A Partridge in a Pear Tree

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” ― J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan)

Over the past several years it seems like our decorating style has gone to the birds. We got a new couch a year ago and picked out a fabric with giant birds all over it. I didn’t have to work hard at all to sell it to my wife. I think because it had a black background. Her favorite TV decorating show has a “everything is black” theme to it. We just re-wallpapered in the kitchen and breakfast area. A very busy and colorful bird pattern. Guaranteed to make you car-sick if you’re not careful.

Yes, a theme is definitely appearing in our house everywhere you look. All because something bigger has happened several years ago – we’re just documenting it in our living space.

About five years ago I was in the middle of a terrible dark time that I experienced almost every day. It felt as if I was on a runaway ride that I couldn’t control. Like shooting down the rapids in an inner tube. Other people were making decisions about me and my future. Things were not proceeding the way I had always thought they would or had planned. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.

Sleepless nights, worrying and being angry were getting me nowhere just deeper into a hole. I knew I couldn’t control what other people were doing. While my life headed off in directions I had never anticipated I just stood there in disbelief. I was shell-shocked for several years. When would this end?

[Little did I know that cancer was right around the corner ready to strike us and wage a terrible war we still fight every day.]

Then I remembered – was prodded to remember – that Jesus told his followers to stop worrying about their lives. He directed their attention to the birds. God takes care of them, won’t he also take care of you – He loves you so much more!

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” – Matthew 6:25-27

Of course I had read this scripture many times before. But as is often the case, this time it became a handle to hang on to. Then a series of events – signs, if you will, started over approximately two years. These experiences served to encourage and communicate to me that God is present and very much interested in my survival and transformation.

“I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” ― William Sloane Coffin Jr.

The tribulations only got worse! But I began to calm down. I was consistently reminded of the truth of God’s presence and care for me.

Well, what happened?

I began to see birds in all sorts of locations and (most importantly) at significant times. I didn’t look for them (as Jesus had instructed, they would just show up at just in time.)

  • Right in the middle of an important decision about two people – there are two birds on the window sill.
  • Rushing out of the house overflowing with anxiety – confronted by a mockingbird at the frontdoor who will not move out of the way.
  • There was a bird who would perch on the corner of my neighbors roof day after day and sing at me when I came and went. He wasn’t there at other times, no one else ever saw him. For about a week or so I felt like he was there to meet me (and remind me).
  • Then there’s the little brown bird who would spend the night in the wreath on the front door and sneak into the house when we came home – never happened before, never since – but he came into the house several times (spent the night once) and reminded us how near is God.

There were all sorts of small and subtle encounters that kept me aware that I was not going to go through this terrible time alone.

Maybe when I was too near stumbling and fumbling my faith, God drew near and reminded me of what was always true?

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6

I teach a course that helps students to understand some of the reasons why people have these kinds of experiences. Often our thinking and perception of the world around us is distorted. We can sometimes experience:

  • Confirmation bias – a kind of selective thinking that happens when we only notice those things that tend to be consistent with our current beliefs – we also fail to notice things that contradict these same beliefs.
  • Pareidolia – seeing significance in random and meaningless phenomenon

Even knowing that these biases in thinking often occur, I am convinced that what has happened to me was not caused by my own crooked thinking. I think I needed some help and there it was.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” ― John Berger

God has promised to be present with us, especially during terrible times. This fact is not dependent upon how we feel or how firm we believe. He has promised it, this makes it true.

Sometimes, because of God’s grace and nothing else, he makes his presence known. He has certainly put reminders in our path every day Jesus said to look at the birds – a sight we all see and maybe never notice.

When you open your eyes of faith and practice looking for the truth, there’s no telling what you might see.

Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.” ― J.I. Packer

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What Has Come to Your Life?

It’s Advent Season

Advent means coming – the coming of the Messiah, the long awaited one.

There’s always something coming around the bend, isn’t there?

  • Your annual scourge of the flu
  • A job transition
  • New neighbors next door
  • A new and revolutionary software upgrade
  • An 800 year flood

As you reflect on this past year, what came into your life? What welcome events made your year that much better? Which disasters appeared over your horizon?

Christmas is now here, arriving as it always does – too soon but also full of just the right hidden messages that we needed to hear every day of our lives. The Good News of Christmas, the advent it introduces every year, causes us to stop, if we have the courage, and think about the things that mean the most to us, and maybe what we ought to do about it.

“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

An advent of some sort or another is always appearing. This year, remember that nothing is going to arrive in your life that will surprise God or that can overwhelm his presence and power.

