A Timeless Word

“He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.”
(Isaiah 50:4)
     How many books are worth reading more than once?  I have a few on my list … the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia, Pride and Prejudice, a few Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries … but even with these classics, I wait several years before picking them up a second time.  Long enough to forget the details and be surprised and delighted all over again.  Rarely have I opened a book a third time.
     Yet there is one book that I have opened every day for over thirty years and have never grown tired of reading.  Amazing, isn’t it, that one book could never grow old?  That’s because the Bible is more than a book.  It is a key to the most vital relationship in my life.  And when I open the Bible every morning, I do more than read.  I meet with God.  Ours is a two-way relationship that involves two-way communication.  I speak to Him in prayer and He speaks to me through His Word.  This is an amazing thing and not to be taken lightly.  The God of the universe speaks into my life.  That’s enough to get me up every morning eager to read the same book that I’ve read for over thirty years.
     In this verse, Isaiah is also eager.  It’s as if God says to him each morning, “Up, Isaiah!  I have things to say to you!”  And Isaiah gets up to listen.  The Hebrew word used here for “listen” means “to give undivided attention to, to seek to understand, to give heed to and obey.”  This is no half-attentive ear, no sleepy nod in God’s direction, but a fully engaged Isaiah, expecting God to speak and ready to do whatever He says.
     God is ready to be intimately involved with our lives.  He waits to speak to us and He does so through His Word.  The problem is that too often we read the Bible more as a devotional exercise than a vital communication with the One who knows us most and loves us best.  To develop a “listening ear” begin your time with God with the simple prayer, “Lord, what do You have to say to me?”  Remember Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish Christian philosopher: “When you read God’s Word, you must remember to be constantly saying to yourself, ‘It is speaking to me; I am the one it is talking about.’”
     What happens when I read with a “listening ear”?  God speaks to me about who He is and who I am.  He tells me how the world works and how He works in the world.  He reveals the most profound message of grace the world has ever known, but He also speaks into my life challenge, comfort, counsel, and hope for change.  This is worth getting up for every day.

Written by Susan Sutton, a friend of Dr. Doug Hood

The Search for Serenity

“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. 
Your rod and your staff – they protect me.”
Psalm 23:4 (Common English Bible)
            Few would disagree that our present age may be identified as one of insecurity. The recent presidential election in the United States has unmasked a starkly divided nation – the division largely one of how best to protect our way of life in a world that grows increasingly more hostile each day. Behind the rhetoric and rancor of the political right and left is an unrest that is driven by a disillusionment of our modern world. Present in France, Great Britain, Greece and multiple other nations is a spirit of revolt and revolution that is occurring right here in our own nation. Everywhere, it seems, is a feeling that we are no longer secure. We are vulnerable and, if we let down our guard, the world can get at us. People the world over have become weary of being tossed about by conflict, terror and uncertainty. Nations are looking for some haven where they can once again experience a new calm.
            What is it that the Christian faith can provide in these troubling times? What impresses me in reading these few familiar words from Psalm 23 is the complete serenity of the one who walks through, “the darkest valley.” We are not told what is occurring in the Psalmist’ life when these words were written. Perhaps it was the death of a spouse or a child. Perhaps it is economic collapse or a diagnosis of a threatening illness. It does not matter that we aren’t told. It is enough to know that, whatever it may be, the experience is the darkest moment to be experienced in that particular life. Yet, the Psalmist is not disturbed or distracted by the news – the mood that prevails is one of tranquility. The clearly expressed reason is that God shows-up and the Psalmist notices. And that is enough.
            There is present a calm temperament in a life that walks closely with the Lord. Though there are challenges and storms in our day that would unsettle many, the Psalmist is equipped with an amazing power of detachment. The shepherd’s “rod” and “staff” are visible in the midst of the darkness – both signs and symbols of the office of someone who comes alongside the sheep to tend off predators and provide gentle guidance in the right way. The Psalmist never lost sight of God and because of this, felt protected and cared for. Life is faced – even when it is darkest – bravely and with buoyancy.
            That confidence can be ours as well. There is no more certain route to the recovery of serenity than through the discovery of God. The vulnerable life always clings to visible – and perishable – things of the earth, looking for guarantees. This is seen when someone announces that their hope for national security is in one candidate for president and not another. The invulnerable life rests secure in the invisible things, unruffled by the news of calamity because they have fixed their lives upon an unfaltering faith in an unfailing God. Rise each morning and repeat these words from the Psalmist. The power that is nurtured within will not change the external conditions of our world. But inner storms will subside as the presence of God is recognized. 


