New Life in the Barrenness

One of the things I have most enjoyed about attending an Anglican Church is the daily lectionary. For those unaware, the “lectionary” is a pre-selected plan of daily readings, usually containing one section of Scripture each from the Old Testament History, Psalms, Gospels and Epistles parts of the Bible. And on Sundays, one passage is chosen by our “padre,” Father Seth, for his sermon.

On Sunday, the lectionary had the faithful read Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7. It is a story from the life of Abraham, when he was visited by three men as he set up camp beside the oaks of Mamre, somewhere in the Judean desert. I think the story is one of the most fascinating incidents of an incredibly fascinating life. Abe was sitting near the doorway of his tent, under the shade in the heat of the wilderness afternoon. Three men appear suddenly and stand in front of him. Abe runs to greet them, sensing that these men were no ordinary Canaanites. He offers the men the Bedouin hospitality of food, drink and… in a dusty desert… clean feet. They accept and Abe runs to tell Sarah to get the feast ready — they have guests! When the food was ready, Abraham returned and set it before them. 

Here is where the bizarre begins. One of the men asks, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” Abraham says she is in the tent. It is here that Moses, the author, tells us that this man is none other than God Himself — God appearing in human form. The Lord promises that He will return in one year’s time and Sarah will have a son. Both potential parents being quite old, Sarah laughs and mumbles her disbelief to herself. The Lord, who sees all and knows all, calls her out on her lack of faith, saying, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

New life came into Sarah’s barrenness. Abe knew his wife and she became pregnant, just as God had said. She had a son, Isaac, in her old age and that son would become the heir of God’s promise to bless the earth through Abraham and his descendants. 

Father Seth pulled out this amazing verse from Saint Paul in Romans to describe how only God could do such a miraculous thing as bring life out of barrenness. Paul wrote that Abraham “believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope…” Looking at the circumstances, a son in old age, with his aging wife, seemed impossible. Abe was a realist, just as you or would be in his shoes. Paul writes that Abaraham “considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb.” However, “he did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform.” 

I’ve found that barrenness is a close bedfellow of hopelessness. Whether it be the intensely deep longing for a child or a medical illness or a relationship longing, barrenness can sap a soul of joy… of peace… of faith. In the case of Sarah and Abraham, it was the desire for a legitimate son and heir. Sarah was his only wife. Upon death, Abraham’s fortune would go to a chosen servant. Ishmael was already off the scene at this point. The firstborn son of Abraham, he was not from Sarah’s womb but the son of Sarah’s slave. Age was a barrenness to Abraham and Sarah. 

But….

But God said to Abraham that all things are possible through the Lord’s will. Indeed, the same God who would arm the womb of a barren, aging woman, gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that… get this… that simply do not exist! God takes the unimaginable — what we cannot even fathom — and makes it a reality! There is nothing beyond the ability of One who brings new life into a world of barrenness. 

Just look at today. Our whole world is barren — sin-stained, hopeless, self-seeking, evil — and bombings, shootings, stabbings, apartment fires, cars running to pedestrians — brokenness can sap us of all our hope that ANYTHING good could happen in this world. Anything good! But here is where the Gospel breaks through. Jesus offers a better way. He offers us access to the God who brings life where there is death, rebirth of shattered dreams, broken loves, stolen joy. He offers us (and the whole world) access to the God who is so powerful enough that not even the wildest, craziest, zaniest things we imagine are beyond His creation. The Lord Jesus said that He was the Light of the World. No longer do we have to walk in darkness. No longer do we have to abandon hope that circumstances can change. No longer do we have to wallow in sadness or fear or regret. God can restore these things in your life through faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit! 

Where are you experiencing barrenness in your life? Are you losing hope of change or healing or reconciliation? Have you asked God to breathe life into your barrenness? Even farther, have you started, like Abraham, to believe that God’s promises are true and that nothing is beyond His ability to create? Abraham’s faith was credited to him by God as righteousness. Yours will be too! 

