Today our church service included the testimonies of several of our members regarding what the Lord has taught them over the past year. Below is a transcript (as best I can provide) of what I shared with our congregation.
I wish I could stand before you this morning and tell you that I’ve spent the last 363 days of the year faithfully studying God’s word, desperately pursing him prayer, and passionately worshipping him 24/7; I wish I could rattle off a list of people I’ve personally led to the Lord, that I could say, “Hey – see that table there? All of them are here today because when I told them about Jesus they listened and responded.”
But I can’t. And that’s okay. See, that’s what God has taught me this year.
One Word Summary
If I had to sum the year’s lessons up in one word, it would “grace” – the grace God shares through Jesus every day of the year as he deals with and talks to me. Jason asked us a couple of weeks ago to talk about how God has moved in our lives this past year so that we could share it. I wanted to be able to say, “I was sick – now look at me! I’m healed!” or “One day, out of the blue, God sent a check that paid off my mortgage!” or some other miraculous story. Instead, I stand before you and tell you that we spent the better part of a year recovering from the consequences of a car accident that totaled our van, delayed our trying to have another child, and put a complete stop on selling our house and moving into another one – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Rather than tell you about the mortgage being paid off, I will stand here and tell you that the promised raise was voted down, sometimes there was more month than money, and the insurance settlement didn’t come close to paying for the new van.
Yup, that’s our year. A pretty normal year, a year mixed with both victories and struggles, great memories and pain I think I’d rather forget. A year that started with good intentions – intentions to read scripture daily, to pray faithfully with and for my wife, to disciple my children – but as I look back I realize that while there were months I did read daily, pray faithfully, and invest in my kids, there are also weeks I’m not sure I even cracked the bible open except on Sunday morning, months that went by where prayers were little more than “Bless this day, God” or “Help feel better”, and plenty of nights where not only did I neglect to do devotions with the girls but where during the day I actually lost my temper and yelled at them. Yup. That’s my life – my imperfect, human, raw life.
And in the midst of it, He is here. God is. Jesus – he’s in the midst of all the turmoil, all the pain, all the disappointment. He’s right here. That’s what God taught me this year. To focus on the increasingly intimate, on-going, day-by-day and moment-by-moment relationship I have with Him, to remember that he speaks to me about and through the “mundane,” he works through me, and he fills in the gaps when I step aside and let him.
I look back at the year and realize that when I was one of two people tasked with writing a 300 page grant application in just two weeks, that when the words were flowing through my fingers onto the screen, when the ideas in my mind were literally changing the way we structure support for schools in our district, that they weren’t my ideas at all – they were His. I recognize now that the whole process – a process that didn’t result in receiving the grant – was about growing me in Him. Through that process he was shared both verbally and non-verbally with my co-workers; he grew my faith and honed my listening skills. We walked side-by-side through that project. And we grew closer.
I look back at the statistics class I had to take this semester, or the two-nights-out-a-week for school that robbed me of time with family. And I recognize that he was with me on every drive to Chapel Hill, that those times in the car where I would sing, talk with him out loud, listen to sermons, and listen to him speak to me were times of growth and intimacy with my Savior – times I have come to treasure and even look forward to. I understand they were times I have to invest in out-of-town friends and family via late night phone calls that serve to help keep me awake as I traveled but minister to them in other ways than I could ever imagine. He’s worked in and through me even while I drive.
Driving Around Town
I look back on the day I was driving from a school in Winterville out to a school in Farmville. I was sitting at the intersection of Davenport Farms Rd and Old US264 waiting to turn left. There was a semi truck coming from the right and two cars coming from the left. Even though there was more than enough space for me to safely pull out and make my turn, I heard a voice say, “Tom, just be patient – don’t be in such a rush.” So, for once in my life while behind the wheel, I actually just decided to sit there and let everyone pass – to listen to and not just hear Jesus’ voice. After the truck passed I turned to wait for the first of the two cars to pass, and after it passed I waited for the second car to pass. It was then that I saw a third car that had been invisible to me just seconds before – a third car who was executing an illegal pass of the second car, so he was in the lane I would have turned into. Literally, had I not listened when Jesus told me to wait I would have had a head-on collision with a car that was easily traveling 60+ mph. And it took me longer to tell you this story than it actually happened in life – it was that quick.
