Tag Archives: Old Testament

Overcoming Antagonism: What You Can Learn from Nehemiah

At our church, we’re spending time in the book of Nehemiah and learning how it is that amazing things happen. So far, we’ve explored how amazing things happen when we pray, when we plan, and when we work together. Consider with me now how amazing things happen when we overcome antagonism.

Let’s quickly recap the context of the book of Nehemiah. The historical context of this story is the fifth century B.C. About 100 years before, the Babylonians conquered and destroyed Jerusalem. The walls and the city were left in rubble, the Temple was sacked and burned, and many people were taken as slaves. However, over the years, some were allowed to return – only to discover the city was still destroyed and deserted. It was a terrible reality of sadness, loss, and anger.

Nehemiah had never been to Jerusalem, but when he heard reports of its condition, he requested that the Persian king (who he served as cupbearer) allow him to go back to the city of his ancestors, in order to rebuild it. Nehemiah prayed for months and put together a plan, so when he made his request, he was ready to go. Once he arrived at Jerusalem, he surveyed the land and city and called on the people to unite in the work.

The Eroding Effects of Antagonism in Nehemiah

In Nehemiah 4, things start to get more complicated for Nehemiah and the people. They began to experience powerful antagonism against their work. This is what happened:

Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews. He said in the presence of his associates and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish—and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (Nehemiah 4:1-3)

These two men, Sanballat and Tobiah, apparently were not happy but deeply disturbed when they heard the wall of Jerusalem was being rebuilt. They were so aggravated that they were described as “angry” and “greatly enraged.”

The rebuilding of Jerusalem was an offense to them, so they tried to stop the work through intimidation and mockery. They began to call Nehemiah and the rest of the people “feeble Jews,” mocking their beliefs to discourage them so they would stop the work. Take a look at the questions they raised to make Nehemiah and the others doubt themselves:

“What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they fortify themselves? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they complete it in a day? Will they revive the stones from the heaps of rubbish; stones that are burned?”

Their purpose in asking these questions was to mock the people and cast doubt on the project by ridiculing their efforts and faith. Sanballat and Tobiah were trying to make them second-guess themselves and their aspirations. They attacked their capacities and their faith by basically saying, “What you are doing is pointless and wrong because you are wrong and your ideas are bad”!

Still: the work did not stop, and the walls of Jerusalem continued to be rebuilt as the gaps were closed. However, this triggered a threat of violence against the Jews. In verse 8, it says that, “they were very angry, and all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.”

What is this, if not an insidious attempt to discourage them from doing what they knew in their hearts was right, what they knew was God’s purpose?

The Eroding Effects of Antagonism in Your Life

Have you ever experienced anything similar? Maybe a family member, friend, or someone else bullied you into stopping by causing you to doubt yourself or your abilities? What happened to you? Did you get discouraged, doubt yourself, and stop the work?

What a shame it is when people you may know choose to act this way against those who are trying to do good. That is exactly what is happening here. Sanballat and Tobiah are powerful antagonistic figures in this story. They are evil critics who bring nothing but discouragement to those working for a good cause. Whether they were moved by jealousy or hate, their goal was to stop the construction of the wall.

When the Strong Ones Fall

Sometimes, no matter how strong and confident you are in what you are doing, everyone is susceptible to discouragement. Even as the people had a plan and were working together with one mind, some of them began to lose heart.“Then Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is failing, and there is so much rubbish that we are not able to build the wall.” (Neh. 4:10)

Did you notice what they said? “We can’t rebuild the wall.” In addition to the opposition they were facing, the work was difficult and logistically complex (“so much rubbish”), and they were getting tired and discouraged.

This was a disturbing development. Judah was supposed to be the strongest and bravest tribe. Historically, it was the tribe of kings. So hearing that workers from the tribe of Judah were getting discouraged and tired meant a major challenge and potentially a catastrophic blow to their work. If the strongest among them was beginning to lose faith and confidence in their capacity to do the work, everyone else would follow.

That was the most dangerous moment, because the only thing that could really stop the work was if the people lost confidence in each other. This was not a battle against blood and flesh; it was one in their minds and hearts.

How Nehemiah Countered Antagonism

So what happened? Did they stop? After hearing Judah was about to give up, this what happened next:

“After I [Nehemiah] looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.’” (Neh. 4:14)

Nehemiah reminded them of the “why” of their work: that they were rebuilding for their families and each other. Nehemiah put their minds and hearts back together by telling them, “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” He did not deny the reality of the challenges they were facing but reminded them of their faith and why they were rebuilding.

After this, an amazing thing happened: the hostile plots against them were thwarted, and their enemies shrank back. All this time, their enemies didn’t really have the power to stop the work; that is why they used intimidation. So once the people recovered their faith, stayed together, and remembered their purpose, they overcame the antagonism. Their victory was less about defeating their enemies and much more about not losing themselves.

Do you see what is happening here? Just as the threats made them doubt and forget their purpose, remembering their faith and the gift of rebuilding the wall united them and reminded them of who they were.

My friends, we can’t overcome challenges and enemies if we forget who we are and what we are fighting for. We can’t overcome our challenges if we let fear and discouragement rearrange our minds and hearts to doubt ourselves and forget God. We can’t overcome antagonism if we give up on our work.

How to Overcome Antagonism through Nehemiah’s Example

Learning from Nehemiah, what do we do to overcome antagonism, then?

First, we need to ask for help when we are threatened by discouragement and fear. Since chapter one, we see Nehemiah seeking God and asking for help through prayer. When his enemies were mocking and threatening them with violence, he did little to engage them. Instead, he talked to God to stay focused.

This means prayer is sometimes less about what we ask for and more about what happens to us when we pray. Prayer gives peace and clarity of thought to see what is happening and we need to do about it. What are the challenges you are facing right now? Talk to God about them; pray. Start by telling God what you want, what you need, to say, and then ask for help. You will begin to see the power of prayer in your life.

Second, to overcome antagonism, we need to reorganize our priorities. As we pray, we get new insights in order to do what we need to do. This is what Nehemiah did when he acted promptly to protect the people as the threat was increasing.

For example, in 4:13, Nehemiah “stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.” They were rebuilding the wall, but they were also ready to fight back if their enemies attacked them. This “reorganizing” discouraged the enemy from attacking them, and it encouraged the people, because they knew they could defend themselves if they needed to.

For you, this may be about reorganizing your life and what matters to you. It can be a difficult practice; changing behaviors, long-held ideas, or even shaping your own character requires focused commitment in order to change the direction of your life. But once you reorganize priorities, things begin to fall into place. If anything, antagonism can then make you stronger, because it has bolstered your strengths and capacities and forced you to make hard, long-overdue changes you need. This is what we call “growth.”

The final thing to overcome antagonism is not to forget God is in your life. When the people were close to giving up, Nehemiah reminded the workers, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord.”

Even in the face of opposition, Nehemiah knew the success of the wall depended on people not forgetting their faith. He reminded them God was with them. This was not only a source of security; it was also a source of inspiration: “God is with us, and we will rebuild our homes!”

