GraceWaves Articles


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

Trust + Obedience = Peace

“We have peace with God.” Romans 5:1

What a way to run an incarnation!

The coming of God in the flesh is one of the great moments in history, right up there with Creation and the resurrection. Yet so much about the birth of the Messiah is puzzling, surprising, even outlandish.

The casting appears all wrong. A peasant girl. A carpenter. The setting is puzzling. Bethlehem was full of surly, out-of-town tax payers. This is before Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, even Motel 6. The inns were booked.

So full was the city that Joseph and Mary couldn’t find anywhere to stay, even though Mary was about 39½ weeks along, and had just traveled about 80 miles ON A DONKEY! That trip would have taken about two weeks or so. You’d think that God would pull a few strings here. The incarnation was swaddled in uncertainty.

Yet the theme of the second week of Advent is peace, and the candle we light is called “The Bethlehem Candle.” Who planned this? Nothing about the first Christmas in Bethlehem was peaceful, unless you look at it through God’s eyes.

Look at it through God’s eyes and you see a plan. You see the outworking of salvation. You see Him meeting every need. You see love. You see hope. Right there in the middle of all that chaos you find God’s peace.

God’s peace is like a steady, dependable line through the sine curves of life. The good and bad will oscillate back and forth. If you tie yourself to that chaotic rhythm then you’re going to be alternately high, then low. Over and over again. You’ll be just like everyone in Bethlehem that first Christmas.

Everyone, that is, except Mary and Joseph. I’m sure they went through moments of panic. No one is immune to the sine curves. But they had a basic trust in God and a fundamental commitment to obedience. Trust plus obedience equals peace.

I think most people reading this GraceWave trust God. The alternative seems foolish. It’s the obedience part that trips us up.

Obedience is stillness when everything around you is swirling. Obedience is silence when the world is shouting. Obedience is refusing to wrestle with every disagreeable circumstance. Obedience is stepping aside when someone throws dirt at you.

So when will you be still this week? Or silent? Who, or what, do you need to stop wrestling with? Or let go of?

God’s job is not to make life easy, but His job is to give you peace. So find the time and the will during your busy Bethlehem days to trust and obey. Then you will find peace.

Grace (and peace),

Dr. Terry Ellis

December 11, 2018

Hope

“And this hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” Romans 5:5

Are you hopeful? Honestly, I fear hope is on the decline. All of our little handheld computers, and otherwise, are too often little more than the amygdala’s megaphone shouting all of our fears, angers, and frustrations to an itchy-eared audience. We broadcast our caustic emotions and create and ongoing expectation of imminent apocalypse. Hope is lost, or at least severely muted.

Hope, however, is the theme of the first week of Advent, and hope is most needed where it appears most absent. In fact, hope loves to show up where it is least expected.

The  Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a great example. Longfellow opens with his typical optimism. The Christmas-day bells remind the world of “peace on earth, good will to men.” The second stanza is even better, for he hears that sweet refrain in his heart. So far so good.

But the tone changes dramatically in the third stanza. Longfellow turned from the hope of heaven to the misery of the moment, and those moments were genuinely miserable. Written in 1864, Civil War ravaged the country, and the future of the UnitedStates was sorely in doubt. No wonder Longfellow wrote “And in despair, I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Now there’s The Realist! Hatred was strong. Any wooly-headed optimist who suggested something higher and better may well have been mocked and ridiculed. Such is the sad, predictable refrain of The Realist.

Frankly, it takes no particular intellect or creativity to sound doom. The world alwayshas enough bad in it for despair to set in. There’s plenty of hatred today. And anger. And resentment. All seven deadly sins are alive and well. If you want a reason for despair, then click on the front page of your favorite news outlet.

Thank God for the fourth stanza! Longfellow turned back to the heavens and penned, “Then peeled the bells more loud and sweet, God is not dead nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

Hope, real hope, is always grounded in God’s character and providence. That’s the ultimate Reality. Connect hope to worldly metrics, like health, wealth, relationships, performance etc. and you will be disappointed, for life is hard. Focus on God and hope becomes the candle of your soul.

