What Toto’s “Africa” taught me.

I hate Toto’s song, “Africa.”  But it has taught me that you never know what you’ll be known for.

If you were used to this blog being somewhat of a tiny source of wisdom or biblical insight, just skip this one. This is just purely for fun.  There is one Bible thing at the end.

For sixteen years of my life, I was a college ministry pastor in Tennessee.  We used to serve lunch every Tuesday for college students, and one particular day, I got into a conversation with a young man who was a leader in our ministry who happened to run sound. This will be an important detail later.

For some reason I’ve always hated this song. I don’t know if it hearkens back to the days of 1980s high school dances, where it was one of those horrible songs that wasn’t quite a fast song, wasn’t quite a slow song. In other words, it wasn’t dance-able.  Please try and stifle the laughter if you are trying to imagine me dancing.

What I recall about the conversation with this young student was this:  He was trying to make a case for how “deep” the lyrics were, something probably about existential angst and what-not.  He was 18, maybe 19.  You remember those years right?  To his argument about how deep the lyrics were, I simply laughed.  I made the case that if you listen to the lyrics, they make no sense.  Just Google “Toto Africa lyrics.”  Read them carefully.

I’ll wait…

See what I mean?

The guy is obviously confused.  For one, he thinks the girl arriving on the 12:30 flight is “salvation.”  Good luck.

Or, is the guy saying that the stars guide him toward some sort of cosmic salvation?  Good luck with that.  Is he into horoscopes?

He interrupts an old man.  He says something about “it waiting there for you.”  What is this “it”?

I know what some of you are thinking.  Ah, this is art.  The lyrics can be interpreted on many different layers, and is open to your interpretation.  Blah blah blah.  I just want something in music that is understandable (and perhaps danceable…stop laughing.)

Let’s keep going.

After the chorus where the guy seems to go all macho and say he could overcome 100 men to stay with the girl, and he takes it upon himself to bless the rains in Africa, we come to the second verse.

Enter the wild dogs.

They are longing for solitary company.  So Dr. Dolittle/songwriter can now understand wild dogs and their cries.  Wild dog whisperer. Awesome.


The writer says he must do what is right. As sure as a mountain rises above a plain.  But wait, as sure as an African mountain rises like a mythical Greek mountain of the gods above an African national park/ecosystem.  Not sure of the metaphor here.  (But I’m thinking someone is going to spend some time on this and come up with something that sounds like a 18 year old college student with existential angst).


Just when you were picturing a mountain like another mountain over a plain, the song gets dangerous.  “I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing I’ve become.”  Ok, wait.

Let’s just say this.  If one of my daughters were to come home and say, “Hey Dad, I just met this guy, and he said to me, “I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing I’ve become,” I’m telling her, “Run.  Run far away.  Never look back.  As sure as a real mountain like another mythical mountain rises above a real plain, you should run far away from that guy.”  To which my daughter texts her friends and says, “I think my dad is losing it.”

So the song finishes with chorus, chorus, blah, blah, blah.

A friend recently posted that in three different interviews, the writer of the song gave three different answers about what the song was really about.  Hmmm.  You think?

At this point, some of you may remember something about the conversation with the student, who was the sound guy at our college ministry.  Yeah, about that.  So, after the aforementioned argument/heated conversation, said sound guy decided to take it upon himself to play Toto’s Africa after each one of our worship services.  I would say a blessing over the students, “The Lord bless you and keep you…”  And then it would kick in.

Do do do do-do do duuuu.

“I bless the rains down in Africa.”

This happened, it felt like, for something like…I don’t know…10 years?  Maybe more?

Now, what is funny/torturing-to-my-soul, is that some bands have come out with remixes of the song–Weezer, for one.  Every time someone remixes it, a former student will send it to me, or post it on our Facebook alumni page.  Ha ha.

Or if they hear it at their kid’s junior high dance.  Or if they hear it by chance.  Or if it came on in the car.  Or if they were running far.

To which I want to say, a la Dr. Seuss:  “I do not like Toto’s Africa.  I do not like it here or there.  I do not like it anywhere.”

I thought I escaped this when I moved to a new ministry position in California.  And I told my teenage son the story.  And he told one of the guys in the youth group…who happens to run sound.

I was especially not-gratified to hear that the ministry I used to serve–The House, Chattanooga, Tennessee–still plays Toto’s Africa after their services sometimes.  One of my dear friends who still works there overheard a conversation between two students walking out of the service.

“Isn’t this song like really, REALLY old?”

“Yeah.  Wonder why they play it?”

Yes, anonymous young college student.  I wonder why anyone plays it.

