Failing to Grow: One Middle-aged Man's Hike Along the Appalachian Trail

A few years ago I made a decision to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. I took a two-day hike on the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t on my bucket list or anything, although there were a few times I felt like I was going to “kick the bucket” along the way. It was just one of those things I wanted to try a) to find out what all the excitement was about and b) to see if I could actually make it. Well, I did make it – just barely – and ended up with a few blisters, some sore muscles and a better appreciation for those who actually travel the entire grueling sixth-month journey from Georgia to Maine. In many ways I feel that I failed at the challenge I’d set for myself. While I expected to make a few mistakes along the way, I thought I would have fared better overall. I decided then that I needed to find the meaning within my not-so-successful adventure; otherwise, I’d just be adding insult to injury – literally – to my otherwise mediocre mid-life crisis. What follows are the life lessons – the growth and insights – that have come from my “failure” on the Appalachian Trail.

I was certainly prepared for the rigors of the hike. I was biking 15-20 miles, 5 times a week, to build up my legs and my stamina. I took a few short practice hikes with a smaller pack in order to get used to the pace of hiking. I did all the research on proper trail camping techniques from bear bagging to water treatment. I found a nifty free GPS app for my phone to keep me from getting lost and I bought some new hiking gear – not the best, but enough to get the job done. And so, after planning a reasonable route and filling my pack, I decided finally to just go ahead and do it. But, as with any good adventure, no matter how much I might prepare for every contingency, I knew there would be challenges to face along the way.

I was a little overweight for the hike – and by that, I mean my gear. I like to sleep comfortably and bug-free, so I brought along a tent, a sleeping bag and a pad. My “sleep system” alone weighed about 8 pounds, the result of purchasing less expensive, more multi-use equipment. With my food, clothing and other gear, I was sporting about 27 pounds of weight on my back, awkwardly arranged and bungeed together as best I could. My one really poor choice was not investing in a new pair of hiking shoes. I went instead with the trusty 20-year-old clunky, indestructible hiking boots I had acquired when I was first married. While my ankles felt loved and supported, my feet definitely did not.  

I arrived at my starting point in the early afternoon – the time my ride was available to take me – and began the hike. My chauffer, my lovely bride, was not entirely happy to see me go. She had visions of her husband being eaten by ravenous bear or falling down into a bottomless ravine with no one around to help. Though her lack of confidence in my hiking abilities should have diminished my enthusiasm, I reminded myself that her anxiety came from her love. Knowing that she cared gave me inner strength to see the journey through. With that love to carry me – I had to carry everything else – I began my solo trek on the road toward the trail. At first, the way was smooth and level. This was easy enough, I thought. In no time at all, I arrived at my first shelter, took some time to explore it and then decided that it was way too early in the day to stay there. I set my sights on the next shelter on the trail, a “mere” 10 miles away (It looked so much closer on the map!), and moved on.

Okay, I’ll admit that was poor choice number 2! My lively, 2-3 mile-per-hour sprint began quickly to slow to more of a careful stroll as the trail took a turn upward in elevation over more rocky terrain. It was there I met my first experienced thru-hiker, a man who knew how to pace himself and who was kind enough not to laugh at the arrangement of my gear. He shared some tips and tales from his hike along the trail. He was wise enough to stop at a campsite along the way; I kept on going, determined to make it to the next “official” shelter. However, at 8:30 in the evening, I finally resigned myself to the fact that my goal was unattainable, found a flat spot on the trail and set up my tent for the night. I admit, while it was exciting (It was as close to meeting Bear Grylls as I’ll ever come!), it was still a little unnerving to be out in the middle of the woods all alone at night. On several occasions, I felt I needed to make some noise to scare away whatever real or imagined creatures were scurrying around my thin taffeta sanctuary. I made it through the night, laughing at my pride-induced predicament while convincing myself that my solar phone charger was in no way the equivalent of a night light. Then at 5:00 am, I packed up and began once more to make my way north toward that elusive shelter. Which way was north again? Thank God for that trusty GPS app!

This time when I arrived at the shelter, even though again it was somewhat early, I decided that my blistered feet had had enough and decided to stay put. I set up my tent on the only 7 feet of non-rocky soil I could find, replenished my water supply and prepared a reconstituted meal in my stainless steel cooking pot. My hiking companion from the previous day showed up a little later and graciously refrained from commenting on my lack of stamina and common sense. He ate a meal and moved on. I met a few other hikers who came to the shelter and listened to their stories while sharing my “trapped in the wilderness with blistered feet” story with as much manliness as I could manage. Afterward, I retied to my tent for the night. This time, after some tossing and turning, I got a little bit better sleep.

When morning came the next day, my feet decided they had had enough. I bandaged my blisters, which by now were quite painful, phoned my wife, and arranged for an alternate pickup time and location. I packed up quietly and again set off on the trail, walking briskly once more; well, at least I thought so until a professional hiking tour guide came zipping along. He slowed down to engage in polite hiker conversation, looking back every once in a while, apparently to make sure I was still within range to hear him. Right when I was about to suggest that I might be slowing him down, he decided to move on, bid me farewell, and within a minute was out of site, allowing me to concentrate once again on the pain in my feet and my desire to finish the hike. I knew I needed to get to the meeting place soon (I had already told my wife to leave, thinking I would beat her there – when would I learn my lesson?) and so I pressed on with determination and hope.

The next person to pass me on the trail could have been mistaken for a young, male, shirtless Abercrombie & Fitch model, on his way to his next photo shoot. He smiled as he flew by and I was happy he had no time to stop and snicker at this sweaty, blister-footed man with clunky shoes hobbling along and considering the surprising lack of automated defibrillators out on the Appalachian Trail. It was then I began to hear voices – strange, melodious, echoey voices – in the distance. At first, I feared it was the voice of God telling me my time had come; but to my relief I realized it was an announcer over a loudspeaker at an auto racetrack somewhere nearby. As I walked on, I met a man a little closer to my age who had stopped to take some pictures of the area overlooking that racetrack. He was out for a little exercise and was wisely pacing himself, so I was able to pass him off. I was annoyed at the noise from the racetrack, though now I see it as a good thing because it drowned out my grunts and groans as I pushed myself forward to my final destination.

I continued along the trail, thinking about those fast hikers, that loud racetrack and the other man I had met at the overlook. I realized that on the journey of life, it’s good to have goals and to pursue them with all our strength and determination; but it’s also good to take time to stop and notice the little miracles along the way. I marveled at how quickly the fog rose and dissipated over the land by that overlook, delighted in the display of color and diversity within the woods, and contemplated the wonder of life in everything from the moss growing on the rocks by a dried up stream to a bright orange newt warming itself on a log in the morning sun. I came to see that it’s a blessing to accept who we are and where we are on the journey, even when it seems that the world may be passing us by. I also remembered that although pain and struggle can take its toll, it can also push us to test the limits of our abilities and to reach for more.

After another hour or so of hiking, I saw on my map that I was in the home stretch. It was then that I began to experience my greatest pain, as each jagged rock and twisted root dug mercilessly into those blisters. I stubbed my toes more times than I care to count (Curse you natural leafy ground cover!) and experienced new levels of discomfort in my back and knees. As I came to what I thought was the last descent, suddenly ahead of me was one last hill. At that point, my strength began to falter and my discouragement mounted. But I knew my wife was waiting and decided to summon that last once of energy and press on until at last I saw the road near the place we were to meet. With a phone call or two and some quick coordination, we finally found each other

At last the journey had come to an end. We packed up my gear and headed for home. As we were driving, I came to see how much of a sacrifice this short trip had been for my wife – not only in the driving she had done, but in the worry as well. I’m sure she had wondered if the whole thing had been worth it; I know I had certainly pondered that myself. But, in the end, I was glad I’d gone and learned from my mistakes, and pleased that this intense little undertaking had led me to a new appreciation of my own frailty and a new awareness that it really is okay to be human. No matter what blunders I’d made along the way, I know that I’d grown because of them.

