Zachary Bright

The Wonder of it All


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Jack

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Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD) has been quite sweet to me the last few days. He is eager to lie down with me whenever I get into my recliner chair. He wedges himself in tightly beside my leg. This afternoon, while my cell phone was charging in another room and Jack Lewis was sleeping on my lap, I just could not disturb Jack to answer the phone. Jack Lewis catches a ball, sometimes in the air, when I throw it around the kitchen. Today, the BSD, rolled over for me to rub his stomach, which is very unlike Jack. He also came in to my office and laid down on his office bed while I was working. The amazing symbiotic relationship between dogs and humans, that God has provided, was on full display.

Why is Jack so sociable these days? It may have something to do with the reality that I am a little more mobile because my doctor is allowing me now to be “90-10” weight-bearing. Just the higher energy level in the house is stimulating, and yet, comforting to the BSD. The two pictures above, taken when Jack was just a few weeks old, helped to motivate me to rescue Jack (he had been abandoned). These pictures of Jack are the only pictures of Jack I have on my computer. I hope to get some recent photos up, with the help of techie friends.

Jack Lewis is now about two years old (some people say three years, but they are incorrect). He is completely black, except for some white hair on his chin. The vet guessed that Jack is a Dachshund – Jack Russell Terrier mix. Jack has the long body and front bow legs typical of dachshunds and the head, chest and temperament of a terrier. Some people were worried that the Bible Study Dog was gaining too much weight, but at 22 lbs., the vet says he is right on target. Jack is a small dog, but he envisions himself as a large dog, a mighty predator, and a faithful and frightening alert dog. I think he sees himself like this:

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But actually, Jack Lewis looks very much like this:

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And when Jack Lewis stretches himself out on the floor to study me (see my post, “Prayer – Part Dos/Deux/Zwei/Due/Two” of 7/26/14), he looks like this:

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Jack Lewis has a reputation as a sleek, handsome dog. One day as I was coming home, a young man was leaning over our fence. He said, “Is that your dog?” I said, “Yes.” After asking about what breed of dog Jack was, the man said, “That is the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen!” Many people in our neighborhood know Jack. People walking their dogs address Jack by name, sometimes stopping to allow canine greetings. One neighbor lets her large dog into our yard occasionally to play with Jack Lewis. Everybody loves Jack.

However, recently, the BSD has been losing his hair on the top of his head. At some times of day, Jack looks startled or frightened because of his pale cranial pallor. Or he appears for a moment to be a non-canine animal, like a bat or some small creature from the movie, “Jurassic Park”, or some hitherto unsuspected urban prowler. He also seems a little feral (I love that word) or wild. I am reminded that in addition to Jack Lewis’ sociable, domesticated, human-oriented side, Jack also carries his genetic inheritance of the untamed wild dog. It seems easier to see this when he looks a bit strange.

I had a professor in theological seminary who said, “The longer I live, the more God seems weird or strange to me.” I take this to mean that some of the categories we have for understanding God, while remaining true as far they go, seem inadequate for understanding God as we walk with him and see his surprising actions and plans. To learn from the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit we must be open to surprise, paradox and mystery. Someone that you love remains, at least partially, a mystery (“Wow, I never knew that about you!”), while someone that you do not love (are indifferent to) is addressed with box-making, controlling language (“You always…”, “You never…”).

God has revealed himself, especially in Jesus Christ, as our Father, Guide, Provider, Forgiver, Lover, Protector who is all-knowing and all-powerful and always good and loving. He causes all events to work together for our good (Rom. 8:28). Jesus does not call his disciples merely “servants” (John 15:15, NRSV), but “…friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15c, NRSV) Jesus genuinely desires our fellowship with him (Revelation 3:20).

And yet, if we are to receive from God that which we do not already think and feel, God must be for us a bit wild (see my post, “Fake Wizard or Awesome God?”, about paragraph 17, of 8/3/14), even strange. Not only is God our Friend and Savior; he is also holy, other. We are made in the image of God and are now being made like Jesus, but nonetheless, we are not God. God is Other or as Martin Buber or Karl Barth or some postmodern theorists would say, the Other (don’t worry, there won’t be a test on this).

Consider these words of God, spoken through the prophet, Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9, NRSV)

That’s about as Other as one can get! Part of what we mean by ‘holiness’ is who God is in himself, his difference, his otherness (for explosive and compelling pictures of this look at Isaiah in the temple in Isaiah 9 and Moses before the burning bush in Exodus 3).

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But here comes a twist…wait for it… God is not worse than we thought or imagined, but better! Look at the verses before our text:

“Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD,
that he may have mercy on them,
and to God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isa. 55:6-7, NRSV, emphasis added)

And then a verse after our text:

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isa. 55:12, NRSV)

It’s a good thing that God is God and I am not, because he is so much more forgiving than I am. It’s also good that his plans for me are much better than I can imagine. God calls us all to turn from our idols that do not satisfy (see my post, “What We Are” of 5/28/14) and receive the abundant life that is God and that is better than we can imagine. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live.” (Isa. 55:1-3a, NRSV)

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This post was powered by, “The Best of Kansas” (1984) by Kansas and, “Live From The Strip” (1999) by Kate Miner.


