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.

Posted in On Faith | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in On Faith | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Culture, On Faith | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“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.  

Posted in On Faith | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Culture, Fathers and Sons | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.  

Posted in On Faith | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What I Don’t Know

Some may look at the title of this blog and decide they  have no time for such a long read. Another reason to pass on this post is that it is an unpost in some ways. Instead of sharing profound insights (have I ever?), I am telling folks what I don’t know. But if, like me, you have had a curious and troubled relationship with prayer, this might help. I have discovered that what I don’t know about prayer gives me more, not fewer, reasons to pray.

I don’t know what good petitionary prayer does. I have no doubt that it does good, but I am uncertain what that good is. It is easy to see how prayers of adoration, surrender, and confession help us to grow spiritually. But don’t petitionary prayers set us up for disappointment? Spiritually, don’t they do us more harm than good as we cope with prayers that go unanswered and seem unacknowledged? Isn’t it safer to expect less of God? Isn’t it better to keep our relationship based on what God has done for us on the cross through Christ and not on what He is doing in response to our prayers?

These questions make sense to me, but we face a huge problem. Jesus invites us to ask for things in prayer—even our daily bread. He commands us to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking (Luke 11:9-13). In Luke 18 we are told a parable about how we “ought to pray and not lose heart.” The parable is clearly urging us to believe that God responds to persevering petitionary prayer. We can’t abandon petitionary prayer without disobeying Jesus. We must keep asking.

Except sometimes, God doesn’t answer. Of course, some claim God always answers prayer, but sometimes says “No” or “Not yet” or “Not that way.” Perhaps, but we should not assume that an unanswered prayer is an automatic “No”. God is perfectly capable of making us hear His “No” and his “Wait”.

Here is where something I don’t know helps. I don’t know exactly how much my faith or lack of it determines answers to prayer. Jesus sometimes cites a person’s faith or the faith of friends (Luke 18:42) as the reason they are healed. Sometimes a lack of faith in the person praying or the people receiving is seen as limiting what God can do. Jesus, we are told, did few miracles in Nazareth because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:58).

But I don’t know how to sort out how my faith, the faith of those I pray for, and the faith of the community I live in all combine to hinder or help my prayers be answered. I don’t know, and suspect we can’t know. But we can do what faith does. We can obey and pray—and keep on praying even if we don’t get an answer. Sometimes faith is a gift. I have experienced this a handful of times. Most of the time, however, it is a muscle that gets stronger as it is exercised, and we exercise faith every time we pray. It is okay for us not to know how faith works in prayer as long we keep growing in faith.

Another thing I don’t know is God’s timing. I am sometimes haunted by thoughts of all the people like Anna and Simeon who had prayed for the Messiah, looked for the consolation of Israel, but died before Jesus was born. My father died without ever seeing real revival or a visitation of God on this little town of Myrtle Point. I have been praying for a saving move of God in Myrtle Point for over thirty years. I have only seen churches close and things get worse. I doubt that the corruption of the Pharisees and the oppression of the Romans made the time of Christ seem like prime time, but Simeon had been told he would see the Messiah before he died. I have a few “before you die” promises I cling to. But regarding most things, I have no sense of God’s timing. So I just pray.

Adding to the mystery of God’s timing is the possibility that prayers are like seeds. They may disappear into the ground and do nothing for years. Our blessings and intercession may plant a seed that others water. A seed upon which God’s truth will shine in days or years from now. A minor but important truth embedded in the parable of the sower is that he threw seed everywhere—not just on the good soil. So I pray.

I don’t have much grasp on when and how answers to prayers might be hindered by spiritual warfare. The prince of Persia delayed God’s answer to Daniel’s prayer.It is interesting that Daniel mourned and fasted the same amount of time that the prince of the Persia opposed Gabriel who was responding to Daniel’s prayer. Did Daniel’s prayer and fasting help Gabriel in some way? Daniel was heard the first day but prayed 21 days. How does this work? I don’t know, but Paul says our battle is not against flesh and blood but “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” So I persevere in prayer for places and people.

