Welcoming the Unexpected

There is a boy singing with the most amazing voice.

That isn’t how I was going to begin this blog, but let me tell you, if you were here and could hear his voice, that’s all you’d be able to say too.  I wasn’t listening to the intro, so I didn’t catch his name, but I think they said he goes to a local high school here and has over a million (a thousand?) hits on his YouTube videos.  I may have heard that wrong, and maybe he is older than my first impression, but if I can figure out who he is and find a link, I will share it.

His voice brought in the swallows.  Where the sky was empty before, there are now soaring little birds.  And yes, his voice even makes the swallows seem to be soaring.   His name is Joel Benson.  They announced it again at the end of his song, and thanks to the wonderful fact that the downtown area is covered in Wi-Fi I was able to pull up Google and YouTube.  I missed two songs hunting for him, but came up empty.  Which tells me I am wrong about how many hits he has on his video; a video with a lot of hits should definitely come up.  So you will just have to take my word for it.  He has an amazingly smooth and classical voice.  The type that made my head jerk up in astonishment to see a highschooler singing.  I am not alone in my appreciation.  The crowd started clapping even before he finished.  If that’s not enough of an indication, take this one: there is what I estimate to be about a 2 year old boy slow dancing by himself with a diaper on his head.  Any voice that make swallows soar and 2-year-old boys slow dance has some kind of magical properties, I would say.

The concert tonight is going by too quickly.  Shadows have already crept along the ground.  It’s almost cool enough for a jacket this week – some different than last week.  There is a light jazzy piece playing now, before that a foot stomping march, but the highlight – and I hear he is coming back for the final song – was this young singer Joel Benson.

Every time I have come to this small town concert I have been impressed, humbled, and surprised.  There are so many good and beautiful things in this world if we make the time to seek them out, or if we open ourselves up to the unexpected moments.  (Jingle bells!  That was unexpectedly appropriate timing for a comment on unexpectedness!)

God, help us to appreciate the simple and unexpected moments of joy that you shower upon us.  Help us to remember during the long and dusty passages that at any moment there could be cool breezes, beautiful sunsets, and remarkable music.  Help us to remember that joy is a gift from you.  Thank you when those moments come.

Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God (Ecclesiastes 5:19).

Speed Reading

At any given moment, I have a stack of at least a dozen books that I am reading concurrently.  Some end up taking me months to read; others ensnare me and I finish them in days.  But always there is this stack, beckoning me.  I listen to books on CD in the car and around the house.  I set an open book before me while I eat; I have a pile by my bed for those moments right before sleep.  Even now, while I am typing this, I have a sandwich on my plate next to my laptop so that I can take a bite between words.  Reading them.  Writing them.  It’s almost a compulsion.

The other night I pulled from my stack One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp.  I set it on the table next to my dinner plate and proceeded to stumble through her opening text, tripping over her lyrical style in my rush to turn the page between forkfuls.  “This could have been written so much simpler,” I thought in frustration.  It was only the high acclaim of the book that kept me from relegating it to the bottom of my stack.  Yes, I admit it.  Sometime it takes me a long time to understand the obvious point.  And here is the obvious point: this is not a book that can be shoveled in alongside a plateful of spaghetti.

After dinner, I moved Ann’s book to my “quiet reading” stack, where it is much more at home.One Thousand Gifts Cover

Ann Voskamp’s style serves an interesting purpose for me.  It forces me to slow down.  It is this trait that initially frustrated me… and ultimately has endeared me.  I don’t like to slow down in anything, least of all my reading.  There is so much more to read!  But Ann’s style forces me to slow down.  To read deliberately.  To consider the words.  To taste the flavor of them.  To think.  When I let go of the clock, when I accept the fact that I will not “finish this one and start the next one” tonight, it becomes a richer experience.  This is not unintentional.

“Time is life,” Ann writes.  “And if I want the fullest life, I need to find the fullest time.”

She continues her story, standing at the sink, scrubbing dishes:

I wipe a water spot off the tap; there is a reflection of me.  Oh, yes, I know you, the busyness of your life leaving little room for the source of your life.  I’m the face grieving.

God gives us time.  And who has time for God?

Which makes no sense.

In Christ, don’t we have everlasting existence?  Don’t Christians have all the time in eternity, life everlasting?  If Christians run out of time – wouldn’t we lose our very own existence?  If anyone should have time, isn’t it the Christ-followers? (p. 64)

If anyone should have time, isn’t it the Christ-followers?

