No Turning Back (based on Jeremiah 4)

For change to be authentic, it must come from within where our deepest desires, our hidden passions, our greatest fears meet and shape who we are and what we do. Only with a change of heart could Israel return to the mercy of the God who loves them.

Since Israel would not listen to the Lord, God is compelled to give a message through Jeremiah that leaves no room for mercy.

In Jeremiah  4, Verse 11:

“At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: a hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights.”

Wind is often used in the Bible to represent the Holy Spirit which blows freely among us. Here, however, it is a sign of God’s judgment:

“A hot wind…not to winnow or cleanse– a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.”

This hot wind could represent the sirocco, a dry wind from the eastern desert which brings suffocating heat into Palestine. Here, God uses something ordinary to explain the extraordinary. God often uses the created order to emphasize a larger truth.

God is fed up with the people of Israel. God has had it up to here with their stubborn and rebellious hearts. Now is the time for judgment, not mercy. Again and again, the people turned away from God, fully expecting God’s forgiveness, counting on the abundance of God’s grace. Now they have gone too far and must meet the consequences of their actions.

It is important to see that God does not use divine power indiscriminately. Where God’s power is used, it is carefully constructed to bring something good out of a bad situation. The Israelites were doing damage to themselves, their community and their God by “going along with the crowd” and worshiping other gods. They had violated God’s covenant with them, a covenant which brings life, abundant and eternal. God can’t just overlook this violation. Yes, our God is a God of mercy, but all the mercy in the world could not change the hearts of the people.

God is our divine parent who lets us grow up and experience bumps and bruises along the way. Now Israel must face the consequences of their faithlessness. Their biggest enemy is within themselves.

In the meantime there are enemies from the North pressing down on them. These enemies are not identified in the text. Scholars say this may be the Chaldeans, and/or the Sythians. In either case, a strong enemy is prepared to do battle with Israel and claim their land.

Had Israel remained faithful, God would no doubt have saved them from this battle. Throughout the Bible, when a task seems insurmountable, God comes to save the people. Israel had experienced this from the days of their Exodus from Egypt, their long trek through the desert, and their entry into Promised Land. With God on their side, even a small battalion could defeat a strong army.

Yet the Israelites do not turn from their ways. In time, they are defeated and must once again live under foreign control. Due to their unfaithfulness, they lose their land, this land of promise God had provided for them.

God had given Israel this land as a gift. Yet, the land became a temptation for them to become complacent, to find false security in things that pass away. There were many false prophets going around saying everything was okay. This land was their heritage. God would always be with them, even if they pursued false gods. Why not call on other gods to get along better with our neighbors and have extra security?

When God gave this land to Israel, three important guidelines were attached. First, that there be a prohibition of images. These images were “efforts to reduce to manageable and predictable form the sources of value and power in our lives.” These images would distract Israelites from their simple source of value and power in God.

Second, Israel was expected to keep Sabbath in this new land. This Sabbath included freeing slaves, resting land, and canceling debts. As Walter Bruggemann writes:

The Sabbath “is a central affirmation to Israel about the character of life and land as a gift. It is the institutional reminder to Israel that cessation from frantic activity will not cause the world to disintegrate or society to collapse.”

The third guideline that Israel received was that they care for their brothers and sisters: “from the poor, to strangers living among them, to sojourners passing through.” Having their own land could lead to decisions that are unjust, particularly against vulnerable members of society. Israel is to keep the Sabbath by honoring brothers and sisters who may not have power but do have dignity.”

Israel failed to keep these Sabbath guidelines and now they must face the consequences. God would allow their enemies to overcome them and once again, they must live under foreign control.

I was listening to a radio preacher the other day who was preaching a message about “bad things happening to good people.” He made the comment that “God does not punish his people.” I wondered about that in light of this text in Jeremiah.

Certainly it is true that God would not violate divine compassion for creation by willfully punishing without cause. Yet, our faith tradition teaches us that God is in control of all things. The Bible teaches us that God punishes people for their wrongdoing. God certainly has the power to punish, where it is appropriate. Call it punishment or discipline, God is like a loving parent who must, at some point draw the line and set limits for behavior.

