Deer feet

In her book Cracking the Pot, Christine Berghoef writes about a study tour she took to Israel. While there she encountered ibex, an animal similar to North American mountain goat. You hear about them a couple times in the Bible, including when God speaks to Job about his creation. Ms. Berghoef describes them as remarkable creatures with extraordinary feet, able to “scale boulders the size of semi trucks… They trek the cliffs as if they’re the product of some sort of cross-breeding laboratory experiment – perhaps the supernatural combination of Spiderman, a white-tailed deer, and a tree frog” (page 39). It sounds to me like God designed them just right with the ideal feet to thrive in in their mountainous habitat.

Ibex picture found at Wikipedia

With the ibex likely in mind, the prophet Habakkuk confesses,

“The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer…”

I’d like to make this my confession, too. To be honest, however, I’d rather ask God to give me an easy path than a pair of good feet to journey down difficult ones. I pray for things to go smoothly without any hassle or trouble.

Observing the ibex, Ms. Berghoef writes: “Perhaps we ought not to pray for an effortless life, but for God to give us the feet we need to traverse the life He continually unfolds before us” (page 39).

I read something similar in a Words of Hope devotional written by an Iowan pastor named Stephen Shaffer: “Even though the road is hard, Habakkuk trusts that God will not let him fall. No matter where his path takes him, he will not slip. He prays that as he walks the path God laid for him, he will walk sure-footed. Habakkuk asks God not to change the road, but to change him.”

Praying for ibex-like feet is not the easiest prayer, but it’s honest about the tough places along the path. It’s also a hope-filled prayer – I can pray it knowing that God answered this prayer for Habakkuk and countless other saints through history.

The rest of the story

This past Sunday I spoke at Trinity CRC on the Heidelberg Catechism’s Lord’s Day 17 Q&A 45 and mentioned my surprise at how briefly the catechism treats Jesus’ resurrection. It takes eight questions and answers to cover Jesus’ suffering and death but only one question and answer to explain the resurrection. If the resurrection stands at the center of faith, you’d think the church’s teachings on it would be a bit more thorough.

Well, in my research for Sunday’s message, I was reminded how the Heidelberg Catechism was not split up into Lord’s Days when it was first published; the only divisions were the 129 questions and answers. Maybe it’s helpful not to see a big break between Lord’s Day 17 and the ones after it: Everything beyond Q&A 45 can be read in light of Jesus’ resurrection! The rest of the whole document – Q&As 45-129, each one – works out in greater and greater detail what it means that Jesus lives!

Isn’t that kind of how the New Testament reads? Each Gospel clearly attests to Jesus’ resurrection and begins to reveal its implications. From there every book in the New Testament makes at least a passing reference to it, many places actually delving deep into its significance. In fact, by word count, the Bible says more about the resurrection than the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Lord’s Day 17 summarizes the Bible’s teaching of how the implications of Jesus’ resurrection explode in our lives. His resurrection changes everything! We “share in [Christ’s] righteousness,” we’re “raised to a new life,” and we have “a sure pledge … of our blessed resurrection” after we die. In other words, the resurrection is a historical fact for our salvation that brings renewed purpose to life today and gives us hope for the future.

It might not take a lot of words for the catechism to describe this, but it’s Good News that fills entire books and fills all of life.

Empty grave graphic found via Google

Worship is like orange juice

Back when I was serving Telkwa CRC, a wise man once told me that worship is like orange juice. The service you attend on Sunday is theOrange juice graphic found via Google concentrate. But you add water so you can experience it all week long.

We need the concentrate. Without it there’s no juice. Similarly, God puts the desire – the need even – within us to gather with others to worship him. When we miss Sunday services, we miss out on God feeding us through his Word and the sacraments. We miss out on our hearts being stirred and our wills equipped for action through the songs and readings. We miss out on receiving encouragement from other worshipers. These things are like the concentrate necessary for making orange juice.

By stirring in water we enjoy the orange juice for several days. Similarly, the concentrated form of worship we experience on Sundays propels us into a life of worship all week long where we offer every aspect of our lives – from our work to our leisure activities to our time with family – to the glory of God. We can invite God to be the center of our lives all week long.

Then each Sunday we receive more concentrate as we gather again for worship services. Glorifying God together refills and rejuvenates us and our love for him and one another. Ignoring opportunities to worship together is like expecting to be able to drink orange juice indefinitely without adding any new concentrate.

That’s not to say there aren’t times I wish I could do without the concentrate. The concentrate keeps fresh in my mind and on my taste buds what orange juice truly tastes like. But sometimes I don’t want fresh reminders of who God is and who God calls me to be because I’d rather water things down and do my own thing. I’d rather not consider what God would have me do with my paycheck or what kind of Friday night entertainment strains my relationship with him and others. Sadly, I miss out on the real thing God offers, drinking some sort of substitute that will never satisfy like God does.

