God in the desert

It strikes me how many Bible stories take place in a desert. I talked about this a few weeks ago in a message I gave at Trinity CRC, observing that it makes sense for the desert to figure so prominently in Scripture because the two geographical features that continually seem to wrestle for control in the Holy Land are the sea and the desert sand. One Bible dictionary describes how the wind rages across Middle Eastern deserts, “driving plants, animals, and people before it like chaff.” The dictionary entry goes on to say how people believed the desert was a place where only “divine intervention offers deliverance from death.”

Desert photo found with Google.

Long ago, I learned from James Houston how biblical deserts are not only geographic locales but also a symbol of the periods in our lives when we need to be tested and learn the ways of the Lord. These are difficult times. However, it’s in a desert experience – when I feel disoriented and uncertain – that I may best learn to trust God in deeper ways than if everything were fine.

Despite the cards, lights, parties, presents, and general festive cheer, Christmastime can feel like a desert. Loneliness, seasonal affective disorder, family being far away, financial strain, or grief over an absent loved one easily make this a difficult time of the year.

It’s not a typical Christmas text, but the Song of Moses gives me courage when I feel blue this time of year: It reminds me how God never abandons me in my desert experiences. Even “in a desert land” or “in a barren and howling waste,” God finds me, just as He found and led the Israelites in ancient times. He not only finds me (even though that would be enough!), He also shields and cares for me; He guards me “as the apple of His eye.”

Mind you, that doesn’t automatically make the desert a challenge-free place. Moses sings of how God is like the mother eagle who “stirs up her nest” and pushes out her chicks. They need to learn to fly, not always play it safe in the nest. But the mother still “spreads her wings to catch them and carries them aloft” as they struggle and learn. Similarly, followers of Jesus are always being pushed out of the nest, out of our comfort zone somehow or other as the Holy Spirit dares us to dream and risk and redefine impossible as we pursue God’s mission for us. And even when it feels most difficult, God never drops or forgets any of His people.

I dare say one of the reasons God allows me to experience a challenging time, a desert place, is so that I can better experience Him. When I am worn out and dried up, I have nowhere else to turn except to God, the One who shields and cares for me. God leads me in my desert experiences and makes me better despite – or because – of them.

Granted, He doesn’t necessarily promise to entirely remove me from the desert – at least not on this side of the new heavens and new earth. But He does promise to never forsake me or leave me on my own. He didn’t find me in the first place just to give up on or lose me.

With God’s presence and in His strength, even a barren or blue Christmas can become a bit more of a joyous Christmas for me. And if I can share that Good News with someone else, maybe it’ll bring a bit more joy to their Christmas, too.



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.

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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.”

Dale Vander Veen to receive his free, biblical, inspiring
daily devotional emails:

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.


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.