This is good news! Greater is the One who is with us than anyone who is against us! God is always with us and will never leave us!

Instead of focusing on the threats of the enemy and the negative voices from outside or within, remember God’s words, God’s goodness, and God’s power. Recall all the things God has already accomplished as well as God’s promises of what is yet to come.

So don’t let antagonistic voices take away your life, dreams, and confidence in the gifts God has given you. Don’t let the antagonists take over you. Their threats are worthless and powerless against your faith and the presence of God in you.

Whatever problems and challenges you have today, know this:

  • You can ask for help; you can pray
  • You can change your direction by reorganizing your priorities and allowing yourself to grow.
  • Most importantly, you can remember God is in your life. Since before you were born, God has been with you, and never left.

Remember God. It will help you remember who you are and what you need to do.


Featured image courtesy Matthias Groeneveld via Pexels

Unwanted Holiness

As the United States screeches with discord and distrust, the people in pulpits and in pews are exhausted. Some had loved ones piloting evacuation flights out of Kabul. Others have spent long hours working in crowded ICUs, nurses or chaplains or doctors breaking down in tears. Firefighters on the West Coast have their pick of blazes incinerating once-lively trees to ash, and in some parts of the South, the power is beginning to blink back on. Who wants holiness if it looks like this?

Somewhere along the line, we get the idea that holiness requires energy. Sure, we know that sanctification is a gift of grace to be received. Naturally. Countless Christians in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition have experienced some kind of moment in which God comes to us to do something in our hearts that we are powerless to do ourselves. We know this. We know that works of piety and works of mercy – spiritual disciplines, caring for poor, broke, or incarcerated people -we know those actions don’t create holiness. They are a response to grace; they make room for the Holy Spirit to continue to work in us and through us. We know that sanctifying grace is a gift.

And yet.

It is easy to get the idea that holiness requires energy.

How will you grow if you’re not getting yourself to a Bible study or small group? How will you foster the grace of Christ at work in you if you aren’t seeking out ways to serve others, at the food pantry or through the altar guild or volunteering with, heaven help them, the junior highers?

Of course churches need volunteers.

Of course you want to grow in holiness.

But the hundreds of pastors, church leaders, professors, and chaplains I know do not feel an overabundance of energy right now. Between executive function fatigue (decision fatigue) and constantly putting out fires and choosing between making 50 percent of people angry or the other 50 percent of people angry and attempting to construct any kind of planning or scheduling with a viral variant that’s 1,200 times more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strains, there are very few pastors with the energy they think they need to be holy. There are very few nurses, doctors, or nursing home workers with energy for anything other than showing up and doing what has to be done.

Can holiness look like this?

Can holiness look like exhaustion, burnout, panic attacks, depression, crisis intervention, peace-keeping – even numbness?

Can I tell you something?

Some of the holiest people I’ve seen in the past 18 months have looked just like that. Some of the sweetest anointing has enveloped leaders who are tired, grieving, exhausted, burned out, or even numb.

You do not have to have energy to be holy.

This is something elderly people in long-term care facilities already know. It’s just something most people don’t want to have to learn personally for ourselves – because energy is power; control; agency.

And if you’re asking, dear God, how can my numb trauma be holy? then I invite you to listen to an audio version of 1 Kings 18 and 19 – when Elijah the prophet is in a showdown with the prophets of Baal. God honors Elijah and sends fire from the sky. But afterward, Elijah’s life is on the line. He is exhausted. He runs. He curls up too tired to do anything to protect himself. Fed by divine intervention, he runs more, to take shelter in the mountain of God. And God does not come to Elijah in an impersonal show of force, in crashing theophany. God gently arrives in the still whispering rustle, and Elijah is safe to pour out his heart and his heartbreak. After he does, God quietly reminds him that as alone as he feels, he is not alone. And to relieve Elijah’s burden further, he directs him to Elisha.

It seems to me that one of the most tender moments in these two chapters comes in 18:30 – “Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come here to me.’ They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down.” The prophets of Baal had been frantic, mutilating themselves, calling on Baal. But when it is Elijah’s turn, there is a sense that this is an act of grief, a labor of love: rebuilding what had been torn down, taking 12 stones and building an altar “in the name of the Lord.” (v. 32) What do you rebuild? You rebuild what you love. Where there is grief in the ruins, there is hope in the rebuilding. But it is manual labor: hard work, smashed fingers, bruised thumbnails, a sore back. His hands must have been so tired, his muscles strained. What a beautiful labor of love. No frantic shrieking; just the loving repair of what had been in ruins.

What an offering to give to God: smashed fingers, bruised thumbnails, a sore back – an altar that had been desecrated, repaired.

If you believe holiness requires energy, it will be easy to believe you can detect when it is you are being or acting holy. But most genuine holiness, I am convinced, accompanies your lack of awareness of it. It is accidental – incidental. It happens behind your back, when you’re not looking. It shadows you on your off-days.

There is a holiness of proximity that has nothing to do with energy.

It is proximity to Christ, and it is proximity to the overlooked people Christ loves.

You do not have to have energy to be in close proximity to the quiet warmth of Jesus Christ.

Elijah collapsed and didn’t care if he lived or died, after running away. It was God who enabled him to travel: “the journey is too much for you.” (19:7) When he reached the mountain of God – he slept. (19:9) Only after he rested, did God ask him what brought him there. Elijah’s strained brain chemistry could not detect the presence of God in the overwhelming sensory stimuli of loud sounds or shaking ground or bright light; he did not have the energy for that. So God whispered.

The holiness of proximity is standing, sitting, or lying in the safe presence of God, however you feel, however you don’t have the energy to feel.

There is also a holiness of proximity when you draw near to people others are ignoring. Mother Teresa exemplified this well. The embodiment of the Beatitudes is a sacred thing to witness. Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the merciful. When you care for sick bodies or cry with grief-stricken loved ones, you are in the proximity of the blessed ones; you are blessed when you are merciful to them.

You do not have to have energy to be holy. Your exhaustion, your grief, your numbness – none of those things keep you from being holy. Whether or not you feel the presence of God, you are so close to the side of Christ that you shine when your back is turned, when you’re not even aware of it.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

What are you doing here, Elijah?


Featured image courtesy Marek Piwnicki via Unsplash.

Jesus with the Pastor: What God Does with Our Dirt

When I was in seminary, I often traveled long distances by bus. Greyhound used to have a $59 ticket to anywhere in North America. The price fit my budget and the timing fit my personality. I didn’t mind a long bus ride when I had a handful of books and a day and a half to dig in. But I had to be very careful because sometimes people would get on the bus hoping to make a best friend before the next stop. Not me. I just wanted to read my books and enjoy some solitude. I discovered a trick to keep the seat next to me open. While bus-travel is best done lightly, one item I always brought with me: my pillow. Have you ever seen an old pillow outside its case? It can be a bit off-putting. Snuggling up to my uncased pillow often kept the seat next to me open. Why? Because nobody wants to sit next to a dirty pillow. We don’t like being next to dirt…at all!