The Missing Dog
I look back at the morning I woke up and the dog had escaped the back yard; of spending 30 minutes driving and walking the neighborhood in the rain when it was still dark outside, only to return home praying, “Lord, just bring her back – or help someone to find her and call us.” Then I turned onto my street and who was standing in the middle of the road, one door down from our house, looking around all confused? My Cosette. And Jesus said, “See – I even care about the dog. If I care about something so insignificant as that, don’t you think I care about the big stuff, too?” Sure, it could have ended differently – she could have been lost forever, but I think God was saving me from have the country-music-song year (you know, no raise, car accident, totaled car, hurt wife, dead dog).
So here’s what I’ve learned this year more than ever before – a year that, while it hasn’t been the most difficult of my life has certainly had its challenges. I’ve learned that God is faithful in the little things, and he’s faithful in the big ones, too. I’ve learned that God’s grace overpowers everything the devil can throw at us. I’ve learned that the best part of life is walking hand-in-hand with my Dad – my Heavenly Dad – and hanging out with him. I’ve learned that listening to Jesus and hearing him are two different things. I used to teach my students that the while hearing was a function of the ear, listening was a function of the brain. Hearing is simply when sound waves hit the ear drum, but listening requires actually processing and paying attention to those sounds. It’s why we can sit in a restaurant and, even though we hear conversations of other people around us, we only listen to the person we’re having dinner with. Jesus reminded me of that truth this year, so I want to share a couple of very specific examples when he spoke and I did more than hear, I listened.
To do that I went back and reviewed some of my blog posts for the past year. Two stuck out… Two that were turning points in my year when Jesus spoke deeply to me. The first one I want to share was from last January. To provide a little context, I used to be an avid cyclist, and Lance Armstrong was one of my favorite racers. Last January was when he finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in each of his seven Tour de France victors. Here’s some of what I wrote:
There is something about Lance Armstrong that saddens me: he is not a Christian. I have to wonder how someone who has been given so much cannot believe in God at all. It’s not that he knowingly serves another spiritual presence, it’s that he doesn’t even believe God exists. To know that while he may inspire many here on earth to achieve great strides yet not spend eternity in heaven is disheartening.
He writes in his book, Every Second Counts, the story of the home he bought in Spain. Part of the home is a family chapel that he paid to have restored. He writes this regarding the chapel: “To me, that chapel isn’t just about worship, but about history, about age, about the hundreds of years that have seeped into the arched ceilings, the gold paint, and the original stained glass. It’s stunning.”
I fear Armstrong’s comments regarding faith and religion are all-too-common in today’s culture. Religion is viewed as a duty, as a set of rules, as a hoax, or as a crutch (Armstrong refers to it as this, too).
Yet what Armstrong fails to understand is Christianity is not meant to be a religion but a relationship with the living God of the universe. Think of it—the creator wants you and I to know Him! He even came to earth to make a way for us to draw near to Him. Church is not a building, or a history lesson. Church, The Church, is the living, organic body of our Savior Jesus. That’s what Armstrong fails to understand.
This week we see what could be described as the deprivation of man in general and Armstrong in particular. I didn’t watch his confession, but I read enough in the press to know that his sincerity and regret was, at best, questionable – how else could he still claim he didn’t think it was wrong to cheat?
For me, though, what is even more disheartening than the cheating is the years and years of lying – lying to the public, to his donors and supporters, to his fans, and, ultimately, to himself. He was vicious – suing those who dared suggest he had doped and calling them terrible, horrible names. In Armstrong we see the fallen nature of humanity for what it is: an obsession with oneself. Like the title of Armstrong’s first book, we had confirmed this week that it wasn’t about the bike. It was about him and only him, at all costs.