So the title of this blog was what Toto’s Africa Taught Me.  Some of you may be wondering what the answer is.  What did Toto’s Africa teach me?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

What did getting in an argument with the sound guy teach me?  Lots of things.  A whole lot of things.

Oh, and you’ll never know what you’ll be known for.

P.S.  Proverbs 6 speaks of six things the Lord hates.  I always thought six sounded incomplete.  Seven is a number of completion.  I have an idea, Lord, for your number 7 thing to hate.

Proverbs 6:16-19

There are six things the Lord hates,
    seven that are detestable to him:
17         haughty eyes,
        a lying tongue,
        hands that shed innocent blood,
18         a heart that devises wicked schemes,
        feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19         a false witness who pours out lies
        and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.

20 And a song you can’t dance to, and can’t understand.

I wore a tuxedo to church.

I really did.  Just a few days ago.

It was one of those late at night ideas when I was thinking about how to communicate the truth of what God has done for us.  In a way that is visible.   But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I have been preaching out of passages in the prophet Isaiah for a few weeks now.  This past week, it was Isaiah 61:1-11.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim liberty to the captives…
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
      2     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor   (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus read this at the beginning of his ministry (see Luke 4).  Implicit in this is that God’s Spirit is empowering him.  God has called him to these tasks.  Proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  Jesus lived as one living for something else…rather, someone else.

As Christians, our story starts and ends with Jesus.  We learn from watching Him live out that mission—and our mission is shaped by His.  We are to be those that bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, set free those bound in prison, and proclaim God’s grace to all who will listen.  His way of being—slow to anger, abounding in love, abounding in forgiveness—his ways become our ways. Jesus ended the reading in the synagogue right there.  But the passage goes on:

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3  to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
   the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
   that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
4  They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
   they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.  (Isaiah 61:2-4)

This is where the tuxedo comes in.  A transformation takes place:  God changes their clothing from one of mourning to celebration.  Over a garment of despair, a garment of praise.

When I wore my tux to church that day, it was amazing the reactions I got.  I saw people whispering amongst themselves, and they were all trying to guess where I was going after church.  “Must be a wedding,” some of them told me.  One joked that I must not have had anything else clean to wear.

But then here is this abrupt shift of metaphor from the outfitting for a wedding to the tending of a garden.  From the haberdashery to the arboretum.

The changing of clothing from despair to praise is for a purpose:  So that they might be oaks. Oaks not for themselves.  A planting for the display of God’s splendor.  I continue to marvel at the fact that God chooses to make Himself known through His people.

I talked to our junior high group a couple of weeks ago about God being just.  And I shared with them a talk I heard by Gary Haugen, the founder of the International Justice Mission.  Haugen said, “God’s only plan for showing the world that He is a just God, God’s only plan for this…is us!”

In a similar fashion, I see here that God’s plan for showing the world what kind of God He is…is us!  We are a planting for God’s glory.

Why God’s glory?  Is God an egomaniac, seeking words of affirmation like an insecure teenager going to their first dance?

God’s glory is seen in a human being fully alive,  said the church father Irenaeus.  Perhaps translated more properly:  “Life in a human is the glory of God; the life of a human is the vision of God.” [cited here]

And the vision of God we see is a being that is with and for us.  He created us in His image.  He became one of us in Jesus Christ; willing to sacrifice Himself for our salvation.  Glory of God is for another.

Another reason why God’s glory is worth pursuing:  Because the glory of human beings is fleeting.  It leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths.  When we see a human being seeking their own glory, don’t we reel back at that display?

But the glory of God is with us, and for us.*

So we shall be glad to be a planting for God’s glory.

God has planted us as a church on a particular corner in a particular city.  As a group of people.  Not just a building, but a people.

There was a question that was asked amongst us last week:  “When people drive by this church, what do they think of?  How are we known in this community?”  People first get to know us by things that we do.  Events we hold for the community.  They are open doors to greet and welcome people into our midst.  But this passage is a challenge for us to ask ourselves, “What are we displaying?”

We are to be a display of God’s glory and splendor.  Somehow, in the way that we live, the way that we speak, what we do—is supposed to be for the praise of God—people should see the character and heart of God in us.

And, we become the rebuilders and restorers.  Of beauty.  Of fruitful and fair commerce.  We become those that engage in righteous practices in law and government.  We create art and culture that is honoring to God and others.  We become teachers that treat each person with dignity as they are made in the image of God.

Isaiah has more to say…

Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
6  but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
   you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
7  Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
   therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.
For I the Lord love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
   I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9  Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
   all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.  (Isaiah 61:5-9)

We will be called priests and ministers.  That does not mean that all of us will do the things that we think ministers do.  That is, work one day a week and talk about the Bible.