As we pulled into our driveway, I was happy to be home, happier to see my children and perhaps happiest to be able to take a shower! Later, I soaked my aching feet, finished off some leftover trail mix and collapsed on the family room couch. By this point I was just too tired to try to come up with a convincing story as to why I had ended my expedition a little earlier than expected. I also knew that any sense of failure I was feeling was giving way to a new determination to accept my limitations with humor and to celebrate my strengths with joy. No matter what I went through, I could now say that I had traveled on the Appalachian Trail and was all the better for it. I knew that my next trip would be a much more rewarding experience, simply because I’d make the changes necessary to have it turn out that way (Sorry, old hiking boots – you’re out!).

Life is about growing, and the truth is, sometimes we need to fail in order to grow. Failure is transformed into grace when we understand how we can use it to become better people, people who learn from mistakes and people who can see ourselves as we really are: struggling but strong, dependent yet determined, curious and courageous! I hope these few simple life lessons will inspire you to strike out on some new unknown trail to find out just what you can do, who you need to rely on and where in your life you’re heading – and I hope you can do it all with a humorous and happy heart!    

Words and Shining Stars

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I’ve always been a man of words. Writing is the way I spell out the wonder of God to a broken world. It is my refuge, my anchor, my strength…and praise God, my weakness! By weakness I don’t mean I’m a poor writer, but rather that when I write I expose the deepest and most vulnerable parts of myself. It’s an awesome adventure and an incredible responsibility to use words to speak truth and healing to a weary world. 

Discovering the true path to sharing words authentically was a long and difficult process. Growing up without a father around, I spent a lot of time looking for security and affirmation in seeking success and cultivating friendships. Sometimes I used my writing to do this, though I think my words were less transparent and often too accommodating to other people’s ideas. I found trying to please people with my writing to be emotionally and spiritually draining, and I knew it was only a facade. I was a man walking around wearing a mask, staring at a crowd of people all wearing masks, clamoring to climb their little ladders of success, living fearful and false lives.

But when I started working with young people, everything changed. It was hard to pretend around them. They could always tell right away when an adult was insincere, and they had no trouble letting that person know they could see it. Their world wasn’t so black and white, either – and their pain was not something I could easily woo with words. In youth ministry I found a new way to use my writing: to help teens recognize their worth and shine in the world. Paul spelled out this principle in his letter to the Philippians: 

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…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.  (Philippians 2:12b-16)

The wonderful truth is that we were made to shine – shine like stars! The only fear we need to have in life is the holy, reverent fear that comes when we realize we stand spiritually naked and completely vulnerable before the God of the whole universe. But it is this same God who works in us so we can become who we were meant to be – stars! But we are not stars who shine our own dim light; no, we have the awesome privilege of shining the light of heaven upon a weary world. When our words reflect this wonderful truth, our lives light up the darkness hidden in hurting hearts. The message is simple: We are meant for beauty, peace and joy; and it is only in the Jesus that we find our rest. The words of a believer should always in some way point to Him. 

TAKE ACTION – 

So how do we live out our calling to use our words to shine for Christ? Here are a few suggestions:

1)    Understand that God is both the source and the direction of all our words. He gives us the words we need to speak healing and hope to those who are broken and lost and He is the One to whom all our words should point.
2)    Practice using your speech and your writing to bring glory to God and speak only truth and love to others. Remember James 3:9-10: With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
3)    Fill your mind and heart every day with God’s Word, and trust that the Holy Spirit will give you the right words to speak at just the right time they need to be spoken (Luke 12:12).
4)    Don’t be afraid to be open and vulnerable with others, to share the truth that you are a saint who sins, that you struggle on this side of heaven and that you need a healing word just as they do.
5)    Finally, hold firm to this great truth: that you are loved and that you were made to shine like stars in the universe! Work out your journey to heaven with holy fear and joy so great that it makes you tremble inside and out!


 

The Cost of Radical Discipleship

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What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? During my years in ministry, I went to quite a few seminars on discipleship and heard a lot of wisdom from some great teachers. I certainly learned a great deal from what they shared; but to be honest, I found that the most important lessons on discipleship came through the relationships I formed with the people I met along the way. The other day I was thinking back to a weekend seminar on discipleship I attended when I was a young youth minister in a new marriage with a new son. I hope sharing a few stories from that time will help to show what discipleship is all about.

Being a disciple is a radical calling. Knowing Jesus Christ turns our whole way of looking at life completely upside down. We cannot give ourselves to Jesus without being caught up in the kind of radical living to which He calls us. During one session at the seminar, we looked at the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. The speaker talked about how the poor, the sorrowful, the meek and even the persecuted are blessed – made joyous in their new condition as creatures of Christ. At my little table there were all sorts of great ministry people, coming with an assortment of sorrows, personal struggles and ministry concerns – even a few of the persecuted – but all with the radical poverty of spirit that a Christian enjoys in Jesus. Just being around them was a blessed experience for me – truly salt and light for my weary soul.

During my time away from home, I spent a lot of time in fasting and prayer – some of it not by choice either! For the first two days of my trip, I caught a nasty little bug that wiped me out. On my first call home to the wife I found out that my young son was upset because the Pastor had told him he was “taking Daddy away.” He didn’t quite understand that daddy would return and so he had been a little anxious and in need of reassurance. That was not what I needed to hear. The antacids were running out, the guilt and homesick feelings were setting in, and I found myself wanting to curl up in bed rather than share my faith with my small group. Though I was unable to eat anything, spiritual food soon came through a woman speaker who spoon fed our gathering tales of family and faith. Her sweet tales about her own children and her struggles to be a mother to them helped to ease some of the stress I was feeling about my own call to be a spouse and a parent. After a few helpings of her message I found myself able to bear my fast and make it through that first night.

At dinner the second night, I found myself sitting next to a man with a speck of unapproachability in his eye. He was a little hard to take; speaking about a stripped-down form of faith that he had come to embrace. Needless to say, it made for some strange dinner conversation. Thank God I noticed the plank of pride and self-pity hanging from my own eye before I became blind to the pain that spoke through his awkward tones. I admit I worried a little if I were wasting my time talking with him. After all, I had come here to learn about discipleship, not to listen to someone’s personal misunderstandings about what I believed. Oh God forgive my arrogance, but I did actually think like that until the Spirit prompted me to listen more deeply to the pain the man was sharing. As I did, I found myself examining my own personal views and the barriers I had put up. I saw how my own arrogance had almost taken away the opportunity to demonstrate what being a disciple is all about. And so I listened and shared and prayed with this man; and though I don’t know if I had any lasting impact on him, I came out of that encounter with a better understanding of the call to radical love from the God of compassion who had loved me when I was unlovable. As I held that man  and the rest of my small group before the Lord in prayer that evening, I could sense God’s presence calling me to let go the fear and pride that was keeping me from moving in new directions for His kingdom. It helped me to release all the worries about the tomorrows He already had in hand.

Through the rest of the time I spent there, I thought a lot about how there is so much about Jesus’ ministry that we today accept without question. Spending so much time in the Word at this gathering helped remind me that when Jesus first spoke and acted, his words and deeds weren’t so appealing to those who met him. A man who forgave sins, ate with sinners, and touched bloody lepers must have been a shocking development to those around Him! Here was a man who cast the half-bred Samaritans as the heroes in his most influential teachings, a prophet who told the people to love their most hated enemies the Romans! That evening, I reflected on how Jesus was like Jeremiah – a man who felt the fire of the Spirit compelling him to confront spiritual blindness. The burden for His people crushed him and nailed him to the cross! This was the radical shepherd who saw His people as harassed and helpless, led astray by Satan and sinful man. As those at the gathering shared our own understanding of the Lord’s ministry and how He reached into our broken lives, it helped me to see that, without Christ, we would be untouchable, reprehensible worldly outcasts, inbred with Satan and contaminated by sin. In many ways, we had forgotten just what that really meant. In Christ, we were radically saved, yet we had to admit that we were not always so radical in our desire to reach out with the same kind of love that had been shown to us. It had me checking the foundation of my ministry. I could see how important it was to replace the sinking sand of my own misguided impressions about Christ with a rock of solid and sobering faith in a radical Messiah.

