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.

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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Sacred Sorrow

But if we are willing, the experience of grief can deepen and widen our ability to participate in life. We can become more grateful for the gifts we have been given, more open-handed in our handling of the events of life, more sensitive to the whole mysterious process of life, and more trusting in our adventure with God. —”Tracks of a Fellow Struggler” by John R. Claypool

The use of Vicodin, the most popular pain relief drug in the country, has grown dramatically from 112 million doses prescribed in 2006, to 131 million in the U.S. today.

Pain and sorrow, however, are the friends that no one wants. They are companions for our journey toward God and others. For it is only in embracing the sorrow that comes to us in this life that we can expand our capacity to experience joy and sit authentically with others who are suffering.

When we have done the hard work of lingering in our pain, the lines of sorrow are etched on our souls in such a way that others who are suffering will recognize where we have been and will allow us to come close.

Or as C.S. Lewis said,

Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”

For some weeks now I have been carrying in my soul a low-grade fever of sorrow. I have reflected on it and have tried to trace its source. I’ve had some health issues that have been concerning. I have heard countless stories of pain and suffering from the ministry leaders I do soul care with. I have church members who are suffering from cancer. I have friends who are struggling to keep their families together. The grief of my mother dying last fall is following me like a shadow.

All of this, and more that I won’t share here, are piling on and driving me down into the basement of my soul of sorrow.

A report documenting the systematic stonewalling and coverup of sexual abuse within my denomination just came out and turned my stomach. I felt shame on top of sorrow. That is a toxic brew.

Then an entire fourth grade class in Uvalde, Texas, and their teacher were murdered with an AR-15 by an eighteen-year-old kid. The toxic brew is boiling now. I feel revulsion, despair, and rage. I want to overturn some money tables. I want to make a whip and drive out some animals. I want to let my hair grow and put my hands on two columns and push a building down. I want to cut off Malchus’ ear. I want to scream into the universe.

This morning I arose before the sun and opened my bible to my reading plan that took me to the Psalms. There in the longest chapter of the Bible I found an old familiar verse that shimmered and shined to me:

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

As I reflected on that verse I didn’t think of “word” as the Bible. I imagined “word” as Jesus, as described in the first verses of John’s Gospel.

Jesus is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

Something about that slight adjustment in my thinking caused me to see an ember of smoldering wick far in the distance. I sat still and meditated on that small, pulsing glow. It was as if I was sitting in a dark cave and, if I squinted my eyes, I could make out a faint glow of hope.

That’s when it felt like I was no longer alone in my sorrow. I had a companion. I had a paraclete, and I felt some consolation.

Robert Browning Hamilton reminds us,

What I learn from this sorrow is that I am not alone. There is one with me that is acquainted with my condition and darkness cannot overwhelm him. So, I sit with him in my sorrow and weep with those who weep.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. – Jesus

Won’t you come sit with us?

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What’s Your Name?

And he said to her, “Daughter… “      Mark 5:34

Forrest Gump is the life story of a mentally challenged man (Tom Hanks), who accomplishes the incredible with his simple reasoning and persistence.

In one scene, Forrest and his childhood friend Jenny are walking down an old gravel road shaded by hardwood trees. Jenny carries her sandals, and the walk seems pleasant until they happen upon an abandoned, weather-worn house. The sight is horrifying to Jenny. It is her childhood home, a place where Jenny had been abused by her alcoholic father.

Forrest sees the pain etched on Jenny’s face as she walks ahead of him toward the old, abandoned house. Suddenly, Jenny throws her shoes at the house and then begins picking up rocks and furiously throwing them against the house. Years of pent-up anger are unleashed. When nothing is left to throw at the house, Jenny falls to the ground crying. Forrest sits down in the muddy driveway beside her, and says, “Sometimes, I guess, there just aren’t enough rocks.”

I know people who would like to throw a few rocks. Maybe at the house that they grew up in, maybe at cancer. Maybe a rock at dissolving relationships that no one knows about. Maybe a rock at depression. Maybe a rock at the pain that can’t even be named. 

I imagine the woman in this story would like to have thrown a rock or two.

In Jesus’ day, there was no condition more debilitating and humiliating than this hemorrhage from which she suffered. It was some sort of chronic menstrual disorder. It affected her in many ways. It affected her marriage. She couldn’t sleep with her own husband. She couldn’t bear children. Also, ceremonially everything she touched was unclean. She couldn’t prepare meals, wash a dish, and she couldn’t wash clothes.

She must have experienced chronic fatigue. Always weak and tired. She couldn’t go into the Temple and worship. She went to many doctors and found no relief—finances dwindling to nothing. And instead of getting better, she was getting worse.

In the end, all she had was hope and a prayer.

And then, at the ripe old age of 30, Jesus calls her “daughter.”

