The angel showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal. The river flows from the throne of God and the Lamb.It flows down the middle of the street of the city. The tree of life is on each side of the river, and it produces fruit every month, twelve times a year. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations. – Revelation 22:1-2
I understand that growth is a natural process, and that part of the definition of life necessarily involves change, but sometimes I’m blown away by how dramatic biology is when it runs rampant in the garden and beyond.
We’ve had good rains over the past couple of weeks, plus sunshine in between. The result has been green, and lots of it, leaves bursting forth, and Wake Forest turning pretty much into Wake Jungle overnight.
It’s hard to witness this kind of vitality and not think about how we measure up as Christians compared to the constituent markers of real life. In case we’ve forgotten, here are a few:
Life is revealed by change, by growth, by an active metabolism, and by replication. If an organism is alive, then we see evidence of all these processes.
The same question is telling when it comes to the Body of Christ, the church. We are often afraid of, and resistant to, the very processes that turn out to be signs of life.
Change is often considered an enemy;
Growth can threaten our sense of identity and control;
An active metabolism (the processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life) requires a steady diet of exercise, fresh air, sunlight, and nourishment;
Replication can make us nervous because it demands an active interface with the world around us.
Many faith communities die because change is evidence of the breath of the Spirit of God, and that’s not something that fits tidily into our club rules. We say “no thank you” to living water because it’s not something we can control. We hide ourselves from the light because we have become too used to the dark. And we neglect to feast on the bread of life because – as Jesus said – “My food is to do the Father’s will,” and we’d rather starve than follow Jesus outside the safety of our church fortress and take his kind of life into the world of pain and need.
Consequently we don’t breath, we won’t drink, we can’t bear the light, and we take a pass on real food. Churches like that fail to exhibit signs of life because they’re hardly breathing. They die because we won’t change, don’t grow, fail to metabolize, and refuse to replicate.
The very things Christian communities often resist are the exact things that will ensure we do more than simply survive, they will help us to thrive!
When we insist on remaining rooted to our own dogma to the extent that we shut out the Spirit of God, then we have failed the “vital signs” test of life. We can protect the status quo if we want to, but in the final analysis the status quo is always ours, not God’s.
Lightly Christianized religiosity will no more earn us a berth in God’s kingdom than any other religion, or any other anything that’s not animated by living water, the bread of life, and the breath of the Spirit – and marked by the evidence of life (change, growth, an active metabolism, replication).
“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations….”
Friday evening Rebekah and I had a lot of fun with a segment of our wonderful church family. The “JOY” group (Just Older Youth) are a gathering of “seniors” who meet once a month for food, fellowship, and some kind of a program.
So, after an amazing covered dish buffet dinner, I presented a lecture/slide show from our trip to the Bible Lands. The challenge was to distill what had once been a five-night travelog and Bible study into a sixty-minute talk featuring just 220 photographs.
I pulled it off in an hour and fifteen minutes, mixing a constantly moving stream of photographs with stories, scriptures, and interesting facts. The presentation – according to all accounts – went well. And – surprising to me in a crowd of forty – only two other people had even been to Egypt or Israel.
Chatting afterwards, a couple of people asked a version of this interesting question. “So, if this was a stripped down version of a five-night lecture series, then what would you show us if you only had to tell the story with just two photographs from each segment of your trip? What would you choose?”
Hmmmm… that’s a tough one! Athens; Cairo; Sinai; Petra; Galilee; Jerusalem. Leaving out another dozen or so important points of interest, how would I select twelve images that collectively capture the flavor of our traveling experience?
So with it fresh on my mind I’m going to give it a try. First, some words, along with one photo for each place. Then I’ll include all 12 in the slides at the end:
Our twelve hour layover in Athens was not wasted. Of course we headed to the Acropolis. And there I grabbed an image of Rebekah on the Acropolis, looking out over the teeming millions who live in the city today. Paul – standing on Mars Hill in that very place – introduced the Greek-thinking world to the idea that God existed beyond their limited understanding of the cosmos. It’s an idea that drives my creativity and my mission today. We think we know so much, and with such certainty, yet God constantly challenges the parameters of our understanding, always inviting us to know more, and to trust more, and to grow in our faith.
Cairo, for me, was such a study in contrasts. On the one hand there is the touristy wonder of the Great Pyramids – travel glam in its highest expression. Then, the other side of the metropolis, is Garbage City, where a sub-class of Egyptians eke out a living – barely – literally from garbage hauled out there day after day after day.
