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.

Start Forgiving Today

I watch a lot of YouTube videos about woodturning, knife restoration, and other such crafting projects.  Hey, some guys watch videos about women folding towels, so I think I’m doing okay.  Yesterday, YouTube recommended I watch this video.

As I gave this video a quick glance, I misread it.  I thought it said “Start Forgiving Today” rather that “Start Forging Today”.  It is an easy mistake, I suppose; when I took a closer look of the video to double-check what I thought I saw, I realized there are only two letters’ difference between forging and forgiving.

It was also an easy mistake, though, because I’ve been thinking about forgiveness a lot lately.  Forgiveness is mentioned many times in the Scriptures, of course, including the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul.  I also encountered forgiveness in the Freedom Session 12-step program I walked through.  And my wife and I recently attended a seminar on forgiveness put on by Forgiveness Ministries.

I’ve noticed, though, that I still have difficulty forgiving some people for some things.  While I talk a lot about forgiveness, I still fail to forgive some people for the things they have done to me.  Not only so, but I’ve noticed that other people not only fail to forgive but seemingly refuse to forgive.  I have suggested forgiveness to quite a few people recently only for them to tell me that the people who have hurt them don’t deserve to be forgiven.

It was these realities that popped into my mind when I saw that video and misread it as “Start Forgiving Today”.  Following those realities, a few truths about forgiveness also came to mind.  I don’t know that there is any structure or cohesion to these truths; they may be rather scattered.  But I want to share them with you anyway.

Forgiveness is for you, not for the person who sinned against you.  I understand when people tell me that the ones who sinned against them don’t deserve to be forgiven (or haven’t repented or are dead or whatever).  There is certainly some truths to that caveat.  However, the greater truth is that forgiveness as Jesus and Paul command it is not intended so much to be a blessing to the other person (though it can be that) but a blessing for you.  When you forgive, you heal.  When you forgive, you stop hurting.  When you forgive, you stop replaying that moment which caused you/is still causing you so much pain.  So don’t do it for the other person.  Do it for you.

Forgiveness of others allows us to understand God’s forgiveness of us.  One of Jesus’ most notable teaching on forgiveness comes during the Model Prayer of Matthew 6.  As you know, one of the petitions Jesus makes in this prayer is “Forgive us our trespasses (or debts) as we forgive those who trespass against us (or our debtors).”  Jesus even takes this petition further in the verses following the Model Prayer:

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I can’t say I understand everything Jesus is saying here (will God literally not forgive us/condemn us for not forgiving?).  But I do wonder if one of the things Jesus might be saying is that forgiveness is the way or flow of God and we will thus never understand God/never fully appreciate our relationship with or how we relate to God if we don’t have that same way/flow, if we don’t forgive others as easily as He forgives us.  It is that small word as that makes me think this (forgive as we forgive), and I think there is something to us.

Forgiveness is a practice.  It is not something you feel as much as something you do.  Sometimes it is something you must do over and over, every time you feel the anger of a transgression committed against you.  One of the ways to do this practice is what I call “the forgiveness prayers”.  I learned a prayer for forgiving others from Freedom Session and I learned another from Forgiveness Ministries.  I combined them together, following the basic structure of the Forgiveness Ministries prayer but adding in some of the Freedom Session ideas.

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The Forgiveness Ministries prayer.

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The Freedom Session prayer.

In other words, I go through the six steps of the Forgiveness Ministries prayer but add in the Freedom Session ideas of releasing bitterness and thoughts of revenge and asking God to lead me away from my old ways of trying to protect my heart through anger. Sometimes this prayer works first time; I never feel any animosity toward others for their sins again.  Other times this prayer must be prayed over and over, every time that animosity resurfaces.  Whether it is one time or many, though, it is a disciple/practice with works.

That’s not a comprehensive discussion of forgiveness; I don’t think I’m qualified to give you that.  But it is a few thoughts about forgiveness, and those thoughts are valid.  These are reasons why we all need to start forgiving today.

 

Worshiping With A House Church

My wife and I had an unusual and wonderful experience this Sunday (May 12).  We worshiped that morning with a local house church.  We had been invited by the minister and his wife.  Both of them have been walking with both of us through the transition we are making (ending our current ministry and returning to our home state of Ohio to begin a new ministry; a far emotionally-tougher transition than I imagined it to be) and they invited us to be with their house church on Mother’s Day.  Although neither of us have been to a house church before, we accepted, and I’m glad we did.

This is the name of the house church and a link to their site.

