Worse than Ebola

November 19, 2014 — 2 Comments

These past months, the news has been filled with tragic stories about Ebola and how the deadly virus has moved rapidly through families and communities. We’ve seen how constant vigilance and sometimes drastic measures are required to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Health workers who treat Ebola victims wear ten items of personal protective gear, including inner and outer gloves. They need to follow 14 steps when putting on the gear, and 24 steps when taking it off which they do under the watchful eye of a trained observer.

Step 16:
“Remove the N95 respirator by tilting the head slightly forward, grasping first the bottom tie or elastic strap, then the top tie or elastic strap, and remove without touching the front of the N95 respirator. Discard N95 respirator.” US Center for Disease Control

I imagine brave health workers pay very close attention to these steps. They know that one little slip can result in getting the disease.

God’s drastic measures
In the past when I’ve read Old Testament instructions for dealing with unclean things, they have seemed excessive to my modern sensibilities. But as I’ve learned more about a virus like Ebola, I’ve come to a better appreciation of God’s approach.

I recently read Numbers 19, where God tells the Israelites how to make water of cleansing to purify people who have touched dead bodies. Like the instructions for using Ebola-resistant protective gear, His commands are specific and hard to summarize. Let’s just say they involve blood, burning, and a lot of washing.

And if a person fails to comply? “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone and fails to purify himself defiles the Lord’s tabernacle. That person must be cut off from Israel.” Numbers 19:13

When you see how contagious a disease like Ebola is, God’s method of purification suddenly makes a lot more sense. His requirements, whether for physical cleanliness or spiritual holiness, have one goal in mind. He wants to save life. He wants to protect us from death.

Battling spiritual Ebola
And the spiritual virus which infects our world is far more potent and lethal than physical Ebola. Created by Adam and Eve’s disobedience, sin has spread fast and furious through communities in every age, fueling a spiritual pandemic that thrives from one generation to another.

The sin virus sometimes retreats through moral living. There have been times and places in the world where the deadly effects of the spiritual disease have been reduced. But the virus always comes back, bringing hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy [Galatians 5:19-21].

Deadly serious
In the first months of the current Ebola outbreak, people didn’t always recognize the seriousness of the disease or how deadly it was. We can do the same with sin. We can pretend this spiritual pandemic is a myth, or that we are immune from its effects.

We can think the warnings we hear about it aren’t really true, that they’re just scare tactics. Or that we’re too enlightened to catch it. Or that it’s a problem for someone else, but we’re safe because we’re extra careful. Or that we should be rewarded for decades of good behavior. But sin remains rampant, toxic, and 100% fatal.

The glorious cure
Every person had been infected and there is only one permanent cure. Just like the blood of Ebola survivors is used to save new victims, the blood of Jesus is the ultimate vaccine for the sin virus. In the most drastic measure of all, God had His son die to save us. It was the only way.

Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, His blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people–free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeed. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free!” {Ephesians 1:7-8, The Message]

What great news! There’s a cure for all the sin-sick. The scourge of the earth has been beaten back. “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” [I Corinthians 14:54] No one has to stay in quarantine. God welcomes each of us back to take our place in His holy household. We’re free forever. Hallelujah!

Let all that I am praise the Lord;
      may I never forget the good things He does for me.
He forgives all my sins
      and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death
      and crowns me with love and tender mercies.”
Psalm 103:2-4

“Last year alone, ninety three members of my congregation were killed. The threat is particularly great for those who convert to Christianity. I baptized thirteen adults secretly last year. Eleven of them were dead within a week.”
Canon Andrew White serving in Baghdad, Iraq


If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. John 15:18-19


“The Body of Christ is so much more than a local church that meets on Sundays –it is a global body built up of all those who call Him Lord and Saviour. We are called to be one, and it is only together that we make sense and that we function effectively. This, however,
is easier said than done. Even when we sincerely want to be there for our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world, the manner in which we help and the kind of help we should offer requires careful reflection.” ” Incontext Ministries


We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
II Corinthians 4:8-10

Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. Luke 12:1-3

Imagine you live in a small town, and you’re part of a small group from your church. One day you have a mini-retreat in someone’s home. A friend of a friend is in the area and they’ve agreed to come and speak. It’s a happy gathering. You start in the morning with some singing, maybe a little prayer. Then you study a passage from the Bible. You break for lunch and you’re just about to regroup for the afternoon session when 60 police show up at the door. There are several official vehicles parked in front of your house.

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What will the neighbors think?

The police enter, take cell phones and laptops and cameras and notebooks and Bibles. They ask lots of questions. They march all of you out into the waiting police vans, in full view of everyone on the street who is peering out the window or standing in their doorway.

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What will the neighbors say?

The police drive you off to the local station. More people see you as you are led out of the police van and into the station. There is a man who has been caught stealing sitting on the floor. He wonders what you’ve done. The police make you wait and wait. They ask you questions. They make you wait some more. It gets late. Midnight. There are some toddlers in your group. You can’t go out to get food and no one is offering you any. You have no idea what the police will do with you. There is no yellow pages with a list of lawyers you can call. No one reads you your rights.

They ask you more questions. “Are you a Christian?” “Who do you know?” “Will you sign this piece of paper acknowledging that you are a Christian?” “Will you sign this piece of paper saying you’re not?”

At 5 AM, the police release you. They don’t drive you home. The van service was only one-way.

