March 19, 2019

While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Romans 5:6

The cherry blossoms are coming!

The National Park Service’s National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C. is loaded with some of our nation’s most iconic commemorative buildings and statues—presidential-related ones like the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument (which is supposed to re-open soon, after some modernizing and security construction), plus war- and military-related kinds like the WWII, Korean and Vietnam memorials. It’s a great place to walk any time of the year, but in the spring, it’s the cherry blossoms everyone comes to see.

The majority of the approximately 3,800 trees can be found near the Tidal Basin and along the shoreline of East Potomac Park, with scattered clusters elsewhere on the Mall and around the city. Their pink and yellow flowers of several varieties put on a gorgeous display, from the moment the buds open and even as they shed their petals in drifting showers. To walk among them is a lovely experience (I haven’t done that in D.C., but I have many times in Newark’s Branch Brook Park, which has the largest collection of cherry blossom trees in the country).

In my Life Lessons from the National Parks book, I wrote a little bit about the trees’ history. Read more here.

D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Festival begins March 20 and runs through April 14, but what people really want to know is: when’s the best time to see the most blooms?

That’s hard to predict, according to the Park Service. It defines the peak bloom date as when 70% of the Yoshino cherry trees pop, and that depends on the weather. The usual peak is the last week in March through the first week in April, but warmer or cooler temperatures can push the timeline up to 2 weeks before or after that period.

This year, Park Service horticulturists say the blossoms are right on time, with a peak bloom of April 3-6. If you plan to go, you’ll have plenty of company–hundreds of thousands visit our nation’s capital then.

Right on time…The Bible declares that’s what can be said of God. He sent His Son to be born at the right time (Galatians 4:4), and Jesus began His earthly ministry at the right time (Mark 1:15), died at the right time as a substitute payment for our sins (Romans 5:6, 1 Timothy 2:6), and will come back again at the right time (1 Timothy 6:14-15).

So..if He’s right on time for the big things, will He be on time when we need Him? Yes, says Psalm 46:1. God is “a very present help in trouble,” proven, ready and reliable, just as He showed up at the right moment time and time again in Scriptural accounts. I like the way “He’s an On Time God,” sung by Dottie Peoples, puts it: “He may not come when you want Him, but He’ll be there right on time.” As Christian hip hop artist Aaron Cole raps in “Right On Time,” “He will make your heavy light…His love is always right on time.”

Right on time…that’s our God. Not only once a year, but always.



When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged…He scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes…They cast the pur (that is, the lot) in the presence of Haman to select a day and month. And the lot fell on the twelfth month, the month of Adar. Esther 2:5-7

This year, the Jewish celebration of Purim lasts from sundown on March 20 through the next evening. If you know anything about the holiday, you’ll remember that it’s found in the Old Testament book of Esther and, as mentioned in the above verse, the casting of a lot has something to do with it.

Casting lots is an ancient means of choosing or deciding in both secular and religious societies (more on how it relates to the story of Purim later in this post). “Lot” is the root of the modern word “lottery,” a form of gambling that involves the drawing of numbers at random for a prize. Lottery tickets generally cost money, and they may be a method of raising cash for a public charitable purpose, or a game run by a nation or state or group of states to generate revenue while also doling out monetary rewards to the players. Lotteries are based solely on chance, and the odds are heavily stacked against the bettor. Big winners may get the publicity, but the lottery sponsor is always the primary victor.

It may surprise you to know there are lotteries in the national parks. They don’t involve money, though, except for some fees. Still, they are a gamble of sorts, and about taking a chance, with the prize being a permit for or entrance into extremely popular events.

For example, if you’ve always wanted to go to the White House Easter Egg Roll in President’s Park, you have to sign up online to be selected to attend. This year’s lottery was open from February 28 through March 4, so better luck in 2020.

Another well-attended occasion in the same spot and again only open to those who score a pass through a lottery is the National Christmas Tree Lighting. The 2019 lottery opens in the fall.

Alaska’s Denali National Park has a “Road Lottery” for a four-day event in September in which only lottery winners are allotted one day-long permit to drive as much of the Denali Park Road as they can, weather permitting. It’s an opportunity to see wildlife along the park’s only road, winding through a wild environment of valleys and mountains. You’ll need to pay a $15 application fee to enter, and if you win, the permit costs $25. Plus there’s a park entrance fee, reduced for the winners to $10. Sign up between May 1-31, but be aware that you’ll be among 11,000+ entrants, making the odds of winning about 1 in 7.

