Running On Empty

Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind….
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive

(Jackson Brown, Running On Empty)

 Thus says the Lord:
What fault did your fathers find in me
that they withdrew from me,
Went after emptiness,
and became empty themselves?

(Jeremiah The Prophet, Jeremiah 2:5)

 

I just completed another cycle around the sun!  Another uptick to my age has occurred.  A time to ponder indeed.

In my crazy role (calling) as missionary/counselor/pastoral caregiver/teacher I have the sacred privilege of being invited into the lives and hearts of many, both here and overseas.  My observation is that we all seem to live somewhere within the tension of being amazingly resilient and incredibly fragile.  The longer I live the more I become aware that we are some strange combination of both.  The good news is that the Lord is with us in all of life’s phases.

In recent days the Jeremiah 2:5 verse has had a grip on my heart.  I personally hear no anger in that statement.  In fact, I hear the voice of a Lover expressing His heart for His wayward bride.  I hear heartfelt concern for the state of His beloved. The verse is presented in the form of a question.  We know that there is no wisdom or knowledge outside of the Lord.  He is omniscient, so therefore the question is for us to ponder.  The words of the verse reveal a withdrawing from the Lord and a going after that which ultimately is empty; that which has no substance.  The result is emptiness, hollowness and living without ballast.

My general observation is that there are many of us “believers” who are “running on empty’.  Why is that?  I think the answer is multifaceted and very individualized.  But two come to mind.  The first is disappointment. 

Timothy Keller in his insightful little book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness (catchy title eh?) says that we often walk around with painful egos.  The word “ego” here simply means our self-awareness, our sense of or our perception of self.  Keller goes on to say our egos are often empty, like a bloated stomach it is painful and the ego is incredibly busy. Serious disappointment is a painful punch to the ego, one that often causes us to withdraw from the Lord.

The second reason I believe is we are subtly seduced into the world system. The world system two-part drum beat is that full life is found in acquisition and achievement. The world system says that fullness of life and significance is found in what you acquire (money, material goods, toys, entertainment) or what you achieve (status, power, position, youthfulness, admiration, acceptance).

“For my people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me–the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all. (Jeremiah 2:13)

Here we see the same thought.  The Lover of our soul is saying that we have abandoned Him, the place where LIFE is tasted, imbibed and experienced, for our own idea of what satisfies, but in reality leaves us parched and vacant.

So what are the cisterns we’ve built, the empty lovers we’ve chased?  I have no list to offer, but in simple terms it is what we have tried to gain worth and value, purpose or passion from apart from the Life Giver Himself.  It may very well be a good thing that we pursue, but a “thing” that was never created to sustain the full weight of our lives.  It may be a bad thing, where we find some visceral thrill playing tag in the shadows with something that will ultimately drain life away.

Henri Nouwen said “the world can help us survive, maybe even survive for a very long time.  But it can never help us LIVE because the world has no LIFE in it!”

The Good News?  The offer of Life, heart quenching, soul restoring Living-Water-Life, brimming and radiant with fullness is never withdrawn!  Let’s drink deeply.

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Bright Eyes — Fading Eyes

So be careful not to let the light in you become darkness. (Luke 11:35)

A while back we spent a long weekend with our daughter Emily and her family.  Patty, Emily and I, along with 9 month old Alexander, slipped away to a coffee shop for a much needed and delicious crafted shot of caffeine.

While holding Alexander in a way that he was facing me, I was struck by his large, beautiful and very bright eyes. His eyes radiated joy, trust and a sparkle of innocence, joined by just the right touch of mischievousness.  His eyes were bright with life!  My grandfather’s heart bonded all the more to our 3rd grand-treasure.

At some point I glanced at a table near ours.  Seated at the table was a handsome older couple, dressed a step above the rest of the coffee shop patrons.  The husband was very attentive to his bride of no-doubt many years.  But then I noticed her eyes.  There was a dullness, a slight vacancy telegraphing a detachment from being fully present in the moment.  In a short time it became evident that this lovely woman was suffering from dementia.  The brightness of her eyes was fading.  Her life was slowly shrinking and diminishing.

So there I was, juxtaposed between the bright eyes of Alexander and the fading eyes of a noble man’s wife.  It was a beautiful yet jagged-edged metaphor of the mystery of our journey through life.  We are all living somewhere between bright-eyed wonder and fading final moments.

So, on our journey how do we keep the light from becoming darkness as the verse above admonishes?  Throughout the all the blind curves and the unpredictability of life we have One who does not change.  Yet, in His love and wisdom He simply, yet profoundly leaves many choices to us to fire the light within.

