How God Gives Surprise Gifts

By Kevin Howell

photo by Shereen M via compfight creative commons

photo by Shereen M via compfight creative commons

There’s nothing like Christmas time. It’s truly the biggest spectacle in our society. As much as I like the commercialism of it, I stay balanced by reflecting of the story of the birth of Christ in Luke. It’s one of the most dramatic, miraculous accounts in history. And though Jesus is the center of the story, there are so many other characters that teach us inspiring lessons just in the first two chapters of the book.

Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, for example. He and his wife Elizabeth were quite old at the time, and they couldn’t have children. We are told this couple lived honorably before God, kept the commandments, and “enjoyed a clear conscience before God.” They were faithful, devout Jews.

It’s interesting that despite the couple being devout and pleasing to God, they still couldn’t have children. One of their desires remained unfulfilled. There have been times when I felt like I was doing the right things, pleasing God, serving, yet stuff was missing in my life. What I was believing for, what I felt I should have had, I lacked. Does it make sense? No. That’s where Zachariah and Elizabeth were.

Yet, despite the fact the time for bearing children had passed in their lives, they weren’t bitter. They still lived honorably before God. And Zachariah went about his business, serving God.

Zachariah was a priest, and one day he was going about his regular priestly duties when an angel appeared to him, scared the crap out of him, then said:

“Don’t freak out bro. Your prayer has been heard. Your wife is going to have a son by you (which must’ve been a relief, because no man wants to hear his wife will have a son from some other dude), and you’ll name him John. He’s going to be awesome. He’ll be filled with the Spirit and he’ll turn people of Israel back to God and prepare the messiah’s arrival.” Luke 1:13-17 (NKV – New Kevin Version).

Zachariah, still clearly freaked out by all of this, didn’t believe it because he and Elizabeth were too old. Because he doubted, the angel said Zachariah wouldn’t be able to speak (became mute) until his son was born. (Read Luke 1 for all the details).

The day Zachariah went to the Temple was just another day at work. He wasn’t expecting an angel to show up, that’s why he was freaked out. And he sure as heck wasn’t expecting to hear what he heard, that’s why he doubted.

I believe God operates the same way in our lives. I’m not saying you will be visited by an angel (and honestly, I don’t know if I could handle that), but as you are going about your normal business, staying faithful and doing the mundane things, God will surprise you.

He’ll surprise you because He loves you. He’ll surprise you because He’s never forgotten about you. As with Zachariah, He’s heard your prayer. Even if it was months ago…even if it was years ago….even if you feel your time has passed.

It’s clear Zachariah’s faith wavered. He was old; he didn’t think being a father was possible any longer. Chances are, if you’ve been waiting on a prayer to be answered for a while, your faith has wavered too. But God’s faithfulness isn’t based on our faith. He’s faithful, plain and simple, in spite of us.

At the time of the first Christmas, Israel was going about its normal business, not expecting the messiah to arrive. But God was faithful to His promise, and the Lord arrived. This Christmas, even if you’ve forgotten about a dream, or if you feel forgotten, God hasn’t forgotten. He’s bound to surprise you, just like Zachariah.

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Why Hearing from God isn’t Hard

By Kevin Howell

photo by rogiro courtesy of creative commons

photo by rogiro courtesy of creative commons

So I was reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula one night in college and God spoke to me. That’s right, God spoke to me while reading Dracula, that dark novel that we can blame for bringing us Twilight and True Blood. Undergrad was a while ago, so I can’t quite remember what He said, but I remember how my spiritual perspective was shook. I figured God would speak to me in church. I figured God would speak to me while I was reading the Bible, or praying, or worshiping, not reading vampire tales.

But that’s what He did. And it was exactly what I needed to hear, I recall. In fact, when I think back on some of the most poignant times in hearing from God on my journey, very few of them occurred in church. It was in my bedroom, taking a shower, driving in the car, or at the gym.

I think God does this purposely. Of course He can and does speak to us in what we consider more “spiritual” environments, but He will choose to interject when we aren’t paying attention to Him. When we’re doing mundane things. When we’re not actually “seeking Him.”

God doesn’t need certain circumstances to be present, He’s all places, at all times, filling everything. Yes, He rewards those who diligently seek Him, and He is pleased to abide in places where He is reverenced, but He is not limited in any way.

Because of His limitless nature and His desire to communicate with us, He’s willing to speak to us even when and where we least expect it. He knows when our hearts are open, when our souls are ripe to hear what He has to say.

I’ve heard ministers say God is always speaking to us; we’re just not listening often. That may be true, but I think it adds to the unnecessary mystique of God’s voice, like it’s some mystical thing difficult to decipher. I’ve known many people, including myself, who have struggled to hear from God. We want direction, we want general communication, we want to be sure it’s God speaking and not just our own voice.