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Three Things; No, Four – Numero Dos

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“The way of a dog with his man…” – Z. Bright “The symbiotic, enmeshed, yet strangely invigorating, relationship of a man with his dog…” – Jack

Our second wonderful thing is the dog water park phenomenon. This choice is what happens when the Bible Study Dog gets a vote. Also, this ‘thing’ brings together two ‘things’ that I find very cool: dogs and water. Here is a fun YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwIMAZ7Mh8s

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Waterford Oaks Water Park Dog Swim event, September 11, 2010

jumping cocker spaniel

I offer prayers of thanksgiving for all the people in my life when I think of them, including some of you. I also thank the Father every day for Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog.

This post was powered by “More Miserable Than You’ll Ever Be (Deluxe)” (2014) by The 77s.


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Advice For Introverts

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I am an introvert. What does that mean? Introverts are people who gain their energy and motivation from activities that they perform by themselves and then they spend that energy publicly. An introvert is not necessarily shy; she could be socially backward, but then again she could be very skilled in public performance. So an extrovert is the opposite. Extroverts gain their energy from activities they do publicly and then spend that energy by themselves. So introverts can be worn out by too much public activity and extroverts can be driven almost crazy when they are cut off from human interaction. An extrovert might be someone who processes his thoughts in conversation; he sometimes doesn’t know what he thinks until he hears himself saying it.

I don’t really want to go deeply into this theory; this is just a little background for something I found on my Facebook news-feed. Douglas Groothius posted this simple post:

Introvert survival kit

1. Lock them out.
2. Shut them down.
3. Recharge.
4. Go out into the world.
5. Repeat 1-4.

This caught my attention because what I’m doing now is not working (see my post, “This Is the Way Life Is”). I have been caught the last few days, when asked, trying to explain complicated, confusing and easily misunderstood feelings. So rather than doing this unsatisfying routine, I should withdraw until I’m recharged, and then re-emerge with a positive attitude and project. I liked the “survival kit” better when I thought that number 2 was about shutting people down; that’s from my unregenerate “Dirty Harry” side. But I suppose I must admit that a comment that attributed number 2 to shutting down iPhones, iPads and other electronic devices, is correct.

I saw my surgeon yesterday and I still have at least two weeks of being non-weight-bearing before me. Something striking is going on with Jack the Bible Study Dog (BSD); he is losing his hair only on the top of his head. It’s making him look like some other animal, maybe a bat. The BSD is completely unconcerned about the way he looks. He does not have self-image issues. But when I am shocked by the sight of Jack, he either seems to be saying, “What? What?!”, or he looks at me with a hint of challenge or even aggression, “Hey! What are you looking at? Are you looking at me?”

I am also reminded of the OT story of Elijah winning a great victory for Yahweh, with fire falling from the sky and consuming Elijah’s water-soaked offering and altar (including the rocks!), and then slaughtering 400 idolatrous prophets of Baal. A victory! You can read the exciting story in 1 Kings 18. But when King Ahab’s wife Jezebel sends word that Elijah is dead meat, he runs for his life. Collapsing in the wilderness, Elijah asked God to let him die (1 Kings 19:4). Preachers often know this as the Monday morning blues. After an adrenaline-fueled Sunday, maybe with a sense of accomplishment or of discouraging results, on Monday morning, the adrenaline drops off and the preacher is depressed. If the preacher is an introvert (and most of them are) she has spent herself with people, and now must withdraw to recharge.

So Elijah went from courage in the face of huge challenges to fear and suicidal thoughts. God allows Elijah to sleep and then an angel wakes him twice and gives him food to eat (1 Kings 19:5-7). God, the greatest therapist, knows that sometimes we just need to have plenty of sleep and a meal. But God also met with Elijah and dealt with Elijah’s self-pity by giving Elijah a wider perspective, an encounter with the presence of God and new tasks to perform (1 Kings 19:9-18). Sleep, food and meaningful activity are often what we need when we are depressed or overwhelmed. We also might need to turn off the internal self-pity tape.

But to recharge our spiritual batteries and once again connect to the abundant life that we have through Jesus Christ, nothing is like an encounter with God.

This post is powered by The Vigilantes of Love albums, “Audible Sigh” (2007) and “Slow Dark Train” (1997).


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Overwhelmed!

God who is awesome

I am back! I have returned home after foot surgery on August 19th and a couple of weeks in the Transitional Care Unit. I will continue to be non-weight-bearing for awhile, but I will heal closer to family and friends, my books, my computer, and of course, Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog (BSD). Jack was not evidently excited to see me after several weeks. But I was told that the BSD was restless and hard to handle while I was gone, and that, upon my reappearance, became suddenly his sweet self again. He was probably missing Bible study.

If you have been following this blog, you have witnessed my struggle to come to terms with another time of confinement. I must acknowledge that all that I foresaw of the humiliations, confusions and random acts of limitation washed over me, swirled around me and within me. Even as I tried to be light and salt to my tormentors and tried to live out the various positive responses that I have written about in the last several posts, I was sometimes overcome with a sense of being devalued. I know I have a screw loose (see “This Is The Way Life Is”) and I do come to a truer and more faithful view of my world eventually. These words from C.S. Lewis are so true: “If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable; think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.”

