Why? Why? Why?

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Guest post by James N. Watkins

If you have children,nieces and nephews, or younger siblings, you know that a three-year-old’s favorite word is why.

“Johnny, hold my hand while we cross the street.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want you to run out in front of a car.”

“Why?”

“Because if a car hits you, you’ll be hurt or killed.”

“Why?”

“Because if it’s a contest between a thirty-five-pound boy and a three-ton SUV, the truck is going to win every time.”

“Why?”

“Because the laws of physics state that mass plus momentum equals . . . Just take my hand!”

And on itgoes-right into adulthood!

“Why didn’t God heal my friend?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Why do I still have acne at 50?”

I’ve worked up way too much spiritual perspiration trying to answer why my second-grade Sunday school teacher committed suicide, why I was laid off from the perfect job in publishing—twice—or why bad things happen to such good people as you and me.

I have learned that while why is often a futile question, God is more than willing to answer other questions. But, like the popular game show, Jeopardy, the answers are in the form of a question.

What can I know?

“But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:5-8).

So, while I’ve struggled with hundreds—probably thousands—of questions about God’s workings, I have grown in my knowledge of who he is. While agonizing about an estranged relationship, I burst into tears—for God. I had described to a friend my pain: “It feels like my heart has been cut out with a chainsaw, run over by a logging truck, and then fed through a wood chipper.” If I was feeling this excruciating pain for one broken relationship, how was God feeling about billions of heartaches? It was one of the few times I actually felt I understood God.

I can also find the answer to . . .

How can I grow?

I’ve always leaned into Romans 8:28:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).

But what is that “purpose”? The very next verse answers: “To be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). So do other verses:

“And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18b).

“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1).

That’s our purpose! So ask, how can I grow more like Christ through this difficult time.

Who can I show?

Second Corinthians 1:3-6 has become one of my favorite passages in encouraging me while I’m going through terrible times:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all ourtroubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (NLT).

The Greek word translated comfort isparaklesis. It is a calling near, summons for help; a prayer, a plea; exhortation, admonition, encouragement; consolation, comfort, solace, refreshment; or a persuasive speech, motivational talk, instruction. And it’s feminine case. No one comforts like a mother.

We offer our best comfort to those experiencing what we have personally gone through.

So, sorry, we can’t always answer the why questions, but we can answer these three.

Condensed from The Psalms of Asaph: Struggling with Unanswered Prayer, Unfulfilled Promises, and Unpunished Evil by James N. Watkins. Browse and buy at jameswatkins.com/asaph/

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Lenten Thoughts: Chosen

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I wasn’t picked for spelling bee teams or kick ball teams. So it was a very exciting thing when I moved to a new town just as I entered high school and found a group of young people who seemed to want me. I attended a retreat with the youth group from church, and while there was plenty of fun, there was also enough of the gospel presented that my heart was strangely moved. I heard the message I had been chosen by the one who loved me best.

In the Word there are many references to our being chosen. I found this one while thumbing through Isaiah the other day: “But as for you, Israel my servant, Jacob my chosen one, descended from Abraham my friend, I have called you back from the ends of the earth, saying, ‘You are my servant.’ For I have chosen you and will not throw you away(Isaiah 41:8-9, NLT).”

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Have you ever felt thrown away? What gets thrown away? Things that are useless, broken, spent. Things that are no longer needed. Things that are no longer wanted. We throw things away every day. Have you ever thrown away a person? Have you ever felt thrown away? Maybe you’re one of the blessed ones who has no clue what it would be like to be thrown away. But there are people walking through life with a far greater experience of being trashed than chosen.

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What kind of difference would it make in our interactions if we looked at and treated people like they were chosen by God? I’m not suggesting a short course in evangelism. I am suggesting we consider the annoying checker at Walmart, the pain in the neck co-worker who just took credit for your idea, the jerk weaving in and out of traffic. The person you can’t forgive. See them as chosen. Even the person who left you—they’re chosen.

Paul knew what it was like to be distrusted and surrounded by people who would rather throw him out than work with him. He had been murdering believers in God’s name. Murdering. Leaving families without fathers, or mothers. And then he experienced God’s grace and his own chosen-ness on his way to Damascus. How could God use him? Surely, his being chosen was a mistake. Nobody, including Paul, could believe God would use him after what he did; after the life he lived. Throw him out!

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But Paul penned these words: 4 Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes (Ephesians 1:4, NLT).

We’ve been picked for God’s team. You may have made some pathetic choices, the hounds of shame may be nipping at your heels. I know what that feels like, but I also know that I am his servant and he will not throw me away. Not because I’m broken or because others might label me as trash, but because he loves me. His Word is true: he loved us before he even made the world.

He wants us on his team. How cool is that?

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Lenten Thoughts: Soil

I don’t have a green thumb.

I have told people throughout my life who might be buying me plants: I need ones that thrive on blatant neglect. I was quite happy to find that someone planted bulbs and plants around my house that keep coming back year after year in spite of me.

