Diamonds In The Trees – To Have or to Hold?

I recently came across some thoughts I wrote down in February of 2000, shortly after we moved to Oregon from London and were living out in the forest 30 miles southwest of Bend. I’ll put those thoughts here, then tell you how I’m thinking about them now:

I’m sitting in my chair in the living room of this house in the mountains of Central Oregon with windows on three sides. The early sun is coming up from behind the house and shining its rays across the forest before me. It was cold last night (0F/-18C) and there is about a foot of snow on the ground and heavy frost on the pine trees.

As I look out at Pistol Butte with the rays of early morning sun hitting the frost on the pine trees and the snow on the ground, I realize that what I’m seeing looks like an immense wealth of diamonds! As the slanting rays of the sun creep down from the tops of the trees, incredibly bright jewels appear in the branches. I can see them clearly from over 300 yards away and when I look at them with the binoculars, they become even bigger and brighter. On the snow outside my window and on the nearby trees, the frost jewels are small and they sparkle like a scattering of small diamonds. On the far trees they are big, bright, and look like diamonds the size of my fist. They shine like car headlights! How many carats of diamond are we talking about here?

These jewels appear, they gleam and sparkle, and then in a few minutes as the frost crystal melts or the angle of the sun changes, they’re gone. But while they are there, for that few minutes, they’re mine! I enjoy them and I marvel at their beauty, brighter than diamonds, more than many millions could buy. If the weather stays cold and clear, they’ll be there again tomorrow when I’m sitting in my chair, cup of coffee in hand, doing my daily Bible Reading.

I can’t own these precious jewels, but they are mine for the few brief moments they exist. I can’t collect them, hold them, mount them in gold or silver, or put them in a box. But I can enjoy their beauty and even share them with you by my words or show them to you if you were here. I can share them with you and I still have them. The precious jewels of the sun-on-snow are gone in minutes, and yet I still have them. They are mine in my memory on a dull cloudy day when the sun’s rays don’t light the distant peaks or creep down the trees from top to bottom. I can’t keep them and yet I will always have them.

To Have or to Hold… Stewardship or Ownership?

First Nations People in North America found it absurd that the Europeans who came here believed that you could own the land. The land is there. You are born, you live, you die. The land is still there. Each tribe may have established boundaries for the land that they will use, but to “own the land” was a concept that they simply didn’t have!

Years ago when Jean and I were still in business in Richland, Washington we knew a couple named Paul and Joan Dionne. Paul and Joan were customers at our Texaco garage and occasionally they would stop in and say, “Aren’t you about due for a break? Please take a few days and go stay in our cabin on the lake.” Several times over a period of a few years we did that. We would go for a few days or a week and stay in their lakeside cabin, ride their motorcycles on forest roads, and paddle their canoe across the lake. We didn’t own a cabin or any kind of vacation home, but thanks to the generosity of this Christian couple we had the use of a lovely place. We went there with our children, and we were able to take friends there with us. The memories we made staying in Dionne’s cabin, riding their motorcycles, and paddling their canoe across the lake will always be with us, will always be part of who we are and who our children are.

During our years in London of starting and developing East London Bible Training Centre we never owned a building for the school. But through the faith of Pastor Mervyn Tilley and the generosity of the Leytonstone Elim Church, we had the use of Wadham Hall, a building that was ideal in design and ideally located for the purposes of the Bible Training Centre.

Through the years there have been so many gracious people who have blessed us with the use of things we needed for a season! I think of friends who loaned us vehicles on a number of occasions when we were in the US and needed transportation for a time. I think of people who hosted us in their homes during our travels. I think of the couple who provided the house we are presently living in outside Bend and who have made such provision for us in many ways here. Their generosity has helped us to see a completely new side of God’s provision and has helped our faith grow in tremendous ways. END OF February 2000 THOUGHTS.

NOW flash forward to 2021. The pattern has held. We’ve never owned a beach house, but a couple in our local church did, and for a period of several years they made it available to us and others to use. So many memories made there! And even more recently another Central Oregon couple made their vacation cabin in the Mt Hood area available for our use for a while. More blessing! More memories made! And now Jean and I own a home here in Bend, after all those years of living in rented accommodations in Jamaica and the UK. It’s nice to have a home of our own! I can tell you that there are a lot of memories made under this roof as well!

To Have or to Hold…Ownership or Stewardship?

I’m not saying that ownership is wrong or that anyone who owns things is materialistic. Someone has to own the stuff to make it available to those who need the use of it. I own some stuff (a lot of stuff, actually!): Home, car, furniture, computer, clothes, normal stuff a person has to have to live a “normal” life here in the USA. So I’m not saying it’s wrong to own things or to have “stuff.” I’m saying that there are different kinds of stewardship.

God is El Elyon, The Creator and Possessor of Heaven and Earth (See Genesis 14:18-23). That means all the stuff actually is God’s. That means all the stuff we have is entrusted to us by the One who actually owns it. If you “own” something you have the privilege to make it available for God’s Kingdom. If you use something you don’t own you have the privilege to make yourself and the benefit you gain from its use available for God’s Kingdom.

Look at this description of how the first generation of Christian believers dealt with issues of Having or Holding:

44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity. (Acts 2:44-46 NLT)

32 All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. 33 The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. 34 There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them 35 and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. (Acts 4:32-35 NLT)

Perhaps the key to this incredible season of unity and community was this attitude; All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had.

I don’t think that a systematized approach to this kind of unity and sharing actually is what God has in mind. In fact, I don’t think a systematized approach really works! The first Christians were having problems with it in no time! (story in Acts 5:1-11). I do think such a way of living in community is good in some times and some situations. We saw various forms of this in the late 60’s and early 70’s in the Jesus People Movement. (All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had.) But as soon as it moved from being a heart attitude to being structured, systematized, and loaded with expectations, it began to fall apart, to be abused, and to create strife and conflict.

I don’t believe that it is inherently better to have little or to have much. I believe it is a matter of seeing God as the source and owner and seeing yourself as a responsible steward of the things you possess.

To Have or to Hold…Ownership or Stewardship?

Right values are not determined by whether we possess a little or a lot. The person with few possessions may be more bound by materialism than the person with great wealth. Here are some indications of an unhealthy attitude towards material possessions:

    • Greater concern for possessions than people. Working long and hard to achieve financial success to the detriment of family. Owning valuable things but not using them or making them available for use. Do you love people and use things, or use people and love things?
    • Excessive debt or chronic debt. Some debt is incurred because of crisis. Some debt is incurred because of investment. Some debt is incurred by spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like!
    • Selfish attitude. When toddlers start to play with other children often the first thing you hear is “mine!” Could we infer from this that selfishness is an indication of immaturity?
    • Pride of possession. Feeling superior because you own things that others don’t have; bigger house, newer car, more exotic holidays. Showing off by flaunting wealth or possessions. Keeping score by measuring against others.
    • Inability to give, share, or let go of wealth or possessions. The need to hoard money or things due to feelings of insecurity or fear. Could it be true that if you own something you can’t give, share, or let go of, that it actually owns you?
    • Desire to accumulate things I know I don’t need. When I have enough, what is it that pushes or pulls me to keep getting more?

To Have or to Hold… Stewardship or Ownership?

This article is not intended as a simplistic “give it all away” kind of tirade.

    • It’s intended to provoke some thoughts about issues of ownership and stewardship.
    • It’s intended to help us think about what really is valuable in our lives. What really matters?! How much is enough?!
    • It’s intended to help you think about what has true value. To help shift the focus from the material (which will pass with the using) to the eternal (which will never pass away).

I hope that this post hasn’t sounded “preachy” to you. It’s just that I found out that the trees in the forest are full of diamonds and I wanted to share them with you!

Life is full of precious treasures that we may overlook because we can’t put them in the bank or “own” them in some way!

One thing to remember about diamonds in the trees is that you must take time to enjoy them while they are there. You can’t lock them up and wait for a convenient time to take them out and enjoy them. If you don’t enjoy them while they are there, you’ll never have them. If you do enjoy them while they are there you’ll always have them.  Can you see the diamonds in your trees?