As soon as the corner grocery store opens, you go to buy some food. Other people are leaving to go to work and when they notice you entering the store, they stare at you.
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What will the neighbors do now?

The bolder ones [there's always at least one in every neighborhood] asks you what happened.
What do you tell them?
Will they be surprised? “You’re a Christian?”
Will they think to themselves, “Yes, that makes sense. I knew there was something strange about her.”
Will they think, “Hmmm, is that why he is so caring?”

Some may be embarrassed for you and ignore you.
Others may shun you, and stop doing business with you.
One–an old friend–may spit on the ground as you pass.

This story is true. It–and myriad variations of it–has happened countless times in the last twenty years, in dozens of countries around the world. It continues to be true today. Search on Google for “Christians arrested in 2013″ and the results are sobering.

It’s not a single region in the world. It’s not believers who were being overly zealous. It’s people like you and me–only when was the last time the police called you in for questioning? Thankfully most of us are able to practice our faith in peace. But that also makes it easy to forget that in many countries following Jesus is dangerous.

This coming Sunday has been designated as the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, a time to unite in prayer “for the persecuted church in the spirit of oneness.”

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Hebrews 13:3

It’s a challenge to know how we can best respond to our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted. But praying remains a vital and unrestricted activity for all of us. You’ll find more stories, resources, and encouragement here. “Don’t stand in silence.”

One more question:
If your house was bugged, and your words were broadcast for everyone to hear, what would the neighbors think?

[edited from the archives]

Here are three songs that have encouraged me as I journey on:

Never Once
“Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful”
Matt Redman


Take Heart
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33


It is Well with my Soul
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Horatio Spafford

As someone who lives overseas, flying is a regular part of my life. Every so often I get an airplane, a nice big safe one, and get ready for another flight.
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I buckle my seat belt, look around for the nearest emergency exit, and settle back. The plane takes off and reaches a comfortable cruising altitude as it flies over mountain ranges and an ocean or two. Occasionally the pilot will give an update or if I’m curious about our progress, I can check the flight path.


Usually when the plane begins its final descent, I’m in the middle of watching a movie or reading a book. I don’t even notice my gradual return to earth.

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A few months ago, a friend told me about a different kind of flight she once took. She boarded a small plane and flew into a war zone to do humanitarian work. As the plane neared their destination, there was no gradual descent. Instead, to keep out of the range of ground missiles, the plane continued at its cruising altitude until it was almost above the airport. Then it went into an intentional spiral [I would call it a death spiral], making tight circles like a corkscrew as it came down for the landing.

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“During the spiral the crew keeps an eye out for other air traffic, and for anything coming at them from the ground. After several turns, the pilot pulls out of the rotation with careful timing, straightens out, and lands. The whole thing takes seven to 10 minutes, roughly the same as a regular approach, but it all takes place directly overhead, instead of beginning 20 miles from the runway.”

Allan T. Duffin

Listening to my friend’s story, I imagined the plane with its nose pointed down at the ground to avoid being shot down by enemy fire. I could picture me clutching the armrests, my stomach lurching and my mind scrambling as I wondered if the pilot was going to be able to straighten out the plane before it landed splat on the ground. Then I made a ‘note to self’: never volunteer for humanitarian work in a war zone.

I have zero desire to ever experience a death spiral like that. That’s also true in my journey through life. I like to keep things even-keeled. I want to cruise above the turbulence and avoid the storms. I prefer to stay out of the way of enemy fire. But sometimes my flight path heads straight into danger and suddenly I’m spinning around and around.

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An illness, a job loss, the death of a close friend, a betrayal, experiences like these can make us feel like our life is doing a death spiral as it plummets to earth. We become anxious and wonder if our pilot is going to be able to pull us out of the spiral before we crash.

That happened a few times to me this past year. I went from a comfortable cruising altitude into what felt like an out-of-control tail spin. It was dizzying and disorienting. At times I felt paralyzed by fear, and other times I wanted to charge into the cockpit and take control of the plane. It was hard to trust God to bring me through the storm and steer me safely home.

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I could identify with the disciples on the boat as they shouted at Jesus to wake him up. “Don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” [Mark 4:38]

After Jesus took care of the storm, He responded to the disciples’ question with one of His own:
Why can’t you trust Me?” [Luke 8:25, The Message]

A pilot’s paraphrase might be: “Don’t worry folks. It may get a little rough out there, but I’ve flown through this kind of turbulence before. And maybe there are guns firing at us, but I know what it’s like to be shot at. Hang on tight and don’t be afraid. I’m with you and I will bring you safely home.”

I need to continually remind myself of this truth because the death spirals I experiences this year won’t be my last ones. Life on this earth is a war zone.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

I can have a peace that is beyond all understanding, even in the midst of another death spiral. Jesus, the master of the wind and waves, the conqueror of our worst enemy, is my pilot. I am not alone. And I can trust Him.

Commit your future to the Lord! Trust in Him and He will act on your behalf
Wait patiently for the Lord! Wait confidently for Him.
Psalm 37:5, 7

What has your flight path been like recently?

How do you need to trust God?

Speaking of listening

October 8, 2014 — 1 Comment

“To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations.  True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known.   They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept.

“Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond.  Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings.  The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves.  Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality…”
Henri Nouwen


“The beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer


“Lord, teach me to listen. The times are noisy and my ears are weary with the thousand raucous sounds which continuously assault them. Give me the spirit of the boy Samuel when he said to You, ‘Speak, for Your servant is listening.’