Even before the Good News was proclaimed in Bethlehem, God had promised his constant presence and protection.

“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.”  – Isaiah 43:1-2

God has not changed and his promise remains.

What has arrived in your life this past year? Perhaps it was something really big that disrupted everything you thought was so certain. Maybe your life was right on its normal track but when you think about it, it’s really going nowhere.

We celebrate the advent of the Messiah at Christmas, as a reminder that our lives in Christ are no longer the same and that nothing will ever arrive to put our lives out of his order. Christ is now with us. No matter what else arrives in the years to come, Christ will always be here with us. We celebrate this reality every Christmas.

“And I will be with you, day after day, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20 (The Voice)

“Because He has raised Jesus the Anointed from death, through His great mercy we have been reborn into a living hope…” – I Peter 1:3 (The Voice)

Christmas is the advent of every single day of hope that you and I have been living ever since. Be reminded this year that this hope is real because we live it out in front of the whole world each day (the good, the bad and and the ugly days). Jesus arrival, life, death and resurrection means that we can walk confidently in hope every single day.  It arrived and never left.

“The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic, it was not a place of myths allegorised or dissected or explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true.”  ― G.K. Chesterton

It’s Complicated

“Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.” ― Martin Luther

These days people are asking me how I’m doing. More than usual. My wife is fighting cancer. This has become a long term struggle with many soldiers helping us in each and every skirmish.

I’m not sure what to say when asked how I’m doing. Sometimes people really want to get an update. Sometimes this question is just an expression of compassion and support as we pass along the way. Still, other times I’m asked by folks who aren’t getting a clear picture from me and are trying to imagine themselves in my shoes. What’s it really like?

Sometimes people just don’t ask. Maybe it’s just too overwhelming for others. Maybe there just aren’t any words.

Typically I’m responding without thinking too much. My response depends upon my mood, my schedule, my need at the moment to let it all out.

How AM I doing? Well, it’s complicated…

I’m feeling scared

The world I live in is mostly filled with a lot of certainty. Watching my wife manage an ever changing daily battle with stage four cancer (that’s now in her brain) and all the medication side-effects brings a daily dose of uncertainty into my (our) life. Mostly we have routines and rituals that make life so comfortable. When the journey heads into the unknown, fear begins to howl in the background.

“Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps even depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has.” ― Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I’m feeling full of hope

Not a single day passes that I don’t experience encouragement of some sort. It is all around me (us). It comes in all the expected places, the emails, notes, hugs. But is also appears out of nowhere. Strangers who lift so much of the burden and never even realize it. All sorts of little “coincidences” seem to appear right and left. I don’t go very far without sensing and knowing the presence of God. My faith has found a resting place. Despite what has happened so far, the core of my belief is not moved. These beliefs are ever more resolved as I am pulled into the deep end.

“It’s amazing how many coincidences occur when one begins to pray.”  – Bill Hybels

I’m too busy to think about it

Life has gotten very fast for a number of reasons. Fighting cancer is a whole other career to add to what’s already on our plates. It’s easy to get behind with one important part of life while trying to manage a whole new chapter.

It’s too easy to slip into the fast lane and wake up three counties later, unconscious of so much that always matters.

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” ― T. S. Eliot

I’m uncertain about what the future holds

Our mode of thought has been to just think about today. Even though there are always future plans of some sort that are a normal part of life, we are trying to readjust and live more in the moment – hang on to this day. When I do think about the future; retirement, grandchildren, remaking the house, who am I going to give all my junk to? Sometimes it can be frightening – going from theory to practice. It’s sweet to quote the proverb about numbering your days, but actually doing it is a whole other matter. Living like there’s no tomorrow makes one take today that much more seriously.

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.”  – Psalm 90:12

I’m often around other people who don’t want to talk about our “situation.” I imagine that most people are uncomfortable talking about serious illness – what do you say? These days, so many have a lack of personal experience. Great health care and growing distance within families means that suffering and death are not experiences we learn to manage in the same ways our parents and grandparents did.

I’m angry

Let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t be mad every single day. If there was any sort of justice, I’d be the one hit by the dump truck of life, not her. Who knew that the uncertainties of life were going to come and trample in our yard? Living in a society that promotes and promises justice doesn’t  mean the experience is always assured. It’s a hope, not a certainty. Instead of trying to find justice in all of this, the best way to work through the weeds is to be truthful and admit these feelings, find people to talk it out with and pray without ceasing (in all honesty).

