Discover the Joy of Gone

I picked up the small pamphlet, intrigued by the title. It was advertising huge rectangular green bags that hold as much trash as a small dumpster. You can fill it up with trash and have it hauled away. “DISCOVER THE JOY OF GONE” was the title of the pamphlet.

What a great title, not just for promoting a giant garbage bag, but for life in general! We all have garbage in our lives, and not just the kind that can be left at the curb.

Most of the material garbage we put at the curb is of our own making, the trash from our waste baskets, food scraps, or waste material from a home improvement project. Sometimes it’s the trash of someone else: discarded aluminum cans or fast food bags on our front lawn or the previous owner’s junk left in the house we just purchased.

Similarly, the non-material garbage in our lives is usually self-inflicted sin, but it can also be the sin of others that’s dumped into our lives. What are we to do about it?

The basic answer is that we can always do something. God has built into us the amazing ability to make choices. We’re free to choose!

When it comes to the garbage that others dump into our lives we often don’t have much to say about it happening. But we can have a say as to what happens next! The Bible is filled with stories of people treated badly by others and how God brought good out of it.

When it comes to the self-generated garbage in our lives, we can have God’s help in overcoming the grip of addiction that’s causing us to hold on to it. Some of this help from Him is channeled through people, requiring an openness to receiving help from others.

The way God has for us to get rid of the guilty garbage of the wrong we’ve done in the past (and present and future) is to offer us forgiveness. It’s not wise to begin by trying to forgive ourselves; that’s like trying to lift ourselves up off the ground by pulling on our own shoestrings. We first need God’s forgiveness, and we can have it. We just need to ask Him for it, then believe we have it. Once we’ve experienced the overwhelming forgiveness of God we can more easily forgive ourselves.

We don’t have to continue living in the squalor of the garbage in our lives. We have available to us a Divine Garbage Collector who can haul it away and have it be gone! Because of Him we can “DISCOVER THE JOY OF GONE.”

“The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.’” Zechariah 3:4

The Direction of God’s Forgiveness

If you keep going north you’ll end up at the North Pole, and if you go past the North Pole you’re on your way back south, until you go past the South Pole at which point you start going north again.

East and west are different from north and south. You start going east and you keep going east as long as you can keep going. If you head west you keep going west as long as you keep going that direction.

North and south end, east and west don’t. The Bible talks about God forgiving our sins and casting them as far away as the east is from the west, which is an infinite distance. It’s not a north and south forgiveness, for that’s a limited distance.

Most everyone would agree that Jesus was a great teacher, even people of other faiths or of no faith. A frequent theme with Jesus was forgiveness. This is because another common theme of Jesus was sin, which needs forgiveness if it’s to be dealt with.

In human relationships we can try to focus on understanding each other, giving each other some space, helping each other and other positive measures. All of this is not enough. You can’t have a close relationship among two imperfect people for very long before forgiveness has to come into play, on both sides.

Jesus made it clear, as does the whole Bible, that we can try to have a relationship with God by meditation, right behavior and good religious rituals, but this is not enough. Because a relationship with God involves one very imperfect participant (insert the word sinner), namely you and me, forgiveness on His part has to come into play if there’s to be a relationship.

The good news is that He is more than anxious to forgive if we’re willing to admit we need forgiving! We can find the courage to admit our sinfulness, because no sin is so great that His forgiveness is not greater still. His is not a north and south forgiveness but an east and west forgiveness!

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

The Pond of Life

I maintain a small decorative pond as a hobby. I created it. I put plants and fish in it. I have to do ongoing maintenance, including keeping a pump running that tumbles the water over rocks, aerating the pond. The pond wouldn’t exist or continue to exist if it wasn’t for me.

God has a great big pond, a colossal pond, the cosmos! He created it. But He didn’t just make it, He constantly maintains everything that exists.

Thanks to science we are learning more and more about our universe, our planet, and life. What we’re continuing to discover is that everything is infinitely more complex and more amazing than we had previously thought. Though we’re learning so much more about everything, the mystery only deepens and grows about everything.

A couple of the greatest questions are why anything is here and why it continues to be here? As much as I love and respect science, I don’t expect it to ever be able to answer these questions. I believe that God is the answer, but because He exists outside the space/time continuum He is beyond the limited scope of what science can study.

When I give attention to my small decorative pond in my backyard it sometimes prompts me to think about the great big pond of the cosmos. I expand my pondering and consider the One who created and sustains it all. This is something the fish in my pond cannot do.

