A Feast in the Desert

“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”

Psalm 78:19

You know, when the children of Israel asked this question they were actually speaking against God—these were words of rebellion.  But you have to admit it’s a realistic question.  How could He prepare a feast in the middle of the Sinai desert?  I mean, God didn’t have very many ingredients to choose from in that bleak wasteland to fix His banquet, right? There wasn’t much of anything living or growing. It was an empty, barren desert. 

It’s the kind of question I could have been tempted to ask when our sojourning recently took us to a place that reminded me of Israel’s wilderness journey.  Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho was the scene of a volcanic eruption about 2000 years ago, and it looks as if the earth still hasn’t recovered.  It’s one of the most inhospitable, desolate places on earth. 

The ancient lava flows have created vast, barren areas where nothing seems to grow for miles and miles.  Parts of it look like massive fields of rich, black soil that have just been tilled—like the ones that are found in the Midwestern parts of the US.  Except the fields were “tilled” two millennia ago, and those massive clumps of soil are actually gigantic black basalt rocks in all kinds of forms and shapes.  They’re the least fertile “fields” you could ever find!  Two thousand years after that cataclysmic volcanic activity, it looks as if death and destruction are still reigning in that bleak landscape.

. . . until you take a closer look!

We were stunned as we hiked through this area and began to see how much life there actually is in this place.  It’s amazing, the things that are able to grow—and even thrive!—in this desolate setting.

It starts with the lichens.  These organisms may be one of the simplest lifeforms on earth, but they have the amazing ability to grow on the rocks, where nothing else can grow.  Patches of bright green, soft white, and deep rust caught our eye, embellishing these ancient boulders.  Once those lichens get established, they set off a chain of life that starts encroaching on the barren black fields of Craters of the Moon.

There are “cinder gardens” (not “kindergartens”) where clumps of flowers grow out of the heaps of the fine black volcanic grit.  Rabbitbrush, cushion buckwheat, and sagebrush—eight different varieties!—have all somehow gained a foothold in this inhospitable environment.  As the afternoon sun beat down, we even spotted a smoothstem blazing star that was beginning to unfold its delicate yellow blossoms, even though it normally doesn’t open until dusk.

In some areas, the hardy conifer called limber pine has been able to find enough nutrition in the volcanic soil to set down roots and begin to grow.  And the birds!  Anyone who knows me knows that I love birds!  We saw rock wrens and turkey vultures, magpies and kestrels, rock pigeons and ravens. There was even a new one for me: the Clark’s Nutcracker.

It was utterly fascinating to see how such a hostile environment could actually yield an exceedingly rich variety of plants and animals. This place that at first glance seemed completely unable to sustain life was actually bursting with beauty and vitality.  It spoke to us deeply about Papa God’s ability to take the most barren, inhospitable places and bring forth life.  

And that’s just as true in our hearts as it is in creation.

You know what I’m talking about: the places in our lives that seem so dry and broken that nothing could live there ever again.  They look hopeless—as if the drought of loss has taken over our garden and sucked out all the life.  There’s nothing but barrenness. 

But somehow, as Father breathes on us, strength begins to emerge once again. He spreads a table before us in this wilderness and begins to feed us. Slowly our garden begins to return to life.  Dead seeds sprout.   Life gains a foothold once more.  Vitality returns. Barren branches are able to bud and blossom again.  Fruit is borne in places that once seemed too desolate to be revived.

God Himself put it this way as He spoke through the prophet Isaiah: “I will turn deserts into lakes.  I will turn dry land into springs.  I will plant cedar, acacia, myrtle, and wild olive trees in the desert.  I will place cedar, fir, and cypress trees together in the wilderness.  People will see and know.  Together they will consider and understand that the LORD’s power has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Isaiah 41:18b-20 in God’s Word to the Nations)

I guess He really is able to “spread a table in the wilderness”!  May Father God breathe on the bleak desert places in your life and mine! May He once again perform that resurrection miracle of producing life and fruitfulness in our places of loss and barrenness!

Do it again, Papa!

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G4 Prayers

I tend to bristle whenever anyone wants to give me “Three Easy Steps” to accomplish my goals, or some other formulaic way to approach life. I’ve lived long enough to know that this world is much too complex to boil things down to some simplistic recipe.

At the same time, I’m the kind of person who tends to see patterns. And sometimes those patterns can provide a helpful model for approaching the challenges I’m facing.

