Lessons from a Fourth Grader

Just last week I was one of several parent chaperones on an over-night field trip to the Oregon 4th_grd_3Coast for third and fourth graders. I was also invited to share the devotional after dinner and before s’mores. I chose to teach Psalm 139:13-16. Verse 16 reads:

Your eyes saw my substance; being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.

According to my research, the phrase “my substance” refers to an embryo; and “in Your book” connotes the idea that the life in the embryo is established, or purposed, by God. Therefore, I shared with the children that each life is intentionally purposed by God. And since each one of them was purposed by God while still unborn, they, each one of them, is significantly important to God.

How important? Important enough that when God came in the flesh in Jesus Christ, He sacrificed for them. But not only that, He then rose from the grave and ascended on high. And it doesn’t even stop there; ten days later He sent the Holy Spirit that all who place their faith in Jesus will receive salvation, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thereby guaranteeing them to be with Jesus for evermore, amen!

So, the main theme I wanted them to understand is that they are purposed by God and therefore vastly important to Him. No matter what anyone ever says about them or to them, they are a daughter or son of the Most High God and loved dearly by Him.

After teaching this I asked them how they felt about being so important to God. Many hands went up with many different and wonderful answers. But one little girl’s answer arrested my attention so much that I just stood looking at her.

“How do you feel about being so important to God,” I asked.

“Speechless.”  

I was left speechless; so was everyone else. What an apt description from someone so young.

I get so busy trying to understand what I can of God and then preparing to explain it so others can share in that understanding, that I often forget just how awesome God really is. What wonder God presents to us. What wonder His creation presents to us. And what wonder our very bodies present to us.

Speechless.

Perhaps speechlessness is the essence of worship. We are in such awe of God we can’t even find words.  Speechless, or silence, may be one of the main postures to assume as we desperately desire to hear from God. Could it be that our hearts are more open to God and His work in our lives if we are in a speechless state; when we are quiet and in a posture of reverent awe? Such a posture quiets our minds, preparing our souls for God to do His deepest work in the darkest parts of our souls.

Yes, fourth graders have a lot to teach us if we just listen to what they have to say. I’m speechless!

Can We Bless God?

Septuagint

The first word in Psalm 103 is “bless.” The Hebrew word is barak and in the Septuagint, the Old Testament in the Greek language, it is eulogeo.  Some Bible versions render these words as “praise,” but there are other Hebrew and Greek words for praise (hallelu, hallei, and yadah in the Hebrew; and epainos in the Greek). While the definitions are similar in nature, I think they are distinct enough to call out the differences; especially when the first line in Psalm 103 is:

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

The question this raises is how do we bless the Lord?

The essence of the word ‘bless’ is a bit complex. The meaning, according to various references, is centralized in the interior of our soul. Praise, however, is more centralized in the external expression in a worship service or some other outward demonstration of faith.

So what’s the big deal?

I think the big deal is, as Bullock states, “The person who praises must endow the vocabulary of praise with content. We can praise God without using the special language of praise, but we cannot long maintain the genuineness of that language without relating His being and works”[1].  To bless God, then, is a recognition of specific works of God with an intentional expression of thankfulness for those specific works.

For instance, Psalm 103 gives some very specific works that we can intentionally express gratitude for. He forgives our iniquities and heals our diseases (v. 3). He redeems our lives from destruction (v. 4, and my personal favorite). He crowns us with loving kindness and tender mercies and satisfies us with good things (vv. 4-5). He’s merciful and slow to anger (v. 8); and on and on it goes in just this psalm alone.

I think the lesson in Psalm 103, and others like it, is that blessing God’s heart is our expressing thankful acknowledgement for specific things God has done for us. Such specific things can be reciting what we read in Scripture, or, more personally, deliverances God has done specific to our own lives. For example, I was facing a significant challenge at work but with the click of an email from someone else, the challenge dissipated away, leaving me stunned and inexpressibly grateful for His deliverance. He brought deliverance in a way that was completely unexpected. Another example is if one of my sons says he loves me, that warms my heart; but if he states something specific, like the way I help him with his homework or the times we spend together in the wilderness or on our bikes, I’m deeply blessed. Why? Because he shared a specific thing that brings blessing to his soul which then in turn brings blessing to mine. Why would our heavenly Father be any different?

