vessels.

setting: a baptist church in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.

Date: June 18, 2017.

i knew i wouldn’t really be able to understand what the preacher would be saying – it was in Creole (as it should be) and while i could parse out little bits and pieces, he was speaking at a pace and a volume at which i couldn’t follow. i knew very soon that the next forty-five to sixty minutes would be time for me and God to chat.

i’ve not often had times exactly like that. it’s different from quiet time on my front porch in Kentucky, and it’s different from reading my bible and having worship music in my ears. there’s nothing like this: i’m in another place, a place that isn’t home, with people i don’t necessarily know well, with a preacher, ebbing and flowing in his tone, who sets the mood of the passage he’s preaching.

it is 2 Corinthians 4:7-9. it says:

but we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…

a piece of paper is handed to me from our translator before the sermon even begins. he isn’t going to translate the whole sermon for us – he’ll give us bullet points. so i start chewing on this passage in my head, mulling it over. i start formulating my own little sermon.

Lord, it’d been a while since i’d done that.

three years, actually – or just under.

i used to preach.

most of my readers know this. i’ve told the story before but i’ll tell the story again: i attended a church in Berea, KY for about eight years, and spent a good four of those heavily immersed in ministry: children’s ministry, worship ministry, church council, life groups, preaching. i loved it. i was good at it (at least, that’s what everyone told me) and i enjoyed it. i was entertaining ministry as a career path of sorts. we talked about me planting a church.

in 2014, i moved to Lexington and kept commuting for a while but at the end of the year and after lots of prayer, left my home church to find church in Lexington.

in the beginning of 2015, instead of going to a new church, i started enjoying my Sundays off – after all, they’d been work days for a long time and i already worked my regular job a lot, so Sunday was a day to really be off. i was less sharp spiritually. i was lonely. i dated a girl, and it didn’t go well – but there’s plenty chronicling that in older blogs.

by the end of 2015, i was a pretty broken vessel. some days, i couldn’t or wouldn’t look myself in the mirror – that guy i saw couldn’t have been the guy who held a microphone on a stage telling people about how much God loved them and how much He forgave and spurring them on to live a godly life. i kept telling myself (or hearing) that i’d blown it, that it’s one thing if you screw up and then you start following Jesus but if you know better – as in, you’d been a Christian for eight years and preached the gospel and stuff – then it’s worse.

i thought about all of this on that Sunday morning in Haiti. i thought about the people God uses. i thought about us all as vessels. rather, the Holy Spirit talked to me about how people are vessels. how we’re jars. jars of clay.

verse seven says we have this treasure in jars of clay. what treasure?

the Gospel, i swear it.

it must be.

[after all, 4:1-6 is talking about the light of the Gospel.]

but even if i didn’t know that, it’s the only thing that makes sense. we have the treasure of the message in a jar of clay. in other words, we are the jars.

and jars, well – jars get scratched, and jars occasionally crack. sometimes they get smashed to bits. sometimes they have a little puncture and they can’t hold what’s poured into them.

but we know God, and God is a Potter.

The Potter.

so God takes us – in all of our weakness, our mistakes, our failures, our inconsistencies – and He keeps putting the treasure in us, and He knows how to melt us back down and re-form us into a vessel that can carry the treasure.

see, the treasure – the Gospel – needs to be carried one way or another. and God isn’t in the business of throwing away His jars once they get a crack or a scratch or once they fall and hit the ground and break. even if He already remade it once or twice or three times or a hundred. nope – the treasure is in jars so that we know that the surpassing power belongs to God, not to us.

i realized in this morning with God that i always fancied myself a jar with a big ole crack, and that God had starting putting the treasure in this cracked jar and it kept leaking out – i’m gonna stop with the jar metaphor for now – the way this looked for me was me constantly protecting myself, constantly looking for a way to cover up or fix that crack. it looked like spending a lot of time by myself, protecting my time lest anyone come in the way of the healing process i felt i needed to undergo. it looked like not sharing my thoughts and not leading and not speaking up and not having any confidence in the Gospel because i knew it was just going to seep back out and i wouldn’t ever be able to confidently carry it. it looked like always calling myself broken. it looked like – instead of acknowledging the reality of a spiritual fight – just assuming that any mood i was in, any negative thought i had must have been a result of still being broken.

