Surrounded

Psalm 23 contains some of the most familiar words in the Bible. They are timeless words, true and comforting in all situations, especially hard situations. Psalm 23 reminds me that God surrounds me in even the hardest circumstances.

God, the Good Shepherd, is front of me, leading the way:

He leads me beside quiet waters…
He guides me along the right paths

Middle Eastern shepherds do not drive their sheep from behind as one does with cattle. Shepherds lead from the front, constantly talking and singing so their sheep can follow their voice. Jesus invites me to know his voice well so that I follow where he leads.

God, the Good Shepherd, is also beside me:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me…

Sometimes I’m tempted to think that God will join me after I get through a hard time, as though he’s waiting to see whether I’ll pass or fail before deciding whether to reward me with his presence. But that’s a lie. The truth is that Jesus is with me through hard circumstances, closer to me than I can imagine.

God, the Good Shepherd, is also behind me:

Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life…

Just as he leads from the front, God also comes up from behind. The Hebrew word for follow can also be translated as pursue. God is not passively, distantly trailing behind; instead he is right on my heals. Jesus loves for me know that nothing can get between him and me – there’s just not enough space.

In Christ, I’m surrounded. For some that might sound threatening. I’m growing in discovering there’s no better position in which to be.

Graphic from The David Movie (thedavidmovie.com).

Fully pro-life

I like the new signs along Highway 18 inviting people to cherish life – even when it’s growing in the womb. They are an appropriate challenge to a culture that is slow to “treat all life with awe and respect, especially when it is most vulnerable – whether growing in the womb, touched by disability or disease, or drawing a last breath.” I believe God’s people are called to “protest and resist all that harms, abuses, or diminishes the gift of life.” (Quotes are from the Christian Reformed Church’s contemporary testimony “Our World Belongs to God.”)

Believing this leads to understanding how being pro-life is more than merely being anti-abortion. So I wonder if the pro-life signs along the highway could sometimes speak to other issues too?

I’m alarmed by the termination rate of pregnancies when the baby receives a positive diagnosis for Down syndrome. Even Christians might say things like, “Thank God that he heard our prayer and our baby doesn’t have Down syndrome.” This betrays a belief that a certain kind of person is better than another, lowering the value of a baby with Down syndrome or other disability. Maybe in the future, the sign along the highway can affirm the value of people with Down syndrome with a slogan like, “Real friends don’t count chromosomes.”

I lament how people in our society are treated differently solely because of the color of their skin. An immigrant committing a crime might lead people to declare everyone of that nationality should be kicked out of the country; however, statistics show that in the United States, White people commit far more crimes than other ethnicities, yet no one calls for all White people to be deported when a White person commits a crime. A Black acquaintance of mine with no criminal record reports having been stopped by the police far more often than I ever have. Our society devalues people based on ethnicity which I do not think is a pro-life mentality. Maybe in the future, the sign along the highway can affirm the sanctity of life of all ethnicities with a slogan like, “Red, brown, yellow, black, and white – all are precious in God’s sight.”

I think that caring for creation is also a way to be pro-life. If we value life, we want life to flourish. Flourishing gets difficult, though, where there is pollution and other consequences from poor stewardship in the world. People who have trouble breathing are forced to move away from cities filled with smog. Exposure to chemicals increases the chances of a cancer diagnosis that may cut life short prematurely. People who are poor are often the first to be devastated by climate change, whether it’s floods destroying their low-income homes or drought wiping out their already subsistence crops. Maybe in the future, the sign along the highway can affirm the need to better care of the planet to improve the quality and length of people’s lives with a slogan like, “Caring for creation reflects love for the Creator.”

I wrote this for the Rock Valley Bee, noting that I desire to value the life and flourishing of everyone from the womb to the tomb as a way to demonstrate God’s love.

Upside down

My Office Mousepad

On my desk is a mousepad. It’s a round mousepad and pictured on it is a map of the world. You can see a good chunk of North and South America, all of Europe and Africa, and part of Asia.

