Monday, December 8, 2008

Connecting Dots

Have you ever had a moment where you learn something new and you suddenly find yourself connecting dots that had never, well, connected before? Have you ever reflected on conversations or experiences or circumstances that have been spread out over a significant period of time, all of which were seemingly unrelated, and then God just sort of takes you down memory lane and reminds you that He's quietly and patiently been up to something in your life even though you don't necessarily know what that something is? Have you ever had your heart stirred and encouraged because you realize afresh and anew that God really IS there and that he ALWAYS has been even though you are not always convinced of that because sometimes you go thru a season when He is just too silent for your comfort?

I have.

Such was my experience on Sunday. 

Love it when that happens.

Here's a list of things (from oldest to most recent) that I have been reflecting on the past couple of days...
  1. In the end, only thing that matters in life is what we do with Christ. --My Dad, aka Grampy Sponberg [This was probably about 15 years ago... time flies! Anyway, he was in town on business and we went out for dinner one night. I was not in a good place spiritually at that time and I can still picture Dad taking out a pen and drawing 5 dots and a line with an arrow after the fifth dot. (It looked something like this: . . . . . --------> Hope you get the idea.) Dad then explained the meaning of what he had just drawn: first dot, the day your are born; second dot, the day you get married; third dot, the day your first child is born; fourth dot, the day you retire; fifth dot, the day you die. The line and arrow, Dad said, represent eternity. Keep in mind, I was struggling spiritually, but that visual really grabbed my attention. Nothing earth-shattering happened, no lights flashed, and no dramatic revival took place, but I definitely started thinking about the direction my life was going in. Oh yeah, the lesson? Life is a vapor and, in the end, the only thing that matters is what we do with Christ.] 
  2. You are going to walk a similar path of suffering. --The Spirit of God [I was at the Worcester Centrum (in Massachusetts) about 10 years ago for a Promise Keepers weekend conference. Long story short, on Saturday a guy by the name of Joe White gave the message and he shared with us that he had been recently diagnosed with leukemia. He talked about carrying our cross and suffering and the uncertainties life throws at us. The session ended with 2 or 3 songs and at some point during that worship time I began to get this overwhelming sense that I was soon going to face a very difficult set of circumstances. I immediately dismissed the thought but it soon became obvious to me that God was talking to me... you are going to walk a similar path of suffering. I of course was convinced in the days and weeks and months following that experience that I was about to be diagnosed with a fairly serious if not life-altering if not deadly disease. As time went on, that fear subsided but I never forgot what had happened. (Incidentally, I think the only person I have ever told about this is Nicol... although I'm not entirely certain of that.) Well, the months turned into years and the years turned into a decade. On May 27, the day we lost Luke, I believe that I finally found out what God was whispering about that day in Worcester... because we had just taken our first step onto this path of suffering... and we will be limping along this path for the rest of our lives.
  3. Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. --Jesus via Dr. John Fuder [Dr. Fuder is the urban ministries prof at Moody Grad School. More than that though, he is a friend and mentor, and I learned so much working alongside him on several projects while in Chicago. He quoted the verse above during a lecture one afternoon, and what I remember so vividly is the compelling passion with which he spoke. Mind you, it wasn't a "you have to do this" - i.e., die - it was an "I want this to be true of me" kind of thing that came straight from his heart. I have to be honest about a couple of things: (1) I didn't get it, and (2) I'm still not sure that I get it. Yes, I understand the "single seed" becoming "many seeds" part. It's the "dies" part that gets me. It doesn't come naturally to me. What does come naturally to me is, well, pretty much anything to do with me and what I want and what I think is best and... you know. Thankfully though, while I don't know the extent to which I understand (better yet, follow) this teaching of Jesus, I do know that this dying thing is more of a reality now than it was that day in class. I guess God in His mercy just sort of brings us to that point. Not that we ever "get there" completely, but we take baby steps and we learn (hopefully) that life isn't about us. We increasingly long to adopt John the Baptist's declaration as our own: "He must increase and I must decrease" because we finally realize that things work out much better for us and everyone else when we set "me" aside and trust Him and love Him and obey Him and let Him work on us without a bunch of whining and fussing and... receive His faithful love into our lives.]