then God said,

you’re not broken anymore, son.

hold up.

that’s a name and a status there, Lord.

yeah, I know. because you’re My son and you are who I say you are and what I say you are – and you aren’t broken anymore. you’re My vessel.

i never really played sports or had a bad injury so i don’t know if this analogy would hold, but imagine you’re passionate about something – maybe you’re a pitcher on a baseball team – and you blew out your elbow and the doctor told you you’d never play again, but then you go get a second opinion a few months (or years) later and they say, “oh, that other doctor is crazy. you’re good to go. you can go throw today, even.”

that was me.

i never thought i’d lead a song of worship again. i never thought i’d be able to be seen as a leader in a small group again, or preach a sermon. but here was God, in a church, to His hot, sweaty son, saying: “yeah, I think you need to pick all of that back up and keep doing what I made you for.”

and friends, if you’ll allow me to share – and i hope to only share to the glory of God – the types and numbers of doors that have been opened since that day in Haiti.

i’ve been asked to officiate a wedding.

i got to baptize my friend.

i get to sorta help co-lead a small group.

i was asked to lead worship at a retreat in the fall.

i have a job interview on Monday to get paid to lead worship. really.

ok, so maybe it’s not that many, but it feels like a lot. i’m overwhelmed in the best way, because God is incredibly faithful.

people used to call me pastor Jeff. i never knew how to take it – i embraced it at times (my twitter handle used to be @pjpoling, the p being for pastor) and at other times i (although humbly) didn’t embrace it – but i think they meant it prophetically. i don’t know how to humbly say that there’s a call i’ve always had to fill and have been (and will be) unsatisfied if i don’t – to carry the gospel, to preach, to worship, to study Scripture, and to share with others. my only career ambition in life has been “work in a church” – in whatever capacity.

i share this story publicly for two reasons:

-to glorify God in my life

-to glorify God in yours. i think the reason i’m so excited about this story isn’t because all these great things happening for me – but because God is faithful, faithful, faithful to give His kids good things, He’s faithful to restore us, and faithful to give us a name. i don’t know who all reads what i write. but someone out there may be like me, whether in the same context of ministry or otherwise. afraid God won’t use you, afraid you blew it. i’d encourage you – He doesn’t call you broken. He accepts you in your brokenness, and then He makes you whole. that’s Who God is. that’s what He does. Max Lucado once said, “God loves you just the way you are – but He refuses to leave you that way.” i love that – because it’s true when we’re broken and it’s true when we’re whole. He keeps taking us on, from glory to glory and grace to grace.

 

you are His vessel. your name isn’t broken. your name is

 

 

SON.

exercise.

i don’t have quiet time every day.

i said it.

i realize it’s a common thing, actually – probably more common than not – nevertheless, in our age of sharing where you’re having your quiet time on instagram or posting scripture on facebook every day, there’s this underlying pressure (at least, i feel it) that every day, you should have a passage of scripture you’re thinking about.

and don’t get me wrong – none of what i’m going to say here is trying to insinuate that we should read the bible less or that it’s somehow not a good thing to read the bible – that would be utter nonsense.

that said, i don’t always have a passage of scripture that i’m thinking about every day. i don’t read the bible every day, not because i set out to not read, but often because i don’t set out to read. (there’s a difference.) i was talking with some friends in the car the other day about why this is the case – and i’m sure this isn’t ground-breaking, but – it can be so difficult to approach the bible when the setting just isn’t right.

and/or, when the setting seems to vary.

and/or, when the receptacle seems to vary from day to day.

that is, the word of God is unchanged and unchanging…

…but i ain’t.