I also don’t understand the cumulative effect of prayers. What if the prayers of Simeon and Anna were just the final touches on centuries of prayer? What if their prayers were combined with all those who prayed before them? I think we never know when prayers hit a critical mass that opens the door for God to act. What if my prayers for Myrtle Point stand on the shoulders of my father’s prayers? Cornelius was told by an angel that his prayers and alms had ascended as a memorial before God. This declaration suggests that the cumulative result of prayers and generosity to catch God’s attention. Of course, God does not need to be reminded of anything, yet he asks us to remind him of our needs—to build memorials of prayer. I don’t know how this works or the timing of it, but I know I want to do it. Daily I lay prayers before God for my family and community, brick by brick.

And what if my prayers now are woven together with the prayers of those who have gone before us. What unknown or unseen power might that give our prayers? I don’t know. But we are told Jesus is now at the right hand of God interceding for us, so I suspect my parents are doing the same. Once, only once, I sat on the hill in the cemetery with a hand on the headstones of my mother and father. I prayed for my four sons—and looked not at the headstones but at the sun setting in the west. I asked my prayers to be joined to the intercession of my mother and father. Although I think this idea is biblically sound, I have no idea how or when it works. But I pray.

I also don’t understand the legalities of prayer. Adam and Eve’s choosing to believe the serpent instead of God opened the door to all kinds of evil—that Satan now has legal right to do. So I think the reverse is always true. Our prayers that declare our faith in God’s Word and His loving character opens the door for the God’s kingdom to come and will be done. More prayers, as acts of faith and obedience, swings the door wider. Perhaps because I am a Westerner, I don’t understand the power of blessings and curses. But words matter, so I fill my prayers with blessings.

And related to this, I don’t know how our prayers impact those rebelling against God. But when we stand before God and intercede for them, I believe we give God legal grounds to thwart Satan’s plans to destroy them. We give God just cause to show mercy to those who have earned judgment. In Ezekiel 22:30 we are told God looked for, but could not find, someone to stand in the gap so that He would not have to destroy the rebellious and idolatrous Israel. Does this mean our intercession will result in God saving our rebellious sons and daughters? I don’t know. But it helps. For the sake of my sons, I have made noise, waved my hands, and cried out to God, “Lord, have mercy and let your lovingkindness fall upon them!” I want to be God’s Exhibit B for why they should be given mercy and grace. Jesus himself is Exhibit A.

But I still don’t know how to pray when love, fear, and loss shred my heart. How do I pray when my only prayers are tears, and I can barely breathe? And no matter how much I want to hear the comforting voice of God, all I hear is my pain, all I see is the emptiness of losing those I love? How do I pray with real faith for God to save the lives of those I love, when better Christians have prayed the same prayer and seen sons, wives, and husbands die. I don’t know. But Psalm 58:8 assures us that God “has taken account of my wandering; put my tears in Thy bottle.”

I do not know what God does with my bottle (kegs?) of tears. I know He has seen me, heard me, and has not left me alone. I know my tears are precious in His sight, and I keep coming into His presence in all my brokenness and with all that I do not know. Because like Job said after scores of unanswered questions, “I know that my Redeemer lives.”

 So I pray.

Posted in On Faith | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

But You Love Jesus, Right?

Most Christians have been alerted to lies against the love of God. This lie lays siege to our faith on different fronts. Sometimes it attacks by insisting that God could never love someone as insignificant and mired in sin as we are. Other times it attacks us through tragedy and hardship that makes us wonder why a God of love doesn’t do more to help us. This lie, though common and persistent, is easily vanquished by a clear vision of Jesus Christ on the cross, taking our place, our shame, and our punishment. The revelation of God’s love in Christ is powerful and triumphant.

But there is another more subtle lie that can attack our faith. It is the accusation, whispered low and long, that we do not love Jesus. I believe this is the lie that Jesus destroyed when He asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?”

Peter had denied Jesus three times. He then wept bitterly. When the angel speaks to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, he tells them to “tell the disciples and Peter” that they will see Jesus in Galilee. This might indicate that Peter was no longer considered a disciple or no longer considered himself a disciple.

Peter had every reason to doubt his love for Jesus. Didn’t his denial of Jesus and cursing show how little he loved Jesus? Hadn’t he foolishly boasted that although others would deny Christ, he never would. When Jesus comes to the disciples in Galilee, he asks Peter three times: “Do you love me?”

