A Final Thought

With heavy hearts we want to share that David McDowell passed away this past Sunday, July 18, 2021.  This blog, which he started in 2011, provided him the opportunity to continue in the ministry after his retirement.  He loved the Lord and wanted to share his joy all the way up until his final breath. We know this to be true because even in Dave’s final weeks here on earth, he was convinced of and held onto a bottom-line trust that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8:28) 

Thank you for being a part of this ministry. We pray that the thoughts he shared on this blog will continue to encourage, provide solace and challenge you to grow your faith in the Almighty for many years to come.

-The McDowells


The Difference Between Being a Winner or a Loser…

Billionaire Warren Buffet was asked by a group of college students about being a success and what separates winners from losers in the game of life. The question itself shows a worldview based upon wealth equals success, but let’s run with it. I don’t know much about Buffet’s story, but he has demonstrated some aspects of wisdom that earn him a hearing.

The first point he made to these students was that the successful person is one who builds up knowledge one day at a time. The key to success is to go to bed smarter each day. “That’s how knowledge builds up—like compound interest.” Buffet builds his knowledge by reading. In fact 80% of his daily routine is spent reading. I think this is sound advice. Many people no longer read, they just listen to what others say and adopt it as their view. As Christians, we need learn the discipline of reading—especially the Bible, but also other books about history and culture. A couple of weeks ago, I was with my college roommates for the weekend in Florida. We were flown there by our very wealthy roommate to stay at his ponderosa. Besides his and his wife’s generous hospitality, he gave us a gift. Can you guess what it was? It was a book and a recommended reading list of 100 books that he has read on a wide range of topics; from theology to political science and from history to economics. My very wealthy and successful (in the eyes of the world) brother in Christ has a knowledge base that I believe at least rivals Warren Buffet’s. My counsel: start reading through the Bible every day; 2 chapters in the Old Testament and 1 chapter in the New Testament. Also, pick an area you are interested in (history, classics, culture) and pick a recommended book and read some of it every day. When you finish reading through the Bible, do it again. And when you finish with the book, read another… Go to bed every night more informed about God and this world than you were the day before.

The second point Buffet made was don’t compromise your integrity. I believe this is crucial and biblical. I like to think of integrity as not only being honest and sincere, but of being whole and undivided—the same on the outside as you are on the inside. Psalm 24 gives a description of the God-worshipper: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not life up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.”

Wes Stafford, past president and CEO of Compassion Int’l, wrote of his experience growing up as a Third Culture Kid on the Ivory Coast. His folks were missionaries among the Senufo tribe; a people of hunters, fishermen, and farmers. Every Wednesday he and his friends would walk into a nearby village for Market Day where the different tribes would buy each others’ goods. A tribe of craftsmen would always arrive early and set up their kiosks under the shade of a grove of mango trees. This shade was a luxury as the temperature in the sun would often reach 120 degrees F. Unfortunately these craftsmen were also “crafty” and would try and sell cracked and split wood carvings which had been filled in with wax and covered over with shoe polish; the defects hardly noticeable to the unsuspecting eye. However, Stafford and his friends had watched the adults shop and had learned from them. They would always ask in French, “Est-ce sans cire?” Literally, “Is this without wax?” “Is it sincere?” Of course the shop keeper would always fake being insulted but then the discerning customer would threaten to take the carving out in the sunlight for a closer look. The craftsman would suddenly become very gracious and offer a special deal on something else lest the sunlight melt the wax revealing his insincerity.  What a great example of what it means to be an honest and sincere person of integrity. My counsel: In all of your business dealings, relational decisions, and spiritual practices, ask yourself the question “am I being a person without wax”? And then say, “I will choose to do the right thing no matter what the consequences.”

The third way to measure your success, according to Buffet, is by applying an ultimate test to your life. What is Buffet’s ultimate test? “When you get to my age, you’ll really measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to love, you actually do love…The more you give love away, the more you’ll get.” I appreciate that desire because if you have trampled over your loved ones on the way to becoming a “success,” then you are nothing but a loser. We have a so many examples of these “successful losers” in the business world, in Hollywood, in politics, in sports, even in religion that it is chilling.

However, in my mind, there must be something more to the ultimate test—something that recognizes that we are spiritual beings created for eternity. The words spoken to Belshazzar in Daniel 5:27 come to mind here. “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting (lacking).” This is the clearest biblical example of an ultimate test conducted by God himself, finding a person unacceptable. And as scripture unfolds, it becomes clear what it means to be acceptable to God. It means to be “in Christ”—trusting in Jesus as the only way by which one can be put “in the right” with God. It also involves receiving a new heart by the Holy Spirit (some call it being born again) from whence springs a new life that more and more takes on the character of Christ. An acceptable life can be measured by the twin commands “to love the Lord your God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” My counsel: Cast yourself completely upon the mercy of God and trust Jesus Christ alone to be accepted by God. Then live out the love of Jesus for all those around you. The legacy of love and not your money, fame, and accomplishments will be your greatest success!

“He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.”

“Wherever you are, be all there.”

“Let not the longing slay the appetite of our living.”

“When it comes time to die, make sure all you’ve got to do is die.”

“Lord, make my way prosperous not that I might achieve a high station, but that my life may be an exhibit to the value of knowing God.”

