Walking on Water

stained glass

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. –Matthew 14:28-29

Sometimes I think we can be too hard on Peter. We remember the part of the story where he started to sink and forget about everything else that Peter did.

Peter and his friends were in a boat far out at sea during the night when they saw what looked to them like a ghost. They got scared, but Jesus called out to them, “Have no fear. It’s me.”

In a moment of courage, Peter told Jesus to command him to come to him on the water. Jesus extended the invitation. Peter got out of the boat…and started walking. The Bible says that Peter walked on the water and came toward Jesus. We can cheer for Peter at this point. He’s a champion. How many steps did he actually take? No one really knows. But regardless, he didn’t need to explore the entire Sea of Galilee. He only needed to close the distance that stretched between him and Jesus.

And he made it…almost. Sure, Peter got distracted by the strong wind, but this didn’t happen on his first step, or the second, or maybe even the third or fourth. By the time Peter started going down, he was within an arm’s reach of Jesus.

I wonder if the reprimand in verse 31 from Jesus, “you of little faith, why did you doubt,” isn’t a statement about Peter’s attempt to walk on the water, but rather about those last two or three steps he missed out on until he stood at the same place as Jesus.

Two more steps and he would have made it.

I’ve always wondered what happened after Jesus reached out to rescue Peter. Matthew doesn’t say Peter needed CPR to remove water from his lungs or that he slumped over the edge of the boat barely alive. I think Peter regained his footing on the water’s surface. A little wetter, maybe, but this time he made it. He stood at Jesus’ side.

Verse 32 says, “After they had gotten into the boat.” Maybe Peter required some assistance from Jesus to move from the water to the boat, but either way, he and Jesus made the move together. Jesus was at his side in case he took a tumble, but Matthew doesn’t mention a second sinking.

Peter’s story encourages me. His faith actually grew because of that moment of panic. How often do we feel like the words written in Psalm 69:1-2? “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” When the waters were coming up to Peter’s neck, Jesus took hold of him and helped him.

“It is I. Have no fear,” Jesus said earlier in the story. Winds and rough waters don’t change Jesus’ level of power. His presence upholds us and keeps us from drowning. Our faith in him conquers all fears.

boat on water

 

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God as Reward

 

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The Lord came to Abram in a vision. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” Genesis 15:1

I’ve read over this verse in Genesis dozens of times taking for granted the fact that God said it years ago to an old man in another country at another time with different things at stake. I didn’t think this verse had much to say to me.

Lately, the word reward caught my attention. God says to Abram that not only is he Abram’s reward, but a very great reward.

When I think of rewards, I picture a compensation for work. Something like a bonus for performing a service or a satisfying end to perhaps a long or even tiring endeavor. Like the Olympic runner who, at the end of a sprint completed after months of grueling training, stands on the podium with the medal.

A reward is the recognition of the successful completion of a challenge. It’s the prize as well as the honor to go with it. The reason we attempt to win the reward in the first place is because of the promise of enjoyment that follows. Rewards are earned to be enjoyed.

I’ve thought of God as Father, as Savior, as Shepherd, and on those occasions with I feel guilty about something, as Judge. But not so much as someone to enjoy.

And yet that is exactly who God wants to be to Abram. God doesn’t want Abram afraid of him and thus hesitant to go near him. God declares himself as Abram’s shield–as someone on Abram’s side, defending him in battle and covering him in danger.

Because Abram rested in God and trusted his protection, he receives as the reward God himself. This same invitation is made to us. “Don’t be afraid,” God says, “I want to be your shield and in the end your inexhaustible reward.”

How do we run the race, as the Apostle Paul says, in such a way as to get the prize? As I pondered this passage of Scripture, three thing things stood out to me.

The first way we can experience God as a satisfying reward is through worship of him. The regular  rhythm of  sitting in his presence, confessing sin, receiving forgiveness, singing his praises, and reading his Word opens us up. We become more surrendered to his work in our lives. Our hearts change until we give God all our devotion, all honor, and all glory.