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

 

Jo Ellen

For a few years in the early 2000’s Jean and I had the great privilege of serving a group of churches in Oregon and SW Idaho on behalf of our denomination. The 43 churches in the Cascade District were grouped into geographical Divisions and we gathered with the leaders of the churches in each Division at least once per year. We’d make a weekend of it and have a dinner meeting with all the pastors and their spouses, then visit and speak in one of the churches in the area on Sunday morning, before returning to Bend.

On one of those weekends when we were with the SW Idaho churches, I spoke on Sunday morning at a church in Boise. It was a small church, meeting in a borrowed facility, maybe a Scout Lodge. They didn’t have any musicians to provide the worship music, so they played worship songs from a CD in a small boom box and the pastor stood at the front and led us in singing. It was simple and sweet!

Then the pastor introduced Jean and me and I gave them a greeting on behalf of our denomination’s District Supervisor. I encouraged them that they are part of a good group of churches that has significant outreach to many nations. I told them that we were able to be with them on that Sunday because the denomination they’re part of cares about them and had sent us to them so we could get to know them better and better understand their situation. I love to do that! Then I began to speak the message, the sermon, I had prepared for them for that morning.

A lady suffering from multiple sclerosis, sitting kind of bent and twisted in her wheel chair, sat in the front row. She was as attentive to my words as her condition allowed. I could tell when something in my message really connected with her because her head would bob back and forth and she smiled. I must have been doing okay because she bobbed and smiled often!

When the service finished, I went to her and introduced myself and asked her name. Her name is Jo Ellen. She’s been part of the church since it started, and one of the important reasons the church meets in that little building is that it has a ramp so Jo Ellen can easily get in and out in her wheelchair. Jo Ellen is an important part of that church!

Jo Ellen lives in a body that keeps her alive but isn’t able to allow her to do all she’d like to do. Her body also hinders her ability to express the thoughts and ideas of her excellent mind. She had some helpful and encouraging comments on my sermon! er naShe didn’t talk very loudly and it took her a long time to form and speak her words. I leaned in close to hear her whispers and to watch her mouth shape the words so I could understand what she was saying. I thought, “How frustrating that must be for her!” I was glad it wasn’t as hard for me to say the words of the message as it was for her to express her thoughts about it. I’m afraid I don’t have the stamina or the courage Jo Ellen has.

Our conversation took some time. As I listened carefully to Jo Ellen, I wondered how many times Father God has had to bend down close to me and watch my lips forming the words with difficulty and heard me struggle to speak my heart to him. How he loves us!

Thinking back to that Sunday morning, I realized that I don’t remember anyone else from that morning or any of the other conversations I participated in after the service before we all went our separate ways. But I’m so thankful for that conversation with Jo Ellen on that Sunday morning! It turns out that whatever else may or may not have taken place on that occasion, Jo Ellen had some things to teach me. I’m not sure how memorable my sermon was that Sunday morning. I know the things I learned from Jo Ellen were memorable!

Here are a few things that have occurred to me and that I’ve been thinking seriously about. Maybe there’s something for you to think about here as well:

    • I can’t imagine life in Jo Ellen’s wheelchair. As far as I’m concerned, she’s a hero! I can imagine, however, my own God-aware spirit living in a body of flesh that often refuses to cooperate. My spirit wants to do what is good and noble and my body of flesh can be so stubborn and uncooperative! My spirit has kind and wise things to say, and my body of flesh mumbles and stammers and sometimes doesn’t speak at all.
    • God loves the person I am, not just the person I wish I was! I’m sure Jo Ellen must have been frustrated with the reality that her brilliant mind was hindered from communication and expression and control by the limitations of her body. I know I get frustrated that my spirit is hindered from expression and control by my flesh with its stubbornness, selfishness, and me-centered focus. But God loves the whole me! And the whole you! Not just your spirit, but your whole self.
    • God may have something really important to say to you and teach you through someone you’re not expecting to speak to you. It may require some effort on your part to listen and hear. It may not be easy for the person to speak those words to you. Don’t miss it because you’re too busy to stop and listen. Don’t miss it because it’s too much trouble to listen.

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

God’s Peace

A few years ago, Jean and I and another pastor were ministering in Blantyre, Malawi, southern Africa. Stuart Palmer, one of our past students from East London Bible Training Centre, was director of an orthopedic hospital in Blantyre and had started a Bible Training Centre at his hospital using our Foundation for Christian Service course. We were there to teach a week of classes at the Training Centre and to meet with area pastors to give some encouragement and assistance. It had been a great week of ministry as well as time well-spent with Stuart and his staff at the hospital.

We were visiting three countries we’d never visited before, and we had to go in and out of Johannesburg, South Africa each time to travel between the other countries. Malawi was our second southern African country on this trip, and we still had about a week of ministry in Botswana ahead. Every time you cross an African border there are so many things that can go wrong! And besides, the national airline of Malawi, which at one point had seven planes, was down to one aging Boeing 737 that was so old it had ashtrays on the seat arms! It was rumored they might go out of business at any moment, and by that evening, we still needed to get out of Malawi, through South Africa, into Botswana.

I was so stressed! I had been saying to God that if he didn’t find a way to help me deal with the stress of Africa travel, I didn’t think I could keep doing it.

We stopped at our friend Stuart’s office at the hospital where we had held the Training Course and the pastors’ meeting, to pray together, to say goodbye, and to borrow his Land Cruiser and driver to get to the airport. We talked for a while and then Stuart prayed for us. He prayed for safe travel and several other things and then he prayed for peace. As he prayed, something engaged in my spirit and soul and I said, “Father, I receive the gift of your peace.” I consciously took all my “what-if’s” and gave them to my Father. I felt peace!

The day was long and the details of our travels were complicated. Our flights were late. But every time the stress started to rise, I consciously and intentionally said, “Father, I give you all these things I can’t control. Deal with them as you choose. I receive your peace.” It worked, and it has had a long-term effect. It still requires conscious attention, decision, and release. But it still works!

As time passes, I’m realizing some things about myself. I know, it’s about time, right!? One of the things I realize is that under my outwardly calm and cool exterior, sometimes there’s quite a bit of stress and anxiety going on. And in keeping with this entirely appropriate mantra for a 78-year-old: “Nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to hide, nothing to prove!”, I’m more often and more quickly facing up to and acknowledging some of this stuff. So this is that: I get really anxious sometimes, and sometimes I feel simply and darkly overwhelmed.

I mentioned some of this in a recent blog post “Emptying The Dishwasher”. If you missed it, you can read it here.  But this is a little deeper dive into my anxieties and stress. I don’t know if it’s getting worse as I get older or if I’m simply a little more able to face and acknowledge it, but there are a couple of ways it hits me.

I get really anxious over details of things. Next week at this time I’ll be in Portland, preparing for the Stem Cell Harvest that precedes my currently postponed Stem Cell Transplant. I’ll keep you posted on when the transplant gets scheduled, but as I mentioned last week, the ICU beds at OHSU are filled with COVID patients so cancer treatment is postponed for now.

During my week in Portland, I’ll be undergoing testing of most of my body’s systems. I’ll be poked, prodded, and subjected to a variety of indignities. One of the procedures I’ll have is a bone marrow biopsy. I had one of those in April to confirm my Multiple Myeloma diagnosis. It was unpleasant. I’m going to have another biopsy next week. But you know what? It’s not the indignities and unpleasantness that make me anxious. It’s the details—the details of getting to the appointments, of finding a place to park, of worry over being on time, that sort of thing. My anxiety is far more related to the processes than to the outcomes. But it’s real nonetheless and it’s something I have to deal with.