  4. You need some of that knocked out of you. --James MacDonald [James was our pastor in Chicago. One night after church we were talking and, while I don't remember anything else about the conversation, I do remember saying something like "there's a certain way to do things and that's that". I have no idea what led me to make such a stupid statement or what I was even referring to, but I am not surprised that I said it. My personality sort of makes it easy for me to see this world in very black and white terms. That can be a good thing, but like the saying goes, our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses. In reflecting on my comment to James, I know that he was right... I did need some of "that" knocked out of me... and I probably still do. Whatever the case, there have been enough humbling circumstances over the past 5-6 years to remind me of this again and again. Marriage and life in general has a way of doing that to you... things don't work so well when one person adopts a "my way or the highway" approach in doing relationships. But NOTHING has knocked "that" out of me more than losing Luke. I don't care to be right nearly as much as I used to. I don't care to fight battles that just don't matter. I don't have the strength to carry on with silly contentious attitudes. And hopefully I have grown up enough to realize that there are many ways of doing things and that if things happened like I think they should it would be a ridiculously boring world.]
  5. Never minister out of giftedness; always minister out of brokenness. --Crawford Loritts [The bottom line here, I think, is that when our approach to life and ministry is a gifts, talents, and abilities thing, it becomes all about me. Hmmm... back to that "me" thing. It's wood, hay, and stubble. But when it's about serving, loving, and a sense of unworthiness rather than entitlement, it becomes all about God and others. It's the stuff that the fire won't consume. It's the honest assessment that, as Paul said, we have this treasure in jars of clay, and so we give our broken and fragile selves to God and all of a sudden we watch Him doing things in us and thru us that would never be possible if our giftedness was in the way, and Jesus begins to flow out of us and He touches people where they most need to be touched and He comforts them in just the right way and He encourages them at just the right moment and He injects a dose of hope into an otherwise hopeless situation and... He is able to do all of it because when we are weak, THEN we are strong.] 
  6. God is good; life is hard. --Alistair Begg [Fill you in later.]
  7. The last thing you need in your life are people who tell you that you're doing everything right. --Alistair Begg [Ditto.]
  8. My wife and children have every right to call me out when I'm not living out in our home what I tell people from the pulpit to do in their homes. --Alistair Begg [Ditto.]
  9. God doesn't call us to places; God calls us to people. --Rick Kavanaugh (The context... Rick was the pastor at my sister's church in Maine and one day over coffee he was talking to Nicol and I about the 17 or 18 years or whatever it was that he and his family had been at that church. He talked about some of the things that made ministry challenging and some of the things that made it all worthwhile. It was at that point that he made the statement above and it just rang true in my heart. God calls us to people. Jesus loved and served people and that's what He calls us to do.]
  10. The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves and not to twist them to fit our own image; otherwise, we love only the reflection of ourselves that we see in them. --Thomas Merton via Clayton Blackstone [Clayton sent me this quote in December '07 as part of a message he and I were going to give together at his church. The Scripture we were looking at was the greatest commandment... love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The point Clayton was making is that it's not possible to really love someone if we have an agenda for engaging with them in a relationship in the first place. For example... if I say that I'm going to do this or that for my neighbor just so that they will go to church with me or get saved or whatever, that's an agenda. Jesus says we are to love people... not change them but love them. And whom do we love? Anyone God places in our lives... spouses, children, extended family, church family, neighbors, co-workers, long-time friends, or total strangers... anyone we encounter. We don't have to save the whole world, we just need to love those who are in our little part of the world. And how do we love? By meeting any need(s) our neighbor has that we may be able to meet. By accepting people as they are. By meeting them on their turf. By remaining mindful of how incredibly gracious God has been with us. By helping as we can. By guarding against the expectations and agendas that destroy relationships. By remembering that the beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves. By remembering that while we were still sinners Christ died for us and showed that He loves us right where we are.]   
  11. God orchestrates events in our lives for His glory and for our faith. --Scott Patty [In a message this past Sunday. More on that later.]



