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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Emmanuel: God with Us

Because of the difficult and discouraging time Teckla and I have faced these last few years, understanding the nature of God’s presence has become crucial. We are not promised much more than His abiding presence this side of heaven. He has not promised us freedom from suffering, sickness, persecution, or poverty, but He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. He has promised us fellowship with Him and the strength to escape or resist every temptation and to endure every trial.

Yet God’s presence with us is unlike the presence of others. First, He is invisible—at least for most of us, most of the time. As I have written recently in other posts, this makes the common exhortation to “just follow Jesus” or “keep your eyes on Jesus” too simplistic to be useful—even though ultimately true. Second, God doesn’t engage in much of the dialog we would normally expect of a friend. I encounter believers who claim to have this kind of back and forth with God, but their claims usually fall apart when carefully compared with actual dialog where questions are posed and answered. As soon as I give such folks five or six questions to ask God, they explain it doesn’t work that way—which is exactly my point.

The problem for the believer is that because God is invisible and often silent, His presence looks a lot like His absence. Of course, the beauty and design of nature can declare His existence, but this is not the same as evidence of His abiding presence. And the Bible can comfort us with the promise of God’s presence—but a promise is not the thing promised. God’s Word is beautiful love-letter to us, but a letter is not the person.  

Often people respond to such questions by pointing out that we are called to walk by faith and not feeling. Yes, our faith that God is with us can comfort us. But this is the comfort of our faith, not the comfort of His presence. Such faith could comfort us even if God did not exist—a point atheists are quick to make. So how do we experience the comfort and grace of God’s actual presence with us?

Much of the answer is found in John chapters 13—17. In this long discourse Jesus is preparing His disciples for his own departure. He promises that the Father will give them the Holy Spirit, a Helper, “that He may with you forever”. He assures them, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (14:16,17). Jesus explains that the Holy Spirit will “guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come” (16:13). Jesus presents the gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit as the main way in which God will continue to make the presence of Jesus manifest in the lives of His disciples.

And yet I and many other believers do not find the Holy Spirit wonderfully chatty. Often the leading of the Holy Spirit is felt by the absence or presence of peace. But it is hard to sit down and talk things out with the Holy Spirit like we would with a friend. And despite much asking while sitting alone in prayer, my requests to be filled with Holy Spirit seem to get undetectable answers: no dreams, visions, trances, angelic visitations, revelations, or prophetic messages. And in case you wondered, I am open to every Holy Spirit experience in the holiness, Pentecostal, and charismatic catalog: entire sanctification, baptism of the Holy Spirit, fullness of the Holy Spirit, the second blessing, or even a third one. In other words, I am not one seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit while denying that the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit are for today.

After one of my recent posts, a friend messaged me and asked when I most often experienced the presence of God. She suggested that it might be in nature, but I replied that it was when looking into the eyes of a person who needed Jesus. This realization pointed me to an important truth about my experience with God’s presence. I have experienced God’s presence most often and most powerfully when loving and serving others.

Part of the problem is that I am an American and a Protestant, and I therefore approach serving God and walking in His Spirit as an individual rather than a member of the Body of Christ.  In Jesus’ farewell discourse in John there is a second emphasis that complements the promise of the Holy Spirit. Again and again, Jesus exhorts the disciples to abide in Him by keeping his commandment to love one another. In other words, the abiding presence of God comes in the context of us loving one another and serving one another. This corporate emphasis runs against the individualism that shapes much American and Protestant spirituality.  

Another problem is that we often approach church as the place our personal spiritual needs are met. We can read reviews of churches like we do restaurants—to find one that fits our taste. But in the New Testament, the church is presented as central to our experience of God and His presence—not an option. Paul places all the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the context of the Body of Christ when it gathers to build up one another. It is significant that many of those gifts (see I Corinthians 12:8—10) involve God communicating with His people.

We often take Paul’s exhortations individualistically, but so much of what is written in Paul’s epistles are written not to individuals but to churches or the Church in general. Yes, we are individually to be filled with the Spirit, but it is not just our bodies that are the temple of the Holy Spirit—the church is “a holy temple in Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).

Perhaps I am asking God to do individually for me what He desires to do within the context of the church loving and building up one another through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Maybe God withholds, except in extraordinary circumstances, the full ministry of the Holy Spirit because He wants us to need each other and seek the ministry of the Holy Spirit from each other. He is not real interested in how gifted I am when sitting alone at my desk. And God may have much to say to me but wants to say it through the ministry of the Body of Christ.

Here is another reason I think this may be true. During this last year when Teckla has faced cancer in both breasts and our son, Peter, has come near death multiple times, we have had many unanswered questions. We have had to make some hard decisions. Doing all this with Covid-19 restrictions has made it even more difficult. We have often not heard much from God in the midst of this crisis. However, we have found Emanuel, God with us, through Rosalie who faithfully drove Teckla to her radiation treatments in Eugene for three weeks—two and a half hours each way, and through Petra who would take Ari to school some mornings, and Phil and Erin who would pick Ari up and watch him until I got back from work. We heard the love of God through brothers and sisters in Christ who blessed us financially as we struggled with bills that piled up. We felt the love of God in the prayers of our pastor, Joshua, for our family.