Another way we experience God as a reward is in receiving his good gifts. God waits to be gracious to us. The Bible is filled with God’s longing to bless, to provide, to lead, and to show compassion. As we receive from God, gratitude takes root in our hearts. The more we receive from God, the more thankful we become. When we see God’s care for us, we can’t help but enjoy his goodness.

The third way we receive God as our reward is after death when we arrive in heaven. Our heavenly home will be the ultimate reward. God prepares a place for us to enjoy him for eternity. When the battles of this life have been fought, faith carries us on to the place of honor and perfect satisfaction that will never run out.

In telling Abram he is a very great reward, God expresses his enjoyment of Abram. The feeling is mutual. When we live a life of faith pleasing to the Lord, we become his enjoyment, too. Our lives made available to him as places to accomplish his work advances the kingdom. We are God’s workmanship. We are his vessels for bringing the message of hope to the world. When we partner with him in this mission, we become God’s reward.

Reward. Enjoyment. Honor. Eternal life. Each one is part of God’s perfect plan for us.

Hidden Corners of Glory

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Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2:11

This story of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana has always interested me. Mostly because of what the story says, but even more because of what is left unsaid. Each time I read it, I ask another question. My list has become quite long: How did Jesus know when the time was right to start doing miracles? How did the water turn into wine? Did Jesus pronounce a blessing over it, like the pastor at communion, or did he stir it? Maybe his shadow falling over the clear, deep pools of still water reflecting the evening sunlight was enough to change it. Or like the mud paste he used to heal the blind man, did he spit in it? Oh, goodness. If I was in the family hosting this party, trying to impress our friends and relatives, I would certainly hope not.

No one knows how the water actually changed into wine. Neither does anyone seem to know the names of the bridal couple or why Jesus responded to his mother the way he did.

The unspoken message in John 2 is about expectation. The wedding guests expected to drink their fill of wine at their host’s expense. Mary expected Jesus to heed her request to bring peace. Jesus expected to be able to wait a little longer until his glory became known. This clash of motives plays out in the humble home of a local village family. Money probably ran a little short for this middle class Galilean family, as it does for all of us from time to time. The guests kept on enjoying the feast, and the wine supply was starting to dwindle. Running out of wine at a Jewish wedding was the worst insult to both the host and the guests. The host would feel humiliation over his inability to provide adequately for the celebration. The guests would have felt disrespected. This outcome would have branded the wedding couple with a reputation they’d never live down. Lawsuits may even be brought against them.

Mary saw this situation brewing under the surface of the simple surroundings and the merrymaking. Something must be done, but what and by who? Seated across the banquet table from her was the only one she ever needed–her son, Jesus. I like to imagine that over the years, Mary probably witnessed Jesus settling disputes among his siblings, offering a solution, speaking comfort, making peace. She says to him, “They have no wine.”

Jesus puts her off with the statement, “My hour has not yet come.”

Mary seems to ignore him. In full confidence and faith, she turns to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.”

If I was Jesus, I would have rolled my eyes at my presumptuous mother. But since he is perfect and I am not, he probably handled the situation much better. Jesus gives instructions to fill the stone jars with water, draw some out, and take it to the master of the party. Somewhere between the words leaving Jesus’ mouth and the liquid reaching the master’s mouth, the water had changed into wine.

Jesus’ glory was revealed. In a common family living in an obscure town, glory shone. During a large, crowded celebration, glory sneaked in. While saving simple people from disaster, glory quietly spread in the form of kindness and understanding.

Like Mary’s life, the lives of this wedding couple, and the lives of the small town guests, our lives are filled with the simple, the common, the crowded, and sometimes, the disastrous. Jesus is present with the soothing word of comfort. He provides when our resources run out He makes peace in situations that seem to have no happy ending. This is when his glory shines. He reveals himself in subtle, miraculous ways that we would miss if it wasn’t for his glory shining on them.

