Let’s play a little word association, shall we?  What’s the first thing that you think of when you think of Jonah?  If you didn’t say a whale, you are probably lying.

That’s what the story is all about, right?  Well…not really.  The story is about obedience (or the lack thereof).  It is about a man that refuses to obey God, and how God deals with Him.  It’s about redemption.  It is about mercy, compassion, and unfailing love. 

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them that they will be destroyed because of their wickedness.  Jonah runs the other way and hitches a ride on a boat.  There is a big storm, the others on the boat figure out that the storm is God trying to get Jonah, and they throw him overboard.  That is when the big fish is finally mentioned.  After Jonah prays a prayer of repentance, the fish spits him out and Jonah goes to Nineveh.

When the people there hear the message from God, they change their ways and God changes His mind.  Jonah gets mad cause he says he knew God would do this.  God then provides an example for Jonah to see how hard it must be for God to wipe out so many people out.

Isn’t that awesome?  The story of Jonah is so deep, and it shows us so much about the character of God.  We see God condemn, forgive, redeem, and work miracles.  Yet, we always talk about the whale.  The fish, however, is but a small detail.

How often do we do this in our own lives?  God provides for us in a mighty way, but we keep looking for “what’s next”.  God helps us through a hurtful time, but we focus on the pain.  God offers forgiveness and redemption, but we focus on our mistakes.

God is awesome.  And if He is going to intervene and display His awesomeness in our lives, then the least we can do is marvel at His splendor.  Yes, the details are important because He is in them.  However, let’s try to keep our focus on His presence and not on our selfish interests.

So [Jonah] complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.  Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”

The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?”  (Jonah 4:2-4 NLT)

 
We had our Christmas play/drama/production/whateveryoucallit this past weekend at our church.  We had a couple of performances and they were both well attended and well received.  I had a small role, on stage for 5-7 minutes with as many lines.  It was good times.

However, I was added to the cast fairly late and I was unable to attend a rehearsal with the entire group.  My only practice for the play was within my scene with the 2-3 other people that had speaking roles in that part of the script.  As far as my performance goes, it wasn’t a big deal.  I was prepared to act out my part and get out of the way.

Yet, I can’t help but to be curious as to what I missed.  Because I had to be backstage, which in my church is outside of the room, I have no idea what took place for the rest of the play.  I got the gist of some of it just by seeing others' costumes I suppose.  However, I feel that the details I missed were important and could help my understanding of the plot.  I would really like to know what happened when I was backstage.  I wish I had a better idea of the big picture.

That last sentence sounds pretty familiar.  There are so many times in life when I wish I could see the big picture.  I’ve seen things happen and wondered how in the world God would turn that situation around.  I’ve had experiences that I was positive could never bring me closer to my Creator.  Of course I was wrong, that’s not new.  But His love, grace, and ability to bring something out of nothing never cease to amaze me.

The point that I am trying to struggle through my rambling to get to is that God will handle His part.  We must trust that.  I know we want to know everything.  We want to see the blueprint of our lives so we can prepare ourselves for the struggles and pace ourselves for the celebrations. 

But the truth is that life should be handled just like my role in the play.  Keep your head down.  Do your part.  Don’t worry about all of the other details.  Would my lines have been executed as well if I spent more time watching others rehearse?  Would my blocking have been as crisp if I was wishing I had another part? 

Likewise, I am sure that my role in the body of Christ would be compromised if I was able to see the Master’s plan.  God is the only one that can see the big picture, and I am convinced that it is better that way. 

Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I'm not Him. - Father Cavanaugh from the film Rudy.

 
As a parent, I am always looking for advice about how to raise my children to be Godly adults.  I want them to know that God loves them, to know that I love them, and to know right from wrong.  My goal is to raise children that would be the best friend a person could ask for.  But to be honest, some days I am just hoping that I don’t cause them to become serial killers.