– quotes by 28 yr old missionary martyr, Jim Elliot

How Have You Shaped God?

News from the art world: An Italian Artist Auctioned Off an ‘Invisible Sculpture’ for $18,300. It’s Made Literally of Nothing.

Seriously!? Yep. Last month, 67-yr old Salvatore Gaurau auctioned off an “immaterial sculpture”—in other words, it didn’t exist! The artist named it Sono, which means “I am.” He claims that the sculpture finds its form in its own nothingness. “The vacuum is nothing more than a space full of energy, and even if we empty it and there is nothing left, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that nothing has weight…it has energy that is condensed and transformed into particles, that is, into us.”

Francis Schaeffer (Christian pastor and apologist in the late 1960’s-80’s) would have had a heyday with this one. Schaeffer believed that when man (humanity) becomes the center of his own thinking, he will lose touch with himself and will actually view life irrationally and to his own detriment and the detriment of culture. Secular Humanism birthed post-modernism with it moral relativism, lack of objective reality, and ultimate meaninglessness. And quite honestly, such a perspective adds very little to life and culture and it is my feeling that is why very little of interest is taking place in the art world right now, except for the artist giving expression to whatever s/he wants and calling it something when it is nothing. It reminds me of a line from Alice in Wonderland where the queen asks Alice to look at something and to tell what she saw. Alice said, “I see nothing.” The queen responded, “What wonderful eyesight; to be able to see nothing and at a distance too!”

I could go on and on about such solipsism (your own self/reality is what only matters) that allows people to choose any lifestyle they want and even determine their own gender on the basis of how they feel rather than on any objective truth. But I want to come back around to my main point of application and that is to us as Christians. When the artist, Gaurau, was questioned on the legitimacy of “immaterial” artwork, he responded “after all, don’t we shape a God we’ve never seen?”

Good question. Haven’t we all done that? “God would never allow this to happen”; “God will always protect his own from bad things”; “God will always answer prayer for healing”; “God would never have mercy on someone like that”; and so on…. We may never have articulated these thoughts, but they arise from how we have shaped an unseen God in our minds. This is why many people have given up the faith, because God didn’t act according to how they have shaped him. As I struggle with pancreatic cancer, there is such temptation to do this and to live with disappointment and anger when God doesn’t respond “appropriately.”

The only solution that I have learned is to let the God I have never seen shape me. And the only way that happens is to continue to read the Scripture, which is the only way to come to know the being and character of God and not be left to my own imagination. Day after day, as I read the bible I run across things I do not like about God and would like to change. But as I keep reading over an over again, God’s character is more fully revealed and I see how gracious, merciful, and patient he is with a rebellious people. And this is just in the Old Testament. When I come to the Gospels I see how he undresses himself in Jesus and stops at nothing to redeem the sinner. I can honestly say that my heart breaks and my eyes fill with tears to see God’s love and mercy for me. And though I suffer from a terminal illness, he will never forsake me. And though every day I wonder what will happen next, I can trust him. I have not been able to respond like this because of some super-spirituality on my part, but because God has broken down my false images of him through his Word and is changing me into his own image. I am learning not to be a God-shaper, but a God-shaped man.

One final observation: it is interesting that the Italian artist, Gaurau, only accepted real money for his “sculpture” and not “immaterial” dollars. I guess you just can’t survive on nothing.

Forgive the typos you may find. It’s a little more difficult for me to write as my disease progresses. Sounds like an excuse, but I’ll keep trying.

The Hands of God…Kind or Harsh?

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties upon him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6, 7-ESV)

Last week I was released from the clinical trial for which I waited so long to qualify at the National Institutes for Health in Bethesda, MD. They did not like me and I feel totally rejected—just kidding. A recent CT scan showed that my pancreatic cancer is advancing and these trials have strict protocols saying that if there are indications the treatment is not working then the individual must be released. I applaud the research that is being done NIH by the doctors and nurses and techs. Though a huge facility, I was treated as an individual with dignity. My doctor is a believer who prayed for me every time we met. I have one more trip down there to have a final “safety check” and then that is it, unless they find another trial for which I might qualify.

At this point in my journey I am left with no treatment options. There are no more chemo, radiation, or immunological protocols that will work anymore and it would seem that it is just a matter of time until this pernicious disease ultimately steals my last breath. I say all of this recognizing that some of my readers are on chemo or another treatment and hearing this may be a discouragement to them. But please realize that even though these treatments did not cure me, God has used them to extend my life. Only 9% of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live 5 years from their diagnosis—I am into year 4. So, be thankful when there are treatments available and though they are rough to go through, they are a gift from your Heavenly Father. and your outcomes may be far different than mine. It has been a joy for me to see some of my friends ring the bell or hit the gong after they finish their course of treatment. (A typical rite of passage for the cancer patient after they successfully complete their chemo or radiation regimen.)

So now, how does one deal with the reality that there are no more treatment options? One thing’s for sure, it doesn’t make you want to go back on chemo, but it does make you more consciously dependent upon God and that you are in his hands. I’ve always believed that over the last 4 yrs., knowing that “man does not live by chemo alone,” but now when there is nothing else left it has become more real—I am in his hands. The hands whose fingers knit me together in my mother’s womb and created the pulsating universe. The hands which have protected me, guided me, disciplined me, and saved me. The hands from which nothing will “pluck” me in life or in death.

