The Rains Keeps Coming and the Bird Still Sings

Here we sit on day three after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. While the hurricane itself passed west of us here in Houston, we have been experiencing record setting rainfall and flooding. Today, on day three, as I walked to the end of the street to take a look at the flood swollen creek, I heard the song of a bird through the rain and dread. I couldn’t see it, but as I peered up from under my umbrella it made me think about the days before and those that would surely come after.

Storms come and rock the boat, but they don’t last forever. 

I’m sitting here in the house and I can hear the rain hitting on our skylight in the kitchen. It always makes tremendous noise and acts as our very own weather channel whenever there is something falling from the heavens. During Harvey, it doesn’t seem to have gone quiet for very long. Yet as I sit here listening to this constant sound, I can hear a bird singing outside. Where has it been during these days of storm? What has it to sing about?

I’m thinking about Jesus and Peter walking on the water.

  1. Jesus sent his closest followers away in their boat – about their business
  2. He left them to go about His business, praying alone on the mountain
  3. They sailed right into a storm – their special place didn’t save them from the normal problems of life
  4. The disciples became equally afraid of Jesus approach – does God’s method of deliverance (or not) cause fear because it’s not of our choosing?
  5. Peter is ready to follow Jesus, but then he doubts – the disaster in our life isn’t the raging sea and dark clouds, it’s the doubt that lurks in the shadows.
  6. The big lesson here is that there is a storm on the horizon. Your Savior will come, at times ready to deliver in ways that might seem frightening. The real danger you face isn’t the darkness all round, it’s the doubt deep within.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Emily Dickinson
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Walking on Higher Ground

I’m pressing on the upward way
New heights I’m gaining every day
Still praying as I onward bound
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Lord, lift me up and let me stand
By faith on heaven’s table land
A higher plane than I have found
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

I’m Pressing on the Upward Way, Johnson Oatman

Do you remember this hymn? These days I hear and sing so few from my younger days. When I do the experience always seems to fill my spirit with all sorts of emotions. Today our pastor recited these lyrics that he had recently sung with his mother. It was another perfect moment for me, another immediate answer to prayer.

  1. It never goes away, people that treat you in terrible ways
  2. Circumstances out of your control come crashing down and capsize a carefully built life
  3. Somebody in charge thoughtlessly pitches whole chapters of your life right out the window
  4. A relationship you put so much trust in falls apart right before your eyes

So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on. – 2 Corinthians 4:18 (The Voice)

Sounds like a nice thought, but what does it mean? How do we put it into practice? Is it really possible to not pay attention when your hair is on fire and to instead only focus on a promised future? This is a hard path to walk. it

STOP

When you start to smell the smoke, don’t go into a panic mode and follow your natural inclinations. Remember Peter when he took his eyes off his Master and began to notice the storm and waves all around him? He did what was normal.

So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink.  – Matthew 14:29-30

If you plan on walking the higher ground, you’re going to have to STOP that defeated, discouraged, depressed attitude. I walked into worship on Sunday very much in this terrible state. I was praying and this time got hit right in my broken heart with several wonderful reminders that there indeed was a higher ground to walk. My spirit was challenged to focus on things that I was not seeing.

DROP

Right now, I am more frequently faced with the challenge to stop getting bogged down with so many troubles du jour. The practice continues until I learn to see what’s really happening and drop these “momentary, light afflictions.” How much effort is wasted stewing and steaming over some daily disaster that you probably won’t even remember in a few weeks?

…let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  – Hebrews 12:1

The next time someone strikes you on the cheek, threatens your well-being, makes you feel worthless, or takes away another dream – don’t keep it in your belly one more minute, drop it and keep your hands empty and raised in supplication.

ROLL

One last step, this is probably why I’m still having so much trouble with all of this. The cares of this world, small and large, don’t just disappear because we practice a greater will power. Dropping our “present troubles” over the side of the boat doesn’t last. They keep coming back to haunt us. I can’t sleep anymore, I’m tossing and turning, rehearsing all sorts of scenarios to fix my current problems. They don’t ever really go away until I complete the act of surrender, the step of faith.

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.  – 1 Peter 5:6-7

By acknowledging how much God loves me, how well he really knows what’s going on and admitting my complete inadequacy, I am more able to “roll” each and every disaster, disappointment and defeat onto his shoulders. Until I do this, they continue to plague my soul. Dropping isn’t enough because I’m really, really good at picking things up (just ask my wife). When I am willing and able to turn my anxieties over to my Heavenly Father – the rule of emotion is broken. That peace that is almost impossible to understand comes to rule over my life.

“The reason some of us are such poor specimens of Christianity is because we have no Almighty Christ. We have Christian attributes and experiences, but there is no abandonment to Jesus Christ.” ― Oswald Chambers

I really thought at this stage/age I’d be a better specimen. What’s so encouraging about what’s going on in my life these days is that our Heavenly Father continues to transform each one of us. He does not give up, His mercy is endless, His great plan will come true.

