What are the Desires of Your Heart?

god-s-lighthouse-god-the-creator-10968033-329-412This morning’s devotional time took me to the book of Job for inspiration.  Job!  Really?  There are so many other destinations for inspiration…almost any book other than Job, and maybe the Song of Songs.

Because God often works in and through us, in spite of ourselves, it’s not surprising that in my reading of Job, I found the inspiration and direction I needed in that moment.

The context of my situation will explain why.

Have you ever wanted something so badly that it began to consume your thoughts, conversations, dreams?  A relationship.  Job.  New home.  Vacation.  Add your own to the list.

That’s where I find myself.  After 50-some years of working, I’m a few months from retirement.  This may well be the single most important transition of my life, and one that I have quietly looked forward to for a long time.

Quietly, that is, until now.  Too often recently I have found myself day dreaming in significant detail and with an almost unlimited imagination about my planned move to Tennessee.  My hopes and plans quickly (and selfishly) become part of almost any conversation with someone…anyone…with a willing or patient ear.

But my longing for and dreaming about the life that lies just over the horizon has begun to take on a new, unsettling, and even sinful dimension…a quiet, subtle, underlying fear.  Fear of something that could shatter my dreams.  Fear that has begun to negatively impact my health and well being.

Which brings me back to my devotional reading this morning.  Nestled providentially between the reading of a Davidic Psalm and the beautiful 12th chapter of Hebrews were these words from Job:

My days have passed, my plans are shattered.  Yet the desires of my heart turn night into day; in the face of the darkness light is near.” (Job 17:11-12, NIV)

God used the words of Job to address my fear that my good days are behind me, that my plans for a retirement that I once thought was out of reach could be shattered.  In the midst of my fears and their impact on my life, God reminded me that the desires of my heart turn night into day.

“But, if that’s true,” I asked myself, “why is my heart’s desire for a life in Tennessee having just the opposite affect?  Why is it turning day into night?”

A gentle nudge from God’s Spirit answered me.  The desires of my heart needed re-centering.  Certainly, there is nothing wrong with wanting a well-earned retirement, but as a disciple of Christ, that shouldn’t be what turns my night into day.  I was reminded that the desires of my heart should properly focus first on pleasing my Lord, on serving my King, on wanting more of God and on sharing God with others more.

I was left with these lessons.  First, don’t judge a book by its cover; especially one in the Bible.  Second, make sure that the desires of my heart are in the proper priority.  Pleasing my Lord comes first.  Finally, if it’s His will, I’ll be able to do that from Tennessee.  And, if Tennessee isn’t God’s will for my life, pleasing Him from somewhere else will still turn my night into day.

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Is my Dad’s Presence with me or with God?

John Lokker's GravestoneIt’s been almost a year since my dad died.

I’m amazed at how quickly the time has gone, although I fear that is partially a factor of my own age.  The earth has completed one revolution around the sun.  Four seasons have passed.  I’ve endured a heart procedure, seen work responsibilities come and go, and enjoyed a blessed work sabbatical.  I may or may not be in a relationship (I could really use my dad’s help figuring this one out.)  I’ve begun counting the days until retirement and processing exactly what that means.  And, yes, the Detroit Lions failed to make the playoffs …again.

As the first anniversary looms, I’m beginning to recognize how significant it is, especially within the context of what I’ll call “firsts without him” that have followed in the wake of his death.  My first birthday without him, first Christmas without him, first Father’s Day without him.  And, of course, the list goes on.

Anyone who has lost a loved one can certainly identify with these realities.

Over the course of the past year, as the intensity of the emotions of my dad’s absence has ebbed and waned, I have been comforted by four truths that he and I shared together and firmly held on to when he died.  And I’ll offer those in a moment.

First, I want to share what I haven’t experienced since he died.   We often hear others say things about deceased loved ones like “I felt my dad’s presence there with me” or “I know he was looking down upon me from heaven.”

My experience since my dad’s death don’t include these.  I don’t believe he has ever been with me since he died, nor do I believe he looks down or watches over me from heaven.  I don’t mean to upset or offend anyone who may hold to these beliefs.  It’s just that my theology and understanding of heaven argue against it.

My dad’s soul is in heaven.  I have not the slightest doubt of that.  I think, and I believe Scripture supports the fact that my father is far too enthralled worshiping in the presence his Lord to be with me outside of God’s presence.  I think, and I believe Scripture supports the fact that my dad’s eyes and heart are singularly focused on His eternal reward, the presence of Jesus and the saints.  I believe that if he were looking down on me, my father would be grieving over my recent health and heart issues, saddened by my work and personal stresses.  But heaven’s promise is “no more sorrow, no more tears.”