Oswald Chambers argues that these questions by Jesus awakened Peter “to the fact that in the real true center of his personal life he was devoted to Jesus.” Each time Peter answers, “Yes” and adds that Jesus knows that he loves Him. It is clear Jesus was not seeking information about Peter’s love. Each question by Jesus pierces  heart of Peter and reveals to him how much he loves Jesus. The lie against Peter’s own love for Jesus is shattered; Peter is restored and called to be a shepherd of God’s lambs.

Over the years I have seen Christians drift, run, and jump away from Christ. Sometimes their own failures and denials of Christ have caused them to forget how much they love Jesus. Other times the failures and the hypocrisy of church people have persuaded them. In bitter reaction to wounds from the church, it is easy to forget how much we love Jesus. Sometimes left or right-wing politics eclipses our love.

Even the label “Christian” can be a burden when used by those who are hateful and cruel. However, the Holy Spirit still challenges us like Jesus challenged Peter and reminds us of how much we love the Jesus of the gospels—the resurrected Christ who still asks us to love and feed his sheep.

At different times I have wanted to grab my sons, shake them (gently), and insist, “But you love Jesus!” We are often blind to our own heart. Rebellion against parents and church, or a plunge into hedonism often demands that we forget our love for Jesus. Sadly, lying to ourselves about our love for Jesus frees us to become slaves of sin.

Even after all this Peter still has a question about what God’s plan is for one of the other disciples, probably John. Jesus replies, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me.” In a time when Christians on the right, left, and bewildered middle are all waving flags and asking questions about each other, it is good to leave our questions and follow Jesus.

I say to all my brothers and sisters of various religious and political tribes, to those who wander and are (or aren’t) lost, to those rejected or just dejected, to the prodigal and the bitter elder brother, “But you love Jesus, right?”

When Peter sees the resurrected Christ on the shore fixing breakfast for the disciples, he hears John declare that it is “the Lord.” Peter’s flings himself into the sea and makes his way to Jesus. The revelation of how much we love Jesus should move us like it did Peter.

We should throw ourselves at Jesus.

Posted in Fathers and Sons, On Faith | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Israel First

For several years now, I have been praying for Israel first. I start and end my prayers with thanksgiving, praise, and adoration, but when I present my petitionary prayers, I begin with Israel.

I pray for Israel to be delivered from all her enemies and for Jerusalem to be made a praise in all the earth. I suspect some of my prayers for Jerusalem are also a prayer for the New Jerusalem, but I let God sort all that out.

I also pray for the gospel to be proclaimed in Israel with words, lives, and the work of the Holy Spirit. I pray for Yeshua (Jesus) to be exalted as Messiah. I ask God to gift Israel with pastors, teachers, prophets, evangelists, and apostles. Honestly, I ask this without knowing exactly what that should look like.

I pray for the land. I have been fascinated with Deuteronomy 11:12 where God promises to take Israel to the land “that the Lord your God cares for.” God, for some reason, has loved this land even before settling His people in it. God declares that his eyes are constantly upon it throughout the year. Therefore, I pray for God to bless the land with rain, natural resources, plentiful harvests, and wise stewardship.

This is probably my eccentricity, but I pray for certain streets: Dizengoff Street and Ben Gurion Boulevard in Tel Aviv, Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. I pray for Yeshua to enter the lives of people on these streets. One night in the 80’s I was briefly lost on Dizengoff Street. I had wandered into a big shopping center through one door, got turned around, and then came out a different exit on a different street. I walked in the direction of the brightest lights and found my way back to Dizengoff Street, Ben Gurion Boulevard, and then my hotel. So today, I pray for the light of Jesus to shine brightly on these streets.

Praying for Israel first has enriched my walk with God. First, it has changed my hermeneutics, my approach to Scripture. I more easily see that so many of God’s promises are first to Israel in the Old Testament, but also the new. When I see the many promises of God’s faithfulness in the Psalms and prophets, I first thank God for his faithfulness to Israel. I then give thanks that the God of Israel is faithful to me today.

Second, praying for Israel first keeps me humble. It reminds me that the gospel first came to the Jews and that I am a wild olive branch grafted into the root stock of Israel. It helps me heed Paul’s warning not to be arrogant toward the Jews to whom believers in Yeshua owe so much (Romans 11:20). It vaccinates me against the virus of anti-Semitism that has too often infected the Christian faith. It saves me from the errors and arrogance of Replacement Theology that usurps all God’s promises to the Jews and applies them only to the Church.