Our time together concluded with a special sharing and then our worship, ending of course, around the Communion table. Before we began, we were asked to recite a binding prayer, an old pledge of faith that had been handed down from years past. Though the words had been written many years ago, it was indeed quite radical to be reciting a covenant that asked God to give us poverty or riches, troubles or blessings. But I bowed my head with the rest of my brothers and sisters and trembled at the thought that speaking these words was a very serious matter indeed! Here I was, a man who had given his life to ministry, afraid to tell my Lord and Savior that whatever He wanted was good enough for me. But I did, knowing that I would be held to that pledge and knowing I would struggle in keeping it. It was a powerful lesson, as powerful as the testimonies of faith that many shared before we all shared in the Bread of Life. It was a sobering joy I never forget. We prayed for so many needs that day, and I know we didn’t even scratch the surface of what was in our hearts – but there we were, giving it all up to our heavenly Father and thanking Him in advance for the work He would do in us and through us in the days to come. It was great joy, yes, but profound and challenging for a group of people who held so many future disciples in our hands. 

The truth of the matter, however, is that those people aren’t really in our hands; and that, ultimately, is at the heart of what we learned that weekend. Discipleship is about proclaiming the inside-out, counter-cultural message of a powerful and tender Savior to a people so broken and so precious to Him. In Jesus, the One who gave Himself up in radical submission for our sins, we receive the call to radical ministry to the lost in His name. It is living in the blessed assurance that all things are working themselves out in a mysterious and wonderful way. As members of His Body, disciples speak a kingdom language and display the signs of those who have been captured by an open, unpredictable, unfathomable, and radical love. 

After I returned home from the training, I met with the youth group at our church. Through our discussions, I began to recognize bits of radical faith coming from the young people. I heard them talk about how they wanted to be more focused on being equipped to reach out to their lost friends, more nurturing to those who were already a part of the group, and more open and loving toward visitors who would come to youth group. In short, they wanted to be more radical in how they expressed the relationship they shared with their heavenly Father. It made me rejoice because I saw that Jesus was now showing these young people what discipleship was all about. And even though they knew the costs of discipleship, many were now ready to do what it would take to experience the joy that could be found in following Jesus to the fullest. It opened up so many possibilities in our minds and hearts and gave me the hope that only a radical disciple can have!

I will conclude by sharing the most radical thing I did following that seminar. The following Monday, when all I wanted was to get back to work so that I could begin to implement all the great ideas I had, I decided to put my ministry and my concerns for the youth aside and spend some radical time with my son. We went for a hike at a local park and talked about all the things that matter to a little boy, and then had ice cream – all without a thought about how I would be accomplishing all the things God would do with the ministry! And you know what? God, in His radical nature brought me peace and allowed me to let it go! And when I do go back to my ministry, that peace was still there. It was costly, yes, but only to my pride and fear. But those were costs I was more than willing to pay!

All of us are called to be followers of Jesus, people who don’t hesitate before answering the call to carry out the radical call to spread the Gospel. Since that three-day seminar, many things in my life and my ministry have changed – radically changed! The directions I though I would go and the things I thought I would accomplish have turned out very different than what I expected. But I have learned that this is the very nature of discipleship. You never know where it will take you, but you go there anyway, trusting the Lord to get you there and looking for the joy and the peace of surrendering to His will – no matter what – with the hope that one day we will see that the whole thing was worth the cost!

Listening for the Spirit

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It has been said that prayer is communication with God, a spiritual give and take session, a holy interchange between Lover and Beloved. Often that experience appears more one-sided on our part. We are prone to speak more than we listen. We may spend more time in prayer asking for what we need than discerning God’s will, rattling off our wish lists in the hope of getting God to do what we want rather than surrendering to His Spirit. When we pray out loud we may wonder how others will accept the character of our public prayers. We generally dread silence and feel we need to fill our inner voids with spiritual noise so there is never any unholy “dead air” on the wavelengths between earth and heaven. We are very good at talking, but how good are we at listening – truly listening – to what God wants to say to us?

The Word of God tells us that we should be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak.” (James 1:9) But for many Christians, it is just the opposite. We would rather be heard than take the time to listen to God. We follow the worldly mindset that says the loudest or the most eloquent person gets the glory. There are those among us who speak their prayers more like pseudo-incantations than expressions of godly fervor. Oftentimes we use our prayers to explain ourselves to those around us, rather than to yield to the God who longs for us to be still and listen. Our hearts seem to be in the right place, but still it is difficult for us. Perhaps we find solace in the sound of our own voices because we wonder how the God of the universe could ever take the time to share Himself with us.

Listening to the Still Small Voice of God

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But there is a place in our hearts where we, like Elijah, must turn from the noise and struggle of our world and let our words give way to the still small voice of God. In the holy silence of His overwhelming whisper our needs and wants become unspoken as we allow them to be transformed by the One who inhabits our open praise and our awestruck wonder. In order to rediscover this place, we must accept that the best of our words are only like the bleating of sheep before the all-powerful and all-knowing Shepherd.

There is an amusing scene from the 1984 movie, Mass Appeal (Jack Lemmon, Željko Ivanek) that illustrates this point quite well. In one scene, Father Farley, a parish priest, and Mark Dolson, his new, young deacon, are consoling a woman who recently lost her mother. Mark listens to Father Farley offering a lot of positive-sounding comfort: the woman’s mother was in her 80s, she would never have wanted to suffer, look at what so and so’s mother had to go through for two years, and so on. Mark sits with the woman’s grieving daughter and feels helpless to say or do anything for someone he has just met. After their time with the women, Father Farley asks Mark why he was so quiet. Mark replies that he doesn’t like to say anything when he is offering consolation because he is afraid that anything he says will sound stupid. Father Farley, with deadly seriousness, replies:

“But that’s the whole idea! Consolation should sound stupid! That way, a person in grief can realize how inconsolable their grief is. Now, inconsolable grief puts a person in a very exalted position; and that’s how most people get through tragedies. Now it’s your responsibility as a priest to raise common grief to the level of the inconsolable, by saying something inane!” (Mass Appeal, Universal Pictures, 1984)

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As funny as this may sound, there is a kernel of truth behind Father Farley’s advice. We often think so highly of our words that we come to believe that they alone have the power to console, heal, inspire, and build up. But this is not so. Real prayer can only come when we learn to listen with open hearts to God. How do we accomplish this? There are several powerful messages in the psalms that can speak to what listening to God truly means. The first is “Be still and know that I am God.” from Psalm 46:11. The entire psalm illustrates so well the inner battle between crying out to God and settling our minds to hear Him speak. The psalm strikes a beautiful balance between facing the struggles of living in a broken world and resting in the peace of God’s eternal presence. The chaos of the rushing waters and the quaking earth give way to glad streams and a rock-solid resting place. The mighty voice of God speaks clearly through the devastation and destruction, dissolving the earth into nothing; and yet we find peace in the fortress of the Almighty. The wars of mankind will come to an end when the final word of God is spoken in the last days. The pain of the past, the worries of today, and the uncertainty of the future all will find rest in humanity’s endless exaltation of the Lord. Knowing this great truth enables us to become caught up in the ever-flowing stream that is God’s great love.

