What I Saw – November 6, 2019

I almost didn’t go for an evening walk this Wednesday night.  I’ve been doing nightly walks in the country on the outskirts of Columbus all autumn.  The fact that it has been an unusually warm and bright autumn has been encouraging that.  With the change of the temperature on Halloween, though, I wasn’t sure I could keep up the habit.  Add to that the fact that I forgot my jacket when I left for church Wednesday, and you can understand why I almost went home instead of to the trails that afternoon.

However, as I drove to the fateful intersection where I would have to choose one or the other, I for some reason choose “park”.  I turned instead of going straight and 15 minutes later was at the same remote country park my dad took me to when I was a kid.  I found a trail north of that park, parked my car, and started walking.

As I walked, I listened to some Upper Room songs.

I was hoping to receive a word from God from these songs.  Unfortunately I did not.  I was encouraged by them; they are wonderful songs.  But I didn’t receive the word I thought I would.

Now I’ve learned not to be completely disappointed when I don’t receive a word from God, but as I headed for the car I was nonetheless still somewhat disappointed.  And then, just before I got in the car to drive off, I saw this:

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This is a property across the street from the trail, and it took my breath away.  I saw a lot of beauty on that walk that day, a lot of natural, wild beauty.  But this was a cultivated beauty.  As you can see, the grass is manicured, the trees were clearly planted in an organized fashion, and the entire place is surrounded by fence.  So it was a cultivated beauty.  It was a beauty man had touched.  And yet to my eye it was still as beautiful as the natural beauty I had been admiring for the past hour.  As beautiful if not more beautiful.

And that got me thinking.  It got me thinking about beauty in general and about my purpose in beauty in particular.  You see, I’ve always understood that nature is beautiful because God made it so.  I suppose the definitive verse on this idea is Psalm 19:1.

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And I have many times heard people describe the beauty of God’s handiwork in untouched, wild, natural places.  For example, I once stood next to a guy at a mountain lookout in West Virginia.  As we stood there, this guy admired the wooded mountains and valleys before us and then asked, “How can people say there is no God?”

From encounters and statements like these, I’ve always assumed that the greatest beauty in God’s economy was His beauty, His natural, untouched-by-man beauty.  But as I looked at this property by the trail, I started to question that assumption.  I started to wonder if the beauty that results from the collaborations of God and man might not be even more beautiful.

A collaboration was indeed what I was seeing on this property; a human artist arranged that property but they did so with God’s materials; the organization and manicuring were man’s contribution, but the light and color and texture came from the Lord.  That’s what this beauty was.

And I began to wonder not only if such collaborations are more beautiful than God’s solo work, but I also began to wonder if these collaborations are not what God always intended.  Again, I think there has been an assumption to my previous thinking, an assumption I no doubt received from my elders: the assumption that God’s solo work is the best of all work.  But as I looked at this property, I began questioning that assumption as well.

And I believe that I began questioning it on good grounds.  Scripture is clear that God is quite adept at doing things on His own.  But it is also clear that God wants to do things with others.  This is apparently why He created the angels (I don’t know much about angels and have no concern for angelology, but it seems that He created these angels to do certain things for Him or in His stead; that is, He created them to assert His will over the world).  This is also apparently at least part of why He created us.  Before He created us, He said:

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That is, He said His intention was that we would rule the world.  Certainly we would not be usurping His authority in that ruling, so He must have meant that we were ruling with Him.  We see a similar idea in Psalm 8:

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And we see it in 2 Timothy 2:

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The fact of the matter is that we humans were made to be rulers, co-rulers with God, under-rulers beneath God.  The fact of the matter is that there is something wonderful about our God that makes Him want to share rule, power, authority, and dominion even with those who, as Psalm 8 says, really aren’t worthy of it.

That being the case, it stands to reason that untouched beauty/solo work isn’t necessarily the best.  It stands to reason that manicured beauty/collaborations might be equal if not better.  And I know that doesn’t apply across the board; I know everything man does is not beautiful; I could do without the phone poles and lines in the above picture.  But I think it does apply in some limited way (everything that involves fallen man will by necessity be limited and have exceptions, but that doesn’t eliminate the general idea).  I think God has called me and all His other children to collaborate with Him, to create beauty with Him.  I think the beauty our collaborations can generate is every bit as worthy as the beauty His solo works have generated.  I think creating beauty with Him is our purpose, and I further think that is a great purpose and a great privilege.

And that’s what I saw on November 6, 2019.