“Let me hear You speaking in my heart. Let me get used to the sound of Your voice, that its tones may be familiar when the sounds of earth die away and the only sound will be the music of You speaking.”
A. W. Tozer

Here is a wonderful description of how God pays attention to us:

“I never have to snap my fingers to get Your attention.
I never have to reel You back into focus.
I never catch You looking away, as though You’re bored with me.
I never have to repeat myself several times to make sure You heard what I really said.

You never interrupt me.
You never spin what I’m saying.
You never talk over me when I’m trying to tell You something.
There’s no one who listens as attentively, respectively, and compassionately as You.

I don’t need healing for deafness but grace for listening— first and foremost to You, Jesus.
You’re always speaking, through the Scriptures, and You speak only words of life.
What a foolish person I am not to hang on to every syllable you utter.”
Scotty Smith

As I read this I’m struck by the contrast between how God listens to me and how I often listen to Him–and to other people too. May I always have ears to hear.

The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.

Dallas Willard


Father, you never demanded that Daniel get on his knees three times a day. You didn’t have to— it was his delight. No government decree could keep him from praying to you, loving you, seeking you, worshiping you. He was much more committed to your eternal glory than to his personal survival.

Scotty Smith

To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.

Theophan the Recluse


God is never impressed with earnestness.

Oswald Chambers


Rejoice always,
pray continually,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I Thessalonians 5:16-18

In the city where I live, you can hear the call to prayer broadcast from loudspeakers at mosques all across the city [and they aren't called loudspeakers for nothing.] The first prayer time is in the pre-dawn hours, the last prayer time is around 10 PM.

During the daylight hours, you can often see people [actually men, to be gender-specific] who stop their work, get out a prayer mat, bow, and recite their prescribed prayers. By doing this five times a day, they are fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam.

But set prayer times have been around much longer than Islam. In the early church, Christians developed daily prayer times based on the bell that was rung in the Roman forum every three hours. Starting at 6 AM and going until 6 PM, the bell marked the progress of the day’s work. Eventually two more prayer times were added, for a total of seven, and monasteries were started to take on this systematic work of prayer from early morning matins to late night compline.

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I confess this kind of continual, regular prayer has never appealed to me.
My view has tended to be, “I would never want to be forced to pray at a specific time. It would be a bother to stop what I’m doing. It would distract me from my work.”

And then one day as I willingly, even eagerly, interrupted what I was working on to check Facebook, I realized I don’t mind switching mental gears in the middle of my day. Although I’ve never tracked how often I slide my mouse over and make a tiny click, I suspect there are days when it’s well over seven times.

a lean machine ready to tear up the internet

a lean machine ready to tear up the internet

Suddenly I am checking email, my rss blog feed, the online news, Facebook [thankfully I gave up Twitter], or googling some stray thought that has entered into my brain space without getting permission from the air traffic control.

Ten, fifteen, thirty minutes later, long after the man praying on the street corner has returned to work, I am still lost in the wonderland known as the world wide web [created, I imagine, by a giant, time-sucking spider.]

So the question I need to ask is not, “Will I stop in the middle of the day and turn my attention to something else?” Rather it’s, “When I stop, what I will turn my attention to?” Will I answer the siren call of the internet, or will I turn my eyes on Jesus and praise my Creator?

Even still, God doesn’t demand an hourly tribute of praise from us. For all the commands He gave the Israelites to follow [613 to be exact], not one talks about how often they were supposed to pray. And Jesus didn’t specify this either. When the disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, He only replied, “When you pray…”

Of course, regular prayer is a good idea.

“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.” Psalm 119:164.

“Three times a day Daniel got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” Daniel 6:10

But that’s not what makes us holy.

Instead, I find it helpful to think about praying at regular intervals like taking a drink of water.

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As the deer pants for streams of water, so my souls pants for You, O God. Psalm 42:1

It’s a chance to enlarge my vision from the micro focus of the moment to God’s eternal perspective. When I lift my eyes away from the computer screen to pray, I reaffirm core truths such as:

*I’m not the center of the universe
*God is in charge
*He is ready to listen to my concerns
*Work cannot satisfy my deepest desires

Stopping to pray doesn’t come naturally for me; I’m not a perfect spiritual being. And there is much in the internet age that is waiting to distract me. My enemy prowls around like a hungry lion hoping to get me addicted to clicking on links–or just preoccupied enough with the cares of my life that I forget about God.

The other danger I face is that I’m capable of turning regular prayer into a task that needs to be checked off my to-do list. Before I know it, I’ve punched a little mental prayer clock, put in my minutes, and gone back to work, satisfied I’ve ‘done’ it.

Perhaps that’s why when Paul talks about praying on all occasions time in Ephesians 6, it’s in the context of the great spiritual battle that is being fought. One minute Paul is reminding us the fight is not against flesh and blood, and in the next he’s encouraging us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasion, always keep on praying for all the saints.”

Praying isn’t a duty or a distraction. It’s my soul’s lifeblood.

“Prayer is traffic between earth and heaven, ‘a commerce of love.’” Amy Carmichael

What about you?
Do you pray regularly during the day? What does it look like?

And how do you fight the temptations that might distract you from it?

