did not (and still do not) deserve it.  He went there for you as well!  That should be the best news you have ever received in your life, and something that you can be thankful for, even in the hard times of life.

There is a story found in Acts 16:1-10 that I believe can show us what can happen when we trust God and are thankful for Him, even when life does not go as planned.  I will let you read it on your own if you want, but basically it is a story about a man named Paul.  Paul is going around, preaching about Jesus, and desperately wants to go preach the gospel in the province of Asia.  He is laser focused on the idea of going to Asia to preach, yet every time he tries, the story says that he is prevented by the Holy Spirit. 

If you read about Paul, one of the things you will see is that once he sets his mind to something, he is going to do everything he can to get it done.  When he is prevented from doing something he feels strongly about, he does not take it very well.  This would be the case with being prevented from entering Asia as well.  But Paul trusts God, and is thankful for His guidance. 

How do I know that he trusts God?  Paul is able to sleep that night, right after being prevented again from going to Asia.  In his sleep, he has a dream that basically calls Paul and his companions to go to Macedonia instead of Asia to preach.  And that is exactly what he does.

It was not where he saw his life going, but he did not lose sleep over it either.  He trusted God, and was grateful for God’s guidance in his life.  So what about you?  Does anything keep you up at night, or are you able to trust God and be thankful, even when life is not what you think it should be?

Thoughts From a Crosseyed Jesus Freak

What God Taught Me About Prayer

About three weeks ago, I challenged our church to partner with the leadership and me to pray for our church and the impact we can have on our community for a full 24 hour period.  We broke the 24 hours into 15-minute time slots and asked people to sign up for slots that they would commit to praying for the whole time they signed up for.  I committed to take any of the time slots that were still left, so that we were assured of covering the full 24 hours.

As I write this now, we completed our 24-Hours of Prayer about three and a half hours ago, and as I’ve reflected on the time spent in prayer, focused on our church, I realized that God has taught me a lot through this process.  I’m still processing everything (and exhausted because I was up most of the night), but I feel that there is value for you to hear what I learned as well.

Prayer is one of those disciplines that I always feel like I can and need to improve in, and having a commitment to praying for a specific amount of time caused me to set up a plan for how to follow through and keep my commitment.  My wife graciously helped me cover some of the open slots, but in the end I had three hours and forty-five minutes that I had committed to praying during.  A big chunk of that time (two hours and 15 minutes) was in one block, from 1:15-3:30 AM.  I’m not saying this because I’m trying to brag about praying this much.  In fact, I was really concerned at the beginning that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate and pray constantly through that entire time.

There were others that had committed to large chunks of time in one sitting like that as well, so to help them out, and myself, I put together a prayer packet, with a suggested order of prayer, Psalms that they could read and pray through, different prayers of Jesus they could read and pray as well, and also a selected reading from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline about prayer.  It was through this process that I discovered something that helped me so much.  Prayer is more about setting aside time to communicate with God than it is about the words that we say.  It should be a conversation between you and God, instead of just a one-sided listing of things you want from Him.

So, what did I specifically learn?

1. Start your prayer time with Confession

Starting prayer with time of confession to lay all of your sins at God’s feet really sets the time apart.  The time I spent in confession last night means more than I ever thought it would.  A prayer partner of mine taught me to do this a few years ago, but I never really understood the benefit of it until last night.  I started my prayer time confessing those things that I just can seem to shake in my life, and it was the usual reaction on my part.  That is until I realized just how broken I really am.  That was a hard realization, and it led me to literally weeping for a few minutes in my brokeness.  And it caused me to cry out to God like I hadn’t done in a long time.

Crying out to God like that helped me connect with Him again.  It led to the rest of what I learned throughout the rest of the night.  I got into the flow of a conversation like I was literally speaking to a friend in the same room.  That was something that I hadn’t felt in a long time either.  My two hour and 15 minute time block of prayer seemed to fly by after I was able to settle in to that conversation like I had.  If you are having a hard time connecting with God, make a point of spending time in confession to Him on a regular basis.  It may just be that the sin in your life is keeping you from that connection, and that confession and crying out for His help is all you need to reconnect.

2. There is value in praying for individuals

My prayer time actually started with a simple 15 minute session at 7:30 PM.  Since I just had 15 minutes, and was just finishing up dinner as well, I decided that that 15 minutes would be best spent praying for each individual that had agreed to pray during our prayer event.