Up for adventure? How about a hike all the way up Half Dome in Yosemite? The arduous, 14- to 16-mile round-trip climb takes you 8,800 feet above sea level. The cables normally are up from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day in October, enabling you to hike the last 400 feet without rock climbing equipment. A maximum of 300 hikers are allowed each day, 7 days a week. Enter the lottery between now and March 31 for a pass, or take a chance on getting one of the approximately 50 days permits by applying a few days in advance of when you’d like to hit the trail.

If you’re hoping to scale Mt. Whitney on the border of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest, you need to either make a reservation or, for 2 of the most popular hikes, join a lottery to obtain a permit.

At Dinosaur National Monument, single- and multi-day boating and rafting trips need a permit during the “high use” season on both the Green and Yampa Rivers. The lottery for those runs from December 1 through January 31. There’s an application fee, as well as one for the permits.

Finally, you’ll need to enter the Firefly Lottery for parking if you want to view the annual synchronous lightning bug nighttime spectacle in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ll be writing about this and another park’s firefly festival in May, when both take place. If you want be in the running for a parking pass for the Sugarlands Visitor Center and to ride the firefly shuttle, sign up for the lottery between April 26 and 29.

Now, back to Esther.

Here’s a summary of the story: Esther (her Persian name, meaning “star;” her Hebrew name is Hadassah, or “myrtle”) is taken into King Xerses’ harem (Xerses is his Persian name, Ahasuerus the Hebrew one), apparently against her will. Xerses was on the lookout for a new wife after banishing his old one, Vashti, who wouldn’t do his bidding. After a “try out” period, Xerses finds Esther better than all the rest, and so makes her his queen.

Esther is Jewish, but her uncle and guardian Mordecai instructs her not to tell anyone. He keeps his eye on her as much as he can, and also learns of a plot to kill Xerses. He passes that information along and the plan is thwarted.

In the meantime, an egomaniac named Haman is promoted to the number two position in Xerses’ kingdom, and others are supposed to bow down to him. Mordecai wouldn’t, perhaps because he felt Haman gave himself god-like airs, and Mordecai followed the command not to worship anyone but God (Deuteronomy 6:13-14). He also might have refused to do so because Haman was an Agagite, Israel’s long-time enemy (Esther 3:1, Genesis 36:12, Deuteronomy 25:17-18). This angered Haman so much that he cast the pur, (an Assyrian word meaning “lot”) to determine the best time to carry out a scheme to kill every Jew in retaliation.

He bribed an indifferent and clueless King Xerses to sign a decree that on the date chosen, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar (in our calendar February-March). When Mordecai found out, he alerted Esther: “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape [the killing] any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (4:13-14).

Esther’s response is an example of a woman who seems to be nominal in her faith, rising up to do what is right despite the cost to her, and saving not only herself but her fellow Jews. Haman winds up at the end of a rope. And thus is born the festival of Purim, the plural of pur: “[The Jews] celebrate the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same month, annually, because on those days the Jews rid themselves of their enemies, and it was a month which was turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday…For Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the adversary of all the Jews, had schemed against the Jews to destroy them and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to disturb them and destroy them…Therefore they called these days Purim after the name of Pur [purim is the plural of pur]…So these days were to be remembered and celebrated throughout every generation, every family, every province and every city; and these days of Purim were not to fail from among the Jews, or their memory fade from their descendants…The command of Esther established these customs for Purim” (Esther 9:21-22, 24, 28, 32).

The book of Esther is short–only 10 chapters–but exciting, so I recommend it as an easy and interesting read. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this Biblical book is that the name of God is not mentioned even once within it. But the story’s twists and turns clearly evidence His sovereignty and providence, and His behind-the-scenes work on behalf of His people.

Our pastor is preaching through Esther right now, undoubtedly meant to coincide with Purim. One thing he’s repeatedly pointed out is that God uses people–wishy-washy believers, pagans, difficult circumstances and even evildoers–to accomplish His will. I don’t know about you, but that gives me great comfort. So many things happen that are out of our control, we wrestle with trials and tribulations, and so often look for the easy way out or shove the responsibility onto someone else or just cave in.

Yet things are not always what they seem. God works for good despite us and despite what the world throws at us, sometimes behind the scenes and in ways we don’t even realize, even in the darkest of times (John 5:17, Romans 8:28). He generously fulfills His promise to “keep His covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9). He give us the courage and strength to step up to the plate and do what’s right in His eyes, knowing He’s got our back (Romans 8:31-32, 2 Corinthians 12:9).