Rest in the Shade

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I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. He has taken me to the banquet hall, and his banner over me is love. Song of Songs 2:3-4

Over the years, I have developed a chronic condition known as fascination of the life and ministry of the prophet, Elijah. Lately, the Lord has been speaking to me through his story in the books of first and second Kings.

The Bible gives a narrow window through which we glimpse the life of this Man of God. He lived in Israel. Although Elijah was such an influential voice during this era of Israel’s history, only a brief span of his life is exposed to us through the stories in the books of Kings. The king of Israel, Ahab, had led the nation so far away from the worship of God that now the time had come to begin reaping the consequences. We all know who God chose to deliver the bad news–Elijah. Lucky man.

Elijah became the enemy. The king placed high priority on getting rid of him. The word of God came to Elijah again. This time is was meant for Elijah’s comfort and not for the rebuke of a wayward king. “Leave here. Turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there” (I Kings 17:2-4).

First Kings goes on to tell us that Elijah did what the Lord told him. Elijah lived there for a long time–at least three years. In a nation that had forsaken God, Elijah continued to enjoy God’s presence. During an extended season of extreme drought, Elijah feasted on God’s unending provisions. In the face of a king’s wrath–a king with the entire military at his disposal–Elijah found a place to hide away, safe and protected under God’s watchful care.

Over the span of those three years, the king looked everywhere for Elijah, but never found him. Why? Because God covered him. Psalm 91 mentions the safety found in the shade. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:1-2).

Danger couldn’t find him. the king’s anger couldn’t touch him. Hunger couldn’t weaken him.

Song of Songs 2:4 refers to a banner of love. The Student Bible says a banner was a large military flag that held a fighting unit together in battle. In the noise and dust of a fight, soldiers needed a visible sign to keep them oriented (p. 600). God spread his banner over Elijah. This orienting symbol wasn’t made of cloth with a royal crest. Rather, it was love and it came complete with God’s presence. “Fear not, I have redeemed you,” God says to Israel through Isaiah, “I have summoned you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned. For I am the Lord your God. You are precious and honored in my sight and I love you” (Isaiah 43:1-4).

Elijah lived in the ravine–a crevice running deep between two rocks. It became the place where he enjoyed God’s care, his provision, and his love.

 

 

Celebration in Faith

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We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.       2 Corinthians 4:18

A celebration in faith means that we take God at his word. We’re already in the condition of faith when we believe in him. The ongoing celebration of faith is lived out of that belief.

How do we stay attentive to the present–the place where things don’t always work out, or they change, or get difficult–while also discovering joy in the experience? It sounds like a set-up to frame an impossible dilemma. Pain and darkness get juxtaposed against the life we really want. So, does this mean we have to choose to deny the reality of pain or despair in our lives so the we can search for a place of bliss? Maybe we must trick ourselves into a sense of false security. We try to get ourselves to believe that, “Oh, everything will be OK,” when in reality the actual situation continues to deteriorate around us. We get stuck and don’t know where to go.

This is the time to pause and take a step back for a larger panoramic view. In these times, our understanding of God and our framework for functioning in the world don’t work anymore. We default to questions like: Has God left me? Is he trying to teach me something? Is God angry? It’s fearsome to come to the end of something–whether that something is a relationship, a career, a season of life, someone else’s life, our own strength, or our ability to make sense of anything.

Faith suggests a different way. Instead of thinking we can have only suffering with no joy, or mistakenly assuming that joy is never accompanied by hardship, faith asks the question if perhaps there is a balance. “Can we live fully submerged in pain and trial while at the same time finding joy?” Can we learn how to find order in the mess? Peace in the chaos? Gratitude in the suffering? Light in the darkness? Beauty in the ugliness? A reason to throw a party when no occasion for celebration exists?

