God’s Path to Self-Care

Is the popular idea of self-care biblical? After all, many verses urge us to deny ourselves. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It is hard to reconcile the call to self-denial with a call to self-care, no matter how popular such exhortations are in social media.  

If part of self-care is about setting up boundaries and avoiding toxic people, we find little help in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus tells his followers to bless and love their enemies, to rejoice when insulted, to turn the other cheek, to give to those who ask and beware of loving only those who love us. His warnings against anxiety could be seen as a kind of self-care, but it is accompanied by a command to not seek after the things we are anxious about: food, clothing, and financial security. Instead, we are to trust God for all things and seek first the kingdom of God. In many ways, this is more like self-forgetfulness than self-care. Jesus declares the best way to care for ourselves is to forget ourselves and seek God’s kingdom.

The apostle Paul doesn’t offer much support for self-care either. Paul describes his apostolic calling in terms of being “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17). He explains that although free of obligation to anyone, he makes himself “a slave to everyone to win as many as possible” (I Corinthians 9:19). Lest we think this standard only for apostles, Paul cites the example of Christ: “And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves” (II Corinthians 5:15). Self-sacrifice is Paul’s theme.

Some have argued that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves provides a biblical justification for self-love and self-care. It has been used to lend a Christian veneer to the self-esteem movement. However, the emphasis of the command is clearly on loving our neighbor. God’s command assumes we all love ourselves. In other posts I have addressed this idea at length. If we genuinely hate a person, we are not depressed about that person’s failures, ugliness, or lack of talent. It is precisely because we love ourselves that we are so depressed by our shortcomings. The answer to such depression is self-forgetfulness not even more self-love.

Yet, the needs that self-care address are real. Self-care is especially important for those in careers or roles where caring for others is part of the job description. Therefore, wise and mature women often urge younger women to take time for self-care. Traditional gender roles are quick to justify a man resting and pursuing a hobby after a week of work, but slow to give the working mother the same freedom to rest and pursue other interests. In a similar way, pastors can feel guilty if they aren’t always ministering to the infinite needs and unrelenting demands of their congregations.  Burn-out is common among pastors, teachers, social workers, nurses, and others in caring professions. For these people, self-care may be matter of survival. But where does Scripture address the need for self-care?

The first place is the sabbath. Books, mostly by Jewish authors, have been written on how the sabbath blesses us, restore us, and refreshes our spirits. By not working on the sabbath, we declare our freedom from the fear and anxiety that keeps us going a hundred miles an hour to be successful. We declare our trust in God and we rest in His care for us. Program-driven Protestant churches, however, have often turned Sundays into a day of labor instead of rest. My father preached on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings and then essentially made Monday his sabbath. As congregations and individuals, we may have real work to do to make our Sundays (or Saturdays) into real Sabbath days, but the sabbath is clearly God recognizing our need for rest and restoration.

I would also argue that delight is part of the essence of the sabbath. In Genesis, God rests from creation and delights in all He has made: “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” Our delight in God’s creation brings us into communion with God and his own delight in what he has made. It is why even those who are not Christians are refreshed and restored by nature and wilderness.

The second place is prayer and the spiritual disciplines that surround it. Jesus went alone into the mountains to pray despite the pressing needs of the people (Luke 6:19). Not all prayer begins in tranquility, but most of it ends there. Our intercession for others can be agonizing, but Paul declares that bringing our concerns to God with thanksgiving will result in the “peace of God, which passes all comprehension” guarding our hearts and our minds in Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:7).

The spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude often accompany and support the discipline of prayer, for prayer is listening as well as speaking. It is possible to think of silence and solitude as “me-time,” but for believers it should be “us-time”—time we are alone with God in silence. Goal-oriented believers may be tempted to see prayer as little more than asking God to bless all their hard work. But there is little rest in squeezing these prayers into our days. Often, we think about getting prayers out of the way so we can get to the real work of the day. But in economy of heaven, few things are of more pragmatic and practical importance than prayer and listening for the voice of God.

