Where Was Kira When the Lights Went Out

Where was Kira when the lights went out? In the dark?

The lights are off, but somebody’s home. That was the situation in the home of a woman–let’s call her Kira. The city, which runs the water and electricity utilities had turned off service, leaving Kira and her children dry and in the dark.

If you’re like me, you might be sitting there smugly thinking how you’ve always managed to pay your bills and how you’d never let such a thing happen. Let me assure you that, although she might have taken missteps along the way, Kira is not a deadbeat or an incompetent. A year ago, she had endured a serious injury that took time to heal, time when she couldn’t work. The family got behind on an already-tight budget. Things snowballed, and eventually they owed several thousand dollars.

When we realized this problem existed, we felt the desire to help, but that’s not what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to focus on Kira and what she did.

First, she continued to teach her kids–middle to high school in age–to trust in God and live obedient lives. Tough times were not an excuse for ugly behavior in Kira’s house.

Second, after she got back to work, she did not simply focus her thoughts on getting the family’s budget righted. Instead, she continued to look at the people around her. The lady next door needed her yard mowed but couldn’t push the mower around the lawn. Kira thought, “I have time, and I have legs. I can mow her grass.” Many people in Kira’s situation would have sat back licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves.

When she saw another neighbor, she felt led to give that woman some groceries. Sure, by taking food out of her own pantry, Kira was costing the family money that they needed to get right with the utility office, but she still did it. The neighbor thanked her, explaining how they had no cash for groceries for the rest of the month.

Then came Sunday. After discovering how much it would take to get at least Kira’s water turned back on, Penny and I felt a definite urge to help. Penny’s small group, told anonymously of the situation of this woman most of them didn’t know, collected funds, more than we had expected. A new member of the class, somebody attending for the second time, didn’t have cash but brought a large sum to our house in the afternoon.

When Kira brought the kids over that evening to take showers and run some laundry, Penny, without comment, handed her an envelope containing over $800, more than double what she needed to get the water turned on.

I have been young and now I am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous abandoned
or his children begging for bread.
He is always generous, always lending,
and his children are a blessing.–Psalm 37:25-26

I’m pretty sure that Kira didn’t mow grass or share groceries thinking about a payoff from God. She did those things for the same reason we all put money into that envelope: to seek God’s kingdom first.

Doing that, we know that all we needed will be provided for us. Where was Kira when the lights went out? From what I can see, she was standing and trusting in the light.

Time for Pie!

Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.

I can’t recall where I heard that, but I appreciate the sentiment. Wouldn’t you hate to deny yourself to get in shape and then have a truck run over you?.

Seriously, though, if  you have five things on your to-do list for the day, which one do you get done first. I recall a grade-school teacher I had who always did math first thing. We thought it was because she wanted to torture us. Instead, I learned much later, math was her least favorite subject. She figured that if she got the worst thing for the day done, then everything else would be easier.

That’s one method for planning your priorities. Another popular one is to do the most important thing first. That, I think, is what lies behind what I take to be the single most important verse for Christian living, Matthew 6:33:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Lest you think that I’m an anti-evangelical heretic who doesn’t put John 3:16 at the top of the hit parade, let me explain the way I view the act of Christianity. To my mind, this thing has two parts:

  1. Becoming a Christian–which is where John 3:16 comes in, and
  2. Being a Christian, where Matthew 6:33 holds sway.

It is vital that we become believers in Jesus, but it is also important that we live out our Christianity. How do we do that? We put first things first. We live by faith by seeking God’s kingdom first.

Matthew 6:33 tells us that life is not uncertain and that we need not eat dessert first. It tells us instead to cut God a big slice of that lemon meringue pie right up front and then trust that something even better will come our way. Maybe it won’t be lemon meringue pie. Maybe it won’t even be dessert, but it will be precisely what we need and even more than we need. It will be better than what we would have gotten had we grabbed the whole pie for ourselves.