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” ― Mark Twain

I’m counting my blessings

Perspective helps with all sorts of situations. But how do you put cancer into perspective? There is always something to be thankful about. In each and every situation there is a way to find thanks. There is always another person near who needs to feel a little mercy and grace. Instead of anguish, there is thankfulness for so much more of life never taken for granted anymore.

“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” ― George Bernard Shaw

I’m buckled in for the roller coaster ride

When a life threatening illness strikes there is always a loss of control.  A feeling of “what’s next?” Living a life that’s not really mine, it belongs to a disease that’s taking control of more and more. Of course there is always this illusion that I was ever really in control of anything in the first place. The economy shifts, someone new comes into power or a hurricane appears on the horizon. Instead of looking for control or being heartbroken because of the loss, I’m learning how to just survive today. I used to have all sorts of big plans for the future. Maybe that was a mistake.

“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”  –  Epictetus

Well, how AM I doing? It’s still complicated…but I made it another day, and I tried to make it count.

 

O LOVE THAT WILT NOT LET ME GO – George Matheson

O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

 

 

A Greater Work

I tell you the truth: whoever believes in Me will be able to do what I have done, but they will do even greater things, because I will return to be with the Father.  – John 14:12 (The Voice)

I read a wonderful devotional in My Utmost for His Highest this week. What did Jesus mean when He told His disciples that they would do greater works than those they had eyewitnessed?  Does this mean His followers will be doing greater signs and wonders than raising the dead or calming the storming sea?

What if this promise is about prayer? My devotional reading taught that prayer does not prepare us for a greater work, it is the greater work.

He lives His resurrected life forever. From such a vantage, He is able to save those who approach God through Him for all time because He will forever live to be their advocate in the presence of God.  – Hebrews 7:24-25 (The Voice)

Jesus has returned to His Father and is now interceding for all of us as we approach God’s throne of grace. When we pray, we now have complete access to our Heavenly Father. This is a new condition that occurred only after Christ ascended. There are no more sacrifices to make in order to gain access to the holy presence of God. That has been done once and for all by Christ.

Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.  – Romans 8:34

But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous.  – 1 John 2:1

Our prayers are empowered because they have the Son of God personally taking them before God on our behalf. Our prayers have the potential for even more earth shaking consequences. The work of prayer is a greater work because we have Jesus Christ joining forces with us.

But that’s not all. When Jesus left the earth He promised His followers that he would not leave them alone.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. – John 14:16-17

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.  – John 14:26

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.  – Romans 8:26-27

When we pray, we do not pray alone. We pray in a spiritual partnership with the very Spirit of God. In every place of weakness, ignorance, frailty and fear, the Spirit of God intervenes and fills in all of the gaps. He makes our prayers perfect. He empowers our prayer life by guaranteeing its effectiveness. With this kind of promise, why aren’t you praying all of the time? Why are you worrying? Why are your friends and family burdened with so many cares?

So own up to your sins to one another and pray for one another. – James 5:16 (The Voice)

Did you ever consider that failing to pray for others might be a terrible sin? Who wouldn’t fall on their knees knowing that what we can accomplish in prayer would be even more powerful than the great miracles performed by Jesus himself?

“Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.” ― Oswald Chambers

Why Are You Praying Like That?

  1. The first question we must ask ourselves, WHY are we praying?
  2. Next, why are we praying the way we do?
  3. When we pray, what shapes our expectations?
  4. Is your prayer life a religious custom or the most powerful activity on earth…one in which you have been invited to participate?

What is it that shapes your prayers?

Your prayer life is a direct reflection of your dependent relationship with God. How dependent are you? What kind of an independent existence have you carved out for yourself?

“Every time we pray our horizon is altered, our attitude to things is altered, not sometimes but every time, and the amazing thing is that we don’t pray more.”    – Oswald Chambers

How does prayer work?

By prayer, I mean intentionally conveying a message to God. It’s frustrating—isn’t it?—how unclear language can be if we are not careful. Why do I say “intentionally conveying a message to God? Why don’t I just say that prayer is talking to God? Well, because Romans 8:26 says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” I take this to mean that there are groans of our hearts that the Spirit inspires that are sometimes wordless. So prayer is usually talking to God, but there are times when you can’t talk and can still pray, that is, convey a message to God. – John Piper

More ways to pray…

Piper gives even more counsel about how we should pray. Take a look at some of the Biblically based directions about how to pray:

Pray for the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13; cf. Ephesians 3:19)

Pray for the healing of wounded comrades.