Plant my feet on higher ground, one step at a time…

God is Good All the Time

 

God is Good, All the Time…All the Time,God is Good

We say this with our pastor when we gather to worship every Sunday. It’s an important reminder. It doesn’t matter what kind of situation everyone right then is experiencing – we come together and say with one voice, God is good, all the time…all the time, God is good. 

When things are going according to plan, this is always easy to say. It’s almost automatic. Even when there’s a bump or two in the road, we all grin and bear it and repeat with a little more determination and a twinge of hope.

But when the wheels have come off the wagon, it won’t stop raining, and bad news is delivered like an Amazon Prime order…is God still good? Or is it just something that’s said to make us feel good, like a cute and clever card in the mail?

When I think about my own life’s journey I see significant decisions along the road that have helped me when sea billows roll, to keep holding on to my faith and be less distracted by the storm. By the way, these are certainly not once in a lifetime choices – but forks in the road I face all the time. Choosing gets easier as I keep walking in faith.

I have to turn away from thinking that God is my faithful employee who is responsible for keeping my life ordered in all the ways I hope.

He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.  – John 3:30

This is John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus and telling his own disciples that he is not the Messiah, he is only a groomsman. John realized his place because he understood where his cousin (Jesus) had really come from – heaven.

God is good all the time not because he faithfully follows my directions but because I am coming to understand that what I want matters less and less. Until I can let go of my own fear and desires I won’t be able to think about God’s will and see things eternally.

He is taking my life away from me and exchanging it for Himself. God is good and better than anything I could ever imagine for myself.

My thinking about who God is must change – He isn’t a good luck charm. 

Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete.  – Romans 12:2 (The Voice)

What a terrible feeling to realize that I have been trying to use God like an emergency medication each time I have a bad spell. Am I really just keeping him in the medicine cabinet? Have I reduced him to an amulet hanging about my neck?

All of the time God is good because He is transforming the way I think about Him. He has a path for me to walk in and it is the right way. Once my ways of thinking begin to change – so will the ways I see reality.

All too often God is an emergency switch that I pull only when I smell the smoke.

So we have no reason to despair. Despite the fact that our outer humanity is falling apart and decaying, our inner humanity is breathing in new life every day. You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.  – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (The Voice)

I’ve got a real problem if I believe that God is good only when it looks as if he has saved the day. My definition of “saving the day” is so short-sighted. Too often I believe that God is only located behind that “break glass in case of emergency” boundary. The reason that God is good all the time is because my perception is changing – I’m trying, more and more, to look at what lasts forever.

All the time, God is good, is forever.

 

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul
It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
– Horatio Spafford

What Awaits You?

For we are the product of His hand, heaven’s poetry etched on lives, created in the Anointed, Jesus, to accomplish the good works God arranged long ago. – Ephesians 2:10 (The Voice)

What did God arrange long ago for you to accomplish today?

What if it’s not something spectacular?

What if it’s not something that changes the world?

What if all you need to accomplish is something rather ordinary?

Here’s a wonderful piece written by Michael Horton, The Ordinary Christian Life. It makes you think about the way we’ve built our faith. We are so often fooled into thinking that in order to matter, what we do and feel must be filled with fireworks.

He writes, “So in some ways, at least, our restless impatience with the ordinary is not just the influence of our culture, but the influence of unsound views of Christian discipleship that have shaped that culture over generations.”

We continue to construct a God in our own image – one that looks too much like an overachieving American.

Take some time and reflect. Read your Bible some more (stop cherry picking verses!). Think about all the ordinary steps that you’re taking every day in your journey of transformation. There are so many people in your path. What are the ordinary words and actions that await you today? Who needs you to be just you, with all your faults, fears and faith?

From the Outside Looking in

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What’s your current resident status?

“For the first time in years, he felt the deep sadness of exile, knowing that he was alone here, an outsider, and too alert to the ironies, the niceties, the manners, and indeed, the morals to be able to participate.” ― Colm Tóibín, The Master

As a sociologist I’ve been trained to take the perspective of the stranger. To try and see as much taken for granted as I could. When teaching classes, the big challenge is to help students to see all of the powerful influences of their situations, contexts and other people. We are the products of the world in which we live – in very specific ways. For example:

  • Family
  • School
  • Church
  • Friendships
  • Democracy & Freedom
  • Individualism
  • Money, greed and selfishness
  • Even our dreams…

In great ways and terrible ways, our society shapes who we are.

Now for the believer, here’s the irony – we live the transformative process of becoming strangers to this same world that made us (and still does).

I suppose we have to choose how we are going to live:

  1. As natives who remain in the broken garden
  2. Someone who can’t decide where he/she really belongs
  3. As outsiders who refuse to put down roots

Peter writes and urges believers to live here like a foreigner:

Beloved, remember you don’t belong in this world. You are resident aliens living in exile, so resist those desires of the flesh that battle against the soul.   -1 Peter 2:11 (The Voice)

Paul goes into even more detail when he describes the lives of all the men and women of faith who came before Christ. Even they believed that they were living like exiles here on earth, waiting for a real home one day to come:

All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.    – Hebrews 11:13-16

When Peter and Paul were writing, they were living in a pagan world. I know theses days it’s sometimes hard to believe, but in the West we live in a culture that over hundreds of years has been dramatically shaped by the Christian faith. This doesn’t mean that our culture isn’t a mess and doesn’t mess people up. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still live like outsiders, anticipating one day our real home.