Garbage City is where we met the children of Mother Maggie’s Mission. One child only per family, because resources are limited and the need so great. The hope is that the light, and the education, planted in that one child will seed hope and opportunity and promise to the others in each family.
So my images for Cairo must include both the glamor and the garbage; past glory and present reality; picture postcard moments and desperate poverty.
On to Sinai, probably my signature moment of the journey. Click here – Destination God – for details of my predawn pilgrimage to the summit.
The wilderness where Moses led the Children of Israel for such a long time is an unforgiving wasteland; it’s no wonder the Promised Land looked to be flowing with milk and honey! But it was there, in the day by day struggle, that God carved out the identity of his people.
I can’t help but be inspired anew every time I think about Sinai. I can’t remember my encounter with God on the top of the mountain without considering my responsibility to bring that light back into the valley. I can’t do anything other than thank God for my blessings when I consider the long story of God’s faithful love as told through the Biblical narrative.
Then, crossing over into Jordan, we experienced the overwhelm of Petra. The magnificent archeological site, strewn over several square miles of rugged terrain, remains one of the most remarkable places Rebekah and I have ever witnessed. A flourishing civilization inhabited the valley until it was finally abandoned after one more crushing earthquake in the Middle Ages.
Of all the places we were exposed to on this tour, Petra surprised me the most.
If you want to be amazed, then you absolutely have to visit Petra.
If you want to see everything, be prepared to walk miles and climb hundreds of feet.
If you want to wait for the Middle East to be safe… then you’ll never go!
If you want to limit your exposure to the world to a gentle stroll around Disney’s Epcot Center, then – well – I can’t adequately express my disappointment.
All – absolutely ALL – of Israel is worthy of a million photographs. But this post is limited to Galilee and Jerusalem. Galilee is where Jesus spent the majority of his public ministry, all within the parameters of a day’s walk. That fact alone is worth mulling over. Jesus is the single most impactful teacher in the history of the world, and – other than his years as a refugee in Egypt as an infant – Jerusalem is likely the farthest he every traveled from home.
Galilee literally resonates with the echo of Christ’s life. His words, his love, his belief, his faithfulness, his mercy, his grace. All this seems to hang in the air and inhabit the hills, and the water of the lake, and the very stones we walked on. I chose the picture of me at the Sea of Galilee, thinking about the ripples of faith over time, and then the image of our group walking the road from Nazareth to Galilee, pilgrims ourselves on a path Jesus took many times.
Jerusalem – the place where Jesus shared some of his most powerful words and where he gave his life because of his complete love for each one of us – cannot be reduced to two images. But I guess I have to try. I have to begin with the view of the city from the Mount of Olives. It’s a bucket-list photograph, but it holds so much of the story.
Then I’m settling on the picture I took of Rebekah at the pool of Bethesda. The story – from John 4 – is one of her perennial “top-five” scriptures (there are, by the way, upwards of 50 references in Rebekah’s top five!). It’s the simple sentiment of the question Jesus asks; “Do you want to be healed?”
I think it’s probably the most important question Jesus is still asking – asking of his followers, asking of those on the periphery, and asking of those people who don’t believe they want anything to do with faith.
The question is still on the table: do you want that kind of healing?
Jesus knew what they were saying, so he said, “Why are you arguing about having no bread? Don’t you know or understand even yet? Are your hearts too hard to take it in?‘You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?’ Don’t you remember anything at all?” – Mark 8:17-18
This morning’s walk reminded me of some of the conversations I have had recently about clarity. There were three things Jesus said repeatedly, and in various ways, during his ministry, and they go like this:
“Would you people open your eyes just a little bit for crying out loud!”
“Hello? Is anybody home? Have the twelve of you forgotten to put your listening ears on this morning?”
Well I’m not absolutely sure about that last one, but I am one hundred percent certain Jesus would have inserted “duh” in many places had the word – or it’s Aramaic equivalent – been invented two thousand years ago.
I enjoy the way an early morning mist hangs onto the trees, mutes the view, blankets all the sounds of the day, and keeps the temperature down. Then, when it lifts, the sunlight floods in and everything is completely different in an instant.
When the mist is still there, there’s a dimension of vision it’s easy to miss when the sun blazes and the shadows become so deep. In certain ways, I can see more when the colors are muted and the light is more evenly diffused.