A great reason to celebrate, wouldn’t you say? So make some hamantaschen, and rejoice!


February 26, 2019

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven. Ecclesiastes 3:1

Today is a momentous day for two of our nation’s national parks.

One hundred years ago, the Grand Canyon was designated a national park. Read about the chasm’s history in “How the Grand Canyon Transformed From ‘Valueless’ Place to a National Park” from this month’s issue of Smithsonian magazine, then check out centennial events at the park.

Way on the other side of the country, Acadia National Park celebrates the 100th anniversary of its renaming as a national park. A little history: Acadia started out as Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916, then three years later on this day became Lafayette National Park, in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat and military officer who aided our country during the Revolution. It was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Ten years later, the name changed once again, to Acadia National Park.

Since national parks can only be made through federal legislation, I guess you’d say Congress had a busy session on February 26!

Ecclesiastes chapter 3 contains a popularly quoted portion of Scripture, the “a time to be born, a time to die” passage that’s perhaps best known to those alive during the ‘60s as a song by The Byrds called “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The words are pretty much a word-for-word rendition of verses 1-8, written by folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger.

The entire third chapter of Ecclesiastes is a pondering of time and eternity, through our lens and through God’s. Solomon, the book’s author, begins by acknowledging that all the events of our lives aren’t random, but divinely ordained: the times of our birth and death (vv. 2-3), days of sorrow and laughter (vv. 4, 7), when to plant, reap, build and throw away (vv. 5-7), and yes, times of love and hate (hate, not as in malice, but in the idea that some things are much less important in respect to others), and of war and peace (v. 8).

Solomon goes on to explore the dichotomy that exists in us about time—while we try to wrap our minds around the idea of eternity, we tend to stay fixated on the present, because we are unable to fully grasp God’s timeless perspective: “God has set eternity in [our] hearts, so that [we] cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (v. 11). We may get glimpses of it, but because we’re finite, we just can’t completely imagine the infinite.

I think God uses that tension of day-to-day and eternity within us to drive us to Himself. “Do not let this once fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise [of His return to earth], but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9).

God uses the precious commodity of time to get us to see both the short-term and long-range view. We may think we’ never have enough time—or paradoxically, believe we have all the time in the world—so we waver between action and procrastination. With respect to our relationship to God, “later” is often our response. Yet He focuses on “today” and “later.”

“Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation,” the apostle Paul urges his readers in 2 Corinthians 6:2, referencing the prophet Isaiah’s call to the Israelites to anticipate the Messiah’s coming, when He would offer Himself as a sacrifice for their sins, and thus fulfill the Abrahamic covenant of deliverance and grace (Genesis 17:1-5). “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me as in the day of trial in the wilderness, when your fathers tried Me by testing Me…I said ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they did not know My ways;’ as I swore in My wrath, ‘they shall not enter My rest,’” the writer of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 95, referring to the Israel’s challenge to God’s authority and their rebellion before they reached the Promised Land (Hebrews 3:7-11). Both of these New Testament passages apply these warnings to both Jew and Gentile “that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving hearts that falls away from the living God,” but instead we are to “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13).

Right now, in this mortal existence, Solomon discovered, “there is nothing better than to rejoice and do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that everyone who eats and drinks sees good in all his or her labor—it is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12). But he also points to later: “the conclusion, when all has been heard, is: reverence God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

Do you have those short-term and long-range views? Are you living the “now” and “today” with God—trusting in and obeying Him through the seasons of rejoicing, mourning, laughing, loving, warring and peace, knowing you’ll never completely figure it all out—while also mindful that sin, that is, missing God’s perfection in thought, word or deed, “so easily entangles us” (Hebrews 12:1)? Are you confident that in the coming day of judgment you’ll be found not guilty because you accepted the gift of righteousness through Jesus?

Or are you thinking, “I’ll think about that later. I want to do what I want to do now, and let the chips fall where they may. I have time.” The problem is, you really don’t know if you do have time. It’s a sobering thought that “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account” (Hebrews 4:13).

February 26 is a significant day in national park history. It can be for your history, too. I pray that this day might be the time when you, as Solomon poetically recommended, “remember your Creator…remember Him before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 6-7).   