Trust God to make all things right in His time, and you’ll find hope. As for the despairing world around you? In the words of St. Francis, where there is despair, we bring hope.

Grace and peace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

December 3, 2018

Drop the Reins

“The Lord is my shepherd.” Psalm 23:1

Do you know what to do if you get lost while riding a horse?

Neither did I until I heard this story from an acquaintance.

Alicia is an avid and experienced rider. She and a friend took their own horses to an unfamiliar piece of land. It was many acres, with rolling hills, woods, and water. All the elements to make for a fine morning excursion.

After riding for more than an hour, they became disoriented. After a few uncertain efforts to find the right way they realized they could be wandering around for quite a while. At this point, Alicia’s friend said, “drop the reins.” They both did, and the horses confidently made their way back to the barn.

“Drop the reins.”

Life is full of unfamiliar territory. We often find ourselves in situations where we simply don’t know how to make things better, how to help someone else, or how to solve a thorny problem. In fact, many times our efforts to arrange and control matters and people, even benevolently, results in more chaos.

What do we do then? Usually we grip the reins of life more tightly, jerking this way and that. Certain that if we just increase our frenetic efforts then somehow everything will turn out all right. After all, “I am the master of my fate! The captain of my soul!”

Not really.

One of the most uncomfortable discoveries in life is realizing how little control you have over so many things, including careers, health, children, spouses, etc. In fact, if it’s on the outside of you, then you need to forget controlling it.

I’ve too often wrangled life, sometimes getting my way, but not feeling any lasting peace from all the battles. Only when I let God lead do I find my way home. When I drop the reins means I  stop worrying so much, and I start trusting more. I accept that God is in charge of my life and this world. Not me.

The Bible, as it often does, presents us with a beautiful paradox. On the one hand we are to ask, seek, and knock. We are to strive, pursue, and build. But we are also to trust, abide, wait, and lose. Jesus’ most common invitation to disciples is “follow me.” A follower doesn’t lead. A follower follows. If the Lord is my shepherd, then I relinquish the right to determine which pasture I want Him to lead me to.

Some of my golden dreams have tarnished. Some people have let me down. I’m not as strong, wise, or influential as I might have been. But I’ve discovered that my desperate wanting inevitably led me to disappointment. When I want, I get lost. When I let God lead, I do not want. I drop the reins, and He leads me home.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis                                                                                                                         November 30, 2018

God's Got This

“Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18

A few years ago while going through a period of uncertainty and fear I called a good friend of mine, Bill Hamm, and said simply, “Bill, I’m just afraid.” He replied, “Terry, God’s got this.”

God’s got this.

The best theology is simple, and you can’t get much simpler than “God’s got this.” Those words at that time allayed my fear, renewed my trust, and calmed my heart. The outworking of that particular “this” still took some time, but “God’s got this” reminded me then and reminds me today that in all the truly important ways, God is in control of my life and this world. Because of that, I can relax in the rhythms of His grace and take it easy.

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day, a day on which we are to particularly remember that the spiritual discipline of thanksgiving is grounded in a fundamental trust in God’s providence. We look back and see how God’s gracious hand has guided us. We look to the present and realize that we are surrounded by a bounty that is truly astounding by any reasonable standard. We look to the future with an abiding trust that as God has acted in the past, He will act in the future.

And that covers every present and future “this.”

What is your “this” today? What is the event, relationship or circumstance that has stolen or threatened your peace? As a prayer and confession of faith say quietly “God’s got this.”

I don’t know that we ever actually articulate the words, but many times we live with an attitude of “my ‘this’ is too big, too frightening, too entrenched. It keeps returning. The solution can’t be as simple as “’God’s got this.’”

As with so many deep and abiding truths, we tend to believe them except when we really need to embrace or apply them. If your “this” really is huge and overwhelming doesn’t that mean you really need to say “God’s got this” instead of dismissing or neglecting it?

