Every Day Judgment

When I was growing up, we were sure Jesus was coming back just any day. We poured over Revelation in our churches looking for signs of His return. We used calculations and sometimes even bizarre mathematic calculations to try to find out who might be the dreaded Antichrist. You’d be surprised how many people had names whose letters, when swapped out for numbers, added up to—you guessed it—666.

“You’d better be ready,” our preachers warned us, “Jesus is coming back to judge the world.” As you can imagine, that kind of anticipation exhausted our imaginations, and we went back to talking about how Jesus can help you live in the moment.

Then, I found out something. Jesus comes every day. His presence may not be announced with blaring trumpets or the splitting of the skies, but He comes just the same.

He may come and bring peace and reassurance during a tough moment of prayer.

He may come and invite me to join Him in loving a broken, confused, and lost friend.

He may come confronting me about a deeply held private sin. You know the ones. “They aren’t hurting anyone but me…” “No one knows this but me…” You know, those last private sins we hold onto…like the Oreos stuffed back in the cupboard behind everything else.

Jesus may want to talk about why I’m so slow being obedient in a particular area of my life.

I guess there are lots of reasons that would prompt Jesus to be near His children, not the least of which is we’re lonely a lot of the time. There’s something about our world that makes us feel all by ourselves even when we’re in a crowd.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned about Jesus’ coming:

  1. Learn to expect His presence. Jesus promised He wouldn’t leave us alone, and that means Jesus is close even when we can’t see Him. Why can’t we see Him? There are a lot of reasons. We get distracted. We get impatient and then give up. The biggest reason is that we haven’t trained our eyes to look for Him. Our eyes are really good at seeing what we tell them to see. Most of us have never told our eyes to look for Jesus.
  2. Learn not to be afraid of His presence. I know that sounds odd, but a lot of us are afraid of Jesus. We’re scared Jesus is going to punish us for our latest failure or condemn us for being the losers we are, but nothing could be further from the truth. His unfailing love drives Jesus to us. Even His judgment is spoken in mercy. Whenever He confronts us, it’s for our own good—for our own lives. Grace is the reason He’s coming.
  3. Learn to savor the moment. Most of us live too fast. We’re moving from this task to that one, from this meeting to that one, and when Jesus does show up, we don’t have any space or time for Him. Learn to slow down when Jesus is near. There’s a reason He’s close. Be sure you don’t miss it.

There are a hundred more things I could write, but you get the picture. Yes, one day the trumpet will sound, and skies will split open, and Christ will return in triumph. Until then, He comes quietly, but He comes. Be ready when He does.

Mind the Gap

A few weeks ago, we told the story of Barnabas going to Tarsus to find Saul (who would later become Paul) and bring him back to Antioch to teach. We’re told that for a year Paul and Barnabas taught the new disciples in Antioch.

While telling this story, I mentioned that within this story is an important lesson for those of us who follow Christ. Let’s remember Paul’s story. In Acts 9, we have the conversion story of Paul. We have a few short stories of Paul preaching and then, in fear for his life, Paul disappears. In Galatians, Paul tells us that he spent some time in the Arabian deserts studying and trying to understand what the appearance of Jesus meant to him and his new calling in the world.

In the conversion story, Paul is called to be a missionary to the Gentiles. Paul, however, doesn’t begin that ministry until chapter 11. There was some length of time-probably a long length of time-between the calling of Paul and the beginning of his ministry. There was a gap. When Paul was called to the ministry, for whatever reason, he wasn’t yet ready to engage in that ministry.

There were some things Jesus still had to do in Paul’s life. Or, there were some things Christ still had to do in the world for Paul’s preaching to be most effective. So, Paul stayed in Tarsus.

A lot of us have found ourselves in similar situations. Some of us are there now. We’ve been called to a ministry or mission, but for some reason we’re having a difficult time engaging in that ministry. Most of the time, the gap between being called to the ministry and doing that ministry is a time of preparation. Sometimes, it’s a matter of Kingdom timing. We have to remember God is working on every side of the equation. Most of the time, however, time is needed to develop the skills, knowledge, and aptitudes to do the ministry and do it well.