It is not a rhetorical question, and I consider my answer.  God gives us all things.  He gives us enough of all things.  Why, in this particular area, do I act as though He does not?  Why do I say, almost daily, “God, I do not have enough time!”

I do not learn quickly.  I still sit here, keyboard at one hand, sandwich at another.  Still trying to cram disparate activities into the same moment.  But later tonight, I will pause.  I will think “I do not have time for this,” but I will do it anyway.  I will curl up on my couch with my dog’s head resting on my knee.  I will take just one book from my quiet reading stack.  I will read just one chapter.  Slowly, deliberately, thoughtfully.  I will not speed read.

It will be enough.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”  My times are in your hand… (Psalm 31:14-15a).

Clean T-Shirt

There are some who do not understand the appeal of camping.  “How is that a vacation?”  They want to know.  Cooking in primitive conditions, swatting mosquitos, trudging through the elements… “Doesn’t sound like a vacation to me,” they say.

Their logic is hard to argue, but I just can’t help it.  I love to camp.  I love everything about it.  I love walking someplace to lug back drinking water.  I love the first rays of sun after a cold and rainy night.  I love wielding an axe to split wood, and cooking over a fire, and… well, I don’t exactly love washing dishes, but somehow even that seems more fun when I’m doing it under a giant pine tree.

Most of all, I love how camping causes me to appreciate things I normally take for granted.  Like clean, dry clothes.  Or, as the week wears on, moderately clean and only slightly damp clothes.  On that fateful day when I reach into my duffel bag and extract my very last clean t-shirt, I experience something akin to euphoria.  If you are not a camper, it may be hard to appreciate the joy of holding something in your hand that actually smells like soap.  No other day of the year do I appreciate clean clothes as much as in that moment.

But that is just the beginning.  Days later, when dirty clothes have started evolving into their own ecosystem, an even greater miracle occurs.  The Laundromat.

The Bible tells us that God’s mercies are new every day (Lamentations 3:22-23).  Anyone who ever doubts this needs only to witness the miracle of week old hiking socks emerging fresh and warm from a laundromat dryer.   The sight is enough to renew both my soul and my soles.  Indeed, nothing puts a spring back into my tattered hiking boots like a pair of fuzzy clean socks.  The joys of camping are so… simple.

Unfortunately, most of my days are not as simple as the ones I enjoy while camping in the mountains.  Back amongst the “real world” I quickly forget the miracle of a clean t-shirt and fuzzy socks.  The “dirty laundry” I accumulate is even more harrowing than a sack full of dirty socks.  I get tired and grouchy.  I fail to stay in touch with friends.  I speak carelessly; I act selfishly.  I try, and fail miserably, to follow Christ’s example.

This is why I camp.  Because I need those reminders.  I need just one clean t-shirt in a bag of increasingly dirty clothes.  I need the rejuvenation of my well-worn hiking socks.  I need the reminder that God’s simple, everyday mercies should not be taken for granted.  And most of all, I need the reminder that no matter how busy and messy and downright stinky my days may be, God’s mercies will be new in the morning.

God is more powerful than any laundry detergent; He can refresh far more than just my dirty laundry.  He sent His Son so that even my sins may be washed away.  “Purge me with hyssop,” the psalmist cried, “and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).

This, truly, is the greatest mercy which God offers to us anew every morning: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Every day, even amidst the crazy, stress-filled ones, God gives us the opportunity to return to Him.  To be washed by Him.  To be renewed by Him.  To be strengthened by Him.  It is an open invitation He extends to every one of us, new every morning.  A fresh, clean, new life… starting now.

And here I thought a clean t-shirt was cool.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-24).

Tower of Babel

I was sitting in the Moscow airport when I heard it. 

After four days in Russia, I had managed to increase my Russian vocabulary by 400%.  From zero words to four:  tea, thank you, no, yes.  In that order, apparently the four most critical words for a traveller to Moscow.  Or at least the four I encountered frequently enough to learn.  Needless to say, as I was waiting for my outbound plane and listening to the chatter around me, I was at a loss regarding what was actually being said.  Until I heard it.  A familiar sound that caused me to suddenly pay attention.  Was someone speaking English?  I looked around as I listened intently, but everyone around me was speaking Russian.  I’m sure it had not been one of my four Russian words.  For a moment there, I had heard a sound I knew.

There it was again!  Only this time my brain registered the sound.  Laughter.         

I sat there musing on this as I listened to the incomprehensible flow of their words.  I smiled every time I heard one of them laugh.  I did not understand the conversation, but I understood the laughter. Laughter sounds the same in any language.