If someone asked me where God was when we were facing these many hard things, I would point to the church. Once one of my sons has asked, “Where is God? I don’t see Him doing anything for me.” I would patiently point out some blessings that seemed to have God’s fingerprints on them, but eventually I would just say, “He is right here in me, your father, who He led to adopt you, love you, and never give up on you. What you think is my kindness, is His.” Once, I heard a person in the church,  who had just been given money to avoid eviction, complain, “I just don’t see God doing anything in my life.” When it was pointed out that God had just kept him from getting evicted, his face lit up and he exclaimed, “I had never thought of it that way!” Most of us need to see God’s presence as something He desires us to experience in the context of the Body of Christ.

The reasons why we don’t experience God’s presence and hear His voice more clearly in church has multiple causes: a failure to love deeply and entangle ourselves in each other’s lives, a failure to embrace the full ministry of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and a failure to do church in ways that nourish the ministry of every member of the Body of Christ. Each of these would deserve another post (or chapter).  

But of this much I am now convinced, God is with us, and we experience more of His presence when we are with each other. I think God is so committed to doing things through His church that much of His presence and His voice is missed if we go it alone. Yes, God is with me, but will most often be experienced as Emmanuel, God with us.  

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In Praise of Parsnips

I threw seeds into the growing bed this fall. The carrots had been pulled and weeds hoed. While cleaning out my brother’s apartment, I had found some old packets of radish and parsnips seeds. I am not sure why Stanley had them—he had never grown either and had lived in an apartment for the last five years. No telling how old the seeds were.

But rather than throwing the seeds in the trash, I threw them all in one of my growing beds. From the looks of the growing bed—only the parsnips grew. To my surprise, they flourished in the cool autumn days. I discovered parsnips thrive in a winter garden and are best harvested after the first hard frost.

I am a haphazard and indolent gardener. I did not plant the parsnips in rows and did not thin them to enlarge the growth of their white roots. I have never eaten a parsnip, so I have no idea of if they can be made palatable. Some people complain they are bitter. I have read they are best roasted.

But my growing bed is full of their greens which after today’s winter storm hang over the sides. The large leaves flapped like green flags in the gusting wind. I am not searching for a metaphor here. I like the fact of parsnips—that they flourish in the cold, that they offer the bare garden rich green leaves. They are a riot of green in the cold margins of the growing season.

They come, in a sense, from a bad family—except for the carrot–it is mostly an inedible family. We have wild cow parsnips here in Oregon that grow like weeds along the coast on foggy headlands. These wild parsnips have edible, but bitter roots. A few members of the carrot family, like water hemlock and poison hemlock, are deadly.

Like turnips, parsnips do not generate much excitement. However, because they grow through the winter, they can save the lives of the desperate and starving. They grow when and where other food won’t. Like janitors, they go to work when everyone else has gone home.

Because I am a romantic (often to my dismay), my moods swing with the seasons. So I am always encouraged by plants (like witch hazel in the Midwest and myrtle wood trees here) that bloom in the winter and vegetables that can be harvested from frozen ground. I suspect I am hungry for hope, but I will try the parsnips in January.

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Why I Don’t Write About Teckla

Teckla has pointed out that she is seldom the subject of my blogs. It is true. Teckla, and our marriage are hard for me to write about. Here are a few reasons.

First, our lives and hearts are so intertwined that it is hard to know where I begin and she ends. I know this idea sets off alarms in some. But it shouldn’t, here. Teckla and I are one not because one person’s identity has extinguished the other’s. I can’t say how much of our oneness is natural compatibility, some probably. I believe we have one heart mostly because we have poured out our lives, love, and energy in one direction. We passionately love Jesus, and for 43 years of marriage we have sought God’s will above all else.

Secondly, our relationship has been embarrassingly good, and honestly, I don’t want others to feel bad. Thus, we aren’t qualified to give much marriage advice. And I am old enough to know that marriages completely different from ours can work well. Ours may not even be typical for good marriages. For instance, we don’t fight–ever. One glance from her blue eyes will let me know if I am speaking or acting out of something other than love. Her desire to please Jesus in all things has made it hard for us to find things to fight over. Neither of us has had “to put our foot down” because our feet are always moving toward Jesus. I know this all sounds sappy, and I know many marriages that have weathered fights, and are perhaps stronger because of them.  But I have no war stories about our marriage. Marriage is supposed to be hard, something you really work at. I am embarrassed that ours has been easy.

Third, our marriage is easy to misunderstand, especially if you are quick to slap labels on things. For instance, from the first days of our marriage I have told Teckla to do whatever she believes God is calling her to do. She has a degree in social work, so she has always had the skills and opportunity to go to work. However, most of our marriage she has sought to serve others by just loving the people God brings into her life. That has meant having people live with us, adopting four boys, leading worship, working at the Pacific Pregnancy Center, and leading Bible studies. It has often meant living on one salary and doing without many things.

Here is where it gets confusing. Teckla submits to me as her husband. Terrible, huh? She would tell you that I have provided spiritual and practical leadership in our life together. We are not, it seems, the 50/50 partnership so popular today. I am 100% committed to serving and loving Teckla as Christ loves the church. She completely trusts my leadership, but it never feels like I am leading because we are one. Anyone who knows Teckla knows she is smart, strong, and courageous—not less of a person because she is married. So, do we have a traditional marriage or a modern enlightened one that allows the full expression of individual identities and callings? I don’t know. Both, maybe? Our marriage is, without doubt, wonderful.

