Author Archives: Dr. Terry Ellis

Hearing Voices (Part 1)

“And there arose a sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas, so that they separated from one another.” Acts 15:39

What I’m about to share with you today is simply a great story from the book of Acts. I’m going to use this story over the next three weeks to talk about the three voices you need to listen to in life when you’re in the middle of a contentious situation.

The story is really the backstory for the verse “there arose a sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas, so that they separated.” The two leading missionary figures of the day, powerful and influential leaders in the church, came to a contentious chapter in their lives that led them to go their separate ways. What in the world happened?

The bone of contention concerned a young man named John Mark, who was actually Barnabas’s cousin. He had accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, and Luke tells us that he left mid-mission, so to speak, and returned to Jerusalem.

Some months later Paul proposed to Barnabas a second missionary journey. Barnabas agreed and suggested they again take John Mark with them. Here is where the problem began. Paul refused. He was not happy that John Mark had left them during the first journey.

We don’t have the details, but we might speculate that John Mark simply didn’t want to go farther away from home. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he just decided he wasn’t cut out for missionary journeys. Pamphylia, where John Mark left them, was a somewhat wilder, less stable area. He might have been scared. Paul did end up getting stoned there and left for dead, so John Mark’s departure may have been the better part of valor.

All we can know for sure is that Paul was not happy with the parting during the first journey, and he wasn’t about to allow this timid fellow on the second trip. Thus, the stage was set for what Luke called “a sharp contention” as Barnabas argued for his young cousin to get a second chance, and Paul, ever zealous and almost certainly unbending, wanted nothing to do with the undependable young man.

Now think about John Mark for a moment. Have you ever wanted to impress someone you really looked up to? Have you ever let them down? Have you ever let anyone down? Has that failure echoed in your mind, convincing you that you really never will amount to much? Don’t you think some of those thoughts rattled around in John Mark’s head as he thought about how he’d let down the great Paul?

Or perhaps it’s simply a contentious situation you’re dealing with. These come and go. They happen at work, in traffic, in families, on Facebook (good grief!). How do you deal with them? You listen to the voices. Now I’ll tell you what those voices are in the coming three weeks. This is what we call in the business “a tease.” It will make you come back next week.

For this week, however, let’s just nail down that we all have contentious situations that can lead to all kinds of caustic spiritual emotions like anger, resentment, shame, guilt, confusion, etc. Let’s also nail down that the contentious way things might be in your life right now is not necessarily the way things will be down the road. God is always working grace into the lives of people who are open to it.

Many years after “the sharp contention” Paul sat in a jail cell facing a very uncertain future. He longed for his books and parchments, and especially for the companionship of a certain young man. So, he wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful in serving me.” That’s the same John Mark who had been the target of his condemnation years earlier.

Remember, God works His grace into the lives of everyone who is open to Him. You just have to listen to the voices.

Grace,

Terry Ellis

August 18, 2019

Invite God Into Your Pain

“In the world you will have tribulation, but rejoice for I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

I’ve noticed that over the last several weeks I’ve touched often on the topic of suffering. This doesn’t represent a plan on my part necessarily, for I really try to let topics come to me through prayer and what I happen to see at the time. It seems, I suppose, that trials and difficulties have caught my attention a bit more than usual lately.

It's an important topic, of course, and one that nearly everyone can relate to any given day. In my long preaching and writing career, sermons or columns on how to handle challenge and difficulty proved most popular or needed. Life is hard, and the hardness of life can be the great shipwreck  of faith for many people. We need to get this idea right, or we risk losing all. It is the most consequential fault line in American theology.

Perhaps one reason I’ve been drawn to this topic so much lately is that I see so many people getting it wrong. Specifically, I find the idea that Christianity is the way to avoid suffering.

This idea has been around for a very long time. Rev. Ike used to preach that God wanted him to have a Cadillac, and you too presumably if you sent him enough money. I risk sounding snarky here, but when Janis Joplin satirically sang about the Lord buying her a Mercedes Benz, we have a theological problem that needs to be addressed.

The key to a good heresy is to take a kernel of truth and blow it wildly out of proportion. Does God want to bless us? Well, of course. Jesus said the Father knows how to give good things to His children. And yes, doing good does put us in a stream of Providence that generally leads to a better life, and doing bad will eventually catch up with you. But does that mean that if I tithe I’m due a disease-free life of luxury as I jet around the country in my Gulfstream? Of course not.

