How to Follow Jesus and Offend the Left and the Right

Those who follow Jesus faithfully and strive to live biblically can offend those on the political left and right by proclaiming the following:

  1. Left: that God promises prosperity to those who walk in his ways,
  2. Right: that Jesus told his disciples to give all their riches to the poor if they wished to be his disciple.
  3. Right: that Christ calls us to love our enemies and turn our cheek.
  4. Left: that Jesus is returning as a warrior who will destroy his enemies.
  5. Right: that those caught in sin like the woman caught in adultery should not be condemned.
  6. Left: that adultery is sin.
  7. Right: that creation is good apart from its usefulness to man.
  8. Left: that God has given humankind dominion over nature.
  9. Right: that the pollution of God’s creation is a sin against God.
  10.  Left: that our idolatry and sexual immorality also pollutes the land.
  11. Right: that God judges nations on how they treat the poor, alien, orphan and widow,
  12. Left: that some poverty is the result of sloth and foolishness.
  13. Right: that real faith in God means trusting in Him, not in weapon systems.
  14.  Left: that God really does destroy His enemies or even judge his people through armies with weapons.
  15. Right: that God desires to deliver the oppressed like He delivered Israel from Egypt.
  16. Left: that God will destroy some of the oppressed for idolatry like He did Israel.
  17. Right: that God is love,
  18. Left: that God is holy.
  19. Right: that God loves everyone without partiality,
  20. Left: that people can only come to the Father through his Son Jesus Christ.
  21. Right: that God loves the world.
  22. Left: that friendship with the world is hatred toward God.
  23. Right: that Jesus ate with sinners.
  24. Left: that Jesus referred to those he ate with as sinners.
  25. Right: that laws and government won’t create a moral society
  26. Left: that laws and government won’t create a just society.
  27. Right: that Jesus did not call us to judge the world.
  28. Left: that Christians are called to judge one another in righteousness.
  29. Right: that God calls us to forgive everyone.
  30. Left: that those who refuse to forgive others will not be forgiven by God
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Spruced Up

This summer we camped in a mix of Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. From our campsite we had a view of a huge old spruce which divided into four trunks about six feet from the ground. Sitka spruce only grow in the fog belt along the Northwest coast in what is sometimes called a temperate rain forest.

Curious to see how big it was, I waded through the salmon berry, sedge, and skunk cabbage to the base of this extraordinary tree. Under the moss and fallen branches bulged roots like green knees and thighs. The four trunks rose from a butt end that had circumference of 12 or 15 feet. My boyish mind immediately thought of the splendid tree-house it could host.

Sitka spruce are remarkable for their ability to make their own rain. We have had a remarkably dry summer along the coast, but water hung on the moss and sedge under branches of this spruce. The needles of the spruce capture the evening and morning coastal fog, dropping enough on the ground to make small puddles.

From the four beautiful trunks that curve skyward are smaller branches stretching horizontally into a canopy. The lower branches, deprived of sunlight, die but the wood is so strong that these dead branches hold on for years until the weight of fungus and moss brings them crashing down around the roots.

The tree not only waters itself; it makes it own compost from all debris it sheds. The result of this wonderful self-sufficiency is a wood that has an excellent strength to weight ratio. In WWI Sitka spruce was harvested extensively along the coast for the making of aircraft. Old growth spruce is still treasured for the excellent sound boards it makes for guitars, violins, and other stringed instruments.

  I watched this old spruce for five days. I listened to the wind in its branches and the slow dripping of water combed from the fog. I prayed for the spiritual maturity that in times of drought can make its own rain from the morning fog. I want the years and the things that have fallen away to nourish my roots as I my heart looks up.

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Forever Swallows Every Never

Maybe no word has more power to crush us than “never”.  It can slide into our lives at almost any age. The hearts of parents break when they watch kids realize they will never be a great athlete—never play for a Division One university or go pro. “Never” sweeps away dreams. Some in college will butt their head against their own limitations and realize some goals or majors are out of reach. The ubiquitous myth that we all can do anything if we try hard enough can make these “nevers” feel like personal failures.

