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.

 
If you have paid close attention to this blog throughout the year, you may have noticed that the tone of my writing has probably fluctuated with the ups and downs of my favorite sports teams.  When the University of Kentucky won a national title in basketball earlier this year, I’m sure my posts were all about singing praise, potluck dinners, and break dancing.  Then I got a little bored during the Olympics.

As the college football season has progressed, however, I seem to have gotten grouchy.  Kentucky has had a horrible season, there has never been any hope of improvement, and we finally saw the coach lose his job before the season ended.  It has been the most depressing season I can remember.

However, as Kentucky named a new coach this week that I am excited about, I find myself ready to write about happy things again.  And as I tried to find a way to relate my sports-related joy to my spiritual joy, I was hit right in the face by a Jesus Juke.  However, this one did not come from a fellow Christian, but from the Holy Spirit.

I actually heard the phrase in my head, “Why aren’t you as excited about your faith as you are about Mark Stoops?”  Ouch.  Apparently God didn’t watch the Western Kentucky game.

I completely understand that it is impossible to stay on fire for God 100% of the time.  There are distractions.  Times get tough.  We get tired.  Fortunately, I don’t think God expects us to be perky and jumping for joy all of the time.  In fact, I am pretty sure he encourages us to take some time to rest.  Didn’t He even do that Himself at some point?

However, the point from the Holy Spirit was well-received on my end.  I know that I need to make a better effort at being thankful, showing gratitude (yes, that’s different from being thankful), recognizing blessings, prioritizing my attention, and spending time thinking about who God is and what that means for my life.  If I am able to do more of those things, I am more likely to be filled with the joy of Christ the majority of the time.

Having said that, I think my lesson had everything to do with my focus on my faith and very little to do with my excitement about football.  In fact, I am convinced that God cares about sports.  He just wanted to make sure I had my priorities straight.  And with His grace, I’m getting there.

Do you ever have trouble prioritizing the excitement of your faith?  How are you able to consistently experience the joy of Christ? 

 
I have been really busy at work lately.  Like, super busy.  I normally come in early to do my daily reading and have some quiet prayer time.  Lately, I have started praying on my drive to work.  I’m trying to use my time wisely, and I figure prayer time is more important than rocking out to Todd Agnew…or is it?

Anyway, on a particularly busy day this week, I was wrapping up my prayer on the way into the parking lot.  While my normal routine would suggest that I would go straight into my office and read, I had a meeting across campus in just a few minutes and I had planned on going straight there.  So, in my prayer, as I was asking for God to speak to me through scripture, I remembered that I hadn’t planned on going to my office.  I thought to myself, “Well, I hope I can fit some reading time in at some point today.”

I literally laughed out loud at how ridiculous it sounded to suggest that I would have to “fit in” some time with God.  Shouldn't that be the first thing on my schedule?  Shouldn't that be my top priority?

As my job is to help college students find success, I often talk with them about scheduling and prioritizing.  I help them learn to take care of important, urgent matters before spending their time on the less important things.  Here is a common analogy used to help people understand prioritizing:

A physics teacher gave his students a wide-mouth mason jar. He then gave them five big rocks, a handful of marbles, a container of sand and a glass of water. He said, “You’ve got fifteen seconds to put all of these items in the jar."

The physics teacher then stepped back with stopwatch in hand and yelled, “Go!” The students poured in the sand, threw in the marbles and started stuffing the rocks in. After fifteen seconds he shouted, “Times up.” There still sitting on the table were three large rocks and the glass of water. The students started complaining, “It can’t be done. It’s impossible. All that stuff will not fit. The jar is too small.”