Nonetheless, God met me in the hospital, and sometimes, I would awake overflowing with gratitude to God for the machines I was using, the skill of the surgeons, good air-conditioning, whatever devotional readings I had read that day and the creativity of RNs, LVNs, CNAs and physical therapists. One morning in particular, I found mentioned in one of my devotional readings a text from Proverbs that spoke to my condition and offered attitudes that I could hang my life on. I looked it up quickly on my Kindle English Standard Version Bible (ESV) between a multitude of mundane tasks. God somehow enabled me to memorize Proverbs 3:5-7 in less than five minutes and I still repeat it to myself from time to time.

The text:
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, turn from evil.” (Proverbs 3:5-7, ESV)

Every word of this passage deserves to be understood and expounded. However, I will make just three points.
1) “Trust…with all your heart” is a way of loving God, as we are commanded to love the LORD “…with all your heart, soul and strength” (Jesus added “mind”!) We are not to trust our loving and faithful God as though we are hanging on by our fingernails, as if trust is a small, desperate hope. We are to be filled from head to toe with trust. Trust should fill our hearts so that fear, worry and secular (that is without God) attitudes are driven from our hearts.
2) “…do not lean on your own understanding” does not mean that we should not use our God-given minds, that we should be passive or mindless (something that God does not approve, see Romans 12:2) before reality. It means that we should not put our weight on, depend on, place our trust in what we understand but in God himself. Currently, I am non-weight-bearing on my right leg. However, I may bear weight on my left leg, lean on it, stand on it, hop on it, depend upon it.
3) “In all your ways acknowledge him…” We are not just organisms seeking survival and comfort. We are daughters and sons of God who will live forever. We ‘have bigger fish to fry’ than our own comfort and happiness. We are living for eternity. All the time and in every way we should reflect God’s agenda, and in my case, God’s agenda for my caregivers. Our paths become crooked, convoluted and confusing when we fail to live for God in every area of our lives.

Let me say a bit about ‘overwhelming’. Though I mentioned being overwhelmed by the love and presence of God in my last post, “Trust In Spite of Everything”, I am surprised that I have not written more about this theme, since it makes an appearance often in my teaching and no one else that I know of brings all the parts together. I still will not be able to give the full teaching because I must limit time with my computer because of the heat (105 F is just wrong) and my need to keep my leg elevated. There are good overwhelmings and bad overwhelmings. Bad overwhelmings might include all the unresolved issues of your life, a schedule that is too packed, broken relationships, diagnosis of disease, like cancer or AIDS, the pace of technological change, political or cultural change, threatening world events, etc. Bad overwhelmings are only overcome by greater good overwhelmings. I am struck by Jesus’ story of the man who had seven demons cast out of him. The demons wandered around looking for a new host, and not finding one, came back to the man and found a house swept and in order. So they went and got their friends and moved in. Jesus comment is: “The last state of the man was worse than the first.” I take away from this that it is not enough to say no to evil and sin. Repentance and commitment to change are not enough! One must be filled with something positive and good.

Considering how overwhelming the world and the realities of our lives are, the good overwhelming better be huge! I submit that only God is enough to overwhelm us with himself and drive out or make bearable the bad overwhelmings. He wants to baptize us in the realities of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need a God who is awesome, holy and amazingly loving and generous! Our tame pictures of God or our idols are not big enough and will disappoint us and let us down. St. Paul instructs us, “Do not be conformed [from the outside – in, like a cookie cutter] to this world…” We are instead to “…be transformed [from the inside – out] by the renewal of your mind.” (Rom. 12:2, ESV) I picture the Holy Spirit, the abundant life, the living water, the overwhelming love of God rising up within us to meet and then push back the external overwhelmings.

This was my experience in the hospital. Sometimes, in the early morning I would see that all was right and that God had placed before me amazing opportunities to plant seeds of the good news of God’s kingdom, to be light [to bring out the God colors of the world – The Message], to be salt [to bring out the God flavors in the world – The Message].

Well the nurse will be here soon to change my bandages and Jack has been giving his social misery howl. The BSD needs my attention (what an amazing creature; God’s design of all that I see of God’s creation is so precise, intricate and wise).

This post was powered, of course, by the new free U2 album, “Songs of Innocence” (2014) which has already been downloaded to your iPod or iTunes account if you have one. Excellent and evocative.

that the mountains would quake


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Trust In Spite Of Everything

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Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog, and I have been restless this past week (thus, no posts for a few days) for various reasons. One reason is the heat. I acknowledge that we had a few days last week that only rose to the 80s F, but now we are back in the 90s F. When we open the door we are met by a blast of heat. This reminds me of T-Bone Burnett’s lyric: “seven times hotter than fire”. When I go to check the mail box, the BSD accompanies me, like always, but now he stops in the shade and looks at me like I am crazy.

When Jack is in extreme misery or his desires are frustrated, he leaves my office and goes into another room or outside, and lets out a huge howl. Then comes back to my office, calm and collected, as eager to please as ever. He just needed to release his tension. Sometimes I join Jack in my heart and let out a silent howl.