Adults face even more devastating “nevers.” Infertile couples may face never having children. Those in failed marriages face the possibility of never knowing what it means to be loved, respected, and cherished. Some singles face never marrying. The death of a child floods lives with “nevers” too sad to catalog. As we age, we may realize career dreams will never come true—that we will never be a successful artist, writer, actor, musician, or athlete. Some respond with a midlife crisis; others sigh and trudge along in disappointment.

Less than a year before he died, my Dad and I sat at our kitchen table talking about revival and the moving of God’s Spirit that sweeps people into His kingdom. Dad said, “My one regret is that I have never been a part of a revival.” He died of cancer that December.

Hope and joy must run a gauntlet of “nevers”. Making this more difficult, in some ways, is that Scripture urges us to keep hoping and believing until the end. We have the examples of Abraham and Sarah who had given up having children but then had Isaac. Or Anna and Simeon who all their life had prayed to see the Messiah, and then one day in the temple held Jesus in their arms. So believers often have to qualify their “nevers” with a “probably”. This too is sad, no matter how much room we make for faith and God.

But recently another word ambushed my soul while reading the prophets and psalms. Again and again the word “forever” jumped off the page. Prophets would announce all the trials, judgments, and exile coming upon sinful Israel, but declare a day when God would gather his people back to Jerusalem and reign as king over them forever (Micah 4:7). I had usually not paid attention to these “forevers”, but on this day they exploded in my heart and mind—a blast of joy.

Something like a vision intensified this joy. My mother died two years ago. After a lot of sorting, rearranging, and painting, Teckla turned her room into an office and guest room, but sadness lingers. The room still has some of their books, photos, and Dad’s carvings. The other day I was thinking of my Dad’s unfulfilled dreams and the sadness I often saw in his face and heard in his voice. In the midst of this daydreaming, an image of my Dad’s face came to me. He looked about 30 and his face was beaming—full of strength, health, and joy.

He said nothing but his face said everything. I knew I need not be sad for him. Forever had swallowed up all grief, all broken dreams, all unfinished projects, all unrealized hopes. He was okay—better than okay. I saw glory.

Forever swallows up every “never” just like life and resurrection swallows death. The sadness of each “never” is still real but so much more bearable when seen against the tidal wave of “forever” about to break over every believer’s life. Seen against the coming wave of eternity, our “nevers” aren’t just small, they are momentary. They still hurt, but can’t destroy us, or our faith. Forever is, after all, forever.

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Plowing the Hardpan

The hardpan is a dense layer of compacted soil beneath the surface of the tilled field. It is usually too deep to be broken up by plow. Hardpan can occur naturally in clayish soil or can be the result of farm machines compacting soil. Hardpan is a problem because it can cause water to pool and inhibit the development of a plant’s root system.

I think those who have been Christians awhile can suffer from a spiritual hardpan. Too often we receive superficial teaching (plowing) that never goes deep enough to break up the hardpan. Or perhaps even more common, we hear good teaching but don’t do it.

Like farmers with huge high-tech planters and harvesters, Bible teachers in the U.S. have a myriad of sophisticated ways to deliver Biblical truth. We can get the PowerPoint presentation at church, view a video online, and discuss it all in a Facebook group. We are, however, in danger of plowing the same six-inches over and over, creating a hardpan resistant to the water of the Spirit and spiritual growth.

A spiritual hardpan is created when our familiarity with God’s Word is mistaken for obedience. In Nazareth, where people were familiar with Jesus, Jesus could do few miracles because of their unbelief. I grew up in the Church so know this kind of hardpan well. Hebrews 4:2 talks   about the people who get nothing from good news because “it was not united by faith in those who heard.” Knowing and doing aren’t the same thing. Faith means doing.

Farmers can detect hardpan by noticing where water pools, by measuring the moisture content below the hardpan, or by testing how well and quickly water penetrates the soil. Soil compaction can be detected with an instrument called “penetrometer”. I suspect many pastors and teachers wish they had an instrument for testing how well their teaching penetrates the hearts and lives of believers. But for both farmers and pastors the easiest way to identify hardpan is to notice where there is little or no growth.