Lately I have times when I feel darkly overwhelmed—times when I sit down and put my head in my hands and just feel bad! This occasional feeling of being overwhelmed is something I’ve just noticed since beginning cancer treatment. Part of my treatment is a fairly large dose of steroids every week. For two days after taking my steroids, I feel full of energy (well half-full anyhow) and I make plans for lots of projects around the house, things to do, places to go. Then I don’t feel so full of energy (as the steroids wear off?) and I discover that my brain has been writing checks my body can’t cash! And some weeks I start to feel overwhelmed – darkly overwhelmed. Is it the steroids or something else? Or maybe a little of both? Whatever it is, it’s something that has to be dealt with!

For those of you who are thinking, “Get a Grip”! Snap out of it! Thank you! I’m happy for you that you are able to be in command and control of your life in all situations. Thank you to all the people who have instructed me to “Get a Grip” through the years.

However, for those of you who, like me, face anxiety and an occasional sense of being darkly overwhelmed, this is about another resource… God’s peace. So today, I pray for you and for me, the way Stuart prayed for me a few years ago in his office at the hospital in Blantyre!

Father, I reach out to you in prayer today for my friends and me. I’m praying especially for my friends, who, like me, sometimes get stressed and anxious over details and processes and things over which we don’t have control. I’m also praying especially for my friends who experience times (moments, seasons?) of feeling darkly overwhelmed. Sometimes the details seem to spin out of control, and we get really anxious. Sometimes things seem heavy and dark, and we feel pressed down under the weight of it all.

I pray that you will give us peace in the whirling storm of detail and that you will lift from us the weight and burden that presses us down.

I pray the promise Jesus gave to his followers and I ask that by your Holy Spirit you would make this promise alive and personal to each of us who needs this promise and assurance today: “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27 NLT)

Thank you for your gift of peace. In Jesus’ Name!

Friends, let’s choose to let God control our today and our tomorrow! Let’s receive the gift of God’s peace!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

Buddy Trusts Me

There’s a big difference between how well I can look after my dog and how well God can look after me. But I have learned some important things about trusting God from my experience with how my dogs have learned to trust me through the years. That’s what this story is about.

Important information before reading further: This story is about Buddy the Dog, and not about Jake the Desert Bone Dog! You may know Jake from my Facebook page or my Instagram account . Buddy was a Cocker Spaniel mix rescue dog who was a very big part of our family from 2003 to 2014. Jake is an English Springer Spaniel who has been a very big part of our family since October 2015. There will no doubt be some Jake the Desert Bone Dog stories in my blog posts from time to time, but this is about Buddy!

A few years ago, my dog Buddy had to have surgery on his left rear knee (who knew dogs had knees?). Buddy loved to run and while running like a crazy dog in the desert, he had badly torn the ligament that holds the joint together. He had been lame and in a lot of pain for a few days as we processed him through visits to the regular vet and referrals to a veterinary orthopedist and arranged for his operation. The vet surgically replaced the torn ligament with monofilament nylon line and patched in some tissue from another part of his leg to repair the joint. Buddy stayed in the veterinary hospital overnight and I picked him up the next morning.

Poor little guy! His hindquarters were shaved on one side but he was still his hairy self over the rest of his body. He had a bright blue hard and bulky bandage that covered the length of his left back leg, a pain meds patch on a shaved part of his back right foot, and a bandage on his right front leg where the IV needle was inserted for the operation. He just didn’t know what to do or think about his situation!

The veterinary surgery technician sent me home with dire warnings of what could go wrong if I let him run, jump, climb stairs, jump into the car, or do any of the other things he loved to do and was apt to do suddenly and without notice. So for a few weeks, Buddy was severely restricted for activity. He had to be on leash all the time he was outside the house. I had to lift him in and out of the car and carry him up and down stairs. That really changed things in our household for a while!

For the first few days home, Buddy was not in a running and jumping mood. He was lethargic from the medication and he moaned softly from time to time from the pain. It hurt me to see him hurt! I so wished Buddy could tell me how he was feeling and when he needed to go out to relieve himself and when he was thirsty and when the pain was just too much! But he couldn’t. He was a dog and didn’t speak human. I’m a mere human and couldn’t read his mind. The fact is, if I had known what he wanted or needed and had the power to do it, I would have done most anything, because I love my dog!

I remember sitting in my red recliner chair early in the morning, doing my Bible reading and journaling and Buddy lying on the floor right beside my chair, as close to me as he could get. Buddy was getting as close to me as he could, because Buddy trusted me! He was in pain, he didn’t know what was happening and what the outcome would be, he didn’t know what to do, so he simply wanted to be near me because my behavior toward him had always been consistently for his benefit. He trusted me!

Think about this:

    • Even though it was action on my part (vet, surgery, bandages) that caused his immediate pain…
    • Even though there was no way I could explain to him that the pain and discomfort was for his good and that it would lead to healing…
    • Even though there was nothing I could do to help him feel better except scratch behind his ears a little…
    • He wanted to be near me. He pressed closer instead of moving away. He trusted me!

Then I thought about me and my master – my Father God. I wished that I could be as good a master to Buddy as God is to me! I cared for Buddy during his injury and recovery. I paid for Buddy’s diagnosis and surgery. But I couldn’t fix him or stop his pain or explain to him what was going on! I could only do my best to see Buddy through the necessary recovery process. I could only restrict his running and jumping and watch him carefully and try to read his little doggy mind to figure out what he needed. In spite of my limitations, and based on a few years of interactions and my behavior toward him in all sorts of other situations, Buddy trusted me.

You know, trust is not really effectively commanded or demanded. Trust is developed through relationship and interaction. When a person (or a dog) (or God) acts consistently in a certain manner over time, you begin to think in terms of that (person, God, or dog) as being trustworthy. Worthy of trust. Trustable. And you begin to assume, expect, trust that given a certain situation or set of circumstances, that person, dog or God will continue that expected action. You feel you can trust them.

Well, here’s the thing: I want to have the same attitude towards my Father God as Buddy had towards me! I want to so simply and completely trust God that when I’m in pain or confused or afraid, I’ll instinctively get as close to God as I can and simply trust God to do the right things and be with me in the pain and arrange the best outcome possible. And I’ll do that because I trust my Father God – not because I’m commanded to trust God and not because God demands that I trust him – but because I’ve learned to trust God through years of interactions and situations.

God loves me even more than I love my dog. He does know what I’m thinking and he understands my moans and groans perfectly. And not only that, he has the power to do what needs to be done.

I don’t want to be preachy here, but you and I both know that trust is not effectively demanded or commanded, it’s developed in relationship and experience. So here’s what I do and I’m strongly encouraging you to do some form of trust development with our Father God. I know you trust God, but what I’m aiming for here is some attitudes and practices that relationally grow and develop your God-trust so it will be the kind of trust that makes you move closer to God when the pain hits, when you’re confused or discouraged. Here are some suggestions:

    • Develop constant God-awareness. Our Bible-derived theology tells us that God is always present. God is near, not far. I see the value in places: sanctuaries, church gatherings, rituals. But bring your God-awareness into every part of your life. Think lots of God-thoughts.
    • Talk to God conversationally and often. I’m in favor of formal prayer practices, but I carry on a running conversation with God as I go through my day. I ask a lot of questions. I “run things by” him. I make suggestions and then listen to try and see how God thinks about my ideas. Engage with the God Who Is There!
    • Develop your own God-awareness, your trust developing attitudes and practices, and tell me and others what works for you. Share your insights.

I’m determined to learn to trust God like Buddy trusted me. Even when the pain passes through God’s hands to me…

    • Even when there’s no way God can explain to me why…
    • Even though there are factors at work that only God understands…
    • I want to, I will press closer to God and not turn away.

How about you!?!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

There’s an update on my health and cancer situation here.

 

The Cemetery

It was a bloody battle in a wood outside a small French village, near the end of WWII. When the battle ended one young American soldier knelt beside the body of his best friend and wept. The thought of his friend lying in an unmarked grave was not acceptable and he lifted his friend’s body to his shoulder and began to walk toward a village nearly four miles away.

As he neared the village he saw the steeple of a chapel rising above the trees and turned his weary steps toward the church. He soon saw that it was a monastery and that beside the chapel was a little cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence. The graves were marked with stones and the grounds were well-tended. The young soldier thought, “If only I can bury my friend here in this little cemetery, I’ll know I can return to visit his grave someday.”

