The Gospel of the Good Finish (memorial for Jerry Thornhill)

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Be diligent to come to me quickly…Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. 

Our emphasis in the church today is on a good start. But not all who start well finish well. The term “born again” has become the buzzword for conservative Christians. The thrust of our popular gospel is on a good start.

A gospel of the good start, yes, but also a gospel of the good finish.

In his valedictory address to young Timothy, the apostle Paul gives us the credentials of the gospel of the good finish of which he is an exemplar. He “fleshes out” a gospel that has not only a good beginning but a good ending.

Paul talks about several qualities that helped him to finish well. Let me walk us through the imagery Paul uses to describe a long obedience in the same direction.

First, he says,

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering…”

Ancient sacrifices were not only flesh from animals and cereal grains, but they were also liquid. They were called “libations.” Paul says, “The last drops of my sacrifice are falling.”

Then he says,

“…and the time of my departure is at hand.”

The word used here means “striking the tents of an army.” Paul says, “My time to go has come.”

Then he says,

“I have fought the good fight…”

The term “fought” comes from the Greek agōnia, meaning “struggle. From it we get our English word “agony.” It comes from the Olympian and Isthmian games and the agony of effort it required to compete for the prize. Paul says, “I’ve agonized with a noble and beautiful agony.”

Then he says,

“…I have finished the race…”

He sees himself as the Lord’s runner. (In Jerry’s case, he might be a cyclist or skier) He had said to the Ephesian elders at Miletus in Acts 20:24–“[Pray for me] that I may finish my race with joy.”

Finally, he says,

“…I have kept the faith.”

He says, “I have cherished it. I’ve kept it pure, undiluted, unmixed, undefiled. Now I’m ready to give back this precious treasure to the One who has entrusted me with it.”

You can read the final words of any hero from any era, or any generation and you’ll not find more beautiful poetry than in that five-fold imagery. And it reminds us that the gospel of the good finish is built on a life of developing Christian maturity.

I am already being poured out as a drink offering,

and the time of my departure is at hand. 

I have fought the good fight,

I have finished the race,

I have kept the faith. 

If I have ever met a man that personified fighting the good fight it was Jerry Thornhill.

If he told me once, he told me twenty-five times that he wanted to finish strong. That was his sunum bunum—to finish strong for Jesus Christ.

The Vote

The weekend Lynette and I came to be formally presented to Mountain Heights as a candidate for their next pastor and our schedule was filled with meetings. I met with every committee on a Saturday. Then there was an open meeting in the Fellowship Hall where the church could ask me any questions they wanted, and I could ask my questions. It was a great meeting. I felt really good about the pastor/people connection.

The search committee, of which Jerry was the chairman, met at my dad’s home down in Poncha Springs and we debriefed the day. We talked about the procedure of voting. Who was going to make the secret ballots, what would be the collection process, and other details. We talked about the percentage necessary for me to win so that I could be the pastor. I remember telling them that the vote would have to be at least 90%—and even at 90% I would have to pray long and hard about it.

 The next morning, I preached what we call in the Baptist world “In View of a Call” and I thought it went pretty well. When the service was over, I think Dan Ehlers escorted us to the pastor’s study, while Jerry conducted the business meeting to vote on me as the next pastor.

We had barely sat down when we looked up and Jerry was standing in the doorway. He had that hound dog look on his face and said, “We didn’t get the vote.” His eyes were swollen and red and his voice broke.

I looked at Lynette and thought, “Man, I totally misread that congregation.”

Jerry walked around the coffee table in the study, and I stood up to comfort him.

I said, “We didn’t get the vote? Wow.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was unanimous.”

I thought, “Holy Cow! It was that bad of a sermon?”

Jerry said, “They are waiting for you in the auditorium.”

(I’m not going down there!)

A faint smile began to form at the corner of his mouth.

I had misunderstood what he said. I thought he said, “We didn’t get THE vote.” But what he actually said was, “We didn’t get TO vote.”

They were getting ready to pass out the secret ballots and Helen Presswood stood up and made a motion that they accept me as their next pastor by acclamation. It was seconded, in true Baptist tradition, and they voted. There were no negative votes.

Later he told me that he had stopped by the restroom to compose himself after the unanimous vote and was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude for his Lord and his church that it went so well—and that it was over. He said the emotions just flooded. It was right after that that he came to tell us about the church’s decision.

The Arch

In my second year as pastor of this church, the deacons and I went on a hike up in the Four Mile. We wanted to go to The Arch. It was Dan Ehlers, Bruce Clardy, Jerry Thornhill, and Dan’s granddaughter, Samantha. Dan took off like he was shot out of a cannon, and we never saw him again until he was silhouetted against the blue sky on the ridge above us. Samantha and I plodded along a good route and got to know one another a little better. Bruce and Jerry, our resident geologists, took a trail that led them up a cut in the hillside that was lined on one side with thick willow bushes and the other with a rock face. They came up the rock face.

Samantha and I sat down and waited for Jerry and Bruce. Soon we saw their heads poking up above the willow bushes. They were struggling. Well, Bruce was fine, but Jerry was struggling. All the strength had drained out of his 81-year-old legs and turned them into spaghetti noodles. They had climbed too high to go back, but Jerry was too tired to climb on up. I climbed down to him and got beneath him and pushed him up the rest of the way.

When we got up to where Samantha was waiting, we sat down and rested for a long time. After we both had stopped gasping for breath, Jerry said, “Don’t ever tell Shirley about this.”

The Mask

When Shirley was dying in the hospital after having suffered a stroke, it was during the height of Covid, and we all had to wear masks in the hospital. Jeri Ann, Tim, and Mike were gathered around the foot of Shirley’s bed telling stories and I was in the corner watching Jerry. He was seated beside the hospital bed and was holding Shirley’s hand.

Jerry had a mask on and as he was patting her hand. I could see his jaw was moving, and he was looking earnestly into her face. He was passionately telling her something. I have never been so grateful for a mask in my life. That mask on Jerry’s face hid the intimate words he was telling the bride of his youth. But they could not cover the deep covenant love on full display in that room. It was one of the most sacred things I have ever witnessed.

The Grief

Jerry went to see a counselor friend of mine for grief counseling after Shirly died, and I asked her how it was going with my tall, deep-voiced friend. The counselor’s father was suffering from dementia, and she was his primary caregiver. She smiled and said, “I’m pretty sure he is helping me more than I am helping him. He is such a good man. I enjoy being in the same room with him.”

Jerry told me that he was going to stop going to see the counselor. He said, “She just cries when I talk.”