A third place believers find self-care is in fellowship—mutual care. Many of our needs are meant to be met in community where we use our gifts to build up and refresh one another. Paul spoke of some brothers who “have refreshed my spirit and yours” (I Corinthians 16:18). In II Corinthians Paul commended the church in Corinth because the spirit of Titus had “been refreshed by you all.” Commands to love our enemies and bless those curse us may keep us from leaving behind every “toxic” person, but we can certainly seek to spend time with those who can refresh our spirit.

Recently, Tom and Carl, men from a morning Bible study I attend, came up to my house with a truck full of huge planks. I had asked Tom about the best and least expensive way to repair the rotting raised beds in my garden. He has a small mill on his dairy farm, so he milled some huge planks. Carl who is an excellent wood worker helped square them up. We then lifted them up and over the old rotten growing beds. We did no Bible study and did not lay hands on each other and pray, but their kindness and the goodness of our labor together greatly refreshed my spirit. Their care for me and their generosity was some of the best “self-care” I could have received during a difficult and weary week.

In all these sources of self-care we find a paradox and principle of indirection. When we forget our needs on the Sabbath, we discover God meeting our needs. When we take our eyes off ourselves and lose ourselves in the goodness of God’s creation, we are restored. When we forget about ourselves and enter into community with others, God uses others to refresh our spirit. When we give, others will give unto us “a good measure, pressed down shaken together and running over” (Luke 6:38).

So yes, God is concerned about our need for restoration, wholeness, and refreshment, but His path to these is different from the world’s. God invites us to forget ourselves and enter into the Sabbath, prayer, and fellowship. Of course, all of these require we humbly admit our need for God and our need for others. As often the case, humility is the first step.

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Where Was God When?

You can fill in blank. When cancer took my child, when the bomb landed on the school, when I was molested and raped, when my family was murdered, when millions of Jews cried out in the death camps of Hitler.

No question can have a more devastating effect on our faith in a loving God. Hundreds of books have been written trying to answer the question, so there will be no quick answer here. I have already written about how present God has been through my brothers and sisters who have helped and loved Teckla as she has battled breast cancer this last year. God, dwelling in the hearts of other believers, has been near us.

But recently another answer to my question keeps coming. When I ask, “God, where are you”, I have heard, I think, God say, “In Christ on the cross.” I am certain I don’t fully understand what this answer might mean. But let me describe three ways this helps me.

First, I believe God, in Christ on the cross, is there for us. On the cross, the Father and Son suffered for all our sins, for all the terrible things we have done and will do to one another. I say the Father suffered because this last year I suffered beside the bed of my intubated son, Peter, while doctors fought to save his life. On the cross both the Father and Son drew close to us. The Holy Spirit wept.

Jesus hung on the cross for not only our sins but also for the sins of those who hurt us. In the suffering of Jesus there is a promise of healing for the victim and deliverance for wicked. So when I wag a finger at God and ask why He doesn’t do something, I think He points to the cross and says, “Well, I did this.” The gift of His Son on the cross to save us all is something, even if in our suffering it does not seem like enough. On the cross the power of sin was broken. The most wicked can be cleansed and the most broken healed. 

Second, on the cross God is with us. In bearing our sins on the cross Jesus became God with us in the most intimate way. Although sinless, He was with us in our sins. We can never say to Jesus, “You just don’t understand my situation.” The cross may reach to heaven, but it is planted in the earth. God came to us. Jesus walked here, died here, arose here. He knows us, our sin, and our pain.

A third way is the mystery of the fellowship of His sufferings mentioned in Philippians 3. I am not certain I understand it, and less certain that I want it. But I think it means that when my suffering is surrendered to God rather than fought against with bitterness or hardness, it becomes redemptive rather than pointless. Where hurt has reigned, healing can abound; where our heart is in ruins, God builds an indestructible temple of love and grace. In the fellowship of his sufferings, my suffering becomes golden. In my helplessness, God empowers me to help others.

I know this does not answer all the “why” questions about suffering. Why did God not intervene? Is it that He doesn’t or can’t, or that in some mysterious way all suffering is His sovereign will? Those questions need books and different books give different answers.

In my suffering, I have learned to look to Christ on the cross. It is where God is both for me and with me. In the fellowship of his suffering, I am not alone and discover I never have been.  