Think for a moment about all the phrases that use the word “dirt” or an equivalent. Heard of a dirty movie? Given a dirty look? Did you used to have a potty mouth or been forced to do the dirty work? You might hope to become filthy rich, but you don’t want someone to dig up the dirt on you. Why? Because we hide our dirt; we clean up our minds and hearts and language. We not only put covers on some pillows to hide their dirt; we cover our souls. We worry that some parts of our past might never come clean. 

Psychologist Alfred Adler said that dirt keeps people away from us. But “dirt” doesn’t just keep other people away; it seems to create a separation from God. Uncleanness was a way of describing people’s defilement before God, so the Old Testament has specific ways of helping people become ritually clean. Leviticus 12-15 describes ways of becoming clean because of impurity coming from blood, skin diseases, and other bodily fluids. Leviticus 16 describes the Day of Atonement—when uncleanness and rebellion is gathered together and cleansed. Both the Israelites and the Tabernacle (Tent of Meeting) are cleansed to be in God’s presence. This combination of uncleanness and sin comes through the prophet Isaiah, as well, who said that he was a man of unclean lips and came from a people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5).

Now, why this lengthy discussion about dirt? Because it gives us depth to understanding what Jesus does in John 13:1-17, the last supper. Back in John 1, John said that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (1:14). The noun of this verb “to dwell” is the same word that the Septuagint (the Old Testament translated from Hebrew to Greek) uses for tent or Tabernacle (Tent of Meeting). Before the temple was built, the Tabernacle was the place where  God would meet with his people. It was a portable location for the presence of God while the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. In John 1:14, John is saying that the enfleshed Word is the Tabernacle, the presence of God. Of course, in John 2, Jesus says that his body is the temple that will be raised after three days. Now notice what is happening here: rather than the disciples getting cleansed to come into Jesus’ presence, the tabernacling presence/temple of God is washing the disciples. We are not cleansed before we come into the presence of God; God in Christ comes to cleanse us! How amazing, then, are the words of Jesus, “And you are clean” (v. 10)!

But this is a specific type of cleaning. Notice the posture Jesus takes: After supper, Jesus took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. The Greek word for “took off” can also be translated “laid aside” or “laid down”—exactly what Jesus said he will do with his life for the sheep (10:15). Further, wrapping a towel around his waist was taking the posture of a slave and washing feet was doing the work of a slave. Jesus maintains this posture into the next day because that’s when Jesus dies a slave’s death on the cross. In this death, God hands down the sentence for uncleanness, but also takes the sentence on himself. Or, as Isaiah says it, “By his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus dies a slave’s death and the result is that he cleanses us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Jesus lays aside his clothes to take up the towel to wash his disciples’ feet and he keeps the slave’s towel to lay aside his life to wash our whole persons. 

The enemy may remind you of your dirt—the stuff you want to keep hidden. But we must pay close attention to the tabernacling presence of God, the Word made flesh, the one whose body is the temple. He has come not to remind us of our dirt, but to make us clean! And by virtue of his sacrificial death, Jesus says to us, “You are clean!”


To read more on the presence of Jesus with the pastor, see Dr. Aaron Perry’s new book out now: Kairos Care: A Process for Pastoral Counseling in the Office and in Everyday Experiences (Abingdon Press). For a sample chapter, click “Take a Look Inside” at https://www.cokesbury.com/Kairos-Care


Featured image courtesy Sandie Clarke on Unsplash.

Why Did the Women Disciple the Men?

Back when it was “a different time” – in this case, just 1992 – the pastor warmed up our mens’ Bible study with, “Why did the woman cross the road…What’s she doing out of the kitchen in the first place?” Before the chuckling died down, he continued his opening act: “How do you fix a broken dishwasher…Kick her in the butt.” 

Twenty-five years later, my oldest of three daughters says, “Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a boy.” She’s helping me set up the Communion table for worship in an hour, because the advantage of being a pastor with three daughters is every Sunday is “take your daughter to work day.” 

“Why?” I ask, unprepared for this conversation when my brain is tangled with mic cables and my upcoming sermon. 

“So I can be a pastor like you,” she says, pouring Welch’s grape juice into a chalice.

I wince. “Who says you can’t be a pastor when you grow up?” Answer her question with a question. Make her think about it, I tell myself.

“Because aren’t all the preachers in the Bible men?” she says.

It’s the season of Advent, so we talk about Mary, the mother of Jesus. About how she’s the first disciple, because she was the first to lay down her life for Jesus. And how before she delivered the baby, she delivered the first sermon in the New Testament:

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.

How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!

For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,

      and from now on all generations will call me blessed.

For the Mighty One is holy,

    and he has done great things for me.” (Luke 1:46-49)

We don’t often look to Mary as disciple or preacher. We take our cues from Moses, David, Peter, Paul; we only look at Mary once a year at Christmas, and even then to reduce her and her womb to a utilitarian role. 

Opening Scripture, my daughters find a world where prophets and leaders from the home to the throne were determined by bloodline, gender, and birth-order (a.k.a. the firstborn male of the right tribe). All because of the dreaded word, patriarchy: when women were property of their fathers and dowry-ed off to be the property of their husbands, their children and legal rights belonged to him. He could divorce her with a word, so she kept her head covered and mouth shut. 

But – in those same Scriptures, my daughters read stories of women encountering God and leading God’s people. Like Hagar, the slave woman whose womb was also reduced to a utilitarian role. She is the only person in the Old Testament to directly give God a name, and she names him, “The God Who Sees Me.”

Or Deborah. When Israel was under oppression because of their corruption and dysfunction, they cried out to God for help. God gave them a woman. Before they had kings, Israel was led by judges known for either their legal or military leadership. Deborah was a prophet who happened to be a judge, and she had both – so much so that when Barak, the leader of the Israelite militia, was sent into battle, he said, “I will go, but only if you go with me.”

And Ruth, who is described by the Hebrew word meaning “warrior.” Oh, and she was an illegal immigrant who saved Bethlehem with integrity and courage. Or Esther, who did the unthinkable and went public before the king, saving her people not with looks, but devotion to God. 

How about Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin and the first human to prophecy the coming of Jesus while her husband doubted, and so an angel shut him up. Or the five-time divorced Samaritan Woman, who encountered Jesus at the well. She went back to testify and lead others to him, and a lot of folks in her village were saved. 

And my favorite, Mary and the other Mary. Just as two women were the first to preach about Jesus’ birth, these two women were the first to preach about his resurrection. They went to the tomb while the men were scattered. 

Daughter, look at these women who, like Moses, David, Peter, and Paul, are used by God to preach the good news and disciple your dad. And not just in the Bible.

My grandmother, who when I asked why some of the words in the Bible were in red, took that Bible and told me who Jesus was; Cindy, the pastor who led my confirmation class; Jeanine, a mother who called me out on some sin my freshman year of college and set some boundaries; Peg, who led me through inner healing and warned me numerous times of hang-ups in my life; Jo Anne, who’s preaching challenged me to not compromise the call on my life; Miriam, who’s preaching taught me what holiness really is and how to pursue it; Amanda, my co-pastor in college ministry who called out my weak points in ministry and stood up to fraternity boys dehumanizing women. 

