A friend once referred to me as a tumbleweed. I wasn't sure—at first—whether I liked the image. But…a tumbleweed, once mature, rolls with the force of the wind. "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). A tumbleweed? Yes. I do try to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. One of my favorite scriptures is Isaiah 30:21: "And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way, walk in it.'"
Author: Donna F. G. Hailson
Writer, Educator, Speaker and Photographer focusing on Theology, Nature, and the Arts as Spiritual Ambassadors for the Christian Faith; Radio/Podcast Host focusing on Wildlife, Wild Places, Travel, and Companion Animals
I am often asked for advice on long-term RVing and am delighted to share what I’ve learned. If you prepare well, and perhaps even you don’t, life on the road can be filled with wonderful adventures and a good many misadventures! I’m a writer and my husband, who is several years my senior, was able to take an early retirement, so we were in a position in 2010 to sell our home and get gone. We’ve been traveling–off and on–ever since, meandering around—for most of that time—in a 2011 Dodge Ram 3500, towing a 2011 Carriage Cameo 5th wheel (55 feet long from truck bumper to RV bumper). With earlier RV trips added in, we have now visited every state of the lower 48 plus Alaska and every province and territory of Canada, save for Nunavut. I also made a side trip to Hawaii; my husband will have to catch up, minus an RV, to finish the fifty.
We lived in Grand Canyon National Park for a year, where I worked as a guide and instructor for the Grand Canyon Field Institute (the non-profit partner of the park). I also spent a couple of days a week in Kolb Studio, the home and workplace of two pioneering photographers, while Gene was at the Verkamps Visitor Center. We also “workcamped” (more about this in a bit) in Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida for nearly a year and had longer stays of several months on a ranch in the Badlands of South Dakota, at a park on the Oregon coast, and on a winery on the North Carolina coast. I monitored condors for the Park Service at Grand Canyon and—for two summers—served on the sea turtle patrol on Topsail Island in North Carolina (my patrol partner and I found two nests the second year and helped our hatchlings make their way to the ocean!). Over this time, I’ve also hosted two radio shows and become a photographer of wildlife and wild places; you can see some of my images at: www.dfghailsonphotography.com. My work has also been on offer in a gallery and in stores at Grand Canyon. Radio hosting and the capturing of images were passions that developed via life on the road.
Two book projects saw release in recent years: Big Cypress Swamp: The Western Everglades, 2nd edition, for which I served as editor, and Celebrating America’s National Parks, a book I authored. Both projects were completed under contracts with black and white nature photographer, Clyde Butcher. I continue to write articles, columns, and book reviews. I’m now at work on a devotional book that I’m readying for publication. We’re now sojourning in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire.
I share all of this to suggest that life on the road can open you to astonishing new vistas internally and externally. My years on the road have been years of renewal and reinvention. I now understand, at a deeper level what John Steinbeck meant when he wrote, in Travels with Charley, that, “We do not take trips. Trips take us. Once a journey is designed, equipped and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
There’s a lot to consider as you contemplate this life. Will you purchase a Class A, Class B, Class C, travel trailer, 5th wheel, folding trailer, toy hauler…? If you go with a motorhome, what sort of vehicle will you tow? If you go for a trailer, how much truck or other tow vehicle will you need? Do you have enough saved or enough retirement pay to travel without working? Gas, insurance and overnight stays can be quite expensive; this is not a cheap lifestyle. If you want to work while on the road, might “workcamping” be an option for you? Are you willing to commit six months, working a few days a week in a national park, for the park’s non-profit partner, have your site (pretty much) paid for, and have the remainder of each week available for exploration of the area? If you are, you could spend your evenings looking up at star-bedecked skies that 90 percent of the world will never see. You could listen to the night music of coyotes howling and elk bugling and spend your days walking alongside alligators and exquisite plumed birds or wolves, foxes, and bears. You could watch whales migrate and dolphins dance; thrill to chuck wagons racing and mariachi bands playing; meet survivalists, UFO enthusiasts, gold panners, moonshiners and wild mushroom pickers; and revel in glorious natural wonders from the hoodoo-filled Bryce Canyon to the barren salt flats of Death Valley’s Badwater Basin, from the rocky shores of New England to the other-worldly cinder gardens and lava fields of the Craters of the Moon.
Would you want to volunteer for the National Park Service? Are you a medical professional interested in short-term assignments around the country? Would you be interested in working for an RV park or Amazon or any number of other companies that will offer you a place a stay and pay you for your labor? Check out www.coolworks.com and www.work-for-rvers-and-campers.com to get a beginning sense of some of the opportunities.
Be sure to join Passport America (that offers half-price overnights) and Good Sam (discounts on stays, park reviews, and more). Both will provide you with online listings and books with details on RV parks around the country. Get acquainted with RV Park Reviews (www.rvparkreviews.com). Look at insurance options through Good Sam; sign up for excellent roadside assistance. If you decide to head for Alaska, make sure you get a copy of The Milepost, a trip planner and Alaska travel guide to the highways, roads, ferries, lodgings, recreation, sightseeing attractions and services along the Alaska Highway to and within Alaska, including Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories and the Yukon. Get really acquainted with your vehicle(s) before you hit the road and make sure you know how to make repairs. Be prepared for flat tires; smashed windows; ground surges; hail-damaged roofs; tenuous brake lines; failing fuses; boot-piercing cacti; boot-sucking gumbo; plague-ridden prairie dogs; black water, gray water and most every other variation of mire, muck, ooze, slime and slop; mice that set up apartments under your sink; no-see-ums; intense heat, bitter cold…great exasperation and great joy!!
How do you dissuade them from eating mule deer poop truffles? How do you get it through their heads that cow flaps are not to be rolled in or ingested? Do you vaccinate for Lepto because of washed-up-on-the-shore creatures from the sea they might also want to eat or sniff or cuddle? And that marijuana joint your canine companion found on the ground at a rest area; what are you to do about that? Can you prepare in any way for rattlesnake bites? Oh, and you had them vaccinated for everything imaginable before you got on the road, right? Then why, when you’re on the other side of the country, do they contract kennel cough? Questions, questions and more questions. All waiting to be asked and answered on the road.
Bottomline? When all is said and done, much is risked when one embraces a life of wandering but–then–much is gained. As J.R.R. Tolkien aptly noted, “Not all who wander are lost.” Go!! Do it! Do it!! Do it!!!!!!!
On the desk in my study is an Atlas Obscura calendar that captures the sensation of wanderlust in 365 days of color photographs, unique facts, and unexpected adventures. I was delighted to find today’s page dedicated to the extraordinary Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The structure was built by internationally-known author and folk artist Stephen Huneck to celebrate the relationship between human and hound. The interior walls are covered in handwritten notes and photographs of cherished dogs and other animals that have passed on, and tables offer treats for canine visitors. A sign outside reads: “Welcome all creeds, all breeds. No dogmas allowed.”
My husband, Gene, and I visited this remarkable place with Mac and Molly, our sibling pair of Old English Sheepdogs. In a podcast (the link for which I’m sharing here), I take you on a tour of the chapel, recall a romp with our M&M, take a peak at what’s on offer in Huneck’s adjacent art gallery, and wrap it all up in an interview with Huneck’s widow Gwen. Take a listen!!