Lest you conclude that I am completely cold-hearted, I have experienced my dad in tangible ways; what someone has called the “presence of his absence,” and the overwhelming comfort of my memories of him.  Thoughts of my dad where particularly palpable during a five-day spiritual retreat last Fall as I considered how he would have cherished an experience like that with his Lord.  During the retreat, I imagined what it would be like for my dad to be with me in the presence of God in a way that can only be experienced in silence and solitude, away from life’s routine that interferes with our sense of His closeness and whisper of His voice. But was my dad there with me, or smiling down on me?  No.  I don’t believe he was.  Rather, my hope, prayer, and belief is that he was engaged in more meaningful things in the presence of his Lord and Savior.

The powerful sense and sadness that accompanies my dad’s absence in my life today is balanced by these truths that he and I held on to over the course of his last years and last breaths.  My dad died knowing and I live believing that:

  1. His physical body would be placed in a grave in the Graafschap Cemetery in Holland, Michigan, and it will be gloriously reunited with his soul when our Lord and Savior returns.
  2. He would spend eternity in the presence of the Lord he loved, obeyed, worshiped, shared, and served most of his life.
  3. He left behind a son whose relationship with Jesus Christ is equally as strong as his.
  4. He and I will be together again, with no more sorrows and no more tears, in the presence of God for all of eternity.

I choose to celebrate the life of my dad within the power of the love of the God we worshiped together, and in the strength of memories, shared truths, and eternal hope.  And I am grateful that my dad’s presence is with the Lord, and not with me.

What does Being Loved by God Look Like?

I knew the question was coming.  So I’d been “rehearsing” the answer as I prepared for a three-day spiritual retreat that included time with, David, the Center’s director.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the unique way in which he asked me why I was there.

“So, Steve, tell me what you’ve brought with you.”  My flippant, and fortunately silent, response was “luggage.”  And as I began to seriously contemplate the answer, I realized that I wasn’t far off.  I had brought a lot of baggage with me…spiritual baggage to be precise…stuffed with guilt, anger, hurt, loss, and as I soon discovered, serious doubt.

I shared with David that what I brought with me included a desire to better understand and be in God’s will for my life, to more fully live a life as a Godly man, and…my rehearsed answer…to understand what God was trying to teach me through the losses I’d experienced over the past six or seven months.

Through David’s continued, and somewhat unnerving, silence I came to the realization that underlying each of my initial responses was the real answer to the question.  “David, I’m unsure of God’s love.  I just don’t understand how God could love me, especially knowing who and what I am.  My failures.  My sins.  A life filled with disappointing Him.”

David followed a few minutes of exploration with another question, one that I hadn’t seen coming and for which I hadn’t prepared an answer.  “What would it look like for you to be loved by God?”

How do I answer a question like that when I can’t look into God’s eyes?  Or put my hand in His?  When there is no comfort from His arms tightly holding me?  I could easily articulate what human love looks like.  But God’s love is clearly different.

Without question, the enduring image of God’s love is His Son nailed to a Roman cross, bleeding and dying for my sins, and yours.  But David was looking for something else.

Eventually I shared with David that to me God’s love looks like a truly blessed life.  Good parents.  A successful career.  God-given gifts and the opportunity to use them.  A life blessed with wonder and amazing experiences.  The knowledge that my recently-deceased father is rejoicing in heaven with Jesus, and that I will be reunited with him for all of eternity.  It is through these blessings, and others, that I am able to experience God’s love.

But there’s more.  I have to confess that I also see God’s love in trials, pain, and disappointment.  God’s love “looks like” the hurt from the painful end of a treasured and promising relationship…the lingering presence of health issues…disappointment from the behavior of loved ones.  God’s love is revealed in the saddening void I feel from the loss of my father…in the angst of career challenges…in the uncertainty of what the next chapter in life brings.  I am slowly learning to experience God’s love in the midst of loneliness.  So, it is through these trials that I am able to learn to more completely trust in God’s love.

Your answer to the question of “What would it look like to be loved by God?” is probably different than mine.  But there is one truth for all of us, one truth that should give you hope for tomorrow, one truth that should drive you into the arms of a perfectly loving God.   It is the truth, as shared by J. I. Packer, that allows us to know what God’s love “looks like” and that distinguishes God’s love from the human love.

“Every single thing that happens to us is an expression of God’s love for us.  Even when we cannot see the purpose of God’s dealings, we know that there is purpose and love behind them,”  Packer says.