February 21, 2019

Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter…Everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock, [and] everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. Matthew 7:21, 24, 26

Did you hear about the man rescued from quicksand at Utah’s Zion National Park?

One of his legs was trapped up its knee for several hours. Search-and-rescue rangers, alerted by his companion, finally reached him in the backcountry and freed him after much effort. Then they all had to spend the night outdoors waiting out a wintry storm that brought four inches of snow. The following afternoon, they were all airlifted out by helicopter.

Who knew you could get caught in a creek bed’s sludge in a national park? Quicksand is the stuff of movies, not real life!

But apparently it can happen.

In Matthew 7, Jesus instructs His followers using “two ways” sayings, a common teaching method in Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, with which His listeners would have been very familiar. A pair of outcomes are given in each instance: preservation or destruction.

First, there is a wide gate and broad road that lead to ruin, and a small gate and narrow road that lead to life (vv. 13-14), a contrast between an easy and therefore popular way, and a harder, less chosen route. This summarizes the question as to whether to follow Jesus’ teachings or not.

The second “two ways” metaphor is about wolves and sheep, a warning to Christ followers to beware of “false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (v. 15), explained further as a comparison between good and bad trees and their fruit (vv. 16-20). These wolfish, counterfeit leaders (trees) may look okay on the outside, talk a good talk and perform great deeds, but they are actually deceivers, because they show their true character (fruit) by promoting their own way instead of God’s (vv. 22-23, 29).

Finally we come to the foolish and wise home builders. Just as words without action are condemned, so is hearing without action (v. 24). The man who built on sand labored diligently on his house, but his failure to use a strong base left it susceptible to stormy weather (v. 26-27). He did things his own way, and suffered the consequences. The house built on rock, though, withstood the elements (v. 24-25).

Perhaps you know that in this passage, Jesus was referring to Himself as that foundation of rock. Both Old Testament (most notably by David in 2 Samuel 22:2-3, 47; Psalm 18:2, 31 & 46, 19:14, 31:3, 71:3) and New ascribe this term to God and to His Son Jesus. Writes the apostle Paul, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder…For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

There will come a day, Paul goes on to say in verses 12-15, when the life we have built—whether on the solid rock of God and His truth, using the precious promises of the Gospel, or on a shaky foundation with worthless materials—will be judged. “God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts” (v. 4:5). Did we go against the tide and chose the harder way? Or did we “not put up with sound doctrine [and] instead suit [our] own desires…gather[ing] around [us] a great number of teachers to say what [our] itching ears want to hear, [turning] our ears away from the truth and turn[ing] aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)? Was our aim to please our Creator, or ourselves?

Quicksand is found where we least expect it. The unstable ground stands ready to trap us and leave us in the cold with nothing to protect us. But, oh! We have a Rescuer, whose self-described mission is to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever,” Paul confidently asserted near the end of his earthly life (2 Timothy 4:18).

If you’re stuck in sinking sand, reflect on the words of David. He knew what it was like. “Save me, O Lord, for the waters have threatened my life. I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold” (Psalm 69:1-2).

He also knew the remedy: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock, making my footsteps firm” (Psalm 40:1-2).


January 22, 2019

These are the words of Him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What He opens no one can shut, and what He shuts no one can open. “I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” Revelation 3:7-8

So…as of today, much of our federal government remains shut down. That includes many of the national parks. Here’s how the alert on the National Park Service’s website reads:

“During the federal government shutdown, this website will not be updated and may not reflect current conditions. Some national parks may remain accessible to visitors; however, access may change without notice. Some parks are closed completely. Some visitor services may be available when provided by concessionaires or other entities. For most parks, there will be no National Park Service-provided visitor services, such as restrooms, trash collection, facilities, or road maintenance. For more information, see www.doi.gov/shutdown and the park website.”

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you might have read of the destruction, trash pile ups and other messes made at some sites. Fortunately, volunteers are banding together to hand out garbage bags, clean up and help keep parts of parks open. In Florida, a coalition of concessionaires and associations are keeping Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks, and Big Cypress National Preserve at least partially accessible. Yosemite’s local community is pitching in. Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park is using other funds and donations to allow more access.

Vandalism and litter are bad enough, but the biggest problem within the parks is safety. “Enter at your own risk” is the phrase that comes to mind. Park visitors are pretty much on their own right now. Those that become lost or injured can’t expect much help. And food and garbage left behind attract animals who are best not encountered up close and personal.

