When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea-billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my Soul. (It Is Well with My Soul–Horatio Spafford)
…He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my Soul–Psalm 23:2b-3a)
Our Shepherd leads us where we need to go. He gives us everything we need. But He doesn’t give us only ease and pleasure and rest. Such a life leads to complacency, apathy, and spiritual atrophy. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters– He restores my soul. Even though these thoughts come in two separate verses, I think there is a close link between the phrases. We need rest; we need restoration. And we find it when we are drinking deeply from the “still waters”– cool and clear and life-giving waters–the “living water” that only Jesus provides. We are often attracted to swift water– white water rafting, ocean surfing, waterfalls, sailing, etc. Moving water is exciting and full of energy. But it can be overwhelming to fight against the current or the power of falling, churning, running, or raging water. Without being anchored to something stronger than the waves; without help to overcome the pull of the current or a way to get to shore safely– we would be lost.
Storms and tides will be a part of our life– there will be dangers, and toils, loss, and unexpected heartaches. Sometimes, they come from our own foolish choices; often, they come because we live in a broken and fallen world filled with diseases and disasters beyond our control. God doesn’t lead us into storms just to leave us there, flailing and treading water with no end in sight. His goal is to lead us to the still waters and to restore our souls. The same river that contains white water will reach a peaceful valley, where it will run deep and wide and slow– perfect for restoring our souls and reviving our hearts.
It is a comforting thought that God, our Shepherd, will lead us beside still waters. But that is not always our lot. God’s promise is not that we will always have quiet, calm waters in life. God’s promise is that He will lead us safely through even the raging storm– and that His presence will provide a peace that defies our temporary surroundings and our trying circumstances.
1 In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
2 Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
3 Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.
4 What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
United Methodist Hymnal, 1989
I love this Christmas Hymn, though it creates a picture that is likely very false. Historically, we have no reason to believe that Jesus’ birth occurred on the 25th of December, or even in the winter at all. And even if it was December, it is very unlikely that the Middle-Eastern countryside was experiencing frosty moaning winds or icy waters on the night of Christ’s birth. In addition to Mary, the Bible tells us of others who came to worship that night– the shepherds in the nearby hills. The wise men likely came days, weeks, or even months later to bring their gifts. And Joseph would certainly have been there, as well.
The song is still lovely, and the last verse is the key. Christ poured out all that He was; taking on the form of a helpless baby, He lived among those who rejected and mocked Him. He served those whom He had created, healing their wounds, forgiving their sins, providing for their eternal redemption. He died, betrayed and despised by His own chosen people, and dismissed by the rulers and authorities of the day. He never owned a home, built monuments, carved his name in stone, or wrote books to preserve his legacy. He had no dynasty or even children to carry on his name; at the time of his death, all his friends and followers had abandoned him– all but one disciple and his mother. Yet his birth (the actual date of which has been obscured by history) is synonymous with generous gifting, rejoicing, singing, worship, and renewed hope. So what could any of us possibly give that could even begin to match what His life, death, and resurrection gave us?
He asks for only one thing– everything we have: all the failures, mistakes, good intentions, bad choices, selfish desires, and hurts of the past–and in return, He gives us everything beyond our wildest imaginations: eternity with Him; all the riches of His Glory; all His holiness and majesty imputed to us; peace with Him; rest and restoration in Him; and His Spirit to guide and sustain us!
The bleakness of midwinter may not have been the physical setting of Christ’s birth, but it represents the spiritual setting of our lives without Him. In that sense, Christ comes in the bleak midwinter of our rebellion, our despair, and our isolation, and offers to give us everlasting light, hope, peace, and joy!
That’s worth celebrating every day throughout eternity!
A widow contacted a local church to come pick up an old rusty car that belonged to her late husband. He had one request– that the car be kept in the old garage at the church parsonage and that anyone who wanted to could stop by and work on it. He had purchased it years before with the intention of restoring it to drive around in during his retirement. But time and ill-health had robbed him of his dream. His hope was that someone might enjoy working on it, and if no one came to work on the car, perhaps the church could sell it to scrappers and at least get some money for it. An ad was placed in the bulletin, and another in the local paper. Hours were set up, when people could stop by to work on the car.
