Category Archives: bit of bio

My midnight journal entry while backpacking

Potter County in northern Pennsylvania is where I grew up. It’s beautiful terrain, mainly farmland and woods. Every main road coming into the country has a large rustic wooden sign: “Welcome to Potter County, God’s Country.”Potter Country-God's Country And it’s sparsely populated. As I remember it, the human population was 20,000 and the estimated whitetail deer population was the same.

The summer I was 20, in between my junior and senior years at college, a local Christian camp organized a trail camp. I helped lead a group of 14 of us hiking the Susquehannock Trail System, 85 miles winding through the wilder parts of the county in a huge, irregular circle.

Here’s an anecdote from my journal of the hike. On Day 3 (Wed, Aug 13, 1975) at 5pm we arrived at Cross Fork. We built a fire, cooked some supper, strung some ropes between trees to make a shelter with big black tarp—in case it rained. My entry is dated that night at midnight.

What is so interesting about a night? Well, what is?

This night was pitch black. I could vaguely remember what woke me up. I had picked up a furry object with long coarse hair and it had given me a protesting nip with its teeth. A furry thing! The cobwebs of sleep vanished in a second. What was I petting? An opossum? Skunk? Raccoon? My hand gingerly explored and decided for the latter, especially when it started purring as I continued petting him. Soon he, too, wanted to explore, so I lifted the edge of my sleeping bag and in it went.

I wasn’t really sure if the others would believe me in the morning. And joy shared is joy doubled. So I woke my cousin who had a flashlight. It was a raccoon and the little fellow was cuddled next to me washing himself.

Soon everyone was back to sleep except him and me. Then suddenly he seemed to want out. I soon saw why. There, not five feet from my sleeping bag were five pairs of eyes glowing in the night. Soon there were six. Evidently Mama and the youngsters were out hunting supper and one little fellow got tired. So he picked out a soft spot to wait until Mama returned, and that soft spot happened to be me.

Don’t know why I was given the privilege. Maybe he knew I was writing the journal.

Did the other campers believe me and my cousin in the morning? Yes. I had some corroborating evidence. Some little dark droppings. In my sleeping bag.

An author I love to share

For many of us reading a good book is one of life’s joys. When we find a good author, we gain additional joy in telling others. So here I sit, with a smile on my face, about to mention my favorite author on this blog again.

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a young pastor whose view of God was too warm-hearted for his stern deacons. George MacDonaldThey couldn’t vote him out, for he was too well-loved. But they could starve him out, lowering his salary by two-thirds. The congregation’s misfortune became our good fortune, for MacDonald turned to writing for a livelihood, reaching many generations! He wrote over 50 books, ranging from children’s fantasy to realistic fiction.

These books have touched many persons, including C.S. Lewis whose conversion from atheism to faith began while reading one of MacDonald’s works. Lewis later wrote: “I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” G.K. Chesterton said that one of MacDonald’s books “made a difference to my whole existence.” Oswald Chambers said, “…how I love that man!” and wrote that “it is a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that George MacDonald’s books have been so neglected.”

Because MacDonald wrote so many years ago, his books are now public domain. So I not only have the joy of telling persons about them, but also can create electronic versions and then give them (free!) to those with a smartphone or tablet. I also make them a bit more readable (e.g., adding definitions to dialogue in broad Scots), and have fun creating the covers.

Here are three of his books that I recently added to my web page of George MacDonald eBooks:

Robert Falconer by George MacDonaldRobert Falconer – Story of a good-hearted, perceptive Scottish boy searching for his father and for a God of love amid the stern religion of his grandmother. Largely autobiographical, the book gives a vivid description of Scotland and London in MacDonald’s day and is full of much spiritual and practical insight as we follow Robert’s discoveries and friendships.

Castle Warlock (or Warlock o' Glenwarlock) by George MacDonaldCastle Warlock: A Homely Romance – Story of young Cosmo, heir of the once proud and mighty but now impoverished Warlock family in the harsh Scottish Highlands. We see true goodness embodied as the boy becomes a man, full of love for his ancestral land, the homely castle and, most of all, his noble father. Plot builds on an unfolding tale of a murdered sea captain in the family and an unexpected visit of a lovely young lady.

