Clinging to the Ring

On the way to Kansas, Teckla and I had one terrible night in a motel. We were exhausted and had driven many hot, sweaty miles without air-conditioning. The fan had gone out just as we got to Diamond Lake and began descending to the high desert around Bend and Burns. It was 103 that day.

After showers, we collapsed into bed until Teckla woke up in a panic from a bad dream. Her voice and eyes were full of fear. Trembling she asked, “Who are you?”

I gently said, “I am your husband, Mark.”

 She stared at me and said, “No, you aren’t. You are just pretending.” Tears ran down her cheeks.

Soon I was crying too. I knew Teckla’s dementia could someday come to this moment, but this hit like a hammer. I was crushed.

I gently took her hands and pointed to her wedding ring and then showed her mine. I said, “See we both wear the same rings. We are married. With this ring I promised to always love you and keep you safe.”

After I coaxed her back to bed, she sobbed, tightly holding my hand, her fingers rubbing my ring. Eventually, she fell asleep.

I don’t know what part of this was dementia and what was a nightmare hard to wake from. Next day she was fine, and she has not had another terror like this. She always knows who I am.

But the lesson of the night has pierced my heart. There have been nights when I have been as lost and afraid as Teckla, nights when I have not known where God is or who I am. Like Teckla clinging to my ring, I have sobbed and fallen asleep holding the promises of God.  I am His. He is mine. He will never leave me nor forsake me. Though the night is long, the dawn is His.

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Leaving Oregon

Teckla and I are leaving Oregon. It is not the first time. In 1980 we moved to Olathe, Kansas where I had been offered a teaching position. Although we had been living in Pullman, Washington since 1978, we still spent enough time in Myrtle Point to consider Oregon our home. We ended up living in Olathe or across the border in Kansas City, Missouri for about thirteen years. We moved back to Myrtle Point in 1993 when my father was dying of cancer.

Nothing helped me love Oregon more than my years in the Midwest. Upon my return, I delighted in Oregon’s rivers. Because you are seldom far from a river’s headwaters, many rivers here run clear and clean.  Near Myrtle Point, the north, middle, and south forks of the Coquille River meet. Myrtle trees, bigleaf maples, and red alders arch over the upper reaches of the coastal rivers. Salmon runs defy gravity and swim far up the rivers to their spawning grounds.

I also delight in the opportunity for solitude. I live in one of the least populated coastal counties of Oregon. I have sometimes walked all day on the beach south of Bandon and not seen another soul. The same solitude is possible on some of the trails in the Siskiyou Mountains south of Myrtle Point. I once hiked five hours on the Panther Ridge trail without meeting anyone. And if one goes a little off trail, though unwise perhaps, solitude is guaranteed.

I will miss the ocean—its power, majesty, and beauty. Through great sorrow and loss, it has been a comfort. Our family began camping near the ocean when I was only two. My mother often recounted that “osh” was one of my first words. For many years we camped near Cape Creek beach just below Cape Perpetua. I can still the point to the rock that was my pirate ship as the tide came in around it. Years later my own boys played on the same basalt ship. Yesterday we took Ari and Dylan’s kids (Leah, Noah, and Khloe) to Bandon where they splashed in the waves and ran wild on the beach until exhausted.

Both beach and mountains have also given me the “wild”. It is hard to explain why this is important. I hiked all over and through the nature parks and trails around Olathe and Kansas City, but it was never long before I came to a fence and some farmland or another sprawling housing development. In southern Oregon or the Cascades, you can be immersed in the wild for days before coming to even a road. You will see the scats of bears and mountain lions on the trail. Such wildness humbles me and puts me right relationship with creation—fear and delight.

More than all this, I will miss the courage and fortitude of those who live in Oregon but go to church anyway. In the Bible belt, no one blinks if you talk about going to church on Sunday. In Oregon, people, especially those I taught with at the college, were shocked. It is interesting that many of my Christian friends in Myrtle Point did not grow up going to church, becoming believers later in life. I appreciate their tenacious faith, free of religious clichés or lifeless legalism. I will profoundly miss my brothers and sisters in Christ who have loved us and helped us in our hardest times.