“A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses…

The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame’…

‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
Luke 14:16-18, 21-23


No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Charles Wesley


“In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’” Zechariah 8:23


Jesus therefore said to them again, “Most assuredly, I tell you, I am the sheep’s door. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters in by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and go out, and will find pasture. John 10:7-9

Life in God’s VIP line

September 3, 2014 — 2 Comments

Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Heb 4:16-18 The Message

A new American ambassador arrived here a few months ago, and to help welcome him, the embassy planned an exceptional Fourth of July celebration. The guest list was so big that even we were on it, the first time in years.

Our invitation, personally delivered by a man in an impeccable business suit, included information about parking. Rather than hunt for a spot on the cramped city streets, we could park in an offsite lot. From there, shuttle buses would ferry us and the rest of the guests to the embassy.

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Then a friend, who was also a high-ranking official at another embassy, offered to pick us up on his way. We expected a ride in his SUV, but instead he showed up at our house driven by a chauffeur in a gleaming car with diplomatic license plates.

I confess I felt pretty special as we drove by the offsite parking area crowded with buses and cars and people waiting for the shuttle. The chauffeur took us right up to the security checkpoint at the embassy where I assumed we were going to be dropped off.

But when the driver told the security guard who was in the car [our important friend, not us of course], we were waved on. The security bar was lifted and we drove past the very, very, very long line of guests waiting for their turn at the check-in table. I remembered standing in a similar line years earlier, inching my way forward not much faster than an earthworm. Now I felt like royalty.

At the VIP entrance officials stood at attention to greet the dignitaries who merited special treatment. The driver opened my door and I stepped out. We didn’t have to push our way through a crowd. We simply gave our invitations and immediately we were escorted along a carpeted path.

Greeters for real royalty

Almost but not quite like these greeters for real royalty

When an American official who knows Jack saw us, he said in a friendly way but with some surprise, “What are you doing in the VIP line?” It was a question I asked myself as we were welcomed by a string of embassy officials.

I knew I didn’t belong. I had never presented diplomatic credentials to the country’s king. I had never attended foreign policy meetings. Our friend was well-accustomed to life in the VIP line, and he strolled along without any worries. I stayed right behind him and tried to act as confidently as I could. But as I shook hands, I had a nagging fear that I was making some horrendous faux pas and someone would realize I didn’t have the right to be there and take me out.

Then we entered the embassy garden and I joined the rest of the guests. I spent the rest of the evening basking in my Cinderella experience as waiters in black jackets served me hors d’oeuvres. I danced to the Navy band. I watched a wonderful fireworks display.

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And when it came time to leave, the chauffeur magically appeared at the VIP entrance and whisked us away, past the tired crowds waiting for the shuttle buses to take them back to their cars.

God’s VIP line
But the diplomatic fast track pales in comparison to the VIP line I can use any time I want. If I need to talk with the King of Kings, I can walk directly into His presence. I don’t even have to show an ID or go through security.

It wasn’t always like that. 2000 years ago, if you were a Gentile, you weren’t welcome in God’s temple. Your presence would desecrate the holy place and you could be put to death. Even God’s own chosen people were restricted in how close they could get to Him.

A large outer tent was set up…This was called ‘the Holy Place.’…Then a curtain was stretched, and behind it a smaller, inside tent set up. This was called ‘the Holy of Holies’… Only the high priest entered the smaller, inside tent, and then only once a year, offering a blood sacrifice for his own sins and the people’s accumulated sins. Hebrews 9:1-8 The Message

Now, because God sent Jesus, anyone can get a permanent VIP pass, Jew or Gentile. My past, littered with broken laws, unpaid penalties, and rebellion against the King, no longer keeps me out. By His death, Jesus erased all of this from the record books and gave me direct access to the Father.

I am free to go straight in to the Holy of Holies. I don’t have to offer a sacrifice. I don’t have to prove myself worthy. I am ushered into the presence of the almighty God where I can meet with Him face to face, sit at His feet and listen to Him, pour out my heart to Him.

So, friends, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into ‘the Holy Place.’ ..So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Hebrews 10:19, 21 The Message

Spectacular to ho-hum
You would think I would never forget the tremendous privilege I have. But at times I become complacent. I lose my awe–not so much my awe at who God is, but my awe of who I once was and who Jesus has made me to be.

I confess that I begin to feel extra-special. I start to look down at the people around me who don’t know there’s an invitation for them, or people who have tossed theirs in the trash.

I become proud that I was chosen to be part of God’s family. I criticize those outside the gate who are trying to work their way in, or those who are hoping they can slip a bribe and sneak in the back entrance–even though I’ve been known to try the same tactics. Perhaps worst of all, I judge people I don’t think are worthy enough to be in God’s VIP line.

Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life… none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God. I Corinthians 1:26-31 The Message

That’s what my VIP pass should motivate me to do: to go out into my neighborhood and blow God’s horn for the lost and lonely.

I want to put away feeling smug. Instead I want to be eager to tell others how I was given a fresh start. I want to let them know Jesus has an invitation with their name written in His precious blood-red ink. I want to share how this invitation enables them to use God’s VIP entrance. And that when they go in, they will find their Father waiting to welcome them home, just as He did with me.

May I never forget, “ I’m just a nobody tryin’ to tell everybody about Somebody who can save anybody.”

What about you?
Are you using your VIP pass with God?
And who do you want to deliver an invitation to?