Instead, the image is that our way of living will be like a clothing—that when we are seen in the world, people will say, “They represent God.”

Tucked into this is a message of good news:  Instead of shame and dishonor, God will bless.  Shame can traumatize all of us.  Most of us hear this promise of God–that we shall represent Him–and say in our minds, “Not me.  I couldn’t possibly be someone who represents God.  Look at what I’ve done.  Look at what I’m still doing.”

Listen:  the Bible is NOT full of stories of men and women who completely overcame their brokenness and THEN God used them.  It is full of stories that God showed His power and might through their brokenness, and in spite of their brokenness.

God will make the wrong things right.  He hates robbery and wrong, He loves justice. And, this passage seems to be telling us–we will be the children of God that help enact that justice.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
   for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
   as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11     For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
   so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.             (Isaiah 61:10-11)

At our church, we’ve been using this imagery of a tree to talk about our relationship with God.  Seed, sapling, providing shade for others, and then a sower.  The sapling stage of our life is when the seed of faith has broken through the soil, but our relationship is still in need of certain things to help us grow strong.  In those sapling stages of our life:  God tenderly begins to tell us this:  We begin to discover that our life with God isn’t just for our own happiness.  There is pruning that takes place that isn’t pleasant.  But in the end, we emerge a stronger tree—a more righteous oak.

In this sapling stage we begin to understand this:  that while God is for us, life isn’t about us.  We begin to understand that our lives can be a song of praise to God.

In this passage is this idea of us all needing to surround ourselves with praise.   “I will rejoice…my soul shall exult…praise shall sprout up before all nations.”

Why praise?  When we call upon the name of God, the promises of God, something happens within us.  There are scores of medical studies that show that having a positive attitude, positive thoughts, can help immensely in the battle against disease, illness, even cancer.  Do we think that singing praise to God would have the same effect?

Beyond those positive effects, we praise because God is worthy of it.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been talking about the conditions that are needed for us all when we are at the early stages of our faith—this sapling stage of faith.

  • We need the water of community.
  • We need to be deeply rooted, planted straight, strong, level.
  • We need to rest and trust in God’s grace in times of weakness.
  • We need the word of God, to be reminded of His promises to us.
  • We need praise.

In the end, this beautiful passage in Isaiah 61 tells us this:  We get new clothes.  A new identity.  A new life.

God gets a song.  (Sounds like a bad deal for God doesn’t it?)  We get a new identity, a completely transformed life—God gets a song?  But that song is our life, fully lived out for Him.

We need to worship.  We need to be reminded that seeking our own glory leads to emptiness, seeking God’s glory leads to abundance.

When we take all of the main parts of Isaiah 61, we have the fullness of the gospel message.

  • Someone once came, preaching good news to the poor, free those in prison. God did those things in the person of Jesus.
  • When we follow Him, listen to His Words—we are changed.  Changed for a purpose.  We become rebuilders and restorers.
  • People will see God because of us.  Not only because of how we talk, but how we live, and what we do, and how we do it.
  • So we gather in rejoicing in praise.  We need this rejoicing and praise.  And every nation, every race, every language will see justice and God’s glory.

It wouldn’t be practical to wear tuxedos and gowns every day.  After a while, people would stop paying attention anyway.  But I pray our lives would reflect the love, peace, mercy, justice and grace of God.  And we would stand like oaks of righteousness, displaying God’s splendor to the world.


*I am grateful to Scot McKnight and his book, “One.Life:  Jesus Calls, We Follow” for this insight about God being with and for us.

When the Trees Go To…Worship?


Photo taken from here (a worthwhile post to read , fellow pastors!)

For those familiar with the Lord of the Rings books and movies, the title of this post might surprise you.  You might have been expecting, “When the Trees Go to War.”   There is a scene in the 2002 movie of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Two Towers.”  The Ents are an ancient race of trees, who go to war with the wizard Saruman, who destroyed trees to build provide fuel for the fires of war.

In teaching out of Isaiah 55:1-13 this past week, I was struck by an image of trees, mountains, and hills clapping their hands and singing.  War is in the background of this picture, but it is now in the past.  Here, the trees, and mountains and hills…go to worship.

But first, let’s start at the beginning.

It’s a beautiful passage, really.

Invitation to a Feast.

God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, inviting people to come to a feast.  “Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price!…delight yourself in rich food.”  This is an invitation to come to a feast without cost, and it is clear that those without money–the poor–are invited as well.  This is a gift.  Isaiah points out in the opening verses of chapter 55 that so much of what we all work for costs money.  We work to make money to buy lots of things.  And we find that none of those things last.  God says something remarkable through this passage:  that if we will do one thing, we will feast abundantly and live.