We get to choose:

Surrender instead of Control

Forgiveness instead of Bitterness

Gratitude instead of Entitlement

Truth instead of Deception

Faith instead of Fear

Love instead of Apathy

Freedom instead of Bondage

Hope instead of Pessimism

Risk instead of Lethargy

Self-Responsibility instead of Blame

Grace instead of Judgement

Transparency instead of Hiddenness

Who He says we are instead of other Voices wanting to do the same

Compassion instead of Anger

Jesus instead of the World System

Light instead of Darkness

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Two Winds

Awake, O north wind,
And come, wind of the south;
Make my garden breathe out fragrance,
Let its spices be wafted abroad.
May my beloved come into his garden
And eat its choice fruits!”
(Song of Solomon 4:16)

I’ve just returned from a few weeks overseas.  The bulk of our time was on the beautiful and rugged island of Tasmania.  My cycle of jet lag is nearly complete!

It is Sunday afternoon here in a not-so-sunny Florida.  It is heavily cloud covered, windy and our Fall weather is vacillating between raining and threatening to rain.  With the clouds dark and full but not spilling over at that moment, I took a bike ride on the beach.  My body was ready for movement and my soul was ready to enjoy the space and expanse of the sea where I always finds renewal.

I first rode in the direction that was against the wind.  I knew from experience it is a much more enjoyable bike ride to return home going with the wind.

Riding against the wind was more challenging.  I felt resistance with every push of my pedals.  The wind was cold and my eyes were watering, adding a slight blur to my vision.  The sound of wind and sea seemed loud in my ears and often produced a whistling sound if I changed the rotation of my head even slightly.  I found myself fully in touch with and experiencing the task of biking against the wind.  I also was determined to reach my goal, the marker on the beach, before turning around.  There was a physical toughness to the ride against the wind that was uncomfortable and tedious, but I knew this was the very thing that would add value to my overall health.  I reached my goal with a smile that only the Lord saw!

Then I turned around and rode with the wind.  What a difference!  The very first thing I noticed was the alteration in the sound.  Even though I was returning over the very same ground the sound was much quieter, peaceful and I could hear peripheral noises like birds and splashes that I had not heard before.  I immediately felt warmer.  Somehow, in some very tangible way, the wind blowing against my back did not feel nearly as cold as the wind blowing in my face.  With my eyes no longer watering my vision cleared.  People now had faces that I could unmistakably see and I offered them smiles as I continued my journey.  Perhaps the biggest change was to my labor of pedaling. I barley needed to pedal at all!  With little exertion I covered ground.  It was comfortable and with ease I made my way home.

Here is my revelation; I needed both winds! The verse above captures a beautiful truth of our journey with the Lord.  Our hearts, our lives, our very souls are like gardens (John 15).  And the Gardener has a plan for each heart.  That plan is to grow something stunningly beautiful. He is growing a life-garden that reflects the very heart of the Gardener.  He is bringing to maturity fragrances, spices and ultimately fruit that include the love, joy and peace of the Spirit life.  He is growing a garden that is attractive both to Himself and all who come near.  He is growing a life of purpose and a life to be shared.  He is growing a garden that He dearly loves and prizes.

In His wisdom the Gardener knows we need two winds to develop maturity, to grow attractive fruit.  The north wind is the wind of challenge and often adversity.  The north winds are the seasons in life we find hard and difficult.  We feel resistance to our forward momentum but it is a resistance that ultimately develops character, faith and the perseverance necessary to shape (carve) our hearts into the very image of our King.

The wisdom of the Gardener also knows that we need the warm south winds as well.  We need warm seasons when we become keenly aware of His presence and we both see and feel the blessings He has sewn into our lives.  We recognize His closeness and taste His love. These are the seasons we most often pray for!

The truth is He is always tending his deeply loved garden. Whether He seems hidden by the challenges and adversity of the north winds or is clearly evident by His warm wind of blessings – He is there!  Oh, the wisdom and kindness of the Lord!

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Weight and Warmth Part Two

……They walked after emptiness and became empty. (Jeremiah 2:5b)

Significant times such as birthdays, anniversaries, special holidays and so forth often lead me to ponder and reflect on the weightiness of life.  I recently completed another cycle around our sun and added yet another uptick to my age.  A time to ponder indeed!