Deep Calls to Deep, God Searches and Satisfies

Our second message comes from Psalm 42:7: Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. This is the psalm that begins with the image of a deer panting for streams of water. It is the cry of a downcast soul, one who longs for the presence of the Lord in a place where he feels forgotten. This is not the image of a deer that saunters into a bucolic meadow scene and leisurely takes a cool drink. This is the one pursued by the enemy, separated from the presence of God. This is the man whose tears are so continuous that they have become his sustenance. In the place where all seems lost, the soul becomes empty and open to the rushing waters of God’s living presence. In that moment when oppression and suffering strip away all pretense and worldly security, the depth of God’s eternal love can speak to the deepest part of our longing heart. We are energized to reproach our weary soul with the hope of God’s salvation and love.

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Finally, in Psalm 139:23-24 we hear, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. These are words of comfort to those who are willing to acknowledge that God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. For the one who has stopped running from heaven, who sees how our discerning Lord knows the very words we will speak before we speak them, peace comes in the knowledge that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, knit in our mother’s wombs by the tender hand of our Creator. In our surrender we find rest, for we understand that there is no place we can run from God on the earth, in heaven, or even within our own hidden hearts. We submit to the One who will hem us in, guide us into His presence, and test our ways until nothing remains but the wonderful and everlasting knowledge of God.

Through Valleys of Sorrow to Mountaintops of Praise

As humbling as it sounds, we must become like the sheep in the 23rd Psalm, as we allow our bleating and babbling to give way to prayer that is birthed by the overflowing power and presence of God. We must stop living as the world, thinking that our many words will win us a hearing in the courts of heaven (See Matthew 6:7). In the end, we must accept that all we can offer to God and to others are our “inane” words. Once we surrender to that great truth, God’s consoling voice can speak to us and through us, and His words become our own. They will lead us through the darkest valleys to green pastures of rest and restoration.

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When we open our spiritual ears to the still small voice of God and let it spill out into our lives we will hear His truth resound in the praises of a joyful hymn we sing with brothers and sisters or an inspirational word shared with passion during Sunday Mass. We will encounter Him in the sacred signs of the sacraments as we taste and touch, hear and heed, bless and believe. Our souls will burst forth with thanksgiving on the mountaintops of our journeys. We will travel through the wilderness of our struggles and leave our cares in the valley of sorrow below. His tenderness will flow from the time we share at the bedside of a relative or friend sick with illness or injury or cancer. We will hear Him speak to us in the whispered melodies of a child who is singing herself to sleep after a long day of imaginative play, in our times of quiet contemplation with the Word, or in passionate prayer vigils in dimly-lit churches through seasons of waiting and expectation. Each and every moment of our lives will become a holy encounter with the living Word speaking His powerful whispers to our listening souls.

True listening springs from humility, surrender and openness. As we put aside our human words, we will become a channel through which the God of the universe can speak His life into our hearts. The words that will flow from His fountain of Grace will speak peace to a weary world. Let us still our souls, surrender to the wind of the Spirit, and let God’s words pour over us each and every day so that we may be raised up to bless others in His holy name! God Bless!

Lessons in Gardening

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Ever since my wife and I moved into our current home I’ve had an ongoing battle with the shrubbery. There are times when honestly I don’t know who’s winning the battle – the vegetation or me; but it’s all part of having a nice home and I take pride in the way our yard looks to the outside world.

At one point, the task of keeping up with our property became a living parable of the character of sin my life. I confess there was a time when I was more satisfied with the condition of my garden than the condition of my soul. I’ve been grateful to the Lord for teaching me an important lesson along the way.

Pruning Away a False Front

On one section of our property, there was a collection of wild grape vines that had choked out just about everything that was growing there. From a distance, things looked lush and green, but up close it was plain to see that the vines had all but destroyed the bushes underneath. I ended up having to use a chain saw to remove many of the bushes in order to get rid of the thick vines that had taken over. 

One of the most tedious parts of that project was removing the vines from around the branches of a young mulberry tree. Pulling them off the tree was no use. I had to go to the roots and cut them with a pruning saw and then clip the different sections around each branch and carefully remove them one by one. I found that in order to save the tree, I had to cut off several of its branches where the vines had coiled themselves around the wood. The more of the vines I removed, the more I realized just how far gone the tree really was. At the end of the whole endeavor, I found that there was very little foliage remaining and I was left doubting whether the tree would even recover from its ordeal.

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Through this experience I was reminded how the sin in my life was like those vines. It started off quietly attaching itself to my life. At first I didn’t notice what had happened; and when I did, I ignored the problem. “I’ll get rid of it later; it’s nothing to worry about right now!” I told myself. But slowly, like the vines around the bushes and trees, the sin began to wrap itself around my soul, intertwining with my daily actions and becoming a part of who I was. Like the tree, it was difficult to tell the difference between the sin and the green full life God had given me. They looked almost the same – at least from my disinterested distance.

The Divine Gardener

I began to see that the sin was taking over, choking out the light and drying me up inside. Things looked healthy on the surface; but I knew I was in need of a good pruning. I remembered reading the words of Jesus in John15:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1-5)

I knew I needed to let the Divine Vinedresser cut away all that was in me that was dead. My sin had become a thin veneer over a parched soul that was starved for the nourishment of new life from the True Vine. I didn’t want to be taken over by the choking, twisted growth of sin until the shell of my life was toppled to the ground, used up, and worthless. I trusted the heavenly Gardener to be as gentle as possible in the process. I knew there would be pain and even some loss; but I was prepared to accept what was needed to make me into a fruitful believer once more, trusting that it wasn’t too late to save me as I opening my heart to His healing. I discovered that my roots in Christ were strong, and the life surging through me came from the One who was my sure foundation. The Gardener knew what to do. Through the pruning power of confession and the nourishment of the Word and Lord’s Table, I began to heal. At first, I didn’t like what I saw. I had let my spiritual life go but now I was painfully aware of just how deep the sin in my life had gone. I was ready to begin again.

A Question of Discipline

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In the story, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, there was a young prince who was a faithful gardener on a tiny planet where seeds would blow in with the wind. Some were innocent and became beautiful roses, but others were dangerous and grew into giant baobabs. The prince knew that when a baobab first appeared, it would look as harmless as a rose, but if neglected for too long, it could grow so large that it would engulf and tear apart his tiny planet with its huge roots. “A baobab,” he said, “is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces.” In the words of the Little Prince, it was all a “question of discipline.” And so it was with my sin. I needed to remember to dig out those roots of sin as soon as they could be distinguishable from the fruit of the Spirit in my soul.

My yard has been looking better with each passing year. That young tree is flourishing and our bushes have come back to life. With each new spring, I see more and more growth and new beauty where there once was only the appearance of healthy greenery. There has been a similar kind of growth in the garden of my soul as well. I’ve learned the sobering lesson of the baobabs and the meticulous methods of the Gardener. I’ve come to see that it’s our connection to the True Vine that helps us to find an abundant life and a fruitful harvest. It’s there for me as I remain in Him and tend to my soul-garden with disciplined hands. But I must be willing to pay the price for cutting sin out of my life and ready to cultivate the seeds of new growth that the Gardener will plant within me through each and every new season of change.

Lessons Along a Bike Path

There is nothing so invigorating as a good bike ride. Recently, I’ve gotten much more serious about it, going four to six times a week from late spring to early fall for an 18-23 mile trek through our town. I was always a biking enthusiast; however, my problem is that no one remembered to tell my aging body this important news. Actually, I started riding again because I love the wind in my hair and the exhilaration of my heart pumping as I race along. Let me assure you; the fact that I had gained a few pounds had absolutely nothing to do with it. But, the more I got back into it, the longer I found I was riding. More riding meant more time to think and so I decided I’d pen a few of the more sober and spiritual thoughts that have occurred to me during these rides.

I was thinking about something a young girl once asked me. She wanted to know how I speak to God, or more precisely, how I listen to what God wants to tell me. I kept thinking about it for some time after that and so, each day when I took my ride, I decided to stay open to whatever God might want to tell me during that particular ride. And as I asked, so did I receive. These daily excursions taught me a lot about what journeying with God is all about.