Oregon has been, of all places, my heart’s home. I was born in Pendleton. With great joy, I climbed the trees and waded in the creeks of Milton-Freewater. From six grade to college, I lived in Myrtle Point where I learned the beaches and forest trails of the South Coast. For many years my family and then Teckla and I camped on the central coast of Oregon. The beaches, trees, creeks, and rivers are friends.

So why move? When Teckla and I married, we vowed to seek first the kingdom of God. We have always gone where we believed God is calling us. This direction has often been a sense of God’s pleasure with a direction or decision. It has always felt more like an invitation than a command. We have sought His will over our own. My discernment of God’s will is imperfect, but going to Kansas feels like what love would do. We will be closer to my three sons and my nine grandchildren. Our move will help Ari get settled into Dylan and Vanessa’s home and give him a home, a mother, and a father. We will be moving into their basement and helping them adopt Ari.

This is not the retirement people dream about, but it feels right to end our lives as selflessly as we started them. It has never been about us. And over the years, every time I thought I was sacrificing something, God has embarrassed me with His goodness, ambushed me with His love, and surprised me with joy. Even in Kansas, perhaps especially in Kansas.


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When You Don’t Understand, Stand

Sometimes out of nowhere, it seems, a Bible verse strikes my heart like an arrow shot from God’s bow. This recently happened with a phrase from Ephesians 6:13: “and having done everything, to stand firm.”

Often the cry of my heart has been, “God, I have done everything I know to do. I have prayed every prayer, confessed every promise, muttered every Christian cliché. Now what?” This verse struck me as God’s answer. It is not, however, the one I really wanted.

This exhortation to stand firm is smack in the middle of Paul’s teaching about spiritual warfare and putting on the full armor of God. Being still a boy at heart, I like the idea of putting on armor, but it is disappointing that after putting on the armor, we are told simply to “stand firm”.

I have always hoped for something more swashbuckling. I grew up on Zorro, Robin Hood, and Ivanhoe. I would rather spur my horse and drive the point of my lance into the enemy or swing my sword expertly at Satan. But there is no mistaking Paul’s point here in Ephesians; three times he tells us to stand and once to resist.

I must confess, however, the longer I have lived the more I value people who simply stand—and don’t fall. I think we all need people who year after, trial after trial, stand firm in their faith. I quick sprint through the New Testament reveals the tremendous importance of endurance, overcoming, and perseverance. These days I am quicker to treasure believers for their perseverance than their gifts.

In early days of Christian faith in England, monks often carved and erected stone wayside crosses to guide travelers through fen and bog, rain and fog. When leaders fall into sin, or worse, secretly live a life of sin, it tears your heart out and leaves you wandering in a fog of doubt and pain. Those who wear God’s armor and stand firm in the fog can guide us safely home.

Standing may not feel much like warfare, but it is the same cosmic warfare that Job did when he refused to curse God. We frustrate the lie of Satan that God is enthroned on our praise only because of the blessings He has given us. Against the lie of the enemy, we testify that when even our wounds have wounds God is worthy to be praised. The waves of the world snarl and break themselves against us like the storm breaking around a lighthouse. We stand and by standing, shine.

We also stand by never letting go of the truth about who God is and who we are. The very first lie to Adam and Eve raised a question as to whether God was truly good. The serpent argued that the fruit of the forbidden tree was off limits because God didn’t them to become gods like Him. In other words, God could not be trusted. This lie against God’s character is often the beginning of all falls from grace and corruption of leadership.

Satan is called the accuser of the brethren because after he has tempted us, Satan throws a fit and demands God punish us. We stand firm by taking refuge in Jesus, his forgiveness, his cleansing of our soul. We stand firm as children of God, destined for glory and life eternal. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus lives in us. When Satan comes pounding on the door, we can say, “Jesus, will you get that?”

