Monthly Archives: December 2012

Where Does My Help Come From?

Lost Valley Glencoe

“I lift my eyes up to the mountains – where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you – the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
~ Psalm 121, a song of ascents (NIV)

Shortly after graduating from college I spent a couple of months working for Family Christian Stores as I was fundraising to go on staff with InterVarsity.  That summer Joel Osteen’s book Your Best Life Now had just been released and covered our bestseller and newest releases shelves.  It was my first introduction to the health-and-wealth gospel and I was bothered by what I read.  But what was more disturbing than this was how many books on our shelves also peddled this same kind of feel-good Christianity.  The message coming from each of these books was essentially this:  trust in Jesus and all of your financial and material dreams will come true.  The problems with this message are too numerous to count, but among them is this idea that a life of faith in Jesus is all comfort and candy canes.

That is why Psalm 121 is so important.  It hits on a vital truth about the Christian life.  Along the journey of faith there will be many moments when the road will become difficult.  Jesus never promised us comfort or wealth, and there will be times when God will call us to go places or do things that, if we’re totally honest, we would rather avoid.

In these times it is tempting to look for safety and security in other things.  The writer of this Psalm highlights this when he says, “I life my eyes up to the mountains – where does my help come from?”  The mountains, or “high places”, were the locations upon which people would have built altars to their gods.  It was on these places that people would offer sacrifices to their deities in order to receive security and blessings.  The mountains were the places for idol worship.  And so the psalmist’s eyes look to those places as he wonders, “Where does my help come from?”  There is an inner plea, a desire for safety and security, as he walks this pilgrim road.

And yet, as if having an internal debate with himself, he is reminded of the truth:  “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”  The psalmist knows that, ultimately, his security and support can only be found in God.  While the world looks to the idols that it has made (wealth, fame, careers, relationships, success, etc) for comfort, help, and strength, the psalmist sees that such things will ultimately let us down.  Our security comes not from the “high places” of the world, but from the one who made the world itself.  It comes from God, who alone holds all of creation together.

Furthermore, the psalm writer reminds us that God not only holds the universe in the palm of his hands, but that he also cares fro and watches over each and every one of us.  Though he rules over the whole created order, he is not a disconnected despot, but is a loving sovereign who cares for and watches over his children.

This message is a vital one for the disciple of Jesus Christ.  There will be many moments when we are tried and tested by the difficulties and storms of life, for we are not immune to such struggles.  Like anyone else, the Christian is tempted to look to man-made answers and solutions in order to find a sense of assurance.  That is why we must be reminded that we are following the one who is able to meet every need.  We follow the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, and he will provide for us.

On a personal note, this is a comforting and reassuring word for me.  Jenny and I have been tempted, many times, to find our security in worldly things.  We followed God into ministry:  first with InterVarsity and now in pastoral work.  We knew that, in doing so, our incomes would be limited, but we were happy to do it because we were excited about the calling that he has given us.  And yet, we presently struggle with the reality that, even after several years of trying to build up a down payment on a home, we still cannot afford to live in the very community in which we minister.  I know…first world problems, right?  Still, as a single-income family we often feel the pressure of paying off college loans and building a home for our children, and it’s has been very easy to get frustrated and discouraged.

But then, we look back over the years and we see the hand of God, our provider.  We are reminded of the generosity of our parents, who have shared their homes with us so that we could continue to save and pay down debt.  We are reminded of the blessing that we have in our church family, which has cared for and supported us in more ways than we can count, not least of which involves bringing me on staff.  We are reminded of how these blessings have allowed one of us to stay home and personally raise our children during these crucial early years.  The truth is, God has been very good to us.  While we have had to adjust our timelines and expectations, God has shown us that life is about the relationships around us, not the house and the picket fences.

Whatever difficulties we face, whether small or large, it is important to remember that the Lord walks with us as we continue to pursue his calling upon our lives.  Where does our help come from?  It comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

“The Christian life is going to God.  In going to God, Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same diseases, are buried in the same ground.  The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will guard us from every evil, he guards our very life.”
~Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, pgs. 44-45

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Christmas Reflection: What Obedience Really Costs Us

*What follows is a re-print of an article that I wrote for RELEVANT Magazine‘s website in honor of Christmas.  I encourage you to read the post there and LIKE it on Facebook as well as contribute your own Christmas reflections in the comments below.

(c) Jyoti Sahi; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I wasn’t raised in a religious household. In fact, my family didn’t start attending church until I was a freshman in high school. As a result, my exposure to the Christmas story was limited to what I saw in paintings, statues and holiday stamps. I’d seen many pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, but these images always struck me as a bit odd and otherworldly. Here was Mary, this mature, peaceful woman in immaculate robes, holding a very adult-looking Jesus with a tiny, restrained half-smile on her lips—like the Mona Lisa dressed in religious garb. These pictures shaped my view of Mary as someone wholly unrelateable and distant, an obscure figure only revered in Catholic circles with very little relevance to me, a young, evangelical Protestant.