Let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. (James 5:14-15)

Pray to know God better.

[We have not ceased to pray for you to be] increasing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:10; cf. Ephesians 1:17)

Pray for power to comprehend the love of Christ.

I bow my knees before the Father . . . [that you] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge. (Ephesians 3:14, 18-19)

Pray for a deeper sense of assured hope.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers . . . that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. (Ephesians 1:16, 18)

Pray for signs and wonders.

And now, Lord, . . . grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness . . . while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:29-30)

Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:17-18)

Pray deeper sense of his power within them.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers . . . that you may know . . . what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe. (Ephesians 1:16, 18-19)

Pray for greater faith.

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24; cf. Ephesians 3:17)

Prayer means waiting

I tell the Lord my troubles and difficulties, and wait for Him to give me the answers to them”, said one man of God.  “And it is wonderful how a matter that looked very dark will in prayer become clear as crystal by the help of God’s Spirit.  I think Christians fail so often to get answers to their prayers because they do not wait long enough on God.  They just drop down and say a few words, and then jump up and forget it and expect God to answer them.  Such praying always reminds me of the small boy ringing his neighbor’s doorbell, and then running away as fast as he can go.  – E.M. Bounds

Build Yourself a Levee

“You gotta build yourself a levee deep inside, gotta build yourself a levee deep inside.
Build yourself a levee girl, when the waters run high.”

Now, when I was just a little girl my mamma said to me, “Beware of the devil my child.
But if by chance you should meet, beware of his cold dark eyes full of bold and unholy deceit.
He’ll tempt you with a whirling pool of lies and promises he’ll deny or that he will never keep.”

“You gotta build yourself a levee deep inside, gotta build yourself a levee deep inside.
Build yourself a levee girl, when the waters run high.”

Natalie Merchant / Build a Levee

Fighting cancer is a full time job.

  • There are medical appointments all through each and every week.
  • There are sacks full of medications to organize and take throughout each day.
  • The insurance companies and doctors offices all have to be spoken to and need to have the most simple of things explained over and over again.
  • There are invoices in the mail each day – almost all will not need to be paid but will need to be addressed in some way.
  • Who really knows what new symptom will appear in the morning.
  • Every new symptom is an adjustment to living that must be made, from transportation to meals to sleeping and making plans for the future.

Of course, there’s the full time job that needs to be managed as well. The career that keeps one going and living every single day. It’s like an inner tube to which we cling while shooting down the whitewater river of circumstances.

The floods come and wreak so much disaster in everyone’s world. Living seemed to be working just fine, until that unexpected storm arrived.

In order to keep the flood of fear, disease, and despair from filling our dwelling with the inevitable mold and ruination we must build ourselves a levee of some sort – a barrier of faith that will not be breached.

Faith is the assurance of things you have hoped for, the absolute conviction that there are realities you’ve never seen. – Hebrews 11:1 (The Voice)

Fighting cancer, just like living a full-time life, never stops. There’s always a flood raging just down the road. We’ve all got to build ourselves a levee to keep the evil at bay.

What matters most is to build your levee out of what will last for eternity.

God’s unfailing love for us is an objective fact affirmed over and over in the Scriptures. It is true whether we believe it or not. Our doubts do not destroy God’s love, nor does our faith create it. It originates in the very nature of God, who is love, and it flows to us through our union with His beloved Son.  ~ Jerry Bridges

Bind My Heart

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.” But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.  (Luke 10:38-42)

After all the tribulation in our lives, the petty concerns of each day, the cares that keep us up at night and the lingering fear that creeps around in the dark – Jesus tells Martha, there is only one thing to fill our concerned hearts with. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and listened. He scolded Martha and said that Mary had found the one thing that could never be taken away.

One thing in my life that can never be taken away.

What is it that you have filled your life with that can so easily be taken away? What did you think was so permanent? On what did you lay your hopes and dreams? Upon what does your future gaze rest?

Our time each day at the feet of Jesus is building something eternal in our lives that will never be taken away – not even by an 800 year flood.

Come Thou fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace
Streams of mercy never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise

Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it
Mount of Thy redeeming love

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here by Thy great help I’ve come
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God
Here to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood

Oh, that day when freed from sinning
I shall see Thy lovely face
Clothe it then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace

Come my Lord, no longer tarry
Take my ransom soul away
Send Thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless daysOh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let Thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to TheeProne to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts aboveHere’s my heart
Oh, take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above
– Chris Rice version