Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Test of Camping

[This article is also found on Ada Bible's blog - Sabea at ]

This past summer, my wife and I made an interesting vacation choice. We needed to be in Marquette to move our son into his college dorm and to be with our daughter as she gave birth to our first grandchild. It was a great milestone week for us, but wanting to save some money and feeling a bit adventurous, we decided to camp… in a tent… for six nights… in the temperamental Upper Peninsula weather.

This wasn’t the first time we had tent-camped—we had all the equipment from weekend excursions from the past. But, it had been a few years since our last tent adventure, and six nights was the longest I had ever camped in a tent. There’s a lot of planning and packing that goes into a week in a tent: clothes for all types of weather, coolers and tubs filled with food, chairs, charcoal, tools, and gear. Packing, unpacking, setting up, preparing, living out of bags and tubs.

Everything about camping takes more time and energy: cooking, eating, cleaning, showering. It’s a slow, inconvenient way to live. My wife tells me that’s the allure and beauty of camping. It’s a process that slows you down; it relaxes you.

Honestly, it took me two days to discover that allure.

Camping frustrated me. It created tension in me. Why was I purposely making everything in my life more difficult and time consuming? Why was I trying to live in the very limited shelter of a tent, subject to the elements of weather, constantly battling bugs and dirt in the simplest duties of living? Our first meal was BBQ chicken over an open fire. Seemed like a great idea, but our wood was wet and we fought to keep the fire hot enough. It took two hours to finish cooking. It hardly seemed worth the time and effort. I grumbled through the whole experience.

But after a couple days of struggle, I began to settle into a new rhythm. I became more patient and began to enjoy the process of it all. But, in the end, I was glad to pack it all up and rejoin life with comfort, quickness, and convenience.

As we continue exploring the series on the feasts and festivals of Israel, I’m intrigued by the things that God asks his people to do in their celebration. God gives them physical things to do that were to help them remember and commemorate their past, while celebrating their present state of blessing. In the Feast of Tabernacles, God tells the Israelites to move out of their homes and live in shelters, booths or little tabernacles, for seven days. This was a symbol of remembrance of Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the desert where they lived in tents and God’s presence with them resided in a mobile tabernacle. This was like a national campout!

I think this exercise illustrated two important principles to God’s people.

First, it reminded them that, though their season of wandering was very difficult, God remained present with them—meeting their needs and sustaining them in every way. Second, the exercise reminded them that God had delivered them from the wilderness and was currently blessing them abundantly. They were to see his blessing in the harvest of the crops and grapes they had just gathered. In response, they were to give a gift of gratitude in proportion to God’s unique blessing.

As I think about this festival, I’m left with some significant questions to ponder.

How do I see the “desert” seasons of my life?
How does God lovingly sustain me when my resources are depleted?
How does God love me when I wander?
How are my needs and longings met in times of trial and hardship?

But, there’s another set of questions that this discussion causes me to pursue.

In times of abundance, am I proportionally grateful and proportionally generous?
Or, do I have the propensity—as God blesses me with more—to spend more on myself?

Take some time to reflect on the principles taught through the Feast of Tabernacles. Ponder God’s generous hand with you in the desert times and in the abundant times. Respond to him with generous gratitude.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Gratitude, Generosity and Terminal Cancer

Yesterday was one of those rare and special days in ministry when I had the honor to be in the presence of someone truly impressive. Her name is Renee and she’s dying. For two years she’s battled cancer, and recently the doctors told her that any treatment she receives will be to help the quality of her life rather than the length of her life. She’s planning her passing and understands that her number of days is short.