As it should be, one of my primary sources of advice is the Bible.  So many lessons about how to treat people, how to react to adversity, and how to experience God.  Most of these lessons can be translated to parenthood as we try to make these stories and principals relatable to children.  But it is rare to find an example of quality parenting that can be put straight into practice.  I was fortunate enough to stumble upon one of those passages earlier this week.

Speaking to his son, Solomon, David was giving instructions for building the temple.  He gave a list of building specifics, went over blueprints, and let Solomon know that this was all straight from God.

Then David continued, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Don’t be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. (1 Chronicles 28:20a NLT)

I have always been inspired by the way the Old Testament refers to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.  They talk about the God of their fathers.  That makes God personal and less like a distant deity.  And I think David does a great job making God a reality to Solomon.  He says that God is the Lord, but he is also my God.  That’s real.

Speaking from his personal relationship with God, David talks with authority about who God is.  He will not fail you or forsake you.  There is no reason for Solomon to be afraid or even nervous.  David is so convincing about who God is that his other advice about constructing the temple, and life in general, is flawless.  Be strong and courageous, and do the work.  Don’t be afraid or discouraged. 

If I can convince my children that my God is who I believe that He is, the rest of my advice should take care of itself.  However, like David, words alone will not be enough to convince anyone that my God is real.  I must have faith as he did when facing Goliath.  I must trust God as he did when preparing for kingship while surviving Saul’s reign.  I must work hard as he did to expand and secure his kingdom.  And I must obey God as David did by waiting to pass the temple project over to his son.

I may not have a temple for my children to build, but I have a God that I can’t wait for them to meet.  In the last piece of advice he gave to his own son, David gives instructions for how I can show them how great my God is:

“I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, act like a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires: Walk in obedience to him, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and regulations, as written in the Law of Moses. Do this so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go…” (1 Kings 2:2-3 NIV)

 
My friend and I co-teach the middle school Sunday school class at our church.  Recently, we led our students through a study of the movie Facing the Giants.  Since many of our students hadn’t seen the movie, it was a good experience as there are so many lessons to draw from the film.  It seemed like we were pausing the movie every few minutes to talk about some insightful spiritual wisdom covered in the plot.

However, there was one story that we overlooked that I would like to revisit here.  When Coach Taylor is preparing his defense, he talks about the story of rebuilding the city wall from the book of Nehemiah.  He tells his players that, like Nehemiah, they should all build a stone wall in front of their own areas and ultimately that will create a great wall that will hold up against enemies…or the west coach offense.

It was more of a passing comment in the movie that that scene seemed to be more about football than their spiritual lives.  But it worked that way.  Each player took care of his own responsibility.  He did what he was supposed to do individually, and it made them successful as a team.

That’s a great lesson for life.  Each of us has our own responsibilities, our own tasks that are set before us.  And if everyone held up their end, the world would be a much better place.  It would be a great place where crime would be minimal and fluff pieces would dominate the news.  Unicorns would still exist and I could get unlimited, free steak from the guy in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

That world does not exist.  Because sin is a real thing, we cannot count on ourselves, let alone other people, to live out Godly lives.  Handling your own “to-do” list is not what this story is about.  Nehemiah leading the people to rebuild the wall is about doing what is necessary to be obedient.

Doing what is necessary goes above and beyond handling your own business.  I, myself, have often been guilty of saying, “That’s not my problem,” “That’s not my job,” or “That’s none of my business.”  That is a lie.

I am not talking about arrogantly inserting yourself into other peoples’ lives.  I am not talking about interfering in situations where you are not welcome.  However, any time you see a need or witness injustice, that situation instantly becomes “your problem/issue/job/business.”  It is your job to seek righteousness in all things for the glory of God, and passively observing others peoples’ unfortunate circumstances is anything but righteous.

Yes, take care of building the wall in front of your own home.  But if you see your neighbor struggling with his wall, it is 100% your responsibility to lend a hand.  So we all need to stop using excuses and trying to mind our own business.  That is definitely not what Nehemiah was all about.