And here’s what really gets me… Armstrong’s cycling wasn’t what brought him to fame, it was the fact that he had overcome cancer and then still went on to be what we all thought was the greatest cyclist who ever raced. We didn’t follow him because of the bike, we followed him because of the healing.
This afternoon I got kinda upset about that. I found myself upset with God that my sister died of cancer when she was 20, yet this liar and cheater was allowed to live. It just didn’t seem fair. Erin wasn’t perfect, but she certainly wasn’t Armstrong. How come she had to die and he got to live? If anyone deserved to die wasn’t it a man who would take his healing, shove it in the face of the God who healed him (as he did in his book), and then go on to mock the rest of the world to win by cheating and covering it up for years afterwards – ruining the lives of countless other professionals in the process? Isn’t that the one who should have died?
And then God reminded about his grace. It’s what Armstrong needs – it’s what he’s always needed. Not grace from me or any other person; what Armstrong needs is to accept the grace given him by God. Erin died a believer, which means she ultimately was healed that night she passed into eternity. But Armstrong? He’s headed straight to hell. Not because he cheated and lied, but because he’s a sinner just like everyone else. Perhaps worse than some but better than others. Yet at the end of the day when he dies he’ll spend eternity separated from God because he refuses to accept the grace found in Jesus.
And so God continues to offer grace, one chance after another. Should Armstrong have died? Who am I to judge that… What I can say with confidence is this: God must certainly love him a whole bunch, if you judge it based on the chances he’s given (and continues to give) to come to know Him. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Maybe, just maybe, Armstrong will wake up to this fact. It’s what I’m praying for, anyway
The second one I wrote the following month, in February, and I think you’ll see how they are related:
I was watching a little TV with Melissa and she turned on the most recent episode of one of her new favorite shows, Grey’s Anatomy. One main theme in the episode was a 19 year old who needed a blood transfusion but couldn’t get one because of his religious beliefs. The conflict in the show revolved around how the doctors should respond to someone whose religious beliefs prevented them from treating a sickness that was curable. At one point a friend of the dying patient comments to one of the doctor’s that even though they hang out “every day” his friend “never once mentioned to me that he was a Jehovah’s witness. He never talked about it. I kinda don’t think he is.” (his being a JW is why he can’t get a blood transfusion). The doctor responds that maybe he’s just a private person, to which the friend says, “If you believed in something so hard you would die for it, would you keep it a secret? Wouldn’t you at least tell your friends?”
And that’s when God slapped me upside the head and asked me the question, “Would your friends even know you’re a follower of Jesus? Have you ever told them? Would they know what you’re living for? Would they know what you’re willing to die for?” See, when God writes them a love letter, don’t you think he wants them to know that he lived and died for them? Paul tells me that I’m the letter – I’m the ambassador. So what message are they hearing? Or am I keeping him a secret?
What about Sunday?
Both of those stories provide the “front book-end” examples, so to speak, of what Jesus was telling and teaching me this year. So let me use one final quote before I tie this all together to provide the “back book-end”… Just this past week I finished reading a book in which the following question was asked:
“If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus? The reason I pose the question is because most people conclude someone is a Christian or not based on that person’s Sunday religious activities and behaviors. You may not even be inclined to advertise your faith, but inevitably if you attend church often enough, it will come out in conversation. So if Sunday didn’t exist, you would no longer have a building to point to as being the place you attend church…If Sunday didn’t exist, we would no longer be able to use our Sunday activities as evidence that we are followers of Jesus. So back to my question…If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus?”
