I’ve spent the last several days with my wife on a glorious hiking vacation in Glacier National Park in Montana. The natural beauty–the work of the ultimate creative Artist–was stunning. As a gardener who works hard to make my garden look good, I am constantly amazed by the wildflowers, trees, and shrubs that God so effortlessly arranges to form such spectacular scenery. Having said that, I also noticed that there were plenty of weeds scattered throughout the landscape as well.

The ongoing struggle between flowers and weeds, whether in my yard or a national park, makes me think of the constant battle between good and evil. God blesses our lives with many flowers, whether or not we have eyes to see them. But the evil one tries to pollute that beauty by sowing weeds of fear, entitlement, hate, and many other ills, into the gardens of our lives.

Even though God has not planted the weeds, the Great Gardener gently works on us and with us to help us see the weeds for what they are so we can pull them and eliminate them from our lives.

Sometimes the flowers vs. weeds analogy plays out at a national level as well, as it has this past week. The many weeds of political tension were already threatening to overrun the flower garden that is America, but the overturning of Roe v. Wade has only made that worse. Another weed–and a big one at that. I call it a weed not as commentary on how I feel about the decision (as I have mentioned before, I believe I am not to use this forum to talk about my political views), but rather to point out that the issue of abortion is yet another tool the evil one is using to try to disintegrate this country.

One big difference between weeds in our own lives and weeds in our country is that for personal weeds, God works in us to eliminate them, but for national weeds, God works through us to try to eradicate those. For example, if I have a weed in my life that might be labeled “discontentment”, God might chisel away at my heart to help me develop a posture of gratitude for the countless ways He has blessed me. But for a national weed like the divide over abortion, God might work through me by helping me not to engage in bitter discussions on the topic and by exhibiting Christ’s love even toward those who view this issue differently from me.

I say this as much to myself as to anyone reading this: hate and bitterness are favorite tools of Satan, so we must never take them up into our hands, no matter how tempting they may be. If we are to follow Christ, we can only ever use tools he used to deal with difficult people in difficult situations–coming alongside them, understanding their pain, and helping them carry their burdens. Caring for them. Loving them.

That’s how we can cooperate with God to pull the weeds threatening to overrun the garden of our great country.

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Happy Abba’s Day

Today is Father’s Day here in the USA, and in some other parts of the world as well. This got me thinking about how some people’s faith journey is impacted by their relationship with their earthly father. What I mean by that is there are people who were blessed with a loving, caring father, so they may have an easier time embracing the idea of a loving, caring Heavenly Father. On the other hand, people whose father was absent, distant, mean, or worse probably struggle to think of a Heavenly Father as a good thing.

As a father myself, though, I can’t help but think that no matter how hard I tried, there were myriad times and ways I failed to be the loving, caring father I wanted (and still want) to be. I’m not beating myself up here, but I’m saying this to point out that Jesus invited us to look past our shortcomings as fathers and those of our own fathers when he said:

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 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 good gifts to those who ask him!”

Jesus, in Matthew 7:9-11

What this says to me is that each of us dads who really are trying our best still can’t measure up to how loving and caring our Heavenly Father is for each and every one of us, His children. I also believe Jesus is hinting at the idea that no matter how good or bad our earthly father is or was, we should not judge God as Father based on that standard since God is infinitely better than even the best earthly father, and His love and greatness can overcome even the most horrible father.

And this further got me thinking about how Jesus modeled for us how we should relate to our Heavenly Father. When speaking with God the Father, Jesus often did so out loud so we could catch a glimpse into their conversations–and that’s really what prayer is intended to be: a conversation with God. And in those conversations, Jesus did not use grandiose, inflated, “religious” language. Instead, he used intimate, loving words when talking with God. In fact, he didn’t generally use the formal term, “Father”. Instead, he favored the more colloquial Aramaic term, “Abba”, which is closer to what we would usually say as “Dad”.