Unless you are playing football.  In that case, listen to the coach.

 
I love The Family Feud.  It is one of my all-time favorite game shows.  More recently, it has become one of my favorite iPhone games.  I just love the fact that contestants are not looking for any sort of correct answer, but they are trying to guess what the majority of their peers said in a poll.  It is a great commentary on what we value and believe as a country, but also a great indicator of what we think of our fellow Americans.

What makes the show so entertaining (besides the over-the-top hosts) is the fact that contestants are completely guessing.  You can see their internal struggle between how they would answer the poll question and how they believe others would answer.  They come up with some of the most random guesses you could imagine, and they are a ton of fun to laugh at.

One of the things I appreciate most about my faith is the fact that I never have to guess with God.  I have His book that shows me who He is and what He expects from me.  The Holy Spirit lives inside of me and guides me every day.  I have a great church family and a wonderful group of Christian friends that give me further insight into the character of God.  In most situations, the answer I am looking for is right in front of me.

However, I often allow myself to ignore the obvious.  I let my emotions and the things our culture has told me are acceptable to cloud my vision.  Especially when loved ones are involved, it often becomes difficult for me to act and react in a Godly way due to the confusion of the flesh.  Knowing this, I always try to dive into prayer and consult Christian mentors before making any large decisions.

Recently, I was struggling a great deal with an issue.  As it turns out, there has never been a more obvious answer.  I was seeking God and praying so hard that He would lead me to make a Godly decision.  All of a sudden, the Holy Spirit told me how simple my solution was.

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:8 NLT)

In whatever decision I am trying to make or any other situation that arises, if I am seeking a Godly direction, then the answer is always, undeniably, love.  Yes, love takes different forms.  Sometimes love is tough, sometimes it is gentle, and sometimes it is many other things.  But love is always active, it is always righteous, and it is always the Godly thing to do.

If our one true God was asked the one thing that His people should always do, the survey says…love.  Every.  Single.  Time.

Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

 
We live in a very lukewarm society.  We refuse to think of anything in absolutes, and we promote doing whatever makes you happy as long as it doesn’t impose on anyone else’s happiness.  It’s a very odd society to be living in, actually. 

Due to the “whatever, whenever” attitude of many Americans, we have developed the philosophy of thinking that anything is good in moderation.  As long as we don’t overindulge in a behavior, it’s not the end of the world.  If we only have a little bit, what’s the big deal?

To be perfectly honest, for a lot of things, there is no big deal.  For example, I have no moral or spiritual objection to the responsible consumption of alcohol.  As long as a person is of legal age and drinks in cautious moderation, I can find no fault in that.  But try telling that to an alcoholic.

Is there anything wrong with have the occasional Big Mac value meal at McDonald’s?  I certainly don’t think so.  But ask a person that is desperately trying to stop eating themselves to death and see if they would have a problem with it.

The key to using this moderation principle is knowing your limits.  And the most important limits for you to know are the ones where the limit is zero.  There are some things that are impossible for some people to do in moderation.  And unless we are willing to cut those activities off completely, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell… (Mark 9:43-47 NIV)

Many people will say that this statement by Jesus is metaphorical for how you should eliminate sin from your life.  I, personally, believe He meant it.  I think that, if there is no other way around it, and if your hand or foot or eye makes it impossible for you to stop sinning, then you should eliminate the root of the problem.  (Note:  I probably lost half of my readership.  I’ll miss both of you.)

Similarly, if we know we have a problem when we go to a certain place or partake in a specific activity, we need to eliminate that aspect of our lives completely.  Moderation does not work in every situation, and we have to know that there are some things that we simply cannot participate in, no matter how much society or our “friends” tell us that just a little bit is okay. 