What I Saw – October 31, 2019

Today’s memory work had me in 1 Timothy.  It is a book I learned almost 20 years ago and have been reciting every since.  As I recited it this morning, I stopped at this statement in 1:12:

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I suppose the reason this caught my attention is I was still thinking about yesterday’s revelation.  I was still contemplating the fact that ministry inevitably brings rejection, that painful rejection is the cost of doing ministry.  It is a fact I’ve come to terms with (as I described yesterday) but not one I’ve come to enjoy; I can deal with this but I don’t think I can embrace it.

Yet here was Paul saying he thanked Jesus for appointing him into His service.  Here was Paul saying He was grateful God brought him into ministry.  Paul was rejected because of the ministry he did; his authority was questioned and his teaching ability was criticized and his sincerity was challenged by those both inside and outside the church (see Acts 17:18 and 2 Corinthians 10:10 for just two of many examples of this).  Not only so, but Paul was beaten and imprisoned and subjected to all sorts of sufferings because of the ministry he did (see 2 Corinthians 6:4-10 and 11:23-33 for a partial record of Paul’s sufferings).  Paul was ultimately martyred because of his ministry (see 2 Timothy 4:6, or watch the following clip which I was shown as a child and which has always inspired me.)

Paul experienced some of the unpleasant things I have experienced in ministry, albeit to a greatly enhanced degree, and he experienced other, even more unpleasant things in ministry that I hope to never experience.  Yet he was thankful to be involved in that ministry.  I’m not sure he was thankful for the unpleasant things themselves;  I wouldn’t be offended if he wasn’t as not appreciating such things/wanting to avoid such things is normal but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was as he saw life and the Kingdom economy so much better than I did.  But he was thankful for the ministry which included these things.  He was thankful that he had been included in the ministry whose price was these things.

And I can likewise be thankful for being included in that ministry as well.  I am, in fact.  I wasn’t hating ministry as I read these Scriptures this morning.  I’m not sure I’ve ever hated ministry or even seriously considered leaving it.  Nonetheless, I was challenged by Pauls’ good attitude toward ministry, sufferings and all.  I was encouraged to be even more thankful for being included in ministry than I already am and to be more willing to accept the negative costs of doing that ministry in a better spirit.

And that’s what I saw on October 31, 2019.

What I Saw – October 6, 2019

Ministry can be depressing at times.  My home church minister told me that when I was a kid.  My home church held a “career day” for the youth group one Sunday night.  Several of the adults stood before the group and told us what their jobs were like.  One of those adults was the minister himself.  When it was his turn to present, the minister said this: “When you’re a minister, your job is to ring the gospel bell, and some Sundays you go home thinking you didn’t ring it very well.

I came home thinking that very thing this Sunday night.  I’m not exactly sure why.  This Sunday was a good Sunday.  It was a very good Sunday.  Lots of great things are happening at our church, things that can only be engineered and empowered by God Himself and things that are thus evidence that God is working among in.  In fact, I’d say I’ve never had a time in my ministry that was as filled with opportunity and optimism as the time I’m in right now.   Yet I still came home depressed.  I still came home feeling like I wasn’t doing my job very well, like I was a failure and was failing and didn’t have much of a future, like I hadn’t rung the bell that well and was going to lose out because I hadn’t rung the bell that well.

Now the way I’ve previously dealt with these “Sunday evening blues” is to “retreat into fantasy” (a phrase I believe I’ve picked up from Pastor Robert Clancy).  I’ve drowned my sorrows in TV or Pepsi or video games or those sorts of things.  But I dealt with them in a much different way this Sunday.  I dealt with them through prayer.  After putting my daughter to bed, I sat down on the floor in front of my back sliding door (my new place of prayer in my new house) and began to pray.  As I usually do during evening prayer time, I followed Tim Keller’s five step prayer plan.  First, I asked God to be with me and speak to me.  I also told Him that I was in great need this time (something I don’t usually do).  Second, I turned to the Scriptures.  I always use the Daily Watchword and Doctrinal Texts of the Moravian Daily Text when I do my evening prayers, and that evening those texts said this:

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As soon as I read these Scriptures, my prayer was answered.  I received a word from the Lord via the “living and active” Bible.  God spoke to me as I asked Him to.  The first thing I saw in both these passages is that God is the God of peace, that is, God wants peace and creates peace (which in both these passages is less like “the absence of conflict” and more like “happy ever after”).  The Haggai passage talks about Him giving peace, and the Philippians passage calls Him “the God of peace” explicitly, so this truth about God (what my mentor calls “a Covenant word” and what he trained me to look for first in any Scripture passage) was easy to see.  That was encouraging enough, but what was even more encouraging was the “Kingdom word” (the way God wanted me to respond to the truth I was seeing about Him).  That Kingdom word was as explicit in the Philippians passage as the Covenant word.  It was “keep on doing the things…”.  Now I was familiar with this passage; I’ve had it memorized for years and have recited it many times.  But the version I know (the NIV ’84) has the phrase “keep on doing the things” as “put in practice”, and it has it much later in the verse.  For that reason, it has never resonated with me that much.  When I saw this translation, though (and I still don’t know what translation it is), I was moved tremendously.  I could see God telling me not to give into my depression, telling me 1) not to despair at all and 2) certainly not to give into despair.  I could see God telling me that there was going to a positive result for me, a result that He (not I) would achieve, a result that I would receive if I would simply keep on doing what I was doing no matter how effective those things seemed at the time.  In a very short span of time, I had gone around the “Kairos” circle: I had heard God say something, I had discerned both the Covenant and Kingdom truths of that something, and I had a plan of action.

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And with that quick trip around the circle, my Sunday night ministerial blues were dispelled.  I still didn’t think I had rung the bell all that way that day, but I realized it didn’t matter that much.  I realized there was a stronger force at work than how well or poorly I rang the bell, a stronger force guaranteeing peace and asking me to do nothing more than just not quit.

And that’s what I saw on October 6, 2019.

What I Saw – August 18,2019

 

A wave of anxiety hit me early Sunday evening.  I’m not sure why; there didn’t seem to be any concrete trigger for it.  But it did.  Because of that anxiety, I went to my evening prayer earlier than usual.  I also changed my routine for that evening prayer.  I usually end my evening prayer with a hymn from a playlist I’ve compiled on YouTube.  Tonight, though, I decided to start with a hymn.  I felt I needed something to move me through the anxiety before I began praying, and I thought a hymn was just the thing.  As it turned out, I was right.

The hymn I choose to listen to was “Holy, Holy, Holy”, a hymn I’ve been singing since I was 12.  I listened to this version by Audrey Assad.

As I listened, something in these lyrics I have known almost all my life “caught my attention”.  It was the final line in the second verse, the line “perfect in power, in love, and purity”.

As I heard that line, I was reminded of a truth about God I’ve been thinking of recently, the truth of God’s perfection.  By that term perfection, I mean that God is everything He ought to be, everything He needs to be, everything it is good to be.  I think that’s what the author of that hymn meant as well.  And I was thankful that God is perfect like that; I was thankful that my God (the only God, the one true God who has revealed Himself to me and to the world) is perfect.

I also realized, though, that I don’t regard God as perfect.  I don’t consistently regard Him as perfect.  I don’t regard Him as perfect all the time, perfect in every way.  I regard Him as being perfect in power, as the hymn says; I have no problem with that.  I regard Him as being perfect in purity as well; I have no problem with that, either.  But I don’t always regard Him as perfect in love.  I don’t always regard Him as perfect in goodness.  I don’t always regard Him as having the perfect will, that is, of always and only willing and thus accomplishing what is good for me.  Oh, I believe He is perfect that way in my head; if you would ask my if I have a “theology of God’s perfect goodness”, I would say, “Of course!”  But I don’t always believe He is perfect that way in my heart.  My emotions don’t match my intellect here.  In fact, I tend to see God less as one who is perfect in goodness as the YHWH God, the Father of Jesus, is presented in the Bible and more like Odin as he is presented in the movie Eric the Viking (which I saw on cable as a kid).

Yes, though my head knows otherwise, my heart still tends to suspect that God is mostly unconcerned about me, that God has to be convinced to be concerned about me, to be cajoled into doing what is best for me.  That’s why I pray as poorly as I do, why my prayers are mostly me begging God to do what I want Him to do.  That’s also why I get seized by anxieties both triggered and non-triggered.

But this song told me this evening that this suspicion is untrue.  It told me that God is not unconcerned for me as Odin is unconcerned about people, that God’s perfection includes His will and goodness and love.  And just like that, the anxiety went away.  It was dispersed by a confrontation with this truth, the truth of the complete perfection of my God and what that complete perfection means for me.

That’s what I saw on August 18, 2019.

 

What I Saw – June 29th

I sat down in the bay window of my parent’s rural Ohio home to do my evening prayers.