The Elect Lady by George MacDonaldThe Elect Lady – Story of Alexa, whose father has inherited a large, ancient Scottish estate. We watch love triangles build and resolve, wonder if ones consumed with riches can choose redemption. MacDonald’s God-breathed, practical wisdom shines through it all, particularly in the words and actions of a poor poet-tenant farmer and a valued servant girl.

An obsession for God’s presence

When I graduated from high school, I was only seventeen. Thinking I had a year before I needed to head to college, I decided to go to a Bible school where I and others in my church youth group had some peak spiritual experiences. That year at Elim quickly became two as I switched my career goal from biology research to researching the wisdom found in the Bible.

My years there added much to my knowledge of the Bible. light of God's presenceBut the most valuable gift of those years was a sense of the presence of God. This is something mystical and hard to describe. But I’ll try!

Two recurring experiences at Elim raised my awareness of this “presence” and allowed me to sense it often enough that I began to recognize when it was there and to miss it when it was not:

    • During my first semester, two intense personal struggles led me to engage in weekly fasts and spend much time in a prayer room, crying my heart out to God. While in the prayer room this “presence” of deep peace and joy would settle over me. It would remain as I left the room but then evaporate almost instantly at some thought or action—perhaps anxiety or pride—contrary to the spirit (and Spirit) of God.
  • As we gathered for worship at Elim, we sang both hymns and scripture choruses. And generally we were not only going through the motions but singing with full sincerity and meaning. At some point I noticed that this “presence” typically was there after a time of full-hearted worship—an inner glow, almost like my very being was in harmony with the universe (the opposite of the sinking feeling when my conscience bothers me).

This sense of God’s presence has become precious to me; like David, I’m obsessed (Psalm 63:1-7)! I don’t want to do anything that causes me to lose it. There’s a sense of “flow” to my day as I walk in communion with God. It fills me with a sense of buoyancy because I’m delivered from fears of what others might think or do—if God is for me, it doesn’t matter who is against (Romans 8:31-39)! I begin to respond like the early church as they sensed God’s presence (e.g., Acts 4:8,31).

Don’t get the impression that I have a sense of God’s presence all the time. Sometimes it is strong; most of the time it is weak. It disappears altogether when I have unconfessed sin or a broken relationship with someone.

But what a magnificent obsession! It makes my life. I’m communing with someone who loves everybody and this planet, and that love rubs off on me. And as I walk in the spirit (and Spirit) of God, I see the goodness of God’s ways, the wholeness of holiness. Which makes me want to obey more, in a glorious spiral or crescendo! Not every day (Romans 7:14-25). But many days.

I’m not sure if this is something that can be experienced by all believers at all times. Those with a different psychological make-up may perceive God differently than me. Also, some men and women of God recount going through a “dark night of the soul” where all sense of God’s presence is gone. But I do know that we all are instructed to “be (continually) filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), and to be “filled” with something (like rage or fear or compassion or the Spirit of God) is to sense it and then to respond to it. May we all sense and respond to God!

I hunger, not for progressive sanctification in holiness but for progressive nearness to God—which does result in sanctification, since delighting in God drives out desire for all that is not of God. What a joy to be godly through freely indulging an appetite for God.

Trusting the Bible—with eyes wide open

I grew up with total trust in the Bible. I soaked up its stories as a boy. God was at work in the world and the biblical heroes and heroines got to join in! And I heeded its teachings. rural My parents modeled this: I remember my father greeting with a “holy kiss” the other ordained men in our district churches and my mother always wearing a “prayer covering.” Both behaviors were done because they read Scripture passages teaching those things.

As I grew older, I realized that this was a naïve, simplistic view of Scripture:

  • Many commands in the Bible are written to specific situations and might not apply to us who live in a different situation. For example, the intent or spirit behind the holy kiss is “show warm affection to fellow believers.” In our culture, that is best achieved by a holy hug or firm handshake.
  • Second, I realized that the historical accounts in the Bible don’t always match our standards of historiography but seem to be in error. Many examples could be given, but here are two: Exodus 9:6 says “all the livestock of the Egyptians died”; but “all” seems clearly wrong when we compare it with vv20-21 and 11:5. 1 Chron. 22:14 says that David, to prepare to build the temple, amassed 3,400 metric tons of gold. Even commentators who are theologically conservative call that “glorious hyperbole.”
  • Third, I began to admit that many Bible texts fall short of the ultimate ethic God has in mind. For instance, some passages instruct slave-masters how to treat slaves rather than telling them to liberate their slaves.