“In the whole plant world there is not a tree to be found so specially suited to the image of man in his relation to God, as the vine. There is none of which the fruit and its juice are so full of spirit, so quickening and stimulating.

But there is also none of which the natural tendency is so entirely evil–none where the growth is so ready to run into wood that it becomes utterly worthless except for the fire.

Of all plants, not one needs the pruning knife so unsparingly and so unceasingly. None is so dependent on cultivation and training. But with this none yields a richer reward to the gardener.”
Andrew Murray in Abide in Christ


Parables of wise pruning [with thanks to various gardening websites]

Prune most of the growth
“Standing in front of a mass of tangled grape vine and wondering what to do with it can be a scary experience for the novice or even for the more experienced pruner. Don’t be afraid to cut. When you finish, about 90% of last year’s growth will be cut.”
Lesson: It’s best to trust the Master Pruner and give Him free rein.

Watch out for too many shoots
“In many areas with deep soils and high nitrogen content, grape vines are very vigorous and produce too many shoots. Even when vines are not too vigorous, some shoot thinning is usually needed to take out unproductive shoots with no fruit clusters, or those that are too closely spaced. This is called canopy management. The aim is to balance the productivity of the vine and the amount of leaf and shoot growth.”
Lesson: Since we generate more possibilities than we can do, it’s best when we let the Gardener decide which ones to keep.

Don’t crowd the growth
“Each grape shoot needs 14 to 16 well exposed leaves to properly ripen a grape cluster. If too many shoots are crowded together, the leaves do not get enough light for effective photosynthesis. It is important that all the leaves get good sun exposure, because shaded leaves only function at about 6% of their capacity, and may not be contributing at all to ripening the grape cluster.”
Lesson: Less can be more. God doesn’t stuff.

And watch out for suckers

This sucker has to go.

This sucker has to go.

“Suckers are like a new baby plant that has suddenly come into being connected to the relatively massive root system of its older parent: in short, it is young, vigorous, and has a lot of food. For this reason suckers are able to grow very, very fast, easily many feet in a single season. They are your toddler outgrowing pairs of shoes. Your teenager stealing the credit card and going on a spree. Suckers are ravenous nuisances” robbing energy from the main plant.
Lesson: The most vigorous shoots are not necessarily the ones God will keep.


If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
John 15:5-6

Getting rid of good stuff

August 20, 2014 — 2 Comments

Recently I came back home after a trip away and discovered my eyes could see much better than before. No, I didn’t get new glasses. It was simply the clarity that comes from time off.

As I unpacked, I saw what I am usually blind to: closets stuffed to the gills in the bedroom, in the hall, in the kitchen; an appalling amount of flotsam and jetsam that I’ve allowed to take up residence on the front hall table, the bedside table, the family room side table [are you seeing a theme? Perhaps if I just got rid of my closets and tables, the barnacled clutter would disappear...]

Untouched photo of the bedside table (I had to resist the urge to make it look neater!)

Untouched photo of the bedside table (I had to resist the urge to make it look neater!)

It’s not just my closets and tables though. The floppy days of summer seem to generate an overabundance of ideas and possibilities:
places to go, people to see, movies to watch,
books to read, recipes to try, websites to explore,
blogs to follow, social media to track.
I can wander through hours and hours of free time like a happy lost puppy, utterly clueless as to where I am going.

It was clear I needed a serious bout of pruning. So riding on the post-vacation wave of good intentions, I set to work on a hall closet that resembled a vertical junk yard. I took everything out and spread it all over the guest room.

Each day I’ve been spending a half hour figuring out what I should keep, what I should throw away, and what I should give away. I’m happy to report it’s going remarkably well because the limited time means I never reach the point of brain fatigue when everything ends up in the ‘decide later’ pile.

Making progress! [fortunately I failed to take a 'before' picture of the closet in its full chaos.]

Making progress! [fortunately I failed to take a 'before' picture of the closet in its full chaos.]

Pruning my life
Pruning back my schedule has been much trickier. It’s hard for me to let go of possibilities which don’t require any space and don’t cost any money. All they require is a bit of time. But unfortunately I have a limited supply.

Whatever I say yes to is also a no to a hundred other ideas. But what to let go of? None of the possibilities are bad. Unlike the old rusted paperclips I easily tossed in the trash, it’s hard to discard perfectly good options.

But on a grape vine, fruit comes from saying no even to healthy shoots because the branch can only feed so many clusters. It’s the same with the branch of my life; it can hold only so many projects. I have to decide what to say yes to and what to put in the ‘not in this lifetime’ box.

Healthy, pretty but sapping life and heading to becoming an overgrown mess

Healthy, pretty but sapping life and on its way to becoming an overgrown mess

So I took a mental hacksaw and tried to trim back my schedule. It did not go well. I became paralyzed when I considered all the appealing activities. To get rid of any of them felt like cutting off a limb[!]. I gave up and the next day I took another stab at it . After a few more days of failure, I realized there was only one solution. I had to give my pruning shears to the Gardener.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit,
while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes
so that it will be even more fruitful.
John 15: 1-2


Note the cuts on the vine which enabled the luscious cluster of grapes to grow:

Note the cuts on the vine at the top of the picture which enabled this luscious cluster of grapes to grow

It may sound like this is over-spiritualizing the problem. Do I really need to involve God in the mundane choices in my life? Does the Master of the Universe care if I spend another fifteen minutes on Facebook? And do I really need His help weeding my creaking, overcrowded bookshelves?