It takes confidence for us to seek God’s kingdom ahead of our own kingdom. We have to truly believe, to truly rely on His goodness and His faithfulness. It takes the sort of belief that is at the heart of that verse I sidestepped earlier.

Believing in Jesus, in the sense it is intended in John 3:16 involves a great deal more than just an intellectual assent. I believe in Omaha, Nebraska. I’ve been there a couple of times. I trust that if I drove north on I-29, I’d get to that city, but my belief does not mean that I depend on Omaha in the slightest. My belief in my home town is greater, but if Independence, Missouri were to suddenly announce its closing, I could still function. John 3:16-level belief is more.

And so is the action behind Matthew 6:33. It’s an act of faith to put God first, to set aside my priorities for God’s. It means eating dessert last with confidence that there’s something better in store. Christian life, you see, is sweet!

Worst of Both Worlds?

person wearing winter jacket while snowing
Photo by Bogdan Glisik on Pexels.com

The snow came last night, enough to slow things down but not enough to paralyze the city. I woke at 4:00 a.m. and reached over to my phone to see if there was school-canceling news. Once my eyes focused on the text, I read with horror these words.

JCCC Alert–JCCC will be on a delayed start Wed. Feb 20 due to winter weather. Campus will open at 10 AM, classes set for 10 AM and after will be as scheduled.

It was the worst of both worlds. Not only did I not get to roll over and sleep as late as I wanted, but I would have to disrupt my class schedule, meeting a skeleton crew of the 10:00 class while allowing the 9:00 class to get behind. My response was to grumble and go back to sleep.

Yesterday, when I wrote about my antipathy to the snow, it was still fairly theoretical. But this morning it seemed personal. Not only was the weather out to get me, but whoever makes the decision on closing the school took aim at my routine. What kind of moron thought it was a good idea to start school at 10:00 a.m. Have school or don’t have school, but don’t saddle me with these half measures!

Then I recalled reading 1 Samuel 15 last night. In that chapter, Saul is ordered to attack the Amalekites, killing everything in the process. It’s pretty blood-thirsty, the sort of thing that we don’t teach in children’s Bible study. Via Samuel, God delivers this message to Saul:

Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, infants and nursing babies, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.

“Infants and nursing babies?” Wow! That’s severe. That’s the sort of Old Testament seriousness that makes people insist that the God of those days is a very different being from the warm and fuzzy God of the New Testament. What kind of God would order everything to be killed, including children and animals? Why?

As I’ve talked to a few people today about my misgivings regarding the late start, I’ve discovered that not everybody agrees with me. My colleagues don’t all agree. My students–or at least the half of them who showed up–don’t all agree. It turns out that I hadn’t taken all of the relevant information into account before reaching my judgment.

Why did God order the slaughter of infants and nursing babies? I can’t image, but then I don’t have to imagine. Why did the powers of the college order a late opening? I don’t really need to know that either, although I could probably discover it.

Instead, I just need to obey and make the best of matters. While the authorities at the college might not be 100% trustworthy, I have to know that God is. And if He called for a horrific slaughter 3,000 years ago, He must have had a solid reason.

 

Expecting to Fear No Man

I’m pretty sure that it has been at least 20 years since I attended my last Kansas City Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium. That changed Sunday when my son bought us tickets to see the home team play the Jacksonville Jaguars. All week long, the hubbub from people who know things about football had been trumpeting the “elite” Jacksonville defense. “Sure,” they suggested. “The Chiefs have a good offense, but they haven’t been up against a unit like this one.”

By the end of the day, the Chiefs offense had scored a healthy 23 points on this elite defense (the KC defense adding another touchdown), and the Browning boys went home happy. We can be certain that the Chiefs knew very well how talented their opponents would be, but they believed in themselves, in each other, and in their leaders.

Why do I mention something as unspiritual as NFL football? Am I dealing with my feelings of guilt for playing hooky from worship? I don’t think so. Instead, I’m reminded of a simple fact about life: when we expect ourselves to fail, we usually come through and live down to that expectation.