Invitation to Listen.

The feast is a different one.  Instead of just eating food and drinking water, wine, and milk, we are invited to listen to the words of God.  (Isaiah 55:2-3)

One of the things I’ve noticed about the life of trying to follow Jesus is that no one really has taught much about how we do that–listen to God.  I’ve only really read one book that addresses that topic in earnest:  Hearing God by Dallas Willard.  That was a vital book for me.  I have learned to try and listen to God speak through the stories, histories, laws, prophets’ words, songs and psalms, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, parables, and letters found in the Bible.  Sometimes, when it is a familiar passage, I find myself saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know this one.”  Occasionally when I do that, I get this gentle nudge telling me, “Slow down.  Read that again.”  When I do, I find new meaning in the words.

I’ve also learned to listen to others who teach me:  pastors through their podcasts, speakers at conferences, TED talks, reading blogs, articles, etc.  Have you ever had that experience of listening to someone, and feeling like they are speaking right to you?  I pay attention when that happens.  I usually don’t fully trust that, so I find that if God really wants to say something to me, I get the message another way.

God can use the circumstances in our lives to speak to us. God can use friends and community around us to speak to us.

I know some of this sounds pretty touchy-feely for some of you.  Let me say up front that I believe that we need to “test” these things with each other, and hold it up against what the Scriptures are saying.  I also know people have all kinds of different interpretations about what the Bible is saying–and unfortunately, the Bible has been used to endorse all kinds of wickedness.  But I’ll continue to trust that God chose to reveal His character through these ancient writings, and trust that God wants us to be in community centered on those writings so we don’t go off the deep end.

Invitation to a Different God

The next part of the passage is an invitation for the “wicked and unrighteous” to find the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness of God (Isaiah 55:6-9).  As I was studying this, I remembered that at the time of this writing, Isaiah was speaking to a people either still in exile, or just coming out of exile.  Exile was often seen as the punishment from God for not listening to God.  I don’t know what you picture God is like.  One common conception is that God always is looking to punish those that do wrong. “Cosmic policeman,” some might say.  To be clear, I believe God will make the wrong things right one day.  But here, God says that even those that are wicked and unrighteous will find themselves abundantly pardoned.  God’s ways are not our ways.  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  God is different than what we expect. That becomes abundantly clear to me when I think about people that have said something hurtful to me or maligned me in some way.  To be honest, do I think pleasant thoughts all the time about those people?  No.  But my heart is softened when I read this passage in Isaiah, and understand that God thinks about people differently than I do, and deals with us differently that we would deal with each other.

Invitation to Trust

The next part of the passage speaks of how God has ordained creation (Isaiah 55:10-11).  Snow and rain comes down to earth (some places more than others, right, Sacramento-people?), seeds respond to that water and burst to life through the ground.  In the same way that process is locked into the created order, so too does God’s word accomplish its purpose.  God speaks–it happens.  We read that in the beginning of the Bible:  “Let there be light!”  And there was light. We can trust this.

That’s why I think it is important for us in our journey of knowing God to study what God says.  I’m not saying that because it’s my job.  It’s because I know that I need to listen to messages from a true source, because it is getting hard to know what messages are true out there.  The things that call out to me that are promising me happiness and pleasure aren’t always true.  The things I think about myself aren’t always true.

Invitation to Worship

The last part of this passage (Isaiah 55:12-13) speaks to the beautiful restoration that God will accomplish.  God’s people were once led out of their home in humiliation–now they will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.  And the trees, mountains, and hills–they all go to worship, singing, clapping their hands.

There is a transformation that takes place:  thorns become cypresses; briers become myrtles.  I was reminded that in the Garden of Eden, we first learn about thorns when Adam and Eve first don’t listen to God, but listen to the evil serpent.  Thorns will infest the ground and make work hard.  But here in Isaiah, thorns are replaced by strong trees.  Briers are replaced by the beautiful myrtle–a symbol, I’m told, of life, fertility, and marriage.

It’s the trajectory we’re on, according to what God says in the Bible.  The curses will be reversed.  All creation will be renewed in a new heaven and new earth.  People from every nation, tribe and tongue will sit down at a wedding feast.  And we’ll be going to worship with the trees.


Making Gardens out of Deserts

One of the members of our church wrote to me of a friendship he has with a man, who has an eye for seeing God at work in the most unusual places.  This past summer, in the sweltering heat of late July and early August, he came across this on Interstate 5. Highway Tomato Plant

For those of you not local to Sacramento, it doesn’t rain here during the summer.  At all.  I’ve read that in order for tomato plants to bear fruit, they need approximately one inch of rain per week.  How on earth did this little tomato plant make it?

