Tag Archives: Prayer

David’s “Seven Steps”

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When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

Psalm 4:4 (NRSVCE)

Not long ago I happened to be talking to a friend who experienced the tragic death of a child. As we talked, I asked how he was doing in the process of grief. He honestly shared with me some of the havoc that grief had wreaked in everyday life. He then shared about conversations he’d had with others who were walking the same, difficult stretch of life’s road. One, he shared, had been drinking heavily. He then confessed that he had been over-indulging his appetite for sweets every night.

“We all have the same grief. We cope in different ways,” he said. “My friend medicates with one appetite. I medicate with another.”

Along this life journey, I’ve observed and experienced that it is a natural human reaction to want to self-medicate by indulging our appetites whenever we encounter a difficult stretch of the journey. It could be one of the “ugly” social taboos like alcohol, drugs, gambling, smoking, or sex. It could equally be an unhealthy indulgence in what’s considered a normal appetite, like that to which my friend confessed: over-eating, over-sleeping, over-spending, over-exercising, binging on screens, or isolation. I’ve even observed those who have become zealously over-religious in an attempt to feel some kind of control over out-of-control emotions, circumstances, and relationships. Twelve Step groups often teach members to be aware of negative feelings that often trigger appetite indulgences. They use the acronym S.A.L.T. (sad, angry, lonely, tired).

In today’s psalm, King David expresses his frustration with finding himself the object of public ridicule and scorn, especially among the socially elite power brokers in his world. He begins his song imploring God to listen to his prayer, he then lays out his troubles and frustration.

What happens next is a Hebrew word: Selah. Scholars believe that this was a musical notation calling on there to be a “rest” in the song.

David then reminds himself that God has called him to be faithful, and reminds himself that God has repeatedly answered his prayers.

Then comes the verse I pulled out and quoted at the top of the post:

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

It is followed with another Selah.

I couldn’t help but notice that the pattern of David’s lyric is a really great reminder of how to approach troubles, anxieties, fear, grief, sadness, anger, loneliness, or weariness. Not the Twelve Steps, but the Seven Steps:

  1. Take it to God.
  2. Get it out, express it, be honest about your feelings.
  3. Rest. Take a deep breath.
  4. Remind myself of God’s faithfulness and promises.
  5. Avoid my natural inclination to exit and indulge my favorite appetite as an escape hatch of the negative emotions.
  6. Be silent. Ponder. Feel.
  7. Rest. Breathe.

The final lyrics of the song are a testament to David discovering a “gladness” in his heart that is better than feasting and drinking. Certainly healthier than over-eating and over-drinking.

Just as with yesterday’s psalm, David ends up with a peaceful night’s sleep.

In the quiet this morning I find myself accepting the fact that, despite 54 years on the journey and almost 40 years of following Jesus, I still have very human struggles with responding to negative emotions and circumstances in healthy ways. What I have learned, however, is that I have to allow myself the grace to be human. I also have learned to surround myself with companions who love me unconditionally, are honest with me in my weakness, and never cease to encourage and support me in the process of growing.

It’s a journey, my friend. It’s about progress, not perfection.

Want to Read More?

Click on the image, or click here, to be taken to a simple, visual index of all the posts in this series from the book of Psalms.

There is also a list of recent chapter-a-day series indexed by book.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

I Smell.

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“You shall make an altar on which to offer incense…”
Exodus 30:1 (NRSVCE)

I typically keep a fragrant candle on the desk in my office. I like scents of vanilla the best. Right now I’ve been trying out a candle labeled as “tobacco and vanilla.” I thought it might remind me of the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Not so much. I do, however, like the scent.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that smell is the physical sense to which we give the least attention. Sight, hearing, taste, and touch get the most of our attention. Our olfactory senses aren’t as necessary for human survival as they once were. Nevertheless, a scent can create a powerful response with me. Some experts say that smells plays more of a role in attracting a mate than we even realize. More consciously, it can bring back a memory like the smell of a rose reminding me of my Grandma Vander Well’s perfume. It can create a sense of peace and security like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting up from the kitchen. It also works in negative terms. Some smells give me a headache or can make me feel physically ill.