But then, several years ago, I encountered a very different kind of painting. It was an image created by the Indian artist Jyoti Sahi entitled Dalit Madonna. In it, Sahi depicts the Virgin Mary as a dalit, cradling the baby Jesus, with deep love and affection in her eyes as she looks down upon her infant child. Her hands and feet are dirty and calloused. And yet, the love this mother shows for her baby envelops her and the child in warm light. I was immediately taken by the beauty of this painting and the touching intimacy it depicts.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term dalit, it referes to a group of people in India more commonly known as “untouchables.” Some Westerners have mistakenly called the dalits the lowest caste in Hinduism. However, this is an inaccurate assessment, for the dalits have traditionally been viewed as living outside the proper caste system. They serve in labor industries deemed too defiled or unclean to be attended to by proper Hindus.

Fortunately, there have been many movements within India to eradicate this discrimination, including efforts by the late Mahatma Gandhi, who was a great friend and advocate of many untouchables. However, dalits are still looked down upon in more rural settings, and social stigma continues to be attached to the term.

As I reflected more on Sahi’s painting, I could not help but think what it would have been like for the historical Mary, giving birth to her son in first-century Judea. In the Bible, we read that Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel before her official marriage to Joseph and told she would bear a son who would be called “the Son of the Most High.” What’s more, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33).

On the one hand, this was the most exciting news Mary could have heard. After all, the Messiah was believed to be the heir to the throne of David, the greatest king in the history of the Israel. Many of the Israelites in Mary’s day, living under Roman occupation, hoped the Messiah would come and free them from the political oppression of foreign rulers and usher in an era of prosperity and peace. No doubt, Mary believed much the same thing and desired to see a day of freedom for her people.

However, Mary also knew that to accept the angel’s message was to accept a social stigma. You see, she was already betrothed to Joseph. This meant that they were legally husband and wife with the exception of sexual relations. We know from Matthew’s account that Joseph was well aware the child to be born was not his (see Matthew 1:18-19). As such, Mary would have been labeled an adulterer. As some people are labeled dalits in certain parts of the world, so Mary would have been labeled sotah, the ancient Hebrew word for “adulteress.”

In his book The Real Mary, Scot McKnight writes about the dangers Mary would have faced as a woman with an illegitimate child. He reminds us that, if she were openly accused of adultery by Joseph, Mary would have faced death by stoning. Yet even if Joseph did not bring charges against her, she would have been stripped half-naked and forced to stand in the center of her village to endure the verbal ridicule and scorn of her neighbors and former friends. Likewise, Mary would have known what would be at stake for her child.

McKnight highlights the realities Mary would have faced:

“She knew villagers would taunt and ostracize her son. He’d hear the accusation that he was an illegitimate child and he would be prohibited from special assemblies (Deut. 23:2). She knew as well that Joseph’s reputation as an observant Jew would have been called into question … She knew that he was legally required to divorce her. And one more connection for Mary was that he could leave her stranded with the Messiah-to-be without a father.”

All of this is affirmed by the biblical text. Christ, at one point, is mocked as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), a clear reference to His lack of a legitimate father.

Mary was faced with a difficult decision. Like the dalits of India, she would become an outcast, an untouchable, one whom people would regard as disobedient to God and a traitor to the acceptable standards of behavior set out in “proper” society. However, not to receive this message would have been to turn away an invitation from God to participate in His plans for the world. What would she choose?

“‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me according to your word'” (Luke 1:38).

Mary chose to obey God. In the face of certain rejection and a difficult life ahead for her and her child, Mary knew God and knew He would provide for them. Furthermore, she was faithful because of what was at stake. Though she could not anticipate just what kind of life Jesus would lead, she knew the Messiah would bring the salvation promised by God. She desired, more than anything, to see this salvation brought into the world and was full of faith that God would act through Him to that end.

As we approach the Christmas holiday, let us not forget the faithfulness of Mary and what she was willing to risk. In her story, we are reminded that following Christ often leads to persecution and rejection by the world. Sometimes the price we pay for obedience is rejection. We must ask ourselves, What are we willing to surrender to God? Are we willing to be used for His purposes in the world? Are we willing to trust Him to provide for us when the rest of the world may turn its back? Mary models for us what obedience in the face of rejection looks like.

I also see in this story an invitation to re-examine how we approach the untouchables in our midst. The truth of Mary’s story is that God often works through the outcasts and the marginalized. And yet, as Christians, we often miss this.

Whether we face rejection for following Christ or are seeking to care for the outcast and unseen in our midst, it is important to remember Mary’s story: the story of her faithfulness, the story of God’s untouchable servant.

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The Journey of a Disciple

mountain trail

*You can learn a lot about a culture based on the songs that they sing.  Our songs tell us about what matters to us.  They reflect the values that stir our hearts and our souls.  Songs, for better or worse, are used to teach.

Over the next several weeks I will be posting on the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), those songs that the people of Israel sang on their pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  I’ve been working through these in my devotions and, as I go along, I’ll also be posting insights from the book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson, which is his extended meditation on these wonderful Psalms.  I invite you to follow along with me and share your own insights as we go.