My three-day retreat was an awakening for me to the presence of God that can be experienced in solitude.  But, you don’t need the solitude of a spiritual retreat or the guidance of a spiritual director to discern what God’s love looks like.  Retreat to a quiet place.  Ask the question, but don’t stop at the first answer.  Prayerfully look beyond your immediate response.  Take five or ten minutes of silence and allow the Spirit of God to move in you to reveal God’s deep, abiding, holy, and perfect love for you.

Where will You Spend the “First Day of the Rest of Your Life?”

John (Jack) Lokker, 1920 to 2015

John (Jack) Lokker, 1920 to 2015

My father died today.  It is a time of mixed emotions and a lifetime of memories.  Among my many thoughts are the well-meant cliches offered in the genuine spirit of comfort and love.

There is one cliche, however, that isn’t often associated with death. “Today is the first day of the rest of his life.”  And, in fact, it is much more than a well-worn expression.

In my father’s case, it is truth founded on his faith in and devotion to our merciful Lord.  Today literally IS the first day of the rest of my father’s life as he joyfully entered into time without end in the arms and presence of Christ.

J. I. Packer reminds us that “We cannot escape Jesus.  He stands at the end of life’s road for everyone, without exception.” Today my Dad, after serving Jesus for more than 50 years, reached the end of this road and met our Lord and Savior face-to-face.

I am comforted by the Psalmist’s words, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Ps. 116:15), Paul’s words that “to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21), and Christ’s own words, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:3)

As I sat with my dad through his last days, my sadness was tempered by the knowledge that his homecoming would be one of great joy and celebration.

Over my lifetime my dad blessed me with many gifts. But none compare to the unimaginable peace and joy of knowing that he has been welcomed into the presence of God Almighty where he has heard the most beautiful words of his life. “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

And the gift of that peace doesn’t end there. Because of my dad’s faith, I live in the knowledge and comfort that our separation is temporary.   When the time comes for me to also experience the true “first day of the rest of my life,” I know that I will be reunified with my dad, and together we will spend our eternity in the presence of our Holy, righteous, and loving God.

So the questions are simple.  Are you confident of where you will spend “the first day of the rest of your life,” and all of eternity thereafter?    When that day comes, will your loved ones be blessed with the precious gift of knowing, for certain, that you are safe rejoicing in the presence of Christ?

How Secure are You in the Midst of a Storm?

Green Lake SailboatA job crisis several years ago drove me to seek the guidance of a professional career counselor.  Her advice somewhat surprised me.  “It doesn’t matter what you do for a living as much as it matters that you do it while living near water.”

Her counsel made me realize that for reasons unknown to me, lakes, rivers, and oceans seem to be connected to key periods and experiences in my life.

It isn’t unusual then that during a period of quiet time as part of a recent spiritual formation retreat I was drawn to the shore of a lake as I contemplated my relationship with God.  It was a mildly stormy day, overcast gray with a bite to a strong and chilling wind.

In the midst of my lake view was sailboat rocking in rhythm to wind-driven waves, tugging and straining at times at its mooring line.

The storm wasn’t significant, certainly not strong enough to force me indoors.   Nonetheless, it was a reminder that I was in the midst of a person storm…buffeted by the cold and lonely winds of a sudden and disappointing end to a relationship…pounded by the seemingly relentless waves of challenges at work…gray clouds of guilt from self-confessed sin.

Deep in thought about God’s purpose and role in my life, I realized that within the context of my relationship with Him, I was that storm-challenged sailboat.

In the midst of life’s storms, I am tethered to His Son Jesus Christ.  As long as I hold firmly to the mooring of God’s love, grace, and mercy I have no fear of being swept by wind and waves into nearby rocks that would threaten to destroy me.

I was reminded that just as the lake water keeps the sailboat afloat, I abide in Christ’s sustaining power with these words…”He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:17, NIV).  And to the Philippians, Paul testifies…as we can…that “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:13, NIV)

And even in those times when I untie myself from the strength of God’s presence and I begin to drift, as His child I have been equipped with the sails of His Holy Spirit and I am assured by the author of Hebrews that “we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Heb 6:18b-19a, NIV)

God’s love and provision for us, whether in the midst of wilderness wandering or stormy sea, is certain and true.  I am reminded of that each day that I live and work in Madison, Wisconsin…surrounded by four lakes and the only city in the country built on an isthmus…a narrow strip of land with water on both sides.

How well do You know God?

“One of the ten books that every Christian should have on their shelf.”

Those were the words of Craig Jarvis, senior pastor at Medinah Baptist Church, when I shared my joy from having read “Knowing God” by J. I. Packer.

