A Psalmist’s Dry Spell, and How He Recovered (Part 2)

Last week, I imagined that the writer of Psalm 42 began writing his spiritual complaint while watching a deer search for a fresh source of water. He compares the deer’s desperate search with his own search for God.  

He is yearning for a sense of God’s presence to be restored to him. He is lamenting a spiritual dearth of heart-felt communion with the Lord. Last week, I presented his problem and then moved fairly directly to resolution that comes at the end of the psalm. This week, let’s look again, but focus on the center of the psalm.  

My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon — from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. (42:6-7)

Earlier in the psalm, seeking relief from his yearning for the divine presence, the psalmist had called up joyful memories of public worship in Jerusalem — the city he loved (v. 4).

Now, in the portion quoted above, he appears to be transported by memory and imagination to Northern Israel. He visualizes the lofty snow-capped Mount Hermon rising gloriously above the horizon; the flooding Jordan nearby cascades over its successive drops, often overflowing its banks after heavy rainfall.  

The air is filled with the thunder of tumbling waterfalls. In one sense, nature speaks of only what is seen. But she also often calls forth a response of the human soul. Thus, he writes:

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. (v. 7)

God has many ways of speaking to his disconsolate children. Often, when we are impoverished by separation, loneliness, or doubt, the mystery of God breaks upon us afresh in the wonders of nature. 

After the demonstration of nature’s wonders the psalmist’s spirit seems to brighten. It seems that he has been made aware briefly of the imponderable wonder of nature’s God. And at the same time the mystery of his own humanity, created by God and made for the worship of him. Thus, deep indeed calls to deep.

And there is further reassurance:

By day the Lord directs his love; at night his song is with me — a prayer to the Lord of my life. (v. 8)

In his quest, the majestic mountain and tumbling waterfalls seem to dispel the shadows. Then, he affirms that the Lord is with him whether in the brightness of the day or the shadows of the night. He can sing to the Lord of his life even in the darkness. But he is not yet freed from one unanswered question:

I say to God my Rock “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, Where is your God?” (vv. 9,10)

His burst of faith hasn’t yet told him what he also wants to know: Why am I not protected from the enemies of faith? The skepticism of his foes seems not to go away. The question is there all day long. 

So where does this psalmist end his quest? How does he get relief from the residual dryness of his faith? Where all questions of faith should end: with a burst of determination to trust God in hope of better days. As I often heard in my childhood, “We trust God even where we cannot trace Him.”

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed in me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (v. 11)

Amen!

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A Psalmist’s Dry Spell — and How He Recovered (Part 1)

A psalmist, feeling forlorn and far from Jerusalem, the Holy City he loves, sits in front of his cabin. He watches a deer across the field, moving in and out of scrub trees, searching for water. The psalmist reaches for his writing tablet.

What can be going on in this lonely stranger’s life? What prompts his sudden reach for his tablet? Imagine with me.

This must be a believer who feels strangely disconnected from his God, his spiritual source, and is therefore in distress. He writes:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?

Four times in the first two verses he makes reference to God, once even calling him the “living God.” That is, God is no mere idol, but a Living Presence. But it doesn’t seem to help.

My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, Where is your God?

His emotions run deep, and he thinks, some friends! They taunt him because he has temporarily lost his sense of faith as a living reality. A cup of cold water or a few words of encouragement would have been better. 

The psalmist reviews the past.

These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.

He has known days of glorious worship with his fellows. And public worship had in the past been deeply enriching.  

In summary, it appears that the psalmist now feels alone. His associates are discomfiting; he has been cut off from the rejoicing throng whose company once strengthened his faith. Yet he talks to himself in the language of hope.  

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

He does what people of faith often do; he confesses to God and himself his discouragement but then looks to the future, telling himself that days of praise will be restored and that will be his hope. People of faith who come upon what some call “dry times” fan the embers of faith in this way and carry on trustingly until assurance is restored.  

The psalmist knows his distress is only temporary. Faith will return. He can rest in that certainty. And with him, we too can say in times of discomfort and uncertainty: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

 Amen!

(We will continue our trip of imagination through Psalm 42 in the next blog.)

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Re-post: God of the Storms

I remember how abruptly storms came up during hot summer days on the prairies of Saskatchewan. 

It might be an oppressively steamy hot, sunny day. The air would be still. Then, to the west, a menacing dark cloud would form on the horizon. In a very short time it would expand and ascend to fill the sky.