The other day as I read once again about the way Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, I noticed a model that I’ve decided I’d like to use as a jumping-off point for more of my prayers. I don’t want this to become some kind of magic formula for making sure my requests are answered–there are few things that can suck the life out of my relationship with Papa God faster than that kind of magical thinking! But it seems to me that Jesus’s “Lazarus prayer” can provide a really good framework for intercession–especially if my requests are going to be as audacious as Jesus’s command to Lazarus to come back to life after he’d been rotting for four days! (As Martha so practically observed, “He stinketh!” [John 11:39, KJV].)

So at the risk of providing a life-draining formula instead of a life-giving pattern, here are the four G’s that guide my Lazarus prayers:

Gaze

I love the way Jesus “lifted up his eyes” to heaven before He spoke a single word (John 11:41). What better way for Jesus to gain His Father’s perspective than to fix His gaze on the face of the One who was the catalyst for every action Jesus ever took? He told us He only did what He saw the Father doing, right? And that was one of the ways that Papa God expressed His love for the Son–by showing Him all the things that He Himself was doing (John 5:19-20). I can imagine this loving, attentive interchange going on as Jesus looked into His Father’s eyes and aligned Himself with heaven’s purposes. To lift my eyes to heaven like Jesus did, to gain Papa God’s perspective, to catch His heart for the situation I’m bringing to Him, to see what He’s doing and align myself with His plans . . . What better way could there be for me to start my own prayers?

Gratitude

Once Jesus was finished gazing and began to open His mouth, the first thing that came out was “Thank you.” Gratitude was Jesus’ foundation. And He knew before He spoke a single word that His Father had already heard Him. Apparently there had been an ongoing conversation between Father and Son on the topic of Lazarus’s life. So Jesus’s approach to Papa God was filled with confidence that He always had His Father’s ear, along with gratitude for His answer to this request (John 11:41-42). Confident gratitude–that’s the foundation that I want to lay when I approach Papa God with my requests, too.

Glory

Jesus was intent on glorifying His Father as He raised Lazarus from the dead. This was not about proving Himself, although many people did end up believing in Him because of what they saw that day (John 11:45). But Jesus was pointing to Papa God: “. . . that they may believe that You are the one who sent me” (vs. 42). Jesus’s heart was to express and reveal His Father’s glory to the people who had gathered there to mourn Lazarus’s death. May every prayer that I ever utter have that same intention!

Government

Maybe this “G” is a bit of a stretch, but alliteration helps me remember the things that are important to me. And I definitely don’t want to forget this component of Jesus’s prayer. It wasn’t a request. It wasn’t a petition. It was a command! And it was spoken with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out of the tomb!” Jesus expressed His authority–His rulership over death–through that decree. The government of the Godhead was embodied in that command. And it’s one of the most humbling and overwhelming mysteries of being a Jesus-follower that He sends us out into the world with that same authority as our banner (Matthew 28:18-20). I know there are times for crying out to Papa God with our heartfelt requests and petitions. But I don’t want to forget that there are also times to follow Jesus’s example here and make decrees that express His government. “Go!” “Be healed!” “Be opened” “Rise up and walk!”

What do you think? Are you facing a situation where it’s time for a Lazarus prayer? How might your prayers be different if they started with gazing at your Heavenly Father? Is there room for more gratitude in your requests? What would it look like for the glory of the Godhead to be expressed in this situation? What declarations can you make that would express the Lord’s government “on earth as it is in heaven”?

Why?

Isn’t this the One who opens blind eyes? Why didn’t he do something to keep Lazarus alive?”

John 11:37, The Passion Translation

Those nasty “Why?” questions. I’d stopped asking them. I figured it was an expression of trust in God if I didn’t even go there. Better just to accept what has happened and avoid the kind of accusations some of Lazarus’ friends expressed here. Besides, there seldom seems to be an answer. . . . at least not one that I can comprehend. These “Why?” questions seem so fruitless.

. . . and futile.

. . . and painful.

So when my friend, Judy, passed away a couple of weeks ago after a dreadful battle with cancer, I didn’t let myself entertain the “Why?” questions, even though her death took me by surprise. I really thought she was going to beat this thing and return to the grace-filled, fruitful life of compassion that she was known for. But I didn’t want to sound like Lazarus’ friends, so critical and reproachful. So my “Why’s?” went unasked.

But then I remembered: just a few verses earlier I’d read that Jesus made it clear to his disciples what was going on. When they thought Lazarus was just sleeping, he told them straight out: “Lazarus is dead. And for your sake I’m glad I wasn’t there, because now you have another opportunity to see who I am so that you will learn to trust in me. Come, let’s go see him.” (vs. 14-15, TPT) He wasn’t hiding anything from His followers. In fact, He seemed quite ready to clear up the confusion for them.