After years of working through this, I still have a full attitude of trust in the Bible. After my initial naiveté as a child and then a stage of questioning, I now have a “second naiveté.” I again have total trust in the Bible—but now with my eyes wide open.

Yes, the Bible’s historical accounts contain “glorious hyperbole,” non-chronological narration, imprecise quotation, etc. But we need not label those as errors any more than we need to say a movie like Selma is untrue when it “adjusts” some dialogue or chronology. We expect the film writers to do that to make the film memorable and accessible; we still call it historically accurate. Also the Bible can still be seen as historically accurate when its writers “adjust” facts to give its passages more impact. It misled none of the original readers; it was what they expected.

Yes, there are biblical passages that are sub-par, texts seeming to affirm slavery, women being silent, etc. But those texts are not God giving instructions for all time. They are God instructing the people of that time, God accommodating to what those people could receive and do—something every good parent does. What if God, to partner with humans without violating their wills, truly had no other possible choice? (The experience of us seeing sub-Gospel instances in the Bible could be analogous to us seeing a friend set out an ashtray in their home and invite a chain-smoking neighbor to use it. Perhaps that ashtray is not our friend encouraging smoking but is part of a commitment to relate to this neighbor who would stay away if he or she couldn’t smoke. This would be confirmed if we later saw our friend nudge and encourage that neighbor away from smoking.) When we see Scripture as the story of God slowly moving humanity toward an ultimate ethic, then those sub-gospel instances of accommodation are no longer important. Scripture’s trajectory is what is important! Reading the Bible can be a series of discoveries that fill us with joy as we see beautiful glimpses of God giving people nudges toward the ethic of the Age to Come!

I have high trust in the Bible. With eyes open to its difficulties and complexities (to many of them, at least!), I still say that all its words are inspired by the Spirit of God who only speaks truth.

Do we pause to give thanks before meals?

Prayer before every meal was something my parents modeled as my brothers and I were growing up. Sometimes it was a silent prayer, with all of us bowing our heads until we heard a noticeable exhale from Daddy which signaled that the prayer time was over. But often Daddy prayed aloud, speaking his gratitude for God’s generosity with many biblical allusions. I also have vivid memories of Grandpa Reuben praying long, heartfelt prayers before meals when our extended family gathered. Soon after I got my first watch I timed his prayer; it was two minutes. That may not sound long, but it was to a growing boy sitting at a table that was groaning under a holiday repast!

I continue the practice of saying grace before meals. girl praying - Alfredo Rodriguez heritagegallerywest.comI see much value in using food in front of me as a reminder to pause and acknowledge God’s generosity in all of life. As the Apostle Paul asked, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Rather than taking for granted what is granted, a prayer of thanks before a meal helps me fill my mind with some of the many ways God has shown grace and blessing. At the very least it gets me thinking of the many good things in our world. And that they didn’t begin with me—that someone else deserves some credit.

There is a problem, though, when one prays at every meal. It can turn into mere ritual and lose its meaning.

Here are some ways to vary table grace to help it stay fresh and meaningful:

  • Learn a short memorized prayer that all can say in unison.
  • Alternate between memorized and spontaneous prayers of thanks.
  • Even “spontaneous” prayers are to some extent memorized—we tend to repeat phrases from previous prayers; so try to add at least a fresh phrase or two each time.
  • Some households join hands as they say the grace.
  • Learn a meal blessing song. (I posted a clip of a prayer song as our family celebrated a birthday last month.)
  • Go around the table giving everyone a chance to say something for which they are thankful; have that be the prayer.
  • Sometimes make the prayer simple. I remember my friend Juan’s typical prayer in our Bible institute cafeteria: before he sat down, he’d gesture toward heaven and then toward his tray, saying “Thank you, Lord, for this food!”

We can think of many creative ways to do table grace, I’m sure. But whether we use a new form or an old, any prayer from a thankful heart will be full of meaning.