I began my reintroduction to biking by traveling on the streets I knew. We often do that – start off on the journey by keeping to the familiar paths. Our fear of unknown – which really amounts to a fear of failure and fear of pain – tends to keep us on the path that feels safe. But, as I ventured onto new streets, it reminded me that being Christian means talking the risk to go to new places where God is leading us. We can’t really be effective in our walk until we get beyond the feeling that our journey is supposed to be a safe one.

I remember one morning, probably the second day I resumed riding, when I came to a steep hill. Rather than braving it in the lowest gear possible or getting off and walking the bike up the incline – which no real “biking enthusiast” would ever do – I decided to turn down a street just before the hill began to climb. I admit I felt a bit guilty for being so out of shape, and I was left wondering whether I would have made it had I tried. There have been times in my life when I was afraid to take on the steep challenges that were before me. Sometimes it was because I simply wasn’t ready and God wanted me to go a different route to reach the same destination; other times I think I was just too full of pride to slow down and go back to walking. These experiences taught me the importance of spiritual preparation and daily training in the faith as an essential part of going the distance. It was a hard lesson to learn, but the sad reality is this – any time I gave in to the easy way, I knew I had to surrender to a challenge that was never met.

As I chose to go down new streets, there were times when I would approach a dead end road. Often I would see the signs from far off but still feel compelled to continue on the road. Sometimes there would be another road that would allow me to continue my journey before I reached the dead end and other times I was forced to turn around. You know, I never felt awkward about taking a wrong turn; I knew there was always a way out and a new direction to go. It brought to mind the times I had wandered into sin or followed a direction that would lead me to a dead end in my walk of faith. And each time I saw the same loving God right there beside me, never condemning me for my mistakes, but always, always offering a new way to take me out of my dead end choices.

Now an interesting thing happened one day. I was riding along and peddled past a yard with a lawn sprinkler moving lazily back and forth between the house and the road. As I went past it, the water was shooting out onto the street. Even though I was hot, I swerved around the water and kept on going. Immediately I thought about how God often provides cool refreshment in the midst of life’s scorching desert days, and how we often miss His refreshment because we are focused on the road ahead or too proud to accept His kindnesses. I can assure you that after that experience, I made sure to zip through any cool spots that came up in the road ahead as a refreshing reminder of that incredible truth.

As I rode around each day, I would inevitably come to a place where I had to make a decision to turn left or right. One day, I looked up at the road sign on my right, which read, “Mountain Road.” Hmm. Not good, I thought. Still, I decided this time to take the challenge and went up the hill to the right. Surprisingly enough, the road turned out to be more of a slight incline than anything else. At one point I was even able to turn down a street on my left and coast for a while. Now coasting is always fun, because gravity does all the work and I get the thrill of a little speed instead of a slow steady ride. The twists and turns of life, the uphill battles, the times we can coast – it is all a matter of making a decision and then riding out the road wherever it takes us.

Sometimes I have no idea if I should choose one direction for my life over another. I worry that I’ll make the wrong choice and miss an opportunity that God has to offer me. It can be paralyzing to think that making a wrong choice might lead to dire consequences. But that isn’t how our Lord works. Just as I find a new adventure and a new insight no matter which direction I choose on my ride, so too will God work all things out to the good for the ones who have chosen Him. In the end, I know that ultimately God is in control and will take care of me on my journey. I take comfort in the fact that if I’ve spent time in preparation, by staying in His Word, praying with an open spirit and listening to Him speak all around me, I know I’ll have all the wisdom I need to make the right choice and to courage to take the steps to get from here to there.

Now another time on my ride, I came to a main road and wanted to cross over it to the other side, but found that the traffic was too heavy. Just when it would clear up on the left side, there would be cars zooming up on the right. At first, I was upset at having to wait for such a long time, but then I realized that waiting gave me a chance to get a drink and to rest my leg muscles. And when there was a break in the traffic, I had the energy to take off and get right back into the journey. So many times I’ve seen the obstacles of my life as hindrances to progress, when all the while, God was slowing me down and giving me time to rest, refresh and consider my next steps. It was only at the end of each time of resting, when the obstacles were removed – or I found a new way to deal with them – that I was able to see the reasons for God allowing them in the first place.

There did end up being a killer hill – one that left me no choice but to get off the bike and walk up in total humiliation and shame. Three quarters of the way up the hill, I saw a sign for “Brookview Road.” I decided that a ride alongside a brook might be nice and made a right turn. Well, there was no brook in sight and all this road did was to lead me down some more streets that seemed to take me nowhere. While I thought I was going to have an enjoyable experience, I simply rode in a huge circle and ended up just a little further down the road from where I would have been had I not turned. It did, however, keep me from having to cross over a busier intersection where cars turn onto and off of the highway. And since the purpose of the bike ride was for exercise…excuse me – to feel the wind in my hair – it didn’t really matter that I had to go the long way around. It helped to reinforce the idea that God is consistent and sovereign and knows how to take our self-centered choices and redirect them for his purpose and direction, often sparing us from dangers we might not even have comprehended along the way.

One of the most interesting things I did on my ride was to pick up objects discarded along the road. I was asked to substitute for the pastor of my church and wanted to prepare a sermon illustration. I decided to stop whenever the Spirit moved me to pick up a certain object. I picked up an old pair of broken glasses, some rubber tubing, a crushed soda can, and many other “useless” items. When I got home, I took those pieces of trash and turned them into a sculpture. I admit it wasn’t anything that would allow me to retire in comfort, but when it was finished, my creation was a perfect illustration of what God does for all of us. Each of us who believe has been like a discarded piece of garbage that was found by a loving God who has been able to shape us into something brand new! While the world may look at each of us as useless or unworthy, God sees just exactly how we fit into His vast eternal plan!

Day after day, in order to keep biking trips interesting, I would seek out a new way to go: through the center of town one day, out to the airport the next; sometimes just taking a leisurely ride along the nearby bike path on those lazy days. I figured that after a couple weeks, I would run out of places to go and start to get bored, but I was wrong. When I went out boldly, seeking to go wherever a new path took me, I found that the little town I live in had an awful lot of journeys packed into it. No matter how many days I went out, the journey was always new and interesting. It left me wanting to take that approach to my daily walk with the Lord – seeing each new day as another small journey, full of opportunities for excitement and learning, with no day like any other and none ever worth throwing away.

A truly blessed part of these rides was when things finally started to look familiar again and I found I had completed the bulk of the journey. It always felt good to be heading home. It wasn’t without its temptations, however, as many times I passed a local diner serving a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich or the ice cream place near the airport where I swear I could hear a double-dip chocolate peanut butter cone calling my name. Now I know that to stop and indulge myself would defeat the purpose of going on a bike ride in the first place – but OH – was it so tempting! I’m proud to say that I pressed on and soon found I had made it past the place of forbidden food and was on my way back on the road to my destination, my goal – my home! I knew I had a prize waiting for me there – my beautiful wife and my beautiful children, and their smiles were food enough for me! Okay, I admit it – I would end up having a big bowl of fiber or something equally healthy to take care of the other hunger inside me, but I saw it as temptation properly redirected and satisfied.

Like physical hunger, there are also spiritual temptations along the road of life. Satan tries his best to get us to stray from the path by offering us things that appeal to our senses and our needs, but ultimately they don’t satisfy. Only one thing truly does – living out our lives in the love of the God and pressing ever onward to win the prize that He has in store for all His children. And though it often seems that we can only see the worth of our journeys when we reach the end of them, it has been a joy to come to know the pleasure in the journey itself as well.

These days, my schedule has changed somewhat, but I still try to keep up with my riding when the weather is nice. I admit the discipline is good for my body and my soul, even though the sight of me afterwards is not always so good for my family. But there is so much God has to say to me in those quiet times out on the open road. I’m so grateful for that simple question from that young girl. I don’t know if I would have been so focused had she not given me something to think about.