I want to take some time to tell a brief story to illustrate. Growing up on the farm gave us cousins many chances to work hard and get dirty doing it. Same for my dad, uncle, and grandpa. Lots of times, after a day of working out in the field or with the livestock, grease and mud, even manure, found their way onto hands, shoes, and clothing. As devoted observers of afternoon coffee time, we’d sit on the back steps, remove our shoes, wash our hands, and go to the kitchen. Grandma would have a celebration waiting. Coffee. Cake. Cookies. Sandwiches. All of it served on her best china. Grandma knew how to create a special occasion in the midst of the ordinary toil of a workday. She met us with love and acceptance when all we brought into her house were grease-spotted jeans and odors from the barnyard. She found reasons to throw a party in spite of the fact that she’d have a table full of dirty dishes to wash afterward.

Faith. Sometimes God calls us to endure hard things. But he’s always near. When we come to the end, we can stand on the truth that God is waiting to give a new beginning. Every time. Faith. Hebrews says it’s the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction that things not seen are in fact very real. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. What is seen is temporary. What is unseen is eternal. The mess, the grief, the dark will end. That’s good news. Peace, gratitude, and joy–they remain. That’s even better news.

Faith asks us to endure the temporary because we know what really lasts. God. Who he is, who we are in him, and what we enjoy as his children living in his covenant grace and under his sovereign care will never pass away. We grow stronger and more secure in him day by day. The small gifts discovered in each of these days provides endless reasons to throw a party.

Celebrating God in Time

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At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you. See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 2 Corinthians 6:2

We’ve all heard the joke about the man that says to God, “God, how long is a million years to you?”

God replies, “A second.”

The man then asks, “God, how much is a million dollars to you?”

God replies, “A penny.”

So the man gets brave. He asks God, “May I have a penny?”

To which God answers, “Sure. In a second.”

Although not entirely correct according to the Bible, this brief dialogue clues me in to the fact that God lives in a different time zone than we do. As the creator of time and Lord over time, he stands as the eternal Lord and Sovereign over history. Our lives have a beginning and an end. God is the beginning and the end. While our lives pass in a succession of chronological measurements of time, God exists the same in the past, the present, and the future. Everything that happens in all eras of time are as vibrant as the present in God’s mind. We may forget events or memories fade, but God views every period of time as if it just happened.

Time appears as the largest separator of us from God–almost as much as sin. We can do nothing about our original sinful state. Neither can we do anything about the passing of time. It can feel like we have two forces working against us in our endeavor to live in God’s presence. On the one hand, sin tempts us and brings us down. On the other hand, time is always moving us along a track pulling us away from the good times, into tunnels of darkness, or dragging us through sadness and pain.

Time seems to have its own destiny regardless of our wishes. It’s a non-stop train we can’t get off of. While we ride, our kids grow up and leave home, people we love age and die, and the world around us changes.

How do we stay connected to God when he stands outside and above time while we must stay confined to its passing?

Worship: In Ephesians, the apostle Paul says that the best use of our time is to sing( Ephesians 5:17-20). By singing to God and to each other, we worship. This keeps us in a place of praise and gratitude. Our time, and therefore our lives, is never wasted when spent focusing on God’s goodness.

Surrendering Fear: Psalm 90 has always been in my mind the “time Psalm” because of its many references to measurements of time. It begins with a declaration of how long God has been the dwelling place for his people–through all generations (verse 1).

Verse four recalls the same perspective on time for God as the joke above, “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.”

The Psalmist requests that God teach us to count our days so that we may gain a wise heart (verse 12).

The Psalm ends with the petition for God to let his favor be upon his children, and that he would prosper the work of their hands.

These verses from Psalm 90 affirm that when God stands as sovereign over all of time, he’s the ruler of my past, my present, and my future. In God’s time zone, the past stays in the past. It doesn’t leak into the present. It’s done. It accomplished the purpose God intended. He sees it, but it only needed to happen once.

Since God lives beyond the constraints of time, his presence in our lives frees us to fully engage in today. He holds it. We enjoy each moment as it unfolds knowing it will never return to us gain, and yet thankful that God allowed it to happen as it did, when it did.