Among farmers there is some controversy over the best way to remedy hardpan. Methods like deep tillage use “deep rippers” that plow deep enough to tear up the hardpan. Some advocate gentler means: earthworms and the crop rotation.

I think we have the same alternatives as pastors and teachers. We can organize the church into hardcore accountability groups that make certain the Word heard is actually done. These are like “deep rippers” that cut deep into hidden sins, old grudges, and stubborn individualism. We can also employ more organic models of community, modeling of biblical behavior, and gentle exhortation. It is possible that soils of each congregation require different approaches.

Whatever approach we take, we need to break through the hardpan so our roots can go deep and our lives bear fruit.

 

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Light in the Forest

Since I was a kid, I have camped in the woods along the central coast of Oregon. Nights and mornings were cool, so on the days we stayed in our campsite, we spent a lot time moving our chairs from one spot of sun to another. Few things are more beautiful than morning sun filtering through the cedars, spruce, hemlock, and Douglas firs. It is a cathedral of moving light.

The early morning sunlight slants through the mist and smoke of campfires, making golden paths to the tree tops where warblers and cedar waxwings warm themselves. For a while, light and morning dew fall together through the trees. The Sitka spruces are especially skilled at capturing dew and making their own rain.

Later the wind picks up. The swaying of the tree tops creates a strobe effect as the sunlight is turned on and off by the breeze. We often chase the spots of sun in vain. We discover ourselves in the shadows before we have read more than a few pages.

As the day warms, we spend less time chasing the sun. We are content to sit still with our books and accept the dance of shadow and light around us. Gray jays or Stellar jays visit the camp. Wilson warblers, with their lovely black berets, hop in the thickets of salmon berry. Bits of chewed Douglas fir cones rain down from the squirrels in the tree tops.

The light through the trees turns golden in the setting sun. The yellow-green moss on the branches glows. The sun is gentled by leaves, needles, and moss until we feel washed in a tide of light.

Right before sunset only the tops of the trees are crowned with glory as darkness gathers underneath. As the wind dies down, we hear more clearly the distant roar of the surf. We accept the darkness, but are thankful for the light that moved like random grace through the trees.

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Is Unconditional Love the Highest Kind of Love?

Perhaps not. It, of course, depends upon what we mean by unconditional. If we mean love that is given without regard for who a person is and anything they’ve done, then I would argue that this is ground level love. It is, for Christians, the lowest level of love we can have. It is foundational and therefore essential. It means that no matter who a person is or what they have done, we are committed to seeking God’s best for them. This is where our love should begin–but not where it should end.

The more I think about unconditional love in actual relationships, the more certain I am that we need and desire something higher. I know this sounds heretical because we have often been told that God’s agape love is unconditional love that has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God being love.

Yet imagine my wife asking, “Do you love me?” and me responding, “I love you with unconditional love that will always seek God’s best for you. It has nothing to do with you but is simply God’s love radiating out of me to those in my life.” Honestly, many marriages would be transformed by even this kind of love, but I doubt that this answer would satisfy Teckla or most wives. If I told my sons that I love them with unconditional love that is in no way a response to who they are or what they have done, I suspect they would say with some disappointment, “That’s nice, Dad. I guess.”

When God’s love is described as a love that is totally spontaneous to himself, we make his love impersonal. Like the sun shining, God cannot help but love. I think God’s love can be unconditional but still responsive to who we are. My example would be God looking at all his creation, including Adam and Eve, and saying, “Behold, it was very good.”

Obviously, the goodness and value of creation all came from God’s wise and gracious work as a Creator, but his pronouncement was in response to what he saw. Even though fallen and often broken, we are all created in the image of God. God loves us individually for the goodness and purpose He has given each of us. He sees and loves the person He has created us to be. This is still completely to His praise and glory as our Creator—we have in no way earned God’s love. It does mean, however, that God’s love is expressed in ways that correspond to His unique purpose for us as His creation.

If we accept Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s love, we immediately notice that his ministry is individualized. He healed people in different ways and took the time to touch people one by one. Many times, Jesus declared that their healing was a result of their faith (Matthew 8:13; 9:22,29; 15:28). We must also notice that Jesus often acted out of his compassion for the people who were like sheep without a shepherd. His love was emotional and personal, not a general expression of benevolence to everyone everywhere.