But in the Bible, when God communicates with His people, it’s pretty clear. There’s little mystery to it. Plain and simple, people knew when God spoke. So why do we make it so cryptic? Why do we think it’s so difficult to decipher? Why do we feel we need to pray for hours and fast for days just to hear from God when none of the patriarchs or disciples had to?

We don’t.

God wants us to hear from Him. And if He wants us to hear from Him — whether it’s for direction, correction, or encouragement — then He wouldn’t make it difficult to discern. We make it difficult to discern.

If I want to tell a friend something important or share an experience with him, I don’t leave him an anonymous letter, an ambiguous voicemail, or send smoke signals. I don’t disguise my voice to leave him guessing. I communicate clearly. So why would God, our loving Father, do it differently?

We have it easier than any other generation when it comes to discerning God’s voice. We have His Word, compiled in a 66-book canon, in multiple translations. His will, His voice is in plain black print (or on your mobile device) and accessible (well, for most of the world). He speaks through His Word.

In addition to His Word, He will speak to our spirits, because we share the same Spirit with Him. And it will be clear. We won’t need a decoder ring or a priest to figure it out. If we’re not hearing anything from Him, it doesn’t mean we’re not listening. Iit probably just means He’s spoken enough, and He wants us walk by faith. He knows how to reach us if we get off track.

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Faith that Questions

By Kevin HowellFaith that Questions

One of the things I appreciate most about the Bible — aside from it laying out the plan for our salvation and teaching us on the character of God — is that it keeps it real. The writers didn’t sugarcoat anything, placate potential readers, or cover up the misgivings of prophets, priests, patriarchs, or apostles.

Everybody’s business— good and bad— is put out there for the world to read about. (I’m sure King David is in Heaven shaking his head saying, “Really, You had to mention all that?”) It accurately illustrates the character of individuals.

I love reading the Gospels as Jesus walks with His disciples. The humanity, personality, honesty, selfishness, pride, and posturing of these individuals is strangely refreshing and reassuring. I think most of us can identify with one or two of the 12. I’ve always been intrigued by Thomas. Throughout church history he’s been known as “Doubting Thomas,” somewhat of a negative caricature, but I don’t see it as a bad thing. Thomas was honest. Thomas was real. Thomas was unafraid. He spoke his mind while others kept silent. His views represent the skeptic and realist in all of us.

One of my favorite exchanges is in John 14, when Jesus is finishing up another one of His riddles and says to the disciples: “You know the way to the place where I am going.”

I imagine everyone is looking at Him intently, like “Man, that’s deep.” They were probably nodding their heads in acknowledgement, sort of how we all do when someone is saying something we truly don’t understand, but instead of feeling foolish and asking them to clarify, we just nod and smile until the conversation moves on. But not Thomas. He probably looked around in bewilderment at the other 11, knowing they had no clue what Jesus was saying either. He had the cojones to say: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 2013 translation: “We don’t know what the hell you’re talking about?”

I think too many times we are like the other 11 disciples in the room that day. Well, at least that’s how I’ve been. I’ve gone through life experiencing things that make no sense at all. Prayers unanswered. Promises unfulfilled. Seemingly endless waiting. Relationships severed. Unclear directions. I’ve sat quietly, trying to apply faith to figure out life’s challenges. But at some point, that gets old. I have some questions. I need some answers, Lord.

Thomas reminds us that questions are OK. That being a disciple doesn’t negate our humanity. It doesn’t negate our doubts. Jesus is not intimidated by our questions. He didn’t chastise Thomas for his query; He answered him.

I’ve never been angry at God for anything that has or hasn’t happened in my life. But I have questioned Him. And honestly, it took courage. It took faith. Yes, it took faith to question God. Because for years I thought it was sinful to dare to question God. Sit down, shut up, and trust Him. But that wasn’t faith; it was fear. Fear to come to my Heavenly Father in my weakness… in my humanity. It took faith to question Him. Faith that He is loving and understanding. Faith that He can “sympathize with my weakness” that I can come “boldly to the throne of grace” to obtain “mercy and find grace to help in the time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16).

My questions didn’t always get answers I wanted or expected, but He gave comfort. He gave peace. He gave grace to strengthen me. And my questions didn’t push me away from God, they drew me closer when I had the faith to ask them.

So you can call Thomas a doubter all you want. I call him a hero. He wasn’t afraid to question God. And his faith in questioning has helped me experience freedom and grace in a new way. Any questions?

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Believe It or Not, God Needs You

By Kevin HowellGod Needs You

If you’ve ever spearheaded a project at work, school, church, or for a community organization, you know it’s not always easy to gather volunteers. There is usually a few people you can always count on to carry the load, but to get others to jump on board is harder than getting Kanye West to stop talking about himself.