What good could be said about the punishment of God? For one thing, we can rest assured that God is in control: not kings or queens, not presidents or governors, not a terrorist lighting a bomb, or a pervert abusing a child. God is in control, though it may not always seem like it. Because God is in control, we can work our way through the maze of life’s decision, confident as we follow the Spirit of Christ that God will bless us along the and bring us home to a place not made by human hands, eternal in the heavens.

In the meantime, we are to worship God alone even when the way seems unclear and life becomes a mystery for us. Don’t settle for lesser gods whioffer easy answers and promises they can’t back up. We are to care for creation, including the land and our brothers and sisters in need. We are to rely on the strength of the Spirit which flows from God and Jesus Christ. Only Christ has the power to save us. Only Christ can set us free. Only Christ can give us hope in a hopeless situation. Only Christ. Only Christ. Amen.

Baptism of Jesus. "At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'" Mark 1:9-11

Delight in Disorder Foreword

Tony Roberts’ book is not the first I’ve read by an ordained clergyman diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Some years back, a renowned (former) mega-church pastor/motivational speaker began his tome by declaring, “I have conquered bipolar disorder.” Right… What makes Tony’s devotional so compelling is that bipolar disorder continues to periodically beat the crap out of him, and he still believes. He still sees God working in his life, finds himself slowly but surely transforming despite, and even through, the torment of this disease. This level of honesty and vulnerability is rare, and if you’re seeking hope and understanding in the midst of the painful and messy parts of life, do like me and hop on the Tony Roberts train.

Tony Roberts has a way with words. With the gifts of a poet and the precision of a surgeon, he skillfully zeroes in on the dilemmas so many of us believers who contend with brain disease (25 percent of us) face each and every day. I’ve been scribbling quotes throughout my reading, and if I were a lesser mortal, I’d scoop them up and claim them as my own. I don’t want to quote him here because if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to uncover these gems, one at a time, as you read, reflect and then read some more. The wise Seattle writer Naomi Stenberg once remarked, “One can be much more accepting of one’s (mental illness) when one is not tormented by it.” Tony Roberts takes it a step further and proposes that one can find delight in the disorder. God, Tony demonstrates – again and again – can work in the midst of the worst chaos, the most overwhelming pain.

As a mental health advocate with over 25 years of experience, I’ve long understood the circle of empathy in faith communities rarely extends to individuals and families carrying the burden of serious and persistent mental illness. Ironically, our churches are filled with hurting people; so many of them hiding these very same wounds. When clergymen speak, people often listen. I hope you find yourself as challenged and rewarded by reading Tony Roberts’ splendid devotional book. If you have the means, buy a copy for your church pastor too.

David Zucker

Mental Health Advocate

University Presbyterian Church

Seattle, WA.


Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, andSmashwords. For a signed copy, directly from the author, write to me — tony@awaywithwordsfor

Moving Forward in Faith (based on Exodus 14.19-31)

(excerpt from a sermon delivered 9/11/2005)

As we look back on the terrorist acts four years ago, some consider what happened as God’s will, God’s punishment on America as a corrupt nation. Others pat themselves on the back for the many acts of kindness extended to the family of victims.

I don’t believe God causes terrorist attacks. God does not, however, prevent the consequences of our sinful behavior. At the same time, God always responds to tragedy with love, through the actions of people like us.

Too often, we blame God for things we do and give credit to ourselves that belongs to God.

Imagine yourself on the brink of a disaster. Your past is catching up to you. If you turn back, you’ll be destroyed. Your future prospects are bleak. The sea of the unknown terrifies you. You can’t go forward and you can’t go back. You’re stuck. Where do you go?

This is where the Israelites find themselves. Just how did they get there? First, they were brought to Egypt by Joseph during a famine to be fed and provided for. Once Joseph had died and been forgotten, they came to be viewed as resident aliens, a threat to Egyptian society. Hoping to curb their power, they were forced into hard labor – essentially serving as slaves.

After a time, Moses was called by God to lead the people out of Egypt. They don’t get out without a fight, though. The Egyptian ruler – Pharaoh – only lets them go after God sends ten plagues. After he releases the Israelites, Pharaoh has a change of heart and sends his army after them.

God leads the Israelites through a wilderness until they get to the Red Sea – or “Sea of Reeds”. With the Egyptian army in hot pursuit, they stand before this body of water as a rag-tag army of slaves who have no idea where they are going or how they will get there. But they are not alone. Exodus 14:19 tells us –

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. (Exodus 14:19)

God not only leads his people, he protects them. This fiery cloud stands between the Israelites and certain death.

