April 23, 2015

TREASURE

We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7

President Obama visited Everglades National Park here in Florida yesterday in honor of Earth Day. Maybe he used it to tweak the state’s two likely Republican presidential contenders—former governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio—in their own backyard, as suggested by a New York Times article. But he had to go somewhere to acknowledge the day, and Everglades is as good a place as any.

The president called the 1.5 million acre park “magical” and a “treasure,” and indeed it is. It’s the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S., declared a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Several endangered species reside in Everglades, including the elusive Florida panther (I saw one’s footprint when I was there!), manatees, sea turtles and American crocodiles (you may remember that in one of my first posts, I mentioned that the park is the only place in the world where alligators and crocs co-exist). Mangrove trees with their strange root system are abundant. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a journalist who fought hard to protect this natural ecosystem, called the park a “river of grass,” a fitting description of the sawgrass undulating in the slow-moving water.

We treasure many things in this life, some of which were never meant to be given such lofty status. Scripture speaks eloquently of this tendency of ours: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). Usually we have to learn this the hard way. For me it was by robbery, first of our apartment and then a few years later our house. The crooks took both my newer jewelry and pieces that had belonged to my grandmother. And my poor mom—she went berserk when she discovered one of my brothers unknowingly threw out a box of household cleaning supplies ruined not by moths or rust but by a leaking pipe. She had used the package as a clever (or so she thought) storage place for her valuables.

What we often forget in our day-to-day existence is that our greatest treasure isn’t a thing or object. It’s our soul, ironically enclosed in our “earthen vessel.” We won’t be taking that container with us when we leave—just the spirit, so cherished and loved by God that He sent His Son to die for it (John 3:16, Romans 5:8).

Because, you see, we are His treasure (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, 26:18; Psalm 135:4; Malachi 3:17).

WHAT GOD FORGETS

April 14, 2015

As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:12

April 15 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln, the first president killed while in office, and solemn remembrances will mark the occasion.

Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was shot and which is now part of the National Park System, will hold around-the-clock dramatic re-tellings of the events of April 14-15. Its museum will be open as usual, with exhibits such as the tiny pistol John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Lincoln, his coat and top hat, and a bloodstained flag. Visitors can cross the street to the Petersen House, where the mortally wounded president was carried the night of the 14th and where he died the following morning (D.C. church bells will toll at 8:00 a.m. on the 15th). Adjacent to the house is the Center for Education and Leadership, which explores the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s death and his continuing legacy.

The events of these next two days are sure to be crowded, but Ford’s is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas days so you can go there throughout the year (actually, April 18 and 19 are good days to go, because it’s the beginning of National Parks Week, April 18-26, and admission is free on those two days at any park). And although the Ford’s Theatre itself is sometimes closed because it’s a professional working stage, there are other, on-going programs at the site: “One Destiny,” a short show which runs in the summer, depicting the assassination through the eyes of two witnesses, and an evening musical through May 20 about Lincoln and the Civil War. The theatre also will host a walking tour of downtown Washington through October, themed on the shooting. If you’d like to brush up on the events of April 14-15 online, I suggest this Smithsonian article, excerpted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

It’s right and good to memorialize this and other solemn occasions that changed the course of American history. But reading about all the activities centered on the dates got me thinking about where the word “remember” occurred in the Bible.  I looked it up in a concordance, and discovered many of the references were about not remembering. But it was the subject of what was not remembered—in other words, what was forgotten—that riveted my attention the most:

“In Your [God’s] love You kept me from the pit of destruction; You have put all my sins behind Your back” (Isaiah 38:17)

“’I, even I [God], am He who blots out your transgressions, for My own sake, and remembers your sins no more’” (Isaiah 43:25)

“’I [God] have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist’” (Isaiah 44:22)

“’For I [the Lord] will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’” (Jeremiah 32:34)

“’In those days, at that time’, declares the Lord, ‘search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare’” (Jeremiah 50:20)

“Who is a God like You, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of His inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18, 19)

“’Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord’” (Acts 3:19)

“[God] forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; He took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14)

Don’t these verses paint a great word picture? God has taken all the offenses His followers have ever done or will do against Him and others, and infinitely separated them from us. He put them behind Him; blotted, wiped and swept them away; ground them under His feet; tossed them into the deepest sea; and stamped “Paid In Full” on that sin debt once and for all by putting it on Jesus who took the punishment we rightly deserved.