Here’s the thing: Jesus is showing us that we don’t have a God that’s “out there somewhere” or aloof and living by Himself in an ivory cathedral, not wanting to be bothered by us. He’s demonstrating for us that God is with us, near enough to hear us whisper, “Dad,” even on the darkest of nights. Jesus is telling us that no matter how good a dad we try to be or how great a dad we have had, God is an infinitely better father. He wants what’s best for us even more than we hope that for our children. He loves us so much more than our earthly dads ever could, no matter how hard they try.

So on this Father’s Day, I wish all the dads out there a Happy Father’s Day, and I invite all of us to thank our Heavenly Dad for the countless ways He has loved us and cherished us and blessed us, far beyond even what we could ever ask or imagine.

Photo by Mohamed Awwam on Unsplash
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Not Seeing is Believing

In today’s culture, it is becoming increasingly common for people to believe in only what they can see. I always want to ask such free thinkers if they believe in the wind or love or hope or outer space, but that’s not nice, so I usually keep my thoughts to myself. And that’s not really the point of this post, so I’ll move on from that. Anyway, the point is that people like this tend to think that God is a made-up superstition because they cannot see Him.

But this must not be a new thing. Over 2000 years ago, the author of the letter to the Hebrews addressed it this way:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

He goes on to list many people from Old Testament times who exhibited great faith, in what has come to be known as the “Faith Hall of Fame”.

Yes, faith means that we are confident and assured about something we cannot see. But everyone puts their confidence in something. In secular societies like this one, people put their confidence in things they can see–things like the government or a particular leader. But history has shown–and the recent trajectory of our country continues to suggest–that the farther people walk away from God, the more brutal and violent they become.

Here’s one way to think of it. We are here in a place that may seem desirable until we catch a glimpse of God hanging out in a place of indescribable beauty, joy, and peace. Trouble is, there’s a great chasm between where we are and where He is. Faith is the bridge that spans the chasm, enabling us to get over to paradise. Anyone is free to cross the bridge. All you have to do is be confident and assured that the bridge will hold you, that it will support the weight of your life while you cross the chasm. It may be a bit challenging to have that confidence since you can’t see for sure that the bridge makes it to the other side.

Here is the alternative.

Since some people lack that confidence and assurance, there are many other bridges to choose from. They start off looking like they will also take you to paradise, but they always veer off in another direction. But it’s OK, people will tell you, because at least you see the entire bridge.

So, is it better to take the bridge that you can’t see the end of, but you know it takes you to the right place, or is it better to take one that you can see the end of, and you know it doesn’t take you where you want to go?

For me, it’s better to jump onto the bridge that Jesus is beckoning me to choose. It may be rickety at times, and it may take some twists and turns I hadn’t expected, but at least it ends up on the other side of the chasm. And Jesus will be there every step along the way, guarding me, guiding me, escorting me home.

Faith is the bridge across the chasm to God.

Photo by Jonathan Klok on Unsplash
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Acts Two, Acts Too

In my journey through the Bible in a year with Brian Hardin and Daily Audio Bible, we’ve come to the second chapter of the book of Acts, which is really the start of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the name of Jesus. The day recorded here is known as Pentecost, and it is when God breathed the Holy Spirit into the world with the sound of a violent wind (Acts 2:2).

Peter is a great example of this. He was a fisherman by trade and training, and yet when he preached his first sermon, about 3000 people became followers of Christ. And this was with no formal religious training–unless you count following Jesus around for three years and listening to every word he said.

So does this mean that we ordinary people 2000 years later cannot do extraordinary things in Jesus’s name, since we didn’t have the opportunity to live in his presence daily for several years?

Absolutely not!

Actually, that was exactly the point of God giving us the Holy Spirit–to give regular people the ability to do remarkable things in His name. Jesus talked about this in John 14. And it’s the pattern recorded repeatedly in the Old Testament as well: God working through regular people to achieve His desires in the world. The was nothing special about Noah or Moses or David or Peter, aside from their desire to serve God to the point where they made themselves available to do so.

And that’s all we have to do to achieve great things for God’s Kingdom: tell Him we will follow wherever He leads us. Easier said than done, I know.

But then again, the Holy Spirit will help us with that, too!