There’s just one thing that’s a little strange about my mousepad: It’s upside down – at least compared to how we usually look at a world map. The tip of Argentina points straight up pretending it’s high noon and Santa’s home at the North Pole is at the bottom! I understand that’s how Australians orient their globes, but here in North America it just doesn’t look quite right.

My upside down globe daily reminds me of something the people in Thessalonica say in Acts 17. Although the Gospel is initially welcomed by the Thessalonians, some ruffians show up where the followers of Jesus are sharing the Good News. These bad characters form a mob that turns into a riot. They drag some the disciples before the authorities with this accusation: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.”

Apparently the people in Thessalonica don’t like having their world turned upside down.

I don’t either.

Yet that’s what the Gospel consistently does. It reveals how weakness is strength. How poverty reveals true wealth. How death leads to life. It sounds backwards, but God wins by losing. His perfect Son Jesus dies on the cross – the most humiliating, shameful ending imaginable. But Jesus beats death at its own game and rises in a shocking new beginning on the third day. Now for all who are in Christ, sin has been defeated, life has purpose, and the future is hopeful.

Those who identify with Jesus can’t help but adapt more and more to God’s upside down ways. Followers of Jesus perceive that generosity carries the highest profit. Slowing down helps you get ahead. Apologies are necessary. Forgiveness is freeing. Fidelity is meant to be celebrated. Sports are not meant to be idolized. Wisdom is more valuable than a university degree. Possessions are temporary. Beauty comes from character instead of the cosmetics counter. It’s ok for both men and women to cry. Those who are overlooked need compassion. We’re stewards (not owners) of creation. The truth matters. Promises need to be kept. Rights can be willingly set aside. The unborn already have an imprint of the divine. Ethnic diversity is a foretaste of heaven. Worshiping is the best use of time. Persecution is a reward. Peace overpowers hate. Loving one’s enemy is normal.

Many influencers in our culture say that living in line with these and other priorities in God’s Kingdom is unrealistic and pointless. They say living like that is upside down. And sometimes it feels that way. Especially when I get used to things not being right side up as described in the Bible.

So I keep Argentina on my mousepad map pointing upwards to remind me that God works in surprising ways. And that his Spirit empowers me to sometimes turn things upside down in God’s name. When I do so, I’m in good company with the disciples in Acts 17.

I wrote this for this week’s Perspectives column in the Rock Valley Bee.
I concluded with saying that I’d like to visit Australia some day
and buy a map while I’m there.

Speaking the same language

Our family attended Come From Away at the Washington Pavilion last month. This award-winning Broadway musical tells the story of 7,000 people stranded in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, after all flights into the US were grounded on September 11, 2001. We were surprised at how exhilarating and heartwarming it was – it packed an emotional punch as we felt the confusion and fear in the residents of Gander and the people stranded far from home. But it also had hilarious moments, and it exuded hope in the power of kindness and hospitality even in our darkest moments.

I had forgotten how quickly distrust between people mounted after 9/11. With the dust of 20 years blanketing my memories, I thought it had taken weeks or even months for people of different ethnic backgrounds to experience hostility against them. Come From Away blew off that dust when it showed a crowd of angry people yelling at Ali, the Middle Eastern chef from Egypt. Only a day or two into being stranded in Gander, Ali was speaking Arabic to his family back home when people in line to use the phone started accusing him: “Are you celebrating this?” “Why doesn’t he speak English?” “Are you telling your Muslim friends where to bomb next?” “Go back where you came from!”

This production did not ignore the uglier reactions people had in response to 9/11.

But it also showed equally powerfully people’s ability to respond with decency and compassion. Balancing the scene where Ali encountered hatred, there’s a scene where Garth, a bus driver from Gander, was driving Muhumuza and other passengers on a flight from Africa to one of the shelters for those who were stranded. None of Garth’s passengers could speak English and, in the darkness of night, Muhumuza and the others mistook the Salvation Army camp for a military complex. They were terrified and refused to get off the bus. How would Garth explain to them that they were safe and would be cared for there?