So, if you find yourself in this situation, most likely there is still something that needs to be addressed in your life before the ministry begins. Do a little self-inventory. Is there some character issue that would limit your effectiveness? Is there a skill you need to develop further? Is there some area of knowledge you need to develop or expand?

The gap between being called to a ministry and engaging in that ministry is a gift. Jesus gives us the time we need to do our best for Him. Don’t waste it. Don’t rush through it. Get ready.

The time will come when you won’t have time to get ready. You’ll have to be ready.

Only a Handful of Things Really Matter

In my role as pastor, I have the privilege of walking with people during their last days. I say “privilege” because most of the time it is a profound privilege to share the journey with someone as they prepare to die. Sure, there is the usual grief, sadness, anger, and deep sense of loss. There is the frustration of having wasted so much time on things that don’t matter.

And then, if time allows, there’s a turning point. A moment when the person says, “OK, the cards have been dealt. I only have so much time. I’m not going to waste a minute of it.” This part of the journey is always surprising to me. Within a matter of minutes, the person will have whittled the focus of their lives down to a handful of things. “Here are the things that matter,” they will say, “and I’m not wasting my life doing anything else.”

And they don’t. They’ll stop watching TV to engage in conversations with friends. They’ll seek forgiveness and offer forgiveness. They don’t want anything blocking their joy in their last few days. They’ll talk more about joy and less about money. They’ll stop surfing the web and not be bothered if their emails pile up. They know what matters and that’s all they’re going to do.

The funny thing is, what matters then is the only thing that matters now. Yet, few of us have the courage to live focused only on those things that matter. We get distracted by the noise of the world. We get turned around in a culture that demands we keep up with everything everywhere. But in the end, none of that matters.

And there’s no pain like the pain of realizing you’ve wasted your life on things that don’t matter.

So, what would you change today if the doctor said you only had a year to live? Go ahead and change them now. Sooner or later, the doctor will tell you that, and you’ll save time by already having your list done.

A Lot of Little Steps

Most problems are difficult and complex. You can’t solve one problem without having to solve three others first. So it goes. We try to do one thing, and we end up trapped in a web of other problems that we didn’t even see at the outset of our efforts. Most of the time, we become overwhelmed by the complexities of the situation.

Think about it. Want to do something about education in our country? Where do you start? College? High school or middle school? Elementary school or kindergarten? Or do you start earlier with pre-K?

Or think about healthcare. There have been a lot of smart people trying to figure out that one for a long time. What makes us think we can do anything that’s really going to matter?

And I’ve just mentioned a couple obvious ones. I haven’t gotten to world hunger, world peace, the need for fresh water, epidemics and pandemics, economic inequality, immigration, racism, or violent crime. What’s wrong with our world is so overwhelming that most of us look at the challenges, give up, and do nothing.

The crime isn’t that we try and fail. The crime is most of us never try at all. Because we never try, nothing ever gets solved.

So, what are you supposed to do in those moments when you’re overwhelmed by the circumstances in front of you?

First, take a step back. Sometimes problems look bigger than they are because we’re standing too close to them. Give yourself a little space.

Second, say a prayer for courage, wisdom, and persistence. Sure, it’s going to be hard. If was easy, someone else would have already done it.

Third, pick a place and start. Big problems are nothing more than a lot of little problems all in the same place. Don’t try to solve everything all at once. Just do the next thing you know to do. Piece by piece, step by step, stay steady, and stay at it. You’ll be surprised at how much you actually get done by simply staying with the process. The longest journey is nothing more than a lot of little steps put one after the other.

Fourth, don’t give up. It took Edison several hundred tries to finally end up with the light bulb. One of the interesting things I’ve found out since moving to Nashville is how long it takes to become an overnight success.

Yep, life’s hard, and no, there are no guarantees you won’t fail.

But you’ll never know until you take the first step.