That’s a lot like life in the regular, routine, day to day. It’s fun to be in church in the flood of blazing light, to feel the warmth of fellowship from my men’s group companions on the journey, to listen to inspirational messages and enjoy beautiful music… But it’s in my day by day walk with God that I often stop for more intimate conversations with Jesus, and in the challenge of peering closely into the fog to see more clearly that I often do.
The key to clarity is not just open eyes, but sometimes new eyes.
So I guess that makes one more for the list – #4 from Jesus: “Come on, people! Don’t you remember anything at all?”
In fact, because family members will doubtless be interested, I’ll share all the good ones in a slide show at the end of this post. I’m pretty confident that – even if you’re one of my many readers who doesn’t know the bride or the groom – the pictures are worth scrolling through all the way to the end.
What I like to do sometimes at weddings is to shoot candid photographs (unposed and unrequested) – grabbing stuff the professionals are less likely to include. So I played the role of paparazzi at the rehearsal, took a handful of pictures at the church before the wedding started (focusing on guests from WFPC), photographed the opening of the ceremony, then carried my camera around at the reception.
The location of the reception was beyond spectacular. The mansion – a mega-lavish American version of the classic Tuscan villa – commands a wonderful view of a large lake with open vistas to the west, the south, and the north. Expansive terraces easily accommodate more than 100 guests, and lush lawns lead down to the water.
The evening was perfect. Generous hospitality; cool weather; an amazing sunset; good food; great people; dancing; and an abundant overflow of genuine joy.
Then, as Rebekah and I left, we walked by a vintage Rolls-Royce waiting outside to whisk the newlyweds away.
So enjoy these photos. They tell a little of the story, and I know they will make you smile. I certainly know that Rebekah and I are smiling.
You see, it’s not only true to say that, as Jesus pointed out, “People are going to know you are my disciples by taking notice of the way that you love one another….” (John 13:35) But it’s also an important principle of living our discipleship to realize that… People the world over are going to understand something critically important about what it means to be people of faith when they observe the quality, the durability, and the depth of our joy.
At least that has been – and continues to be – my experience – DEREK
So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. – Romans 8:1-3
That’s always a good question, and it’s something we talked about more than once at the preacher retreat I helped lead a week ago. The “spiritual stuff” is – at its best – an underlying disposition that runs underneath everything else that’s going on in our day to day lives.
I have found it helpful to think of our spiritual life as the operating system that runs in the background, and the other stuff (relationships, church, politics, family, work, being an American, driving, how we use our resources, the meeting we have scheduled later today, lunch with a friend…) as Apps that sit on top of that operating system.
If the system goes down, then nothing else works properly. Also, certain protocols built into the underlying operating system govern how the other programs work. Christ’s Great Commandment, for example, must have precedence over absolutely everything else, and must inform even the smallest decision we approach.
So Monday morning, waking up in Richmond for breakfast with our grandchildren, then driving over to play golf in the Union Seminary fundraiser tournament, I approached the day as a disciple of Jesus. There is no “this is my life… and then this is my spiritual life.” No, there is simply my life, and it is either built on and directed by my response to the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus, or it is not.
It was the most beautiful of mornings. The tournament started in the high forties and finished up at around sixty-three degrees. Our team, despite leaving a lot of makable birdie and eagle putts unconverted, still managed a respectable 59 to share the win. It was great fun; good people, good company, and no pressure.
That’s how life should be. Teamwork; engaging the challenges and the opportunities together; mutual encouragement; building one another up; always moving forward toward the goal, enjoying the journey; being strong where another is weak; making the best out of any situation…
Fact is, we are already winners simply by being here, waking up to celebrate another new day!
I believe it’s all about the underlying aspect of gratitude, of owning the fact that we are God’s children, and of being willing to receive the grace that underlines this truth. Paul puts it like this, a little later in the same chapter: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). Or, “In all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us!” (CEB)
That’s how I plan on engaging today; a sweeping victory. It’s my prayer that each one of us will consider doing the same.
Always be joyful.Never stop praying.Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16
The Ladies’ Tea; The Ladies’ Tea II; The Kirking of the Tartans; Grandma learns about “Frozen.”