I do have unconditional love for my wife, sons, and the family of God. But that is the beginning of love. A higher love is one that sees who God has created others to be and affirms the beauty and goodness of that person. It requires seeing them as God sees them and having a revelation of the glorious person that is sometimes hidden beneath sin and rebellion. Of course, every good thing discovered in us has its origin in God’s grace as our creator. Therefore, we cannot boast and need not strive to earn God’s love. This kind of love is not conditioned according to our actions, but it is shaped by the unique expression of the image of God in each person.

I will go further. I believe that people have a great hunger for the kind of love that recognizes our unique calling and gifts as individuals created in the image of God. Hearing that God is love and loves all people unconditionally doesn’t satisfy the need people have to hear God calling them by name. When the angel of the Lord calls the name of Hagar and gives her promises and instruction, we are told “she called on the name of the Lord who spoke to her and said, ‘Thou art a God who sees.’”

Like Hagar, many today, even those who have been Christians for years, need to know God sees them—and knows their names.

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My Blind-spots

I have come the closest to killing myself and others through failing to check my blind-spot before changing lanes. The older I get, the more convinced I am that checking our biblical blind-spots is crucial. I still like to spend time doing a careful exegesis and word study to mine the meaning of a couple of verses, but I am much more focused on discovering the truths I haven’t seen because of culture, tradition, habit, or personal taste. As I look back on my spiritual progress, I realize that most breakthroughs have come from looking steadily at the things I once failed to see in Scripture.

I will give examples that are instructive for congregations as well as individuals, but my intention is not to point out the blind spots of others, but rather just the ones I have discovered in myself. If possible, I would tell of the ones I haven’t recognized; I am certain there are many. Regrettably, I must also refrain from giving a full-blown study on each of these blind-spots. Let it be enough to assert they should be studied.

The Poor: I have been amazed at how much the Bible says about God loving the poor—the widow, the orphan, and stranger in the land. The Old Testament is full of exhortations to give to the poor. One proverb says that the person who gives to the poor lends to the Lord (19:17). Others promise a blessing to those who give to the poor. Jesus goes overboard and tells the rich, young ruler the one thing he lacks: “If you want to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me” Matthew 19:21. I have usually flown right past the mention of the poor and launched into an explanation that God doesn’t really mean for us to give everything away and that this just means total consecration of our hearts to God. Anyway, the poor was once a blind-spot for me even though the Bible is full of God’s call to love, defend, and give to them.

I grew up in an evangelical denomination where everything was about getting people saved. We believed, often rightly, that sinning or being sinned against leads to poverty. Calling people out of sin and into the love of God seemed the best answer to poverty. Indeed, we had seen people who stopped drinking, smoking, and gambling suddenly have money to buy food and clothes for their families. But it was too easy to blame the poor for their poverty and to regard them only as souls needing to be saved. This denomination has now learned, I believe, to hold onto a clear gospel message of salvation and transformation while faithfully ministering to the physical needs of their communities.

Teckla and I have been challenged to move our care for the poor beyond mere acts of charity to genuinely sacrificial service. Often this has meant stepping into the mess and burden of personal relationships with the poor—sometimes inviting them to live with us. Over all our love for the poor, we sense the joy God takes in us opening our hearts and lives to them.

Obedience and submission: I am a child of the Sixties so these two words provoke a visceral reaction in me. By instinct, I challenge authority and question rules. I am also analytical to a fault and can be a fount of destructive criticism. While a student, I went head to head with principals and college presidents. Where I teach now, I have also been the grievance officer for the union. I am not wired for submission. Yet, this too is in the Scripture.

The last chapter of Hebrews contains this exhortation: “Obey your leaders, and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” I have often acted as if giving leaders grief was my calling. I have enough experience with pastoral ministry that I can easily launch into dissertations about what pastors should or should not be doing. But I have stopped.