I said how about you and I get breakfast together every week. He agreed. So, every Monday after Shirley’s death, until the chemotherapy treatment meant that he could no longer be in a public place, Jerry and I would meet for breakfast. We always ordered the early bird special, and he always gave me two of his three pieces of bacon.

I would ask him about his heart. Then he would weep as he told me about his love for his bride. As tears and snot would drip off his nose into his eggs, he would say, “I should be stronger than this. Where is my faith? She is with Jesus. She is happy. She is doing really well. I’m sorry, pastor.”

I know you aren’t supposed to scold a grieving man, but in my most firm and intense pastoral voice I said to him, “Jerry! You love your wife. You have loved her longer than I have been alive. It is perfectly normal and wonderful for you to be hurting and weeping. Every time you shed a tear for Shirley, God captures that tear and puts it in a bottle, and labels that bottle “Beautiful Sorrow.”

The End

The Sunday before Jerry died on Wednesday, the lady’s Sunday School class must have known the time was near because they joined the men’s class to hear Jerry teach. No one knew that it was the last time Jerry would teach.

The afternoon before Jerry died, we prayed together in his room, surrounded by pictures on the wall of his wife at various stages of their life together. I held his hand with his pinky finger curled inwards and cradled in my palm. He showed me pictures of his family when he was a boy. We talked about how he felt. He had no pain—just tired. We talked about how good it was that his family was there in the next room. He told me that he loved, Jeri Ann, Tim, and Mike.

We talked about the book of James and his Sunday School class. We talked about his love for his Lord and Savio, Jesus Christ. (Jerry never said, “Jesus” without adding “Christ.”)

I told him that, other than my own father, he is the most death-prepared man I had ever known. I told him that Jesus and Shirley are ready and waiting for him.

I asked if I could pray with him. He reached for me, and I held that crooked-fingered hand and said my last prayer with my friend. At nearly 4:00 the next morning, Jeri Ann texted me that he was gone.

The Legacy

Since Jerry had received his diagnosis, almost everyone in my world knew about his sickness and how important he was to me. I shared it widely and asked for prayers for Jerry all around the country and the world.

Every week I meet with three local pastors here in Buena Vista. They have prayed with me for Jerry. Right before Jerry died, I was meeting with them and one of the pastors told me a story.

“Joe, last night a nurse shared in the small group in our church that one the kindest men she had ever treated and who had a huge impact on her spiritual life was dying. Said he loved to talk about his Sunday School class and hoped that he would get to finish teaching the book of James.”

The Pastor asked, “Is his name Jerry?”

She said, “Yes. How did you know?”

Because his pastor is my friend, he has told us all about Jerry.

That is how you finish strong.

That is the Gospel of the Good Finish.

That was the life of Jerry Thornhill.

There were at least four things that Jerry did that helped him finish strong.

  1. He prayed every day.
  2. He read God’s Word every day.
  3. He made worshipping with God’s people on Sundays the highest priority.
  4. He had companions for the journey.

That is what we learned from the Apostle Paul as well. Paul says,

“Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.” I Timothy 4:11

I don’t know what image you think of when you think of the Apostle Paul, but many of us might imagine him as a strong, stoic, and independent lone ranger, church planter, and theologian. But here at the end of his life, we see him craving companionship.

Toward the end of Jesus’ life, he climbed Mount Hermon, and he took Peter, James, and John with Him. While up on the side of that mountain, the shekinah glory cloud of God surrounded them, and Peter saw that Elijah and Moses were talking to Jesus—about his coming death. Companions for the journey.

Do you remember the night before Jesus went to his cross and he went into the Garden of Gethsemane? He didn’t go alone. He took Peter, James, and John with him.

So, whether it was Jesus desiring companionship at the end of his life, or the Apostle Paul longing for John Mark to come close to him at the end—you won’t finish strong without companions for the journey.

At Jerry’s request, the Saturday before he died, he was surrounded by his son, Mike, and men from our church: Doug Green, Dan Ehlers, Bruce Clardy, Dub Chambers, and me. We anointed Jerry with oil, laid hands on him, and prayed for God’s will to be done.

Finishing strong requires a long obedience in the same direction with prayer, the word, the church, and companions for the journey.

Saint Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.

I invite you to follow Jerry as he followed Christ. You will finish strong if you do.

The Celtic poet John O’Donohue has become a favorite of mine. I offer his words as a comfort and, perhaps, a guide for you this morning.

“For Grief”

by John O’Donohue

When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you gets fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence.
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.

Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.

There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.

Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well

Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.

It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.

Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And, when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.

Jerry Thornhill teaching Sunday School the Sunday before he died on Wednesday
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A Father’s Lament

Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon me, even as I hope in you.
My son has gone into the far country, and I can’t see his face.
I am confused, furious, and in despair that despite my deep love for you—you let him go.
Bring him home, Lord, before he forgets his way.

My son has gone into the far country, and I can’t see his face.
Lord, he has run too fast over false ground.
Bring him home, Lord, and restore the joy of my son.
The ground beneath us is quivering and we need a place to stand.

Lord, he has run too fast over false ground.
I am confused, furious, and in despair that despite my deep love for you—you let him go.
The ground beneath us is quivering and we need a place to stand.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon me, even as I hope in you.

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The Look of Love

Keep me as the apple of Your eye;
Hide me under the shadow of Your wings.
  Psalm 17:8

Most of us believe that to mark this world, we need to do something big. We need to pastor a large church, get published, or establish an orphanage in a third-world country. We are so grandiose in our sense of what counts as significant. That is not the Jesus way.

What usually happens when you smile at a friend? They smile back.

Recently I read a fascinating book about spiritual formation and neurobiology called, Renovated, by Jim Wilder. In it, he talks about how a neuroscientist named Dr. Allan Schore from UCLA defined joy relationally as “someone who is glad to be with me” and “being the sparkle in someone’s eye.”

What could that mean for us? Do I dare believe that God would look at me as if He were glad to be with me and be the sparkle in His eye? Do I dare believe that He would smile at the mere thought of me?

If I could rest in the thought of being the sparkle in God’s eye, I wonder if it would be possible to transmit that sparkle to others when I look at them. When we see them. Speak to them. Listen to them. Are fully present to them.

I believe that God wrote this truth into the Bible long before Dr. Schore discovered it. Perhaps he would have known about  “The Look” which causes joy had he gone to church all of his life and read his Bible.

God told Moses to tell his brother Aaron that the priests should say some very specific words to the people of God Numbers 6:24-26,

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Do you see those words make his face to shine upon you and lift up his countenance upon you? I believe that is the smile of God. I believe that is the look on God’s face when he looks at me and you. Moses knew that the people of God needed a steady reminder of what God felt about them. That is also the reason I say it every Sunday at the close of our worship at my church.