SO grateful for our years as nomads in Nomadland!!
My husband, Gene, and I found many touchpoints in this movie to bring us back to our days on the road. Like the central character, Fern, we lived in the Badlands, ate and shopped at Wall Drug, walked with bison and crocs, marveled at the mud nests of the cliff swallows, felt the wind in our hair as we ambled along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, bathed in lakes and streams, danced in raucous bars, stood next to the great Sequoias, and looked through telescopes at Jupiter and other astral phenomena.
We spent many a glorious evening under the stars by countless campfires, sitting with an astonishing assortment of folk: helicopter loggers, a gold panner, moonshiners, survivalists, musicians, a man who worked for years as a prison guard at the supermax Pelican Bay, a veteran who’d served as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, a veterinarian who only made house calls, a knitwear designer… All widened our horizons and became cherished companions along the way. We didn’t refer to ourselves as “houseless,” as does Fern, in this film; rather, we thought of our Carriage Cameo as our “not-attached-to-the-land” home.
We traveled through all the states seen in the film—South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, and California—and the remaining 44 as well (I also made a side trip to Hawaii; the RV couldn’t take us there). We served as workcampers, park hosts, visitor specialists at national parks…about the only thing we didn’t do was work for Amazon.
As much of the world has been focused on Afghanistan in these days, I’ve found my thoughts much occupied with memories of Christy and Betty Wilson.
These faithful servants of the Lord ministered as missionaries—for 22 years—in what had been, prior to their arrival, the unreached nation of Afghanistan. Christy was my first professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; it was from him that I received an introduction to the world mission of the church. I served as his teaching assistant for two years and worked with him on the book, Bringing Christ to All the World.
I have long thought of him as my spiritual father, and I remain deeply grateful for his godly witness, precious mentorship, and loving friendship. He opened opportunity after opportunity for me and was used of the Lord, in many ways, in setting the trajectory of my life. Christy went home to the Lord in 1999, but his influence over my life, and over the lives of countless others, remains. When Christy and Betty set foot on Afghan soil, they were standing where few Christians had stood before. Today, the second fastest growing evangelical movement in the world is in Afghanistan. First is in Iran, where Christy was raised by his parents who were missionaries to that country. I hope you’ll take the time to read about this remarkable man in the accompanying story.
How does the Lord speak to us? How do we discern the voice of God?
Some time ago, an acquaintance suggested I read, A Voice in the Wind, by Francine Rivers. I located a copy and dug in. Now I’m not usually attracted to much Christian fiction, but if you’re looking for something that will shake you out of your complacency, make you take a hard look at your commitment to the Lord, get you lamenting about the tepidness of your witness, remind you of the ways in which the Lord speaks, and make you see how much more you could be for Christ, how much deeper and more fulfilling your relationship could be with Christ…run out and get this book.
Many of us need a new vision for our personal lives. Some of us are bogged down in a sea of guilt, regret, or disappointment. Others of us feel something is missing from our lives. We need a new vision. A new way of seeing. One of the reasons, I believe, so many people—around the world—have a lack of vision is because they either never talk to God or always talk at God (telling Him all the things He should be doing). What folks tend not to do is listen for God, listen to God, converse with God.
So, in this entry, I’ll be providing an overview of the ways in which God speaks to us. Then, in the coming weeks, I’ll unpack and more deeply explore each one of these ways. My prayer is that, as we move through these days, we might each have an Epiphany that will transform each one of us. We’ll begin, however, with the story of the wise men from the East and the ways in which the Lord spoke to them.
That will take us to Matthew 2, verses 1 through 12, where we read:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magifrom the east came to Jerusalemand asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Traditionally, the Christian church has remembered the visit of the Magi twelve days after Christmas, on what is called the Feast of Epiphany. Today we celebrate that day of Epiphany.
The word epiphany is defined, in contemporary lexicons, as a moment of sudden revelation or insight, a new way of seeing or understanding. It is so right that we should begin a new year with the word epiphany on our lips.
One time German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer put it this way, “We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.” The scriptures tell us the wise men looked farther than they could see; they lived under the same sky as their contemporaries, but they had a different horizon.
Some scholars have speculated that the wise men from the East may have heard about the promised glorious King via the writings of the prophet Daniel who, as you may remember, had achieved a high rank in the Babylonian court about six hundred years before the birth of Christ. The wise men, whose steps we recall today, may well have been among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived at the time of Christ.
During the Middle Ages, a legend developed that they were kings, that they were three in number, and that their names were Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior. Because they were thought to represent the three sons of Noah, one of them is often pictured as an Ethiopian. All we know from scripture, however, is what we read in Matthew. One author notes that the magi would have been skilled in astronomy and astrology (which were closely linked in that day) and that they were likely involved in occult practices, including sorcery. It is from their names that our word for magic, magician, and imagination are derived. They believed in one god and were the most prominent and powerful group of advisors in the Medo-Persian empire and subsequently the Babylonian empire.
We learn from the book of Daniel that magi, in fact, were among the highest-ranking officials in Babylon. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—which none of the other court seers was able to do—Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” Because of his great wisdom, and because he had successfully pleaded for the lives of the “wise men” who had failed to interpret the king’s dream, Daniel came to be highly regarded among the magi.
Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, it seems certain that the magi learned much from that prophet about the one true God, the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming glorious King. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the Exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that word of the promised Messiah had been passed down and was known hundreds of years later, even until New Testament times.
So, having received a sign from God (a star), the magi, spoken of in the book of Matthew, set out in search of the prophesied King. King Herod of Judea got wind of their arrival in Jerusalem and the purpose of their visit; he felt threatened and asked his advisors where it was prophesied the Messiah would be born. When he was told the child was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod began to plot the death of any and all who could possibly pose a challenge to his reign.
But, in that darkness of suspicion, the light of devotion was shining. The wise men had come to worship, and they would not be turned aside.
Now, we’re not told exactly how the God of revelation caused the magi to know that Jesus had been born. What we do know is that they had been given the sign of His star. Almost as much speculation has been made about the identity of that star as about the identity of the men who saw it. Some suggest it was Jupiter, the “king of the planets.” Others claim it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, forming the sign of the fish—which was used as a symbol for Christianity in the early church during the Roman persecutions. Still others claim that it was a low-hanging meteor, an erratic comet, or simply an inner vision of the star. A quick aside here: I was disappointed that we were so socked in here that I wasn’t able to catch a glimpse of the “Christmas Star,” the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the 21st. Well, if I’m still alive in 2080, I’ll have another chance. More likely, I’ll be elsewhere and may be able to see it from another vantage point.
Well, since the Bible doesn’t identify or explain the star, we can’t be certain, but it might have been “the glory of the Lord”—the same glory that shone around the shepherds when Jesus’ birth was announced to them by the angel (Luke 2:9). Throughout the Old Testament we are told of God’s glory being manifested as light, God radiating His Shekinah presence in the form of ineffable light. The Lord guided the children of Israel through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21). When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, “to the Israelites, the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountaintop” (Ex. 24:17). On a later occasion, after Moses had inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, His face still glowed with the light of God’s glory when he returned to the people (Ex. 34:30).