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Marxists and Homeschool Mothers

I recently re-read The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This story draws upon Hawthorne’s time living at Brook Farm, an experimental utopian community, founded upon some the ideals of New England transcendentalism. One of the main characters is a philanthropist named Mr. Hollingsworth whose soul is consumed by his project for reforming criminals.

Hawthorne’s critique of Hollingsworth gave me insight into why fervent Marxists and homeschool mothers make me uneasy. Hawthorne describes Hollingsworth as one of those who have “surrendered themselves to over-ruling purpose.” He says it is wise to avoid such people:

They will keep no friend, unless he makes himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third.

Yes, Hollingsworth is an extreme case, but we have all seen the ease with which people dedicated to a good cause can become cruel and in name of saving humanity, lose their humanity.

I have, of course, met very humane and wonderful Marxists. One of my best, and most open-minded, graduate school professors was a communist. I got an A in her courses even though I directly attacked some of her dearest convictions. And I am married to a homeschool Mom who is full of grace and kindness. I know some homeschoolers who avoid making homeschooling into a all-consuming passion.

I use Marxists and homeschool mothers to represent those who sometimes sacrifice others for the sake of a cause. Often utopian leaders (of the left or right) become first frustrated, then angry, and then cruel. Marxists are famous for their purges in Russia and the tyranny of Red Guard in China, all in the name of ideological purity. I have seen homeschool mothers for whom home education is an ideology that condemns those who send their kids to public schools. Some homeschooling parents will continue to homeschool even when it becomes clear it is not the best choice for their kids.

I could present other polarities as well. I am wary of someone who puts denominational loyalty over the biblical convictions, but I am equally wary of house church pastors who rail against denominations. (I say that as former house church pastor). I am cautious of anyone who places a cause or ideology above kindness and friendship.

Hawthorne’s own critique of such people is harsh. He argues that this “over-ruling purpose” can become a “false deity”. It is easy to lose our way when as believers our loyalty to Jesus is diluted and then ruled by a loyalty to another cause—no matter how noble. In graduate school I attended a “Bible study” on liberation theology. The leaders loved Jesus to the degree he could be seen as a revolutionary leader championing the poor but disliked his teaching on forgiveness.   

Today we see people on the left and right enlisting Jesus in their causes. On one side there are those who are “woke” to social injustice and racism. On the other, there are those who are loyal to right wing politicians no matter how ungodly they act. Both sides can, like Hollingsworth, cancel others—even other brothers and sisters in Christ—if they are not ideologically pure enough.

Toward the end of The Blithedale Romance the most scathing critique of Hollingsworth comes from Zenobia, a woman he rejects in favor of a more completely devoted disciple:

I see it now! I am awake, disenchanted, disenthralled! Self, self, self! You have embodied yourself in a project. . . . But foremost, and blackest of your sins, you stifled down your inmost consciousness!—you did a wrong to your own heart.

Only Zenobia sees that Hollingsworth is not so much committed to his cause as he is passionate about his image of himself as a great philanthropist and reformer. At the heart of his cause, lurking in the fog of idealist rhetoric was “Self”. When we sacrifice others to our cause, we betray those noble sentiments that first drew to the cause. We betray our own heart when we put a cause on the throne that belongs only to God. When Protestants persecuted, even burned at the stake, other Protestants for not being biblical enough, they betrayed their own heart—and even their own love of God’s Word.

I find the example of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery as the right path forward. Pharisees saw a sin, Jesus saw a person. He did not diminish the sin, but instead said, “Neither do I condemn you, sin no more.” Some today would be offended that he straight-up called what she did “sin”. Others might be offended that he did not follow the Old Testament law and condemn her to be stoned. Jesus, however, never lost sight of the woman.

In all our passions for causes, even the best and noblest, we can’t lose sight of people themselves. Being right, never gives us the right to be mean. We can never justify a cruel means by citing a noble end. Loving people and bringing them into relationship with God is both the means and the end. We must join in God’s project rather than seek His blessing for ours.

