Speechless Worship

The further I move into Psalms, the less I have to say. What, after all, am I to say to or about the Creator and Sustainer of the universe? More and more, I read my Psalm for the day, and I just sit back…taking it in…repeating the most meaningful parts. More and more, the only words I have are His. That’s why I call it Speechless Worship.
I’ve never done anything like this before, but today, I invite you to join me in this photo meditation. (All photos are mine. Please don’t use without permission.)

Psalm 104

04-05 angel in the clouds (2).jpgPraise the Lord, my soul.

Lord my God, you are very great;
    you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
    he stretches out the heavens like a tent
    and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot

    and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
    flames of fire his servants.

Family Retreat (56).JPG

He set the earth on its foundations;
    it can never be moved.
You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;
    the waters stood above the mountains.
But at your rebuke the waters fled,

    at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
they flowed over the mountains,
    they went down into the valleys,
    to the place you assigned for them.
You set a boundary they cannot cross;
    never again will they cover the earth.


01-03 Durban-Lesotho (14)He makes springs pour water into the ravines;

    it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;

    the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
    they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
    the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
04-23 Lake Manyara (60)He makes grass grow for the cattle,

    and plants for people to cultivate—
    bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
    oil to make their faces shine,
    and bread that sustains their hearts.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,

    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
    the stork has its home in the junipers.
05-25 Prison Island 35 - sunsetThe high mountains belong to the wild goats;
    the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.


He made the moon to mark the seasons,

    and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
    and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
04-26 Ngorongoro Crater (208)The lions roar for their prey

    and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
    they return and lie down in their dens.
Then people go out to their work,
    to their labor until evening.

How many are your works, Lord!

    In wisdom you made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
08-24 Greece (3)There is the sea, vast and spacious,

    teeming with creatures beyond number—
    living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,

    and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.


IMG_8591All creatures look to you

    to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
    they gather it up;
when you open your hand,

    they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
    they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
    they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
    they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;

    may the Lord rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,

    who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

12-25 Christmas playground (7)I will sing to the Lord all my life;

    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
    as I rejoice in the Lord.
But may sinners vanish from the earth
    and the wicked be no more.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Praise the Lord.

The creation is a picture of the power and the faithfulness of God, which he has demonstrated to us in his revelation in Jesus Christ.  -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Speechless Worship: a photographic meditation on Psalm 104. (click to tweet)

So what are you thinking after this meditation? It’s okay if you don’t really have any words of your own. That’s how I feel as I read it. But if you want to leave a comment, I always welcome it.

Above All Else, Guard His Heart

I’ve read the statistics. Many full-time pastors don’t spend personal time in the Word of God. Sure they study the Bible in preparation for teaching and preaching, but they don’t just dwell in it for their own spiritual nourishment. This month on PastorsWives.com, I share a couple of ways pastors/ministers’ wives can facilitate (or at least not prohibit) their husbands’ time alone with God and His Word.

Check it out: Above All Else, Guard His Heart, then leave a comment there or come back here to let me know what you think. Any other ideas on this topic? I’d love to hear them!

Prioritize your husband’s personal time with God to see a stronger minister and a better #marriage. #pastorswives @Carole_Sparks (click to tweet)

What’s So Good about Good Friday?

I don’t like Good Friday. If any day should be called Black Friday*, it’s this day…

when Jesus, the Christ, had willingly walked into the clutches of His desperate and vindictive enemies,

when the Prince of Peace climbed onto a torture rack and endured hours of excruciating pain before finally releasing His Spirit,

when Messiah himself hung up there deserted by those He claimed as followers—nay, friends and confidants (John 15:15),

when even His Father turned away from Him, the Son of God.

I’m told we call it Good Friday because His experience freed us from all the penalties we so aptly deserve. That’s seems incredibly human-centric (the en masse version of self-centered). That day was anything but good. No one there thought it was good except the pawns of Satan who facilitated it. Not even the Roman soldiers.

Isn’t it a little like the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Those events led directly to the end of World War II in the Pacific, yet we would never call them or their anniversaries good. And just yesterday (4/13/2017), the US dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed. I doubt many Afghanis think it was a good day.

Perhaps we could call the evening good, when He was finally dead and free from the pain, humiliation, and isolation of the worst day in history. For me, death isn’t the scary thing; it’s dying that frightens me.

Now Sunday: Sunday is the so-good-it-makes-me-whoop day! On Sunday, the victory is clear, the Savior is risen, and evil, which has battled since the Garden of Eden, is conquered forever. I know it doesn’t look like it right now, but Victory has already been declared.