I’m not totally at peace about all of this, in spite of what some of you have concluded. I get frustrated with the ways of God. I just learned this morning of a dear sister in Christ who passed way last night a long illness and the pain the family is bearing, but even Jesus wept outside the tomb of Lazarus. However, sadness, frustration, and even anger at God doesn’t mean one does not trust him, as much as it indicates that we cannot bear the weight of our own existence and are helpless in spite of our own bravado or super-spirituality. So, we have a choice either to take things into our own hands or fall back into the hands of God.

Many of you have heard me talk about the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, composed in Heidelberg, Germany as a teaching tool for young people. The Synod of Dort approved the catechism in 1619 and it has become the the most widely used confession of the Reformed church, translated into many non-European languages world-wide. The questions and answers of the catechism were divided up into 52 Lord’s Days intended to be taught on each Sunday of the year with scripture references. (check it out at http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com)

I want to draw your attention to 2 parts which form the bedrock of my trust. So, no matter how much I kick and scream about my situation, this is where I stand:

Lord’s Day 1

Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Lord Day 10

Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?

A. God’s providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

Q. What does it benefit us to know that God has created all things and still upholds them by his providence?

A. We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love…

I don’t know what you are facing, but I hope you have a faith like this. Not a smoke and mirrors faith in a domesticated God, but a faith that can yell, and scream, and lament his “strange ways”—and yet still trust. A bottom-line trust that you belong to Christ in life and in death, because he died for you; that you are in the hands of God and that nothing will separate you from his love; that nothing will ever enter your life that has not first passed through his fatherly hands so you do not need to be afraid.

Holy Week…The Way of the Cross

The following are a series of Scripture readings and prayers for each day of the Passion Week. May the Holy Spirit use the Word to engender within you a deeper love for Christ, a greater adoration for his suffering and sacrifice on your behalf, and a firmer conviction to extend the love of Christ to a broken world at war with itself.

March 28, Palm Sunday… 

Philippians 2:5-11

Mark 11:1-11

Almighty and everlasting God, who, by your tender love towards humanity did send your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the Cross, so that all who believe might be reconciled to God and to each other; grant unto us that we might bend our stubborn hearts toward Him and to confess that He is our Lord and King so that we can become agents of his peace ; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

March 29, Monday before Easter…

Romans 5:1-8

Mark 14:1-16

Almighty God, whose dear Son did not experience joy before he first suffered pain, and did not enter glory before has was crucified; mercifully grant that we would also walk in the way of the cross even in our pain, and find it to be none other than the way of life and peace; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

March 30, Tuesday before Easter…

Isaiah 50:4-11

Mark 14:17-42

O Lord God, whose blessed Son, our Savior, gave his back to the smiters and did not hide his face from betrayal and shame; grant us grace that we might bear joyfully the affliction and injustice of this present time, knowing that we will never be separated from your love and that our suffering is discipline—not punishment of our sin, through Jesus Christ or Savior. Amen

March 31, Wednesday before Easter…

John 4:7-11

Mark 14:43-65

Assist us mercifully by the Spirit, O Lord God, that we might love others with the love whereby we have been loved by you; and may the sacrificial love of your Son move us to give ourselves away to others for the sake of the gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

April 1, Maundy Thursday…

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-15

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night he was betrayed, did institute Communion; mercifully grant that we might thankfully receive the same in remembrance of him while recognizing the responsibility to serve those around us, even those with whom we sit at table; through Jesus Christ, the Servant. Amen. {Perhaps you can gather a few friends or family members and share the Lord’s Supper together.}

April 2, Good Friday…

Hebrews 10:4-25

Mark 15:16-41

Merciful God, who made all people for yourself and for your glory and desire none to perish, but that all should come to repentance; have mercy upon those who do not know you, and lead them to the One who was lifted up, so that all might be drawn to him and become one flock under one Shepherd, even our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. 

April 3. The Saturday before Easter…

Hebrews 13:20, 21

Mark 15:42-47

Grant, O Lord, that as we have been baptized into the death of your blessed Son, we might die to sin and the evil inclinations of our hearts, looking forward to the Blessed Hope and glorious appearing of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, when we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is; world without end. Amen. 

Postscript: Please take this opportunity to pray for all those who will come under the preaching of the Gospel in Easter services around the world.

Lenten Devotionals, Week 6…March 22-27

As we prepare for next week, Holy Week, let us do an inventory of our spiritual lives as the basis for personal revival. May we not shy away from a close examination of our own sinfulness before a Holy God. We do all this in the light of God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

March 22, Monday… Acts 2:37, 38 

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven (remitted). And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’

So, what is the best thing to do with true guilt?…get forgiven. 

John Calvin wrote, “Justification by faith is reconciliation with God and that consists solely in remission of sins…the only way in which those whom God embraces are made righteous, is by having their [sins] wiped away by the remission of sins, so that this justification (reconciliation) may be termed in one word the remission of sins.” 

The word REMISSION has an interesting meaning. It has the word missio in it, which means to send away. It is used as a medical term- the cancer is in remission (no longer present, sent away); a financial term- please remit (send away your money to us); a theological term- forgiveness- (aphesis, to send away one’s sins).

Psalm 103:12 “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he (God) removed our transgressions from us.”