Most importantly, there’s Jennifer, my wife and our kids’ mother. She’s in the garage using her tools and air compressor to repair a car engine or refinish furniture while I’m cooking dinner or cleaning the toilet. But she also leads our house, makes the rules, and assigns the tasks. We both do, and so in our mutuality I can be led and submit to her because we submit to each other.

Daughter, someday you can preach and disciple me too.. You already are.

So I stand my daughter in the pulpit, where she is pretending to preach like her dad, and tell her about Peter’s sermon on Pentecost when he drops the words of the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…’” (Acts 2:17)

Did you catch that, daughter? 

Prophets are the preachers who declare, “This is what the Lord says.” And now the prophets are your sons and daughters, no longer determined by bloodline, gender, and birth-order. There is only one manner of leadership in the church, and it isn’t gender or even credentials. The qualifications are to be called by God, anointed by Jesus, and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit

This is no joke, but the story of good news for women. And as Dr. Sandy Richter, the woman pastor-professor who taught me reminds us: we need to tell that story, and tell it well. 


Featured image courtesy Joshua Hanson via Unsplash.

Joy Is a Verb

I’m not going to lie – finding joy during 2020 was difficult for me. I suspect many of you may have found that challenging as well. For me, it was difficult when the traveling ministry that brings me so much fulfillment was put on hold. I faced new challenges in family relationships and finances, and an unexpected medical challenge brought me to my knees (literally).

As much as I’ve preached and written about joy in the past, last year I was not feeling it. It’s humbling to admit that I just felt sad. I found that almost embarrassing; sometimes leaders struggle to say it without feeling ashamed or guilty. In the middle of challenges and grief, though, I knew that joy was still possible. After all, the Gospels show Jesus as a man who felt sorrow deeply. He wept. He was tempted. He knew hunger, thirst, rejection, and loneliness – and yet he gladly made water into wine to keep a party going! Jesus knew the range of what it means to be human.

Forget the somber, anemic portraits of Christ you’ve seen on funeral home walls. Jesus was a joyful person. We know this because in his final moments with the disciples, the Lord said his greatest desire for them was not that they have strength, salvation, or peace, but that they would share his joy.

In John 15:11, he said to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

In John 16:24, he instructed them, saying, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”

Then he prayed for them, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” (John 17:13)

Soon to be beaten and pierced with nails for a crime he didn’t commit, Jesus prayed that his friends would be as joyful as he was. The Lord showed us by example that joy isn’t the result of an easy life. He had joy even in the midst of pain, because he wasn’t swayed by what was happening to him. Jesus’ heart was only moved by the heart of his Father.

Joy is the atmosphere of heaven and the very fabric of who God is. In Psalm 16:11, we read, “In your presence is fullness of joy.” Yes, Jesus felt pain in his body and soul, but his spirit was always resting in his Father’s love. Joy was the overflow of the constant presence of God within him. In the same way, it is possible to find joy in any time and in all circumstances when our hearts stay focused on the Lord. Our faith makes room for his joy when we are willing to trust God’s purposes even when we don’t understand.

I love how the prophet Habakkuk rejoiced despite the fact that everything in his life seemed to be going wrong.

Though the fig tree may not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines;

Though the labor of the olive may fail,

and the fields yield no food;

Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,

and there be no herd in the stalls—

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

The word “joy” in that last verse is not a noun – it’s a verb! Though his circumstances were desperate, Habakkuk chose to rejoice in the God of his salvation. He took joy in who God was even in the middle of catastrophe, rather than allowing his response to be determined by the disaster. When we begin to praise and thank God regardless of what we feel like doing, the Holy Spirit is eager to fill us with the joy of his presence and even change the atmosphere around us. 

One of my favorite examples of joy in action is found in the book of Acts. Paul and Silas were arrested in the city of Philippi simply for preaching the gospel. Having been falsely accused, they were whipped and then locked in the inner prison. Though their backs were bleeding and their feet were chained, Paul and Silas chose to worship their God!

“But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.” (Acts 16:25-26)

I weep as I read these words yet again. Paul and Silas were so full in the presence of the Holy Spirit that injustice and injury did not dampen the joy of the Holy Spirit’s presence within them. In fact, the power of God was released through Paul and Silas’ praise; it was so great it caused seismic activity in the earth. The prison gates were jarred open and their chains came loose – not only their chains, but the shackles of the other prisoners who found themselves in jail. In the end, even the jailer and his family were saved, becoming believers.

Paul and Silas received joy in the dark and painful place; they chose to join their worship with the worship of heaven even in those circumstances. They knew that no power on earth could stand against the purposes and goodness of God. I even wonder if, by faith, these men already knew what was about to happen. Perhaps they could picture the Lord smiling and saying, “Wait for it…wait for it!” Notice that the earthquake rumbled and shook as they lifted their voices in praise to God.

Would I have acted the same as Paul and Silas did that night? I don’t know, but perhaps I can learn from them as I face hardship in my own life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for opportunities to be beaten for my faith! But I want to learn to live in the overcoming joy of the Lord, regardless of the circumstances I find myself in or how I feel. I want to be so aware of God’s goodness and love for me that my response in every trial is simply worship.

If you have felt stuck this past year, be encouraged. When we face upheaval and darkness, there is something we can do. We can join our song of God’s faithfulness with the song of the saints, the joy of heaven. We can praise God for his promises for the future, and we can worship the Lord for who he is right now. The Lord is our Shepherd, our Father, our Strength, our Shield, our Shelter, our Rock, our Peace, our Righteousness, our Savior, and our God in whom we trust.

Yes, these are difficult days, but the joy of the Lord is our strength. (Nehemiah 8:10) As we boldly lift up his name in the middle of our circumstances, the one who raised Jesus from the dead will surely lift us up. God uses even our trials to do miracles we could not foresee. However painful or lonely your situation may be today, know that you are not alone. The Holy Spirit is with you and within you. Call out in prayer. Sing praises to him! Joy in the presence of the God of your salvation, and listen for the rumble and rattle of seismic shift.


Featured image courtesy Jenni Peterson on Unsplash.

Surrendered Intercession

“‘Oh, that Ishmael may live before you!’ Abraham cried to God.” (Genesis 17:18) This cry has always moved my heart. I have always felt a deep connection with Ishmael; we are him. That cry from the heart of a loving father is God’s cry for you and me. This is intercessory prayer. In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, “You cannot truly intercede through prayer if you do not believe in the reality of redemption.” We must believe that God is mighty enough and lovely enough to make things right and that God desires to make it so. Intercession then is locating a person or a situation into the lap of dear God, confident that God will make things right.

I was 24 years old, a freshly minted American resident when my six-month-old baby went into anaphylactic reaction. Out of my belly came the cry, “God, what’s going on? He’s yours; please heal him!” I had given him peanut butter, and apparently, his body did not like it. I watched all the swelling go down within a few minutes as I cried to God in dance. I never considered calling 911, not because I have something against it! In the moment, I simply did not think of it; I knew prayer and God’s reliability.