Teckla and I have a relationship that sets us both free to pursue every dream and vision God puts into our hearts. The controlling question in our life has been “What is God saying and where is He leading?” We strengthen and encourage each other in the pursuit of God. It is hard to overstate how wonderful this has been and continues to be. We have never had to worry about dragging each other into God’s will. We walk together.

Teckla possesses virtues that are hard to capture in words. She has a simplicity and purity of heart that I find supremely beautiful. Much of this was revealed in her approach to our wedding. With the help of her mother she made a wedding dress. She asked for no engagement ring—just a couple wedding bands. Before the wedding we gathered sunflowers from beside the road in Walla Walla and my parents brought ferns from Myrtle Point. We made our own floral arrangements. We went camping on our honeymoon. All our life together we have lived simply and treasured our ability to delight in simple pleasures like a walk on the beach or evening around a campfire.

Another thing which makes it hard to write about Teckla is her humility. Humility is much misunderstood as weakness or meekness. But in her it has majesty—the grace of a queen kneeling. She is a servant and it is hard to capture in words how precious and rare that is. She has little patience with the idea that she should only do things that express her calling or gifting. She serves—always with excellence and diligence—when she sees a need. Even better, she does it for Jesus and because she loves people. She is willing to serve in the hidden place and do the hard things. This makes her as exquisite and beautiful as the rarest gem. Words can’t capture the wonder and beauty of her heart and service.

Teckla is heroic. She loves sacrificially. She dies daily to selfishness and puts others first, sometimes to my annoyance. As she battles cancer, something that would give most of us license to focus on ourselves, she has continued to love and give. I have seen her work hard and long at becoming more like Jesus in areas where she has heard God asking for change. This kind of long obedience produces holiness but doesn’t make a good story. She is always growing spiritual and is one of least “stuck” Christians I know.

This already sounds more boring than it should. Our love for each other has all the intensity and passion of a windswept headland on the Oregon coast, the waves exploding skyward in a wild storm. There is also a tender devotion that blooms in acts of kindness throughout the day. We would always rather be with each other than anyone else. Although we are fully able to enjoy time with other people, we are never seeking to escape each other. We always ache for each other when apart. This too is embarrassing and certainly is not how every marriage must be. It is, however, wonderful that our love for each other burns stronger and brighter each day, even in the darkest of days.

And here is an important reality that is hard to put into words. As we have aged and seen those we love die, Teckla and I have glimpsed eternity. Because the reality of being absent from the body and present with the Lord has captured our hearts, Teckla and I find ourselves more than husband and wife—we are brother and sister in Christ. We are fellow sojourners seeking resurrection and eternal fellowship with Jesus.

Writing about Teckla is like trying to paint the air I breathe. In ways neither of us can see, we have shaped each other’s values and identities. We have been better together. It is even hard for me to separate the goodness of God from the all the blessings that have come through our marriage. The love, joy, and purpose we have discovered together is just another way that the goodness of God has overflowed into our lives. They are one. We are one. 

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Five Smooth Stones

I suspect that I am engaged in spiritual warfare. Teckla has had surgery for breast cancer and just completed three weeks of radiation. She has decided to begin chemotherapy and see if it is bearable. The prognosis after doing all this is good, but it is an ordeal. During this last year, our son Peter, who has been diagnosed with type-one diabetes, has been in the ICU four times and near death several times. Teckla and I are numb but clinging to God.

The battle has been to prevent our numbness from becoming apathy, and then despair. I would like to say I have fought this Goliath of despair with the powerful weapons of intercessory prayer, fasting, and mountain-moving faith. Sadly, if any mountains are moving, they seem to be falling on us. And I am struggling not to eat to ease my anxiety. My prayers are frequent but little more than cries for help.

The stones I have gathered from the stream bed are not impressive. I have fought the enemy by being grateful for small things. A few weeks back on Euphoria Ridge, I saw the blue flash of a skink’s tail as it darted into a crack in the rock. I thought, with gratitude, of the sunny days in Milton-Freewater when my friend Kirby and I caught snakes and lizards along the Walla Walla River. I thanked God for my free-range boyhood spent exploring creeks, rivers, and hills and sinking my puncture-weed wounded feet into the mud of irrigation ditches. I thanked God for Kirby.

I also thank God for the milkweed that has taken over one of growing beds. No monarch butterflies laid eggs on the plants this summer. But I keep hoping. And as the fall storms have blown in, I have seen many seeds take off in the wind. Perhaps these will grow somewhere and help restore the dwindling population of the western migration of monarchs. It feels like faith when the dry, gray seed pods crack and the seeds sail away.

The other day I gave Peter a ride home from Coos Bay. I saw someone shambling down the street with a big coat on, baggy pants, and shirttail sticking out the back. I said to Peter, “I miss Stanley.” We talked about how funny Stanley could be once he started telling jokes. I said I miss having someone to talk to about a mushroom I found or an unusual bird I saw. Peter and I were surprised at how much we missed my brother. I was thankful for Stanley, and for this moment with Peter.

This morning as Ari and I stepped out the door so I could drive him to school, he looked up at me, his brown eyes wide and his brow furrowed. He then said, “I love you, Pa.” We then continued to the car. But his comment was so unprompted and thoughtful that it pierced my heart with joy. All the weariness of being 67 and caring for a 5-year-old was swept away (for a few minutes). I thanked God for Ari and that moment.

This afternoon I was in the backyard and noticed there is still a hole about a foot deep around the azalea bush in the corner. I remembered our Doberman, Mira, and how she dug holes around the yard. My mom fell in love with Mira and called her “my diggity-dog.” I was thankful for the gift Mira was to Mom and the joy she brought.  