Soon, there was a great stir– several members of the congregation came forward to protest. Some were concerned about the safety and liability involved in having the car in the garage where anyone could get to it. Surely, it would be in the church’s best interest to have the car locked away, so only members of the congregation could get to it. Others were arguing about how to restore the car properly– what was the original color of the chassis and the interior? Could they find the exact parts for that make and model? Who would work on the engine? The interior? The frame? Surely the old man didn’t mean for just anyone to come in and work wherever s/he felt like working…how would the job get done? Detailed schedules were posted and discussed; re-posted and opposed.
Weeks, and even months went by. The church was divided; some threatened to leave. And none of the church members had even visited the old car in the garage– it sat forgotten. Except…
A young man in town had seen the notice in the newspaper. He wrote down the original work schedule and followed it, quietly coming every Tuesday and Friday night after work, and patiently working to restore the car. He cleaned and oiled parts, “tinkered” with others, sanded off rust, fixed hose lines and checked all the panels. He patched upholstery and polished up the old tires. He painted the chassis and found matching window wipers to replace the old ones. He worked on the motor and the exhaust, and even the old AM radio. He made sure the mirrors and windows were not cracked or chipped. He even hunted around to find the right hood ornament to replace the one that was lost. Only the pastor knew of his work, and even he had never joined the man or asked about his progress– he merely opened the garage door every time the young man arrived, and closed it when the young man left.
After eight months, the division in the church had reached a fevered pitch. One group demanded that the car be removed to a secure location and that the labor should be divided based on an elaborate chart that focused on how long someone had attended the church, their skill base, what time they were available to work, and whether they were currently an elder or deacon (or had ever served as an elder or deacon).
When the group arrived at the garage, they were shocked to discover that the car was completely restored, polished and glorious in its restoration. Shocked and angry, they attacked the pastor– How could he have allowed this to happen “behind their backs?” When the pastor admitted that he was as surprised as they were, their attention turned to the young man. They hunted him down and demanded an explanation. How dare he come and work on the church’s car without their knowledge or approval! Who did he think he was?!
The young man’s answer left them stunned. He said, “I read an invitation that said anyone who wished could come and help restore an old car to help out a local church. I came every week, and no one else ever showed up to help. No one from your church did any work on this car. No one ever came to check on it or see if any work had been done. No one from your church gave me a word of encouragement, no one had a helpful suggestion or even constructive criticism. No one offered me a word of gratitude. No one helped hold a lamp or flashlight so I could see the hidden damage as I made repairs. No one helped when I had to hoist the motor or clean off the grease and grime, or polish the chrome. The invitation was clear– whosoever will, may come. I came. I followed the directions I was given– I came on Tuesdays and Fridays, and I cleaned up each time before I left. I put a lot of work into this car, and now I’m done. I hope your church can decide on a good use for it; she’s a beauty, and I think she’ll run really well– I didn’t take her for a spin, but I hope someone will be able to enjoy her for many years to come.”
The crowd from the church still had one question– Why had the young man come in the first place, and why did he keep working on the car all those months? Did he want the car for himself?
“No,” the man said; “when I first read the ad in the paper and I saw the word ‘restoration’, I was deeply moved. Not too many years ago, I was living a very wild and dangerous life. I felt alone and abandoned and I was filled with anger. I was restless and destructive. But one man in town took me under his wing. He gave me a part-time job, and made me promise to stay in school. But much more than that, he and his wife invited me over for dinner several times. They made time out of their busy schedule to come and watch me play basketball after I finally made the team in my senior year. When I joined the army, they sent letters and care packages. The old man used to tell me that I reminded him of an old car he bought and kept in his garage. He said it was an amazing machine that just needed restoration– he said I was an amazing person who just needed some restoration. He told me that Jesus came to bring restoration to anyone who wanted to come to Him.”