He approached the chapel and gently laid his friend’s body on the ground, then stepped up to the rough wooden door and knocked. Almost immediately the door opened and a monk, a young man about the age of the soldier, stepped out and greeted him. As he was about to ask if he could help the soldier in some way, the monk saw the body of the dead man lying on the ground just at the cemetery gate.

The soldier said, “Please Father, may I bury my friend in your cemetery? He was a good man, a good friend, and I can’t bear to think of his body lying in an unmarked grave here in these woods, so far from our home in America.”

“Was your friend a Catholic?” the monk asked?

“No, Father, he was not Catholic but he was a Christian and he loved God with all his heart.”

The monk looked at the soldier with obvious regret and said, “I’m sorry, friend. The rules are clear and I don’t have the authority to make exceptions. Only Catholics can be buried in the cemetery. I’m so sorry!”

As a look first of disappointment and then pain passed across the face of the soldier, the monk continued, “Would it be alright with you if we buried your friend just outside the cemetery gate? We could put a nice stone at his head and clearly mark the grave.”

The soldier said, “Thank you, Father. You’re kind and I appreciate it so much. I’ve just got to be able to find my friend’s grave when I return after this terrible war is finally over.”

Together they dug a grave just outside the fence. Together they laid the dead soldier’s body gently in the ground. Together they carried a heavy stone and placed it at the head of the grave. With bowed heads they stood and the priest prayed for the young soldier’s safety as he endeavored to find his way back to Allied lines through dangerous enemy territory.

The soldier made it to safety and he survived the terrors of the war and at war’s end he returned to his home town in America.

Over twenty years had passed before the not-quite so young man managed to save up the money to visit his friend’s grave just outside the little cemetery near the French village. His ticket bought, he flew to Paris and traveled by train to the village. As he left the station, he could see the spire of the little chapel in the woods near the town. With the steeple as his guide he walked quickly to the monastery and rushed over to the fence of the cemetery and walked quickly along to the gate.

He looked all around – the grass was still carefully tended – but he couldn’t find the headstone. He couldn’t find his friend’s grave. He soon realized that something was wrong! The grave simply wasn’t there!

His initial confusion turned to disappointment and disappointment to pain as he walked quickly to the door of the chapel and knocked again as he had so many years before. Almost as quickly as before the door was answered – answered by the same monk he had met after the battle that took his friend’s life.

He hardly greeted the monk and then his disappointment tumbled out in a torrent of words, “It’s gone! My friend’s grave is gone! You helped me bury him after that awful battle so many years ago. We put a stone at his head just outside the fence so I could find the grave when I returned. But it’s gone! What has happened to the grave?”

The monk gently took his arm and led him toward the cemetery gate. “You’ll find your friend’s grave just inside the fence. Go ahead, it’s just over there. Do you see it now?”

“Oh Father,” he cried, “Have you moved my friend’s grave?”

“No, friend,” the monk replied. “I moved the fence.”

I was raised in a segment of Evangelical Christianity that specialized in fences. We had fences that were put in place by the rules we made, kind of like the fence around the little cemetery in France that was put in place by a rule to only allow a certain kind of person to be buried there. Our fences and rules weren’t about who got to be buried in our church, but were certainly about who got to be counted as part of our church. And I suppose that can be a good thing. But our rules and fences were pretty technical. Not so much about heart condition but more about things one should or shouldn’t do, places one should or shouldn’t go, and doctrinal belief requirements that were pretty far from the basics on simple faith in Jesus.

I know, “broad road to destruction and narrow road to life”, but this wasn’t really that. I guess we thought it was, but it wasn’t. So there were a lot of really genuine Christians, Christ-followers, that we didn’t fellowship with because they baptized differently or had a different approach to church structure, or whatever.

Later, when I was in the Army and met other kinds of Christians and when I was in Vietnam and worked with a chaplain of a different denomination, and then met and learned from a Vietnamese Catholic priest who had established a refugee village near our battalion HQ, I realized that my fences were too narrow and had been put in place by the wrong kinds of rules.

Anyhow, I’ve been moving fences for quite a few years now. I realize I could get carried away with fence moving or maybe even tear the fences down altogether and it could lead to a bad result. But so far, I have no regrets about the fences I’ve moved. There’s room for a lot more diversity than I realized in those early days.

Here’s a thought: Is there a fence that you could move to make a little more room on the inside of your heart, in your circle of fellowship?

Prayer:

Father, I’m so thankful that when I don’t quite measure up to Your standards and there is nothing I can do to help myself that You find a way to satisfy Your righteousness and to manifest Your mercy toward me. Thank You that in Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins, you “moved the fence” to include me.

 Please help me to be willing “to move the fence” for others as You have for me. Fill me with Your compassion and grace that I may never exclude others simply because they somehow don’t  measure up to the requirements of “the rules”. May I always look for creative ways to bring others in and not fence them out.

 For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.  (John 3:16-17 NLT)

 As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

Fifty Eight Years

Today, August 17, 2021, is our 58th wedding anniversary!  As I look back it just doesn’t seem possible it’s been 58 years since twenty-year-olds Jim
Stephens and Jean Storey got married in Othello, Washington, and began a new life together.

We spent our first married years in Richland, Washington, where Jean got a job before I did. She worked at the Bob-A-Lou Drive In cooking and serving Atomic Burgers and Cokes and Shakes. (I tried selling Encyclopedias door to door for a couple of weeks and soon learned that door to door selling was not going to be my career of choice!) Then through a recommendation from my policeman friend Walt Marsh I got a job at Wascher’s Mobil Station at $1.35 an hour (25 cents above normal starting pay!). After about two years Don, one of my co-workers, and I bought the station from our boss, and began a sweet partnership running a well-established neighborhood gas and service business. We didn’t lose any business in the changeover because our customers saw the same smiling faces every time they drove in.

Our business partnership was cut short when I was drafted into the Army in February of 1966. After basic training at Fort Campbell, KY and specialized training in Fort Eustis, VA, I was sent back to Fort Campbell to 20th Transportation Company (Aircraft Direct Support) to await deployment to South Vietnam. Jean joined me and we lived off-post in Clarksville, TN for a few months. Our daughter Stephanie was born at the Fort Campbell post hospital on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1966.

1966 was my “getting drafted and getting my military training” year, but Jean and I managed to be together for quite a bit of that year by living off post in Newport News, VA and Clarksville, TN. We were together for the birth of our daughter Stephanie in November. We were together for Christmas. We were together for our third anniversary in 1966. We were not together on our anniversary in 1967, because that was my Vietnam year. I was just thinking about that as I was writing this paragraph… August 17, 1967 is the only wedding anniversary we haven’t been together! So I guess 57 out of 58 isn’t bad!

Close to the time I got out of the army to return home from Vietnam, Jean moved back to Richland, WA and that’s where I came home to. When I first got home I worked part time at the Mobil Gas Station I had previously owned and I attended Columbia Basin College in Pasco, WA. But the gasoline and oil must have been in my blood because by the time my first semester of classes finished, we had bought another service station in partnership with my friend Walt Marsh who didn’t want to be a policeman anymore. That partnership lasted a year or so, then Jean and I bought out Walt’s share and took on the business on our own.

Those were good years! From about early 1969 to 1975 we built the business, learned a lot of lessons about business management, and felt we’d found something we wouldn’t mind doing for a long time. There were financial struggles during the fuel shortages in 1973 and after the introduction of self-service gasoline sales about the same time. I could write pages of stories about how God faithfully worked through our hard work and determination and even through the financial mistakes and miscalculations we made. By 1975 the business was solid enough that we were looking for an additional station to buy and move from being “farmers” to “ranchers” in the gas station business.