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Talking Bones

As I grow older, my bones grow noisier. About 25 years ago, I shattered my right knee while playing with Peter at the playground in Bandon. A surgeon rebuilt my knee with bone taken from my hip. The knee works but doesn’t have much cartilage. It complains loudly after long hikes or being twisted the wrong direction.

Bone tired. As I have aged, the other bones have become a chorus accompanying my knee. Recently I noticed how often the Psalmists mention bones. In the Psalm 6:2 David asks God to heal him because his bones are “dismayed”. David is talking about something deeper than the creaking bones of the elderly. In verse six he says, “I am weary with my sighing. Every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears.” Grief can make us bone-tired as we dog paddle in our tears.  In Psalm 22 David laments that he is “poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint.”  Like David, our bones ask, “O Lord—how long?” Our bones pray.

Bone praise. Yet as deep, even deeper, there is a joy and hope in my bones. In Psalm 35:9-10 David’s bones speak again:

All my bones will say, “Lord who is like Thee, Who delivers the afflicted from him who is too strong for him, and the afflicted and the needy from him who robs from him?

Yes, despite all the triumphant exhortations to be joyful over-comers Christians exchange, we still face circumstances and enemies that are too strong—who steal our joy and would like to steal our faith. But our bones can rejoice in God who delivers us and refreshes our bones.

Bag of bones. As we age or face sickness, we can easily feel like little more than a bag of bones. Sometimes those dying of cancer become terribly thin and their skin almost translucent, like parchment showing every vein, outlining every bone. Even so, our bones can, with every snap, crackle, and pop, sing and our hope of redemption, our hope of resurrection. Our lungs may wheeze and whine like bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” but we limp toward victory.

In all our weakness, and in all our fading, the Spirit will grow stronger in us. And as we age, we get closer to the day when our bones will rattle like the bones of Israel in Ezekiel 37, and we will rise to see Jesus, face to face. Then every bone will sing, every knee will bend.

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And They Were Afraid

This is, we are told in Luke, the response of the townspeople to seeing the man called Legion in his right mind. He certainly seems more frightening before having met Jesus. He was naked, living in tombs, able to break chains and shackles when the demons seized him. But Luke’s account suggests that people in Gerasenes had been trying to control for him for quite a while. Perhaps they had grown use to this wild and tormented man and were frightened by the change.

It has always struck me as odd that the people were frightened by seeing this delivered man, clothed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, and in His right mind. They are so “gripped with great fear” that they asked Jesus and his disciples to leave. It seems odd that they shooed Jesus away instead lining up all the other demon-possessed people.

But really, few things are more frightening than a person in his or her right mind. People who aren’t possessed can’t be owned. We may think it is the insane person who is unpredictable, but madmen, as G. K. Chesterton points out, live in a small and predictable world: “his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.” Whatever obsession may possess them renders them predictable. It is the completely sane person who frightens those in charge, those with deadlines, and those with an agenda.

First, it hard to know which side a sane person is on. Sane people have the annoying habit of seeing some truth on both sides. You can’t trust the sane to stick to the party line. Sane folks have the gall to admit the other side may have a valid point. They refuse to see things through the filters provided them.

Second, the loyalty of sane people cannot be trusted because to they put loyalty to the truth first. Even when a lie is expedient, practical, and necessary, the sane person insists on speaking the truth, pointing out hypocrisy, and challenging flawed logic. Sane people will betray you every time. Just when you are about to implement your proposal, some sane person will ruin everything by pointing the inevitable but unintended consequences of your project.

Third, you never know what people in their right mind might say. They don’t stick to the script. Their minds not only work, but are always working, analyzing, and reasoning. New things are always occurring to them. When your whole project depends on people not noticing or asking about something, along comes a sane person asking hard questions.

Few things are more frightening than a person that can’t be owned, isn’t possessed, and sees all things in the bright light of reason and faith. They can’t be labelled or leashed. They are free and therefore frightening.

More frightening than the man once called Legion is the man who set him free. Sadducees and Pharisees fought like cats and dogs, but both groups were afraid of Jesus. Jesus scared the Romans and gave Pilate’s wife nightmares. No man was saner–or more dangerous.