Incense played a large part in ancient religious ceremonies. In today’s chapter, God continues to prescribe to Moses how the Hebrew tribes will worship. The chapter begins with designs for an altar on which incense is to be perpetually burned and it ends with a unique recipe for the fragrant ingredients a perfumer is to blend the incense. Because the fragrant oil used to anoint Aaron and the priests, and the incense burned in the traveling temple was unique, the smell would become associated in the hearts and minds of the Hebrews with being present at God’s place and giving their sacrifices and offerings. The smoke of the burning incense also became a metaphor for the prayers of God’s people wafting up to heaven.

Incense once again became part of worship in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions in Christianity, though I have head it argued that it was primarily a practical way for the priest to overcome the powerful pungency of body odor emanating from the poor, unbathed masses packing into the church on Sunday. It was never a formally prescribed practice of the early followers of Jesus. In the New Testament, the only references to incense point to either the practice in the Hebrew ritual or else to John’s visions of heaven in Revelation.

The use of incense in Hebrew worship was, however, linked to an important metaphor understood by early believers. In his second letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul writes:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
2 Cor 2:14-16 (NIV)

Once again, I find that the physical bricks-and-mortar (or in this case oil-and-incense) of the Hebrew system matures through Jesus and shifts into a flesh-and-blood understanding of what God is doing. In the former, people came to a central location where the fragrance of the priests and the burning incense reminded them of God’s presence. In the latter, every follower of Jesus becomes part of a “royal priesthood” taking the fragrance of Jesus with us wherever we go and among any and all people with whom we interact in our circles of relationship and community.

I have spent twenty-five years in a career in which I travel and regularly visit our clients in their places of business around the country. I am always praying that I will be the fragrance of Christ while I am there conducting training sessions, making executive presentations, and coaching or mentoring individuals.. What’s fascinating to me is that I have on several occasions had someone literally ask me if I’m a Christian. When I confess that I am, the response is typically, “I knew it. I could just tell.” Equally fascinating to me is that in almost every long-term engagement with a client there is an individual or two who react to my presence with intense animosity. In those instances, I get to practice returning curses with blessings and showing (often unreciprocated) kindness.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think of the message I gave yesterday among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Today’s chapter so beautifully illustrates a point I was making. I observe that many are stuck in the old paradigm of a religious institution founded on the notion of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. People gather to do the regularly scheduled religious bit, then forget about it until my next scheduled appearance on Sunday, or Christmas, or Easter.

Jesus changed all that in practice. He started with getting the Kingdom of God into the individual, transforming the human being into the Temple in whom God’s Spirit dwells. It is the individual who takes God’s Kingdom wherever they go and impacts people in every relationship and circles of influence. I don’t burn incense at the temple, I am the temple from which God’s fragrance seeps out in my love, kindness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness and self-control. Some are attracted. Some are repelled. That’s something I don’t control, though how I respond to it is.

Monday. Another week. Holiday coming up. I have appointments, a little travel, and a weekend full of friends. Hope I’m fragrant in all the good ways.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Called to the Quiet

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Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Exodus 24:18 (NRSVCE)

A few weeks ago I made an impromptu road trip. It was a particularly stressful time, and I told a few friends that the road trip was my way of doing what Jesus did on occasion when He went up a mountain alone to pray. I chose to sequester myself in the car.

As I read today’s chapter I found a number of elements that foreshadowed Jesus’ story. Jesus, like Moses, spent a period of forty days and nights in the wilderness. In today’s chapter, Moses is the mediator between God and the people. Moses offers the blood sacrifice, the blood covers the people, and Moses then ascends to God. Jesus was the blood sacrifice which atones for sin before He rose and ascended. When Jesus went up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John and was transfigured in glory, Moses appeared there at Jesus’ side. The events of today’s chapter are an example of how the ancient Hebrew stories are linked to Jesus. It’s all part of the Great Story.