“I finished my time in the army; I came back and started my own business. I got busy and moved on with life. I never came back to thank that man for his kindness, and he never asked for anything from me. I guess I expected to thank him some day, but I found out that he had died. I went to see his widow. She was so gracious, asking about my family and wishing me the best, and then she mentioned her husband’s last request. And when I saw the ad in the paper, I knew this was a way for me to thank the old man, but also to experience what restoration really means. When I came to God, I was rusty, filthy, and broken. God has sanded off the rust in my life, mended broken relationships, and given me new life. It’s an honor to be able to bring restoration, no matter the circumstances. God has done so much to restore my life, it’s the least I can do to help restore an old car. I hope that somehow, this car can inspire renewal in someone else’s life the way its owner helped bring restoration to my life.”
I wish I could say that the young man’s story changed the hearts of the angry deacons and elders. A few of them were touched; some even convicted of their pride and selfishness. But most were simply put out.
What have I done with the precious gift of restoration in my life? God, lead me to someone today who needs to hear, and SEE, the miracle of restoration and Grace.
We’ve had a lot of rain lately– torrential bursts that turn our street into a river for a few minutes, before running into the sewer drains. In that time, many small objects come floating by our apartment– fallen leaves, pebbles, cigarette butts, discarded plastic spoons, candy wrappers, etc. The swift waters propel them from wherever they had been– someone’s drive, the alley, the parking lot–past houses and stores and toward the drains. Some of them end up clogging a drain, forming a small pile of trash where there was none before.
The opposite scenario is happening along several coastal areas, where debris is washing up from the ocean and landing on beaches, clogging up deltas and salt marches and having a terrible impact on the environment.
Flotsam and jetsam–the terms come up occasionally in literature or movies. There are characters in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” with those names. There is a chapter in Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy (the ninth chapter of the first book of The Two Towers, for purists) titled “Flotsam and Jetsam”. There is even a band by that name. They are almost always used in tandem, and most people use them interchangeably.
But there is a difference. Flotsam is considered debris that ends up in the water by accident, as in the case of a shipwreck. Jetsam is something deliberately thrown overboard or “jettisoned”. Legally, flotsam can be reclaimed by its original owner, while jetsam can by claimed by anyone who finds it. more about flotsam and jetsam from NOAA.
Most of what I’ve seen floating by this week is neither flotsam nor jetsam– it’s merely garbage. And that is what is causing so many problems along the coastlines, as well. Our lands and oceans (and our lives, too) can easily get overrun by waste and packaging and excess. We fill our lives with things that do not have any good purpose, and even if we dispose of them, they can come back to haunt us or hurt others down the road (or on another coast).
Today, I want to pray that God would continue to teach me to find my satisfaction in Him, and to watch out for spiritual flotsam and jetsam:
Flotsam– those things, people, habits, beliefs, promises, warnings, etc. that get washed overboard or lost along the way. May God reclaim relationships, help me relearn good habits, and restore joy in my salvation (Psalm 51:12)
Jetsam– those things I need to jettison–bad relationships, bad habits, faulty thinking, pride, clutter, etc. In His power, and with His help, I need to cast such things aside, or better yet, put them to death and bury them, never again to be reclaimed.
In “Pursuing Prayer”, I want to explore ways to develop my prayers; to become “better” at praying– more confident, more Christlike. But along the way, I have found that “better” doesn’t always mean what I think it ought to mean. Sometimes, becoming “better” requires becoming broken.
I don’t like being broken. I don’t want to be shattered, ruined, like a broken vase. I don’t want to pray like a broken record– sending up the same failures, the same weaknesses, the same painful memories. I don’t want to be pinched, and cracked, and mangled. I don’t want to be stretched and molded and squeezed. I want to have comforting chats with God, not drawn-out confessions, or rebukes, or unanswered questions.