And then He forgets there even was any wrongdoing to begin with!

How He does that…I can’t quite wrap my mind around it. But I figure if He’s great enough to create the world, then He’s great enough to disremember.

Still—I regularly beat myself up about my past mistakes and failures, and too often suppose that’s what God must do, too. But when He casts our sins into the ocean, He doesn’t set up a fishing hole there. So why should we? Because as far as He’s concerned, there’s nothing there.

And that is something to remember.

 

 

 

 

SURRENDER

April 9, 2015

Submit therefore to God…Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. James 4:7, 8

Today is a day of surrender at Appomattox.

One hundred and fifty years ago Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee capitulated to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia. My daughter is there, and she says it’s crowded. There’s a slew of activity at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park—historical narration of the happenings on that important day so long ago, signings by authors of Civil War history books, demonstrations of Civil War era photography and a reenactment of the surrender. This evening there will be lantern tours of the historic village. Commemorative events continue through the 19th (see the schedule here).

Most people focus on the village when they visit Appomattox Court House NHP. It’s largely a self-guided park—cars aren’t allowed, so you must explore on foot. Two different videos are shown at the visitor center, and exhibits include original artifacts associated with the surrender. Living history talks are often presented by actors portraying people who were there in 1865, so while it’s fun to be there on the actual date, you can still get a good feel for what went on no matter when you go.

Here’s what gotquestions.org has to say about surrender: “Surrender is a battle term. It implies giving up all rights to the conqueror. When an opposing army surrenders, [the soldiers] lay down their arms, and the winners take control from then on.

“Surrendering to God works the same way. God has a plan for our lives, and surrendering to Him means we set aside our own plans and eagerly seek His. The good news is that God’s plan for us is always in our best interest (Jeremiah 29:11), unlike our own plans that often lead to destruction (Proverbs 14:12). Our Lord is a wise and beneficent victor; He conquers us to bless us [1 Peter 5:6].

“There are different levels of surrender, all of which affect our relationship with God. Initial surrender to the drawing of the Holy Spirit leads to salvation (John 6:44, Acts 2:21). When we let go of our own attempts to earn God’s favor and rely upon the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, we become a child of God (John 1:12, 2 Corinthians 5:21).

“But there are times of greater surrender during a Christian’s life that bring deeper intimacy with God and greater power in service. The more areas of our lives we surrender to Him, the more room there is for the filling of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we exhibit traits of His character (Galatians 5:22). The more we surrender to God, the more our old self-worshiping nature is replaced with one that resembles Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

“Romans 6:13 says that God demands that we surrender the totality of our selves; He wants the whole, not a part: ‘Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.’ Jesus said that His followers must deny themselves (Mark 8:34)—another call to surrender.

“The goal of the Christian life can be summed up by Galatians 2:20: ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ Such a life of surrender is pleasing to God, results in the greatest human fulfillment, and will reap ultimate rewards in heaven (Luke 6:22-23).”

The Confederates and Gen. Lee weren’t happy to give up. They fought right to the end—Private Jesse H. Hutchins joined the Confederate Army in the first days of the Civil War, served in almost every major battle in the East, and was shot and killed in a skirmish very near Appomattox just hours before Lee surrendered (his grave is in the Confederate cemetery there). But Lee’s troops were worn, weary and desperate. “There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant,” Lee admitted, “and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

And yet I imagine there was a sense of relief as well. No more battles—just going home. Rest at last from the misery and pain of war.

Surrender to God also involves those same two emotions. It’s tough to relinquish our rights to live as we please and yield instead to God’s will. But oh, the release! When we finally come to the end of ourselves and realize we can’t always fix our circumstances and problems, when we’re tired of fighting the constant inner battle between doing what’s right and best and our self-centered desires, then there’s freedom in admitting, “I give up. I can’t keep on the way I’ve been going. I’m tired. There’s nothing left for me to do but go to You. You take over, Lord.”

Gen. Grant was gracious in his terms of surrender–no mass imprisonments or executions, no parading of defeated enemies. As President Lincoln had concluded in his second inaugural address a little over a month earlier, the goal was to “bind up the nation’s wounds [and] achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace,” rather than exact vengeance.

Our General offers the same terms. “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you;not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid” (John 14:27).