We also stand firm when we refuse to stop loving. Few things are as boring as standing. Few things make us as weary as loving and serving others. But Satan’s schemes relentlessly to divide God’s people. We stand by being unoffendable, day after day, year after year. If day by day we let God’s love pour into our hearts, time and trouble cannot exhaust our love for others.

I wrestle with hard questions. I struggle with how to hear God’s voice and not my own noisy heart. I often don’t know when trials are the will of God or the attack of the enemy or some third thing. I have come to doubt any promises from God except those given to all believers in Scripture. I am, however, certain God has said, “When you don’t understand, stand!”

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God’s Still, Small Voice

It has been a year since Peter died. No waves of grief swept over me on this melancholy anniversary, only mild surprise that a year had passed. Perhaps I am numb from all the other losses. When grief is piled on grief, loss upon loss, where does one begin to heal? What is wholeness except putting all one’s hope in a glorious resurrection?

In the last year, I have asked for but not received any assurance of Peter’s salvation. God, perhaps rightly, is silent on the topic. I do have little hints here and there that like the thief on the cross, Peter may have turned to Christ before his eyes rolled back in his head on the stretcher. Peter did give me permission to pray for him the night before he died. I did pray. Others have told me God gave them peace concerning Peter. I stitch all these scraps together into a crazy quilt of hope.

It would be nice to have friend to friend conversation with God concerning Peter. I sought this during the five years I daily prayed for Peter’s healing, deliverance, and salvation. I would pray through the Psalms and sometimes hear, I thought, God whisper, “This promise is for Peter.” Nothing audible—just the slightest impression.  

But Peter died. I do not know, therefore, how to assess all the promises I thought I heard from God—the times a verse seemed to jump out, capture my heart, and give me hope for Peter. Was this really the God speaking? Or was I putting into the mouth of God the words I longed to hear? Were the promises God spoke to me when we adopted him a fantasy. Peter, after all, became somewhat the opposite of the promised “mighty man of God.”

It happened again today. Each morning, I write a verse or two on three 3×5 cards–one for Teckla, Ari, and me. I add a short blessing and prayer. Today the verse was from I Timothy 1:14 where Paul concerning his own salvation declares “the grace of our Lord was more than abundant.” My heart, or perhaps the quiet voice of God, added, “For Peter.” Do I trust this?

It would be nice to know whether at the end Peter placed his faith in Jesus. But this question may have to remain unanswered. The deeper question is whether I expect too much of God by way of friendship and conversation. Each morning Teckla and I have been singing hymns, many of which talk about how we “walk and talk” with Jesus. By faith, I declare that Jesus has always been, and still is, with me. I talked, but never heard Jesus talk in the midst of what has been hardest and darkest years of my life.

Of course, I took and continue to take comfort in God’s Word which in a general way is God speaking to us. This, however, is not friendship. My real question is not the cliché question, “Why me, O Lord? Why did you let Peter die?” These questions don’t bother me. The more enduring question is where is the friendship and communication that is the heart of all relationships? Where is the Holy Spirit that makes real the presence of Christ with us? The tragedy of Peter’s death and trauma in the years leading up to his death only make these questions more acute.

It has also been disconcerting that so many who have gone through similar loss and grief testify to how present God was with and how His Spirit comforted them and spoke to them. I am of course, glad they have had this wonderful experience of God’s continual presence in their darkest days. I can certainly, by faith, say God has always been with me. But I cannot say that God’s silent and invisible presence has been much comfort. I have longed for the conversations so many believers say they have with God during their trying times. So what’s up?

Here are the multiple-choice answers:

1) Mark, you simply lack the faith to enter the intimate fellowship and conversation God has for you. You have substandard relationship with God. Repent.  

2) Mark, you need to recognize that although we talk about conversation and friendship with God, what we really mean are these little impressions that we choose to call God’s voice. Anyone can do it.

 3) Mark, most of what you thought was God speaking to you was ventriloquism and self-deception. We all do it. Repent. When God really does speak, like Job, you will know it.

