February 19

“And every branch that beareth fruit he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” John 15:2

A child of God was dazed by the variety of afflictions which seemed to make her their target. Walking past a vineyard in the rich autumnal glow she noticed the untrimmed appearance and the luxuriant wealth of leaves on the vines, that the ground was given over to a tangle of weeds and grass, and that the whole place looked utterly uncared for; and as she pondered, the Heavenly Gardener whispered so precious a message that she would fain pass it on:

“My dear child, are you wondering at the sequence of trials in your life? Behold that vineyard and learn of it. The gardener ceases to prune, to trim, to harrow, or to pluck the ripe fruit only when he expects nothing more from the vine during that season. It is left to itself, because the season of fruit is past and further effort for the present would yield no profit. Comparative uselessness is the condition of freedom from suffering. Do you then wish me to cease pruning your life? Shall I leave you alone?” And the comforted heart cried, “No!” (Streams in the Desert)

A grandson announced that he was running away from home; he was done with domestic rules and responsibilities and was heading out for greener pastures. The incident that launched his tirade and subsequent decision to bolt was his father requiring him to dismantle the dome tent that he and his cousin had erected on Sunday afternoon in our backyard. I like camping as much as the next guy, but a tent is not our idea of yard art; so, I called and requested the construction foreman to return as demolition expert. That initiated a meltdown; our own Chernobyl, right next door.

Our daughter called to enlist her mother’s help. I was oblivious to the developing crisis until I saw my wife returning home down the caliche road with grandson at hand and a garbage bag in tow. I quickly learned that she had entered his bedroom and told him to place essentials in the plastic bag, excluding toys—there would be no children’s games where he was going. She faced me while rolling her eyes in his direction, and recounted his decision to leave home. I suffered a flashback to my own prodigal experience that lasted one city block, then responded by saying in my sternest tone that I would take him downtown and drop him off at ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ the homeless shelter operated by a local mission organization. My wife was worried that our hard headed grandson would make good on his threat, and that so would I. What she didn’t know was that I was already thinking through Plan B. Fortunately for all of us, our six-year-old rebel had a change of heart. Through crocodile tears he sputtered that he didn’t want to go after all; a homeless shelter wasn’t what he had in mind when conjuring up images of striking off on his own and leaving rules behind. Call it homesickness or sudden insight, but the shock of consequence made everything about home look much better in relief. The thought of a world without love is scary indeed.

Most of us leave home and spend the rest of our lives trying to find our way back. We may not physically abandon all that is familiar, but an urge arises within each of us that insists ours is the right way; we convince ourselves we can make it better on our own. That “bent” we call independence; the Holy Bible calls it sin. In the end, the best that can happen within each of us is a lingering homesickness that finally convinces us to return home. Father really does know best, and fortunately for each of us, grace burns all bridges and enables us to see that the Father’s house is where we belong all along.

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February 18

“Have faith that whatever you ask for in prayer is already granted you, and you will find that it will be.” Mark 11:24

It is so human to want sight when we step out on the promises of God, but our Savior said to Thomas, and to the long roll of doubters who have ever since followed him: “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” (Streams in the Desert)

Faith is not financial transaction; it is relationship. Those who promote belief as the necessary portal for a desired dividend miss the point altogether. God Almighty is not at our disposal to manipulate according to whims and pleasure. The so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ lowers faith to the level of Aladdin’s lamp; rub God the right way and all your dreams will materialize. The Scriptures enjoin faith because it takes us to the end of ourselves and ushers us into the heart of God. As your understanding depends, your focus shifts upward. You no longer try to convince God to act; you believe He will because you know He abounds in love and mercy toward His children. Know the Father and you act more like a son or daughter instead of a tenant or client.

If faith is relationship, prayer is much more alignment than activity. I believe best when my heart aligns with God himself and the moment His interests begin to dictate my own. In this way, prayer consists largely of listening, granting space and thought to what the Father wants. Along the way faith becomes life, and every thought translates into divine dialogue.

February 17

“The land which I do give them, even the children of Israel.” Joshua 1:2

God here speaks in the immediate present. It is not something He is going to do, but something He does do, this moment. So faith ever speaks. So God ever gives. So He is meeting you today, in the present moment. This is the test of faith. So long as you are waiting for a thing, hoping for it, looking for it, you are not believing. It may be hope, it may be earnest desire, but it is not faith; for “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The command in regard to believing prayer is the present tense. “When ye pray, believe that ye receive the things that ye desire, and ye shall have them.” Have we come to that moment? Have we met God in His everlasting NOW? (Streams in the Desert)

My mentors lived and ministered in the everlasting “now.” My childhood pastor, T. H. Harding, introduced me to the concept of ‘practicing the presence’ of God—living in the constant conscious awareness of God’s presence. In college, Dr. Donald Potts taught by example the necessity of being qualified and available to serve as Christ in the hour of decision. Dr. Al Fasol told me in seminary that the most valuable lesson I will ever learn in ministry is to “go with what you’ve got.” He emphasized the importance of perpetual preparation because one cannot call a recess when life demands a verdict. In Kenya, Bob Allen and Vance Kirkpatrick modeled incarnation, translating Christ in the moment according to immediate context.