I wonder how long it had been since any term of endearment had been spoken to her. How long had it been since she had someone speak low to her? We know she had not shared her bed with her husband for 12 years. And yet here the God of the Universe calls her “daughter.”

There is a promise in the last book of the Bible that Jesus gave to his followers. He says, “I will…give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”

What name would you long to be called? If you could pick your own term of endearment, what would it be?

You might be surprised what the name is and you might be shocked at whose voice Jesus uses to tell you your new name.

Recently, a pastor from another state sent me an email containing what he said he would say about me at my funeral.

I know it is weird, but I’d like to share with you what he sent me.

I had never given much thought to caring for my soul…. Until my soul was already in trouble. That is when, in the Lord’s merciful providence, I met Joe. We met at a denominational meeting several years back. Going into that meeting, I was hurting. Our family was grieving the tragic loss of my son’s best friend…. My wife had been diagnosed with a life-threatening health condition (in fact, as Joe and I were meeting, she was in the hotel room, so sick from her latest round of chemo that she could barely move). Going into that meeting, I had no idea what Soul Care was…. I just knew I was hurting, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

In our first meeting…My pain and my problems were met with a listening ear and genuine concern. At times, I tried to talk, and the words wouldn’t come out. I cried some. He listened. He shared a poem with me (typical Joe, right?) But the thing that really stuck with me….

As we were finishing up, Joe wanted to pray for me…. But it wasn’t the prayer that stuck with me…. As he began to pray, he paused for just a moment….. a brief silence with a deep exhale…. And in the pause before the prayer…. I felt rest.  I felt comfort. I felt renewed hope. I don’t remember the prayer…. But I remember the pause. In the pause, my soul rested, was refilled, and the joy of the Lord was restored.

Joe was the pastor of the pause.

I’ve been a preacher since 1978 and I’ve taken great pride in having the right words for the right moment. I’ve written a book—words matter to me. Words are the medium that I use to paint pictures and convey faith, hope, and love—or so I thought. But to be called “The Pastor of the Pause” really touched my soul. In other words, God spoke to this brother through what I didn’t say. One of the best things ever said to me: The Pastor of the Pause.

What name would you love to hear from your Lord?

The healing in this woman’s body paled in comparison to the wholeness that came to her soul as Jesus in a soft, low, and tender voice called her daughter. 

If you are very quiet—paused—you might just hear Him, call your name.

Then maybe you can drop your rocks.

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Being An Inadequate Minister

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted  Matthew 28:16

 “The number ‘eleven’ limps; it is not perfect like twelve. […] The church that Jesus sends into the world is ‘elevenish,’ imperfect, fallible.” – Dale Bruner

In the Bible when God calls somebody to do something, as far as I know, nobody ever responds by saying, “I’m ready! Good timing! You came to me at just the right moment when my tank is all filled up, and I’m adequately prepared.” The truth about you is you’ll always have a reason to say, “Not ready,” because for us, ready is to be so completely self-sufficient that success is guaranteed.

But in God’s kingdom, the issue of feeling ready is not the primary indicator of being ready.

I became a pastor at the age of 26. The little country church that asked me to be their pastor was very longsuffering and kind.

As a young man, I had concentrated all my energies on being a good preacher. I wrote sermon after sermon; even when I did not have a church. When I went to that little Baptist church in Oklahoma, I had six months’ worth of sermons. Back in those days, we preached Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. But I had all those sermons. I was ready. Or so I thought.

I desperately wanted to be a good pastor and yet I knew I was not ready to care for anyone’s soul. Not really. I was out of my depth. But I always had my dad, who was a pastor.

I had asked him how to do business meetings. (Robert’s Rules of Order)

I asked him where to stand after you preach a funeral. (At the open end of the casket)

What do I say at the baptism? I remember he said, “Put your right hand in the middle of their back, raise your left hand and say, ‘Upon your profession of faith and in obedience to the commands of our Lord and Savior, I baptize you my brother or sister in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ Then bend your knees, lower them down, and help them out.”

There’s no possible way I would remember that, so I wrote it down on a yellow post-it pad and stuck it to the glass in the baptistry. That way I could cheat if I needed to. The steam from the warm water caused the adhesion to release and the post-it was floating in the water.

I kept glancing at the bobbing post-it pad but couldn’t get a read on the words.

“Upon this rock…”no that’s not right.

“I feel it is important to be obedient….no, well, yes, it is important, but…”

“I’m going to baptize you now with our knees bent in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spicket.”

It was horrible and harmless at the same time.

But there was one thing that scared the living daylights out of me: what do I do if someone comes to me for pastoral counseling? I can read commentaries, listen to other sermons, and preach louder if I am unsure about my preaching. But what do I do when someone comes to my study with a spiritual problem? What do I say without the props of my sermon notes? I hadn’t finished college and had never gone to seminary.