What if those of us who have a covenant relationship with Jesus could be used by God as a conduit of his smile? What if God wants us to use our eyes and our smile to send the message to everyone made in the image of God that they matter to him? What if we started passing on Aaron’s blessing with our countenance and our actions in our everyday life?

When we really absorb Jesus into our core, we will be people who are marked by humility and hospitality. I’ve had more than a few saints you will never meet that have impacted my life because of their giving lifestyle. One of those men died seven days ago in my little town. He was on the search committee that brought me to my current church and a deacon in our church. His passing has left a huge hole in my heart.

But let me tell you about another deacon that changed the entire trajectory of my life some forty-six years ago.

When I moved out of my parent’s house and into my first apartment, I was assigned to his deacon family. He took that seriously. He was a strange and wonderful man. The term “geek” was not used back in the mid-seventies, but if it had it would be how I would have described my deacon. He had a pock-marked face and a bulbous nose. He was a large overweight man with narrow and sloping shoulders. When he smiled, which he did a lot, he had a gap between his front teeth.

In those days, I was in my rebellion. The only reason I attended church was that my mother said I could come to the house for Sunday dinner if I came to church. And every week it seemed she made a pot roast, rolls, and peach cobbler.

My deacon knew I was troubled. He would write me notes and tell me he prayed for me. He would seek me out when I came to church. He found out that I loved sports, so he took me to Denver Nuggets and Denver Broncos games—many times. That cost him time and money to do that. All the while I lived a prodigal life. I was living in complete defiance of Jesus. But my deacon didn’t give up on me. He kept praying and showing up in my life in any way he could think of.

Finally, through a series of God-ordained circumstances, in 1978 I rededicated my life to Jesus. Back in those days, that was a big deal. My dad always offered an altar call in the church he pastored and so I walked forward to make my decision public. The first person to grab me and hug me that Sunday was my deacon.

You will never meet him. I don’t even know if he is still alive. But that goofy, geeky, awkward deacon marked my life. He showed me the smile of God. He was the smile of God.

His name was Clinton Spearman. We named our second son Clinton.

Our culture, country, and town will be changed not through legislation, rules, and winning the culture wars. Up there will not come down here by returning to the values and lifestyles of the 40s and 50s. The Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven when we see people the way God sees them. I mean show up and really look at them.

That is the look of love.

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Trust the Wild Goose

Be merciful to those who doubt. – Jude 1:22

Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Jesus way,

I hope this letter finds you passionately pursuing the Man from Galilee and that your soul is flourishing. I have something that I want to share with you concerning those who will be accusers of the way you have chosen to live the contemplative life.

When my oldest son was learning the craft of preaching he was invited to preach at a church that was without of pastor. My son preached his sermon, and it went well. He was scheduled to preach the following Sunday, but between Sundays, he was uninvited to preach the coming Sunday by the leadership of the church. When my son asked why it was because he quoted from The Message translation. He didn’t preach from The Message, he read the verse from the New International Version and then said, “Listen to the way Eugene Peterson translates this verse.”

That act of uninviting my son to preach because someone didn’t like the version of the bible he used was devastating to my young preacher son. That act contributed to much of his extreme allergy to the conservative branch of our spiritual family tree to this day.

You have chosen to live a contemplative life. That way of life has critics. It’s hard to know how to respond to a critic of your spiritual life.

Realize that there are people that will not embrace the way of life you have chosen. They will see it as dangerous and threatening. Walk that path anyway. They will doubt the origins of your faith and the spirituality of your soul. Critics of the contemplative life think they are defending orthodoxy. They mean well, but they are fearful of what they do not understand and have not experienced. Mostly they are fearful because their tribal leadership is fearful.

It is easy to get reactive when accused of being a proponent of heresy. Don’t give in to that feeling or behavior. When that happens to me, I get very angry and want to fight them in the church parking lot, but when I calm down, I choose to spend time in wordless prayer and receive the warm comfort of the third member of the Trinity.

You will be accused of reading and listening to false teachers—people like Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Beth Moore, N.T. Write, or Henri Nouwen. They are not false teachers. False teachers always lead you away from the rabbi from Galilee. False teachers will eventually lead you to excesses that abuse the grace of Calvary or towards the binding confines of the moralism of Sinai. The authors I mentioned above (and others) will never lead you to those extremes. Read them.

The Holy Spirit has been trusted in times past of being a good check on falsity in the body of Christ. Our mothers and fathers in the faith have grasped at words to try and describe God’s strange and wonderful presence among us in his spirit.

In the New Testament, the Spirit is often pictured as a dove. Early Celtic Christians appropriated this in their own way by describing the spirit as a wild goose because that was a more familiar bird to them. One of our early Church fathers named Tertullian called God’s Spirit the Doctor Veritas— the truth Doctor. Augustine of Hippo, who was a fourth-century Christian thinker and leader, talked about the spirit of God as the Digitus Dei— the Finger of God.

You will be told to not trust the internal leadings of the soul as accurate impulses of the good Doctor Veritas. Trust him anyway

The best way to guard yourself against falsehood and false teachers is to know the truth. To spot a counterfeit, study the real thing. Study Jesus. Become an apprentice of the teacher from Nazareth. Follow his steps. If he fasted, you fast. If he meditated on scripture, you meditate on scripture. If he spent time in silence and solitude, you spend time there. If he observed the Sabbath, you observe the Sabbath. If he expressed emotional lamentations, you share your complaints with God.

When you are looking for an earthly guide for your journey, don’t look for the gifted, the ones with vast knowledge, or the ones that are fierce defenders of orthodoxy. Find someone who has learned to live in the house of their own teaching. Find someone who, when you sneak up on them, you catch them ladened with the fruit of the Spirit. Find someone who has learned that grace always precedes truth. Find someone who is a non-anxious presence—a person of ease who feels as if they have all the time in the world for Jesus, their enemies, and you.

This week I found this little poem that went deep into my heart. It describes in near perfect language what I have felt and been trying to say to you in this letter.

In Error

by John D. Blase

It grieves me to hear

men in the afternoon

of life wrangling like

it’s the morning.

There are sixty year

old men still booming

over the inerrancy of

scripture instead of

growing quieter and

quieter, learning the

verses of bird song.

The Apostle Paul reminds us,

If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:2 (ESV)

Prophetic powers without love are dangerous. Wordless prayer born out of deep adoration and love for Jesus is as safe as his nail-scarred hands because attached to that wounded hand is the Digitus Dei— the Finger of God

There will be times when you will be tempted to give into fear, anger, and withdraw and not rise early in the morning to meet with the Word. Rise early and meet with him anyway.