4) Mark, all God’s promises for Peter were true but contingent on Peter’s choices. God was speaking what He hoped Peter would choose. God was waiting to see what Peter would do. He too was heartbroken by Peter’s choices. You did hear God’s still, small voice.

If I were a Calvinist, I could declare all four answers simultaneously true even though contradictory. I could answer objections to logical contradictions with the declaration that God’s ways are not our ways, God is a mystery, we are finite, and God need not be confined or restrained by our logic. But this opens the door to all kinds of nonsense declarations like Calvinists are absolutely right, although completely wrong.

Or I could take refuge in the story of Job. Although it brings some comfort, it fails to help in crucial ways. Job did not experience the abiding presence, communication, and fellowship with God during his losses and trials. Job spoke and until the end, God was silent. Until God appears and speaks, Job yammers away with his complaint and wishes he was never born. Should I too pound away at this question of communication until God appears and speaks to me?  That might be awhile. Do we really want anyone to follow Job’s example? No one wants Job showing up at their Bible studies or prayer meetings.

And what about the Holy Spirit? How can a believer filled with the Holy Spirit follow the example of Job? Perhaps I am expecting too much of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly a puzzle how a believer filled with the Holy Spirit can experience a “dark night of the soul” and God’s absence. God in us should not be something we just take on faith like a doctrine.

Peter’s death and all the crushing disappointment that came with it did not create these questions, but it did sharpen them and make me desperate to know what I ought to expect from God. “Getting over my grief” will not vanquish the question.I have become permanently impatient with religious cliches and vagaries. I long for my experience of God to match our language about an intimate relationship with God.

And Teckla’s memory loss, a grief fresh daily, raises another topic that I would love to talk over with God—if that is not expecting too much. We need to talk before all the questions are forgotten.  

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Recently, I preached badly on the hope of glory. No matter how many analogies or metaphors I grabbed, none seemed to communicate the power and joy of sharing God’s glory. It felt like I was trying to kindle a fire with two wet sticks.

Despite my failure, I am convinced that a right understanding of the hope of glory is essential to our faith. Paul declared that our present sufferings “are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). He develops this idea more fully in II Corinthians 4:17: “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” After you read about all the beatings, shipwrecks, stoning, and imprisonment Paul endured, understanding this “eternal weight of glory” seems urgent. In verse 16 he said this hope of renewal and future glory is one of the reasons we don’t lose heart even as we decay.

However, I think most Christians have no idea of what Paul means by glory. We understand God possessing glory, majesty, and splendor and being exalted on the praise of all creation. But what is the glory God gives us and we receive?

C. S. Lewis tackles this question in his essay “The Weight of Glory”. He says one basic aspect of glory is praise and acknowledgement. Since many of us have little desire for a pat on the head or a gold star pasted on our life, this kind of glory does not capture our imagination. Many of us simply hate attention.

It is here that Teckla helps me. She is, as any who knows her can attest, completely without pride and personal vanity. Yet, if you ask her what she desires most deeply, with tears in her eyes she will say, “To hear Jesus say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’” This is the glory of being seen and known by God—understood perfectly by someone who all our life has seen us as we truly are.

The glory of this kind acknowledgment matters so much because it comes from God. No approval matters as much as His. We get a glimpse of this on the TV show The Voice during what is called the blind auditions. The judges have their backs to the singers and turn around if they want the singer to be part of their team. The opinion of these judges matter because they are all award-winning singers themselves. The best singers may see all four chairs turn. Heaven, for all who put their faith in Jesus, is God turning his chair for us and recognizing who are we are in His Son, Jesus.

In graduate school I tasted, in a small way, this kind of glory in a course taught by Dr. Towne. He had taught at the University of Athens and was now teaching my literary criticism course at WSU. His comments on my essays were always perceptive and penetrating. On one essay, into which I had poured my heart and argued for Christian philosophy of creativity, he wrote at the end, “A beautiful essay.” I still have the essay. Because of who he was as a scholar, his words meant more than the words of any other professor. Because of who God is, his praise is everything and rightly brings us joy.