One reason for my restlessness is that my foot surgery is coming up this week, followed by (I hope only) a week or two of incarceration and then another month or so of being non-weight-bearing. You know from previous posts, like “True Freedom” and “Making the Best of the Unendurable”, how I feel about confinement. I’m not worried about the surgery; whatever happens, happens. c’est la vie and all that. Besides, I seem to have a rather high pain threshold. I usually have courage and endurance, by the grace of God, for the big issues. It’s the small things, like lengthy confinement, that sometimes drive me crazy. Sometimes, in moments of clarity, I can see that I am not thinking straight. However, this hot button for me, confinement, can be easily pushed, with spectacular results.

What do I say to someone facing a difficult future? I talk about living in “day-tight compartments”, as I have in a previous post. Don’t let the past or the future bleed into today, that is, don’t dwell on regrets about the past or worries about the future. God has forgiven your past sins and he will also, eventually, heal your past hurts and wounds. God holds your future in his hands; leave it there and don’t worry. Jesus teaches that since God takes care of the flowers and the birds, and as creatures of more value because we are made in the image of God, God will certainly care for us. So Jesus concludes: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things well be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:31-34, ESV) In other words don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow. And also, as I like to say, you worry about God’s kingdom and God will worry about you. Not that God worries, but you get the idea. Or as I used to place on church bulletins, right below our mission statement, these words: LIVE FOR GOD. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

I also talk about how the overwhelming experience of the love and presence of God drives out fear and worry; there’s no room left for worry. Consider a Bible verse like this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18, ESV) I understand that this verse is focused on how the love of God drives out fear of punishment and the wrath of God. But I believe the text has a wider application. The knowledge and experience of the love of God tends to drive out all fears and worries. I like to say that the reverse is also true: perfect fear casts out love. We come to understand, if we live long enough and honestly, that: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10, ESV) If we leave out of our world-view the elephant in the room, the Creator of everything, who guides everything according to his will, who is in the process of renewing all of creation that can be saved (unfortunately some humans refuse to be saved and to acknowledge God) we miss the most important reality. We also learn by experience that: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.” (Proverbs 29:25, ESV) To be pulled continually by the opinions of others, is to lose a coherent centered sense of self, to lose integrity. To sum up: fear the LORD, bow the knee in your heart and reverence him (this is not servile, cringing fear or terror!) OR fear everyone and everything. We need to be reminded of this daily, even moment-by-moment. I will try to remember this as often as I can in the weeks ahead.

However, here is my problem. I am not worried about the unknown. I will trust God to be in control and that he is weaving the tapestry of my life into something finally good and beautiful. I’m not worried about the unknown; I’m bracing for what I know. I have been here before: unable to walk for a year in 2003-04, being non-weight-bearing in 2013 for about four months and a few other incarcerations. I may be deluding myself that this is not just a lack of trust in my Father. Like I said, sometimes I see that I’m not thinking straight, but tonight I will wrestle with this sense of bracing for what I seem to know.

It’s time to bring out the big gun, and for me, that’s the book in the Bible called Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, says the Preacher” are words that you may have heard before. The Hebrew word ‘hebel’ is often translated in English as ‘vanity’, it means literally something like a vapor or mist or almost a nothingness. ‘Vanity’ leads us to think of ‘useless’ or ‘meaningless’, but ‘vanity’ is not a necessary translation of ‘hebel’. If we translate ‘hebel’ as ‘vapor’ we can think of the fleeting nature of human achievements and pleasures, of how, in certain moods, we are able to see that everything is unsubstantial, in a way, and that from a pessimistic human point of view, nothing really lasts except our relationship with God, and no one can finally be depended upon except God. The Preacher/Teacher points to many reasons for pessimism (I won’t say despair). What we build and pass on to another, might just go to a fool. A wise man, that through his wisdom saves a city, is soon forgotten. Magnificent achievements, like the building of palaces and vast gardens can lead to ennui, boredom, a sense of meaninglessness. One could update the list of achievements for the 21st century. The pleasures of massive amounts of sex, with many wives and concubines, leaves the Preacher jaded. Other areas of life are treated from this perspective and you can check them out in Ecclesiastes 1-10. But for our purposes, I can sum up what we will wrestle with in these words: “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” (Eccl. 10:1, ESV) I take this to mean that there are beautiful and wonderful realities in our lives; but there is something in life that seems to pull everything south, or one can think of entropy, that without constant infusions of energy and creativity, energy becomes more diffuse and everything tends toward chaos. I am tempted to give you my hard-earned theory of programs and organizations here, but that will have to wait for another time.

So is there a way to trust God for the future and to live wisely in a world described like this? I take my cue from parts of Ecclesiastes 11-12. The preacher counsels us to:
“Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” (Eccl. 11:1-2, ESV)
“As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.” (Eccl. 11:5, ESV)
“In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (Eccl. 11:6, ESV)

At the most basic level these verses call us to act, rather than be paralyzed by the realities that the Preacher has described. And one can be paralyzed by demanding perfect circumstances before one acts: “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” (Eccl. 11:4, ESV)

But at a deeper level, these verses ask us to live generously and expansively. I think the “bread” in 11:1-2 is a metaphor for human products; bread, after all is baked, produced by humans. The picture is of products sent on ships in the Mediterranean Sea, with some ships lost in storms, so that the more ships that are sent out, the greater the chance of success.