The National Park Foundation has a webpage that suggests ways to help the parks right now, and what to do if you’re planning a visit in the near future. It also updates information about the shutdown from the Park Service.

The largest share of the burden, though, is being borne not by the parks, but by all the federal employees who are without a paycheck. I can only imagine how frustrating and worrisome it must be for them.

My novella, The Christmas Child, just came out in December. It’s takes place in 1890s New York City, and evangelist Dwight L. Moody is featured in one chapter. I have Moody give a speech that is taken from a book he wrote, The Overcoming Life. It wasn’t published until later in the decade in which my story is set, but that’s what’s fun about fiction—you can manipulate some things! Even better, the book is in the public domain, so there’s no problem with copyright. Here are the excerpts I used:

“Some years ago a gentleman came to me and asked which I thought was the most precious promise of all those that Christ left. I took some time to look them over, but I gave it up. I found that I could not answer the question. It is like a man with a large family of children, he cannot tell which he likes best; he loves them all. But if not the best, this is one of the sweetest promises of all: ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” [Matthew 11:28-30]

“If I wanted to find a person who had rest I would not go among the very wealthy. The man that we read of in the twelfth chapter of Luke, thought he was going to get rest by multiplying his goods, but he was disappointed. ‘Soul, take thine ease.’ I venture to say that there is not a person in this wide world who has tried to find rest in that way and found it.

“Money cannot buy it. Many a millionaire would gladly give millions if he could purchase it as he does his stocks and shares. God has made the soul a little too large for this world. Roll the whole world in, and still there is room. There is care in getting wealth, and more care in keeping it.

“Nor would I go among the pleasure seekers. They have a few hours’ enjoyment, but the next day there is enough sorrow to counterbalance. They may drink a cup of pleasure today, but the cup of pain comes on tomorrow.

“To find rest I would never go among the politicians, or among the so-called great. Congress is the last place on earth that I would go. In the Lower House they want to go to the Senate; in the Senate they want to go to the Cabinet; and then they want to go to the White House; and rest has never been found there.” [some things never change!]

“Nor would I go among the halls of learning. ‘Much study is a weariness to the flesh.’ [Ecclesiastes 12:12] I would not go among the upper ten, the ‘bon ton,’ for they are constantly chasing after fashion. Have you not noticed their troubled faces on our streets? And the face is index to the soul. They have no hopeful look. Their worship of pleasure is slavery. Solomon tried pleasure and found bitter disappointment, and down the ages has come the bitter cry, ‘All is vanity.’” [quoted many times in Ecclesiastes]

“Now for something positive. I would go successfully to someone who has heard the sweet voice of Jesus and has laid his burden down at the cross. There is rest, sweet rest. Thousands could certify to this blessed fact. “

“Among all his writings, St. Augustine has nothing sweeter than this: ‘Thou has made us for Thyself, O God, and our heart is restless till it rests in Thee.’”

“I like to have a text like this because it takes us all in. ‘Come unto me all ye that labor.’ That doesn’t mean a select few—refined ladies and cultured men. It doesn’t mean good people only. It applies to saint and sinner. Hospitals are for the sick, not for healthy people. Do you think that Christ would shut the door in anyone’s face and say, ‘I did not mean all; I only meant certain ones?’”

“Now, there are a good many believers who think this text applies only to sinners.  It is just the thing for them too. What do we see today? The Church, Christian people, all loaded down with cares and troubles. ‘Come unto me all ye that labor.’ All! I believe that includes the Christian whose heart is burdened with some great sorrow.”

“If you cannot come to Christ as a saint, come as a sinner. But if you are a saint with some trouble or care, bring it to Him. Saint and sinner, come!”

Much of the federal government and many parks may be shut down, but there is one door that is always open, and that is the way to God through Jesus (John 10:7-10, 14:6). “Come,” He entreats us many times in the Scriptures (for example, Isaiah 55:1-7, Matthew 4:19, Revelation 22:17). He assures us that “the one who comes to Me, I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).

Saint and sinner, come!






