When Faith Is Difficult

The following meditation is from Doug Hood’s book,
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ.
“We can’t find goodness anywhere.” 
Psalm 4:6 (Common English Bible)
If there remains anyone who argues that the Bible isn’t relevant for today they have demonstrated that they haven’t paid attention to the Bible – not close attention anyway. Is there anything more timeless than the agonizing cry, “We can’t find goodness anywhere?”  Each morning our minds are disturbed by the growing threat of the militant Islamic group, ISIS, the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Beneath these attention getting headlines is the less mentioned but continuing concern of the growing wealth gap in our country and the millions in our nation who struggle daily to simply have enough. There are no snappy answers to the painful question of human struggle.
It is well that the Bible does not offer a quick and pre-fabricated answer to this despairing cry. And it is best for us to refrain from such a temptation. First, we are not free to indulge in any cynical or dismissal attitudes such as, “Well, that’s life,” or, “Bad things just happen.” As followers of Jesus we are baptized into the common confession that our lives are in the hands of God, and that this God is a God of love. Second, we don’t occupy some place between God and the struggle of humanity. Not one of us has some special insight into the mysterious work of God in the midst of our common difficulty. Each of us must sweat it out with everyone else.
What remains is a prayer: “Lord, show us once more the light of your face.”  This is the prayer of the Psalmist and nothing new can be added. The prayer is the same today as it was yesterday, fresh and urgent. It is as new as the earthquake that shook the San Francisco Bay Area a few days ago and the agony that kept someone awake last night. It is new when we utter it personally, today. No devotional, not one inspirational book can answer the plea, the emotional depth of that prayer.
On our knees we pray. If we listen in the silences between our words the Holy Spirit reminds us that God was never absent in the horrors of human life in the Bible – nor will God be absent today. On the Via Dolorosa – the way of the cross – in Jerusalem, God was very present in the heart of human misery giving, giving and giving himself, so that after this there would be no fear, no despair and no doubt of God’s love. The cry, “We can’t find goodness anywhere,” still sounds in the streets of our communities. We live with it and we hear it echo in our souls. But the Spirit helps us recall the suffering of Christ – a suffering accepted out of Christ’s love for us. It is a love that will work for the good of all those who love him.


Is Belief In A Personal God Possible?

The following meditation is from Doug Hood\’s book,
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ.
“Pray like this: Our Father who is in heaven.”
Matthew 6:9 (Common English Bible)
     For many, the most challenging part of faith is belief in a personal God. Membership in a local church usually requires “a profession of faith.” Often, this is little more than mental consent that there is a God. That same consent to God’s existence usually assumes that the individual intends to place themselves under God’s authority. Yet, what is often present in that “profession” is a sincere desire to know God personally, to experience a relationship with God in such a manner that in those hours of deepest need, we may personally address God and feel that we are heard and cared for. Harry Emerson Fosdick is helpful here, “No one achieves a vital, personal, Christian experience without a profound sense of need.”iBut the question presses, is belief in a personal God possible?
     One difficulty for experiencing a personal God today is the tendency of impersonal thinking and living. Anything sensory is found to be inferior to reason and intelligence. During my ministry in Texas a number of years ago, one individual criticized my preaching as too personal, too emotional. He was a medical doctor and sought sermons that would stretch his thinking, not move his heart. He was suspicious of preaching that stirred the emotions. To think of God in personal terms, he argued, was unsophisticated. I suspect that the Sunday morning pews are filled with people who are in agreement.
     But look at what Jesus does here for his disciples: Jesus takes the qualities of human parenting as a clue to understanding God; asks that we address God as father. God is not an impersonal force that moves through the universe. God is a living being that knows us, loves us and has a divine desire for our lives. Jesus draws from what is the best in our hearts to show us its higher ideal in God. Certainly, it is true that God has given us minds and expects that we should be growing in knowledge. But we cannot pursue God and fully know God without the heart. One of the basic convictions of our Christian faith is that the universe is directed by a loving purpose.
     Moments confront each of us that demand more than a mere belief in the existence of God. They are moments of such great personal need that more study – more knowledge about God – fails to satisfy. A calm strength in the midst of life’s storms is possible only as God is known personally. The Christian lives not by a higher knowledge of God. The Christian lives by faith, by prayer, by love and communion with God. When the soul cries out for a personal God, Jesus shows us the way. It is so simple we doubt its power. Get down on your knees, patiently silence all the voices in your mind, and then say, “Our Father, who is in Heaven.”


i Harry Emerson Fosdick, Riverside Sermons (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 168.