Jesus’ way to deal with insult and criticism

Here’s a personal story from when I worked as a substitute rural mail carrier many years ago. I ran across it while preparing for a sermon in a series on the impact God’s love has as it fully sinks into our mind and heart. It’s adapted from my journal.

     Mail volume ebbs and flows. One day we rural carriers got a lot of mail and got it late. Back then (before automation) we had to put every piece of mail into delivery sequence before leaving the post office for the route. The more mail, the more sorting, and the later we started delivery. Toward the end of the route that day, I was running about two hours behind normal schedule and Mr. Green was waiting for me at his mail box. “I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but it sure as @#$! wasn’t delivering mail.” He thought I had been goofing off! And I had worked harder that day than for a while.rural
     I’m a people-pleaser. And was also sensitive to running late on the route, feeling that my brain ran a few megahertz slower than other carriers’. So his criticism went deep and kept replaying through my mind the next weeks. I found myself a little tense and edgy every time I came to his mail box. And getting a little jolt each time I saw one of his letters while sorting.
     Finally I decided that this had gone on too long. I gave myself an assignment, a simple spiritual discipline: every time I thought of Mr. Green and his comment, I would tell myself: God loves me and was pleased with my hard work that day. Initially that truth didn’t have as much energy and emotional grip as my frustration and anxiety did. But as I continued to feed my faith in God’s love, I soon could think about Mr. Green with inner calm and compassion. I was following Jesus’ strategy: “He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly” (1 Peter 2:23).
     We mail carriers sometimes share war stories. I told another carrier about Mr. Green and how I dealt with it: by telling myself that God was pleased with me even if Mr. Green wasn’t. She responded by telling me of a time that a trucker honked and yelled at her because he thought she pulled out in front of him. She too had left it bother her a while, letting his anger toward her replay in her mind. But then she dealt with it, she said, by telling herself that she doesn’t care what he thinks.

Which strategy should we use when unfairly accused: rest in God’s love and let his assessment matter most? or tell ourselves that the other person doesn’t matter?

Following Jesus’ way—letting our case in the hands of God who always judges fairly—is far healthier. Both my strategy and my coworker’s strategy allowed us to let go of anxiety over an insult. But only the approach that Jesus modeled enables us to give the angry person “the gift of non-anxious presence”—to both let go of the other’s anger and yet be fully engaged with them.

How this preacher got a bit more mellow

One of the handy things about being a preacher for 36 years is that often my current sermon text is one I’ve preached on before. Sometimes I can harvest ideas from the old sermon. Sometimes I’m appalled at how I said things, and marvel at the grace the congregation showed a young preacher! The most fun is when I find personal anecdotes that flood me with memories.

Last Sunday I preached on Hebrews 10:23-39. Back in the mid 1980’s, when April was two years old and Rachel a few months old, I had preached on verses 36-37 about persevering in doing God’s will because in just a little while Jesus is coming and will not delay. That sermon manuscript had an anecdote that is especially vivid now that our family has two grandchildren under four months! It’s something that had happened the day before.

On Friday afternoon April developed a fever. She cried off and on all night and all yesterday. (I’ll spare you the details. Imagine the worst possible scenario, and you got it!) In the middle of all that, at one point, I was holding Rachel. I went outside with her, kicking the screen door open. I had to get away from it all. I was saying, “Lord, I’m supposed to be calm, filled with love?!”

One of the things God said to me (since that week I had been mulling over this Scripture which talked about Christ coming again ‘in just a very little while’) was, “If you knew I was coming in an hour, how that would that affect your attitude? How important would your comfort be? Or would you focus on doing as much as you could to please me?”

This preacher is of course older, wiser, more mellow, more mature now. A bit! Some of what helps keep such meltdowns away nowadays is that delightful status called grandparenthood where Karen & I get to send our grandsons home to their parents at night! But some of it, hopefully, is an ability to step outside of my present emotions and to look to my values, to the person I want to be: not one who is selfish and angry and destructive but one who loves and nurtures those around me because Jesus is Lord and I am choosing to live like Jesus and please him. One day I will stand before Christ the King and give account of my life. I want to be aware of that eternal dimension and make daily choices in light of it. Bit by bit I’m letting that future transform my present.