Micah 7:18, 19 “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread all our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”

Isaiah 1:18 “ ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool.’”

The scarlet “A” on Hester Prynne’s chest represented the crimson stain of her sin. She cried out, “O to be forgiven, to have this letter taken away!”  And here God says, “Though your sins be as scarlet… No matter how dark the stain of sin in your life, I can take it away and make you clean.” 

Have you cried out to God for remission of your sin? If you are ready, He is willing.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
 (Horatio Spafford)

March 23, Tuesday… Personal Revival

When we properly confess our sins before God, we are essentially agreeing with him that a certain area of our life has fallen short of his glory and we recognize our need of forgiveness. It is important that we are specific about our confession in order to prevent self deception.

Over the next few days, I would like to give you the opportunity to do a moral inventory and to bring specific things before God and agree with him that they are sin and need to be forgiven. These are adapted from Richard Owen Robert’s Twelve Articles of Agreement for Personal Revival. Prayerfully consider each one and the Scripture upon which that agreement is based. 

Lord, I agree that sin in my life has always been and is now a very real problem and that I deserve to go to hell for it [Romans 3:9-23; 7:24; Ephesians 2:1-2; Hebrews 12:1]. 

Lord, I agree with You that the great wickedness of all my sin has been and is against You. “Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned and done this great evil in Thy sight” [Psalms 51:4]. “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” [Genesis 39:9]. 

Lord, I agree with You that repentance from all my sin is demanded, that I must cease taking advantage of Your goodness by failing to repent [Romans 2:4] and that I cannot know the refreshing that revival brings until this accomplished [Acts 3:19].

March 24, Wednesday…

Lord, I agree that public confession of public sin is mandatory [James 5:16] and that private confession of private sin must be regularly practiced. “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there remember that thy brother hath ought against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” [Matthew 5:23-24]. 

Lord, I agree that restitution to any I have wronged is a necessary qualification for personal revival [2 Samuel 12:6; Jeremiah 35:15; Ezekiel 33:15; Luke 19:8], for knowing that I have defrauded another and not to make it right will prevent me from having a conscience void of offense toward all men [Acts24:16] and will leave me with a heart that condemns me and hinders my prayers [I John 3:20]. 

Lord, I agree that you are holy and so must I be (Leviticus 19:2). But Father, I am so aware of my own tendency to wander onto unholy paths that have been well-worn over the years. “Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.” May I be holy, like you. 

March 25, Thursday…

 Lord, I agree that holiness is Your will for my life, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification” [I Thessalonians 4:3]. 

 Lord, I agree that holiness was purchased by Christ on His cross [I Corinthians 1:30] and is received by faith just as is justification [II Thessalonians 2:13]. 

Lord, I agree that You elected me to holiness [Ephesians 1:4] and this election has removed forever my right to choose to be sinful. I accept as my duty the daily reckoning of myself to be dead indeed unto sin and alive unto God [Romans 6:11]. 

Lord, I agree to guard what I read and what I see: books, magazines, television, movies, women (men) on the street, [“I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” Job 31:1]. I agree not to look upon another person with disdain or prejudice due to their wealth or poverty, skin color or ethnicity (James 2:1. I also agree that I would be better off without eyes rather than to have eyes that bring me down to hell [Matthew 18:9-10]. 

March 26 Friday…

Lord, I agree to guard what I listen to: jokes, gossip, racist criticism of others, flattery, religious views, suggestive stories, etc., and will regularly heed the words of Jesus, “Take heed how you hear” [Luke 8:18]. “Take heed what your hear” [Mark 4:24]. 

Lord, I agree to guard what I touch and how I touch it — money, goods, sex, etc., knowing the grievous error of sins of greed and lust [Exodus 20:17; Proverbs 15:27; Matthew 6:27-30]. 

Lord, I agree to guard what I taste and smell and the reason related thereto, for I acknowledge that gluttony and drunkenness are evil in Your sight [Psalms 34:8; 119:103; Proverbs 23:2-3; 20-221; Luke 21:34; Romans 16:18; I Corinthians 10:31; Galatians 5:19-21; Philippians 3:19; James 1:13-15; I Peter 2:2-3; 4:3]. 

Lord, I agree to place a guard over my entire body, knowing that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit [Matthew 10:28; Romans 6:12; 8:13; I Corinthians 6:19; 9:27]. 

March 27, Saturday… Isaiah 53:1-6

Early in the nineteenth century, Philip Doddridge wrote his classic work

The Rise and Progress of Religion In The Soul. It traces God’s work of salvation from the point of conviction of sin through conversion, from awakening to the life of God to preparing for death. After a lengthy discourse on the depths of human sin, Doddridge begins his presentation of the good news of the gospel. 

“Look upon our dear Redeemer! Look up to this mournful, dreadful, yet, in one view delightful spectacle, and then ask in thine own heart, do you believe he suffered and died thus? And why did he die? Let me answer in God’s own words, He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him, that by his stripes we might be healed; It pleased the Lord to bruise him and to put him to grief, when he made his soul an offering for sin; for, the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.  You have indeed been a very great sinner, and your offences have truly been attended with the most heinous aggravations; nevertheless you may rejoice in the assurance, that where sin abounded, there shall grace much more abound…That righteousness, to which on believing on him, thou wilt be entitled, shall not only break those chains by which sin is (as it were) dragging thee at its chariot wheels with a furious pace to eternal ruin, but shall clothe thee with the robes of salvation, shall fix thee on the throne of glory, where thou shalt live and reign forever among the princes of heaven…But I have the authority of God’s Word to tell thee, that if thou this day sincerely believest in the name of the Son of God, thou shalt this day be taken under his care, and be numbered among those of his sheep, to whom he graciously declared, that he will give eternal life; and, that they shall never perish…With this gospel, O sinner, which is my life, and which, if thou dost not reject it, will be thine too.”