At the end of World War II (Don’t know why I’m thinking WWII!), some regiments hadn’t heard about the armistice yet and continued to fight. We live in days like those, when Satan refuses to accept defeat. But his surrender is already written in Jesus’ blood.

Let’s face the facts about Good Friday. What’s so good about it? (click to tweet)

Honestly, I don’t even like to think about the crucifixion, so I’ve never written about it before. If you want more from me today, check out one of these posts about events surrounding Jesus’ last days as the God-Man:

I’m enduring “Good” Friday and looking forward to a great Easter Sunday! What about you? I’d like to know what you’re thinking after reading this. Feel free to leave a comment below.

*Note to all accountants and economists: Yes, I know what Black Friday really means, and I think that day is mislabeled as well. But we’ll save that conversation for November.

Enough is Not Enough

In our culture, we take everything to extremes. Is no one else bothered by how the term binge has become socially acceptable? It means “a period of excessive indulgence.” Sure, I’ve done it, but no way that’s healthy! Binge eating, binge drinking (alcohol, soda, coffee), binge watching a TV series…none of these help you become a better person—especially a better Christ-follower.

In our self-gratification-centered culture, having enough no longer satisfies. Take Starbucks for example. They used to offer a “short” size. While “tall and skinny” are my preferred adjectives for far more than my lattes, what induced them to offer medium, large, and extra-large as standard sizes?

Our sin nature nurtures
an insatiable appetite.

It’s because we always want more. Part of it, I believe, is entitlement—the idea that we deserve more than we’re getting. Part of it, however, stems from that insatiable appetite our sin nature nurtures in us. Like Eve in the garden of Eden, it’s not enough to enjoy what God provides. We also want what He prohibits; we want it all…whether all is good for us or not.

The counter-balance is sufficiency. Our God, the All-Sufficient One, provides what we need for today.

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:19

Not “everything you ever wanted,” not “so much that you are satiated,” but all you need. The challenge for us is to be satisfied with His sufficiency.

There’s an interesting balance here because God does have everything. He is eternally excessive, and He invites us to enjoy His provision, even His over-abundance. So how does this work?

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. –Psalm 23:5

God prepares the table. He provides the heaping trays of food and the limitless jugs of wine. (Remember Jesus’ first miracle? God doesn’t lack in supply.)

But He also provides the cups.

Both the wine in my cup and
the overflow belong to Him.

The cup which He has given me has a certain size, proportionate to my hand and my needs. He pours it full. In fact, He has enough to overflow it, and sometimes He does. That wine runs over my hand, down the sides of the cup, and onto the table. It puddles there. Should He have been more careful? Should He have given me a bigger cup? No. Both the wine in my cup and the overflow belong to Him, and He has done exactly as He wants, for His glory.

We, on the other hand, want it all: the wine in the cup, the wine puddling on the table, even the wine still in the jug. It’s true: the supply is inexhaustible. It won’t “put God out” to give me more. As a result, I’m offended by His seeming wastefulness. What do I do?

I must trust. Ah, here’s the key… I must trust that how much He’s given me is how much I need. Just like you would never give a child $1000 to buy a pack of gum, He doesn’t give us this excess because He knows we won’t use it properly. Oh God, help me relax into this dichotomy: your excess and my enough.

When the Hebrew people gathered manna, they collected just enough for that day: an omer each. If they tried to gather more, it spoiled. Every day, God sent more than they needed, so they left some to melt in the sun (Exodus 16:14-21). Something tells me they didn’t plan on seconds, and yet they were satisfied. If it were me, I would be out there gathering every morsel, stuffing it into my omer-sized container, then gorging on it until I felt sick.

There’s much more to explore but you’ve probably had enough. Let’s finish with a couple of verses on God’s sufficiency for grace and courage. Think on these.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. –2 Corinthians 12:9

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. –Philippians 1:20

I find myself grasping, desiring, even trying to grab more, more, more! I am dissatisfied with His sufficiency. I forget that it’s all His anyway. I forget that God will give me what I need…and some of the things I want, when those things are good for me. What He holds back in His supply, what He pours out in front of me…all that is His to do with as He pleases, and He pleases to increase His glory.

For those times of dissatisfaction with God’s sufficiency. (click to tweet)

Our penchant for excess or extreme pops up in every aspect of life. How do you combat this selfishness? How do you reconcile His abundance with His supply? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

The Apple Tree

James opened the door to Grandma’s house while Mom unbuckled his baby sister. He didn’t have to knock at Grandma’s. She always said he should just “come right in,” like he lived there. He took a deep breath as his foot crossed the threshold. The air was still thick with old books, old furniture, and antiseptic spray—as usual. On his second sniff, fresh rhubarb pie clouded the mix. James’ shoulders fell. He was hoping for chocolate or apple.

