When you need help

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What do you do in those moments when you’re afraid you’ve got it all wrong—that something you said or did was off the mark?

I had to wrestle through that question after I wrote last week’s post about Michael Card’s words:

“A lot of Christians don’t embrace Jesus as their servant, and it’s my contention that if you don’t know him as your servant, you don’t really know him. It’s the shape of his life.” (Michael Card, session 2, 20min)

In spite of all the verses I shared about Jesus laying down his life for us in the past, continuing to wash our feet as he prays for and sustains us in the present, and waiting on us at the coming banquet table—all of which I knew were true—I sweated and squirmed. Was the slant correct? Had I adequately balanced the need to receive Jesus’ serving of us with the need to worship Him as Lord? I’ve grown up singing a song about Jesus as our Servant King, but to think of Him not just as a servant but as my servant, well, that feels like a different thing.

Verses from Isaiah came to mind and as I searched I discovered that in the Old Testament, Jesus is only ever referred to as the servant of God (Is 42:1; 49:5-6; 52:13; 53:11). How did this fit with what I’d written? Is there a difference between Jesus serving me and being my servant?

It helped to see that in all of those passages, Jesus’ work is on our behalf. He is God’s servant, though He serves us.

I kept digging, turning this time to the New Testament. 

The New Testament presents a more nuanced picture with its range of Greek words for servant, some used for Jesus’ relationship to His Father, and some for his relationship to us. (Stay with me here—there’s good news to be had!)

Pais (child, slave)

When the writers of the New Testament speak of Jesus as the servant of God (Acts 3:13,26; 4:30), the Greek word they use for servant is pais (or paida as it’s conjugated in these verses), which can simply mean a child (think “pediatric”) or it can mean “one who is committed in total obedience to another; slave, servant” (BDAG). Jesus, the Son, is committed in total obedience to His Father. That is great news. (Aren’t you glad the One guiding Jesus’ work in the world is not you or me or any other frail and biased person but the Creator who made and sustains the universe in love?)

Diakonos (servant, minister); diakoneo (to serve)

When Jesus is referred to as a servant of the Jews (Rom 15:8), or when Jesus says of himself that he “did not come to be served, but to serve [us!],” (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45), the word “serve” is diakoneo (think “deacon”), which means “to render service in a variety of ways either at someone’s behest or voluntarily” (BDAG). 

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says, “As distinct from all these [other] terms [for service], diakoneo has the special quality of indicating very personally the service rendered to another. . . . In diakoneo there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.” In other words, while Jesus is committed in total obedience to His Father, He serves us voluntarily, lovingly, in a whole range of ways. We receive the gift of being served in all the ways God knows we most need, but we are never Jesus’ master. 

Much of the time, I’m not even sure what to ask for, so it’s a relief to be reminded that I’m served by One who loves me and knows far better than I do what I need. 

This is news that lightens our burdens in another way as well. We are also called to serve this way —giving ourselves first and wholly to God for the sake of others. We aren’t asked to serve many masters. We aren’t asked to keep everyone happy. We’re asked to serve and obey only God, the One who loves us perfectly and doesn’t forget that we’re dust and delights to give us His best, and as part of our loving of God, to love and serve others, but not to let them decide the shape of our lives.

Doulos (slave); douleuo (to serve as a slave)

A third Greek word for “servant” might help us here. (Still with me? This is the last one.) Douleuo (think doula) means “to be owned by another; to act or conduct oneself as one in total service to another, perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey (BDAG). We are to live in total service to God—because we can’t give this kind of total service and obedience both to God and something (or someone) else:

“No one can serve (douleuo) two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24 ).  

This word, douleuo, also shows up in the verse that pictures Jesus still serving us when he returns:

“It will be good for those servants (douloi – ones solely committed to another) whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on (diakoneo – voluntarily serve) them” (Luke 12:37).

So then: Is Jesus our servant? Yes. He is our diakonos – one who voluntarily serves us in love. And I don’t know about you, but I sure need to receive his gracious serving in order to have the courage and strength to, with Him, serve the only One who can rightly direct my life.

And all my wrestling and questioning? Turns out there was Someone serving me, helping me in it, leading me deeper into truth (John 16:13).

Climb every mountain: a new word for a new year

I attended The Sound of Music with a friend on Saturday. The summons to search until we find what we’re called to and then live it fully is still ringing in my head:

A dream that will need
All the love you can give
Every day of your life
For as long as you live

There’s a determination to it, a purposefulness. An intentionality.

Climb every mountain
Search high and low
Follow every byway
Every path you know

Climb every mountain
Ford every stream
Follow every rainbow
Till you find your dream

It’s not just The Sound of Music that calls us to search for a dream that will take all the love we can give, and then pour ourselves into it. 

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer 29:13, c.f. Deut 4:29, Matt 7:7-8)

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, . . .” (Col 3:23)

It’s that time of year when I prayerfully choose a new word that I want to shape my life over the coming year.  Or when that new word chooses me. This year, that word is intentional.

