She\’s With Me

“Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am.”
John 17:24 (Common English Bible)
She’s With Me, a song recorded by Canadian country music duo High Valley, is an up-tempo piece that sparkles with influences of bluegrass. Written by Seth Mosley, Brad Rempel, and Ben Stennis, the song blends banjo instrumentation and captivating lyrics that I find to be infectious – a song that adds energy and lift to my morning runs. A beautiful and heart-felt love song, She’s With Me expresses adoration of the highest magnitude for a woman the narrator believes is “out of his league.” This song has been added to my personal canon of country songs that expresses my love and admiration for my wife, Grace – words so beautifully and powerfully expressive that I wish I had written them.
Particularly poignant, for me personally, is the refrain: “Ain’t she amazing, amazing, out of my league? And ain’t it crazy, crazy, she happened to me? She calls me baby, baby, hard to believe. That she’s, yea she’s with me.” Careful attention to this brief refrain exposes three movements of thought. The first is the honest realization that the woman in the narrative is absolutely “out of his league.” Second, the nearly unbelievable – yet, nonetheless true – fact that this woman addresses the narrator affectionately: “She calls me baby, baby.” As the narrator continues, this level of affection is “hard to believe.” Finally, is the clear declaration and celebration that this woman who is beyond anything the narrator deserves is nevertheless “with me.”
Our sentence of scripture above is from a longer prayer of our Lord, Jesus Christ. In a deeply moving talk with his heavenly Father, Jesus has captured the refrain from, She’s With Me. The first two movements are implicit. The narrator, naturally, is Jesus. The Son of God is unquestionably, “out of our league.” Yet, Jesus is not ashamed to identify us to his Father. Also implicit is the affection Jesus expresses for us not only in this brief excerpt but throughout the seventeenth chapter – the entire chapter is one long prayer. And then the third movement, unmistakable and deeply surprising, “I want those you gave me to be with me where I am.”  
In one of his books, Michael B. Brown, senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, speaks of another man, also by the name of Michael.[i]Serving a prison sentence for his activity in organized crime, another inmate invites Michael to turn his “big problems” over to God. Michael’s response is to laugh with disbelief that God would have anything to do with him: “What have I ever done that would get God on my side?” The other inmate replies, “That’s the beauty of it. God is on your side before you do the first thing to get him there.” It is unbelievable – even unimaginable – that Jesus would climb down from the heavenly places to be with the likes of us, even to say to his Heavenly Father that he wants us to be with him where he is. But, that is the message of the Gospel. And because of that, we can turn to the world that never ceases to bring us down and destroy us and, pointing to the Son of God, say, “He’s With Me.”

[i] Michael B. Brown, A Five-Mile Walk: Exploring Themes in the Experience of Christian Faith and Discipleship (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc.; 2016), 64.


Victory On Our Knees

The following is from Doug Hood\’s Heart & Soul, Vol. 2.

 “I live on high, in holiness, and also with the crushed and the lowly, reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed.”
Isaiah 57:15 (Common English Bible)
Recently Grace and I spent a weekend in the Florida Keys with two dear friends. In addition to sharing meals together, shopping, stimulating conversation about our families and an evening of bicycling, the four of us summoned the courage to try something we had never done before – paddle boarding. Popularity of the sport seems to be growing exponentially in South Florida, particularly the Keys. It looked fun and appeared to be a sport that would be easy for beginners. It was not. Paddle boarding challenges both core strength and balance and beginners spend more time falling from the board than standing. My wife, Grace, perhaps an exception; other people asking me how long she had been paddle boarding.
After several attempts at standing – and failing – Grace said to me to begin on my knees, “you have more control on your knees.” Hearing my wife’s words, my friend commented, “I hear a sermon in there somewhere!” Naturally, I was frustrated that I was unable to master paddle boarding immediately. But then, where would have been the satisfaction in that? Satisfaction of life is often preceded by considerable effort and discipline. So it is with our Christian faith. We must experience failure on our own before we can value God’s presence and strength that enables us to stand. The pinnacle of joy and satisfaction in our faith is our communion with the Risen Christ. That communion begins on our knees in prayer – our demonstration that we can’t do life apart from God.
To be a Christian is to follow Jesus. And his own life was no leap from the cradle in Bethlehem to the victory of Easter morning. Victory implies something was defeated. Between birth and resurrection, Jesus lived deeply. It was a life that knew suffering, betrayal and abandonment. We experience with Jesus the victory and joy of the Resurrection because we know all too well his hell of loneliness and pain. It was a hell that Jesus defeated because he spent so much of his life on his knees. Grace is absolutely right, “You have more control on your knees.”
The central question that confronts many today is where is God in the darkness of the present world – the darkness that seems to defeat a hope for tomorrow? Isaiah declares that our God lives with the crushed and the lowly. God is not only present in our darkness; God is at work, “reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed.” God did so for Jesus. God will do so for us. What is needed is that we wait for God’s victory on our knees.