My soul confides in your goodness, O God. I adore the patience with which you have carried me for so long, and the grace which now makes me wiling to be yours- on your terms. As I prepare for this Holy Week, have mercy upon me and unite me to yourself so that none of the allurements of this world or the unbiblical perspectives of my culture may draw me back from you and plunge me into guilt and ruin. May I keep my hold upon you until at length I know more completely how sufficient a Savior you are. Through Christ, I pray. Amen.

The Future of Hope…

I have observed that one of the side-effects of our present pandemic is to narrow our focus on life down to the present and muddle our ability to see the big picture offered by the future. Any crisis does the same thing, because it crushes future hope by the incredible weight of present circumstances.

I’ve had to struggle with this with my cancer; the tendency to lose perspective and to allow my life to cave in upon itself, to the place where I lose hope and life becomes just about me. This is why it has been important to do things to get myself out of myself: praying for others who are suffering, learning new things (like reading extensively on Black history and racial inequities in the history of our nation), like keeping a month-at-a-glance calendar (so that I’m looking ahead and not just at today), looking at my medical appointments and treatments as field trips where I get to travel to places I have never been and meet new people (like going to Bethesda, Maryland each week for treatment and getting to stay in a hotel or with my grandchildren who live within half-an-hour from the hospital), creating daily and future projects (like fixing up my basement, writing a blog or a devotional, or a book), and planning future events even though I might not still be around (like speaking in some churches this summer). I do this knowing full well that the future belongs to God, but just thinking about the future gives me hope.

I have also observed that in my reading of the prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, while God spends a great deal of time raking Israel over the coals of judgment for its history of idolatry and rebellion, he also scatters a message of a future throughout, “For I know the plans I have for you…to give you a future and a hope.” There is a future beyond exile, beyond coming back into the land, beyond a rebuilt Jerusalem and a Temple. It is a future where Messiah will establish his kingdom of truth and justice, and God’s people (the New Israel= Church) will have a heart to worship and obey their God throughout eternity. In the face of calamity, God is always pushing his people into the future—always giving them hope.

This morning, I read Daniel 1-2 and saw the same thing. Daniel and his 3 friends were captives in Babylon taken from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar (Neb) during the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah. They were older teenagers at the time and most of you know the story… they graduated from a 3-yr. training program at Babylonia U and were put on the staff of advisors to King Neb himself—not a bad job for right out of college. The king had a dream that scared him and asked his team of advisors to tell him his dream (apparently he had forgotten it) and what it meant. His advisors were smart enough to realize this was mission impossible without knowing what the dream was in the first place. The King was not a reasonable man—people with power don’t tend to be, and ordered that all his advisors be shot at dawn (or executed in some way, maybe not at dawn).

Daniel heard about this and sent word to the King asking for a little more time and he would relate the dream and its meaning. Then he and his buddies pulled an all-nighter (prayer meeting) until God graciously gave them the answer. He related it to the King and asked that no advisor be executed. He humbly acknowledged that it was the God of heaven who gave him the answer and not because he (Daniel) was wiser than anyone else.

The dream revealed the image of a man made up of different kinds of metals/material, representing the different empires of the world and their worth/power. King Neb was the head of gold; next would come the Medo-Persian Empire under Cyrus, then the Greek Empire under Alexander, then the Roman Empire which would ultimately be divided up into smaller kingdoms making alliances with one another, which anticipates the rise of nationalism and our present world of nation-states and their treaties—America is included in here along with NATO, etc.. (These are my interpretations, by the way.) Then Daniel saw a Rock cut from the mountain that struck the image and brought it all tumbling down, the same way that the God of heaven will someday bring an end to the nations of the world and set up a kingdom that will never be conquered or destroyed and which will rule forever. This is a glimpse into the future that God allowed those whose lives had been narrowed by captivity to see. “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for he alone has all wisdom and power. World events are under his control. He removes kings and sets others on their thrones. He gives wise men their wisdom, and scholars their intellects.” (Dan 2:20, 21-Living Bible) Idi Amin of Uganda fathered 43 children (or more) and called himself, His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshall of Al Hadj, Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular. He also called himself The Last King of Scotland for reasons known only to him. This peacock died after 8 yrs., just like every other peacock that has ruled, or will rule.

Yet, the time is coming when “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run; his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.”(Isaac Watts, 1719) This is our future and our hope; to have a king (president, premiere, prime minister) who loves us, who died for us, and will rule with justice and equity, truth and righteousness. Let this pry open our narrowed views caused by our present crises and give us a hope-filled perspective by which to live. “If the last hour belongs to God, we need not fear the next moment.” (Helmut Thielicke)

Lenten Devotionals, Week 5… March 15-21

March 15, Monday…Psalm 42:5 

Why are you downcast, O my soul?  Why are you disquieted within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him for his help. .  