While trying to figure out how to put his passengers at ease, Garth noticed Muhumuza’s wife was clutching a Bible and asked to see it. Although he couldn’t read Swahili, Garth knew their Bible would have the same number system as his English Bible. Finding the spot he was looking for, Garth gave the Bible back to Muhumuza and his wife, pointing and saying, “Look! Philippians 4:6! ‘Be anxious for nothing. Be anxious for nothing.’”

And that’s how Garth and Muhumuza started speaking the same language.

It was a beautiful scene of one person finding a creative way to care for another person very different than himself, someone with a foreign culture and language. And, perhaps completely unintentional on the part of the writers, it was a beautiful reminder of the Gospel’s ongoing power to unite people and dispel fear even in the darkest moments.

I wrote this for this week’s Perspectives column
in The Rock Valley Bee.

Radical hospitality

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a pair of parables describing the Kingdom of heaven. One is about a man who plants a mustard seed that grows into a large plant in which birds can perch. The other is about a woman who mixes yeast into a batch of flour until it’s all worked through the dough. Bible studies and sermons on this text usually focus on how God’s Kingdom is expanding even if it doesn’t seem to start out looking like much. And this is true. God routinely turns our expectations upside down. We think God is interested only in big and strong things when often it seems like he prefers to show his power through what appears small and weak. These parables assure us of how, often in surprising ways, the Kingdom is coming and growing whether it seems like it or not.

I recently watched the simulcast of a workshop hosted by Love INC and led by Ray Vander Laan titled “We Are the Church: Putting God on Display in a Broken Culture.” He showed that there’s even more going on in these parables.

Watch the woman for a moment. She is mixing yeast into 60 pounds (27 kilograms) of flour. Just how many loaves of bread is she baking?! My wife and son often bake bread and they use about 2½ pounds of flour to make 3 loaves of bread. They would end up with 72 loaves if they used 60 pounds of flour! The woman in Jesus’ parable must be working on a feast! So maybe this detail about the extravagant amount of dough is also meant to associate the Kingdom with words like abundance and feasting.

It was the NIV translation that told me the woman used 60 pounds of flour. The translators chose to convert the original expression into figures people can understand today. What was the original expression? The NRSV and other translations say the woman mixed the yeast into “three measures” of flour. Most readers in the western world are probably thankful for translations or footnotes that convert unfamiliar quantities into units with which we’re familiar. However, Jesus’ original Jewish listeners were probably less busy calculating the amount of dough than they were with realizing Jesus was hinting at an Old Testament story that uses the exact same expression.

In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah have unexpected guests who turn out to be angels – even God himself. Abraham & Sarah hurry to welcome their guests, part of which includes Sarah getting “three seahs of the finest flour” to bake some bread. I’m not sure why here the NIV translation does not convert three seahs into units more familiar to modern readers as it does in Matthew 13. The NRSV and other translations avoid specific units and get closer to the original expression: Sarah got “three measures” of flour.

So when Jesus speaks about a woman working with three measures of flour, his original Jewish listeners are not doing math in their head. They’re hearing Jesus inviting them to think about Sarah and Abraham and the extravagant feast they prepared for strangers. And I suspect this was not an uncommon thing for Abraham and Sarah to do. A little later in Genesis, Abraham’s neighbors refer to him as “a mighty prince among us” and they seek to deal generously with him. They would not have spoken and acted like this if Abraham and his family were unkind and miserly.

I therefore propose together with Ray Vander Laan that baked into Jesus’ parable of the woman with the fantastic amount of dough is the theme of hospitality. The woman is mixing dough just like Sarah mixed dough millennia ago, preparing a feast for people she didn’t even know. So, yes, Jesus affirms the Kingdom of heaven is growing, often in surprising ways. But he’s also pointing out that this growing Kingdom he has begun ushering in is a Kingdom characterized by the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, a hospitality that puts aside what we were doing to offer the best help we can give when it’s needed.

