Handling God’s Word—Literally

One of the reasons I love Lectio Divina is the oral nature of the Scripture. The Bible was meant to be heard, and I love the way the Word feels on my tongue. (Revelation 10:9)

But handwriting the Scriptures will cause you to linger over a phrase longer than you might if you just read the same phrase aloud. Maybe just long enough to sense something the Holy Spirit wants to reveal to you. Instead of hurrying over familiar texts, this method of “sacred reading” will cause you to feel the words through your fingertips. (Galatians 6:11) I have come to call the practice, “Scriptio Divina.”

 What to expect:

1.     Expect the process will be slow.

Hand copying is intended to be slow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. When we read, we often read quickly, as if we are driving. But the whole goal of hand copying is to slow us down to a “walking pace” through Scripture. Don’t rush. Take your time and learn to enjoy the journey more than the destination. The goal is not to check the box that you completed the book; it’s to engage deeply in the Scriptures to see what the Holy Spirit might want to teach us about God’s story through the redeeming work of Christ.

2.     Expect to see details that you’ve never noticed before.

Seeing details, elements of dialog, and/or additional elements of a story you might have read before is common with hand copying. As I engage with this I continually find myself thinking, “Wow, I never noticed that before!” I also find myself asking questions about the text for the first time, oftentimes catching myself mid-sentence thinking “I wonder why…” or “Could it be that…” I personally found the repetitive use of a semicolon to be incredibly irritating. (But I am grumpy that way.)

3.     Expect your hand to cramp up from time to time.

It’s okay. It happens. In the digital age, we’re not used to handwriting so much. Just take a break and start again tomorrow.

4.     Expect God to meet you on this journey.

This has become one of the most important ways I encounter God in Scripture. Jesus meets me in this process is powerful – and oftentimes unexpected – ways. Expect him to meet you in this experience as well.

Practical tips:

1.     Decide on a translation of your choice. Some people choose a translation they are familiar with; others choose a new translation so they can “hear” Scripture differently than they are used to. Whatever you choose, just stick with your translation all the way through.

2.     Start with a fresh notebook. When I start a new project, I like to have a fresh journal or notebook. Several asked me what notebooks I use. You can use whatever notebook or journal you want.

3.     Choose a pen or mechanical pencil you like. For some, any old pen will do. I use a high-quality mechanical pencil .07 grade lead. I also use a separate retractable eraser. I always mess up what I am doing and so I like to erase the mistake and get it right. The eraser that comes with the pencil wears out too quickly for me.

4.     Make a grace-filled commitment to write out ten verses a day. Just ten. Some people get overwhelmed and discouraged because they make a commitment to do a chapter a day or five chapters a week. That’s a lot! Take your time, slow down, and enjoy the journey. If you do less than ten verses a day, that’s fine. If you end up doing more than ten, that’s fine, too.

5.     Find a dedicated place and time each day. I like to hand copy each morning, right after I make my coffee. I do it either in my reading chair or, when the weather is nice, outside on the deck. Having a grace-filled rhythm helps me engage with it more easily on a daily basis.

6.     Invite others to join you. It’s more fun to take a journey with others. Why not invite friends, neighbors, people from church, and/or family members to join you (in person or online)? It can add another rich layer to experiencing God’s Word.

7.     Before you begin each time, say a simple, heartfelt prayer. I usually whisper a short and simple prayer: “Lord, teach me something new today.” I am not doing this simply to write out the book; I want to encounter the living God through His living Word. I want to make sure I am centered and oriented with an openness to receive from Him as he speaks to me through the process. Consider a simple prayer of humility, anticipation, and openness to the Lord meeting you in the process as you begin each day.

8.     Find – and settle into – your own hand copying “personality.” Each one of us will find we have our own hand copying rhythm and process. It took me a bit to figure mine out, but I learned that I write best when I move through the text phrase by phrase. I say each phrase out loud…and then copy it down. Then I say the next phrase aloud…and copy it down. This is what works for me, but find what pace, rhythm, and style works for you.

A Final Word:

The pressure’s off. You don’t have to have beautiful penmanship. You don’t even have to have a perfect script. The purpose is not perfection or legibility, but engagement.