Another time in a conversation with a friend, she said, “I get migraines,” welcoming my prayer. I prayed immediately. A few days later, she called to say that she had not had pain since our prayer together. Her migraines are still gone. I can go on and on sharing situations in which God has intervened because of intercession. I keep a journal of people and things I bring before God daily. God is reliable.

Intercession is becoming love; it is becoming the heart of God for humanity. It is asking God to redeem, to make right according to his perfect love. We do not tell God what to do, but we allow the heart of God to flow through us for our friends, families, society, and even enemies. Enemies don’t stay enemies in prayer.

It’s 2021; we see enemies everywhere – strange ideologies, racism, bigotry and such in the world and in the church. We are wary of each other and perhaps weary of God. God is not answering fast enough for you, or maybe he allowed things you did not want. There’s a sense in which we wonder, “why pray, when God will do whatever he wants anyway?”  But remember how Paul encouraged the Galatians: “Let us not became weary, [in interceding prayer] for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) We must believe God is mighty enough to save and lovely enough to want to save.

Surrender is the key to intercession. Without it, love cannot and will not flow. We cannot avoid surrender. Revival will not happen without it. The transformation we desire in the lives of those we bring before God will not happen unless we raise our flags in surrender. Healing will only come to our earth – your flesh, mine, and the world – when we are free of our preconceived ideas of how reality should be, and we yield to God.

Did God say, “If my people who are called by my name will get smarter in their arguments, independence, possessions, and politics, I will hear from heaven and answer; I will forgive their sins and heal their land”? There is so much to make the heart weary. The earth and people groan for the return of God. We cry revival with our lips, but our hearts are not humbled; we have not repented of our arrogance. God appeared to Solomon when he consecrated the temple. He said, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people,[you have to admit it has felt like this for the world] if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:13-14, NIV)

Physical, emotional, spiritual, and societal healing all begins and ends in surrendered intercession. When you pray for me, and I pray for you, we manifest God’s love. We are family connected through the explosive love of God who created all things. Your healing is intertwined with mine and mine to yours. Let us pray for Ishmael. “Oh, that Ishmael may live before you!”


Featured image courtesy Henrique Jacob on Unsplash.

Make a Path for God’s Comfort to Arrive

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.’ You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.” Isaiah 40:1-10

Comfort. It is such a simple word. Yet, when spoken in certain contexts, it becomes profound. The year 2020 has been one such context. Whether it has been the violence and racial injustice in American towns and streets, the divisions over the national election, or the murder hornets, there hasn’t been much comfort this year. This is to say nothing of the disruptive pandemic we are in. Some people have lost their jobs, others their businesses, still others, their lives. Some readers probably have had Covid, the experience of which, I am told, makes comfort a distance memory. Others have had to care for a loved one with Covid or watched a loved one die from it. During such tragedies, we normally find comfort in the presence of friends and family, but Covid has robbed us even of this. After the year we have had, what would we give to hear that simple word spoken to us: comfort.

The uncertainty and sense of hopelessness of the current moment approaches the context in which these words from the prophet Isaiah were first spoken. The people of Israel, to whom he addressed his message, were in exile in Babylon. They had been forcibly removed from their native land years before. Their homes and crops had been destroyed, their temple burned to the ground, and their king killed along with the rest of the royal line descended from David. Having been rescued from slavery by their God over 1,000 years before, they found themselves back as slaves in a foreign land. “By the rivers of Babylon,” laments the Psalmist, “we sat and wept when we remembered Zion . . . How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1, 4). The lament of the people of Israel must have had an additional layer of bitterness; they knew their own unfaithfulness caused their exile. The writer of Lamentations writes, “After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place…The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins” (Lamentations 1:3, 5). The people of Israel were experiencing the covenant curses for their centuries of unfaithfulness and idolatry: namely, the loss of God’s presence, for which humans were created. Exile. Death.

And then, spoken in the midst of their darkest days, comes that profound word, comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says the Lord through the prophet. Yes, even in exile, even in their unfaithfulness, they were still his people. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” he continues, “and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” If we could put this message more simply, it would be, “It’s over!” Or maybe even, “It is finished.”

What amazing words of hope and comfort! Those of us living through 2020 may understand a bit the unspeakable joy these words would have brought the exiles. How many internet memes and discussions are devoted to what we all will do, when this pandemic is over? How wonderful will it be, to be among friends and family again without fear, without masks? How lovely will a simple hug or handshake seem then? To eat at a restaurant, to go to a movie, to go back to work. We long after ten months of a pandemic simply to be able to leave our homes; the Israelites were in exile for 70 years; more than anything, they wanted to just go home.

But the completely unexpected truth about this prophecy is its proclamation that the end of exile would not consist in the Jews going back to their homeland, back to the place where they assumed God was. Rather, exile ends by God coming to them. The prophet says, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” The highway was not for them to leave; the highway was for God to come.

The Jews didn’t grasp these words when they were first spoken. And so sometime later when they were released from Babylon and a remnant returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, they thought that their exile was over. It wasn’t. Roman soldiers marched in the streets, David’s throne was still empty, and no one saw the glory of God. Most significantly, though they had returned, comfort remained far from them. Their disappointment must have been like ours will inevitably be, when 2020 turns to 2021, and we realize the pandemic has not ended. A random year change or a lighted ball dropping from a building or a presidential election can’t fix anything. The only thing that can fix a broken and hurting world, an exiled and a quarantined people, is God showing up in our midst. And for that, they would have to wait.

Like the exiles, we are in a period of waiting right now, the season of Advent. In the cultural mind with all its cherished traditions, Advent always gets mixed up with Christmas. But the celebration and feasting that is Christmas doesn’t actually start until December 25th. The season of Advent is less about celebration and more about exile, and the Church’s song in this season is less the joyous herald angels singing and more the lamenting cry, “Oh come, oh come Immanuel!” The words of this cherished Advent hymn are not far from the song of the exiles, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Thus, Advent focuses us not only on Christ’s first coming 2,000 years ago but also on the hope of his second coming. We are reminded in this season that though Christ has already come, all is not well. Our world is still broken and hurting and we still long for Christ’s full presence. And so we wait.

Thanks be to God that unlike the exiles, we are waiting in this season with the confidence of the children of God, and the comfort of those who know that although not all is well, exile has indeed ended. It didn’t end because the Jews went back to Canaan or because they rebuilt the Temple. Its end is not found in the ceasing of pain or death or in the absence of rulers opposed to the purposes of God. These things are still very much a reality, as 2020 has made all too apparent. Rather, as Isaiah prophesied, exile ended when God came to us, in the very midst of our darkness, in Jesus Christ, the light of the world. It is for this reason that all the Gospels launch readers into John and Jesus’ ministries with the quotation from Isaiah 40 about the God who comes on a highway in the wilderness. About the God who speaks comfort. We know, then, that God is with us in the waiting.