It turns out that the theme of hospitality is also ingrained into the preceding parable. The man plants a mustard seed that eventually grows into a plant that, in a sense, offers hospitality for the birds, giving them a place to perch in its branches. God desires for his entire creation to be blessed by hospitality.

A sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church – in you and me – is that he is nurturing within us the gift of hospitality, whether it’s with friends or strangers. And, in another hint Jesus provides, all God’s people are called to grow in offering hospitality. In one parable Jesus refers to a man, in the other a woman. Both are used equally to illustrate this Kingdom principle. The Spirit equips men and women of all ages to practice radical hospitality. And as we do so, we might be surprised to discover how the Kingdom is indeed coming and growing even among ordinary people like you and me as God works through us.

(Here are more posts on the theme of hospitality if you’re interested.)

(Not) forsaken


“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These words of Jesus spoken on the cross must be some of the most gut-wrenching words in the entire Bible. They are so shockingly different than most anything else we hear Jesus speak during his ministry. Spoken by a man in unimaginable, excruciating pain, they reveal the agony Jesus is experiencing.

And indeed, Jesus has been forsaken. He has been forsaken by the religious and political systems of his day. He has been forsaken by his closest friends. And, as he bears the sin of humanity, he is, for the first time ever, forsaken by his Father. Jesus has become sin on our behalf. Because sin can never come into God’s presence, the One bearing sin is forsaken by God.

When Jesus utters these words, people mistake them as a cry to the prophet Elijah. Jewish custom suggests that Elijah might return to earth in a crisis to help those who are righteous. So the people hear Jesus calling for help. The irony is that not only do the people misunderstand Jesus’ words as referring to Elijah, they do not see that they are the ones needing help. And the One dying on the cross is doing so to help, to rescue the unsuspecting people around him.

Did you notice that while all this is happening, an eerie darkness has fallen over the land for three hours? It’s as though creation itself cannot bear to watch. The literal darkness parallels the darkness of the forsakenness being experienced on the cross.

But, digging deeper, it turns out that forsakenness is not the end of the story. Yes, Easter is coming in the next chapter, but there is a glimmer of hope already in Jesus’ words on the cross. The words Jesus says do not just come off the cuff. Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. It’s a psalm of lament, a psalm expressing pain over things going terribly wrong. So terribly wrong that the poet feels like he has been forsaken by God. However, like most psalms of lament, Psalm 22 moves from expressions of pain to declarations of confidence in God’s deliverance. If Jesus could have, I think he would have recited the entire psalm. By quoting its opening line, yes, he describes his pain, but he is also referencing the entire psalm which also includes these lines:

…He has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him

but has listened to his cry for help…
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him.

In a surprising way, the words of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus on the cross offer us hope. They help us see beyond the unjust suffering Jesus is experiencing to hear instead an expression of faith in the God who listens to cries for help and comes to rescue. That means forsakenness is not the last word in Psalm 22 nor for Jesus.

The Gospel records that Jesus speaks these words during the third hour of darkness. That means he speaks them as the darkness is beginning to break and the sky is lighting up again. The growing light reflects how Jesus’ faith in God is not misplaced. Like the darkness, the forsakenness has an ending, and God’s glory and grace will be revealed through the death and resurrection of his Son.

In the face of brokenness in the world and brokenness in my own life, my faith in God is also not misplaced. I find hope in knowing and experiencing the deep love of the Father for us, vast beyond all measure, that he should give his only Son to make a wretch – you and me – his treasure.

Praying for Ukraine

Last Wednesday evening, the church gathered to pray. Not a specific congregation, but a good number of the people of God from the Rock Valley area. And we prayed for Ukraine and Russia. For me personally (and as was echoed in the prayer I offered on Wednesday), a psalm and a song give me words for the situation in eastern Europe. I’d like to share them with you here.