You can start small if you wish. If you want to start smaller, consider starting with a shorter book – maybe Ruth, Jonah, James, 1, 2, 3 John, or Jude. I started with Philippians and found it to be so invigorating that I decided to do the Gospels next. As of this date, I have hand-copied Matthew, Mark, and Luke and am currently beginning chapter six of John. (see the picture below from this morning)

A surprising benefit: I have three adult sons. I am hand copying the entire New Testament in a leather-bound sketchbook–one for each son to be given to them when I pass from this life to the next. A friend of mine is going to do this for his two young children to be given to them upon their graduation or on the day they get married. Be creative with what you might do with your copy.

Or give it to no one. Let it be a secret discipline between you and the original Author.

Whatever you do, remember this is God’s Word—His life-giving and accessible gift given for us to encounter, understand, and join Him. He wants us to participate in His over-arching story of compassion to redeem, renew, restore, and reconcile humanity back to Himself through the person of Jesus Christ. So, don’t be surprised if you are swept up into this story.

Expect God to show up in beautiful and surprising ways as you journey through the book that we love.

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The Face of an Enemy

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men

Could not put Humpty Dumpty together again.

That’s kind of our own situation in this messed up world where we find ourselves. That’s your life. That’s my life. In this world that there has been a great fall. Something is messed up and broken . . . not just broken but shattered. We want it set right, but we can’t seem to get it right.  

Relationships need restoration.

This has been a painful week for me. Within twenty-four hours I received two texts from two different men that were very threatening and hostile.

I tried to mediate a conflict between two Christian men last year. It didn’t go well. But last week I sent one of those men a compliment after not having any communication with him for months. He had really helped a mutual friend of mine and I sent him a text expressing my gratitude for how God had used him in my friend’s life. But the old wound that I had tried to mediate was still open and he sent me the following correspondence:

“Joe, you stopped me from confronting [Name]. I should have never let you do that and will not make that mistake again. I invite you to put me out of your mind and move on. Our relationship is over.”

A ministry leader in another state reached out to me because he had heard that I can help pastors who are hurting. I invited him to come to Colorado so that we could spend some time together. We set that up time for him to come. I knew a relative of his and told him, “Tell your “relative” I said hi.”

The next day I received a long text from the “relative” after not having spoken to him for nearly two years:

“I received your message via my [family member]. Do not ever mention that you know me via my family and do not ever correspond to me through anyone we know. You are a dangerous person and I have a responsibility to protect the innocent and vulnerable. You have a hidden agenda.”

I was standing in the checkout line of our local grocery store this week when a homeless man that we have helped here at the church several times; smiled and said, as he walked by me, “Hello, brother.” He shot me a malicious look and yelled, “I’m not your [expletive deleted] brother!”

I went to my woodshed to pray about these hostile encounters and as I sat quietly, listening to the birds sing and the wind slip through the boughs of nearby pines, I sensed the Lord say something like, “What do you see reflected in the faces of your enemies?”

That led me to ask a few questions about myself.

  • Where did I best reflect Christ in my relationship with my brothers?
  • When did I least reflect Christ with them?
  • What made these moments so difficult?
  • How badly do you want your relationships to be restored?

What I came to see in my own soul is that I looked upon each of these men as small-souled and immature. I thought of them that way, and that probably meant that I treated them in that way in hundreds of ways that no one might really notice except me and them.

What I have come to know is that I cannot reflect the love of Christ to my brothers and hold them in contempt at the same time. I want to do both, but it is not possible.

Contempt is a fouler form of hate. It is worse because it assumes personal superiority. It is the opposite of humble love. It is antithetical to being the kind of person who would, without manipulation, remove an outer garment, gird themselves with a loin cloth, pick up a basin of water and a towel and wash an enemy’s dirty feet.

I found a prayer that has encouraged my heart by John O’Donohue. Perhaps it will yours as well.

I have a long way to go before I reflect King’s love for my hostile brothers. But at least now I know what needs working on in my own soul. For that I am grateful.

What do you see reflected in the face of your enemy?

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Mount Princeton—Buena Vista, Colorado

Even mountains need to rest from their work

of shouldering the sky, of bearing cumulous

buckets on the slanting yoke of treeline

where snow and ice teetered all winter.

 

So on this cloudless summer morning,

you crack your ridged back to release

tension from each knobby vertebra,

stretch out your rocky legs and cross

one green-timbered ankle over the other,

then lean back with hands behind your head

to admire the endless blue of this good view.

 

At some point you doze, and all I see are

bony elbows jutting to either side of your

barrel chest, a shadow of scrub grass

in the craggy folds of your armpits.