Praise on the other hand, while a good thing, is often motivated by some external stimuli such as music or maybe a touching play or movie. Such stimuli may spark momentary thankfulness in a more general sense, but it often fades away as the stimuli fades away. Blessing God, though, is internally motivated and, because it’s in the depth of our souls, is not reliant on external stimuli and can be recalled at any moment throughout our day.

So while the differences may seem minor, I still think they are distinctive enough to understand. Besides, if the distinctions were unimportant to God, why would He go to such great care to use such distinctive words in Scripture?

[1] C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books: Revised and Expanded, Moody Publishers, 1988; Kindle location 2850.

Jesus and the MRI

MRI

I hesitate to write about my health conditions because I don’t want to give the impression that I am either completely decrepit or that my situations are worse than other people’s. Yet I receive so much learning through these experiences; in fact, much of the learning is also where much humility is forged.

Friday was no different as I was once again stuffed into that all-to-familiar MRI tube. The older I get the more claustrophobic I become; therefore, rather than MRI’s becoming easier, they are actually becoming harder. I spend most of my time in that coffin-like tube not really praying but more just repeating “Jesus” over and over while desperately clinging to the “peace that passes understanding” (Phil. 4:7). Still, in between cycles of pictures when the machine is quiet, my mind wanders into places I don’t usually let it go.

Like who do I invite into my fear and suffering? This latest test I shared with my wife and my boss, and that’s it. I didn’t ask for prayer from anyone else or share the burden of the looming fear of confinement with anyone else until after the procedure. Why? I’m not sure; perhaps pride. Perhaps because it gives too much attention to the truth of aging. Maybe both. Plus I don’t want to be seen as a complainer or as a person that fails to recognize the many blessings in my life.

However, I also cut myself off from the lifeline of caring friends and family; friends and family that’ll pray for me and that have genuine concern for me. Friends and family that’ll be there in the sad event of negative test results.

So I ask God for wisdom on what to share, when to share it, and how to share it; and I ask for patience from my friends and family as I figure this out because I anticipate more tests in the future.

Getting Back to Joy

hose

I am fascinated by the idea of joy. Actually, truth be known, I’m more chagrined by the lack of it. Joy, by definition, means “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation” (Dictionary.com). Jesus says that “these things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

What things did He speak to them and subsequently to us about? He spoke that He was the way to the Father and about the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit. He spoke about His peace being given to us and about abiding in the Father. Then after He speaks of us having joy He then calls us friends.

First John speaks to joy as well: “And these things we write to you that your joy may be full” (1 Jo. 1:4). This encouragement comes after he has reminded us that we have eternal life because of our faith in Jesus Christ. But notice that in both verses God desires our joy to be full; not half full, not a whiff of being full, but fully full!

Stepping on the Hose

It is also interesting to note that the word ‘joy’ occurs over 150 times in the Bible. God desires us to have joy; so much so that joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). ‘Joy’ sits between ‘love’ and ‘peace.’ God wants us to have joy. And since joy is part of the indwelling Holy Spirit, it can just flow through us if we leave the Holy Spirit unquenched. However, if we are always downcast or morose, then joy is obviously not being manifested in our lives. This should lead us to ask, why? Somewhere, somehow, we are quenching the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. It is as if we are stepping on the garden hose supplying the refreshing water to the soil of our hearts; we are somehow resisting the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives (see 1 Thessalonians 5:19). Are we harboring some secret sin, hatred, or fear? Are we overworked, overbooked or overwhelmed? Where are we stepping on the hose of God’s refreshing?

If we live joylessly, then is it any wonder we’re not winning others to Christ? Who wants to become part of a dark cloud society when Jesus Himself is light and life?  And how do we get back to joy?

Unquench

Prayer, that’s how. We need to honestly approach God in prayer and plead for him to search our anxious hearts to reveal all that is contrary to his light in our lives (see Psalms 51:7-12 and 139:23-24). If in raw sincerity of our will we approach God with this request he will honor it even if it hurts a little. But the end result is the restoration of the joy we have in our salvation that will seep out of our lives to draw others into the same joy of the same salvation (Psalm 51:12-13).

Freedom in Christ and Hot Air Balloons

Hot air ballon 

As I was praying this morning in my den chair next to the window, I heard a familiar whooshing noise. Looking out the window I was not surprised to see the multi-colored hot air balloon barely rising above the rooftops one street over. This same balloon flies on most calm summer mornings. Ever-so-slowly it sinks toward the homes, then a stream of fire shoots up into the opening at the bottom of the balloon and then the whooshing sound hits my ears. Now the balloon is gaining altitude, catching a soft southerly breeze and keeps on moving.