“Why are you standing in the door, Jamie? Keep moving!” Mom usually left her exasperated 10-25 apple house (22)voice in the car, but not today. One more sniff told him why, and one glance at his sister’s backside confirmed it. Grandma’s exclamation hid his gagging cough.

“James!” Only Grandma understood he wanted to be called James, like his grandfather, not Jamie or Jack or James-er-ooo. Her nose wrinkled briefly. when she got close “Umm, I just pulled a pie out of the oven, James. Can you help me in the kitchen?” He was saved from diaper-changing!

Grandma handed James the knife as he entered the kitchen. “Want to cut your own piece?” Mom would never let him handle a knife like that.

His lips began to form the word “no” as Grandma stepped away from the stove. A fresh apple pie stood beside the still-steaming rhubarb pie. “Made that one this morning. It’s already cool enough to eat. You hungry or not?”

Grandma chose apple pie, too. She sat a lukewarm cup of grey coffee beside her plate and an ice-cold glass of milk beside James’. The milk sloshed out a little.

James lost himself in his pie. It was half gone before Grandma finished her first bite. She was eating more slowly than usual and staring out the window while she chewed. James put down his fork.

The clink of fork on plate woke
Grandma from her reverie.

The clink of fork on plate woke Grandma from her reverie. She took a long swig of coffee. James was patient. Grandma told the best stories when you didn’t push her, when you let the story flow out on its own. He’d learned that fact last summer. She had always told stories filled with “The Lord did this” and “God blessed us with that,” but last summer, those stories finally began to interest James. Now they were his favorite part of a visit to Grandma’s.

She swallowed hard, hesitated as though to take another drink, and returned the cup to the table. “The apples in your pie came from that tree over yonder.” She pointed out the window and across the back yard. “You know that tree?” Of course he knew that tree! It was his favorite climbing tree, but he just nodded. Better not to distract Grandma when she was gearing up for a story. He’d learned that last summer, too.10-25 apple house (24)

We planted that tree the year your Uncle John went to Vietnam. He loved apples, and I was so tore up when he got drafted. Your Grandpa thought tending to a new tree might help me cope.” She tried to smile, but the tears trembling on her lower eyelid got in the way. She took a bite of pie, so James did the same.

“He wasn’t the only son to leave that spring. The pastor said all us parents should be strong as oaks, faithfully pray for our sons, and continue to help those in need. I didn’t feel like an oak. I felt more like that little sapling, bending with every slight breeze. The theme music for the nightly news made my hands shake, and I couldn’t face the mailman. Your mama was only four years old, but I made her fetch the mail every day.

“I didn’t pray so much for John’s
safety as for his witness.”

“I wasn’t strong, like the pastor said, but I did pray. Funny thing, though, I didn’t pray so much for John’s safety as for his witness. I prayed God would help him be a Light for the other soldiers. I prayed God would make him respectful and brave. I told you how he won that purple heart, didn’t I?”

“Yes, Grandma.” James wanted to ask for that exciting story again, but Grandma was bent in another direction today. He took a big gulp of milk. A little dribbled down his chin, and he wiped it on his sleeve. Grandma didn’t notice.

“The next Spring, a year after John left, that tree got seven blossoms on it. By Autumn, those blossoms had turned into apples. You know how many apples it takes to make a pie?”

James shook his head, his mouth full of pie.

10-25 apple house (28)Grandma smiled. “It takes seven. I knew from the moment I saw those blossoms that those apples weren’t for me. When they got ripe, I picked ’em, made a pie, and took it over to the Marshburns. Their son was missing-in-action. We talked for two hours, mostly about our boys, of course, but God kept reminding me of Scripture to encourage them. We ended up praying together, and it was one of the sweetest times of…communion, I guess you’d call it, I’ve ever known.

“The next fall, there were fourteen apples. I made two pies, and I took them to two different families. The same thing happened. We encouraged each other, we prayed together, and we were all blessed.

“I’ve made apple pies from that tree every single year since then—through a terrible drought, through late freezes that I thought killed the blossoms, and even through a tornado one year. I didn’t keep even one of those pies for myself. I always shared them, and God always blessed through them.”

“But Grandma,” James interrupted, “You didn’t share this one. You kept it right here in your house!”

James felt like Grandma
was sizing him up.