They say to experience everything in moderation.  I think it’s a better practice to experience all things in Christ, and let Him determine when and how moderation is appropriate for us.  Unlike this twisted world we live in, He will never lead us astray.

 
My wife and I have been married for just over six years.  To some of you, that may seem like forever.  To others, it’s just a drop in the bucket.  To us, I think it is a little bit of both. 

Regardless, we are still learning a lot about each other.  It may sound weird, but after six years we are still getting to know each other quite a bit.  One thing that I have noticed recently is how differently we interpret things.  We can have a conversation with each other and come away with two completely different conclusions.  Or we can hear somebody else say the exact same thing and come away with our own individual interpretations.

I think that is similar to the way that we all hear from God in different ways.  We know that He is speaking to us.  We know that the Holy Spirit was sent to guide us.  Yet, it seems like we all hear from Him in our own special ways.

A friend of mine often tells a story about his decision to leave a particular job.  He and a friend of his were praying about that same thing at the same time.  After several days of prayer, reading, and meditation, they had lunch and discussed their final conclusions. 

My friend announced that he felt God leading him to move on to something else.  Each time he prayed, he felt the Holy Spirit leading him to leave his job.  His friend said that he had decided to stay in his job.  After hours and hours of praying with no leading whatsoever, he heard an audible voice say,”Stay.”

My friend was amazing and in awe.  God has spoken to his friend audibly, and he thought that was incredible.  He told his friend that he was jealous.  His friend’s reaction surprised him.  As he turns out, he was also jealous.  Yes, he had heard an audible voice.  But he never felt lead by the Holy Spirit.  He felt completely in the dark and he was in a very confused place for a long time.  To him, being able to feel the presence of God leading in a specific direction was preferable to waiting days and days to hear one word.

I guess that is one of those “the grass is always greener” scenarios.  However, it taught me a very important lesson about how God talks to us.  For some, including me, the Holy Spirit leads through a feeling within your soul and will not let you rest until you respond.  Others hear from God through dreams or visions.  Some are granted wisdom that comes from above.  There are people that feel the only way they can see God’s direction for them is in the Bible.  And, like the other guy in my friend’s story, God literally talks to some people.

How does God speak to you?  Is it primarily through one method or does He use a variety of ways?

 
As I’ve mentioned before, my son is obsessed with superheroes.  We spend about 10 hours per day watching them on TV, playing with action figures, or role playing and pretending to catch bad guys.  We have even gotten to the point that the 1960’s Batman series is a regular recording on our DVR.  While I really enjoy making fun of how corny and ridiculous the show is, I am often caught off guard by the unintentional wisdom.

On a recent episode, Commissioner Gordon picked up the red Batphone and called Batman up due to an emergency in Gotham.  While this is a regular occurrence in almost every episode, it is kind of a big deal.  Batman is often the last resort for the police.  He is the big gun that only comes out to battle super villains.  In many ways, Batman is the savior of Gotham City.

Because the Caped Crusader is so important to the city, I was pretty surprised by Commissioner Gordon’s reaction when Alfred answered the phone and said, “I’ll get him, sir.”  (Note:  Why does Alfred answer the phone?  Is it not weird to Commissioner Gordon that Batman has a butler?)  Gordon’s response is full of surprise and excitement as he announces to the officer in the room, “Oh good, he’s home.”

Really?!  Batman is so vital to the survival of Gotham’s citizens, he is the Dark Knight that always comes to save the day, and Gordon is surprised that he is available?  When he said his line, I literally laughed out loud.  I thought about how comical the entire scenario was, especially Robin’s tights.

Then I started to think about how we communicate with our Savior.  I recently wrote about how we should not be disappointed by unanswered prayers.  Yet, I also believe that we often go too far the other way.  We try to avoid disappointment by setting our expectations low, then we can’t get upset if God says, “No” because we never really expected Him to say, ”Yes.” 