Church was a big part of our lives in those days. But we were hungry for something more and we found some of what our hearts longed for in home Bible studies with friends and in close, strong friendships with other young couples in their twenties like us. Then the Jesus People Movement came to our little corner of the world and the hunger in our hearts for more of the experiential reality of faith quickly drew us in. In our late twenties by then, we were older than most of the others and began to lead and influence. Our daughter Melissa was born in September of 1971 and at about that time we transitioned from our church to the new Jesus People church in Richland.

Life was good! Did I say that already? Marriage, kids, friends, God, our business, ministry… it was all flowing together nicely and it seemed like we were kind of in a good groove! But our hearts were still stirred and in a few years, we sold the business and became “full-time” in ministry. Then five years later we moved from Richland, WA to Medford, OR to start a new church! That was exciting and also probably the hardest and most challenging thing we’d ever done! And then four years later, God reconnected us with friends and ministry partners we’d served with in Jamaica in the late 70’s (I know, I didn’t write about that! Maybe another time!) and we moved to Linstead, a market town in Jamaica’s Central Highlands to pastor a church. That worked well.

Then we moved to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, and helped a team start a Bible Training Centre. After a year or so, the other ex-pats on the team moved on and Jean and I stayed to develop the Bible Training Centre and transition it from a ministry by “missionaries” to a ministry of the Jamaican church. That worked well.

In the meantime we’d traveled to the UK in 1990 and again in 1991 to explore taking the Bible Training Centre ministry and concept to London. In London where we connected with heart-hungry people from Africa and began to connect with a similar need for training in Ghana and Uganda. That worked well, too!

Anyhow, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve realized that Jean and I have celebrated a lot of wedding anniversaries! We’ve celebrated more of our anniversaries in the US than anywhere else. And more in Oregon than in any other part of the US. But we’ve celebrated wedding anniversaries in Jamaica, in England, in France, and in Uganda as well.

As you can imagine, lots of things have happened in the lives of Jim and Jean in 58 years of marriage that I haven’t mentioned here. When I started typing this I didn’t really know where it was going and now that we’re here I’m not really sure where it has gone! I mostly wanted to reflect on wedding anniversaries and the fact that being married nearly sixty years accumulates a lot of them!

My blog posts are usually about something and usually include reference to some things I’ve learned through life’s successes and failures and experiences. I don’t really have “three points” of application here, but some things have occurred to me as I’ve been writing:  (Big Disclaimer! These are not intended to be Prescriptive of the way to live your life and your marriage! These are Descriptive of some things Jean and I have realized about ourselves and our own life. Emulate these at your own risk!)

Divorce was never an option for us. I think the secret of our long and happy marriage is no more complicated than that we decided before we said all the “for better or for worse, and ‘til death do us part” stuff that divorce was simply not an option. We would not consider it, talk about it, or even make reference to it. Therefore, when hurts, offenses, misunderstandings, seasons of dullness, and whatever else occurred, if we didn’t want to be miserable, we had to work through the stuff. Because it didn’t make sense to be miserable!

We never had a master plan. We had values. We had interests. We had passion for things. But we didn’t have a plan for our lives other than to face each situation that arose and figure out what needed to be done and give it a shot. I remember at the end of high school, so many of the kids knew where they were going to college, they knew what career they would pursue, they had their lives sort of all planned out. I envied that! But not enough to do it. So I guess our life plan has been “do what needs to be done!”

We don’t like to see things fall apart. So when a business partnership dissolved, we assumed the responsibility, stayed with it, paid off the debt, and got it solid before moving on to the next thing. When a missionary left a mission church and moved on we assumed the responsibility, got it solid, found the right local leadership and put them in place before moving on to the next thing. When a team of expat missionaries started a Training Centre and then moved on, we stayed with it and got it solid and found local leaders to take it beyond the level we could take it. Then we felt free to move on to the next thing. We haven’t done this perfectly, but we’ve done it enough that it’s clearly a pattern.

We have never seen ministry as a job to do for pay. I know this is way outside the norm, but again, while there have been seasons of being paid a salary to do a specific set of tasks and fulfill a specific set of responsibilities, over a period of nearly sixty years our pattern has been to see a need and figure out something that addresses that need and do it whether there is pay for it or not. God has been gracious and faithful in ways it would take all day to tell about in bringing the resources and support we’ve needed to keep going. Some of you who are reading this are among the gracious, generous people God has prompted to be part of his support for us. That’s amazing to think about! Thank you so much!

So here we are on our Fifty Eighth Wedding Anniversary! We’re old as dirt! (Actually most dirt is much older, but we’re old enough.) And if health holds out, we’ll be celebrating our 59th a year from today! Grace to you!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

Emptying The Dishwasher

I learned something about myself recently. I learned that I’m usually more stressed and anxious over the details and the process than over the outcome of the situation. Let me explain what I mean. First, I’ve gotta say that this hasn’t been a “blinding flash of light revelation”, but more of a gradual realization that has clarified over time. But the recent experience of being Jean’s caregiver during the first few weeks after her fall/broken ankle/surgery really clarified some things for me. One of the tasks that fell to me during her immobilization is emptying the dishwasher.

The automatic dishwasher has always intimidated me. I understand it’s only a machine – a kitchen appliance. And I understand that it uses hot water under pressure to blast the dishes clean and then uses hot air to dry them. It’s not the mechanics of the thing I find intimidating. The intimidating part is the emptying of the beast. I open the dishwasher door and slide the top rack out and there’s all this stuff that I have no idea where it belongs! I know generally that it belongs in drawers and cupboards around the kitchen, but it just feels overwhelming when I look at all the glasses and cups and plates and stuff. I just want to slide the rack back in, close the door, and walk away.

Most of you who read “Notes From My Journey” know that in late March of 2021 I was diagnosed with a blood cancer called Multiple Myeloma. Multiple Myeloma is caused by a mutation of a type of blood plasma cell that causes these mutated and defective cells to begin to multiply in an uncontrolled manner in an attempt to take over the world (my world, anyhow!). They crowd the bone marrow, where blood cells are produced, and begin to interfere with the growth of other, healthy cells. Left untreated, they eventually take over and cause bones to deteriorate and cause death through failure of the kidneys or lungs or other organs. Multiple Myeloma is not curable medically, but it’s treatable.

Since mid-April I’ve been undergoing a targeted therapy of three drugs to combat my cancer; two taken orally and one given as a weekly injection. It’s working pretty well and I have fewer MM cells in my body than I had and they’re multiplying more slowly. If I continue this form of treatment, it is likely to achieve temporary remission for a season. There’s another treatment that is even more effective and it’s usually given after a few cycles of the treatment I’m currently doing, when the MM cell count is fairly low. I’m getting there, so we’re moving forward with this other treatment called a Stem Cell Transplant. A variation of this treatment is called a Bone Marrow Transplant (You’ve probably heard of that one). This treatment can produce a complete remission that can last a year or two or even more, along with providing a greatly improved “quality of life”.

I’m preparing for a Stem Cell Transplant. It’s a complex and somewhat drawn out process in which healthy Stem Cells (which are kind of magic in that they can grow into several kinds of cells as the body needs them) are harvested from my blood, frozen, and then reintroduced into my body. I know! Sounds like science, doesn’t it?! After the Stem Cells are harvested and frozen, I’m given a massive dose of chemotherapy over a couple of days that kills off most of the bad cells remaining in my blood and bone marrow (along with a bunch of the good cells). Then the Stem Cells are thawed out and put back into my blood and they get right to work making plasma cells that begin to rebuild my blood and my immune system in a much improved environment where nearly all the MM cells are gone. Actually, a few years ago that would have sounded like science fiction. But it really works! And it’s an exacting and complicated process.

Actually the preparation and follow-up treatment is more complicated than the transplant itself. The Transplant Center at OHSU sent me books and procedural documents and preparation and follow-up instructions, and cautions and warnings, and lists of potential side effects and links to instructional videos. There is so much stuff to learn and to keep track of and to think about that my brain just about freezes (Not like when you drink a Slurpee too fast! Worse!).