When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt. 17:2). On the Damascus road, just before Jesus spoke to him, Saul of Tarsus was surrounded by “a light from heaven” (Acts 9:3), which he later explained was “brighter than the sun” (26:13). In John’s first vision on the Island of Patmos, he saw Christ’s face “like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:16). In his vision of the New Jerusalem, the future heavenly dwelling of all believers, he reports that “the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
The scriptures tell us that, at the time of the magi’s visit, the family was living in a house, and it is likely that the magi arrived a year or two after Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. They presented Jesus with gold (symbolizing His kingly status), frankincense (His divinity), and myrrh (recognition of His future sacrificial death on the cross).
So—in some way, not detailed in scripture, the magi received an initial word from God and set out to find and worship the newborn King of the Jews. Did they have access to the writings of Micah, who lived 100-150 years before them? There they could have read these words: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Or did they hear a still, small voice speaking to their spirits? We don’t know.
We do know God spoke to them through a visible sign: the star And then they were warned in a dream—another way in which the Lord spoke to them—not to go back to Herod but to return to their country of origin by another route.
At the outset, I promised an overview of some of the ways in which the Lord speaks to us. In our passage for today, we’ve seen at least two, and perhaps five ways God spoke to the magi: a tangible sign, a dream, and possibly, scripture, a voice heard within or an audible voice.
So, let’s start with the last in that list and make it first in our review. God may speak to us in an audible voice. When John baptized Jesus, a voice spoke from heaven and said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). There are other instances in the Bible where God’s voice was heard aloud.
Second, He may speak to us in a still, small voice, a whisper. I love the passage from 1st Kings 19 that reads:
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
The most frequent way God speaks to me, and, I believe, to most Christians, is through that still, small voice. He spoke the universe into existence, but He also whispers quiet messages into the hearts of people.
Third, He speaks by popping words or Scriptures into our minds. How grateful when the Lord has brought before my mind’s eye a challenging word or a comforting passage from scripture at just the moment of my need.
Fourth, He speaks by popping pictures into our minds.
There have been many times during my ministry when God has spoken to me by flashing a picture into my mind. Often the Lord will bring a person’s face before me and tell me I need to lift the individual in prayer or I need to do something for them. When I pray for you, the Lord brings your faces before me and sometimes He gives me a word about a need or a concern. In a single scripture, in a single picture, we can see details that it might take a thousand words to explain.
Fifth, He speaks through dreams.
The Bible is full of references to dreams. Remember, in the Old Testament, the story of how angry Joseph’s brothers were when they heard of his dream in which the sun, moon and stars bowed down to his star? There’s Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows being devoured by seven skinny cows which meant that famine was about to grip the Middle East. And, in the New Testament, Joseph had a dream warning him to take Jesus and Mary and flee into Egypt, and—as we’ve been reminded today—the Magi were warned in a dream not to share with Herod where the Messiah had been born.
If God used dreams in Bible times, He certainly can and does use them now. Joel spoke of the importance of dreams when he prophesied, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men and women shall dream dreams” (Joel 2:28). When I lie down to sleep at night, I often pray, Lord, speak to me in my Night Visions, (as the prophet Daniel called them). And the Lord does.
Sixth, He speaks by giving us sympathy pains, sensations, what feels like a physical touch.
Sometimes God may alert you to another’s need by giving you a pain or a sensation that the individual is experiencing, telling you in this way to pray for that person.
Some years ago, I attended a conference at Harvard and, when it was time to leave, I couldn’t remember where I’d left my car. I’d wandered, with friends, all over the campus, and I’d stayed later than they to have a conversation with one of the speakers. They’d gone. I was alone and I had no idea where to go. I asked the Lord to direct me. I felt a hand upon me and a gentle leading that took me from one side of the campus to the other, right to my car.
Seventh, He speaks through others.
This can be one of the most important ways God speaks to us, but it can also be one of the most difficult ways to hear or discern His voice.
God spoke very directly to me one day when I became very angry with and lashed out at my young daughter for her behavior some days earlier. She’d caused embarrassment to me in a store and I hadn’t gotten over it. She looked at me, through tear-filled eyes, and asked why I couldn’t forgive her. “God wants us to forgive each other, why can’t you forgive me? Her words cut me to the quick and were the basis of the first sermon I ever preached.
Now, I’m not saying that you should accept everything everybody says to you as a Word from God. But neither should you dismiss out of hand words that hit you where you live.
Eighth, He speaks through the Holy Spirit bearing witness.
Have you ever been reading the Bible when you came across a Scripture that seemed to grab you by the heart? When that happens, it may be the Holy Spirit bearing witness that this is a message to you straight from the heart of God.
The same thing may happen when you’re listening to a sermon or a song on the radio, conversing with a friend, or even driving down the street. Suddenly, a phrase, a picture on a billboard, or just about anything else grabs hold of you, and you know God is speaking to you.
God spoke to the Magi and to the shepherds with a vision of light and directions for where to go. Like me, you may have your own stories of the Lord speaking to you in undeniable ways. When I came to faith in Christ at a Billy Graham crusade in Boston, I felt like I was on fire. I sensed a light all around me, and I felt something akin to a cleansing wave washing over me. Not long after I came to faith in Christ, I was on a Cursillo weekend (a three-day retreat), asking God what I was to do now that He’d given me a new life. On that weekend, I again had an experience of light and was told, via a still, small voice what next steps I should take.
A light. An audible voice. A still, small voice, a whisper. A scripture or a picture that pops into your mind. A dream. Sympathy pains, sensations. A word from another person, especially a fellow Christian. The Holy Spirit speaking to us through the physical realm.
Now, we must be careful not to attribute to God those things that are not of God, but we must also—with trained discernment—listen for what God might be saying to us. As I noted at the outset, too often, too many of us, talk at God, telling Him we need this, that and the other thing. But prayer is a two-way conversation. In this new year, I pray our relationships with the Lord may grow and be a great blessing to us and to others. I also pray that, in our prayers, we might not only speak to God but listen for God. Amen?
As we look out on a society deeply troubled by civil unrest, as we consider the appearance of and the after-effects of a global pandemic, as we ponder what it will mean as we emerge from our imposed cells of isolation, many are asking: “what does it all mean? Why is all of this happening? Are there cultural elites manipulating us for their own ends? How can a loving and all powerful God allow the catastrophic to occur? Is God speaking to us through all this turmoil?” Are you seeking the wisdom of God in these days? Are you reaching out to Him in prayer? The Lord speaks to us in manifold ways through the written Word, through His Holy Spirit, through the natural world, and often through the unbidden and unexpected. He calls us to listen and to use words that will edify, words that will build and challenge and comfort and minister to those around us. But it’s not always easy to locate those words when the people in our lives shun us, refuse to listen to us, misunderstand us, dismiss us, and treat us with disrespect. Walls are built—walls of anger and frustration and fear—walls that are hard to penetrate. In the midst of all the confusion, we may even build walls between ourselves and God. We can’t hear or we refuse to listen. We all say we want signs. But are we listening? Are we listening for what God is saying at the small crossroads as well as at the big junctures? Are we listening to the spoken and the unspoken words of those we encounter every day? Are we listening to the heart cries of the child, the stranger, the friend, even the one who seems bent on our destruction?
