David was no stranger to caves. But this cave was more than a place of shelter for a tired shepherd boy. It was a place where he would learn resilience- how to relate to God in times of deep loss and confusion. How to steady his feet on God's promises and forge ahead with hope. Here are some ways we can learn, like David, to practice soul-care in the cave:
A little more persistence could be just what we need to make steady progress toward our goals and dreams. Often, the assumption is that doing more and going faster are the answers. Persistence with payoff, however, must be grounded in the substance of rest, reflection, and a good dose of play from time to time.
I still do a lot of writing the old fashioned way, by hand. I realize that must sound very archaic, and it's one of the reasons why most of my musings don't turn up in this much-neglected blog! I just completed my last entry for this year in my journal, simply because there were no more empty pages! Time to start a new one. The following contains my ramblings from today's entry as I reflected on the events of Matthew 4....
I wonder if the devil came in some physical form when he came to tempt Jesus...
I wonder if angels have ever come to "attend" to my needs...
I wonder if Zebedee was ever angry with Jesus for taking his two sons and leaving him with all the work...
I wonder (and pray) if there can be a new move of God's power to sweep over modern day Syria, multiplying thousands upon thousands of Christ followers...
It just seems fitting to close this journal with questions, since mostly that is what I have for my Lord. The events of this year have once again confirmed my inability to figure things out, to have the answers. Too often, my questions come out of frustration and doubt. I'm reminded, however, of the potential to flip these moments into wonder. The Advent season is a great time to begin this practice, to leave the questioning and complaining behind (Chances are, we won't find the answers anyway!) and turn them into wonder. My prayer today is for expressions of wonder to permeate my being as I celebrate the first advent of Christ and look forward to his glorious return.
I love the idea of being led by the Spirit into green pastures and quiet waters. These are moments when I experience God's presence and favor. Sometimes these moments are repeated day after day, becoming seasons of rest and fresh revelation from the Lord. I know Who is in control and I'm confident that He is taking care of every need. In a sense, I'm being pampered.
Yet what about the times when the Good Shepherd leads us into desert places? Those dry and lonely places where He seems distant and unconcerned? This often happens during periods of transition. Could God be preparing me for something, slowly and patiently working on my character and strengthening my ability to resist temptation? Is He possibly moving me into a new area of ministry and greater influence?
In preparation times the fundamental need is for our resistance to be built up. Our ability to resist and overcome evil is connected to our capacity to do good. And so Jesus was "led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." - Matthew 4:1
Forty days of being led by the Spirit. Forty days of temptation. My common perception has been that the temptation occurred strictly at the end of the 40 days. But Luke's gospel states that Jesus was tempted for forty days (Lk 4:1). One trial after another, one long season of dryness and difficulty. Ever feel this way? I have. Could it be that this is no accident? What if God has designed this season for a purpose, specifically for your long-term benefit and growth?
I confess, sometimes I need a change of perspective before I can truly learn to cooperate with God in the desert places. Rather than seeing my dilemma as a form of punishment, I've needed to embrace it as His provision. Don't get me wrong. I'll take the green pastures and quiet waters any day. But I'm learning to trust God's leading and purpose in the desert places as well.
After David was settled in his palace, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of the covenant of the Lord is under a tent.” Nathan replied to David, “Whatever you have in mind, do it, for God is with you.” - I Chronicles 17:1-2 Upon reading the above passage and the verses which follow, I was struck by my tendency to think and plan without taking the time to get the big picture. From a position of comfort and security, I start thinking I know what God needs and when he needs it. I start making plans and ask God to bless them. That's called presumption!
- Presumptuous thinking and planning often start with good intentions. David wanted to build a house that would honor God's name. But did God ever say he wanted a house, let alone that David would be the one to build it? David's motivation was good, but he lacked the broader perspective of what God was doing through the generations and with a whole nation. He lacked vision. He need God's perspective.
- Presumptuous thinking and planning is often rooted in comfort and security. David was settled in his palace. Comfort and security have a way of dulling our senses. The danger is to equate good times and good feelings with God's blessing and favor. I'm not saying that God doesn't desire to bless and give good gifts to his children; He certainly does. But King David was reminded that God's plan went far beyond his own personal comfort and present state of feeling blessed.