Because God is eternal, we can live at absolute peace with the passing of time. We don’t need to worry about how the end will come or what will happen next. We have hope.

Looking for the Break-in: We stay connected to God when he breaks in . Consistent with the idea of time as a moving train, God surprises us in similar ways to a train robbery from an old Western. The band of outlaws ride their horses alongside the tracks. At some point, one of them jumps off his horse, landing on the train, and eventually breaking in.

Christmas happens in this way. A world going about its business as it would any day suddenly receives word of the arrival of a baby. God surprises us in those meaningful relationships with people who are special to us. One word or a shared experience becomes a treasured memory that stays with us for years to come. God also breaks in during those times when we hit walls. Old patterns don’t work anymore. We have a run-in with reality. Lots of times these occurrences are God interrupting our lives getting our attention so that he can lead us into something even better.

 

 

 

The Growth Rings of Advent

tree-ringsWait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! Psalm 27:14

It’s the Advent season–again. This is the time of year when I prepare for Christmas. My preparations include hanging the same ornaments and the same lights on the same tree that occupies the same place in the house like it does every year. I use the same recipes for the same cookies as I do every year. My kids even put the same items on their Christmas lists as they did last year. We hear the same Bible story and sing the same songs as we do every year. As much as I enjoy the traditions we’ve established as a family, one thing still concerns me–how do I retain meaning in the things that I do at this time of year over and over and over again?

This past summer, when our family went to Yellowstone National Park, we spent time at a nature center. In this building was a display of the end of a tree that had been cut down. Enough growth rings circled the center of the trunk to date the tree as at least one hundred years old. Each layer of growth told the tree’s story. Wide rings indicated plentiful rainfall; narrow rings exposed seasons of dryness. Gouges in the bark along the outside were present in places where the tree had been sliced by antlers, claws, or the axe that eventually took it down.

Dark scars circling one of the layers of growth indicated a year of forest fire. The shadowed scar embedded in the growth ring was still present, but the tree had recovered and continued to produce growth rings in the years following the fire.

Another wider scar indicated damage from a beetle infestation. The tree must have healed eventually because, like with the scar from the fire, more growth rings filled the space between the scar and the bark on the outside.

The concentric circles on the tree at Yellowstone helps me understand the function of the predictable patterns and seasons in my life. They are places and times in which to measure growth.

Perhaps a disaster occurred during this last year leaving behind scars, or maybe an infestation of sin ate away at any growth I’d managed to produce in previous years. External forces may have left a few gouges here and there. Now my outer “skin” isn’t quite as thick in places as what it used to be.

Whatever the past months of my life may have looked like, the ongoing, unfinished process of growth gives me hope. With time, alternating between growth and rest, I recover. Seasons of refreshing provide easier times of growth while seasons of dryness may bring slower growth.

And yet, I’m always growing. The scars become a part of the larger story. The concentric rings that follow work together with the injured places to determine the direction of my life.

Advent is the season when we wait for Jesus to come. It reminds us that God revealed himself in the past through the prophets. In the present, we wait for Christ’s second coming in the future. Advent provides time for us to recognize that all is not well in our world. It gives answers to longings for restoration. During Advent, we move closer to the source of peace.

The concentric circles down through history display God’s work over time. The prophets, Jesus’ birth, our lives now, and Jesus’ second coming align as growth rings in a large, divine plan that continues to grow to fulfillment in spite of sin, scarring disasters, and forces of evil at work in the world. God keeps his promises. And he’s coming again.

So this year, as I sing the same carols, bake the same cookies, and hang the same ornaments, I’m going to use Advent as a season to recognize the growth God has accomplished in my life. This will refresh all of my repetitive tasks with meaning. As Christmas approaches, I look forward to rejoicing in God’s faithful work. And then, as a new year of growth begins, I trust God to take the scars and abrasions yet to happen and somehow use them to direct me towards his purposes.