Well, I happen to believe that God loves to do this kind of thing.  Plant reminders of gardens in the midst of hard, dry places.

God loves to take deserts and make gardens.

This past week, I spoke about a passage in Isaiah 35.  It’s written, depending on what biblical scholar you read, either to a group of people about to face exile, or having already been exiled.  I read somewhere that in the days of when Isaiah was written, foreign armies would completely destroy a conquered land, stripping it bare.  Imagine that happening to your city.  One of the things that makes Sacramento unique is its trees.  It’s known as the “City of Trees,” falling in the Top 10 cities worldwide of trees per capita.  (See article here) Imagine a foreign army coming in and stripping Sacramento of all its trees.  You return home, expecting to see what you remember–trees of all shapes and sizes, lining streets and parks.  Instead, you see devastation. If you were returning home to a barren land, what would you do?

While we might not ever experience that kind of exile, we might have faced different kinds of exiles.  We might have gone away from community, friendships, or God.  We might be exiled from work due to downsizing or early retirement.  A broken marriage puts you into the foreign land of dating again.

Our times of exile can lead to new beginnings. 

Exile can lead to a beginning again.  A starting over.  A new time to plant.

The imagery of Isaiah 35 is that God will do something amazing to in the hard dry places.  Like a blooming crocus amidst burning sands.  Like the majesty of biblical places Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon.  These would all be images that Isaiah’s hearers (and later, readers) would know to mean majesty, beauty, flourishing.  Carmel, for example, literally means:  “garden-land.”


What are those places for you?  What are the places that bring to mind lush greenery, fertile farmland, and abundance?

The imagery that caught my eye, though, was in verses 6-7:

Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert.
 The burning sand will become a pool,
    the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

A stream in the desert.  Isaiah talks of water flowing through once dry and dusty places.

zion-national-park-stream in desert

I’ve never been there, but the image above is from Zion National Park in Utah.  People who have been there have told me how marvelous it is, how breathtaking its beauty is.  I love the image here because it is a flowing stream through hard, dry, and rocky place.  But perched along the banks are these tender trees, being fed, I’m sure, by the water of the stream.

We are like those trees.  We need water.  For me, that water represents a community.  Let me explain.

How is a community like water?

A community of people that accepts you, loves you, serves you—is like quenching the thirst of our souls.  When the hard dry places of life hit us—walking into a place where we are known and loved—is like a cup of cold fresh water.

Community is also what sustains us.  We need it to survive.   Sometimes it is underground.  Supporting us.  In times of sorrow and sickness, community is what sustains us.

I’m reading a book right now by Bill Hull, about discipleship (The Complete Book of Discipleship).  Simply put, discipleship is that journey of learning from Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and being a part of what He is doing in the world.*  Hull writes that one of the conditions needed for robust discipleship is a healthy community.   A community that exudes trust, grace, humility.  Affirms one another.  And is committed to growth together.  A life following Jesus is not meant to be walked alone.  Maturity is a community project, Hull says. So a community can be that stream of water that nourishes us during those hard and dry times in our lives.  A community can be that source of growth in our lives, reminding us of what could be when we feel devastated.

It is the intention of God to grow us.  To surround us with each other, so that we might be water for each other’s dry and dusty souls. 


*I love that definition from Bobby Harrington, Executive Director of Discipleship.org.  

The Miraculous and the Mundane

The phone rang…

“I just had an idea, and wanted to share it with you.”  Unfortunately, in church circles, this is often how someone levels a criticism at you.  I braced myself.  But I trusted this person on the phone, so I listened.  He went on to suggest that I begin writing–perhaps just a brief synopsis of what I had spoken on the previous Sunday.  He admitted often forgetting what I had said just days before, as the demands of work, family, and the overall busyness of life drowned out a few moments of clarity on Sunday.  I breathed easier.  I took it as a compliment of sorts.  That he wanted to be reminded of the things I was saying during his week.  He mentioned often having to travel, and how others as well might be missing what is said in a given week.  That this brief synopsis might be able to continue the conversations we’re having as a community.  I agreed.

I went on to confess to him that I had once started a blog.  (As of this writing, it has been almost 18 months since I last wrote).  But I had gotten lazy with it, wondered if anyone was reading, and just needed to be disciplined again with it.  I told him that his phone call might just be what I needed to start it up again.  (Thank you!  You know who you are…)

So here we are.

To begin, ask yourself this question:  How tired are you of waiting on God?