The mistake we often make is that we look for a source of comfort in ourselves rather than in God. Our hope is in God not what we feel him to be at the moment. For it is only in His countenance or presence (not our own) that our help (salvation) is found. That is why the Scripture is so important to our prayer life. The Word of God reveals to us the being and character of God and encourages us to place our hope and trust in him.  

Notice also how the psalmist here speaks to himself.  Why are you downcast, O my soul?  I think that is one of the traits of spiritual health.  We get into trouble when we listen to ourselves:

Why did God allow this if he loved me?

Maybe I’m being punished for my past sins.

Going back home to God will be such a long process I don’t want to try.

Instead we need to learn to speak to ourselves and utter forth a confession of faith and trust in the Lord.  “Why are you so discouraged, O my soul?  All of your past experience adds up to the fact that God has not abandoned you.  Hope in him, hang onto him, though you may feel no reason to do so, your past gives you full warrant to trust God.”  This is faith at its strongest- believing in God in spite of our feelings and circumstances, because we have remembered his goodness to us in the past. 

My God, my Life, my Love.

To thee, to thee I call.

I cannot live, if thou remove,

For thou art all in all.

Thy shining grace can cheer

This dungeon where I dwell. 

‘Tis paradise when thou art here.

If thou depart, ‘tis hell.

Thou art the sea of love,

Where all my pleasures roll,

The circle where my passions move

And center of my soul. (Isaac Watts, 1674-1748)

March 16, Tuesday… Psalm 42:6-11

Here the psalmist turns from talking to himself to speaking with God in prayer.  Mark that; though he is in despair he is also in prayer.  He also says that God is “my God.”  It reminds me of the prayer that Jesus prayed from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”  Most of us don’t even speak to God when we have a crisis of faith. Instead we speak about him, almost like we talk behind his back:  

If he is so powerful why didn’t he do something?

If he is so loving, why did he let that happen?

In addition to claiming God as his God, the psalmist also says that he “remembers God.”  In the face of crisis, he rehearses what he knows to be true about God so that he has a context in which to work out the things he does not yet understand. To put it another way: he is speaking out his strong convictions so that he might have a framework in which to work through his strong emotions.  He goes back to the basics through his remembrance and finds a place for his faith to stand.  Like a calf on ice, he gathers the legs of faith under him.  Look at what he remembers about God:

v. 8- The steadfast love of the Lord. The word for steadfast love is hesed, God’s covenant love to his people.  It is a love that has been pledged by God to those he has chosen and therefore can never be withdrawn.   

v. 9- God is my Rock.  He is unchanging even though life has changed for the psalmist. “I was young and now I’m old but I have never seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread.”  God will never change from the time we called out to him when we are children to the time we take our last breath.  God is our Rock.

Do you see what he is doing?  He is rehearsing what he knows to be true about God’s character in order to put into perspective what he doesn’t understand about God’s ways.  This leads to the refrain of hope in v.11, “Why are you cast down O my soul.  Put your hope in God for I will yet praise him, my savior and my God.”

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

When darkness hides His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace;

In ev’ry high and stormy gale my anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, His covenant, His blood support me in the whelming flood;

When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay. (Edward Mote)

March 17, Wednesday… Psalm 139:1-6

The intimacy of relationship with God is reflected in God’s comprehensive knowledge of us.  It should be noted that the perfect tense is used throughout this section indicating that God is not some “heavenly deteco-guard system,” continually testing and evaluating us. He already knows all there is to know about us.  

To search for something usually implies some measure of ignorance, some lack of knowledge. However, the Psalmist is saying that He has always known us completely.  As Spurgeon said, “There never was a time in which we were unknown to God, and there will never be a moment in which we shall be beyond his observation.”  

To paraphrase: “He has always known my sitting down and my rising up- my passive and active moments. He has always discerned my thoughts from afar- not merely detected what I’m thinking but has discerned them even before they are fully formed in my mind. He has always comprehended my path (my journey), my lying down (when I stop off at the hotel), and all my ways (the very reason for the trip). He has always known the words I will speak before they are formed. He has set limits on my behavior so that I am not able to ultimately destroy myself. He has always guided me by His hand.”

The Psalmist responds in amazement, “such knowledge is too wonderful,” it is too lofty for his finite mind to comprehend.  How could such a great God take such a personal interest in him? And for the believer in Christ, how can such a great God know me so completely and yet love me so intimately?  As someone has said, “Isn’t it odd, that a being like God, who sees the façade, still loves the clod, he made out of sod. Yes, isn’t it odd?”

Could we with ink the oceans fill and were the skies of parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill and ev’ry man a scribe by trade, to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry,nor could the scroll contain the whole tho’ stretched from sky to sky. (Frederick Lehman)

March 18, Thursday… Psalm 139:7-12

The Psalmist considers another characteristic of God’s nature, His omnipresence.  He wonders if there is any place where he can go where God is not present.  I don’t think he is asking this question because he is guilty and wants to run away from God. Instead, the Psalmist meditates on the extent to which God’s presence permeates His creation and he takes great comfort from this.  Probably better to translate it “Where could I go from your presence?” The Psalmist explores the physical dimensions of the universe; its height and depth, its breadth, its light and darkness, and concludes that there is nowhere in the universe that he could go beyond the presence of God. An old poem by Bela Edwards (1802-1852) says it like this:

How from thy presence could I go,

  Or whither from thy Spirit could I flee,

Since all above, around below,

  Exist in Thine immensity?