What my mind and heart came back to in the text, however, was the time that Moses spent with God on the mountain. Forty is also a theme beyond the link to Jesus time in the wilderness:

  • The rain in Noah’s flood lasted forty days and nights.
  • Joshua and Caleb spent forty days spying out the Promised Land.
  • Goliath taunted Israel’s army for 40 days before David stepped up with his sling.
  • God told Ezekiel to lay on his side for 40 days as part of a prophetic word picture.
  • Jonah prophesied to Nineveh that they had 40 days to repent.
  • The seasons of Advent (celebrating the birth of Christ) and Lent (celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ) are both 40 days.

I am reminded in the quiet this morning that this world is moving faster, and faster, and faster as the memory and processing speed of our technology and devices continues to advance more rapidly. According to Google, their quantum computer (known as “Sycamore”) recently completed a computation in 200 seconds which would take the next fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to complete. The speed of life and technology continues to increase and with it my expectations for results.

The irony is that God’s Kingdom runs opposite the world. Things of the Spirit require time, contemplation, meditation, experience, struggle, worship, and prayer. The 15-16 hours I spent alone in the car, along with a night alone in a hotel, were spent doing exactly those things. It was exactly what my soul needed to find some clarity, to get centered, and to experience a measure of peace amidst my acutely stressful circumstances.

Over the nearly 40 years (there’s another “40” for you, lol) I have been a follower of Jesus, I’ve experienced that my time of quiet with God each morning has an effect on the peace with which I handle the stress of each day. If I go a stretch without getting in my time of quiet with God, even Wendy notices an increase in my stress level and pessimistic attitude toward life and relationships.

And so, I try to carve out a little alone time with God each morning, and occasionally along the journey, I’ve needed more than that. I can feel the call to climb the mountain, take a road trip, or spend a week unplugged at the lake. I have a feeling that the faster this world gets, the more necessary the times of quiet will be spiritually required.

Hope you find a few minutes of quiet today, as well, my friend.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

The Curse of Being Religious

While being a follower of Jesus may lead me to participate in religious behaviors, being a religious person does not necessarily make me a follower of Jesus. The following post was originally published back in may of 2013. It still resonates with me. Another good one to sow out there again. By the way, tomorrow I plan to start journeying through Exodus. It’s been 11 years since the last time I blogged through it. It’s time to return to the story of Moses. In the meantime, enjoy…

The Lord is more pleased when we do what is right and just
    than when we offer him sacrifices.
Proverbs 21:3 (NLT)

Over the years I’ve had many people refer to me as a religious person. The term has always bothered me. The truth of the matter is that when you read the first-hand accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry you find that He saved His most harsh criticism and angry judgment for the most religious people of His day.

When Jesus encountered a woman caught in the act of adultery He said to her:

I don’t condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

When Jesus talked to the religious church goers He said:

“You hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

When Jesus encountered a man with leprosy who said, “If you’re willing, you can make me clean,” Jesus reached out and touched the leprous man and said:

I’m willing. Be clean.”

When Jesus talked to the religious church elders He said:

“You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”

When a poor, paralytic man was brought to Jesus, He said to the man:

Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Then Jesus healed the man.

When Jesus talked to the religious fundamentalists He said:

“You religiously give your ten percent, but you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

When Jesus took the time to ask a woman, who was a social outcast and racially persecuted, for a drink, He said to her:

Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.”

When Jesus talked to the strict, religious people He said:

“You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

My desire is to follow Jesus each day in the way I forgive, touch, heal, reach, cleanse, embrace, and love. If I fail in this attempt while becoming a good, conservative, church-going, religious person then it is clear to me from Jesus’ own words that I have left the path of His footsteps and have failed miserably in my quest.

So, when I hear people refer to me as a “religious” person, I’ll confess that my heart sinks. I know they may not mean it the way that I receive it, but still. Religious is not the goal. Love is the goal. So, at the moment I hear someone calling me religious, I silently ask God to forgive me for being religious. Then I quietly ask Him to help me be more like Jesus.

Featured Photo: Christ forgives the woman caught in adultery by Boucher (French). From the Met Collection. Public Domain.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Scarcity Thinking Before the God of Infinite Resources

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Luke 11:13 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve learned in this chapter-a-day journey is that God’s Message never ceases to meet me right where I am.