Have you been looking for God to work in only certain ways?  Have you been looking for the miracle, when He might be doing something in the daily-ness of your life?  Or, have you given up on the miracle?  Meanwhile, could it be that God is doing exactly the thing you aren’t expecting, the thing you gave up on?

This past week, I talked about a story found in the gospel of John.  The resurrected Jesus appearing on the shore, his disciples fishing all night, catching nothing.  He tells them to put their net on the other side of the boat, and voila, net full of fish.  At this point, one of the disciples knows this is Jesus (they don’t recognize him from being 100 yards off shore).  Peter jumps out of the boat, rushes to the shore.  The rest of the disciples bring in the boat and net full of fish.  They find Jesus has already cooked them a breakfast of bread and fish over a charcoal fire.  “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says.

I spoke about three of the sentences found in this story.  One spoken by Peter, one spoken by John, and one by Jesus.

“I’m going fishing.” 

Peter says this.  We don’t know why, though commentators love to speculate about what was going on in his head.  He had given up fishing for a living, followed this rabbi/teacher Jesus of Nazareth around for 3-plus years, saw him do amazing things, say powerful and provocative things.  He saw this man he called Lord arrested, flogged, and heard* he was crucified–a horrible, shameful death for a criminal. He then is there when Jesus appears to a locked roomful of disciples.  What do you do with that?

“I’m going fishing” represents all the times in our lives that we return to the thing we knew how to do when we don’t know what else to do.  When we grieve the loss of something or someone, we at some point have to return to the “normal” things of life.  We may seek out the thing that brings us comfort because we know how to do it, maybe without thinking.  None of us really know how to grieve.  We go “fishing.”

“It is the Lord.” 

John says this.  He says it when Jesus tells them to cast the net on the other side.  The disciples do this, and the net is full of fish after a night full of no fish.

A night of fishing without Jesus yields nothing; a moment of listening to Jesus yields a net full of fish. 

John recognizes that only Jesus does this kind of thing.

“It is the Lord” represents those times in our lives when we see God show up in the only way that God does.  It is so unique to our situation that we know it is Him.  He does something that reminds of a previous event or chapter in our lives.  And it is nothing short of a miracle.  It is an abundance out of nothing.  One moment–nothing.  The next–abundance.  It is the Lord doing that.

“Come and have breakfast.”

Jesus says this.  It’s a marvelous picture, really.   The God of heaven and earth in the flesh, the One who made all things, the One who suffered death and was now alive, cooking breakfast for some Galilean fishermen.  The Bible doesn’t say where Jesus got the bread or the fish.  Yes, I know he could have just spoke it all into existence. “Let there be bread and fish,” and poof! Fresh baked bread and fish.  But there is this detail of the charcoal fire in the story, and for me, that throws out that idea “Jesus makes a magic meal.”  Can you picture Jesus walking the streets early that morning?  Buying bread from someone that He knew baked it just right?  How about Him walking down to the shore?  Can you picture Jesus gathering sticks, starting the fire (how did they do that back then?), slowly stoking the fire just right to cook the fish perfectly?  Warming the bread on stones next to the fire? I can see it.

“Come and have breakfast” represents those times in our lives when God is simply inviting us to sit down, let Him provide for our daily bread.  After all, didn’t Jesus teach us to pray that?  The picture is deeper.  God inviting us to have a conversation with Him.  An unhurried conversation over a simple meal.  And those opportunities are there for us every day.  In the mundane moments of our lives.

It’s a beautiful story.  A miraculous catch of fish.  And a mundane meal.

God shows up in the both the miraculous, and the mundane.  May we have eyes to see both.



* The gospels do not record Peter as being at the cross, though some speculate he looked on from a distance based on Luke 23:49:  “But all those who knew him . . . stood at a distance, watching these things”


If you build it…they will have a home

It’s a variation on a line from what is now a classic 1989 movie, Field of Dreams.  Starring Kevin Costner, the story revolves around a man who is told by a voice to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn fields.  The voice tells him, “If you build it…they will come.”if-you-build-it   Since that time, I’ve heard people borrow that line for all kinds of things.  I’ve heard it as justification for building a sports stadium in a city and a new church auditorium.

But I’ve never heard it for the homeless.

Our church is getting an opportunity to be a part of something new here in our city.  A fellow pastor and friend is leading the way.  Drawing upon what places like Austin, Texas is doing (click here, and click on the video on that page), we get to be a part of a tiny house village for the homeless.  It’s called Compassion Village.  compassion_edit-1-1000x600Our friends at E49 Corporation have been bringing together engineers, lawyers, fundraisers, carpenters, contractors, and others for several months.  With the partnership of a local church, St. Paul Church of God in Christ, there is a plot of land on which up to 20 tiny homes will be placed.  I had the privilege of meeting the pastor there, Pastor Larry K. Joyner.  With pride he showed me how he has transitioned room after room in the church to store food that he and a team of people give away each week.  A building on the back of the property, once used to house foster children, will now be re-purposed into apartments and bathroom and kitchen facilities for the residents of Compassion Village.