The spirit in verse 5, reminds me of Jesus (John 3) saying to the Pharisee Nicodemous that the Spirit is like the wind: one sees its effects, but doesn’t know where it came from or where it is going. God cannot be tamed, domesticated, put in a box or tied down. We do not see all that God is doing or all that he will do. In that sense, we do not know the future, but we still can trust God on the basis of what he has given us to know, including his revelation of his character in the Bible and in Jesus Christ.

The “seed” in verse 4, reminds me of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (or Four Soils). You might remember that the Sower threw his seed out broadcast style, as was the practice of the time. He sowed the seed generously and indiscriminately. The seed, representing the gospel of the kingdom of God, that Jesus preached, was thrown abroad into four kinds of soil, representing differing degrees of readiness for the gospel of the kingdom.

So the Preacher is recommending, in the face of a world that seems to be founded on vapor and a future that is uncertain, that we act boldly, and especially act generously, be generous. There is a long-standing practice, in Israel and in the Church, of generosity, and an equally long experience associated with that practice of the blessing of God. Here are a few texts to illustrate this:
“Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed,
for he shares his bread with the poor.” (Prov. 22:0, ESV);
“[The excellent wife] opens her hand to the poor
and reaches out her hands to the needy.” (Prov. 31:20, ESV);
“Blessed is the one who considers the poor!
In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him;
the LORD protects him and keeps him alive;
he is called blessed in the land;
you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.” (Psalm 41:1-2, ESV);
“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Malachi 3:10, ESV);
“The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (2 Cor. 9:6, ESV);
“He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” (2 Cor. 9:10-11, ESV);
Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.” (Luke 6:30, ESV);
And Jesus further said, “give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38, ESV);
St Paul wrote, “Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.” (Phil. 4:16-17, ESV);
“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:19, ESV);
and finally this instruction to Christians, “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:18-19, ESV)

Note that though we are called to be generous with money and material possessions, especially to the poor, we are promised that we “…will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way…” (2 Cor. 9:11, ESV) “Every way” includes encouragement to others around us, smiles, kindness, listening, time, prayer for others, help with spiritual and material difficulties, and for me, writing this blog, and so much more. And note also, that in this world which seems to be founded on vapor/air, as we live generously, we find that we are building “a foundation for the future” (1 Tim. 6:19, ESV). I make no apology for the fact that part of the treasure that we store up is to be received in the World to Come. After all we are creatures destined to live forever. So our perspective is much larger than the pessimistic view of life we started out with! We are destined for eternal joy.

What remains to be said? What other instruction does the Preacher have for us? Here is some of it:
“Life is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity [hebel, vapor]. Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgement. Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.” (Eccl. 11:7-10, ESV);
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth…” (Eccl. 12:1a, ESV);
“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12b, ESV);
and finally, “Fear God and keep his commandments…” (Eccl.12:13b, ESV)

In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, let me suggest: work hard, sleep well and trust God. We have come full circle, and once again, we see that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” (Prov. 9:10a, ESV) The Preacher has looked unflinchingly at life, and yet, sometimes obliquely, has helped us to see how we can live confidently and wisely and with trust in God for our future.

With St. Paul I affirm that “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28, ESV) Note that this promise is only given to Christians who love God and are called to live out his will. Note also that bad events still remain bad, but in the tapestry of our lives, even the dark threads are used to help make something beautiful, good and glorious of our lives. With Julia of Norwich, I affirm that in the end “All we be well, and all manner of things will be well.” With St. John, I rejoice that, “[God] will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4, ESV) And with C.S. Lewis, I affirm that, “All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have his good way, to utter satisfaction.” (The Problem of Pain)

This post was powered by the following albums: “Divine Discontent” (2002) by Sixpence None The Richer, “Rivers & Robots” (2014) by Rivers & Robots and “Before the Mountains” (2012) by Sarah Brendel.

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Prayer – Part Dos/Deux/Zwei/Due/Two

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When Jack the Bible Study Dog (BSD) is not studying the Bible, he is often studying me. In the post, “Prayer – Part Uno, etc.”, I reflected, with Jack’s help, on prayer as supplication or asking. But now I want to reflect on prayer as focus on God himself and prayer as hearing from God.

As I said, the BSD often seems to be studying me. To be sure Jack has culinary interests and is alert for the opportunity to eat. And he also is a social/pack animal and likes to be near the pack and to sleep and play with the pack leader (C’est moi.). But he seems to study me for long periods of time, even when food is not offered. He drags his bed into my office to be near me. Jack often stretches his long body on the floor and watches me for a half hour or more. Part of a relationship with God is seeking to know him, to study him, to watch him, if you will. We must not be too proud to ask, to beg for what we need and for the needs of others. And yet, we should seek not only God’s hand, what he gives and does, but also God’s face, to soak in who he is, to enjoy him. I am reminded of the posture of the Psalmist before God:
“Behold as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he has mercy upon us.” (Psalm 123:2, ESV)
I remember my Dad saying in a speech that he was touched when I came in to read where he was working and I said, I just wanted to be with him. I imagine that God, who has loved us since before creation, also desires us to want just to be with him and receive the blessings of his Presence. Our eyes could be focused on our Lord, alert to his every desire, like a good servant. Think of an attentive waitress or waiter in a restaurant. See also my earlier post, “Thick Skin and Tender Hearts”.