In my last blog I wrote about Weight and Warmth.  I would like to expand that just a bit more. In life I am acutely aware of two things; Life is punctuated with amazing, wonderful times and it is also filled with stormy times. In order to navigate the storms, we must have a ballast, a weight; a solidness.  If not, like the verse above, we may inadvertently chase after that which is ultimately empty and find ourselves growing empty; and easily tossed about by the storms.

We must have a foundation, something unchanging from which we can draw life, strength and a solid weightiness’ that will keep us safe and stable in tumultuous seasons.  A place that we can call HOME.

In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son,  Henri Nouwen beautifully paints the picture of HOME and the dangers of leaving HOME:

Leaving home is, then, much more than an historical event bound to time and place.  It is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows.  Leaving home means ignoring the truth that God “fashioned me in secret, molded me in the depths of the earth and knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one.

Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says “You are my beloved, on you my favor rests” – the same voice that gave life to the first Adam and spoke to Jesus, the second Adam; the same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light. I have heard that voice.  It has spoken to me in the past and continues to speak to me now.  It is the never-interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity and giving life and love whenever it is heard.  When I hear that voice I know that I am at home with God and have nothing to fear.  As the beloved of God “I can walk in the valley of darkness: no evil would I fear.”……Having “received without charge”, I can “give without charge”. As the beloved, I can confront, console, admonish, and encourage without fear of rejection and need for affirmation. As the beloved, I can suffer persecution without desire for revenge and receive praise without using it as a proof of my goodness.  As the beloved, I can be tortured and killed without ever having to doubt that the love that is given to me is stronger than death.  As the beloved, I am free to live and give life…..

Nouwen’s beautiful phrases do well to capture the even-more-beautiful Truth of God. What is that truth? It is that the Eternal One, the maker of the stars, has a heart of love for us that will never change and His covenant with us is unbreakable.  There is nothing more solid and weighty than that!

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Weight and Warmth

 

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of doing some work in the amazing country of Kenya.  Fitted tightly into a full schedule were two days at the Kijabe Hospital. This hospital is an amazing gift from God to the Kenyan people. Three of us were partnered with hospital chaplains to visit and pray for patients.  Before going on our rounds we met with the senior chaplain for some instructions.  A phrase he used to prepare us continues to stir my heart.  He very politely and with generosity of soul shared with us some of the ways the Kenyan culture was different from our own.  However, the traditional greeting, like that of our own country is to shake hands.  While explaining to us the Kenyan value of time and presence he said to us, when you shake their hands “let them feel the weight and the warmth”.  The phrase went deep with me.

Our Kenyan friend was familiar with the culture of the west.  He knows that we often value time as a limited commodity in which to accomplish necessary (or seemingly necessary) tasks.  He knows the unspoken mantra of the west is “busy people are important people”.  “Time is money” is a feeble attempt to quantify the value of time.  As one who lived a good deal of his adult life in cultures less focused on time, I wonder if at times I am more schedule-driven than Spirit led.  I find I must often return to my favorite (self-edited) quote, that “people are not problems to be solved, but mysteries to be explored”. Exploring mysteries takes time and presence, weight and warmth.

As I have pondered the words of the chaplain I have been reminded of a few deep truths.  Life is all about relationships.  The Greatest Commandment, buoyed by the full weight of all the scriptures (See Matt. 22:40), exposes Abba’s chief desire as being love motivated relationships. Offering warmth and weight recognizes and affirms the worth and valueof every human being, no matter their current state in life, as an image bearer of God (Gen. 1:26).  Warmth and weight opens and softens the heart of the recipient.

I believe our friend was saying to us, look into the eyes (ignoring your watch) of the person whose hand you are shaking, be fully present with them, offer them the gift of the warmth of your presence and the weight of your time.  The genuine gift we have to offer others is ultimately ourselves.  Paul said it this way: Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us (1 Thess 2:8). Paul may well be saying hearts were opened to the Gospel because of the weight of Paul’s love and the warmth of the investment of his time in the people.

I also hear enfolded in the words “warmth and weight” facets of heart attitudes like; honesty, transparency, genuineness. I have found that people are set at ease by honesty and humility. In a person to person encounter we can choose to not apply our spiritual cosmetics, drop our masks and refuse to put our best foot forward and simply offer others our genuine selves; a God-loved bundle of strengths and weaknesses.   When we step outside the courtroom of trying to determine the verdict of how we are perceived (a topic for another day) we are able to offer the gift of listening.  The French proverb that says “to be heard is to be healed” captures the warmth and impact of listening ears and the affirmation that it brings.