The Bible tells us that God introduced the world languages at the Tower of Babel.  Until then, the whole world had one language and a common speech.  Then the men of Babylonia said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).  But as Solomon noted, unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain (Psalm 217:1).  And the Lord was less than supportive of man’s latest endeavor.  The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city (Genesis 11:6-8).

At first glance, this may seem a little uncalled for.  What’s wrong with a little global collaboration?  I think the answer lies in that one phrase embedded in mankind’s plan: “Come, let us build ourselves a city…so that we may make a name for ourselves…” (Genesis 11:4).  People were once again falling away from God’s purposes and thinking instead only of themselves.  They were not glorifying God, or even acknowledging Him.  It was the original sin all over again – snubbing our Creator and grasping glory for ourselves.  I can almost hear the resignation in God’s voice.  See Him shaking His head with a sigh.  “Will they never learn?”  People were once more on track to distance themselves from God, and God in His wisdom put a stop to it.  Just as He sent Adam and Eve from the Garden, so He sent the people from Babylonia. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:9b).

And yet, God left one piece of language the same.  No matter where in the world we are, laughter and tears are the universal language.  I think this tells us something of what God expects from our relationships with one another.  When someone we cannot speak to is crying, we have no response but to cry with them.  When someone we cannot speak to is laughing, we have no response but to laugh with them.  God confused the languages of the world, but He left us enough language in common that we could share what is clearly of foremost importance.

Laughter and tears.  Compassion and joy. A conversation not to glorify ourselves, but to share with one another.

That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.  From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. Genesis 11:9

Bird Talk

Sometimes God speaks to me through birds. 

I don’t mean in some mystical fashion.  A brilliantly plumed creature has never perched upon my shoulder and shouted prophesies. But on more than one occasion, I have felt the nearness of God when looking upon one of his feathered creations.

There was a time several years ago when I was going through a particularly dark stretch.  While driving cross-country to visit some friends, I stopped at a rest area, and there, in a small tree outside the door of the low stone building, were dozens of sparrows.  This is certainly not an uncommon sight in a rest area, but for some reason the sight of the fluffy little balls flitting from branch to branch filled me with peace.  The moment was even notable enough to mention it later when telling my friends about my drive.  “I’m not sure why it was significant,” I said, “but somehow it felt like it was.”

I expected the conversation to end there, but to my surprise, one friend answered, “Perhaps I can add some insight. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows”(Luke 12:6-7).

Wow, I thought.  Wow.  God had been speaking to me, and I almost didn’t even know.

There have been numerous other times, when I have been sitting alone at a picnic table or walking along a trail, when the trill of a cardinal and a flash of brilliant red stops me in my tracks.  It always causes me to take a deep breath, and remember.  It is almost as though God is sending me a feathered little postcard: I’m thinking of you!  And in return, I find myself thinking of Him.

Like the sparrows at the rest stop, cardinals are not uncommon in the places I have seen them.  Their native range covers all the regions I have lived.  So it is not like God is sending me a miraculous sign.  I have never seen, for instance, a flock of wild pink flamingos strutting through Indiana.  But to me, the impact is the same.  It is in these common, everyday sightings that I am reminded of God’s presence.  And why shouldn’t I be?  Our God does not hide out in the far reaches of the world.  He is not accessible only on occasion, in special circumstances, or in far off places.  Our God walks next to us all the days of our lives, even in the common, everyday occurrences.  “I am with you always,” He tells us, “to the very end of the age(Matthew 28:20).

I read once that faith is like a bird singing while it is still dark.  I think of these words often during this time of year.  My morning walks are still covered in darkness, but they are accompanied more and more by the sound of birds calling excitedly about the coming day.  It could still be the middle of the night as far as the moon and the stars are concerned, but the birds tell me otherwise.  “It is time to be up and about,” they are saying.  “A new day is approaching!  All is well.  God is with us.”

During this time of year when birdsong is once more filling the air, I encourage you to take just a moment to listen.  You might be surprised to find that the birds are talking to you, too.  Reminding you that our heavenly father is walking here beside us.  Reminding you that even during the darkness, there is the sound of singing.  Immanuel: God with us.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?”(Matthew 6:26, 31)

Give it to God

Do you know what I love most about the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand?  I love the boy with the fish. 

We know this story so well.  We know how crowds of men, women, and children followed Jesus until he stopped to speak with them.  We know how the day grew late, the crowd grew weary with hunger, and the disciples asked Jesus to send them away so that they may find something to eat.  But Jesus tells them to feed the crowds.  “How many loaves do you have?”  He asked.  “Go and see.” (Mark 6:38).