I I am always inspired when people tell me how God protected them in situations where they could have, even should have, lost their lives. Often people wonder, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”

The truth is there is nothing we do to deserve God’s protection. Just as with pain, God has a purpose when He protects His people. We may never know just why, but it’s not because we’ve done anything special, it’s because God has a special purpose for our lives.

But the Israelites don’t yet know this. In fact, we’re not sure just what they know about God. The Bible tells us that, while under slavery, they “cried out for help”, not that they cried out to God. God hears them, and sends Moses to lead them out of slavery. Moses certainly has a relationship with God, but it’s doubtful the Israelites do.

They have only seen God’s power in the plagues and in the pillar of cloud. They know what God can do, but they don’t really know God.

So here they are at the edge of the Red Sea – a powerful army behind them and what seems like an impassable body of water in front of them. What next?

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. (Exodus 14:21)

Some people today have serious doubts about the parting of the Red Sea. Others make too much of it. It’s important to know the God who set the laws of nature can certainly suspend them whenever He wants. On the other hand, as someone has pointed out, the parting of the Red Sea is not so much a miracle, as a special effect. God uses spectacular signs such as this to get people’s attention and to carry out His purpose.

The real miracle in many ways is not what God does with the waters, as how the people respond.

The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

The power of God is more evident in acts of love than in acts of destruction. The power of God is more real not in punishment, but in protection.

Remember the Israelites really don’t yet know God. They have seen the power of God protecting them so far, but they don’t know why. What if this “Higher Power” is like Pharaoh? What if they step forward, into the sea, and the divided waters fall over them and they drown? How they can be sure that this God can be trusted?

The truth is – they can’t. Until they really know God, they only know his power. They can’t be sure God uses His power for good, not for evil.

But – and this is key – even though the Israelites aren’t sure what will happen next, they move forward in faith.

We can never be sure what will happen next in our faith journey, but this shouldn’t keep us from moving forward. This is true for each of us as believers as well as for all of us together as a body of Christ.

The Israelites moved forward in faith. You might say they had no other choice, with the Egyptian army rapidly approaching them. But they did have a choice.

They could have tried to fight the enemy. They could have believed in their own strength rather than the power of God.

They also could have surrendered. Maybe the Egyptians would have taken them back to slavery, to a life they hated, but had grown accustomed to.

But they didn’t. They moved forward in faith. And God rescued them. God defeated the enemy. Their act of faith paid off. And their faith was strengthened. Exodus 14:31 says –

Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

Faith involves fear. Not unhealthy fear – as in dread. But healthy fear – like the fear of disappointing someone you love, who loves you. Faithful fear is the fear of disappointing our Heavenly Father who loves us and wants what is best for us.

Faith also involves trust. Moving forward in faith, we come to trust that God is with us, that God will lead us one step at a time – to a better place.

Do you have the faith to move forward? Like the Israelites, you may find yourself in a place where it seems like you’re stuck. Your past is catching up with you. Your future looks bleak. You could stand still and try to fight on your own. You could give up and go back to a place of darkness, but a darkness you’ve grown accustomed to. What are you going to do? What path will you choose?

The good news is Jesus Christ shows us a path that leads to life. With the Spirit of Christ, we can walk through deep waters, on dry land. With Christ, we can face what seems like insurmountable obstacles with the faith that He will overcome them.

Biblical Art by Artist Xero, via Behance

Rachel Returns: The Pursuit of Happiness (12)

Steven slept peacefully through the night.  His dreams were filled with family images.  David learning to ride a bike.  Monica in a sheep costume at the Christmas pageant.  Rachel smiling as she served a Thanksgiving meal.

He looked up and saw Monica and Rachel smiling down at him.

“You’re here,” said Steven.

“Yes, Steven.  I’m here.”  Rachel replied.

“Where have you been?”

Rachel looked down.  “I’ve been away for a few days.  I went out of town.  But I’m back now.  How are you doing, Steven.”

“Fine, as far as I can tell.  The doctor says they can’t find anything medically wrong.  He asked me if we had been facing unusual stress.  I didn’t know what to tell him.”