Coming back from the weekend wedding, Rebekah and I were not present with our church family at WFPC for worship. So, as we were hitting the Raleigh area late morning, we attended church at St. Andrews Presbyterian. The first Sunday in May happened to be their annual “Kirking of the Tartans” celebration. The church engaged the services of the NC State bagpipe troupe, along with drums. St. Andrews is a beautiful church, the pipers were made an impressive parade, and it was quite the spectacle.
We were back at WFPC before 2:00. Rebekah was busy teaching elders, and I sang a couple of songs at the annual Ladies’ Tea event. Several of the guys dressed up in tuxedos to serve, and the CLC was comfortably full with dignified conversation and elaborate hats.
My songs went off well – but I was helped by three little girls who decided to dance around me while I played. One song – Somebody’s Praying” – included the line “Angles are watching, I can feel them…” So I changed it, on the fly, to “Angles are dancing, I can see them.” And, “Angles are dancing around me….”
It doesn’t matter what you do, little girls dancing around you while you do it is guaranteed to make it better… and cuter… and more adorable.
Later, in Richmond, our grandchildren couldn’t believe their grandparents had never watched the movie Frozen. So, snuggled on the sofa with Rebekah, they patiently went through the entire move with us. We may be a couple of decades behind vis-a-vis Disney (by design), but, yes, we are now bona fide Frozen converts.
[The Lord of the feast] said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” – John 2:10
This morning I’ll share a slice of Rebekah’s message from Saturday’s marriage ceremony. The wedding was – as I already explained in yesterday’s post – full with positive energy and the kind of encouragement this world needs, going forward. So when the homily so nicely dovetailed with all the goodwill I wasn’t surprised in the least.
Rebekah told the story of Jesus blessing the wedding – it’s the first miracle recorded in the Gospel of John. If you remember, the wedding host ran out of wine and Jesus came to the rescue by turning water into the best vintage they’d ever tasted.
With Jesus, everything is always the best ever. So it’s really no surprise that’s how things go down at the wedding. Anything we’re involved with – relationships, work, art, church, mission, serving others – no matter what, is going to be over-the-top good if we invite Jesus to be involved.
Rebekah said she likes to imagine that the couple who were married at the wedding Jesus attended and blessed took some of the wine home, and had some every year thereafter, to remind themselves not only of what a fabulous wedding they’d enjoyed, but how Jesus continues to make their life together sweeter and more precious.
Of course the real miracle is how Jesus brings new life, and a new flavor to our lives, each and every day. That’s not just a nice story, or a look back into history – it’s a present reality that we can continue to celebrate.
This morning our church will share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Wide open doors, everyone welcome, grace abounds. Don’t miss this opportunity to share some of the good stuff, the Jesus quality of celebration, and get the ball rolling in terms the very best.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” And he added, “These are true words that come from God.” – Revelation 19:9
This weekend Rebekah and I are over in the small North Carolina town of Stokesdale for the wedding of one of our young adults; Friday evening was the rehearsal, followed by dinner. The bride, Kaitlyn, is one of the purest voices in our praise team; her mom – Kim – is WFPC’s music ministries director; and her dad – Eddie – is in my Wednesday evening men’s group.
Both Kaitlyn and her soon-to-be husband, Jacob, have family roots around Stokesdale, so the weekend is like a big southern family homecoming.
The reason this is making it into my blog is twofold. One – it’s what I’m doing for the next two days, and I always write about what I learn (in terms of life and faith) from what’s going on. Two – and more importantly – this is a very happy wedding, and happy weddings turn out to be a great opportunity to tell the good story of God’s extravagant love and grace.
Love this generation!
As you can see from the first photograph, Kaitlyn and Jacob have tons of attendants. You can also see how Rebekah is helping them thoroughly enjoy themselves while going over the details. This is a group of young people who genuinely love one another and who value commitment.
I seriously fail to understand how and why so many people of my generation feel the need to criticize today’s twenty-something to thirty-something crowd. Personally, I see a lot more wisdom, altruism, willingness to serve, and maturity in these young people than I remember when many older Americans were this age. As a group, this crop of young Americans tends to come across as less materialistic and more public spirited; I have a lot of confidence in how they are going to respond to the challenge to lead over the next few decades.
The Kingdom of God:
The marriage feast is a lot like the kingdom of God. There is generosity, lavish celebration, wide open arms, welcome, faithfulness, commitment, renewal of hope, and promise for the future – all brought together in the context of extravagant love.
How much more like church can you get? How much more like God’s kingdom can we imagine?