Streetlights came on prematurely. In the semi-darkness the rain came in a torrent. Lightning flashed like a giant’s welding torch, followed by thunderclaps that shook the earth.  

After drenching the fields the storm moved on and the sun filled the sky again. Our world had been refreshed.

As a child, it was one thing to be caught running for home in terror during such a pyrotechnical display. It was another thing to be safe inside, looking out the window with a parent at one’s side. Nature’s fireworks were both terrifying and awe-inspiring.  

Psalm 29 is built on such a description. During his fugitive days the psalmist David must have watched many times from the mouth of a cave as the amazing drama in the heavens displayed this wonder. 

In his case, the storm would be coming in from the Mediterranean Sea — hence his statement that “the voice of the LORD is over the [mighty] waters…” (v. 3a).

It would have moved inland over Lebanon where it exerted its enormous strength on the mighty cedars of that region, snapping some of them as though they were spindly saplings (v. 5).

And as the wind drove sheets of rain across the forest, the trees bending back and forth in unison reminded him of a playful, skipping calf (v. 6a). The storm then drove further inland and toward the south where it showed its force over towering Mount Hermon (Sirion). Again it appeared to skip playfully, but here like a young wild ox (v. 6b).

Driving southward it washed over the desert in the southern regions of Kadesh, where it seemed without effort to twist the oaks and strip the forests bare (v. 9).

How should a devout observer consider such a demonstration of nature’s power? As the nasty work of some malevolent force? As nothing more than the unfeeling tricks of nature? As an act of Baal, whom the Canaanites worshiped as the storm god?

No, none of the above. Rather, the sight should fill us, as it did the psalmist, with an impulse to call all the unseen heavenly beings to praise the Almighty (vv. 1,2):

Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones,

ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;

        worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.

His closing words are no less exultant (vv. 10,11): 

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;

        the LORD is enthroned as King forever. 

The LORD gives strength to his people; 

        the LORD blesses his people with peace.

To enter the spirit of Psalm 29 is to enlarge our vision of our God. We worship him even while the wind blows and the thunder rumbles. He is God, not only over the storms, but over all.  

And we always remember that he is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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For Wanderers, the Way Back to God

There is a verse in Jeremiah’s compelling letter to the Israelite exiles in Babylon that arrests me whenever I read it. God says to his people: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:13-14a).

But first, let us review the context from last week. Jeremiah, the prophet, remains in the region of burned-out Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar’s troops had crushed the city to the ground and taken thousands of Israelites, young and old, into exile.

From ruined Jerusalem, Jeremiah had written these exiles a letter telling them how they were to accommodate themselves to their new situation: by building houses, planting gardens, raising families. In summary, they should fit in, but remain communally strong.

He told them in addition that their captivity was to last seventy years, but then God would turn his face to them and there would be a glorious round-up of fellow exiled Israelites from many places, who would return in droves to Jerusalem. He would restore the glory of Israel, and the people would again worship him. God would keep his covenant.

Nestled in the midst of this richness of promise is the compelling condition quoted above — that the people would find him when they sought him with all their heart.

“Seek” is an action word. We ask a friend: “What’s your son, Barry, doing these days?” Answer: “He’s seeking employment.” Then follows a recitation of the details of his search. Seeking requires energy, focus, attention.

The God we serve seeks us. In one of Jesus’ parables, he features God as a shepherd who leaves the flock to “seek” for one lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). That is God’s mind toward the lost.

And God expects us to seek him, too. Isaiah counsels: “Seek the Lord while he may be found” (Isaiah 55:6a). Regarding prayer, Jesus taught: “Seek” and you will find (Matthew 7:7a).

All these verses call for intensity, focus, desire. That is where Israel repeatedly failed. It was not only that they had not sought God’s favor in their worship. They had also gone after what God had forbidden — the idols of Moab, Ammon, Edom. They pursued sexual immorality. They sought greed-driven wealth. These things displaced the proper pursuit of God himself.

Only concentrated search for the favor of God could keep them from further wandering from the paths of righteousness.

That’s why the verse in Jeremiah about finding God by seeking him wholeheartedly is so compelling. And why what Jesus said is so compelling too: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

To the God of Israel, nothing less than continual seeking after him and abject devotion to him are acceptable.

