Rest in the Shade

ravine

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.

 

 

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Celebration in Faith

sunlight-and-trees

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

clock

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.

 

Belief in the Wonderful

teacupsNow faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

While I stood in the Christian book store studying the clearance shelf, the floral design of a coffee mug caught my attention. I picked it up and looked at the price. Yep, definitely on sale. I decided to buy it.

Then I turned the mug around and discovered these words scripted on the other side: Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen.

Yeah, right, I thought. I don’t need that farce staring me in the face every morning.

I put the mug back on the shelf. Maybe I didn’t want it so much after all.

I went about my business looking for items that were the reasons why I’d gone in the store in the first place. As I shopped, the words on that mug stayed with me pressing me to wonder, can a person really live as though something wonderful is about to happen? I could pull it off once in a while, like when I know a special occasion is coming up, but all the time?

I wavered. Sometimes terrible things happen. I have difficulty enough trying to accept the tragic, the grievous, or the painful situations that come my way. Once I’ve dealt with those, I have no energy left to look for the wonderful, and even less expectation that it might actually happen to me.

Belief in the wonderful sounded like a good way to set myself up for disappointment.

I went deeper into the store and got lost in the birthday card aisle hoping to forget about the coffee mug with its unrealistic message.

We can believe in the wonderful yet to come because something wonderful has already happened. Jesus came. He paid the price of tragedy, death, loss, and sin so that we don’t have to. At the moment we become believers, the Holy Spirit enters into our hearts and lives. He fills up the places in need of healing. As this happens over time, we become new creations. “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Corinthians 5:17, NRSV). We also become strong. “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:4).

Faith brings the wonderful into our lives. When we have faith in God, we no longer rely on ourselves for rescue in the midst of our troubles. We look to God completely in full trust he can save us.

He always does. And that’s wonderful.

The world around us may appear to be falling apart on the outside, but God uses the disasters and the pain to transform us on the inside. And that’s wonderful.

The distraction of looking for a niece’s birthday card failed to push the floral coffee mug from my mind. I returned to the clearance shelf, picked up the mug, and read it again.

Grace is always happening. Mercy is always happening. Change in my heart is always happening. And that’s wonderful.

I didn’t put the mug back on the shelf this time. It now sits on my kitchen counter awaiting the daily opportunity to stare me in the face with its message. Believe in the wonderful. It’s all around you, inside you, and ready to happen…to you.

Celebration in the Quiet

beach-balcony

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore. Psalm 131

The word quiet evokes various images for me. Images like enjoyment of nature with only the sounds of a trickling stream and birdsong.

The dark stillness of night where rest and sleep happen.

A space of time to be still and let go of worries and responsibilities.

Peace. Lack of chaos. A sense that everything will be OK.

Quiet.

Our lives seldom look or feel like this. We have deadlines to meet. Family demands to satisfy. Work schedules. And then after we’ve somehow managed to find a way to keep up with the outside world, we still have our own hearts to deal with. So often conflict and confusion invade and stir up all sorts of turmoil and anxiety.

Whew. So many things interrupt the calm we try so hard to claim.

So how do we do it? Is there a way to live in a noisy busy world while staying attentive to God?

Yes. I’m happy to report that a way does exist, but it’s hidden. We have to be intentional about its discovery. If we pursue it, freedom from the need to control and manage lures us. Deeper trust in God defines the steps we take. We let go of our need to speak or to generate noise. Time spent in the quiet moves us to listening until we begin to hear God’s voice. Our lives tell us what he’s saying through our circumstances, our pain, and our longings. The quiet gives us time to listen.

Complete quiet can feel intimidating at first. We like noise. It covers up pain or distracts us from loneliness. Like acclimating to the water temperature in a swimming pool, we have to ease into quiet. Soon it starts to feel good, natural even, until we don’t want to get out again.

How do we grow comfortable with quiet? This is one of those questions where practical tools make the best answer. These reliable steps lead us into a time to recognize and enjoy God’s presence:

  • Frist, set a timer for five minutes. Gradually work up to ten minutes or longer.
  • Notice the sounds; your heartbeat, your breathing, the traffic, the sounds of nature.
  • Let the noise go.
  • Say to the Lord, “I invite you into this place with me.”
  • Read one of these Scripture passages: Psalm 63:1-8; Psalm 37:1-7; Psalm 139; Matthew 14:13-21; John 12:1-8; John 15:1-16; Ephesians 3:14-20
  • Ask the Lord to reveal himself to you as you read.
  • Sit in the quiet and listen to your heart until the timer goes off. The Lord is there. Take him with you as you return to your day.
  • Continue the conversation regularly, maybe once or twice per week, or more frequently as quiet becomes more comfortable.

Heavenly Father, you know my heart and how I am formed. I invite you into these places of quiet so that together we can move forward into the life you’ve created me for. Amen.

 

Celebration in Mystery

lighted-path

Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, and was taken up in glory. I Timothy 3:16

Mysteries are secrets. They’re hidden. Sometimes mysteries are eventually uncovered and explained, but–at least in my experience–most of the time they are not.

God is both. Some things about him have been revealed and explained. This includes things like his love his plan of redemption, his forgiving and patient nature, and his purpose for us as his children.

But other things about God remain hidden. These are the big questions about suffering and evil, wonderings about heaven, eternal life, and judgment.

Thoughts about the mystery of God soon turn into a deep theological discussion. Although that can be fascinating and invigorating, the question still remains of how we live in relationship with God.

So much of Him seems hidden from us, and what we can see of him often feels too big and distant, therefore making him difficult to understand.

It’s in quandaries like this that I’m thankful for Sundays.

Entering into worship of God where I sing his praises, lament, confess sin, receive forgiveness, and hear his truth spoken gives me a little bit of a hook in order to grapple with and celebrate a mysterious God.

When a heart chooses to worship, it recognizes that God’s mystery increases his worth. If I could figure God out all the time, I would then be in a place to determine his value based on my sense of need, intelligence, power, or well-being.

But through mystery, God proves himself larger than me. I come to trust him as my wise, all-knowing, Sovereign God.

The irony of God’s mystery is that the more of him that seems unknowable and hidden, the more I am convinced that he can handle anything. God has under control the results of evil in the world. The pain of suffering he sees as a means of good.

This sense of confidence in him leads to a desire to ascribe all value and worth to him. We want to stand in his presence and see his glory. We long to respond with devotion. We hope he will delight us because, as experience teaches, few things in this world hold elating and sustainable delight. Only God does.

When we worship, we say, “Lord, I give my life to you even though I feel like I understand you so rarely and am blind to your work in the world so often.”

Lately, God has been impressing on my heart that real and lasting value is not in what we say “yes” to, but who we say “yes” to, which is Him. Mystery may surround me where I am right now, but at the same time, I also know enough about God to believe in his love, his patience, his advocacy for my good, and his ability to satisfy my needs and longings.

And that is enough.