On Sunday, April 30th, our church is changing what it does on a typical Sunday.  Instead of our usual three services, we are gathering for one service, enjoying a meal together, and then getting to work.  We’re calling it, “Rebuilding Hope: The Compassion Village Project.” Some will be building and painting the two tiny homes we have committed to build.  Others will be knitting fleece blankets and hats.  We’re inviting families to serve together, painting rocks with messages of hope on them, to line the pathways of Compassion Village. Some will travel to the site of the village to work on projects to prepare the site and re-purpose the existing building.

We’ve reached out to existing ministry partners that have been serving the homeless for years, and on that Sunday, we will help with needs they have.  We’ve learned from these friends, who have been pushing for a “housing first” model for years.  We’ve learned that 13 years ago, our city’s leaders put together a vision and plan that talked about “housing first” in order to put an end to chronic homelessness.

I love that we get to do this.  The church looking to bless the city, as that city looks to help solve the problem of housing for the homeless.  The prophet Jeremiah once said, “Build houses and live in them…seek the peace and prosperity of your city.”  The building is just beginning…

Praying Without Charade

For the last three months, our church has been studying the book of James.  These words have been hard-hitting. James has talked to us about doubt, anger, appearances, fear, ambition, selfishness, and wealth.  This quote reflects the theme well:

“This letter (James) to the leaders of the early church is incredibly significant because it pounds away at one consistent message: faith that is not wholly integrated and consistently lived out is a charade.”  George Barna, Growing True Disciples.

James chooses to end the letter by talking about prayer.  Whether we find ourselves in trouble or bursting with joy, we should pray.  If we are dealing with sickness, we call upon those leaders that God has put in our lives to pray over us, and the Lord will raise us up.  When burdened with sin, we offer prayers for forgiveness.  In all parts of our lives, James is saying, we are invited to pray, and have others pray for us.

Elijah-Peter Paul Rubens

Angels Give Bread and Water to Elijah         Peter Paul Rubens 

He reminds us of the prophet Elijah, whose life and ministry can be found in I Kings 17-2 Kings 2.  Elijah was such a powerful figure in the history of God’s people that when Jesus was carrying out his ministry, many believed he was Elijah raised from the dead (Matthew 16:14). James reminds us of Elijah because his life was marked by one amazing work of God after another.  It is as if James is saying, “God has worked this way, and God does work this way.  So whether you are in trouble, happy, sick, or need to confess, ask God in prayer.”

Going back to the quote from George Barna;  “faith that is not wholly integrated and consistently lived out is a charade.”  Combine that with all the situations that James mentions here.  All of life:  joy and sorrow, sickness and health, confession and forgiveness—live it all before God, asking Him for help.

Is this our first instinct?  That when things go wrong, or things are going very right, that we go to God?  Do we believe that God hears?  More than that, can we believe that God will answer our prayers? I’m reminded of the words of the hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus”:

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share?

Jesus knows our every weakness, Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Questions for reflection:  Where is it you need to go to God?  What aspects of your life have you been resistant to take to God in prayer?

What the book of James taught me about making money.

I will never read James 4:13-15 without smiling at the memory. I was 22 years old.  I had just finished an internship in college ministry in Boulder, Colorado.  I thought that God might be calling me to more ministry, and I needed more training.  That meant seminary, and a three-year Master’s degree. The problem was, I had a lot of student loan debt from collSeattle Skylineege.  I thought to myself, “I’ll go back to Seattle (my hometown), find a job, make as much money as I can, and pay off the debts.  Then, I could think about going to seminary.”  I told a few family members and friends my plan.


The thing was, I couldn’t seem to find a job that paid me a lot of money.  Instead, I found two jobs in two churches!  One was making copies at what had become a “home church” for me, University Presbyterian Church.

Folding machine I made $7 an hour, with an impressive title of “Production Coordinator.” I ran the copy machine, helped stuff the church newsletter, cut flyers, and folded the bulletins with a machine that may have been developed during World War II.  (folding machine to the left may be exaggerated for dramatic effect. I don’t recall mine being so shiny.)

The other job was as a part-time youth director for a church in the south part of Seattle.  I developed an after school program for kids in the neighborhood, most of whom had never stepped foot in a church.  At the same time, I shared a house with five other twenty-somethings, all of us committing to live out our faith in Christ, being good neighbors, and helping with the kids in the after-school program.