Now I don’t want to substitute one distortion for another. We do love to casually, even caustically, dismiss some preachers as health and wealth peddlers. But I’ve listened to a message or two from one of the most libeled and I found that particular sermon to be positive and encouraging. Contempt is never a virtue even if I happen to agree with the assessment.

Now I’ve gone a long way around to get to this point: Christians are not in the suffering-avoidance business. We’re called to be part of the suffering-redemption business. And that business is God’s. It's an act of grace, not a reward for my works. Grace wins even when suffering shouts.

Jesus said quite clearly “in the world you will have tribulation.” When He added “rejoice, I’ve overcome the world,” He did not mean that we get a pass on the uncomfortable truth. Paul, James, and Peter echoed this idea. They all suffered, dying awful deaths because of their faith. To suggest in any way that we can or should avoid suffering turns the New Testament on its head.

We expend far too much energy, and have tremendously distorted expectations, regarding our own suffering. Pray to be healed, of course! Pray for a level path, without question! But above all things invite God into your suffering. The redemption throughsuffering is the central and richest idea of Christianity. The cross itself bears marvelous witness to this truth. It is the nexus of the very worst suffering imaginable and the greatest dispensation of grace possible.

Indulge me for a moment in a bit of Greek mythology. I think I can make it worth your while. Through Hades flow five rivers, with Styx being the most familiar. The river Lethe, however, is the most interesting. The word in Greek means “to forget.” Everyone who goes to Hades can take a drink from the river and forget everything.

John Erskine’s poem “Actaeon” focuses on a story from Greek mythology about a hunter who dies tragically. (It’s a great story, but I don’t have time to go into it. Google it.) Anyway, in the poem, Actaeon goes to Hades and comes to the River Lethe. After beautiful stanzas of reflection, he asks this question: “One draught of Lethe for a world of pain? An easy bargain. Yet I keep the thorn to keep the rose.” He could have erased all pain, but he realized the pain was prelude to the blessing. Thorn and rose are forever linked. Lose one and you lose the other.

So here is the question I want to ask you this week: are you trying to take that drink and avoid all pain? Or are you willing to accept the pain in order to gain the blessing? It’s the only way, really. All the other paths involve complaint, fear, and doubt about past, present, or future pain. Take any of those paths and you miss the redemptive grace Christ died to bring into the world.

For some of you this little exercise will mean that you stop playing God. Your questions have been inevitable, but they’re now holding you back. It’s time to move on.  Invite God into your pain. He’s there already. He understands your tears, your doubts, even your rage. But God is also good, and the source of all comfort. He is the rose we find after the thorn.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

August 4, 2019

Are You Crazy?

“And the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7

I’m fairly sure it’s not an official DSM diagnosis, but I believe many of us suffer from just plain craziness. Are you crazy? Before you answer no let’s dig into the notion of craziness for a minute.

The English word “crazy” appears to be derived from a Middle English word meaning “to crush.” In turn, that old word likely derives from the French word “ecraser” which means “to crush, break, or shatter.” While you may not be completely crushed, broken, or shattered, judging from your schedules and general spiritual temperament, many of you can honestly say that you are at least a little rattled. Some of you have definitely crossed the line into full-blown brokenness. Craziness does come in degrees.

Life fractures all of us in many ways, and it can completely shatter us sometimes. I think we operate in this broken world with a kind of baseline craziness, and we’re often pushed over the threshold into being fully cracked up.

Occasional craziness is a nuisance, but chronic craziness is spiritually debilitating. Fear is the underlying disorder that gives rise to all the surface-level expressions of craziness. You may imagine controversies, magnify disputes, rehearse or create angry conversations, become unreasonably impatient with only the slightest provocation, or complain regularly. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, you feel apathetic, dull, tired, afraid, or alienated.

Sometimes when teaching about craziness I would illustrate by taking a dinner plate, wrapping it in a towel, and hitting with a mallet. “This is your life” and “This is your crazy life.” Craziness removes the wholeness of life, its integrity, and purpose. So we need something or Someone to put all the pieces together.

The solution lies in maintaining your connection with the God of peace. Paul wrote about a process of letting all your requests be made known to God. We all love that idea! When Lauren was about eight I’d taught her the ACTS acronym for how to pray (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication). She said quite seriously “I have a lot of supplications.”