One of the things that I’ve learned about myself along my spiritual journey is that I have a spiritual Achilles heel called scarcity. It’s a particular form of unbelief rooted in my own toxic shame. The following passage describes me well:

Remembering that God is my source, we are in the spiritual position of having an unlimited bank account. Most of us never consider how powerful the Creator really is. Instead, we draw very limited amounts of the power available to us. We decide how powerful God is for us. We unconsciously set a limit on how much God can give us or help us. We are stingy with ourselves. And if we receive a gift beyond our imagining, we often send it back.

One reason we are miserly with ourselves is scarcity thinking. We don’t want our luck to run out. We don’t want to overspend our spiritual abundance. Again, we are limiting our flow by anthropmorphizing God into a capricious parent figure. Remembering that God is our source, an energy flow that likes to extend itself, we become more able to tap our creative power more effectively.

from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

In today’s chapter, Jesus teaches His followers about prayer. He first gives them the words commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Then Jesus speaks to His followers about the attitude of prayer. He gets right to the heart of the scarcity thinking that Cameron describes.

Ask, seek and knock on God’s door with audacity, Jesus tells me. God is not a miserly Father to His children. God has an infinite and unlimited supply. The only limitation is my own lack of faith, my lack of trust that my Heavenly Father wants to bless me, and the cyclical loops of scarcity thinking that I allow my brain to keep playing on an infinite “repeat” mode in my head. That stinking pattern of poisonous thinking rears it’s ugly head over and over again in my head and heart.

Lord, have mercy on me.

In the quiet this morning I find myself, once again, reading exactly what I need to hear at this waypoint in my journey. Heavenly Father reminding me how limitless His love and resources are, and how limited I perceive them to be through the lenses of my shame.

Some days are a revelation just how far I still have to grow in my journey.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

The Nehemiah Two-Step

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
Nehemiah 4:8-9 (NIV)

This life journey always comes with a certain amount of opposition. It can come from any number of sources, and it can take multiple forms. Opposition can be spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, personal, internal, public, subversive, passive, violent, and etc. We all face opposition, conflict, and threats from time to time, even if it is in relatively small ways.

In today’s chapter, the exiles attempting to repair the walls of Jerusalem encounter opposition from the neighboring tribes. Conflict with these tribes and towns had been part of the political landscape of the area for centuries, so it was not a surprise. It was expected.

I found it fascinating that Nehemiah records a “two-step” response to the threats. I think the “Nehemiah Two-Step” is a great move to know when I find myself dancing with the fires of opposition in any form that the antagonistic force might present itself. The first step was to pray. The second step was to respond with the appropriate action.

Along my life journey, I’ve experienced many times when I get this very simple dance move wrong:

  • I pray without responding with action. In hindsight, I realize that sometimes I have placed all the responsibility on God with the expectations that He will supernaturally make it all okay without me being responsible for doing my part.
  • I act without praying. Other times, a threat or attack comes and it elicits from me an immediate reaction. When I react without praying, I’ve come to realize that I have refused to seek, submit, and subscribe to my higher authority. My reactions are often raging but not rational, passionate but not prudent, willful but not wise.
  • I act before I pray. When I get the order wrong, I find myself determining the response I think is warranted and then ask God to honor my plan rather than honoring God to seek His plan for how I should respond.

In the quiet this morning, as I pondered these things, I was reminded of this quote:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Albert Einstein

The great scientist’s words have always reminded me that no matter what I set out to accomplish, I can expect opposition. And, it’s likely that the greater endeavor I attempt, the greater opposition I’m likely to face.

From a spiritual perspective, God’s Message continually reminds me of the same thing. Specifically, that spiritual opposition is always a threat:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

I Peter 5:8 (NIV)

I long ago recognized that the time I spend, first thing in the morning, in quiet reading, writing, and contemplation has a positive effect on the rest of my day. It’s another form of the “Nehemiah two-step.” Pray, then act.

So, now I’ve prayed. It’s time to take action on today’s task list.