Over the past decade, I’ve been living the call to make my home in God’s love. That has meant letting go of plans and goals and career, and learning to rest in God’s love. That call will never change. It’s the call to all of us at the heart of the gospel, and the root from which our life of discipleship springs:

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. . . Make yourselves at home in my love.” (John 15:4,9 The Message)

But God offers us a number of different images to help us see how to make our homes in God’s love. Some, like the vine or the infant, seem quite passive. They highlight God’s role in the process and our dependence on him. We make our home in God’s love by trusting his goodness and his grace and learning to rest in that love. 

Other images, like the bride and the athlete, make our part in the process of transformation and shared life more explicit. We choose. We say no to some things to say yes to something better. In these images, “love” is as active a word as “run.” 

The two are not opposites. They fit together and complement each other. It takes at least as much intentionality to rest and trust as to work. Part of making our home in God’s love is responding to his call to come to him and rest (Matt 11:28-30). Another part of making our home in God’s love is keeping God’s commands to love Him and others:

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.”

(John 15:9-10, The Message)

Though there is much that only God can do in us, He chooses to do very little of that without some sort of involvement by us. (For example, it is as we contemplate the Lord’s glory that we are transformed into His likeness. 2 Cor 3:18, c.f. Phil 2:12-13)  And this is grace. God honors us by making us in his image, persons with real choice, real agency. He pours out his love and his salvation, but he does not force them on us. He respects us by refusing to write our stories without our involvement. We co-write our stories with God in the ways we choose to respond to Him.

This year I began praying about my new word for the new year as I was paying attention to what was taking place in me during Advent. I was feeling all over again both my longing for God and the places I resist his coming as King in my life. I was becoming aware of, and grieving, the places I’ve slipped into laziness.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working through the questions posed by Lara Casey in her 2020 goal setting blog post series.  I’ve pondered her question, “Where do you want to be when you’re 80 (or 90 or 100)?” and paid attention to the places I want to change. As a result, I’ve written out several areas in which I want to be intentional this year, and why it matters. For example, I want to eat intentionally because I don’t want sweets, or anything else, to take God’s place or mine in deciding what this body does. And because this body is entrusted to me by God and I love Him by caring for it well. I want to be more intentional about ending my days with Scripture, because I want this God who loves me and whom I love to have the first and the final word in my days.

What about you? Are there places you want to be more intentional in the New Year? Is there a new word that seems to be calling to you as we begin this new year? I’d love to hear it!

Why—and what—to remember

I’d been looking for ten days and finally, on my way home from church yesterday, I spotted a couple of cadets, small and tidy in their uniforms, with pans of poppies hung around their necks. I picked a poppy from their tray, slipping a coin into the slotted box.

There was only one more day this year that I could wear the flower before slipping it into my drawer to save for next year, but still it seemed important to buy it.

On this Remembrance Day, I, along with the people of my own nation and those of many others, want to remember the members of our armed forces who have died in the line of duty.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

I want to remember their hopes and dreams, their blood-sealed belief that freedom, justice, and peace are worth fighting for.

I want to remember, too, the many who have given their lives in another war and whose voices from under the altar cry for God’s justice (Rev 6:9-11).

I don’t talk often about this war. Mostly I think that’s because I find it more helpful to focus on my leader than on the enemy, listening for God’s voice, trusting his love, trying to obey his commands. 

But might it sometimes be because I don’t want to remember? Because I’d rather look away from the truth that war is not past tense, nor happening only on the other side of the world?

Whether I like it or not, I, along with every other person in this world, am smack in the middle of a cosmic war that will not end until Jesus returns, taking his rightful place and bringing the true and never-ending freedom, justice and peace for which we long.

“This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels” (Eph 6:12, The Message).

Life and peace, justice and freedom, are at stake. Focus and obedience matter.

Remembering the reality of slavery and the costly path to freedom is not optional. It is a repeated command, a cornerstone of a well-lived life.

 “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut 5:15).

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years. . .” (Deut. 8:2).

“Do this in remembrance of me” (I Cor 11:24).

God doesn’t command us to remember the reality of the war in order to make us afraid. He calls us to remember in order not to be afraid.

But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (Deut. 7:18).

I look and remember—yes, there’s a war, and I’m in it—and then I look back at the One who has already won the battle at the heart of the war, guaranteeing the war’s final outcome. I don’t need to fear the already conquered enemy, just to do my part in the clean-up operation. The outcome of the war does not rest on my shoulders.

And so I look, not to tremble, but to remember that what I do matters.

I look, not to design my own battle strategy, but to recommit myself to my Leader who conquers death and destruction through love and calls me to join him. 

I look, not to gaze at the enemy, but to bow in worship of my loving, victorious King.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

Your needs and the needs of others: the good news about balance

It’s one of the questions I struggled most with in Afghanistan, and continue to struggle with now: How do I balance my needs with the needs of others? How do I concurrently live the realities of life in this limited body and Jesus’ unequivocal call to love others as he has loved me, and to take up my cross and follow him? 

