That Still Small Voice

Fire

Happy Father’s Day! This post originally appeared at http://www.inspireafire.com/still-small-voice/. I’m re-posting it here in honor of my dad!

“Let your conscience be your guide,” my father used to say.

Compass

Let your conscience by your guide.

I don’t remember him ever telling me what my conscience was, but somehow I knew. It was that still, small voice that stopped me when I was tempted to go along with the wrong crowd. It was that slight, uncomfortable prodding when I was tempted to take the easy way out. It was the seed of something beautiful that would grow with me and become at times the clear, almost audible voice of God.

Sometimes that voice needs to work through a lot of tangle before I can hear it. I am reminded of this when I read the story of Elijah in the cave (1 Kings 19). There was a great and powerful wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by fire, but the Lord was not in any of those things. Instead, these cataclysmic events were contrasted with the gentle whisper of the Lord.

The thing that struck me recently about this story was not the contrast of catastrophic power with gentle instruction, but the fact that the catastrophic power came first.

We read this story in a few lines and it seems like Elijah waited only moments before he could walk to the opening of the cave and talk with the Lord. When my life is in cataclysmic upheaval I wish that I, too, could wait for just a moment and then walk out of the devastation and into gentle instruction. I yearn for God to say to me: “You are not the only one left. Come out of there. Let me tell you what to do.”

But we don’t know how long the winds blew as they tore apart everything that once seemed secure. Or how long the earthquake rooted everything into upheaval. Or how long the fire burned to rubble even what little remained. What we know is that even after all of that, the still small voice was still there for Elijah.

And that still small voice is still there for us.

Footsteps

He is guiding our steps.

Sometimes we have to go through wind and fire before we are in a place where we can hear His voice, but we have a promise from God that even when we cannot hear Him over the tumult, He is still by our side, guiding our steps. He is still stopping us, prodding us, growing us, until we come to a place where we can hear Him more clearly again.

I recently asked my father what lessons he hopes he passed on to his children.

“Integrity,” he answered. And in that one word he summed up a multitude.

Integrity is how you treat people. Integrity is how you do your work. Integrity is when you listen to that still small voice…  and let your conscience be your guide.

I have more than one Father teaching me that lesson.

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A Whole New World

NewWorld

It’s been a long time – too long! – since I shared some of my writing. Here is a recent post I wrote for www.Inspireafire.com. I think it speaks to the deep feeling of struggle we all must walk through… and the new place God is trying to take us. It is, indeed, a metaphor that at times feels very real.

“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:7)

The birth metaphor is more than a metaphor.

Yes, the process of birth is a beautiful picture of God’s grace and sovereignty. Grace because He is bestowing new life. Sovereignty because it is God who bestows it. Just as the baby does very little to usher himself into the world, so we do very little to experience rebirth. It is God who takes away our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh. It is God who calls us and leads us forth.

But that doesn’t mean the journey is easy. The metaphor, my friend, gets real.

Butterfly in Hands

Once the process begins, there are only two options. (Photo by J. Canino)

Physical birth changes the most fundamental aspects of your existence. The way you breathe. The way you eat. The way you engage with the world around you.

Spiritual birth is just as shattering. It may be true that the transformation is the result of something happening to you, but the effects demand a response from you. Once the process begins, there are only two options. You can push forward into new life, or you can retreat. The journey forward leads to life. The path of resistance leads to death.

Sometimes the path forward doesn’t seem like the best way. The journey itself is so dark. And every comfort you have ever known lies behind you. There is a loneliness and a disconnection you have never felt. You are being pushed and pulled and twisted until it feels like your insides are spilling out. What has happened? Everything was just fine! If you knew how to scream, you would, and your scream would be a cry of “Help me!”

The response is one of greater pushing, greater darkness, greater aloneness.

The path out, my friend, is forward. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the way; it turns out there is only one. And once God has gotten ahold of you, He will never let you go. He will push you and push you and push you until you feel your insides coming out. He will twist you and turn you and flip you upside down. He will cut you off from the very things that seem to sustain you. And all of that, all of that, is the path forward.

Desert flower

Just because you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

I don’t know what happens next, but I’ll tell you what I think. I think we come into a whole new world we can’t even begin to imagine. It may be a long journey, or it may be a short one. It may come in a single arduous stretch or a series of sharp contractions. The journey is not really our choice. But eventually the new world comes. We take our first breath in a way we didn’t even know we could breathe. We feel things we didn’t know we could feel. We see things we didn’t know we could see. How small and dark is the place we come from, compared to the place we go! In this new place we learn and grow and live in a way we could never imagine.