I now pursue a heart of obedience and submission to leadership, both in the church and in the world. Not only does this honor God, I have found it “profitable.” Ironically, a heart of obedience to leaders often gives us more influence with leaders, not less. When our words aren’t a knee-jerk challenge to authority, leaders listen more carefully. I have found I possess more personal peace when not at war with every authority in my life. I think we sometimes we fail to grow spiritually because we are trying to submit to God while in a posture of rebellion to the authorities in our lives.

Anyone who knows me could testify that I still fearlessly speak truth to power. And if obedience to man ever conflicts with obedience to God, I will be quick to choose God. I am also sensitive to the toxic abuses of authority and demands for obedience. There are false shepherds and apostles that must be tested and rejected. However, American individualism and the spirit of rebellion in our culture has often blinded us to the peace and profit of obedience.

Unity: Myrtle Point, my hometown and where I live now, has about 2,700 people in the city limits but had about dozen churches when I was a kid. All the congregations were, and still are, small. Congregations struggle to keep the doors open and pay a pastor. Youth groups limp along and have little witness in the schools or community. At least four churches have disappeared. The enemy of our souls has used the divide and conquer strategy with devastatingly effect.

Although I grew up assuming the necessity of myriad denominations, in graduate school I experienced the glory of unity in diversity. My former roommate and I started an Inter-varsity Bible study for graduate students. We sometimes had 30—40 graduate students show up, all from different denominational backgrounds: Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Nazarene, Quaker. Our fellowship was wonderful and strengthened my faith.

I have been hooked on unity ever since. I have also discovered that Jesus prayed earnestly for the unity of His followers. He asked “that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father art in Me, and I in Thee, that they may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to Them; that they may be one, just as We are one” (John 17:21). It is clear in this chapter that he is not just praying for the twelve, but for anyone who believes in Him (v.20). That means God wants us to be as one with each other as He and Jesus are.

Paul says to the church in Corinth, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10). In light of these verses and many others, we can’t believe that the slicing and dicing of the Church by denominations is God’s will. Attempts to justify divisions as something similar to the tribes of Israel aren’t supported by Scripture.

Although I do not know how to dissolve all the denominational barriers, I am committed to praying and working with Christians from all the congregations in my community. I attend a non-denominational flavored Bible study at a Presbyterian church. Teckla has led and attended non-denominational women’s Bible studies in our area for many years. Teckla and I support and attend inter-denominational events whenever we can.

Too often churches pray for revival and growth within their own congregations and never realize that God might not give revival until the voices in the community become one. In Acts 4:23, Luke says that the church in Jerusalem “lifted their voices to God with one accord.” After their prayer we are told: “And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.” Too often we pray for revival on our terms, for our group.

Doing the Works of Jesus: I grew up hearing a lot about the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19. My family and my denomination loved missionaries. At church there were even altar calls for those called by God to be a missionary. However, we heard very little about the First Commission in Matthew 10:1,8: “And having summoned His twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness . . .. And as you go, preach saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; freely you received, freely give.” I was not told this was something believers could sign up for. Colleges and seminaries had no courses in doing the works of Jesus.

Although both commissions are given to the disciples, my denomination only applied the Great Commission to all believers. In Luke 10:1, however, we see Jesus sending out seventy others to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. In Acts Stephen and Philip who were deacons–not apostles also did the works of Jesus. Despite this evidence that the First Commission is for all believers, we had no altar calls for those God was calling to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. We ignored or tried to explain away, John 14:12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father.”

Until I was around 30, I happily ignored this First Commission. Once I heard an evangelist preach a message on Matthew 10:1. He used as his text, “He gave them authority” but said nothing about the rest of the verse. His message was good—us having authority to say no to sin and live holy lives—but completely ignored the rest of the verse. I had recently encountered a person who was clearly and undeniably demonized, so I was hoping for some good news about our authority to cast out demons. When I got none from a verse clearly about doing the works of Jesus, I realized how big a blind-spot this was for me and many others.