How does one see, watch, study and attend and wait upon God? We can listen to his Word to us in the Bible. We can spend time quietly before him enjoying his Presence and love. Since God is everywhere, we might catch a glimpse of him in the people we encounter, in nature, in the story of our lives, the patterns we see in our lives, in dreams and in worship. The first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads something like this: Q. What is the chief end of man? A. The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. John Piper has famously changed that: To glorify God by enjoying him forever. And Piper often says: “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him.” We are made for joy and delight in the Presence of God. C.S. Lewis said: “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

I wrote in an earlier post about living with an unoffended heart. We can ask why the bad things happen and think that we need to have an explanation before we can open ourselves to God and spend time before his face. But it is only now that we can meet God. The past is gone. The future is not here. Rather than let regret for the past or anxiety about the future bleed into today and distract us from being alert to God, let us spend time before God now and live in day-tight compartments.

Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27, ESV) Many people think the voice of the Lord is rare. How can people who are disciples, “sheep” of Jesus not hear his voice? What if Jesus is speaking to us continually, but through disobedience or sloth we have come to have a habit of not hearing Jesus? Maybe his voice has become background noise, like the air conditioner whoosh that we don’t notice. But if we respond to what might be the voice of Jesus, we begin to learn to recognize his voice more clearly and quickly. What if we make a mistake? So what? We learn only by responding to God and taking a risk. Some of the content of this paragraph was suggested to me over 35 years ago by my friend Chuck Shoemake.

Well the BSD has delayed this post by seducing me into playing ball with him. It is really cool to see Jack catch the ball in the air. We used to have an amazing rat terrier that could catch a frisbee very well. But I am told that Jack is a better catcher than Chesterton was at Jack’s age. Jack has interrupted his studies and gone to sleep. I will join him soon, but I expect Jesus to speak to me in my sleep.

Let me tell you an old joke. A dog looks at her master and thinks “Wow, he feeds me, gives me shelter and cares for me! He must be God!” A cat looks at his master and thinks “Wow, he feeds me, gives me shelter and cares for me! I must be God!” Which one models the attitude we should have before God? You can see that I am not a big cat fan, LOLSTC!

This post was powered by “Invisible Empires” (2011) by Sara Groves, “Before the Mountains” (2012) by Sarah Brendel and “Crimson Cord” (2014) by Propaganda.

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Prayer – Part Uno/Uns/Eins/One

Coffee an alternative

Jack, the Bible Study Dog, has recovered quite well from his difficulties noted in an earlier post. Tonight, Jack and I have been involved in prayer, more specifically in supplication, which means simply asking, and more specifically still, supplication to Terry that she go to Starbucks and use my free birthday drink to buy me a quad venti skinny caramel macchiatto, and then to the store to buy double shot coffee plus energy drinks, one of which I require each morning. Jack knows that I am more responsive to his interests if I am not comatose. When first supplicated, Terry said she would go tomorrow morning. That’s O.K. But, out of the blue, she said, “Maybe I’ll put some clothes on and go out tonight.” Immediately our ears perked up (though it’s hard to tell with Jack because his ears are almost always erect) and our eyes brightened. Our hope is leaking away now.

Coffee is very important to some generations of Presbyterians, like mine. It has been called the third Presbyterian sacrament. Presbyterian and Reformed theology can be placed under the categories of Guilt, Grace and Gratitude, in that order (see especially the first two questions of the Heidelberg Catechism). Part of what this means is that instead of serving God to gain his favor and acceptance, we serve God out of Gratitude for what he has done for us in creation and redemption (in Grace). Well, I used to joke with my congregation that truly Reformed coffee should be a near-death experience. It should be so strong that after a swallow, as the constricted throat begins to open up and we gasp for air, great praise and gratitude begins to rise to God because we are alive (or we survived)! Don’t get me started on how coffee may help in avoiding and treating dementia. The life of the mind is so valued by Presbyterians (ha, ha)!

People at the Thursday Night Bible Study often remark that Jack seems to be praying. And he is, though perhaps not to God (yet I remember the Scripture text, “the young lions seek their prey from God”). Jack will look intently at me while I am teaching or praying, hoping I will give him a table scrap. He is a firm believer in the Scripture, “you have not because you ask not”. He has also been experimenting with different postures of supplication, noting the relative results of his prayers. Of course, since dogs are opportunistic predators, Jack might take closed eyes as an invitation to steal food off a table.

These experiences point to common patterns in our supplications to God. Sometimes I pray for something (wisdom, answer for an issue, healing of body or soul, to find the keys, etc.) and the answer comes immediately, tonight or in the morning. Other times I think I know when in the future an answer will come, and it comes then or doesn’t and maybe comes at a later time. And some prayers do not seem to have been answered yet (though the answer could, of course, be “no”). See my post, “We Shape One Another”, to see how we take on God’s character and desires, and so praying God’s desires back to him, we participate in shaping our world along with God. But we are not talking about that now.