C. S. Lewis says the second is the kind of glory we receive is “luminosity”. I think this idea is even more difficult to adequately communicate. The moment we see Jesus we become like Jesus. We receive the kind of resurrected body Jesus has. We see a glimpse of the glorified Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration where his garments glowed, and his face shone like the sun. We also have similar descriptions of Jesus by John in Revelation where Jesus’ eyes are a flame of fire and his feet glow like burnished bronze.

Paul’s point is that eternally possessing the kind of body Jesus now has makes our present aches, pains, cancers, and dementia nothing in comparison. Throughout the Scripture prophets and God’s people got glimpses of God’s glory, but when see Jesus, we become God’s glory. We don’t just see the beauty of God, we become His beauty. We don’t just sing a song, we become the song of praise.

It was perhaps at this point that I lost the congregation. I argued that the desire for a glorified body is present in all our childhood dreams of being a super-hero. The radiance of God, after all, is both light and power. I especially had in mind the image of the recent Captain Marvel movie after the hero gains her powers.  She glows and pulses with power. We may find the desire for an indestructible body childish, but it becomes a glorious idea as your body sags and drags, aches and decays. Jumping off the couch in my Superman pajamas was just practice for the return of Christ when I meet him in the air and in the twinkling of an eye become like Him.

As we age, we often feel we have lost who we once were. Those with dementia can even lose the memories that time has stitched together into their identity. But In Colossians 3:3 Paul explains that right now our “life is hidden with Christ in God.” No matter how much we forget we are perfectly remembered by God. Paul goes on to say, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.”

This hope of glory not only helps us endure suffering, but it purifies our heart. In 1 John 2:3 we are told: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.” John goes on to claim: “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” When we place all our hope on the day of His appearing, we discover a passion for holiness. We long to be like Jesus on the inside, so one day we will be like Him through and through. Glory!

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This Too is a Gift

Sometimes, most times, I leave the place of prayer feeling empty. I leave having not felt the presence of God and having not heard his voice. For several reasons I am reluctant to say this out loud.

First, such a confession does not encourage others to pray, something Jesus taught His followers to do. I would hate to be the reason others stopped praying. Our culture, even in the church, is permeated with therapeutic values. We celebrate all the benefits of prayer: deliverance from burdens, sweet fellowship with Jesus, the cure for our loneliness. When therapeutic benefits are the main reason for praying, saying that prayer leaves me empty seems like heresy. Why even pray?

Second, my confession invites others to diagnose my spiritual malfunction and give advice. Some will see this as a bad case of walking by feelings and not faith. I will be accused of getting the train of faith out of order: fact, faith, feeling. And yet, their advice is often contradictory—if you had more faith, you would feel more of God’s presence and hear His voice more clearly, but don’t worry about feeling. Part of the trouble is that we have all these worship songs and many hymns about the friend we have in Jesus and how He walks with us and talks with us. Therefore, it seems, something in me must be broken or off the rails. Perhaps my caboose is in the weeds.  

Others will simply critique my technique and prescribe five steps to hearing the voice of God. These advisors assert that God is always speaking, but we just haven’t been taught to hear His voice. There are books on this. However, I check most of the boxes on these steps: time alone with God, a prayer journal, time letting God speak through His Word, and sensitivity to God speaking through nature, circumstances, and other people. So, now what?

More sympathetic folks might diagnose me as having a “dark night of the soul.” Recently, I burned journals full of prayers for my dead son, Peter. It was a black night. But the last five years of watching Peter struggle with sin, addiction, and Type-One “brittle” diabetes has been much darker. Years! It is terrible and sad to admit, things got slightly brighter when he died. But then Teckla was diagnosed with dementia, a new kind of enduring grief and darkness. “Night” hardly seems the right word here.

It is not that advice is unwelcome. When I imagine trying to pastor myself, I shudder. What counsel should or could I offer? What do say after you have checked the usual suspects off the list, but the person is still feeling empty? I certainly don’t want others to doubt the warm fellowship with God they are experiencing. I’m glad they are chatting with Jesus. Full is better than empty.