I have framed all this as spiritual warfare because the greatest temptation when faced with great loss, or numbing fear of loss, is to lose all delight in life—to become numb not just to the pain and fear but also to the pleasure and joy. So my five smooth stones against despair and apathy have been words of gratitude springing from a full enjoyment of small things. I can sense the disappointment of the enemy and feel his retreat when I refuse despair and embrace thanksgiving.

In grade school, I often carried a favorite rock or stone in my pocket. Sometimes these were agates I had found during a summer vacation at Cape Perpetua on the Oregon coast. Other times the rocks were pieces of “opal” Kirby and I dug out of the hill above Milton. I just liked the feel of them. Like a little boy in Milton-Freewater, I am thankful for the heaviness and smoothness of these five stones. I am thankful for how well they fit in my sling and how straight they fly toward despair.

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Love Fails

Despite what Paul declares says in I Corinthians 13, love fails to do many things we wish it would. Love, no matter how intense and sacrificial, can’t always heal a sick child or a parent dying of cancer. Love, no matter how patient and long-suffering, sometimes fails to break the chains of addiction that enslave those we love. Love doesn’t always guarantee the salvation of our children. God’s love, perfect in every way, did not keep Adam and Eve from sinning.

When I teach persuasive writing, I tell my students to be cautious of absolute statements like “love never fails.” I explain that as soon as readers think of exceptions to our absolute declarations, we lose credibility. And as I have pointed out, there are many areas where love seems to fail. These failures are heart-breaking. When parents stand over the grave of a child they loved and prayed for, it is hard to believe that love never fails. It can become hard to believe God.

Yet, in many important ways Paul is right, “Love never fails.” In every situation, love never fails to be the best choice. Choosing to love in the face of injustice never fails to be better than becoming bitter. In the face of loss and discouragement, love never fails to be better than retreat and withdrawal. Love never fails to make the worst situations better.

Love also succeeds where other good things fail. This is the emphasis of Paul in verse 8 where he goes on to explain, “but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away with.” Paul begins the next chapter with exhortation to “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” It is clear, therefore, that Paul considered the gifts of the Holy Spirit important. Yet, all our prophecy and knowledge is partial, incomplete. Wisdom has value but will never be perfect and is always approximate. Love, however, never fails.

Love never fails to have eternal value. Our hearts and acts of love never go unnoticed by God. Time spent loving those who never respond to our love is never wasted time. It is perhaps when loving the defiant and unresponsive that we get closest to being like God who sent His Son to die for us when we were still His enemies (Romans 5:10). Like salt and light, love acts in ways we don’t see and reaches places we can’t go.

Love never fails to be the best choice for health of heart and wholeness of soul. Many at the end of their lives regret the grudges they have held, the relationships they have neglected, the bitterness they have nursed, but no one has ever said, “I wish I had loved less and forgiven fewer.”Love never fails to bless us with a clear conscience and the peace of knowing we have loved people to the very end. When we love, we escape the torment of regrets and lost opportunities. Our heart is enlarged to love with greater strength, endurance, and depth.  

I also believe love never fails to bear fruit—even if we can’t see it. Even those who in anger and rebellion run from God will be haunted by memories of being loved. In their darkest moments, memories of acts and words of kindness work powerfully against the lies of sin and Satan. Memories of love can awaken the heart of the prodigal to return to the loving arms of their Heavenly Father—even if their earthly father has died.

Yes, love fails to fix everything and everyone around us. Love, because it is love, will not over-rule the free will of those intent on self-destruction and sin. But love will never stop pursuing them, whispering, or sometimes shouting the truth of God’s love. God’s love will speak when our love fails to find the words.

Love will never fail to catch the eye and blessing of God. Love will always be light in darkness, hope in the storm.

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The Silence and Absence of God: Every man a Job

We are most familiar with Job as the guy that lost everything, complained a lot about it but didn’t curse God, and then got twice as much back. His example can be, I suppose, a useful example to good people who suffer terrible losses. Except both God and Job, thought Job blameless, and most of us find it hard to make such a claim. In fact, it is God that draws Satan’s attention to Job and gives Satan permission to take almost everything from him.

Reading Job is problematic partly because the words of Job’s comforters/torment0rs sound like something we would say. And many of Job’s words seem like something no one should ever say. And yet it is God who in chapter one declares Job “a blameless and upright man” and at the end rebukes Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar for not speaking “what is right, as My servant Job has.” These critics of Job who insisted that Job must have done something wrong are humbled by God and told they must have Job pray for them.

These facts have not kept us from trying to turn the story of Job into Sunday school lessons. It is sometimes used as an illustration of how God uses our trials and suffering to refine our character. I am sure this idea is often true; I can’t imagine God not using our suffering for our growth in holiness and maturity. But this idea isn’t in Job. In fact, the narrative of Job makes a point of how blameless Job was before the trial. The only thing Job repents of at the end is thinking he could understand the ways of God, yet God doesn’t address anything in Job’s character or words.

Another lesson we are sometimes taught is how to face loss and suffering without losing our faith. This, I think, is a solid biblical lesson but addresses only part of the problem Job faced. More than the loss of all things, Job cries out against the silence and absence of God. When Job recalls the days before he lost everything, it is clear it was God’s presence he valued most:

Oh that I were as in months gone by, as in the days when God watched over me;

When His lamp shone over my head, and by His light I walked through darkness;

As I was in the prime of my days, when the friendship of God was over my tent.