Psalm 54 (NIV)

Can you hear God’s people in Ukraine praying these words?
Can you pray these words in solidarity with them?

Save me, O God, by your name;
vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
listen to the words of my mouth.
Arrogant foes are attacking me;
ruthless people are trying to kill me—
people without regard for God.
Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.
Let evil recoil on those who slander me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.
I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you;
I will praise your name, Lord, for it is good.
You have delivered me from all my troubles,
and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.

Bring Peace to Earth Again

Where armies scourge the countryside,
and people flee in fear;
where sirens scream through flaming nights,
and death is ever near:
O God of mercy, hear our prayer:
bring peace to earth again!

O God, whose heart compassionate
bears every human pain,
redeem this violent, wounding world
till gentleness shall reign.
O God of mercy, hear our prayer:
bring peace to earth again!

written by Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr.
© 1996 World Library Publications
This hymn is included in Lift Up Your Hearts and at Hymnary.

Halima

Recently my wife and I heard Halima’s story. Originally from Afghanistan, Halima has lived in northwest Iowa for several years and studied at Northwestern College in Orange City. Each summer she returns home to Afghanistan to visit family. This past summer she nearly became trapped in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over Kabul. She narrowly managed to get a flight back to the US. Sadly, she had to leave her husband and family behind. Upon returning to the US, Halima served as a translator for the US Army at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin as the Army dealt with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Currently she works at the Mary Treglia House in Sioux City, a 100-year-old organization that helps people from other countries – including many from Afghanistan these days – make a new home in northwest Iowa.

As I listened to Halima and the needs of Afghans arriving in northwest Iowa, I thought of a story Jesus tells that includes this part:

The righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Afghan refugees arriving in northwest Iowa find themselves in a foreign environment, grateful to be safe from the Taliban, but also uncertain and vulnerable in regards to finances, work, language, and cultural expectations. They need people to help feed them by navigating a grocery store together with them. They need people to donate clothes suitable for cold Iowa winters. They need people to warmly invite them into their lives and befriend them. And along the way our new Afghan neighbors will hopefully learn English, adjust to northwest Iowa, and begin giving back to their community. If you feel nudged to befriend an Afghan family that’s new to the area, contact the Mary Treglia House – marytreglia.org or 712.258.5137.

Our Afghan neighbors also need Americans to advocate for them. To put it simply, newly-arrived refugees have one year to get their immigration paperwork in order; however, the system is so backlogged that refugees and their supporters fear they will not be able to take their next steps to permanent residency or citizenship in time. Members of Congress are considering an Afghan Adjustment Act to expedite the process, similar to when Laotians came to northwest Iowa after the Vietnam War. If you’d like to investigate advocating for our Afghan neighbors, go to this page at the National Immigration Forum.

Unless we have an indigenous background, all of us have an immigration story in our family history not unlike Halima’s. And you could say that those of us who follow Christ have immigrated from our hell-bound destinations to being welcomed into the Kingdom of God. It makes sense that people with that kind of story welcome other immigrants too.

This was my contribution to the Perspectives column
in
The Rock Valley Bee a couple weeks ago.

Light in the darkness

Graphic from Floris United Methodist Church, Herndon, VA

There’s this guy walking down the street who suddenly falls into a deep hole he did not see coming. It’s dark in the hole and the walls are steep.

A psychiatrist happens by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me out here?” The doctor writes a prescription for Prozac and throws it down the hole.

A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Father, can you help me out here?” The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it down the hole.

Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the guy says. “Now we’re both stuck!”

“Nah,” the friend says, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

:: :: ::

I love the way this story (retold by Scott Hoezee) describes my life. Sometimes things feel very dark, like I’m in a deep hole. I’ve felt this way when someone has died, when I’ve been stressed out, when the future looks uncertain. And that says nothing about the darkness in my life caused by sin – my own stupid mistakes as well as all the brokenness in the world that impacts my life. Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in a dark hole.