The fish in my pond only occasionally get a blurry and distorted image of their pond creator and sustainer through the lens of where air and water meet. At best, I’m training them to come to the surface near me as I kneel at the pond’s edge, dropping fish food before their gaping mouths. Their inability, however, to ponder things great and amazing greatly limits the relationship I can have with them and they with me.

Not so with me (and you too) when it comes to the Creator and Sustainer of the great pond of the universe! He is so infinitely beyond us that we can’t know all there is to know about Him, but we can know enough! We can know we are known by Him and can know enough about Him to be in a relationship with Him! And what a difference that can make!

“Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” Isaiah 40:26

Distracted from the Divine

I called up the daily devotional web site Diann and I use after dinner. At the bottom of the scripture for the day was an advertisement for living room chairs, for which we had searched on-line days earlier. Everything seems connected on the internet, and so it was really no surprise that the chair advertisement appeared.

As I read the scripture out loud (Diann and I take turns reading each day) I couldn’t help glancing down to the bottom of the screen where the chairs we were interested in purchasing were displayed. My focus on faith was being distracted by furniture!

It’s a common experience, being distracted from the Divine. God is spirit, and can’t be known through the five senses like the physical world can. Add to this the tyranny of the urgent, and we can go through a lot of our day without giving much thought to God. We can spend much of our time living as if God doesn’t exist!

If we want God to be a significant part of our day-to-day living (actually, the most important part of our daily experience), then we’re going to have to be intentional about it. The world shouts at us, and God seems to whisper. You really have to want to connect with Him, to relate to Him, if it’s going to happen.

In his classic little book, The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence who lived in the 17th century states, “We have to know someone before we can truly love him. In order to know God, we must think about Him often. Once we get to know Him, we will think about Him even more often, because where our treasure is, there also is our heart!”

It sounds rather simple, but it’s a good way to make God the central focus of each day, to determine to remind ourselves often through the day of His presence with us, to practice His presence. It’s also helpful to ask Him to help us do this! Yes, we can counter the tendency to be distracted from the Divine!

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18

Sacrifice and Success

My wife watches movies with me that she would not choose to watch (movies that include considerable gun fire and leaping from building to building). I watch movies with her that I would not choose to watch (this includes almost all musicals). A good marriage is made up of multiple “mini” sacrifices by both husband and wife. Any successful relationship requires that both will have to sacrifice their own wishes in favor of the other person’s wishes.

Life’s not only made up of many mini sacrifices but big sacrifices too, and such stories of sacrifice are inspiring. We honor fallen war heroes for making the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. We admire the person who sacrifices a kidney so that a stranger can live.

As much as we admire stories of sacrifice, and as quickly as we’re willing to declare the value of sacrifice, we sure don’t like to sacrifice! It’s costly and is not “fun” to carry out. We don’t want to give in to compromise, give when we know we’re going to give more than we’ll get, or give when there’s no expectation of receiving something in return at all.

And yet it’s an irrevocable principle of life that sacrifice is what makes life worth living. We only achieve something of value by sacrificing time and effort. Author Tim Keller writes, “We know that anybody who has ever done anything that really made a difference in our lives made a sacrifice, stepped in and gave something or paid something or bore something so we would not have to.” (The Prodigal Prophet p.154)

The message of Christianity, the central theme of the Gospel, is that Jesus sacrificed Himself for us. Christians believe that it’s because of His sacrifice for us that we can have a meaningful and eternal relationship with God. His ultimate sacrifice sets the standard by which we’re to live our lives, sacrificing for those within our sphere of influence so that we can have more meaningful relationships with each other. The operative word for a fulfilled life is the word sacrifice. Sacrifice makes the world go ‘round!

“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Psalm 51:17

Fifteen Pound Puzzle Pieces

Me with my pavers, after my back healed and I could smile while near them.

I purchased the two dozen or so paving stones after seeing the ad on Craig’s List. Molded from concrete, they were of two sizes, medium and large (or, more accurately, heavy and heavier, the heavier ones weighing at least fifteen pounds each). All the large pieces were of the same irregular amoeba-like shape; the medium sized pieces shared the same shape as the other pieces their size.