Until yesterday, I had not met Renee. She had requested the pastoral staff come to her home to pray with her. We are always willing to do this for folks, but honestly, I always feel awkward and anxious as I enter these situations. I never know what people are truly hoping for in these moments of prayer.  Would Renee hope we could bring God’s miraculous healing of her cancer? Would she or her family be in an inconsolable emotional state? Would she have questions about death, heaven, and her spiritual state? All of these were possibilities and we needed to be prepared and willing to speak into them by God’s grace and the Spirit’s power. What would Renee need from us? But as Dan, Cindi, and I walked into her front door, we all knew immediately we were in for something completely unexpected. We were in for a rare treat.
As we walked through the door, Renee greeted us with a radiant smile and a warm, prolonged hug. She was truly excited to see us, though we had never met. Immediately, I felt at ease. As we talked with Renee in her kitchen, we could see physical signs that cancer and chemotherapy had ravaged her body. She introduced us to her sister Mimi, who helped arrange our visit and to her daughter and son-in-law who came for the day. “Can you believe that they drove all the way from Kalamazoo just to clean my house?” she exclaimed.
As we moved into her living room, we could hear a vacuum cleaner running in a back room. Renee began to talk about her family as we looked at a picture of her four daughters on a shelf in a prominent place in the room. As I understood her, only one was a biological daughter. The other three were girls that she and her husband had taken in over the years. They had come to be their daughters through love, care, and an open home. She explained that the daughter who was cleaning her home was a girl they took in 18 years ago when she was 15 years old. Her life was riddled with pain and abuse and Renee and her husband opened their lives and home to this girl in need.
Renee talked about her husband who had passed away a few years prior. She looked forward to seeing him again in heaven. She joked about the things she wanted to say to him and hoped that heaven had been a good place for him the last few years. Renee told us stories of her life while using words like “blessed” and “grateful” throughout. It was obvious to me that this woman is traveling the final days of her life with joy, contentment, and uncommon peace.
Cancer was stealing physical comfort from her, but it could not steal her love for each moment she had breath. Inwardly, I asked myself, “What prepares a person to face their death with such ease and comfort?” I’ve concluded that Renee must be a person who lives in constant gratitude for the blessings God gives her. Her gratitude spills out into generosity. She knows that God has blessed her with the purpose of her being a blessing to others. Living with that heart-perspective has led her to finish well with joy and dignity.
As we go through this series on the Jewish festivals, I’ve wondered about the lives of those who celebrated these holidays faithfully. What principles did they live by as a result of these celebrations? Well, I think Renee helped me answer that question. Think about the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. This was another festival that celebrated the harvest. The principle that God wanted to instill in his nation was to give thanks to the Giver who had again provided for their needs. He wanted the people to then share some of that provision with the poor and those traveling through their region. In Leviticus 23, God lays out an elaborate way for them to offer their sacrifice of gratitude for the harvest. It included them offering to God wheat, bread, lambs, bulls, and goats. It appears to be a generous offering back to God their provider. But, there was more.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 23.22

Interesting thing to add to the end of a festival description, isn’t it? God wants his people to experience his provision and blessing with grateful hearts, gratitude that spills over into generosity to God, and to others in need.
Renee became of hero of mine yesterday in that regard. She’s a woman who has lived these principles for a lifetime. She can now pass into the arms of the Giver with joy and ease. I’m grateful for that hour with Renee and hope she can encourage and minister to me more in her final days. It was a pleasure to learn a lesson about gratitude and generosity from this special lady.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Cold Shower