This week, the question arose again through a couple of requests which I didn’t have the energy to meet, along with some words from a Bible verse that I’ve long stumbled over:

“. . . in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). 

How do I understand this? It seems to command that I see myself as “less than,” inferior to everyone else, and to insist that I always subjugate my own needs and desires to those of others.

I want to love well. I am willing to give my hours, my life, to serve God and others. But over these recent years, God has seemed to say in a myriad of ways, “You matter too.” My limitations insist that I slow down, learn to say no, and keep praying through the questions and complexities.

So this week I slowed down and read those words more carefully in their context. Those words follow these ones:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but. . .”

Paul is not talking about basic self-care, or living within our limits, or stewarding our health, our gifts, and our core relationships. He is talking about “selfish ambition and vain conceit”—prideful pushing others down and ourselves up, climbing the ladder by stepping on others, arrogantly thinking that we are better than others. The treatment for that kind of arrogance is turning the situation around and humbly considering others better than yourself.

            Paul continues his words with the example of Jesus who modeled this kind of humility perfectly —and it was not about letting the desires of others determine his days. He was single-minded and knew how to say no. When the crowds were wanting more of his miracles, he left to be alone with his Father. He said no to the plans that both the crowds and his closest friends had for his life—to be a military leader and free them from the Romans. This humility had nothing to do with insecurity or thinking himself or his task unimportant. Precisely the opposite. It was tied to a view of others as precious enough to be worth his single-minded faithfulness to his God-given call. 

Jesus’ vocation was not determined by what each individual wanted, but by what God knew the world needed. He honored others most profoundly not by saying yes to their requests (though he did that when he could), but by remaining faithful to his God-given call and stewarding himself and his relationship with his Father in a way that strengthened and enabled him to fulfil his unique calling.

In case I missed what God was saying, he spoke again the next day, this time through a friend who, unbeknownst to me, has also been working through Philippians, and “just happened” to mention, without my saying anything about Philippians, what she’d been seeing in the verse immediately after the one that had caught my attention.

 “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4).

Paul doesn’t say we shouldn’t look to our own interests, just that we shouldn’t look only to them. We should also look to the interests of others. In God’s sight, we all matter, we as much as those we are called to serve. The question is not whose needs are more important, but which needs (including my own) God is calling me to meet right now, and which he intends to meet in another way.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, willingly giving up our life with the promise that as we do so, we’ll find it. And when he lived this among us, he was careful also to model not laying down his life when it was not the Father’s way or timing. Early in his ministry, when the crowd tried to seize Jesus to throw him off the cliff, Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Later, when he knew his time to lay down his life had come, though he could have called 10,000 angels to intervene on his behalf, he instead let broken people nail him to the cross. He listened to his Father’s heart and calling on his life and said yes to what fit with that and no to everything else. And we are called to do the same.

One small step toward becoming the person you want to be.

My family doctor once asked me two questions that I return to again and again. She asked them when I was struggling with depression, but she could just as well have asked them in one of the times my physical illness has flared and I’ve felt hemmed in by my limitations, or, for that matter, by a situation outside of me.

What kind of person do you want to be?

What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?

The questions could, I suppose, feel heavy, but to me they feel like grace. No matter what is going on inside me or outside me, I still have choice. No matter how much is beyond my control, there’s always something I can do to cooperate with God’s work in me. These two simple questions lead me out into a spacious place where I am no longer trapped or helpless but remember again that God gives me choice and agency and authority at least in the small bit of creation that is myself.

Among all of God’s creation, he honours us humans particularly with this: we get to participate with God in shaping ourselves. We are, of course, completely dependent on God to sustain us in being, to give us choice, to do in us the many things we cannot do in ourselves. (“Without me you can do nothing” John 15:5.) Yet also, as part of our bearing the image of a sovereign Creator, God makes us co-creators with him in the shaping of our own selves and lives.

So:

  • I want to be a person who hears God’s heartbeat. Today I can be still in his presence even for a few minutes, opening my heart to him.
  • I want to be a person who is honest. Today, rather than trying to push away the uncomfortable questions and emotions, I can sit with them in Jesus’ presence and tell him what I’m feeling.
  • I want to be a person marked by gratitude. Even on a difficult day, after I’ve let Jesus into the hard feelings, I can look for his grace in the day and write out the things I’m thankful for (starting with his welcome of me just as I am).

It’s a big responsibility, but also a gracious one, this participation in our own transformation. It’s a plan designed by a God who loves and honours and cherishes us, and who is so gentle and gracious and kind that He receives our smallest attempts to cooperate with Him like a mother delights in the bouquet of dandelions brought to her by her two year old. He well knows that we can’t transform ourselves, not deeply and thoroughly like Jesus can. But still He honors us and the choice He has given to us, and invites our consent and cooperation in the process, and even on the hard days (maybe especially) on the hard days, our job is to open to this One who loves us and do the bit we can to cooperate with what he is doing. 

What kind of person do you want to be? What’s one small step you can take today toward that end?