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How Grandchildren Save the World and Our Souls

I am convinced that grandchildren save the world. No matter how cynical, skeptical, and jaded we senior citizens become, our hearts still melt when a grandchild slips their hand in ours, places a kiss on our cheek, or squeaks out, “I love you, Pa!” This can generate a lot of “Aw, ain’t  that sweet!” However, I think something deeper and more important is at work.

When we look into the eyes of our grandchildren, we who are about to leave this world, are forced to care about it. We realize we have stake in the future: in the environment and climate we leave behind, and in the culture and social order. Will we leave our grandchildren a world at peace or at war? Will we leave behind a just world where both rights and liberty are safe?

For people my age there are certainly reasons for apathy or despair. I lived through the social activism of the sixties and seventies, so I am amused by those playing the “woker than thou game.” I have seen years when Democrats defended the Soviet Union and Republicans demonized it, only to see Republicans defend Russia and Democrats declare Putin the devil. My generation has lived through Nixon’s Watergate and Bill Clinton’s affairs, so we have few reasons to trust leaders. We have many reasons to dismiss all politics as pointless and corrupt.

Even more discouraging is how lukewarm, compromised, and moribund the Western church has become. The culture has become more secular and young people have been leaving their faith—at least their churches—in droves. Those who remain are caught between factions of cultural compromise and political captivity. It is tempting to pay more attention to my prostate than prayer.

But our grandchildren can, or at least should, awaken us from despair and cynicism. It is, perhaps, one the reasons people my age vote in larger numbers than young adults. It may be the reason so many retirees have (almost) a second career as volunteers in local organizations and can be seen cleaning up roadsides and parks.

Of course, one need not have grandchildren to care about the future generations, but it certainly helps. I would argue that it helps civilization stay civil. It helps us resist the temptation to secure our retirement and let the world go to hell on skateboards.  There are, of course, grandparents who essentially drop out and live for themselves. Some can be found at casinos pumping their retirement into slot machines. And certainly, the mobility of American society has made it easier to not think about grandchildren who may live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

But distance need not harden our hearts. During a visit to Dylan and Vanessa in Olathe, Kansas, my grand-daughter, Khloe, jumped into my arms and exclaimed, “Papa!” That is all it took to capture my heart forever. When my son Claude and his wife Katie brought their family from Illinois to Oregon for a visit, I got to see grandkids I had not been with much. As we went for walk around the neighborhood, Riyadh slipped his hand in mine. That was all it took. His trust moved me profoundly. I was not in that moment not just committed to him, but to the future.

Having grandchildren makes people more conservative, but in ways more fundamental than political. Grandparents have often lived long enough to identify what things in life are precious and ought to be conserved. This might be a river clean enough to swim in or a park safe enough play in. In our old age and even in our travels, whether we are liberal or conservative, we have arrived at a ragged patriotism that celebrates what is good about the country. Depending on the issue, grandparent activism may be liberal or conservative, but it is often more pragmatic than utopian. It seeks to preserve and conserve the common good. 

Grandchildren save the world by softening and reviving the hearts of their grandparents. They move us to care about a future that is not ours.  We are moved to leave behind a better world. They give us the strength to reject despair, and in their gentle eyes we rediscover a reason to hope. Grandkids give us another reason to persevere in doing good, loving justice, and walking humbly with our God. They save us—or at least me.    

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Praying for Wes

Recently my friend Wes Adams died. In some ways, of all the ways death has made itself known recently, his death has moved me the most. Teckla and I got to know Wes when I took a teaching position at Mid-America Nazarene College in Olathe, Kansas. I was teaching English and he was teaching New Testament. Spouses of faculty could take courses for free, so Teckla took a boat load of courses in biblical literature and New Testament Greek. Many of the courses were taught by Wes (full name, John Wesley Adams).

When taking a course on Acts from Wes, Teckla came home one night and said, “Professor Adams seems to actually believe in the Bible and think the church today should be like it was in Acts.” My heritage was completely Nazarene, going back four generations, and I cut my theological teeth on discussions with my father about sanctification, the Holy Spirit, and what the church should look like, so I was intrigued to see how Wes fit everything into Nazarene tradition. I began sitting in on few of his lectures.