Other than Baptist business meetings, nothing scared me more than pastoral counseling. I knew I could pretend to sound like I knew what I was talking about in a sermon, but they would find out early on what I did not know when they came to ask for counsel in my study. I felt so inadequate for that responsibility. I dreaded that day.

I was elevenish. I doubted.

I was a towering bowl of Jell-O.

One day someone called me to see if I would counsel them. I waited until after ten o’clock to make a long-distance call to my dad. (It was cheaper after ten o’clock, remember?)

“Dad, I have my first pastoral counseling appointment tomorrow. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. What if they ask me a question I can’t answer?”

Long pause on the phone.

Then my dad said, “Lean forward, pay attention, and rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. You will never get in trouble for what you don’t say.”

The next day Chuck Smith came to see me and that’s what I did; palms sweating, knees knocking, I leaned forward and listened. The whole time he spoke, I just listened and prayed silently:

“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.”

After about 45 minutes, Chuck had run out of things to say and stopped. I took a deep breath and asked him if I could pray for him. He said, “Yes.” I didn’t even know what to pray, so I let about two minutes of silence pass between us and then prayed.

When I said, “Amen” I looked up and he had the most serene look on his face.

He said, “Thank you, pastor. You really helped me.”

God had spoken in my silence (weakness) in ways he had never spoken in my sermons (strength).

And so, my friend, may you put your “yes” on the table and move into the task put before you no matter how incomplete and inadequate you might feel, and remember the issue of feeling ready is not the primary indicator of being ready.

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Palm Monday

So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!” John 12:13-15

The word “blessedness” and “shalom” are the same basic words. Shalom means complete thriving and flourishing. That is what the people were aching for on the first Palm Sunday. They were longing for everything to be made right. When they waved the palm branches, they were looking forward to the day in which the palm trees wave their own branches.

When I go for my walks in the woods beside my house at the base of Mt. Princeton and the breeze moves the pine boughs in sighs of wonder and contentment, I am reminded of that verse in Isaiah that says, And all the trees of the field shall chap their hands.

And that is a constant promise to me of the coming King of Kings.

When the true king comes back and puts everything right, everything in nature will work again. There will be complete harmony and complete peace. It’s the end of death, disintegration, and decay; it’s the end of sickness—the end of the war in Ukraine. It’s the end of everything that’s wrong with the material world. Someday the trees themselves will literally dance and sing.

What’s the significance of the donkey colt?

One of the things that everybody who knows anything about beasts of burden is that you can’t just jump on one of them and expect to ride it. They have to be broken. The colt was too young to be broke. That means it submitted to the Lordship of Jesus.

Jesus didn’t have to break the animal. He’s Lord of nature; he’s the Lord of all and under his hand, nothing but harmony and peace comes about. The donkey knows and loves its true master for who he is.

This is a foreshadowing then of the complete healing of all nature under the future kingship of Christ.

Can I remind you that Jesus is your King? He’s the one you seek. He’s invincible. He’s a lion heart, and he will give you a lion heart. You don’t have to try to be strong on your own. In fact, you don’t have to be strong at all. That’s not your job. Our job is to walk so close to Jesus that his courage becomes our courage. We don’t have to do anything except love this good earth and cooperate with him to make His prayer come true…

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

The renowned author, journalist, and Christian apologist GK Chesterton was the inspired mind behind a short poem that puts a new spin on Palm Sunday. Titled simply The Donkey, it narrates, in the voice of the colt.

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

I imagine this little donkey got up on the Monday following the Triumphant Entry on Palm Sunday and said, “Boy, this is going to be a great day.” He walked into the marketplace and said to everybody, “Here I am,” and nobody looked at him.

So, then he walked on down a little bit further and came right into the local religious gathering place, and he said, “Here I am.”

Everybody said, “What are you doing here? Get that donkey out of here!”

And they threw things at him and they pushed him away. He came on back to his mother and he said, “I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Just yesterday everybody …”

And she said, “Silly child, without him you can do nothing.”

You see, it depends on who’s riding you. It depends on who your king is. It depends on what’s driving your life. It depends on what you’re living for. Great kingliness will come into your life if you make him the King.

On the first Palm Sunday, he came meek and lowly, riding on the foal of a donkey. The next time he comes back he’ll be riding on a cloud. The first time he came to be torn; the next time he will come to tear apart all evil.

And that gives me hope on this Palm Monday 2022.

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The Deepest Truth

“What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  A.W. Tozer

I grew up in a faith tradition that emphasized original sin. Original sin is the Christian doctrine that holds that humans, through the fact of birth, inherit a tainted nature in need of regeneration and a proclivity to sinful conduct. One of the most famous sermons in the history of our faith in America came from Jonathan Edwards called, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It’s not a happy sermon.