When the Almighty was yet with me. (29:2—4)

Notice that Job doesn’t say he never walked through darkness before now; he says that in the past God’s light had always guided him. Worse than all other losses is the loss of God’s friendship; the loss of His light in the darkness.

In Chapter 24 Job’s complaint about God’s silence and absence is blunt:

Oh that I knew where I might find Him that I might come to his seat!

 I would present my case before Him and fill my mouth with arguments.

 I would learn the words which He would answer

And perceive what He would sa
y. (23:3—6)

We may, like the comforters of Job, be outraged that Job would think he could present his arguments before God, but we should note that Job also longs to hear from God. Job longs for God to explain his suffering.

Job addresses an obvious difficulty often ignored by pastors and teachers: God is invisible. Job addresses this:

Behold, I go forward but He is not there, and backward, but I cannot perceive Him

When He acts on the left, I cannot behold Him

He turns to the right, I cannot see Him. (23:8—9)

We often tell new believers to keep their eyes on Jesus and just follow Him. Good advice, I suppose. But Jesus, like the God of Job, is invisible. The “just follow Jesus” exhortation probably means we should follow his teaching and example. Of course, as soon as we start reading scriptures about Jesus, we must decide on how to interpret those Scriptures. (We should add that the interpretation of the Bible is inescapable, no matter how loudly we insist that we just do what it says.) And the work of interpretation is always done within the context of theological tradition, race, economics, and personal experiences. We are often not honest about the complexity of following an invisible God.

This matters because we often comfort those who suffer by assuring them that God is always with them. This is true but misses two obvious things: God is invisible and often, like with Job, He is silent. If we add to this Job’s inability to see the hand of God at work in his life, we end up with a presence of God that is almost identical to His absence. The narrative makes clear that God’s eye was upon Job, and that God had set limits on what Satan (the Adversary) was allowed to do, but Job experienced none of the abiding presence of God. He missed His friendship with God.

Seeing the absence and silence of God as central to the suffering of Job is important because all believers are called to suffer in this way. We may not all face the catastrophic losses of Job, but we are all called to follow an invisible God who is sometimes silent. We all go through seasons when God’s friendship is over our tent and seasons when we turn every direction and cannot find Him.  Jesus speaks to the universality of our call to believe without seeing when he says to Thomas, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29). Every believer is a Job in this way and blessed in this way.

It is perhaps because of this difficulty of following an invisible God that Paul told the church in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, just I also am of Christ.” During these last couple years when one loss has piled upon another and tragedy seems always around the corner, Teckla and I have not heard much from God. God has been invisible, but the church hasn’t. Our sisters and brothers in Christ have made the love of God real and have been his helping and healing hands. Unlike Job’s comforters, they have offered almost nothing by way of insight or explanation. They have simply been God’s presence. If every believer is a Job, then every person will find themselves in the position of Job’s comforters.  Like Job, his comforters had no knowledge of the challenge Satan had presented to God concerning Job. They too were blind to the bigger picture and the back story to Job’s suffering. It is okay for both Job and his comforters to have no answers. “I don’t know” have often been the most comforting words spoken to us during these hard times. As comforters, we are not called to know all the answers to Job’s (or Mark’s) questions. We are called to be present in love, and in being present, make God present.

I would like to believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit, the indwelling presence of God, makes Job’s experience irrelevant. Perhaps it has for some. I have certainly had times when I experienced the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit—heat, electricity, revelation. But honestly most of the time the Spirit is as delicate and fleeting as the fragrance of spring on an April evening. He is an inner nudge, a slight suggestion or intuition. I am almost always uncertain if I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit or the voice of my own thoughts and imagination. Often, I cannot tell if it is my faith in God or God Himself that is comforting me. I want Him, not just my belief in Him. All this is just to say that even those filled with God’s Spirit can and do face the absence and silence of God found in Job.

As we attempt to comfort those who feel abandoned by God, we should recognize that the fault may not lie with them. We should avoid plaguing them with platitudes and the power of a positive attitude. We should not be like the comforters of Job rebuked by God. The frame story for Job, which may have never been explained to Job, should give us comfort that although we may never know the larger context or meaning of our suffering, God has not forgotten or forsaken us. Satan’s implied accusation against God was that He was honored and praised not because He is worthy but because he had blessed and protected Job. It was the high and holy honor of Job to silence this accusation against God’s right to sit upon the throne. It is our honor too.

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“A Personal Relationship with God” Reconsidered

A few weeks ago, I gently challenged the language my pastor had used when talking about what happens when we become Christians. In words I have heard most of my life, and used myself, my pastor spoke entering into a personal relationship with God. He spoke about being able to talk to God and fellowship with God and have God for a friend.

I began by simply saying, “I don’t have that kind of relationship and communication with God.” I love God, I am personally devoted to God, I even like God, but many of the key ingredients of a personal relationship are missing.

I asked the pastor, “Would you agree that communication and conversation is essential to a personal relationship?” The pastor conceded this. I then explained that I have very little personal communication from God. I have almost no conversations where we enter into dialogue, ask questions, and give answers. We never talk through things.

It is hard to be candid about this. First, the idea of a personal relationship with God is at the heart of evangelical spirituality and tradition even though the phrase isn’t lifted from Scripture. Second, there is the fear of being the only one in the room that isn’t having conversations with God. What if I am problem and God is chatting with everyone else?