After getting to know Wes a little better, Teckla and I dropped into his office one day. I laid out my argument that there had to be more to the baptism of the Holy Spirit than just a deeper commitment. I had questions. Where is the being “clothed with power on high”? Where is the power to be a bold witness to resurrection of Jesus through signs and wonders? Was the book of Acts irrelevant to the operation of the church today? Doesn’t Pentecost promise both holiness and power?

Wes looked at me a moment, took a deep breath, then said, “Close my door.” He then explained at some length that he thought the description of the church in Acts was meant to be normative, not merely historical. It described what the church should look like today. And yes, we need both power and holiness to do New Testament church.

Now all this may sound like nothing more than an exchange of theological perspectives, but for Teckla and I it was life changing. It was for Wes too because my next question was, “What do we do to move the church closer to the Books of Acts?” Wes, a student of revival, explained that all great revivals were preceded by passionate and persevering intercessory prayer. His short answer was, “We pray.”

We did pray. Teckla and I joined the Friday night prayer meetings Wes was leading at the college. I had never been a part of such passionate crying out to God for revival. Some prayer meetings began at ten and ended with the morning light. Oddly, this all felt like a return to early Nazarene faith of my grandfather and great-grandfather. In those days they called such meetings watch night services or “tarrying” prayer meetings. The old idea was to “tarry” until “clothed with power from on high.” Older Nazarenes called it “praying through.”

And it was in these prayer meetings where I first prayed for Wes Adams to be healed. Wes at age sixteen was in a car accident that left him a partial quadriplegic. For Wes, believing that Acts is normative for the church could never be merely theoretical. After all, chapter three tells of God using Peter and John to heal a man lame from birth. How could Wes teach that we should pray for revival like that in Acts without letting folks pray for his healing?

So, for the last forty years, I have prayed for revival and prayed for Wes to be healed. In fact, I have never been able to separate the two. I am certain Wes fully expected to be healed in this life. Others I suspect shared this conviction. I never heard anything from God promising his healing, but I never felt released from praying for him. However, I think Wes walked close enough to God to hear anything God had to say about not healing him.

I do wonder why God had so many pray so long for Wes and yet never healed him. I do know, and heard Wes say, that for a quadriplegic he lived a miraculously long time. He was certain that all the prayer had extended his life and ministry as a teacher. Although true, this really doesn’t answer the question. Why didn’t God just tell Wes and others that his calling was to minister from wheelchair the rest of his life?

It helps some to note that Paul and some other authors of the New Testament thought Christ was about to return, probably in their lifetime. They seem certain in several places. The teachings and parables of Jesus encourage living as though Jesus could appear at any moment. God has been content to let the church continue to think, really for thousands of years, that Jesus is about to return.

It is also likely that God wanted to bless Wes’s message of revival and intercession with the authority that came from practicing what he preached. He gladly allowed people to pray for his healing year after year—knocking and knocking on God’s door, humbly asking for the healing touch of Jesus. I have often felt if Wes could persevere in prayer and faith while in a wheelchair, I could muster the faith to keep praying. If Wes could be unrelenting in his intercession for revival, how could I abandon this vision?

While talking with my father the summer before he died of cancer, I saw tears appear in his eyes as he said, “My greatest regret is that I have never been part of a real revival and a moving of God’s Spirit.” Like Wes, my father died without ever seeing what he had prayed for most of his life. However, because of the example of my Dad, and Wes (a spiritual father) I have never stopped praying for God to clothe his church with power and purity. Both Wes and my Dad are like those men of the faith mentioned in Hebrews 11:13: “All these died in faith , without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance,”

Teckla and I are sixty-eight. Her recent battle with breast cancer, and the deaths of brothers and sisters in Christ, have forced me to think about the possibility of dying before I see real revival break loose and before I see my prayers for my sons answered. Have all my prayers for Wes, for revival, for my sons been wasted? I have heard no thunder from heaven but feel the hum of the Holy Spirit in my veins saying, “No.” I am certain Wes and my Dad would say, “No.” I am confident that God’s Word says, “No”.  Every prayer is heard, every tear treasured.