If up to heaven I take my way, 

  I meet Thee in eternal day.

If in the grave I make my bed

  With worms and dust, lo! Thou art there!

If on the wings of morning sped,

  Beyond the ocean I repair,

I feel thine all-controlling will,

  And Thy right hand upholds me still.

“Let darkness hide me,” if I say,

  Darkness can no concealment be;

Night, on Thy rising shines like day; 

  Darkness and light are one with Thee.

For thou mine embryo form did view,

  Ere her own babe my mother knew.

We could also personalize this section.  “Could I reach any point in my life that would separate me from your presence?  If I experience the heights of success, you are there.  If I am dragged through the depths of failure, you are there as well.  If I fly away from responsibility and live in the land of my own self-gratification, even there you are present and will bring me back to my senses.  If depression and despair come over me like a dark cloud so that I feel you no longer care, I will remember that you are also present in the darkness where you are doing your greatest work.”    

March 19, Friday… Psalm 139:13-18

The Psalmist indicates that God’s knowledge and care of us flow from His creation of us.  It is almost as if the writer sees himself as some kind of masterpiece of God’s design. 

      “You formed my vital parts (literally the kidneys, those deepest organs which cannot be detected, like a heart through its beat) and knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

        “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  We are to consider ourselves so wonderful as to recognize that we have been wonderfully created by an awe-inspiring God. Here we see that the main focus of the Psalmist is God and yet creation takes on significance because of the character of the Creator.  (When we jettison God we also scuttle our human dignity- Romans 1:18 f.)

        “My very frame (literally my bones (our strength and latent potential) was not hidden from God when I was being made, skillfully made in the lowest parts of the earth.”  This is a poetic expression. All of us like Adam come from dust and “the same skill that made Adam makes every son and daughter of Adam.”  (H.C. Leupold) 

         “All of my days were ordained” by God, even before I came out of the oven. God has given us significance by virtue of our creation and a destiny by virtue of his sovereignty. Compare this to Jeremiah 1:5.

Instead of getting caught up in questions concerning foreknowledge and foreordination the Psalmist asserts how precious these thoughts are to him.  Who can comprehend God’s love and mercy?  Who can number God’s thoughts for all his creation? I may at times be unimportant in my own sight or that of the world, but I am never thus in the sight of my God.  

March 20, Saturday… Psalm 139:19-24

There is a surprising turn in the mood of the psalmist which is baffling. He seems to lash out at the wicked for their disobedience and ill-treatment of God.  This is not a New Testament response. We are not told to hate those who hate God, but to pray for them.  However, I do not believe that the Psalmist is motivated by a spirit of revenge (as in Psalm 63) as much as a spirit of grief over the dishonoring of a Holy God who is merciful and gracious.  We may be more tolerant, but are we as zealous for God’s honor and glory?  Do we grieve when others used the name of the Lord in vain? Do we grieve when we see those wonderfully created by God and blessed by His providential care blaspheme that same God, worse yet, ignore their God and live at the level that belies their dignity and significance?

 It is important to notice that the Psalmist finishes his thought not by condemning the sin of the ungodly, but by directing the radar gun on his own life. He asks God to continue to search him and know him and point out to him the unwholesome things that may keep him from the path of life.  He submits himself to the scrutiny of God. More specifically he asks that God might know his “anxious thoughts.” In what ways do our worries lead us to sin? Since he has already acknowledged that God knows him better than he knows himself, this is a prayer for further sanctification. He desires that God reveal things about his life that he does not yet know so that he can be purified.

 There are two kinds of hypocrisy: one where we deceive others and a second where we deceive ourselves. The first kind is dealt with by recognizing God’s omniscience and omnipresence in our world and in our lives. The second kind of hypocrisy—that of self deception, is dealt with by placing ourselves under the search light of God’s holy gaze and asking him to reveal the filth of our own natures to our own eyes. He doesn’t say, “I have searched myself and find no wicked way in me,” rather “Search me O God…and see if there be any way of pain in me.” That is an interesting way to describe sin- “the way of pain.”  However, it is true isn’t it? When we live our lives apart from the command of God we bring great pain upon ourselves and others. This way of life is put in sharp contrast with “the way everlasting” in which the Psalmist desired to walk. The way of pain results from the unexamined life. The way of righteousness comes as God searches us out and purifies us. 

In which way do you desire to walk? What are you going to do about it?

March 21, Sunday… Matthew 26:26-28

A universal question: What do you do with your guilt? The discussion of guilt takes religion out of the theoretical and brings it down to the real. So, let me ask you that question again: what do you do with your guilt?  What do you do with those feelings of shame or remorse that haunt you because of certain things that you have done? Someone has likened dealing with guilt to wrestling an octopus in a dark aquarium at midnight. We all have to do it and we have set up ways to deal with our guilt:

Denial. “What, me? I don’t have any guilt.” Psychology over the last forty-five years has tried to get rid of guilt through psychotherapeutic means –  helping people relieve their guilt by convincing them they did not do anything wrong. The problem is that guilt does not disappear just because we deny its existence. In fact, we are learning that many physical, psychological, and character disorders are the result of the following cover-ups for guilt: 

Transfer- shift the blame. “I know I shouldn’t have said those awful things about her, but she deserved it for all the things she’s done to me.”