Lincoln declared a national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863. You don’t have to be a history buff to recall what was going on in our country in 1863. Civil War (could there be a more oxymoronic phrase?!?) ravaged the country. The outcome was in doubt and the future of our nation hung in the balance. Lincoln realized something we need to remember, thanksgiving is most necessary when it seems most difficult.

“God’s got this” is not conditional. It goes right to the heart of what Paul meant when he wrote, “Be thankful in all circumstances.” Not some circumstances. Not pleasant circumstances. Not mildly challenging circumstances. ALL circumstances.

A final observation. Note that Paul did not say be thankful “for” all circumstances. Some of your circumstances are terrible beyond description. You don’t need to be thankful for those. But even in those extreme circumstances be thankful to God. He is with you. He’ll take care of you. God’s will for you is that you let God be God.

Think now of your challenging “this.” Now say it: God’s got this.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis                                                                                                                         November 22, 2018

Living in the Meantime

“The Lord made a covenant with us at Horeb…”         Deuteronomy 5:2

I wrote last week that God always speaks, but He usually whispers. However, you may be in a situation where you want a rushing mighty wind not a gentle breeze. Earthquake, fire, and wind are preferable to the still small voice. You want His voice to be louder than the noise of your crisis.

In the Bible God sometimes does shout His answers. A divided sea, a healing, an exorcism, a stilled storm, a resurrection. It appears to happen all the time in Scripture. Why should today be different? What we don’t realize is that between the pages of two miracles in the Bible may be months, years, decades, or more. People lived long stretches “in the meantime.”

At the close of his life Moses addressed the people, and he began by reminding them of all the clear ways God had spoken to them. There were unmistakable events in their history that they had to remember during the quiet whispers of the meantime.

We’re certainly not wrong to want something clear and concrete where we can say “THAT was God!” I believe God does provide those mountain-top-clarity moments and then we tend to forget them in the long periods of the meantime. We need to hold on to our sacred memories.

Isak Dinesan wrote a story about a man who became a rich author early in life. “Like most people to whom wealth and fame happen unexpectedly, the young man developed significant adjustment problems. He had written out of poverty about poverty, but now he was rich and felt isolated from the condition and the people who had given him his first book. He was estranged from his wife, from God and even from himself. He wandered all night in the streets of Amsterdam, trying to sort things out. He decided that he would never write again and gave away the manuscript of a new book he was writing.

“About at the end of his rope, he was considering suicide when suddenly, he felt overcome with the presence of God. God seemed to speak to him directly that he should write again, ‘not for the public this time, or for the critics, but for me.’ ‘Can I be certain of that?’ he asked. ‘Not always’ said the Lord. ‘You will not be certain of it all the time. But I tell you now that it is so. You will have to hold on to that.’”

You’ve had a moment, at least, when you were sure. The clouds parted, the window opened, the noise died away, and you KNEW it was God. You have to hold on to that. To get you through the long stretches of God’s whispers when fear and doubt are likely to set in, you have to hold to that.

When were you sure? What was the moment? Was it in a sanctuary? Your den? Driving in the car? In the words of a friend? A walk in a forest? God has spoken to you. Remember that moment right now. That was real. That was God. Your faith now is not in vain. You’re right to believe. It’s called perseverance, an important facet of faith.

Now hold on to that.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

November 11, 2018

Speak Lord, for We Are Listening

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” 1 Samuel 3:1

This verse is sad and familiar. God created Israel, and all of us, to be in close fellowship with Him. Yet a dreadful silence had descended upon the people. I wonder if they noticed?

It’s not unusual to hear someone suggest that God is silent. In America’s Four GodsPaul Froese and Christopher Bader write that one of the four main ways people view God is distant and uncommunicative. Interestingly, this group tends to have more years of education. I’ll leave that little detail for a future edition of GraceWaves.