The daily challenge is to remain conscious of our REAL place in this world:

  • Fully engaged in the world around us (that means in the lives of people who cross your path) and at the same time, living as an immigrant (with no plans to assimilate).
  • Resisting the ever present temptation to “go native” and live in all the frenzy, fear and fuss of this age – believing that what we see with our eyes is all that matters.
  • Using a “long lense” of eternity to gain a perspective on things. The here and now, right this minute, in your face – so much that is urgent but seldom important.

What is your current resident status – are you a full blown citizen of the right now or an immigrant, making the most of your visit?

Where’s the Dentist When You Need One?

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. – I Peter 3:15

I’ve returned today from my third visit to the dentist. I still have my problem. I’m going to have to go back next week and hope it gets resolved. I had no idea that I would have to go through this sort of long and drawn out (month long) ordeal to just get a simple problem resolved. I went in today and was moved through a number of “stations” (not of the cross) thinking I was going to find relief. It wasn’t until I was led out into the office and charged a fee that I realized I not only didn’t get any fries, there was nothing even approaching a happy meal in my hands as I walked out of the building.

Once I stop being mad and frustrated, I try to put this all in perspective. I water the flowers and fix dinner. Think about it some more. After cleaning up and loading the dishwasher it gets a little easier to find that important alignment between everyday experience and some eternal truth.

I’m trying to get the dentist to solve a problem, how many visits is it going to take? I think there are people all around me who are looking for solutions to all kinds of problems. Some of these problems and really big and even eternal. I wonder if anyone looking for some truth has felt like I have trying to get a dentist to solve one little problem? Frustrated and considering just living with it.

“Ah, Misha, he has a stormy spirit. His mind is in bondage. He is haunted by a great, unsolved doubt. He is one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My wife has cancer. I’ve watched from across the room as she has interacted with total strangers she hasn’t even met. A clerk, healthcare worker, someone at the restaurant. They talk a little about her situation. She tells a little of her story, seasoned with faith, and then I can see eyes begin to fill with tears. I don’t think it’s always sympathy. I think many of these strangers have their own personal story with cancer that somehow relates. My wife has been able to deliver a little hope from out of nowhere.

Just like me, searching for a dentist and experiencing a great deal of frustration, there are people everywhere who can’t find satisfying answers to big questions.

Just like everyone else, there are believers who are in the middle of life with all of its triumph and tragedy. People everywhere, waiting for a kindness from a stranger who will share their life and a word of truth.

“You cannot do a kindness too soon,
for you never know how soon it will be too late.”  ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

The End of Another Semester

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

The older I get, I feel as if I’m getting dumber and dumber. I just assumed wisdom automatically came with age.

I attend college graduation ceremonies at the end of each semester. What a celebration they are, every single time. I often remark to friends, as often as I attend, I myself still never seem to graduate.

Each year, I get to see the anticipation and anxiety as students approach the end of another semester and many, their last semester. Graduation from college is a tremendous rite of passage in life. It’s an important doorway into adulthood and so many dreams about the future.

Think of all the other important life passages people pass through:

  • Getting your driver’s license
  • Your first paycheck
  • Graduating high school
  • The first date
  • Marriage
  • Children, one by one
  • The big promotion

The journey of living is one filled with doorways. We pass through them, sometimes prepared but so often uncertain about what lies ahead. I can’t even remember what was going on during my three different college level graduations. It’s almost certain that I’m now in decline – I can’t remember most of last week! I do know that I’m learning lessons again and again – until they become “automatic” and I no longer have to ponder too long at the same crossroads.

“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.” ― Mark Twain

When it comes to teaching and mentoring young people who are deliberately marching every day into a bold and frightening future, there are two contradictory lessons to be wrestled with:

  1. We have to pass through one door to proceed to the next. Sometimes this is too difficult for us because a part of us remains in the past with some unfinished business. Sometimes we leave someone important behind, because we need to or because we have no choice. We get stuck and can’t move because a part of us is too wounded to travel any further. There’s just too much pain and change threatens another possibility of hurt.
  2. The only life we are assured of having is the one we hold in our hand today. While dreaming and building a ship to sail on the winds of tomorrow is an important part of who we are – it is still an intangible hope. The risk is losing today and all of its opportunities while we long for the future. We just can’t miss today and all that it holds while peering out the window watching for tomorrow.

Semester after semester, watching all those college graduates strut, stroll and march across the stage to accept their diploma and pose for pictures, I sometimes wonder about what awaits at the other end of the stage. Once the happy family and friends have all left, the next chapter awaits.

Like two sides of the same coin, it’s always a tremendous challenge to balance these two great lessons about living. My wife is now trying to find her post brain surgery balance as she practices walking straight lines. It’s probably a similar feat, keeping one eye on our dreams about tomorrow while still seeking all the blessings in today’s path.

“Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” – Matthew 26:41