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Delivering the Word of God

The Hebrew letter written to New Testament Christians nearly two thousand years ago declares that “the word of God is alive and active …” (Hebrews 4:12a).

Can the same be claimed for the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah’s book, written six hundred years before the time of Christ? In 29:10 he declares: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those carried into exile from Israel to Babylon.”

The background is this: The mighty Nebuchadnezzar had nearly destroyed the city of Jerusalem in approximately 586 BC, toppling its massive walls into the valleys below, burning to the ground both the temple built earlier by King Solomon and the current King Zedekiah’s palace, carting temple treasures and the majority of the Jewish people to Babylon, a distance of approximately 1700 miles (2 Chronicles 36:15ff).

Now that this population had been relocated against their will, what were they to do? Organize and riot? Form tightly closed ethnic communities? Assimilate completely into this alien culture?

They needed an answer from the Lord. It came from Jeremiah, who remained in destroyed and plundered Jerusalem and its environs. He prophesied a long exile, which led some fellow citizens to threaten him with death.

His letter to the exiles was not sent secretly to rebels among the exiled masses. Rather, it was delivered openly and formally to Zedekiah, the captive king of Israel at the time, and in turn Zedekiah delivered Jeremiah’s prophecy to Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s emperor. Here is Jeremiah’s first instruction to the exiles living in Babylon:

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in numbers there; do not decrease. (Jeremiah 29:4-6)

The Lord’s instruction added:

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (29:7)

A cautionary word is added for the exiles:

Do not let the false prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them … (Jeremiah 29:8b-9)

One particular false prophet named Hananiah contradicted Jeremiah’s prophecies about the upcoming exile. He ripped apart a harness Jeremiah had been wearing as an object lesson to the people. He tried to reduce the severity of Jeremiah’s prophecy. False prophets characteristically tended to edit or even cover up the prophetic words of God.

Jeremiah would not relent from communicating what God had told him to say (28:15-17). Soon, his words shift to the future. The prophet adds this comforting prophecy from the Lord:

When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place [Jerusalem]. For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you … (Jeremiah 29:10a-14a)

Although the exiles will have to endure a long stay in a foreign land, the long term will have a good end and will be planned mercifully by God. The Lord God gives them this assurance.

In this account — similarly to the passage in Hebrews — we discern the word of the Eternal and Everlasting God as indeed “alive and active.” He speaks his word with promise and it comes to pass.

And what happened seventy years later? The long exile was in fact completed and the people were returned to Jerusalem. And what can we take from this ancient prophecy come true? That when God makes a promise to his people, he will fulfill it.

To be continued next week.

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Repost: Jesus Walked on Water; His Gaze Penetrated the Storm

Our Lord’s walking on water in the middle of a storm was one of the miracles he performed while he lived among us in human form. The miracle spoke to his disciples of his power, and it says the same to us today when we are beset and besieged by life’s storms.

Before this event, Jesus had taken his disciples to a solitary place to rest from a time of strenuous ministry. But the eager multitudes followed them.

As the day drew toward evening, Jesus miraculously fed five thousand men by multiplying five loaves and two fish to provide more than enough to satisfy the hunger of the throng (Mark 6:35-44).

He then immediately directed his disciples to board their boat and leave for the other side of the lake. At the same time, he left them and went up on a mountainside to pray.

As darkness settled, the disciples were already three or more miles from shore (John 6:19). A fierce wind suddenly buffeted them, forcing them to pull at full strength on the oars. They were in disaster mode, and they understood the risk of death on this lake whenever the winds whipped it with a sudden fury.

Mark tells us that, from his place of prayer, Jesus saw the disciples straining at their oars. It appears that he let them struggle for a time, because not until about three in the morning did he go out to them walking on the water.

When they saw him walking through the thrashing waves and spray he appeared to them to be a ghost. They cried out in fear.

Jesus called out to calm their fears. “Take courage,” he said. “It is I. Do not be afraid” (Mark 6: 50b). Then he climbed into the boat and the wind died down.

There are things about this story that could be baffling. We gain some insight by comparing the report of this same miracle in three of the four Gospel accounts.

For example, Mark tells us that while they were on land together after the feeding of the five thousand, immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat (Mark 6:45). This was not a suggestion, but a command. We wonder, therefore, if Jesus intended them to experience this dangerous windstorm.