Lest we treat God like a cosmic Santa Claus, however, Paul added that we are to make these supplications “with thanksgiving.” Gratitude is such a magnet for blessings.

But it’s the result we want to focus on. Paul concluded this section with “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” God’s peace restores wholeness to our logical selves and emotional selves, both sides of the brain. We end up with a clear head for thinking and a warm heart for loving.

What’s more, there is a certain irrationality to this peace. It passes all understanding. I’ve often heard from people in crazy times “I have peace.” Sometimes they’re puzzled by it. Give God a chance in the middle of the worst storm, and He will show up.

The word “peace” in Greek and in Hebrew fundamentally means “wholeness.” So it is peace we need to quiet our craziness, and the God of peace provides a way for us to receive it. In fact, it’s not just a gift He dispenses. Peace is God’s presence that guards us from the craziness of life. Thus Jesus said “My peace I give to you” (John 14:27).

As always, the presence of God in our lives is the key. Even though we may understand 1/1000 of a percent what that fully means, it is stupendously true. It’s why we can have peace.

In another very important program of my life, I’ve learned that when I’m agitated or doubtful, right at that moment, I should pause and pray. Sometimes I get foolishly practical and try to control or solve the craziness on my own. That simply never works in the deep places of my heart and soul. When I pray, however, I’ve never notfelt a sense of peace and found an eventual solution.

Try it. When something happens today that threatens to push you over the edge, pause, pray, and ask God to guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. I’m sure you’ll find peace and be a little less crazy.

Grace and peace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

July 28, 2019

The Paper Towel Tube

“Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin and gave the lad a drink.” Genesis 21:19

Imagine looking through a paper towel tube like you did when you were a kid. What you see is a very limited circle of reality. Now keep that in mind as we fill in some backstory.

Hagar is the woman in this verse. She was Abraham’s concubine, a “gift” from Sarah, his wife, to bear him a child. As a practical aside here, wives don’t do this. Husbands don’t suggest it. In case there are any doubts, we discourage this practice today. Email me directly if you have any questions.

Over 3500 years ago, however, this was not an unusual practice. Sarah was in a rush to try and fulfill God’s promise to make a great nation from Abraham. Because she was barren, Sarah took matters into her own hands. Her impatience brought a great deal of heartache to many, many generations.

In the inevitable jealousy that followed, Sarah drove Hagar and her child away. In the harsh wilderness near Beersheba, Hagar ran out of water, laid her child under a bush so that he might die in the shade, and moved off a small distance so she too might die.

The Bible tells us God heard the cries of the child and sent an angel to assure Hagar of her survival, and then we come to the verse quoted above, “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

Look carefully at the verse again. Do you get the impression that God miraculously created a spring there in the wilderness? No. The wording suggests that God simply made her aware of the well that was always there. Her grief, fear, hopelessness, etc. had blinded her to God’s presence, providence, and provision

Pain in its various forms has a constricting effect on faith. We end up with a paper towel tube view of life that allows us to look only at our troubles. In our little circle of reality are all our fears, resentments, doubts, and complaints. What’s more we want other people to look through our paper towel tube. That little circle consumes us.

The Scripture often presents faith in terms of seeing. Light and dark are related common themes. Jesus’ healings of the blind have a metaphorical meaning. Paul wrote about our need for insight and that the “eyes of our hearts” may be enlightened so that we can see all that God has for us.

During the darkest time of my life I felt alone and hopeless. The circle of my reality shrank until all I saw was genuine despair. The recovery of my faith and joy began with a simple prayer something like “God I feel lost, and I need You now.” I soon felt something I can only describe as a breath. It was as if the Spirit whispered “I am here. You are not alone. Let’s walk back to the light.” And I saw again.

Pain can shrink our field of view so that our pain is all we see. It becomes an all-consuming reality. Faith, however, expands our view and reveals God’s wonder, beauty, and light even in the midst of the darkness. That is the wonder of it all really. Through the lens of faith God transforms our pain, so that pain, instead of being a proof of God’s inexistence becomes the means to see Him most clearly.