BTW, following God wherever He leads us doesn’t necessarily mean that we will find ourselves on the other side of the world as a missionary or preaching in front of hundreds or thousands. It could simply mean doing a stellar job at what you’re already doing and giving God the glory. Or you could be called to show God’s love to an unlovable neighbor. You never know–God might even put it on your heart to start a blog that only three people read!

Anyway, what are you waiting for? We have the Holy Spirit–time to change the world!

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Remembering, with Gratitude

On this Memorial Day Weekend, I want to thank and remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our benefit.

In addition to servicemen and women…

…this also includes first responders and anyone else who has selflessly sacrificed themselves for the good of others.

This means I also want to thank and remember my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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The Heroism of Jesus

I’ve written previously about Jesus’s bravery since he knew the brutal, torturous death that awaited him, yet he strengthened his resolve and set his face toward Jerusalem anyway. I am still amazed by and thankful for this.

But this week, I read Timothy Keller’s excellent book, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. In it, he provided fascinating speculation regarding Jesus’s desperate prayer in the garden of Gethsemane the night his terrible ordeal began, as recounted in Matthew 26:36-46. Keller wondered if maybe the reason Jesus’s prayer time was stressful to the point of sweating blood was that he was being given a glimpse into hell, a foretaste of the separation from God that would become the worst part of his crucifixion.

This got me thinking. God is above and outside of time, so every moment that ever was or ever will be are present before God at the same time. Since Jesus has always been part of the triune God, this would apply to him as well, except during the time that he had stepped down from his glorious throne to live among us. During that time, he was subject to the normal space-time continuum we all live within.

So, on the cross, Jesus took on all of our sins, which caused him to be separated from God. I assume this is why the Apostles’ Creed declares that “he descended into hell”–because he was separated from God. I started wondering, what if during this time, Jesus returned to his state of being outside of time? In one sense, then, during his 2.5 days in hell, he could see everyone who would ever go there show up on the doorstep.

Then the thought occurred to me that maybe we will all begin our journey into eternity at the gates of hell, instead of this notion of the “pearly gates” of heaven, since hell is where we all belong, were it not for Jesus’s redeeming work for us on the cross. So, then, what if we start at the gates of hell, with Satan’s greasy grasp trying to drag us in? But since Jesus is there at the moment of our arrival, he is able to grab hold of us and escort us into heaven where we belong, but only because we have accepted him as our Lord and Savior and therefore have received his sacrifice on our behalf.

I recognize that my musing may have some theological holes, not the least of which is that it seems to imply that Jesus is in hell for all of eternity, which of course is not true. But hey, it was just my imagination churning on the idea that Jesus was getting a glimpse into hell.

In any case, in my view, this whole speculation–Keller’s and mine–further adds to the mystique of Jesus’s heroism. Not only did he know the horrible death that awaited him, but he also got a taste of how utterly lonely and desperately bleak it would be to be separated from God for his first time ever.

Maybe Jesus saw all of this as he was praying for this cup to be taken from him. He was pleading for another way.

And yet…

When no other option was offered, he did what he knew he needed to do. For you and for me. He glimpsed into hell and saw us there, about to enter into an eternity of agony. And he said, “Take me instead.”

If that’s not a hero, I don’t know what is.

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The Power of God in You

During his earthly ministry, Jesus did a number of miracles–amazing feats that were inexplicable except if you consider that Jesus was and is part of the Triune God. Toward the end of his life, he promised his disciples that the Father would send the Holy Spirit in his place.

What does that mean for us?

Well, while it doesn’t mean that we have as much of God’s power as Jesus, it does mean that we have some access to God’s power–undoubtedly more than we realize. In thinking about writing this post over the course of this past week, a quote by Christian author Annie Dillard popped into my mind. In his sermon at church this morning, Pastor Brady Boyd referred to the same quote, so I figured that must have been a sign that I should go ahead and mention it:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

So when we pray, we should pray expectantly, as though we are calling God’s power to bear on the problem at hand–because that’s exactly what we’re doing!

You may ask why, then, aren’t all of our prayers answered in the way we pray them at the time we pray them. That’s a great question, and I don’t have a great answer. Or any answer. And I can’t find a good answer in the Bible. It would be a good thing to ask God when you meet Him face-to-face.