I watch your ribs expand, contract,

inhaling and exhaling sunlight as your

collegiate majesty welcomes Sabbath.

 

Amy Nemecek

July 2022

 

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Open the Eyes of My Heart

Lectio Divina is a way of reading the Bible that is over 1,500 years old and means “divine reading.” It’s a simple way of slowing down enough to interact with a specific scripture passage while asking the Holy Spirit to use the reading to speak to your heart.

In the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, readers are encouraged to read the same passage on a daily basis and listen to it again and again. This allows you to reflect deeply on one passage. Use the same four questions with the same verse every day. This approach to listening to God may be new to you. If so, great! This opportunity may open new doors in your relationship with God. Enter in and see what might change in your life.

QUESTION 1— READ

Read the passage slowly.  What stands out to you? The first question leads you to read the text again and see what it says to you. Is there a word or a phrase that stands out to you? Something that “shimmers”

QUESTION 2—REFLECT

Reflect on this point. What comes to mind as you reflect on the passage? The second will require a little more time so you can meditate and ponder what you are seeing in the passage. What do you see, hear, feel, or taste? Put yourself in the story. What emotions arise as you see the scene unfold?

QUESTION 3—RESPOND

What is the invitation from Jesus? What is He inviting you to do? Pray the point. Turn any insight you have into a prayer. In response to the third question, think of a way to pray the Scripture, asking the Lord to do in you what you are seeing in the passage.

QUESTION 4—REST

Read it one final time with a posture of receiving fully what you have heard and seen. Rest in the presence of God with you during this time and what He has spoken to you. Go forward into your day, taking with you the consolations you have received from this time of reading and prayer.

NO RIGHT ANSWERS

Many people find it helpful to write down their responses to these questions. The point is to reflect and listen. You are not looking for a “right” answer. These questions are meant to help you connect to God and listen to what the Spirit might be saying to you.

Reading the Torah
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Living with a Bruised Heart

I dedicated him to God when he was a chubby little bundle of joy. I helped him pray to invite Jesus into his little heart when he was waist high to me. I stood in the waters of the baptistry and prayed over him before lowering him into those waters. I watched him grow to love DC Talk and other Christian bands when he was a teenager. And then I watched him walk away from the faith of his youth. He no longer considers himself a Christian.

His mother, grandparents, and I pray for him very nearly every day. For parents are only as happy as their saddest child.

But what do I do?

Pray, that’s what I do. Pray. And weep.

As I sit here looking out at the morning sun splashing Mount Princeton a rosy pink from my mountain home, I am seeing faces that make my heart grow sad. Not just my own children, but I see the faces of congregants; people who are trying so hard to find their way in this world without Jesus. Oh, they come to church. Some come regularly, some intermittently but they are in my flock, and I am their shepherd. And while I am delighted with our church family and I am at peace with Jesus, I am also very aware that my sense of melancholy is tied to the saddest member of my church.

I am careful about boundaries. I am quite willing to let people feel the full weight of the consequences of their sins. These consequences can be their best tutors. But, oh this weight, this cloud, this dull and throbbing ache for the people for whom I have been given charge is relentless.

When I was a young man, Anwar Sadat was president of Egypt. He was in the news a lot due to the complications of the Arab and Israel conflict. He had a small dark spot high on his forehead. I asked my father what that was, and he said it was a perpetual prayer bruise. Said that Sadat knelt and faced Mecca five times every single day and touched his forehead to the ground in prayer to Allah. It was a bruise that never went away because of his devotion.

The longer I live and the more I work caring for the souls of pastors, I have come to believe that pastors who are faithful to be present to the people in their communities are going to have bruises on their hearts. Those bruises will come from criticisms, misunderstandings, betrayals, and sometimes the meanness that sheep have towards their shepherds.

But what do I do? Pray, that’s what I do. Pray. And weep.

Matthew tells us that Jesus felt this heaviness, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)

The Apostle Paul commands all Christians to, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  (Galatians 6:4)

I wonder if this sadness is part of bearing the burden. I wonder if, in bearing, we are more present. I wonder if being more present with them leaves open the opportunity to run to them when they “come to themselves” and realize all that is waiting for them in the Father’s house. 

But what do I do? Pray, that’s what I do. Pray. And weep.