The Apostle John may provide the answer. He notes that the miraculous feeding had prompted the crowds to say: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). And subsequently, he tells us: “Jesus, knowing that [the throng] intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (6:15).

It was apparently a dangerous moment for the disciples. They had on occasion revealed their carnal desire to be officials in an earthly kingdom. If the idea the people were pondering should succeed — to make Jesus their king — this might bring about the destruction of Israel by Roman rulers. And it didn’t fit with Jesus’ plan to lay down his life for humankind. Could it be that their peril in a storm was safer than their safety on dry land?

One wonders if there are times when, in his sovereign wisdom, God sees we would be safer facing a tempest than being in an unthreatening, comfortable place where strong temptations might overcome us.

When it comes to our Lord’s watching over us there may be a lesson in all this for every committed believer. Caught on the stormy seas of life, we are under his watchful care even when we are not aware of it.

We might say, “Our Lord always has the ability to see us, whatever the circumstance. Neither darkness, nor storm, nor passing of time, nor even the passing of two thousand years, have done anything to reduce his power.”

Jesus has told us as much in his own words: “Surely,” he says to his followers down through the ages, “I am with you always, even to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).

What greater assurance do we need than that?

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When Children Refuse to Speak to Their Parents

“How many of you in this gathering never even speak to your parents?” Dennis Prager of http://www.prageru.com asked the question of an assembly at Pepperdine University, a Christian institution in California.

Prager is an Orthodox Jew, scholar of Russian history, and a conservative radio and Internet host. His growing influence stems mostly from videos and other materials on PragerU that set forth clear, conservative viewpoints that flow in a contemporary way from the wisdom of the Old Testament. It’s reported that his videos have been watched more than four billion times.

 Prager asked his question while expounding on the Ten Commandments. He had come to commandment five: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God has given you” (Exodus 20:12).

Commandment five does not say you must love your parents, he explained. In brief sentences he allowed that mothers and fathers are often irritating and sometimes unwise or inept in their parenting.

But he made clear that, even when difficult to practice, this commandment is the word of God and it pronounces that children are to show respect at all times for their parents, even when a warm and fuzzy relationship is not possible. Of course, there would be rare instances of parents who are evil and the law must be called.

It’s nevertheless a divine law to honor parents. And treating parents with ongoing silence is deeply disrespectful. And damaging to both parent and child.

It was at that point in his address that he asked the crowd how many of them never spoke to their parents. He waited, encouraging those responding to raise hands high so he could be sure to see them.

After surveying the crowd, he announced that about 50 percent of the audience had raised their hand. He did not seem surprised, noting that whenever he posed that question to an audience the response was the same.

He went on to note how serious this is for our culture. Apparently great numbers of parents are deprived of any honor from the children they have birthed and raised to adulthood. They are utterly “divorced” by their child or children.

He pointed out that the high percentage is perilous because the commandment promises long life in the land only where offspring respect their parents. He was addressing the commandment principally to the Jewish people. But it appears to be a word of wisdom for all societies.

Prager’s 50 percent is not a validated statistic. It is his repeated observation. It is  nonetheless troubling. Raising children from infancy to early adulthood, functioning first as caretakers, coaches and protectors and later as cheerleaders, is an arduous and expensive task, even when done imperfectly.

Whatever the quality of parenting, the failure of even 10 percent of our population to honor parents flashes a red signal suggesting the deterioration of our culture.

It would be easy to cast this commandment aside as “dusty Old Testament Law.” But here’s how Jesus, our Lord, responds to such an impulse:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17,18)

And the New Testament adds a note of further importance to the law when the Apostle Paul writes: “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified” (Galatians 3:24). That is, acquitted of our sins and referring as well to the reconciliation of broken relationships.

The Old Testament and specifically the Ten Commandments clearly prescribe that everyone honor their parents. Jesus and the New Testament require the same, by their affirmation of the Law.

Possibly we’ll know that our culture is being restored and the Spirit of God is moving among us in greater measure when we observe a movement in the land in which the hearts of children turn more generally to their parents, and parents to their children. The prophet Malachi promised as much for the nation of Israel (Malachi 4:5,6). May it be so for our nation as well.

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Repost — Repentance: What Does It Really Mean?

John the Baptist was a desert-dweller who dressed in garments made of camel’s hair. Yet despite these “eccentricities,” crowds came streaming from all directions to the Jordan River, drawn by his fiery preaching. There was one word they heard ringing forth again and again: Repent!