There are just too many things we take for granted on our life journeys and once the journey is past, we can never go back and claim what was lost. I’ve learned that every moment of our existence has been ordained and blessed by our heavenly Father. While events in our lives may seem random and without purpose, we need to realize that it’s all in the Father’s hands, and in the end, we’ll understand what the journey has been all about. I pray that your journeys and mine will be full of joy and purpose, and that we will press ever onward to the end of all our journeys in eternity!

In Our Hearing: The Power of Audio Drama

From a solemn silence, the toll of a bell is heard. Slowly a sweet and somber melody begins to play, calling out to expectant hearts, preparing eager ears to journey to another place and time. A tender voice, full of fervent hope, begins to speak, setting the scene, building the mood, drawing the hearers into the story as the actors take over and carry the plot along to its powerful conclusion. The audience is held in a moment so profound that all else fades into the background. Deep emotions are stirred. Tears are shed. Hearts of stone are broken and replaced with hearts of flesh, open to the Spirit’s promptings. Joy overflows and cascades in a release of surrender and peace. 

Such is the power of a Christian audio drama. As believers, we understand on a deep inner level how drama helps connect us to Christ, particularly in our worship. One could argue that the worship is, in fact, a beautifully blessed drama acted out on the stage of our hearts every time we gather to celebrate our Salvation. The delicate and deliberate movements of the celebrant and the ministers, the Holy Scriptures read with passion and precision, and the sacred music sung with power and depth of feeling help to carry the congregation along to the crowning moment of the worship when we receive Communion with joyful hearts. This inner appreciation for the artistic power of worship ties so well with what an audio drama is all about.

Producing a Passion Play

During my time in Christian radio, I witnessed the affect audio drama had on our listeners and on those who created it. Christian audio drama speaks with its own unique voice, stirring the imagination and whispering to the heart through the Holy Spirit. My most meaningful audio drama was a Passion Play called, “Greater Love.” It was told from the perspective of a believer moved to lower her earthen vessel into the well of the salvation story. Turning the individual components of the play into a grace-filled production gave me a deeper gratitude for the ways in which God draws us to Himself.

Even before the first words were written, I found that forming a prayerful bond with my Maker and surrendering to eternity helped to set the stage for the drama. It was truly an act of worship, a joyful submission to the whole process, knowing that the hearts that would be touched were already in the mind of the Almighty. I allowed the Holy Spirit to instruct me as I wrote, realizing it was all in God's hands. The vision that unfolded flowed naturally from the narrative of the Passion. Each step along the road to Calvary caused me to pause in wonder and look back upon the life of the Savior as His words and deeds found fulfillment in His journey to the cross.

I drew from all four Gospels to write the play, mingling these beautiful perspectives on the life of Christ into a sacred story that offered its own portrait of the Savior. I was inspired by the Passion narratives I had heard at Good Friday services over the years. As I drew from those memories, I found that the tone of the drama established itself and played out naturally through the dialogue and the descriptions of what was taking place. My portrait of Jesus was commanding yet sad and somber, a majestic Man of Sorrows, moving through the pain of His last hours with joy and surrender. This was a loving Messiah, always in control, powerfully relational, and determined to go to the cross in love for His children. And so, having established the vision, I cast the characters around the Lord: men and women who were deeply moved by His words and deeds.

The Players and the Spirit They Brought

Once the play was written, I sought out actors for the drama from a local church. Though I had my own vision for the actors, I was amazed to see just how much their individual personalities came to shape the drama once recording got underway. I was especially pleased when I met a woman in a bible study group who turned out to be a professional stage actress. I was drawn to her beautiful speaking voice and felt it would be perfect for the role of narrator. It was soft-spoken yet strong. But to my amazement, I found that once she got behind the microphone, she poured herself into the role, breathing a life into the words that I had not expected. Her passion and the power of her emotions spilled out into each scene, bringing an intensity of love and sorrow that truly transformed the entire play.

Because it was a small radio station, I had only one microphone to use for recording, so I had each actor read all the roles for his or her gender. I gave the actors very little instruction but told them to choose freely how to play each character. I listened to each recording and decided who should play which character based on what I heard, and then placed the audio files I needed into the computer. I had chosen to be the voice of Christ, perhaps out of vanity, but perhaps more so out of my vision of how I wanted Him to be portrayed. In an interesting twist, I found that no one had quite captured what I was looking for in the character of Pilate, and so I ended up voicing him as well. This made for some amusing moments as I found myself talking with myself in several scenes.

Production and Worship

Combining all the audio files in the computer was like placing little mosaic tiles on a tray and lining them up just so, adjusting them here, tweaking them there, until the whole thing created a beautiful picture that painted the salvation story in sound. I added a musical background using a collection of instrumental recordings from a variety of composers. There was a delightful sense of joy in taking these diverse pieces of dialogue, music and sound effects and blending them in a way that wove a seamless garment that portrayed the Passion of Christ as a single work of art, inspired by the Spirit who had given me the words to say, the actors to say them and the insight to put it all together.

One of the most memorable parts of the whole process came on the Tuesday before Good Friday, just three days before the drama was set to air. Because of the way the storage on the computer was partitioned, there was not enough room in the audio program to save the file. No matter what I tried, the computer would not cooperate. I knew that once the computer was shut down, the work I had done would be lost forever. After some reflection I came up with an idea. I took a blank CD, put it into a recording device, and fed the audio from the computer into it. And so, at 2:00 in the morning, I sat in that tiny recording room, exhausted and emotionally spent, letting the Passion Play unfold and recording it “live” to the CD. It was perhaps one of the most profound moments in the whole process as I listened to all the tiny pieces of audio coalescing into a beautiful symphony of sound as it became, “Greater Love!” It was a moment of worship so beautiful that I was brought to tears – not because of my artistic skill, but because God had taken me through the process and allowed me to sit in the Liturgy of the recording booth to be drawn into the Word and nourished with the Savior's sweet sacrifice on behalf of the world!

The Divine Drama of Salvation

The response to the play when it aired that Good Friday was very positive, and I was pleased that it had moved hearts to a deeper appreciation of the Passion of Christ. But the greatest work it had done was to help me discover just how much the Savior of the World loved us. From the eternal realms He set in motion a divine Pasion Play, complete with a cast of characters and a soundtrack of the Spirit, and let it unfold on the stage of creation. Like the Liturgy, it carried us into the heavenlies, sharing the great mysteries of God's love and Christ's sacrifice on the cross. That this profound truth could in some small way be acted out in a moment of time through an audio drama spoke to the power and presence of God – the incarnational God – who lives and moves in His Church and in each individual heart open to hear the sweet words of salvation!

I have continued to write and have produced other dramas, but “Greater Love” will ever hold a special place in my heart. It has taught me that worship is more than just a performance; it is a holy drama that unfolds in the hearts of the People of God, a sacred Passion Play that moves us ever onward toward the end of the salvation story. I pray that sharing this story will help you to listen for the Savior in your worship, the world around you, and the openness of your heart. 

Desert Days

I love to hike and spend time in the "wilderness." I like to imagine that I'm some type of urban "Survivor Man" although I freely admit that I'm very careful to prepare for my trips and pack all the essentials to make sure I'm comfortable, safe and well-fed. Still, there is something truly inspiring about getting away from the civilized world and spending time outdoors in the deep woods or atop a lofty mountain. It's an adventure, a test of one's stamina, resolve and courage. It's also a time to let go of the day-to-day concerns of  life and commune with Nature and its Creator. A good hike, whether for a day or a week is a way to hit the "reset" button on my spirit. I come back from my outdoor excursions a much more rested, renewed and balanced individual.