I believe this sadness keeps a father on the front porch looking down a long and dusty road for a broken and sad boy to come walking home. And when he sees the familiar stride of his child, to be quick to leap off the porch and run down the road to embrace his son. And it is this sadness that makes a pastor stand on the porch of a little church every Sunday morning looking at a parking lot for that troubled family to drive up.

So, I wait, watch, and pray—ready to run to both my son and you.

For I am a pastor and I am learning to live with a bruised heart.

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Faith in the Darkness

Then God said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah…” Genesis 22:2

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy The Road describes the journey south taken by a young boy and his father after an unnamed catastrophe has struck the world. The man and the boy, who also remain unnamed throughout the entire novel, travel through the rough terrain of the southeastern United States.

The conditions they face are unforgiving: rotted corpses, landscapes devastated by fire, abandoned towns, and houses. These two travelers are among the few living creatures remaining on earth who have not been driven to murder, rape, and cannibalism.

The father and his son struggle to survive in the harsh weather with little food, supplies, or shelter. Along the way, they must escape from those who might seek to steal from them or, even worse, kill them for food. Despite their hardships, the man and the child remain determined to survive, reaffirming to themselves that they are the “good guys” who do not seek to harm others.

The father over and over again reminds the boy that they are the ones that are “carrying the fire.” The boy in particular retains his unquenchable humanity against all odds, consistently seeking to help the tattered remnants of living humans they encounter.

The relationship can be summed up in a sentence at the beginning of the novel:

“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”

Anyone who is a parent knows how true a sentence that is. In this story, God appears to Father Abraham and asks him to give up his world entire. To extinguish the fire of his life.

It is a dark road, this road to Moriah.  It’s dark because it means Abraham is losing his son, whom he loves. But it’s not just that. It’s dark because it means losing his dream, for Isaac was the promise of God. Isaac was the promise that Abraham’s life would lead to a new community, and he was losing his dream. But it wasn’t just that.

It was dark because he wasn’t just going to lose Isaac. Abraham was to destroy his son at the command of God. So what do you do when you have to walk in the darkness, and God seems distant or remote or silent?

Abraham at this moment is stepping out into what could be called “the road of godforsakenness,” when it seems like God is contradicting himself when it seems that God wants to stop the salvation that he’s begun.

This is a story about darkness, most of us at some point or another in our lives; understand what it is to walk in darkness. Faith is about hanging on in dark places.

Faith is not about doubt-free certainty. Faith is about tenacious obedience at all costs.

We all have dark times. When it looks like the God whom we serve is not cooperating with the script we have written for our lives.

Elisabeth Elliot told about a time years ago, visited a sheep ranch in Northern Wales. One day she saw a shepherd pick up a sheep and take it to a sheep dip which is a large vat of liquid insecticide and fungicide, and put the sheep into the vat, and the sheep frantically fought for air. Then the shepherd pushed the head down, but the sheep kept coming up, and the shepherd kept pushing it down because all the surface of the sheep had to be coated with the solution to keep it from getting ill.

She said, “I wondered what it’s like to feel like your shepherd is trying to kill you. Then she remembered the death of her missionary husband at the hands of the very people he served and said, “Oh, I know.”

If this story of Abraham tells us anything it tells us that sometimes your shepherd, who is trying to save you, will feel to you like he is trying to kill you. And that is a dark time, indeed.

I don’t know what it looks like for you, but I know this: Every human being that ever lived has walked in darkness sometimes.

This story teaches us that we can trust God when we don’t understand God. You can trust God’s heart when you can’t trace His hand. When your life is hard. When following, Jesus means suffering something like a death in your life. When your future is uncertain you can look to the cross in the meantime.

And even though you may not have every one of your questions answered you can be sure that God was willing to go this far to be faithful to you, to love you, and to rescue you.

abrahams-sacrifice-early

One of my favorite artists is the Dutch master, Rembrandt. I have a print of his version of The Return of the Prodigal Son hanging in my study. I love that image. But a close second is the backstory of Rembrandt’s rendition of this story in Genesis. A piece entitled Abraham’s Sacrifice.

Early in his life, he depicted this story in an epic painting. He was a celebrated and prodigiously gifted artist who, in his own personal life, was living far from God, but he painted this story for a patron. He used a huge canvas and painted this action moment that is really nothing more than murder in progress.