OR are you a visionary looking for an opportunity? If you are a visionary, don’t let anyone dampen your passion or size down your vision. Pray to be certain that what you think could be, God is telling you should be. Then step out in faith, follow the road map God provides and you’ll have a reason for getting up and showing up every day. Don’t go through your life with a hole in your soul because you’re just drifting along with no purpose, no meaning in your life. The God of the universe has designed you to fulfill a purpose unique to you. Granted, this world offers a truckload of options when it comes to possible visions to pursue. But you were carefully crafted, minutely detailed for a selected divine agenda. God’s visions for your life are the things that will give your life impact beyond this life. God’s visions always have an eternal element. His vision for your life is part of a plan He envisioned and put into motion long before you and I came on the scene. Ask for that divine glimpse of what could be and should be. Ask God to be your vision and to instill in you His vision for you. And then go after that vision with everything you’ve got.
Memorial Day, which originated after the Civil War, commemorates the sacrifices of those who have fought and died in the American armed forces. It was in 1865 that Henry Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, New York, suggested—at a social gathering—that honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves. A year later, a committee was formed to plan a day, and townspeople embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Wreathes, crosses and bouquets were made for each veteran’s grave and flags were set at half-mast.
The first national official recognition of Memorial Day was issued by General John Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. This was General Order No. 11 establishing “Decoration Day” as it was then known. The date of the order was May 5, 1868, exactly two years after Waterloo’s first observance. And that year, Waterloo joined other communities in the nation by having their ceremony on May 30. In 1971, Congress made the last Monday in May the official national holiday.
According to the most recent estimate from the Department of Veteran Affairs, 651,031 Americans have died in battle. That number doesn’t take into account others, who died in theatre, but not in battle.
I spent some years as a teacher of U.S. History, have done some training of Navy chaplains, and so have researched our wars. Nevertheless, I was cut to heart to read again the statistics on the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, the War with Mexico, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Shield/Desert Storm and, now, what the Department of Defense lists, as the ongoing conflict that is the Global War on Terror.
General Logan, in issuing General Order No. 11 said, “We should guard the graves [of those who died for us] with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or the coming generations, that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic. If other eyes grow dull, and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains to us.”
Memorial Day. Interpreters have long noted the aura of sacredness that surrounds the day’s traditional observances. The Memorial Day Foundation offers many suggestions on how we might honor the fallen. Included in these a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time to pause and think upon the meaning of the day. At that hour today, buglers across the country, will be playing “Taps” wherever they may be.
Memorial Day likely conjures up memories for all us. Some of my earliest memories, from my childhood, are of my father, a World War II veteran, marching in our town’s Memorial Day parade. I recall, as well, when I was in my twenties, standing by his flag-draped casket as he was honored by members of the local American Legion post where he’d served as commander for many years. But perhaps I am more acutely attuned to Memorial Day this time around because of a conversation I had some days ago with my son-in-law, a now-retired Special Operative with the Marines, a Raider.
Andrew, over his years of service, was deployed again and again to Iraq, Afghanistan and other of the most dangerous places in the world. And because he and others like him did and do the things they have done and continue to do, we can sleep more easily at night. Though I doubt he’d refer to it as such, Andrew regularly ministers to former soldiers who struggle to sleep as they relive—each night—horrific battles, as they see the faces of the fallen beside them, as they struggle to manage the mundanities of everyday life off the field of conflict.
On this Memorial Day, I will be weaving in and out of the reflections of two men who understand, from first-hand experience, that wars are fought on a wide range of battlefields. The first of the two is Roger Brady, a follower of Jesus Christ and a retired U.S. Air Force General. His words appeared in an article in Christianity Today magazine.
Those whom we honor this Memorial Day, he said, died serving something bigger than themselves—the transcendent ideals that make America the country we cherish. But for us as Christians, he added, this day should have an even more poignant meaning. Many of the same values that our nation should hope to nurture and many of the traits military members are challenged to embody are consistent with those perfectly modeled for us by our Savior. He was the quintessential example of service and sacrifice.
In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul said, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7–8).
Before He went to the cross, Jesus showed us how to love each day. To the consternation of those watching him, he invited himself to the home of a hated tax collector named Zacchaeus, he challenged the hypocrisy of religious leaders by coming to the rescue of a prostitute, he exposed the meaninglessness of their religiosity by healing the sick on the Sabbath, and he challenged bigotry and insensitivity by publicly engaging in conversation with a Samaritan woman that His society said was unworthy of His time.
Brady reminds us that, as Christians, we are not only citizens of the United States but citizens of the kingdom of God as well, and our citizenship in that kingdom of God is a gift extended to us freely by God’s grace. Paul told the Ephesian Christians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10).
The society in which Jesus lived had many problems akin to what we see in the United States today. There was hypocrisy, bigotry, poverty, and oppression of the weak by the strong, and He condemned all of that. America is probably a better place than that for even the most marginalized of our citizens, but it is not always what it should be for all of us. As Christians, regardless of our earthly citizenship, this is part of the work He left for us to do. Is it our duty as Americans? Yes, it is—but even more so as citizens of the kingdom of Christ.
Most Americans will never serve in the military—less than one percent of our population does. And even among those of us who do, very, very few of us are asked to give that last full measure of devotion. So, what is the question for us on this day as we remember those Americans who died on our behalf? It is this—for what shall we live?
Brady reminds us that, whether we wear the uniform of our country or not, we all have a service to offer, a service to those ideals that reflect God’s universal truths and that our American ancestors captured in the formation of this country. Jesus has assigned the church to carry on His work. So, when evil strikes in the form of a school shooting or, when nature unleashes its fury and devastates property and lives, when children suffer, when people are hungry or homeless, when a virus strikes down a loved one, and people ask, “Where is God?!” we must be there and have them see Him in us.
We must bring His comfort and His healing to this world. When we live lives of service to those around us, we honor the God who saved us and we honor all those who gave that last full measure to secure for us all the things we enjoy in this nation.
Some time back, I came across a publication from American Baptist International Ministries that contained an article by IM Missionary Bill Klemmer. Bill begins his article with a reference to Matthew 21: Speaking to His disciples, Jesus tells a parable of two brothers whose father asked them to do some work in the family vineyard. One said, “Sure, I’ll go”—but he never went. The other said, “No way”—but eventually he did as his father had asked.
Bill said his typical response to God’s calling would fit right into this story. Eager to please his heavenly Father, he would answer, “Yes, I’ll go.” But when the initial excitement had faded, his head would get in the way of his heart and he would rationalize, “The timings not right. I need to be better prepared. I’ll go after I finish this one thing.” Usually, Bill admitted, he behaves like the second brother, eventually going, but not always on schedule, sometimes reluctantly and often with timid, halting progress.
At the age of 22, he had a strong sense that God was calling him to serve in Africa as a missionary doctor, and he immediately answered, “Yes,” and took steps to follow through on that calling. Seven years later, having completed medical school and his residency, he had the skills necessary to answer the call. But, along the way, he’d gotten married, had children, gone into private practice and purchased a house. He suggested to God that the responsible thing to do was to save for his children’s college educations, pay off his mortgage, get practical experience and then go to Africa.