Have a great day, my friend.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Popcorn Prayers

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king…..”
Nehemiah 2:4-5a (NIV)

I was honored a few weeks ago when I was asked to pray for our meal at my high school reunion. In part, I was honored because it has become increasingly common for prayers at public events to be ignored our outright forbidden. I also realize that I and my classmates grew up in a time when public prayer was hotly debated along with questions regarding whether it was appropriate for public school choirs to sing sacred music at events such as commencement.

I can remember during some of these debates about “school prayer” that it was humorously acknowledged that the school building will always be the center of a million prayers during finals week. Of course, there is a difference between a public prayer at a school event and the silent prayer students staring at the test that has just been placed before them.

For those who are not regular readers, I have been blogging through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message in recent months. These are the writings of the ancient Hebrews who experienced being taken into captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Medo-Persian empires. They eventually returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore their homeland. Being an exile, in its very essence, means living away from home, and being in exile often means a loss of power, control, and public standing. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is currently exploring the notion that the people of God are, by nature, exilic and what that means for us in the 21st century.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the Persian king, Artaxerxes. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah could not hide his grief while serving in the king and queen’s presence. It was, in those days, deemed inappropriate to show any kind of negative emotion in the presence of the king. On a whim, the king could have his servant executed for such an infraction. So when Artaxerxes notices the depressed look on his cupbearer’s face, Nehemiah’s immediate fear was warranted.

What I found interesting is that the phrase “Then I prayed to the God of heaven” is sandwiched in between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response. There is no way that Nehemiah said, “Can you hang on a few minutes while I get on my knees and pray for a while?” Nehemiah’s prayer to the God of heaven had to have been what I call a “popcorn prayer.” A popcorn prayer is the silent, sudden, internal exclamation of my spirit to God’s Spirit in an instant. It’s exactly what I did as a student before every Biology test (science was not my thing).

According to a 2017 survey by the Barna, 79 percent of Americans said they had prayed in the previous three months. Barna found prayer to be the most common faith practice among American adults, but it was also the most multi-faceted. In fact, the researcher concluded that “the most common thing about people’s prayers is that they are different.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that my own prayer life is much like Barna’s research. It’s multi-faceted. I do, at times, spend set periods of time in prayer. Sometimes, I audibly talk to God while I’m alone in my car driving. Wendy and I pray together before meals, and often we will pray together when it is just the two of us traveling in the car. I’ve sometimes described my life journey itself as one long, uninterrupted conversation with God. I’m constantly aware of God’s presence, and my “popcorn prayers” are popping constantly in the heat of Life’s microwave oven.

Our culture has shifted in the 35 years since I graduated from high school. I know some who see this as a source of grief, anxiety, fear, and even anger. Sociologists and scholars are calling our current culture the “post-Christain” world. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it. In fact, I think it might just be a good thing. Throughout the Great Story, it’s clear that God’s people flourish, not when they are in power, but when they live in exile. It’s a paradox that Jesus said He came to model and that He told his followers to embrace:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.”

Jesus (Matthew 20:25-28 [MSG])

Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, put it this way:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul of Tarsus (2nd Letter to the Corinthians 12:10 [NIV])

In the quiet this morning I find my head swimming in thoughts of culture, and power, and exile, and prayer. Nehemiah found himself a servant to the King of a foreign empire. Artaxerxes had the power to execute Nehemiah for having a frown on his face, and yet his precarious position of impotence led him to depend on his faith in the power and purposes of God. Isn’t that the very spiritual reality that Jesus wanted us to embrace?

As I finish this post I’m saying a popcorn prayer for any and all who read it. Hope you have a great day, my friend.

Refining and Revelation

At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.
Daniel 10:2-3 (NIV)

This past Sunday I had the privilege of giving the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One of the things our team of teachers has been grappling with of late is a continued season in which we are experiencing an unusually high number of deaths. From young to old, from expected to unexpected, and from natural to painfully tragic, we have had almost two hundred families touched by death in two years. It has been a long season marked by grief that seems to continue. We are going through the very human experience of trying to process and find understanding within it.

The last half of the book of Daniel is a record of dreams and visions that he had. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of the strange images inside. It all seems as confusing as an acid trip for even learned readers. I find that most people bail on it quickly and move on.