All to Jesus I surrender,

All to Him I freely give;

I will ever love and trust Him,

In His presence daily live.

I surrender all,

I surrender all;

All to Thee, my blessed Savior,

I surrender all.

KEEP ON

March 24, 2015

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. 2 Timothy 4:7, 8

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the third, final and ultimately successful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, a protest against the lack of voting rights for blacks in the South.

Earlier this month was the commemoration of the first march, the one conducted on what came to be called “Bloody Sunday,” when law enforcement used clubs and tear gas to break up protestors crossing Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Afterwards, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for volunteers and ministers to attempt a second demonstration, but they were blocked by a federal judge’s temporary stay on demonstrations. The final march began March 21 after the judge ordered federal protection for the participants. The crowd, led by King, swelled to 25,000 by the time they reached the state’s Capitol in Montgomery.

Ultimately, the public shock at the violence and the protesters’ persistence propelled Congress and the President to pass and sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which helped open voter rolls to millions of Southern blacks.

Visitors to the site of the initial skirmish, the Pettus bridge (which, Smithsonian magazine notes, is named after a Confederate general and leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan), can find a number of places nearby that tell more about the historic protests. Not surprisingly, the National Park Service has an interpretative center, which offers photographs of the events and video interviews with people on both sides of the issue. That’s a good place to start exploring the Selma to Montgomery route, which is a Park Service National Historic Trail. The 54-mile route is on U.S. Highway 80, and has another interpretative center as well as commemorative signs along the way.

The February issue of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Decision magazine has an article about the evangelist’s role in race relations. He promoted integration early on in his ministry. During his 1957 New York City crusade, uneasy over the predominately white crowd in Madison Square Garden, he preached in Harlem and Brooklyn, specifically inviting all the listeners to attend. And they did.

He invited Dr. King to address his team on racial issues and to pray at the crusade. As Graham noted in his autobiography, King told him to keep doing what he was doing—preaching the Gospel to integrated audiences and leading by example—and King would keep doing his work on the streets.

Graham was at the White House when the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, and after the Selma march, at the urging of President Lyndon Johnson, he held an evangelistic campaign across Alabama.

Dr. King noted, “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my own work in the civil rights movement would not have been as successful as it has been.”

History—biblical and secular—is filled with the stories of men and women who did what was right in the face of terrific opposition, and supported others who also did so. They were willing to leave comfort and stability behind because they felt strongly that wrongs needed to be righted. Christians through the ages, knowing that even though what they were doing was right in God’s eyes and were in a way following Jesus’ example, also acknowledged that they would pay a price for civil disobedience (see1 Peter 2:13-24 and Hebrews 11, and the story of the early church in the book of Acts). Dr. King endured stints in jail—and produced a remarkable letter that still resonates today, defending his work as a righteous struggle (he was, after all, one of the founders and the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council). And he was one who paid with his life. As he proclaimed in his now-famous speech the night before he died:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

None of us is perfect. None of us is capable of bringing perfect justice to our very imperfect world. But isn’t it amazing that God uses us flawed people to do His work anyway?

So carry on with what He’s called you to do. It’s those who fight the good fight, finish the course and keep the faith who will reap the reward of spending eternity in the presence of the One who alone has the power, wisdom and will to truly and justly right every wrong.

GOD HAS NO SECOND CLASS CITIZENS

March 16, 2015

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

When my daughter lived in upstate New York, I had the opportunity to check out the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, along with her and my husband.

The first thing you see when you enter is “The First Wave,” life-size bronze statues of the five women–Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock and Jane Hunt— who planned the first Women’s Rights Convention, as well as a few of the men who supported them (including Frederick Douglass). We also watched the park film and walked through the exhibits detailing the Women’s Rights Movement through the early 1990s. Next door are the rehabilitated remains of the Wesleyan Chapel, the site of that first convention.

Last December, President Obama signed legislation to begin the long process of erecting a National Women’s History Museum on or near the National Mall. A bipartisan congressional committee is now forming to study and produce a plan for the building, which will be privately funded. The museum, founded in 1996, is currently only online.

In one sense it’s kind of sad that we have to have a separate museum just for our country’s women, as well as ones for American Indians and African Americans (now located on the second floor of the National Museum of American History, but scheduled to open in its own building on the Mall later this year). It’s all U.S. history! But if that’s what it takes to open our eyes to the injustices, trials and triumphs of underrepresented people groups, then so be it.