“I shared it with you, didn’t I? And we talked about the things of God, didn’t we?” Grandma stood up, her eyes never leaving James. He felt like she was sizing him up. Then she walked into the kitchen, cut a big piece of pie and put it in an old plastic butter tub.

She sat the plastic tub by his elbow and nodded toward his forgotten plate. “You gonna finish that piece of pie?” James stuffed the last two bites into his mouth and drained his milk. “If you’re thinking we didn’t share this pie properly, take this piece across the street to Mrs. Key. But remember, this pie comes with a side of encouragement and prayer.”

James grabbed the tub, hugged his Grandma again, and turned toward the door.

“Um, James?” Grandma interrupted his march. “You might want to wipe off that milk mustache first.”

We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. –Psalm 78:4

Stories tell themselves better over pie. Which of your #stories bring Him glory? #flashfiction (click to tweet)

It’s important for us, as parents and grandparents (literally or figuratively) to tell how God has been real in our lives. Maybe it’s not a miraculous apple tree, but “He has done great things!” Remember that old hymn, I Love to Tell the Story? What one thing do you want the next generation to know? Do you have a parent or grandparent who told you these kinds of stories? How did it affect your faith? Please share in the comments. 

It’s in the Transitions…

Mark 1.

As John pulled Jesus up out of the water at His baptism, the Spirit of God came down on Him and a voice—the voice of God!!—said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). God was happy with the adult Jesus, with Who He had become in the thirty years of His life on earth.

Here’s a picture-perfect moment: Jesus dripping wet and blinking a little to clear the water from His eyes, the clouds parting and the sun shining through (that’s what I think “heaven being torn open” must have been), Jesus almost glowing in the fresh light and John the Baptist stepping back in awe. Jesus turns His face toward the light, and The Voice booms out.

Just picture it in your head…

But what happens next? As the sky closes back and Jesus’ beard begins to dry, it seems like Jesus should march out into the crowds, healing people and preaching powerfully.

That’s not what happens.

Transition #1: Into the Wilderness

In God’s economy, His pleasure with us doesn’t mean we get off the hook for the hard stuff. This is not a favorite-son-doesn’t-have-to-scrub-toilets scenario. Jesus doesn’t get a reward for making God happy. Check out Mark’s wording here.

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.  -Mark 1:12-13 (emphasis added)

Immediately (ESV and NASB) or at once (NIV), the same Spirit that had just descended onto Jesus drove him (ESV) into the wilderness. This was going to be the most difficult part of his time on earth except for the crucifixion. I imagine He got a weird look on His face, then He just walked up out of the river, past all the onlookers, and into the countryside. No time to prepare. No time to enjoy His most-favored status. What’s more, there was some force to this. (The AMP actually says forced.) Not that Jesus didn’t want to obey but that the urging was so strong it felt irresistible. The Spirit almost drug Jesus into that desolate, dangerous, diabolical place.

The Spirit almost drug
Jesus into that desolate,
dangerous, diabolical place.

Matthew says the angels only came at the end (4:11), so Jesus was alone. He had nothing to eat and nowhere to hide. That’s desolate. There were wild animals and the aforementioned lack of sustenance. That’s dangerous. And then, just when it couldn’t get any worse—when he was parched with thirst and literally starving, when He was at His very weakest—here comes Satan to tempt Him in three distinct and powerful ways. That’s diabolical.

I bet you’re like me, and you would love for God to be “well pleased” with you. You and I both look forward to that “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) we hope to hear when we get to Heaven. (Want to digress here? Read my post, The Cake and the Icing.)

God’s pleasure with us doesn’t
predict our comfort level.

I can bet you’re also like me, and you really don’t want the “wilderness experience.” (I don’t even want a camping experience, so…) We need to realize, however, that God’s pleasure with us doesn’t predict our comfort level. It is precisely those with whom He is well pleased who are pulled into difficult times of testing. There’s a great purpose in it (our strengthening and/or refinement and His increased glory), but that fact helps little when you’re in the middle of it. (Another possible digression: But Lord, This Stinketh. Yeah, I’ve written about these things before.)

In these days of easy-going Christianity, is it not well to remind ourselves that it really does cost to be a man or woman whom God can use? One cannot obtain a Christlike character for nothing; one cannot do a Christlike work save at great price.  –Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor

Too many people are
surprised when they obey
then difficulties arise.

We should, therefore, expect difficulties to arise precisely when and because we experience the favor of God. I’m not trying to be fatalistic or pessimistic, and I’m not trying to create problems where there are none. I just think far too many people are surprised when they obediently respond to the Holy Spirit’s pulling, then instead of getting rewarded, difficulties arise. If it happened to Jesus, we should expect it to happen to us.