No matter how dark these days are, take comfort in the Gospel’s promise that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).


Featured image courtesy Alexandre Dinaut on Unsplash.

Daily Office App

Three Reasons You Should Download a Daily Office App

What is essential reading for you every day? I don’t think I’m alone sensing an increase in “noise” when I read. If I go online for a few minutes to check social media or scan for wild fire containment progress, my eyes quickly absorb what I usually associate with my ears – a lot of noise. Communication is necessary; noise isn’t. Trying to parse the difference between the two, however, can be challenging. I love to read, but reading “hot takes” in real time leaves me scattered, fractured, tired. Some commentary on life or current events or ministry is helpful; but I quickly find myself tiring of secondary sources. If that sounds familiar, it might be time to download a Daily Office app.

There are thousands of devotional books, if not millions, and a lot of American Protestants aren’t familiar with the Daily Office. It is not, as it sounds, a daily random episode of a workplace comedy. It is not a workspace rental company. It is not an office supply source.

The Daily Office is a set of Scripture readings and prayers. You can find Christians around the world reading these same texts and prayers on the same day that you are. Centuries ago, Christians often prayed the hours of the day; about 500 years ago, the Book of Common Prayer was developed within Anglicanism. Daily worship was condensed into morning and evening prayers. It may sound strange to remember that in some traditions, people used to go to church daily; it may sound strange to remember that in some Christian traditions, people still go to church every day (at least, pandemic allowing). But the Daily Office isn’t limited to usage in a Vespers service in an aging stone church in the rolling hills of rural England. Anyone with a Book of Common Prayer can read the Daily Office. Except now the internet exists; anyone with a Daily Office app can read the Daily Office.

So why should you? Here are three reasons that spring to mind, though there are many.

1. Cutting Out or Reducing Dependence on Devotional Commentary

Please don’t read this as a suggestion that spiritual formation writings are useless. I’ve learned and grown so much from the wisdom of others, some from my own lifetime, some from decades or centuries before me. But a fatigue has taken hold in the midst of so much noise. I find myself yearning not for secondary sources, but for the wellspring of life itself.

We are, as C.S. Lewis suggested with different intent in mind, too easily pleased sometimes. Half a Scripture verse and four paragraphs of reflection on it are insufficient sustenance for your daily pilgrimage. Some devotional books offer great value – especially those that primarily parse the Scripture to which they refer or those with uncommon wisdom and insight.

But devotional books aren’t the Bread of Life. In John 1, we see the author distinguishing between John the Baptist, who was not himself the light but bore witness to the light, and Jesus, who is the light itself – the light that is life to all humanity. Sometimes we’re more comfortable with proximity to John the Baptist, as it were, than we are with proximity to Jesus.

But in times of heightened noise, one of the best things we can do is to dip into Scripture itself. Because I’m not hungry for Devotional Collection Aimed at North American Women Pushing Forty Who Are Likely to Have Shopped at Target in the Past 12 Months. I’m starving for Jesus. Give me Jesus. There are millions of commentators and bloggers and gurus and influencers. Some of them are great, fulfilling a need or even a vocation.

But right now the world is groaning. “Where else would we go? You have the words of life.” When you’re sick of talking heads or you’re in triage mode, you just want Jesus.

So why not just open a physical Bible or Bible app? Why a Daily Office app, specifically?

2. Scripture Variety and Scope

The Daily Office already includes excerpts from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Psalms. You don’t have to decide where to begin. Maybe that sounds lazy; if you’re a leader in your congregation or you’re tired or you’re a tired leader, not having to decide where to begin might sound quite appealing.

Daily Office apps remove another hurdle because you don’t have to navigate the sections of a physical Book of Common Prayer or look up references in a physical Bible. Rather, the excerpt is right there in front of you, ready to go.

(There’s much to be said for reading physical books or noting in physical margins, including research on retention or mental mapping; but jotting down a few notes on the daily reading helps retention as well.)

Sometimes identifiable themes thread through the passages from the Old and New Testaments. Sometimes they seem more randomly paired. The Daily Office helps to correct the tendency to swerve more heavily into one section of Scripture more than another, by putting a “balanced diet” onto our plate for us. It’s like a grab-bag fresh produce subscription box showing up at your door, in contrast to entering the fresh vegetable section of a store and veering toward your automatic weekly go-to of baby carrots and salad mix. The Daily Office makes sure that sometimes you try rutabagas or jicama, so to speak, prying your fingers off of your familiar household stand-by’s.

There are combinations of scriptural texts that simply wouldn’t occur to me if I didn’t discover them presented to me side by side. There is rich, fresh sustenance in these creative combinations.

3. Guided Prayer with Global Christians

Whether you thumb through a Book of Common Prayer or download a Daily Office app, you’ll find an odd sense of community in progressing through a shared liturgy, even if you’re sitting by yourself at a park.

The closest thing the Daily Office has to commentary comes in the form of the written prayers, many of which are quite old. At times, I’ve found myself unable to stitch words together in much of a prayer. Then, I’ve read the Daily Office and found what I didn’t know I needed or wanted to say, said for me. At other times, I’ve shared a collect from that day on social media, only to have acquaintances comment on why they love that particular prayer – a reminder of the worshiping community spread across the globe.

There is also keen solace in skimming over the prayer prompts for the day. When I feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of need or tragedy in the world, the Daily Office calmly settles the uproar into a neat line. Groups of people are remembered on particular days: pray for those affected by natural disaster; pray for those who work in the justice system; pray for the sick and dying; pray for those who work in health care. And just like that, I join millions of other Christians who find a path marked out neatly to guide our intercessions.

If you find yourself weary of the fractious noise, hungry for something simple and quiet, maybe you would find new sustenance in the Daily Office. There are a variety of apps; sometimes I read the morning selection; sometimes I read the morning and evening selections; sometimes I read the night selection; sometimes I don’t open the app for several days.

But there are few better resources when you need to turn down the commentary, let yourself be exposed to a variety of Scripture, and receive the words and prayer prompts of others to help give voice to the intercession you may not have the words for.


Do you already read the Daily Office? When did you begin the habit? What have you gleaned from that experience?


Featured image courtesy Kentaro Toma via Unsplash.

The Lord Who Heals You: Jehovah Rophe

This spring as the Coronavirus pandemic gained momentum, my husband and I got ready to start a construction project at our house. We found a contractor, met with him a couple of times to talk about the plan – we even had masking tape lines on the floor where a new wall would go.  Supplies were scheduled to arrive on a Friday and work would begin on that Saturday. And then, the stay-at-home order went out. I started having second thoughts about the timeline.  Was it a good idea to start a construction project in the middle of a pandemic? Would we or the contractor get sick? Would we be able to buy the supplies we needed throughout the project?

Really, my core concern wasn’t whether we could start, but whether we’d be able to finish. The only thing worse than a construction project is a half-done, stalled construction project.