One of the most popular hymns for centuries was written by Isaac Watts entitled, Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed. The very first verse describes how Isaac saw humanity.

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

I am a worm because I do wormy things. For many years—many—I up of myself as a recovering sinner. I have committed sins both large and small and that made me a sinner. My first thought when I considered the truth of who I am was a variation of the recovery saying found in Alcoholics Anonymous that said, “I am a recovering alcoholic.” I would think of myself as a “recovering sinner.” The recovery group encourages that self-identifier to remind the addict that they are one drink away from a relapse that can destroy their lives.

Is the most important truth about me the fact that I am a worm? Is being a sinner the first and most important truth about me? I have grown to believe that it is not.

I love what poet and writer the late Macrina Wiederkeher prayed in her book Season of Your Heart,

O God

help me to believe

the truth about myself–

no matter how beautiful it is!  

The truth is that I am a beloved son of the Most High God. When I entered a covenant relationship with Jesus at the age of seven years old, I was placed in Christ. The Apostle Paul uses that phrase some one hundred and fifty times to describe my position before God now that I have this faith-based covenant relationship with Jesus. I am in Christ. That is good news for a wormy guy like me.

Sometimes I hear celebrities asked if they have any regrets in their lives. Most, if not all, say, “I have no regrets in my life. If given an opportunity to live life again, I’d live it the exact same way.” What a stupid and banal thing to say. As a wormy guy, I have to tell you I have many regrets. Many.

But here is what I have come to believe to the core of my being. I now believe that my years of living in repentance have eclipsed my regrets. I’ve come to accept the reality of my life with joy because there is something truer about me than my worminess—I am the beloved of God.

My brother is the poet—not me—but I wrote this little piece a few days ago and it speaks to what I am trying to say…

Don’t you hope that is the truth about you, too? I posted the little poem on social media the other day and a man I have never met replied as follows:

I can’t describe to you how this blesses me. I am struggling so hard in this season. I’m almost 65 and I’ve never felt more unlike a son of God. I’m going to meditate on this some more and hopefully it sinks in deep!

Maybe that is you as well.

The Psalmist did not lie when he said,

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. (Psalm 139:14)

Perhaps the Lord is saying this to you as much as to me today,

The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by him; and the Lord shall cover him all the day long, and he shall dwell between his shoulders. (Deut. 33:12)

We are not worms, you and me. We are the beloved of God.

I’ll tell you what comes into my mind when I think about God. He says, “Joe before you were a sinner, you were a son.”

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Chapter Five of an Unnamed Novel

They pushed the herd in the rising angles of the morning light, talked about their horses and about their favorite television shows. They yipped and called at the straggling steers and from time to time an older cowboy would ride back to see how they were doing.

As the morning brightened and warmed into the afternoon the sun slid down the sky and turned to block their vision, they saw they had pushed the herd through a gate in a fence. The herd fanned out into the pasture. On the near side of the gate, the flanking cowboys waved and called to the herd. On the far side, the old man sat his horse. He sat there as stone with only gray-blue smoke leaking from lips that were pinched tightly around his pipe.

“How many you lose?” the old man barked.

“What?” the boy yelled, but he knew what was asked.

“I said, ‘How many did you leave behind?’”

“I don’t think we left any” the boy said glancing at the kid.

“Doubt that. Looks to me you boys been talkin’ like a couple of school girls. Been watching you for the last three miles. You sure as hell had better not left one. I guess you better ride back down that road and see. I’ll come down and get you in the morning. I don’t want you pulling that trailer up this road in the dark.”

The old man reined his horse towards the cabin and said over his shoulder to the other cowboys, “Come on, men.  Let’s put the horses up and get us some supper.”

The men moved in rank behind the old man and followed him to the cabin the way the steers had followed him up the road. The two boys watched them leave.

“Did he really mean we have to ride back down the road?” the kid asked.


“What are we supposed to do for supper?”

“Don’t’ know. Maybe we can find something in one of the trucks down the road.”

“That’s fifteen miles away!” the kid said. “I already got sores on my ass. That old man’s a bastard.”

“I know.”

They turned their horses around and went back down the road in silence. The boy could see the shadow of the kid’s hat, shaking back and forth as if still puzzling at the injustice of the old man.

“What if we find a couple of steers?”

“That’ll be bad. He’ll blow a head gasket.”

“Wull, let’s don’t find any.”

“But they’re your cattle.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Is he always so mean?”

They made their way down the road listening for the bawling of a stray steer.  They talked little. Whether from fatigue or from lack of common experiences or the weight of the day and the rejection of community that would have been enjoyed with the others in the warmth of the cabin, they didn’t know.

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