My emptiness, however, is not complete. My emptiness contains an ache for God and a hunger for His presence. I am not wrestling with questions that I am impatiently demanding God answer. I hunger for His voice. I long to hear His observations on my life. We could talk about the weather. Like the Psalmist says, “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”

In church we celebrate this crying out without giving much thought or space to the emptiness from which it springs. We are quick to celebrate an answer to the cry, but struggle to validate the emptiness, the heart-broken longing, and the agony of separation—despite all the times these come up in the Psalms.

As I was talking to God about this emptiness, it occurred to me that even this emptiness is a gift. Some, at this point in my story, might be jumping up and down and saying, “Mark, that thought was God talking to you, you ninny!” Of course, you may be right.

A godward emptiness is certainly a gift when compared to the alternatives: apathy, despair, and bitterness. These are real and present dangers. Being like Job and not cursing God, however, will not make you an in-demand speaker at conferences. No one wants my book on five steps to spiritual emptiness and a hunger for God.

If this is a long dark night of the soul, I have lost hope that the dawn will break before I do. But I hold tightly to the hope of glory—when I see Jesus and become like Him. Until that day, I will treasure my emptiness—my heart’s cry for Jesus. This too is a gift.   

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Kicking Job Out of Church

I am convinced that anyone who speaks and acts like Job would be kicked out of most churches today—even those, perhaps especially those, that proclaim the Bible their authority. They might be right to do so.

He certainly is someone who should be kept away from new believers. Job is bitter. In fact, Job speaks of God as one who “has taken away my right, and the Almighty who has embittered my soul” (Job 27:2). He is so bitter that he wishes he had been “carried from the womb to the tomb” (Job 10:19) We would rebuke him for his bitterness and for blaming his bitterness on God. He is certainly disobeying Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice, always.”

It might be okay if Job would just shut up. Job refused to be quiet: “I loathe my life own life, I will give full vent to my complaint, I will speak the bitterness of my soul.” We would dread him sharing “what God has been doing” in his life. Let’s skip testimonies when Job comes to church! Give Job the suicide hotline number and send him on his way!

Lest we are tempted to correct and counsel Job, we should remember how terrible Job was to his friends. Job had an unteachable spirit. He calls his friends “worthless physicians and all their advice “proverbs of ashes” and “defenses of clay” Job 13:12. He declares, “Sorry comforters are you all. Is there no limit to your windy words” (Job 15:3)? Job is not open to all grief counsel they are ready to give.  

Job fails to testify to all the things we insist upon. He should be testifying to how all his troubles have improved his godly character. Instead, we find a guy wishing for death. He should also be testifying to how through it all God has been with him. Instead, he complains of God’s absence and silence: “Behold, I go forward, but He is not there, and backward, but I cannot perceive Him.” When he speaks of God’s friendship, it is in the past tense: “Oh that I were as in months gone by, when God watched over me. . . . when the friendship of God was over my tent.” Job would refuse to sing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” He would embarrass us by just sitting in his pew and weeping. Job’s only achievement is blessing God instead of cursing Him.

Even more infuriating would be Job’s claim that he is blameless. Certainly, like Job’s friends, we would insist he must have done something wrong to bring about such devastating trouble. We would rebuke him for trying to justify himself before God. We would insist our righteousness (and especially Job’s righteousness) is like filthy rags before God. And, after all, don’t we all sin, in thought, word, and deed daily? Of course, we would have to ignore that it is God who first says Job is “blameless and upright.”

Job does repent, but only after God shows up and speaks to him. I have heard preachers say that it is okay to cry out to the lord like Job did. It is okay, they say, to be honest with God.But do we really want people talking like Job until God appears to them and lectures them? We would rebuke Job’s demand to see and hear God as a refusal to walk by faith, not sight. Job never repents, it seems, of what he said. But when he sees and hears God speak out of the whirlwind, Job repents of having said anything. Despite Job repenting, God rebukes three of Job’s friends “because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has” Job 42:7.