I’ve found that in preparing for the Stem Cell Transplant, it’s the details of the process that stress me more than the risks related to the outcome. Each time I read through all the details, instructions, and warnings, I just get overwhelmed. Kind of depressed. It’s given me opportunity to look inward and to work toward better understanding myself and how I respond or react to things. Processing all the details of the procedures, thinking about all the appointments I have for tests and procedures, thinking about all the things I have to stop doing, start doing, be careful to avoid, be diligent to perform just overwhelms me! I just want it to stop and go back to how things were before the diagnosis in March!

But if I just stop, if I don’t keep moving forward as the treatment of the disease requires, things will not go back to how they were. The result will be that the disease takes over and has its way in a relatively short time. So stopping is not an option. Avoidance is not an option. I simply must move forward and overcome the “overwhelmingness” of it and do what is required.

Here’s what I learned from emptying the dishwasher: When I open the dishwasher door and pull out the top rack and feel overwhelmed like “I can’t possibly figure out where all these things go!” I can’t just stop there, push the rack back in, and close the door.

I look at the drinking glasses. I actually know which cupboard they belong in. So I put them away. Then I address the coffee cups. I know where they belong. So I put them away. Then the small bowls we eat cereal or soup from. I know where they go. So I put them away. By the time I work my way through the top rack, I’ve only got a couple of things I can’t figure out where to put. So I turn my attention to the bottom rack. Plates. I know where to put them. Pots and large bowls. Pots go over there, large bowls over there! Silver ware (knives, forks, spoons): Hey there’s a drawer with compartments for these! This is going to be easy!

By the time I’ve taken it a step at a time and put away the things I can actually figure out a place for, there’s not much left. Now it’s a challenge I can manage. And I can take the two or three things that remain and ask Jean where they go and before I know it, the job is done! No longer a dark mystery. No longer overwhelming. No longer a fearful, complicated, impossible task! It’s done!

This probably seems kind of silly to you, but Emptying the Dishwasher has taught me a lot about myself, about what makes me feel overwhelmed, what gets me stuck. And it’s taught me that if I’ll just start; if I’ll just find one thing that I know how to do and do it, I get unstuck. Take the first step, then the next step, then keep going, eventually what was looming darkly over me and discouraging me is done.

I remember my friend Lance Powers saying, “Just do the next right thing!”  This is like that. Just do the next thing that needs to be done, then do the next thing after that, and keep going until you’ve done all the things that have to be done. Let God take care of the outcome! The outcome of my Multiple Myeloma is out of my control, it’s above my pay grade, it’s not in my hands. But there are plenty of steps of action, of “next things” to do to keep me busy for a while. So I’ll do that.

Today I was at the dentist’s office. The Transplant Team at OHSU sent me a form to take to the dentist to get a complete set of x-rays and a complete exam to make sure I had no cavities and no gum disease or infection prior to the transplant. Well, it turns out I do have some infection and a small cavity. So I’m scheduled to spend a good part of tomorrow in the dentist’s chair! Not what I wanted to be doing. But I took it in stride, made the appointment, I’ll show up on time, and eventually it’ll be done and I’ll move on to the next step in the process. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but I’m not going to worry or stress over it tonight. I’m just going to get up in the morning and go do it! And that’s progress for me!

Friends, I hope you can find something helpful in my Emptying the Dishwasher experience! Grace to you today!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

This Is My Life!

I remember a television program we watched years ago when we lived in the UK called “This is Your Life.” In each weekly episode the host made a surprise visit to the subject for the week’s program at work or home and presented them with a big red-covered book engraved with the title, “This is Your Life.” Then they were taken to the television studio where for the next hour friends, co-workers, and family members told of events and experiences in the subject’s life that had special meaning to them. There were always emotional moments as surprise guests were introduced and happy, memorable, and even bitter-sweet experiences were relived. It’s as if they were able to bring together friends, family, experiences, humorous occurrences, and accomplishments, and take a snapshot of it all and say, “This is Your Life.”

This Is My Life! I certainly don’t need a surprise visit from a TV Show host, but sometimes I really need to slow down, sit quietly, and take a little time to take a snapshot of myself, my relationships, my activities, my accomplishments, my failures, and my frustrations, and simply and honestly say, “This Is My Life!”

This Is My Life! (And it’s not quite what I had imagined it would be!)

When we were young we had dreams of “what I want to be when I grow up.” To a greater or lesser degree we dreamed of what we might accomplish, where we would live, what our lives would be like by now (whenever and whatever our current “now” is!) The life I now have may not be what I had imagined, but it is the real place from which I am going forward into a future that I cannot see but which I have firmly committed to God.

This Is My Life! (And it’s never going to be “just right!”)

I’ve always had a tendency to think that “things will be just as they should be someday.” Someday it will all be just right. I’ll have the perfect situation and all the problems and pressures will be gone. But I know that’s just not realistic.

From the time I was a kid in the 50’s the expectation in western society was that things would just keep getting better. There were so many improvements in technology and medicine and communications that it seemed we would eventually solve all our problems and have a near perfect life. It’s true that there have been remarkable advances in practically every area of life. The fact that I can sit here at my desk and have almost instantaneous contact with people I know all around the world is remarkable! That I carry a “phone” in my pocket that is not only a phone, but a camera, a computer, a library, an entertainment center, and much, much more is remarkable! Actually, take a minute and think of some of the other ways technology has made our lives remarkable!

There are also a lot of things remaining in our imperfect world that technology and communications and medicine haven’t been able to fix. People are still dying of cancer, being killed in road accidents, and willfully harming each other. There are wars and earthquakes and famines. It’s not a perfect world, and sometimes it seems as if it is not even a very good world, but it is our world and it is the real world. It’s what we have. It’s how things are. It’s where God put us to make a difference.

There will always be challenges and difficult things to deal with. There will be difficult people to deal with. (I wonder if sometimes I’m one of someone else’s “Difficult People!”) And even if somehow everything else were to get fixed, I will always have me to deal with. I’m not what I ought to be and not what I’m going to be, but thank God, not I’m not what I used to be!

This Is My Life! (Some of the factors that have contributed to form the present reality of my life are):
• Good things that others have done. Parents, spouse, teachers, friends, others who have helped and supported me. For these I need to thank God and appreciate and thank those people.
• Wrong things that others have done. People who have betrayed me, people who have abused me, people who have taken advantage of me and let me down. For these things I need to forgive these people and release them from blame and judgement. I need to ask for and by faith receive God’s grace to heal wounds, memories, and relationships.
• Good things that I have done. Development of good character qualities; good stewardship of talents, resources, and relationships; achievements in school, work, or ministry. For these things I need to continue to apply the same principles of wise use of opportunities, good decision making, and practical self-discipline to the life I now have.
• Wrong things that I have done. Wasted opportunities; poor stewardship of time, talents, and resources; sins against God and others by words and actions. For these things I need to acknowledge my mistakes, my poor stewardship, my willful wrongdoing, and ask for God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those I have wronged. I need to make restitution where possible. I need to accept God’s forgiveness and cleansing and allow Him to change my heart and mind.
• Circumstances and events that seem to have no basis in fault or moral consequence. Financial reversal, sickness, disappointed expectations, unexplained tragedies. How often these things lead to depression and discouragement. You know, when good things happen to us we tend to accept them as blessings from God and we may even see them as rewards, as if we deserve them. When bad things happen we tend to think of them as totally unfair and sometimes attribute them to an attack from Satan or even blame God as if He doesn’t love us. I almost shudder as I write this because I know my own tendency in these matters only too well.
• Sometimes in these challenging and difficult things, God reveals a cause or purpose and we seek to understand. Sometimes He reveals nothing and we seek to accept the unfailing love of Father God.

This Is My Life! (And this is how it is!)

• I don’t fully understand how it got to be this way (some things I do understand – see the first four bullet points above) and I don’t know all that I will need to do in moving forward from this point. But this is where I am now, this really is my life, and God still loves me and He does have a purpose for my life.
• These are the things I have to face and deal with. If I deny it, excuse it, complain about it, blame others for it, it just stays the same or gets worse. If I accept it, take responsibility for my part in it, seek God in the reality of it, things can begin to change for the better. God’s faithfulness will see me through.

