The 23rd Psalm

Tonight, at one of our local jails, I will teach from the 23rd Psalm for the third time in the past 10 days. If you have a half an hour to spare you can listen to it here and view the slides here. Here are the words:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

-A psalm of David-

In this message I announced to our church that I would be leaving our pastoral staff to re-enter the world of retirement. This new transition is a bittersweet one but should be very helpful to our family. I am hoping to be able to spend more time writing and being with my beautiful wife Ann.

Highlighted Bible Words

Over at the Kansas Bob blog I played with wordle summarizing all of my June posts. I thought it was interesting to see which words from June came to the forefront. So when I saw these wordles at the ESV blog site I just had to post them.

The first wordle is one of the English Standard Version New Testament:

Tag cloud of the ESV New Testament created by Wordle. The most prominent words are “God,” Jesus,” Christ,” and “Lord.”

The second is a wordle of the complete ESV bible:

Tag cloud of the ESV Bible created by Wordle. The most prominent words are “Lord,” “God,” “said,” and “people.”

I thought that it was fascinating to see which words were highlighted in the bible. Of course words like Lord, God and common words like said, land and people were highlighted. Interesting to see how words like Heaven, disciples, Spirit and kingdom come to light in the New Testament.. of course Jesus and Christ are the main words of the NT.

Any word(s) jump out at you? Don't look too hard though.. don't want to give anyone a headache :)

Unexpected Blessings

Tony Snow passed away today at the age of 53. I am re-posting this piece that I published last December as a remembrance of Tony. Please join me in praying for God's peace and comfort for his family.

Back in March US Presidential Press Secretary Tony Snow, 51, a husband and father of three, announced that cancer had returned, with tumors found in his abdomen.. this led to surgery in April, followed by chemotherapy. Today a friend sent me an email pointing me to an article that Tony wrote in July for Christianity Today titled Cancer's Unexpected Blessings. Here are a few excerpts from the article with my comments interspersed:
Blessings arrive in unexpected packages—in my case, cancer.

Those of us with potentially fatal diseases—and there are millions in America today—find ourselves in the odd position of coping with our mortality while trying to fathom God's will. Although it would be the height of presumption to declare with confidence What It All Means, Scripture provides powerful hints and consolations.

The first is that we shouldn't spend too much time trying to answer the why questions: Why me? Why must people suffer? Why can't someone else get sick? We can't answer such things, and the questions themselves often are designed more to express our anguish than to solicit an answer.

I don't know why I have cancer, and I don't much care. It is what it is—a plain and indisputable fact. Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out.
To begin, I have to say that I was humbled by Tony's writing.. he is eloquent and communicates with sensitivity and with a deep spirituality. I love how he says don't spend a lot of time asking the why questions.. it is often really difficult to get past 'why'.
The mere thought of dying can send adrenaline flooding through your system. A dizzy, unfocused panic seizes you. Your heart thumps; your head swims. You think of nothingness and swoon. You fear partings; you worry about the impact on family and friends. You fidget and get nowhere. To regain footing, remember that we were born not into death, but into life—and that the journey continues after we have finished our days on this earth.
Wow, what a description of the fear of dying. These days the idea of hope seems to just inhabit every part of me. I love how Tony says that we were born unto life.
God relishes surprise. We want lives of simple, predictable ease—smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see—but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension—and yet don't. By his love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.
I so wish that this wasn't true.. unfortunately it is. I truly began to mature spiritually when I was forced to deal with my first wife's illness and death. Hardship, pain and suffering takes us to spiritual places that nothing else can take us to.
Picture yourself in a hospital bed. The fog of anesthesia has begun to wear away. A doctor stands at your feet; a loved one holds your hand at the side. "It's cancer," the healer announces.