Our greatest need is not for God to create something new as much as it is for God to simply show us Himself and what He’s already provided. The well of Living Water is always there. Your need is met. You just need to look again. So, maybe your prayer this week should be for God to take away your paper towel tube.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

July 21, 2019

The Way to Stop Hating One Another

“What is man that Thou are mindful of him?” Psalm 8:4

Does the night sky make you feel insignificant? Most people reading this have a very limited access to the night sky, our city lights washing out all but a relative few bright points. But when you had a chance to see the vastness of our galaxy, perhaps even seeing the slash of the Milky Way across the night sky, did you feel small? That would be understandable. But did you feel insignificant? That’s hazardous.

In his book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil de Grasse Tyson tells of a planetarium in New York that takes people on a journey from the surface of the earth to the edge of the cosmos. Within a month of the opening he received a letter from an Ivy League psychology professor who studied things that make people feel insignificant. He said that when he viewed the show he experienced a dramatic sense of smallness and insignificance. He wanted to administer a before-and-after questionnaire to assess the depths of depression people experienced from viewing the show. Dr. Tyson eventually proposes “the cosmic perspective” as a solution, and explicitly states that this perspective must not be religious.

Contrast that with the response of a man whose vocation early in life required him to be outside at night, so he literally spent untold hours looking up. He lived in a time undimmed by any city lights, and he actually considered this question of smallness and insignificance that plagued the professor. “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” In other words, with all of this “bigness” how can God even notice me in my smallness?

David’s answer, however, was far different from the professor’s. “Thou hast created man a little lower than the angels.” The night sky produced a feeling of religious awe in him that led to a sense of profound significance. His religious faith was integral to his feelings of self-worth and having a valued place in the universe.

Psalm 19 is another astronomical psalm and is a marvelous study in the healthy relationship between scientific knowledge and religious belief. David’s curiosity and observations led him to both wonderful insights about nature and deeper theological convictions.

That combination has interested me from a very early age when I had telescopes, microscopes, and chemistry sets. Discovery for me has always been tinged with religious awe. And my theological convictions have always led me to want to discover and know (the word science is from the Latin word for knowledge – that’s a good thing!). What concerns me today is the culturally binary attempt to dispense with the former while embracing only the latter.

Chesterton said that before you tear down a fence you need to find out why it was there in the first place. What are the spiritual, intellectual, and even social implications of getting rid of religion?

When we lose the capacity for religious awe, or even lose the willingness to respect the role of religion, we begin worshiping lower things. Without question religious participation is on the decline in our country. This is particularly true among young adults, which has actually always been the case. People tend to gravitate toward matters of faith as they grow older. That’s been true as long as I’ve been watching the statistics.

What’s changed however is a growing impression that religious convictions are not only obsolete or anti-intellectual, but downright dangerous. This phenomenon accelerated tremendously after the 9/11 attacks. Equating religious beliefs with fanaticism became vogue, and thus “militant atheism” was born.

I see this regularly. A student from a university I’m familiar with recently told me one of his professors stated one of his goals in the class was to expose the lunacy of religious belief. I don’t recall the details other than the class had nothing to do with religion at all. The supposition, however, is clear: religion is dangerous, we’ve outgrown it, and we need to rid ourselves of it. In the professor’s case he went so far as “I need to rid it from you.”

Shouldn’t the real distinction be between good and bad religion, instead of religion or no religion at all? We can easily point to screeching failures of both religious people and religious institutions, but do we really want to get rid of the whole idea? That would be akin to my saying I don’t like art because I don’t like Andy Warhol.

What do we lose if we frivolously dispense with the notion of a Creator and the religious structures that seek to teach us about Him and to connect us to Him? (the word religion literally means to reconnect – that’s a good thing!). Again, when we lose sight of the Highest we end up worshiping lesser things. Thus, for example, I fear too many of our young people are graduating from our great academic institutions with empty souls, meaningless degrees, mountains of debt, but a passion for recycling.

To return to my art analogy, to witness the beauty of such artistry everywhere around me calls deeply for me to believe in an Artist. Religion simply helps me to develop the rituals, rites, and rhythms that help me understand and serve the Artist. In that belief I find my truest significance.

My modest weekly suggestion for all ills, both personal and societal, is to emphasize the great necessity for grace. Whatever your religious impulses might be, grace, at the very least, should make you feel accepted by God and significant to Him. If we accept at our deepest levels the great fact of God’s love for us then not only will we feel significant, we will stop hating one another. Think of how much better our world, our nation, our communities would be if we simply stopped hating one another?