God will bring us there. He may be bringing you there right now. And if He is, if you look around and all you see is darkness, remember: Just because you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Your eyes may be closed to the fact that an entirely new world is just above the crown of your head.

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked.

Oh, Nicodemus, Nicodemus. You will find out. You will feel it. You will feel what it is to be born even when you are old.

You don’t even know what it is to breathe. Until you take your first breath.

 

Some Doubted

I was reading the other day from Matthew 28, after Jesus’ resurrection:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

Some doubted.

I love how bluntly that is stated. One might think that having been an eye witness to Jesus’ resurrection would be enough to dispel doubt. Here are Jesus’ closest friends. They travelled with Him for three years. They witnessed His miracles. They performed miracles themselves under His direction. At the end, they saw Him captured and put to death; some of them saw where His body was laid in the tomb. And now they were physically in the presence of His living, post-resurrection being. They could see him. But some still doubted.

Even in the very presence of the newly resurrected Jesus, some doubted. If that is true for some of Jesus’ closest friends, then how do we stand against doubt?

We might think, God if you could just…. then that would be enough. But I see Jesus shaking His head the same way I see Him shaking his head at Philip who said, “Show us the Father, and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). Evidence can support faith, but it cannot eliminate doubt. And that, my friends, is where this gets interesting. Read carefully:

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:7).

If I knew Greek I’d do a word study on this line, but even across several English translations the same picture emerges: The eleven disciples climbed the hill. They saw Jesus, and they worshiped Him.

It doesn’t say that some of them worshiped and some of them doubted. It says “they worshiped him.” Only then does it add that some doubted.

Doubt did not preclude worship.

Think about that. We can worship, even when we doubt.

The passage continues with Jesus coming and speaking to them. Not to “some of them.” Not to the ones who did not doubt, but to “them.” Inclusive.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” He instructed them.

All of them. Even those who doubted.

Satan would love for us to think that doubt is a stumbling block. He wants doubt to reduce our worship, sever our Christian relationships, and prevent us from telling others about God. But I do not see doubt as a stumbling block when I read God’s word. Instead, I see Jesus, coming to me, His follower who doubts. And He is saying: Come, worship me. Then go, tell others about me.

This is what I find so amazing about these simple lines:

Yes, some doubted.

So what?

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-19).

Doubting Thomas Sunday

The Sunday after Easter is Doubting Thomas Sunday.

It’s true across multiple denominations, and it’s true whether you are on a one year lectionary or a three year lectionary. You may have heard Thomas’ story so many times you think you’ve heard it all.

Come with me anyway.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord (John 20:19-20).

All of the disciples that is, except for Thomas.

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20: 24).

Juxtapose this story with one that occurred earlier in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had just completed several miraculous healings and a second miraculous feeding – this time of 4,000 people with just 7 loaves of bread and a few small fish. But these miracles weren’t enough of a sign. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in His spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side (Mark 8:11-13).

Well, then. If that is Jesus’ response to a demand for a sign, what do you think He does with Thomas? Thomas, one of his twelve closest friends who had travelled with Him for three years and personally witnessed countless miracles – what does Jesus do with him?

One might expect a little exasperation. One might expect Jesus to say, “If you don’t believe in me now, after all you’ve witnessed, then you’re hopeless! I’ve given you all the evidence you need!”

But Jesus doesn’t respond that way, does He?

Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:26-27).

Here we have two stories, both with people demanding further proof from Jesus, and yet two very different responses from Jesus. What was the difference?

The difference, I believe, is that Jesus knew the asker’s heart. Numerous times throughout the New Testament we read how the Pharisees asked Jesus things to test Him, to trap Him, or to ridicule Him. They did not come to Jesus with sincere doubt; they came to Jesus with self-righteousness and hidden agendas. One more sign would not bring them any closer to God.

Jesus walked away.

But to those who sincerely asked – for those who wanted to believe but struggled – Jesus had a very different response.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

We know what happened next. Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)

Did Thomas ever doubt again? I don’t know. Based on my own experiences, I would say probably. But based on my own experiences, I would also say that wrestling with those moments of doubt ultimately led him (again and again) to a deeper exclamation of faith.

Doubt, while seemingly so opposite of faith, is often a catalyst that draws us closer to God. Doubt is not something to shy away from. It is something to grip with two hands and shake. It is something to hold out to God and say, “Help!”

Sometimes in order to be genuine in our faith, we must first be genuine in our doubt. And that, to me, is the lesson from Doubting Thomas Sunday.

Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

There Are No Losers Here

I have a tragic flaw.

Okay, so I have more than one, but this is the one I’m going to tell you about today. I love sports, but sports do not love me.