One day he and Ann were traveling in upstate Vermont when their train stopped dead in its tracks. In that moment, God led them to pray about the calling he’d heard years earlier. By the time the train started up again, they’d told God they would go. And six months later, they set out with three young children and a fourth on the way. They remained in Africa for seven years before returning to the United States for their first furlough. At that point, the last thing Bill wanted to do was to go back and keep serving. He was haunted by the memory of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had torn him away from his family and kept them apart for 11 long months. Surely, he thought, they’d done enough. Someone else could else could take a turn.
But after a year of visiting churches and sharing stories of God’s faithfulness, he couldn’t shake the call. So, they returned to the D.R. Congo, and over the next decade, the constant fighting there would grow to engulf much of central Africa, claiming an estimated 1.2 million lives in what would become known as Africa’s World War. When they completed their assignment in the D.R. Congo, they moved on to South Sudan, where yet another prolonged civil war was coming to a head with the ethnic massacre of hundreds of thousands.
Today, Ann and Bill are living on the Congo-Uganda border, which has been the epicenter of Africa’s second largest and deadliest outbreak of Ebola. Bill says he continues to contemplate his calling. Now that they’re in their mid-sixties, the children ask, “Isn’t it time for you to come home?” Their simple answer is, “Not yet. We still feel called to serve.”
He and Ann met, what Bill describes as, a “gifted evangelist and educator.” The man was on his way home to a town of half a million persons, a town that has been under attack by rebel militias for several years. Armed elements infiltrate the town at night, raping, pillaging, murdering, and burning homes. A U.N. force has been unable to prevent these attacks. So, Ann and Bill were surprised when the man spoke of his eagerness to get home.
Why? Why are you so eager to get back to a place that so many other people are fleeing?
“You see,” he said, “Jesus is coming back soon, and when He returns, I want Him to find me laboring in the field He assigned to me. I want to be where I am supposed to be—in the trenches—when Jesus returns.”
Last week, our nephew, Bernie, an R.N. contracted the coronavirus in the course of his work, and spent two weeks in the hospital on ten IV drips and many more medications. His breathing was managed via a ventilator. He was constantly dialyzed, and received additional interventions too numerous to recount…the team attending to him tried everything to save him. He went into septic shock a few days ago and succumbed to COVID-19. His wife, Jean, was allowed to be at his bedside as he went home to the Lord, and she wants to believe he was aware of her presence with him. If Bernie had survived, he would have been on a trache and in a nursing home for the remainder of his days. We’re heartbroken. Five other family members (Jean, a nurse practitioner, three of their children, and Bernie’s brother) all tested positive for the virus but are recovering. Bernie is one of more than a thousand healthcare workers who have died in the frontline fight against COVID-19. On this Memorial Day, I will be thanking God for his service and for the service of others who have died in this war.
We all pass through seasons and there is a time for every purpose under heaven. Someday we will find ourselves at the end of our lives looking back, and we will ask ourselves what it was all for. At that moment, I imagine we will all want to recall a life of service to something larger than ourselves, to children who needed our teaching and our example of service, to people to whom we gave a hand up in times of need, to friends and colleagues whom we comforted in times of sorrow, lives with whom we shared the many physical and spiritual blessings that have been bestowed on us. If we have lived that life of service, we will have fulfilled the challenge of the Savior when he said, “Whatever you did for one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).
So, on Memorial Day, and every day, we need to ask ourselves: for what shall we live? How are we doing at fulfilling not just the ideals of our American forefathers but those universal values set in place by the One who made us in His image, who sent His only begotten Son to secure our salvation, the one who “created us in Him to do good works?”
Let us not allow Memorial Day to pass by seeing it only as a day that marks the beginning of summer, a day off, a day to barbecue. May our use of the day include an honoring of those who, with their lives, have purchased our freedoms. Not only the soldiers who gave their lives on fields of battle, not only the frontline workers who have died in their service to others, but our Savior Jesus Christ who gave all on the cross that we might have freedom from sin, death and Satan.
Take some time in silence today at 3, offering prayer for those who are in harm’s way around the world, giving thanks for those who have sacrificed all that we might be free, and opening ourselves to a word from the Lord about what call He might be placing on our lives at this very moment.
Let us pray:
God of all our yesterdays, I am part of a people called to remember. Gifted with memory, looking back, I know who You are, what You have done for me in Jesus Christ, and, by Your grace, whose I am. God of my today, O come before You with praise and adoration. Your Spirit is here within me.
God of all my tomorrows, time is in Your hand and I pray I may each day serve You obediently and joyfully. Eternal God, Alpha and Omega, I rest my past, devote my present and hope my future in You. Thanks be to God.
Abiding and understanding God, I pray for those too busy, having too many things to do, who have lost the rhythm of life and have forsaken Sabbath rest. I pray for those who have so much crowding in their hearts of that which is not You, that they make no room for You. I pray for those too familiar with the Good News, too jaded, too preoccupied with that which is not You—those who have lost the quivering of the Holy Spirit at really hearing and being captured by the call and demand of the gospel.
Lord, forgive me if I am one of these, and let me find my abundance in You. Save me from myself and guide me to Yourself.
As I open myself to You, I pray You will gently fill me with Your light and Your Spirit. Help me to take each step trusting in You. Help me to walk Your path relying not on my own strength, but on Yours. Speak Your words to my heart, Lord.
For Your guidance, Your healing, Your power, Your grace, and Your peace—I give You thanks. I pray that I might believe more fully, love more compassionately, and live in your Way more faithfully. I pray these things in the name of Jesus. Amen
From the Chaplain’s Manual of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Organization comes this benediction for today:
God be in our head, and in our understanding;
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our hearts, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.
May the Lord bless thee and keep thee until we meet again. Amen!
Patience is defined as the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset. Persistence is a firm continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Perseverance is steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
Patience. Persistence. Perseverance. How desperately we need these in our rucksacks today. The coronavirus and the resultant efforts to stem the tide of its dissemination have upended our lives. Grocery shelves are emptying. Businesses are suffering. The stock market is wobbling. In Maine, nearly 90,000 individuals, or roughly 13 percent of the state’s workers, have filed for unemployment since March 15 . While some restrictions on public activities have been lifted, protests are increasing. People are sick of and sick of hearing about COVID-19. Tempers are getting shorter and shorter. Patience is wearing thinner and thinner.
Patience. Patience seems a hard commodity to locate and not just because of a virus. For other reasons, it is sometimes hard to be patient. Frank Luchsinger tells of a woman who telephones him one day, choked with emotion as she reports, “Ray walked away from Day Care this morning.” She is speaking of her husband, who is sinking into Alzheimer’s and is in a wonderful day program in a community center.
“It’s a very busy street. He’s headed west; he knows we live that way. They spotted him at the bank and at the hamburger stand. It’s been six hours. I’d have called earlier but I knew there was nothing we could do. Every time someone sees him, he’s gone before the police get there. It’s such a cold day. Do you think we could start the prayer chain?”
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.
A young couple wants one thing most in life—to have a child. They wonder why God has not chosen to bless them with a pregnancy. Both are successful professionals but this brings little satisfaction. Now their marriage is beginning to suffer under the strain.
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.
A family with several children sits in a fast food restaurant learning that Happy Meals don’t necessarily bring happiness. Children’s meals are all mixed up on the table and while a haggard dad tries to sort out whose meal is whose, the littlest one eats part of a meal that doesn’t belong to him. Tempers flare.
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.
