Being a pastor was never what you’d call a dream of mine. Preaching was the thing that intimidated me most. It wasn’t getting up in front of people, I’d been doing that my whole life, it was the thought of having something worthwhile to say every week for the next six months and beyond. But I’ve discovered that if I depend on God he is always faithful in providing. So you’d think that after years of preaching I’d have this figured out, but from time to time I have to learn that lesson all over again.
A while back I’d been preaching through the book of Isaiah and we had come to chapter 54 which is very allegorical. I read and re-read and cross referenced and all the stuff I normally do but was really struggling to understand what God was saying, both in the big picture and in application to us. So what are we all taught to do when we come up against a problem? Try harder! So I worked and chewed on it till I had squeezed out a lesson and what that meant for us. But honestly, it felt forced. It was Biblically sound, but it had no life in it.
Then Sunday morning as part of my everyday focus time with God I read this in My Utmost For His Highest by Oswald Chambers: “Do we really know anything about the indwelling of the risen life of Jesus? The evidence that we do is that His Word is becoming understandable to us . . . (but) our own unyielding and headstrong opinions will effectively prevent God from revealing anything to us.” In other words God’s spirit, who is literally living in everyone who is a Jesus follower, will guide us through the Bible, teaching us both to understand what is written and how it applies to our individual and collective situations. The problem is our own “unyielding and headstrong opinions” get in the way.
When I finally acknowledged and confessed that I`d been trying to understand this chapter through my own understanding and wisdom, the passage just opened up and so much insight came I wasn’t sure how I could fit it all in one sermon.
Now listen. This is not just for pastors. This relationship with God is offered to anyone who will simply admit their need of it and ask for it. It is still a process, because it takes time to break that habit of self-reliance and you probably don`t even realize how deep those habits run. But God is faithful and will provide for you step by step as you grow in dependence on his Spirit.
“I just want to be happy” may well be the most commonly expressed desire of North Americans. What few people tell us though is that grasping for happiness is like one of our boys as an infant trying to grab the stream of water from the tap during his bath. He’d get wet but obviously never got a hold of it.
We try everything we can to make ourselves happy, and while the effect of some things lasts a little longer than others, ultimately we’re disappointed.
It reminds me of the story I heard of a father’s potty training experience with his two year old daughter. She had been doing quite well but this particular afternoon while she was supposed to be napping he detected a foul smell. After tracking the smell to her bedroom he opened the door to find what had been a full diaper on the bed and what had been the contents spread in streaks on the bedding and the walls and the dresser. There were tiny brown footprints wandering around the carpet but no girl in sight.
Then he heard a whimpering, and hiding behind the door was his darling little girl, smudged and smeared and matted and tears making streaks down her face. His heart melted at the look of shame on her face. She had tried to clean it up but every move just made more of a mess. Her daddy picked her up and took her to the bath and cleaned her and then wrapped her in a fluffy towel and held her close, quieting her and assuring her he loved her and that he would clean up the mess. “I love you honey, it’s all right,” he said to her over and over as he rocked her in his arms.
The more we make happiness our goal in life, the more of a mess we are going to make of it. God never promised our lives would be happy but he did promise joy, and a peaceful heart and purpose in life regardless of what circumstances come. Had Jesus’ goal been happiness he never would have died for us. But his goal was to do the will of the Father and so he laid down his life. Counter intuitively, much of what we were hoping happiness would bring us we find when we give up our desperate grasping for happiness and instead make Jesus our focus and primary desire.
I’ve had enough. For much of my life when I have talked to people about what Jesus has done for them I have unnecessarily felt like I need to convince them a) that they need a savior and b) how much better life is as a Jesus follower. It has only been relatively recently that I have begun to set aside my “sales pitch” and to simply and boldly present Jesus, including the cost. Jesus lived and died to offer you the inexpressible joy and pleasure that comes from being friends with God, now and forever. But it will cost you everything; it means that all that you are, all that you have, your dreams and ambitions, your leisure, your rights are all surrendered to God’s disposal for the privilege of knowing him.
Let me give you an example of one thing it will cost you.
I was working at a Bible Camp/retreat center north of Edmonton in charge of the horse program. In the off-season the camp was rented to various groups and I would help in food service. That’s just a fancy way of saying I did a lot of dishes. This was a two person job. One guy would rinse the dishes and load them onto racks that would be moved on a conveyer system through the various stages of washing till they came out the other end where the second person unloaded and set them out to dry.