This Is My Life! (So what do I do next?)

• Living by faith means having hopes and dreams. It means seeking a desired future and praying and working towards that future. God’s power can bring it to pass.
• Living by faith also means accepting that things are as they are. I will accept that things are as they are. I will pray and exercise my faith for things to be the way I want them to be. I will trust God to bring me through.

This Is My Life!

Paul said “I have learned to be content.” Contentment is an attitude that affects everything about how we see the world around us. Contentment is learned, not born into us.

11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13 NIV)

Paul also said “I press on toward the goal…” I believe that an important part of growing to maturity in faith and Christian character is learning to live a life that balances acceptance and contentment with an unwavering determination to press on in Christ.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14 NIV)

I wrote a series of blog posts in May of this year on Thankfulness and Gratitude. If you missed any of those, here’s a link to Part 1 of my Thankful Series.

This Is My Life! (Is This As Good As It Gets?)

There’s a scene from the movie “As Good As It Gets” where Jack Nicholson’s character steps into the waiting room of a psychiatrist’s office and says to the room full of neurotic and troubled people, “Have you ever thought that this might be as good as it gets?” What do you think? Is this as good as it gets? By God’s grace and power this is not as good as it gets. But this is how it is right now!

I hope these thoughts have been helpful. I hope most of all that these thoughts have stirred up your soul to think thoughts like these about your own life. At any stage of life, in any situation of life, there’s so much to be thankful for and so much we can do to move forward in Thankful, Grateful Faith!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

Gardening Lessons

Hi Friends, this blog post is a bit longer than usual. I’ve included quite a bit of scripture in the text because I felt that some of you would want to use this article as a sort of handbook to put some of these things into practice. I don’t mean this to be “preachy”! I hope you find it helpful! Grace and Peace, Jim

In October 1997 Jean and I moved from Leytonstone (London E11) into a house in Chingford (London E4), northeast London. One of the reasons we chose to rent the new place was the large back garden. We love gardening and this place offered great possibilities. The garden had been badly neglected for some time, but we’re experienced gardeners and we knew we could handle it. (Note: In England, in terraced housing, the term “back garden” is inclusive of everything out the back door of the house between the fences of the neighboring houses on either side. The back garden is exactly the width of the house itself, and includes any lawn, shrubs, trees, flower beds, walkways, and possibly a small green house or garden shed.)

We pictured ourselves sitting in the back garden on the patio on warm summer evenings with a glass of iced tea and a nice meal. We saw BBQ’s in the summer with friends over for the afternoon and evening. And we could already see the beauty of roses, petunias, peonies, chrysanthemums, snap-dragons, fuchsias, and all the other stuff we like to grow and enjoy.

So I went to the local garden center and bought some rose bushes. On the morning of rose planting day we walked up and down the garden with coffee cups in our hands, looking and planning and we found just the right places for the four rose plants. But in one of those places was a very thorny bush-tree called a pyrocanthus. In another of the chosen places was a dead shrub-tree of indeterminate type and origin. Both had to be removed to plant the roses.

The pyrocanthus, or firethorn, is incredibly thorny! And to get at the roots to dig it out, I first had to cut off about 1000 thorny branches that poke and jab and very effectively defend itself against pruning and removal! It is a very painful process to prune and remove a pyrocanthus!

The dead shrub was entangled in the most incredible network of ivy vines and runners, coming over the fence from the neighbor’s garden. The ivy had not only taken over the fence, and killed every plant and shrub it could get hold of, but it hindered me from removing the shrub which was already dead! And besides that, the whole matted mess of ivy was full of spiders. I hate spiders!

I hacked and clipped and sawed and chopped for hours: Thorns in one place and ivy vines in another. I was beginning to despair and I wanted to quit when I saw how little progress I was making and how everything I tried to do simply led to another thing that must be done first. But I persevered and hacked and chopped. When I finally got the pyrocanthus chopped back and dug out by the roots, and when I finally got the ivy hacked and chopped back (don’t forget this is my neighbor’s ivy, not mine!), and when I had finally dug out the dead bush by its roots, I stepped back to look at what I’d done. The entire garden (or so it seemed) was piled with thorny, clingy branches, vines and dead stuff that somehow had to be disposed of. And I still hadn’t even begun to plant the roses!

Jean came and helped me and we began to bag the stuff. I clipped and chopped it into smaller bits and she began to pack it into big black bin bags. The bin bag count was growing and the piles of branches and vines seemed not to be shrinking, but we kept on and then finally it was the last bag and it was done. Nine big bags full. And now what on earth are we going to do with all this? I began to consider the options: Try to burn it? (not permitted)!; Find a dump and haul it two bags at a time in the car?; Put one bag per week in the wheelie bin for the next two months?; Move away and leave it?

Then I remembered something I had seen come through the letter-box from the local council about rubbish pick-up dates. It seemed there was something about a special rubbish pickup for “garden waste.” I found the leaflet in the file and sure enough, the council will pick up as many as ten bags of “light garden waste.” I had nine bags. I phoned the council and discovered they would pick it up and haul it away for free within five working days. I only had to put it in the front garden and leave it and they would come for it. Grace!

So for up to five days it’s going to sit out in front of the house and everyone who passes by can see my trash! Never mind, it’s on its way out! Someone will come and take away all this rubbish I generated in the process of beginning to clear out my garden so we can enjoy it this summer. Now I can begin to plant some things that are useful and beautiful. Our garden can actually become the fruitful and enjoyable place we want it to be!

And I thought, “How like my life is this experience with the garden.” I’ve got a pretty good idea of what my life could be and should be from the teaching and examples in the Bible and from the lives of other mature Christians. I want my life to be like that. I’ve got a desire and a passion for that. The question is: Am I willing to work at it to get it that way. And can I actually do it? And how do I actually do it?

The Apostle Paul writes to young Christians about this stuff. He says: 1 Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. 5 So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. 6 Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. 7 You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. 8 But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. 9 Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds. 10 Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. 11 In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. 12 Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. 16 Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. 17 And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father. (Colossians 3:1-17 NLT)

Paul goes on to say in Romans 7:15-25: 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. 18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. 21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. (Romans 7:15-25 NLT)

As I process this stuff, I begin to realize that here’s a man who was an Apostle, who was powerful in faith, who wrote most of the New Testament, and he understands how I feel. He is dealing with the same stuff I’m dealing with. Like my gardening experience, some things in my life are like thorny pyrocanthus bushes, defending themselves against my efforts to remove them. Other things are like clingy ivy vines, entangled with other things in my life until it seems impossible to get rid of them.

You know, I think sometimes we avoid getting close to God and to other believers because we know we’ll have to face and deal with some thorny issues and we’re not sure we can actually do it. Sometimes it’s easier to just stay out of the garden and sit on the couch scrolling through social media than to begin to plan and do the gardening. Sometimes we begin and it just becomes overwhelming. We think, “What have I gotten myself into?” We just want to quit. So how does the Bible tell me to deal with it? How do we actually do this?

1. Get focused on what we want to be, to become. Get a picture of the person we are destined to be. We look to the Bible to set standards and give hope. We fellowship with God to keep our spirits sensitive and strong. We fellowship with mature believers to learn from their example and receive their practical insights.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. (Colossians 3:1-2 NLT)

2 We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. 3 Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. (Hebrews 12:2-3 NLT)

25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. (Hebrews 10:25 NLT)

2. Begin to get rid of the things in our lives that don’t fit the picture: things that hinder or entangle us, things that pull us in the wrong direction. Take decisive action. Face it. Deal with it.

5 So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. (Colossians 3:5 NLT)

8 But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. 9 Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds. 10 Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. (Colossians 3:8-10 NLT)

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. (Hebrews 12:1 NLT)

3. Identify and own the specific things that entangle us. Everyone has particular sins that entangle. These are not necessarily the same for each of us. But they are there. They must be identified and “thrown off.” The process of getting rid of these things is: 1. Repent (Turn around) 2. Confess (Face it honestly, take responsibility) 3. Rid yourself of it (Take some decisive action to renounce or forsake it) 4. Call the Grace truck to come and get the rubbish and cart it away.