Rationalize. “I know I lied, but it was just a little one—not nearly as bad as others who lie all the time.”

Conceal and Self-Punish.   Many of you have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne is prosecuted in a New England Puritan town as an adulteress and has to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her clothes as a life time punishment for her sin. She would not reveal the name of the man with whom she had committed adultery, who is none other than the local pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale. He does not go public with his sin and it eats away at him and causes him to literally carve a letter “A” into the skin of his own chest. 

All of these responses indicate that guilt is both powerful and important. What we need to understand is that guilt has a pay-off; it serves a purpose and that is why it needs to be dealt with and not ignored. God has given us the ability to feel guilt very much like he has blessed us with the ability to feel pain. Did you ever think that if you could not feel pain you would never know that something was wrong?  If you put your hand on a hot stove and didn’t feel it, you might never know that your flesh was burning until it was too late. Likewise, when we feel guilty it usually indicates that something is wrong, and that we have to do something about it. Is it time to “fess up?” 

Let me warn all careless members of churches to beware lest they trifle their souls into hell. You live on year after year as if there was no battle to be fought with sin, the world, and the devil. You pass through life a smiling, laughing gentleman-like or lady-like person and behave as if there was no devil, no heaven, and no hell. Oh, careless Churchman…awake to see eternal realities in their true light! Awake and put on the armor of God! Awake and fight hard for life! Tremble, tremble and repent. (J,C. Ryle, 1816-1900)   

Listen up, you people…part 2

Listen to this message from God, O King of Judah, sitting on David’s throne; and let your servants and your people listen too. The Lord says, “Be fair-minded. Do what is right! Help those in need of justice! Quit your evil deeds! Protect the rights of aliens and immigrants, orphans and widows; stop murdering the innocent! If you put an end to all these terrible deeds you are doing, then I will deliver this nation and once more give kings to sit on David’s throne, and there shall be prosperity for all.”

And woe to you King Jehoiachin, for you are building your great palace with forced labor (slave labor). By not paying wages you are building injustice into its walls, and oppression into its doorframes and ceilings….Why did your father Josiah reign so long? Because he was just and fair in all his dealings. That is why the Lord blessed him. He saw to it that justice and help were given the poor and needy and all went well for him. This is how a man lives close to God. Jeremiah 22:2-4, 13, 15-16 (TLB)

Please refer to my previous post (part 1).

The second major point that I see in the Book of Jeremiah (as with nearly all the major and minor prophets) is the tremendous emphasis on “social justice.” I know that is a loaded term now days, but the above verses put it in context. One cannot get away from this clarion call that God wants his people and their leaders to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) The problem I see is that some isolate justice issues and empty them of their spiritual dimension. In the same way, others isolate the spiritual from social realities—separating out walking humbly with God from doing justice and loving mercy.

Israel was punished by God because of idolatry; they broke the first and second commandments and all of their other grievous sins as outlined in the passages above flowed out of this. “Idolatry isn’t just one of many sins; rather it’s the greatest sin that all others come from….Idolatry isn’t an issue; it is the issue.” (Kyle Idleman) Read Ezekiel 20 and see that the history of Israel was a history of idolatry.

The “social justice issues” raised in the passages above illustrate this. Protecting the rights of the most vulnerable, providing justice for the oppressed, paying fair wages, etc., flow from knowing and worshipping the true God and bestowing honor and dignity upon all those whom he has created. Replacing the knowledge and worship of the true God with idolatry (like King Jehoiachin and Israel had done) exposed the social order to injustice and removed the protective shield of ultimate value of the individual that worship of the true God alone provides.

Paul’s graphic portrayal of idolatry in Romans 1:21-32 clearly reveals the connection between the refusal to believe in the Creator God, the worship of created things (idolatry), and all forms of consequences which plague our world, our society, our families, and our own personal lives today. When we exchange the truth of God for a lie, we believe the lie and live our lives any way we choose, often to our own self-destruction. We also give ultimate value to issues that we deem most important such as freedom, nationalism, institutional racism, social justice, immigration, reparations. We worship these idols and they drive us to actions where the end often justify the means—like an attack on the Capitol. When you have a god before God it can lead to a toxic and self-destructive springboard to all kinds of havoc and injustice.

“Racism, therefore, is not merely horizontally unjust, depriving other creatures of what they are due; it is also vertically unjust, failing to give the Creator his due by making race and ultimate issue of devotion….Look deep enough underneath any horizontal human-against-human injustice and you will always find a vertical human-against-God injustice, a refusal to give the Creator the worship only the Creator is due.All injustice is a violation of the first commandment” (Thaddeus Williams, “Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth.” p 18)

The Black church was at the center of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s. Many of its most prominent leaders were empowered by the belief that all humanity was the children of God to be treated with justice, kindness, and equality—because God gave them that dignity. As long as we fail to recognize that all injustice is a deeply spiritual issue (“a violation of the first commandment”), we will never have a unified platform from which to solve the multiplex of social justice issues facing us today. Instead, we will divide ourselves into tribes, declare war on other tribes, and arrive at solutions that only satisfy our tribe and the gods we worship. Our nation needs revival if it is to have unity!