The teacher calmly said, “I can put them all in the jar.” The students responded, “Show us.” So they dumped everything back on the table – separated everything and started over. The teacher then took the jar and placed a couple of the big rocks in the jar. He filled in any gaps around the big rocks with the marbles and continued to fill the jar until it was up to the brim with all the big rocks and all the marbles. The teacher then took the sand and slowly poured it into the jar and watched as it cascaded around the rocks and the marbles – filling all the holes and spaces. He then took the glass of water and poured it into the jar. Everything fit perfectly. He then said, “It all fits – but it depends on the order that you put them in the jar – that is a matter of setting priorities. When you set priorities you can make it happen.
  (www.sermoncentral.com)

Yes, prioritizing is very important for being able to balance all of your responsibilities and obligations while in college.  However, it is even more important to make sure that your relationship with God is your top priority no matter what stage of life you find yourself in.  So using this analogy, what would your big rocks be?  Prayer, Bible reading, Christian fellowship, worship time, service?  Or do those things end up being your marbles that you "fit in" where you can?
 
I recently wrote that, as Christians, we have it backward.  While we are supposed to be loving non-believers to introduce them to Christ and holding other Christians accountable to Biblical standards, we often get mad at non-Christians for not acting like Jesus and we ignore each others’ struggles so our pride won’t take a hit.  It is pretty much the exact opposite of what Jesus and early Christians did and taught others to do.

Recently, one of my friends shared a video on Facebook that gave me even more perspective as to why we need to rectify our backward practices.  After we enter into a relationship with Christ, it can be very difficult for us to understand where non-believers are coming from.  Believing makes so much sense to us that we quickly forget what it is like not to believe.  Please take a moment and watch this video and think about how our ministry can be more focused on helping people reverse their thinking.

What is your immediate reaction to this video?  As the text is read the first time through, it was painful for me to hear how the narrator felt about God.  I was shocked at some of the conclusions he had come to.  However, the reality is that the majority of non-Christians feel exactly the same way. 

So what can we do about it?  How can we minister to these people in a way that would be genuine and effective?  How can we love them enough to change their minds?  How can we show them Christ in such a real way that they will reverse their way of thinking?

 
I don't like weddings.  My wife already knows about this, so there is no need for all of you to email this post to her.  I loved our wedding.  It was a very special day.  However, weddings in general…not a big fan.

To me, marriage is a spiritual event.  This post has nothing to do with the legal aspect of marriage.  Weddings represent two people becoming one in the eyes of God, and a covenant being made between the groom, the bride, and their Creator.  This is the beginning of a lifelong journey of joy, pain, trials, sorrow, and overwhelming happiness.  This is the beginning of that journey.  Not the end.  Not a step somewhere in the middle.

The divorce rate in our country is out of control.  Why?  I don’t have all the answers, but there is one factor, in particular, that I see as a major problem. 

People spend months and sometimes even years planning their wedding.  Some people dream about their wedding from the time they are children.  They plan out the location, the colors, the flowers, the food, the schedule, and organize dozens of loved ones that make it all happen.  But what is the one thing that most people forget to think about?  Yeah, you guessed it…the marriage.

I hear people all the time talking about how big your wedding day is.  I’ve even heard some say that it is the biggest day of your life.  Would you like me to tell you what day is more important than your wedding day?  Every day of marriage after that.  Every day that you are married and challenged to grow closer to God as a couple is more important than the day that you walk down the aisle.  Living out the covenant and vows that you make on your wedding day is much more righteous than just saying the words. 

I truly believe that if engaged couples would put as much time, effort, and focus on preparing for marriage as they do on the wedding itself, the divorce rate in America, especially among Christians, would see a large decline.  Putting the focus on God and taking the time to talk about the adjustments you will both have to make will prove to be much more valuable than spending hours upon hours arguing over the menu.

If you are married, I encourage you to share your wisdom with a young dating or engaged couple.  If you are engaged, I plead with you to find a good, Christian premarital counselor to help you prepare for how your lives are about to change.    If you are dating, or even if you are single, be preparing yourself to be the spouse that God wants you to be.  Focus on getting closer to Him, and He will lead you into a marriage that He has prepared and is ready to bless.