But in the meantime, though, I will say that the Bible has many encouragements for us to continue to pray expectantly. One such example comes in an odd story about the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, as told in 1 Kings 18. He had previously caused a drought for a long time via his prayer to that effect. When it came time to end the drought, Elijah pretty much guaranteed to King Ahab that it was going to rain before there was even a cloud in the sky. After he made that guarantee, he climbed a mountain to pray for rain. After praying, he sent a servant to check to see if there was any sign of rain. When there wasn’t, he repeated the cycle, which he had to do several times. It wasn’t until the seventh time that there was finally a raincloud forming.

Now how’s that for praying expectantly? It didn’t deter him that he hadn’t gotten the result he expected six times. He kept praying, waiting for God to respond.

And He did.

This is the power of God that’s available to all of us via the Holy Spirit. So we should put on our crash helmets and pray!

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash
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A Mother’s Heart Reflects the Saviour’s Love

Who was the first human being in the Bible to learn that the time of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah had finally come? The betrothed but unwed teenager who would become Jesus’s mother.

But what was God thinking? Didn’t He know He had it all backwards!?!

I mean, in a patriarchal society like that, God should have sent Gabriel to deliver the news to Joseph! That would have made it much easier for Joseph to accept, and then maybe he could have done a better job convincing the nosy townsfolk that the baby really was conceived by God.

But no. I’ll tell you, this is one of many passages where I can picture this conversation between the three members of the Trinity:

Holy Spirit: Anyone got anything else we should tell Isaiah while we’re at it?

Father: Yes, we should have him warn everyone that our ways are higher than their ways and our thoughts are higher than their ways, since someday they’re going to think they’re smarter than we are.

Jesus: Good one, Dad!

Isaiah 55:9 (sort of)

So as much as it pains me to admit it, I suppose God knew what He was doing, even if it doesn’t make sense to me. (Of course, it doesn’t actually pain me at all to admit this; I was just trying to be funny…)

And although I can’t pretend to know all the reasons why God might have chosen this approach to announce the imminent arrival of the Saviour of the World, there is one that I can guess at: accepting this far-fetched idea had to be a heart transaction before it could become a head transaction. And, of course, women tend to have softer hearts than men, and even more so mothers compared to fathers.

To be fair, as Luke recounts this story in his gospel, Mary does have a brief moment of questioning how this could be, since she was a virgin. But the terrifying, other-worldly creature (i.e., the angel Gabriel) attempts to explain it to her by saying a few sentences that really don’t make a lot of sense. And what is her reaction? She shrugs her shoulders and says:

I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in Luke 1:38 (NIV)

What a great picture this is, in fact, for all of our first few steps into the Light of faith in Jesus. Taking that leap may not make much sense at first, but those of us blessed enough to be followers of Christ have taken it nonetheless.

Fast-forward toward the end of the gospel, toward the other end of Jesus’s earthly life. Knowing the torturous death he was about to endure to save you and me, Jesus was praying feverishly in the Garden of Gethsemane that the Father would find another way to achieve their objective. However, at the end of it, he gathered up his resolve better than any other hero in history and finally said:

“…yet not my will, but yours be done.”

Jesus, in Luke 22:42

And so it is that a mother’s heart and sacrificial acceptance of God’s will so brightly and aptly reflects the love of our Lord and Saviour.

On this Mother’s Day, I thank God for my mom and mother-in-law, both of whom have gone on to be with Him. I am also thankful for my wife, who has been and continues to be such a terrific mother to our children. Further, I am thankful that the first child to bestow upon me the title of “Dad” is poised to also be the first to grant me the title of “Grandpa”.

Of course, I am grateful for all moms on this special day, and wish you all a Happy Mother’s Day! And since I intentionally avoid getting political in my blog posts, I will say a special prayer for unintentional moms in the trying times that undoubtedly lie ahead, and leave it at that.

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash
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Come and See

There’s a little blurb toward the end of the first chapter of John’s gospel that’s easy to read through quickly without giving it much thought–I know I’ve done it the many times over that I’ve read or listened to the Bible. It’s about how Philip and Nathanael came to be disciples of Jesus:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.