After having collected dust on my bookshelf for more than 36 years, I committed to reading at least three pages of the book each day during my morning quiet time.  That soon led to journaling the insights I gleaned from the book as I consistently experienced “ah-hah moments” that have and will continue to draw me deeper into a fulfilling relationship with God.

I hope some of the insights I gained from Packer’s Spirit-led writing also might speak to your heart, mind, and soul.

Packer sets the book’s theme…”God made us with the intention that He and we might walk together forever in a love relationship which can only exist when the parties know something of each other.” (page 110)

On the topic of God’s love…”Everything that happens to us is an expression of God’s love for us.  Even when we cannot see the purpose of God’s dealings, we know that there is purpose and love behind them.” (122)

Addressing God’s role as judge…”Would a God who made no distinction between the beasts of history and His own saints be morally praiseworthy and perfect?” (143)

And two pages later…”Jesus is the Father’s agent in judgment.  We cannot escape Jesus.  He stands at the end of life’s road for everyone, without exception.” (145)

Writing of the perfect consistency between God’s goodness and His severity…”God is good to all in some ways, and to some in all ways.”  (162)

On our adoption by God as His children…”God receives us as sons (and daughters) and loves us with the same steadfast affection with which He eternally loves (Jesus), His beloved only begotten.”  (216)

Answering the question of whether God is fully adequate…”God’s promise that He will ‘give us all things’ means that nothing that could have increased our eternal happiness will be denied us; and that nothing that could reduce that happiness has been left with us.” (270)

And concluding his message, Packer writes…”In knowing God fully, we shall find ourselves fully satisfied, needing and desiring nothing more.” (276)

“Knowing God” by J. I. Packer was first published by InterVarsity Press (Downers Grove, IL) in 1973 and has sold over a million copies since.

What do you Value Most, Your Reputation or Obedience to God?

Angel and Joseph

Joseph visited by the Angel of the Lord

We’re familiar with the traditional Christmas-time Sunday morning sermons.   So you may understand why I anticipated my church’s “Dark Christmas” series with more than casual interest.

I believe that Pastor Nic Gibson’s intent is to show that the redemption available to us through the incarnation of Christ, while wrapped in the truth of mangers, shepherds and wise men, came at cost…one more immediate than the price He paid 33 years later.

Pastor Gibson used Mary and Joseph to lay the foundation for his point, at least as it played to my heart, by posing the question about whether I value my reputation more than my obedience to God.

Joseph’s and Mary’s names were severely threatened when Mary became pregnant, considering the culture of the region and that Nazareth was likely home to no more than 200 people at the time.   Those old enough to have been in high school in the 1950s and 60s remember how a girl who became pregnant was viewed and treated. It was even worse for Mary and Joseph.

How readily do you relate to the dilemma they faced; a conflicting choice between the expectations of their culture and obedience to God with their reputation resting in the balance?

As Pastor Gibson emphasized, Mary and Joseph chose obedience to God over their own reputations despite the devastating implications. Joseph “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded….” (Matt. 1:24) When told by the angel of her pregnancy, and even knowing its implications, Mary responded with “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be as you have said.” (Mark 1:38)

Sunday’s message caused me to reflect on how I respond when faced with a choice of my reputation or obedience to God. Unfortunately, it isn’t always with the obedience of Mary and Joseph.

I recently reconnected with a couple of old friends who knew me years ago when my walk with the Lord wasn’t as committed as it is today. I found myself worried about how their opinion of me would be influenced by my life of faith in God. When I sit next to people who take the Lord’s name in vain in the vilest of ways, I find myself drawing back from saying something because I don’t want to embarrass myself.   And when presented with other opportunities to share or demonstrate my faith, I too often hesitate because I wonder what others will think of me, even people who are complete strangers.

The realization that I often place more value on what others think of me than I do on my obedience to God led me to consider the Apostle Peter (a point I think Pastor Gibson intended to make in his sermon). On the night before Christ was crucified, three people challenged Peter about his relationship with Christ. And three times Peter chose the value of his reputation over the sanctity of his love for and obedience to his Lord and Savior. Later, when faced with the realization of what he had done, Peter “went outside and wept bitterly.” (Matt. 26:75b)

My prayer is that I will have the faith of Mary and Joseph to value obedience to my Savior over my reputation, and repent like Peter when confronted by the harsh truth of my own pride.

NOTE: My thoughts fall far short of doing justice to Pastor Nic Gibson’s sermon.   Click here if you would like to listen to it, or others he has presented to High Point Church in Madison.