Today I’m thrilled to share with you some words from my good friend, Mark Williams. Mark graduated from Davidson College before going on to seminary at Duke (Duke football right now – what?!?!), which is where we met. I remember well the night he called me after serving at a soup kitchen in downtown Durham and told me that he had met the woman he was going to marry as they dished green beans onto plates. A few years later, he and Emily were indeed married and have continued their life together just as it began by serving everyone they encounter. Their son, Nolan, celebrated his first birthday in October.
Joseph and the Change Order
Many often refer to Joseph as the forgotten man of Christmas. Joseph is mentioned in the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, but material about him is scant. In scripture, Joseph is never quoted directly. In fact, Joseph all but disappears from the gospel story following the holy family’s return from Egypt. But the Bible does tell us of Joseph’s occupation: Joseph was a carpenter. Later in Jesus’ adult life, Jesus was performing miracles in an around the synagogue at Capernaum, and the people in the synagogue asked: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary?” (Matthew 13:55). Perhaps Joseph’s occupation as a carpenter might be important to understanding who he was. I’ve always wondered why God, in looking for an earthly father for Jesus, didn’t choose a powerful governor, or a wealthy merchant, or a teacher of the Law, or some other respected Jewish leader. Why a carpenter?
As I write this devotion, I look out my office window and watch a crew of carpenters building a new sanctuary where my church will soon worship. To be honest, I know nothing about carpentry. (As my wife will surely attest, I am the least handy person in the world!) But here’s what I’ve learned about carpentry from watching the professionals: Carpenters make things fit. They have a plan. They square off the edges. They follow the plumb line. They measure twice before they cut once. Not only do carpenters like to have a plan, they like to see the plan before they begin. Surprises are not the friend of a carpenter.
I imagine Joseph’s personality as that of a carpenter. He had a plan. Joseph had a plan for his life. What carpenter doesn’t have a plan? Joseph was engaged to young woman named Mary. He was in love. The plan was to get married. The plan was to have a family. The plan was to grow old together. The plan was to be an active, faithful member of the local synagogue. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man.” The Hebrew word for a righteous man was a sadeek, which means that Joseph was known by his religious community for his uncompromising obedience to the scripture, to the book of Torah (the book of law). This means Joseph didn’t eat unclean food. He didn’t mix with the wrong kinds of people. He didn’t keep the carpentry shop open on the Sabbath. He was a righteous man. That was his identity. Joseph was who people wanted to be—admired and respected. To be a sadeek in Jewish culture was to be looked up to. That was Joseph. He was a young man with promising plans for the future. Joseph’s life was headed in all the right directions. The carpenter had a plan.
One day, Mary, Joseph’s young fiancée, had a conversation with Joseph that would forever change his plan. “I’m pregnant. And you’re not the Father.” Translated into building/construction terms: CHANGE ORDER FOR THE CARPENTER! The girl Joseph had promised to marry was going to have a baby, and whoever the Father was, Joseph knew it was not him. Nazareth was a small town, and as a general rule, word gets around in a small town. Joseph was now a carpenter without a plan. Thanks to Mary’s revelation, Joseph’s life no longer made sense.
Have you ever stood in Joseph’s shoes? Have you ever had plans for the future, but because of some event or circumstance life stopped making sense. God, I had plans to sit around a full dinner table this Christmas, but this year I’ve lost someone I love. And life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for the future, but after going to the doctor or taking someone I love to the doctor, life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for this child or grandchild, but thanks to some event that has happened, those plans are no more and life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for the future of my career, but it’s not working out quite like I thought it would and now life no longer makes sense. Have you ever stood in Joseph’s shoes? Perhaps you had plans for the future, but recently life handed you change order. What now?
Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn at Christmastime from Joseph is this: Joseph trusted in God, even when his life did not make sense. Joseph’s immediate response to Mary’s pregnancy was what you might expect. Without a plan, Joseph was ready to throw in the towel. He wanted to give up. Scripture says that Joseph had in mind that he would divorce Mary quietly. That’s when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
In waking up from that dream, Joseph made a big choice. Joseph swapped his religious reputation for a pregnant fiancé and in so doing made the big choice of discipleship. It’s as if Joseph, the carpenter, says: This time, God, I’m not the builder, am I? This time God, I’m a tool. I’m a hammer in your grip, God. A nail between your fingers. A chisel in your hands. This whole project, is yours, God, not mine. And even though I don’t understand it all yet, I’m going to see it through to the end—because I have been called to be obedient and trust in you even when my life does not make sense.