Monica spoke up, “Hey, how about I scrounge us up a good cup of coffee?  You two stay here and catch up.  Dad, I know you take yours black.  Mom, you want anything in yours?”

“Maybe a little cream,” said Rachel.

Monica started to leave.

Steven called after her, “Be sure to get a receipt.  I’ll pay you back,”

Monica shook her head. “Dad, you taught me ‘it is more blessed to give than receive’.  You shouldn’t deny me the blessing of giving.”

Steven replied, “You don’t have to listen to everything I say.”

Monica said, “I don’t.  That’s why I’m not bringing you the receipt.”

Rachel and Steven looked at each other and smiled.  “We’ve got a pretty great girl there, you know,” said Rachel.

“Yes, I know.”

They continued looking at each other in silence.  Rachel shifted from side to side.

“Steven, there is so much I need to say to you.  I don’t know where to begin.  I don’t want to cause you more stress.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to hurt you.  I’m afraid I’ve hurt you already.”  Rachel started to cry.

.“Oh, Rachel.  I’m going to be okay.  Just take your time.”

“.Tell me, Steven.  What do you remember?  Do you remember what we talked about at the breakfast table Saturday morning.”

Steven looked away, as if he might find the answer somewhere in the distance.  “I… can remember having honey-nut cheerios… with sliced banana on top.”  He wondered to himself Was that even Saturday?  I have cheerios nearly every morning.  He tried to picture Rachel sitting across from him.  What was she wearing? Her white robe.  But again, she wore that every winter morning.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t … remember,” he said.

“I… I told you I was leaving,” she said, carefully.  “I said I was tired of trying to make you happy.”

“Rachel, why would you say that?”

“I don’t know, Steven.  I mean, it’s true.  I do want you to be happy.  And, it just seems like I can do nothing to please you.”

“But Rachel, you don’t displease me.  I’m satisfied with our life together.”

“But Steven, you’re not happy.  You don’t have any passions or interests.  You don’t go anywhere but church and Monica’s house.  And then, you are critical of them.  How liberal our pastor is.  How the people have become so worldly.  How positive thinking is positively heretical.”

Steven looked into Rachel’s eyes.  “Have I been that bad, Rachel?”

“I don’t want to say you’ve been bad, Steven.  But you have been hard to live with,” she paused.  “Still, that’s no excuse for me.  It was wrong of me to leave.”  She paused and wrapped her arms across her chest.  “Do you remember anything else about our conversation, Steven?”

Steven tried to concentrate.  His hip started to ache.  He shifted in bed.

“Here, let me help,” said Rachel, giving him a hand as he found a more comfortable position.

“How about some breakfast, Mr. Johnson?” said a woman with a pink vest on.  Rather than waiting on an answer, she set a tray on his table and started removing lids.  “It looks like you’ve got some oatmeal, toast, and a banana.  Oh, and here’s a packet and a cup of warm water for coffee.  Sound good?”

“That’ll be fine,” said Steven.

“Thank you,” Rachel added.

“……..You can just push the table away when you’re finished.  Someone will be back in to pick it up.”

She smiled and passed through the doorway, pausing to make way for Monica who was entering, carrying a cardboard container with three coffees.

“I’m with the ‘go juice’.  I got the ‘house blend’.  I didn’t think you two would be fans of flavored coffees.”

“You’re right about that,” said Steven, “Thanks.”

They each took a coffee and Monica placed the cardboard tray on the bedside table.

“Did you two have a chance to catch up?”

Steven and Rachel looked at each other.

“Somewhat,” said Rachel, “it’ll take some time.”

“I’m sure it will.”

Steven took a sip of his coffee and wondered what more there was to discuss.  What more had Rachel said at breakfast on Saturday?  Where did she go?  Did she visit someone?  Was she back to stay?

The coffee was hot.  Steven had to sip it slowly, breathing out with each sip so it could go down without burning along the way.

At least once a year - A week in the mountains, coffee at sunrise, wine at sunset - on the porch.

Even Me: Delight in Disorder Tuesday

But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;

you consider their grief and take it in hand.

The victims commit themselves to you;

you are the helper of the fatherless. (Psalm 10:14)

I learned growing up the importance of being in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was taught to maintain this relationship with daily prayer and Bible reading, weekly worship, and regular fellowship with Christians. In spite of this, I often pulled away, turning inward in times of trouble, becoming reclusive when my feelings and beliefs didn’t line up. I believed I was made to praise God with my whole heart, mind, and being. Yet, my feelings were far from God, and I instead obsessed about all that was wrong with me and with the world.