I love my wife.  Our wedding was great.  But thanks to God and the work we put into our relationship during our engagement, our marriage has been amazing.  

I really do hope that you enjoy(ed) your wedding.  But I pray that you get to experience the indescribable joy and peace that come with a God-centered marriage.

 
My son is completely obsessed with superheroes.  We can’t do anything without it turning into a crime-fighting adventure.  Going to water the plants?  We have to find the Joker hiding in the garage.  Headed to the grocery store?  We have to put the Riddler in jail before he steals everything.  I am actually pretty sure he thinks Mr. Freeze causes winter.

Batman, Robin, Superman, Spiderman, Hulk, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four.  They have become a part of my everyday life, and I could not be happier about it.  What better way to teach a child right from wrong than to encourage him to be a hero

At a recent visit to the park, my son was pretending to be Robin chasing the Joker all over the place.  At one point, he took a leap off of a structure that was a little too high for him to be jumping off of.  Luckily, he was okay.  But I felt the need to say, “That was a pretty big jump.  Be careful.”  His reply was absolutely perfect.  Without missing a beat, and with great humility, he said, “That’s what superheroes do” and resumed his pursuit.

In his mind, he was doing a job and anything that came with it should be expected.  There was no need to draw attention to or acknowledge anything that fell in line with his Boy Wonder job description.  He was focused on a mission, and that was all that mattered.

Why aren’t Christians like that?  I know some are.  I have seen them.  But those folks are rare.  In general, Christians are not very gung-ho about keeping their heads down, using their gifts for God, and actively sacrificing their own desires without seeking some sort of recognition.  Especially in America, we want to be recognized for our hard work, our talents, and our sacrifices.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 19:9-14 NIV)

Often times, we won’t even do the work unless we know there is something in it for us.  Why have we let ourselves become so worldly that recognition has become such a powerful motivator within the Church?  Like my son, we should be ready to shrug off unnecessary praise and say, "That's what Christians do" and get back to work.  Not only is humility the right thing to do, but it is part of the job description. 

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:6 NIV)

Being a Christian is full of expectations.  We are supposed to give up all of our self desires and spend all of our time doing whatever God wants.  We are supposed to give without judging, seek justice without fear, love the unlovable, and be willing to sacrifice everything.  On top of that, we should do so while expecting zero recognition or praise.  Wow…that seems like a lot to ask of an adult with so many other responsibilities.

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4 NIV)

I think I will go play superheroes with my son now.  Perhaps he has a few more things to teach me.
 
Have you ever been wrong?  Not me.  I thought I was once, but I was mistaken.

It’s true that we always want to be right.  But we can’t always be.  And that really should not be a problem for anybody, unless you plan to interact with other people from time to time.  That could get a little frustrating.

We have to interact with people every day.  That is unless you are “middle school Jamie” sitting in your bedroom learning how to hack your neighbor’s computers using a dial up connection and chugging a 2-liter of Squirt.  Otherwise, you are probably forced to talk to, and maybe even work toward a common goal with, other people every day.

Well, at least this is a simple task at church since we all share the same common goals.  Wait…what’s that?  Church business isn’t simple?  Ministry projects don’t plan themselves?  People have different ideas about how to deliver the gospel?  Yeah, right.  Am I supposed to believe that there are Bible versions other than the King James, too?

Any time you get people together, there are sure to be several different opinions.  That can be a problem if you are trying to finalize details of a project, set a balanced budget, or even decide on the start time of a potluck.  For the record, they should always start at 5 p.m.  That leaves room to eat the meal, have dessert, and get hungry enough for leftovers before bedtime.

But it is of the utmost importance that we all work to get on the same page.  We need to be reading scripture, talking to one another, and spending time in prayer asking that the Holy Spirit lead us all in the same direction.