You may be asking: Why did God make Joseph struggle with all this stuff? Why couldn’t an angel have come to Joseph ahead of time to lay out the plans, explain everything—removing all the anxiety? To be sure, these are tough questions. But I wonder if God had a reason for this odd, painful, lonely, way to start a family. I wonder if God wanted Joseph to be an encouragement for each one of us, who, in the days before Christmas, share a lot in common with Joseph. For there are areas of our lives this Christmas that do not make sense. What will we do in response to life’s sudden change orders? Give up? Or will we follow in Joseph’s footsteps, continuing to be obedient and trusting in God?
Obedience to God is easy when it neatly fits into the plans we have constructed for our lives. But obedience to God is much more difficult when certain areas of our lives are not going as we planned. At Christmastime, Joseph, the obedient carpenter, whispers to us words of encouragement: Keep persevering. Obey. Keep trusting God even when your life does not make sense. It will all be worth it eventually. I promise.
I don’t know about your house, but in ours there is a constant battle between the feelings of “No time, there’s NO TIME!” and “Eh, there’s plenty of time to do that later.” For some reason, we always drift to the extremes instead of meeting in the middle. Sound familiar? The good news is that perhaps it’s not the middle we need, but a good dose of both extremes.
You see, I think we need both. We need the urgency to remind us that our days are numbered and we need to make the most of them, i.e. not living in dissension and jealousy, but rather clothing ourselves with Christ. We also need the wisdom and patience to recognize that so many of the things eating our time are not the necessary things, and they indeed can wait until later while we spend ourselves (all the way into debt) loving each other.
It’s true what they say that our kids will not remember the gifts they got at each Christmas, but they will remember the love and the laughter. Sure, they don’t realize it when they’re young so of course they’re going to count the days wishing they would go by faster and making their lists of want, want, wants. But while they wish the hours away and we feel the hours slipping from our grasp, we can make them all count.
Here’s an idea: Choose one thing today that you can put off for another day and before that time gets eaten by all of the other starving items on your list, do something today that has no value outside of the love it shares with someone else. It can be as simple as the text message you send to your spouse that says, “You matter to me and I love you so much,” or it can be the plate of store-bought cookies (because who has time to bake?) that you drop off at your neighbor’s house (you know, the one whose name you can’t remember) on your way home.
Give love today. You’ll always miss the time you waste, but you’ll never miss the love you give!
How’s your love debt? What did you give today?
In an effort to Worship Fully this Christmas season, I’ve decided to turn my blog into a devotional between now and Christmas Day. I’ll be writing most of the entries, but I have a few special guests who will also be contributing along the way. I hope you enjoy!
Getting Ready to Receive, Day 1
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” ~Luke 2:1, KJV
No one has to issue a decree these days for everyone to be taxed. We’re stretched, overburdened, overloaded and encumbered. And even if that wasn’t the kind of tax Caesar was referring to, I find it funny that the Christmas story begins with a taxed world. We can relate, can’t we?
This may be getting a little ahead in the story, but funnier still is the fact that when Jesus shows up in the Christmas story he decrees a “stop tax” of sorts (without saying a word, of course, babies can’t talk). When Jesus arrives, the shepherds walk off the job for a night, the wise men start ignoring orders from their leader, and it seems as though the whole world collectively takes a deep breath while the angels sing. Jesus shows up and says, “I got this. Cast your cares on me.”
What if instead of waiting for Christmas Day to take a deep breath, we decided to issue our own “stop tax” in order to get ready for more Jesus in our lives? We could do less instead of more. We could make better choices about the things and people we tell “yes,” and make better choices about the things and people we tell “no.” It’s like the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus shows up at their door and one sister, Martha, gets so busy preparing for Jesus that she misses spending any time with him. Meanwhile, Mary skips all of the preparation (much to her sister’s annoyance) and spends all of her time with Jesus. Who do you think made the better choice?