You and I are of little use to the Kingdom if we press pause when the heat is on. Whether we like it or not, we will always “go with what we’ve got.” There is no alternative. The secret to adding value in any given moment is our depth of character developed in the shadows beforehand. I am either preparing or procrastinating; the former lends weight to the opportunity at hand, while the latter disqualifies me from relevance. The world will not wait for us to compose ourselves. Are you ready and disposed to serve meaningfully in the everlasting NOW?

February 16

“Though I have afflicted thee, I will afflict thee no more.” Nahum 1:12

The great Husbandman is not always threshing. Trial is only for a season. The showers soon pass. Weeping may tarry only for the few hours of the short summer night; it must be gone at day break. Our light affliction is but for a moment. Trial is for a purpose, “If needs be.” The very fact of trial proves that there is something in us very precious to our Lord; else He would not spend so much pains and time on us. Christ would not test us if He did not see the precious ore of faith mingled in the rocky matrix of our nature; and it is to bring this out into purity and beauty that He forces us through the fiery ordeal.

Be patient, O sufferer!  The result will more than compensate for all our trials, when we see how they wrought out the far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. To have one word of God’s commendation; to be honored before the holy angels; to be glorified in Christ, so as to be better able to flash His glory on Himself—ah! that will more than repay for all. (Streams in the Desert)

Your story and mine is unapologetically about leaving home and finding it again. Home always was and always will be defined by the ones who know you deeply and value you despite the truth they discover about you. “I live in my own little world. But it’s OK, they know me here” (Lauren Myracle). Home for me as a boy growing up in Port Arthur was Mother. I do not say that to take anything away from Dad, but Momma held time and space together for our family with Herculean strength. She still does even though she has been gone from us more than five years. Home was wherever Mom was, especially when she was on duty in the church library or at the Bible Book Shoppe where she worked to help make ends meet. I relate to what Elizabeth Kostova writes: “It was good to walk into a library again; it smelled like home.” I took home for granted as a child, but went in search of it again as a young man when I went away to college. Unfortunately, I lost my way choosing the wrong road back. I eventually came to my senses in a distant land, only to realize that home was somewhere I didn’t belong. “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home” (William Faulkner).

Credit divine intervention and a good woman with helping me find home again. I cling to it now like a drowning man clutching driftwood to preserve his head above water. Whoever opined familiarity as contemptible didn’t know beans from parched coffee about what it means to return home. Whether returning home from a business trip, vacation, or long endured emotional void—the result is the same: in a word, contentment; in two words, safe place. “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned” (Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes). Home cushions every blow and points beyond the pain to eternal wholeness.

The good news for each of us is that God did the unthinkable so we may return home and stay put. “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition” (James Baldwin). Blessed is the individual who finds unconditional love in the Father who declares us home with every embrace. Believe it or not, one day we will see that the suffering of this life helped us find our way home. The empty tomb declares with resounding voice, “You can go home again.”

February 15

“Fret not thyself.” Psalm 37:1

Do not get into a perilous heat about things. If ever heat were justified, it was surely justified in the circumstances outlined in the Psalm. Evil-doers were moving about clothed in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day. “Workers of iniquity” were climbing into the supreme places of power, and were tyrannizing their less fortunate brethren. Sinful men and women were stalking through the land in the pride of life and basking in the light and comfort of great prosperity, and good men were becoming heated and fretful.

“Fret not thyself.” Do not get unduly heated! Keep cool! Even in a good cause, fretfulness is not a wise help-meet. Fretting only heats the bearings; it does not generate the steam. It is no help to a train for the axles to get hot; their heat is only a hindrance. When the axles get heated, it is because of unnecessary friction; dry surfaces are grinding together, which ought to be kept in smooth co-operation by a delicate cushion of oil. . . . Friction begets heat; and with the heat, most dangerous conditions are created. (Streams in the Desert)

The lowest point in my life centered on the actions of another individual and my reaction to them. My inability to manage the other’s behavior and resulting pervasive helplessness conspired to paralyze and erased any latent hope to rise above until a wise old sage jerked me to attention. He told me in no uncertain terms that we cannot control the actions of anyone but ourselves. His stern advise was to reject paralysis of worrying about what is out of my control, and instead focus my energy and attention on what can change, namely myself. Although I wasn’t exactly keen on hearing it at the time, his stern counsel arrested my downward spiral and corrected course, tacking and jibing toward hope and a future.

Commit what you cannot change to Sovereign God, then endeavor rigorously to bring yourself into step with the Spirit. Each time you are tempted to fret, admit it to the Father, then immediately turn your attention back to something within your power to improve. Worry is destructive and futile; trust is liberating.