Over the past several years now, I’ve often wondered how I could be in a personal relationship with the LORD and still have tried to take my life. Attempting suicide, while often prompted by disturbed minds (like mine), is an ultimate act of ingratitude for the life God has given us. Yet, after my attempt, I felt drawn closer to God more than ever. Perhaps out of desperation. More likely out of desire.

Some talk about the “assurance of salvation” once saved, always saved. Others point to Bible passages that show it is possible to “fall from grace.” I’ve thought hard and prayed deep about the subject and have yet to come to any conclusions. I can only say that, in my life, while there have been plenty of times I’ve felt like giving up on God, God has never given up on me.

I don’t always feel secure in my salvation, but I do know the power of Christ’s saving love first-hand in my life.

God has brought me back from the dead. In Christ, I have hope for abundant life with him now and forever.

The Psalmists show us that those who look to the LORD for salvation experience how intimately God is connected to us. God sees our troubles even before they are troubles. God knows our grief and grieves with us. When we feel the most helpless, we can turn to the LORD and be swept up in God’s warm embrace.

When I came to my senses in the hospital bed after my suicide attempt, I had to face the reality that I had tried to abandon God. At the same time, I discovered God had not abandoned me. I say this not to brag about my standing with God – indeed I have no standing with God. I say this instead with tremendous gratitude and wonder that God would take notice of me— even me.

Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, andSmashwords. For a signed copy, directly from the author, write to me — .

What Went Wrong (based on Jeremiah 2.4-13)

“O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel.”

“Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?”

God is genuinely filled with sorrow over these chosen people who have turned away and followed lesser gods. They have forgotten their history, how the Lord God had rescued them time and time again. Instead of enjoying this great gift, Israel as John Calvin puts it, “buried God’s favors in oblivion.”

“What wrong have I done?” asks God, to the people Israel. Their silent response serves as evidence of their guilt. Yes, they had chosen worthless things, pursuing gods which were no gods at all, worshipping creation rather than the Creator.

These “worthless” things perverted true religious affection. Worship of the fertility gods became a form of sexual abuse in sacred space. Submitting to these gods, the Israelites abandoned worship of the One true God and, in the process, became defiled by their lewd behavior.

God is further saddened by Israel’s poor memory.

“You did not say, `Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives.”

Israel failed to pursue the Lord God who had been with them through all their trials. They failed to recognize how God was with them in this new place.

“God was present with them and near them…God was not to be sought as one at a distance, or by means tedious and difficult.”

One of the primary tasks of faith is discovering God in your daily routine. It sounds easy, but it is often quite difficult. We tend to view God from a distance, just as we want God to view us. From a distance, our shortcomings, our flaws, our sins are less apparent. From a distance, God can not radically change our lives or expect more from us than we’re willing (and able) to give. From a distance, we can avoid the intimacy God desires yet which frightens us.

Sure, God performs miracles and can view broad circumstances from all sides. Yet, God also chooses to be intimately involved in the lives of those who receive Christ. God can (and does) lift our daily burdens and make our yoke easier to manage.

Israel forgot how God had rescued them. The leaders of the community had participated in Israel’s decline through their own neglect. The priests no longer pointed to God in the life of the people. The keepers of the law forgot how to seek God’s wisdom in their rulings. Rulers bargained with other nations to create security alliances rather than depend on the true security of the Lord God. The prophets turned to false gods and shut their ears to the voice of the Lord.

Though the people bear responsibility for their lack of faith, the leaders certainly did little to encourage it, to nurture it, to preserve it. The leaders were negligent in their duties and the whole community suffered because of this.

This passage points to the vital need for our leaders to have a strong and active faith. We need leaders within the church today: from pastors and elders, deacons and trustees who maintain regular conversation with God in prayer, seek the ways of God in Christ; listen for and obey the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Our leaders must have a strong and growing faith if we are to avoid spiritual bankruptcy. Israel suffered from this. For no good reason, they abandoned God and turned to a world which was bound to let them down.