God was quick to remind David that He doesn't operate on a need basis. He doesn't need anything. Instead, He works to accomplish His vision for the sake of the people He loves and for the blessed future He envisions for them. He desires to communicate His vision to us so that we have the ability to partner effectively with Him.
Once God had spoken, I believe a burden was lifted from David's shoulders - the burden to do something for God which we often carry with us. The burden to please by doing something for Him rather than being with Him. That day I believe King David traded his self-induced, short term, presumptuous thinking for God's long-term vision. And just maybe, the king slept a little better that night as he reflected on God's words...
“‘I declare to you that the Lord will build a house for you..." - I Chronicles 17:10b
"...and he separated the light from the darkness." - Genesis 1:4b I'm thankful for the way in which our Creator distinguishes and separates His creation. His work of separation in creation brings order out of chaos. Light from darkness. Night from day. He makes a distinction between the plants, animals, and the climax of his creation humankind. We exist because of God's intentional, supernatural act of creating order, functionality and beauty out of chaos.
While we take for granted God's work of distinguishing in creation and the physical order, are we aware that He also does this in the spiritual realm? He takes us out of darkness and distinguishes us as children of the day. He calls us out of bondage into freedom. He brings us out sinful habits and lifestyles into His holiness.
Although God created this world for us in all its vast beauty, He also created us for another world, our heavenly home. We are a peculiar people, unique and set apart for His glory. God's purpose in distinguishing us is twofold: to give us a peculiar platform by which we can share his love here on earth, all the while preparing us for an eternity with Him.
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." - 1 Peter 2:9
Hard Work, Low Pay, Miserable Conditions. This was the slogan of the CCC (California Conservation Corps) in the 80's when I signed up. At twenty years of age, no direction in life, and a love for the outdoors, somehow it appealed to me. By the way, I just took a peek at their website. The slogan remains the same except that they've added "and more" at the end. I wonder what "more" could possibly be?
Jacob experienced his share of hard work, low pay and miserable conditions. In recounting his time of toil to his father-in-law Laban he states, "This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times...." - Genesis 31:40-41
Jacob the deceiver had finally met his match in the person of Laban. Laban treated him unfairly, squeezing as much as he could possibly get out of his son-in-law. It seems that that Jacob needed to have this experience of hard work under cruel conditions for his own personal growth and maturity.
Nevertheless, God's favor and blessing was upon Jacob. With the exception of some jealousy and rivalry between his wives, Jacob prospered, revealing that God's hand was clearly upon him. I've read this story many times, but this time I noticed something different - a connection between hardship and blessing, perseverance and reward. God's blessing often comes as a result of years of difficulty, enabling us not merely to survive, but to thrive in the furnace of testing. In the process He works on our character and disciplines us when needed, as He did with Jacob, until we have the capacity to be faithful stewards of that which He entrusts to us. And ultimately we are rewarded for our faithfulness.
As Jacob processes his long and often difficult history with Laban, he continued, "But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands..." (Genesis 31:42). I'm thankful that we can know God's favor in the midst of challenging times. Whatever we might go through - hard work, low pay, miserable conditions - these can become opportunities to experience God in deeper ways. Today, I choose to lift my eyes to a God who is able to leverage my present circumstances to fulfill His greater purposes.
For Reflection: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." - Genesis 50:20
"Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel's army, withdrew and went behind them." - Exodus 14:19
God's presence, manifest in the pillar of cloud, went before and in front of the people. This reassured them that He was leading. It gave them confidence, a visible reminder that God was on their side. But all of that changed when God's presence moved from out front and above to behind the people. I wonder if this re-positioning of God was disconcerting to His people? Could they feel an unexplainable change? Did they sense something was different?
I love it when God seems to be out front and above, guiding and overshadowing with His presence. But I'm still learning to trust Him when He moves to the background and goes behind. I'm realizing that even in these times He is actively relating to me, just in a different way.
Prayer: Like the Israelites, sometimes I feel trapped between a merciless sea and a threatening army. Lord, give me Your perspective when I look in the rearview mirror of life. Give me a glimpse of your constant presence. And may I be reassured, knowing that You are working to bring about a great deliverance.
In response to an angry and thirsty mob of complaining Israelites, Moses knew what to do first. Even better,he knew Who to consult. He and his brother Aaron went to meet with God, and He gave them specific instructions. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.'” -Numbers 20:7-8
I wonder...did Moses receive God's instructions and depart from that place of meeting without dealing with his anger and frustration? If so, it proved to be a costly mistake.