Barrenness… it is a topic that often describes what we see in the news today. It dovetails with another subject that has taken my writing attention of late — the idea of wilderness. As I’ve studied barrenness, brokenness and wilderness (that’s a lot of “ness”!), and reflected upon it in my life and my world, I’ve often been reminded that even in those times of life when all we see is a desert… God is still there, offering water, shelter and hope. He is continually bringing life into death and light into the darkness through His Son, Jesus Christ. 

Until then… Be God’s!

— John

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Never Alone: Learning About the Presence (and People) of God

Mrs. Newton and I got into another one of those “blog worthy” discussions the other night as we reflected on our move to a new city and search for new friends here. 

As for culture, Fayetteville is a far cry from Monroe, Louisiana, where deep fried food, thick accents and rampant poverty abound. Well, Fayetteville proudly boats that it is “funky,” with funky generally meaning it is progressive politically, socially and culturally. Faintly like San Francisco or Santa Fe but not quite as socialist. It is a young city where the average age is 30 or so. Fayetteville is also a major college town with a vibrant arts scene, organic food stores and city parks everywhere. Come to think of it, Fayetteville is the polar opposite of Monroe. Oh, add 30,000 more citizens in a metropolitan area of nearly half a million people. 

As we faced the prospect of moving up here to launch Restless Heart Ministries, get closer to her family in Kansas, and find a better area to start and raise a family, I know Mrs. Newton was a bundle of emotions — fear, sadness, excitement… rinse, repeat… Among her fears was the prospect of moving someplace she did not already have ready-made close friends. Shannon is a social creature, and her community of friends in Monroe was deep and meaningful to her emotional, spiritual and social lives. Her church was near and dear to her heart. Her workplace provided weekdaily interaction with friends and associates. Fayetteville? She knew some people. We both did. But none were part of her inner circle. And so fear and trepidation about moving to a new city was always near the top of her emotional strata. 

But she wanted to move. We both did. I had fewer hang-ups, since Monroe was a new community to me and I’ve moved five times over the past two years. I was used to a change of scenery. She wasn’t. No matter how much I tried to reassure my darling wife that God was moving ahead of us to Fayetteville to prepare our way, and that He would take care of our needs, it was really tough for her to face the prospect of finding new friends and a new church family. I understood. Yet I didn’t. Yet I did. It’s complicated! 

Fast forward to today. We’ve settled into life here in Fayetteville in a great rental house and Shannon’s counseling work is taking off in a big way. God is providing for us and it has been wonderful and reassuring to see! We have found a neat little Anglican Church to call home and Shannon is slowly making new friends here. I’m finding out that our ministry is really needed here in Northwest Arkansas and other people are really excited about it. 

Our conversation the other night brought up God’s faithfulness in Shannon’s mind. She went to a women’s small group on Saturday morning with other ladies from the church and she had a great time. “They’re so authentic and kind and neat, ” she said. It was wonderful to hear! God has been so good to us, she continued, and she can now see that He is providing for her every need, from work to church to friends. Awesome! I was then reminded of a verse I should have remembered long ago. I looked at Mrs. Newton and said, “See? God has people in this city.” She laughed. 

The apostle Paul endured a lot of scorn as he proclaimed the gospel of Jesus across the Roman world, largely from the Jews. During one discouraging episode in Corinth, God came to Paul in a dream and said, 

“Don’t be afraid, but keep on speaking and don’t be silent. For I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to hurt you, because I have many people in this city.”

The overall lesson we are learning through this move is that God, indeed, has people in every city. They are faithful men and women who are being sustained and empowered by His Spirit to proclaim the Gospel and defend the weak and befriend the lonely. He had people in Fayetteville just as He did in Monroe. He was already here — in this place — and we were moving into His presence and, by His will, set to interact with His people. In less than three months of living here we have seen the mighty presence of God. After all, He has people in this city! And in every city. 