i reckon i alluded to this a little bit in my last post – the idea that one day, i can be in a good mood and have gotten a good night’s sleep and i don’t have anywhere to be for a few hours and this is usually a great time for me to have quiet time. i usually have more time to chew on things and process it, to work through what it actually means and what it says about God and the truth may sink deep (and on a really good day i may actually memorize something!) and it’s good quiet time.

of course, not every day is like that.

some days i wake up after five hours of sleep sore from working outside the day before, and i walk into the kitchen and i’m out of coffee. and it’s raining or windy or cold outside so i can’t read the bible on the porch but my living room is messy and i’m thinking about how i need to clean it, and how i should text that guy about the thing i told him i was gonna do, and oh, i have to be somewhere in 45 minutes. then i can’t remember what i read yesterday (or last week) and fumble around for something to read and its something in some minor prophet but it doesn’t seem terribly relevant and although i know that the whole bible is about Jesus, i’m moody and tired and can’t think straight, so i say a quick prayer and say “thanks, God, for giving us Your word,” and i’ve had quiet time but i don’t feel any different.

and if i keep waiting for every day to be ideal, then i’ll never do it.

and if i keep waiting for every session of ‘quiet time’ to be revelatory or groundbreaking, then some days i’d have to carve out two or three hours.

some days, our receptors are off. sometimes, the lid is still on the jar when we try to pour water into it. sometimes, we try and water the plants without first turning the valve…

and this post isn’t about some secret to having great bible-reading. i DON’T HAVE ONE. do you?

no, i’m only writing (however inconclusively) to say that i reckon we should get to it anyway. that we should read anyway. and keep reading and keep praying and keep seeking the Lord, even when He seems silent or quietly whispering or talking conversationally or thunderingly. Paul tells Timothy that godliness is of value in every way. but he says that while comparing it to bodily exercise, and if i have the liberty, i have projected a couple of my own thoughts into this subject, given what i think about bodily exercise.

i run sometimes.

sometimes when i run, i feel great. i haven’t eaten in a bit so i don’t feel heavy, it feels nice outside, my shoes are good, the grass feels good, the music is just right. it’s a great run.

other times, i feel horrible. i feel heavy, sore, tired, winded, out of shape, out of practice. but for the most part, the run still works my (physical) heart in a positive way, and therefore its beneficial, even if i don’t like it that day. or even if i’m just indifferent.

maybe spiritual exercise is like that. we don’t always get some big revelation, we don’t always cry when we’re in the presence of God. the songs we sing don’t always feel right. maybe it doesn’t sink in. or it does – you are spurred on to something good, you are endowed with a fresh sense of peace, or kindness, or joy, etc. i’m beginning to think that it’s a both/and – its still good for us to read the Word, pray, worship, etc even when we don’t feel great afterwards. in the same way that not every day with a spouse is like your honeymoon, perhaps it is the case that not every day with God is going to be especially supernatural.

betrayal.

i have a grandiose vision of myself at times. this fantastic version of jeff wakes up every morning in a fine mood, and his initial inclinations are something like this: take a run; eat a healthy breakfast; read the Bible, comprehend it, take notes, and let it sink in; pray end remember the number of things for which people have asked prayer; and jovially go off to work. he eats a healthy lunch (and craves healthy food,) he works hard and doesn’t have a bad thought. he never says an ill or discouraging or otherwise cynical word about anyone, ever. he happily goes home and starts doing his reading or writing, undistracted by craving, by the telephone, or the desire to watch TV. he always looks forward to whatever he’s reading or writing. oh, and if someone calls him and decides to go grab a coffee or a drink or get dinner, he’s available and willing to drop everything at the drop of a hat. his gas tank is always full (or, at least, he always has the money to comfortably fill the gas tank when needed) and his schedule is always accommodating to whatever happens. he is learned, kind, wise, social, in shape, flexible, always in the mood for whatever needs to happen.