Where does our weight come from?  Our weight comes from His glory. It comes from the unprecedented, unimaginable act of Another.  It comes from the accomplishment of the Eternal One, humbling Himself and meeting us right where we live. It comes at His high personal cost of rescuing us – from ourselves.  The warmth is no less than his fiery love.

…..for [Your] love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. (Song of Songs 8:6)

When we are in touch with the truth that our hearts are filled by the weight of His glory and warmed by the fire of His love, we cannot help but offer the same to others.  Key words – in touch!

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DRIFT

Society was regarded as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life….. These were men who believed  that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. Thomas Merton – The Wisdom of the Desert

.….They perish because they refused to love the truth….(2 Thess 2:10)

Many years ago the pastor of a church in Tasmania encouraged me to begin a speaking and teaching ministry.  His reasoning was that my counseling ministry took me into the nitty gritty of the lives of real people “working out their salvation” (Philip. 2:12).  He believed that experience would focus my teaching on topics that might actually help people versus lofty messages that were out of touch with real needs.  I took his advice which continues to be one of the streams of Shoulder To Shoulder Ministries.  This blog comes out of those experiences.

I think we would have to have jaundiced eyes to be unaware of the drift of our culture and the impact it is having on younger believers.  With the definition of words like “good” and “acceptable” being rewritten by forces that are neither, young people are having a difficult time gaining their footing.  The current is not just causing them to drift into dangerous waters but is more like a rip tide, pulling them out to deep waters of confusion and pain. (Once again I find myself feeling the need to say I am an optimist – so keep readingJ).  In a recent conversation I had with a young pastor he asked me if I thought the problem was the cultural influence or the tremendous availability of so many false and misleading opportunities for pure old sin.  My answer was “yes”.

Perhaps the most sinister culprit is the subtle-yet-profound erosion of giving personal weight to the Truth.  It seems that current cultural mindsets are often trumping the scriptures.  I will not name what those are.  I am not thinking so much of big inflammatory issues that are often debated, but personal choices that simply do not emanate from clear scriptural truth.  Why is this?

I am sure the answer to my question is multifaceted.  But being a simple man I look for simple answers.  One is clear to me.  There seems to be a disconnect between truth and Truth.  In other words, there seems to be a separation concerning the written truth and the Author, whose title includes the word Truth. (Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life).

Why would one not “love the truth”?  I can only surmise that somehow the vision of who Jesus actually is has been distorted.  He has been painted by a brush that does not convey who He really is, because when we know Him as:

Lover of our soul – we will love and trust His love-motivated truth for us.

Creator and Author of life– we will love and trust that He really does know what is best for our lives.

Life Giver – We will love and trust that anything apart from Him is NOT life at all.

Rescuer – We will love and trust that His path leads us to freedom, not bondage.

The exact representation of God’s nature (Heb. 1:3)  – We will love and trust that the heart that Jesus revealed – the heart that loves like crazy, forgives the unforgivable, heals the broken and damaged and says that we were worth dying for – and then did it, is indeed the very heart of God!

In Revelation 2:4 we hear Jesus speaking to the Church of losing their “first love”.  I take this to mean that Jesus is helping the church to see that they are out of touch with His love- the First Love.  They have drifted from drawing life, purpose and passion from their love relationship with Him and as one author said, they have turned to “less wild lovers”.

Our job?  We must ask the Lord to gives us that creative mystical union of “kindness and truth” that Jesus carried while He walked on the earth.  Prov 3:3  Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart. Somehow His kindness and compassion opened the heart of people to receive life-changing uncompromising Truth.  We must trust Him to do no less through us His followers.

When drift occurs we need an Anchor.  The anchor cannot be good ideas, church services or culturally relevant programs, as valuable as these are.  The Anchor is the Lord Himself, who speaks life-giving, soul-healing, relationship transforming truth and whose love for each of us is too good to be true – but it is!

This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever…… Hebrews 6:19-20

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Light

The people who walk in darkness will see a great Light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them. (Isaiah 9:2)

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ” I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” (John 8:12)

Light

Illumination

Revelation

Clarity confronting confusion

God clothed in humanity’s skin

The Father’s heart revealed

Love personified

Truth expressed

Light exposing dark deception

Light driving out darkness

Light warming hearts

Light welcoming those out of darkness

Light revealing the worth of a soul

Light illuminating the Way

Light bringing Life

Light manifesting Love

Light expressing eternal Hope

Light in the eyes of the Child

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;  And the government will rest on His shoulders;  And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.  There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace…

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