And when your critics doubt the veracity of your mystical experience with the Triune God, ask them to meet you in the church parking lot so that you can pray for them and be merciful to them.

Because that is what Jesus’ little brother said to do. Show mercy to your critics and chase the goose.

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Living in the Smile of God

“Sometimes fear does not subside, and we must choose to do it afraid.”  – Elisabeth Elliot

When have you been most afraid?

I could tell you about breaking my leg in the wilderness and lying on the ground for two days waiting to be rescued. I could tell you about when the school thug/bully promised he would kill me because I was dating his former girlfriend. I could tell you about being in alpine caves when leg and back cramps from the contortion of crawling on my belly inside the cave 300 feet from the entrance to the cave caused me to question my sanity. I could tell you about leading seven friends up Broken Hand Mountain and all of us nearly dying of hypothermia when we got caught in a summer storm.

But one of the most frightening moments of my life was far more pedestrian than those. In 2003 I had been out of ministry for nearly four years to rebuild and restore my marriage. And yet, I dared to attempt to interview for a pastor position in Alamosa, Colorado.

I drove down from Poncha Springs where I was staying with my father. I got to Alamosa early and went to a coffee shop to pray. Self-doubt and otherworldly accusations began screaming in my ear.  That I didn’t belong in ministry. That I was a loser. That ministry would finish off my marriage. That I was washed up and useless to God.

I sat in that coffee shop waiting, as if for my execution, with every muscle taut. My legs were bouncing. My tongue was cotton-mouth dry. My heart was racing. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like a piano was sitting right in the middle of my chest. I couldn’t make spit to talk.

It was as if all the cumulative failures and fears of my entire life were being squeezed into this one singularity event in a coffee shop in a little town in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. All hope, love, faith, and light were disappearing in the blackness of my French Roast coffee on the table in front of me.

It was about then that an inner voice seem to say, “Son, why are you so afraid?”

And suddenly, with blinding clarity, the truth of my life came into shape right before my eyes. I had always only had one fear in my entire life—the fear of being rejected. It is this fear that keeps me from speaking the truth to someone I love. It is this fear that keeps me from writing a novel that has been in my brain for years. It is this fear that keeps me from leading with boldness. It is this fear that keeps me from being completely vulnerable in my deepest relationships.

I muttered, “I’m afraid of being rejected, Lord.”

God said, “By who?”

“By Your Church!”

“But you are my son.”

“Okay,” I said.

And with my heart beating like a bass drum through my chest, I stepped outside into the crisp air, took a deep breath, and went to the interview with those words ringing in my ear—“You are my son.”

The interview went well. The little church said they wanted me to be their next pastor. I went home, and Lynette and I prayed and finally decided the best thing for our family was to withdraw my name as a candidate.

It would have been hard to articulate at that time but looking back the panic attack actually revealed the truth that I was not ready to pastor yet. The soul wound was still too raw. It was a complicated kaleidoscope of a situation where God was trying to teach me something about the false narrative by which I had been living my entire life (fear of rejection) and that he had other work for me to do on my soul and in his kingdom in the Pacific Northwest.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us,

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of (our) salvation perfect through what he suffered. (2:10)

You can’t really have courage in the face of your fears and suffering until at the very center of your life, down where the knobs are, there is a knowledge that Jesus has actually entered your suffering with you. And though you may suffer terribly, you can sleep at night knowing that there is no suffering that God has not identified with and has promised that he will walk with you through it all. 

For the last many years, I have been learning to rest in the truth deeper than my greatest fear—that I am His son, His beloved.

“If I have the smile of God, all other frowns are inconsequential.”  – Tim Keller

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Chapter Six of an Unnamed Novel

Chapter 6

When they got to the bottom of the road they, took the saddles off the horses, rubbed them down, fed them some grain, and released them into the corral. The boy said they could spend the night in the cab of the old blue truck and so they rummaged for spare horse blankets and coats from behind the seat. They searched the truck cabs for something to eat and found a box of old fashion cake doughnuts and drank some tepid coffee from a red plaid thermos.

They situated themselves in the truck and let the night settle around them. A horse snuffled and stomped as if to claim ground upon which he would stand and sleep.

The boy sighed and glanced over at the kid.

“You sleepy?”

“Not really.”

“Can I tell you something?”


“One time the old man decided to shoe one of the horses. It was a two-year-old sorrel and a little jumpy. I held the reins while he locked the front hoof between his knees and started working on the hoof and eventually the colt started leaning on him.

He yelled at me, “Get ‘em off of me!”

“I didn’t know how to do that. I spoke to the horse and pulled the reins away, trying to get the horse to shift its weight. When I did, it jerked his foot away. He started cussing and threatening. I didn’t know if he was threatening me or the horse.

“He picked the front foot up and started tapping another nail through, and I guess he got the curve of the nail wrong cause it went into the quick instead of out, and the horse jerked his foot away. He took that hammer and started beating the horse with the claw end over and over again. Rippin’ clumps of flesh from its belly as the horse sidled away. The old man’s little black dog was running round, making racket with its yippin’.

“He yelled at me to hold the horse still. But the horse kept shying away from the blows. It was horrible. Sounded like someone hittin’ the ground with a pick ax. The horse’s eyes rolled back into its head and all you could see were its whites. Finally, I let the reins go so it could get away from the hammer. And that’s when he turned towards me with the hammer raised like he was going to hit me with it. I just froze, didn’t know what to do. Suddenly he had this strange look on his face like he just recognized me or something. Anyways, he lowered his hand, and then I heard the hammer hit the dirt.

“His chin was quivering, but his teeth were clenched tight around that pipe stem, and he was heaving his breath. He bent over and picked up a little spiral notebook and his glasses case that had fallen out of his shirt pocket. Then with this blank look on his face, he just started walking into the cabin. I grabbed the horse, pulled the shoe off and let it go, put all the horseshoeing gear away in the saddle house, and sat down on the stoop. That black dog scratched and whined at the door until the old man let it in. I don’t know how long I sat there. But stars started coming out. I could hear him building a fire in the stove so I got up, picked up an armload of wood, and went in the cabin. When I stacked it in the woodbox and turned towards him, he had that little black dog in his lap and was petting it. He said, ‘“I put some beans on to warm for your supper, and I put some biscuits in the oven. I hope that’s okay with you?’”

“I said, Yeah, thanks. Then he went back to pettin’ his dog sittin’ there in his lap.”

“Why’d you tell me this?”

“I don’t know, maybe to help you understand him.”

“Well, it didn’t. He’s a mean son of a bitch.”