God told Moses to speak to the rock; instead, he struck it twice - I'm assuming in anger. Moses took a forceful, heavy-handed approach rather than choosing to simply speak and trust God. God redeemed the situation and did the miracle anyway. But it cost Moses dearly. He would be forbidden to enter the promised land. Why? "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me....". Ouch!
I think God loves to place challenges before me so that I can learn to trust him. And I don't think I'm alone. This is one of the ways he meets us in our situations. And when we meet with him, inviting Him into our struggle, he is always ready to help. In the most difficult times, there is nothing we can do (or should do) other than trust Him. In Moses' case, speaking to the rock required more patience and trust and less action on his part.
Can I trust God to work through my speaking as well as my doing? All around us people are pushing and shoving, hitting and hurting in order to make things happen. Some of us have been taught that this is the way to get ahead, to succeed in life. Is it?
Lately I've been feeling a need to push less and trust more. And somehow this will bring honor to God and ensure a joyous homecoming.
Prayer: God, this challenge is requiring me to trust You more. Help me not to force my way through it or try to escape it. But may I learn Your ways in the midst of it. In the process, may You be honored in the sight of those within my sphere of influence.
*Reflections taken from Numbers 20:1-13
On one occasion some Pharisees and Herodians questioned Jesus about whether or not it was acceptable to pay taxes to Caesar. Although Jesus knew their intention was to trap him in his words, He took the opportunity to point out the difference between earthly obligations and heavenly ones. "Then Jesus said to them, 'Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.' And they were amazed at him." (Mark 12:17) His reply was a rebuke to his would-be accusers who cared little about pleasing Caesar and were sorely misguided in their efforts at pleasing God.
While Caesar's likeness was imprinted on a coin, God's fingerprints can be recognized on all of His creation, especially us who are made in His image. Giving ourselves to Him unconditionally and with total surrender points to an acknowledgement of God's claim of ownership on our lives. We are His image bearers and we belong to Him. And contrary to what many think, real freedom comes from living in the light of these truths.
Prayer: Lord, I give myself in wonder and amazement that I'm made in Your image and belong to You. Thank you for the freedom this acknowledgement brings into my life. Help me to walk your path of freedom today.
"Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said" (Joshua 14:12).
Forty-five years after laying eyes on his inheritance, Caleb confidently comes to Joshua with a request to make good on God's promise. God had promised something humanly impossible for Caleb and his descendants. Was Joshua secretly hoping that in his old age Caleb would have forgotten? Not Caleb. At 85 years of age, he was ready to lay hold of his promise.
What was happening during those 45 years in between? I imagine Caleb helping his brothers take possession of their inheritances, raising a family, and working the land. As they wandered in the desert, He watched the original band of spies slowly die in their unbelief. Only he and Joshua were left. I imagine Caleb with a habit of speaking to the mountain on a daily basis, a mountain he would some day claim as his own. So, approaching Joshua with this request was simply a formality. It was, in fact, already his.
Once Caleb got the go-ahead from Joshua, he still had the difficult task of driving out the inhabitants of the land. There was a progression: Caleb spoke to the mountain and he trusted God. And behind the scenes, God was lining things up until the day Caleb would go in and conquer.
I'm learning the trust God more these days. One of my "mountains" has been establishing effective financial partnerships for our overseas work. I've been speaking to this challenge in prayer frequently. I need to pray and trust more. I have 45 years of total life experience under my belt; Caleb had 40, then he waited 45 more years until he was 85. Then the real work began. Should I be encouraged?
Prayer: Lord, you know my heart. You know how difficult it is for me to wait and to maintain perspective. Remind me that every mountain I face is an opportunity to grow in trust and patience, and to sharpen my skills along the way.
There's something about faith when lived out with tenacity, boldness and sincerity. It takes on a life of its own, influencing others in its wake. That's how a legacy of faith gets passed down through the generations. Of Caleb, we're told that "he followed the Lord wholeheartedly." (Joshua 14:14). That's impressive, especially when we understand the longevity of his wholehearted devotion. I love to imagine the impact this must have had on those around him. At one point, Caleb's own daughter approached him boldly with a request, "...Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs. (Joshua 15:19). She wasn't afraid, even in a man's world, to ask and believe for big things. Could it be that she learned from watching her father all those years that God is hilariously generous - if only we will ask?