February 14

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Philippians 4:4

It is a good thing to “rejoice in the Lord.” Perhaps you have tried it but seemed to fail at first. Don’t give it a second thought, and forge ahead. Even when you cannot feel any joy, there is no spring in your step, nor any comfort or encouragement in your life, continue to rejoice and “consider it pure joy” (James 1:2). Whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2), regard it as joy, delight in it, and God will reward your faith. Do you believe that your heavenly Father will let you carry the banner of His victory and joy to the very front of the battle, only to calmly withdraw to see you captured or beaten back by the enemy? NEVER! His Holy Spirit will sustain you in your bold advance and fill your heart with gladness and praise. You will find that your heart is exhilarated and refreshed by the fullness within. (Streams in the Desert)

Valentine’s Day is not a holiday to observe, but a sequence to savor. It is one moment to push pause among other quite ordinary moments and really see the other, and in the seeing learn something that changes yourself. . . .

I met the best part of my life at a predetermined place and time. We planned to meet outside the Navarro County courthouse in Corsicana, having mutually agreed to eating lunch together at a neutral site so that either or both of us could make a graceful exit should the experience prove uncomfortable or unbearable. I arrived first, and sat in my pickup nervously waiting for her to pull up. When she did, even from a distance I could see that she was attractive, and her arrival in a sporty Acura RSX made me feel all the more awkward and out of place. I sat frozen to the stained bench seat of my old Ford while she waited for me to exit my truck and walk over to greet her. After what seemed an eternity to us both, I garnered enough courage to make my way to her open window. We exchanged greetings and I invited her to join me for lunch a few blocks away at Roy’s Cafe on Beaton Street. The date was off to a sluggish start, largely because I proved adept at all the wrong things. She chose healthy salad-something while I doused my chicken fried steak in ketchup, but for reasons known only to her she agreed to extend our date by walking together down Beaton and stepping into antique shops. To my surprise and utter delight, we kept finding reasons to prolong the experience, extending the date a full eight hours. What was even more unexpected was her willingness to see me again. We married six months later. The attraction is stronger now than ever because it has deepened into appreciation. I recognize the value of my wife and can honestly say that I see God’s grace in her eyes every morning. . . . This is not love defined by attraction; it is far more meaningful than that. It is appreciation, satisfaction, adoration, respect, friendship, astonishment and passion enough for a lifetime. Thank God I got out of the truck and said “hello.”

February 13

“The hill country shall be thine.” Joshua 17:18 RSV

There is always room higher up. When the valleys are full of Canaanites, whose iron chariots withstand your progress, get up into the hills, occupy the upper spaces. If you can no longer work for God, pray for those who can. If you cannot move earth by your speech, you may move Heaven. If the development of life on the lower slopes is impossible, through limitations of service, the necessity of maintaining others, and such-like restrictions, let it break out toward the unseen, the eternal, the Divine.

Faith can fell forests. Even if the tribes had realized what treasures lay above them, they would hardly have dared to suppose it possible to rid the hills of their dense forest-growth. But as God indicated their task, He reminded them that they had power enough. The visions of things that seem impossible are presented to us, like these forest-covered steeps, not to mock us, but to incite us to spiritual exploits which would be impossible unless God had stored within us the great strength of His own indwelling. Difficulty is sent to reveal to us what God can do in answer to the faith that prays and works. Are you straitened in the valleys? Get away to the hills, live there; get honey out of the rock, and wealth out of the terraced slopes now hidden by forest. (Streams in the Desert)

Make no mistake about it, giants are real. There is no sense pretending that they are but figments of our imagination. Challenges assert themselves daily, and forces beyond our control are at work. I frequently hear believers declare that the absence of struggle and complication is indication of God’s will in any given situation, and that when everything goes our way we may move forward confident God is affirming our decision. What if I strongly sense divine compulsion to move ahead but encounter giants standing in my way? What then? Did I misunderstand the Father, or is there more than meets the eye afoot?

I spoke to a group of graduate students and at the outset of my lecture one of them interrupted and said he needed to leave class to place a call to his mother. He returned thirty minutes later and apologized for disrupting class. When I asked how we might pray, he explained that his father committed suicide several months previous and that his mother is currently fighting depression and the urge to end it all herself. The student’s call was to convince her of God’s love and his own. This is a young man who plans to marry in a few months, shortly thereafter to complete a graduate degree, and then the two of them will move to Japan for missionary service. If one might expect smooth sailing for any couple, it would be this one; yet, life has been hard and becoming increasingly so. Beware the trap of equating “everything falling into place” with God’s favor. Many of Christianity’s sturdiest heroes of the faith endured immense suffering and died without ever knowing victory. A quick review of Hebrews 11, particularly verses 32-39 may prove beneficial at this point. Ease is not the clearest vindication of following God’s will, faith is.