Many feel the Bible opposes equal rights for women, based on certain passages. Renowned Bible expositor John MacArthur explains the issue, which continues to confuse both Christians and non-believers alike:

“[W]ithout making one inferior to the other, God calls upon both men and women to fulfill the roles and responsibilities specifically designed for them, a pattern that can be seen even in the Godhead [God the Father, God the Son—Jesus—and God the Spirit] (1 Cor. 11:3)….Of course, the Bible teaches divinely ordained role distinctions between men and women—many of which are perfectly evident from the circumstances of creation alone. For example, women have a unique and vital role in childbearing and the nurture of little ones. Women themselves also have a particular need for support and protection, because physically they are “weaker vessels” (1 Peter 3:7). Scripture establishes the proper order in the family and in the church accordingly, assigning the duties of headship and protection in the home to husbands (Ephesians 5:23) and appointing men in the church to the teaching and leadership roles (1 Timothy 2:11-15)…”

Unfortunately, some men believe these verses award them the God-given right to tell women when to jump and how high. I’ve seen it, and gotten angry watching these husbands and church leaders lord it over their female “subjects” (and squirmed with discomfort for my sisters who either unwittingly or from lack of true biblical knowledge put up with it). I’m happy to say that in most cases I’ve eventually seen this heretical use of power checked, often by another man and by women not afraid to speak up—like me!

Extracting out parts of the Bible without taking into account the whole is often what leads to such arrogant behavior. MacArthur again:

“From the very first chapter of the Bible, we are taught that women, like men, bear the stamp of God’s own image (Genesis 1:27, 5:1-2)—men and women were created equal. Women play prominent roles in many key biblical narratives. Wives are seen as venerated partners and cherished companions to their husbands, not merely slaves or pieces of household furniture (Genesis 2:20-14; Proverbs 19:14; Ecclesiastes 9:9)…

“Christianity, born at the intersection of East and West, elevated the status of women to an unprecedented height. Jesus’ disciples included several women (Luke 8:1-3), a practice almost unheard of among the rabbis of His day. Not only that, He encouraged their discipleship by portraying it as something more needful than domestic service (Luke 10:38-42)…He always treated women with the utmost dignity—even women who might otherwise be regarded as outcasts (Matthew 9:20-22; Luke 7:37-50; John 4:7-27)…

“It is no surprise therefore that women became prominent in the ministry of the early church (Acts 12:12-15; 1 Corinthians 11:11-15). On the day of Pentecost, when the New Testament church was born, women were there with the chief disciples, praying (Acts 1:12-14). Some were renowned for their good deeds (Acts 9:36); others for their hospitality (Acts 12:12; 16:14-15); still others for their understanding of sound doctrine and their spiritual giftedness (Acts 18:26; 21:8-9). John’s second epistle was addressed to a prominent woman in one of the churches under his oversight. Even the apostle Paul, sometimes falsely caricatured by critics of Scripture as a male chauvinist, regularly ministered alongside women (Philippians 4:3). He recognized and applauded their faithfulness and giftedness (Romans 16:1-6; 2 Timothy 1:5)…

“Wherever the gospel has spread, the social, legal, and spiritual status of women has, as a rule, been elevated. When the gospel has been eclipsed (whether by repression, false religion, secularism, humanistic philosophy, or spiritual decay within the church), the status of women has declined accordingly…”

The bottom line? “[W]omen are by no means marginalized or relegated to any second-class status [in Scripture].”

And might I add an oft-overlooked fact—God gave women the most phenomenal position of all. None of us would be here if it weren’t for women—the mothers who gave us birth (thanks, Mom!).

Something to think about during Women’s History Month.

A STORY WORTH TELLING

March 11, 2015

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. 1 Peter 3:15

Tied into Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month this month are additions to two national park sites.

Harriet Tubman, the former slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement, is already honored at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in locations around Cambridge, Maryland. Recent Congressional action adds upstate New York settings—her former residence and related properties in Auburn and Fleming—combining both settings under the title of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park.