Any half-done project is frustrating. It’s messy, unusable, a constant reminder that there’s more work waiting. Usually, you can’t see a half-done, stalled project with any satisfaction. Instead, it’s a reminder that there’s more work to do – every time you walk past it.  We put construction on hold.

Thinking about the construction dilemma makes me acknowledge that what I won’t tolerate in my home, I often tolerate in myself. I am not a finished project.  I am still being formed in the image of Christ. My wounds are still being healed. My relationship with God has a lot of room to grow and deepen. All of that is okay. Those things will be “under construction” until I am done with my earthly life.

The problem is that – at times – I let those projects stall. There have been times I settle for them when they’re stalled out, half-way done, no new progress made for stretches at a time. That’s the problem.

But we love and serve a God who finishes projects. God completes what he starts. God doesn’t just want to save us – to rescue us and then leave us as we were. God wants to bring us into the safety of communion with him and then begin the work of restoration – of healing. We love and serve Jehovah Rophe – the God who heals.

The Lord is Healer

Early in the biblical story, God introduces himself to his people as healer. In Exodus, God refers to himself as Jehovah RopheThe Lord Who Heals You.  Some of the names of God were given to him by people as they had significant experiences with the Almighty. Like Hagar who called God Jehovah RoiThe God Who Sees Me. But in this case, God doesn’t wait for someone to notice through experience; instead, God announces it.

Look with me at Exodus 15:22-26:

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.

There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”

A few days before this event at Marah, God orchestrated a mass exodus of his people out of slavery – out from under Egyptian control – and into freedom.  They were free – but in many ways, they were still dragging their broken chains with them. They bore damage done by generations of enslavement. They had been mistreated, abused, threatened, their babies killed, their lives and dignity stolen.  They were officially free – but not yet in a way to live the abundant life that God promised them. They needed a God who heals.

If you read those early moments of their exodus, you know that healing didn’t happen overnight for them. This event at Marah was the first of many events orchestrated by God to heal. Look at the passage again.  Do you notice the signs that God’s people needed healing? They panicked when faced with adversity; their resilience was tapped out from repeated trauma. We can’t underestimate their suffering here, from our well-hydrated, air-conditioned, padded seats.  This was a tough spot: three days walking in the desert without water means significant suffering. In their group are babies and children, elderly people, thirsty animals.  And then, to their suffering, they add disappointment: the water they do find is undrinkable.

Their response to the situation shows that they need not only water, but the deep, inner freedom of healing. They panicked, fight or flight kicking in: “What are we going to drink?” And they grumbled not to Moses but against him; under pressure, this traumatized group of people turned on Moses.

Moses is dealing with the same situation. He is thirsty too; and he is responsible for leading this group.  But Moses does something helpful: he cries out to the Lord.  Healing had already begun in this leader. God had been working Moses’ healing during his time in Midian.  He knows to bring his problems to God. Sometimes, people grumble when they need a God who heals; but people cry out to God when they’ve begun the process of healing.

Moses cries out and God responds. God tells Moses to throw a piece of wood into the water; instantly, the water is turned from bitter to sweet.  On the surface, this is a practical move to provide desperately needed water. In another way, it was like a parable acted out: God’s kind and gentle way of saying, “Hey, Israelites, do you see yourselves a little in this bitter water? Here’s good news – I am a God who heals things. Would you like to be healed?”

God could have just yelled, “Stop being bitter!” Instead, God patiently introduces himself to this people as The God Who Heals. God heals the diseased water as a demonstration of his goodness and his healing power. Then God asks: “Will you let me heal you?”

If you read the rest of Exodus, you’ll see that the people didn’t initially get God’s deeper purpose in this miracle. They were distracted by their thirst and the water; they moved onto the next thing. Once the crisis was over, they forgot to circle back and confront their own bitterness. They continued in survival mode.

Is it tempting to stand back and admire God who heals, but to neglect allowing God to begin the healing process in you? It’s one thing to know that God can heal; it’s another thing to experience God as the One who heals you. Knowing about God only gets you so far. You and I need to experience God – not just once but many times.

God didn’t want the Israelites to be a half-way done, stalled construction project. God doesn’t want to leave you half-done and stalled out, either.

God has the power to change the very essence of something. How long had that water been bitter? Long enough for the locals to name the spot Marah – which means bitter. That’s how deep the bitterness ran.

How long had the Israelites tasted bitter suffering? For generations. As long as they could remember. But the God who heals can turn what is into what can be.  How long have you been bitter, or sad, or angry, or shamed? Do you have ways of thinking and responding that are so deep you don’t even recognize them as broken? What has become your normal?

Maybe you’ve been angry or sad or hurt or sick for a long time – maybe for as long as you can remember. God’s not put off by that. The God who heals can change the very essence of who we are. Just like God changed water from bitter – so diseased that people dying of thirst couldn’t drink it – to sweet – a life-giving joy to experience.

The water was healed much more quickly than the Israelites were; it takes time to earn trust. So God began a process of healing with the Israelites – a 40-year process.  The Israelites didn’t have a lot of patience for the process; do any of us? Do you expect an instant of salvation to resolve what can take the process of sanctification a lifetime?  Sometimes if we get frustrated with the process, we opt out.

Let Yourself Be Healed

Sometimes healing happens suddenly. I know of physical healing that’s happened in a moment. You may know someone God has instantaneously healed of emotional wounds.  But other times, healing happens in the slow lane. That was certainly the Israelites story. God healed them in stages. 

You won’t just see this in the Old Testament, you can see it in the New Testament as well. Think about the disciples’ three-year-long journey with Jesus. There’s an interesting account of healing found in Mark 8:22-26:

They came to Bethsaida. Some peoplebrought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the manlooked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesuslaid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

Jesus heals this man, but in a way that is unique from every healing story in the Gospels. For some reason, Jesus doesn’t heal him instantly like he did all the others. It’s certainly not because he couldn’t. Jesus healed people left and right. It’s not because the man lacked faith for full healing: Jesus raised the dead man Lazarus back to life, and dead people don’t have any faith.

I don’t know why Jesus took two turns at healing this guy, but I’m glad he did. It gives me hope.  For me, healing has come in stages. I don’t think I’m alone. So this story gives my story context – a way of understanding why something can take so long.  What can we learn about the healing journey?

I love these stories of Jesus interacting with people one-on-one. They are each unique and personal.  The blind man’s friends want him to be healed; they must have heard about or seen Jesus heal people. So they bring the man to Jesus and beg for healing for their friend. 

Jesus offers his hand to the man and leads him to a quiet spot where they can speak privately. Then – Jesus spits on the man’s eyes, touches him, and asks, “do you see anything?”

Each of us might handle being in the blind man’s shoes differently; I think I would have felt some performance pressure to be a success story.  Everyone else had been healed instantly. Why wasn’t I? But the way Jesus asks the question, “Do you see anything?” sets up the man to answer honestly.  “Well…I see what must be people, but they kind of look like trees…”

From this brave man’s example, I learn to be honest about where I am in my healing journey: honest with myself, with God, and with others. We all have areas that are works in progress. We all see more than we used to, but not everything clearly yet. Can we admit that? 