I have learned along the way, however, that some of the great lessons I’ve discovered in my perpetual journey through God’s Message are not in the details but in the macro perspective when I step back and get a handle on what’s happening on the landscape of the chapter. Today is a great example.

Daniel’s strange visions are not unique to him during this period of history. Ezra and Ezekiel were other Hebrews in the same exile experience having eerily similar visions and visitations of a fantastical nature. They were all experiencing a particularly painful time of being captives far from home. They were all in mourning for their people, their home, their culture, and their faith in uncertain times and circumstances. They had spent a lifetime in exile and were eager for a sign or promise that their people would return home from captivity, that their Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and that restoration God promised through the prophets would actually happen (think 90-year-old Cubs fans prior to 2016). In today’s chapter, Daniel had been fasting, praying, and mourning for three weeks before the vision in today’s chapter was given to him.

My takeaway from this is that these dreams and visions were given to a specific group of mourning Hebrew exiles after a long period of suffering and in the midst of a time of intense personal struggle against doubt, despair, and grief.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking back to particularly stressful and painful stretches of my own journey. It was in these dark valleys of the journey that very specific and important spiritual lessons and personal revelations came to light. Is there a connection? I believe that there is.

In my message on Sunday, I quoted from Peter’s letters to the suffering believers scattered around the known world. He compares the trials they are experiencing to the way fire refines gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). I have come to believe through experience that it is in the midst of suffering and trial that the non-essential trivialities with which we daily concern ourselves are burned away. When our hearts are broken and our spirits laid bare with suffering we are particularly open to what God described to the prophet Jeremiah (33:3) as “great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

[Note: Speaking of messages, I realized in writing the post this morning that it’s been a while since I updated my Messages page, which I subsequently did for anyone interested.]

When Life Throws a Wicked Curve

As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.
Daniel 2:30 (NIV)

One can’t control some circumstances. Life sometimes throws you a curve, and you stand there in the batter’s box with only a proverbial moment to decide what you’re going to do with it.

The latest curveball in our journey happened on Friday when my dad suffered a (thankfully small) stroke. In the course of a few hours, our weekend plans were scuttled and our plans for a week at the lake were placed on hold. I quickly found myself spending my nights caring for my mother who is living in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and spending my days with her and my dad at the hospital entertaining a small army of doctors who are trying make sense of my father’s puzzling mixture of medical issues. I’m glad to report that everyone is well, and it could have been much, much worse.

As doctor after doctor has come in to discuss the various tests that have been continually run over the weekend, my dad has been intent on asking them exactly when his stroke occurred. He’d had symptoms starting on Tuesday of last week and went to the hospital on Friday. I’ve watched as every doctor he asks will look at him quizzically and laugh at the question. Strokes apparently don’t leave a time and date stamp on the brain. Undaunted by this, he continues to ask.

His doctors should be happy they aren’t serving King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In today’s chapter, King Neb asks a similar unknowable question to all of the prophets, magicians, and enchanters on his royal payroll. The mad king had a puzzling dream, and he wanted the interpretation, but he wanted to make sure the interpretation could be trusted. So, he asked them to first tell him what the dream was, and then tell him the interpretation. If no one could do it, then they’d all be killed and their homes destroyed. Talk about a major league curveball.

Daniel and his friends were, at this point, minor minions at the bottom of the King’s org chart of advisors. Nonetheless, the decree of death applied to them, as well, when Neb decided that he was cleaning house in the Advisory Department.

I find Daniel’s response fascinating. He doesn’t seem to panic. Having not been aware of any of the circumstances leading to the fateful knock on his door, he makes a bold move. He asks for an audience with King Neb. It’s possible that Daniel had not even been in the King’s presence since he and his friends were tested and made the cut to be on the King’s advisory staff. Daniel requests a night to see if he could do the impossible. Then he and his friends pray. That night, Daniel receives a vision explaining both the dream and interpretation.

When Daniel approaches the King with the answer, he is quick to let the King know that there was no magic involved and Daniel did not have some kind of ESP. He simply says that God had a message for the King and Daniel was the messenger. In the entire affair, Daniel’s thoughts, words, and actions appear humble, measured, and focused on seeking God’s purpose in the midst of it all. He stands in, keeps his eye on the ball, and knocks the curveball out of the park.

