Wildfires

Our family had a great time reconnecting with our parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, and friends in British Columbia this past month. And, as always, I enjoyed being back in the mountains and made the most of opportunities to hike some trails, including the Abby Grind and the Othello Tunnels / Hope-Nicola Valley Trail.

For the last week or so of our vacation, however, the mountains were obscured by smoke of the wildfires still burning in BC. Instead of clear mountain vistas, we often awoke to hazy skies. The wildfires also closed several highways between Prince George and Abbotsford, forcing us to detour over the Yellowhead Highway from Prince George east to Tête Jaune Cache and then south to Kamloops, Hope, Cache Creek wildfire photo from CBCand Abbotsford. We drove past barricaded highways and towns on evacuation alert.

Ashcroft First Nation fire damage photo from CBC

 

 

 

 

 

 

As it so happened, Michael W. Smith’s CD Sovereign provided the soundtrack for part of the drive. As we were driving through Little Fort, a town where the residents had returned following an evacuation but remained on high alert, the song “Sovereign Over Us” started playing with its reminders of God’s strength in our sorrows. These lines were especially appropriate:

You’ve not forgotten us;
You’re with us through the fire and the flood.

The bridge helps us confess:

Even in the valley You are faithful,
You’re working for our good,
You’re working for our good and for Your glory.

Literally and figuratively, God is present with His people in hazy valleys and fiery circumstances. That doesn’t necessarily make traveling through those valleys or enduring the flames easy. But it does assure me that I’m not traveling through them alone.

The difference between fishing and catching

At Dordt College’s Day of Encouragement at the beginning of the month, local blogger and author Jennifer Dukes Lee spoke about her favorite childhood vacation memories with her parents which regularly included going fishing with her dad. Her dad always said there’s a difference between “fishing” and “catching.” Sure, actually Father and daughter fishing picture found via Googlecatching some fish is nice, but Jennifer’s dad insisted that he loved just spending time fishing with his daughter. He wanted to spend time with her regardless of how many fish she caught.

That time spent fishing with her loving dad taught Jennifer a good deal about her heavenly Father: God loves for us to spend time with Him and He loves us before we have anything to prove to Him. As Philip Yancey says, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more… and nothing we can do to make God love us less.”

Jennifer shared how she began to understand that the good life is not so much about productivity as it is about presence – presence with others, in the presence of God Himself. When it came to her dad, the catching was not nearly as significant as the time just spent fishing. When it comes to our heavenly Father, we don’t need to work hard to get His approval – Jesus takes care of that.

So life isn’t so much about counting fish, counting calories, accolades, or the money in my bank account. Life is counting on God and His grace.

The other miracle of the Transfiguration

(I wrote this a few years ago, but recently speaking at Trinity CRC on the Transfiguration brought it to mind again.)

::– –::– –::

If there’s one disadvantage to knowing Bible stories, it’s that they don’t always surprise us anymore.

Take the story of Jesus’ transfiguration for example. This is the Transfiguration of Jesus artwork by Andrew Grayincredible, mountaintop experience that confirms for the disciples Jesus’ authority and glory. That Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white and that Moses and Elijah show up to spend time with the Lord is all pretty amazing and must have boosted the disciples’ faith as well as encouraged Jesus. But what happens next is equally amazing, even though we easily miss it every time.

If you can, pretend you’ve never read this story before. Call to mind that just before Jesus and the disciples ascend the mountain, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (even though he has little idea what that means) and Jesus promises that people around Him will surely not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.” Now here is Jesus on the mountain, His divinity and mission confirmed by His Father. If we didn’t already know what happens next, we might think the next logical step would be for Moses and Elijah to escort Jesus into the heavenly realms where He visibly reigns for all earth to see. From there Jesus fires down photon torpedoes on the hypocritical religious leaders of the day and nukes the detested Romans! Yay! The End.

If we didn’t already know the story, that might be one way we’d guess it would go. I think the way it indeed ends is actually even more amazing: Jesus returns down the mountain with the disciples. Jesus remains with the disciples.

Had Jesus actually been given the choice to return to heaven or stay with the disciples, He would have chosen to stay. Jesus insists on being “on the way” with His friends and followers. He doesn’t finally join up with us at the end when we at last have everything figured out. No, He is with us always. His grace is truly amazing (to say nothing about His patience, considering how His disciples then and today regularly misunderstand and misrepresent Him). I like how one of my commentaries on Mark’s Gospel puts it:

Jesus is with the disciples. The disciples – then as now – are not expected to go it alone in this hard and joyous thing of discipleship.
———– James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 269

Mountaintop experiences are great, and we can be thankful for them.  But they don’t last. The surprising Good News is that we don’t encounter Jesus only on the mountaintops. He does not reserve His presence for the lucky few who can occasionally find themselves on spiritual highs. Jesus is with us in the dark valleys of trouble and suffering as surely as we sense His nearness on a mountaintop.