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate”, says the Lord, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

The Bible says “to whom much is given, much will be expected.” The people Israel were given a covenant with the Lord God that would supply all their needs and give them great joy, a wonderful inheritance. Yet, they turned away and embraced their own desires.

Now they must suffer the consequences. As John Calvin puts it, “…the more favors God confers on us, the more heinous the guilt if we forsake God and less excusable will be our wickedness and ingratitude.”

But there is hope. Jeremiah alludes to it here. Though the people have chosen cracked cisterns which hold no water, no nourishment; the fountain of living water continues to flow. God will not forsake the covenant.

This covenant with God extends to us, when our hope is in Christ. Christ is our living water. As we open wide our mouths to the blessings of God, we become one with Christ. Worthless things pass away. We are given, through the Spirit that which is essential to live abundantly and eternally as one of God’s own.

Let’s give thanks to God for this wonderful promise.

Buried Above Ground by Matthew Pullar: Delight in Disorder Tuesday

Abiram, swallowed up by earth, was taken

Into the fiery core, our spinning planet

Not pausing to release him from its vortex;

     I too am drawn in.

The Potter’s Field received Judas’ silver,

His body taken into soil, the true cost

Of what he bought Caiaphas with a swift kiss

     From betraying lips.

I would have taken less than thirty pieces;

I have betrayed my Saviour for a trinket.

So I, like Judas and like dead Abiram,

     Deserve gravity.

There is no soil to bury my betrayal

Or hide the bones that I have stripped of all flesh.

Only the night can for a time disguise them,

     Soon to be found out


Bright light – only when You enter my insides

Can darkness’ strong pull on me be halted.

Only if You come swiftly with Your promise

     Will the vortex stop.

~ Buried Above Ground by Matthew Pullar (After William Cowper’s “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity”)

Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, andSmashwords. For a signed copy, directly from the author, write to me — .

Van Gogh and Me: Pursuing Our Vocations


Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh contains much spiritual treasure.

Van Gogh originally set out to follow in his father’s footsteps as a pastor, but for reasons that are only somewhat revealed, it didn’t work out.  During this period of preparation for ministry, Van Gogh describes a foreboding sense –

These are really happy days I spend here, but still it is a happiness and quiet which I do not quite trust.  Man is not easily content: now he finds things too easy and then again he is not contented enough.

Though not terribly dissatisfied, Van Gogh senses something is missing.  Something is not quite right.  He wonders if this “dis-ease” could have a spiritual basis.

There may be a time in life when one is tired of everything and feels as if all one does is wrong, and there may be some truth in it — do you think this is a feeling one must try to forget and to banish, or is it ‘the longing for God,’ which one must not fear, but cherish to see if it may bring us some good?  Is it ‘the longing for God’ which leads us to make a choice which we never regret?

One thing I’ve noted early in this collection of letters to his brother Theo is that when Van Gogh describes something about pastoral ministry, his words are distant and generic.  When he describes the visual world or artistic representations of them, however, he comes alive.

As we have in our Brabant the underbrush of oak, and in Holland the willows, so you can see here the blackthorn hedges around the gardens, fields, and meadows.  With the snow the effect just now is of black characters on white paper, like the pages of the Gospel.

After a disruptive experience in his academic pursuit of a pastoral vocation, Van Gogh moves to Brussels where, thanks to a small stipend from his father and monies from Theo, he is able to eek out a living while devoting himself to his art.  He first concentrates on studying and copying the masters where he tries to “understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious matters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God.”

Ultimately, he picks up his pencil and finds great relief.

Though every day difficulties come up and new ones will present themselves, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have to taken up drawing again.  I have been thinking of it for a long time, but I always considered the thing impossible and beyond my reach.  But now, though I feel my weakness and my painful dependency in many things, I have recovered my mental balance, and day by day my energy increases.

I relate to the tension between Van Gogh’s material needs and his vocation. In historical hindsight, he was beyond question created to be a painter. Yet in his lifetime he sold no paintings. Had it not been for the patronage of his devoted brother Theo, he would have starved.

By the grace of God, I managed to maintain a career in pastoral ministry for almost two decades. At times, working together with many faithful parishioners, much fruit was borne. Other seasons were quite barren. I’m confident that as a minister, I faithfully presented God’s Word weekly and daily represented (in my own weak way) the Spirit of Christ.