In New Jersey, Paterson’s Great Falls National Historical Park (about which I wrote a post in 2009) now will include Hinchliffe Stadium, one of three remaining ballparks where Negro League baseball was played. Hinchliffe was the home of the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans. Larry Doby, the first black to play in the American League (and who lived near me in New Jersey), was among those who took the field there, as was pitching great Satchel Paige. The National Trust for Historic Preservation put Hinchliffe on its endangered landmarks list in 2010, so the push to save it for posterity had become urgent.

Interestingly, the inclusion of the deteriorating stadium stirred up a bit of controversy. Before the vote in the Senate. Then-Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma tweeted a photo of the graffiti-marked ballpark with the caption, “The House just voted to add this to our National Park System….Does it have historical significance? Yes. Should it be part of the National Park Service? Absolutely not.”

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez countered by showing pictures of Paterson residents cleaning up the stadium, and the resulting clean walls. Quoted in an article by North Jersey Media, Menendez said, “I believe strongly that the story of our fight against institutionalized segregation is a story worth telling.”

The apostle Peter urges those who follow Christ to tell the most hopeful story of all—not “cleverly devised tales” but the truth written down by those who were “eyewitness of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16-19). That message is encapsulated in one of the most beloved and quoted verses in the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We who have a personal relationship with God through Jesus have been appointed ambassadors to spread the word of that reconciliation between God and His finest creation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20), and to remain committed to telling the most fantastic, life-changing narrative of all!

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,

Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.

I love to tell the story, because I know ‘tis true;

It satisfies my longing as nothing else can do.

 

I love to tell the story, ‘twill be my theme in glory,

To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.

 

 

LOVE IS IN THE AIR

February 9,2015

Many waters cannot quench love, nor will rivers overflow it; if a man were to give all the riches of his house for love, it would be utterly despised. Song of Solomon 8:7

Valentine’s Day is this Saturday—and the National Parks Foundation has some suggestions for romantic adventures and escapes for you and your sweetie in our national parks.

The “I Heart Parks” Guide, a free download (as are five other guides), offers several ideas: a walk down Lovers’ Lane in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, a boat ride along the mangrove coast in the Everglades, sunrise and/or sunset in Haleakala in Hawaii.

One recommendation I don’t get is going to the Statue of Liberty. I mean, everyone should visit this iconic American symbol, but the crowds and security hassles do not make it romantic at all!

And while I recommend any park visitation (especially this Presidents Day Weekend, when entrance fees are waived), I’d like to suggest that this February 14 you read The Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs), the short Biblical book about the romance of King Solomon and a Shulammite woman (a “young innocent from the country,” as one commentary describes her). This lyrical poem celebrates the joys of love, courtship and marriage, clearly extolling the rightful place of physical love within marriage.

Of course, Solomon isn’t the best role model of marital devotion, since when he wrote Songs, he had “sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number” (Song of Solomon 6:8), and even more later (“seven hundred wives and princesses, and three hundred concubines,” many of them non-Israelites, who “turned his heart away after other gods, and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:1-8). But the experiences written in this book may reflect one of the only pure romances he had.

More importantly though, Song of Solomon illustrates the love of God (and Christ) for His people. Jesus is often described as a groom coming for his bride, the church, or all believers (Matthew 25:1-13; Revelation 19:6-9, 21:1, 2). The tenderness of Solomon toward his new wife reflects God’s lavish care of His beloved, those who follow Him (Ephesians 1:3-14).

So certainly, revel in and express the love you share with spouse, friends and family this Saturday. But recognize that no one can ever match the love of God, who never leaves us or forsakes us (Hebrews 13:5), and to whom every day is Valentine’s Day.

 

THE CALL OF THE WILD

January 29, 2015

You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.  Psalm 16:11 Jeremiah 29:11-14

I haven’t seen the movie Wild, which opened in December and is still in theatres nationwide. I’ve never read the immensely popular book of the same name either. But I do know it’s about a woman named Cheryl Strayed (portrayed in the movie by Reese Witherspoon) who, in the mid-‘90s, went through her mother’s death, abused heroin and got divorced, then took up a long, strenuous hike to rediscover herself.

The trail she chose to trek is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 2,650-mile track for both people and horses 100 to 150 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, running along the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges from the Mexican border through California, Oregon and Washington State to Canada. It’s administered by the U.S. Forest Service, which partners with the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, California Department of Parks and Recreation and the Pacific Crest Trail Association for its management and protection.