There is young and innocent Isaac bare-chested and sprawled out on a rock with old Abraham’s left hand pressing the boy’s face back, as if to expose his throat, his right hand extended to reach for a knife. All the while an angel has flown up behind him, with panic on his face, and grabs his right hand, knocking the knife from Abraham’s hand.

That’s his painting of this story as a young man.

Abraham's Sacrifice
Abraham’s Sacrifice

But then decades later in life Rembrandt knew what it was like to lose a child in death, he lost several children, in fact. He came to be convinced of the love of God for him in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and he began living as a follower of Jesus. As an old man, having lost children of his own leaving him with only one son left late in life—he paints this scene again.

He does it differently. He does it on an etching plate. And in that version of this scene, Abraham shelters his son, Isaac with his arms around his son, cradling him to his chest and covering the boy’s eyes. The expression on Abraham’s face is one of sorrow and love.  And behind Abraham, there is a strong, sheltering angel who cradles this father as the father cradles his son.

This version of the story was done by someone who knew how far God was willing to go to embrace us. Our heavenly Father was willing to lose a Son, so that He might gain people like Rembrandt and me back into his forever family.

This is our good news. That God shelters and cradles us even when it seems that we are walking into the unknown darkness where the fire has gone out. And because of Jesus, you and I can say to the Living God, even at our darkest times, “Here I am.”

So, may you learn to trust God even in the moments that you don’t understand God. Then and only then will you be each the other’s world entire.

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Lessons on a Mountain Trail

Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”   Luke 7:47 (NKJV)

Several years ago, I took a group of high school students backpacking in the Gore Range of Colorado and there were two boys that week that stood out to me. I don’t remember their names, but I can see their faces in my mind. One was very clean and polite, and the other was always dirty and often crude and rude in his interactions with me and the other backpackers. 

The clean boy was always at the front of the group as we podded up the alpine trail. He would, in a quiet yet annoying way, correct the other students in the way they put their packs on or laced their boots. If they didn’t get the rhythmic breathing correct, he could hear it and would nag them that their syncopated breathing was making it difficult for him to breathe correctly. (no one knew what syncopated meant)

In the evening, when we would cook supper, the clean boy was quite critical of the taste of the food.  Too spicy, too bland, too hot, too cold….  He was very insistent that the dishes be spotless before he used the bowl or plate.  He washed his hair every day.  He brushed his teeth three times a day.  When it came time to pray his hand would always shoot up. He was the first to volunteer answers during Bible devotions. He was clean, proper, and polite. He knew the Bible very well and would often quote verses to us unsolicited. 

The dirty boy on the hand was quite the opposite. He couldn’t keep up with the rest of the students.  He never picked up the rhythmic breathing technique. His nose was always running. He didn’t bring a handkerchief, so I had to let him borrow (quickly keep) one of mine. He didn’t like to use it. I have never seen anyone who had snot flowing from their nose so much and not be self-conscious about it at all. It would ooze out in slimy streams of clear goo and hang from the end of his nose as his head leaned forward while he walked. Every time we would stop, I would tell him to wipe his nose which he did on his already saturated sleeve.

Often, he would drop his trail food in the dirt and never so much as brush it off before it went into his mouth. He would only change his shirt and socks if I told him to do so. He was constantly telling me that he couldn’t make it. That the hike was too hard; his feet hurt, his pack was too heavy, and on and on the complaining went. He was as difficult of a hiker as I have ever had to deal with.

Two boys were never so different.

At the end of the 6-day wilderness trek, we would always celebrate the week at a local church.  A large meal of Bar-B-Q brisket and potatoes along with rolls and fresh salad more than made up for the week-long experience of reconstituting the freeze-dried backpacking meals in the mountains.  We would laugh at the experiences of the week like who fell in the creek, the worst meal, the bad weather, and the climb up a peak. Laughter would dominate the times around rectangle tables in the fellowship hall of some mountain Baptist church. 

Good times.

When it came time to say goodbye, I would give each of them a nickname based on some experience during the week and try to highlight a character trait I saw in them during the week: patience, encourager, servant, leader, etc. 

On this particular trip, I followed that routine. I would call them up in front of the rest of the group, recall some funny incident or touching moment and give them a hug and their nickname. Kind of like a rite of passage. It came down to the clean good boy and the high-maintenance dirty boy. I brought them up together. And that is where I was surprised. After the good-natured ribbing and trait-telling, I hugged them both at the same time, one under each arm. The good boy was as stiff as the rectangle tables and gave me half a smile. The dirty boy melted into me like a slab of butter and wept and wept, covering my shoulder with the mountain goo that had dripped off the end of his nose all week. The good boy couldn’t wait for the hug to be over. The dirty boy wouldn’t let go. I wish I could remember his name.