When the Door Remains Closed

“Meanwhile, Peter remained outside, knocking at the gate.”
Acts 12:16 (Common English Bible)
            Here is a story for everyone; a story of someone who tried and failed, but refused to give up. Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples. At a critical hour, he failed Jesus by denying him three times. But Jesus never failed Peter. Following Jesus’ resurrection, his continued embrace and love for Peter launched Peter into a preaching ministry of considerable zeal and devotion. Up and down the countryside, Peter gave witness to the power of the risen Christ to change lives. Peter’s primary exhibit for his testimony was his own life. Soon he found himself enmeshed by hostile forces and, finally, preached himself into prison.
            Prayers were made for Peter by the Christian communities that he started and were now growing, as a result of his preaching. One night an angel came to Peter, placed the prison guard into a deep sleep, released the chains from Peter’s hands, and opened the prison doors. An important detail of this miracle story is that the angel instructed Peter to place on his sandals. The angel was able to place the guard into a slumber, release Peter’s hands from the chains that held him, and open the prison doors. Yet, the angel holds Peter responsible for placing on his own shoes. Apparent in this small detail is that God will always do what we cannot do, but God will not do for us what we can do. Peter was capable of placing upon his feet his shoes.
            Peter, now freed from prison, goes out into the dark, hiding in the thickness of the night from Roman solders, and makes his way to a home where he hoped to be received and cared for. When Peter knocked at the outer gate, a female servant went to answer. Recognizing Peter, and overcome with surprise and joy, the servant runs back into the house with the grand announcement of Peter’s release. Yet, in her amazement and delight, she forgets to open the gate and let Peter into the residence. “Meanwhile, Peter remained outside, knocking at the gate.”  
            Peter does not shrug his shoulders and walk back into the night, commenting, “It’s no use.” Peter continues to knock. Peter is resilient. He will not give in or give up. By his persistence, Peter reveals the grandeur of his trust in God’s continuing presence and care. Many of us will stand – at some moment of our life – before a closed door. The closed door may be a job opportunity that never materializes, a romantic relationship that is never found, or an illness that lingers – health seemly more and more elusive. Before that closed door, life asks, “Will you continue to trust God in the face of bitterness and disappointment?” Peter stands before a closed door unafraid, determined to see it through. His strength is located in God’s fidelity, demonstrated in his past. That same strength is available to us when we stand before a door that is closed.

When We Need Help

“Finally, let’s draw near to the throne of favor with confidence 
so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.”
Hebrews 4:16 (Common English Bible)
            This is truly one of the great passages of the New Testament. In these few words we are reminded that Jesus is a source of tremendous power, the place we turn to when we need help. Jesus is not someone who is incapable of understanding and sympathizing with our struggles. Jesus struggled as we struggle, was tempted as we are tempted, and endured disappointment as we endure disappointment, without ever committing any sin. Jesus is full of sympathy for us because he fought, as we fight, on the battlefields of human life. There is remarkable authenticity in the sympathy Jesus has for us because he tasted the same bitterness of conflict and hateful evil forces that seek our defeat. Yet, unfailingly, Jesus emerged a victor. His strength is now our strength.
            It must not be forgotten that Jesus won battle after battle by using the same spiritual resource that is open to us – the spiritual power that comes from God in regular prayer. Jesus engaged no unnatural means to gain victory that is denied to us, no private miracle reserved only for God’s Son. He fought as we fight, standing where we stand, with the same resource that is placed in our hands – regular communion with God through prayer. Victory by any other means would have been of little value for ordinary people like us. The guidance Jesus offers us, and the encouragement we receive, is from someone who battled with no more than what is available to us.
            It is well to remember that temptation is not sin. Jesus was tempted – perhaps the best known moment is when he is on a mountain, with God, for forty days following his baptism. But Jesus did not sin. It is not sin to discover that in some unguarded moment an unkind word for another may come into our mind or an impulse wells-up inside us that isn’t our best self. A downward pull to our lower nature is not sin. It is sin to yield, when a loose rein is given to evil desires. And while we learn from Jesus’ example that temptation is not sin, we also learn from Jesus that temptation must drive us to our knees in prayer. Human strength and resolve to avoid sin is simply insufficient.
            The Gospels speaks often of the deep sympathy of Jesus. Whenever he was in the presence of human suffering or those who had been marginalized by others, the compassion of Jesus was powerfully exhibited. His sympathy stretched out and welcomed Zacchaeus, a dishonest tax collector, a woman caught in adultery, and numerous people afflicted with mental, emotional and physical disabilities. People were lifted and redeemed by his love and friendship. Jesus’ resurrection is a bold declaration that that same Jesus is present with us today, his sympathy continuing to stretch toward every one of us when we need help. And these few words from Hebrews remind us that Jesus sympathy – and strength – is sufficient.