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The view from the window

In the evening, I follow Tim Keller’s five-step pattern for prayer: evocation (inviting God to be present), meditation (reading Scripture), word prayer, free prayer, and contemplation.  After the evocation, I turned to the Scripture for the evening, which I took from the Moravian Daily Text’s “watchword” (Old Testament Scripture) and “doctrinal text” (New Testament Scripture).  For June 29th, those passages were these:

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I have to admit that this was not what I hoped to receive from the Lord that evening.  I was hoping for a word of encouragement, for something speaking of God’s love for me and His promises to me.  Instead, I got this word about being punished for my sins.  It was not only disappointing but intimidating.  I started wondering what I had done to make God say this to me and what it meant for me.  I started worrying and I wanted to turn away from my prayers.

But I didn’t.  I forged on, meditating on this passage as I have been taught to do.  As I did, I somehow stumbled across the word justice.  I always try to pull a truth about God from the Scripture I read.  In this case, the statement about punishment brought me to the truth that God is just (punishment comes from His justice; He punishes sin because He is just).  When I realized this, I realized that this statement which I found so threatening and disagreeable in the moment, this statement which seemed to be dropping me back into the “God is Zeus who can’t wait to hit you with a lightning bolt for the slightest transgression” territory, was actually a statement about God’s love.  It was a statement about the wideness of God’s love, the universality of God’s love, the fact that God loves everyone.

You see, all sin is a transgression not just of God but of another person.  I have thought long and hard about this.  I have run through the catalog of all the sins I know, and I can’t find one that is not in some way an insult or offense against another of my fellow human beings (my fellow human beings who are created in the image of God just as I am and who are just as valuable in the grand design as me).  Murder is obviously an offense against others, as is theft and lying.  But so is all forms of sexual immorality, even lust; Paul says that sexual sins are “taking advantage” of other people (1 Thessalonians 4:6) and Jesus seems to suggest that even looking at others is using them in an untoward way (Matthew 5:28).  That being the case, what God is saying here in Jeremiah 21:14 when He promises to punish us for our sins is that He is not going to allow us to get away with insulting, offending, taking advantage of, and using others.  That is exactly what would happen if He didn’t punish sin; He would be allowing one person to get away with doing such things to another; He would be favoring one person at the expense of another.  And He doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t operate that way.  He loves all, so He punishes all.  His justice is an expression of His love for all.

Now I don’t know exactly how this will all play out.  Is this punishment in this life or the next?  Is this punishment some sort of physical affliction or is it simply a word of rebuke (much as He verbally rebuked Sarah for laughing but did not physically do anything to her)?  Is this punishment all covered by the sacrificial death of Christ (a strong possibility).  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I saw the strength and immensity of the love of God in this verse.  I saw that God not only loves me but loves everyone to the point that He will punish me for offending anyone and will conversely punish anyone for offending me.  This is not Zeus, who as far as I can tell was cruel and arbitrary in his punishments.  This is the ever-loving Yahweh, the Yahweh who shows His ever-lovingness and fairness and concern for all by punishing in some way all sin, by allowing no sin to go unaddressed.

And that’s what I saw on June 29th.

What I Saw – May 29th

On the spur of the moment I decided to bike uphill to a nearby park for my afternoon devotions.  I had done devotions there a couple Sundays ago and had a good time, so I thought I might try replicating the experience.  Once there, I went to the Pray As You Go app and listened to the Tuesday, May 28th entry.  The text was Acts 16:23-34.

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The Pray As You Go devotions always read the text twice, giving you the chance to give it a first pass and then a second, deeper listen.  On both occasions, I realized there was an interesting chain of events here.  I was even tempted to call it a “spiritual” chain of events, meaning it was a chain of events that resulted from and illustrated several spiritual truths.

The first spiritual truth is that God’s workers often suffer.  Paul was flogged and put into prison.  I was taught in Bible college that suffering in ministry was a result of some mistake the suffering minister was making.  I see here, though (as well as hundreds of other places in Scripture), that suffering in ministry is par for the course.  It is not a result of a mistake made by the minister or ministry team; it is just the way things go.  It is not something to be ashamed of, in other words, but something that just happens.

The second is that God’s workers often suffer because of other people.  Here, Paul is flogged and put in prison by Gentiles.  Other times, he is flogged and put in prison by Jews.  (In fact, I saw in the previous day’s reading, John 15:26-16:4, that some religious people considering the persecution of God’s workers as the right thing to do).  So the suffering isn’t just an accident; it was an intentional attack.