“I call on the Lord in my distress, and he assures me.
Save me, Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.
What will he do to you, and what more besides, you deceitful tongues?
He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom bush.
Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have i lived among those who hate peace.
I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”
~Psalm 120, a song of ascents (NIV)

As I reflect on this Psalm I see within it a cry for something more.  The word for “peace” used by the Psalmist is shalom.  We often misunderstand this word, thinking of it as nothing more than the absence of war.  But shalom is a much richer word than this.  This is a cry from a person who longs for God’s reign of peace.  This is the cry of one who, in the words of Jesus, hungers and thirsts for righteousness (Matt. 5:6).

And yet, the psalmist lives in a place that is very much the opposite of what he longs for.  He has settled among the unrighteous.  After years and years living among the tents of the selfish and self-indulgent, the violent and the oppressive, the song writer has begun to realize just how far he has fallen:  how his life has begun to reflect the values of those around him and how far this journey has led him from the life that he would have wished.

So he cries out in pain and longing for something else, something more.  He longs for a life of justice, peace, beauty, purity, and joy.  He longs for righteousness.  He longs for shalom.    And this longing ultimately points him to God.  The psalmist cries out to God, asking him to judge and remove the source of his temptations and afflictions.

But even that is not enough for the song writer.  He desires to move away from this old life and toward a place of righteousness and shalom.  And so the pilgrimage begins.  He has begun his ascent.  It is an act of repentance:  a longing and a pursuit after God as he turns from one way of life toward another.

But God is not far from him.  For it is God who has been coaxing him all along.  It has been the voice of the Lord calling to him.  Calling him out from the tents of Meshek and Kedar, calling him to a place of shalom, stirring up within him a hunger and a thirst for righteousness, stirring up a longing for God Himself.

And so begins the journey of a disciple.  As Eugene Peterson reminds us in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, repentance is the first step along our journey with Christ.  We begin to realize that the solutions that our culture offers us to the challenges, difficulties, and longings of our heart don’t really satisfy, and we begin to see them for what they really are:  lies.  And so, in our discontent, we turn away from that way of living and begin to seek out something that will truly satisfy.  We begin to search for God.

And this is true not only at the beginning of the journey, but throughout it as well.  I believe that this is the place in which every Christian finds him or herself at times.  We find ourselves trapped in the midst of old sins and temptations, hungering after old addictions and vices.  And suddenly we realize how far we’ve fallen and we are sickened and ashamed.  We long to be with our God again, walking in his ways, and pursuing life in a kingdom of shalom, purity, and righteousness.  And so we cry out in our despair and we long for Jesus to come and start us on the journey with him anew.  We long for the Holy Spirit to take up residence within us in greater and greater fullness.  We hear the voice of our Father, the Lord, calling us out of the darkness into which we’ve settled and calling us into his marvelous light; into the house of the Lord.

And yet, the moment we come to this place, we begin to see that God was never far from us int he first place.  In fact, he has been pursuing us all along and he has given us his very presence to go with us and within us, helping us grow as we journey along with him.  It is his voice that we hear calling us out and inviting us to walk along with him.  And this brings us hope and joy, strength and endurance in the journey.  Such is the beauty of the life of a disciple:  a life in which we move from one dead-end way of living and into an adventure as we walk along with our Lord and God.  The question is:  will we take that first step with him?

“Repentance, the first word in Christian immigration, sets us on the way to traveling in the light.  It is a rejection that is also an acceptance, a leaving that develops into an arriving, a no to the world that is a yes to God.”

~Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, pg. 33

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My First Church Nightmare


Well, it’s official.  After six months of working at Trinity, I’ve finally had my first church nightmare.  It was the most bizarre experience ever.  So…I thought I would recount it here for fun:)

Here it goes…

I was leading one of our traditional services.  And yet, the whole thing was a mess.  People in the congregation kept getting up and just walking around and talking.  There were people walking all over the altar area, up and down the aisles, through the pews.  They were treating the sanctuary like it was some kind of tourist attraction, laughing and pointing at things; talking loudly and taking pictures.  And the more I tried to get things under control, the worse it got.

30 minutes passed and we still hadn’t gotten through the prayer of invocation.  I was fed up and angry.  Finally I just said, “I give up.  Leave!  Everybody, just go!  I’m done with this.”  At that point, everybody stopped and looked confused.  Eventually one person turned to me and said, “Well…could we at least have communion?”  In exasperation I threw up my hands and said, “No!  No you can’t!”  “But it’s important,” he replied.  “Alright, ” I responded, “But then you all have to leave.”

And that’s it.  That was the end of my dream.

Okay, so it’s not really a nightmare on the scale of other nightmares I’ve had, but it was definitely my first dream about “work”.  So what does it mean?  Well, I have my theories, but I thought I would toss this one out to you all first.  Sound off on the comments below and offer up your “interpretation” or on my Facebook page😉

Sweet dreams…

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