The Sky Stands Still

It was an unusual morning because we were woken up by a phone call from a friend. He called to tell us our flight the next day might be delayed. Little did we know how true that was.

It was a Tuesday morning– much like this morning. We were living in Tacoma, Washington at the time and were due back in Michigan the next day for my brother-in-law’s wedding that weekend. It would be the last summer weekend before I started classes the next week.

But the phone call was confusing–something about a plane crashing in New York. We roused ourselves out of bed and immediately turned on the news where we, like the rest of the world, watched as the rest of the horrific events of that day unraveled. And we knew it wasn’t something about a plane crashing, but everything.

With eyes glued to the news, we began talking how we were going to get back to Michigan in time for the Saturday wedding. We still weren’t convinced that we wouldn’t be able to fly, but after a couple of hours of discussion made the decision to make the 2,000 mile trip in our car.

We packed and were on the road after lunch. A lot had already happened that day, but there was too many miles to put in before we could stop, and the drive gave us time to process. We kept the radio on in the car, continuing to listen to the reports of what was happening, of what had happened, of what would happen. There was a lot of conjecture. Nobody really knew.

When we got to Spokane to refill the gas tank, I made a couple of phone calls to see whether planes were flying again and whether we could reschedule our flights. We had no idea that it’d be a while before there was public air traffic. We still had no idea of the broad sweeping effects of that morning.

It wasn’t long before we were in Montana–big sky country, where you can see for miles and miles and the sky is bigger than you could ever imagine. And it was there that the devastation of that day was finally made so apparent to us: there were no planes. Not one. For the hundreds of miles that we had driven, we had seen no movement in the sky. It was eerie. The stillness was sobering.

It was as though the sky itself was mourning the loss.

We’d grown up so accustomed to the noise and the sight of air traffic. Never in my life had there been a day without the sight of multiple passenger jets carrying people across the country or a private plane gracing the local scenery.

Those days were filled with uncertainty. Would we make home in time for the wedding? When would air travel begin again? Would New York City recover from this tragedy? Would the nation? Were we safe? When would things be normal again?

And for that entire 2,000 mile trip, we never saw any sign that things would ever be the same again. No planes. No movement. Just stillness.

But it was in the stillness that we found of all things, peace.

In the days when we face incredible uncertainty, it’s natural to be filled with fear. Sometimes it’s little things that cause us to fear the very worst. But sometimes it’s the monstrosities. When towers tumble and fall, it seems the world itself is caving in. And like Chicken Little, I think I thought the sky would follow suit.

Four planes had been hijacked. The twin towers had fallen from the sky. Thousands of people had lost their lives. And a nation was on it’s knees, crippled from the weight of it all.

The sky stood still. The lack of movement was odd, but also reassuring. Though there were no planes, no vapor trails, no movement, the sky itself wasn’t collapsing. The insidious attack had not upset the constant and faithful supervision of a God who held creation together.

Of course that tragic day still brings many questions about the goodness and presence of God, a God who was seemingly absent . . . and silent.

But the sky stands still. It has not buckled under the weight of it all. There has been grace. There has been healing. We have seen life and growth.

It was the absence of one thing that brought the recognition of another. Loss is incredibly difficult and uncertainty can be paralyzing, but God continued to prove Himself faithful in that the universe itself did not collapse in on itself.

Though the sky stood still, it was comforting that it was still standing. There was so much uncertainty that day–of what was, of what would be–and what we did know was pain. But the pain itself was a reminder that we were still here. And so was the sky. And so was the God who had made it all.

In the midst of the unknowable, we chose to trust the One who could sift and work through the rubble to bring life and restoration.

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Rainbows, A Place To Hang Our Faith

My family and I had a cool experience the other morning. There, outside the slider door, was a beautiful rainbow just off our deck. Well, it wasn’t exactly just off our deck, but it did seem close enough to touch.

It was incredible. And it actually developed into a double-rainbow. I don’t care who you are, a rainbow is always amazing. The mere sight of one turns us all into kids again. We holler for everyone to take a look and we quickly grab our cameras–even though we’ve seen hundreds before.

Why is that? It’s because we don’t see them every day. And they’re beautiful. And they remind us of God’s promise to Noah. It isn’t that most of us have actually ever feared God judging the world again through a world-wide flood, but it is a kind of sentimental reminder of God’s faithfulness. We take the rainbow as a reminder for all of God’s promises. And that’s just reassuring.

But the rainbow thing got me thinking . . . and looking at that passage in Genesis again. And I saw something there that I hadn’t seen before.

We all see the ark. We all see the animals. We all see the rain, and the dove, and the olive branch. We all see the rainbow. But there was a connection that I didn’t see before.