I am grateful that, again by God’s grace, this career has provided materially for me and my family. But I confess it was more consuming spiritually than fulfilling and took a tremendous psychological toil on my already fragile mind.

Now, I am pursuing another vocation within the realm of faith and mental illness.  Were it not for the generous patronage of people God provides to support my efforts, I could not go on.  But with God’s help and support from the community of faith, I will find my way to best offer myself as a living sacrifice to the glory of the Lord.

Only the Only (based on Jeremiah 1.4-10)

God has a plan for your life. You may not know it. You may not want to face it. Like the prophet Jeremiah, you may be called to speak what people don’t want to hear. Or maybe, it’s your calling to be a team-player, to help wherever help is needed. The important thing is to know and remember that your life has meaning, has a purpose thanks to the creative hand of God.

Jeremiah is called to be a prophet among the nations. His target audience is much larger than just the Hebrew people. He is to speak among the nations: Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt and Judah. To each he is to speak the word of God. We can imagine how this task could seem overwhelming, we can understand why Jeremiah protests:

“Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,”

The translation here is somewhat murky. To be a boy in the Hebrew language meant to be of marriageable age, but as yet unmarried. Jeremiah protests to God that he does not have the experience. “I am too young. I lack the wisdom of my elders. Who would listen to me?”

I can understand Jeremiah’s hesitancy. I, for one can’t stand doing tasks for which I feel unprepared. I don’t like stretching my limits for fear I’ll mess it up. Like with plumbing. Last week, I boldly decided to fix the leak in our bathtub faucet. I jumped right in and started removing screws and bolts, thinking that eventually, the culprit, the source of the leak would magically appear.

I was right. Not just a drip, but a flowing stream began to burst through the pipes until I found the thing that shuts it off. Fortunately, a neighbor kindly helped me fix what damage I’d done.

I can understand Jeremiah’s protest, “I’m only a boy.” “I don’t know how to do it.”

But God responds immediately to Jeremiah, “Do not say, `I am only a boy’ for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”

The source of the message Jeremiah speaks comes from God. God will give him the words to speak. He is only to be an instrument through which the word of God will pass. In the process, he will grow to maturity and collect wisdom along the way. His fears will be allayed. He will develop his capacity to lean on God in tough moments:

“…for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth, says Jeremiah; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah as a prophet does not have much human authority. He is not figured into the royal chain-of-command. His authority comes solely from God. It is the authority to discern lies and speak the truth of God’s word, a living truth that creates life and destroys all that gets in the way.

So why does God choose Jeremiah? This is one of those mysterious questions that can never be fully answered, but I think part of Jeremiah’s calling comes from his own humility, “I am only a boy.” He knows his limits or, said better, he doesn’t try to promote himself and wind up over his head.

Likewise, Jeremiah is able to represent the people before God. Like Moses before him, he is an effective middle-man. He does not cower in God’s presence, but communicates honestly and directly. He is a fine dialogue-partner with God, which is one mark of a true prophet.

Jeremiah moves from his limitations, “I am only a boy.” to being received by God as a prophet and anointed to carry out whatever task God has for him to do. He doesn’t linger in his “only-ness.”

At first Jeremiah tries to hide behind his “only-ness“. “Nobody will listen to me. What impact will I have? It’s easy to get caught up in the logic of this. You might think the world is such a big place and I’m only one person, what difference could I make? Together, we may say, “We are only a small church, there’s only so much we can do.

Not only do we hide behind our “only-ness,” but we can use the “only-ness” to discount others and shield ourselves from truth. “You are only a child, we can’t expect much from you.” “You are only a woman. You can’t be a church leader.” We have also limited our older adults by saying in kind ways, “You can only do so much.”

The truth is, God calls only “the only.” Throughout the Bible, we see God actively calling persons with limits, either personal or social. People we may not have chosen if given the choice. Women and men, boys and girls who seem to have no special talents or gifts, no great education or training are appointed by God to carry out God’s work in the world.

We are called, in our work, at home, and in the church. God calls us, limits and all, to witness to the love of God in Christ. To respond as Jeremiah responds, limits and all.

Our hope is that in accepting our call, we are never alone. God gave Jeremiah the strength to meet each challenge. This is the promise of Scripture. No matter how difficult the task, no matter how persecuted prophets become, they are never alone. God does not abandon them, but walks beside them and gives them courage to speak and act.