I’ve heard it said, and I imagine my husband, Gene, would likely say it’s true that sometimes it’s hard to be patient with your spouse. Socrates wrote, “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher… and that is a good thing for any man.”
We’ve heard it said that marriage is a three-ring circus: engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffer-ring. It has also been suggested that marriage is not a—it’s a sentence; that marriages are made in heaven, but so are thunder and lightning.
Sometimes, it’s hard to be patient.
It’s hard to be patient with our vocations. Certain credentials are required, then experience, then a measure of the right timing and perseverance. Someone not particularly deserving is promoted to the job we want, or we receive damaging and unfair criticism or we are exposed to unrelenting demands resulting in unending stress.
And it’s hard to be patient with our health: that long illness we did not anticipate, medical treatment that doesn’t work out, conflicting opinions, escalating expenses, wear and tear on our loved ones.
And it’s hard to be patient in this time of COVID-19.
“Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” we read in Isaiah, but when you’re waiting and weary, it’s hard to be patient.
James writes, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” Look to the example of the farmer who, in James’ day, waited for the fall rain in early October or early November that was necessary to prepare the hard ground for sowing and to enable the seed to germinate. Later the farmer would wait for the spring rains that would come in April and May; these were vital for the grain to ripen and mature.
Be patient like the farmer. Stand firm. Wait on the Lord.
Patience: if you were to think for a moment about some of the synonyms for the word “patience,” what might come to mind would be words like: waiting, holding on, hanging in there, keeping up the fight, and persevering (though, in the Greek, perseverance is a more active word than patience). Patience, remember, is a capacity. Perseverance, an action.
Lyman Coleman and Richard Peace opine that, as Americans, we’re not very good at handling stress and demonstrating patience. Our tendency is to act, to think that we can deal with any challenging situation and make it go away. If we can’t, our next line of defense is to go away ourselves. Fight or flee. The idea of hanging in there, of staying in a challenging situation because that is where we are supposed to be, is not necessarily our strength. Of course, sometimes flight may be the only sane answer. We can’t say, without exception, that in all situations the best thing is to hang in there.
One must always attend to the Lord’s leading, wait for Him, and while waiting, stand firm, like Job.
That was James’ word to the church in 1st century Jerusalem and it’s the word to us today. Though Job was not a patient man and frequently expressed his exasperation with the Lord, James wants us to emulate him in his perseverance: despite the disasters and difficulties that came into his life and the relentless attack of his “friends,” Job kept his faith and did not abandon his trust in God. Job’s dependence upon and waiting upon the Lord brought him extraordinary results. Learn from Job.
James, in chapter 1, verse 2, tells us that whenever we face trials of any kind, we should consider these nothing but pure joy because the testing of our faith produces perseverance (steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success) and, if we persist and let perseverance have its full effect, we will wind up mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
John Ortberg in his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, reminds us that any truly meaningful accomplishment will require perseverance. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, the writer of Hebrews said. In other words, just don’t quit. We might have to endure through times of confusion or doubt, times of loneliness, even times when all seems lost. And we should keep in mind that suffering alone does not produce perseverance, only suffering that is endured in faith.
James, in the verses preceding the ones for today, catalogued some of the Job-like misfortunes the folks of his day were enduring: failure to be paid for their labor, being used to bring opulence to a few while personally being forced to live in poverty, abuse in the courts and more. James counseled them not to retaliate, not to become like those who were oppressing them.
The Lord’s coming is near, he says to them. The Lord’s return will change everything.
Now we might note here that there are three words in the New Testament used to describe the Second Coming of Jesus. The first is epiphaneia (in the English, epiphany). It describes the appearance of God or the ascent to the throne of an emperor. The second word is apokalupsis (the English, apocalypse); this carries the meaning of unveiling or revelation. The third word—which is used here—is parousia. It describes the invasion of a country or the arrival of a king. Taken together, these three words give the sense of what will occur when Christ returns. Jesus first came to this Earth quietly as a baby in Bethlehem. When He comes a second time, it will be in awe-inspiring power as the rightful King. In great might and glory, He will claim His people.
While we wait, James said, look to the example of the farmer who knows he can do nothing to hasten the arrival of the rains. The rains will come when God sends them. We sow a seed, we pull the weeds, we do our part to protect the crop, but there is a limit to what we can do. God must do the rest. God must manage the growth. God must work all things together for our good.
While we wait, the temptation might be to slip into inappropriate survival modes or, more specifically, the temptation might be to adopt the ways of the world. Resist such temptations, James tells us. For one thing, don’t take your frustrations out in grumbling.
Now while groaning in the face of suffering may be appropriate, grumbling at one another is not. Bickering, fault-finding, back-biting, nitpicking, grumbling against others is a form of judgment. And here in James and elsewhere we are told not to judge or we too will be judged.
And grumbling is so often misdirected. We’re upset about something over here…but we take it out over there. In stress situations, it may work like this: we feel pressure but we’re powerless to do anything about it. It comes perhaps from someone we dare not cross. We can’t express our anger and resentment directly, so we do it indirectly. We complain to those around us, often to those dearest to us. We may walk around cranky. We may blame them. In any case, our grumbling does nothing but create tension.
What compounds this is that we can then become chronic complainers, chronic grumblers; we can move our attention away from praise. It’s like the big sheet of paper and the little smudge. You lose sight of all your blessings to focus on the little smudge. That little smudge may work into you in such a way that you become a chronic complainer, focusing always on what’s “wrong” and not on what’s “right,” focusing on the blisters, ignoring the blessings.
Someone who could have done that, someone who could have gotten himself bogged down in smudges was Abraham Lincoln. If you want an example of someone who never got tired of trying, he’s your guy. Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown. He could have quit many times—but he didn’t and because he didn’t quit, he became one of the greatest presidents to sit in the White House.
Once, after losing an important Senate race, he said, “The path was worn and slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other out of the way, but I recovered and said to myself, ‘it’s a slip and not a fall.’”
He didn’t blame others or use his tongue to tear down others, instead he spoke the truth of his convictions. This is what James is addressing in verse 10. Here he celebrates the men and women who have spoken truth—the prophetic word—in God’s name.
Lincoln, like those prophets, persevered—and because he did our nation survived a great crisis. Here is a litany of a man who never stopped trying:
In 1816—His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.
In 1818—His mother died.
1831—Failed in business.
1832—Ran for the state legislature—lost.
1832—Also lost his job—wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
1833—Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
1834—Ran for the state legislature again—this time he won.
1835—Was engaged to be married; his sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
1836—He had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
1838—He sought to become speaker of the state legislature—He was defeated.
1843—He ran for Congress and lost.
1846—Ran for Congress again—this time he won—went to Washington and did a good job.
1848—Ran for re-election to Congress—lost.
1849—Sought the job of land officer in his home state—he was rejected.
1854—Ran for the Senate of the United States—lost.
1856—Sought the vice-presidential nomination at his party’s national convention—got less than 100 votes.
1858—Ran for the U.S. Senate again and again he lost.
1860—He was elected President of the United States.
It was Abraham Lincoln’s belief in the providence of God that allowed him to keep his balance and turn repeated setbacks into eventual victories.
To be formed and transformed through trials, the place to start is with mini-trials. When someone interrupts you, you can practice graciously holding your tongue. When a co-worker borrows something and doesn’t return it immediately, you can practice patience. When you have a headache, you can discover that it is possible to suffer and not tell everybody about it. As simple as it sounds, the place to start being formed by trials is with the mini variety.