God goes before us wherever we go. As His dearly loved Children, rest in this assurance. He is a loving Father who desires our good and will gladly bless those who seek Him. New city? No problem! He already has people there! 
 

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The Wilderness (Lent, Week Two)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. After He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, he was hungry… (Matthew 4:1)

The wilderness isn’t supposed to be nice. It is barren and harsh. It is emotional and overwhelming. A soul can feel very lost in the wilderness. And yet a soul can also be found there. 

When I think of a wilderness, I think of the desert Southwest of the United States. Out in New Mexico, my second home, there is square mile after square mile of sand, lava rock, cactus and scrub bushes. Summertime temperatures soar to 115 degrees while precipitation averages six or seven inches a year, usually spread over just four or five months. 

This physical wilderness is harsh to humans. It is unforgiving and can test every resilience of the soul. But the wilderness can be something more subtle, more everyday in every location. It can be a place and time of emotional, spiritual or medical suffering. The wilderness can be brokenness, hardship, or pain. I’ve been through those wildernesses. Have you? How did you fare? Did you just barely survive or, somehow, grow stronger?

In Matthew 4, Jesus entered the wilderness and, I’m convinced, experienced all the wildernesses I mentioned above. Usually no sane person chooses to enter the wilderness. Not intentionally, anyway. Matthew writes that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days in order to be tested. Tempted by the devil. 

And so the devil offers to Jesus three propositions, all of which are intended to test His soul. Satan wants Him to fail. 
In the first test, Jesus is confronted with the fact that He has unlimited power over nature. He could use that power to feed Himself (and all of the world’s hungry!) by turning stones into bread. The wilderness has very little food to eat. At least in the desert, stones are usually plentiful. Jesus replies that His power on earth will depend on His Father’s command and not His personal need. 

The first key to living in the wilderness is refocus your heart in order to rely on God’s provision for your every need. Food, water, strength, encouragement, faith… all these things find their origin in God. We become wayward of heart and mind when we forget that we owe all things to our Creator and that He lovingly gives all these things to those who seek Him. He is a loving Father who freely gives to His children. Look for His provision every day. Sometimes it is in places (or with people) you never thought to look.

In the second test, Satan tries to get Jesus to do something foolish in order to prove God’s protection. But jumping off the temple ledge was no way to show God’s care, so Jesus told Satan to not test God. There is no wisdom in entering a wilderness just to prove a point. Giving up something for Lent, for example, is done to right one’s heart with God and prepare it for remembering the sacrifice and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus during Easter season. However, the wilderness can certainly also prepare a heart for whatever God has in store for life. 

The second key to wilderness survival is to refrain from acting (or thinking) foolishly. When we get backed against an emotional or mental wall we tend to act out of instinct and not wisdom. But wisdom is more valuable than gold. When the wilderness seems to have you pinned down, seek wisdom from God and from those who walk with Him. Foolish actions will lead you astray and they can make your wilderness much harder to survive! 

The third proposition was that Satan could give Jesus the kingdoms of the world and all the glory therein if Jesus would just worship the former angel. The wilderness often makes you want to compromise your core values and strains at your moral compass in order to either a.) stay alive or b.) find a way out. God is Sovereign over the wilderness. Jesus again rebukes the devil. 

The third key to enduring the wilderness is to realize that God is Sovereign over all things — and situations — and He has the power to help you in your time of need. There is no situation you face in life that God is unable or unwilling to rescue you from. Remember that we have a merciful and gracious Hevenly Father who loves to bless us in our time of need. We need to seek Him during those times and do so in expectation that He will help us. He is bigger than the wilderness. And certainly more loving!

Matthew’s account ends with angels ministering to Jesus. Don’t overlook that part! There is always help available when you endure the wilderness. 

The wilderness may be any period of time that you encounter unusual hardship. Please remember that God is always there as a loving Father to help you in your time of need. And He will bring you through it safely by His grace. 

Be God’s.