The natural reaction is to turn to God and ask him to serve as a cosmic Santa. "Dear God, make it all go away. Make everything simpler." But another voice whispers: "You have been called." Your quandary has drawn you closer to God, closer to those you love, closer to the issues that matter—and has dragged into insignificance the banal concerns that occupy our "normal time."
"You have been called." This statement caught me off guard.. it is a statement that my flesh cries out against.. I do not want to be called to hardship.. but something deep in my soul understands the truth of this calling.
The moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change. You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft. Faith may be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But it also draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies.
I identify more with fearful caution.. I don't like the thrills, dangers and shocks.. but I also identify with boldness, triumphs and epiphanies.
Finally, we can let love change everything. When Jesus was faced with the prospect of crucifixion, he grieved not for himself, but for us. He cried for Jerusalem before entering the holy city. From the Cross, he took on the cumulative burden of human sin and weakness, and begged for forgiveness on our behalf.

We get repeated chances to learn that life is not about us—that we acquire purpose and satisfaction by sharing in God's love for others. Sickness gets us partway there.

I would have bristled at these words if spoken by someone else. We all know.. to some degree.. that it is not all about us.. but it is so hard to hear when we hurt so much. In a sense this is the main truth of life.. love is not meant to be kept.. it is meant to be shared.
The mere thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness more luminous and intense. We may not know how our contest with sickness will end, but we have felt the ineluctable touch of God.

What is man that Thou art mindful of him? We don't know much, but we know this: No matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter how bleak or frightening our prospects, each and every one of us, each and every day, lies in the same safe and impregnable place—in the hollow of God's hand.
Tony leads up to this ending by telling a story about a friend that had cancer and died from it. He shared about how this man lifted him up and encouraged him. I guess that is what Tony did for me today when I read his article (read it in total here). I hope this encouraged you and lifted you up.. I hope that it was an unexpected blessing.

The Miracle Lottery

Lately I have been telling friends that praying for a miracle for my wife seems a lot like buying a lottery ticket.. and the chances of seeing a miracle seem to resemble those of winning Powerball.. one in a billion or so. I started thinking about this a bit and wondering about this kind of mentality.

People who regularly buy lottery tickets seem to be people who are looking for a quick fix.. they want to see results fast but don't want to put a lot of effort into getting results. I admit that is the way that I feel sometimes - life is very hard at times and I want a healing miracle.. and I want it NOW!

Maybe I need to pause a minute and talk about what I mean when I say miracle.. some folks attribute everything from coincidental happenings and ministry donations to the miraculous. Here is a definition that I resonate with:
An effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.
Now that I have got that one out of the way, I have to ask:
So what is wrong with wanting a miracle?
Probably nothing - unless it short circuits your life and hinders the forward progress of it. Often a desire for a miracle can be likened to a state of denial.. a way that the body copes with trauma or loss.. and it is okay for a season.. but when it is prolonged it becomes problematic because it prevents us from accepting our state of being and makes contentment very difficult.

Religious people will often use scripture to deny the reality of their situation. Some will use this verse which speaks of Abraham's faith:
He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. -Romans 4:17b
Folks in the Word of Faith sect will often use this verse to "confess" things that are not as though they were. They believe that one can confess unseen spiritual realities into seen realities. To be sure, I am not against such confessions as long as the Holy Spirit leads a person to do it. My experience is that most of such confessions is head-based and has little to do with the Spirit.

Back to the miracle lottery mentality. You might ask if I even believe in miracles and, in light of what I have written, is it wrong to pray for a miracle? The answers, of course, are yes I believe in miracles with all of my heart and I will continue to ask for them with all of my heart! What I will not do, however, is to live my life in anticipation of miracles. This may rub some wrong.. if it does please tell me what that kind of life looks like.

My heart is to live an overcoming life.. a life that does not require a miracle.. a life that says that I can overcome difficulty through grace. The Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Corinthians:
So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul inspires me.. and I can relate to begging prayers.. he inspires me to develop a different attitude.. one that doesn't need a miracle to be happy.. but of course I do still want one :)