Even more, I love the way this story expresses the power in relationships. Things are never quite so sad, so strained, or so scary when there’s someone with me. And when things are going well for me, this story reminds me to be the friend for someone else who feels stuck somewhere.

Mostly though I love this story because it reminds me of how Jesus is the best friend who has come down to where I’m stuck. No matter what dark hole I find myself in, he knows what I’m experiencing and offers me a peace that passes understanding. More than that, he’s strong enough to fight the power of sin in my life. In fact, he’s been in the darkest, scariest hole ever: the grave. And he even knows the way out of there!

Much of the time I feel like I need to figure out a way to get up to God. Like I need to get his attention or impress him before he’ll notice me. The fact is God came down to me in the person of his Son, Jesus. That’s what Advent and Christmas are all about this month.

Jesus is the light of the world and of my life, bringing hope to the dark places. His is the light that shows the way and illuminates God’s love for me even when my love for him is shaky and unimpressive. And he is the friend who takes away my loneliness, forgives my sin, and even promises me eternal life.

You can’t find a better friend than that for the holidays and all year round.

These reflections appeared in last week’s Rock Valley Bee.

Home

My family traveled back to British Columbia this past summer to see parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins. When we arrived at the Canada border, we showed the border agent our Canadian passports. Canada and US flags graphic found with GoogleAfter satisfactorily answering his questions, he allowed us into Canada by saying, “Welcome home!”

At the conclusion of our trip, we crossed the American border to catch our flight out of Seattle. We showed the border agent there proof that we’re permanent residents (our “green cards”). After satisfactorily answers his questions, he allowed us into the United States by saying, “Welcome home!”

“Welcome home.” We heard those words both when we crossed into Canada and then again a few weeks later when we crossed back in the United States.

As a Christian, I believe that I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom – his reign that is already coming now and that will come in fullness when Jesus returns. Through his Holy Spirit, God is at work in Canada and the United States, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Sometimes his work is obvious; often it happens in small, barely noticeable ways. No matter where I am on this planet, a part of me should be able to hear “welcome home,” knowing God and his people are already there furthering his Kingdom presence and priorities.

I remember when we first moved to Rock Valley, it seemed no matter where we went – the bank, the grocery store, a restaurant – at least one person there knew us by name, whether an employee or another customer. I thought it was a little creepy. Were people following us around, seeing where we did business and analyzing what we all bought?? It felt foreign, not at all like our previous home in British Columbia. But we quickly realized that’s part of the charm of small town life and we’ve come to love the friendly, familiar faces around town.

While we were in British Columbia this summer, I stopped at the bank one afternoon and spoke with a teller. There I was just another customer, a number in the system. It has been that way nearly as long as I can remember. I do not expect any employee at any Royal Bank branch anywhere in Canada to know my name. Yet all of a sudden, despite everything being normal, standing in that Canadian bank felt foreign.

Because I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom, I also believe that nowhere on earth will feel completely at home on this side of Jesus’ return. I am grateful for familiar sights, smells, and sounds, but realize that they are either only temporary or faint previews of much richer things to come when God’s reign is seen and embraced in full.

Welcome home? Yes – in part today. One day there will be no more international borders and all who are in Christ will feel at home in ways we only begin to sense now.

I wrote these reflections for this week’s “Perspectives” column
in the
Rock Valley Bee. I noted we moved to Rock Valley
9 years ago this month.

Bow and arrow

Near the beginning of the Bible is the famous story of the flood. God’s response to the grievous sin in the world is to destroy everything on earth, save Noah, his family, and all the animals on the ark. After the flood waters recede, Noah’s family and the floating zoo emerge on dry land. And then God makes a promise: “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God seals this promise with an everlasting sign in the sky: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Now, where we read rainbow, the original Hebrew only has bow; everywhere else in the Old Testament this word is used, it is used literally as a bow, as in a bow and arrow. The curved arc of a rainbow
is meant to remind us of a the curved arc of a bow. In Bible times, the bow was a deadly weapon of war. A bow struck fear in the hearts of Old Testament people maybe like tanks or machine guns do in people today.