Our janitor worked with me on this. He didn’t do it right and since I’ve never liked doing dishes in the first place it drove me nuts having to work with him. He always took the front end job and he was slow getting things rinsed and then didn’t load the racks full, meaning we had to run many more racks than necessary. And every rack extended the time it took to get the job done.
So I made a point of getting in first and then pushing racks through as fast I could. I’d let him have his turn on the front end but made a point of making it painfully obvious that I had to wait for him to get racks through. My rationale was that I was better, had been doing it longer, and had seniority at the camp. He should follow my lead. I was well within my rights.
But it was gently pointed out to me by our executive director that I needed to learn to give up my rights and serve our janitor as Jesus had done for me. Philippians 2:3-4 says “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. “(MSG)
Do you know what it feels like to be desperate?
I was eleven or twelve and we were camping at Fish Lake, West of Nordegg. We kids discovered that the trail South out the back of our campsite led to a small, but much more fun lake. We had built a raft out of deadfall and were having a hoot. I don’t remember which of us came up with the idea that we could move the raft better if one of us got in the water with flippers on, but I was dispatched to run back to the campsite and retrieve them.
When I was dropped off on shore I decided it wasn’t worth the effort to put my shoes on for the few hundred yards to the campsite and back so I slipped my feet into my younger brother’s rubber boots which were two sizes too small and which my feet didn’t go all the way into. I ran, as best I could in the too small rubber boots and my red speedos (don’t laugh, all the kids were wearing them back then), back to our campsite and rushed in, breathlessly explaining to mom our plan as I grabbed the flippers and raced back down the trail.
In my hurry I missed the fork in the trail that stayed true and instead followed the one that gradually drifted away till I was headed much more west than south. When I hadn’t reached the lake in what I sensed should have been enough distance, my mind refused to believe it. I kept convincing myself that I recognized this tree or that bend in the trail and that any second I’d see the blue of the lake through the trees trying at the same time to ignore the growing hole in my gut that fear creates.
I finally saw blue but my relief turned to desperation when I broke into the clearing and realized I had come across nothing more than a large slough. I finally admitted to myself that I was lost. I even climbed a tree hoping to catch a glimpse of the lake I was trying to find, but all I saw was more trees. I think that was when I first yelled for help as loud as I could, “DAAAD!!”
Romans 8:15 encourages us to cry out to God. I don’t think most of us “cry” out to God. The original word is an onomatopoeic word imitating the loud cry of a raven. It means to scream, to loudly call out. If you haven’t ever cried out to God, in fact if you aren’t crying out to him daily, then you’re still on the trail convincing yourself you’ve got it under control and just around the next bend it will all come together.
When we get desperate we’ll quit relying on our own strength, cry out to God and allow his strength to work in us and then through us.
ps. – I’m assuming you’ve figured out I was eventually found.
Have you ever struggled with God? I don’t mean struggle against God, though I’m sure some have. I’m speaking more of struggling together with God to grasp what he is up to. Maybe it’s a hard teaching from the Bible you are struggling to understand. Maybe it’s an inexplicably unanswered prayer. Maybe a point of obedience that makes no sense to you. We don’t like struggle, but struggling with God through issues is actually a positive thing. If you struggle against God you’ll lose, but if you struggle with him there are tremendous blessings to be gained.
How does that work? On a basic level it can be compared to the relationship I had with my old mare. When she first came into my life she was already into her prime but hadn’t had much finishing put on her. Apparently a good part of her life to that point had been up in the bush of Northern Alberta around Conklin running with the herd belonging to folks from that community. The horses essentially ran free and when someone wanted to ride they would just ask around if anyone had seen where the herd was at.
When I began
riding her you could get her to go, you could steer her if you pulled her head in the desired direction, and if you had enough space you could eventually get her to stop. She also had this rearing thing she’d do if she didn’t like what you asked her to do. But I liked the look of her eye and decided she’d be my horse. I started from scratch with her as though she’d never been ridden, and together we struggled for many hours.