The night grew cold, and the two boys pulled their jean jackets tight to their bodies and nestled themselves down into the rounded corners of the old truck.

“Get your foot off the brake,” said the boy. “You’ll run down the battery.”

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My Top Reads for 2022

A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read. – Mark Twain

Reading has been a passion of mine all my life. I read between two and three hours every day. I thought I would break down some of my favorite reads for the last year.  Not all of these were published in the last year, but I read them in 2022. I will list the title, the publisher’s summary, and a comment or two.

The Good and Beautiful You, by James Bryan Smith

The Christian faith is not only about belief and practices, it is also about the kind of people that we become. Yet some of the biggest barriers to our transformation come from our toxic self-narratives. These narratives shape the way we see ourselves and the way we interact in the world. God designed us with a deep longing in our souls to be wanted, loved, alive, and connected to God. Healing our souls requires more than knowing what God thinks about us. Our healing comes not through reason alone, but through revelation.

My comments…

Identity is one of the fundamental elements of a healthy spiritual life. Get this wrong and it will throw off the entire trajectory of your life. It is one thing to know in your head that God loves you, it is an entirely different matter to believe it in your heart. Down deep—where the knobs are. This book helped me not just know something intellectually, but to engage in practices that made knowing it in my heart a reality.

The Language of the Birds, by Amy Nemecek

According to legend, the language of the birds was a mystical language God used to talk with Adam and Eve when he walked with them in the garden of Eden. Amy Nemecek listens for this divine dialect as she communes with God on her walks along country roads and creek banks, through forests and hayfields. She observes the world around her with expectation, knowing that God still speaks to us as he is at work making all things new. If we have ears to hear, we can catch snippets of his grace in the watercolor silhouette of a bird, the thrum of a tractor engine, the tang of a grapefruit, and the curvature of an ampersand. Amy doesn’t want to miss any of it, so she remains attentive to the smooth grit of beach sand, the tendrils of a nebula, and the steady gaze of a fossil. She delights in the details, and you will too.

My comments…

Full disclosure: Amy is a friend of mine, but that only heightens my love for this collection of her work. Amy has a way of using personification of inanimate objects that makes word pictures come alive for me. I lost my mother in November of 2021 and then I read Amy’s A Grief Preserved almost exactly a year after my mother’s death and it brought to life memories of my mother canning fruit in the kitchen and making homemade preserves that my heart of sorrow felt seen and heard.

Liturgy in the Wilderness, by D.J. Marotta

What you pray . . . shapes what you believe . . . shapes how you live. 

The Lord’s Prayer is a beautiful, subversive passage of words given to the church by Jesus. It forms our imaginations and—given time—transforms us. And today, we are in desperate need of renewed imaginations. Christians are living in a wilderness of secularism. The historic Christian faith is seen as absurd at best and dangerously oppressive at worst. Followers of Jesus must begin to imagine life as a faithful minority who are ever seeking to subvert what is evil with good, what is hateful with love, and what is corrosive with nurture.

My comments…

I have been leading my congregation through this prayer at the end of our worship services for years. I wonder if I intuited that what we pray shapes what we believe and how we live. What I love about this volume is that there is an emphasis on the subversive nature of ritual for getting into our spiritual bones to change us. The change is slow and steady, but change, nonetheless. I gave copies of this book away for gifts this holiday season.

The Remarkable Ordinary, by Frederick Buechner

Learn to see God’s remarkable works in the everyday ordinary of your life.

Your remarkable life is happening right here, right now. You may not be able to see it – your life may seem predictable and your work insignificant until you look at your life as Frederick Buechner does.

Named “the father of today’s spiritual memoir movement” by Christianity Today, Frederick Buechner reveals how to stop, look, and listen to your life. He reflects on how both art and faith teach us how to pay attention to the remarkableness right in front of us, to watch for the greatness in the ordinary, and to use our imaginations to see the greatness in others and love them well.

Pay attention, says Buechner. Listen to the call of a bird or the rush of the wind, to the people who flow in and out of your life. The ordinary points you to the extraordinary God who created and loves all of creation, including you. Pay attention to these things as if your life depends upon it. Because, of course, it does. 

As you learn to pay attention to your life and what God is doing in it, you will uncover the plot of your life’s story and the sacred opportunity to connect with the divine in each moment.

My comments…

We lost Mr. Buechner last year at the age of 96. It was a sad day for me. I have been reading him for years. He, like Eugene Peterson, had become a literary and spiritual companion for me. What I love about Buechner’s writing is how unflinching it is. He talks about his father’s drinking and eventual suicide in such honest ways that you can tell those elements in his life dynamically impacted his life and he learned from that impact. There is such intelligence and insight in his writings that I don’t know I have ever read a work from him that I didn’t feel the need to look more closely at my life and learn from the defeats and victories found there.

A Burning in My Bones, by Winn Collier

Author Winn Collier was given exclusive access to Eugene and his materials for the production of this landmark work. Drawing from his friendship and expansive view of Peterson’s life, Collier offers an intimate, beautiful, and earthy look into a remarkable life.

For Eugene, the gifts of life were inexhaustible: the glint of fading light over the lake; a kiss from Jan; a good joke; a bowl of butter pecan ice cream. As you enter into his story, you’ll find yourself doing the same – noticing how the most ordinary things shimmer with a new and unexpected beauty.

My comments…

This book wrecked me. Other than my own father, Eugene Peterson has had the largest impact on my vocation as a pastor. You have heard the cliché, WWJD? I often imagine ‘what would Eugene do?’ I have read and re-read almost all of his books. This particular book about his life was an incredible encouragement to me. The author doesn’t shy away from Eugene’s shortcomings. I know that is a good thing, but it was a little uncomfortable for me to see my vocational hero as a real person. Uncomfortable, but healthy. I enjoyed this biography more than Eugene’s own memoir, The Pastor. I suppose most of that is due to the gifting and skill of the author, Winn Collier. I highly recommend this book.

Rembrandt Is in the Wind, by Russ Ramsey

Did you know Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime and that during the last three months of his life he completed an average of one painting every day?

Did you know that Michelangelo’s David is covered in a dusting of human skin?

Did you know Caravaggio murdered several people while he was painting some of the most glorious paintings of biblical scenes the world has ever known?

Rembrandt Is in the Wind by Russ Ramsey is an invitation to discover some of the world’s most celebrated artists and works, while presenting the gospel of Christ in a way that speaks to the struggles and longings common to the human experience.