In all, the PCT winds through six national parks—Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon and Lassen Volcanic in California; North Cascades and Mount Rainier in Washington; and Crater Lake in Oregon—as well as one national monument, Devils Postpile in California.

People have been seeking peace, comfort and direction in the wilderness for as long as there have been humans (see Psalm 121:1, for example). Being alone in the solitude of the wild is generally conducive to pondering life: it’s easier to find peace and tranquility in the remote outdoors, where quiet and stillness help us think things over without distraction from a noisy, demanding world. And physical exertion brings out those endorphins that make us feel better. The problem is that many think this communing with nature will lead them to find answers within themselves—and therein lies the rub.

The apostle Paul articulated very well the difficulties of looking to our own effort for the solution to our troubles: “What I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate….the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not…I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good [but] I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind” (Romans 7:15, 18, 21, 23).

God does tell us to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, 1 John 4:1-3), but we’re unwise if we stop there to find the answers, because our human solutions never get to the real problem: our perverse, rebellious nature means we want to do and be good, but we end up doing just the opposite. “There is none righteous, not even one…There is none who does good, there is not even one,” Scripture affirms (Romans 3:10, 12). That’s what’s called our sin nature, and God knows we’ll never find real peace there, much less on a trail. The goal of assessment is always meant to lead us not further into our souls or the created world or other people or religious rituals, even though these things may compliment or support our findings.

No, our scrutiny should instead lead us to our Creator, the only One who rightly searches our hearts with love and gentle care, to give us what we need and lead us where we should go (1 Chronicles 28:9, 10; Jeremiah 17:10; Psalm 139: 1, 23, 24; Romans 8:27; Revelation 2:23). As Paul concludes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24, 25).

So, enjoy the parks and other spots set apart for our recreation and enjoyment. But realize life’s mysteries and troubles won’t be resolved there. Look inward and outward all you want—just don’t forget to finally look upward.

 

THEY MADE IT–AND SO CAN WE!

January 15, 2015

The battle is not yours but God’s. 2 Chronicles 20:15

Have you been keeping up with Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell’s freeclimb up El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite? Well, they made it!

The pair reached the 3,000-foot high summit yesterday after 19 days of scaling the vertical rock face in a single expedition using only hands and feet to pull themselves up—a first. I watched them on TV the other day—the picture showed one of them sitting in a tent hanging off the mountain (yikes!), their bloodied fingers, and a short fall, stopped only by the rope they used only for safety, not for ascending.

In an article in the New York Times earlier in the week, Jorgeson talked about the most difficult part, called Pitch 15. It’s a sideways traverse, and he fell 10 times in a week attempting to get through it. He rested his fingers and allowed the skin to heal for two days, studying footage of each of his failures, and discovered each fall had to do with a single foot placement. So last Sunday, he tried again, and succeeded, while a crowd in the meadow below cheered in the twilight. “I’ll always remember that battle,” he said.

All of us have battles, albeit probably not as visible as this Yosemite ascent was, but important and noteworthy to us. We fall, we fail, we get beat up physically and emotionally. Maybe Jorgeson will recall his climb with a kind of pleasure, but many of us would rather not remember our battles, possibly because they didn’t end as well as his did, but left us with deep scars and unpleasant memories. We might even be afraid of what’s coming next.

God understands fear. He knows pain. He identifies with struggle. How? Because not only did He create us and knows us inside and out (Psalm 139:1-16), He sent Himself in the flesh, in the person of Jesus, to be one of us (John 1:14, Romans 1:3, Galatians 4:4, Philippians 2:7, Hebrews 4:16, 2 John 7).

God recognizes that even the godliest among us experience distress and anxiety when faced with overwhelming odds. In 2 Chronicles 20, Jehoshaphat encountered a huge enemy army coming against his kingdom, and was scared (v. 3). His first move, though, wasn’t to draw all his military men together and plan strategy. He began by “turn[ing] his attention to the Lord, and proclaim[ing] a fast throughout all Judah” (v. 3). Then he gathered the people together to pray, to “cry out to [God] in our distress [knowing] You will hear and deliver us…For we are powerless before this great multitude who are coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are on You” (vv. 4, 9, 12).

And God graciously answered His people, as He always does. As Jehoshaphat acknowledged, “Power and might are in Your hand” (vs. 6), God reminded them that the battle wasn’t theirs but His: “[P]ut your trust in the Lord your God and you will be established. Put your trust in His prophets and succeed” (vv. 15, 20). And the enemy was routed.