Transition #2: Into Ministry

Sometime after the forty-first day, when Jesus had returned to civilization, when He had rehydrated and recuperated, He began proclaiming the good news of God (Mark 1:14). He loved to talk about the Kingdom of God, didn’t He?

Recall the sequence of events here:

  1. Jesus got baptized.
  2. God was pleased.
  3. Jesus was tempted.
  4. Jesus started preaching.

God was pleased with Jesus’ heart
prior to anything Jesus did.

Did God express His happiness after Jesus did a bunch of things for Him? No. It wasn’t the successful resistance to temptation or the powerful, spot-on preaching that pleased God. He was already pleased before any of that happened. In fact, besides getting baptized, Jesus didn’t do anything. God was pleased with His heart—with Who He was—prior to anything He might do.

This is nice, but what’s it mean for us?

  1. We don’t have to meet a standard of behavior or go through a series of “qualifying rounds” before God likes us. Remember David, the shepherd boy who was chosen to be king? As Samuel stood in front of David’s good-looking brothers, God told him, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
  2. His pleasure empowers us. This isn’t in the Gospels, but I think the presence of the Holy Spirit on/in Jesus gave Him the strength to withstand Satan’s temptations and the wisdom to proclaim the Kingdom so boldly. He was a man, tempted as we are, yet He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). He always knew exactly what to say to the people in front of Him—friend or foe (e.g. John 3 and 4). Now we have that same Spirit and that same accompanying power!

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.  -John 14:16-17a

That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead…  -Ephesians 1:19-20

When we read between the lines, or at least between the paragraphs, of the Gospels, we discover God’s pattern at work in humanity. We can expect trials, even when we feel closest to God, but He will empower us to overcome them.

What can we learn from the transitions in Mark 1? Probably more than you think. (click to tweet)

Have you experienced that intimacy of God’s pleasure only to feel like you were thrown to the wolves the next moment? Did it surprise you? What advice would you give others who face similar circumstances? Let’s share our stories for His glory! Check out the comments below.

Observations from Psalms

A couple of separate observations from my daily time in Psalms…

The Last Meal of a Condemned Man

People who don’t care about God seem to have an easy life. They don’t get up early on Sunday mornings (unless it’s to play golf). They take shortcuts to prosperity and seem unfazed by it. They focus on themselves and what they can see. Pride is so much easier than humility.

I get it. I think that way sometimes, too. So did David.

For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. -Psalm 73:3-5

Perhaps it’s God’s kindness that allows the “wicked” (I hesitate to use that term. It’s so not p.c.) to have such easy lives here on earth. Perhaps God gives them a few years of ease because he knows their eternity will be beyond miserable, like the last meal of a condemned man.

I’ll take today’s burdens
over tomorrow’s brimstone.

We who follow Jesus, on the other hand, struggle and suffer now (not all the time). Sometimes life feels like an endless series of burdens, but we face an eternity of ease. So let’s cut the others some slack. Let’s stop being jealous. Even though it seems unfair in the moment, I’ll take today’s burdens over tomorrow’s brimstone.

Roadkill

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. -Hebrews 12:1b-2a

 It’s one thing to see roadkill alongside the road when you’re driving. It’s quite another to see it when you’re on foot. There’s a nice four-lane near my home with sidewalk on both sides. It’s a great place to run. Except for the multiple incidents of roadkill. I once saw seven dead animals in a 1.5 mile span!

It’s distracting. I’ve finally trained myself not to look but I can’t escape the smell, and holding your breath while running isn’t a strong option.

In Psalm 59 (and many other psalms in this section), David is distracted by his enemies, accusers, and attackers. His situation distracts him so much that he can’t pray. He can’t run with perseverance the race marked out for him. You know what that’s like, don’t you? When difficulties arise in our lives—especially the social/relationship kind—it distracts us just like that roadkill distracts me when I’m running.

Our eyes drift to the side, to the ditches, where humanity reveals her pale, bloated underbelly. But we can discipline ourselves not to dwell there. God draws our gaze back to Himself. Then our breath evens out and our shoulders soften.

The key is to intentionally pull our focus back, to close that line of thoughts for awhile and focus entirely on our Savior. It takes practice, but it can be done.

Last meals, roadkill…you know, normal things you think of when reading Psalms. (click to tweet)

It’s Spring break at our house this week. I’ve been hanging out with my kids, and I didn’t pull away to compose a full blog post. I pray these random devotional thoughts from my last few weeks in Psalms encourage you. Let me know what you think in the comments.

PS – Aren’t you glad I didn’t include a picture of roadkill?