Third, praying for Israel enlarges my heart. When I pray for Israel, my heart becomes invested in the purposes of God beyond my own needs and concerns. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I sometimes enter God’s deep love for Israel and His desire for Israel to know His Son. Sharing God’s heart for Israel, if only for a moment, draws me closer to Him.

I am not suggesting this is how everyone must order their prayers. It has, however, been a helpful habit. I believe the promise that those who bless Israel, God will bless, but I have not made praying for Israel into a lucky charm that will force God to bless me. Humility and a larger heart are blessings enough.

It is also a blessing to love what God loves. God still loves Israel and the Jews. His gifts and calling are irrevocable. He will keep His promise to make Jerusalem a praise in all the earth. God is not done with Israel and the Jews.  We are children of the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac. We should faithfully pray for family.

Posted in On Faith | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Death (and Life) by Suffocation

I wish I had paid more attention to a section of Perelandra when I was a kid growing up in the church. Perelandra is the second book in C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. In it the hero, Ransom, is transported to an unfallen world where he fights a demonized character seeking to make this world fall like earth had. The novel needs more story and less philosophy, but one part struck me as profound.

In Chapter Six, Ransom complains about a kind of presence on the planet that he at first found intolerable. He describes it as feeling there is “no room.” He says whenever he felt like asserting his independence “the very air seemed too crowded to breathe.”

As a church kid, I sometimes felt suffocated. Sometimes all the rules felt like a lead blanket crushing my spirit. The pressure to conform, to be a good little church kid, was stifling. Legalism and judgmentalism sucked the air out of the room. Church tradition could render the gospel as dull as dirt.

I did find solutions as a teenager. First, I read the Bible for myself and tried to do it. Second, I met some Jesus freaks who were former drug addicts and joyously in love with Jesus and not embarrassed to say so. In fact, I was embarrassed that I was so timid about sharing Jesus. Third, I watched my parents live out their faith in hard places with difficult people.

C. S. Lewis, however, is not talking about this kind of churchy suffocation. He explains:

But when you gave in to the thing, gave yourself up to it, there was no burden to be borne. It became not a load but a medium, a sort of splendour as of eatable, drinkable, breathable gold, which fed and carried you and not only poured into you but out from you as well. Taken the wrong way, it suffocated; taken the right way, it made terrestrial life seem, by comparison, a vacuum.

A completely different solution is needed for this kind of suffocation: surrender. Perelandra was unfallen and crowded with the presence of God. And taken the wrong way or refused, God’s presence could be oppressive. But surrendered to the presence was life itself.

As a church kid, I experienced both kinds of suffocation. I sometimes accused the good kind of being the bad kind. At times I resisted the voice and presence of God and wanted nothing more than to get out of that stupid meeting. I would say to myself, “I hate church and all the stuffy church people.” To be honest, with only a few exceptions, most of the people were not stuffy or phony. Many were just small-town folks with silly double-knit suits and bad haircuts trying as best they could to follow Jesus.

Around age sixteen I gave into the good kind of suffocation and began taking deep gulps of God’s Spirit. It was wonderful. I led Bible studies at the high school and helped start a coffee house that ministered to teens and street people in our small town. In the years since then, I have encountered both kinds of suffocation again and again. But I have learned to say yes to one kind and no to the other. I have discovered that saying yes to God’s presence and Spirit cracks the other kind of suffocation wide-open. That too is a delight.

It is not just church kids that need to be honest about which kind of suffocation we are resisting. All the political strife in the church has given many reasons to walk away from faith in Jesus. But we desperately need to be honest about whether we are walking away from the phoniness of religion and legalism or the unbearable presence of God pressing us to forgive others, love others (even church people), and surrender to the love and will of God.

Covid-19 and the isolation it has imposed may tempt us to practice our faith free from the mess of fellowship and church. Living free of the problems and opinions of other church people can be invigorating for a while. But there is a presence of God that we will only experience as we gather as the body of Christ, a temple of living stones filled with God’s Spirit.  

It is a suffocating Presence if resisted, but “breathable gold” for those who surrender.

Posted in Culture, On Faith | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment