Feb 12 2014

God in the Common Things

_CES4959Last night in the class I am teaching on the Gospel of John we examined a passage in chapter 7 where Jesus is rejected by a crowd in Jerusalem because they knew where he was from.  The people knew Jesus was from the Galilee region and they also knew who his family was.  In their mind there was no way he could be the long-awaited Messiah.  Apparently there was a common belief that when the Messiah came he would burst upon the scene suddenly and mysteriously.  Jesus’ arrival coincided with none of their preconceived ideas.  This was so problematic to the crowd that they refused to believe he was indeed the Christ.

Breaks-Winter-vIn his commentary on the Gospel of John, William Barclay says the position taken by the crowd that day was “characteristic of a certain attitude of mind which prevailed among the Jews and is by no means dead—that which seeks God in the abnormal.  They could never be persuaded to see God in ordinary things.  They had to be extraordinary before God could be in them.”  Barclay goes on to say that the teaching of Christianity is right the opposite: “If God is to enter the world only in the unusual, he will seldom be in it; whereas if we find God in the common things, it means that he is always present.   Christianity does not look on this world as one which God very occasionally invades; it looks on it as a world from which he is never absent.”

I like very much what Barclay writes here.  I fear, however, that he is far too generous in his assessment of Christianity.  Unfortunately, a lot of Christians today also seek God primarily in the abnormal.  It’s almost as though they think the ground must shake, or there must be peals of thunder and  strokes of lightning, before God speaks or reveals Himself.  It’s practically understood that God would not bother to reveal Himself through anything commonplace or ordinary.  If God is going to make Himself known then it must be in some special way, something quite extraordinary.

_CES0190My experience is more in tune with Barclay’s portrayal.  Without a doubt, I have witnessed God’s manifestation in ways that would qualify as abnormal or extraordinary to most people but these have been few and far between.  In my experience God is much more prone to make Himself known in far more subtle ways.  In the eyes and smiles of children I have witnessed God’s love.  In the budding of a magnolia leaf I have sensed His purity and grace.  In the presence of mountains I have felt humbled by God’s mighty power.  In the flight of an eagle I have glimpsed something of His majesty.  In the touch of the wind upon my face I have felt the Spirit’s movement.  In the midst of a stark desert I have felt His gentle embrace.  Beneath tall trees and beside flowing streams I have sensed a nearness to God that was as real to me as the pounding of my heart.   Haitian girl 2I wish more people realized that God has chosen not to reveal Himself only in the abnormal or supernatural.  In the very normal or ordinary things of life, in regular nature, God beckons us and longs to be acknowledged and embraced.  The crowd in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles long ago had what they were looking for right in front of them and missed it because they were looking for God to appear in other ways.  Is the same thing happening to us today?  I suspect so.


(I took the top three images in Pike County, Kentucky, and the last one in Haiti.)

Aug 28 2013

“The Word” of Creation

Lake  Tipsoo 1284I have just started teaching a class on the Gospel of John at the church where I serve.  I love the Fourth Gospel; it is such an amazing book!  As we looked at the first eighteen verses of this Gospel, its Prologue, I found myself thinking that there is likely no more beautiful, poetic or inspired passage to be found than this.

Interestingly, John’s Gospel begins with the same three words found at the beginning of Genesis 1–“In the beginning.”  If you look closely at John’s Prologue and Genesis 1 you will find many similarities beyond the opening words.  Both speak of the creation of the world.  Both develop the theme of light overcoming darkness.  Both emphasize the giving of life.  Both stress the power of God’s Word.

MR 1545Genesis 1 tells how “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  In the verses that follow we have the first of two creation accounts found in the Bible.  John 1 speaks about the creation of the world in v. 3 but the Prologue is really about the re-creation of the world through God’s Son.  John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”

There can be no denying that the author of the Fourth Gospel understood “the Word” to be Jesus Christ.  Many people associate the creation of the world with God the Father but John claims it was “the Word,” or God the Son, that brought forth the world and everything in it.  This makes the story of Christmas  even more fascinating.  It means that the baby born in that Bethlehem stable was the one who made the world.  It means the Creator or “Maker of heaven and earth” actually became a part of Creation.

MR 1589Many at the time of of John’s writing believed the world was inherently evil.  There was a group that believed that anything material was bad; only the spiritual realm was good.  This is certainly not the teaching found in the Bible.  In Genesis 1 God declares that everything that He made is “good.”  The fact that Jesus was the instrument of creation and was willing to take on human flesh only intensifies this message.  Unfortunately there are still people around who seem to think the world in and of itself is evil.  Nature and the rest of Creation is considered to be something of lesser value than things “spiritual.”  Such thinking has contributed to the degradation and destruction of the natural world.  Such thinking has also contributed greatly to people’s failure to see God in Creation and the sacredness of the earth.    It seems very important to me that we begin to affirm once again the goodness of God’s Creation.  It will help us all to move in this direction if we can remember that the one who gave his life for us, the Word, is the agent of Creation.  The purpose of his gifts of Creation and sacrificial death are that we might have life and life more abundantly. (John 10:10)


(I took the images above at Mount Rainier National Park a couple of weeks ago.)

Aug 14 2013

A Visit to Living Waters

_CES1078This past weekend I had a chance to spend some time alone at a wilderness cabin in the foothills of the North Cascades. The cabin, built along the lines of the one Thoreau constructed at Walden Pond, is placed in a beautiful setting on an eighty acre piece of property.  Although not totally devoid of outside noise it is a quiet place, a place where elk, bear and cougars roam.  Near the cabin is a lake where beavers maintain a dam and various ducks find a home.  I am a person who enjoys both wilderness settings and being alone but I will admit that even with the animals around the isolation of the cabin was a bit unnerving at first.  Still, I was glad to be there and to have a chance to study, pray, and photograph. It did not take me long at all to begin to sense the presence of God in this place.

_CES1167There are a variety of reasons why I sensed God’s presence at this location.  The primary reason is obvious to regular readers of this blog; the Bible clearly notes that God reveals Himself in nature and beauty.  There is another reason however.  The cabin and land is owned by Michael and Elizabeth Boone.  They call the place Living Waters and have dedicated it to God and His service.  They have prayed extensively over the land and share it periodically with others in the hope that their guests might experience God’s nearness in this special place.  For them, and those who visit it, Living Waters is holy ground.  I find it exciting and inspirational that people like the Boones will set aside a piece of property for a purpose like this.  Church camps have existed for years but it would be great if more individuals could or would do the same.

_CES7389One of the lessons I was reminded of while at Living Waters is how the Scriptures can come alive in a unique way when read in a natural setting.  Sunday morning I read through the Book of John and there were a number of passages that seemed to stand out simply due to where I sat.  One such passage, appropriately enough, was Jesus’ promise of “streams of living water” to those who believe in him. (7:37)  I also happened to read Psalm 50 while there.  This psalm begins with the words, “The Mighty One, God, the LORD, has spoken, and summoned the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.”  The idea of God summoning the earth seemed something very special in that particular setting.  Later in the psalm God says “For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle of a thousand hills.  I know every bird of the mountains, and everything that moves in the field is Mine…  For the world is Mine, and all it contains.” It was a powerful reminder that the various animals I had seen (including the rabbit shown here) and heard there all belonged to God.  I didn’t know the names of the birds I was seeing on the lake but God did.  I have no doubt that the words I read that day would not have meant quite the same to me had I been sitting at home.  Reading the Bible outdoors is something we should all attempt to do more often.

CES_1062Toward the end of Psalm 50 you’ll find the words, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the most high.”  In that wilderness setting I could not help but offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  I was literally surrounded by the beauty of God’s Creation and felt His presence near; my heart swelled with gratitude.  It seemed that I could hardly walk around outside without offering a word of thanks to God for the beauty and wonders of His Creation. Something tells me that this is what God intended from the beginning of time.  The Creation is there constantly beckoning us to offer our praise and thanksgiving to the One who brought it all into existence.  I hope we’ll learn to pay attention to Creation’s call and give God the gratitude He is due.


(All of the images shown here were taken this past weekend at Living Waters. A huge thanks goes to the Boones and R120 for making my visit possible!)

Jul 27 2011

Bearing Fruit

Jesus frequently used nature as a teaching device.  The best known examples may be his charge to “consider the lilies” and “consider the birds.”  Both Matthew and Luke record these words of Jesus intended to elicit faith and combat worry in our lives.  In the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel we find another one of Jesus’ references to nature.  Here he said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” (v. 5)  Jesus used this illustration from the natural world to explain a number of vital truths.

 In verse 4 Christ noted the obvious—“No branch can bear fruit by itself.”  If a branch from an apple tree is cut off it will no longer be able to produce apples.  It has to remain connected in order to live and bring forth fruit.  In the same way, Jesus insisted, his followers must “remain” or “abide” in him.  He said, “Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” (v. 4)  In verses 4-10 Jesus used the word “remain” ten times.  He wanted to make sure that his disciples did not miss the point that staying connected to him was critical.  We simply cannot live the Christian life in our own power or strength.  We have got to stay attached to Christ.

Jesus’ call to “remain” in him implies a close communion or fellowship with himself.  This communion brings us much joy and peace.  Its purpose, however, goes far beyond this.  This communion is also the source of our strength and enables us to fulfill our purpose of bearing fruit.  Jesus said, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (v. 6)  In v. 8 he adds that by producing fruit we bring glory to God and reveal ourselves to be his disciples.

 There can be no denying that Christians are called to bear fruit but in this passage we are never explicitly told what that “fruit” is.  Over the years I have heard numerous suggestions offered.  Some say the fruit of a Christian is another Christian.  Others point to the “fruit of the Spirit” mentioned by Paul in Galatians 5.  Both suggestions may be implied but it seems to me that in this context what Jesus was referring to was love.  In the latter part of John’s Gospel Jesus speaks often about the priority of love and calls repeatedly for his followers to love one another in the same way that he has loved them.  By pointing to the example of vines and branches Jesus let it be known that the only way we will ever be able to love in this way is if we stay connected to him.  My own personal experience validates this.  I know all too well that I cannot love as I should on my own.  I need help. 

I am convinced that each of our lives do, indeed, have purpose and meaning.  I also believe that this purpose involves making a difference in our world through acts of selfless love and compassion.  When I see an apple tree, or any other fruit hanging from its branches, I am reminded that if I am going to love the world and those who inhabit it I will, likewise, have to remain attached or connected to the ultimate source of love—my Lord and Savior.


 (I took the pictures above this morning at one of my friend’s home here in Pikeville.)

Feb 16 2011

Still At Work

lonesome-pine-888In the study on the Gospel of John I’m leading at church we recently spent some time examining a miracle where Jesus healed a man who had been lame thirty-eight years.   After Jesus did this he got into trouble with the local religious leaders because he healed the man on the Sabbath.  By this time in Jewish history there were all kinds of restrictions on what a person could and could not do on the Sabbath.  Because of its place in the Ten Commandments the Sabbath was considered very special by the Jews and they sought to protect it by coming up with various restrictions about Sabbath observance.

Jesus’ response to the religious leaders who were denouncing him is interesting.  He told them “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I, too, am working.”  (John 5:17)  Jesus’ words about his Father always being at work are important.  One reason the Sabbath was considered so important to the Jews is that God “rested” on the seventh day of Creation.  Although some thought God was still resting, many of the Jewish rabbis believed that God was still at work and that He even did some of His work on the Sabbath.  Acts of healing and compassion were examples of God’s Sabbath Day activity.  Jesus affirmed this understanding and said that the miracle he had just performed was simply an extension of His Father’s work. 

Norris-Geyser-Basin-444I think one of the important lessons we can take from this passage is that the God of Creation is still very much at work in the world today and that Christ, His Son, is as well.  We are reminded here that Creation is not a finished product;  it is a work in progress.  John Muir recognized this.  He once wrote: “I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’  The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.”  

Perhaps our sense of wonder and amazement might be renewed if we realized each day that we are witnesses to God’s ongoing work of Creation.  Perhaps it would awaken our sense of gratitude for the gift of each new day.  Perhaps it would make us better aware of our calling to be partners with the Father and Son in caring for the earth.  It’s certainly something to think about…


(I took the two images above in Yellowstone National Park last February.)

Dec 15 2010

The Outstanding Ornament

_CES2195During Vespers tonight I’ll be leading a study on the third chapter of John’s Gospel.   Here we’ll confront perhaps the most familiar passage in the Bible—John 3:16.  It seems quite appropriate to be looking at this particular verse at Christmas time.  Here John affirms, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  At Christmas we celebrate God’s love and the incredible gift of His Son.

While doing some research for tonight’s study I learned that the Greek word used for “world” in this verse has an interesting background.  Apparently the word originally denoted an ornament.  In his commentary on the Gospel of John Leon Morris writes, “The universe with all its harmonious relationships is the outstanding ornament, and thus the term came to be used of the universe at large.” 

_CES2310Some biblical scholars question whether the use of the word “world” in John 3:16 includes the planet earth; they claim that it refers only to human beings.  I see no reason why God’s redeeming love would not include the entire cosmos as well.  In Romans 8 the apostle Paul speaks of “the hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (v. 21)  God’s gift of His Son was intended for all the world, not just humans; His saving love is extended to all of Creation.

Recognizing God’s love for Creation is important.  If God loved the world so much He was willing to give His only Son for it, then we too should love the world.  This love will include caring for this planet we call home.  Like precious ornaments we place on our Christmas trees must be handled carefully the ornament called “the world” must be tenderly cared for and protected.  God’s love for the world resulted in its salvation spiritually; our love for the world will help save it in other important ways.


(The junco and cardinal I photographed at my house this week also seem like ornaments on trees.)