The book is part art history, part biblical study, part philosophy, and part analysis of the human experience; but it’s all story. The lives of the artists in this book illustrate the struggle of living in this world and point to the beauty of the redemption available to us in Christ. Each story is different. Some conclude with resounding triumph while others end in a struggle. But all of them raise important questions about humanity’s hunger and capacity for glory, and all of them teach us to love and see beauty.

My comments…

I only endured art appreciation classes in college. I had no real interest in the great artist of history. The older I get the more art has come to be an integral part of my growth as a human being. Now poetry and art are essential for my life. Rembrandt is my favorite artist of all time, but Van Goh is right there. The integration of art and faith of these masters was fascinating for me. I didn’t feel that the author was too heavy-handed in his exposition of the faith of these artists. I learned many things about these artists that I didn’t know and found them to be quite inspiring.

A World Lost, by Wendell Berry

In this, Wendell Berry’s fifth novel and ninth work of fiction, Andy Catlett revisits his own ninth year in the summer of 1944 when his beloved uncle is shot and killed by the surly and mysterious Carp Harmon. This is his Uncle Andrew, after whom the boy is named, someone who savored “company, talk, some kind of to–do, something to laugh at.”

Years later, still possessed by the story, Andy seeks to get to the bottom of all this, to understand the two men and their lethal connection.

My comments…

Wendell Berry, Cormac McCarthy, and Marilynne Robinson are my favorite living fiction writers. I am not sure if Berry has moved ahead to take the lead in that triumvirate. His commitment to place and character and language is unparalleled. He has the unique ability to be profound, eloquent, funny, and poignant all in the same sentence. I found myself smiling, wondering, and feeling deep sadness all at the same time as I read this little novel. There is one paragraph so profound about the impact of presence to change the moment and thus change our lives that I lifted it from the page and pasted it in my journal to remind myself of the power of presence to change lives in the pastoral context.

The Other Half of Church, by Jim Wilder and Michael Hendricks

Why does true Christian transformation seem fleeting? And why does church often feel lonely, Christian community shallow, and leaders untrustworthy? For many Christians, the delight of encountering Christ eventually dwindles – and disappointment sets in. Is lasting joy possible?

These are some of the questions Michel Hendricks has considered both in his experience as a spiritual formation pastor and in his lifetime as a Christian. He began to find answers when he met Jim Wilder – a neurotheologian.

Using brain science, Wilder identified that there are two halves of the church: the rational half and the relational half. And when Christians only embrace the rational half, churches become unhealthy places where transformation doesn’t last and narcissistic leaders flourish.

In The Other Half of Church, join Michel and Jim’s journey as they couple brain science with the Bible to identify how to overcome spiritual stagnation by living a full-brained faith. You’ll also learn the four ingredients necessary to develop and maintain a vibrant, transformational community where spiritual formation occurs, relationships flourish, and the toxic spread of narcissism is eradicated.

My comments…

I was ordained to the ministry in 1984, and the process of my own growth and the spiritual growth of others has been my life’s work. How do we become more like Jesus? For sure, the process is slow and incremental. Always has been. The Apostle Peter we see in the Gospels and the one that wrote 2 Peter hardly seem to be the same person. But it took a lot of time, pain, and cooperation with the Holy Spirit for the big fisherman to change. I can relate. This book brings modern science along with sound biblical practices to bear to demonstrate how spiritual growth is possible.

This Here Flesh, by Cole Arthur Riley

“From the womb, we must repeat with regularity that to love ourselves is to survive. I believe that is what my father wanted for me and knew I would so desperately need: a tool for survival, the truth of my dignity named like a mercy new each morning.” 

So writes Cole Arthur Riley in her unforgettable book of stories and reflections on discovering the sacred in her skin. In these deeply transporting passages, Arthur Riley reflects on the stories of her grandmother and father and how they revealed to her an embodied, dignity-affirming spirituality, not only in what they believed, but in the act of living itself. Writing memorably of her own childhood and coming to self, Arthur Riley boldly explores some of the most urgent questions of life and faith: How can spirituality not silence the body, but instead allow it to come alive? How do we honor, lament, and heal from the stories we inherit? How can we find peace in a world overtaken with dislocation, noise, and unrest? In this indelible work of contemplative storytelling, Arthur Riley invites us to descend into our own stories, examine our capacity to rest, wonder, joy, rage, and repair, and find that our humanity is not an enemy to faith but evidence of it.

At once a compelling spiritual meditation, a powerful intergenerational account, and a tender coming-of-age narrative, This Here Flesh speaks potently to anyone who suspects that our stories might have something to say to us.

My comments…

I am still processing the profundity of this book. I can’t remember being moved quite like I was while reading this book. The depth of insight at such a young age is staggering. I am only hopeful that she will continue to write. It is a little unsettling that someone so young could write so profoundly without living very many years of pain and sorrow. Why is she “getting it” when it took an old white guy like me decades to scratch the surface of her wisdom? A very provocative and moving book.

When Narcissism Comes to Church, by Chuck DeGroat

Why does narcissism seem to thrive in our churches?

We’ve seen the news stories and heard the rumors. Maybe we ourselves have been hurt by a narcissistic church leader. It’s easy to throw the term around and diagnose others from afar. But what is narcissism, really? And how does it infiltrate the church? 

Chuck DeGroat has been counseling pastors with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as well as those wounded by narcissistic leaders and systems, for over 20 years. He knows firsthand the devastation narcissism leaves in its wake and how insidious and painful it is. In When Narcissism Comes to Church, DeGroat takes a close look at narcissism, not only in ministry leaders but also in church systems. He offers compassion and hope for those affected by its destructive power and imparts wise counsel for churches looking to heal from its systemic effects. 

DeGroat also offers hope for narcissists themselves – not by any shortcut, but by the long, slow road of genuine recovery, possible only through repentance and trust in the humble gospel of Jesus.

My comments…

I wish this book didn’t need to be written. I wish this book didn’t get so personal with me. I wish for a lot of things. Chuck’s work with pastors and ministry leaders and his wise insight has helped me to see the pathology in my own soul and how to detect it in others. He also gives a depth of insight on how to heal if you have been harmed by a ministry narcissist. Sadly, this book needs to be read by church boards and search committees in every gathering of saints in our country today.

Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs, by Steve Cuss

You can learn to handle the onslaught of internal and external pressures

Does anxiety get in the way of your ability to be an effective leader? Is your inability to notice when you and those around you are anxious keeping you “stuck” in chronic unhealthy patterns? In Managing Leadership Anxiety, pastor and spiritual growth expert Steve Cuss offers powerful tools to help you move from being managed by anxiety to managing anxiety. 