Perhaps it is in the dark, low, painful, weak places that we especially experience Jesus’ tender presence and strength, and there are able to truly glory in Him.

Artwork by Andrew Gray found at WordLive.
Original 4th Point post: High Mountains, Dark Valleys.

Saying “Here I am” to the One who says “Here am I”

I’ve loved Daniel L. Schutte’s song “Here I Am, Lord” ever since I first heard it years ago. It’s a beautiful expression of offering our lives to God. I love the song even more now having read Dale Vander Veen connect our dedication in saying, “Here I am” with God declaring to us, “Here am I.” The following reflections were written by Dale and appear here with this gracious permission.

::– –::– –::

When God called to Abraham, Abraham respondedHere I am.” When the angel of the Lord called to Abraham, Abraham again responded, “Here I am.

When the angel of God called to Jacob in a dream, Jacob responded, “Here I am.” When God called to Jacob in a night vision, Jacob again responded, “Here I am.

When God called to Moses from a bush, Moses responded, “Here I am.

When the Lord called three times to Samuel, each time Samuel went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” When the Lord called a fourth time to Samuel, Samuel, following Eli’s advice, responded, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Isaiah “saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne.” When he then “heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” Isaiah responded, “Here am I. Send me!”

Sobering words of call from God, stirring words of response from the called. When I hear God calling, like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah, I must say, “Here I am.” But surely, there must be fear in their words and in mine. I am willing, Lord, but am I ready? I am available, but am I able? Willing heart, but also queasy stomach, dry mouth, shaking hands, quivering lips.

To every person who has ever heard a call from God and responded “in weakness with great fear and trembling,” these words come from God to and through Isaiah: “You will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here am I.’”

God calls. I respond, “Here I am.”
I call. God responds, “Here am I.”


Contact
Dale Vander Veen to receive his free, biblical, inspiring
daily devotional emails:
dalevanderveen@sbcglobal.net.

Seeing God

It was Philip who said to Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” He was looking for visual and tangible evidence to back up Jesus’ words.

Proof.

Philip’s words are also mine: If only I could see God directly – even just for a moment – to validate my faith and hope and expectations.

Jesus’ reply to Philip’s request and my request is straight to the point: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” In other words, if I want to catch a glimpse of God, look at Jesus. And, as it turns out, He’s actually pretty easy to find. But He’s also easy to ignore…

He might be standing by Himself,
waiting for me to notice Him.

He might young; He might be old;
He might be a man, woman, or child.

His voice may echo in a friend’s words of encouragement.
His face may reflect in the kindness of a complete stranger.

He might be among the poor with their outstretched hands.
He might be moving in the heart of a wealthy entrepreneur.

He’ll be shining bright in the sunrise I quietly soak up alone.
He’ll be present where two or more are gathered in His name.

He heals a broken body.
He brings peace in a moment of pain.

He prompts me to taste His goodness in the Communion bread.
He invites me to remember His call in the waters of baptism.

He is speaking through the words of the Bible.
He is whispering to my heart an answer to my prayer.


…It might just be a smile, a nod, a hug, a word, a gesture, a moment. Something big or – perhaps more likely – something small. Something easy to ignore and entirely miss.



I wonder… As an imagebearer of our Father filled with His Holy Spirit, do people who are watching catch a glimpse or hear an echo of Jesus in me?

Like a dove in the desert

Monica and I attended a Cursillo retreat at nearby Inspiration Hills over the past two weekends – a memorable experience for both of us.

One of the men in my group had a pretty rough past – broken marriage and family, trouble with the law, addictions to drinking and drugs. But just over a year ago, he surrendered his life to Christ and he’s a new man! He and his family are being reconciled; he finished serving his time; and for a year now he’s been clean from drinking, drugs, and even smoking.

He shared with our group that his favorite psalm is Psalm 55 – not one I knew right offhand. And the favorite part of his favorite psalm is this:

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee far away
and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm.”
(vss. 6-8)

While broken and addicted, he yearned for the freedom he perceived in the dove. And after giving his life to Jesus, he found that freedom. The Lord is the rest and shelter for which he was longing. Alleluia!

Dove graphic found via Google

Reflecting some more on the words of the psalm, I found myself asking “Why a dove?” Why does David – the poet of Psalm 55 – refer to a dove and not a more powerful bird like an eagle, or a more colorful bird like a parrot? Perhaps it’s because, as Robert Davidson explains, “the dove nests safe and secure on the cliff face on the inaccessible sides of a gorge.” Perhaps it has something to do with the tenacity of that dove that left Noah’s ark and survived and thrived in the difficult post-flood environment. The psalmist is searching for a refuge – the kind available to common birds but that eludes David, a king and imagebearer of the King of kings.

Then I found myself asking a second question: “Why the desert?” Why does David want to fly away to the desert and not somewhere fun like Florida or perhaps back to the comfort of his home? My guess is that it has something to do with how throughout history, God consistently and powerfully encountered and guided His people in the desert. I think, for example, of the Israelites in the desert during their Exodus from Egypt. As Moses sang, “In a desert land he found him [Israel], in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye.” Yearning for the desert reveals David’s search for a sanctuary in which he’ll be in communion with God, his refuge and strength.