My original “plan” didn’t quite work out.  And it was in that year that I came across these words in James 4: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”…Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will.” I couldn’t get away from the fact at how much the words of James echoed exactly what I had said a few months earlier.  It was as if the Lord was writing to me through this letter. I learned that year that my plans should be written in pencil.  And that the Lord might have different plans.  Those experiences I had that year in those two churches and with my housemates were ones I wouldn’t replace.  And that the Lord’s will (the word literally means “wish/want”) is better than my plans.

Question for reflection: What about you? Has there been a time that your plans were replaced by the Lord’s wishes, and you’re glad they were?

“I can do it myself.”

“I can do it myself.”  It’s a phrase that we hear little children say.  They can say it in trying to tie their shoes, put on their clothes, or put away their dishes. tying-shoesWe smile as we watch these little ones begin to assert their independence.  We look upon statements like “I can do it myself” as good things, recognizing them as signs of that child growing up.  And they are good things, because growing up and maturing is part of life.  But is there a place where that statement can lead to an attitude, which leads to a way of life that might take us away from what God intends?  Can “I can do it myself” actually lead to selfishness? Because selfishness isn’t just an attitude.  It’s a belief that that centers on the “self,” and at its core, it’s a belief that says, “This will be better if I just take care of it.”  Or, it says, “I have what it takes to figure this out, and I don’t need any help.”

From an early age, we catch this idea that “doing it ourselves” is important.  Perhaps this is why ideas like humility and submission are so hard for us.  “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up,” James says (James 4:10).  “Submit yourselves, then, to God.” (James 4:7)  We balk at words like these.

Dallas Willard, in a speech to Wheaton College Chapel, once gave a good picture of what humility looks like.

Never pretend.  Be exactly who you are.  Share your gifts honestly, share your struggles and shortcomings honestly.

Never presume. Never presume that you should be treated in a certain way, that you are entitled.  Be who you are, where you are.

Never push. Stand for yourself, stand for God, stand for what is right…but let God do the pushing.

Willard goes on and says, “This doesn’t mean you are passive.  It means that there isn’t anything you wouldn’t undertake” because you believe that “He will lift you up.” (James 4:10)

Those three pieces of advice Willard gives are telling:  never pretend, never presume, and never push.  In the world we live in today, how hard is it to live those out?  How often do we see others pretending, presuming, and pushing?  And how often do we find ourselves doing the same thing?

James 3:13-18 ends with talking about a wisdom that is “pure, peace-loving, considerate,sandals submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” What a contrast to a life of pretending, presuming, and pushing!  Who could ever live such a life? The truth is, we probably can’t.  But we can learn, and turn, again and again, day after day, to the One who did…and someone once said they couldn’t even tie His sandals…



3 Things for a Good Life

NOW ON SALE:  “The Three Things We Need for a Good Life.”

I have always resisted “formulas.” Whether it be for things like exercise and health, or our lives of following Jesus.  I always react with skepticism when I hear a book title like “The 10 Ways to Be Happy,” or “The 5 Things Missing in Your Prayers.”  Yet I read the opening part of James 3:13-14 and it sure seems like a type of formula.  “Three Things for a Good Life.” Read those verses again.  Who is wise? Wisdom is shown by a good life, which is shown by good deeds, which comes from humility, which is born out of wisdom.  Sound a bit circular? When I write it like that, it does.  Perhaps the thought here could be rephrased like this:  Wisdom brings humility, which is our source of good works, which is evidence of a good life. It is interesting to notice that James will not let us get away with a definition of wisdom that doesn’t include action. True wisdom is reflected in how we act toward others.  And, at the heart of our action must be humility.

We first learned of this word humility in James when he was talking about anger (James 1:19-21).  The Greek word for humility is the word praǘtēs. It is defined as:  “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance. praǘtēs is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason… it is a condition of mind and heart which demonstrates gentleness, not in weakness, but in power. It is a balance born in strength of character.” (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich: Greek English Lexicon, 3rd edition).

Here is the twist.  We are all inundated with promises from books, magazines, products, and experiences, promising “the good life.” And we are drawn to them because of our own self-interest.  What Jesus offers, and what James is calling us to, is a good life that doesn’t have our ambition or self-interest at the heart.  It is a great life, but one in which our own self-importance is not king or queen.  It is a life of submitting to God, seeking the best for others.  As I’ve said before, we cannot do this without following Jesus, our model and example.  And we must rely on His Spirit, who corrects, comforts, and calls us to this great life.

Questions for reflection:  Where has your ambition and self-interest led to “disorder” (James 3:16)? Where do you need Jesus to “reorder” your ambitions?