There I was with an opportunity to speak to roomful of people who would come to hear me share music and stories. It was a really bad time to have a crisis over what I was going to say. I was in the bathroom with 15 minutes left of the “opening act” and I was truly troubled. These were adults, and I did not want to waste their time!! I didn’t want a message too narrow that some might leave and think, “well, Joni, she’s young. Her message was for the young people. Or she’s artistic, that was a message for artistic people. Or she’s a mom, I bet the other moms could relate to her.” I wanted them to leave with something valuable. (These were not strangers, but mostly friends.)
I knew I couldn’t twist God’s arm for last minute wisdom, but I had to ask and pray. What he told me has carried me through many a moment since then.
“Whatever you say, testify of my grace.”
Suddenly, I knew whether I was deeply serious, lighthearted, casual, or funny, none of that was going to matter. What would matter is that the people in the room would hear and see a demonstration of the truth that God is not dealing with them according to what they deserve. Never has, never will. Even though it may look like it, and even though many a sermon has taught them so.
This was the message the lifted me out of physical and mental ruin in my early 20s.
As long as the flag I was going to wave had His name, and His grace on it, I was sure to bless every hear-er, waste no one’s time, and leave no one out.
I’m not sure I want to admit it yet, that the flag I waved before that moment was, “Joni Nichols, look at me. I have something neat to show you.” (Obviously, that flag held up well in the era of my height of youth and beauty. But the wind rips flags and you better have an endless stash.)
And since then, I’ve seen the simplicity of that central message of that ministry of grace almost overshadowed by other compelling, yet distracted flags.
You know them…
The Lifestyle Flag:
Where you live, the things you eat, the way you raise your children, your educational methods, your preferences of where you live.These subculture wars are alive and well. The problem is… an American missionary would never go to China and say, “Well, first you guys need to stop eating flowers, keep your shoes on, kick grandma out of the house, and homeschool your children” in order to live life the way God intended.
Having worked in big cities and small rural towns, I’ve been a cook, an athlete, a musician, and a teacher, knocked around enough socially to see more perspectives than there is time to process them. My assumptions have made me wrong more times than I care to admit. Then, having gone from working mom to stay at home mom, to educate-at-home mom, I’ve made major shifts (sub-culturally) which are deeply tied to my beliefs about life and faith, but if I superimpose those external markers on to other people, or compare myself to them, then I miss the real message of grace which is that the Lord met me where I was, and led me to my next step based on what I could hear and comprehend from his inexhaustible and uncontainable love for me.
Without meaning to, it becomes our passion to get others to be on the same page with us as we are growing and changing month by month, year by year. But … it’s just not possible! In relationships, a good thing becomes a bad thing when it becomes a pre-requisite for mutual respect. The very person we are trying to reach, we have already alientated by inviting them into something that has our name, our choices on it…with no room for them. We cannot hold up a LIFESTYLE as a STANDARD. It is a destructive distraction to the mutual giving that the friendships at hand has to offer. Each person receives the unmerited favor of God from God Himself, and is on a journey with God that will have some strange twists and turns. The day you intersect with them, their life is almost guaranteed to not look like yours.
The Platform Flag:
In a world of likes, shares, subscribers, and email lists, this was bound to come to a head for me as well. Am I making fans or …. disciples? Does ministry only start when you have a bigger platform? Are you looking for a wider reach before you are motivated to give… waiting for a bigger hill. It’s those thoughts of: “I need a better blog before I can share my heart.” “I need a bigger house before I can be hospitable.” “I need to delete some friends before I can be authentic.” The problem with wanting something to “start happening” is that everyone’s ministry has already started. It’s the ministry of reconciling others to God by telling them the truth of His grace through Jesus in the middle of their lack and weakness. (2 Corinthians 5:18). Embracing the molehill is your only way forward. Loving the people who are already listening. I wrote about learning this life-changing lesson myself here in “Stop Waiting–It’s the $5 in your pocket.“
The self – humility flag:
I certainly waved this white flag of surrender for many years. I’m pretty sure this way of thinking dominated my 20s. I was humbly thinking that my humility alone was the key for the Lord to swoop in and move my feet onto new ground and get me where He wanted me to be. If the Lord wants me to, He’ll do it. I did not know that I already had the ministry of reconciliation to the world, because I did not quite understand what that even meant. By trying to opt out of striving, I was striving to meet the requirement of humility in order to receive good things from God. This was not the gospel and it led to my breakdown. If you have encountered the undeserved favor of God and want to live life sharing this with others, are you “open for [this] business” or what? When people check on you once a year, whether online, or in person, is your message the same. Is your flag something that is unchangeable? Is good news on your tongue in season and out? (2 Timothy 4:2) If so, it doesn’t matter how lame or seemingly abandoned your offerings to others are (your house, your blog, your life).
Waiting for “God to make it happen” is like Moses at the Red Sea saying, Don’t worry, today the Lord will deliver you. Everyone quotes this scripture and totally misses that the very next sentence in the Lord’s reply. He replies, Why are you praying to me. Take your staff and hold it over the water and walk! He has already made it happen. Walk through that seemingly impossible barrier that you are waiting for God to bust you through.
Every one of us needs to be reminded every single day that the issues of today are solved in understanding that God’s love for us is practical and “at hand”. This is a flag that is worth the effort to hold high when times are tough, keeping our eyes Jesus.
We can’t get caught up in our differences about everything else. We are all growing and maturing from where we were yesterday to where we will be tomorrow.
I’m not abandoning “pick up your cross” and replacing it with a flag here; I’m saying that since your life is going to speak a message, this is the only one that will withstand the test of time and be true now and then, in beauty, and in aging, in certainty, and in confusion.
The message of our lives is never going to be, “My life turned out well because I did the right things!” That is not the gospel.
The message of your life will be, “the Lord was faithful to me, even when I couldn’t see it or understand it.”
That’s glorious. And good news for everyone.
So whatever new venture you are launching, whatever relationship you are starting or ending, whatever letter it is that you need to write, or step you need to take. Put these words on your lips. That God gives to all according to the gift of his son, and the righteousness that is in him, which we also have in Him. It blesses every hearer and does not alienate the very people you are trying to touch.
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