The Missing Formula
I wish I could give you a formula that said, “This is how you grow closer to the Lord. You read 4 chapters a day at 6:00am, then make sure you pray for 35 minutes every morning about these 5 topics. Oh, don’t forget to fast once a week (Tuesdays would be best) so that you can spend extra time with the Lord in prayer. Always listen to Christian radio, in the car make sure you play sermon podcasts rather than turn on political talk, answer at least 3 out of 5 questions at small group, and….” Well, you get the idea. But there isn’t a formula – it’s a relationship between two beings. And that’s what Jesus has been teaching me. There’s an ebb and flow to life, and an ebb and flow to relationships. Hearing Jesus’ voice in every moment of every day isn’t something that happens just because you do X-Y-and-Z. Hearing is a result of listening, and listening is a result of focus and paying attention – perhaps it sounds like I’m arguing semantics here, but hearing is a physiological process whereas listening adds both the cognitive dimension and the spiritual act of discernment so that physiology, cognition, and spirit all work together.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting there’s nothing we can do to hear God’s voice or that regardless of what we do nothing will inhibit us from hearing him. Sin is very real and it sets a wall up in our hearts to make it difficult to hear his voice. We have to spend time with him regularly – if I never talked with Melissa or spent time with her or listened to her you’d all wonder what type of marriage we had. But at certain times of our lives those shared times may look different. When we first got married we had regular date nights every week – but once you have kids and you realize between dinner, a movie, and a babysitter that date nights take the entire month’s entertainment budget, they start to look different than they used to. I can’t give a formula for the marriage relationship. Are there certain things we do and don’t do? Absolutely. But we don’t get a marriage because we do those things, we do those things because we are married.
Similarly, I’m not so certain that we get a growing relationship with God just because we read the Bible, pray, fast, or engage in any of the other spiritual disciplines. Reading the bible and prayer no more make you a Christian than babysitting makes you a parent. Does this mean you shouldn’t babysit my kids for me? Absolutely not! But remember that we aren’t parents until we’ve had a kid – whether you have them naturally or you adopt them. Just because you are a teacher who works with kids, or a family therapist who studies child development and know what all the “experts” say about them, a pediatrician who diagnoses their sickness or a L&D nurse who delivers newborns every day – if you’ve never had the sole responsibility to care for a child you aren’t a parent. That’s not meant to discourage or dismiss people, it’s simply stating a neutral fact. In the same way, just because you attend church, read the bible, pray, fast, give money, and/or serve in the community it doesn’t mean you are a follower of Jesus. Does that mean you shouldn’t do those things? Absolutely not – but don’t overemphasize the vehicle when what is important is the relationship.
Abiding leads to doing
Because of our growing relationship with God we engage in those disciplines – just like when we get married we do things couples do, or when we have children we take responsibility for our kids in raising them. But when it all gets dry? Well, sometimes relationships don’t always “feel” vibrant. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t in relationship. Sometimes our sprititual walk with our Dad doesn’t necessarily “feel” great, but it doesn’t mean he’s not there or that he doesn’t care. The thing that Jesus has taught me more this year than any year in the past is that a deep relationship with him is exactly that – a relationship that isn’t ruled by rules and regulations about what I do or say or think. In fact, it’s not ruled by anything but His Grace. To use our Covenant and Kingdom language, I’ve learned that as I abide with and in Him, the doing happens automatically and naturally and I don’t even need to think about it. Just this past week I read John 3:21, “anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.” When I abide in Him, he works through me and others see it for what it is.
Don’t take these words to mean that when you walk with God that what you consider to be “good things” only happen to you or you always get what you want. Sometimes the dog doesn’t come home, sometimes your sister dies, sometimes you spend more than you make, sometimes the car accident happens or the tire blows out or you fall out of the tree and break your arm. I have friends who are Christians who walk faithfully with the Lord and still experience great, great pain – the pain of divorce, untimely death, the sickness of a child, lost jobs, or even the loss of a home – so I’m not naïve enough to think that by walking with and listening to Jesus we are free of the effects of sin in a fallen world. Walking with God doesn’t guarantee bad things won’t happen to you. It DOES mean you don’t have to go through them alone.