October 18, 2018

Where morning dawns and evening fades You call forth songs of joy. Psalm 65:8

I just saw a National Geographic article on the best places in the national park system to see sunrises and sunsets. It’s an interesting list, in that it suggests exactly where to go to catch the finest views, and covers 10 parks, from beaches (Canaveral National Seashore) to mountains (Acadia, Yosemite and Death Valley National Parks) to the Old West and deserts (Saguaro, Petrified Forest and Arches National Parks, to even an urban setting (the National Mall and Memorial Parks). The piece even mentions surrounding sights and sounds, like silence (Badlands National Park) to howling coyotes (Joshua Tree National Park). Although it’s not on this list, I must add Haleakala National Park for its sunrises and sunsets and their silence. Just a note of caution: the park now requires private and rental vehicles to obtain a reservation for viewing sunrise from the mountain’s summit. Don’t worry if you don’t get one; sunset is just as gorgeous, and doesn’t require a reservation–yet).

Just think—every day we get to see a pair of spectacular celestial displays, at the beginning and at the end (unless, of course, it’s cloudy)! Two times to take in events that are as dependable and consistent as the One who created the sun to begin with and who called it “good” (a bit of an understatement, wouldn’t you agree?).

Dawn and dusk certainly do bring out feelings of wonder and joy. They’re excellent moments to worship and thank the God who formed us in His own image and pronounced His ultimate creation “very good.”

But what about the stretches flanked by daybreak and nightfall, sundown and sunup? Our tendency is to lose sight of the beautiful and sublime, and instead preoccupy ourselves with everyday cares and worries. What if we heeded the call of Psalm 113:3 to praise God not just twice a day but all day? What would that even look like?

The answer is found in the same psalm, in its seemingly contrasting but actually complementary two-fold picture of God. On one hand He’s incomparable and exalted over all, yet He “stoops down to look on the heavens and earth” (v. 5). This is how the Wycliffe Bible Commentary puts it: “While supreme over the nations of the earth and the hosts of the heavens, God humbles Himself to consider the needs of mankind.” The prophet Isaiah echoes this awesome truth: “For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isaiah 57:15).

This is how we live in the light and in the dark, aware of and confident in the knowledge that the remarkable God who bookends each day with two amazing blazes of glory, also oversees the times in between, gladly bearing our burdens 24/7 (Psalm 55:22, 68:19).

What’s not to praise about a God like that?!



September 19, 2018

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when the silly, made-up Talk Life a Pirate Day rolls around. If you enjoy acting like a buccaneer, then I say, have at it. For your trouble, Long John Silver’s is offering all you scallywags who take on the “ahoy, mateys” dialect a free Deep Fried Twinkie at participating locations. If you dress the part, you’ll get a free Fish N’ Fry combo as well.

Would it surprise you to know there are pirates found in the National Park Service? Aye, aye! Here’s just a few places where you’ll discover tales of nefarious blackguards who trolled the seas:

Six sites make up this park in the southern part of the state: Barataria Preserve is a 23,000-acre wetlands; Chalmette Battlefield is the place to learn about the War of 1812‘s Battle of New Orleans; the Acadian and Prairie Acadian Cultural Centers allow you to learn about the Cajun people; the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center offers bayou boat tours; and the French Quarter Visitor Center in New Orleans is where Lafitte had his headquarters.

Not a lot is know about this pirate turned patriot turned pirate again. Lafitte called himself a privateer (basically, a pirate with government protection to capture enemy ships, usually used as a license to achieve wealth and dominance by less legal means; buccaneer is the Cajun slang for privateer, and today we use pirate, privateer and buccaneer interchangeably). He illegally smuggled goods and slaves into Louisiana, and was arrested twice by U.S. authorities, but escaped prosecution. During the War of 1812, though, General Andrew Jackson took Lafitte up on his offer to help fight the British in exchange for pardon for his band of men, called Baratarians. President James Madison granted the request, but Lafitte returned to piracy. What eventually happened to him is unknown.

Edward Teach (or perhaps Thatch), better known as the infamous Blackbeard, started out as a British privateer, then took up piracy in the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of North America in the early 18th century. He burnished his menacing image as a man who stole cargo and terrorized passengers and seamen alike by growing his hair and beard long. He met a gruesome end at Ocracoke Inlet just a few short years into his disreputable career.

Captain Samuel Bellamy‘s ship, the Whydah, capsized off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717 with an almost total loss of life, including that of the captain. “Black Sam,” who earned his nickname because he wore his black hair tied with a black satin bow instead of adopting the fashion of powdered wigs, preferred to be called the “Robin Hood of the Sea.” The former slave ship supposedly contained a fortune in looted treasure. It was discovered in 1984, and its artifacts are at the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth. Just this year, archaeologists believe they may have uncovered Bellamy’s remains.