Therefore, if we lose religious awe, I truly believe we lose ourselves and the impetus for us to love one another.

I honestly see no prospect for a better anything apart from grace, and that begins with me. When I look into the night sky I may feel small, but I don’t feel insignificant. God created me a little lower than the angels. With that conviction I get a better sense of personal value and the value of all people. Far from being an impediment to any real social gain, my religion, founded upon grace, leads me to love and serve God and love and serve you, whoever you may be.

Do you feel insignificant? God knows and loves you. Now with that certainty go love and tell someone else. That, I’m sure, is God’s great aim for us all.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

July 14, 2019

Collateral Grace

“Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces enduring strength, and you must let that enduring strength have its full effect, that you be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4

I have a friend whose son is a professional pitcher, working his way through the many levels of the minor leagues in the hope of making it to The Show, Major League Baseball. He’s had all the ups and downs of a young, aspiring athlete. Success in an early level means a promotion to the next level with better hitters and bigger challenges. He’s apparently working hard and has good prospects of success. We’re all pulling for him.

One day I asked my friend how her son was doing, and in the course of giving me a brief run-down she said “His attitude is ‘you either win or learn.’”

Win or learn. I really like that.

How different we might be if we had a “win or learn” attitude for any pursuit in life. In fact, I believe this is really solid theology and goes to the heart of what James had in mind.

When it comes to life, not just sports, I’m fully committed to winning. I like to win. For example, I like good health. When I have some nagging injury (a loss), I go to my doctor or PT (or call my son who is a PT, very good, and totally free) and try to get well (a win). To date, I’ve had really solid success in winning at health.

I like solid professional success. I enjoyed a long career as a pastor (a win) and enjoy my present career as an interventionist and speaker (another win). Now I haven’t always gotten my way, and there have been those rareexceptions of an ornery church member or two (losses), but I’m in a good place professionally (back to winning).

You get the picture. We all want to win these often significant “competitions” in life. They can be as minor as the air conditioner working all the way up to healthy and happy children and grandchildren, for example.

When we lose, our natural and understandable response is to try to get back to winning. We want to fix things, and, for the most part, we’re pretty good at that. But if we meet a trial only with the desire to fix, then we are going to miss a very important principle: we only learn through the losses.

Now you’re probably mentally trying to come up with all kinds of objections, but never try to live by the objections. There is a certain way the spiritual world works. God takes our trials, our setbacks, our sufferings and teaches us something very powerful that we could learn no other way. If we expect nothing but unbroken success, then we risk becoming spoiled children who just really can’t handle real life.

That’s what James had in mind with the staggering verse that we are to “count it all joy when we meet various trials.” No one wins all the time and winning all the time is not even the point of life. Growth is the point. Growth in faith, in love, in joy, in peace. James had learned through a lifetime of being with Jesus that in every loss God includes enough grace to get us through and a blessing that comes no other way. God makes certain that on the scoreboard of eternity, no one ever needs to lose.

You’re either facing or will face another loss. Try to avoid the tendency to curse pain and sink into self-pity. Instead look for the collateral grace and blessing that God tucks into every loss. The endurance and faith you gain are the real and eternal wins.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

July 6, 2019

When Faith Falters

“If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13

You’re not as faithful as you could be.

I may not have met you, but I’m right! Right? Somehow your faith is not as steady, sturdy, regular, or deep as it could be or needs to be. You struggle with doubt and fear. The uncertainties in your life, perhaps right now, have nearly overwhelmed you. Or your faith has cooled to the point of irrelevance. Was it ever real?

The easiest preaching in the world is soaked in guilt and shame. A clever speaker could make someone the stature of Billy Graham squirm. After all, who among us is as perfectly faithful as we should be? It’s always easy to point out faults, and all of us have them, especially when it comes to consistency in faith.

So it’s likely that all readers who’ve stayed with me through this warm and uplifting beginning could agree with the first line. In fact, I’ll embrace it, “I’m not as faithful as I should be.” Perhaps my failure at this point is doubly disturbing, for I have the degrees and background that should make for really strong faith, in the original language no less.

An aside here, I have an MDiv, a Masters in Divinity. In the universe of academia there cannot possibly be a more pretentious-sounding degree. My Doctorate in Theology frankly sounds like a step down. Yet even though I have purportedly mastered The Divine I’m not as faithful as I could be.