Tradition: Many years ago, I ventured to teach a class on Christian contemplative literature. In preparation for the class, I read Catholic, Orthodox, and Quaker writers—even some Baptists. I grew up in a denomination that is only about 100 years old, so my Christian education and experience had been cut-off from traditional expressions of Christianity. The witness and wisdom of saints and church fathers have nourished my soul. I have often been blessed by liturgy even though I am still wary of liturgical worship divorced from real change in our hearts and lives.

The other path to tradition is more practical and experiential. I once took some college students on a silent retreat to a monastery. I was amazed by the number of students had spiritual breakthroughs when they simply got quiet and alone. In counseling, I have found that people who confess their sins often need a flesh and blood person to proclaim God’s forgiveness to them. This experience made me look again at John 20:23 and James 5:16 regarding confession. It made me wonder if we shouldn’t regard confession as an important sacrament. Bringing sin into the light through confession to another person often helps break the power of sin.

I know that many wise and holy things have been so encrusted by human traditions that we have lost their beauty and value. However, I think, we can engage in a kind of holy archeology that recovers and restores the essence and purpose of traditions. As an evangelical I have placed so much of my hope in an instantaneous transformation through an experience with God, that I have been blind to how traditional spiritual disciplines can help us follow Jesus.

I have a newfound appreciation for the physicality of worshiping and serving God. I have often spiritualized Paul’s exhortation to “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice to God” (Romans 12:1).  Interestingly, I have been schooled in presenting my body to God by the most liturgical and least liturgical believers. I love charismatic/Pentecostal hand-raising, foot-stomping, dancing-in-the-aisles worship because it calls my whole body into worship. But liturgical worship with all its standing, sitting, and kneeling and belief that the sacrament is indeed the blood and body of Christ also calls for my whole body to serve God. An important truth of traditional disciplines is that we need God working both from inside-out and outside-in. I humbly admit I need all the help I can get to follow Christ—even the wisdom of saints.

Conclusion: These have been my blind-spots. I have not discussed all the ones I have found, and I am certain I will discover new ones. My point is not about the importance of any one of these blind-spots, but rather the importance of asking God to help us see what we are missing. We, no doubt, will discover we are blind in different areas.

Recognition of our blind-spots opens doors for growth and greater fruitfulness, but there is always the danger of becoming comfortable with our blindspots. Seeing means changing, and we often hate change.  I have often wondered why Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted. He was blind, so what he needed was obvious. But it was probably important that Bartimaeus ask to see. It was not only an expression of his faith in Jesus, but of his willingness to embrace the change that seeing would bring. He would, after all, now need to work for a living. Like Bartimaeus, we must humbly cry out for Jesus to restore our sight, and then get to work obeying.

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My Wild, and Wilder Calendars

Increasingly I mark the days by the blooming of wildflowers, change in tides, and shift in winds. Snow-queen appears in February looking like blue pearls in the frosty grass. In March the delicate turquoise of the grass-widows nods on a slender stem. Blue camas runs riot in May meadows.

It is all inexact. A cold spring or late snow can slow the bloom of fawn lilies. But in many ways the flowers more exactly reflect the seasons of my heart: early blooms and late thaws. Sometimes a flower not seen for years makes an appearance like some fragrance from childhood.

Summer marks the calendar with the ripening of evergreen huckleberries, salal, thimbleberries, and August blackberries. Asters and goldenrod bloom far into the fall.

Here fall is marked by the beginning of the rains and the overnight magic of mushrooms: chanterelles and boletes. The blonde and dry grasses of summer soften under my step.

In the winter the days are marked as the deciduous trees lose their leaves. The alders first and then big-leaf maples. The maple leaves cover the rocks along the streams like wet paper. Storms scatter branches across the trails and litter the woods with fallen moss and lichen. On the coast, king tides and storms sweep in and carve up the beaches—sometimes briefly uncovering agates that glow in the winter sun. The surf churns up a buttery foam and plays jacks with logs and stumps. The snaking course of the creeks on the beach wander north.

For about fifteen years I have been recording when each flower blooms, but this spring it seemed not to matter what date I assigned. The wildflowers have their own calendar written by sun, wind, and rain. We are close enough to the coast that even a change in sea currents can rewrite the calendars of yellow wood violets.