But we need to add persistence for the large trials. Perhaps you might identify the greatest challenge of your life right now, or a dilemma you’re about ready to give up on. Make a commitment that you are going to relentlessly persist through prayer.
Perhaps the challenge is relational. Is someone you love far from God and you’ve given up hope? Is it a pattern of sin in your life that you haven’t been able to break and you feel as if you’ll be in its grip forever? Is it a new habit you would do well to cultivate? Is it a family rupture that’s been going on for years?
You don’t keep the faith and attend to these things through sheer strength of will alone but through trusting in, relying on God.
So…what’s the scoop with the last verse in this passage? It seems a bit oddly placed but it’s not.
The last verse in our passage has sometimes been taken to mean that we should not swear an oath of allegiance to a flag or an oath to tell the truth in a courtroom, but that’s not what James is addressing here. James is not condemning oath-taking of this sort: we find plenty of instances of people taking appropriate oaths all throughout scripture from Exodus to Matthew to Romans to Hebrews.
It would seem James had a two-fold purpose here. First, to warn against the flippant use of God’s name to guarantee the truth of what is spoken. Phrases like: “I swear to God that…” or “As God is my witness, I’ll…” are, in part, what’s in mind here.
Then there are the oaths, the promises, and the boastings we sometimes may be tempted to utter. An example to consider from scripture is found in the experience of Peter who once talked about how faithful he was going to be to Jesus: “Lord if everybody leaves You. I will not leave You. Lord, if I have to die to save You, I’ll die in Your place.”
Then when the crucial moment arrived, Peter said about Jesus: “I don’t even know the man.” This was the same man who had sworn to follow Jesus to death. You see James is saying that, in the Christian life, patience, persistence, and perseverance are not manifested in grand verbal promises but by quiet talk that follows through. Our patient endurance will be shown not in words but in endurance through trials and testing.
So…bottom line: Remember that any truly meaningful human accomplishment will require patience, persistence and perseverance. Allow these to do their work in you, confident that if you do, you will wind up mature in the faith, complete, lacking in nothing. Keep going, stop grumbling, don’t quit. If you fall down, get up. Don’t be an empty talker; just run the race set before you. Learn persistence in the mini-trials and you’ll have greater strength to move through the larger trials. And remember that all of this is not done through the sheer strength of your own will but through trusting in God to use all things for our good to grow us up in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You might wish to lift the following as your prayer: Lord, I know that there is nowhere I can go where You are not and yet often I go about my days without ever giving a thought to Your presence, essentially turning a deaf ear to You, paying no attention to you, overlooking you, discounting you, neglecting you, ignoring you. I do so at my own peril. You are an ever-present help in the midst of troubles. You love me with a love that will never let me go. May I love you and demonstrate my love for you by using the times of discipline to move to greater depths of faith in you. May I embrace the week ahead, being diligent in my labor, kind to my neighbor, generous to the discouraged, patient with my family, loyal to my Savior. May I study the scriptures, be faithful in prayer and—in all things—trust the Lord. I pray in the name of my Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Max Lucado, in the Anxious for Nothing Bible Study, offers two words that served as the inspiration for the message I’m posting today. “Contingent Contentment” is the kind of thinking that starts with the “I’ll be happy when…,” “I’ll be happy if…” I’ll be content when I marry. I’ll be happy when I have a child. I’ll be content when I get a new job. I’ll be content when I move to a new community. I’ll be happy when I get a new car. In every instance, contentment is based on circumstances.
Psalm 42 was composed by someone who is longing for the good ole days and lamenting his current circumstances. He is filled with discontentment. The writer, is a worship leader as well as a member of the Korahite choir. The Sons of Korah were the descendants of Levi who sang in the temple. The psalmist is now in exile in the land of the Jordan River. That river lies north of the Sea of Galilee and contains many waterfalls as it cascades southward. The psalmist tells us that he is feeling overwhelmed by the spiritual “waves and breakers” that have “swept over” him.
He recalls leading groups of people to worship, singing songs of thanks! Those were special times—but the psalmist is singing a different song today. Today, his heart is broken and he can’t seem to locate God. With this background, hear the beginning words of the psalm:
“As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and meet with Him? Day and night, I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours? My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks—it was the sound of a great celebration! Why am I discouraged? Why so sad?”
Can you remember a mountain-top moment of worship? I can remember many. I remember a retreat on the Maryland shore with some Stephen Ministers I’d trained. We’d gathered around the Lord’s Supper, and all of us were taken to a place of deep emotion in worship that moved us to tears, bonded us together, and warmed us to our cores. I remember a Maundy Thursday service and the depth of intimacy and overwhelming love I felt for the Lord and for members of the congregation as I knelt to wash their feet. I remember blessed times when folks have come forward in services to receive Christ as Savior; I remember sacred moments in a baptismal pool. I remember my great joy and relief when I went forward to proclaim my own belief in Jesus as Savior at a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston, Massachusetts. I remember the moment I received spiritual assurance and tangible confirmation of my call to pastoral ministry.
There are moments while praying from the pulpit when the presence of the Holy Spirit has been so palpable that I’ve felt transported. There are moments even in nature when I’ve heard the Lord in the whisper of the wind.
All of these mountain top experiences have something in common: I could feel in every fiber of my being the presence of God. The moment, the time in worship, was good not because it was entertaining or emotional but because the Spirit of the Living God—His grace, His mercy, His mysterious majesty—surrounded me and often surrounded the assembly.
You may remember, as well, moments in worship, communion with God, like this. Perhaps you also remember days you didn’t bother to worship because you just didn’t have it in you. Not that you were lazy or wanted to do something else—no, you just felt numb and cold inside. No matter how loud you sang or how catchy the songs—even if the preaching was right on target—something was missing. Think of a deer in a desert, panting for water, crying as it looks for water, unable to find even a trickle of a stream to quench its thirst.
That’s the way the psalmist describes his spiritual state. He is dry and parched. He’s not thirsty for water but for God. His soul is thirsty. He longs to be near God—to experience a refreshing stream but instead he’s in the desert. Tears, salty tears, are the only drink he can find, but saltwater only increases one’s thirst.
No songs of praise come from his parched lips. His swollen, red eyes see no sign of God’s face. He is only blinded by the sun. And there isn’t even an edifying voice of a fellow worshipper speaking a psalm, hymn, or spiritual song to spur him on to love and good deeds. In the desert, his tragedies are instead exploited by an unbelieving world that taunts with sneering questions, “Well, where’s your wonderful God now?! Can’t you see how hollow all religion is? Give it up!”
But even more troubling questions can come from those who profess to be Christians: “Why do you think God abandoned you like this? Maybe it’s something you did? Maybe there is some unresolved sin or pride in your life? How is it that you’ve fallen out of favor with God?”
And then there’s another question that we sometimes hear: “If you don’t feel close to God, who do you suppose moved?” That last one is actually a good question. If you were to ask that of our Psalmist he might surprise you and say—well it seems to me that God did!
The psalmist feels abandoned and forgotten. Being forgotten is one of the worst feelings. Being forgotten means being alone and defenseless before enemies and the forces of nature. Being forgotten means losing stability and security— nowhere is safe, darkness surrounds.