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So, you might see the irony like I do that my first real job as a teenager was at a nursery. If that alone doesn’t bring you a chuckle, let me add this: the store was Frank’s Nursery and Crafts. It only gets worse when you know I left there to go to work at McDonald’s.

Tina’s terrible trifecta: Plants, crafts, and food. Perhaps it was good to learn at a young age, I have no gifting in these areas.

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People who knew plants and gardens would come to the Nursery and expect me to understand their plant related dilemmas. Why wouldn’t their impatients grow on the fully exposed side of their house where there was no shade? What kind of fertilizer should they use? How can they correct the Ph balance of their soil? I became adept at reading the plastic identification pics we put in plants that have planting and watering instructions. I also learned to read labels, and when I couldn’t find an answer, I found a manager.

The Nursery survived and thrived on people wanting to have beautiful and productive gardens. We sold soil, and we sold the stuff to make it better. Making sure the soil was ready to plant seeds or plants was essential for successful growth.

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Jesus must have counted on a few farmers and gardeners being in the crowd the day he told the Parable of the Sower. The key piece in this parable is the soil and its ability, or lack of ability, to receive the seed. We immediately catch the absurdity of expecting the seed to grow in soil that is not able to receive it or nourish its growth. A hard packed path, rampant weeds, hungry birds, rocks that block, all inhibit the soil’s ability to do its job.

We usually associate this parable with salvation, make it all about receiving the seed. Anyone who has planted a garden or tended a flowerbed knows the work is not done when the seed goes into the dirt. Plants need watered and weeds need pulled. Often the soil needs to be loosened up or aerated. Then as winter approaches fields, beds, and gardens must be prepared for the great work of rest.

I’ve heard people ask other believers, “How is it with your soul?” Today, I’m wondering, how is it with your soil?

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You’ll find the parable in Mark 4:1-9

Lenten Thoughts: Tattooed With Jesus

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Over the years both my daughters have tried to talk me into going with them and getting a tattoo. There’s something “special” about doing that, so I’m told. I know that there are biblical comments prohibiting tattooing, but that’s not why I haven’t gone. I am a wuss about pain, but that hasn’t been my deterrent, either. Bottom line: I can’t imagine anything that I want engraved on me for forever. The image of a wilted rose on an 86 year old woman’s body just doesn’t get me all jazzed up.

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I do, however, want my life tattooed with Jesus. I want my laughter, my conversation, my touch, my service, my work, my prayers, everything that I am to immediately point to Jesus. As much as I want that, I know my life is far from consistent. My heart desperately seeks to live in a way pleasing to my Father, but my choices betray my lack of trust and my selfishness. I truly understand the struggle that Paul speaks about in Romans 7.

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In my life I have known the absolute bowels of wretchedness. I know what it’s like to screw up so completely you lose all respect, wallow in shame, and fight to rebuild integrity. I’m thankful for grace that makes climbing out of that dark pit possible. I’m thankful the apostle Paul shows how to move from the struggle in Romans 7 into chapter 8: There is therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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So, if I ever got a tattoo it would be a grapevine bracelet (symbolizing that I am just a branch needing to stay connected to the vine). In the vine would be a turtle (a rich symbol and spiritual totem: slow down, stay steady) and a daisy (for me a symbol of hope and faithfulness). All three would serve as reminders to me to keep living, to keep being fruitful, to truly make every effort.

The only place they may ever be is in my heart, but hopefully they will be seen by those Jesus sends my way each day.

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Lenten Thoughts: Naive

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On more than one occasion, I have been accused of being naïve, so I went and looked up the meaning.

According to dictionary.com:
1. having or showing unaffected simplicity of nature or absence of artificiality; unsophisticated; ingenuous.
2. having or showing a lack of experience, judgment, or information; credulous: She’s so naive she believes everything she reads. He has a very naive attitude toward politics.
3. having or marked by a simple, unaffectedly direct style reflecting little or no formal training or technique: valuable naive 19th-century American portrait paintings.
4. not having previously been the subject of a scientific experiment, as an animal.
I think I’m okay with that. Especially the part about not being used as a part of a scientific experiment.  But that wasn’t always the case.

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Back in the mid-nineties, I decided to pursue my Doctor of Ministries degree. It seemed the logical thing to do. I applied to the denominational seminary of the church where I held my ordination. I completed the first seminar and was totally in love with being back in school again. I raced into the second course with all kinds of enthusiasm and anticipation.

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Unfortunately, I ran headlong into a professor who rigidly held to a specific position and style of teaching. In his opinion, I wasn’t deep enough or reflective enough. I didn’t see things his way. I got the impression he wanted to fail me. I worked hard in the course, and tried to present my position and perspective. He told me if I hoped to advance in the program I would have to learn to “jump through the hoops” placed before me. I’m not a very good jumper, so I dropped out of the program.

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As I have reflected on being naïve, I’ve changed my opinion. I began to see being the characteristic as not completely negative. Sealing the deal for me came when read Matthew 18. In that passage, it seemed to me, Jesus expected a certain level of naiveté from his followers. His response to the disciples when they argued about who was most important solidified this for me.