The boy is almost a footnote in the story.  He is not even mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  In those, the disciples merely reply to Jesus that they have only five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:17; Mark 6:38; Luke 9:13).  But in John, from the pen of the apostle of love, we read where the loaves and fish originated: “Here is a boy,” John writes, “with five small barley loaves and two small fish…” (John 6:9).

Imagine what it must have been like to be that boy!  How terrifying and exhilarating to be pulled from the crowd and placed before Jesus.  The account gives us no perspective for what the boy was feeling.  Was he honored to offer up his meal to the service of these men?  Or was he afraid, knowing that he, as nothing but a boy, was about to lose his meager meal and return home hungry? 

And then, how amazed he must have been – amazed and bewildered – to see his small meal pouring back out of the basket, feeding one group of hungry men after another.  What did he think when that basket passed back to him with an offering far bigger than what he put in?  An offering so big, in fact, that he ate until he could eat no more, leaving pieces of bread on the ground.  How amazing it must have been to watch the crowds around him also eat until they could eat no more, leaving more pieces of bread on the ground which the disciples picked up, filling twelve baskets.  Twelve baskets!  “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14).

And yet, the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is not merely the story of this miraculous sign which marveled the crowd.  It is also about the boy, who teaches us the second of our three principles: Give it to God. 

We see this same lesson modeled by the widow whom Elijah visits (1 Kings 17).  At Elijah’s instruction, she uses the last of her flour and oil to make a small cake of bread for him, leaving nothing for her or her son to eat.  And yet, her offering too was returned to her with such abundance that “the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah” (1Kings 17:16). 

In the natural world, there are finite resources.  We have limited time, limited energy, limited money, and limited possessions (although when housecleaning I sometimes feel as though possessions multiply behind closet doors!)  It is only when we give it all to God, as humbling and terrifying as that is, that He is able to use it for His good purposes – both for others and for us.  I read once that in opening our hands to give, we are also opening our hands to receive.  Truly, when we open our hands to God, we receive far more in exchange.  God is our infinite resource, but first we must start with what we have, and give it to God.  He can do far more amazing things with it than we can.

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:13-14).

Start With What You Have

As I think about this month’s article, three interrelated Bible stories keep crowding around in my head: Elijah visiting the widow (1 Kings 17), Jesus feeding the 5000 (Mark 6:30-44), and the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-28).  These are important stories for anytime, but perhaps even more so for this annual season of reflection and resolution.  Because crowded in amongst these stories are three key thoughts to consider for the new year: 

  1. Start with what you have.
  2. Give it to God.
  3. Do something with it.

We’ll look at each of these in turn, but in this first article of the year, I am going to start at the beginning, and start with what I have.  First, I have 1 Kings 17:8-16.  This is the story of Elijah, who, after casting drought upon the land and hiding out with the ravens for a time, goes at God’s command to a widow in Zarephath.  He asks her for a drink of water and a piece of bread.  Her answer is chilling: “As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.  I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die.”

Perhaps not the most cheerful story to begin the new year.  Until you read Elijah’s reply: “Don’t be afraid,” he tells her.  “Go home and do as you have said.  But first, make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son…The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.”

The widow, of course, does as Elijah had told her, and “there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family.  For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry.” 

It sounds so simple, and yet how many times are we like that widow before Elijah comes?  Perhaps it’s melodramatic to say we are despairing to the point of death over something we don’t have… but perhaps not.  Too often we focus so much on that which we don’t have, that we fail to see that which we do have.  I find it fascinating that when Elijah comes, he doesn’t bring supplies to the widow.  He probably could have – after all, the ravens had been bringing him bread and meat to eat while the poor widow’s jars were emptying.  But instead, he directs her to look at what she has, and then to do something with that.

We see this same lesson echoed in the New Testament when Jesus feeds the 5000.  Jesus could have produced food any number of ways.  There could have been manna from heaven, a raven delivery service, or he could have simply called forth food from among the stones.  Instead, He tells his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” And when they are unsure how to do that, he tells them “How many loaves do you have?  Go and see” (Mark 6:37-38).  In other words, He is telling them (and us) “start with what you have.”

As we turn the calendar towards a new year, it’s important that we, too, take stock of what we have.  Whether it’s physical possessions, ideas, or talents, each one of us has something that could be the launching point of something wonderful.  If a handful of flour can feed a family for days, and if five loaves of bread and two fish can feed five thousand men, just imagine what could happen with what we have.

 “How many loaves do you have?”  He asked.  “Go and see.” (Mark 6:38)