I doubt that this declaration by God would keep us from kicking Job out, if only to protect the flock. We are now under a new covenant. Believers are filled with the Holy Spirit, a comforter better than Job’s. We live with the promise of Jesus that He will never leave us or forsake us. Like they say, if you are not as close to God as you used to be, guess who moved? Perhaps if we feel abandoned like Job, it is our fault. We now have the Scriptures which always speak to us and are for us the voice and revelation of God. We now walk by faith, not sight, so modern Jobs should shut up and just trust God.  

Perhaps we have the example of Job, so that we never have to follow his example. We never have to wish we had been a miscarriage, complain loudly to God, and demand God appear and answer our arguments. Maybe Job did all this, so we don’t have to. We can jump to the end of the book of Job and just be reassured that as with Job everything will work out in the end.

Despite all these excellent arguments for kicking Job out, we should give him a pew. We need to resist the temptation to recite the same old counsel—even though true—that life is hard, but God is good. It is okay for Job to ask why life is hard, to ask where the goodness of God appears in the deaths of our children and wife.

The real example to avoid is that of Job’s comforters who had all the answers. Until recently, most of my sympathies have been Job’s friends. I am by instinct a teacher and will be thinking of a verse before a person is done telling me their problem. Like Job’s comforters, many of have our pat answers for every question. If not, we can google it. Having “Jobs” in our flock may be a problem, but it is not as serious a problem as making them unwelcome. Most of us have been or will be Job at some point, so we need to make room for Job no matter how uncomfortable he makes us.  

God is not threatened by Job’s questions, nor ready to slap down those who ask them. More than the loss of everything else, Job mourns the absence of God. He longs to return to the days when “the friendship of God was over” his tent. May our pews be filled with all those who cry out for the friendship of God.

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Ari and Dead People

Ari has now been church enough to hear about the resurrection, but most of his questions come from visits to his Dad’s grave. Near Peter’s grave are the graves of my brother, Stanley, and my mother and father. Our hunt for their stones has become a tradition and sometimes a contest to see who can find them first.  

The other day Ari asked, “What happens when everyone comes back?”

  “When who comes back?”

“All the dead people.”

“You mean like your Daddy and Uncle Stanley?”


“Well, they come back to the earth when Jesus returns, and we all live together with

  Jesus forever.”

       “But what happens to their stones?”

        “What do you mean?”

“Do they go scratch out everything on their stones?”

Ari’s last question left me without an answer. I just said, “That is an excellent question.” It is a question that makes an important point. Our funerals and our gravestones make us think of the person in their grave. Some people go to graves to talk to dead loved ones. Even those who scatter ashes often revisit the place where the ashes blew away. We sometimes refer to the grave as a person’s “final resting place.” But for believers, as Ari points out, there is nothing final about the grave.

Ari was trying to reconcile the gravestones with the resurrection. He was wondering how the stone would or should be rewritten after resurrection. Ari’s point is that the words on the gravestone are just the first draft. They are not the final word.

After our resurrection, we won’t need to revisit our graves and chisel our revisions. The graves stand only as markers of our journey, signs of the way we come. Rather than being the last words concerning us, they are the first words of what is truly life.  

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On Eating Small Children

Our desire to eat children is certainly a human oddity. It is commonly discovered in big bosomed aunts who see a baby or toddler and declare, “I could just gobble you up!” Fortunately, such declarations are usually only followed by smothering hugs, cheek pinches, and kisses.

Ari, our seven-year-old grandson, brought us a Valentine’s picture that said, “I love you to pieces.” This too is a frightening phrase if taken literally. But I think the expression flows from the same impulse as “I love you to death.” It is a love so strong that it borders on dangerous.

The desire to eat small children is healthy if rightly understood. It flows from an intoxication with their beauty, innocence, and vitality. Often old folks like me look wistfully at little tikes and wish for their boundless energy. When we see their innocent delight in the world bubble over, we long to drink that elixir.