But I do what I can. I spend time in God’s Word daily. I often have a gentle impression that God’s Spirit is drawing my attention to a particular verse. Yes, that is probably God communicating to me. But it is far from the kind of back forth conversations at the heart of most friendships.

Honestly, if our friends communicated to us like God does, we would think them lousy friends. I have presented serious, heart-breaking burdens to God every day. I have asked for insight and heard nothing day after day, month after month. God has been silent, or I have been unable to hear what He is saying.  I would like to hear God’s thoughts about specific personal issues. But there is just silence and not even an explanation for the silence. If a friend you took out to lunch at Kozy Kitchen did this, it would be infuriating.

But my experience is no dark night of soul. I feel like God is there and, more importantly, is with me. He does not seem further away than He ever has. God has led Teckla and me faithfully over the years when decisions have had to be made. That leading, however, has almost never included the kind of conversation that a person would have with friend. I may have a “personal relationship with God” but it is quite different, and perhaps rightly different, from all other personal relationships.

Another person in the congregation overheard me explaining all this to the pastor and caught up with me before I left the church. He declared, “I have conversations with God all the time.” I responded, “That is wonderful. Could I give you some questions to ask Him on my behalf? Please let me know what he says.” Usually, people explain that isn’t how it works, but he readily agreed, so I requested that he ask God about my son Peter and how I should think about the prophetic promises spoken over his life. I wasn’t asking for insight into the future or anything like that. I just wanted God’s thoughts about my son.

The next Sunday, I asked him what God had said. He replied, “God said, ‘Teach him.’  I said, “Okay, would you ask God what I should teach him and maybe how I should teach him?” I then explained that real conversations allow that kind of dialogue and back and forth. He replied, “That is all I got.” He later conceded my point about few of us having genuine dialogue with God where we ask questions and He gives answers. He later apologized for implying the reason I wasn’t hearing God because my heart was wrong in some way. Oddly, his sweet and humble apology made me think he did converse with God.

I suspect that God gives us the level and amount of direct communication that He can trust us with. The clearer and more direct God’s communication is, the more accountable we are for any failure to obey. Sometimes just one clear revelation from God is enough to split churches and spawn unbalanced ministries and movements. One clear prophetic word can launch a thousand crazy interpretations and applications if the clarity of the word isn’t matched by the wisdom and maturity of the hearer. God’s gentle prompting, faithful underlining of verses, and guiding peace may be expressions of his mercy—not a failure to be a faithful friend. He is God.

Maybe I am not attacking the idea of a personal relationship with God; I am arguing that we should not lead people to expect the daily chats with God that we would have with our best friend. I pray regularly and take time to listen to God. I have a notebook of things I think God may be saying to me—but honestly most of it isn’t very personal or very relevant to specific things I face.

Recently, I read through my four-year record of what God has been saying to me. Mostly it was “Mark, trust me”. So I will.  

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Stanley Harmon Wilson: A Life Blighted and Blessed

Stanley was born in Vallejo, California in 1943. He was the first child of Beatrice and Archie Wilson and was surrounded by love. As a boy, Stanley moved a lot as Dad pastored one Nazarene church after another. The first parsonage was in Prospect, Oregon. Mom cooked on a wood stove. Milk and eggs were kept cool in a large tin box that sat in Mill Creek that ran close to the parsonage. The salary was small and irregular. Once, Dad climbed under the house to retrieve some milk bottles to turn-in so he could get milk for Stanley. Stan was blessed.

The church was poor, but the place was rich in beauty. Dad often took Stanley on nature walks through the sugar pines. Mom had been a biology major, so Stanley was encouraged to learn the names of the flowers, butterflies, and birds. Stanley’s gifts, perhaps for the rest of his life, became field guides. Stanley never lost his love of nature and books. Stanley was loved and blessed.

But Stanley was physically and socially awkward. This made him a target for bullying. He loved science but struggled with math. Teachers didn’t understand him or always know how to interpret his stubbornness—or how he could be so bright in some areas and struggle in others. Today Stanley would quickly be identified as someone with high functioning autism—what was once called Asperger’s Syndrome. Bullying and cruel teasing followed him through high school and blighted some of his childhood.

Nature became Stanley’s refuge. When Stan talked about living in Prospect, New Meadows, Wilder, Grangeville, Orofino, Pendleton and Milton-Freewater, he would talk about the butterflies and wild-flowers of each place as though they were old friends. He often marked his history according to the birds or flowers we saw together on a particular hike. He never forgot the Lewis Woodpecker and Black-chinned hummingbird we saw on the trail along the Walla Walla River in Milton-Freewater.  He was ten years older than I, so we seldom played together. But our shared love of nature bridged the gap.

Mom and Dad were patient with Stanley. Mom let him keep his pet snakes, lizards, and scorpions even though it sometimes meant finding them in odd places and times around the house. Our house always had gallon jars with holes punched in the lid, ready for the next lizard or snake Stanley caught. Once boys in my mom’s class at Myrtle Crest thought they would scare her by putting a snake in her desk drawer. She saw the snake, picked it up behind the neck, and chased the boys with it. The boys had no idea how well Stanley had trained her. Stanley was blessed by parents who loved and nurtured him.  