It’s like when He does answer, we are surprised.  Like Commissioner Gordon, we excitedly say, “Oh good, He is there after all.”  And sadly, I often find myself to be guilty of this. 

Early this week, I went to visit my grandmother in the hospital.  She had been there for almost a week struggling with a kidney stone that was so big there was no way she could pass it.  The doctors were exploring other options, and taking their time doing so, while she sat there in pain.

Toward the end of my visit, I prayed with her.  I asked God for healing and comfort, that He would remedy the situation and allow her to feel better.  I left the hospital, drove home, and went about my routine waiting for my mother to call with the doctors’ decision about what to do.

The next day, I found out that she had passed the kidney stone that seemed impossible to pass.  She went through a great deal of pain, but the process was much better for her than any procedure they may have been planning.  Apparently, she started to feel the pain as soon as I walked out of her room.  Hours later, she passed the stone and has felt much better ever since. 

When I called on God that day, I’m not sure I really expected Him to answer.  When I heard the good news the next day, I was thrilled and immediately praised His name.  Then I felt ashamed because I was so surprised by the outcome.

While I am sure I am not the only person this has ever happened to, I feel it is important to share my story in hopes that maybe you will not make the same mistake.  If you pick up that red phone and dial up your Savior, expect Him to answer and expect Him to act quickly.  He is awesome, and we should never be surprised by His love.

 
I often hear people say that we try to put God in a box.  That is, of course, what smart folks call a metaphor.  By putting God in a box, they mean that we try to fully define God in a few simple ways that make His character easy to understand.  Sometimes, people even put God in a box so that they can justify their own sinful behavior.  Either way, doing so limits His power, His love, and ultimately creates a barrier in our relationships with Him.

So that’s definitely a bad thing, right?  Yeah?  Good, we are on the same page.

Recently I heard the concept of putting God in a box in a different context, one that is more about containing God.  Many Christians try to keep God, and even their own Christianity, at church.  They don’t take God to work.  They don’t take God to the movies.  And even more unfortunately, some of them don’t take God home.

Yeah, we know God is everywhere.  But do we always act like it?  I always get frustrated when people say, “Oh, you can’t say that at church” or “I wouldn’t do that at church.”  If you are truly being the same person all of the time, then you should include church in that.  Does that mean you should take all of your bad habits to church?  No, that means you should take God home with you and let Him help you get rid of those habits.

Another element of leaving God at church is that we do not treat others as He has commanded us.  We don’t love them as if Jesus is watching, we don’t meet their needs like we are supposed to, and we don’t even tell them about our relationship with God which is the last thing Jesus told us to do.  Nah, that’s for church and church-sponsored ministry activities.

I also hear people containing God by directly underestimating His power.  We refrain from stepping out in faith because we don’t have a plan.  We avoid moving forward with projects because we believe we don’t have the resources.  We have even coined the phrase, “all we can do now is pray” because we are to untrusting to let prayer be our first option.

I realize that we do not have the ability to contain God.  However, we do have enough free will to keep ourselves from being used by Him.  We need to get out of the way and let God do His work.  But in order to be a part of that, we have to be all-in and let God direct who we are all of the time, not just at church. 

Come on, what do you say we let God out of the box?  I’d be willing to bet that something amazing would happen.

 
Being a Christian is hard.  There is no doubt about that.  However, different aspects of walking with Christ seem to challenge individual Christians on different levels.  Some folks have specific sins that they struggle with.  Others have real trouble staying disciplined in their quiet time.  Still some find it difficult just to make it to church every week.  There is one issue, however, I feel led to discuss in detail:  why is it so difficult to drive like a Christian?

When I got my first car after college, somebody gave me a magnetic cross to stick on the back.  As that was a period of great spiritual growth in my life, I was more than happy to slap it on there and represent Christ with my ride.  When a friend of mine noticed my new car art, he made a comment that I will never forget.  He said, “I would love to put something like that on my car.  But if I did, I would have to drive like a Christian.” 