Of course, I still have many unanswered questions. There is so much we don’t know about how intercession in this age prepares us for ministry in the next. We probably can’t fully grasp how obedience in the darkness makes us servants God can trust in the light. Intercession now may prepare for intercession with Jesus. We are told that right now Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for us. I suspect Wes and Dad are interceding with Him.

It is also true that Jesus has called upon us to pray for things that we don’t see happen in our lifetime. We called to pray for God’s kingdom to come, but in many ways it hasn’t. We pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven, but we do not yet see heaven on earth. Have such prayers been a waste or misguided? Of course, not. But what do we do in face of so much we don’t know about prayer and God’s delays in answering it? 

As Wes said forty years ago in his office at Mid America, we pray.

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Gone, Forgotten, and Remembered

One of the platitudes slung about at funerals is that the dead person will live on in our memories. It is mostly, or eventually, a lie. The people with the memories will soon die too. Of course, there may be those good, evil, or rich enough to have books written about them. And some may leave behind books or buildings with their names attached. But even this rare event is not really an example of people remembering who you are—your personality and inner reality. Most of us will have no biographer except God.

Last summer my brother died. I was surprised by different layers and sources of grief. The most surprising loss came as I thought of the many memories of my parents and our life together that were gone. Who could I talk to about Mom and Dad and our camping trips on the Oregon Coast? Losing Stanley was like losing Mom and Dad again.

My brother, Larry, and I talked about this. He is five years older than I and shows signs of hanging around a while. I felt keenly how much of my identity is tied up in the stories and shared history of our childhood together. Losing those who know our stories can untether our identity. We have a deep need to be known and are unsettled when we lose those who know us best. Losing Stanley has made me treasure my friendship with Larry. He knows me.

A problem people my age face is that many who know us have died or will die soon. Often the people who remember us have either died or moved away. Yes, grandchildren will carry memories of grandparents, but they will remember them only as indulgent, sometimes grumpy, gray heads. Some stories may get passed down, but soon all the memories are gone.

For years I have walked the dog in the cemetery up the hill from our house. The broken stones and untended graves are reminders that eventually we are all forgotten. It is interesting to note that about Shakespeare, the most successful and famous of authors, almost nothing is known. We have his works but even the best scholarly sleuths have a hard time detecting much about Shakespeare from his plays and sonnets. Whoever he was is forgotten.

If living on in the memories of others is our only hope, we should despair. But there is Jesus, a friend who sticks closer than a brother. We are perfectly known and perfectly loved by Him from womb to tomb. Right now, who we are is hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3). Paul speaks of a day when all that is lost is restored and all that is hidden is revealed:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. (I Corinthians 13:13)

All who have known us here, even those who know us best, only know parts of us. Most of us fail even to know ourselves accurately. It is hard to sort out who we hope we are from who people say we are and figure out who we really are. But in Christ, we are truly known and who we are (or have become) will be fully revealed only on the day we see Him face to face. When all who know us are gone, God who knows us best remains.

If at funerals we celebrate the life of a person who has died, imagine the celebration when in the twinkling of an eye we see Jesus face to face and are changed into his likeness. It a wonderful paradox of our faith that when we become the most like Jesus is also the day we become our true selves.  All the hidden inner glory of hard obedience, tearful prayers, an unnoticed sacrifice will be visible. All is glory, and we are remembered.

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Little Pilgrimages

Going on pilgrimage seems like an Old-World act of piety. Unlike the United States, Europe has many holy places to visit. Here in the West, with its wide-open spaces, every pilgrimage is a road trip. We also have a shortage of saints and places where saints have done miracles and appeared to people. Of course, we have those people called “snow-birds” who head south to Arizona every winter. The sun may be the attraction, but most of these gray heads don’t bow to it.

Nonetheless, here in Southern Oregon I have discovered myself going on little pilgrimages each year. The objects of my pilgrimage have not been cathedrals, holy relics, or the sites of miracles. Each year I trek to where wildflowers bloom or trees grow. This last week I went to a beach front in Bandon where cream-cups and baby blue-eyes bloom. In March I will make one of my many treks up to Euphoria Ridge to see the magenta beauty of grass-widows in bloom. In May I will be back to see the fawn lilies bloom.