Later on in the evening, after my time of confession during my long block, I wrote out a list of all the people that attend our church (we’re a small congregation, so it wasn’t too hard to name each person), and then spent some time praying for each individual and family.  It made me appreciate each person, even if there are things that I don’t agree with them on.  How can you hold a grudge with someone if you are committed to praying for them on a consistent basis?

3. Find your own style

For me, I concentrate best with music on in the background.  Complete silence allows my mind to wander, or I just flat out fall asleep (especially at 1:30 in the morning).  So I put headphones on, turned on my Pandora shuffle, and listened to Christian music while I was spending time with God.  In fact, when certain songs came on that really connect with me and are like prayers from my heart, I treated them just like that.  I stopped talking, and just worshipped along with the song that was playing.  They became my own prayers, and I even literally hit my knees a couple of times during the songs, because I was drawn to throw myself down before God.

The point I’m trying to make here is simple.  Find your own way to remain focused, especially if you are undertaking a long prayer time.  If it wasn’t for music playing in my ears, no matter how committed I was to praying, I would have either fallen asleep or I would have been just daydreaming.  But knowing that about myself, I was able to correct it and spend that time focused on God.

4. There is value in praying others’ prayers

I knew there I was going to have a hard time praying my own words for that long, no matter how committed I was to it.  So I took my own advice, and spent time praying through prayers from Psalms and Jesus’ own prayers.  I did this during my 6:00-6:30 time slot.  After my 3:30 session ended, I caught a little bit of a nap, setting an alarm for 5:50, so I would be awake for this short 30 minute session.

I was out of it, but awake enough to be able to follow through with my commitment.  This seemed like a good time to pray some already written prayers, instead of having to come up with my own words.  But at the same time, I wanted these to become my own prayers as well.  So I read through them, concentrating on the words, and placing them in my own life.

5. Journaling is great

Writing is something that I find great joy in.  I process things through my writing, whether someone else will ever read those words or not.  Journaling during my prayer time, however, is not something that I have been very consistent with over the years.  One of the journals that I have is a combination of Bible study notes, thoughts, and even a few prayers, although not many.  I had that laid out, not really sure what I was going to do with it, but at one point, when I had run out of words, I flipped through that journal, reading every prayer that I had written there.  It was a great experience, but it was also a little terrifying, because I realized some of the things that I was struggling with now, and had confessed earlier, were the same things I was confessing throughout this prayer journal, dating back several years.

I also spent over an hour total writing down some of my prayers.  That was a great experience, because I was able to really concentrate on my words, and communicate exactly what I wanted to say to God at that moment.  It is also great because now I have a record of my prayer time.  I prayed some pretty big prayers, and now I have a record of that, so I can look back at later and see how God has chosen to answer those prayers.  One of the prayers is actually going to be worked into my sermon this week, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t have them recorded.

6. Silence is part of prayer

Prayer cannot just be one sided.  If you are doing all of the talking the whole time, there is really no value in it.  It’s almost as if you are just dictating to God.  There is value in “Being still, and knowing that He is God”.  Sitting in silence, and just listening for what God may be trying to tell you is one of the best parts of prayer.  This world is full of noise, yet when we can shut out the outside world (even if that means listening to music) and just patiently waiting for God really helps our connection with Him.

This 24-Hours of Prayer that we did with our church has been an eye-opening experience for my.  In a lot of ways, I was actually disappointed when my time was over.  That is until I realized that I can spend time with God in these same ways anytime I want.  I just have to be committed to setting aside the time to spend with Him, and I am going to try to make this a daily thing for me from here on out (maybe not almost four hours a day).

What do you need to do to improve your prayer life?  Is there anything I can do to help?  Trust me when I say that spending committed time with God in prayer can truly change things!

Thankful, No Matter What

Note: I reference II Timothy throughout this post, but do not quote any of it here.  To read II Timothy online go to; http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Timothy+1&version=NIV

Life hasn’t been easy recently.  It rarely is actually, but for some reason, I am going through a season of life in which things are really difficult.  Complaining is really not something that I find beneficial, and it is not what I am trying to do here.  I also realize that others are experiencing greater hardships than I am right now.  This is not meant to make light of their situations.  What I am trying to do, however, is put down in written form what I feel that God is trying to teach me through this season.  There are a lot of things that He teaches through difficulties, and I hope that whoever reads this can relate to what He is teaching me.