8 If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. 9 But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. (1 John 1:8-9 NLT)

4. Begin to clothe ourselves with righteousness. We accept full responsibility to begin to act like the person we expect to become. The Bible teaches us what is right. The examples of others can show how it’s done. This may take lots of practice, it may involve trial and error. Don’t quit just because you didn’t get it right the first or even the fifth time. Once you identify the behaviors and qualities that you need to put on, you just begin to do them. Not perfectly, not getting it right every time, but “doing the stuff.”

12 Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15 NLT)

5. Accept discipline from the Lord. God’s discipline proves that we are truly His children and that He truly loves us. God’s discipline is essential to maturity and fruitfulness.

5 And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the LORD’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. 6 For the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” 7 As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? (Hebrews 12:5-7, 11 NLT)

1 “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. 3 You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. 5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. 7 But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! 8 When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father… 16 You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. (John 15:1-8, 16 NLT)

Dear friends, we can do this thing! We can be men and women of God. We can grow, mature, clean up our act. We can be fruitful for God. Let’s allow God’s grace to work in our lives and let’s determine we will never give up!

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. (Romans 8:1-2 NLT)

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

Lessons Learned From The Phone Company

Last week’s “Notes from My Journey” blog post, “Life on Hold” , was mostly about how we deal with the frustrations of delay and of “not being in control” of some aspect of life. This week I’m looking at some of the lessons this process has taught and re-taught me through the years. Pardon me for being so subjective here, but the things that happen in my life are the things I learn most from, y’know!

Let me just take a moment to remind you of the story… On the 15th of October 1999, we moved from inner-city London to a house in the forest outside Bend, Oregon. The day we moved in was a Friday so it was Monday the 18th of October when we contacted the phone company and ordered phone service. After a few minutes on the phone we discovered that the house had never had phone service connected and that it would require two miles of phone line to be run from an existing service point in order for us to have a phone line.

How long would this take? With the need to apply to the US Forest Service and the US Bureau of Land Management for permits to run the phone line across 10,000 feet of government land, the projected date of service was 31 March 2000. It would take five and one-half months to get the necessary permits and about two days to install the cable to connect us to the phone network.

Woe unto me! As Job said, “The thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me!” (Job 3:25 KJV)

Remember, this was 1999, so “dial up” internet connection was the order of the day. For someone as dependent on the phone as I was for communication, email, and internet access, this was almost too much to bear! I remember when we lived in Kingston, Jamaica from 1984 to 1991 and our phone service was frequently out of order, the very first thing I would do when I came into the house or when I got up in the morning was to go over and pick up the phone and check for a dial tone! And now to be told we would be without a phone line for the entire winter just really knocked me flat.

As this situation unfolded over the next few months, here’s how it worked: We were not entirely cut off from the world without any phone communication at all. We had the use of a cell phone for voice communication. But in order to send and receive emails and access the internet we had to travel nearly three miles through the forest to the home of a kind and generous neighbor who let us connect our laptop computer to their phone line for dial-up access the internet.

Then the wait began. Everyone we knew was praying that our phone line would be connected sooner rather than later. Whenever we saw our friends the first question they would ask is, “Any news about the phone line?” It would have become a joke if it had been funny. But it really wasn’t funny to me and this experience became a real, but not easy, learning process in my life.

Winter came and with two feet of winter snow on the ground, the daily trip to check email became a challenge. Spring eventually came and the snow melted and still no phone line. The projected phone service date of March 31 came and went and two and a half more months of delay and frustration followed. We finally got the phone connected and heard the dial tone for the very first time on June 16, 2000, eight months and one day after I heard those words, “Sorry, Mr. Stephens, but there’s no phone service to your house.”

When the shock of discovering that we would be without a phone line for internet access through the severe High Mountain winter first hit me, I imagined the worst. In fact the way it worked out in day by day living was less traumatic than I expected. It was challenging, difficult, and frustrating, but taking it one day at a time, it was “doable.” Taken a day at a time, with the Grace God gives, most of the challenging things we face are perhaps less catastrophic than we first imagine them to be.

During the eight months of Autumn, Winter, and Spring that had passed since we moved into this house, I learned a lot about waiting, about myself, and about God’s Grace to deal with disappointment and delay. I’ll try to put into words some of the lessons I learned through that and other “waiting” experiences, and perhaps some thoughts on how to apply these lessons in life.

Lessons Learned From The Phone Company

Here are some of the lessons I learned during that long winter in the mountains (And find myself re-learning over and over because I seem to have such a short memory that must constantly be re-taught!):

God truly is My Provider. He doesn’t always provide what I want when I want it, but He does provide a way to live and the grace to live with the way He provides. He provides on His terms and in His time. He sometimes provides what I want but always provides what I need. He provides for the development of my character and my faith and not just for my pleasure and my comfort.

I can learn to live with God’s present provision. I need to be more flexible and not say, “It has to be this way or that way.” I don’t need to worry or fear or try to figure out in advance just how it is all going to work out. God is my provider. God will provide. I can live with the provision He gives in the way He gives it.

I need to trust God more and whine and complain less. I am capable of making a real fool of myself by constantly complaining and whining about how hard my life is and how unfair the situation is. There’s a time to tell people your problem and enlist their prayers and concern and there’s a time to simply tell God and leave it with Him.

It’s not healthy to spend too much time thinking and talking about something you simply cannot change. It’s best to do what you can about the situation, give it to God, and get on with what you can do about living the life you have. The Apostle Paul had a situation like this. Here’s what God told him… 7 even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. 8 Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. 9 Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 NLT)

If you let it, one unsolved problem or unfulfilled desire can take over your life and make you incapable of enjoying and appreciating the rich blessings you have. I tend to focus all my attention on the unsatisfied desire and forget to appreciate the many gracious and generous provisions God has made. I recall hearing Al Miller, my pastor in Jamaica often saying, “There’s always more going right than going wrong in your life!”

After a while you begin to hit Prayer Request Fatigue. People get tired of hearing that the prayer hasn’t been answered yet. People want to hear the request, pray about it, and then hear that it is all taken care of the next time they speak to you. When we pray earnestly about things and the answer is delayed or doesn’t come at all, it raises issues that we’d rather not deal with about our faith, others’ faith, and God’s willingness and ability to answer.

The people in my small group really cared about what concerned me. These people I met with every Tuesday evening for prayer and sharing really did care and really did pray for me and my needs. It is important to find a small group of believers to share life with.

That which seems to be a big crisis to me doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. For me, not having a phone line was a big crisis. For some, not having a phone line would be a welcome break from pressure and interruptions. For me not having a phone line was a crisis of near “Biblical Proportions!” For Jean it was only a minor inconvenience. When we look back on eight months without the phone line it is clear that we managed to get done what we needed to do. Jean was gracious enough (most of the time) not to say, “I told you so, oh you of little faith!”

The answer will come eventually and when it does it won’t make your life perfect! When we are focused on one need or desire, there it is a tendency to believe that when it finally happens, life will suddenly be perfect and we will “live happily ever after!” In fact, when the answer comes and the desire is fulfilled, life will still have its needs and imperfections and it is amazing how soon the thing will become “common” to you.

Is there a time to simply stop praying about something we desire or need? The weight of emphasis in the Bible is that we should continually cry out to God for the thing we desire or need. Only once does God say, “Don’t ask anymore!” and in that instance He makes it clear to Paul that there is purpose in the unanswered prayers. (See 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 and Luke 18:1-8; Matthew 7:7-11).

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. (Luke 18:1 NIV)

7 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11 NIV)

Lessons Learned From The Phone Company

I realize my little “telephone story” may seem trivial compared to the things that some of you are facing. The principles of survival and success remain the same for my “little” situation or your “big” crisis:
• Face it
• Embrace it
• Give it to God
• Live the life you have
• Never give up

I hope this helps!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.