It struck me: What if I’ve been avoiding the “Why?” questions when Jesus actually wants to share some insights with me like he’d done with His disciples here? What if He is actually extending an invitation to understand His heart a little more, to catch another glimpse of who He is and what He’s like?

So I decided to do a quick search of “Why?” in my concordance. (I know, that’s a geeky way to process something like this, but it works for me.) I discovered that “Why?” is asked over 100 times in the New Testament, including dozens of times when Jesus Himself asked it! The stigma of “Why?” was falling away for me.

As I looked more carefully at Jesus’s “Why?” questions, I noticed I could group most of them into a couple different of different categories:

  • Exposure – Sometimes Jesus’s questions were intended to reveal the true intent of the people around Him: “But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?'” (Matthew 22:18 ESV)
  • Exasperation – Don’t you get it yet?! “Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said to them, ‘You have such little faith! Why are you arguing with one another about having no bread? Are you so slow to understand? Have you forgotten the miracle of feeding the five thousand families and how each of you ended up with a basket full of fragments?'” (Matthew 16:8-9 TPT)
  • Illumination – Jesus often asked questions to help people see things differently–to adjust their perspective: “But Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.'” (Mark 14:6 ESV)
  • Motivation – At times it seems like Jesus asks “Why?” to help people become more aware of what’s going on in their own hearts and identify what’s prompting their words and actions: “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:25-26, ESV)

Jesus used “Why?” questions to expose and illuminate. He already knew what was going on in the hearts of His listeners. What if I could turn that around and use my “Why?” questions to gain a clearer perspective of what’s going on in His heart? . . . to gain a deeper understanding of His motivations? And maybe it’s even okay for me to express my own exasperation like He did!

Of course my own “Why’s?” won’t be nearly as penetrating or insightful as His. And I certainly don’t need to question His sincerity or intentions like He often did with His “Why?” questions. But He does set an example for me to use the “Why?” questions as a way to gain deeper understanding at a heart level.

So maybe it’s okay for me to ask. Maybe the process of asking and listening will draw me deeper into Jesus’ heart as I seek to grasp some of His motivations. Maybe it’s okay for me to tell Him how exasperated and hurt I feel about my friend’s death. Maybe I’ll actually get some answers–and possibly even some peace–in places where I’m unsettled. Maybe having a conversation like this with my friend Jesus will actually be a good thing.

So I’m asking.

The “Why’s” are out there. And Jesus doesn’t seem to be offended by my questions. In fact, I think He’s glad that I’m asking–that I want to hear what’s going on in His heart.

I’m not going to pretend that I have a full understanding of why my friend Judy passed away. But I do know that this process of wrestling with the “Why’s” has actually held some surprising sweetness for me. In the midst of my grief and confusion I’ve also experienced the Lord’s tenderness as I wrestle with Him about this. And it seems like He’s glad that somebody actually wants to know more about how He perceives this tragic loss.

How about you? Is there something that’s going on in your life that just isn’t making sense? Have you experienced a painful loss recently? How do you feel about asking Jesus the hard “Why?” questions? Is He extending an invitation to you to ask Him some of these questions?

Signs in Our Presence

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples. . .” John 20:30a

Isn’t it marvelous that Jesus did so many wonders before the very eyes of His disciples?  He was right there with them and showed them that He really is the Messiah, the Son of God.  Do you ever find yourself wishing that you could have been there to witness those marvels firsthand?  I have! 

But at least Jesus made sure that many of these supernatural acts have been recorded.  In the next verse John went on to say that these signs had been written down so that his readers could also believe that Jesus is the Son of God, “. . . and that by believing you may have life in his name.” 

We have quite a treasury, don’t we?  There are all the miracles and marvels that have been chronicled throughout the Bible, as well as the myriad experiences and testimonies of all the saints that have been documented through the centuries.  What a feast!   These stories make it so much easier to believe in Jesus and experience “life in His name.”

But Jesus didn’t stop there.  He has done “many other signs in the presence of the disciples”—including you and me!  We all have our very own stories of the wonders we’ve seen.  He is still abundantly present in your life and mine, and we all have our own unique experiences and encounters with Jesus.  Just as He performed “many other signs” in the presence of His disciples two thousand years ago, He’s still performing marvels and miracles today in your presence and mine.