How ironic to see such a sight as I was struggling in prayer. Jesus said that if we abide in His word we “shall know the truth and shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). Except I wasn’t feeling so free. I felt like the balloon heading for the pointy rooftops. But just as the balloon, I needed to fuel my sagging soul with the fire of God via his Scripture.

Suddenly I started realizing that being free as Jesus described didn’t just happen. He clearly said that if we abide in His word then we will be made free. ‘Abide’ means dwell, or become at home in or even to endure. As the balloon pilot shoots a jet of fire into the bowels of the balloon, so do I need a similar jet of fire shot into the bowels of my being. Such a fiery shot comes via Scripture. Prayer is good, journaling is good, but the essence of the freedom is in the Scripture. How much do I know? How much of what I know do I actually live out? If I only know Scripture, that is, I’ve memorized, but I don’t live it out in my daily life, I am not abiding; I have not made myself at home in God’s Word. I am merely a passing visitor.

However, if I intentionally strive to understand the Scripture and live it out daily to the best of my ability and in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, then I am abiding. I may only be abiding in a small room in the overall dwelling of God because my knowledge is limited, I am still abiding. Jesus wasn’t talking quantity, He was talking quality. So the more time we spend abiding in Scripture to then live out in our daily lives, the freer we will become.

Rest for the Soul While in the Saddle

Trek Bike“All I wanted to do was ride my bike.”
–Chris Froome, Tour de France winner from his book, Climb

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
–Jesus, Matthew 11:29

These two quotes, while seemingly unrelated, were pounding in my head with each laborious pedal stroke. I was climbing a hill, more like a mountain, something like a 90% grade, and … okay, it wasn’t that steep but it felt like it should have been! I was attacking the hill at a blisteringly slothful pace, in fact, my cyclometer was mocking me by registering only 1 mph. But I didn’t care, it was Saturday, grad school was done for the semester so I had no homework and I was on the road with sun, shade, wind and hills. I was alone and loving every painful second of it.

I was panting hard and resting in my soul.

The word ‘rest’ in the quote from Jesus can mean an inner quieting, a calming of the internal seas of thought and motion; or as Strong’s Concordance states it is an intermission or cessation from motion. For me, on that hill and most of the time on my bike it is an inner quieting. I often pray as I ride, not just that I won’t get killed by a car or wipe out on the descent, but I also pray thankfulness and worship because I am blessed to be doing something I love. In fact, I even invite Jesus to accompany me on my rides; this may sound silly but it is an intentional action on my part to acknowledge the Lord’s ever-presence. This brings a quietness to my soul.

Part of the quietness is steeped in contentment. I am content on my bike. Even as my friends have nicer bikes and are stronger riders, I am still content doing my best. My bike serves me well and it is the nicest I’ve ever owned (it’s a Trek 1.5). I’ve improved a little bit from last year and my fitness level is pretty high. There’s no reason not to be content, even on the big hills or in unrelenting headwinds; eventually I crest the hills to then enjoy the speed down the other side and strong headwinds often become strong tailwinds, allowing me to cruise at a much faster pace than normal. It’s awesome to be speeding along with little to no effort, it’s like sailing on asphalt!

The word ‘soul’ is really the inner core of our being, the ‘seat’ of all of our thoughts and feelings, it’s also caller our ‘heart.’ So Jesus is saying that in Him the inner core of our being, the very nature of our existence can rest, have intermission, can quiet down as we take His yoke onto our lives. The word ‘yoke’ will be explored at another time, but it has nothing to do with fulfilling works or with eggs!

On the bike I concentrate on the road directly in front of me, or on my breathing or on my pedal strokes amidst my prayers. I don’t have time nor inclination to worry about my future; besides, I need to make sure I am not riding through broken glass or jagged little rocks that litter the shoulders (when there are shoulders). For a brief time I am living in the now, I am actually present with the moment rather than worrying about the future or lamenting about the past. All that is is now, there is nothing else, that is, of course, until I arrive back in in my driveway and see my youngest son playing with the sprinkler in the mud patch that used to have a hedge on it!

Surrendering to God in a Consumerist Culture

What are the barriers holding us back from surrendering to God? As I have explored this over the years, I have found that I am the biggest barrier. It isn’t my environment, or my posture, or even scheduling, it is me; or more accurately, my past and how it has affected the building up of walls around my heart.