Angie said...

Oh my goodness I have been having the same feeling about my life. God gives you experiences and talents in order to deal with all of the challanges you will face. Thank you God, literally thank you.

Kristy said...

This was all so good - but what struck me personally was the part about not loving others with an agenda, or to try to change them (I have to remember that when dealing with my 13 yr. old!) Just to LOVE those God has placed in our lives - that we don't have to SAVE the world - that takes alot of pressure off, and allows us just to love others.

polly's path said...

Tremendously enjoyed(and connected to) your last post.

KK said...

Thanks for sharing these wonderfully encouraging stories from your life. Please know your family remains in my thoughts and prayers.
HIS Mercy & Peace be yours in abundance,

Georgia's blog said...

Thank you Greg!!! I am seeing God connect the dots in a way I could never imagined. Things are fresh and new... some hurt deeply, especially since the death our daughter in April. But, I am having some sweet sweet moments with HIM. You have been in my thoughts and prayers often since I heard of Luke's death from Angie. You will continue to be during this Christmas season!!!

In Him,
Georgia Fulenwider

Celie said...

Yes his glory is shining already through where he isleading you. The pain is real! Oh how well I know. But even that he is being glorified through your families. He goes before you never forget this will be strength. You can do all things through Christ.
Isa 60:1 Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.
Isa 60:2 For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
In Christ Celie

Tasha said...

Greg~Thanks for the encouraging words.I went to a Christmas tea last night at our church and the speaker had us do something very similar to what your dad did with the dots and dates of things that have happened in our lives.It was a very good visual.I continue to pray for your family daily.You all have become such a big part of me.Thank you for your willingness to allow God to use you to encourage others.You are loved.

Julie D. said...

Let me just say that the Lord is really working in your life and because of this blog, in the life of many, many, many others! Your words make total sense and really makes me stop and think.

Take care and enjoy this wonderful time of year with your beautiful wife and your precious daughter!!

BTW I am anxiously waiting for the chance to order some of Luke's bands! Can't wait!

Merry, Merry CHRISTmas!!!!
Love in Christ, Julie Doody

sheila said...

Thanks for your honesty again. No. 4 is something I need to pray over and reflect on. I tend to be a very b&w person and have a hard time seeing myself as I truly am. Lord help me change. I want to be more like Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Gray is not a color that Christ would say we need to be in.
There is no compromise with Him, yet His Love covers all.
Too many "Christians" in the church are following the middle- of -the- road gray.

Alice said...

I do love this blog--so real. I haven't ever spoken to James MacDonald personally (I wish!), but I listen to him preach almost daily and his messages from the Word knock all sorts of stuff out of me that NEED to be knocked out. He is such a blessing. As was this post--thank you!

Anonymous said...

Yours was the gift of my Christmas! After struggling mightily for the past 18 months with the loss of my life to date, I have had many mountain top moments, yeah God, you are faithful, and I'll be better for this days...but have now melted into a quiet, distant (my fault)funk of "this is it?" I was stuck, I needed encouragement, understanding, I needed a push. I needed to hear God. I am still praying for you all and so very sorry for your unimaginable loss. sign me, grateful, for the gifts of suffering you are willing to share.

Anonymous said...

Greg, Those words of James MacDonald are ringing true with me even a year later. Donna and I reread this just this morning. As we minister here to people that are difficult to reach, most of this post is helping me put less of "myself" and "my giftedness" in there and rely more and more on what Jesus can do. Great medicine for sure! Have you ever thought of writing these things down in a book? Crazy right? You could do it! You are a blessing! Thank you for all of your prayers for us. You are certainly in ours. ~~p