The third is that Paul and Silas were witnesses even in their suffering.  They responded to their situation with praying and singing (I don’t know what they were singing; I’ve always been taught they were worshiping, and I think there is a strong case for believing that, but it is possible they could have been appealing), and they were heard by their fellow prisoners.

The fourth is that only Jesus can rescue us from our suffering.  Paul did not get himself out of this predicament; he was pulled out of it by a divinely-sent earthquake.

And the fifth is that Paul did the right thing after he was rescued.  He did not only do the right thing; he did the above and beyond thing.  While most people would have fled without concern for what happened to the jailer (especially if the jailer had been harsh to them during the jailing process, which I think is a good bet), Paul did not.  He stayed, knowing what would happen to the jailer if he fled.  As a result, the jailer was not only saved physically but spiritually.

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This chain of events really touched me as I listened to it twice in the park.  I’m not sure why.  It might be the idea of being thrown in prison by others, which is something that happens to us all more than we would like (anytime anyone does something harsh to you which continues to make you angry or afraid, you have been “thrown into prison” in a sense).  It might be the idea of Jesus divinely getting me out of that prison with an earthquake (which of all the ways to get out of prison is a pretty great one).  It might be the idea of Paul doing what was above and beyond right for his captor, as that is something I’m not so great at doing (I always like to twist the knife on my captors a little bit).  Whatever it was, it hit me.  I realized that I will be thrown in prison from time to time due to no fault of my own, that Jesus will get me out, and that I need to do what is right once I’m let out.

That is what I saw on May 28th, 2019.

What I Saw – May 6, 2019

One of the many sources I use everyday to get input from God (or hear God, as some might say) is Biblegateway.com’s verse of the day.  I always give a quick look at that verse to see what God might say to me through it.  Today, that verse was James 5:16.

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I memorized this verse almost two decades ago and have recited it more times than I remember.  When I read it this morning, though, I saw something in it I never saw before.

(The Living and Active Word of God works that way, you know.  The Word is always communicating just one truth; as the old timers used to zealously tell it, “It says what it means and it means what it says.”  This is correct.  No Scripture can mean one thing to me and an entirely different thing to you.  It means what it means.  However, there are always multiple applications of that one truth, just as there as one jewel has multiple facets.  At any time, the Spirit may reveal to you an application or facet of that truth you never noticed before and really need.  This is why daily devotions, the rereading of texts you have read over and over, are so valuable.)

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A new and completely legitimate facet of this verse was revealed to me this morning.  While the one truth is the need to pray for other people in the church, the facet I saw was that this needs to be done so these people are healed.  I saw that the healing of these people, that is, us, is what God desires and why He commands us to pray for these people/each other.

And I also saw that this is radically different from what I usually want.  For some reason, church conflict came to my mind as I read this verse.  I’m not sure why.  It doesn’t mention church conflict.  It does mention sins, though, and church conflict certainly comes from that.  So maybe that was it, or maybe it was that James seems to be suggesting that the illnesses we are praying for are sin-based (which makes them less like common colds and more like personality or character problems), or maybe it was something else.  In any case, it is what came to mind.  I thought James was telling me not just to pray for anyone who might have some sort of sickness but specifically to pray for those who might be opposing me out of some sinful defect in their character.  I thought God through James was telling me I should desire what He desires: the healing of this sinful defect in their character and thus the healing of the conflict.

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And that, again, is not what I usually want in these situations.  What I usually want is victory over those opposing me.  What I usually want is for those who are opposing me to be defeated.  I care very little why they are opposing me; I care very little if they are opposing me from a sin-based personality illness (in fact, one of my common sayings is, “I don’t care why you stabbed me in the back.  Once you stab me in the back, motives don’t matter anymore.  All that matters is I have been stabbed in the back.”).  All I care about is that they get beaten.

God today was teaching me to take a different path in these situations, to see these situations differently and feel about them differently and respond to them differently.  God was teaching me to have more compassion on those who oppose me than I have historically had.  God was teaching me that there opposition to me/their stabbing me in the back isn’t based on me as much as I tend to think it is but is really based on them.  It is a reflection of their sickness.  That being the case, I should desire and pray for their healing, not just so that the conflict will be resolved but so that they will be whole even if it isn’t, so that they will be whole even if they are never defeated or beaten, even if I never get the victory that I want.  God was teaching me that the healing of the back-stabbing sick is more important than victory.  It was a humbling lesson, but a very good one.

And that’s what I saw in James 5:16.