It’s when the rainbow appeared. Think about it for a minute. As I’m writing this, it’s a relatively sunny day and I’m sitting in my backyard enjoying the sun, a slight breeze, and even the shady break that the clouds give when they pass by the sun. But there aren’t any rainbows. Why not? Because rainbows don’t happen on clear, sunny days.

Rainbows happen when it’s raining.

Well, duh. That might seem really obvious to you. But it wasn’t obvious to me every other time I’ve read that passage in Genesis. God used a rainbow to promise Noah (and the rest of us) that He would never destroy the earth again through a flood. That meant that He promised while it was raining.

The rain had stopped when Noah and his family finally and safely exited the ark, built an altar to God and offered a sacrifice on it. It was then that God spoke to him and gave the sign of His promise: the first rainbow.

I don’t usually have that kind of faith. It had rained for 40 days and 40 nights. The earth didn’t need any more watering. If I were Noah, once the rain had stopped I would’ve been more than happy to not see another drop of rain for the rest of my life. I would’ve been thrilled for God to take me to an arid place and say:

“Here’s the Gobi desert, Noah. It exists as a sign to you that I won’t ever destroy the earth through a flood again.”

That kind of sign makes sense to me. But that isn’t the kind of sign that God chose to give.

God’s promises come with a place to hang our faith.

Noah’s sandals were still wet and the sound of pouring rain was likely still in his ears. But his faith was sure. It would have to be. That’s the way God often works–He doesn’t just deliver us and set us in a place that is ‘safe’ without any risk. No, He calls us to a place where our faith is liable to get wet and our doubts are as real as the mud between our toes.

Noah, if you are truly willing to trust what I’m about to show you, you’re going to get wet . . . again.

God doesn’t call us to safety. He calls us to Himself and asks us to trust Him through the storm for true safety. It’s a theme we see throughout the Bible: Israel at the Red Sea, and again at the Jordan; Jesus with His disciples in the boat in the storm, and again at the cross.

Rainbows remind us that we can trust God not to destroy us with a flood while it is still raining . . . but the sun is shining, too.

Where is God prompting you to step into the rain and trust Him?

A Lent Confession

The season of Lent began just ten days ago, but already I have struggled to keep pace this season. I have been “off the grid” in several ways over the last ten days and it seems Lent has fallen victim along with several other disciplines.

Obviously, this isn’t one of those posts that will demonstrate how I’ve got it all together. Because I don’t.

The problem for me with Lent this year hasn’t been a matter of the difficulty of giving up as much as it has been the intentional aspect of meditating on the life, humility, and sacrifice of Jesus. No, the giving up has been fairly easy—perhaps I aimed too low and gave up something that had little effect in my life to begin with. Perhaps I gave off the top instead of giving sacrificially. I’m still sorting this aspect through.

What I do know is that my giving up has been little more than a dietary decision at this point. And that isn’t the purpose of observing Lent. Jesus didn’t leave his father’s throne because he just needed a little space. He gave up his rightful place at the Father’s side in order to make it possible for us to gather there as well. While that space was his right, it is ours’ only by grace.

Lent then, is a season that ought to be entered intentionally to consider that exchange and the grace that has been poured out on us. It isn’t that we don’t contemplate these things through the rest of the year, but now we do it collectively, recognizing that his sacrifice was not solely for me as an individual, but for the sins of the whole world.

So as one representative of those sins, I reenter this season confessing I have made too much of myself and too little of Jesus. And this has not only been during Lent.

Can we journey together?

Ash Wednesday

Today marks the beginning of Lent. I began observing this season just a few years ago and have found much encouragement through a dedicated time of reflection. Regardless of what we “give up” during this time, the discipline of meditating on Jesus’ own sacrifice and the celebration of his subsequent resurrection and exaltation can become powerful moments in our lives.

I plan to share various thoughts and resources along the way during this season, from today until Easter. I invite you to come along, to investigate and to participate yourself. My hope is that along the way we will each be drawn into a greater intimacy with Jesus and be able to echo what Paul writes in Philippians 3:10-11:

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Gospel Talk

If we use the same language that we’ve always used—the words and terminology that we unconsciously learned and accepted without fully understanding, are we really having conversations? Or are they just unintelligible monologues? If we don’t define and explain our terms and ideas clearly in a culturally understandable way we’re communicating little more than the teacher from the Peanuts’ programs: wah-wah wah wah-wah-wah.

When it comes to inviting others to follow Jesus, we need to use words that will be at least familiar to those to whom we’re talking. Otherwise we just end up clouding the truth, hope, and beauty of the gospel. If we can’t unpack and define the terms and give them clarity, perhaps we don’t really understand them ourselves.