For some reason, finding willing participants to work — particularly in a voluntary manner — isn’t easy. It often can feel like the U.S. Marines, just looking for a few good men.

God can relate to this problem. He’s just looking for participants.

Most of us have big hopes, dreams, blessings, and desires we’re depending on God for. We know nothing is impossible with God, so no matter what we’re believing for — spiritual or natural — the Bible tells us He can do it. However, He doesn’t do it apart from us. He needs some volunteers. Willing participants.

Ephesians 3:20 in The Message translation says:

God can do anything, you know — far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.

God prefers to work with us. Sure, He can do things on His own — He is sovereign, you know — but He chose a different method. Throughout His ministry, Jesus healed people not just by His power, but also by their own faith. And at other times, He wasn’t able to work miracles because people’s lack of participation.

Every prayer requires something on our end

First of all the faith to believe God will answer us, but also an act of obedience. This may include sacrificing something we’ve been holding onto or taking a step of faith to do something we’re afraid to do.

A friend and youth pastor recently said: “If you aren’t getting a lot out of your relationship with God it’s because you’re not putting enough into it.” Are you waiting around for God to work in your life, or are you actually participating in the miracle He is working?

When we willingly participate in our prayers being answered and our hopes being fulfilled, God is at His best. When we allow Him to work within us, He goes beyond our requests and does things we could never imagine or even dare ask.

For more on this subject:
Matthew 13:57-58
Mark 6:5-7
Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)

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Our Heavenly Santa: Rediscovering Prayer

santa jesus

By Jordan Rice

A lot has changed in my life after my wife Dani died. Some things I expected, and some things were very unexpected. The biggest unexpected change that has taken place has been in my prayer life.

After my wife died, quite expectedly, I was devastated. I didn’t pray much in the immediate aftermath because I didn’t have the energy to do anything. I barely ate, barely showered and barely did anything but cry, so getting on my knees to pray wasn’t even a thought in my mind.

But, as the weeks and months passed, I’ve regained a lot of energy, took up exercise and running, golf (which I’m still terrible at), and have been back to work full-time for several months now. One thing really hadn’t returned though, and that was my prayer life. Sure, I was going to church, reading the bible and other spiritual books, but besides the prayers I would pray on Sunday mornings, I would go days without even thinking to pray.

About six weeks ago, it hit me like a ton of bricks that the reason I had stopped praying was that the vast majority of my prayer life had been for things. Even before my wife got ill, my prayer life was routinely a request for God to do something, give me something, help someone, or to be my cosmic concierge that organizes my life rewards for all of my pious actions. None of these are bad prayers by the way.

Then suffering hit. My wife got sick. God didn’t grant my request to heal my wife. My prayer life stopped.

I figured that God was going to do whatever He wanted to do anyway so it didn’t really matter if I prayed. After all, God is sovereign, right?

It bears repeating that I do not believe for one second that my wife died to teach me a series of lessons; however, in this season of suffering, I’ve learned a lot. I was reading a book by R.C. Sproul entitled Does Prayer Change Things, and in it he noted something ridiculously simple that blew my mind.

Nobody was more aware of God’s sovereignty than Jesus, and nobody was less focused on earthly treasures than Jesus, but nobody prays as much or as meaningfully as Jesus. Clearly, prayer as Jesus understood it is a whole heck of a lot more than a shopping list of requests. And that’s the type of prayer that I’m in search of.

Jesus would retreat from his surroundings, get up early and go pray, for no other reason than to talk to God. The communion between father and son was what he sought.

I’ve learned that for a long time I’d been praying to Santa Jesus, a version of God that in some ways the extent of our relationship was Him giving me stuff.

Now, there is nothing wrong at all with praying for things; Moses, David, Paul, Peter, and Jesus prayed for things at times. But there’s so much more to prayer than getting something in return. In prayer we get God!

As John Piper said in his book Desiring God, “Our problem isn’t that we seek after pleasure, our problem is that we are too easily pleased.”

Our problem isn’t that we want joy, happiness or contentment, our problem is that we are too easily satiated by the comforts of this life that will soon wither away.

My problem in my prayer life wasn’t that I prayed for things, it was that the things I prayed for satisfied me, and left no room for the deep longing for God, in which there are limitless treasures in fellowship with Him.

God, as any loving parent, desires to give us the best, and the best is He Himself.

Long story short, I’m rediscovering prayer… not merely as requests for God to orchestrate my life (which I still pray for), but through the lens that in prayer, I get God.

In memory of his late wife, Danielle, Jordan is building a clean water well in an impoverished area. To donate to the cause visit here.  This post first appeared on Jordan’s blog, Crossroads.

 

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