The psalmist wants to know why God has thrown him aside. He is lost in darkness; enemies have taken advantage of his misfortune. And he feels shame—an embarrassment for God. He has praised God like an adoring child praises a Father— confident in the Father’s goodness and boasting that the Father can do anything! And then, in the moment He is needed most, it seems the Father isn’t there. And the child is—abandoned. All the praise and boasting about the Father becomes… embarrassing.
Whose psalm is this? Who are the children of Korah?
Any of us who feel thirsty for God’s presence. Anyone who hears people say, “Where is Your God?” because something terrible has happened. Those who find themselves in oppressive surroundings as family members or co-workers insult them for their faith. And those who feel stressed and disappointed because God hasn’t seemed to do much to help them out of a difficult situation.
“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!…Each day the Lord pours His unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing His songs, praying to God who gives me life…’O God, my rock,’ I cry, ‘why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief[?]…I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!”
This psalm and the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is for the thirsty, parched souls who long for God—those who long to be immersed in His mercy and rescuing grace.
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Like the psalm, the song starts off with a little self-talk: Why am I discouraged? Why am I so sad?
Despair is a vicious thing. It’s a sort of auto-immune disorder of the soul. It attacks your soul, then turns your soul against you for feeling sad. But the chorus in both the hymn and the psalm yields to hope. The thirsty soul decides to become a pilgrim. Like the deer, the psalmist is going to sniff out the source of water.
I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him, my Savior and my God!
Being a pilgrim means accepting the wilderness, but settling for nothing on the journey except the deep waters of God. That’s why we need this psalm—to send us on our pilgrim journey, to prepare us for the spiritual life. Too many people settle for poison in the wilderness, contentment based on contingencies. “Feeling better has become more important to us than finding God.”
In his autobiography, When You Can’t Come Back, Dave Dravecky (a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who lost his pitching arm to cancer) says that he “learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop. On the mountaintop, we are overwhelmed by God’s presence. In the wilderness, we are overwhelmed by His absence. Both places should bring us to our knees; the one, in utter awe; the other, in utter dependence.”
Jesus once spoke to a thirsty woman in the wilderness of Samaria (John 4). She felt far from God and so it isn’t strange that she asked, “Where is God?” She had heard from her family—the generations before her—that God was on His holy mountain—Mount Gerazim. But she’d heard from her enemies that God lived in a big house in Jerusalem. “Where is God?” she asked.
Jesus wasn’t surprised by the fact that she’d had five husbands and that the man with whom she was then living wasn’t her husband. Like many of us who long for God, she’d turned to other people, other circumstances, other avenues looking for satisfaction. She was thirsty, and so when Jesus spoke of living water—deep water—that not only satisfies thirst but taps a spring of gushing water in the soul—she wanted it! Like a deer panting for water!
Scott Hoezee recalls having seen a bumper sticker that featured the picture of a telescope along with the words, “If you see God, tell him I’m looking for Him.” This psalmist would appreciate that bumper sticker. But in this psalm, as in so much of our experience, you can’t always find God with the “telescope approach.” Sometimes we try to scrutinize our present circumstances to see if we can locate precisely where God is, hoping we can zero in on Him the way a telescope zeroes in on a star. But it doesn’t always work that way.
To stick with the astronomy analogy for a moment: some of you know that when stargazing, the best way to see some stars is to not look directly at them. Because of the way our eyes are designed, faint objects can be seen best when you look askance from them. Look just to the side of a dim star and you will suddenly see it in your peripheral vision.
Sometimes faith is like that, too. It seems to have been the case for the writer of Psalm 42. Unable to locate God in the present moment of crisis and pain, he instead looks to the past. Not only was the psalmist able then to see God in the past, but somehow it energized his hope in the present moment too. By looking just to the side of his current circumstances God appeared in the “peripheral vision” of his soul once more. A simple act of remembering turns this psalm around and transforms this poem from an ode to despair into a statement of bold faith and audacious hope.
How does this work, I wonder? What’s the mechanism that can take a distant memory of something God once did and use it to re-tool the present? It is finally a mystery how God’s Spirit can use the past to give us hope for the future. But it happens.
It seems we sometimes struggle in knowing where to “find” God in certain moments, particularly in moments of great pain or uncertainty. We don’t always know what God is “up to” or why it seems our prayers are going unanswered—only the truly arrogant or impious would ever dare to claim they always know what God is doing and why. Often, we just don’t know. But perhaps the recovery of our hope doesn’t depend on making sense of each moment. Maybe in life’s darker, deeper valleys it is our memories of who God is and what He has done that can pump a little air back into our deflated balloons of hope.
We are on a pilgrim’s journey, and when trekking through the wilderness, aching with thirst, we must continue to trust the Lord is with us and that He will—as we seek Him—bring us to deep waters that will wash over us, soak us, and cleanse us. On the journey, we sing:
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Why are you so discouraged, the psalmist asks? Why are you so sad? Put your hope in God! We will praise Him again—our Savior and our God!
But, you know, if we will not admit our pain, we can’t deal with its consequences. It’s no wonder that the first step in any twelve-step program is to admit the problem, whether it is alcoholism or drugs or something else. No pastor, therapist, counselor or friend can help those who will not admit their need for help. Folks can’t help if you won’t let them help.
Is there a sense in which you feel isolated from God and God’s purpose today?
Perhaps the problem is your sin, and the first step is honest confession and contrition. Perhaps, like the psalmist, you have been oppressed by others in their sin; now you are innocent of guilt but nonetheless suffering its consequences. Are you dealing with pain or fear that you feel God should have prevented or healed? Are you facing physical or financial setbacks that God has not remedied? Stress in your marriage or family that God has not lifted? In what way do you feel far from God today? Don’t wander off. Cling and pray specifically for what you need.
Cling to the memories of what God has done, cling to the unchanging, always loving nature of God. Cling to the Word of God, cling to other folks of faith, cling to what Jesus did on the cross, cling to hope.
You know, Christians have worshipped God not only in brightly lit sanctuaries, not only in soaring Gothic cathedrals or in the splendor of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. Christians have also gathered together in catacombs and prison cells, on the run from Communists in China, and on sinking ships in the Atlantic. Christians have shared the body and blood of Jesus not only while organs played fugues by Bach but also while air raid sirens cut the air outside the church with their shrill warnings of Nazi bombers over London.
Again and again, often in dark circumstances where they could no more see God on the move than could the poet of Psalm 42, Christians have remembered Jesus—they’ve glanced to the side of any present darkness to recall the cross and what that cross has meant throughout their lives. And as they’ve done so, they have again and again discovered that Jesus is no mere memory—He’s here! He’s alive!
And so, stop settling for contingent contentment, being happy only when all the circumstances have lined up according to your desires. Instead, trust God, hope in Him, and know that His is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.
If you are depressed and feeling all alone, Psalm 42 validates what you’re going through as an experience well-known to all people of the faith, and it can help you express your honest pain to God. It can also remind you that God is with you, God uses all things for the good of His people and—like the apostle Paul—you can learn to be content regardless of your circumstances. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.
Keep this psalm and Philippians 4 close by you each day. And, finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received, do; and the God of peace be with you. Amen.