But this name-forgotten, snot-slinging, hard-to-deal-with kid taught me a valuable lesson: sometimes dirty boys are easier to love than clean ones.

the dirty boy and the clean boy
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A Long (Occasional) Obedience in the Same Direction

Not long ago, my wife and I drove up the hill to the driveway of the first church I served as pastor. The tires made a low crackle as I turned into the still gravel parking lot. I first drove onto that gravel in 1984. I was twenty-six years old. I remember putting my face against the glass and cupping my hands around my face so that I could block out the light and see into the entryway of the church. I stepped away from the glass after a minute and told my young wife, “There is no way they would want me.”

I was wrong.

They eventually invited me to be their pastor with a unanimous vote.  Within a month, they called for my ordination. And I spent three and a half wonderful years as shepherd of that little country church. I preached Sunday morning, taught a pastor’s Sunday School Class, led a Sunday night discipleship class, preached Sunday night, and taught a bible study on Wednesday. We went visiting on Tuesday nights. We had revivals, Vacation Bible School, and January Bible Studies every year.

I conducted my first Baptism, Wedding, Funeral, and hospital visit from that church. Along with moderating monthly business meetings, men’s prayer breakfasts, and boys’ fishing tournaments.

I preached tons of bad sermons, and one or two good ones. I learned how to stay when the church family tried to quarrel with each other—and me. I learned how to sit with someone who was hurting. I learned how to show up week after week after week.

When I left that church in Oklahoma to pastor a church in Colorado, I took the life-long lessons and the residual love of that first church with me. I thought I was moving “up” by moving to a larger church in a metropolitan area. I was not moving up. I was just moving.

All the most valuable lessons of being a pastor I learned in that first church:

  • God rarely gets in a hurry about anything
  • Never value preaching over pastoring
  • Your private life has a proportionate impact on the Kingdom
  • Never value vision over presence
  • Be content with obscurity. (Jesus was)
  • Never value achievement over constancy
  • Being present is more important than the “Amen” you might receive for your sermon
  • When someone says “several people are upset” that means me and maybe my spouse
  • The reasons people say they are leaving are never the real reasons
  • Sometimes losing a battle in organizational leadership is winning the war in pastoral care
  • Never value knowledge over reflection

The love that church showed my wife and me during those impressionable years acted as a protective coat of grace that they applied layer by layer and has lasted for low these many years.

When we drove onto that gravel parking lot, I’m not going to lie, I got a lump in my throat. Then we saw members from when we were there in the 80s.

Harold is still handing out candy and making everyone laugh—he walks with a cane now. Carolyn told me about a sermon in Nehemiah that I preached in 1987 that helped her get through a difficult time when she was uncertain about leading a choir trip to New York City. She is struggling with kidney failure now. Jim Simms told me, “Pastor Joe, your wife is just as beautiful as she was when you were or pastor. Then Harold said something funny, and Jim began to laugh. I was suddenly and mysteriously transported back in time. That laugh was echoing in my soul for nearly four decades. I began to weep. Lynette began to cry because I was crying. Jim is in a wheelchair now.

We felt a lovely completion to a long journey.

Patina is what is left on the surface of something grown beautiful, especially with age or use. We who have lived several decades may or may not notice this sheen on our souls when we pause to reflect on our lives. But I suspect if we can’t see it on our own souls and lives, I am certain that others can see it.

I found a poem that has grown to mean a great deal to me that I want to share with you here:

The Layers

by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

“Live in the layers,

not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

Check back with me in another thirty-five years and we will see how that sheen is deepening. In the meantime, I will just keep showing up.

My first pulpit.
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A Letter From the Past

When my mother died last fall, my brother gave me a letter I had written to her and my father when I was in college. It is yellowed and crinkled—like the skin on the back of my hand—and yet my mother kept it all these years. I can see why she kept it. I would have kept it too.

My parents had a huge impact on my spiritual life. I try to thank them for that guidance in this letter. I also mention a girl in the letter. I was smitten by her and scared to ask her out. Clearly, that never worked out. Thank God!