You would think it would have been a simple matter to fit these concrete jigsaw pieces into a single concrete pad. It was not. For one thing, I didn’t know which of the two sides of each stone should face up. I have never really enjoyed putting jigsaw puzzles together, so hefting fifteen pound and ten pound puzzle pieces got old quickly. Two hours later, through perseverance and the arrival of my wife, who enjoys jigsaw puzzles much more than I do and gave me some much needed direction, the task was finally finished.

The next morning I returned to the completed concrete puzzle to level each piece by tucking some additional sand underneath here and there. I lifted the first piece. My back muscles, which had not complained loudly from the previous day’s exertion, suddenly spasmed in a painful, paralyzing stab of pain; they had had enough!

I lay there on my side, immobilized by pain, when my wife came out of the house (per my previous request to take a picture of me and the project). She quickly decided to forgo the photo shoot (though, in retrospect, it would have made a very interesting picture) and ran over to me with great concern on her face. Eventually she helped me to my feet, and I hobbled into the house.

The whole project took much longer with much more pain than I had anticipated. What else is new? A great many endeavors in life take long and can involve pain that we hadn’t anticipated. Ever since the first man Adam sinned and God warned him he would have to accomplish things by the sweat of his brow, we humans have had a difficult time of getting anything done.

This is just the way it is, and is going to be. Being successful at a job or career takes work. Couples may “fall” in love (“falling” takes no effort at all), but they will have to work hard to stay in love. Overcoming a problem, an addiction, or difficulty will take considerable time and effort.

You and I know this, but I’m thinking we still need to be reminded of this fact on a regular basis, and this is one of those times. That’s why I decided to share my episode of putting together the concrete puzzle pieces.

“We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; (The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:12)

God Is Good, All The Time!

Me with Danny

When our grandson Danny died after major heart surgery at the age of five, my wife and I found ourselves questioning the goodness of God. I’ve been a lifelong follower of the Lord; I believe in all of His wonderful attributes. As a pastor for over three decades (at the time) I had preached often on God’s attributes, frequently identifying three which gave strength to my faith in Him: God is all-powerful and can do what’s best, all-wise and knows what’s best, and all-loving and does what’s best. After Danny’s death we didn’t so much question God’s power or wisdom but did question His goodness.

Over the years I had read many good articles and books on the problem of pain, suffering, death, and evil. But with Danny’s death I was not reading about the subject but living it. I was not only living it myself but feeling my heart break for my daughter Julie (Danny’s mother), my wife (Danny’s grandma), and my grandchildren (Danny’s siblings).

In my mind I intellectually could still affirm that God is good, but in my heart I didn’t feel His goodness. I eventually took comfort that I was in some pretty good company in questioning the goodness of God. When Jesus was asleep in a boat with His disciples during an epic storm on the Sea of Galilee they woke Him and asked, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38) They didn’t question Jesus’ power as to whether He could do something about the storm nor did they question His wisdom in letting them take the boat into the storm. They asked Him whether He cared, they questioned whether He was acting good.

Author Tim Keller writes that “all sin against God is grounded in a refusal to believe that God is more dedicated to our good, and more aware of what that is, than we are. We distrust God because we assume he is not truly for us, that if we give him complete control, we will be miserable.” (Tim Keller, p. 137, The Prodigal Prophet) This is why we often conclude, Keller writes, “We will have to take things into our own hands – we can’t trust him.” (p. 138)

By God’s grace, and it is only with His gracious help, we must come fresh to the conviction that God will always do right by us! Yes, God is good all the time and all the time God is good!

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Psalm 27:13

The Amazing Benefits of Awe

Two studies done by postdoctoral fellow Craig L. Anderson showed the benefits of people experiencing awe in nature. The first study involved the study of people going on one to four day white water rafting trips. The second focused on a group and their everyday experiences involving nature over a period of two weeks. In both studies those who reported having awe-inducing experiences experienced higher levels of short-term satisfaction and longer-term well-being. (OUTDOOR Magazine, 5/19/2019, p. 83)

In a different study people attending the entertainment extravaganza of Cirque du Soleil were outfitted with EEG caps at ten performances. The participants completed psychological tests both before and after the performances. The results were dramatic and showed that experiencing awe brings about a greater tolerance to risk, increases creativity, combats stress and helps in creating a more optimistic view of the future. (AAA LIVING Magazine, May/June 2019, p. 10)

The results of all of this research shouldn’t surprise us when we recall how good it feels when we experience something awesome, when we experience awe. We can experience awe in a variety of ways, by observing something in nature, enjoying a great piece of art or music, watching an amazing play in a sporting event, or by observing the sacrificial or heroic efforts of someone who came to the rescue of someone.

