Watching and Waiting

The guard stands in the tower, eyes cast downward, searching through the thick night for any change, ears tuned for any out-of-the-ordinary noise. He raises his eyes to the distant mountains, their peaks muted by the sameness of the sky. He leans against the edge of the window for a moment, but he cannot relax. He will not descend until the sun ascends.

sandstone tower
watchmen’s tower in the Middle East (c) Carole Sparks

Even in the deepest, loneliest part of the night, the guard never doubts the rising of the sun. With absolute confidence, he glances to the east for a moment, eager to catch the first graying of the dark sky, the first dimming of the stars. Continue reading

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.)

Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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. 

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?

On Worship

A lifestyle of worship has been on my mind for awhile. It arises partly out of my study in Psalms and partly out of…well, a bunch of stuff. Anyway, I am glad to share some thoughts on worship this week with my blogging friend, Vanessa. Read the first bit here or click straight over to her blog and start from the beginning there.

As much as I am tempted to sleep in on Sunday mornings, I love worship time with my church. You see, we lived in a place without churches or church services for more than six years. Our corporate worship time involved gathering in the living room with some praise choruses pulled up on a computer screen. I think God was honored in those moments, but it was nothing like adding your voice to a few dozen (or a few hundred) other believers, singing out in praise and accompanied by talented musicians. Corporate worship and preaching fuel me for the week ahead.

But Sunday mornings are not the only time I worship.

I have learned that worship shouldn’t be a noun. It’s not a person, place, or thing; it’s an action. Sometimes it’s an active verb, like on Sunday mornings when we worship together. And sometimes it’s more like a state-of-being verb, a mindset that pervades everything else.

Dig into God’s call to worship–including some gleanings from Romans–at Vanessa’s blog. Otherwise, what do you think of as worship and when does it occur? Share your thoughts there or in the comments below.

Math, Psalms, and Real Righteousness

real-righteousnessMost of you don’t know this, but I love math—especially geometry. I love the organization of it, the logic, the confidence in repeatable results. I think math is beautiful. I haven’t persuaded my eleven-year-old of this perspective yet, but I’m working on him.

In math, order usually matters. 5 -3 ≠ 3 – 5. There’s an order in which to write the equation and there’s an order to the procedures used in solving it.

Boring!! Okay, I’ve already lost some of you. Here’s the point:

In the Christ-life, order also matters. But we don’t like the specified order. Just like a couple of Algebra I kids who think they can get creative with solving quadratic equations, we think we know better, easier ways to live out our lives.

Psalm 15.

In this psalm, David begins by asking God who can get close to Him. He says it much more poetically: Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? (Psalm 15:1). This is a recurring theme with David. He asks essentially the same question in Psalm 24:3. This time, David must have been thinking about Moses, whose face glowed after time spent with God in the tent of meeting or on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35).

Then David answers himself, running down a list of honorable actions (Psalm 15:2-5). It’s not the Ten Commandments but more a list of things to which a basically good person should pay attention. Here’s what’s interesting (well, one of the things): None of these things are about proscribed rituals. They are all about relationships!

Not Ritual but Righteousness

Rituals do not
produce righteousness.

Here’s David, who once sacrificed a bull and a calf every six steps when they were moving the ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:13). This guy knew how to “do” sacrifices! Yet when he considered what it takes to be close to God, it wasn’t about rituals. It was about relationships—specifically, relationships with other people. Long before Amos chastised the “cows” who paraded into religious ceremonies even while thinking up new ways to cheat each other (e.g. Amos 4:4-5), David knew our actions toward each other revealed far more about the condition of our hearts than any number of religious rituals. Wouldn’t Jesus say the same thing to the Pharisees, who tithed their herbs and spices while turning a blind eye to justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23)?

Not Regulation but Relationship

We need to be careful here, though. It would be easy to take this list of actions, hang it on the wall, and think we could be close to God by, for example, never slandering, never doing wrong to a neighbor, and never casting slurs (all from verse 3), along with the rest of the list.

What’s wrong with that? Well…

  1. It’s straight-up legalism.
  2. It’s impossible to do for a day, much less a lifetime, and even trying would we exceedingly stressful!
  3. It misses the whole point.

The actions listed here by David and lived out in relationships, all reflect a certain condition of the heart. They demonstrate kindness, peace, patience, self-control, etc. Wait. That sounds a lot like the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), doesn’t it? Ah ha! The heart condition must come before the demonstrations.

When my relationship with God is good and right, my relationships with others reveal it. This is the definition of righteousness.

Obviously, we no longer offer animal sacrifices. And thank goodness! Think how hard it would be to clean the church every Sunday if we had animals and blood all over the place. But we do try to regulate our Christianity.

We want to make righteousness (remember, that just means a right relationship with God) about what we do and don’t do: church attendance, tithing, not watching R-rated movies, schooling choices for our children, boycotting company X, etc.

We want to make
righteousness about what
we do and don’t do.

Let’s stop for a second here. Why is this? Why do we lean toward the regulations? I think it’s because they are easier and less messy that David’s list in Psalm 15. Honestly, I’d rather skip R-rated movies than try to always speak the truth from my heart (15:2). Such truth-telling might offend someone or it might compel me to do something inconvenient or difficult. A personal, intimate rightness with God (that definition of real righteousness again) will require me to confront my own moral failings, and well, that’s just more than I can handle. Know what I mean?

God has always said it’s our relationships with others that reveal our rightness with Him.

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. -1 Samuel 15:22

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. -Micah 6:8

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. -Matthew 10:42

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. -James 1:27

As you can see, in all three sections of the Old Testament (histories, wisdom literature, and prophets) and in both parts of the New Testament (gospels and letters), it’s our actions in relationships that confirm our connection with God. Never our rituals or regulations. And here’s the good news: We have the Holy Spirit, with His Fruit to both confirm our relationship with God the Father and empower us to live according to His standards. So I don’t worry about the list. I just focus on keeping my relationship with God in good condition.

Later in James,

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. -James 2:24

Perhaps this verse is the best to set alongside Psalm 15. The actions David describes are the tangible result of a righteous life, not the prescription for it. This is where the Christ-Life is like math. Order is important. The right relationship with God yields healthy, God-centered relationships with other people, never the other way around.

right relationship with God ⇒ right actions toward others

When your righteousness is revealed through your relationships, you will never be shaken (Psalm 15:5b). Just like my geometry proofs.

Get your relationship with God right, and it’ll show in relationships with others. (click to tweet)

Whew! I hope this made some sense. I feel like I just blurted a bunch of stuff onto the page. Let me know what struck you as significant and/or where I missed it. I always appreciate your comments.