(Sigh.)

I’ve tried softball, but I tend to duck and cover when the ball comes my way. I’ve tried flag football, but I cannot catch a football to save my life. In middle school, I played basketball.  I loved basketball. Sometimes I even did something amazing, like make a basket. But in three years of playing, my team never won a single game. Not one.

I was thinking of this a few weeks ago as I was running past the tennis courts. (In case you’re curious, I took tennis lessons for two summers and still can’t hit the ball.) As I jogged past watching the players, I had the audacity to think: maybe running is my sport!

Keep in mind that even as I had this thought, I was wheezing and gasping near the back of the pack. Hope does not disappoint, Paul says (Romans 5:5).

And here’s the hopeful thing about running.  Running is the only sport where every person at the starting line could win. I don’t just mean everyone has the potential to win.  I mean everyone can actually win.  Simultaneously.

I realize only one person crosses the finish line first. And when the summer Olympics roll around there will only be one gold and one silver and one bronze. But the very heart and soul of running is not about besting the other guy; it’s about besting yourself. Running is about stretching, growing, pushing, improving. It’s about hitting that next personal record. Every other sport has a winner and a loser.  In other sports, even in the friendliest just-for-fun matches, one team can win only if the other team loses.

Not so with running.

One of the unexpected things I love about running with a group is the opportunity to cheer each other on. We each have different goals, but every week we all start out, and every week we all cross the finish line. It doesn’t matter who crosses first or second or last. Every week we are improving . We laugh in amazement, “I remember when I couldn’t even…”

There are no losers here.

Perhaps Paul knew what he was doing when he compared faith to running a race. After all, Jesus Christ came so that whoever believes in Him  – not just the ones who believe first or strongest or best, but whoever believes! – might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

 God wants all of us to win the faith race. This does not mean it is easy. Paul even says, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it (1 Corinthians 9:24). In other words, every one of us should train as though we are going for the gold, even though our true goal is far more valuable than that. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (1 Corinthians 9:25).

In this race we are running, we all have obstacles to overcome. Each of our races may be different, but the Bible tells us how we are to face them.  We are to run with endurance (Hebrews 12:1).  We are to run looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). And just like with my running group, we are to consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another… (Hebrews 10:24-25).

In this competitive world, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking someone else must lose in order for us to win. If we stop to think about it, we will suddenly realize we are actually all on the same team. The route ahead may look hard, but with Jesus as our Coach and God’s Word as our training manual, we can run our race knowing that every one of us will make it across that finish line.

High fives all around, my friends. And let’s keep running.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

The

Here’s an interesting game to play.  Someone shout out a word… what’s the first Bible passage that springs to mind?

Perhaps someday I’ll study enough Hebrew and Greek to attempt an original language word study.  But for now, here is a word study in English.  Stick with me here, this is cool.

When I think of “The” the first passage that springs to mind is John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” Every third word is “the!”  Is this repetition important?  Probably.

Jesus is claiming that He is not just one way to know God.  Jesus is claiming He is the way.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said.  And then He continued, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Definitive, declarative statements.

This was not the only time Jesus refered to Himself in such definitive terms.  Earlier, before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:27).  And before that, when Jesus was travelling with his disciples into Caesarea-Philippi after performing many miracles in the surrounding countryside, He asked his disciples, “Who do you say I that am?”  Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 15:15-16).

Did you catch that?  The Christ, the Son of the living God.

Peter’s proclamation is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  And it is at this point in the story that an important narrative turn occurs.  From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matthew 16:21).  Jesus repeats this lesson several times (e.g, Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-20).  But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him (Mark 9:32).

Throughout the rest of the story, the disciples struggle to understand what Jesus told them.  When He was captured in the Garden of Gethsemene, they scattered.  When He was put to death, they feared for their own lives.  Even after the tomb was reported empty, they hid behind locked doors.  They knew He was the Christ, the Son of the living God.  He was the way, the truth, and the life.  He was the death and the resurrection.  More than anyone else, His disciples should have understood.  But they did not.

Until Jesus appeared to them again.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).

My Bible then says the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  I can’t help but think “glad” is a bit of an understatement, but regardless, they were finally beginning to understand what it meant that Jesus was the Christ.  All except for poor Thomas, who had missed the visit.  The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe (John 20:25).

Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:26).  Jesus showed Thomas His hands and His side and Thomas no longer disbelieved.  “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.

Here is the most fascinating part of this word study.  The disciples knew long before Jesus’ death and resurrection that He was the Christ.  But simply knowing that He was the Christ was not enough.  It took a personal encounter for them to truly understand.  And it took a personal encounter for that tiny definite article “the” to transform into an even more powerful little word.  Did you catch that transition?

Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  But like the disciples, we can know all that and still not really know Christ.  The transition happens when we declare not only that Jesus is the Lord and the God, but that He is my Lord and my God.

Jesus will not be coming to each of us in the same manner that He came to Thomas.  After 40 days of teaching His disciples, He ascended into heaven and the Bible suggests He will come again only at the end of this world.  But Jesus also promised that when He went, He would send the Holy Spirit to abide with each one of us and draw us into a personal understanding of Him.  And in this way, Jesus does appear to each one of us.  To each one of us He says, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27b).

Jesus does not want us to respond with a definite article.  He wants us to respond with a personal one.  Because Jesus is not simply the way, the truth, and the life.  He is my way, my truth, and my life.

Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28)

Flying Sushi

The other night I went to a sushi restaurant with some friends.  We rode a motorboat across the lake to a giant floating raft that housed the restaurant.  We were ushered into a long rectangular room where we sat on low benches.  Japanese waitresses in colorful flowing gowns walked quietly among the tables filling plates from kettles they carried on towel draped arms.  I looked down the table and realized I didn’t actually know anyone there.  The whole experience suddenly took on a “Hotel California” feel.  And I don’t even like that song.

“What is this?” I asked, pointing to a platter that looked like a halved avocado covered in fish eggs.  They answered, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  Not because they were speaking Japanese; that would make sense.  It sounded more like pidgin or Old English or something that was almost comprehensible.  But not quite.  It was at that point that I realized the bench I was sitting on was actually a trapeze.  Yes, a trapeze.  I was hoisted into the air and began careening around the room, smashing my feet into the stucco walls hoping to slow myself down.  Each time I hit, I only seemed to pick up speed.  I hurled back through the crowded tables with people and bowls of food parting before me.  Flakes of stucco cracked off the walls as I rebounded.  (Someone was going to have to completely spackle that room by the time I was done.)  The last thing I remember was the terrified look on some newcomer’s face as I barely missed her head and found myself clinging, bat-like, to the corner of the wall.

Then I woke up.

Perhaps I should have started this blog post with a disclaimer.  Earlier this week I was having back spasms and was given muscle relaxers and pain killers that had me sleeping 19+ hours a day for four days straight.  Then my doctor cut me off.  The four days were rather uneventful, at least, as far as I recall.  (If any of you told me something important earlier this week, you better tell me again.) The return to non-drug induced sleep, however, has been a bit more memorable.  Not only am I having crazy dreams about eating sushi while on a flying trapeze, I wake up feeling as though I have been eating sushi while on a flying trapeze: pounding headache, churning stomach, sore muscles and all.

The other morning I woke up at 3 a.m.  I am typically not a nocturnal wanderer, but this night I needed a break from the crazy dreams.  I slipped from bed and made some toast and tea.  I pulled a Bible Study from my shelf that a friend had given me but which I hadn’t had time to use.  I read about Psalm 120:1 In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me. 

He answered me.

You know, people talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  I don’t always know what this means.  When I first became a Christian, it sounded a bit too… religious.  Sometimes I would just smile and nod and step away.  Except that in the last couple of years, I’ve seen it.  I’ve seen people that do have a relationship with Jesus.  They have that hope about which Peter says we should always be ready to give a testimony (1 Peter 3:15). They aren’t just Christians.  They are truly friends of God.  They have a relationship that makes me say: I want what they have.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have a relationship with God.  But it is qualitatively different than where I am headed.  I talk to God all the time.  What I don’t do very well is wait for His answer.  “Okay, God,” I say, “Here are all the things I’m thinking about today.  Got it?  Okay.  Catch you later.”  And I’m off.

In my distress I call to the Lord.  But I’m completely missing His answer.

Until He sits me down at 3 a.m. with a cup of tea.

I learned from my 3 a.m. study that the word translated as Lord in Psalm 120:1 is the Hebrew word Yahweh, which refers to God’s nature as a covenant maker and covenant keeper.  This makes the words of Psalm 120:1 that much more powerful to me.  The Lord answered the Psalmist and He answers us because He is the God who keeps His promises.  Promises like, I will not leave you nor forsake you (Joshua 1:5).  Promises like, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  Promises like, I have called you friends (John 15:15).

Friends.

We can be more than Christians.  We can actually have a relationship with God.  We can be a friend of God.  Have you ever paused to look beyond the jargon and think about what this means?

If not, a 3 a.m. cup of tea is a great place to start. 

In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me (Psalm 120:1).