How to Know God Better

“…growing in the knowledge of God.”
Colossians 1:10 (Common English Bible)
John Leith, theologian and teacher of the faith, once told me in a personal conversation, that the single greatest threat to the vitality of the Christian church is amnesia – the failure of the typical church member to remember the most rudimentary content of the Bible. Increasingly, those who self-identify as followers of Jesus Christ have no intentional and regular plan for reading the Old and New Testament. Yet, there remains no substitute for strengthening our grip of spiritual matters and personally contributing to a fresh and robust witness of the Christian faith. The Bible must be read regularly by God’s people for spiritual transformation.
Growth in the knowledge of God always begins with stillness. That is one of the non-negotiable conditions of knowledge of any subject. Stillness, as modeled by Jesus, is not necessarily the opposite of noise and tumult, though neither contributes to thoughtful reflection. Rather, stillness is slowing down, withdrawing from the routine of life, and turning one’s focus to one thing. The four gospels record Jesus regularly “withdrawing” from his disciples and other people to turn his attention to God alone. If we want to know more of God – indeed, to know God better – we must relax the strain of constant daily demands that are placed upon us and read God’s word.
Experiencing God deeply, as a reality in our lives, increases as we read the biblical witness of God’s mighty acts upon God’s people. Through the pages of scripture we hear God whispering, “I am with you!” But there is more. As we penetrate the stories of the Bible and listen to their claim upon us, we also hear an invitation: “Are you willing to be with me; to live into a relationship with me?” The biblical witness is always calling to us, imploring us to turn away from choices that ultimately result in our disappointment, injury or death. Attention to God in the pages of the Bible impacts the decisions we make each day. Measure upon measure we discover that we not only know God better. Our lives are changed.
As we enter the unsearchable riches of God, in the pages of the Bible, our growth in the knowledge of God becomes as organic and natural as the growth of a seed planted in rich, fertile soil. Growth is a mysterious process that belongs to God. Our responsibility, as with the planting of seed in the ground, is to provide the necessary nurture – the daily watering of the seed until we see the growth and eventual maturity of what was planted. Daily placing ourselves before God’s word in a time of stillness is God’s method for experiencing larger and larger growth in the knowledge of God. The witness and vitality of the church once known by a previous generation can happen again. It begins when the people of God recover the urgency to immerse themselves in the knowledge of God from reading the Bible.


The Trouble with Pessimists

“At that the boy’s father cried out, ‘I have faith; help my lack of faith’”
Mark 9:23 (Common English Bible)
     Here is a remarkable story of a man with remarkable candor and honesty before Jesus, “I have faith; help my lack of faith.” The man has faith but that faith seems to be running low like a car’s gas tank that is not quite empty but requiring a stop at a gas station nonetheless. The man’s son is ill. He has tried every avenue of hope, sought everyone for help, including Jesus’ disciples. No one has been able to do anything for the boy. The boy remains with his illness. Calling from a crowd that had gathered around Jesus, the man asks Jesus, “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!” (Mark 9: 22b CEB) It is a plea that shows evidence of life’s failures and frustrations. Repeated disappointments in securing healing for his son has sapped the man’s reserve of faith, of his capacity to hold onto hope.
     As faith for this man wanes, nearly being dowsed by negative experiences, pessimism grows; “If you can do anything…” What is clear in this biblical narrative is that when faith diminishes, a void isn’t what remains. As faith is depleted, pessimism enlarges to fill the space. Simply, a person either lives with a narrative that with God all things are possible or they question the existence and activity of God. Life is lived with faith or with pessimism – or something between the two. This man is moving from the former to the latter. The concern for this man is that pessimism is growing rapidly as faith is withering. Pessimists are not people who don’t believe. They are people who believe in the wrong thing. The denial of God and God’s capacity to change our lives is every bit a belief structure.
     Perhaps what is most remarkable about this story is that the man recognizes within himself the withering of faith and the flourishing of pessimism, “Help my lack of faith.” He wants to turn things around in his belief narrative. Yet, he can’t do it alone. When personal faith has reached its limits, the man throws himself on the grace of God. The man asks God to supply what the man cannot, a faith that once again expands measure upon measure until pessimism is choked-out. He is unwilling to concede to the growth of pessimism.
     This man becomes our example. Repeated disappointments and difficulties can culminate in the unfortunate experience of believing in the wrong thing; of believing that life has no purpose and that we are victims of circumstance, some of it good and some that results in pain and loss. This remarkable story is a call to not settle when life disappoints. There is pain and failure and brokenness enough for all people to experience from time to time. But God remains God. The man in this story, from Mark’s Gospel, grabs hold of whatever faith he has that remains and clings to God, trusting that it will be enough. And it is.