An old friend of mine tells the best rescue story I’ve ever heard.  I wish you all could hear him tell it but let me give it a try. 
Kurt and his wife Ginger had been vacationing in the Upper Peninsula’s Keweenaw lakeshore.  Kurt had just packed up his boat and gear as they prepared for the 10 hour journey home.  As he loaded his van, something caught his eye out in Lake Superior.  It was a canoe.  He had noticed that particular canoe earlier tooling around close to shore.  It was a dad with his two young sons.  What grabbed Kurt’s attention was how far out the canoe was now and how choppy the lake had become since the last time he saw it. Kurt reached in his bag for some binoculars.  Something in him told him that that they could be in trouble. He wanted to be sure they were alright.  Lake Superior conditions are known to change quickly for the worse and this man’s boat was not equipped to handle the increased chop.  Looking through his glass, Kurt’s fears for this family were realized.  They had drifted too far from shore and the canoe could no longer navigate the waves.  The boys were hunkered down in the bottom of the canoe as dad, looking very tired, fought with all he had to fight the current back to shore.
While Kurt unpacked his boat from the top of his van, Ginger began to make 911 calls. Kurt also had a canoe but his was equipped with a small engine.  He hoped it had enough power to carry the waves.  Ginger got word from emergency personnel that the closest rescue boat was over an hour away.  They would continue to look for help in the area but it was appearing that this family had to survive for at least another hour.  Kurt was convinced he had to help and as he put his boat in the water a couple walking the shoreline stopped to see what he was up to.  Kurt explained the situation and a man Kurt had never met, climbed into Kurt’s front seat of the canoe.  
As they navigated the chop to go find the father and his sons, Kurt noticed his boat was taking on water.  He knew that this rescue would need to be quick and efficient for anyone to survive.  He began to feel his life and the life of the stranger in the front of his boat were now at risk. They found the family fairly quickly but as they came along side the other canoe, they noticed it filled with water and the dad was now outside the canoe.  Kurt and his friend began to move the boys from the swamped canoe to his and then the dad from the side.  But with every movement they made, waves crashed into Kurt’s boat taking on more water. It too was becoming swamped and before long, all five people were submerged in the water.  Cold water.  40 degree, cold water.  Kurt knew that hypothermia was just minutes away for each of them, so he pulled everyone together and asked them to link their arms through another person’s life-vest straps.  Perhaps this would help conserve body heat but Kurt was thinking that this would also help those doing body recoveries.  Based on when the rescue boats were expected to arrive in the area, he was convinced they weren’t going to make it. 
But as any hope began to drift, something amazing happened.  Out of nowhere, a police boat appeared.  This particular boat was not supposed to be available that day but when they heard the calls on the radio they put their boat in the water and started a search.  Not knowing exactly where to look, they set out in a general direction to see if they could help.  That general direction led them in a straight line to the two swamped canoes.  Within moments, all five were out of the water and treatment for hypothermia began.  Everyone would survive.  Everyone was rescued.
One of the most compelling parts of this story was something Kurt said he does to remember that day.  He told me that on a frequent basis he’ll stand in the shower and turn off all the hot water.  He’ll stand for minutes in the coldest shower he can endure.  When I asked him why he does that, he said “I never want to forget how cold Lake Superior water was.  I never want to forget what I was rescued from.” 
Thousands of years ago, God put dates on the Jewish calendar for celebration.  One of those dates was for the Passover Feast.  In essence, this date was similar to our 4th of July.  This was a celebration of the freedom they were given from their slavery in Egypt.  They had been delivered; they had been rescued!  Each year, they were to remember what they were delivered from by acting out the events that God orchestrated for them to be set free.

Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household…. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.

That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast…This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.

At Passover each year, they were to take their best lamb and kill it.  They were then to paint their door posts with the blood.  The lamb could be eaten but they needed to eat with travel clothes on.  Interesting dinner, isn’t it?  In a way, God is asking them to stand in a cold shower.  He wants them to feel the fear and pain of the past.  He wants them to feel the life and death urgency of their ancestors burden of slavery.  He wants them to never forget what they were rescued from. 
We too have been slaves; slaves to our sin.  God has again provided a dramatic rescue.  Some of us have been rescued out of the ugly mire of our sin.  We’re in a swamped boat, cold and clinging to life. We’ve been plucked out of the middle of our broken mess.  Others of us have been rescued from a sinful mess.  It’s like we’re tooling along the lakeshore as the wind blows and waves pound.  God rescues us before we can drift deep into danger.   Either way, we are all rescued!
So how do you mark your salvation?  What causes you to remember the pain of your past slavery?  How do you celebrate the joy of the freedom that was gifted to you through God’s dramatic rescue of you?  Think about what your cold shower could be this week.