Stanley continued to be socially awkward after graduating from MacLoughlin High School in Milton-Freewater. He was picked on in high school and had few friends. He struggled with math and chemistry, so he avoided majoring in science when he went to Northwest Nazarene College. He majored in history and took some classes Herpetology and Ornithology. A professor there, Mick Dean, befriended Stan and encouraged his love of nature. Despite some of his struggles with math and physics, Stan ended up getting one of the highest scores of any student on his history Graduate Record Exam and was in the 90th percentile in Biology. Stan was blessed with some genuine academic success.

Stanley had received notice that he was being drafted, so he decided to enlist in the army for four years. Because of all his clumsiness, he struggled to complete basic training. He trained to be a clerk typist, but never mastered typing. He enlisted hoping to go to Germany but went to Vietnam instead. Since he couldn’t type, he was assigned guard duty. The Army put him in a tower on the perimeter of the base near the jungle. They gave him binoculars and a rifle. As an avid bird watcher, Stanley was delighted, and the Army probably had never had a more diligent guard. Stanley’s letters from Vietnam were mostly about the birds and animals he had seen. After Vietnam, Stanley was also stationed in Indianapolis and near the Pentagon where he worked filing papers. Although he certainly didn’t excel at being a soldier, he seemed to do well in the structured environment. He kept every letter he got while in the Army, and the letters made it clear that he was surrounded by prayers. Stan was blessed.

After four years in the Army, Stanley enrolled in graduate school at the University of Oregon and began work on a Master’s in history. He successfully completed all his classes and wrote a long thesis. But his sponsoring professor retired, and the new professor insisted Stanley do more interviews, make all the chapters uniform in length, and shorten his thesis. Dad helped with some of the editing. But asking someone with autism to do more interviews is like asking a person with a fear of heights to go rock-climbing. Stanley never finished his thesis or got his degree, but it is unclear what he would have done with the degree. He went to work at Agri-Pac and joined the Teamsters Union. He was a hard worker but not a skilled one.  He had good attendance. After Agri-Pac closed, Stanley never managed to hold down a job for long. He was too slow or too clumsy for most jobs. He interviewed badly, failed to make eye-contact and talked a little too loud. For many years he lived with my parents and then in different apartments in Coquille and Myrtle Point. In the area of work and a career his life was blighted.

Stanley loved God and loved God’s people, even though he was never quite sure how to make friends. He had a good voice and loved singing hymns. After Teckla and I moved back to Myrtle Point in 1993, Stanley and I continued taking hikes together, sometimes to Hanging Rock, Mount Bolivar, or Iron Mountain in the Siskiyou Mountains. Sometimes I would catch butterflies, and he would identify them. Throughout his life, Stanley was surrounded by people who loved and cared for them. And Stanley, in his own odd ways, tried to show others he cared. All the birthday cards he gave were carefully selected. He faithfully sent out Christmas cards every year. When Teckla and I had only been married a few months and had little money, Stanley gave us a couple big boxes of canned vegetables from Agri-Pac.

For years Mom and Stanley did things together: senior meals, plays, concerts, and other events. Stan helped Mom stay active and probably contributed to her long life and good health. In these years Stan was blessed with someone to do things with and was less alone. For every birthday, Mom made Stanley one or two colorful shirts from material Stanley had picked out—shirts with flowers, birds, butterflies, or animals. He wore his favorite ones until they were ragged and missing buttons. And of course, he was at our house a lot and a part of our family. Stanley was blessed with people who loved him to the end.

Stanley was a bird watcher and an excellent amateur naturalist. He never engaged in the nominal fallacy, the error of thinking he knew something just because he knew its name. Although he loved adding a new bird to his life list, he never stopped enjoying just watching the behavior of a bird, insect, or animal. He saw nature as good in itself, apart from any list he kept. He taught me that careful observation was a kind of worship, a way of joining God and saying of creation, “It is good, it is very good.”

I few days ago I came across an article explaining that botanists had discovered that the western false asphodel (triantha occidentalis) was actually a carnivorous plant that got nutrients from insects that got stuck to its stem. I immediately wanted to tell Stanley and talk about it with him. He would be the only person I knew who would find this exciting. I will miss Stanley, my friend, big brother, and my brother in Christ. But I am glad that now nothing is blighted, no potential is unrealized, all is right, and all is blessed. I am glad he is taking walks with Mom and Dad once again.

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Hope Against Hope

I have held off writing on hope even though this virtue has become a constant companion/enemy this last year. Yet, nothing else comes to mind when I think of posting a blog. Life has made hope hard to write about.

In this last year, my oldest son, Peter, has come close to death at least three times. He has been diagnosed with Type One diabetes and has gone into diabetic ketoacidosis multiple times. He has been in three different ICU’s. Twice he has had to be intubated. He has lost so much weight that he looks like a concentration camp survivor. Peter faces many other challenges as well.  He is not a Christian, but we pray and hope.

Teckla has been diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. She will have to decide on a partial or full mastectomy. After surgery, the doctors will stage the cancer to evaluate how far it has spread and whether radiation and chemotherapy is needed. We are hoping for a good recovery.

My brother Stanley died last week. He was 77 and suffering from kidney failure. Teckla and I are cleaning his apartment and sorting through his possessions. It has made us keenly aware of our own mortality and what we hope for as we grow older.

Finding the strength to hope in the midst of all these trials has been hard. Even harder has been thinking through what it means to hope. Both Teckla and I have a secure hope in Christ as our Savior. Our hope for redemption and eternal life is rock solid. Our hope is anchored in truth of God’s Word and His faithfulness to us over the years.