Read Numbers 13 and consider the differing responses of the scouts sent by Moses into the Promised Land. After some vocal members of the scouting party have bragged on the place, somebody, Numbers 13:28 tells us, voices that troubling word: “however.” Yeah, the land is great; however, the people are giants. We can’t beat them.

In response to these words, up jumps Caleb: “Let’s go up now and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!” What a guy, this Caleb! Wouldn’t you be inclined to follow his leadership. He heard the same things that the others heard. He saw the same walled cities and tall enemies. So why was Caleb saying “Let’s go up now” while the others were drifting toward the rear?

Clearly Caleb believed in himself. For some reason, despite what he’d heard, he believed in his fellow Israelites, but most importantly, he believed in their leaders–yes, Moses and Aaron, but their ultimate leader, God himself.

When we believe that we will be defeated by whatever faces us this week, we’ve taken the first step to failure. Rarely do we succeed when we expect to fail. On the other hand, we sometimes fail when we expect to succeed, but the odds are far stronger.

This week, I expect to face a few challenges from other people. I can shrink from them or I can assume that God will be beside me. Like Caleb, I can say, “Let’s go up now!”

An Astronomer’s Kind of Vision

There was a day in the past when people–understandably, I think–believed that the earth stood at the center of the universe. In that cosmology, all of the planets, the sun, and the moon revolved around the earth. The stars inhabited a single sphere that marked the outer edge of the created realm. It was a magnificent model, however flawed.

Today, we see things far larger and far smaller. The development of telescopes and other tools for astronomical research have revealed galaxies upon galaxies, while the discoveries of chemistry and biology have shown us DNA and the staggeringly complex biochemistry necessary to keep our bodies working.

While some use these discoveries to argue for the necessity of a creator, I’d like to go a different direction. Once we assume that a creator exists, the revelations of the very large and the very small demonstrate more and more the greatness of God. If God was amazing when Ptolemy described the model above, how much greater can He be seen to be when we realize the vast complexity of the universe? How much more remarkable will God be shown when we understand still more of His creation?

I see that greatness and I claim to believe it. So why is it that I don’t behave as if I believe?

  • Why would the God who can create over 6,000 of species of toads have any trouble seeing me through life if I take the rather feeble step of tithing on my income?
  • Why would the God who designed and deployed human brains with 100 trillion synapses not be able to move upon one of those brains either to give me words to speak (Luke 12:12) or move upon my listener for persuasion (John 6:44)?
  • Why would the God who gave the Israelites food enough to come out of their nostrils (Numbers 11:19-20) have any trouble feeding a wealthy nation like the United States without us needing to pollute our land and waters so badly?

When Moses, after all he had seen, has his doubts about the ability of God to provide meat, God’s response is quick and forceful: “Is the Lord’s arm weak? Now you will see whether or not what I have promised will happen to you” (Numbers 11:23).

Why do we, who supposedly believe in the limitless power of God, box Him in by living as if we thought Him limited? If God can only do so much in our world, doesn’t it stand to reason that He can only save so much? Or so many? Maybe He can only partially forgive sins.

The God who can keep the cosmos arranged and the electrons orbiting can easily handle anything that I need. That’s the truth. Now I just need to live like I believe it.

A Fisherman’s Kind of Trust

I know that I’m supposed to trust God and all, but sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I find myself resisting that trust and depending on my own juice. Peter was bad about that sort of thing, which makes the story at the end of Matthew 17 so intriguing. After a discussion of paying taxes, Jesus sends Peter out to catch a fish, find a coin, and thereby pay the tax for the two of them:

“But, so we won’t offend them, go to the sea, cast in a fishhook, and take the first fish that you catch. When you open its mouth you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to them for me and you.” –Matthew 17:27

That’s the last verse in the chapter. Notice that the Bible does not say that Peter obeyed Jesus and grabbed his fishing pole. It doesn’t say that he stopped by the bait store, and it certainly does not say that he caught a fish and found a coin in its mouth. I’ve heard this story reported numerous times as if that’s precisely how the Bible indicates it went down, but in reality, this account concludes with Jesus’ instruction.

Did Peter go fishing? Did he catch anything? Was there a coin in the fish’s mouth? We can assume that if this thing did not work out to be a miracle then it wouldn’t have found its way into the pages of scripture. What would be the point?

It’s odd that Jesus sent Peter out to fish with hook and line. Nowhere else in the Bible, despite all the fishing that goes on, is there a reference to fishing with a hook. These people fished with nets. Peter, a professional, would have been excused for saying, “Lord, I think I’ll have better luck fishing my way.” Presumably he didn’t say that. Presumably he took a hook and caught a fish and drew a coin from its mouth.

Fishing is almost always a work of faith. We throw a lure into the water once, twice, a dozen times, and we hope that some creature, unseen in the murky waters, will respond and strike. Sometimes that faith is rewarded and sometimes it is not.

God provides for us when we walk in faith and obedience. He isn’t impressed when we lean on our own strength, our own understanding. He wants us to demonstrate the faith of a fisherman, following his lead no matter how implausible success might seem.

Did Peter catch a fish with a coin in its mouth? That I can’t answer, but I am certain that if he put a line in the water that day, then such a fish was waiting for him. What is the step of faith that God wants me to take today? It surely won’t be as difficult to believe as Peter’s.

Grasshopper or Locust?

One of the key moments in Israelite history, a moment that we don’t always place in the first rank, comes with a supreme lack of faith in Numbers 13, when a dozen spies/scouts/explorers are sent to obtain a report on the Promised Land and come with a good news/bad news result.

The land is fabulous, they insist, leading with the good news.

But the people who live there are giants, they quickly continue. “To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them,” they conclude in Numbers 13:33.

A grasshopper–or a locust, the Hebrew word is the same–is a creature that, on its own, is pretty vulnerable. The biggest locust is no match for the smallest human. If these critters had human-level thinking skills, they’d be just as scared as the Israelites that day.

But there’s another aspect to these insects and actually something that differentiates them from grasshoppers. While both locusts and grasshoppers spend a good part of their lives as solitary beings, jumping around and munching on plant matter, locusts have a gregarious phase when they gather together. National Geographic describes the phase like this:

When environmental conditions produce many green plants and promote breeding, locusts can congregate into thick, mobile, ravenous swarms.

While a single locust is no match for a single foot, millions of these things can wreak havoc. One of the ten plagues of Egypt had been the worst infestation of locusts of all time; thus, the Israelites should have known about them. The prophet Joel refers to an infamous locust plague to speak of the coming Day of the Lord:

What the devouring locust has left,
the swarming locust has eaten;
what the swarming locust has left,
the young locust has eaten;
and what the young locust has left,
the destroying locust has eaten. (Joel 1:4)

To this day, a swarm or plague of locusts is a largely irresistible force in an agricultural setting. In recent years these swarms have posed a problem in Middle Eastern countries.

So did the scouts of Numbers 13 mean relatively solitary and harmless grasshoppers or swarming, devastating locusts? We can’t really know for sure, but clearly they didn’t see themselves as terrifying creatures when they called themselves chagab or locusts/grasshoppers.

As individuals, those Israelites were perhaps no match for the individuals in the Promised Land. But God had not called them to conquer the land as individuals. They were supposed to operate together. As a group together, they would be seen as locusts–a plague of terrifying locusts–by the land’s inhabitants. Sure, the Canaanites, giants or not, might squash a few of them, but the swarm would prevail.

What’s more, this swarm had God on its side. This wouldn’t be some mindless, instinct-driven mob but rather the army of the Lord. These people had seen what God could do without requiring them to take any significant action. Did they believe that they’d become less powerful when they joined in at his guidance?

Those who follow God cannot be ultimately defeated. When we follow Him, we’re, like Paul says in Romans, “more than conquerors.” That’s what Caleb must have known when, in Numbers 13, he urged his countrymen to go on the offensive. But the others resisted and delayed the entry into the land by forty years.