“Look here! Today I’ve set before you life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.”
Deuteronomy 30:15, 16 (Common English Bible)
“Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”
Matthew 10:29-31 (Common English Bible)
            Notice, written and performed by country music artist, Thomas Rhett, speaks to one of the deepest longings of our present day: that in a time when loneliness presents one of the greatest challenges affecting the mental and physical well being of adults, people question if there is anyone who is aware of them, who loves them, and maintains a watchful care for them. Simply, is there anyone who “notices” us? The opening canto nails this crippling anxiety, “You say that I don’t hear all the words you’re saying. And it makes you miss me even when you’re with me. Feels like something’s broken.”  In 2018, Cigna, a major health insurer in the United States, paid for a national study that found that loneliness has reached epidemic levels in the U.S. and ranks alongside smoking and obesity as a major threat to public health. The lyric is absolutely correct; it feels like something’s broken.
            Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the very tone and texture of Deuteronomy is directed not at blind obedience to God, a common impression upon a cursory reading. Rather, to the contrary, this fifth book in the Old Testament canon is a sustained attempt to help people understand why God wants them to behave in a certain manner and make particular life choices. God does notice us and desires our well being; desires all that is good and necessary for us to thrive. God’s ways are presented to the people of Israel not for God’s sake, but for theirs.[i]Jewish law is not the arbitrary will of the Creator but identifies those places in life where the natural consequences of certain behaviors result in injury or death. God desires life for God’s people. So as someone who takes watchful notice of us, God goes before us identifying trouble spots ahead and pointing us around them.
            Jesus’ teaching, located here in Matthew’s Gospel, reminds God’s people of God’s notice and concern. Thomas Long writes that what God declares here is that there is nothing that the world can do that is able to destroy God’s loving and watchful care over the faithful.[ii]The world may forbid our witness to God’s love and concern for the world. The world may throw in jail those who ignore the world’s threats. The world can even kill those who serve the gospel. But, observes Tom Long, murderers are not to be ultimately feared. “They may have momentary power over bodily life, but they have no power over the soul.”  A God who counts the hairs on our heads and does not fail to note even the falling of a single common sparrow can be trusted to treasure those who “are worth more than many sparrows.” This promise is captured crisply in Thomas Rhett’s lyric, “You think that I don’t notice, but I do.”
            Notice is a joyful and hope-filled song that honestly acknowledges those moments when each of us feel unnoticed, “You think that I don’t notice.” What then follows are such small, nuanced observations that, not only prove to the contrary, but must bring unexpected delight, “How you brush your hair out of your green eyes. The way you blush when you drink red wine. The way you smile when you try to bend the truth. You think I don’t notice all the songs you sing underneath your breath. You still tear up at a beach sunset. And you dance just like you’re the only one in the room.” These are not the observations of a causal glance. They come from the notice of one deeply in love. And that is precisely the message of God’s word captured in the Bible, particularly in Deuteronomy and Matthew. I hear God’s voice in the closing lyric: “You think that I don’t notice, but I do. I do, yeah, I do, yeah.”

[i]Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (New Milford, CT & Jerusalem, Israel: Maggid Books, 2019), 2.
[ii]Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1997), 121.