But when I come to my senses, God always has ready a fresh supply of concentrate. The opportunity to gather with others to worship him and be refilled is always less than seven days away!

Regardless of what your weekend routine currently looks like, consider how participating in a worship service might be like the concentrate in the can that you stir into the rest of your week. I’ve become convinced that allowing Sunday to launch me into a life of worship all week long is the most meaningful way to live. But don’t just take my word for it: Taste and see it for yourself this Sunday and the week that follows.

This is my latest contribution to the faith column in The Rock Valley Bee. It was published this week.

Not for ten million dollars

Anticipating the upcoming Rock Valley Volunteers Day in April,
the good people at
Justice for All and The Rock Valley Bee asked me to write an article about why we volunteer in the first place.
Volunteers respond during the 2014 Rock Valley floodThis was published in
this week’s Bee

One day as Mother Teresa was working in the slums of Calcutta dressing the wounds of a dying leper, a tourist asked permission to take a photograph. The tourist, observing the tenderness with which Mother Teresa dressed the leper’s wound, said, “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you are doing for ten million dollars!”

What is it that drives people to do something out of the goodness of their heart with no expectation of reward? Are they motivated by an altruistic desire to help others in need? Do they sometimes hope deep down that someone is watching and impressed? Do they see themselves as the only one who can fill a particular need that’s not otherwise being addressed? Do they think it will look good on their résumé? Do they hope it will help them grow in some way? Do they feel it will help them find discover meaning and purpose in their lives?

Without a doubt there are many benefits to volunteering: It’s a great way to meet new people. You can learn skills that you might later put to use in the workplace. It allows you to connect more with your local community. When and for how long you volunteer is probably more flexible than where you’re employed. You get the sense that you’re making a difference.

I believe there’s a deeper root to any inclination we have to serve others without expectation of repayment. It goes back to the creation account in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where God creates humanity in his image. In our appearance, reasoning, creativity, and compassion, we reflect something of God. Sin has certainly defaced God’s image in us, but it has not destroyed it. So if God is merciful and sacrificial, it stands to reason that beings created in his image also share these traits at least to some extent.

More than that, God is merciful and sacrificial without looking for repayment. Christians believe he offers us life through the death and resurrection of Jesus – the most wonderful gift which no one can ever repay. Yet he offers it freely. Therefore as God’s image-bearers, we are most fully human when we sacrifice without expecting something in return. I’d dare say it’s hardwired into us. We fight how God originally designed us when we are greedy, stingy, and selfish, first asking what’s in it for me.

Volunteering traces its roots back to that most ancient of commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” God gives us this command not just because he figures it’s good for us (which it is) but because through loving others in compassionate and sacrificial ways, we get at something central to what it means to be human.

The tourist remarked to Sister Teresa in Calcutta, “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you are doing for ten million dollars!” Sister Teresa replied, “Neither would I, my friend,” as she continued to tenderly dress the leper’s wounds.

A gracious welcome

In Psalm 87, it’s nothing short of astonishing to read who will all be welcome in Zion, God’s holy city. The psalmist looks forward to the day when the people of Egypt (referred to as Rahab), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush will all be counted as part of God’s people. Throughout the Bible these nations are regularly antagonistic toward Israel – distrusting and fighting one another. Yet Psalm 87 promises that it will not always be that way.

If you were to update that list of surprising people entering God’s presence with 21st century language, I suspect you might come up with the welcome statement Monica & I read at Custer Lutheran Fellowship when we worshiped there during our Black Hills getaway a few months ago. Some of the individuals or groups listed may raise an Graphic found via Googleeyebrow or two – but probably not any more so than the Egyptians or Babylonians of the psalmist’s day.

This welcome statement with its specificity reminds me that the Holy Spirit seeks out and is at work in way more individuals and groups than I often give Him credit for. I’m sometimes quick to think that the problems and sins of other people are worse than my own. And so this welcome statement challenges me to reconsider whether there are people I’ve labeled as beyond God’s reach and therefore not truly welcome to worship at Trinity CRC