But I hope you can see that I was more smitten by Jesus than the girl.

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Long Wandering Prayer

When I became the pastor of the church I currently serve, there was not much to do. Not a lot of demands on my time. I would go to the office, return the calls, make some plans, meet with anyone who wanted to meet with me, write my sermons, and still have quite a bit of daylight left in the day. Our mountain home sits at 8,700 feet above sea level about seven miles from town. Our property borders 1,200 acres of public land. A rancher leases the grazing rights of the land for a month out of the summer and hunters trek across it in the fall, but other than that no one ever walks the woods, creek bottom, and open mountain meadows.

One day, when I first moved here, I was sitting in my study at church reading a book on a Monday. My administrative assistant was part-time, so no one was there. The phone wasn’t ringing. All the tasks for the day had been done and it was 1:00 in the afternoon. I was fidgeting in my chair as I read my book on prayer. I glanced out my office window and glimpsed Mt. Princeton silhouetted against a deep blue Colorado sky. I turned the page of my book but kept looking out the window towards my house sitting at the base of that mountain.

A thought crept into my mind that I might go home and sit on my deck with my book. So, I went home. As I got out of my Jeep and began to walk up the steps to my home, I felt a twinge of guilt sweep over me. I felt like I was doing something wrong. I felt as if I should be at the church doing church stuff. Or at least be there if a lost pagan dropped by needing to know how to become a Christian. (Like that never ever happens) The guilt was strong. It was the same feeling I had when I ditched class when I was in High School. I knew that feeling well. I almost got in my Jeep and went back to town; but then an inner feeling or thought came to me as I walked up the steps, “Joe, who you are becoming is more important than what you do. Let’s go for a walk together.”

I went into the house, put my boots on, grabbed a hat, leashed my dog, and we went for a long walk with the Lord. As I wandered the woods and creek bottom, I talked with the Lord about problems I was wrestling with, people I was concerned about, theology I wasn’t sure about, and marveled at the beauty of the Colorado mountains. I stopped and pulled the stem from an Indian Paintbrush and sucked the sweet nectar from its bloom. I ran my hand along the rough crumbling lichen on a boulder, I breathed deep the vanilla aroma from the bark of a ponderosa pine.

As I took in the glory of what the ancient church fathers called the second book of God, I remembered a verse from the prophet Isaiah,

“For you shall go out with joy,
And be led out with peace;
The mountains and the hills
Shall break forth into singing before you,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
(55:12)

The presence of the Lord was palpable for me that afternoon. I was surrounded by his smile with every wildflower, prickly pear, poignant sage, and tawny antelope speeding away from my approach. I realized I had been walking and praying for two hours.

One of the main postures of a pastor is prayer. I found a way to waste time with God. I found a way to not be productive with God. I found a way to experience God.

My friend David Hansen wrote a book called Long Wandering Prayer about this practice that I experienced hundreds of Mondays ago.

Long wandering prayer happens on the inside like it happens on the outside. It is mental wandering in the presence of God, corresponding to physical wandering in the presence of God. Long wandering prayer involves leaving our normal environment for the express purpose of spending many hours alone with God. It involves walking, or at least moving, and stopping whenever we want, to consider a lily for as long as we desire. Long wandering prayer uses the fact that our minds wander as an advantage to prayer rather than a disadvantage. In long wandering prayer we recognize that what we want to pray about may not be what God wants us to pray about. Our obsessive drive to control our minds in the presence of God, that is, to pray about one thing or stick to one list, maybe a form of hiding from God. In this kind of prayer, we recognize the wandering mind as a precious resource for complex and startling dialogue with God.

Sometimes we might question if we are doing prayer correctly. There is no wrong way to pray. Find your way to be in the presence of God and let him sort it. Pray, as Eugene Peterson has said, the way we can instead of trying to pray the way we can’t.

I love the story of the Sunday School teacher trying to explain to a little girl how Enoch of the Old Testament went to heaven. The teacher reminded the little girl what Genesis 5:24 said:

“And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.”

The little girl asked, “How could Enoch go to heaven if he did not die?” The teacher explained it this way: Well maybe one day, while on one of their long walks, God put His arm around Enoch and said, ‘Enoch, we’ve walked a long way together. It’s closer to my house than it is to yours so why don’t you just come on home with Me.’”

If I don’t come home one day, perhaps now you know why.

Mt. Princeon
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