This morning as I write from my folk’s apartment and help get my mom going so we can head back to the hospital, I’m finding inspiration in Daniel’s attitude. As I wrote in my previous post, Daniel had already faced several wicked knuckleballs and curveballs in life. Perhaps he had learned from those experiences. Nonetheless, he provides a good example.

Don’t panic. Take some time. Seek God’s purpose. Be humble. Flow.

My dad was supposed to be discharged from the hospital today. He called last night to report that the doctors have found another complication. Another procedure today, and I have no idea what it will reveal or whether we’ll bring him home today or not.

Here we flow.

When Obedience Seems Not Such a Wonderful Life

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
Jonah 2:1 (NIV)

In the film classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays the leading role of George Bailey. Stewart, with his easy-going manner and “aw, shucks” charm, was the perfect person to play the role. George Bailey is a character referred to as an “everyman” because he’s a basic human archetype to whom every viewer can relate.

Late in the film, as he feels his life unraveling, Bailey stands on a train trestle and talks to God. “I’m not much of a praying man,” he says as he begins to address the Almighty. It’s a great line because it reaches those viewers who are not religious. Religious people know all about prayer and will identify, but for the non-religious viewer, it makes both Bailey’s character and prayer accessible.

In today’s chapter, we find Jonah, the runaway prophet, trapped in the belly of a giant fish. The chapter records the prophet’s distressed prayer from his precarious predicament.

What I found ironic as I read the chapter this morning was the placement of the prayer in the story. Jonah is not a George Bailey, for whom prayer is reserved for life’s foxhole desperation. Jonah was a prophet of God. It was his life. It was his job. Prayer, study, and the proclamation of God’s word was his daily preoccupation. Jonah didn’t pray when God told him to go to Nineveh and preach to the Assyrian people. He didn’t wrestle with God on the subject or seek guidance, clarification, or the grace to help him understand the command. He simply, and defiantly ran the other direction.

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. A generation before Jonah the Assyrians had waged a bloody war against his nation. A generation later they would do the same. The people of Nineveh were Jonah’s enemies and the enemies of his people. Jonah’s struggle was not what God was calling him to do, but those to whom God was calling him to do it.

Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the better part of a year studying the Jesus Movement of the first century in the Book of Acts. One of the major themes in the book is the racism that surfaces between different groups of believers. Those of Jesus’ followers who were Jews from Palestine discriminated against those who were from Greece. Those Jews who were from Greece discriminated against believers who were non-Jewish Gentiles. It was a hot mess, but it pointed to a heart issue that is present in Jonah as well.

In asking Jonah to preach to the Assyrians, God is proclaiming that He cares about the Assyrians. He wants the Assyrians to repent of their ways and turn to Him. God is, in fact, demonstrating the very message His Son would preach a few hundred years later:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Matthew 5:38-48 (MSG)

Jonah now becomes the everyman archetype of his people who loved taking pride in being “the people of God” and “God’s chosen people” but had no interest in sharing the love or favor. Jonah doesn’t want to go to God’s enemies because he wants nothing to do with their repentance. He is like the Prodigal’s dutiful, hard-hearted older brother, only this time the father is asking him to go find his lost brother and see if he’ll come home.

Jonah is so adamant in refusing the call that he’s not even willing to pray and ask a few questions or to try and understand God’s heart in the request. But having barely survived a storm at sea, having been thrown overboard by non-Jewish sailors (who repent and turn to God), and having been swallowed by a giant fish, Jonah finally prays.

This morning I find myself standing in Jonah’s sandals. I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. How willing have I been to show love for those who hate me? Jesus repeatedly points out, in His sermon on the Mount, that He doesn’t want His followers to do the easy thing (like loving the homers who love you) but the hard thing (reaching out to the evil Assyrians of Nineveh). Am I even willing to consider how I might have settled into the former while conveniently ignoring the latter?

Jonah is an everyman, a character with whom we can relate. In the quiet this morning I confess I find myself relating to him more than I care to admit. I am called to love, even those I would much rather ignore.