When God Laughs

The following meditation is written by Doug Hood\’s son, 
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University.
“Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” 
(Acts 16:10 Common English Bible)
Oh, to travel to Phrygia, land of music, wine, and horsemen! Nerve center of trade and commerce since time immemorial. Mythic land of King Midas and the goddess Cybele. Oh, to preach in Galatia, birthplace of the warlike Hittites and conquered home of the Celtic Gauls! The ancient cradle of ironworking. The land of Gomer and the dwarfish god Telesphorus. To spread the Gospel of Christ in these lands would have been a boon to the newborn church, and that’s exactly where the Apostle Paul intended to go in the year 49 AD as he set out on his second missionary journey. He’d already evangelized in Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus, and now the early church father wanted to travel further east into Asia Minor. However, each time Paul and his companions tried, the Holy Spirit pushed them back. Frustrated, Paul then tried to enter Bithynia in the north of modern Anatolia. Yet once more the Holy Spirit refused. Disheartened and disappointed, Paul retreated back to Troas where one night he had an extraordinary vision: a man of Macedonia pleading for him to come and help them.
Macedonia was, of course, in the opposite direction of the lands Paul was determined to visit, especially after his disastrous previous attempts in Europe. And Paul was not a man of flimsy convictions. He was a man with the fire of Jeremiah and the recklessness of Ezekiel, willing to risk life and limb, temperament and sanity for his ministry. His letters are filled with equal parts compassion and invective, cherishing his followers as children one minute before pronouncing them idiots the next. His temper could run away from him, much as it did in First Corinthians where in a fit of pique he thanked God ignoring the Corinthian church before pausing and meekly adding that on second thought he’d actually baptized many of them. His anger could kill—did he not help lynch Saint Stephen? His outrage could cripple—did he not blind Bar-Jesus? His audacity could astonish—did he not preach to King Agrippa in chains? His was a dogged single-mindedness of purpose that could brook no delay, suffer no misstep, tolerate no foolishness.
And yet, look at the first word of verse ten: “immediately.” Without any doubt or hesitation, Paul refocused his ministry, altered his plans, and reoriented his fervor for God. He set out at once eastwards towards Macedonia and Europe. The rest, as they say, is history. Shortly afterwards he would plant the seeds of the European church, capturing not just the hearts of the people but the minds of the intelligentsia and the respect of the ruling authorities. The early church fathers would encounter the great thinkers of Greece through which they legitimized the faith in the eyes of the learned: Justin of Caesarea reconciled Christian theology with Plato while Tertullian did the same with Aristotle and Clement of Alexandria with Stoicism. And in Rome the imperialist authorities who’d invaded the ancestral home of Judaism were forced once and for all to confront the specter of this new religious movement from Palestine, one which denied their pantheon of cruel, capricious gods in favor of a single deity that preached compassion, tolerance, and love. In time this strange faith would be accepted by the same imperial household that made a martyr of Paul and so many early Christians; for better or worse, the teachings of Jesus and the authority of his church would be the law of the land that could humble kings and emperors.
How many of us have struggled in life towards goals we knew in our hearts we needed only to have them denied? There’s a saying that whenever man plans God laughs, and if the Acts of the Apostles is any indication this is not a flaw in the divine plan but an essential feature—we are simply incapable of controlling the full trajectories of our lives. One is tempted to think of Ulysses S. Grant who at 38 worked at his father’s leather goods business and at 47 was elected President of the United States. Or consider Oprah Gail Winfrey who worked her way up from desperate Mississippi poverty to becoming the first black multibillionaire and global philanthropist. Of course, very few of us are ultimately called to become presidents or multibillionaires…or era-defining evangelists. Most of us will be called to live simple, quiet lives and undistinguished toil and service. But these are no less vital and precious in the eyes of the Almighty. We all fit into the tapestry of creation with every piece in its place. If we are to find happiness and contentment in our life, perhaps we should stop asking when we’ll find our Phyrgia and Galatia and ask if we’ve already found our Macedonia.


Knowing God\’s Will

The following is from Doug Hood’s
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. 
Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6 (Common English Bible)
How can we know God’s will? It is a real question for many people. The world is so vast, with billions of people on it, that it is occasionally incomprehensible to fathom God takes notice of us much less has a divine purpose for our life. Yet, the faith we encounter in the Bible is that all human affairs are under divine direction – that God has a design for the world and that each one is an integral part of that design. We do not live by chance or fate. Our lives are under the guiding hand of God. Sometimes that guidance is clear and unmistakable. More often, that guidance is reduced to a still, small whisper and listening is difficult. The question remains, how can we know God’s will?
Absent dramatic intervention – which was and remains one means God communicates God’s guidance – people must develop an eye for the quiet succession of apparently natural events that unfold.  Listening is also important. The unexpected impulses, sudden promptings and uncommon challenges that confront us all, hold the possibility of God’s direction of our steps. Paying attention to everyday situations can awaken us to God’s presence and activity in our lives. We shall recognize God in the little things each day – and follow – if we are in touch with God. As exercise strengthens the body and proper diet sustains energy, so the spiritual faculty within us expands through regular prayer and meditation on the Bible.
Immersion in a community of faith is also important. King David listened to Nathan, the disciples honed one another’s application of Jesus’s teaching and the apostle Paul was instructed in the faith by Ananias. Personal discernment of ordinary events in our lives is important but there are times when it is wise to listen for God’s guidance through another. Particularly those people who have developed an uncommon capacity to see God in the ordinary, they can enlarge our vision and sharpen our understanding. They see our lives from a different angle and can offer a dispassionate take on where God may be actively leading us.
What remains is the hardest – surrendering our lives to God’s will. Prayers are more often, “This is what I would like you to do, Lord,” rather than, “What would you have me to do?” What we really seek is divine approval of what we desire. The words of Gardner Taylor are wise, “It is hard for us to realize that on this uneven journey there are directions, right choices that we cannot know because we are not God.”i Perhaps the greatest challenge of the Christian faith is learning that we only have two choices in life – a choice of masters. Either we will remain in charge of our own lives or we surrender ourselves to God and trust in God with all our heart. It is in confidence of the latter that the author of Proverbs wrote.
i Edward L. Taylor, The Words of Gardner Taylor, Volume 2 (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2000), 24.