2014 8 15 pruning closets rol 2014-08-15 006
The Lord of the trivial and mundane
As I think about it, the answer is yes. By His redeeming love I am attached to His vine, and He has become Lord of all my life, not just my soul. He rules the trivial as well the profound.

This means He is the Master of my internet use.
He is the Director of my free time and my social life.
He is the Lord of my to-do list and my I-want list.
He is the Landscape Architect who sees the whole design of my life and how it fits into His grand scheme.

The gardener doesn't just think about one branch on one vine. He keeps the whole orchard in mind.

The gardener doesn’t just think about one branch on one vine. He keeps the whole orchard in mind.

If He truly is the Gardener in charge of my life, I need to let Him prune every twig on my branch. Especially since I don’t have a good pruning track record when it comes to how I spend my time. Invariably I choose what is most comfortable and most convenient for me. I never make painful cuts.

unfruitful and overgrown from lack of pruning

unfruitful and overgrown from lack of pruning

Letting the Master Gardener go to work
That’s why if I want to deal with my overstuffed hours, the best place to start is sitting at His feet, exposing all the stems that grow off of my main branch: my work, my relationships, my service, my health. This often requires untangling the overgrown shoots that have gotten twisted into knots.

Then, I need to listen for His guidance about what needs to be trimmed, what needs to be cut off, and what can be saved for the ‘maybe later’ pile.

However, identifying what to say no to isn’t the end. The final step is to open my heart to the Spirit’s scalpel and actually cut the unneeded suckers and shoots. That’s the hardest part for me. I start to balk at God’s plans. I second guess His choices.

But the Gardener doesn’t work against my will. He doesn’t force me to expose my branches and give them to Him. He doesn’t demand that I submit to His pruning. He waits patiently. But if I’m wise I will let Him remove whatever He wants: the good growth, healthy options, and pleasant possibilities that take life-energy away from the work of the vine.


A grape vine that has been faithfully pruned each year.

A grape vine that has been faithfully pruned each year.


It’s a painful process but the results are good. I find I can breathe more easily. I have space to grow. My hours aren’t crowded out. I have time to focus on His best for me. And this in turn produces abundant fruit, fruit not destined for my own consumption but fruit that He will use to help feed a hungry world that is starving for true nourishment.

What about you? Do you have branches in your life that have become overgrown? Are there shoots that need to be cut back to produce rich, abundant fruit? When will you spend some time with the Gardener so He can go to work?

…work out your salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you,
both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Philippians 2:12-13

2011 8 22 ben selle wedding 586

Singing worship songs is another way I stay connected to God when life becomes busy. I often turn to one of the Seeds albums, but sometimes nothing is as satisfying as an old hymn. The ones below often pop up in my internal playlist as I meditate on God’s care, the anchor of our faith, and God’s abiding presence with us.

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”
When I think of being held by God’s loving care, this hymn written in 1887 comes to mind. My favorite rendition is by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the band that sang with Paul Simon on “Graceland”.

1. What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

2. O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
O how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

3. What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.


“My Anchor Holds”
This 1902 tune falls under the “they don’t write hymns like they used to” category. I love the lyrics but I also love how the music in the last line of the refrain evokes a steady anchor. [Note: I prefer to sing this at a faster tempo.]

1. Though the angry surges roll
On my tempest-driven soul,
I am peaceful, for I know,
Wildly though the winds may blow,
I’ve an anchor safe and sure,
That can evermore endure.

And it holds, my anchor holds:
Blow your wildest, then, O gale,
On my bark so small and frail;
By His grace I shall not fail,
For my anchor holds, my anchor holds.

2. Mighty tides about me sweep,
Perils lurk within the deep,
Angry clouds o’ershade the sky,
And the tempest rises high;
Still I stand the tempest’s shock,
For my anchor grips the rock.

3. I can feel the anchor fast
As I meet each sudden blast,
And the cable, though unseen,
Bears the heavy strain between;
Through the storm I safely ride,
Till the turning of the tide.

4. Troubles almost ’whelm the soul;
Griefs like billows o’er me roll;
Tempters seek to lure astray;
Storms obscure the light of day:
But in Christ I can be bold,
I’ve an anchor that shall hold.


“Abide with Me”

I don’t remember ever singing this during a worship service, only at a funeral long ago in a small town. But when I went to church in the states last month, we sang it to a new tune from Indelible Grace which may help resurrect this comforting hymn.

1. Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

2. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

3. Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

3. Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.

4. Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

5. I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

6. I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

7. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Speaking of being held

August 12, 2014 — 2 Comments

My dear friend, Michael Prewitt, who died one month ago today, wrote often during his illness about his experience of being held by God:

“What I have experienced in this time is a sense of security and being held by the power of a loving God who, whatever the outcome of this, cares for me.”
October 11, 2012, three weeks after being diagnosed with an aggressive malignant brain tumor


“I end this post with the word that remarkably has defined this time for me: Gratitude. For all your thoughts, cards, emails, prayers. For the love and embrace of my family. For the constant protective presence of the mystery we call the God who comes to us in our need. Praise God from who all blessings flow.”
October 27, 2012


“That restful sleep is the product of a comfort that I cannot explain, that beyond the state of the art medicine and attentive, loving care of family, I am held and protected. It has nothing to do with what I am able to think or do or even pray.”
January 1, 2013