In the silence of the woods or meadows filled with flowers, I listen. With all my senses, I read the wild calendar. Sometimes the warm south wind smells like spring—soft and moist. In November the dry mosses of summer deepen and soften into winter’s deep green.

Perhaps I live more to the rhythms of a natural calendar because I have grown old and the calendar on the wall means little. As a teacher, I have often ordered my life by academic calendars, but this changes year to year and yet never changes.  Or it may be that I now spend enough time in the wilds of this place to listen in on the conversations of wind, rain, and all that lives.

This wild calendar slows my heart but makes it stronger—maybe wiser. I am more present. More importantly, the world around me is more present as a sacrament of God’s goodness, power, and wisdom.

There is a wilder calendar—one even more difficult read. I am slowly learning to read the seasons of God’s Spirit. On the most immediate level, I have learned to quiet myself before God and discern the season of my own heart and relationship with Him. I want my eyes open to all that each season brings. Every season has its own wisdom; its own lessons.

On another level, God has a calendar for his people. I deeply appreciate the timeless aspects of the communion with the saints, but God’s Spirit is also alive and active in each gathering of believers. Above and beyond the babble of division and confusion among believers, God has a calendar that we should learn to read. I am not good at this, but sometimes I detect a change in the wind and shift in seasons. Sometimes there is a false spring before the real one.

Then there is that divine cosmic calendar that Daniel, Ezekiel, and John read so well. This is the wildest calendar. It is felt in the blood—the acceleration of this world toward some end and some new beginning. I make no claims to read this calendar,  but I am listening and watching. I hope to be like the sons of Issachar who are described (I Chronicles 12:32) as “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”

All believers are like watchmen eagerly awaiting the dawn, scanning the sky for first light. We hope for that final spring that makes a new heavens and new earth. The day marked on God’s calendar.

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The Joy of the Hidden Life

Some days emptiness walks across the room and slaps you in the face even though, and sometimes because, you are a Christian. I know this can happen at any age, but it seems common as you grow old.

As I near retirement age, I am startled by how little I have done. Books not written. Prayers not answered. Dreams not realized. Fragments of achievement, but never enough.

I have measured out my life not in coffee spoons but in stacks of essays graded.  A competent teacher, but not legendary. And of course, as a parent you always wish you had done more or done better.

A life surrendered to God offers no automatic protection. We long to serve God in world-changing ways. We crave significance.

Sometimes emptiness pounds my faith in the promises I think (wrongly?) God has spoken. Why would God call me to pray for city-transforming revival if He never intended to release it? Yes, I know Jeremiah did exactly that. He preached and prayed and Israel never repented but instead went into exile. Jeremiah is, however, called the weeping prophet and was no fun at church potlucks.

Emptiness is relative, so it never helps to list the things you actually accomplished and the lives you have impacted for good and for God. There are always the dozens who have done more in comparison. Nor is hope had by considering those lives emptied by years of drug addiction or self-destructive living. Emptiness is no respecter of persons.

It is good to count your blessings one by one, but it does little to protect us from the slap of emptiness. In fact, you may just end up wondering how you could do so little with all God has given you.

Here are two things that stop emptiness in its tracks. After Jesus and his disciples see a poor widow put her two mites in the treasury, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.” (Luke 21:3—4) Elsewhere Jesus says, “And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you he shall not lose his reward.” Matthew 10:42

These two verses show that God’s kingdom runs on a different economy. The human longing for significance is God-given—but what is significant to us and to God aren’t the same. A life surrendered to God, like the widow’s mites, is within the reach of every believer. We can live for His eyes and according to his economy. In his kingdom and economy even a cup of water counts.

It is liberating to fully embrace the economy of God. Not only can I ignore what others think of my achievements, I don’t have to care about what I think. Every day can I sally forth with widow’s mites and give all I have to God. Every day, significance is within reach even if invisible to all but God.

 The second defense to emptiness is the hidden life. Paul wrote in Colossians  “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). Not only do others not see who I really am, I can’t see my life. I have died to the visible life—one lived for the eyes of others, or even my own eyes. I am free just to live in humble obedience each day. It’s enough.