1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:1-4, NIV)

I’d rather be simple than cynical, or arrogant. I’d rather be real than artificial (reminds me of Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:9 that their love was to be without hypocrisy). I want to be credulous. I want to be ready to believe and to trust. I especially want the kind of relationship with the creator of the universe who invites us to be so close to him that we can call him, “Daddy.”

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Lenten Thoughts: Stuff

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There used to be a show on TV where a team invaded a pack rat’s home and decluttered them. They typically picked two rooms in the home to clear and reorganize. It was called “Clean Sweep.” I watched it regularly, hoping to catch some hope for my own over-packed home. Secretly, I must confess I hoped they would show up on my doorstep.

There have been times in our lives when in preparation for a move, my husband has taken the lead in helping us declutter and downsize. He also did this as he faced surgery last year and the subsequent loss of his job. But he didn’t just clean out and downsize our stuff, he also downsized our bills and our spending. His ability to do this a good thing and I’m impressed daily and blessed by his commitment to the project.

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I remember watching him work his magic. Right before we moved the last time, he took a course on improving our financial situation and it truly inspired him. He found resources to sell my books and he got good money for them. I went through the shelves and pulled out boxes and boxes of books that I no longer used and couldn’t foresee needing in the future.

Watching him gleefully sell the books hit me unusually hard. I chose the books to get rid of. I made the decision to let go. But that night it wasn’t books I saw going. It was dream. It was hope. It was me. And in that moment, I understood some of the tears that I saw people shed on “Clean Sweep” as the crew worked to wrench open their hands to release their hold on stuff that was squeezing the life out of them.

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Part of the problem for these people, and sometimes for me, is that we find our identity in our things. The things we keep take on meaning and symbolism that never was intended. For example, I had lots of books, therefore I was smart. I always wanted lovely furniture because I thought it would tell people coming into my home I have taste. I have three chairs in my living room, several Nerf guns, and dog bones. It’s pretty easy to see who gets welcomed here. Around my dining room table there are no fancy chairs. We use plastic lawn chairs. They work inside and out.  As a result, I live with an odd tension between what is and what I wish could be.

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Thinking through this I was reminded of Paul’s message to the Philippians. He’s been assuring them of his pedigree when he tells them what he really values: “7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ 9 and become one with him (Phil. 3:7-9a, NLT).”

Having books doesn’t necessarily mean I’m smart. Having nice furniture in an impressive house doesn’t mean I’ve got it all together. I am not my stuff. And having stuff or wanting stuff (or more stuff), if not held in the proper perspective when it comes to my relationship with Christ is just clutter and crap. Paul went so far as to call it dung. When we get a hold on this and it gets a real hold on us, we will find so much more room in our heart for God. Letting go of our stuff, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, opens us up—frees us to receive more of Christ. And what he has to give us is so much better than the garbage we’ve been holding onto.

Is it time for a clean sweep in your heart? I’m working on mine.
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Lenten Thoughts: Starting

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I’m a good starter. I attribute that to the gift I believe God gave: I see possibilities.

My MBTI personality profile supports this theory. I walk into a room or a work situation and immediately start thinking of ways to improve the situation. I thrive in work situations where I can think of new ways to do the job. Working this way is plays to my strength of starting, but reveals all too quickly my boredom with follow through.

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Now, while this can be a strength at work, it has a tendency to make my husband moan and roll his eyes at home. Every now and then I’ll get a creative bug in my bonnet and I’ll start some project. Currently, it’s a cross-stitch I started in December for my brother’s birthday in January (yes, I know, it’s almost April). I carry it with me everywhere I go just in case that bug should decide to show up again. It’s almost done.

I just need to bring myself to complete it.

Most of us are good at starting things. How many books have we started but never finished? How many have started college but never completed the degree? How many craft projects sit in bins waiting to be finished? How many diets have we started and given up on?

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In his letter to Timothy, Paul declares, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.” I believe this verse holds the key to why we tend to give up and not finish what we start. It’s all in the word FIGHT. As soon as the going gets tough, we’re done. It’s true with classes, diets, jobs, and relationships. When it starts to feel like work, we walk away.

I have a friend who has always been an inspiration to me, but I’m not sure she knows how much. She’s a doctor, professor, wife, mother, friend, and sister. Oh, and she’s also a quilter. She makes quilts. If you’ve ever done that you know how exacting and exhausting it can be. Her life has been spent on others, in work and “recreation.” There just doesn’t seem to be any quit in her.

As I think through my friends, there are many people who are inspirational. They face down illness, their own and the illnesses of loved ones. They open their homes to troubled children. They pour out their lives in thankless jobs. They stand by discouraged mates and face down their own fears. The list could go on and on.

Emily Dickenson is quoted as having said, “I dwell in possibilities.” I can relate. But I want to finish, too. I want to finish craft projects. I want to finish jobs. I want to go the distance in my relationships. Most of all, I want to finish the race of faith.

So, excuse me while I put down my pen and pick up my needle. Maybe I can get this cross-stitch done before my brother’s next birthday.

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