You’ll develop the capacity to notice your anxiety and your group’s anxiety. You will increase your sensitivity to the way groups develop systemic anxiety that keeps them trapped. Your personal self-awareness will increase as you learn how self gets in the way of identifying and addressing issues. 

Managing Leadership Anxiety offers valuable principles to those who are hungry to understand the source of the anxiety in themselves and in the people with whom they relate. Listeners will be empowered to take back control of their lives and lead in mature and vibrant ways. 

My comments…

Understanding systems theory has greatly helped the author to give powerful and profound guidance to churches and ministry organizations. I have invited a group of local pastors to read this with me in our town and discuss this book amongst ourselves and then take the principles back to our respective churches to try our best to create a non-anxious presence for the gospel to take root. I highly recommend this book.

Well, there you have a few of my favorite reads this last year. I am going to list some other titles below that I didn’t have space to write about, but nonetheless had an impact on my life this last year.

Everything Sad is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri

The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby

Finding Quiet, by J.P Moreland

Letters to a Young Congregation, by Eric Peterson

In the Name of Jesus, by Henri Nouwen

In Praise of Paths, by Torbjorn Ekelund

The Lord is my Courage, by K.J. Ramsey

Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Du Mez 

Happy reading,


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Christmas Grace

And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. – Saint Paul

During this holiday season, many of us are looking forward to having family around a table for a meal. This meal has to potential for great joy and great sorrow. Great joy because when families gather there are shared stories and experiences. There is the possibility of great laughter and warm affection. The memories of Christmas past and the hope for Christmas future.

But great sorrow because since we are all broken human beings, we bring our brokenness to that same table. Unresolved family wounds can threaten to disrupt the warmth of the meal with an unwelcome chill. There are elephants that come to dinner at almost every holiday meal. And by elephants, I am referring to topics that are at the table that everyone hopes no one will bring up.

There are probably as many off-limit topics as there are families, but I would just remind you of three that seem to be common these days: Politics, faith, and egos.

This year around our table there will be those that voted for and defended Trump. But there will also be those who voted for Biden and marched in protest of Trump. And there will be some who didn’t vote for either. There will be those who celebrated the overturning of Roe v. Wade and there will be those that are still morning that Supreme Court decision. There will be those who defend and champion traditional family values and those who believe those traditions need to be jettisoned sitting at my table.

Maybe we should inform everyone that there will be no politics discussed during the holidays. But is that a healthy way to deal with the elephant in the room? As host of the meal that is happening in my home, should I insist on a moratorium on political discussions?

I will not make such a decree, but I will personally abide by this truth: relationships are more important than politics.

Would someone please pass the gravy?

Another topic that might divide us is faith. There will be two Southern Baptist preachers sitting at opposite ends of the table—my father and me. But there will also be two people that I love who do not consider themselves Christians. And there will be people that I love who are practicing a non-evangelical form of faith.

For many people, there is very little daylight between their faith and their politics. And because faith is very personal and subjective, when our faith and politics are overlayed, it feels very personal if one of those is challenged. But here is the reality: Relationships are more important than faith. Because without a relationship there can be no viable faith.

Would someone please pass the cranberry sauce?

Then add to this mix unchecked egos and things could get ugly—like grandma’s sweater. There will be people whom I love sitting around my table that enjoys being teased about almost anything. It is their love language. And there are people that will get defensive at the slightest suggestion of someone putting them in an unflattering light no matter how light-hearted.

Wounded egos will be sitting at the table—including my own. One of the best balms for those wounds is to learn to laugh at me. To laugh at me, with you.

Arguing without listening to the other person about these sensitive issues is an indicator of an inflamed ego. The compulsion to have the last word in a disagreement is a sign of an enlarged sense of self-importance. The lack of curiosity about why a person would hold a position that is different than my own is the mark of an ego-dominant person.

Arguments always require two stubborn people. If you are in a tug-of-war over an issue, there is always a surefire way to end the war. Let go of the rope. So, I remind myself that relationships are more important than winning—at anything.

Would someone please pass the pie?

This holiday season I wonder if God’s presence might be experienced in all relationships. What if our walk is Spirit-filled but in a quiet, unassuming way? What if we committed to loving every person sitting around our table with the same love given to us by the God who is love? What if we modeled compassion, patience, and silence?

When someone around the table says something that triggers us, what if we prayed the prayer Jesus prayed when he hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Or even “Father, forgive them, for they know EXACTLY what they are doing”?

What if we committed to offering the guests in our home and around our table a love so deep and wide that it causes them to wonder about the source of that love? What if we asked authentic questions about the heart and souls of those around our table? What if we said, “I love you and am so glad you are here.” What if we said that in our words and with our countenance? What if grace were something more than what was said before we ate our prime rib?

Love God and love those around the table. For it is in relationships that faith, hope, and love can flourish.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
(1 Corinthians 13 MSG)

I will tell you what I want for Christmas this year, I want to live out the truth of those words about love around my table.

Would someone please pass the wine? Communion wine, that is.

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When Up There Comes Down Here

He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:4

This is a vision of a world put back together and restored to pre-fall status. This is a picture of a just world. Isaiah is pointing to the day when God steps into this broken world to heal it, and restorative justice will triumph. The truth will prevail, wrongs will be made right, and God will stand up for all of the kicked down and trampled upon of all history. God will arbitrate for many peoples.

And on this great day—peace, shalom will win the day. This day weapons will be transformed into different uses. This day will be a day when humanity will forget how to harm each other. 

My brother is an antique dealer. He has told me that part of his job is to explain to modern people what some of the old collectibles were actually used for. When we purchased Mr. Davis’s home, he left several antiques and I would take pictures of them and send them to my brother and ask, “What is this and what was it used for?”

Isaiah is telling us that there is coming a day when we are going to come across a bomb, or a drone, or an AR-15 and ask God, “What is this and what was it used for?”

But if I’m honest with you, when I read these words there is a haunting voice in the back of my mind that says, “In a world dominated by typhoons and terrorists, how can I take this ancient prophecy seriously? How can you believe these words after watching the evening news?”

Then louder than that haunting voice of cynicism is the still small voice of the transcendent God of the universe that says, “Jesus is how you can take those words seriously.” Because Jesus is this great future. God promises a glorious tomorrow entering into our broken, dark, and divided today. For those of us who trust Him by faith in this life, that will be our destiny.

Steve Hoekstra was my first youth pastor and my friend for decades. Steve and I would go cross-country skiing together when I was a teenager. We led scores of backpacking tips for high schoolers together in the 80s and 90s. We have hiked hundreds of miles together in the wilderness. I called him Woolybooger or Hook.