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Lent, Day 5: The Three Sources of Temptation

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil…

Today’s gospel reading in the Anglican lectionary is from Matthew 4, when Jesus heads out into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the devil. Interestingly, 40 days is also the length of Lent, a time that many Christians spend tuning their focus away from physical things and towards the suffering and death of Jesus. They “go into the wilderness,” so to speak. 

Tonight I noticed several new things about the temptation of Jesus (not that they weren’t there before, of course, just that I never put two and two together!). Satan tempts the Lord with three things, and those three things speak to the very nature of our worries and fears. They are the three “great temptation” categories we all face. Let me commentate as we go along:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. After He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, He was hungry. Then the tempter approached Him and said, “If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

But He answered, “It is written:
Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Temptation #1 — Are you sure that you have enough?

This is the question that drives us to collect stuff in our lives. Food, clothing, material possessions, friends… We start to doubt that God has given us, or will give us, all that we need, so we take initiative and start collecting things. We eat more than we should during the day and buy three pairs of shoes every time we see a sale. We hoard things in cabinets “for a rainy day” and refuse to downsize. After all, are you sure that you have enough? 

Satan can see that Jesus is in a barren wilderness. There isn’t much food out there, so… “If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” I’m kind of offended that the devil asks, “If You are.” He knows that Jesus is God’s only begotten Son! But the great accuser loves to place a shred of doubt in our minds that God is who He says He is and that he will do what he promises to do. Satan always will attack the very nature of God and His relationship with us humans.

Temptation #2 — Are you sure that God will protect you?

 Then the Devil took Him to the holy city, had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written:

“He will give His angels orders concerning you,
and they will support you with their hands
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Jesus told him, “It is also written: Do not test the Lord your God.

Security is a major temptation for us. I think that of our top two fears in this life, personal safety has to be one of them. We lock our doors and hide the keys. We suspect every swerving driver might kill us. We fear being mugged, raped or bullied. We fear for our lives in a world gone scary. And, yet, God has promised to not only provide our daily bread but also to protect us from evil. As Psalm 46 says, “The Lord is our refuge. A fortress. We will never be shaken.” Are the sheltering wings of the Lord so porous that evil can get through to destroy us? They are secure!

Satan tempts Jesus to test God’s physical deliverance from peril. Again, he declares, “If You are the Son of God…” Then the devil changed tactic from his first temptation. He decided to quote scripture. Psalm 91:11-12, to be exact. But like most lies, the words are taken out of context. God will save you if you jump, won’t He? Here is the Lord’s reply, “Do not test God.” The Lord will protect you and — in Him — you will find true security. But don’t go cliff jumping to test a misquoted verse! 

The secure believer trusts in God for his or her safety. The lie that God is somehow unable to protect you is just that — a lie. 

Temptation #3 — Are you sure that God will exalt the humble?

Again, the Devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. And he said to Him, “I will give You all these things if You will fall down and worship me.”

Then Jesus told him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.’”

Then the Devil left Him, and immediately angels came and began to serve Him.

The issue of authority and honor and exaltation has risen in the lives of every working soul at least once. Who wants to work hard, keep quiet, and still get passed over for promotion? Who wants to get trampled on by the proud? Does God really see our circumstances and is He really interested in exalting the humble and humbling the proud? 

The issue of authority plays a major role in the third temptation of Jesus. Satan takes the Lord to the top of a mountain and, in some way, shows Him the kingdoms of the world — and their splendor! Golden doors, massive pyramids, opulent riches, fierce armies. The deceiver offers the kingdoms to Jesus if… Satan gets all of His glory. Of course, Jesus knew full well that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it!  Satan was offering Jesus what was already His. You see, all authority on heaven and earth belongs to God. It is up to God to issue honor. In our business lives and our ministry lives and in our homes we need to remember this truth. 

I guess that caution in this blog is that when these three questions rise in your mind, respond with biblical truth and not fear. God will provide for you, He is mighty to save you, and He will remember you in your lowliness. On these three truths, a believer can stand firm! 

Be God’s.

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