Those of us who have grown up going to church are notorious offenders of this type of behavior. Part of the work that we need to be doing is to continually evaluate and sharpen how effectively we communicate with people.

Lest you think this is some useless attempt at being relevant it’s important to note that our model for this type of communication is Jesus himself. John put it most simply and clearly when he wrote:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The decision of the Godhead to make himself known to the world, to reveal himself, was not to use overly high and indiscernible language, but to come and live among his people, taking their very form and speaking their limited language. He used stories and parables and concrete language. He changed his method depending on the audience and he started with what was familiar to draw them to the truth and to the hope that he offered them.

Words take work. Communication takes a commitment to clarity. It takes listening to people to be able to recognize where they are and what they’ll understand and what will resonate with them. Each conversation will certainly be different and draw on different symbols and illustrations to communicate the truth. But each will afford new opportunities to show the beauty of the gospel as well.

If I truly love Jesus I will put in the effort to clearly and creatively communicate as he did so that through my words others may come to love and follow the Word.

The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson – A Book Review

I was first introduced to Mark Batterson’s books when I received Wild Goose Chase as a gift a few years ago. Shortly after that I found In a Pit With a Lion On a Snowy Day for a reduced price in a local bookstore. I picked it up and read both in both in a matter of a few weeks. They have both been immensely helpful and encouraging in my desire to serve and please God.

I’ve since read another of Batterson’s books and when I heard about his latest, The Circle Maker I put it in my queue. But when I saw the subtitle mentioned in a tweet, I went right out and bought the book and dove right in.

What was that tweet? What’s the subtitle?

Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears.

Batterson had me at ‘hello.’ Actually it was the part about ‘Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears’ that got me. This describes exactly where I feel I am. Truthfully, I think I’ve been stuck in this place for a while, but only recently have I been spurred on to pursue God in that space. Batterson’s book helped immensely here.

This is the second book on prayer I’ve read this year and both have challenged and encouraged me in unique ways. But it’s how Batterson specifically applies prayer to those aspects of life where we must reach higher and leap farther in our faith that made the deepest impact on me. Batterson ties the character of God and his desire to answer our prayers to our impulse to take risks when others might counsel us simply to play it safe.

Rather than simply make excuses and take the easy way out, we ought to pray through the dreams and impulses we wrestle with. Many of our big dreams have been placed there by God himself so that he could accomplish something great in and through us.

We lose faith in the God who gave us the big dream and settle for a small dream that we can accomplish without His help.

Batterson is careful to emphasize that this is not ultimately about us, but about our intentionally trusting God and asking him to accomplish his purposes.

The title, The Circle Maker, comes from Honi, a first century Jew who was bold enough to ask of God to send rain. This man and his faith are the inspiration for this exercise of prayer Batterson calls circle making. He illustrates this exercise by separating the book into three major circles or sections: Dream Big, Pray Hard, and Think Long. Each one is integral to the exercise and discipline that Batterson encourages us engage.

Batterson doesn’t attempt to make much of us or even of our efforts in prayer, but rather points to the greatness of God who is able and exceedingly willing to answer even our largest leaps of faith.

Much like his other books, Batterson puts biblical feet to these ideas. Rather than just tell us what we want to hear and give us a spiritual pep talk, he encourages and challenges us through biblical principles.

We come away with a stronger desire to trust God more and to do more than just ask him in a cursory manner, but to really commit ourselves to asking and depending on him for his answer.

We come away wanting to be modern day Circle Makers.

The Long Way Around

I remember one of the first geometry lessons I ever learned in elementary school: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

It seemed simple and obvious enough. If you’re at point A and need to get to point B, just choose a straight line.

But somewhere along the lesson I applied these truths to my life journey. And while it is true in geometry, life isn’t necessarily geometric.

I’ve been reading lately about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their journey towards the Promised Land. I’ve long known that the journey took them 40 years (much longer than it ought to have), but I only recently noticed this verse, Exodus 13:17:

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.”

God kept his people from going directly into the land, his place of promise and blessing for them, because they wouldn’t have stayed and would have chosen to return to the mistreatment of Egyptian slavery instead.

Sometimes the long way around is meant to strengthen our hearts.

I realize that my goal is often to get into the land, but God’s intent is for me to dwell in it. The difference is subtle, but drastically different. I spend a lot of time trying to arrive and God intends to build into me in a such a way as to prepare me to abide.

Abide, not arrive.

The question I need to ask in evaluating the way ahead then is not so much Where is God leading me? but What does God desire to do in me?

It seems God is less interested in merely fulfilling his promises to us than in making us sufficient enough to enjoy them.