Here’s an idea: sit down with your family or friends and make a list of all the things you don’t want to miss this Christmas season. Then, make another list of all the things you want to not do this Christmas season so you don’t feel quite so taxed. You can call it your “Christmas To-Don’t List.”
What’s on your Christmas list(s)?
So, typically, I’m the “must wait until Santa appears at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade until we listen to Christmas music/talk about Christmas/decorate for Christmas” type of person. That’s a type, right? I’m not alone?
But this year, I have a confession to make. I have been listening to Christmas music for the last week (don’t hate fellow-types). I can’t wait! It’s possible I’m even out-pacing my 4-year old in level of excitement for the Christmas season. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration.) And so, I’ve decided that if I’m giving in, I’m totally giving in. I’m “buying the limited edition candy cane oreos this week” giving in.
Before you write me off as a sell-out, you should know the real reason I’m caving is because we are 5 days away from the launch of our #5000gifts campaign at Ashley Ridge Church and I’m about to bust something! We are re-imagining Christmas and preparing to celebrate the season like we’ve never celebrated before and I WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT!
But not yet.
5 more days.
Just 5 more days.
I can wait just 5 more days…I think.
What about you? If you were to let yourself think about Christmas for just a minute, what would you be anticipating most this Christmas? Anyone else want to cave with me, just this once?
The local newspaper knew they made a mistake choosing me as a “Woman to Watch” the minute the photographer called me.
“Would you like to do the photo shoot at your office or your home?” she asked.
“Neither,” I replied. “The public doesn’t want to see that.”
It didn’t get any better a few days later when the reporter came to interview me. After talking for a few minutes about the details of my life and the church, he asked me, “Is there anything else? I mean, anything more you’ve done or accomplished?”
He wasn’t being rude. He just knew how much space he needed to fill in the column and “church planter, pastor, wife, mom to two young boys, and occasional half-marathon runner” wasn’t going to be…enough.
No wonder we’re all exhausted. Our culture has built a mentality of more, more, more that none of us can live up to, but sadly we’re all still trying. And while we never reach the elusive “enough,” that other “e” word follows us wherever we go…exhausted.
Tullian Tchividjian recently asked the question, “If God’s grace is inexhaustible, why are we so exhausted?”
The question stopped me in my tracks because the answer is so obvious. We’re exhausted because even though we talk about grace and sing about grace, very few of us believe that it’s real. We think we have something to prove and subconsciously we believe God cares more about our resume than our heart.
Today I want to remind me and I want to remind you that God loved you before you accomplished anything. Take a deep breath and know that He is enough.
Perhaps the infrequency of my posting is sufficient commentary on marriage, motherhood and ministry, but I think it has more to do with building habits. “They say” it takes something like 16 days to form a habit.
I’m not that patient.
Sixteen days seems too much, it should happen in two or not at all. At least that’s what I told my husband as I ranted about people at church not filling out connect cards. The rant started there and ended with a full-blown temper tantrum about feeling like no one is listening to me and I might as well be spending my days talking to a black hole. And why wasn’t he filling out his connect card, anyway?!?!
Have you ever seen the movie Father of the Bride? Specifically, the scene where he’s tearing hot dog buns out of the package in the middle of the grocery store…yea, that was me.
And, of course, the rant ended as rants typically do in tears and weariness and the dawning realization that the “they” I’m ranting about includes me.
How often does Jesus look at me and think, “How many times do I have to tell her to trust? How many times do I have to tell her to love first and let the rest work itself out? How many times do I have to tell her to not be afraid and have courage?”
And yet, he never loses patience with me. He never stops guiding and leading – doing that Good Shepherd deal he talks about in John 10.
I’ve chased sheep before. The church my dad pastored when I was a teenager did a living nativity every December and the youth always went to the farm to pick the two sheep who would come and hang out with us for a week. It was always fun for the first few minutes as we ran and dove and even got a little messy, but as time wore on, it got less fun. The sheep were stubborn and disobedient and didn’t seem to get the command “Come” that seems to work so well for dogs. Maybe that’s why the Bible compares us to sheep more often than dogs?
Sheep are frustrating, but the Good Shepherd continues to sheep herd because that’s what a good shepherd does. And he does it less for the end goal and much more for the love of the sheep. It’s hard to love when we’re ranting instead of guiding, loving and sacrificing.