We are talking about continuing to pray with mixed results. Jack sometimes judges that his persistence is likely to go unrewarded at this time, and so, he retires from the field of battle to take a nap and gather his energy for another assault. But persistence will result in greater alertness to ‘answers’ or opportunities, what Jack calls “ops”. Also over time we find that our desires and prayers are being sorted out so that we learn what kinds of prayers God desires or what kinds might be successful.

But then there is this, embodied in a parable/story by Jesus. Jack could tell this kind of story in his sleep. Watching his rapid eye movements, I suspect he is. The story:

“And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, “Give me justice against my adversary.” For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”‘ And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?'” (Luke 18:1-8, ESV)

Of course God is not “unrighteous” and I hope that Jack does not think that I am. Also, “justice” is a more profound, and in a sense, ‘bigger’ prayer than prayer for finding a parking place. But Jesus himself said that the story was simply told that we might always pray and never lose heart. As a child I sang the song: “Seek and ye shall find; Knock and the door will be opened; Ask and the love will come a-tumbling down.”

May we all not lose heart but live with courage and hope!

This post was powered by “Forever and a Day” (2003) by Anthony Skinner and “Dig” (1992) and “Homeboys” (1990) both by Adam Again.

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You Say It’s Your Birthday…

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Several people in my life have had birthdays recently. My mother just had her birthday on July 2nd. Today is my birthday. I have received birthday wishes from friends on Facebook and by email and I am grateful for all of them. I don’t know when Jack’s birthday is. Jack was rescued when he was just a few weeks old when some people abandoned their house and Jack. So since Jack and I share a particularly close canine-human symbiotic relationship, we have agreed that we will celebrate our birthdays on the same day. I have the words from that Beatles song going through my head: “You say it’s your birthday; well it’s my birthday too, yeah…” So, Happy Birthday Jack! Jack is with the vet today, so I have a rare time at home without Jack. Last night at Bible study, a friend noticed that the Bible Study Dog had what turned out to be an anal gland abscess. The anal glands release the scent that dogs are so eager to sniff when they get together. So Jack is spending part of his birthday at the vet.

Last year I had one of my best birthdays in recent years. I was non-weight-bearing in a a rehab hospital after breaking my leg on June 18th. I was wheeled to the cafeteria after hours for a birthday party. Friends from several eras of our life were there along with my Mother who was visiting from Florida because she had a speaking engagement in California. The food was excellent. My son Chris was mainly responsible for getting me a new Apple computer. Chris told a hilarious autobiographical story in a way only he can! Did I tell you that he was a theater major at university? Well he was. Chris is very talented. The next day my brother, Brad, and his wife Kathy, visited, also from Florida.

I was planning to publish a post before my last post, “Speak to Your Soul”. I came to acknowledge that, though I had spent a lot of time gathering materials and my thoughts for the post, I would not be able to write the post now, because I needed to do some more thinking about the theme. Here is some of what I would have written, so that you can follow this theme if you are interested. The post would have been entitled, “Guard Your Heart”. Then I would begin with this text: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23, NRSV) Then I would explicate Dallas Willard’s understanding of the distinction between the heart and other parts of the human being.

Willlard thought that often the biblical words for “will”, “spirit” and “heart” point to the same reality. The heart receives input from reason, emotions, the body, the soul and the external world, and using that input, makes decisions and judgements about the essential direction of one’s life. The soul is the most encompassing part of the human and seeks integration of the whole human. But, Willard wrote that the heart/will is a very small thing. To find out more about these distinctions, see the book: “Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ” (NavPress, 2002) by Dallas Willard. This caused me to think of the heart/will/spirit as a fine instrument which can be damaged and misdirected or programed with lies, hence the title. I had a long list of scriptures that I would have used and then I would have made some practical suggestions about how one can guard this precious instrument so that it operates properly for human flourishing.

If you are having a birthday soon, or even if you are not, live today in the presence of Christ, and with hope and courage!

This post was powered by “Flags” (2011) by Brooke Fraser.


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Chance of Awesome Today: Extreme

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It’s another big day for Jack Lewis, the Bible Study DogĀ  (BSD), and me because today will feature the Thursday Night Bible Study in our home. Jack and I look forward to this for different reasons.

Another feature today is massive amounts of tunage which Jack and I are listening to all day. Now we are nodding our heads to “Fading West”, the new album by Swtchfoot. We might also listen to something from The Violet Burning or Jesus Culture. By the way, I coined that word “tunage”, meaning tunes, music when I was running a music venue/coffee house a few years ago. I based the word on “signage”, as in, “Dude, our band needs more signage!” So, typically, my ad copy would include something like: “There will be copious amounts of food and massive amounts of tunage.” I am always coming up with words, phrases or themes. Some of them I hear or see people using 6 months or a year later. It’s like I’m tuned in to something that is just ‘in the air’. But sometimes I would print cards with one of my ideas illustrated to give away at shows. For instance: “The devil gets no space on my hard drive!” (more about that later). But “tunage” has not caught on, so that one is still mine. Oh, unless you want it?