There’s something fascinating in the Greek word that John uses here for “presence.”  Maybe you’re not a word geek like me, but hang in there.  It will be worth it!  (Personally, I love looking at the meanings and origins of words.  I tend to process things visually, so by dissecting words like this I get a broader, more vivid picture of what the author was probably trying to convey.) In this passage, the Greek word for “presence” is especially intriguing to me: ἐνώπιον (en-o’-pee-on).  It’s a compound word that joins the prefix “in” with the word for “face”.  Can’t you just see it? Jesus was right up in the faces of His disciples, performing His wonders–not with the defiance we sometimes associate with “in your face,” but certainly with the boldness and assertiveness that go right along with it! 

That Greek word for “face” comes from a root that means “to gaze”.  But it’s not just any old gaze!  According to Strong’s Concordance, this is a gaze with eyes “wide-open”—one that is “intense,” “earnest,” “continuous” and “emphatic.” Strong differentiates this word from other Greek words that would simply denote “mechanical, passive or casual vision” or even “voluntary observation”.  So this is an in-your-face, shared-breath, nose-to-nose kind of encounter!  This is the kind of presence Jesus offered His disciples as he did all kinds of signs, marvels, and wonders.  And it’s the same kind of presence He is offering us today.

Now all we have to do is recognize these wonders! But I have to admit: that’s quite a challenge for me. It’s so easy to miss His marvels if I’m not paying attention.  And sometimes it seems to take some awfully intent gazing before I can discern His presence. Then there are the days that, for the life of me, His miracles and wonders seem far away no matter how earnestly I’m looking for His presence.

But amazingly, that doesn’t seem to stop Him from continuing to do signs in my presence. My lack of attentiveness can’t keep His marvels at bay. My struggles to see clearly won’t prevent His wonders from continuing to unfold around me. My distractions and ignorance don’t hinder His miracles: they happen whether I notice or not. The truth is, He’s there. Always. He keeps performing wonders. Continuously.

So my heart is to be a disciple who keeps cultivating my awareness of His presence and the marvels He does. I want to be an “earnest,” “continuous” observer who is on the lookout for his signs and wonders in my life and the lives of those around me.  I want to keep returning my gaze to Him with ever-increasing intensity as I seek to recognize the miracles He does in my presence.

That’s a lofty goal and I rarely achieve it. Usually it’s more like fleeting glimpses than earnest observation! But those glimpses can still become life-giving fuel for trust and belief. And the more I catch sight of his wonders, the easier it becomes to trust Him, and the more I experience “life in His name.” 

Right now He’s with you, too, welcoming you to gaze intently into His eyes, not as a casual observer or a passive on-looker, but as His friend.  Can you picture it? He is inviting you to see Him and to recognize His activity in your life—the personal ways He is revealing His marvels in your presence.  He is welcoming you to see how rich “life in His name” really is. Take a moment. Breathe in His presence. Look earnestly into His face. What marvels does He want to remind you of? What signs does He want to show you today?

“. . . that by believing you may have life in his name.”

A Strange Combination

We’ve been on the road for more than three months now. Thankfully there have been some long pauses along the way–extended time with family members in Texas, New York, and Indiana. But still I find myself longing to rest, aching for a place to stop, yearning for a break from perpetual movement.

Our stability in the midst of this transience is Papa God’s presence. That sounds pretty grand and holy, doesn’t it? But to be honest, I struggle to hold on to this truth. It seems so elusive at times.

So one way I try to maintain my focus is to feed myself on the images evoked by words like, “In the cover of your presence you hide them” (Psalm 31:20), and “You make him glad with the joy of your presence” (Psalm 21:6). I thrive when I return to these promises that He will be with us, and that His presence will provide the shelter and joy I so long for.

This morning’s reassurance came from Exodus 33:14: “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.” Pondering those words, I basked in the life-giving radiance of this truth:

Awareness of His presence will take me to that place of rest I’m pining for.

I delighted in the implications of this rest as I mulled over the definition and synonyms of the Hebrew word used here:

נוּחַ
nûach – to rest, that is, settle down; to dwell, stay, withdraw, cease, lay, be quiet, remain, set down. (excerpted from Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary)

Ahhhh! Sweet comfort!

But wait a minute…

God’s words here don’t speak only of rest: there’s also the going. “My presence will go with you…” These words were spoken to the children of Israel as they were commencing their forty years of wandering, not when they were settled. This is a nation in motion–one that does not yet have a homeland to settle in.

Okay, so that must mean Papa’s presence brings a rest that can also accompany you and me as we continue our journeys. Settledness and sojourning can coexist. Quietness and wayfaring can walk hand-in-hand. That’s quite a strange combination–an odd juxtaposition of movement and stability! But it’s a life-giving one.

So here I go again: another day of sojourning. But this time it’s from that place of rest that can be mine when I manage to recognize His presence.

“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”