God has a purpose for His people when He calls us to spend time in "desolate places." Whether we're in an actual wilderness or not almost doesn't matter. Often, we find ourselves in a place where we go deep into that dark and deserted place inside us where we hear the voice of the accuser whispering to our inner ears that we're a failure, full of falsehood and destined for a life of mediocrity and unworthiness. Many times that accusing voice is our own, built up by years of mistakes, sin and selfishness.  For the most part we avoid shutting down the busyness of our lives and going to that inner chamber because we're afraid of what we might hear and afraid to face what we perceive as the awful truth of who we really are.

Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness just prior to starting His earthly ministry. There He was tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy His hunger; to throw Himself down from the temple and allow the angels to bear Him to the ground; and to claim all the earthly kingdoms in exchange for bowing His knee to the Prince of the Air. Yet, each time the tempter tried to sway the Savior with quotations from Scripture, Jesus answered with the Word of God in order to put the great deceiver in his place. (See Matthew 4:1-11)

Jesus was a man who was completely at home in the wilderness, for it was there He could meet with His Father and gain strength for the days ahead. He had no skeletons in His inner closet, no fears or failings to have to face with trembling. He knew His purpose and found Himself more in touch with that purpose when He went alone to those lonely places to pray. (Luke 5:16) 
Just because Jesus is God and we are not doesn't mean we can't explore our own internal wildernesses in order to come to terms with God's plan for our lives. Psalm 139 is a wonderful song of self-examination, one that can help us to appreciate our connection to the God who knit us together in our mother's womb. Here, the psalmist lays his life before God, acknowledging his total dependence on the One who knows him so intimately that he is overwhelmed by the power of His eternal presence. In this blessed communion, he knows that there is no place to go to get away from God, and that all his inner turmoil and darkness is not hidden from the One who is Light and Love itself! In that sweet surrender of sacred fellowship the struggles and strivings give way to a love so powerful that it casts everything outside the realm of God's presence with a holy hatred and washes over the psalmist in a flood of grace. It is so wonderful that leaves him calling for God to search out all his inner rooms to eliminate anything that will come between the Lover and the Beloved. 

That is the power of our Desert Days! Don't be afraid of getting real with God, of walking into the darkness and desolation of your self-centered soul. Let Him cleanse you and free you to continue the journey toward home! As you read Psalm 139 below, take the words to heart and make them your own. Let them be your prayer to close this devotional today!

 

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.
13 For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.
19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
    O men of blood, depart from me!
20 They speak against you with malicious intent;
    your enemies take your name in vain.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139 ESV)

 

Coming Home to the Sea: One Couple's Experience of Eastport, Maine

There’s something about the sea that speaks to the soul and awakens the heart to new horizons and new points of view. Now I won’t pretend that I’m a man of the sea or that I fully understand that majestic voice that calls men to venture out onto the waves; nor can I mirror the character of those who choose to make their home by the shore. Still, I feel drawn to the changing tides and the ebb and flow of the ocean, and when I’m there, I’m a different man.

For our 25th anniversary, my wife and I embarked on a little seaside adventure to the Northeastern coast in the little harbor town of Eastport, Maine. We chose the location on a whim; we wanted to find a place that was peaceful and undisturbed, a haven apart from the crowds and confusion of our everyday lives. We had no idea what we would find there or even how we would fill our time in this quaint little fishing village, but nevertheless we made our plans and off we went. Maybe we were looking for renewal; maybe we just wanted to catch our breath and forget the troubles and turbulence we had left behind.

When we arrived at The Milliken House, our bed & breakfast, we came as strangers to Mary, our host, but soon found ourselves caught up in her simple charm, her motherly care and her gracious hospitality. The old home seemed to welcome us as well, carrying us back to a simpler time and bidding us to surrender to the slower pace of life. We were struck by the quiet and the calm, as if this monument to better days with its large rooms and period furnishings was whispering to us its silent secrets and assuring us that we were safe and secure within its walls. Our room was spacious and appealing, a harbor of comfort for the end of each day; our breakfasts were bountiful and beautiful, served to us on elegant china plates at the large linen-draped dining room table. There was always tea for us when we came home from our adventures and Mary was always ready to greet us with tales of the history of Eastport and stories of colorful local characters she had come to call friends. Like a port in a storm, we soon came to see that this house was our refuge from the weary world that had battered and buffeted us for far too long.

Our first day was spent exploring the town, and we wondered what attractions might be available. There were none of the typical touristy variety, no high-tech, slick-looking shops with crass commercial trinkets for sale, but still, there were treasures everywhere. Here was a close-knit community of like-minded souls, a family of people who loved their town and sought to bring out the best in one another. Every shopkeeper and waitress was more than happy to point us in the direction of another business or restaurant. Instead of chain stores there were cooperatives where local artisans sold their wares, antique stores offering the old, and shops selling custom items innovative and new. My wife was especially enamored with the local Moose Island Bakery where they sold the most delicious creampuffs she had ever tasted, and I have to admit that I wasn’t disappointed with the local lobster roll at the Happy Crab.

Perhaps the thing that struck us the most was that Eastport, though it had seen so many changes over the years, was still a place with a unique character that spoke its timeless story and wonderful wisdom to every heart that took the time to listen. I remember one evening, listening to our server share stories of the long history of The Landmark Restaurant where we were enjoying a wonderful dinner. She told us how this old edifice had undergone a number of transformations over the years, each unique and some even unusual. As I looked around at the old brick walls, the careworn original floors and the majestic columns and archways decorated in an eclectic style for this its latest incarnation, I could almost sense that this venerable building was somehow grateful and quietly content to be useful still, and even proud of its long heritage of service to the town and the people who had built and maintained it all these years.

On another day, we ventured out from Eastport, across the border into Canada to Campobello Island. We marveled at the well-maintained summer cottage that was once home to the Roosevelts. We had to laugh to ourselves at how this and the other lovely “cottages” in the area were so much larger than our own home. We took time for lunch at The Fireside, one of the wonderful restaurants on the island, and traveled to The Quoddy Head Lighthouse to wait for low tide so that we could make our way across the rocks for a visit. We capped off our visit with a hike along the seaside trails near the Roosevelt Cottage and a stop at Herring Cove Beach to walk along the shore and sit in silence before the soothing sea. In all we saw, the thing that we found the most captivating were the breathtaking views of the ocean, whether from the shoreline behind the Roosevelt Cottage, the deck of the Fireside, the hills upon which the old lighthouse stood or that deserted beach where we were all but alone with the waves and the soft gray sand. The sound of the water making its way to the shore, the occasional soaring of a seagull, and the fog moving in like misty spirits answering the mystical call of the ocean spoke to our spirits and calmed the clutter in our minds as we were taken into the embrace of the moment. Slowly and quietly we began to forget ourselves – or rather, we remembered ourselves as we had been and were truly meant to be. It drained the tension from our bodies and drowned out the noise of our busy lives, and we rediscovered that deep hidden spark of youthful romantic love that had drawn the two of us together so many years ago.

There was excitement as well, an adventure that came in the form of a whale watch with Wind Jammers Whale Watching Tours in Eastport. Our host, Butch, took our group out in his lobster boat to view the beautiful minke fin whales that had finally made their way back home to these northern waters for the summer. It was exciting to watch these majestic mammals rise up out of the water for a breath of air, arch their backs and then dive into the depths to explore their ocean home. It was equally amazing to view over 50 harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks near the shore and to see bald eagles perched atop tall trees surveying their lofty domains. It was both a spectacular event and a simple pleasure, something extraordinary and yet so much a part of the everyday life of this faraway place at the edge of the world.

It was really the little things that mattered the most: a pot of tea and a game of Scrabble before retiring for the evening, a walk along a quiet sandy beach to search for sand dollars and sea glass, or a stop along the road to capture photographs of a sunset too beautiful for words. It brought out such a child-like excitement within our hearts, and one might have thought it silly to see two adults holding bits of sand-smoothed glass in their hands as if they were diamonds or standing in awe of the flight of cormorants or the pinks and purples of the setting sun after an ordinary summer day. But these events and objects, sights and sounds were truly treasures to hearts being reawakened to what is most important in life: the power of a moment, the making of a memory, and the rekindling of the spirit of eternal youth.