He became a lead pastor then he went to work for our denomination of Colorado Baptist. One time he told a group of college summer interns that he considered me his pastor. I was caught off guard and humbled.  

On countless trails above timberline and in alpine meadows, Steve and I would talk about what heaven might be like, and we both agreed that heaven would have several fourteen-thousand-foot peaks and high alpine lakes with lots of cutthroat trout.

I went for a long hike last week and took a picture of Mt. Princeton and texted it to Steve with this message, “Steve…I’m out for a walk on the BLM land beside my house and thought of you and our many walks in the wild for nearly 50 years and I thanked God for our long friendship. I prayed for you out here in the wild, old friend.”

Steve texted me back, “Glad I was there with you.”

Woolybooger died this week.

I imagine Steve hiking into the New Heavens and the New Earth. And maybe he’ll walk down the trail and come upon a woman who has a wagonload of roses. He reaches to get one and discovers there are no thorns on those roses and says, “Ma’am, where did you get these roses?

“I grow them out there in the desert.”

“What?” Steve asks.

“Haven’t you heard? The Lord reigns in Zion. And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as a rose.” (Isaiah.35:1)

A little further he walks down the street and steps into to a pet shop. There, Steve hears a man say, “I want to buy that cobra for my little boy.”

“What?” Steve asks.

“Didn’t you know? The Lord reigns in Zion. And the lion shall eat straw like a lamb and the sucking child shall lay upon the nest of the snake.” (Isaiah 11:8)

Little further he asks a man, “Where is your police department?

He’ll say, “We haven’t got any!”

“Well, where are your soldiers and military academies?” asks Steve.

“Haven’t you heard? The Lord reigns in Zion! And they have beat the swords into plow shares and their spears into pruning hooks and the nations have learned war no more!” (Isaiah 2:4)

“Well, what about the home for crippled children?”

“We don’t have any. And the lame shall leap in that day.”  (Isaiah 35:6) The Lord reigns in Zion!

“What about your home for the deaf and dumb?”

“Don’t have any of those either!” “The tongues of the dumb shall sing in that day. And the ear of the deaf shall be unstopped in that day. (Isaiah 35:6) The Lord reigns in Zion!”

Maybe Steve asks, “I want to go to your hospitals and visit some of your cancer patients.”

“We don’t have any.”

“You don’t?”

“No. Not since the Lord began to reign in Zion! The inhabitants in this land never say, ‘I am sick.‘”  (Isaiah 33:24)

“Well, what about your funeral homes and cemeteries?”

“Not any of those in this land. For the Lord reigns in Zion!”

“Well, where do you folks go to church?” Steve asks.

“We don’t have a church. Haven’t you heard? Up there has finally come down here and we all go up to the New Jerusalem and worship the great King!”

The Christian story is that God so loved the cosmos that he comes into it as a chubby-cheeked, dimple-handed baby boy in a backwater town, in a no-name country—to live among his creation and has promised that one day he will heal all of it and make everything sad come untrue.

One of my favorite thoughts about this hope for tomorrow came from the late Lewis Smedes an author and professor from Fuller Seminary. He was addressing a graduation class of college students and he had a line that has stuck with me since I first read it in an article a few years ago. He was talking about hope, but not worldly hope which is nothing more than wishful thinking. He spoke about Christian hope.

Keep hope alive, and hope will keep you alive.

And so, dear reader, may you live today in hope because of this great promise of tomorrow. And that is where I will see Woolybooger again.

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Heaven’s Gentle Rain

You don’t have because you don’t ask God. James 4:2

All you need to do in order to start God speaking is fix your attention on Him first thing in the morning. Look up at the ceiling and say: Lord, speak. I’m listening. If your own noisy, feverish ideas have subsided enough, there often begins to flow a gentle rain of ideas fresh with the clean flavor of heaven. – Frank Laubach

When I read the above quote by Mr. Laubach, I decided to ask God to do that for me. I wanted to join God in what he was doing in the world.  I’ll have you know that is a dangerous prayer. Don’t pray that prayer unless you are willing to do it.

When I got up in the morning, I said, “God, help me. Help me be present to what you are doing today.”

The very day I started praying that prayer, God might as well have put a pulsing neon sign over a guy saying, “Here you go, big fella.”

It happened as I was in the Oakland airport flying home to Seattle. As I was getting ready to board a Southwest Airline flight, I noticed a young man with white bell-bottom pants and a dark blue wool Pea Coat. He obviously was in the Navy. He had a cell phone to his ear and had his head pulled down into his coat like a turtle trying to pull its head into its shell. His face was contorted, and his knuckles were white as he gripped the phone. He was crying; in fact, sobbing into the phone.

I normally try to send out signals to everyone on a plane that I do NOT want to be approached on a flight. I put my headphones on and shoot the stink eye at everyone. Sometimes I get a Bible out and set on the seat beside me. Leave me alone! I had full intentions of doing that on this flight as well, but God said to do differently. God said, “Joe, be present for this guy.”

As I boarded the plane I said to Lord, “Jesus, I am tired and more grumpy than usual. I am not a good candidate to help this guy, but if you want me to do something, then when I get on board let there be an open seat next to him. I felt comfortable with this plea. The sailor was in group A and I was in group Z. Southwest does open seating, so chances are the seat next to him would be taken.

I started down the aisle and there he was and guess what…there were not one, but two open seats next to the sailorman.

Dang, it!

I sat down beside him. When we got air born, I started a conversation with him. Said he was about to be deployed on the USS Abraham Lincoln for 3-4 months and he was leaving his new bride. As he told me this his eyes began to brim with tears. We talked some more about his hometown, his hobbies, and his favorite football team—and the entire time I was whispering to the Holy Spirit how I was supposed to spiritually help this guy.

As we approached our descent into SeaTac airport, he seemed to be getting more apprehensive, and told him he was going to be okay. Then we landed and deplaned and I walked with him down the concourse with his duffle bag over his shoulder. Just at the escalators to go down to baggage, I stopped him and said, “Nick, would you mind if I prayed for you?”

He allowed that it was Okay. I said, “How about right here and now.” He sheepishly nodded. I laid my hand on his shoulder and prayed a prayer that only he and Jesus could hear as people walked by us like water flowing around a boulder in a river.

When he looked up, he had tears running down his face and said, “Thank you, Joe. God must have put you on that plane just for me. I will never forget this.”

I lived in Seattle at that time where it rains as a matter of course, but that night as I crawled into bed, I knew something of a different kind of rain; a gentle rain of ideas fresh with the clean flavor of heaven.

And I prayed, “God, I did what you asked. I joined you in the work you were doing today.”

Then I spoke Nick’s name one more time to the Father and fell asleep.

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