I hope the promise of this passage gives you the courage to step out of your “only-ness” The call of God comes to all who believe, not just prophets or pastors, not just deacons or elders. God speaks to all. It may be hard to hear, though, when you are hiding behind your “only-ness.”

I am only a child.

I am only a farmer.

I am only a home maker,

I am only a working man or woman.

It’s not that we are only this or that, but that we are every bit a child of God. This is what makes the difference. God calls only the only to be children of God and represent God in the world.

Knowing this, we can face the world and the challenges it brings. If someone tries to say you are “only this” or “only that” know that God calls only the only, that God will put the words in our mouths and give us the courage to speak.


The Family that Prays Together: The Pursuit of Happiness (11)

It was after 10 by the time the family settled Steven into room 313.  They stood in a semi-circle around his bed.

“Well Dad, I think you’ve got everything you need.  We should let you get some rest.”  She smiled and patted him on the shoulder.  “Mom’s flight lands around 8.  I’ll bring her over as soon as I can.  You just get a good night’s rest and we’ll be here before you know it.”

Steven returned her smile.  “Thank you.”

“Is there anything else you want, Dad?” asked David.

“Well, if it’s not asking too much, I wonder if you all might join me in prayer?”

David looked down.  Monica and Philip turned to Robert.  “I think that would be great.”

Steven reached over and grabbed his Bible.  He handed it to David.  “First, David, would you read some verses of a Psalm?”

David took the Bible reluctantly.  “I don’t know… any particular one?”

“I’ll let you choose.  They’re all good.”

David turned to the middle of the Bible and thumbed through the pages.

“How about this?  Psalm 139, verses 1-14 –

O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.

Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.

Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.

For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.

Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;

Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.

Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.

For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.

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

David gently handed the Bible back to Steven.

“Thank you, David.”

David bowed his head.

“Now, Philip, why don’t you read a prayer from this book,” handing him The Valley of Vision.

“Sure, Grandpa.”  Steven placed the book in Philip’s hand and he carefully looked through the pages.

“Here’s one…”

Thou art the blessed God, happy in Thyself, source of happiness in Thy creatures, my maker, benefactor, proprietor, upholder. Thou hast produced and sustained me, supported and indulged me, saved and kept me; Thou art in every situation able to meet my needs and miseries. 

May I live by Thee, live for Thee, never be satisfied with my Christian progress but as I resemble Christ; and may conformity to His principles, temper, and conduct grow hourly in my life. Let Thy unexampled love constrain me into holy obedience, and render my duty my delight. If others deem my faith folly, my meekness infirmity, my zeal madness, my hope delusion, my actions hypocrisy, may I rejoice to suffer for Thy name. 

Keep me walking steadfastly towards the country of everlasting delights, that paradise-land which is my true inheritance. Support me by the strength of heaven that I may never turn back, or desire false pleasures that will disappear into nothing.  As I pursue my heavenly journey by Thy grace let me be known as a man with no aim but that of a burning desire for Thee, and the good and salvation of my fellow men. 

Philip handed the book back to Steven and he placed it on the bedside table.  “Now, Robert, would you be willing to say a prayer?”

“I’d be honored,” he said, with confidence, “Let’s pray together… Dear Father in heaven, you know all things good for us.  We look to you tonight for comfort, encouragement, and healing.  You have a great plan for us and we only see through a glass darkly.  Inspire us to follow your Way, to do our best and trust you with the rest.”  He paused.  “Bring Rachel safely home.  And unite us all in your love, through Christ our Savior.”

Steven looked up at Robert.  “That was beautiful.”

Robert smiled.  “Well, we’d better get on our way.  Call us if you need anything.”

“Thank you.  I’ll be just fine.”

They each moved toward the door.  David was the last to leave.  As he was about to pass through the doorway, he turned back.

He looked over to his father, “I love you, Dad.”

Steven looked back at him.  “I love you too, Son.”

I am so thankful for my precious, Godly parents who instilled this in each and every one of their children & the importance of being Rooted  in Christ.  Regardless of any difference we had through the years, we will stand alone when we meet our maker & can only answer for our own actions. I cannot imagine trying to give God an excuse for being ugly, disobedient, etc. Dear Lord, please help me to not miss an opportunity to share this.