But first let’s look at what surrender is not. It is not running away, caving in, or giving up. At least not in the sense we’re thinking of in relationship to an enemy of some sort. We often think of surrender as waving the white flag and allowing ourselves to be taken prisoner of even enslaved. That is not what we are talking about when we talk of surrendering to God.

Surrendering to God is giving our life over to him; this is more than words, but it is a willful intent of our heart to allow God to speak into any area of our lives; even in those dark, secret places that no one even knows about. The anger you feel in rush hour traffic, invite God into that. The desire to overindulge in a meal or beverage, invite God into that. Invite him into everything, your workout, your classroom, your workplace, and even your bedroom. God is everywhere present anyway, so why the hesitancy?

The hesitancy is indicative of the barriers mentioned in the first paragraph. These barriers come in many shapes and sizes but I will touch on the four biggies I’ve identified in my own life. They are fear, pride, time orientation and lack of will.

Fear

This is the biggest of the four. While we may not recognize this at first, we fear handing our life over to God. The reasons are multifaceted. For instance, what is God going to do with us? Is he going to bring some sort deep-seated pain to my consciousness, like those repressed memories of childhood abuse? Is he going to call me into something I don’t want to do, like move far away or apologize to a co-worker? Is he going to reveal in stark HD color the sins that are dominating my life?

The answer is maybe, and maybe not, but God knows what is best for us and won’t bring us to places we can’t handle (see 1 Corinthians 10:13). Fully surrendering to God takes courage, it takes courage to allow God to use us according to his purposes; it also takes courage to allow God to bring painful things into our thinking. He knows that if we don’t eventually deal with repressed soul-pain, that pain may very well become the center of our identity; how many people do we see in the media or even in our own lives that wear their “victimhood” as the primary essence of their identity? It is a miserable existence that God wants to save us from.

Pride

Pride says I can do this on my own, I don’t need your help. I’ve struggled with this because of past experiences. And, as mentioned above, if I don’t allow God to deal with these past experiences, they will eventually define who I am.

When I was in Junior High School in the mid-seventies I was bullied. It wasn’t cyber-bullying through the Ethernet but was instead a gang of four boys that beat me up and did other things to humiliate me in front of my peers, even the female peers. It was devastating. No one came to help me so I eventually had to take matters into my own hands. I was too small and out-numbered to fight physically, so I fought back with wit and humor. I even did a stand-up comedy routine in a school-wide talent show. It was a huge hit and from that time on I was popular and no longer bullied; it was uncool to beat up the funny guy. This is a nice little success story but it built into my thinking that I had no one to rely on but myself. Therefore, why would I suddenly start relying on a God I can’t even see?

Plus my Northern European heritage ingrained a strong do-it-yourself drive. Still, I long to draw close to God and he has shattered these barriers in my soul by bringing into and through several bouts of helplessness in my life. Through these bouts, all health-related and all physically painful, I have spent much time in deep prayer and relying on others, such as my dear bride and close friends (and sometimes nurses and paramedics) in helping me with basic needs and tasks. Now I know I cannot do this alone and am grateful that there is a loving God that I can see via the love and compassion of others.

Time Orientation

I’m a future oriented person. That is I am constantly thinking about what I’d like to see in the future for me, my family and for ministry, and then I go about the work it takes to get there. In other words, I’m a dreamer. This can be a good thing as long as the dreams align with God’s call on my life. Dreamers can also be profound visionaries, they can see an immediate problem and then look beyond it into what a solution could look like.

Future orientation also allows for easy distraction. It doesn’t take a lot to launch into some mental tangent because of some stray word someone spoke or a headline on a TV ticker or just plain old daydreaming. It is also hard to sit quietly in prayer and focus on God. My mind is constantly chattering about something and it seems nearly impossible for me to truly rest in the Lord. I sense Jesus encouraging me to just rest in Him but the chatter….the incessant chatter…keeps on yacking. I have been labeled as an intense person by many people over the years. For some reason this hurts me, I don’t intend to be intense, in fact, I’d like to be seen as one of those ancient, serene monks that are quiet and wise. But I am nowhere near that. What’s more, in every massage I’ve ever had the therapist says the same thing, “You need to learn how to relax.” Duh! I actually politely respond that I know that but I am a work in progress. Truthfully, I have been working on this for nearly four decades and I feel I am no closer to success than when I was 12. I have paid a psychological and now a physical price as well.