I get it, Jesus, I get it. But, you’ll still have to tell me again because that’s the way I am. And, I’ll pass the message on, again, but maybe next time with a little more grace and a lot less judgment.
I’m afraid to fail. There it is, in print, my greatest fear in life. I’m afraid to fail as a mom, as a wife, as a pastor and as a human being.
Sadly, there have been seasons of my life where this fear has been an asset and I’ve learned to rely on it. For example, church plants have an 80% failure rate. Logic might suggest that statistic alone disqualifies me as a church planter. Instead, it became the perfect driver. We set out to plant a church and I refused to fail because that would have been more than I could bear.
At a conference in Nashville two weeks ago, we talked about the dangers of leading out of our fears versus our true self (true self defined as, “the me that is essentially me, uniquely reflecting God’s merciful, undeserved presence inside of me”). I had a lightbulb moment, realizing just how much I had been leading out of my fear of failure. I had become paralyzed, unable to make decisions in case that decision became the decision that led to a failure. I was pleasing people to build a hedge of protection in case I did fail and I needed people to love me so much that they wouldn’t be able to see it. I was so busy worrying about what I thought I could control that I forgot Who is in control.
Craig Groeschel once said, “Be careful not to take too much blame for your failures or you’ll be tempted to take too much credit for your success.” Wowzers!
Here’s the deal, I can’t allow fear to call the shots. Especially when the thing that I fear is inevitable. I will fail. I have failed. I do fail.
His grace is enough. It’s time to go big!
2 Timothy 1:7 – “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, love and self-control!”
I left my office yesterday at 2:15.
It was a bold move considering the piles of unfinished work on my desk, the volume of e-mails beckoning for a response, and the staff watching dumbfounded as I walked away with unanswered questions still hanging in the air.
I went home, put on sneakers and ran out the door. The air was cool, the sun was shining and in no time I was gasping for breath…yes, I’m that out of shape. But, man, it felt so good.
For weeks, months really, I’ve been exhausted and irritable and straining for more time to work, more time to clean and more time to snuggle close with my boys. There’s just never enough. And the larger the deficit grows, the more my faith stumbles and my confidence shakes.
“I’m a terrible mom.” “I’m a lousy pastor.” “Clark must think I’ve lost my mind.” And so runs the ongoing parade of negativity in my mind.
But yesterday I stopped and I realized something – that moment of “stop” was the most productive time I’d had in weeks.
“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10
We have two options – we can work more or work better. I’ll never have all the time I need to do all the things I want to do, but if I can start with things like rest, prayer, exercise and good food than all the time I spend doing everything else will be better time, productive time, present time.
It’s not about working more, it’s about working better. It’s not about needing more, it’s about needing better. It’s not even about loving more, it’s about loving better.
How do you fight the more vs. better debate? What do you need to prioritize so you can be better at the things you do?
(Oh, and as an added bonus, check out Ann Voskamp’s incredible post from yesterday!)
I stood there sweating with adrenaline pounding in my veins and my heart smiled. I was made for this.
This morning I had the privilege of speaking to about 120 6th-12th graders at a Christian academy in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. They’re having a week-long “Awakening” and I was asked to help kick it off. I was excited about it until I realized I had agreed to drive 45 minutes away first-thing on a Monday morning. I don’t know if you know this, but Monday comes after Sunday – enough said.
I was tired, feeling under-prepared and not sure if I had chosen the right outfit (chick problems). But then I got there, we started to worship, I got up to speak, and something happened that always happens – God made me come alive! For the next 25 minutes every move, every word, every facial expression and gesture seemed obvious and happened without conscious thought. The power came through me and I felt like the cord that connects the power source to the light bulb. Before I started, my notes were boring and my energy level was bottomed out, but then it happened and when it was over I thought for the 1,000th time, I was made for this.
I spend the majority of my work week doing things that aren’t speaking or even directly preparing to speak. A lot of the time those things wear me out and make me question if I’m really doing what I’m supposed to be doing. But then other times, I get to stand in front of a group of tired teenagers only too aware that there isn’t enough charisma in the world to capture their attention…and then God shows up. And somehow, amazingly, incredibly, I get to be part of it.
I was made for this.