In fact, I think the lesson has always been in front of me, but I just couldn’t see it.  Things have come somewhat easily in my life compared to what others have had to endure.  Sure, I lost my dad to a heart attack as a teenager, but other than that, I really haven’t dealt with many hardships.  As I’ve stated so often on here, I feel called to vocational ministry, and I think this season now may just be another tool that God is using to teach me how to be more successful in the role that He is preparing me for.  He is trying to teach me to rely on Him above everything else.  Also, He is trying to teach me to be content, thankful in all situations, and also to be able to have empathy and compassion to those experiencing hardships in the future.

These lessons are found throughout Scripture, and are vital in a role of ministering to people in a local congregation.  Paul writes at length about each of these things.  It is something I have grown up knowing, but I am hard-headed enough that even though I know the lessons in my head, I see that I may have to go through this season of difficulties to truly apply these lessons to my life.  This epiphany dawned on me just Sunday.

While in Sunday school, we looked at Paul’s second letter to Timothy.  This letter to Timothy is believed to be the last words that Paul ever recorded.  He is near the end of his life, and these words are his last chance to impart wisdom to his beloved Timothy.  His words, in this light, carry a great deal of weight.  What would you expect to hear from someone who is awaiting a trial in Rome, under house-arrest, and knowing that your life is almost certainly going to come to an end soon?  In human nature, I would not expect to see what Paul chooses to be his final message.  Paul chooses to tell Timothy to be truly thankful throughout any situation in his life.  One of the most interesting ways that Paul does this is to tell Timothy first that he is proud of being in chains for the cause of Christ, and then imploring Timothy to join him in suffering for the Gospel.  Wow!  That is contrary human nature.

How is Paul able to make this statement to Timothy, and what is it saying to us at the same time?  To answer that, it is necessary to look to some of Paul’s earlier writings.  He answers this perplexing problem for us throughout his writings.  That makes sense, as again this is arguably his final recorded words.  Paul is simply tying everything together and telling Timothy to be thankful and content…and here is how you do that.  First, in his letter to the Romans, Paul states,  “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”(Romans 12:3 NIV).  The first key is to not think too highly of yourself.  We, as Christians, have all been given faith and we are to work together.  

Being content is the first key, but it really isn’t that easy to become content.  Paul again shows how important contentment is in Philippians 4:11-12.  It reads, I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” This time, however, he leaves some instruction for how to become content.  Philippians 4:6; 13 reads, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God…I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  So, it is through thanksgiving in all situations, a strong prayer life, and relying on Christ, who gives us strength that we can become content.  

This is where God has really, really been working hard in my life.  Learning how to be content has proved difficult, but in all honestly, I think it has finally clicked.   Even though life has been difficult recently, at least with finances and earthly goods, I have become very thankful for what I do have.  God has blessed me with His grace most of all, but He has also blessed me with a loving wife, strong family, great friends, a community focused faith family that I get to serve in leadership with, and so many other blessings.  Even through difficult times, I am learning to be content.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to strive for what I think that God is leading me to do, but it does mean that I am working hard to not let my circumstances change how I feel about everything that God has blessed me with.  I have learned to truly lean and rely on God, because I honestly don’t know how else I would be able to handle how life is going right now without just letting go and trusting God.  

I want to go back to II Timothy again for a moment.  Paul has told Timothy to be thankful and content as he is, but again, Paul knows what fate is waiting for him.  While he has told us in other letters how to be content, knowing his situation makes me think he has to have another reason to be able to be thankful and content here.  Philippians seems to hold the answer to this as well.  Specifically, in Philippians 1:21-26, Paul states, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.  Yet what shall I choose?  I do not know!  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.  Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.” Paul knows that he is about to get what he truly desires.  He knows what awaits him after death, and he is ready for that.  His focus is on Jesus and not earthly things.  That’s the key.  That’s how Paul was content, and it is how I am trying to be content.  

I know this life is temporary, and I have so many great things in store for me once this life is over.  While I am still here, I will continue to pursue God’s call and lead in my life, but I know that no matter how difficult life gets, I have eternity with Christ to look forward to.  Keep your focus on Jesus.  Become Cross-eyed (Hebrews 12:2) by fixing your eyes on Jesus, and learn to be thankful and content.  I have been resistant to apply this in my life, even though I had the book knowledge on it, but join me in trying to apply it to our lives.  This is especially important the more our society becomes consumer driven, but that’s a whole other post for a later time.

God Bless.