When Jesus later began his ministry in the regions of Galilee, his message was equally pointed: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) Throughout the New Testament this word has a constant meaning. It means to change the mind.

Changing one’s mind sounds trivial. I pull a red necktie from the rack, but before I have it fully knotted, I frown into the mirror, unknot it, and put it back on the rack. I reach for a different one.

To change one’s mind in the sense of repenting means much more. One of my seminary professors explained that it means to change the very set of the mind. It means more specifically to acknowledge the depth of our sinfulness — the apathy or even hostility towards God implicit in living as though He doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. And in addition to experiencing abject sorrow and regret, humbly accepting God’s invitation to be changed and indwelled by His Spirit.

The good news of Christ’s kingdom is that our set of mind can, in fact, be profoundly changed. If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17).

As for the initial repentance part: We recall Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. At first, feeling that his freedom was restricted, he asked for his inheritance and traveled far away from father’s influence.

For a time, having no curfew or work assignments felt like liberty. Furthermore, he had plenty of money which he spent as he pleased.

But after he had spent everything, freedom quickly led to desperation. His circle of parasitic friends vanished; in his destitution he became the lowliest servant of a pig farmer.

There was no recourse but to return to his father. But before he could do that, he would have to change his mind — the orientation, direction, and content of his thinking — about decisions he had made and their consequences.

The first step was for him to see his father in an altogether different light.

In fact, upon reviewing his actions, he began to feel genuine sorrow for his decisions, while at the same time feeling an awakening love and respect for his father. He longed to see him, to say he was sorry, and as evidence of his sincerity, to offer his services as a servant rather than son on the estate.

He was totally turned around in the very set of his mind towards his father. That’s repentance.

We know how the story ends. After his abject apology and offer of humble service, his joyful father was extraordinarily generous, restoring him to his place as a beloved son.

 Similarly, to experience the blessings of the Gospel, there is no substitute for repentance. In fact, repenting and believing are linked so closely they cannot be separated. Believing is only authentic if coupled to repentance.

This spirit of repentance doesn’t come to all in the same way. In God’s love and wisdom, to some He seems to enable an almost harrowing realization of the need to repent suddenly, like a thunderclap. Or repentance may grow for days, weeks, or months as a dawning sunrise.

Whichever way our loving Father sends, it is a gift to which we must respond wholeheartedly.

Jesus’ message at the outset of his ministry was, as quoted above: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). May every living person experience that radical change of mind and prepare for God to deliver his forgiveness with rivers of joy!

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On Gallbladder Attacks and Life

Recently one of my sons had gallbladder surgery. It was performed in a modern outpatient operating room and he was released to go home a couple of hours later. The procedure was performed through “punctures” using endoscopes rather than through a long abdominal incision by scalpel. They call it “minimally invasive surgery.”  

Those of us living today are fortunate. It wasn’t always this way.

I remember one of my mother’s gallbladder attacks in our home in Estevan, Saskatchewan. I was approximately twelve and deeply shocked by her misery.  

Mother had experienced several lesser attacks. As you might know, back in the 1930s people were slower to seek medical help even for serious complaints. They often tried home remedies first, or followed a neighbor’s recommendations. And they did a lot of “enduring.”

It was in our house that the big one struck. Mother walked back and forth between the dining and living rooms, groaning. When she came to the dining room table she bent over it seeking deliverance from the terrible colicky pain.  

I took off through the front door and ran along Fourth Street the length of a city block to Twelfth Avenue. Traveling north, I hastily passed a few buildings to one where the doctor’s apartment was located. I went through the street entrance and climbed the stairs briskly, propelled by my desperation.  

I was looking for Dr. Creighton. I think he was the town doctor and in his senior years by then.

A woman answered the door of the second-floor apartment. I poured out my concern breathlessly and she responded, “I’ll tell the doctor.” I returned home thinking help was on its way, for surely the doctor felt the terror as I did.

The doctor never came, but Mother was beginning to get relief from the pain. I can’t recall whether I told her and Dad where I had been or what I had done. I really thought she was going to die.

She seemed to recover from that attack and some months later decided she would ride a bus the 300 miles from Estevan to Prince Albert to visit my sister Doris, her husband, Al, and baby Myriam.

This trip included both paved and gravelled parts of the road. As well, her bus would have been much less grand than a present-day Greyhound bus.