I always thought Sir Francis Drake was strictly a good guy, rescuing the first Roanoke Colony from starvation and attack, and taking them back to England. But before and after that, he was a thorn in Spain’s side, harassing its Caribbean colonies and looting its ships around the world. I suppose that makes him a privateer–along with Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Richard Grenville–even if he did defeat the Spanish Armada, which lead to England’s dominance on land and sea.  Oh, the things you never learn in school…

Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t just a concept for the movies–the area’s history is rife with tales of pillaging and mayhem. The Francis Drake Channel separates the American and British Virgin Islands. The celebrated Captain Kidd and “Black Sam” prowled the waters here. Two sites found within the park may have been 17th century pirate hideouts.

Pirates make for exciting stories, and if talking and/or dressing like a pirate gets you free food, more power to you. But theft is not fun for the victim. Thieves steal, kill and destroy, like pirates did long ago (and still do, in some parts of the world). If you’ve ever had your home or car broken into, or been accosted on the street, you know the fear, anger and anxiety the incident leaves in its wake.

In the opening verses of John chapter 10, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd; the writer of the book of Hebrews says He’s the “great Shepherd” (13:20), and Peter calls Him both the Chief Shepherd and “the Shepherd and Guardian of [our] souls” (1 Peter 5:4, 2:25). Isaiah foretells this shepherd’s coming (40:11), and most of us know Psalm 23 is all about the Lord being our shepherd. The word picture is that of a guide, protector and constant companion, who not only watches over us but provides for us. He gives us what we need, and showers us with an abundance of love, mercy and grace (Ephesians 2:4-7).

And here’s the best news: Once we’re His, He keeps us forever, and promises no one can snatch us away.

If you’ve wandered from the Good Shepherd and imagine He’s so disgusted with you that He’d never take you back, think again. He gave His life for you, so why wouldn’t He rejoice when you’re found again? If you think you don’t need a shepherd, well, you’ll never find a surer, steadier leader among all the “isms” or self-help gurus out there. As my pastor says, Jesus did all the work and we get all the benefits. Where else will you find a deal like that?!

In this life, we’ll always have break-ins and thefts. Our earthly treasures–material possessions, money, health, jobs, people and even our emotions–can disappear or take a nose dive in a heartbeat. False gods and teachers and scammers offer empty promises. But no one or thing or circumstance can steal our security once God grabs hold of us.

Good news on a day devoted to pirates!


March 9, 2018

I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with lovingkindness. Jeremiah 31:3

Our national parks apparently are being loved to death.

We toss around that expression “loved to death” a lot, meaning that we have such a strong affection for something or someone that we will love it until we die.

The phrase has darker nuances as well. There’s a shop in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district of that name that says it “caters to the odd at heart,” carrying such items as Victorian-themed “anthropomorphic taxidermy dioramas and jewelry.” As you might imagine, the store has been described as “creepy.” The television program 48 Hours had a similarly-titled episode about a teen romance that resulted in murder.

In the case of the parks, being loved to death invokes both connotations: so many tourists are flocking to them that not only are they creating an overcrowding problem, but environmentalists are worried about their impact on the natural elements.

2017 statistics show that around 331 million people visited all 417 units, or sites, within the National Park system (you can see the individual location rankings here; it might surprise you that #1 is a road). Zion National Park, #16 with 4.5 million sightseers, is mulling over a reservation system just to enter the park, and other of the 59 units designated as national parks are either considering it or taking a wait-and-see approach.

Do you know you also are loved to death, in the very best way possible? The God of the universe’s love for you and me is so great that it extends from eternity past to eternity future. The word lovingkindness in the Bible is the Hebrew word hesed, meaning a loyal, steadfast or faithful love, with the idea of belonging together. In other words, we were created for a relationship with God. What’s broken that bond is our desire to do what we think is best, as exemplified by Adam and Eve, who had a perfect rapport with their Creator before they decided they knew better than Him. That bent to self-will is called sin, and we’ve been wrestling with it ever since.

But God’s hesed love has been calling us back for just as long, culminating in sending His Son to make final atonement for our waywardness: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

There’s no reservation needed to be loved to death by God. Crowding’s not a problem; there’s always room for one more. Just come.



February 20, 2018

With God is the fountain of life. Psalm 36:9

February is usually a good time to visit Yosemite National Park.

Not only is the park less crowded, which means more solitude to explore its wonders and see more wildlife, but also to indulge in cold weather sports—snowboarding, tubing and shoeing; downhill and cross-country skiing; and sledding.