The Bible, however, uniformly presents God as constantly speaking. God’s voice created the universe and all that is in it, except for man and woman whom He formed with His fingers from the dust of the earth (a powerful, personal, and deeply tender image). Psalm 19 marvelously claims that “day to day pours forth speech…their voice goes out through all the earth” (v. 2-4). The Gospel of John begins with the Word that was God and with God from the beginning before becoming flesh. The Word created all things and later became flesh so that He could speak to us first-hand.

The Hebrews conceived of the spoken word as a unit of sovereign energy, though they would not have used that kind of language. When it was spoken, something happened. This is why the idea of blessing is so important to them. Words somehow shape a destiny. So, if God is involved in our lives, then He must be speaking, for that is His nature.

Yet we can all relate to the feeling that God’s word is a rarity in our lives. After all when was the last time you heard from God?

Yet he speaks, and that is a tremendously hopeful thought! The trouble with hearing Him lies in our reception, not His transmission. Strip away the barrage and clatter of the world, and the even louder noise in our heads, and you will hear God.

Our constant challenge is this: the world shouts, but God whispers. Always. Find a time to be still and you will hear the subtle sighs of God. Scripture, prayer, worship, the words of faithful friends, nature, etc. are all means through which God speaks. All of these “work” if we give them a chance.

Though this chapter of 1 Samuel begins with such despondency. it ends with plea and a promise that all of us can embrace this week. In the quiet watches of the night God called his name, and Samuel replied, “Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening.”

Let that your prayer this week. Ask God to specifically address some area of struggle in your life. Then listen. The word of God is NOT rare these days. And a quick final assurance, God’s speaking to you depends not at all upon your worthiness, but on your willingness. That is grace.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

November 4, 2018

Want to Fly Far, Far Away?

[Having grown weary of deadlines for 30+ years I took a break from GraceWaves for a while. Many thanks to all of you who encouraged its return. I look forward again to our weekly encounters. Grace always…]

“O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Truly I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness.” Psalm 55:6

Forrest Gump fans will remember the moving scene where little Jenny flees from her abusive father and hides in a corn field with Forrest. She kneels down and says “Pray with me Forrest! Pray with me!! God, make me a bird so I can fly far, far away from here. God make me a bird so I can fly far, far away from here.”

Turns out a psalm may be the inspiration for that little prayer.

David never hesitated to pour out his complaints and voice his fears. In fact, “Laments” constitute an entire category of the Psalms, and David is the author of most of them. Psalm 55 is a long grumble about the treachery of former friends and allies. David is hurt but also genuinely afraid. Words and phrases like “fear and trembling,” “distraught,” “anguish,” even “horror” pepper the stanzas. You also find a heavy dose of vindictive vitriol.

Crushed and overwhelmed, he wrote “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Truly I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness.”

Turns out this desire is pretty common. My mother used to say, “stop the world, I want to get off!” That was the name of a Broadway production from the early 60’s, but I don’t know if that was her source. Stress and pressure often produce a desire to escape.

Psychologists creatively call it escapism. A little is fine, of course. Give me a rainy day and a good book, and I’ll check out for a while. Too much escapism leads to avoidance. We live in an age with a truly awful combination of our naturally endless capacity for distraction and an avalanche of distractors. We’re a Candy Crush generation (or football, or porn, or Facebook, etc.), and that can’t be good for the soul.

What are you avoiding right now? What’s the stress that makes you want to grow wings and fly far, far away? Go ahead and name it. Now take it to God in prayer.

Psalm 55 is a good model for you. David named his fear and called upon God “evening and morning and noon” (v. 17). The result? David voiced a renewed faith. “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you.” (v. 22). He ended with a final resolve “But I will trust in You” (v. 23).

The world is not going to stop because we find it unpleasant. Nor will we grow wings to fly away. Fly away to where? God has a better way, and His focus is always on the deepest need of our souls. He’s with every Jenny in every cornfield, just as He was with David every painful and joyful step of the way. He is there with you. Have faith, trust Him, and give Him your burden. He will give you enough grace to face today.

Grace,

Dr. Terry Ellis

October 29, 2018