Now let’s shift from the negative destruction of error (my lack of faith) to the positive construction of truth, and this truth is very powerful: God is perfectly faithful to me. Even though I limp and doubt, God is faithful to me.

That’s Paul’s point in 2 Timothy. The author of half our New Testament included himself in the phrase “if we are faithless.” I don’t know that Paul ever reached the depths of faithlessness, but I do know from his other letters that he struggled, and wondered, and despaired and was disappointed. His response was not simply “I need to be more faithful!” The solution included “God is faithful to me.” I find that extraordinarily comforting.

You will not make any progress if you consistently beat yourself up for not being faithful enough. You might as well despair because you can’t fly. Life’s shadows can make any of us wonder about the light. It’s simply a part of being human.

A part of being God, however, is that He’s always faithful to you. It’s a major theme of the Psalms. One of our most beloved hymns is “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” God doesn’t doubt or give up on you because it is His character to be perfectly consistent. In that consistency He has chosen to believe in you.

We tread in life on the borders of change and uncertainty. I believe that a great deal of our struggle with this inevitability arises from a lack of conviction, of having not made up our minds about the most important matters of life. Of course, I struggle with faith sometimes, and I can, and should, repeatedly affirm my faltering faith. “I do believe! I do believe!” And the struggle often remains.

How different it can be, however, if I will also say “You are faithful to me.” I’ve then focused on God’s enduring and unchanging character. We have moved here more deeply into the realm of grace. “I believe” is my response to God’s revelation, and that takes work. God’s affirmation that He will be faithful to me is His commitment based on grace. He simply will not give up on me no matter how I struggle with my faith in Him.

All of this means God will take care of me. That is settled. As Moses assured the people who faced a variety of enemies, “Do not be terrified or afraid of them, for the Lord God goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).

Am I as faithful as I can or should be? Of course not. My lack of faith does create problems for me when I face an enemy such as fear, for example. If I trusted more I would certainly fear less. But whatever terrors swirl around we now have a firmer place to stand, even with a sometimes-feeble faith. For God is as faithful as He can be.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

June 30, 2019

Asking God

“May He grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans…May the Lord fulfill all your petitions.” Psalm 20:4-5

One of the most common questions people ask me in my 35+ years of ministry is some form of “Is it all right to ask God for things?” The “thing” may be healing for a sick loved one, direction for life, a mate, even divine help for a sports team (which is always acceptable for the Kentucky Wildcats…but never for a team with a satanic mascot name, like, say, Duke).

The short answer is yes. Paul wrote that we should let all our requests be made known to God. All means all. When in doubt, ask. Don’t be embarrassed or afraid of offending God. He knows what you want before you ask, according to Jesus, so you can’t hide anything from Him anyway.

Paul was drawing on a deeply rooted biblical tradition. David in many psalms prayed for God to “fulfill your heart’s desire, answer all your petitions, and accomplish all your plans.” He had himself made known many times his desires, petitions, and plans and found God open and answering.  He, and other psalmists, had a deep and abiding belief that God responded to us in our times of trouble. This conviction, I’m sure, was based not only on both David’s personal experience, but also his understanding of God’s character.

Jesus made God’s character very clear. He consistently helped people with their most difficult problems. He taught that God is a joyful Giver knowing how to give good things to His children, and being very responsive to our pleas. When I read again Jesus’ teaching about prayer I’m impressed that I usually expect too little from God, not too much.

And going back to Paul, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. So somehow God takes what may be our most infantile and self-centered prayers and “filters” them so that, purged of any harmful or useless qualities, they can properly become part of what is best for us and the people for whom we pray.

I know the objections. In fact, I hear some people voice so many caveats about prayer that I wonder what they’re left with. Yes, it’s true that prayer mainly changes me. Yes, it’s true that I can’t change someone else through my prayers. Yes, it’s true that God doesn’t grant all my requests. Yes, it’s true that I can sometimes treat God like a cosmic Santa Claus.

But it’s also true that my prayers somehow release God’s power into my life and the lives of people I pray for. God and prayer are powerfully mysterious, but I do know that my prayers are part of God’s Providence.

My mother would conclude every phone conversation of my adult life with “I pray for you every day.” How much of my life has been shaped by those prayers? I can’t know, of course, but I’m greatly comforted by the conviction that God honored a mother’s prayer for her son. And that conviction compels me to bring to God my desires, plans, and petitions for myself, and for you.