Caleb's nephew, Othniel, became the first judge of Israel. And he was himself a valiant warrior (see Judges 3:9). I wonder if he too had been inspired by observing the faith of his uncle....
Prayer: Lord, shape in me a spirit like Caleb's, that I might wholeheartedly pursue You and the gifts You have for me. And help me to pass down a heritage of bold and tenacious faith to those within my sphere of influence.
*From reflections in Joshua, chapters 14-15.
Peace. What a distant memory when you're in hiding, fearing for your life. The young man went to extremes to stay under the radar of the oppressive Midianites. He sheepishly went about threshing wheat in a winepress. No worse than his brothers who were hiding out in mountain caves, Gideon reasoned. The last time Gideon knew any semblance of peace was...well, he can't remember. If he needed anything on that day, he needed some peace. He needed assurance. "The Lord is with you mighty warrior.", said the angel. The second part of the messenger's greeting kind of threw him off. He didn't feel like much of a warrior, but his spirit resonated with the first part, to which he questioned, “Pardon me, my lord...but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?"
"Go in the strength you have...:", said the angel. Then the sacrifice, then the consuming fire, then those words, "Peace! Do not be afraid..."
Gideon didn't need an altar to remember this peace encounter., but he built one anyway. He didn't need the law when grace finally came. But he fulfilled the law anyway. God knew exactly what Gideon needed that day. He needed an awareness that he was on their side, an assurance that He had not abandoned them. And that He had a plan. God always has a plan.
With that awareness came a confirmation of God's abiding presence and the peaceful assurance which followed.
Prayer: Thank you God for your peace when I'm feeling lost and fearful. I find hope and assurance in your presence today.
Quoted scriptures taken from Judges, chapter 6.
I once took my two oldest children on a camping trip in the Central Asian country where we live and work. We hiked to our destination with a load of supplies, carried on several donkeys borrowed from the villagers. In this rugged part of the world, donkeys are a common mode of travel, hauling people and supplies on sheep trails through the mountainous terrain. If the saddle bags are uneven or crooked they will most likely spill over on the way and cause the donkey to stumble. One of our donkeys had a difficult time making it up the mountain because we didn’t take the time to load the saddle bags correctly. We struggled on our journey because we failed to prepare well. An ancient Persian proverb states, Bori kaj ba manzil nameracad. The translation: An unbalanced load will not reach its destination. The proverb suggests that it is important to begin a journey with good preparation if we want to reach our destination.
Our destination today is to be more like Jesus. That makes me think. Am I prepared to reach my destination? Have I spent time with God in prayer, Bible study and meditation on His Word? I Peter 4:13 states, “…prepare your minds for action...” (NIV). As the scripture suggests, good preparation precedes wise action.
Thought for the day: Good preparation precedes wise action
Prayer: Lord I want my life to reflect the image of your Son, Jesus. Thank you for hearing my prayer and helping me to be prepared for action today.
Our arrival in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on Thanksgiving Day 1996 came and went quite uneventfully. A small beginning. Two single colleagues, Mike and Dave, met us at the airport to help collect our luggage and speed us away to the little two room apartment which would become our temporary home. They invited us to accompany them to a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the American Embassy that evening. We declined, jet lagged and exhausted from the long journey and not in the mood to say anymore hellos just yet.
We did greet a little mouse who had taken up residence in our apartment. The goodbye would follow a few days later, upon successfully securing a mouse trap and some cheese. We were also greeted by the government tanks which patrolled up and down the main street just outside our window. We learned they were “protecting” their citizens from opposition forces. Why did that not feel comforting?
Hunger eventually set in. It was time to bravely explore our new little world outside our apartment building. We thought about what we had missed, having chosen not to attend the Thanksgiving feast hosted by our friends at the U.S. Embassy. That was one of the few times we would be invited to share a meal which our tax dollars had helped to put on the table. We eventually learned that they always imported big, juicy Butterball turkeys from the U.S. for this special occasion. That was a hello we probably should have taken advantage of!
We ventured outside and located a little shop where we discovered some ramen instant noodles. Just add hot water! We ate our humble meal, just the three of us, accompanied by our unwelcomed roommate, the mouse. A wave of gratitude did not sweep over me in that moment.