Therefore, I resist the temptation to weigh my accomplishments or lack of them. My worth and life are hidden with Christ in God. Only God knows my heart—the great things done with pride and simple things done with purity. I can trust all this to God. This is the joy of the hidden life.

So when emptiness crosses the room to slap me, I grab it by the lapels, box its ears, and say, “You don’t know me! Hell [a personification of existential angst], I don’t even know me! But when Christ, who is my life, is revealed, then I also will be revealed with Him in glory.” Glory!

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Well, This is Awkward

Have you noticed that before Jesus fed the five thousand, he said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat”? They respond by asking if they should spend two hundred denarii to buy some bread for the multitude (Mark 6:37).

This is awkward for three reasons. First, it had to be awkward for the disciples. Was Jesus serious, sarcastic, or just being mean? He knew, surely, they had no way to feed that many people. Second, although I have read and heard this story hundreds of times, I have never thought about why Jesus asked the disciples to feed them. How could I miss this? Third, if Jesus really intended for them to feed the multitude, I have missed an important part of the story—an unsettling part.

I first thought that maybe I had ignored this detail about feeding the multitude because it appears in only one of the gospels.  But Jesus tells them to feed the people in Luke 9:13 and Matthew 14:16, as well as Mark. John even adds more to the story:

Jesus therefore lifting up His eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to Him said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” And this he was saying to test him; for he knew what He was intending to do. (John 6:5—6)

John’s comment that this exchange with Philip was a test may give some clue as to why in other gospels Jesus directly tells the disciples to feed the multitude.

But if this is a test, what would passing the test look like? All the solutions the disciples propose are natural ones: send them to the villages, spend some money to buy bread, get loaves and fishes from the boy. I don’t think Jesus was being sarcastic when he told them to feed the multitude nor does it seem likely he said this to help the disciples realize they lacked the ability to feed them. That they couldn’t feed that many people was obvious.

The test could simply be that Jesus wanted them to turn to Him and say, “Jesus, you have all authority and so you feed them.” But this boils down to the disciples saying, “No, you are God so you feed them.” As much as part of me likes this reading, it means Jesus didn’t really mean it when said, “You give them to eat.” It also means saying “No” to what Jesus has asked and putting it back on Him to do. In this reading, the emphasis is on Jesus helping the disciples realize what they can’t do.

Jesus probably knew the disciples lacked the faith to perform this miracle, but what if the command to feed the multitude was serious? What if he was challenging them to perform the miracle that would feed the five thousand? Well, that would be awkward. It would make a point about this story that is almost never made. It would mean that this event isn’t just about what Jesus is able to do, it is about what Jesus wants us to be doing. It puts us on the spot.

This is awkward because it is so much easier to believe God can work miracles for us than to believe God can work miracles through us. As long as the story is only about what Jesus can do when we place the loaves and fishes (our broken lives) in His hands, we are off the hook. I, with great eloquence, have preached on the power of Jesus to bless our meager offerings and in miraculous ways multiply what we consecrate to him. I love spiritualizing this story! But what if Jesus was teaching the disciples that they could do the works he did? (See John 14:12)

The disciples had already been granted authority over unclean spirits and every kind of disease (Matthew 10:1). They had, therefore, some experience with God working through them in miraculous ways. His command to feed the multitude indicated that this kind of miracle was something the disciples could do through the authority he had given them. If we ignore Christ’s request that the disciples feed the people, we miss this point.

Mark ends this story on a sad note. Right after this miracle, the disciples cross the Galilee to Bethsaida. The wind has come up and they are straining at the oars. They see Jesus walking on the water and call out to him. When he gets into the boat, they are astonished because the wind immediately stopped. Mark says they are astonished “for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, for their hearts were hardened” (6:52). I worry that I may ignore Jesus’ request for the disciples to feed the people because when it comes to God doing miracles through his people, my heart is hard.

Certainly, the key insight from the incident of the loaves is the revelation of who Jesus is and the authority the Father has given him. But the command of Jesus for his disciples to feed the people is also a revelation of who we are and the authority we have in Christ. It reveals Jesus’ hope that the works he has done his followers will also do.

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