Thanks to my new friend from Cursillo, this psalm has become for me a beautiful expression of the freedom and communion for which I long to experience. God invites me to experience such freedom and communion in Him when He is my refuge and strength. The psalm’s promises are enduring: “The Lord saves” and “He rescues” (55:16, 18). My trust in Him is well placed for now and eternity.

Touched by an angel

Acts 12 has always been a favorite part of the story from the early church for me. Peter’s miraculous escape from prison makes for Liberation of St. Peter by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667exciting reading!

Daily devotional writer Dale Vander Veen recently helped me appreciate the story even more when he pointed out how Peter and then, at the end of the chapter, Herod are both “struck” by an angel (12:7 & 23). The same word is used to describe what the angel does to both these two men. But the results are completely opposite: Peter is freed and lives; Herod falls ill and dies. We don’t know whether it’s the same angel, but my guess is that it is.

Picture the scene: Peter is sitting in prison, awaiting trial before Herod. The church is praying. Peter thinks he’s isolated, on his own, but “suddenly an angel of the Lord appear[s] and a light [shines] in the cell. [The angel strikes] Peter on the side and [wakes] him up. ‘Quick, get up!’ he [says], and the chains [fall] off Peter’s wrists” (12:7). “And,” writes Dale Vander Veen, “the rest is history. Peter is escorted out of prison, a free man.”

At the end of the chapter, pompous Herod is sitting on his royal throne, addressing his fawning subjects. Herod thinks he’s untouchable, in a class of his own. The people begin shouting, “‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’ Immediately, because Herod [does] not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord [strikes] him down, and he [is] eaten by worms and die[s]” (12:22-23). “And,” to again quote Dale, “the rest is no history – at least no history for Herod!”

I have a theory about all this. I cannot prove it, but neither can I disprove it. I not only think that it’s the same angel in both 12:7 and 12:23, but I think he strikes both Peter and Herod in exactly the same way. Yes, the results are polar opposite, but the point of contact itself might have been identical. Allow me to explain…

Herod has set himself up against God. He makes himself the arbiter of truth, persecuting those who disagree with him (see 12:1). He even decides who lives and who dies (see 12:2, 19). And, as if that’s not enough, he welcomes the praise of the people who call him a god. In short, he has completely rejected the one true God, putting himself in God’s place. Therefore, when an agent of the one true God comes in physical contact with Herod, he is appalled by it. It’s like his body rejects like, just as our bodies reject foreign cells or contaminants. Herod is so anti-God that any touch he receives from God feels like poison – consciously or subconsciously, he rejects it. And because God is the God of life, to reject God ultimately leads to death, if not sooner, then later.

Peter, on the other hand, is an apostle of Jesus Christ, spreading the Good News throughout the known world. He loves God and wholeheartedly desires to keep in step with the Holy Spirit to which his two letters attest. Therefore, when an agent of His God comes into physical contact with Peter, it brings life and vitality. His heart, soul, mind, and body welcomes any form of contact with God – whether through the Word, prayer, or even a physical touch. The touch Peter receives is a blessing, not a threat and certainly not a foreign contaminant. Consciously and subconsciously, Peter invites God to work in his life, which brings life, both now and for eternity.

So I cannot help but wonder whether the angel used the same touch on two completely opposite men, resulting in completely opposite reactions – one resulting in sickness and death, one resulting in freedom and life.

Through His Holy Spirit, Jesus seeks to touch people with His love and grace. Yes, the touch may seem painful at first when it brings a realization of sin. But His presence is ultimately meant to bring life for today and forever. He died on the cross and then defeated death by rising on the third day to bring us freedom and life. He longs for us to hear His invitation and draw near to Him. Pray for God to touch you and that when He does, He finds a receptive, welcoming heart.

Do we deserve this such life-giving and faith-building touches from God? No. Because of our sin, we do not. But I am reminded of Someone else who was struck by God. Isaiah prophesied:

“Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by Him and afflicted.
For the transgression of my people
he was stricken.”

When we are in Christ, the touch of God is not deadly, but life-giving. His presence is not something to be feared, but something we eagerly welcome.

Dale’s devotional ended with this blessing: May God “strike you today with just the right amount of force to remind you of his deep, stricken, unfailing love for you.” Then, when we experience His presence, His touch through the Word, sacraments, prayer, creation, and fellowship with others, we will welcome it, and find life, and are nourished in our faith until He welcomes us with His loving embrace when we see Him face to face.

This is an abridged version of a message I gave at Trinity CRC.
You can watch the whole thing
here. Artwork found at Wikipedia.
Contact Dale Vander Veen to receive his free, biblical, inspiring
daily devotional emails:
dalevanderveen@sbcglobal.net.