But in that struggle we came to know each other, and she came to trust me. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do and wasn’t anywhere she wouldn’t go. She was the one I put my 2 year old son on to learn to ride, and the one I used to drag home the Christmas tree out of the bush, closing the barbed wire gate behind us from her back. Working together at a guest ranch we climbed up and down cliffs, crossed rivers, and led trail rides for Japanese tourists who spoke no English. With the crack of a whip we’d race along side the horse herd, gathering them for the day’s trail rides, and later I’d fire a pistol off her while we “held up” a bus of tourists. Over the years we’ve pushed cows through deep bush, open prairie and just about everything in between. We cut out calves, and then roped and dragged them to the branding irons. We even rode in the Calgary Stampede Parade.
None of this would have happened without going through a struggle together. Similarly, it’s in the struggles we go through with God that we really come to trust him; that we learn to know him. So embrace the struggle.
Heading out in the evening for an overnight ride.This was my Grandpa’s last ride. (We switched hats) He was a pastor too but had worked on a ranch in his youth.One of my favorite pictures, my boys and my mare.
I haven’t had a very good track record of keeping dogs for very long. My first puppy lasted all of a week. My next dog lasted two years before coyotes got him. My dogs have been stolen, kicked by a horse, and hit by a vehicle. Currently there is one that has survived about fourteen years but I think that’s mostly because when we moved here we had to give him to friends because our yard isn’t fenced.
The best dog I had was a border collie/blue heeler cross named Luke, who had one blue eye and one brown eye. He was so easy to train that much of it almost seemed instinctive. From the first time I whistled for him if he could hear me he came running no matter what had his attention at that point. I never had to teach him not to get into the garbage; in fact I never even had to clean up after him at all. Even if we were in the bush he always went off the trail to do his business.
I had gotten him as two month old puppy and very quickly a bond developed between us, so much so that he literally became depressed when I was gone on holidays. I left him with my brother for two weeks and he was convinced Luke was seriously sick, but he was his normal self when I got home. Sadly this was the dog I’m pretty sure the coyotes got.
Sadder yet, though, is that most people probably identify more with the bond between me and Luke than with the bond God longs to have with us. I have said before that God longs to be longed for. The relationship I had with my dog is a pale illustration of a far deeper, profound, and satisfying relationship we can have with God.
The challenge is how to develop that relationship; how to “practice the presence of Christ.” Here’s a suggestion someone gave that helped me. Find something in your routine that you do, or hear, or see a number of times during the day. Simple things like a favorite color, the phone ringing, school bell, or starting a new task, maybe even your dog barking. It can be anything, but let it remind you of Jesus’ presence with you. Breathe a quick prayer at these times. Something simple; “Thank-you Lord,” “Be merciful to me a sinner,” “Fill me with your love.” You will be amazed at where that simple practice may lead you.
Valentine ’s Day is coming up. I’m not typically one to make a big deal over it, but I’ve come to at least see it as a good reminder not to get lazy or complacent in romancing my wife. It’s important that I communicate to her how much she is treasured, how beautiful she is to me; how desired she is. For me saying ”I love you” is easy and natural and is a daily occurrence. But, without minimizing the value of that, finding other unique ways of communicating the same thing is valuable for both of us.
We like being desired. In fact it is such a powerful thing that advertisers tap into this longing and make billions trying to convince us that we will be desirable if we buy their product. Of course this is a lie and only leaves us hollow and empty. But in a committed marriage relationship it is wonderful and fulfilling to have our spouse make an effort to woo us and pursue and entice us proving that we are desired.
The Song of Solomon is an amazing account of what a healthy, Godly, Biblical marriage relationship is like. It is beautiful, and passionate, and intimate and full of expressions of desire for each other. Throughout both husband and wife try to allure and entice the other but also take pleasure in being pursued and persuaded to love.
For centuries it has been understood that the Song of Solomon is also a picture of God’s relationship with his people. Paul makes a similar connection in Ephesians speaking of Jesus as the groom and we as his bride. What I think we easily miss is that as much we value and are pleased that Jesus has pursued and wooed us he too derives pleasure from us reciprocating much as husband is pleased by the affections of his wife.
Many of us are uncomfortable thinking of, let alone speaking of Holy God in this way but that’s because we don’t fully grasp the profound nature of the relationship God literally desires with us. It is an awe inspiring thing to realize that I can bring pleasure to God; that God, though undeniably self-sufficient, desires to be desired. Let me suggest that during these next few days when there are so many reminders of “love” around that you allow those to direct your thoughts and desires to the one who is Love.