It is tempting to avoid brokenness–cover it up, pretend, deny, ignore its existence. I don’t want to bring God my questions, my fears, my hurts. I don’t want to open up the dark places of my soul. I want to wear a smile and make small talk with God–“How are you today?” “Just lovely, Father, and how are you?” “Fine weather we’re having.” “Yes, thank you for the breezes yesterday. And could I just put in a plug for my neighbor’s gall bladder surgery? I told her I would pray for her, so could you just give her a speedy healing? That’d be great. Well, gotta run. Talk to you soon…Oh, and I’m sorry for the way I blew up at the kids the other day. I don’t know WHAT got into me. You know I’m just not that way, right? So I’m just asking for grace to kinda cover that up and make it ok again. Thanks.”
God is not fooled. God is not impressed or amused at our shallow righteousness. He’s not impressed or overcome by our brokenness, either. But He wants it, anyway. He wants all of it. Because He wants to build honesty, intimacy, and most of all, restoration. God doesn’t want us to wallow in our failures, any more than He wants us to gloat in our false perfection. He wants to break the bondage they have over us. He doesn’t get tired of hearing our voices, even in guilt or shame, rage or despair…if they are raised to Him. He doesn’t want us to stay shattered and ruined. But He needs us to be redirected, refreshed, rebuilt, rekindled, and renewed.
There are many things that need to be “broken” to become better– we “break” in shoes, we “break” ground to create a new field or prepare for a new building. We “break bread” to eat it and share it with others. We “break” horses in order to prepare them to run or work more effectively. We “break” bad habits. We even “break” the ice in a new friendship. The point is not to stay broken, but to “break through” whatever is keeping us oppressed and held down.
When I am feeling broken, and I cry out to God, He doesn’t deny my brokenness; He doesn’t turn away in disgust; He doesn’t stick a hasty bandage on my wounds. God acknowledges my pain, He listens to my questions. He loves me enough to come and stay with me through the worst moments–even when others have gone; even when I deny His presence and turn my face to the wall–and He begins the process of turning even those scars and cracks and tears into treasures.
Brokenness is inevitable in our fallen and broken world– God is not out to break us; people and time, circumstances, and even our own good intentions will cause us to fall and fail–am I willing to uncover my brokenness and need, and allow God to reshape my shattered dreams?
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light,23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
Both the scripture text and the children’s song above are often used in the context of watching pornography or violent images, and their negative effects. It is true that if we fill our sight with negative and sinful images, we will be impacted negatively. We become desensitized to violence and evil; we become addicted to images that shock or excite us.
But I think there is more going on in this text, and I think it has a bearing on our prayer life. What we choose to see also involves what we choose NOT to see. We talk a lot about what we shouldn’t be watching or seeing, but there are some things– even unpleasant things– that we MUST see if we are to be the light of the world. Not only must we see such things, we must shine a light on them and cause others to see them. Injustice, corruption, dishonesty– we must be careful to see them for what they are.
We live in a world of optical illusions, and it can be very difficult to see clearly. But that is what we are called to do. If our eyes are good/healthy, we will let in the light of truth, so that shadows and illusions will become stand out. If our eyes are bad/unhealthy, the shadows and illusions will trick us. We will see only what can be seen in a glance, and miss the bigger picture.
John the Baptist had excellent “vision.” As he was out in the hot sun glinting off the Jordan, he looked up to see hundreds of people waiting to be baptized. But his eyes were searching the horizon, seeing all the others, but seeking one face. And when he saw it, he drew everyone’s attention to it– “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Our eyes, like those of John, should be looking with purpose and hope.
Throughout the Bible, God looks at people with love and compassion. Several times in the gospels, Jesus looks upon or takes note of people (some of whom are seeking him, and others who know nothing of him) and has compassion on them. Our eyes, like those of our Father, should be looking in love. Love sees things as they really are– it sees sin, pain, disease, betrayal, war, hatred, greed. But love sees beyond to people who need salvation, healing, restoration, peace, compassion, and hope.
I need to give careful consideration to what I allow myself to see– do I see all the negative, hateful, sinful things going on around me? Do I see such things with a sense of purpose and with compassion? Or do I ignore them and turn my gaze inward, shutting out the hurt and need all around me? Do I see all the shadows and illusions and let my own light grow dim? Or do I see the Light of the World, ready to shine (even through me), with hope and redemption? Will I pray with my eyes closed and shuttered, or wide open?