Another reason is an annual phenomenon that, if conditions arrange themselves favorably, only occurs at certain times from the middle to the end of this month. Horsetail Fall, also known as El Capitan Fall, since it spills over the east end of the iconic rock formation, puts on a fantastic show. Here are the essential ingredients: a clear sky, sunset at just the precise angle, and temps warm enough to melt the snowpack so water flows over the fall. You also have to be in a good viewing spot.

And what is it you’ll see? Firefall. A steam of water lit by the setting sun to look like a blazing yellow-orange-red river of fire cascading down El Capitan’s cliff face. The breathtaking spectacle lasts a mere ten minutes or so.

Observing this wonder has become so popular that people travel from all over the world during the approximately two-week window when all these natural elements can possibly come together. The park now limits vehicle access, and suggests visitors arrive early to pick up a pass on a first-come, first-served basis, or take a guided tour.

This year, however, the prognosis for catching the marvel is not good. That’s because the fall lacks the most basic ingredient—water. There’s just not enough snow to fuel the stream.

“Living water” is a phrase used often in Scripture to liken our physical need for fluid with our soul’s longing for purpose and meaning. Just as only liquid quenches thirst, God says He alone satisfies those inner yearnings. “Every one who thirsts, come to the waters…delight yourself in abundance,” Isaiah calls out. Jesus alluded to that verse at the Feast of Booths, a commemoration of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, proclaiming, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’”

God put everything in motion, arranged all the conditions perfectly, so we could know and partake of this living water. Finally, at just the right time, He sent His own Son (Romans 5:6, Galatians 4:4), the embodiment of this ever-running stream.

It’s there, waiting for us to drink as deeply and as often as we want, every day of the year, 24/7. We’re invited to partake, with no waiting, no shortage, no pass needed.

At the fountain, we’ll catch a glimpse of what the Israelites saw on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:7)—an awesome blaze of wonder, God Himself, whose glorious presence goes on into eternity.


January 3, 2018

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment…How much severe punishment do you think [we] will deserve who have trampled under foot the Son of God, and regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which [we are] sanctified and have insulted the Spirit of grace?  Hebrews 10:26, 27, 29

You’ve probably heard the news that President Trump has shrunk two national monuments, both in Utah. Bear Ears National Monument lost around 85% of its land, while Grand Staircase-Escalante is reduced by nearly half.

Of course controversy dogs the decision. Utah state officials believe the actions will pave the way for energy development: for example, a uranium company says it will give easier access to Bear Ears’ plentiful uranium deposits and help it operate a nearby processing mill. Coal is abundant at Grand Staircase. Environmentalists, naturally, are opposed, fearful of what that energy development could look like. And coal isn’t the only attraction at Grand Staircase—it’s loaded with dinosaur fossils.

Perhaps the greatest outcry is from Native Americans, who object to the loss of protection over land they consider consecrated. Five tribes which use the area for religious ceremonies lobbied for years to preserve Bear Ears’ cliff dwellings and archaeological sites. One Navajo called the indifference toward their sacrosanct soil “just another slap in the face.”

Hebrews 10 emphasizes another, much more serious disrespect—that of Jesus’ death on our behalf. When it comes to God, Bible teacher John Piper writes, “all we want to hear is the sweet side—the tender side, the warm side….[But] whatever your view of God, the Creator of the universe and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, if it does not include [judgment], it is a distorted, unrealistic view.”

Hebrews 10:26 and 27 lay out two choices we must make, Piper notes: accept His sacrifice for sin (thoughts, words or deeds contrary to God’s character) or face terrifying judgment.

“[S]in is what God is angry about, [but] He has made a provision for escaping His anger, namely, the sacrifice of His Son in the place of sinners. The love of God provides escape from the wrath of God by sacrificing the Son of God to vindicate the glory of God in forgiving sinners. That’s the gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ—the essence of Christianity—makes no sense at all apart from the wrath of God. If there is no wrath and no judgment to escape, then Christ was sacrificed in vain.

“But He did not die in vain. He died so that you and I and anyone who believes on Him might be saved from the wrath of God and have everlasting life in the love of God.”

Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bears Ears and everything else of this earth will pass away, and the treatment of hallowed Indian terrain will be a moot issue. What lasts is our response to this decision right now: trample on the sacred ground of Jesus’ atonement for sin, or accept it.

As the writer of Hebrews posits, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

Something to think about in this new year.