But this side of eternity, hope gets hard. We are promised fellowship with God; that He will never leave us or forsake us. This is huge! And in some ways, I suppose, should be enough. We are not promised, however, many of the things that our hearts long for.

We are not promised, for instance, that our children will be saved. There is no biblical promise (despite Proverbs 22:6) to anchor this hope. And no matter how securely our own hope for salvation is anchored, we can’t avoid fear and heartache when we think of one of our kids being lost eternally. I know no cure for this fear and pain.

We have no promise that those we love won’t die tragically. I have good (and godly) friends whose children and spouses died. Two friends had sons in their twenties die in accidents. I have thought of this sometimes while sitting at my desk and hoping to hear Peter move around upstairs—evidence he didn’t die during the night.

Teckla and I know women who have died, or are dying, of breast cancer. We hope for the best, of course, and the prognosis seems good thus far, but we also know we have no clear promise from God that Teckla’s cancer won’t be fatal. In the dark of night this fear constricts my heart and unfurls a sad future without her. Is this fear a failure to hope?

Time can erode our hope. For many years I have hoped and prayed to see a real visitation of God on a community—a revival that floods the community and changes the culture of a city. I sometimes despair of ever seeing this. In Myrtle Point the church seems more, not less, irrelevant. God is seldom given a thought, it seems. Of course, I have no guarantee that I will live to see the move of God for which I have been praying.

On this side of eternity hope is dangerous because disappointment can be fatal to our faith. Proverbs 13:12 observes that hope deferred makes the heart grow sick. Langston Hughes captures this truth when he asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” The answer is probably all the above.

Some hearts have shriveled like a raisin because they hoped God would save their marriage, but He didn’t. Some hearts are open sores because despite all the prayers desperately flung toward God, a child suffered and died or a spouse was eaten up by cancer. Some give up, hate God, and let bitterness blow apart their lives and strip away all hope on both sides of death. For me, hope just “sags” like a heavy load. Hope on the other side of eternity can give me strength and perseverance, but hope for things on this side feels heavy.

I could just give up hoping for things in this mess of a life. I could even make it sound spiritual by declaring that my only hope is one anchored in Jesus and the promise of an eternity with Him. But when I contemplate actually giving up hope for things this side of eternity, I realize the paradox of hope. I can’t live with it, I can’t live without it.

There is no avoiding the risk of hoping for good things, protection, healing, help, and salvation in this life. Some will come, and some won’t. We are given the Holy Spirit as a down-payment on your future redemption, but it isn’t the whole thing. Sometimes people will be healed, sometimes a miracle will happen. But all these expressions of God’s presence and power are partial—a sign pointing to our eventual full salvation and transformation into the likeness of Jesus. Despair in this life means missing these signposts pointing to our eternal hope.

I also fear that giving up hope means giving up love. How can I love my sons and not hope for their salvation, their health, and happiness? How can I keep my deep and passionate love for Teckla from hoping for her healing? How can I love my community and the church without aching to see God visit us and heal broken hearts? Love risks disappointment and delay.

And as spiritual as it sounds to place every hope in eternity, to genuinely do so is to hope for death. Paul comes close to this in Philippians, when he exclaims, “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (1:23—24). The rest of the letter makes clear how many good things he hoped to impart and see when he comes to them again. His love kept him hoping for things on both sides of eternity.

So I hold fiercely to my hope for redemption and an eternity in which every tear is dried and every heart healed. I hold tightly, but not too tightly, to every promise for good on this side of eternity. I pray and let my hope nourish my perseverance. I embrace the risk of love.

As a model for how to hope and yet not be destroyed by disappointment, I look at a couple grim stories in the Scripture. After David’s sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, Nathan tells David that because of these sins, his son will die. For the next seven days David prays, fasts, and weeps before the Lord. The son dies anyway. But after his son dies, David washed, put on clean clothes and went to worship the Lord. When asked about this, David replies, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’”

Often those facing trials and fears are urged to trust God. My response is to politely ask, “Trust him for what?” The question catches some by surprise. I sometimes follow it up by asking, “For Teckla’s cancer to be cured? For the salvation of my kids? For protection from tragedy and accidents?” I think David gives the right answer. He hopes in first in the gracious character of God, and then has the courage to ask for grace and mercy.

As much as we hate ambiguity, we should love David’s, “Who knows, the Lord may be gracious.” We are called to live and pray in the uncertainty of “Who knows?” If David can hold on to hope in the face of a clear word from God that his son would die, I can find the courage to boldly pray for each of my sons, no matter how far they may wander. Because we have a revelation of God’s everlasting lovingkindness, we pray and hope for things on this side of eternity but are ready to worship if our prayer is not answered. We pray because God is good and “Who knows?”

There is also some ambiguity in the answer of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abed-nego to the threats of Nebuchadnezzar. They assert, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king.” But then they add, “But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” They make clear that their obedience to God is not conditional on God delivering them. We can hope boldly and pray courageously for things on this side of eternity, but we can’t make any of these hopes the foundation of our worship and obedience.

For Christmas Teckla and I got each other inexpensive anchor pendants—the Christian symbol for hope (based on Hebrews 6:19). Teckla wears hers on a chain and I wear mine on a shoestring.  They are troublesome. When we hug, our pendants sometimes catch each other. They keep getting tangled in things—especially in the curly hair of our grandson, Ari.  

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