 We’ve since returned to our everyday life, but we’ve brought with us a little bit of that seaside town, the soul of its population, and the shining shores of Maine. And because of that, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll ever be the same again. What began as an uncertain journey has become a part of who we are. What was meant to be a “getting away from it all” has turned out to be a true coming home. Like the tide that washes onto the shore, only to slip back into the vastness of the ocean, we’ve come to see how our lives are really about returning to the place inside us that is as deep and mysterious as the sea and as timeless and unchanging as the rocky shoreline of a faraway place, that for a short time, we came to call home.

Let There Be Light: A Message from Genesis During the Dark Days of Winter

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In the beginning, from ageless eternity, Almighty God looked down upon the formless void and willed creation into being. Where there was nothingness, there would be life. Where there was disorder, there would be order. The perfect, infinite love of God hovered above the shapeless sea of emptiness that was the cosmic chaos and spoke His life and light into being.

God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. He simply spoke and the light came to be. He breathed His laughter and love into the void and the perfect, pure light of His grace and goodness burst forth upon the nothingness and brought life. Like a beautiful scroll, the story of His love was opened and stretched out upon the universe, revealing awesome truth and seamless harmony. The light stood in contrast to the darkness; and everything that would come into being would be touched with the light of the Creator’s presence. God’s perfect thought breathed the universe into existence and brought wholeness where there once was formlessness, the sound of coherence where all was separation and obscurity. The light gave a voice to the forces of the universe as they took their place in the celestial order of creation. The earth would form and be suspended in space. There would be distinction between the seas and the land, the waters above and the waters below, the darkness and the light. Day was born and began the dance of the hours with the night. In speaking the light into being, order and grace filled creation and set in motion the story of God’s eternal, joyful song.

The first day of creation describes what is essentially indescribable. It is only in the poetry of the words that we gain a sense of the beauty and perfection of God’s creative power in speaking everything into being. The inspired author takes us back to the beginning to teach us the awesome truth of who God is. In attempting to define what cannot be fully comprehended, he shows us a God who is first and foremost, all-powerful. In the creation stories of the ancient world, the earth came into being through the violence of the gods, through conflict and battle, death and destruction, as one god defeated another and out of the ruin brought the order of the universe. This is a distortion of the true manner in which God brought forth His creation. He stood alone, with no one to challenge Him. He existed in eternity, in timeless perfection, and spoke all of creation into being with the breath of His word. There was no effort, no struggle to conjure up the cosmos. God simply kissed it into being with a puff of His Spirit, His “ruah” – His breath. Like a holy sigh of love, God made all that was and is.

Creation begins with light. Genesis was written with the fall of humanity in mind. In a universe cursed by the darkness of sin, God stands as the light. Light overcomes darkness. Darkness represents incomprehension, confusion, and veiled thinking. Light represents the brilliance of perfection, order, and clarity of all thought and being. The day and the night were separated to present a contrast between God’s perfect light of love and the destructive influence of hatred and sin. Because sin would eventually come into the world, God set up the light and separated it from the darkness as a great sign of His divine purposes for the universe. Genesis stands as one bookend with Revelation, with all of Scripture in between, punctuating the truth that the perpetual light of the resurrection will one day eliminate the darkness, and there will no longer be a need for sun and moon, day and night, for all will be light once more.

The passage speaks of God hovering above the “waters” of the deep. Water has a powerful meaning in the Word. It represents the swirling chaos out of which new life emerges. Noah and his family were shut in the ark and taken through the overwhelming waters of the flood, when all the wrath of heaven and earth burst forth in judgment upon the earth. They were brought through the dark storm to the dawning of a new day, where light and life would be renewed. Moses and the Israelites passed from the darkness of Egypt to the light of the Promised Land through the waters of the Red Sea. In faith, they made the passage through the mighty wall of water to come out of the place of slavery and subjugation to the place of freedom and provision. Jesus was dipped into the Jordan and rose to face the dark forces living in the desert, armed with the light of the Word of God! He brought His light to bear upon the Prince of the Air, and through His life, death and resurrection, opened the way for humanity to come out of the darkness into the dawn of a new creation in Him. The early Christians plunged men and women into the waters of Baptism where they were buried to the old sinful ways and raised to new life, cleansed and healed. In this new life, they were graced with the illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit, which enabled them to live as children of love.

It is the light of God’s Spirit that brings life and order from the watery chaos. At the end of the first day, God calls the light “good,” and evening gives way to morning. His creative act is not for some selfish end, but for His glory and our good. The weight of His presence overwhelms us and brings us the light of salvation, freedom, safety and peace; for that is what glory really is – the overshadowing power of God’s love being brought to bear against the frailty of our own existence. It is only in the light that we find salvation. As God installs creation at the beginning, forming everything out of nothing, so too, does He restore us from the emptiness of sin through His Son. In Jesus, the Light of the World, we are once more made “good.”

The power of the first day of creation finds fulfillment and understanding in the opening verses of John’s Gospel. Like God’s light that overwhelms the chaos of the deep, so too does the light of Jesus overcome the darkness of sin and lead us to a new paradise, as we become new men and women in Him. Like the powerful breath of God that spoke creation into being, God’s love has spoken His final Word into the world. Jesus is that Word and Light. He has come to overwhelm the darkness. The darkness cannot comprehend the perfection of love that manifested itself in the person of Jesus. John continues this wonderful theme throughout his Gospel, as the images of Word, Light, Water, and Love spill out onto the pages through the wonderful stories he narrates. John’s Gospel is the expression of the new creation we experience in Christ!

We who know Jesus are called to live out those sacred signs of water and rebirth. Like Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, we must be born from above, born of water and Spirit. Though we cannot enter our mothers’ wombs a second time to be born again, we can be healed by the creative Word of the Gospel, buried with Christ in Baptism and breathed with the new life of the Holy Spirit as we live out our lives day to day in His name. As we put aside the old ways, drowning them in the watery chaos of our submission to God’s powerful breath of life, we are made new and given a new path to walk, with the light of God’s grace guiding us evermore on the path to heaven.

The signs of God are all around us. We cannot see the wind that blows, but we feel its influence. We did not witness the first moment of creation, yet we see its beauty and witness the working out of the order of the universe around us. Every stream, every river, every lake, and every ocean are reminders of the depth of God’s love for us. Though water can be a powerful force to flood the land and swallow ships at sea, we know that to God, all the waters of the earth are a drop in the vast ocean of His perfect love. Each day, as the dawn greets us once more, we are reminded of the hope we have that in God’s perfect time there will come a perpetual day, where darkness will be banished forever, where our sins will be thrown as far as the east from the west, and where we will live in everlasting joy in the light of God’s eternal presence. From the first moment of creation, God had all of this in mind. In His perfect plan, He spoke creation into existence, knowing that we would all come together in the perfection of his creation when the purposes of His great love would find their fulfillment in Christ.

One day, there will be a new heavens and a new earth. The old order of things will pass away. Creation, which has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth from the sinful fall of humanity, will be reborn in a baptism of fire, in a powerful cleansing that will remake all of creation once more into the perfect reflection of the Creator. Until then, we have been blessed with the beauty of all that is around us. The sun and moon are signs that God is in control of creation and is bringing His plan to completion as the cosmos ticks on like a divinely wound clock. The waters of the earth that are held at bay by the mighty arm of God are signs of the refreshing and sustaining power of rebirth that is ours in Christ. The Word that ever speaks into the world the Good News of the One who came as Light in the darkness, is our guide and our power for daily living and purposeful outreach to a lost world. As you experience God’s light this day, let it draw you closer into His presence and bring you His joy, His peace, and His love!