Christians, we’re more than grasshoppers. We’re locusts!

Catch Up on Catching Zs

sleep-deprived1My father used to criticize me for sleeping late on Saturdays. “You can’t ‘catch up’ on sleep,” he would state emphatically. In truth, at least to some degree, you can catch up on sleep. I’m not sure that I was actually sufficiently behind on sleep as a teen to need to stay in bed until noon on Saturdays, but you can catch up on sleep.

That great thinker of our time, Kobe Bryant, is quoted as saying “Sleep is one of the best performance enhancers there is.” Roberto Clemente, someone I admire a great deal more than Kobe, claimed, “If I could sleep, I could hit .400.” These athletes recognize that getting proper sleep affects their sporting performance.

According to the Better Sleep Council–yes, it actually exists–people who get plenty of sleep are more likely to engage in high energy workouts. Actually, I’m not sure if they haven’t reversed the cause/effect relationship there. People who exercise vigorously usually don’t have a tough time getting their sleep in.

On the other hand, studies of sleep deprivation have shown that runners who do a time trial after 30 hours awake covered 20% less distance than those who had a good night’s sleep. So exercise can lead to better sleep, and sleep can lead to better exercise. That’s a great deal.

Sleep is a good thing. Where was Jesus when his disciples were freaking out about the storm on the Sea of Galilee? He was asleep. When He said, “Peace, be still,” was He speaking to the storm or to the disciples who woke Him up? That’s not entirely clear.

Back to the Better Sleep Council, we learn

While weary, overextended Americans are turning to “quick fixes” like caffeine and performance-enhancing supplements, which claim to improve everything from their daily workout to their sex lives, they are losing sight of what experts say is essential to improved performance: a good night’s sleep.

Back when I was in college, my roommate, a new believer, determined that God was calling him to sleep only 5 hours a night. After a few such short nights, his body started to rebel, mostly by forcing him to sleep when he was trying to read. Happily, he realized that God had not actually called him to that foolish standard.

Our bodies were designed to need sleep. In fact, sleep can be seen as an extension of the Sabbath rest. When we close our eyes and allow ourselves to sleep, we put our trust in God. Amazingly, things will get done better and our bodies will function more efficiently when we permit them the rest that our society seems to suggest is a waste of time.

Psalm 40 for half marathon

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.
–Psalm 40:1-3

Let Mercy Lead

Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.
Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.

Tomorrow morning, just under twenty-four hours from right now, I’ll be crossing the starting line of the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon, my second race at that distance. A year ago, when I ran Hospital Hill, I basically just wanted to finish respectably. This year, I will feel that I have dropped the ball–or perhaps the baton–if I don’t break two hours. Succeed or fail, I’ll report here tomorrow.

On my longest training run, thirteen days ago, I did something I rarely do when running outside. I listened to music. Rich Mullins, a favorite of mine for many years, sang a song that I’d never really thought about.

The lyrics struck me powerfully enough as I made my way through my last couple of miles that I replayed the track. Here’s the chorus of “Let Mercy Lead.”

Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs
And in every footprint that you leave
There’ll be a drop of grace

Is there a better lyric for a Christian runner? My prayer for tomorrow and for my every endeavor is that the strength in my legs is not my strength and that the legacy of my footprints is not simply my work.

Should the first verse and chorus of that song not hook you, the second verse surely will:

You’ll run the race
That takes us way beyond
All our trials and all our failures
And all the good we dream of
But you can’t see yet where it is you’re heading
But one day you’ll see the face of love

I know where my 13.1 miles will end tomorrow, hopefully somewhere before 9:30 am, but I do not know the destination of the truly important race I am running. That doesn’t matter. Tomorrow’s race is more of a ritual, an outward symbol of an inward struggle. I can run as far and as fast as I need to when I’m sharing the road with someone who authored the mercy that will lead and the love that will strengthen me.