Every day that I get to live, and love, and shine my light for God is a celebration of this magnitude. Now if only we could do a more consistent job when it comes to communicating this good news to those who need to hear it, with authenticity, and with the right amount of joy and enthusiasm?
Your word is a lamp before my feet and a light for my journey. – Psalm 119:105
One of the questions that constantly comes up when I talk about faith is, “How do I transition from someone who checks in with God once in a while, to a disciple who quite literally walks with Jesus?”
It’s a challenge no matter who you are, or how you structure your life. Dads, moms, teens; preachers, teachers, construction workers; politicians, lawyers, musicians; engineers, army generals, pilots…. We’ve had the same conversation.
That’s why I always start with the very beginning of the day. It makes more sense to get on board with God and then remain there – going forward – than to leave the decision (and it’s always a decision, even when we don’t think about it) for another time.
It’s this idea of trajectory. That’s why I took the above photograph of the kitchen counter this morning before I poured the coffee. My Bible was already there. No matter where my journey takes me today, I know I have started it in the presence of God and with a portion of the scriptures.
Simply put, the only way to walk with Jesus is to invite him to be our guide. It’s an invitation that needs to be renewed daily, and it is an intention that requires a constant stream of incremental adjustments, not just day by day but moment by moment.
When I hiked five-hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail I was always looking for the white blaze on the tree that told me I was on the right path. A double blaze signaled a shift in direction.
We were always looking ahead for the next blaze; it didn’t stop us from enjoying the view, talking with other hikers, or taking a brief lateral trail to see something along the way. But the blaze was always our reference and constantly on our minds. If we had waited to check for the next marker around lunchtime – like saying grace before a meal -we’d have been hopelessly lost in no time at all.
That’s Jesus. His intention is to walk with us, not just meet up later for lunch, or wait to check in Wednesday evenings at church, or in response to a hurried request when things aren’t going our way.
Ten years ago this month my first book was released. GET REAL documents my understanding of this following-Jesus journey, and these few words still challenge me today:
“It’s about engaging the Spirit because we are hungry for God. It’s about becoming disciples so that Jesus can pour his life into us. It’s about learning to love God with our heart, mind, body, and soul. It’s about having the courage to actually follow Christ – to place one foot in front of the other, to dare to live a life of grace” (p. 30).
Every morning, every hour, every day, every opportunity – DEREK
Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest,seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who BELONGED TO THE WAY…” – Acts 9:1-4
If I produced a catalog of my photographs, several themes would emerge. Much like the “voice” I have developed in my writing, my eye has also evolved its own lens, or selective preference in framing the way I see the physical world.
While beauty certainly gets my attention, I am even more interested in story. But I have also found I don’t just capture the stories I see (journalism), I view the world around me through the framing of my own story (commentary). It’s not that the things I see aren’t already there… but that the way I see casts light on the things that are important – and becoming important – in my own story.
In consequence, my catalog includes a lot of open doors, archways, open windows, passageways, paths, roads, and bridges. At first I didn’t really think about it, they just caught my eye. Now I believe I understand why. You see I have noticed that I engage life as a journey; open windows and doorways – especially where there is light or something beautiful the other side – communicate ideas to me such as “invitation”, “hope”, “possibility”, “exploration”, “journey”, “adventure” – “come and see”.
The path forward doesn’t always have to be illuminated by searchlights, clearcut, or impossible to miss; sometimes the trail is more of a suggestion or a possibility. It’s like my friend Wendy said once, when someone wanted her to see the next step – after a tragedy – as something unavoidably obvious: “I don’t see an open window… but I can feel a breeze coming from somewhere….”
THE WAY – THE GATE – THE INVITATION:
I love the way Jesus describes himself as “the gate” in John’s Gospel. “Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures.The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:9-10).
And then, in an almost comical indictment of the legalism that dominated the teaching of so many religious leaders (and still does to this day), Jesus said this by way of contrast, pointing out that, while he is an open invitation, they slam the door in people’s faces: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).
So I love paths through the woods, archways into gardens, windows letting in fresh air and light, bridges, open gates, open invitations; I love Jesus.
I can’t get enough of the open invitation, but I also can’t even begin to understand how readily and how enthusiastically so many “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”
“Yes, I am the gate… My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life!” – Jesus
Here are a few slides from my recent walk in the woods at Camp Agape – DEREK