In the book of Acts, it is reiterated over and over that the early church was on the same page.  In fact, the author makes this point clear by saying that they were all on “one accord” no less than ten times.  That phrase, “one accord,” seems to come up almost every time that the apostles and their followers are about to see an increase in numbers.  The author attributes a large part of their success in spreading the gospel to the fact that they were all on the same page. 

If we can get an entire group of Christians moving in the same direction, without even so much as an unspoken objection, we will accomplish great things.  Unfortunately, between our “me generation” mentality and our mega-churches, it would seem like a miracle to get everyone on one accord. 

In order for us to get on the same page, we all need to take a step back from our own feelings, opinions, and even our own logical judgment to listen to the Holy Spirit.  If we start getting our minds, our hearts, and especially our wallets involved, we immediately compromise the ability of our group of believers to follow the will of Christ.

We need to spend time in the Bible daily so we can better understand what ministry is all about.  We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us all in the same direction.  We also need to pray that we will be able to leave our biases out of the equation.

Pray.  Read.  Pray.  Plan.  Pray.  In that order.  That’s our best chance at getting on one accord with one another.

Have you ever been completely in tune with a group of believers when spreading the gospel?  How do you think that impacted your ministry?

 
I really like to be right.  Like, a lot.  In fact, if I think a debate or disagreement is possible, I will rehearse both sides beforehand to make sure I can win.  And if I end up losing anyway, I will usually just agree to disagree and get out of there as soon as I can.  It is pretty unhealthy, actually.  But hey, I’m awesome.  So there’s that.

I think most of us hate to be wrong.  Sometimes it’s about pride.  Sometimes it’s about principal.  But it is always about not having to admit you were wrong all along.  Admitting you are wrong is one of the hardest and most humbling things you can do.

As Christians, we have to believe we are right.  If we did not think we were right about Jesus, we would not be Christians, after all.  Our experience with Jesus Christ is something we should never waiver on, as it is the basis of who we are.  But sometimes I believe that our feeling of “being right” turns into a need to be right that can become a real problem for us.

Debating sports or politics or Pinterest recipes is one thing.  It is much easier (although not always easy) to admit you are wrong about these things.  But when we are debating serious, personal issues, we always need to know that we can validate our own thoughts and feelings.  We need to know that we are right so we can justify continuing to believe the way we do.

Being confident to the point of conceit can be detrimental to your ability to share the love of Christ.  If you refuse to admit that you are wrong, or that it is even a possibility, you instantly build a wall between yourself and anyone in earshot.  That wall can prevent them from being open to your testimony, from being willing to share their story with you, and from seeing who Jesus Christ really is in you.

If you are wrong, admit it.  If you are right, be humble and allow some room for the other person to be right as well.  Your pride and your ego are not worth even the possibility of hurting your ability to witness. 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:3-4 NIV)

 
If you wear glasses or contacts, do you remember the car ride home from the eye doctor with your new glasses on? Do you remember looking around and seeing things you had never noticed before? The thing I remember most is being able to see the leaves on the trees.

Of course you notice trees as you drive by them. But when you put on new glasses or you put in new contact lenses, you can see the individual leaves on the trees. They are no longer green blobs, but rather beautiful creations with very intricate details down to the dozens of leaves on each branch.

As we go through life, we all too often see the “green blob” version of the world around us. We see our jobs as merely something we have to do, so we just go through the motions. We see issues in our community as something somebody else should take care of, so we go on about handling our own business. We look at our relationships as if they exist only to make us happy, so we don't take the time to look for ways to serve those we claim to love.

In order for us to see the world as God intended, we need to put all of these things from His perspective. While it is impossible for us to see with God’s eyes, He has provided a lens that will help us to view the world in such a way that He can use us to change it. That lens is the Word, the good ole B-i-b-l-e. 

We are in the world to do His work, and in order to effectively do that we must understand what we are looking at and be able to see it clearly.

Spend time in the Bible. Read it, pray about it, and read it again. It is the only way to truly appreciate the beautiful leaves on the trees of God’s creation.