Since he told me that, I have spoken to many other Christians that feel the same way.  Since I have struggled similarly in the past, I can definitely empathize.  That is why I have decided to write this guide to walking the narrow path while driving on the open highway.  Hopefully this short list of driving tips will help you be more like Christ on your next journey.

1.  Crank the music – This may seem contradictory to what you would think, but hear me out.  I know loud music usually gets your adrenaline cranking, but if you are rocking out to Christian music, the benefits far outweigh the risks.  First of all, few things can get your soul in a holy place like listening to your favorite praise and worship tunes.  And if your soul is in the right place, it is much easier to imitate Christ.

Secondly, one of the primary triggers of my own road rage comes from people honking and yelling at me.  If they are drowned out by Todd Agnew blaring from my stereo, then I will be none the wiser.  (Note:  I realize it is dangerous to drive with your music too loud.  That is a risk I am willing to take, but I urge you to do so with caution.)

2.  Practice being selfless – How can you be selfless while driving?  It’s very simple.  It’s call right-of-way.  The best way for you to rid yourself of selfish driving habits is to regularly give up your right-of-way.  You get to the four-way stop first?  Let the other car go anyway.  You turning right while they are turning left?  Give them the friendly wave of driving approval and let them be on their way.  If you make this a regular practice, it will be much easier to contain your fury when it happens on the fly.  I do not believe that practice will make you perfect, but it will definitely make you better.

3.  Remember God’s love – I know God loves me.  I can feel it.  He shows me His love often.  However, I have trouble remembering that He loves everyone else, too.  That is especially true when somebody is doing something stupid that has a negative impact on me.  So whenever somebody runs the stop sign by my house and cuts me off, I often have to say out loud, “God loves that person.”  If I say that, and actually take the time to process it, I find it easier to keep my road rage at bay…most of the time.

4. Obey the law – I know this may sound absurd, but you should obey standard traffic laws.  Come to a complete stop at stop signs and lights.  At least consider driving somewhere in the neighborhood of the speed limit.  Your vehicle has turn signals for a reason, so you should use them every now and then. 

Believe it or not, I am fairly certain that Jesus would do these things if He ever got behind the wheel.  And if you are trying to be like Him, you should probably start working on those rolling stops.  (Note:  I'm also fairly certain that Jesus would drive a Chevrolet.  So...there's that.)

5.  Athletic tape – Whether people choose to follow tip number one or not, I think it is safe to assume that people in cars cannot hear each other clearly, even in a shouting match.  Perhaps that is why many people choose to express their frustration with a simple hand gesture…a California Howdy as we call it where I’m from.  So how do you keep yourself from using this classic piece of sign language?  The answer is very simple: tape your fingers together.

If your index finger is taped to your middle finger, any attempt to flip somebody off would result in what would appear to be a lazy attempt to wish them peace in their journey.  It would be impossible not to laugh at yourself if you went to throw up the finger and inadvertently gave a Boy Scout salute.  And you know what they say, “laughter is the best medicine.”  Well, that and Pepto-Bismol.  I don't know what I would do without that stuff.

6.  Pray – I know it may feel silly, but if you spend some time in prayer before you head out into a congested area, it will be easier to keep your cool.  Asking God to help you be patient (which is different than actually asking for patience) before you go out into a high traffic area that you know will be frustrating will help more than you can imagine.  God wants us to ask Him for things, and I know that there are many things we want more than being able to curb our road rage.  But if this is really something you struggle with, you may want to move it up to the top of your prayer list.  (Note:  If you choose to pray while driving, please keep your eyes open.  It’s okay…I promise.)

Being 100% serious, I honestly believe that driving with a Christian attitude can go a long way toward showing others the love of Christ.  If you are afraid of contradicting a Christian vehicle magnet with your actions behind the wheel, you may want to consider changing your driving habits instead of re-gifting the magnet. 

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2 NIV)