Craig L. Anderson and his researchers defined awe as “the feeling we have in the presence of something exceptional that transcends understanding.” When you stop and think about it, what or who could be more exceptional and transcendent than God? He’s the ultimate source of awe! One of the great benefits of establishing and nurturing a relationship with God is that we can regularly experience awe because God is awesome!

Every day can provide opportunities for experiencing awe when we practice the presence of God. Whether we’re observing His creation, recognizing how He’s working through a person we’ve encountered, or even reminding ourselves of His presence when going through a painful experience, in all of these circumstances and others too we can experience His awesome presence and working. We’ll feel better and live better because there are amazing benefits with experiencing awe!

“The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.” Psalm 65:8

A Stark & Sacred Contrast

The floor of our screened-in porch looked reasonably clean. I debated whether I should take the time and make the effort to wash it down or not. I decided to do so, and removed the floor mat in preparation for washing the floor. Wow! The contrast of the floor protected under the mat and the rest of the floor was amazing! The large expanse of floor that had appeared reasonably clean now looked really dirty in contrast to the part of the floor protected by the mat.

I suspect that a good number of my readers have had the same experience when moving furniture off from a protected piece of carpet or other flooring. You don’t realize how dirty something is until you have something pristine clean to which you can compare it.

It’s good to recall such an experience when we find ourselves thinking that our level of being good measures up quite well to the goodness of our holy God. We can get to feeling that the contrast between us and the worst of people is greater than the contrast between our goodness and God. Pull away the floor mat! Get real! Nothing could be further from the truth!

One limitation of this illustration is that it vastly understates the difference between me and God. The contrast on the floor was stark and obvious but was not extreme. The difference between God and me is infinitely greater, beyond measurement of any kind. God is holy, holy, holy (the only attribute of God in the Bible that is repeated three times, probably for emphasis) and I am not! Oh, I can pass myself off as a fairly decent person, but that’s when I choose the people to whom I want to compare myself, or want you to compare me to. When it comes to God, there’s no comparison!

This is the bad news, but there’s also good news! This same God who is holy, holy, holy is also a God of great grace and mercy! He expressed that grace and mercy, Christians believe, by coming to earth, becoming one of us, dying on a cross for us, and rising again to offer us a totally cleansing job through His forgiveness.

I cleaned the floor of the screened porch. You can peek under the floor mat and it’s the same clean! The floor didn’t do it, I did it. I know I’m okay, cleansed, before my holy, holy, holy God. I didn’t do it through any effort on my part by trying to be good or going through any rituals. He did it, through His gracious and merciful action!

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— ” Ephesians 2:8

Guessing the Weight of a Cow

Francis Galton was a statistician in England who discovered the value of people thinking independently together. His story is told in James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Jacob Goldstein and David Kestenbaum of the Planet Money podcasts and blogs summarized the story like this:

“One day, Galton goes to a country fair. This was about a hundred years ago in England. And there’s this contest going on at the fair – guess the weight of the ox. Galton’s a scientist and a statistician. And he figures, hey, I can do an experiment here, right? He figures, I’m going to take everyone’s guesses, take the average and compare that to the actual weight of the ox…The ox weighed 1,198 pounds.” The average of the estimates was 1,197 pounds, only one pound off!

Goldstein and Kestenbaum repeated the experiment by posting a photo of a cow on line and asked people to give their estimate of the cow’s weight. The average of the more than 17,000 who responded was 1,287 pounds. The cow in the photo weighed 1,355 pounds, a difference of only 48 pounds!

How can a group of people, almost all of whom know nothing about cows guess the weight of a cow so accurately? Goldstein and Kestenbaum summarized it this way: “…Every person’s guess is contributing some new, little piece of information. Everybody is different. Everybody thinks slightly differently when they’re trying to guess the cow’s weight. Maybe one person studies that photo of the cow from the side. Some people are probably trying to figure out how many Jacobs would fit in the cow. Someone else might know how much a horse weighs and kind of go from there.”

Guessing the weight of a cow is not on most of our agendas, but we do have a lot of other issues and problems that need solving. We can benefit by getting the input of others in trying to figure things out. It takes humility to ask for the input of others, but it’s the way the Good Lord has set it up in order for us to make wise decisions and find the best solutions to our problems.

“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Proverbs 15:22