But the rainbow in the sky shows us we no longer have to fear God’s weaponry. The late CRC Pastor John Timmer puts it this way: The rainbow symbolizes that “God has hung up His bow and will never again be provoked to use this weapon against His creation… Never again will there be judgments that annihilate everything.”

Picture this with me: If the rainbow in the sky reminds us of the curve of a bow and arrow, that makes the horizon the string of the bow. If you put an arrow in this bow in the sky, in what direction is the arrow pointing? The arrow is pointed away from the earth and pointed toward heaven, toward God. God is essentially saying,Rainbow and arrow graphic from FeedingOnChrist.com If this weapon ever needs to be used again, it will strike me.

And isn’t that exactly what happened? Thousands of years after Noah hammered nails into the ark, Romans hammered nails into the hands and feet of God in the flesh, Jesus, crucified on the cross. Ultimately, the arrow is aimed at the cross where God takes the curse of our sin and the brokenness of creation on Himself. Jesus is stricken; He suffers and He dies on that cross, taking upon Himself our sin.

Every rainbow reminds us of how instead of bending towards destruction, God’s heart repeatedly, over and over again bends towards grace. God does not give up on His creation. God does not give up on you or me. He comes. He rescues and saves – just like he did with Noah, his family, and all the animals on the ark.

I got the idea to preach a series of messages on Noah and the flood, the ark and the Gospel from my colleague and fellow student at Regent College, Paul Donison, rector and dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Plano, Texas. You can listen to his message on the rainbow here. His entire series about the Gospel in the flood is worth listening to.

First and above all

This year’s 8th grade graduates at Rock Valley Christian School graciously invited me to speak at their graduation. They asked me to offer a few reflections on their grad text, Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

It occurred to me that you actually hear this invitation, this call to love all over the Bible: Joshua, David, the prophets, the apostlesGreatest Commandment graphic found with Googlethey all call God’s people to ditch false gods and love the Lord their God with all they are. Jesus himself says it’s tied at first place as the most important command of all – right up there with loving the people around you. From the secrets deep within you to the very tips of your fingers, from the core of your identity to your every action, the Bible calls people to love God first and above all.

Loving God, as I told the graduates, is all about honoring him, deeply respecting him, and obeying his good will for us as described in the Bible. We can choose to love God similarly to how we can choose how we treat our parents or siblings, or how a certain pair of jeans or a video game becomes our favorite because we choose to wear it or play it over and over. Our choices are connected with what we love.

So I encouraged the graduates to make the choice to love God before and above anything or anyone else.

I was quick to add, though, that their ability to choose to love God is possible only because he first chooses to love them. If it weren’t for his creative power in making us, his redeeming power in saving us, and his ongoing power in equipping us, we’d never choose to love God. If God waited for us to sign up to honor, respect, and obey him, he’d be waiting for eternity.

Can we respond perfectly to God’s call to love him first and foremost? No. And God knows we can’t. Only one Person in history could keep all God’s commands perfectly. Many years after Moses preached Deuteronomy 6 to the people, God sent him – the Father sent Jesus “to stand in our place and be perfect for us,” to quote The Jesus Storybook Bible. Keeping commandments and rules won’t save us. Only God in Christ saves us because he love us.

I concluded with reminding the graduates that the Holy Spirit is working in each one of them, empowering them to reflect God’s great love back at him and the people he puts in their lives. Through their grad text, that’s what God was inviting them to do that very day, this summer, as they begin high school, and for the rest of their lives. I believe it’s good news and good advice for everyone regardless of when they will finish school or how long it’s been since they’ve graduated.

This is the column I wrote for today’s Rock Valley Bee
based on my grad address at RVCS.