John 1:45-46 (NIV)

My father-in-law (who is also a beloved friend) introduced me to what has now become my favorite TV show: The Chosen®. This show has become the largest, most successful crowd-funded television or film project ever. But better yet, it’s about the life and ministry of Jesus and his disciples. There are two complete seasons, and they are working on the third, with a goal of having seven (of course) seasons by the time they are done. There are a number of options for watching seasons 1 and 2, including downloading The Chosen app from your mobile device’s app store.

Here’s what I love about it: it does a great job portraying so many aspects of Jesus that are easy to overlook. For example, after having gone through the Bible so many times and having developed a relationship with Jesus, it’s easy to forget how fresh and different Jesus and his teachings were when compared to other rabbis of his time (one of my favorite quotes so far from the series is when Jesus tells Peter, “Get used to different.”). It is also quite moving to watch how Jesus interacts with people–again, I have read these stories many times, but the way they have portrayed these interactions in the show is touching. Further, the struggles that the apostles have had–both with accepting that Jesus really could be the promised Messiah, and in some cases with accepting one another–seem accurate and genuine at the human level.

Although I am not a seminary-trained theologian, it does seem to me that the show remains true to the Bible (so far, anyway–I’m about halfway through season 2). As you could imagine, there are a lot of blanks that the writers and producers (Dallas Jenkins and others) have had to fill in to make it flow as a narrative, but even those ring true in that they seem consistent with my understanding of the Bible and the surrounding cultural context. Maybe one of the best things about the show is that it seems very accessible. Someone who is not yet a follower of Christ may be intimidated or put off by the idea of going to church, but they should be at ease watching this show. Similarly, while it may be hard for us to invite a non-believing friend to church, it should not be difficult at all to tell them about your new favorite show–we all do things like that all the time.

This brings me to the reason for starting with the quote from John’s gospel. Just like Philip says to his friend Nathanael when he doubts Jesus (“can any good thing come from Nazareth?”), if you haven’t found a good way to convey the good news about Jesus to a friend or family member that seems compelling to them, you could mention the show to them or even invite them to watch it with you. You can say, “Don’t take my word for it–come and see for yourself!”

So that’s my invitation to you as well: come and see!

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Darkness and the Light

Today was Baptism Sunday in my church, New Life Church. As I’ve shared before, whenever we have baptisms, as each person comes up out of the water, I say a little prayer for them that they will be another light in the darkness. For some reason, during today’s service, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit even stronger than I normally do during these baptisms.

For one thing, the timing was perfect, being one week after Easter. For another thing, the worship team was playing the perfect baptism song, Up from the Waters, by New Life Worship, from their new album. Finally, there was a touching moment that stuck with me throughout the day today, so much so that I decided to write about this instead of what I was planning on writing about today. The moment was brief and simple: a young woman, someone I don’t even know, raised her arms in triumph as she came up out of the water, then put her face in her hands and started weeping with joy.

I thought, What a great start on her journey of being a light in the darkness.

Of course, the battle between good and evil has been characterized by light and darkness in literature and movies practically since those media were created. It is also the reality of the world today. Sadly, all too often these days, it seems as though the darkness is winning. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t take much light to overcome darkness.

Even a small light shining on a hilltop is visible for miles.

So for today, I thought I’d include a few verses from the Bible that show the progression of Light, how it came into the world through Jesus, and then how He lit the flame in each of us to keep His light burning and spreading.

First, the Apostle John introduces the conflict between light and darkness:

Borrowed from YouVersion

Then, several chapters further into his gospel, John remembers when Jesus told all who were listening:

Borrowed from YouVersion

Switching to Matthew’s gospel, we see Jesus handing the torch to us:

Borrowed from YouVersion

The Apostle Paul reminded us of this in his letter to the Ephesians when he said:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.

Ephesians 5:8 (NIV)

And so it is that we do not have to worry about the darkness in the world. Darkness ceases to be darkness when the slightest light shines into it. We are each a light in the darkness, lit from the original torch of Jesus.

And the darkness will never overcome us.

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