We want it to be of public record that those of different colored skin and heritage are welcome here.
We want it to be known that those who suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol (whether recovering or not), and their families are welcome here.
We want it to be known that women and children are welcome here and that they will not be harassed or abused here.
We want it to be public record that in this congregation you can bring children to worship and even if they cry during the entire service, they are welcome.
We want it to be known that those who are single by choice, by divorce, or through death of a spouse, are welcome here.
We want it to be known that if you are promiscuous, have had an abortion, or have fathered children and taken no responsibility for them, you are welcome here.
We want it to be known that gossips, cheats, liars, and their families are welcome here.
We want it to be known that those who are disobedient to their parents and who have family problems are welcome here.
We want it to be of public record that gays and lesbians and members of their families are welcome here.
The young and old, the rich the poor, all of the broken are welcome here.
Let it be public knowledge that we at Custer Lutheran Fellowship take seriously that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
We want it to be public knowledge that we are justified by the grace of God, which is a gift through the redemption, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We offer welcome here because we believe that while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly.  That’s us.  Christ did not die for us after we showed signs of “getting it all together.”  Christ loved and still shows love to us while we are yet sinners.
Sinners are welcome here – sinners like you and me, and like our neighbors.  Let us not condemn the world, but let us proclaim to a broken and hurting world, God’s forgiveness and grace.
We want it to be of public record that since we are a sinful people that we will not always be as quick to welcome as we should.  Let us be quick to admit our sin and seek forgiveness.
May God give us the grace to welcome and forgive one another as Christ has welcomed and forgiven us.


(Custer Lutheran Fellowship’s welcome statement
was written by their former pastor, Chuck Hazlett.
I reflected on Psalm 87 back in 2013, too.)

Ashes

Ashes graphic found via GoogleIt’s been quite a few years since I’ve been to an Ash Wednesday service. I’m glad I went yesterday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Being there helped me discover something to give up for Lent this year.

One of the songs we sang was “Ashes to Ashes,” a relatively new one composed by Daniel L. Schutte (perhaps most well known for “Here I Am, Lord”). Here’s the chorus:

Ashes to ashes, from dust unto dust.
The cross on our forehead, your promise, O God.
Ready to follow the way of your Son,
to rise from these ashes, redeemed in the fire of your love.

The verses are adapted from Joel 3. Here are two of them:

Rend your hearts, not your garments;
return to the Lord
who delights when we offer
a truly humble heart.

Let us fast from unkindness
and turn from our greed,
giving bread to the hungry
and lifting up the poor.

What better things to give up for Lent than unkindness and greed? Quitting those might afford me more time to consider the needs of others, particularly the hungry and the poor – the kind of people Jesus regularly showed interest in.

I have to admit I’m quickly intimidated and overwhelmed by wondering how I can respond to the needs of the poor. Thankfully I don’t have to figure this out on my own. The final verse of the song assures me of the help of God Himself!

Though his nature is holy
yet Christ became sin,
so that we might inherit
the holiness of God.


(Chris Brunelle’s cover of “Ashes to Ashes” is here.)

Encounter at a well

In John’s Gospel you find a story about Jesus discussing theology near a well with a Samaritan woman. This is shocking on a number of levels: 1. The Jews of Jesus’ day despised Samaritans and did everything they could to avoid them. 2. Jewish men in that culture did not address women in public. 3. Women in that culture were not deemed fit to learn theology. Despite all this, Woman at the Well by Wayne ForteJesus, a Jewish male, has a deep theological conversation with a Samaritan woman – in fact, it’s the longest section of dialogue in John’s Gospel.

Things get even more scandalous: It turns out that the woman’s marital history is unusual at best: She has been married five times and seems to currently be living common-law with a sixth man. Traditionally scholars assumed she has been living in adultery, thoughtlessly jumping from one marriage to another. But other research suggests that she may have been the victim of a combination of husbands passing away and/or husbands issuing her a certificate of divorce if they were dissatisfied with her (perhaps she is unable to bear children). We don’t know for sure, but, whatever her past, she seems to currently be in a sad, less-than-ideal situation.

We’re told Jesus knows all this ahead of time. Maybe a local had been chatting with Jesus when they both saw the woman approach and he warned Jesus not to become the woman’s sixth husband! I personally think Jesus in His divinity simply recognizes this woman as she approaches the well.

Regardless, Jesus knows this woman’s sad story of multiple marriages and non-ideal circumstances. I see grace in how Jesus still offers her the gift of living water despite her background and dubious past. As Prof. Darrell W. Johnson pointed out in the course I took last spring at Regent College on the Gospel of John, this story proves how my problems are neither a surprise nor an obstacle for Jesus. He invites me to own up to them and find healing in Him.

Jesus speaks of people worshiping in the Spirit and truth. I can be truthful with myself and with Jesus about what’s wrong and what’s hurting in my life. There’s no point in hiding it – He already knows. The amazing thing is that He also cares and is powerful enough to address my problems. His living water – the gift of His Holy Spirit – is still for me.

It makes me want to worship Him.