Up the coast a ways, near Cape Perpetua, is a giant Sitka Spruce that I have been visiting since I was four or five. The last time I was there I watched some of my grandchildren crawl around its enormous roots and then wade in the creek nearby. Up past Powers is a trail to Big Tree where several of the biggest white cedars in the world grow. The trail starts at Elk Creek Falls and is uphill all the way through old growth forest and sword ferns, but I still make this pilgrimage once a year. Every few years I make the hike to Mount Bolivar, the highest point in Coos County, and to the to the top of Iron Mountain. At the top of Iron Mountain grow Brewers Spruce, a graceful tree with weeping bows that move gracefully in the wind. These spruces grow only on the mountain tops of the Siskiyou peaks, so every pilgrimage is an ascension.

Lest you think these pilgrimages are merely a response to Oregon’s abundant natural beauty, I should add that I also did this when living in Kansas City. I visited places along the Little Blue River where I knew jack-in-the-pulpits grew. In the spring I fellowshipped with bluebells at the head of the Longview Lake trail. When there where still railroad tracks between Red Bridge Road and Grandview, I walked to Dominion Christian School and greeted the prairie larkspur and evening primrose. In March I visited blood-root that bloomed bright white in forest along Blue Lake.

I cannot testify of pilgrimages ending in miracles or revelation. Nor do I have any impressive ritual to perform at each site. However, I am often on my knees or even prostrate before these wildflowers as I take a picture. Although my only worship is close attention to the design and beauty of God’s creation, these pilgrimages are a means of grace to me. Attention is love and the fruit of every pilgrimage is thanksgiving and a deeper love of my Creator.

In Europe those who had visited the sacred places in the Holy Land were called palmers because they carried back palm branches as evidence of their pilgrimage. I sometimes carry back a cone, seed head, or rock—not to prove anything but to remember the peace and grace of a holy place.

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The New Year: The Humility of Hope and Arrogance of Despair

On New Year’s Eves, we look with hope toward the coming year. But sometimes, we look ahead and can’t see any reason the coming year will be better than the last. Few things are sadder than beginning a new year with no relief in sight—no signs of hope. It is easy to let despair come in and extinguish even the embers of hope.

But this is an instance where what we don’t know can save us. The writer of Psalm 71 declares:

But as for me, I will hope continually, and will praise Thee yet more and more. My mouth shall tell of Thy righteousness, and Thy salvation all day long; for I do not know the sum of them.  (v.14—15)

The stubborn defiance of the phrase “But as for me” resonates at a time when news and media blasts us with bad news and the next wave of the pandemic. It is counter-cultural to hope. One of the bases of our hope is the recognition of how much we don’t know. We do not know the sum (literally, number) of God’s righteousness and salvation.

God is always working behind the scenes—working in small ways, in gradual ways, in hidden places. God sets ambushes for those we love.Our hope is not in what we see God doing; our hope is in the character of God. Our hope is also in the power of God to go where we can’t, to speak love and truth to those who won’t or can’t hear us. We must humbly declare that we do not know and cannot see all the ways God may work in the coming year. Our humility opens the door to hope.

Despair can masquerade as humility. It can present itself as down-to-earth realism. But the arrogance of despair is that it looks at the slice (big or small) of reality that is discouraging and declares it all there is and will ever be. It is okay to be discouraged because we have not yet seen what we have hoped and prayed for. But we must always live humbly, admitting that at any moment everything could change. Light could break through the darkness. What do we know?

We have all heard the stories of those who have gotten lost and disoriented in a blizzard and in the morning are found dead a few yards from their cabin. If they had only kept moving forward and kept hoping. We never know how close or far we are from a breakthrough. We never know how close or far a loved one is from salvation. We don’t know what goodness God has stored up for us in the coming year, so we humbly hope. We do know our God is good, and His mercy is over all His works.

We hope because we have seen how in a dark time of human history, a light shone over a humble manger. Angels sang, and despair’s lies were vanquished. The hope of the world was born.

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