Sometimes in faith communities there’s an expectation that because we go to church or believe in Christ that we are done – healed – good to go.  We struggle to make room for the process of healing.

This man honestly reported exactly what he was experiencing. Jesus didn’t blame him, question his faith or intelligence, yell at him, or get frustrated and quit.  Instead, the man’s honesty led to more healing. This man didn’t settle for half-a-healing. Jesus stood right there – present, kind, patient, through the whole process. Not an eye roll. Not a sign of irritation or frustration.

And the man didn’t walk away, either. He could have said, “well, people looking like trees is better than nothing,” and settled for that. He could have decided he wasn’t up for being smeared with saliva again. Instead, he spoke honestly with Jesus, and waited while the healing continued. Jesus did all the work. All the man had to do was stay present.  And just like God transformed the water from bitter to sweet, God transformed a blind man into someone who could see clearly.  Polar opposites: bitter to sweet, blind to 20/20 vision. Jehovah Rophe: The Lord Who Heals You.

At times, I have settled for half-a-healing; I have settled for being healed enough to hold it together in public – but falling apart inside. I have settled for seeing through a fog, when I could have been seeing clearly. Does that sound like you?

Why do we do this?  Because sometimes, healing hurts. Ask anyone who has gone through cancer treatments.  The God Who Heals does the work; but we have to submit to it, and it’s hard. If you get into a hard part, you may think you must be doing it wrong. But if it’s hard – you are probably doing it right.  Healing requires us to name our baggage, wounds, hurt, or trauma, and allow God to work there – in a place that’s sometimes quite painful, that we’d rather ignore or hide or protect.

None of us are completed projects. That’s not the problem. The problem is when you begin to tolerate a constant state of disruptive “good enough.” If you let the healing process stall out and come to a standstill. If you know deep down you’re still only seeing shadows but you don’t want to admit it.

Today, do you know God as Jehovah Rophe – The Lord Who Heals You?

Where are you on your healing journey?

Everyone in this world needs healing of some kind. I’m not surprised when you tell me you have baggage. I trust that you will not be surprised when I’m honest about ways in which God is still healing me.

God doesn’t ever just heal us for our own sake, but also for the sake of others. Who are the others in your life who will be impacted when you allow God to work healing in your life?  Your children, your spouse, your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors?  In the hard moments, if  you are tempted to walk away half-done, make a list of their names. What difference will it make in their lives when you patiently stick with the process?

It is not self-centered to choose to search for healing. It’s so that you can come out on the other side more whole and healthy. It’s as if God is throwing pieces of wood into the water, saying, “Come on! Taste the water now. I can do this for you, too.”

Where are you on your healing journey? Is the construction in process; has it come to a standstill? Have you settled for blurry, good-enough vision? Do you hear God’s patient invitation to stick with it? Wherever you are, consider some of these next steps:

  1. Ask for help. You might not even know how to frame the question or issue. “Will you help me?” might be all you can say. That’s a perfectly fine place to start.
  2. Reach out. Maybe you know right away what needs healing and you’re ready to engage with God. Reach out to someone and let them walk with you – a pastor, a small group leader, a district confidant, a spiritual director, a trusted friend.
  3.  Tell your story to someone. Sometimes our healing lies in bringing things to the surface that we’ve ignored until we’ve almost forgotten. Tell your story to someone and notice what still hurts. That might be an area God wants to bring wholeness and restoration.
  4. Seek out professional help. Spiritual healing does not happen apart from emotional healing. God uses professional therapists, counselors, addiction specialists and many others to heal.

What is your next step? God is so patient with us. Will you be patient and let God change the essence of your life? God remains Jehovah Rophe: The Lord Who Heals You. God can take your life from:

bitter to sweet

sadness to joy

fear to trust

So how does the water taste to you today? What is it that’s blurry? What can you see?

Opening the Door for the Spirit of God

If you’re a church leader, have there been times these past few months that you have been asked to make decisions all day every day? Have you felt the weight of listening to congregants and colleagues, pundits and politicians? The people had questions in March: how can we do church during a health crisis? Will we close? There were more questions in April: how long will we be closed? Will online church work? Systems and processes were put in place, but they were supposed to be temporary. Instead of opening our doors, faith communities had to close our buildings. We hoped this would go away when the weather changed, or a treatment was discovered, or because the hearty American spirit would prevail, or whatever we told ourselves to give hope toward the end of the questions.

The people of Israel came all day, every day, asking for an exhausted Moses to interpret the law and decide their disputes when Jethro told him, “What you are doing is not good” (Exodus 18). Jethro proposed that Moses should appoint capable leaders to share in the decision of simple cases, but that Moses would still interpret God’s will in difficult situations. Following the model of Moses, rabbis reconciled major issues by debating and discerning Scripture and the Torah. In rabbinic literature we find descriptions of Elijah appearing and visiting later rabbis to help them discern God’s will. So if an issue presented itself that seemed to be irreconcilable, it wouldn’t be decided, “until Elijah comes.”

Every day, for months on end, the seemingly irreconcilable questions haven’t stopped for pastors wrestling with how to come together for koinonia (meaningful Christian fellowship) without being present together. As a result, you may feel like Moses, or you may be ready to throw up your hands and say you won’t know “until Elijah comes.”

A better solution for our time might be a different Jewish saying about Elijah. Instead of waiting for the pandemic to resolve itself and being unsure what we should do until then, let’s recall a practice from the Passover Seder meal. Families traditionally pour a fifth cup, reserved for Elijah, in the expectation that the prophet will be with present with them. The family then follows the practice of opening the door in expectation of the arrival of the prophet Elijah, who will announce the coming of the Messiah. Instead of giving up hope or avoiding decisions about difficult questions, what if we open the door to answers? As believers in Jesus Christ, we know that he stands at the door and knocks, and will come in and eat with us – if we will only hear his voice and open the door (Rev. 3:20). We also know that if we lack wisdom, we need only ask God (James 1:5). We need to have an open door for the Spirit of God to speak to us in this time.

In the past, I’ve often written about principles of organizational change management and strategic leadership for Wesleyan Accent. But I feel like now is not the time to share “ten ways to lead in a crisis” or “failsafe steps to reopening during a pandemic.”

We need to practice opening the door for the Spirit of God to enter our striving for answers in contradictory times. When we have opened the door to ask God for wisdom and to invite Jesus to the table, then we can open the door for others from different walks, ages, genders, cultures, and political persuasions to offer their perspectives. If we have invited Jesus to the table, we can then sit at a table (even a virtual Zoom table) and wrestle (from a safe distance) with the irreconcilable questions of our day with others who also love Jesus but might see things differently than us. There may be some questions that are so very impossible to discern that we set them aside “until Elijah comes,” but if we struggle with them honestly, transparently, and with others, that very process may be the koinonia that we seek. No management textbook paradigm can better illustrate leadership than when we “open the door for Elijah,” inviting God into the midst of our struggle, and share in the decision-making with others who love Christ and his bride, the church.

Leave the door open.