“More and more, I realize that the gift of healing that I’m looking for, may not involve a physical healing at all. Somehow the healing that I’ve been given, the healing that we are promised by God, is a greater healing that deals with our assurance that we are indeed in God’s hands, and that mystery is a great gift to me, whatever the final outcome of my physical healing.”
September 9, 2013


“You know that other people probably would get depressed by this state of affairs, but I do not feel that way, and, if anything, the feeling that I’ve had of being held and protected is as strong as it was slightly over a year ago. It all is such an incredible gift. Why have I been given this way of handling this? I don’t know, but I am grateful for it every day.”
October 31, 2013, after landing back in rehab again


“My spirits are good and I continue to have this feeling that I am being held, and often times, during a day or a week, I feel like I’ve really been able to be in touch with God in a way that does not involve a specific prayer, just this feeling of being held and that is enough.”
May 18, 2014, two months before Michael died

Speaking of roots

August 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

My blessing is on those people who trust in Me,
who put their confidence in Me.
They will be like a tree planted near a stream
whose roots spread out toward the water.
It has nothing to fear when the heat comes.
Its leaves are always green.
It has no need to be concerned in a year of drought.
It does not stop bearing fruit.

Jeremiah 17:7-9


“The tree on the mountain takes whatever the weather brings.
If it has any choice at all, it is in putting down roots as deeply as possible.”
Corrie ten Boom


“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


This year for the first time in a decade, I had the opportunity to enjoy my native New England’s summer. It was wonderful to see oaks and maples and elms and ash trees in full leaf. Every day I marveled at the magnificent extravaganza of broad, tall, green limbs reaching to the sky.


During those five weeks, we had only two or three days of rain, yet the trees didn’t shrivel. Their vast network of roots drew in moisture stored deep in the earth. Even when the lawn began to look parched, the woods remained vivid in all their shades of green.


I experienced another kind of abundance during my time in the states: our whole family was together for the first time in two years. My days were filled with trips to parks and ponds, museums and villages as we reacquainted Sam and Jeff to life in America. I spent hours staying with 20-month-old Nora as she explored the world. I took almost daily runs to the grocery store, and cooked meals for the crowd. I watched Lucy and Clara play soccer with their cousins.


However, all this feasting on family meant I had little time for reflection and quiet time with God. I hung onto my daily anchor of reading The Divine Hours and sometimes added a prayer from Scotty Smith’s “Everyday Prayers”. It was like taking a few quick sips from a water fountain and then dashing off.

Frankly, grabbing five minutes to straighten my soul before I plunge into the day isn’t enough to sustain me over the long haul. But for a limited period of time, I survived. My soul didn’t wither away; it drew on the roots I had laid down in calmer days when I had time to soak in God’s word without being interrupted.

Some days I was just hanging on like Nora.

Some days I was just hanging on like Nora.

I was gratified how these roots held me and fed me, especially because the regular daily time I spend with God at home usually doesn’t feel spectacular or exciting. It often doesn’t feel particularly nurturing either. But I keep plodding on, reading, praying, and reflecting even when I can’t see any visible signs of growth.

I’ve learned that this patient faithfulness, what Eugene Peterson calls ‘a long obedience’, does make a difference. Even if I’m not aware of any immediate pay-off, the time I spend with God grows roots in my soul that I can draw on during a spiritual drought. It creates a vast network of underground branches that feed and sustain my spiritual life.


We need these roots not just during our happy vacations, but for the harsher storms we go through. A dear friend of ours spent the last two years battling brain cancer. During the ups and downs of surgeries, physical therapy, setbacks, and treatments, the faith he had nurtured over the years fed him with an amazing peace and an abiding sense of God’s presence.

Whenever Michael spoke to people about his illness, he shared how he felt held in the hands of God’s loving care. He didn’t always have the mental strength to read and reflect but his roots sustained him all the way to the end. A week before he died, his pastor came to visit and asked how he was doing. Michael slowly brought his hands together.

That quiet confidence didn’t spring up over night. Faithfully through the years, Michael sunk his spiritual roots down deep in Jesus–deep enough that this self-described Type-A personality was able to lean back into the arms of his Father during his final challenge.

His life was a witness that by faith and faithfulness, our trust becomes stronger that our loving Father will hold us safe all the days of our life. As we stay by God’s stream and drink deeply every day, we become anchored in His grace.


That’s why as I settle back into my home routine, I’m not skimping on spending time with God each day. Once again I’ve taken up the long obedience to foster my attachment to the Vine so my roots can be replenished and continue to grow. When storms come or the sun sears down, I want strong roots to keep me from crashing to the ground or turning to a crisp.

How about you? When do you carve out time during your day to sit at the feet of Jesus?

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Colossians 2:6-7

“If roteness is a danger, it is also the way liturgy works. When you don’t have to think all the time about what words you are going to say next, you are free to fully enter into the act of praying; you are free to participate in the life of God.

Put differently: I have sometimes set aside my prayer book for days and weeks on end, and I find, at the end of those days and weeks on end, that I have lapsed into narcissism. Though meaning to commune with or reverence or at least acknowledge God, I wind up talking to myself about my emotions du jour. I worry about my mother’s health, or I stress about money, or (more happily) I bop up and down with excitement about good news or sunshine or life in general, but I never get much further than that.