Today also features protein for lunch. In various ways Jack has communicated that he prefers the high-protein diet that his ancestors ate on the African savannah. When we first rescued Jack, I would use the BSD for a spoken word piece that I did first at the church, and then other places, on St. Peter’s vision of ‘unclean’ animals coming down from the sky in a sheet, with a voice saying, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15, ESV), showing that God was inviting all people to hear the Good News of God’s love, grace and acceptance in Jesus and to come together as his Church. Of course Jack’s memory verse was Acts 10:13, ESV: “Rise, kill and eat.” Jack’s application: 1) the prey won’t come to you; you must go and get it; 2) one must kill the prey or it will run away; and 3) eating is the point. The 10 minute routine was meant to be used in mainstream (not necessarily Christian) venues. While I told stories about Jack, I would quickly plant the seed of divine invitation and acceptance.

However, the post you are reading was almost not written. I was wrestling with about 3 or 4 possible posts and rejecting each one for various reasons. One of my reasons is one you might recognize. Have you ever found a sparkling and true thought that you think would be helpful to share, and yet, it’s not the whole truth or it’s only true as far as it goes or it’s open to misapplication? But you don’t want to qualify it so much that it loses it’s punch, the possibility that it might be for someone a sudden insight that would break her loose or help him move forward. Let’s take as an example that Jesus is Lord of all of life, every part of my life.

The central confession of the early Christian Church was that “Jesus is Lord!” We think of the comprehensive authority that Jesus claims when we hear him saying words like, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6, ESV) A few more: Jesus is the Good Shepherd (Leader/King) in John 10 and the Bread of Life in John 6. One could go on and on because really a Christian is someone for whom Jesus is everything. Here is a striking and true word with a punch from Abraham Kuyper, Dutch theologian, Prime Minister, journalist and much else, of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” Jesus claims everything in our lives. He is not like a president that one might negotiate one’s degree of obedience or his ownership of every area of one’s life. That’s what Lord and Sovereign mean. But you may have heard the saying: “He is Lord of all or not Lord at all.” That is so true! One cannot hold some part of your life away from Jesus or negotiate with him about your obedience and still call him, “Lord”. And yet, is this really the whole truth about Jesus’ authority in our lives? Does he usually just say, “Jump!”, and we are to only say, “How high?” Doesn’t the Bible show God and Jesus receiving human questions without ‘upbraiding’? God makes his desires our desires over time as we come to be shaped by his character through prayer and Scripture (see the post, “What We Are”). God gives us the dignity of being truly (but unnecessary) agents, working with him. And couldn’t I sincerely declare that Jesus is my Lord, and yet having a limited understanding of some parts of my life, over time grow into a more profound submission to his authority as I attain more self-knowledge? Was Jesus not my Lord until I grew enough? I’ll answer that for you: he was my Lord and now I understand better what that means.

Now, I often say that Jesus cannot be Lord over areas of life that one doesn’t have some growing understanding of. One should make some effort, before God, to understand art, music, film, economics, politics, science and more. This seems obviously true to me. I have an intelligent and capable friend who says she is not interested in politics and that she never votes. My first instinct is to quip that Pericles said something like “Just that you’re not interested in politics, doesn’t mean politics is not interested in you.” I even have this saying imposed on a picture of Nazi soldiers inspecting prisoners that I thought about using in this post, but then I thought I don’t want to do that to my blog. I suppose that art work is meant to remind us that Hitler first was elected and came to power through a democratic political process and later begin to rule gradually by diktats, deceitful maneuvers and thuggery. This should at least be something vaguely familiar from our experience.

However, I settled on the thought that Jesus cannot be Lord over areas of our lives that we make no effort to think about before him. And like I wrote, this seems obvious to me. St. Paul reminds us that Christians are promised the mind of Christ for their lives in this world. We are instructed: “Do not be conformed to this world, don’t let the world press you into its mold, from the outside in. But be transformed, from the inside out, by the renewal of your mind.” (Rom. 12:2, based on the Phillips paraphrase, The Message, ESV and my own translation of two Gk. verbs) Extending this theme of active thinking about life before God, St. Paul wrote: “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:4c-5, NRSV) To have our minds renewed from the inside out and to take every thought captive to obey Christ involves not only study of the Bible but also study of the thoughts to be taken captive and the ways that the world tries to press us into its mold. I envision many Christians studying art, music, philosophy, politics or technology.

Have I created a true saying that is only true as far as it goes? I’m afraid that I have. Christians have different gifts, callings and temperaments. Maybe we should say that we are not all called to study of culture and creation as our primary calling, and those that are, not in the same way at different times in our lives. And yet I feel that most Christians are to make some effort to understand some areas of culture so that they may bring these aspects of their lives as offerings to Christ and also may think well for the extension of God’s kingdom and even out-think the world.

Back to politics: 1) politics is not everything; 2) as Andrew Breitbart used to say, “culture is upstream from politics”, that is, change the culture and the change will last longer and politics will began to change (politics swims in culture and is bounded by it); 3) even Christians called to work in politics will subvert their own side somewhat as they treat politics as relative to God’s kingdom; and 4) politics, like everything created, may become an idol (see my post, “What We Are”).

This post was powered by “Fading West” (2014) by Switchfoot.