Unfortunately, during my mother’s visit in Prince Albert, she had another massive attack that landed her in the hospital there. She had to remain in the hospital until the inflammation subsided, the surgery was done, and recovery verified for perhaps a week or so before she could be dismissed.

During her absence my father was forlorn. My parents never exchanged endearments to each other publicly but their commitment to their marriage was strong and showed in such situations.

Dad wrote mother letters during her absence. There were no emails or Face Times. Even phone calls were rare. I believe Dad’s frequent letters were quite mellow.

He shared a portion of one of his letters with us in which he told mother that if she would get on the bus and come home he would give her “two-thirds of his kingdom.” It was Lancashire humor exchanged between two English immigrants. He was lonely for her.

When mother arrived back in Estevan she looked thinner and a bit pale from the experience she had endured. And it took her some weeks to recover fully. But the family was reunited and life resumed.  

Reviewing the memory prods me to renewed thankfulness for medical care, both then and now. And prods me even more to remember that life’s interruptions can come with stealth so we should love each other person-to-person while we can.

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A Penetrating Word for Our Times

The Word of God is sometimes comforting, sometimes convicting but always relevant to life’s perplexities. Listen to what Hebrews 4:12-13 claims:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword; it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from Gods sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

When Kathleen and I read this passage together during morning devotions recently I was arrested by that word “penetrating.” What makes the word of God so potent? It is a worthy question because the expression occurs 41 times in the New Testament.

It was nearly four centuries after the death of Christ that nearly all of the 27 books of the New Testament (the gospels, apostolic letters, Acts of the Apostles and Revelation) were gathered under one cover. Thus, the author of the Hebrew letter must have drawn this term “the word of God” from the Old Testament — the Bible for the Jews.

That is, the Old Testament was the only Bible the early Christians had. Jesus himself, when tempted by the devil in the Judean wilderness replied: “It is written [in the Old Testament]: Thou shalt not live on bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

We emphasize: the term “the word of God” as later used in the New Testament church was already a settled expression in the Old Testament. We note further that these records of God’s word came from the mouth of God himself. They were recognized as authoritative.

Jesus quoted from an Old Testament that was dynamic in its revelation and known as the Jewish Bible. It was revered. We can assume that Jesus was taught from this Old Testament when he was absorbing scripture as a lad.

The importance of the word of God manifests itself early. In fact, as early as Abraham’s time we read “the word of the Lord came to Abram” (Genesis 15:11). And the psalmist declares: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:5). The author of this latter resolution appears to have believed that the word of God was indeed powerful.

Elsewhere, the prophet Isaiah declares: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

Still, the word of God was at times hidden from his people. In an eighth-century Israel, known for its wealth and corruption, the prophet Amos prophesied: “People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it” (Amos 8:12). It should be noted that God’s word can be in effect withdrawn for a time from the stubbornly disobedient. In Amos’s time when out of need they sought its message they found it had been temporarily closed to their awareness, leaving them panting for refreshment.

Some leaders in modern churches today are recommending that the Old Testament be disregarded in worship in favor of the New Testament. To that suggestion, the passage from Hebrews speaks for itself. It says, “The word of God is alive and active.” Neither Old nor New Testaments is a museum piece. The energy of both by the Spirit is current. Both testaments are still speaking God’s penetrating word.

But it is the Apostle John who puts the word of God in its fullest and clearest light, reflecting both Testaments. He writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Word of God is eternal. The Word of God is incarnate in Jesus our Lord.

In Bible times, the sword was the weapon carried by those who enforced the law as it is applied to the disobedient and lawless (Romans 13:4). The sword also symbolized the weapon of spiritual warfare, when energized by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 6:17).

This analogy of a  double-edged sword shows how inwardly the word of God can penetrate both thoughts and intentions to separate soul and spirit; joints and marrow. How sobering to know that it can even judge “the intents and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

How needed by nations of the world today. Unrighteousness is putting a deep blight on our era — the dishonesty, the deception, the lawlessness in government, the violence, the brokenness of family life, the confusion of what marriage is.

For those of us yearning for a spiritual reawakening, we look afresh at what place the Scriptures are given in our lives: in pastors’ studies as they prepare and serve; in our pulpits; and in our family and personal times of devotion.

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Photo credit: (Søren Niedziella via flickr.com)