We live in a world full of trouble, within and without. Jesus wasn’t saying anything new in John 16:33— when He admitted life wouldn’t always be a bed of roses for anybody, even for those who believed in Him as Savior. Not every conflict will have a happy ending: the apostle Paul pleaded for relief from his burden, but God told him “My grace is enough to get you through it” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Many early disciples met gruesome deaths (see Hebrews chapter 11, for instance)—and still suffer in parts of the world today. But we can all cling to God’s promise that He is greater than anything we come against. He fights for us and brings us through, no matter what. And in the end, when we reach the summit, He’ll welcome us home, where we’ll struggle no more.

The strife is o’er, the battle done;

The victory of life is won;

The song of triumph has begun:

Alleluia!

 

 

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE LICHEN (EXCEPT ITS CREATOR)

January 6, 2015

“To whom will you liken Me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.” Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?” Isaiah 40:25, 26a

At Christmas, Joe and I were at our daughter Mimi’s apartment, and the three of us decided to go hiking in Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah is a long, narrow park, and we entered from the south, at Rockfish Gap, then proceeded up Skyline Drive, a scenic roadway that follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles. We only went in about 15 miles, to go on the Riprap Trail, a moderate 3.4 mile round trip. For part of the way, we were on the Appalachian Trail.

The weather was moderate, so we dressed in layers, alternately taking our jackets on and off as we went up and down the trail, in and out of the sun. I’m more used to hiking in the summer, when there’s an abundance of birds and other animals about, and I was surprised at how quiet and still it was. We met several people along the way, but neither saw nor heard any animals.

We got to a mound of boulders which may or may not have been Chimney Rock (the park signage needs work). The adventurous (and much younger) Mimi wanted to see what was on the other side, so she scrambled up the rocks while we oldsters chilled out. The mother in me couldn’t watch her climb, so instead I busied myself exploring our immediate surroundings.

The area was in deep shade, with nearly everything covered in lichen. If you’re like me, you know nothing about lichen, having no reason to even think about it in everyday life. If I ever did know anything about the subject from school, I have forgotten it entirely. But here I was, waiting around for Mimi, so I peeled off a couple of specimens and idly studied them.

That pale green fungus is beautiful! I wished I had a microscope to really examine my samples. To the naked eye, they looked like miniature shrubs with branches ending in fine leafy frills.

Later I looked up lichen on Wikipedia, whose lengthy entry is enough to make your eyes glaze over. Let me summarize the main points: lichen are not plants, because they don’t have roots, nor are they mosses or even parasites on the surfaces on which they grow. They produce their own food from sunlight, air, water and minerals in their own environment, which can be in a variety of elevations and climates. It’s estimated lichen covers 6% of the earth’s land surface, they have a long life span and could be one of the oldest living things. Who would have guessed there was so much to know about those little things?

But you know what my first thought was when I sat on a rock and considered the lichen? A homonym! The verse I quote at the beginning, in fact: God saying to the prophet Isaiah, “To whom will you liken Me?” (get it—lichen and liken?).

Try to wrap your mind around the power, the uniqueness, the attention to detail that went into creating such a tiny yet exquisite organism!

What’s even more mind boggling is to realize that as much work as God put into lichen, which most people ignore, He pours even more into us, created in His own image (Genesis 1:26, 27)!

He has “crowned us with glory and honor” and made us ruler over all His creation (Psalm 8:5-7), bestowed on us every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3), invited us to bring all our concerns to Him to find grace and mercy in our time of need (Hebrews 4:15, 16; 1 Peter 5:7), given us freedom from the guilt and shame of our sins (Romans 8:1, 2; 1 John 1:9), and promised us eternal life (John 3:16, 1 John 5:11-13). No one else could do that but God (Deuteronomy 3:24; 2 Samuel 7:22; 1 Chronicles 29:11; Nehemiah 9:6; Isaiah 43:10-13, 44:6-8, 45:5-7, 46:9-11; John 1:3; Revelation 4:11).

What a wonderful thought with which to begin the new year: we are of great value to God (Matthew 6:26).

I hope your response is the same as mine was that late December day: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! I will praise You, O Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonders. I will be glad and rejoice in You” (Psalm 8:9; 9:1, 2).