Wah, wah! Big baby. Bottom line is I still pursue Jesus in as quiet as a state I can achieve, and you know what, He always accepts me, pats me on the back and allows my tears to fall and the tight ball of tension that is my body to collapse in the safety of a Savior that knows me and still loves me.

Lack of Will

Not a lot to say about this. It’s like a fitness program where people talk a lot about it but never really get started doing it. It’s hard work, it takes time, and it takes discipline, something our culture strives to avoid. Similarly, lots of people talk of wanting to draw close to the Lord but they really don’t want to for the very reasons described above. It takes work and courage, and in our instant, have-it-now culture, we’d rather just have a quick fix, just click on the electronics or take another pill of spend another wad of cash and I’ll feel better; for a while anyway…..

Last Bits

To begin surrendering to God requires us to overcome these four categories, except we are destined to failure if we don’t first acknowledge that God can help us through this (see Philippians 1:6, 2:13, 3:12-16 & 4:12-13). We stand against the fear by recognizing that God has his best intent for us, he does not intend to harm us but heal and strengthen us.

Let pride go before you truly become helpless. It helps to remember that it is through Jesus Christ that we are saved and not of our own works, therefore, what’s the point of pride in the first place if the only eternal destiny we achieve on our own is hell (see Ephesians 2:4-10). Satan was booted out of Heaven and many worldly kings have been brought low because of pride (see Isaiah 14:12-21 & Ezekiel 28). Pride may produce short-term results, but in the long run it will keep you from truly experiencing God and may very well keep you from experiencing any real closeness with anyone.

If you are a present oriented person you are better suited than most for surrendering to God. Past oriented people need to ask God to help them realize that the past is over and God will clearly reveal to us if there is anything that needs to be dealt with in the present or near future. Future oriented people need to recognize that the future is really undefined. While God knows what the future will bring based upon the choices we make, we don’t know the future so we need to trust him that as we follow his leading our future will glorify him and will be a blessing to us.

And finally, if you don’t have the will to seek God, then pray for the will (see Psalm 119:32). Sometimes this takes intentionally forcing yourself to set time aside to pursue God. To start a running program, you need to set a time to do it every day; same thing with pursuing God. Or, just admit you want to pursue God and then stop talking about it.

Herons Flock? Early Morning Cycling and God’s Surprises

001I glanced off to my right on one of my early morning rides. The sun had been up for about five minutes so when I looked right, I looked right into the sun (I totally forgot that right was also east). This two-lane country road was vacant except for a lone cyclist in a bright red jersey (that’d be me; I wanted to make sure bleary-eyed, under caffeinated drivers saw me). On each side of the road are large cow pastures. In the field on the right was a gigantic sprinkler with big earth-mover wheels. I think it runs off a big water pump in the center of one those round fields you usually only see from the air.

Anyway, standing in the misty spray was a lone and large Blue Heron. Or so I thought. I had to look again, because I love viewing wild life (the natural kind, I had enough of the other wild life as an undergrad—and what little I actually remember is more about mysterious bruises and pounding headaches). I’m fascinated by the bird’s long, slender neck and needle-like beak. Then I saw another one, then another and then…a whole bunch of them! About 20 were gathering in rather loose proximity to each other, apparently all of them basking in the swirling mist of the sprinkler heads. I always thought they were solitary birds. I would have stopped to take a picture but I didn’t want to slow the awesome momentum I had in my blistering pace of 18 mph (all right, I heard that snicker…so I’m not Jens Voight, but I do ride a Trek).

Later on, I told two of my colleagues about this as we were waiting for one of those dreary, late afternoon meetings. Neither of them believed me so they whipped out their smart phones in a race to ascertain the truth. It was sorta like a phone-on-phone High Noon scenario, I can just see Gary Cooper jangling in spinning spurs, whipping out his Android and….oops, I digress. Anyway, Susan won the race and found out that Herons occasionally flock in an effort to round up prey in a Heron-induced circle of breakfast. Apparently they eat rodents from time to time as well. Who knew (except early morning cyclists, and, of course, Google)?

Every now and then I run into one of these fascinating nuggets of discovery. This was something I would have never known had I not been cycling early in the morning. And as a person of faith I could only smile at God’s creativity with all the varieties and oddities of life right here in my own proverbial backyard.