We were a little late getting to the church.  We got to the house about 10 minutes late.  I wasn’t sure, then, what we would find.  I imagined we would be let in by the homeowners had we been on time, but I didn’t know what would happen once we were late.  Would the door be opened?  Would we have to knock?  Would we just go inside on our own (which, to a a-man’s-home-is-his-castle-and-should-not-be-violated guy like me would be very difficult to do)?  As it turned out, there was a sign on the door telling us that services would start soon and to let ourselves in, which we did.  As we went inside, we discovered worship was already in full swing and the living room was already full.  Our minister friends saw us and welcomed us, offering us a space on the couch, but we chose to let others take that space and stand in the adjoining kitchen.

As worship went on, I was very surprised and delighted to discover both how large and how diverse the group was.  There were about 35 of us there (and the minister told me there are sometimes 50).  There were men and women and children.  There were young and old adults.  There were Caucasians, African-Americans, and Latinos.

Overall, the service was far more vibrant than what I expected.  The minister told me they made some mistakes in the worship and the service.  I caught a few of those (I saw the guitarist look at the lead singer one time, obviously not sure what she was doing and how he needed to react), but they were not a big deal.  What was a big deal was the level of fellowship and worship.  We truly connected with God during this time and we connected with each other as well.  That, I believe, is what a church needs to be.  As I see it, church (both the group and the service) is intended by God to do two things: 1) lead people into a transformative interaction with Him, and 2) enable believers to strengthen and be strengthened by each other.  We have made church do many other things today, and maybe some of those things aren’t bad, but if we are doing these two things, we aren’t succeeding as a church.  I thought this house church succeeded in doing that despite its relative small size and whatever mistakes may or may not have been made.  That makes it a success in my eyes, and I believe it makes it a success in God’s eyes, too.

 

The Fasting Experiment

”The idea had been building for some time.  Several months, actually.  But it nonetheless took me by surprise when it fully revealed itself to me on the Wednesday of Holy Week.  That idea was to fast.  That idea was to honor Jesus/participate in or at least symbolically reflect His passion by fasting from Thursday to Good Friday service.

This idea came from several sources.  One is that I had been thinking about fasting for some time.  I had been thinking about what it was for.  I knew it wasn’t just duty to perform (see Zechariah 7-8) and I knew it really wasn’t a way to manipulate God/put God in my debt so that He does what I want (this is impossible).  But I knew it was something Jesus and Moses and Daniel and a lot of other biblical figures did, something Jesus talked about us doing as if He expected us to do it or at least expected that we would do it, and I was wondering what it was for.  I got at least part of my answer to this sermon in which one of the Bible Project guys says that fasting is an appropriate response to changes in life.  He actually laments the fact that he has never fasted in the way many of the Bible characters did, and I likewise lament that I never have, either.

 

Another was a podcast I recently listened to in which a Christian teacher said that millennials are more interested in the practice of fasting than any other spiritual practice.  I am not one who thinks that Christian leaders should capitulate to anything millennials want; there are other generations out there and other generations to come, after all.  But I was interested in why they were so interested in it.

A third was Daniel 10.  I came across Daniel 10 is some podcast or another, and was really moved when I heard him say this:

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So I had been flirting with fasting for some time, having been influenced by these and a few other sources (some of which were not spiritual at all, were presenting fasting as merely a health-promoting discipline, not one to draw near to God).  And when this idea came to the forefront that Wednesday, I decided to give into it.  I decided to fast for all day Thursday and most of the day Good Friday.  I decided to participate in/at the very least reflect the passion of Jesus by denying myself not only choice food but all food.  I decided to experiment with fasting in this way.  And I did it.  I gave it my best shot, anyway.  As I did, I had the following reflections:

  1. You have to prepare for fasting.  My fast would have been easier if I had geared up for it a week in advance.  I didn’t.  Instead, I fasted on the fly.  And that made it harder.  Since I hardly ate Wednesday (only a couple bowls of cereal the entire day), I was already down several hundred calories.  That made not eating Thursday and Friday very difficult.  While I was able to do my daily workout Thursday before the fast really got going, I was not able to do so Friday; I was too weak to do so.  I also had a couple times when I almost passed out.  I eventually cheated, eating a banana and some grapes late Thursday night and ending the fast Friday at 4 rather than after the Good Friday service at 7 pm (this last one also had something to do with my schedule; I had my daughter whom I had to keep busy for a couple hours, and the playland at McDonald’s is the easiest way to do that).  If I could do it again, I would prepare better, making sure to fuel myself better the days before the fast and get my workouts in before as well.
  2. I was never as hungry as I thought I would be.  I thought I would be starving during the fast, but I wasn’t.  I felt a little empty inside and a little weak, but I didn’t feel the gnawing hunger I’ve felt at other times.  I’m not sure why this is.  But I did want to eat.  Most of that wanting to eat was psychological.  I just like snacking and wanted to snack whether I was hungry or not.  I regarded this as a weakness, the very kind of weakness I believe fasting is intended to combat.
  3. My normal diet made fasting harder.  I couldn’t believe how weak I became after just one day without food.  This was especially so considering Daniel fasted without choice food for three weeks and Jesus fasted with apparently no food at all for 40 days.  I can’t prove anything here, so my conclusion might be suspect, but I did wonder if this was due to my overall diet.  I eat lots of sugar.  I have refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup and gluten and a whole lot of things Daniel and Jesus never had period, much less never had to fast from.  I wondered if this diet, my regular, normal, everyday diet, was just such that it by itself (apart from willpower, apart from wanting to do right and not do wrong) made fasting far more difficult that it was for someone without such a diet.  I further wondered, then, if my daily spiritual diet (my TV watching, my going the mall, my consumerist, disposable, buying-and-selling, always-being-entertained) makes the “to live is Christ” lifestyle the Bible promotes equally far more difficult.  I think it does.
  4. Fasting was hard to talk about.  Jesus teaches that we are to behave no differently when we are fasting.  Because of this, I kind of feel fasting is something I need to keep to myself.  But the way I interacted with people throughout the day, and the way food is often part of such interactions, made it nearly impossible to do this.  I had to tell people I was fasting, and it felt weird.
  5. Fasting was appropriate.  It feels a little self-righteous and deluded to say that I was participating in the passion of Jesus by fasting; I’m fully aware of that.  And yet, to some small degree that is exactly what it was.  It felt right to fast from food, particularly “choice food” during that period as some small reflection of all Jesus did without and all Jesus suffered from during that exact same period.  And it was just fasting from food.  Video games was something else I fasted from; it just didn’t seem appropriate to be playing video games, particularly the bloody kind, during the latter part of Holy Week.  Sex was another; sex just didn’t seem right that weekend.  I had heard of people fasting from such things before, and I always thought it was weird, even legalistic.  I was always glad I was raised in a tradition that didn’t have such fasts.  But this time these fasts seemed not weird but right to me.

So that was my fasting experiment.  Did I do it right?  I’m not sure.  I did participate in the passion of Christ in some small way and/or respect the sacrifice that we commemorate that beautiful weekend, though.  I’m fairly convince of that.  I’m convinced fasting in the flawed way I did was a better way to observe the events of this weekend than not fasting at all (just as feasting is a better way to observe the events of the following Sunday).  Even more than that, I learned a lot from doing it.  My eyes were opened to some other important realities, particularly the reality that the way I routinely live, a way that does not seem wrong to me/seems normal to me, often prevents me from being in the flow of God.  I think that makes the experiment a success.

What I Saw – April 6, 2019

I listened to the Pray As You Go App devotional for Saturday, April 6 and Sunday, April 7th during the morning of April 6th.  I usually listen to the PAYG devotion around midday, but because my wife and I were going to be at a Forgiveness Ministries seminar all day, I listened to it early.

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The reading for that devotion was John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery (which I know is considered by some to be of questionable authenticity but which I believe is genuine).

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What caught my attention as I listened to this text being read twice was that the woman did not (maybe even could not) defend herself but had to be and allowed herself to be defended by Jesus.  Conversely, I noticed that Jesus not only defended her but defender her ably and defended her in a way that did not obliterate her enemies but merely made them think.

This caught my attention because it applies to a clear need I have and have long had.  I have always been defensive.  For some reason (probably deep childhood wounding), I have felt the need to defend myself against any and every attack or slight.  I have felt the need to defend myself aggressively and with extreme prejudice.  One of my favorite (and most revealing )stories about this comes from my early high school days.  A group of us were hanging around in the cafeteria when a guy named Paul said something about me.  I can’t remember what that something was, but I do remember it was a joke rather than an actual attack and it was a small thing rather than a large thing.  I immediately attacked back; again, I can’t remember what I said but I know I said something and said it vehemently.  In reply, Paul said, “You’re too defensive, Doug,” to which I responded, “I am not!”  I realized with that ironic response that I was indeed too defensive and that I needed to stop being so defensive if I was ever to have happy and fruitful relationships with people.

Decades later, I’m still struggling with this defensiveness to some degree.  But when I heard this text read in the PAYG devotion, I realized I could escape it by allowing Jesus to be my defender.  My action step here is to remind myself that Jesus is my defender whenever I feel attacked and defensive.

Interestingly enough, my wife recently shared a song with me which teaches me this same thing.  I have been listening to this song incessantly ever since December.  It is appropriately-enough called “Defender”.

 

Jesus is my defender.  He is my great defender.  And His way of defending me is better for me and my enemies and the world than my way ever could be.  I will relinquish the drive to defend myself to Him.  I will allow Him to defend me rather than defending myself.  It truly is “so much better this way”.  It is so much better this way in every way.

That’s what I saw on April 6th, 2019.