It is returning to my prayer book that places me: places me in words that ask me to confess my sins, even when I can’t think of any red-letter deeds recently committed; words that ask me to pray for presidents and homeless Charlottesvillians and everyone in between; words that praise God even on the mornings when I wonder if God exists at all.

Sure, sometimes it is great when, in prayer, we can express to God just what we feel; but better still when, in the act of praying, our feelings change. Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims. It repoints the person praying, taking him somewhere else.”
Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline


“I saw more clearly than ever that the first great primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord . . .
not how much I might serve the Lord, . . . but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished.”
George Muller


“Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, You have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with Your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of Your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.”
The Divine Hours

The freedom of ritual

July 16, 2014 — 5 Comments

I grew up going to a Lutheran church where every week we followed the liturgy in the red service hymnal–though I don’t ever remember actually opening the book because by the time I could read, I knew the liturgy by heart. Over the years, it became so engrained in me, I could recite it without having the words penetrate my consciousness. Many Sundays I was like a sleepwalker, mumbling the responses with the rest of the congregation.

Perhaps then it’s no surprise that when God became real to me as a teenager, it was not in the liturgical tradition, but in a more free flowing style. The minister made up prayers on the spot, responsive readings changed every week, the language was less formal. I couldn’t coast on autopilot. I loved the freshness, the newness, the variety, the freedom. I turned my back on all things liturgical, viewing them as stodgy, dead, meaningless, and mechanical.

It took a very long time, but eventually I came to appreciate the use of liturgy in worship. I think the first time was on a visit back to the states when I spent a month at an artist’s colony without a car. In the town of 20,000 people, my worship options were limited to a half dozen churches. [And one has to live in a city of two million people that has only *one* English-speaking Protestant church to understand the irony of the phrase 'limited to a half dozen'.]

I chose the Episcopal church because I had confidence the liturgical service would be a solid, Christ-centered worship experience. I knew what I would be getting–not unlike opting to eat at an international restaurant chain rather than risk the local greasy spoon.

I’ve had the same experience on a personal level as well. Several years ago, my friend Lynette gave me a set of the Divine Hours, with its three-times a day liturgical prayer format. The brief office draws on the Psalms for different elements and includes a short reading, usually from the New Testament, ending with the Lord’s prayer and a concluding prayer [which I've now memorized so I have to really slow down and think about what I'm saying rather than just rattle it off]. For a while, I followed the Divine Hours every day, in a lapsed Lutheran kind of way, not reading it at a fixed time and usually only doing the morning office.

There are still times when I go back to the Divine Hours. When I’m traveling, it becomes a devotional anchor for me. I use the online version run by the Ann Arbor Vineyard Church, which allows you to localize the hours for your time zone. ** I don’t have to come up with what I want to say to God, I don’t have to think. I ‘only’ have to tune my spirit in harmony with the words on the page.

Once during a period where liturgical prayer was my life line, I came across this question in a devotional: “Do I relate to God through a specific ritual/routine or do I approach Him as a person, confident in my identity as His child?”

Not only did this question seem to assume that ritual is bad, it also struck me that it wasn’t helpful to put routine and spontaneity in an either/or framework. A child’s life is not all free play. It is also full of routines and rituals. Not just mealtime, bathtime, bedtime, but also special little rituals, sometimes using a game or a song.

The issue really isn’t routine vs. freedom, but distance vs. intimacy. And while it’s true that if I fall into an autopilot mode, rituals can put distance between me and God, it’s also true that freedom can bring distance. I can end up indulging my own whims or never quite get around to confessing my sins. I can conveniently overlook certain aspects of God’s character. Following a liturgical prayer form like the Divine Hours can bring me to places I would never go to on my own.

Divine Hours online

“A nineteenth-century teacher in the Celtic world, Alexander Scott, used the analogy of royal garments. Apparently in his day, royal garments were woven through with a costly thread, a thread of gold. And if somehow the golden thread were taken out of the garment, the whole garment would unravel.
So it is, he said, with the image of God woven into the fabric of our being. If it were taken out of us, we would unravel. We would cease to be. So the image of God is not simply a characteristic of who we are, which may or may not be there. . . . The image of God is the essence of our being. It is the core of the human soul. We are sacred not because we have been baptized or because we belong to one faith tradition over another. We are sacred because we have been born.
But what does it mean to be made in the image of God? In part, it is to say that wisdom is deep within us, deeper than the ignorance of what we have done or become. It is to say that the passion of God for what is just and right is deep within, deeper than any apathy or participation in wrong that has crippled us.
To be made in the image of God is to say that creativity is at the core of our being, deeper than any barrenness that has dominated our lives and relationships. And above all else, it is to say that love and the desire to give ourselves away to one another in love is at the heart of who we are, deeper than any fear or hatred that holds us hostage. Deep within us is a longing for union, for our genesis is in the One from whom all things have come. Our home is in the Garden, and deep within us is the yearning to hear its song again.”
J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts


“When confronted with suffering that won’t go away or with even a minor problem, we instinctively focus on what is missing,…not on the Master’s hand. Often when you think everything has gone wrong, it’s just that you’re in the middle of a story. If you watch the stories God is weaving in your life, you… will begin to see the patterns. You’ll become a poet, sensitive to your Father’s voice.”
Paul Miller


“Almighty God,
who wonderfully created us in Your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
in Your Son Jesus Christ:
grant that, as He came to share our human nature,
so we may be partakers of His divine glory;
who is alive and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
Christmas Collect