Famously, Wordsworth declared children coming into the world from God “trailing clouds of glory.” Indeed, there is a fragrance of immortality about small children—something eternal and uncorrupted. Something we lose but hunger for all our lives.

When I see Ari asleep in his grandmother’s lap, his legs now sprawling and dangling nearly to the floor, I see what may be his last days of feeling completely safe. His sleep is undisturbed by fears of the future or mistakes of the past.

The desire to devour the goodness of children may, nonetheless, still seem terrible even if figurative, but consider the Eucharist where we eat the body of Christ and drink His blood. We desire to eat children for the same reason; we long to take into ourselves their vitality, innocence, beauty, and joy.

And like the Lord’s Supper, the impulse to eat children points us both backward and forward. First, it is a desire to recover what we once possessed as a child—innocence and goodness. It is also a longing for the safety and beauty of the garden before evil marred all things and alienated us from nature.

We desire to gobble up children also springs from our longing for the day when we are made new, and our broken bodies put on immortality. We look for a day when all God’s children are safely home—a day when we will play more than we pray.

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A Believing Wife

Teckla caught me writing this and said, “I am not worth writing about.” I will write about her anyway because there was a scene in the video series The Chosen that perfectly expressed why I love her so much and why I am so blessed to be married to her.

The video series The Chosen begins with the stories of each of the 12 apostles being called to follow Jesus. The writers try to imagine all the family and economic dynamics of each apostle saying yes to Jesus’s call. We have been watching the first season of The Chosen Thursday nights at the church.

Last week we watched the story of Peter being called. Peter’s call was accompanied by a miraculous catch of fish and the promise of Jesus that Peter would be made a fisher of men. The back story of Peter shows him facing a financial crisis because of the taxes he owes the Romans. So, the huge catch of fish that nearly sunk the boats was deliverance from an impending disaster of losing his boat and his home.

When Peter came to tell his wife about the miracle and about the call to follow the Messiah, he was both elated and worried. The good news was that all their taxes would be paid for by the huge catch of fish. The bad news was that he was giving up fishing to follow a rabbi called Jesus. He doesn’t know how his wife will respond.

Almost nothing is said about Peter’s wife in the Bible. We do know that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14). And Paul refers to other apostles, including Cephas (Peter), who take believing wives with them in their travels (I Corinthians 9:5). The writers for The Chosen do an excellent job of showing what Peter’s “believing wife” might have been like.

After hearing Peter’s news, his wife is at first speechless. Peter is apologetic. But then it becomes clear that she is over-joyed, and that her tears are tears of joy, not frustration. Peter is surprised but delighted. His wife rejoices that he is finally becoming the man God meant him to be. Peter thought he might be dragging her along behind him, but it turns out that she was ahead of him, leading the way with faith and joy.

This is the kind of wife Teckla has been. Often with trepidation I have said to Teckla that I think God is calling us to move here, go there, adopt these kids. I then ask her to pray and see if I have discerned God’s voice clearly, only to discover God has already spoken to her. In all my fumbling efforts to find and follow God’s leading, she has only responded with joy and faith—never grumbling and criticism.

When we moved to Myrtle Point to care for my mother after my Dad’s death, we left behind the first house we had bought. Teckla moved away from her many friends in Olathe and Kansas City. I was leaving a job without any promise of a job in Oregon. All of this was in response to my desire to honor my parents—the fifth commandment. Teckla and I had only had “our own house” for a year.  It was hard to give up, but Teckla never complained or moped; she embraced the adventure with love and grace.

I could give example after example of Teckla’s faith. She has given me the freedom to pursue God passionately, and in turn I have tried to free her to do the same. It is hard to explain how much joy such freedom brings. Even when I had led us into a literal wilderness, Teckla never grumbled. (I once got us lost in the Ozark National Forest in the middle of the summer).

Teckla believes in God. And despite all my faults and weaknesses, she has believed in me. Having such a believing wife makes me blessed beyond measure and the richest of men.  

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