Grace and peace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

June 23, 2019

The Muddle of Uncertainty

"For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "Plans for your welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." Jeremiah 29:11

GraceWaves are reminders for the most part. Seldom am I going to break some new ground, or reveal some new and deep insight. Frankly, I'm not that good. But I think I am a good "reminder."

Today I want to remind you that God is taking care of you. He has not forgotten you. He has not overlooked you or neglected you, and He is not idle. He is at work right now in your life.

This verse from Jeremiah is one of the most memorized and cherished in the Bible. It's a reminder to people in exile who only saw despair and hopelessness. Their minds were filled with questions and doubts. Perhaps they were on the edge of belief about to step out of that warm circle of light. Perhaps that's why God inspired Jeremiah to speak these words at that moment. "I'm taking care of you. You have a future. You have hope."

Perhaps you need some direction today, or reassurance, or a solution. That's a pretty safe bet actually. I've never met an honest Christian who didn't wonder and worry. We're destined in this life to "see through a glass darkly." We walk by faith and not by sight, and sometimes we tend to stumble rather than walk.

So perhaps today, in that muddle of your uncertainty, you need to be reminded that God still knows your name, loves you dearly, and is working out His marvelously mysterious Providence in your life right now.

We all tend to ascribe far too much power to our present discomfort and allow it to become a verdict on God's character. That's short-sighted, which of course God never is. He does take the long-term view, and I believe He's also concerned about the near-term blessings. That means He's giving you precisely what you need right now to be a fully functioning child of the Kingdom and is preparing your for eternity as well. Your task, as always, is to trust Him to make all things right in His perfect timing.

I really do love what John Piper wrote: "God is doing about 10,000 things in your life right now…You may be aware of three of them."

Maybe today's GraceWave is a reminder of one of those three things. I think it could be! So be patient, trusting, and hopeful. God is at work.

Grace and peace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

June 9, 2019

 

Joy: The Laughter of the Soul

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people.” Luke 2:9

A scene from Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan serves as a wonderful Third Sunday of Advent illustration. First, a little background.

During the Hundred Years’ War, the teenage Joan of Arc claimed to hear the voices of Michael the Archangel and two other saints instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination. She eventually led several successful military campaigns that paved the way for Charles’ coronation and eventual French victory. That’s the history.

Now in one scene of the play Charles peevishly complains “Why don’t the voices come to me? I am king, not you.” Joan answers, "They do come to you, but you do not hear them. When the angelus rings you cross yourself and have done with it. But if you prayed from your heart and listened for the thrilling of the bells in the air after they stop ringing, then you would hear the voices as well as I do."

The theme of the third Sunday of Advent is joy. Joy is an unusual word. We don’t use it often. We talk of happiness incessantly as if it were the highest good. But happiness depends on agreeable circumstances (literally “good haps”). Joy is quite different from happiness.

Joy is a gift from God. Paul lists it as the second fruit of the Spirit. You don’t work to get joy. It’s the soul’s response to God’s grace. Now interestingly, at least to me, the word for “joy” in Greek is derived from the same root as “grace” and “gift.” In other words you can’t earn or achieve joy.

In this realm of grace we operate with an entirely different calculus. Joy is not a quantity you can increase any more than you can increase the carbon in your body. That element is there simply as a function of the organic chemistry that enables life. So it is with grace in the spiritual realm.

The key is to become awareof grace, and that is the single most important difference among people. A few are aware. Most are not. When we become aware of God’s grace then the soul laughs. Joy is the laughter of the soul that fully accepts that it is fully accepted by God. Grace leads to joy.

Joan’s reply to the king is spot on. You don’t perform any extra religious rituals to hear the voices. You simply be still and listen. The voices are constant. They will come to you. Be still and you become aware of the joy that is your birthright as a Christian. You can receive joy, and experience joy, but you cannot achieve joy.

Are you making time to be still this Advent? Don’t complicate this! Find a quiet place, perhaps with the glow of an Advent wreath, and make time for that divine hush, the pause, the selah (as the psalmist put it). Don’t rush. That little tingling you likely feel? That’s it. That’s the laughter of the soul that hears the Word telling you that you are loved, accepted, and secure. And that is good news of a great joy.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

December 16, 2018