As I reflect on our first day in Tajikistan as a family, it represents something of a small beginning. God has something to say about small beginnings:
For this family of three, the broader context of our small beginning was a significant life/work transition. It was a big dive, jumping off into the turbulent waters of this volatile, war-torn land. Our entry, however, lacked any big splash. We quietly slipped in while people were going through their daily routines, many struggling to survive another day. In olympic diving competition, less splash translates into a winning score. We would have a long wait before the results started coming in. For now, the looming question would be, “Can we tread water?”
How are you feeling about your small beginning and the transition journey which has brought you to this place? If you feel like you're barely treading water, you're not alone. Small beginnings can be like that. They can also be pretty lonely in those pre-community, pre-friends, I-don't-feel-life-has-purpose days. Thankfully, God offers hope through small beginnings.
He notices. He cares. And He can be fully trusted.
Have you recently executed a quiet entry into a new setting?
Living near a river in a developing country for 16 years becomes something of a metaphor on life. The river we lived near and which flowed through the middle of our city was called “Varzob”. The literal translation is “Muddy River”, aptly named for its chocolate milk appearance at certain times of the year. I think it gets a bad rap, and this is why:
At its source the river is pure, crystal clear snow melt. From there it begins a journey down the mountains of Tajikistan, skirting its way through little villages, passing shepherds and their flocks of sheep along the way. Can the river be blamed for what gets deposited into it along the way, causing it to earn its muddled reputation? I’m sympathetic with the river.
The river was also the source of therapeutic mud baths for our children. In our home, water from the tap was piped directly from the river. So whatever the color of the river water during a particular season, that’s what came into our home. We would usually attempt to time the kid’s baths with whenever the water looked the cleanest. But with small children, a good soak can only wait so long. Once in a while they bathed in, let’s just say, less than clean water. On those occasions we’d try to convince ourselves that mud baths were therapeutic! With few exceptions, the kids never complained. Except for the time when a little fish made its way from the river through the pipes and out the faucet of our bath tub. The minnow actually survived the long journey and was spotted swimming around in the bath with the kids! I quickly retrieved it and transported it outdoors. Bath time continued.
On numerous occasions we would drain the tub and find a layer of silt and sand at the bottom. No, the kids weren’t that dirty. The river brought it to us. Over the years the river would be an ongoing subject of conversation in our family and community.
The river accumulates and assimilates, making its deposits and contributions along the way. Our lives are similar in the sense that they have a flow or direction to them. And the direction of our lives matters. We can be like the little fish which ended up in the bath tub. It allowed itself to be pushed and shoved by the current, ending up in a somewhat precarious situation. The current of culture is strong. If we aren’t careful, we can find ourselves taking the path of least resistance. We become assimilated into society to the extent that we are no longer distinguishable. Not set apart. Not peculiar. A deposit. But not an investment.
The path of resistance, however, is a journey worth taking. It’s an upward climb, a striving against the current and dodging obstacles along the way. It’s the forgetting of what’s behind and the straining toward what lies ahead. It is attainable by faith, yet unseen and always just beyond reach. We know this in our spirits, so we keep pressing onward. Upward.
Mud and meandering minnows are not all the river has to offer. The cool, clear waters of the river near its source in the snow-capped mountains are teeming with trout. They thrive in these waters and wouldn’t dare let themselves be swept downstream into the murky, polluted water where the both the temperature and the oxygen level put them at risk.
There is another type of fish, however, which thrives down below in the muddy waters. The Tajik name for this fish is “shirmohi”, which literally means “milkfish.” Don’t ask me how it got its name. I’ve always enjoyed fishing high upstream for the trout. Occasionally I’ve been surprised to find a milkfish on the end of my line instead of the sought-after trout. This fish is peculiar among its trout relatives. It has left its native environment of the muddy waters down below, making the treacherous journey upstream to the cool, oxygen-rich waters where the trout thrive. I admire that fish and the effort it made to search out something better.
I’m not sure what motivates that fish on its upward journey, but I do know what propels us upward. Faith. The writer of Hebrews defines it as being “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) A conviction that there is something much better up ahead, unseen but nonetheless real. The Spirit of God in us calls and coaxes us to grasp for the eternal. And like fish swimming upstream, we make our way toward the natural (or should I say supernatural?) environment we’ve been created for. Resistance doesn’t come easy. But the rewards are great.