 

yeah, well, like i said – that’s a fantastic version of myself. my guess is that you might envision yourself in a similar way, only to be disappointed. here’s a more realistic portrayal of how my average day goes…

 

jeff wakes up, sore from sleeping in a funny position. he questions whether or not he has the drive, desire, or beans to make a pot of coffee. he might stand on the front porch for a second if it’s a nice morning. he might open the bible if he thinks of it. he fumbles around, trying to decide what to read – do i go the route of flipping open to something random? do i think of something i know i like and go read it? i guess i should have some sort of plan for what i’m reading right now… he reads whatever he decides upon, prays for a second, trying to remember what he told his friend he’s pray for them about the other day. then a number of things could happen. he might start playing FIFA. he might take a walk. he might go to the coffee shop. might read a book. lately he’s not going to work, but he might – MIGHT – fill out a job application. play a little more FIFA. he gets a phone call from an unknown number (or sometimes not unknown) but decides not to take it because for some reason, talking on the phone gets under his skin. since he hasn’t left the house, he contemplates leaving, but is there gas in the car? should i risk the wear and tear on the car? after all, it’s on its last legs, and there’s no way he can buy a new one until he gets a job. eventually the day passes by (perhaps our hero took a nap at some point,) and someone may extend a social invitation on the evening which requires calculus involving: do i feel like going out? do i want to see this person/these people? do i have money to go out? what else could i be doing? and the night ends up passing, too – unspectacularly.

 

you (or i) may think that this is a cynical view of myself birthed out of not having a job. or, as is currently the case, not loving the place where i live. parts of that are true. but, a lot of the latter description are true, too. the part about not having a bible reading plan – that’s true. the part about hating answering my phone – that’s true. the part about not being sure if i can/should spend money on gas – that’s true.

 

all of this falls under something i’ve been calling betrayal. betrayal of the things we really want, of the things that we actually care about. that’s not to say that we don’t have agency – we do and i’ll get to that in a second – but it’s to say that, as the Bible says, the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh, so that you don’t do the things that you want. (see: Galatians 5:17.) we can all agree on that, right? i mean, unless you’re Jesus, i’m pretty sure that you do something you don’t want to do. that makes a ton of sense to me.

the reason i consider it betrayal is that there’s a way i know God designed me to be, which is also the way that i want to be, and there’s the way that i am. and the way that i am is in progress to become the way that God designed me to be and by Jove, that’s a frustrating process sometimes. like i said – and like Paul seemed to say multiple times in the Bible (see also: Romans 7) and it’s so good to know that the apostles dealt with it before – i want to be the former description of myself: sharp, smart, available, wise, advice-giving, life-giving, etc. and this body – this stubborn, out-of-shape body with this slow, unreactive brain serve as a great foil to all of the wonderful dreams i have for myself (and, i’m not unconvinced, God has for me, and you.)

i started reading a book this morning called Garden City, and in the first couple of chapters, he’s been talking about how we were made to rule and subdue. how mankind was given a garden and told – fill the earth, rule it, and subdue it. i’m convinced that extends to our own body. if it were easy to be great, then we’d be great. we’re good at easy. really good at easy. the struggle is, to again quote Paul, to “discipline my body and keep it under control…” which also translates to “pummel my body and make it a slave.”

and that’s kind of it, isn’t it? i think that the word “slave” really makes this idea real, how often i – and i think we – feel like a slave to my/our bodies and minds. how one of us is the master and the other the slave, and every day is a choice as to which one is which. when i’m the master, then i can move past not feeling like something – not feeling like eating well or exercising or making a plan or answering the phone or reading a book or talking to someone or exercising my faith (as it can be to fill the gas tank) – but when i choose the chains, when i choose to be the slave, then those things have power over me.

as scripture says (Paul is my friend, especially today) – in all these things (our weakness, our suffering, our mortality) we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us (see: Romans 8:37.)

 

[note to self:]

your humanity is up to you.